Friday, 29 August 2014

From Ripe to Riper

“August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time.”
 ~Sylvia Plath

It’s been yet another messy week of interruptions, but finally the kids are back in school, and hopefully, life will once more settle back into a blissful routine.  I miss my long painting days!

I have managed to keep the painting cravings at bay by doing some small studies of dates. Yes, a few fresh dates made their way back to Ireland with me, to be painted, eaten and hopefully planted. Fortunately they last a long time, especially when kept in an airtight container in the fridge.

The changing colour of dates from ripe to riper 
I love this stage of ripeness, known as “Rutab” in Arabic. The dates are very soft, sweet and moist, quite different to the dried stage which we are all familiar with. Ideally the dates would be left on the tree to become dry, but I might try to air-dry these myself. 

Meanwhile, I am just enjoying the wonderful rich reds of the ripe dates. I could never get bored of painting them, or eating them!

Someone asked me how I paint my highlights, so I have included a short step by step in this week’s post. Whilst you might not have fresh dates to paint, the same technique would be ideal for cherries, plums or rosehips, or any similar round shiny fruit.

Know your colours

Over the years I have accumulated quite a large collection of red paints. In fact, I have far too many paints of all colours (but at least they are cheaper than shoes) ! It’s really not necessary to have a huge number of paints, but it is important to know the cool tones from the warm, and also which colours are transparent, semi-transparent or opaque. The easiest way to do this is by making a colour chart. Lay them all out and decide which are closer to orange and which are closer to purple. Look to see which paints granulate, and which give clear smooth washes. Keep your colour chart close at hand. I often refer back to my colour chart whilst painting to help me decide which colour to use next.

Red colour charts. I've left some room on the larger one, just in case I happen to come across another red.

Check your lighting

The first thing that I always do is make sure that the lighting is good.  I prefer the traditional way of lighting from the left (I’m right-handed). I don’t like artificial lights, particularly overhead lights, as these can create confusing highlights and shadows. On very overcast days, I will use a daylight lamp and something shiny to bounce the light back up onto the subject, but in truth, nothing beats a natural light. You can see an example of a dark rainy day set up here

The date is placed on a small piece of paper to protect the paper beneath and then carefully drawn it out with a 2H pencil


Find your highlights. It’s important to take note of where they lie and also how shiny they are. I start with Cobalt violet and then add cerulean (Schmincke) to the shadows, making sure to leave the highlights clear. Usually the side which is furthest away from the light has more of a blue tone. I paint quite wet at this stage and let the colours blend on the paper. Sometimes highlights are very bright, but here they were soft, so I kept the edges of the highlights soft by using a second damp brush to blend it all in.

These are the colours that I used for this date, starting with the ones on the left

When I first started painting botanicals, I remember feeling quite confused by the term “disappearing edges”, which is often used to describe how the surface of a fruit curves away from you. I kept wondering how an edge can disappear, if I can so obviously see it! A better way to describe this process is to say “bring the middle bit forward”, although admittedly that’s a bit of a mouthful! To create this effect, you use warmer colours in the centre of the fruit, and build up the layers of transparent colours so that the middle part is the most saturated, leaving the paint around the edges is quite thin.

I usually start in the center with a bit of winsor orange which is a nice yellow orange, and then winsor orange-red,  building up the layers of colour and using progressively darker reds, until I am on to the purples. I paint quite drily, but always make sure that my brushstrokes follow the form of the fruit (across the width and along the length, never diagonally), and as the fruit has a smooth surface, I try to blend it all in with a second damp brush as I go along.

There is always a stage where you look at it and think it looks dreadful, but persevere!

Save little details like the stalk or tiny blemishes until the end. Often it’s the little details that can bring it to life.
Have fun!

Six dancing dates  ©Shevaun Doherty 2014

"If you chase perfection, you often catch excellence" 
William Fowble

Friday, 22 August 2014

Summer's End

"When summer gathers up her robes of glory,
And, like a dream, glides away."
Sarah Helen Whitman

I’m back once more in Dublin and it’s great to be home for the lazy tail-end of summer. I really love the long summer evenings and the delights of catching up with family and friends once more. Of course, the holiday buzz doesn’t last too long, and reality soon kicks in with a mountain of washing, a garden gone wild, and a long list of school books and school uniforms that need to be bought.

I find that if I don’t paint regularly, I lose the momentum. I don’t know why, but even a break of a few days can knock my routine off balance, and make it a struggle to get back into painting. So I try to do a little every day, even if it’s just a small study of a leaf or a seed.

A quick study of Erythrina lysistemon seedpods © Shevaun Doherty 2013
With so many distracting chores to do, I decided to do a small study of the Erythrina lysistemon seedpods which I brought back from Cairo. Seedpods are ideal for those times when you have only an hour or two here and there. I love fresh flowers, but it's so often a race against time to capture their loveliness. Stop to make dinner or to run down to the shops, and you’ll find that the blooms have wilted and the petals have dropped. Seedpods are a far more cooperative and patient subject.

The striking blossoms of the Coral Tree,  Erythrina lysistemon   (wikipedia)
A native of South Africa, the Coral tree (Erythrina lysistemon) is the first tree to bloom each spring. Traditionally it’s striking red flowers would herald the end of winter and signal the time to sow the crops. Of course, the flowers are long gone now, but the trees were full of these wonderful seedpods. Having painted them several times before, I felt confident with their structure and colour.

A sketchbook page from 2010- the first page of my SBA sketchbook!
 To spice it up, I decided to paint my seedpods on a small piece of natural calf vellum. I haven’t used this type of vellum before, but I really like the colour and the subtle markings on the surface. It was nice to paint on, but a bit unforgiving compared to the chalky smoothness of kelmscott.

I drew out my design first on tracing paper. It’s easier to correct mistakes on tracing paper than on the vellum. The size of the vellum meant that I had to change the position of the seedpods to fit.

I transferred the design onto the vellum and began the first washes using cobalt violet and cerulean, and then a whole range of those gorgeous earthy colours- raw sienna, raw umber, burnt umber, burnt sienna, light red, perylene maroon, perylene violet, indanthrene blue.

Normally I would give the whole composition an all over wash, but as I was dipping into this whenever I got a moment, I felt like painting it one seedpod at a time. I also decided to leave the bright orange seeds until the end. There’s no real reason for this except that I am the kind of person who likes to save the best bit until last and these were definitely the cherry on top of the cake.

Erythrina lysistemon seedpods on natural calf vellum © Shevaun Doherty 2014
So there you go… a fun little piece that kept the painting cravings at bay!

I have been asked about my date seeds too, and am delighted to report back that not only did my little seedlings survive three plane trips in my suitcase, but since their arrival, they have begun to sprout leaves! I am recording their progress in my sketchbook- it’s quite exciting! 

It may be the end of summer, but my little bit of sunshine fun continues.

"Play is your route to mastery"- Sara Genn

Saturday, 16 August 2014


“He who hath not seen Cairo hath not seen the world: its soil is gold; its Nile is a wonder; its houses are palaces; and its air is temperate”
The Jewish Physician, A Thousand and One Nights

I apologise for the break in blogposts last week, but as you can guess from the quote above, I’ve been on the move. My paints were packed, my little seedlings were carefully wrapped up, and we travelled north to Cairo.

View of the Citadel from Al Azhar Park , oil on canvas ©Shevaun Doherty 2009

Cairo is big, noisy, chaotic and yet utterly fascinating. From my very first visit 26 years ago, I have been inexplicably drawn to this city. It’s vibrant, exciting and full of mystery- the city of a thousand minarets. The air is no longer as sweet and fresh, but away from the traffic, the gardens are lush, and there is a wealth of history to be discovered and explored.

The view from our apartment in Cairo
Our home in Cairo is in a quiet area on the outskirts of the city, surrounded by beautiful gardens. This stay was a just short one, mainly taken up with family visits and shopping. With all the distractions going on, it was hard to find time to paint, so I concentrated instead on finishing the page of quick little studies that I started in Sharm for the Nature Sketchbook Exchange I will stick this page of Little Egyptian Treasures into Sigrid Frensen’s sketchbook when I get back to Dublin.

Checking out his portrait
Before I left Sharm I managed to rescue a large scarab beetle from the pool. What a feisty little chap! Even cooling him off in the fridge didn’t keep him quiet for long… he was determined to escape. However I couldn’t resist doing one little painting of him… I especially loved his little antennae. I’m always amazed at how observant of nature the ancient Egyptians were- their scarab beetles are quite anatomically correct.

Another scarab beetle painting with a pectoral amulet from Tutankhamun  ©Shevaun Doherty 2011
Scorpion tail, Scarab beetle, Monkey's Ear Seedpod and Coral Tree seedpod  ©Shevaun Doherty 2014

In the gardens in Cairo, I found some wonderful seedpods. The first was from the delightfully named Monkey’s Ear Tree, Enterlobium cyclocarpumThe seedpods ripen to a rich black colour, giving the tree it’s name, but I decided that an immature green seedpod would look better on the page. I also painted the very elegant seedpod of the Coral tree, Erythrina lysistemon. I love this tree- the flowers are stunning too and are always the first to bloom in spring.

Strawberry shell, gecko egg and lovebird feather
Pages like this are a great excuse to dig out the little treasures that I have found over the years. I added a tiny gecko egg, a strawberry shell (Clanculus puniceus) and a couple of feathers from a lovebird that we once had.

Sigrid has a young son called Bertus, so I thought that it would be fun to complete the page with a scorpion’s tail. I found this scorpion on a trip down the Nile a few years ago- I had to smuggle it back to Cairo because my daughters were horrified that I would want to keep it! Alas all that remains is the tail, but I think it still looks quite impressive.

The remains of the scorpion found in Kom Ombo

The completed page of  Little Egyptian Treasures  ©Shevaun Doherty 2014

Alas our trip came to an end. 
I waved a sorry goodbye to Egypt, "Om il Doonya, Mother of the World", and headed back to Dublin. What an inspiring summer it has been! I already have my return ticket for next year.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

An Oasis of Peace

Cuckoo wasp, Chrysis coerulans

I sometimes feel that the world has descended into madness. In this age of technology, there seems to be an almost constant stream of violence and bloodshed, one tragedy after another, each more brutal and more horrifying than the last. It’s hard not to be affected by the images that we are bombarded with, or to feel at times, completely overwhelmed by helplessness and despair.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy
 is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy amidst the simple beauty of nature. ...I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”  Anne Frank

It’s true. At times like that, the only answer is to escape into the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and find your own little oasis of peace. 

For me it starts with the delight of watching my date seeds start to grow. Eight of my dates have sprouted now. I’m watching and recording their progress, impatiently waiting for the new leaves to emerge.

The ripe dates continue to change too, going from a crunchy crisp red to a rich dark colour and becoming soft in texture. I love to eat them at this stage- the flavour is intense, like caramel, melting in your mouth. I did a couple of dissections to illustrate the changes.

Ripe and riper

 I found a tiny gecko that had drowned in the pool. I have a soft spot for these little lizards, known as Mediterranean House Geckos. People are superstitious about them here, but geckos are great little hunters, feeding on mosquitoes, flies, ants, cockroaches and all the other insects that I don’t want to have around my home. I carried this one carefully home and sketched it. 

A far better solution to insect control than using harmful pesticides

Morning walks along the beach are great for the soul, and I often come home with treasures like this little shell to bring home and paint. 

Another find is a little Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui. It is incredible to realise that this tiny creature with it’s seemingly delicate wings has flown all the way from Northern Europe, perhaps even Ireland. Scientists have puzzled over the mystery of this migration for years, but have recently discovered that these butterflies ascend to a height of 500 metres and windsurf all the way down to North Africa, reaching speeds of over 45km an hour!! How cool is that!!! 
There is a little video at the end of this blog post which tells more about this remarkable feat.

A Painted Lady that has reached the end of her journey

However the most exciting event of the week was finding the most gorgeous wasp in my kitchen. It glistened like a sapphire in the sunshine… simply stunning! It is a Cuckoo wasp, Chrysis coerulans . They get their name because they lay their eggs in the nests of other wasps, and I have a potters wasp’s nest just outside my door. 

Slowly uncurling... but look at those blues!
Of course I really wanted to paint it, but it’s challenging to paint an insect which is running around, trying to escape. The best thing to do in this case, is to put the creature into the fridge for an hour or so. It doesn’t seem to harm them, but when you take them out, they will keep quite still until they warm up, giving you a chance to take photographs and do some small studies. I made up a small blue colour chart so that I could match up the dazzling blues and emeralds. The cuckoo moth has a habit of rolling into a tight ball when threatened which gave me a chance to get some close shots of it’s wonderful metallic sheen.

Stop moving! I want to draw you.

 I did some quick sketches to give me a better understanding of the shapes, but by then the wasp was starting to move a lot. 

It feeds on the nectar of flowers, so I gave it a tiny drop of honey which it really enjoyed, and then I let it go. 

What a treat to be able to observe this wonderful creature so closely! I plan to do a larger study when I return to Ireland.

Nature is certainly a constant source of wonder and inspiration… I have found my oasis of peace this week.

"The forest makes your heart gentle.  You become one with it... No place for greed or anger there."  
Pha Pachak