Wednesday, 10 December 2014

How to deal with Prickles

The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”  

Finding time to paint and blog at this time of year isn’t easy! So when I came across a box of peculiar prickly things in Dublin's Fruit and Vegetable Market, I  knew that these odd looking things would be the perfect subject. They wouldn’t wilt or fade overnight, and they were just so bizarre that they had to be painted.Thanks to some clever botanical detective work by some friends (thank you guys), I found out that they were types of wild cucumber. 

And so the fun begins.
Depicting the prickles was my biggest problem with these little cucurbits. There are a number of ways to do this. I could paint carefully around each one, but that would be pushing my patience and skills to the very limit! I could also paint the skin without the prickles and then try to lift the paint back off.  I could paint the skin and then add the prickles using opaque gouache. Or I could take the easy option and mask off the prickles first.

I decided to test a few ideas out. I have two masking fluids here. One is the Winsor and Newton which is one that I have used before. The second is the Daniel Smith’s masking fluid which someone recommended but which I haven’t yet tried. The Daniel Smith masking fluid is a lot thicker than the W&N and comes in a dinky little applicator bottle with applicator tips. The W&N masking fluid needs to be applied with a fine synthetic brush (it’ll ruin your sables). 

When the masking fluid still on the page, you can see how thick the DS stuff is
I found the DS a lot easier to control and a little less haphazard than the W&N. Note: it is very important that the paper is dry when you apply the masking fluid, and also when you go to rub it off. If it isn’t then the paper can rip.

My favourite brushes for lifting, both of which were given to me by artist friends Eunike and Dianne. The one on the left is a Mir synthetic brush, perfect for lifting out the veins in leaves. The one on the right is a Rosemary & Co sable, brilliant for everything!
Lifting the paint was also option. I decided to see if W&N Lifting Medium would magically help. I painted two squares, one of which was given a coat of the Lifting Medium first. I find that the best way to lift paint is to use a stiff chisel shaped brush. Apply with clean water and dab off with kitchen roll. The stiff tips can gently abrase the surface to encourage the paint to lift. The Lifting Medium should help the paint to lift by preventing it from sinking into the paper. I have to say that I was a tad disappointed with the result. However at least I had explored my options!! 

Daniel Smith masking fluid is the clear winner!

I started with the smallest one, Cucumis myriocarpus or 'Paddy melon'. It also happened to be the least daunting to paint. I loved the curling stalk on top, it made it look like a Christmas bauble.

Apply the masking fluid and then build up the form of the fruit with wet washes

Stripes are a botanical artist’s best friend because correctly observed, they give an immediate form to your subject.
A bit of Blu tak holds the fruit in place
After I had painted a couple of those, I went onto the Cucumis africanus which had much thicker spikes. It reminded me of a little hedgehog.

I made a bit of a mess with this one and had to rescue the spikes with some gouache, but it’s just a study page. I’ll be more careful next time.

Finally it was the turn of Spike, my Cucumis hirsutus. Spike sat on my desk and taunted me. He was big, he was green and he was very very spikey. And yes, I was scared! Where to begin?

It took me a day or two to summon up the courage. Unlike the others, making fluid wouldn’t really work here. I needed to paint each wretched prickle separately. 

Cautiously begining to draw.
I drew them out and then outlined each spike with light green paint before erasing all the pencil marks. Spike now resembled something from the Muppets. Scary stuff!
Then slowly I began to map in the shadows. To be honest, I don’t know how this came about… I got lost in the complexity of the spikes until I couldn’t see what else to do
I clipped my palette onto my easel because I was switching between the blue green of the shadows and the yellow green on the spikes so often. In one of the wells is a small pool of clean water. 
A friend contacted me whilst doing this to tell me that there was a Fibonacci sequence in there, so perhaps if I was doing this again, I would pay more attention to the position of the spikes, using the same method I did when drawing out my artichoke. 

But for now Spike is done and I feel good! Although I'm looking at the image and thinking "Oh, there's a bit that I missed!"

Cucurbits (unfinished) 
Alas time is not on my side and as I write this, one last little cucumis remains unfinished. I am going away for a few days so will complete this on my return. They are prickly but they are patient.


  1. They are amazing Shevaun, a great subject for a challenge. I use Masquepen masking fluid, it's the best I've found. 😊

  2. Great! I love the way you approach these little ones. Brava. and I agree with the lifting liquid. I tryed it once, but could not find so helpfull. I suggest you to try to use a nib for the masking fluid. But don't press down, be light soft ,
    ciao Renata

  3. You are so brave--and you triumphed over adversity! ;-) All of the cucumis turned out beautifully, especially Spike who is magnificent! I was interested to read about the lifting fluid since I haven't tried it yet. Btw, I have been watering down my masking fluid (just a small amount as I need it) to get a finer line. It works!

  4. These are amazing Shevaun and they look so good together on the page too, I must say, you do like a challenge! Re. The lifting fluid, I found it needed at least two coats before it worked properly, but then the paper looks so shiny afterwards and it's difficult to work on top of as everything lifts!. Not sure if you can lift lifting fluid after it's dry ??? Not a good look, shiny outlines to our painted forms LOL

  5. Nice approach. Yes you conquered Medusa, or Spike the green monster. Looking at the image of the brushes; is the Rosemary a filbert? I find filberts very useful. Rosemary is, I believe, the only one who makes them in sable and with a short handle.

  6. Thank you for taking the time to 'blog' all your trials and tribulations on working these beautiful pricklies. Lovely work

  7. Wow, this is so cool! I would not dare to paint something with so many spikes and other things. Great job! Spike is really great.

  8. I love Cucumis! We have them all over the campo around our house. Those spikes are really daunting to do but you've done a marvellous job. I love the little Christmas baubaul one too. Cute! What's so hard is to get the roundedness in along with the spikes and yet you've done that so well. Thanks for posting Shevaun! Insightful as always.

    1. Jess... thank you!!! I really hope we get to meet up again soon. xx


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