Friday, 25 April 2014

Museum Sketching

“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self. But the point is not only to get out - you must stay out, and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.”  Henry James

Sketching at the Natural History Museum
There is a thrill of excitement when you pack up your art materials to head outside to paint. In fact, I would rank it as one of my favourite things to do. So much so, that I always keep a field kit packed and ready.

My little field kit is actually a makeup bag. I searched long and hard for the perfect carrier and found this. It’s brilliant. There is a space for pencils and pens, a brush holder, and a detachable bag which holds my ancient little watercolour set, kitchen roll, clip (perfect for holding the pages of a sketchbook together on windy days) and set square (handy for plant measurements). It can also hold a small sketchbook if need be. If I want to go light, I simply detach the bag and use a few watercolour pencils instead with a waterbrush.

Three sizes of waterbrushes, essential for a field kit
This week I needed to go back to the Natural History Museum to have a closer look at owl’s feet, so out came my trusty little field kit. I also brought~ 
  • a fold-up palette with the earth colours that I have been using
  • some colour charts (just in case)
  • my camera and spare batteries
  • earphones to help you 'zone out' if it gets too noisy
  • a snack - there's nothing worse than sitting there with your tummy rumbling!

It’s always worth asking at the desk if you can borrow a chair. They are usually very obliging. However it’s worth also bringing a jacket or scarf to sit on, as a few hours on a cold floor can be quite uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to stand to sketch, but hey, life’s not perfect!

It’s better to go early in the day as generally museums are quieter first thing. The schools here are on holiday at the moment, so the museum didn’t really fill up until after 12. I find that people are  quite respectful and keep a polite distance, but it’s human nature to be curious, so you always attract a few watchers, especially children. When I went out and about in Egypt, I would always bring spare pencils and paper with me… kids just love to join in! This time I was joined by two lovely little girls who had their own sketchbooks and we all sat in comfortable silence drawing owls, much to the amusement of their mother.

I’m really glad that I went back in to study the feet as I noticed things that I would never have understood from a photograph. Some owls have quite hairy feet, but not the barn owl. Some owls have two toes in the front and two behind, however barn owl has three in the front and the hallux (hind claw), which is slightly higher than the others, a bit like a thumb. It’s well worth taking time to look at the real thing, especially one that is not likely to fly away!

Long eared owl, Asio otus
 I did another quick study of another beautiful owl, the long eared owl, before I left. It really is such a satisfying way to spend a morning.

An earlier study of a Kestrel, also done at the Natural History Museum

Back home, I managed to finish off my Barn Owl, Tyto alba. Sadly Barn Owls aren’t doing very well here in Ireland. Their population numbers have declined by over 50% in the past 25 years and they are now a Red-listed Bird of Conservation Concern In Ireland. European numbers are also declining. Some of the reasons for this are loss of habitat and road traffic accidents, but a huge percentage of deaths are directly due to rodent poisoning. It’s such a pity, especially when you consider that a pair of owls could kill up to 3000 mice a year. 
Owls are a far more effective, cost-efficient and environmentally- friendly  way of dealing with rodent infestations of crops than poison.

Dark breasted Barn Owl,  Tyto alba guttata  (Brehm)

So how you can help?  
Birdwatch Ireland is doing ongoing Research into Barn owls, taking notes of their numbers and investigating any deaths. So if you see a Barn Owl, alive or dead, it should be reported here.

It really would be a tragedy if we lost the Barn Owl from our land.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Barn Owl

Barn Owl, Tyto alba, Shevaun Doherty 2013

My very first framed painting was of a Barn Owl, Tyto alba which to this day still hangs on the wall in my parent’s home. I was seven at the time, but it’s interesting to realise that even at an early age, I loved both art and nature.

My first ever painting, aged seven!
The reason that I mention this now is because I’m working on another barn owl painting at the moment. Despite a gap of almost forty years, I even stuck to the same composition. I actually started this painting a year ago, a gift for my brother, but it was put aside as I needed to concentrate on my botanical work. 
It’s now time to finish it.

A quick study of a barn owl done at the Natural History Museum
Drawing from life gives an invaluable insight into understanding your subject, so the first step was to head into the Dublin’s Natural History Museum, with a sketchbook, waterbrush and paints. I was pleasantly surprised by how helpful the staff were- they led me to the display of barn owls and even brought a comfortable chair for me to sit on. Bliss! I know that some people feel intimidated by sketching in public, but I generally find that people keep a very respectful distance, and you soon become so absorbed in the subject that you don’t even notice the watchers. Listening to music with earphones helps too.

I decided to paint the owl in gouache and watercolour on blue-grey card, which I felt would help show off the beautiful patterns on the feathers. Those feather patterns are challenging! I had to practice first on a small piece of card. It’s a bit like figuring out what pieces of a puzzle go where. 

Colour chart of both gouache and watercolour on toned card. The watercolours are marked wc. This has proven to be an invaluable help, particularly as gouache darkens as it dries

Using photographs and sketches as reference, I drew out my owl using a white watersoluble pencil. It blends into the subsequent paint layers and any lines that are left can be easily rubbed out. Gouache is so forgiving and can be combined quite nicely with watercolours. As my friend Claire said, it’s a case of “Forward and back, slowly building up the layers.”
Work was progressing quite nicely, but I ran into trouble with the feet. I didn’t study them properly in the museum, and wasn’t happy with the photographs. I also ran out of time, and so the painting was set aside.

This week I picked up where I left off. I decided to add some dried grasses that I had collected last summer. What fascinating little subjects! I found myself becoming totally engrossed with them and probably spending far too much time on them. 

I laid the grasses directly onto the card to decide their position and also to paint.

I had planned to go back into the Museum to do a study of the feet, but this week weather has been lovely, and I’ve enjoyed catching up with some good friends instead. I love painting but sometimes you need a bit of sunshine and good company to get balance in your life. The owl, ever patient, can wait.

Nearly there!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Fresh Water Exhibition- Agua Doce

It rained in Galicia, not a heavy rain, but a gentle persistent mist that softened the ancient silhouette of 
Santiago de Compostela.
 I had travelled with my parents to Galicia, to visit the Fresh Water Exhibition in the magnificent Gaiás Centre MuseumHowever not even the weather could dampen our spirits, because we had come to see my painting of  papyrus hanging in the museum

“With the works by geniuses such as  John ConstableDavid HockneyGerhard RichterLouise BourgeoisMario MerzMartín Chirino and Chema Madoz as well as important Galician creators, this exhibition proposes an intense aesthetic experience through a multidisciplinary selection of artworks including painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation, scientific devices and ethnographic pieces.”

A huge sculpture made of books representing a vortex of ideas and words
The exhibition was opened by Crown Prince Felipe on March 21st, on the eve of World Water Day, and has already had more than 7000 visitors in the first two weeks. The museum is vast, over 6600m2 of exhibition space, spread across four floors, but everything has been very cleverly laid out. A series of temporary walls, painted in rich dark colours, invite you to weave your way through, with surprises around every corner to intrigue and inspire you.

All life begins with water and water is essential for all life.
The journey begins.

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” Leonardo da Vinci

Of course, I was eager to see the botanical paintings, so we hurried to the first floor “Water on Earth”. This floor is dedicated to telling the story of the great rivers of the world, and how water has shaped the landscape. There is an incredibly impressive gallery with paintings by the likes of Gerhard Richter, John Constable, Anton Mauve, Graham Sutherland and  Henry Lewis, to name but a few. 

Finally we turned a corner, and there they were!! The SBA paintings. 

"Art and science, aesthetic impact and cool analysis are combined in the ornithological drawings of Audobon, who traversed the forests of North America in pursuit of the beauty of birds. ... A further example of the descriptive efforts of nineteenth century biologists is furnished by the botanical plates produced by Kew Gardens. This tradition lives on thanks to the work of members of the Society of Botanical Artists." (Exhibition catalogue)

L-R Sue HénonRobert McNeillShevaun DohertyMariko Aikawa 
Flying the flag for the SBA were Penny BrownSue HénonRobert McNeillMariko Aikawa ......and me! I felt quite humbled to find my work hanging beside such wonderful artists, but very, very proud.  Marta Chirino SBA also had three stunning botanical illustrations in the exhibition. 
Marta Chirino Argenta SBA
On an adjacent wall were the paintings from Kew Gardens. The artists were Fanny Russell, Joan Bacon, Margaret Stones and Sydenham Edwards.

 I especially liked the mixed compositions of Joan Bacon. I was charmed to later read that she won a medal  for her work at age 92!
Utagawa Hiroshige, Nishki-e (1833-34)
The paintings were all in good company because on the opposite wall, were a series of engravings by Hokusai and Hiroshige. What a treat!

Huge prints from another favourite, the master of ornithology, James John Audobon

This exhibition absorbs you, delights you and fascinates you. We saw paintings and sculptures from the Inuits, the Aboriginals, the Amazon river and of course the Nile. 

A gorgeous little travel sketch painted Egypt by Edward Lear, (author of The Owl and The Pussycat)

Butterflies from the Amazon River
The exhibition also explored  Hidden Water, Humankind's relationship with water, and finished with Gazing at the Sky. There was something for everyone, from Roman mosaics to modern-day spas, Egyptian amulets,engineering and scientific equipment, glassware (amazing stuff by Lalique) , satellite images, book illustrations (The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland), sheet music (Johann Strauss's Blue Danube), photography, video installations, costumes, sculpture and much, much more.  Despite the diversity of objects everything had the common theme of fresh water.

David Hockney's Lithographs of The Weather Series. I especially like the middle one, The Rain. You can see a better image here

I loved this enormous painting by Spanish painter José Freixanes (2001) 200x200cm
The highlight of the whole trip was meeting the Director of the museum, María Periera, who came to meet me and talk to me about my work. It was such an honour to realise that my little painting is hanging alongside works from great cultural institutions like the MoMA, the Victoria & Albert, the Musée D’Orsay, the Rijksmuseum, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. 

She presented me with a beautiful book of the exhibition that I will always treasure.

One happy artist with Director Maria Pereira!
The exhibition runs from March 21st until September 14 2014. If you are walking the Camino, or just visiting Galicia, it's definitely worth a visit.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Daffodil Days

Golden daffodils are always the first to appear each year, heralding the start of spring and the promise of warmer brighter days.

 William Wordsworth's beautiful poem comes to mind whenever I see them.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. 

Feeling quite cheerful myself, I decided to paint daffodils in this month’s Nature Trail sketchbook. This sketchbook belongs to Julie Douglas, a remarkably talented artist living in Belfast. Julie teaches art, or rather, she inspires her students to paint. Her sketchbook is certainly a reflection of her personality… it’s bold, it’s fun and it dares you to step out of your comfort zone!

Daffodils would certainly make a statement, but they were also going to be a challenge, not least because they are yellow. Yes, I know that I’ve grumbled about greens before, but yellow is a tricky pigment too. How do you depict subtle hue changes and the delicate nuances of light and shade, when you can’t mix in another colour? Yellow mixed with any other colour is just not yellow.

A old sketchbook study proved really useful in terms of colour and technique. The top flower on the right was done mixing yellows with shade colours, the one beneath was done using shade first, followed by a wash of yellow
The answer is layering. You need to paint the underlying shade tone first and very lightly build up the form of the flower in soft greys. I found that my daffodils had two shades of grey- one leaning to green (cerulean+ cobalt violet+ perylene green) and the other leaning to purple (cerulean+ cobalt violet + light red). Once you have established the form of the flower, you can then paint over with a washes of yellow.

I began with some very quick loose sketches on cheap A4 paper just to get the feel of the plant. I did lots and lots of these quick sketches and most were not as neat as this one!!

Once I have drawn out my flower, I paint over the pencil lines with a thin line of the paint and then erase the pencil lines.

I used lemon yellow, winsor lemon and winsor yellow as my cooler yellows, whilst cadmium yellow, winsor yellow deep and winsor orange provided the warmer tones of the corona.

The result is a page of happy daffodils. I think it’s a bit looser than my normal style but I quite like that.

And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.
(William Wordsworth)

Draw In

I’ve another reason to be smiling this week. I’ve been invited to take part in a Symposium to celebrate the value of Drawing, which will take place in the Belfast School of Art Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st  August.

 This event will bring together some incredibly talented artists, PJ Lynch, Colleen Barry, Paul Foxton, Julie Douglas, Peter Cooper, Matt Weigle, Ian McAllister and Katherine Tyrrell, all of whom are passionate about art. 

"The aim is to celebrate excellence in drawing. You will view some amazing drawings, paintings, sketch books and work in progress by the invited artists and learn how to improve your own skills in a friendly, inclusive environment. Drawing is relevant and contemporary, even in this world of technology. Drawing is a powerful tool towards personal well being, far beyond the delicious act of mark-making itself. Drawing is not a luxury, it is a necessity."

There will be workshops, talks, demonstrations, and lots of creative and inspiring ideas being shared. As well as the weekend workshops, there will be workshops running the week before and also the week after. 
You can read more about the event on Katherine Tyrrell’s excellent blog Making a Mark.

Please take time to check out the Draw In website too- it's wonderful!