Saturday, 30 May 2015

Bloom 2015

Shevaun Doherty SBA Red dates
 Red dates Phoenix dactylifera, GOLD MEDAL ©Shevaun Doherty 2013
The difference between TRY and TRIUMPH is a little UMPH.

I am walking around with a grin that would do the Cheshire Cat proud. 
This has been a bit of a rollercoaster year for me, but this week, all the hard work, time and sheer stubbornness paid off. 
I won TWO medals, a Gold and a Silver, at Bloom Botanical & Floral Art Exhibition!!!

"Per aspera ad astra" (Through difficulties to the stars)
Aesculus hippocastanum triptych SILVER MEDAL

I was very lucky to win a gold medal last year, but to get a second this year was a huge surprise! It’s like hearing a little voice saying in my ear “Keep going. You’re on the right path”.
Excuse me whilst I do another little happy dance around my room from the sheer delight of it all!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

In praise of the Daisy

“The flower doesn’t dream of the bee. It blossoms and the bee comes.”
Mark Nepo

  I have always loved daisies, Bellis perennis . There’s just something so bright, cheerful and positively defiant about them. So I jumped at the chance to do a small painting of daisies for a friend. To me, nothing sings of summer more than the sight of daisies on the lawn. It makes me want to kick off my shoes, sit on the grass and make daisy chains. 
As A.A. Milne said, 
“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”

I've potted up some little daisies and put them in my garden. The bees love them and so do I.
The Latin name for daisy is Bellis perennis meaning "everlasting prettiness".
The word “Daisy” is thought to come from it’s earlier Saxon name “Day’s Eye”, which is probably  because every evening at sunset the daisy closes it’s petals over it’s golden centre, and unfurls them at dawn the following day, as if opening it’s eye. 
We still refer to someone who has had a good night’s sleep as appearing as “fresh as a daisy”.

My desk with the daisy pots. They actually have quite a sweet perfume. I smiled to see that even on a rainy day, their flowers follow the sun.
In fact the little daisy has been given many names throughout history, my favourite being the old Welsh name of “Trembling Star”. 
It has long been considered a medicinal plant and featured in many of the early herbals. 

First the bee, and then the flower. The shapes are all drawn in very roughly.
It was also called Woundwort or Bruisewort because of it’s healing qualities. The Romans were said to carry bags of fresh daisies into battle, so that the wounded could be treated with bandages that had been soaked with the juice of the flowers. The Crusaders too valued it’s healing powers for pain relief, bruising and broken bones. It is sometimes referred to as Poor Man’s Arnica, and used externally to heal bruises and trauma.

The flowers are slowly appearing.
In fact the medicinal properties of the daisy are many. Henry VIII was said to have chewed on the leaves and flowers of daisies in order to relieve his stomach ulcers. Chewing the young leaves of daisies is also said to be a remedy for mouth ulcers. Both the leaves and flowers of the plant are edible and can be used in salads and soups. There are mixed reports as to the flavour, but the younger leaves are reported to have a less astringent taste. The flowers have a mild taste but are certainly a pretty addition to any dish.

The flowers are done, so  now I start to pick out the negative shapes between the leaves with shadow colours of blues, purples and greys.

One of the best ways to get the health benefits of daisies is to make a tea from the leaves. Daisy tea is said to aid digestion and strengthen the metabolism. It is also said to clear catarrh and soothe coughs. Simply pour boiling water over a handful of daisies and leave to infuse. Strain and serve.

As soon as I start to add the warmer colours of the leaves, it comes to life. The leaves grow in basal rosettes, so I tried to show this... not easy when there are just so many leaves!
I really enjoyed painting the daisies.  As they are an important bee food, I decided to include a White tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lucorum enjoying the daisy nectar. The flowers were fairly straightforward to paint, but the leaves were quite a different matter. They grow in clumps, a seemingly confusing tangle of hairy spoon shaped leaves. It took me a while to figure out just where to begin. I started by picking out the negative shapes in a grey wash of cerulean and cobalt violet with a touch of light red, before painting the leaves with a mix of indanthrene and transparent yellow. Rather than fuss over every leaf, I kept it fairly loose and painterly.

© Shevaun Doherty 2015
 “Daisies of the world unite - you have nothing to lose but your chains”

It was nice to have the opportunity to study this little plant closely. The little daisy is so easy to overlook, to dismiss it as a weed, but it has a lot going for it. If anything you have to admire it’s tenacity and it’s ability to pick itself back up after each run-in with the lawnmower.

Said the other little daisy, “I am very well content
To live simply in the meadow where the sun and rain are sent;
Where the bees all gather sweetness, and the dew falls on my head,
And the radiance of the moonlight is all around me shed.
The grass and clover blossoms admire my beauty all day long,
As I listen to the music of a bird’s delightful song”
“Two Little Daisies” (The other little daisy wished to be a rose)

Monday, 11 May 2015

Laburnum Revisited

“Be Patient.
Respond to every call that excites your spirit.”

Patience is an attribute that every botanical artist needs to have. Choosing to paint from life means that we are very much at the whims of nature, constantly marking the seasons and watching the weather. It’s not unusual for a botanical artist to set aside a painting for a year whilst they wait for a plant to bloom once more or a fruit to ripen.  

In my garden I have a beautiful laburnum tree (Laburnum anagyroides) that for a few weeks each year, fills my garden with cascades of glorious golden flowers and a wonderful perfume that sends bees into rapturous joy. Every year I promise myself that I will paint it but time has always been against me. 

Last year I managed to do a small study for the sketchbook exchange and I promised myself that this year, I would be ready!

So I have been patiently watching my garden with a growing sense of anticipation. I have a gorgeous piece of honey coloured natural calf vellum which will really set off those golden flowers. 

Whilst I waited, I decided to do a few small studies to hone my palette. Yellow is a tricky colour to paint. It can slip from glowing to drab in a few washes, which makes varying the tones quite difficult. Some artists achieve wonderful results by doing a monochromatic study first in greys and then painting a wash of yellow over it. Others mix their yellows with tiny bits of purple to create shadow tones.

 Personally I prefer to keep my colours as clean as possible and use the large range of yellows available to create the tones. That said, a few shadow colours, purple-grey or green will slip into the mix towards the end if I felt it is needed.

There is no right or wrong way. If it works, do it!

So first to make a huge yellow colour chart. Yes, I really do have all those colours, and yes, the Daniel Smith dot chart makes me want to whip out that credit card and invest in a few more. 

However I resist the urge and finally decide on my favourites of winsor lemon, winsor yellow and new gamboge as my basic yellows.

My biggest struggle is always with greens, especially on vellum where opaque paints can feel a bit like kicking a lead-filled football around a pitch. So I needed to find a good transparent green mix. Fortunately my good friend Sigrid Frensen mentioned how nice turquoise was with quinacridone gold, both wonderfully transparent. 

Winsor Blue Green with Quinacridone Gold ... a fabulous mix!
So having played around with several mixes, I settled on Winsor Blue-Green with quinacridone and a little transparent yellow. I have had Winsor Blue Green for years but always ignored it as it was just too bright for any of my mixes. The Quin gold tames it beautifully.

Playing with green mixes

Of course it is not just botanical artists who revisit favourite subjects to paint, artists have done this for centuries. Each time they paint their subject, they discover something new. It allows them to develop their techniques, their composition and their colour palette.
Inspiration stimulates creativity.

My imagination has been caught! Bring on the blossoms.

“The glow of inspiration warms us and it is a holy rapture”


Saturday, 2 May 2015

V is for Vellum

Buff tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris, on kelmscott vellum
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Winston Churchill

Where has the time gone? I can hardly believe that it’s been over two weeks since my last blog post but recently I have been as busy as a bee in a wildflower meadow.

My Spice Market painting at the SBA's show in Westminster
The highlight of the past couple of weeks was my visit to the Society of Botanical Artists Exhibition in London. This year was the 30th anniversary of the SBA and it really was an impressive celebration of Botanical Art. For a great review of the exhibition, read Katherine Tyrrell's excellent blogpost  

To my delight, an image of my painting was also used on the poster describing the theme of the exhibition.
I love visiting the SBA exhibition. It’s such a treat to be able to see such beautiful and inspiring art up close, but it was also really fantastic to meet up with all my friends, old and new. It made a great event into something really special.

This year I was honoured to be asked to do a demonstration of my work during the exhibition. Honoured and ever so slightly daunted, because the other demonstrating artists are all incredibly talented, award winning artists. Just seeing my name included on that list was a thrill. The lovely paintings hanging behind me are by Enzo Forgione
I decided to do my demonstration on vellum, because it’s the topic that I’m asked the most about. There is a video at the bottom of this post taken by my good friend Sarah Morrish.
I was fortunate because Paul Wright, the manager of William Cowley’s  the Parchment and Vellum makers, agreed to meet me at the exhibition. Paul is a self-confessed ‘vellum-nerd’, and he regaled myself and Sarah Morrish with wonderful stories about vellum, it’s history and how it is made. If you are curious about how vellum is made, there is a link to a video about it here (not for the squeamish) 

I liked vellum before, but now I have an even greater respect for it. It’s easy to forget that each piece of vellum comes from a living creature (calf, sheep, goat), How that creature lived it's life really effects the appearance of the vellum. For example the calf that dies after a summer out roaming in the fields will have different skin (more tanned, less hair) than one that has been overwintered in a shed (paler and with visible hair follicles).
I should point out here that animals are NOT killed to make vellum, it is a byproduct of the meat industry. You can read a statement on the ethics here 

Paul from William Cowley's explains how vellum is made 
Vellum most typically comes from a calf, but can also come from a goat. Parchment comes from sheep. Sheep tend to have a lot of fat, so parchment is very thin and white, which means that it is not as suitable for painting.

A selection of  calfskin vellums showing the variety of colours and markings 
Manuscript vellum is very thin, almost transparent and creamy in colour. It’s more often used for calligraphy.
Natural calf vellum is my favourite vellum and the one that I use the most. Each piece is completely different and has it’s own character. It can range from a lovely honey colour to one that has a dark mottled appearance. I especially like the Veiny vellum, which has distinctive markings that give it character.

The mottled appearance of natural calf vellum (Erythrina lysistemon seedpods)

Kelmscott vellum is considered the best vellum for botanical artists. It is coated with a special chalky paste that is made from boiling up all the tiny vellum offcuts together with some secret ingredients. That paste is painted onto the vellum, allowed to dry and then sanded smooth. Then the whole process is repeated several times more until the vellum is quite thick and sturdy. This coating gives a beautifully velvety surface to paint on, which is so forgiving. You can wipe the paint off at any time, and also scratch into the surface, albeit carefully. I would definitely recommend kelmscott for vellum newbies. My only grumble is that the smooth white surface is a little bland in appearance in comparison to the natural calf vellum.

A close-up of a calmondin orange on kelmscott vellum. You can see how I scratched out details 
Goatskin vellum I like goatskin vellum because it has an interesting appearance with large visible pores. However these pores can present a problem when painting because the paint has a tendency to catch in the little holes. It’s probably better in this case to avoid subjects with a smooth shiny surface and go for something with texture instead.

Close up of a Iris foetidissima seedhead on goatskin vellum. You can just about make out the large pores on the surface of the goatskin.

Preparing vellum

I use a bag of pumice powder that I bought in Cornelissen. A large bag costs £5.50 and is enough to last a lifetime! 

Because I was flying into London, I didn’t fancy explaining a bag of white powder in HM Customs, so a kind friend supplied me with a small pot for the demo. 

I brought my own footie though! You put some of the powder into the footsock and gently rub the surface of the vellum to remove any grease spots.

Kelmscott does not need to get the ‘powdered footsock rub’ as it is already prepared, but as with all vellum you do need to take care not to touch the surface with your fingers as you can transfer grease onto the surface which can repel the paint.

I also use the powdered rub to remove graphite or to knock back some of the painted areas if I feel that they are losing tooth. This happened when I was painting the grapes and it got to the point where I couldn’t add any more layers (the paint had started to lift). The grape second from the right has been rubbed back.
I use a soft brush (the fan brushes are ideal) to dust off the powder.

Mounting vellum

Vellum will always try to go back to the shape of the animal it once was. It is sensitive to heat and humidity, and can buckle and roll up quite alarmingly. Don’t worry though, it will settle down and lie flat once more. I found that the blue scotch tape is the only thing that can tape it down effectively. Masking tape and even brown painters tape can’t hold it down for long.
Vellum buckling within it’s mount and frame can also be a huge problem. I discussed this with Paul and he suggested that for larger pieces, more space should be left around the painting than would normally be left for with paper (think of Rory McEwen and how much space he left).  Ideally with larger pieces, the vellum should be mounted onto board. It’s something that I have never tried, so I was very interested to hear that William Cowley’s also offer a vellum mounting service. 
(Oh yes!! that’s next year’s Christmas present sorted then! With bevelled edges please).

Painting on vellum
The key ingredient with vellum is PATIENCE.

I try to avoid drawing on vellum as the graphite can smear, and the putty rubber can leave a mark. I prefer to transfer my drawing using tracing paper. My first washes are usually quite wet, but you need to make sure that once the wash is laid, you leave it alone until they are dry! Paint seems to go onto vellum lighter than it does on paper. The paint needs to get progressively drier with each layer. I usually dry the brush off on a piece of kitchen towel before I touch the vellum. If the brush is too wet, it will disturb the lower layers and before you know it, you are pushing globs of pigment around in circles. Sometimes it better in this circumstance to reach for the powder-filled footie and when the paint is dry, give it a gentle rub.  It takes time to build up the colours. When it goes wrong it’s frustrating, but when it goes right, the results are beautiful.

Grapes on natural calfskin vellum, finished
It’s definitely worthwhile paying attention to your pigments and sorting out the transparent and semi-transparent ones from the opaque colours. I do use opaque colours, but usually in the first washes only.

I just want to say thank you to all the lovely people who came to my demo, and to the people who came up to me and told me that they read my blog (you know who you are). It was humbling and heart-warming to get such great feedback. Thank you.

Many thanks to Katherine Tyrrell and to Sarah Morrish for taking the photographs and allowing me to share them here.