Friday, 3 October 2014

Alexander & Conkers

“Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing.”
Winston Churchill

I was completely taken by surprise when a beautifully wrapped parcel arrived last week from the States. 
Amongst the trove of treasures that lay within, was a curious little box with the words Alexander carefully written on the lid. Any other person might have first looked at the accompanying card, but caught up in the excitement of these unexpected gifts, I ripped open the little box …  and shrieked like a banshee when an enormous and very dead beetle fell out! 
A kind hearted friend, knowing my fondness for beetles, had found him and decided to post him to me. She called him Alexander after this lovely poem by A.A. Milne

Alexander is a ten lined June beetle, or watermelon beetle, a native of the USA. When I read up about these beetles, I discovered that the males have enormous antennae which they use to sniff out the females. Sadly, by the time that Alexander had made his transAtlantic crossing, he was missing both his antennae and the bulk of his legs, but with a bit of creative licence, I managed to restore him to his former glory and painted him at twice his actual size. His portrait will be winging it's way back to my thoughtful friend this week  (thank you DM). As another friend remarked “He’s the dandy of the Beetle World”.

I found a little beetle, so that Beetle was his name,
And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same.
I put him in a match-box, and I kept him all the day ...
And Nanny let my beetle out -
Yes, Nanny let my beetle out -
She went and let my beetle out -
And Beetle ran away. 


Feeling very pleased with myself, I decided to paint a few conkers. For those who don't know, conkers are the common name for the fruit of the Horse Chestnut tree, Aesculus hippocastanum 

Colour chart of earth pigments- there are quite a few that I don't use, but it's handy to see them all side by side like this.
I have a little colour chart of all the earth colours that I have which I always keep nearby. Although I do like to mix my own browns, it’s really useful to have a small chart like this and I constantly refer to it. It’s also quite startling to see the difference between the different brands of the same pigment, most notably Winsor & Newton’s raw umber and Daniel Smith’s raw umber. I use them both a lot!

Conker progression
The shiny new conkers are a joy to paint. Once I had figured out what colours to use and in what order, they are not too different from painting dates. They take careful observation, lots of layers and dry brushwork. 

As always I started with a base washes of cerulean and cobalt violet, taking care to reserve the highlights. Then I began with the lighter colours, getting progressively darker as more and more layers went on. I blended each layer as I went, and took care to keep the edges paler than the center. 

Cerulean, Cobalt violet, Cobalt (Daniel Smiths),Natural sienna, Winsor orange, Light red, Quinacridone gold deep (Daniel Smiths), Burnt sienna, Burnt Umber, Perylene maroon, Perylene Violet, Purple Lake, Raw Umber and Indigo. I also used Brown madder and Piemontite  (Daniel Smiths) on some of the darker conkers

Another little conker starts off. I've placed the conker on a separate sheet to protect the page, secured with a wad of Blu-Tack to stop it rolling off! You can see the initial washes here.
A few layers of paint later and you have a lovely polished conker

The cases were fun to paint too. I used a wash of Lemon yellow with a touch of sap green (the smallest amount), and then dropped in cerulean and a tiny bit of perylene green where needed. The spikes are the same earthy pigments of the conkers. I definitely needed a magnifying glass to paint those!

The finished page! This will used for my next Nature Sketchbook Exchange entry. 
Using all those transparent pigments has made me yearn for the silky softness of vellum, so conkers on vellum is next on my painting list! Mind you, the rosehips look very tempting too! With so much to choose from, I'm definitely going to be busy!

"Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. 
Without it, life just doesn't taste good."
 Lucia Capacchione


  1. So stunning Shevaun,someone's skecthbook is going to be amazinger!!! I still have conkers on my list!! But now I have a load of acorns and lichen and berries and fungi and ..........
    Ahhh so much!!! xxxx

    1. Haha, Claire! I know exactly how you feel... there's so much choice at the moment that it's dizzying! This will be stuck in Dianne's sketchbook when I eventually get it, so you'll see this in person soon. :)

  2. shevaun, i know WN is windsor newton
    and DS is daniel smith but what is LB?

    do you do lightfast tests?

    1. Hi Vi, Gosh, you really did have a close look at that chart! LB is Lefranc & Bourgeois. They are an old French company, but I don't know if they are still producing watercolour paints any more. They seem to have only oils, acrylics, gouache, glass paints and gilding materials available, even on their website. I remember hearing something about another company buying them out, but my memory of the details is hazy. However I can still get these paints in Egypt (old stock, no doubt), and some of their pigments are wonderful. I'll probably be shot for saying this, but I don't really worry too much about lightfastness. I did a test on a couple of fugitive pigments (including opera rose) by sticking a sheet to a south facing window with the pigments partially covered, partially exposed. After two years of direct sunshine, there was very little difference, just a slight cooling. The test is still ongoing! Hopefully none of my paintings will ever be exposed to quite as much light as this, but it did make me less concerned about lightfastness! We worry about too much already!!

    2. bet you all didn't think i would read when you's posted a link? huh? hahahahaha
      well i do read and sometimes i even pay attention!
      especially to pigments
      i love how neatly you did your charts chickie....... mine are just slap dashed splashes

    3. I use a rotring template for the squares... it makes life so much easier. Yes, I know how much you love pigments and colour, Vi.

  3. You have some very fortunate friends to be getting these beautiful gifts of your artwork! Both the beetle and the conker page are amazing! I would love to watch you work sometime. It sounds like you put down thin layers of pure pigment rather than mixing on your palette, is this right? I hope you don't mind my asking but I have been wondering this for you let the layers dry before adding the next one or let them blend wet on the paper? I am intrigued by the number of pigments that you use, yet they blend so well on the page. Maybe the subject of another blog post? PS I commented yesterday but it seemed to disappear so this is my second attempt.

    1. I never really thought about it, Janene. I do mix colours, but also tend to use pigments on their own quite a bit and layer them. I just presumed that that's what everyone else does. I leave each layer to dry before applying the next. I think I got into the habit of that from painting in Egypt where it is so dry. It is interesting to me to realise that most artists keep to a simpler palette. I suppose it's a case of finding what works best for you. A workshop together would be amazing, wouldn't it!

    2. Obviously what you are doing is working very well indeed for you! I made the decision to use a simple palette early in the course because it seemed more manageable to me as a beginner. I've come to enjoy seeing the range of colors I can get by mixing or layering just three pigments, but am starting to branch out to use more now. Thanks for explaining your approach. I would love to attend a workshop with you someday! Maybe we could get Aislinn to join up too! ;-)

  4. I love your beetle. And for me a person terrified of all insects, that's saying something!

    And the conkers are perfection. The colours glow and the detail fascinating. The colour charts are works of art in their own right. You inspire me to haul out my own bag of conkers and have a go.

    1. Jeanette, that's such a huge compliment! Thank you! I'm so pleased that you're feeling inspired. There is something wonderful about conkers, and the fact that you already have a big bag of them collected says it all!


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