Friday, 28 March 2014

Finding your mojo

Every artist hits a creative slump once in a while. 

You want to paint but you don’t know what to paint, or even where to start. When you do finally put brush to paper, it’s a disaster. The drawing is wrong, the colours are muddy , the paper misbehaves and the flowers wilt before you finish.
Instead of painting, you’ll clean the windows or hoover the house … anything but settle down at that desk. Does this sound familiar?
I often find this happens to me after a break. Even a short break can interfere with the creative process. Whilst the last few weeks have been tremendous fun, I’m yearning once more to settle back into a painting routine, but it’s a struggle.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working” 
Pablo Picasso

So, how can you recover that inspiration and enthusiasm?

1.      Get organised-  Clean that desk and sort out those paints. Spring-cleaning is a simple, effective ‘pick-me-up’ for the soul. A clean desk is like a blank canvas inviting you to come and make a mess.

2.      Treat yourself! Nothing says “Get painting” more than new art materials. Who can resist the swish of a brand new brush, the lusciousness of a new colour, or the lure of a brand new sketchbook? 

Look what arrived in the post today!!

 I was delighted to discover that Jackson’s Art are giving away their Daniel Smith ‘palette tester’ dot cards at the moment… yes, free paint! Does it get any better than that? Click here

3.      Play! Colour charts are a great place to start and so useful too. My lovely friend Claire sent me a beautiful wooden box with a selection of Daniel Smith earth colour paints. This is the perfect time to try them out and compare them to my other earth colours.

Yummy earth colours! The biggest surprise was to see the difference between Winsor and Newton Raw Umber and the Daniel Smith's Raw Umber

4.      Inspiration is everywhere. Find a subject that appeals to you, something that has caught your eye. I am forever picking up things on walks- seeds, sticks, shells, leaves, berries- all tiny treasures waiting to be painted.

I came back from a walk with some oak marble galls and a cedar rose- which I think is the remains of a cone from a Deodar cedar tree. My new colour chart proved very useful!

5.      Paint with no expectations- it doesn’t really matter if you finish it or not. What is more important is that you enjoy the process. If you do end up with something good, then that’s an added bonus. A good place to start is to grab some cheap A4 paper and a pencil and just start to draw.

Lots of scribblings, no expectations, just fun!

6.      Be organised. Decide what you want to do the night before, that way you hit the ground running when you go into the studio.

7.      Set aside time to paint. You will never find that spare moment to paint, you have to allocate a certain amount of time each day to satisfy your creative whims. Even if you allow yourself half an hour a day to do something, you will achieve something in the end.

Set yourself the challenge of painting just one leaf a day (or two).  Even half an hour of sketching and painting every day can get you back into the routine of painting.
8.      Keep motivated! I love my botanical artist friends- they are hugely supportive and really encouraging. It’s always very inspiring to see their work- just look at any one of the blogs on the right here. Their enthusiasm keeps me motivated.
Galls and Roses, Shevaun Doherty 2014.
 I was very inspired by Sarah Morrish's beautiful painting of galls and was delighted to find my own on a walk.

9.      Try an audiobook I discovered audiobooks last year and have since become hooked! What a fantastic way to spend a day, listening to a great story and painting to your heart’s content! You really won’t want to leave the studio. I get my all audiobooks from They have a huge range to choose from and there’s a month’s free trial for new customers (yes, more free stuff).  The BBC Radio 4 is also great company in the studio- they have some great dramas to listen to.

10.   Plan ahead. Make a list of all the things that you want or need to do. It could be preparing work for an exhibition, or starting a commission, or even just finishing the painting that you started over a year ago for your brother. It’s a great way to keep you focused and on track.

“You have to keep your bottom to the chair and stick it out. Otherwise, if you start getting in the habit of walking away, you’ll never get it done.”
 Roald Dahl

Friday, 21 March 2014

Society of Botanical Artists Receiving Day 2014

Getting Ready

Phoenix dactylifera, believed to be Khesab variety

 With my five SBA paintings finished, it was time to prepare them for the next stage of the journey.  First I took them to to be scanned professionally. Whilst it’s not cheap, it’s always worthwhile getting a good digital image of your artwork.  Once scanned, it was off to the framer, Liam Slattery, whose workshop in Rathmines is a veritable treasure trove of fabulous paintings. Most importantly, he has impeccable taste in frames. 
Choosing a good frame for a painting is like choosing the shoes for a party frock- the right one can make the painting sing. The wrong one can look as clumsy as wellies with a wedding dress. 

Needless to say, I was delighted with his work which was simple and elegant.
Then it’s a matter of packing it all up safely for the plane! Fortunately I have a mother who has a great workshop and a lot of experience in packing up paintings!! 

My lovely mum hard at work!
Paintings can be badly damaged by glass shattering en route, so as a precaution, we bought a roll of clear window film from the local hardware shop. It peels off quite easily, although you might need nail varnish remover wipes to take off any sticky residue. Then we wrapped the paintings in layers of bubble wrap, put the paintings glass to glass, and taped them together tightly. 

As a final precaution, we covered the paintings in Aluminium Thermawrap, which gave the parcels extra security and a very impressive Nasa-inspired look! My good friend Jarnie also wrote about the packing of paintings in her blog. It's worth reading Katherine Tyrrell's resource site for packaging and moving artwork.

It's important to label your parcel clearly and to use a soft rope to make a secure handle

Paintings, passports and Paddy’s day

Finally the big day had come! No parades for mum and me as we were off to London!

The Society of Botanical Artists hold their annual exhibition in the very impressive Westminster Central Hall.
 From all over the country, people were arriving with their precious cargo of paintings and prints. Inside a huge pile of paintings sent in by artists from all over the world was also waiting to be filed and sorted. The huge room was a hive of activity and bustle, overseen by the ever-efficient Pam Henderson, SBA secretary. 

Sandra Wall Armitage, President of the SBA and Pam Henderson, SBA secretary! Despite the task ahead of them, they still found time to smile!

Forms were filled, cheques were signed and the paintings were sorted neatly into alphabetical piles. Sandra Wall Armitage, president of the SBA, was busy dealing with the huge influx of artwork, cards and prints. In the end, there were over 800 submissions, which is a phenomenal amount of artwork to choose from.

 The room has recently been revamped, and whilst it is certainly brighter and better lit than in previous years, it means that valuable wall space has been lost. I eyed the line of paintings that were being carried in by hopeful artists and thought “There will be tears.”

Simon Williams SBA now runs the hugely successful SBA DLDC course

Thankfully all my paintings arrived intact and with the help of some kindly souls who lent me scissors, glass cleaner and a hand unpacking (thank you JG, TM and FB!), I was soon ready to sign in my artwork. Judging was to take place the next day, so everyone had their fingers crossed.

This morning I got the phonecall! 

Sandra Wall Armitage rang to say that all of my paintings were accepted and that I am now a full member of the SBA!! I am so incredibly thrilled! It’s been a long journey which has taken four years and a total of twenty-six paintings to get there. I would definitely recommend doing the SBA Distance Learning Diploma Course as a means of achieving this goal.

 The Society of Botanical Artists annual exhibition will take place at Westminster Central Hall, London from May 9th-18th, 11am-5pm including Sundays. The theme this year is The Botanical Garden. Everyone is welcome.

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Sometimes inspiration is hard to find, and other times it literally lands on your doorstep.
Such was the case a few weeks ago, when I found a little female chaffinch lying outside my back door. I think she must have crashed into the windowpane for there were no visible signs of injury, but she was definitely lifeless.  I looked at her little wings and thought “I want to paint them.”

I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.” 
Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing:

This would be the perfect subject to paint in Ida Mitrani’s sketchbook for the Nature Trails 2014- a natural sketchbook exchange, in which she has made some exquisite drawings of Birds of Paradise. You can read about that here.

Ida's beautiful Bird of Paradise

Of course, artists have been painting dead birds for many centuries. I have always loved Albrecht Durer’s painting of the “Wing of a BlueRoller”, and Edward Burne Jones’ study of a wing is sensitively observed.

Albrecht Durer's Wing of a Blue Roller, 1512   wikipaintings

Although my little bird was not as bright and colourful as Durer’s, each wing is a fascinating and incredible thing to behold, so light and yet so powerful. I put the wings into a ziplock bag and placed them into the freezer first to kill off any feather mites. If you are tempted to paint or draw a dead animal, I would recommend reading the good advice about how to handle it safely given by Tim Wootton in his blog. 

Having carefully pinned out my wing onto foamcore, the studies could at last begin. I used my Earth colour chart to work out which colours would work best, and decided that Van Dyke brown (Talens) was the nearest match. I also used Talens permanent blue violet and winsor and newton’s cerulean, cobalt violet, burnt sienna, indanthrene and new gamboge.

My colour chart and a tiny sketch of a chaffinch (1.5 x 1.5cm) 

I finished by painting a few of the feathers from the rump of the bird which are a delicate shade of olive green. They were fun to paint, although I had to hold my breath as the slightly puff would gently lift them off the page.

I think there is so much to be gained by doing studies like this. Through careful observation comes greater understanding and a deeper appreciation for the wonders of the natural world.  I think my fellow Nature Trailers are doing a great job discovering the world around them- please visit our group blog and see what they have been up to. 

The finished spread!

Friday, 7 March 2014


I am bursting with excitement this week!
I have just sent my papyrus painting off to the Gaiás Centre Museum in Galicia, Spain, where it will be taking part in an exhibition on Fresh Water, running from March until September 2014. It is an ambitious project which aims to cover all aspects of water, and man’s relationship with it.
This is translated from the exhibition description (yet to go out in English)-
“Paintings, sculptures, photography, video and installation go hand in hand of scientific devices, technological advances or ethnographic objects. A total of 700 works that immerse visitors in an intense aesthetic experience through great names of contemporary art such as David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Mario Merz, Louise Bourgoise, Martín Chirino or Chema Madoz and teachers of classics from the likes of Piranesi, John Constable, Henry Lewis or Audubon”

That’s an impressive list of artists!!  I am so honoured that my painting will be in such good company!
My painting will help explain the story of the Cyperus papyrus plant, and how this humble aquatic plant transformed the lives of the ancient Egyptians and helped shape the world we live in today.  

Over 5000 years ago the ancient Egyptians developed a way of turning this elegant sedge into a durable, lightweight sheet for writing on. With this discovery came the ability to communicate, share knowledge and ultimately write history. It was such an important plant that it became a symbol of ancient Egypt, along with the lotus flower. They didn’t just use it for writing though. They used the papyrus for boat building, basket weaving, food, medicine, perfume and fuel. The ancient Egyptians referred to it as “pa-per-aa”  which means “That which is of the Pharaoh”, and the manufacture of papyrus paper was kept a closely guarded secret.

wall carving in Edfu temple of papyrus and lotus buds, the symbols of Lower and Upper Egypt,

However in 105 AD, a Chinese court official Ts'ai Lun invented paper, and within a few centuries paper and vellum began to replace the papyrus paper. By the 10th century, papyrus cultivation had all but disappeared in Egypt, and with it went the secrets of the Pharaohs.
Over the centuries, people tried to make papyrus sheets but to no avail. It seemed that this art form was lost to the world. It wasn’t until 1962 when an Egyptian engineer, Dr Hassan Ragab managed to figure out the methods used. He travelled to Sudan and Ethiopia to bring papyrus plants back to Egypt, and planted a papyrus plantation on an island on the Nile. He also reintroduced plants that had once thrived in ancient Egypt.
To see how papyrus is made, watch this slideshow-

By the time that I travelled down the Nile, papyrus paper was once more readily available. I was fascinated to see the process and couldn’t resist buying a few blank sheets.

When I returned to Dublin, I was surprised to find a dwarf papyrus plant, Cyperus prolifer Lam in a local nursery. It was serendipity, I thought, for what subject could be better suited for papyrus paper? I experimented on the papyrus and eventually decided to paint in gouache, a first for me! Luckily my friend Claire Ward was on hand to give me advice about this medium. She has great gouache demos on her website

I did a graphite sketch of the plant and liked how the feathery stems of the umbel were almost calligraphic in nature. Painting a papyrus plant on papyrus paper was quite exciting because the paper has a lot of texture, and I tried to incorporate some of the fibres into the painting. It really is a beautiful plant, feathery and elegant.

Cyperus prolifer Lam on papyrus paper, gouache , Shevaun Doherty 2012

Next month I will travel to Santiago de Compostela to visit the exhibition. I’ll be the one grinning like a Cheshire cat no doubt!