Saturday, December 31, 2011


The last day of 2011 and it’s a time for looking forward. I had a sketchbook from my daughter for Christmas to I decided to ‘christen’ it with a quick watercolour sketch. The primary subject is a Grey Heron which was standing near some rocks. I added in a few ducks to complete the composition.

I think I’ll be developing this way of working where the drawing is allowed to play a part in the final watercolour. Plein air painters like Michael Warren and Robert Greenhalf – both SWLA members – are accomplished exponents of the method.

I've just clicked on the sketch to open a larger image in a new window and noticed that the head is out of proportion - too large! Something to correct if I take it further.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I was looking at Barry Miles monograph on Edward Wesson today. I bought the book some years ago when it was first published by subscription. He handled watercolour with great dexterity and like so many others I was an avid admirer. Judging by the accounts of students on his courses – working in front of the subject – he made a few sketchy pencil marks then plunged in with bold gestural washes. These deft demonstrations left his students overawed and full of admiration.

He was able to work this way because he had a ‘good eye’ developed by accurate draughtsmanship. This comes out plainly in the poster commissions which he did for British Rail and the Post Office Savings Bank. The posters are quite different in conception from his impressionist watercolours.

In the early days with watercolour I’m ashamed – looking back – at how I neglected my draughtsmanship. I also realised that being a ‘Wesson follower’ resulted in a lot of wasted paper. By all accounts he said for every four paintings he did only one was any good, most of the others ended up in the waste bin.

Well I’m a hoarder and I’m reluctant to consign work I’ve done to the waste bin. Good watercolour paper is too costly. I had my eyes opened by the Watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain last February. Most of the watercolours seemed to be worked on paper that was distinctly off white. The pure transparent methods advocated by Wesson and his disciples would not be very successful on the paper which Turner used for the ‘The Blue Rigi’. There is though another dimension to the watercolour tradition. It finds expression in the lovely translucent washes of lead or zinc white which Turner has floated across his painting to create atmosphere.

I’m using Chinese (zinc) or Titanium White these days to ‘recover’ watercolours which were painted a few years ago that I’ve become unhappy with. This one ‘Above Grasmere’ dates back to 1987. I’ve made use of white to give atmosphere to the sky and distant mountains. I think that it’s important to make the opaque passages blend in softly with the transparent areas. Don't want to fall foul of Wesson's disparaging criticism by making the painting look as if it's been given "a touch of the whitewash brush."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

'The Magic of Chinese Painting'

I'm pleased to see that the coming LAS February is about Chinese painting - I'm quoting the title of the presentation as the heading of this post. The presenter is Moira Gibbs MA and it will be good to meet her again since I was once a student on one of her courses in Ludlow.

I never completely fell for Chinese painting - the preliminary rubbing of the ink stick on a stone then the absorbant nature of the rice paper. A short time later I did a further course at Shrewsbury with a charming oriental tutor Su Ning Bailey. This took me a little further but I failed to become a devotee.

I'm grateful to both tutors though because they taught me to how to use the brush as a free expressive tool and to simultaneously load it with different strengths of ink for graduated strokes. These are methods which carry over to other kinds of work.

Painting birds has renewed my interest in Chinese painting because Chinese painters see them more as subjects to be arranged in a decorative motif. Nevertheless in the best examples the paintings express the liveliness of bird behaviour while dispensing with realistic detail.

I recently discovered Jingua Gao Dalia's blog which has some lovely examples. See

Friday, December 02, 2011


After following the 'Search Box' link described in the last post the page whiich opens presents a second link 'The Elements of Drawing' which gives access to Ruskin's teaching collection. The opening page has a slide show with a beautiful drawing of the head of a Golden Eagle.

It'a a lovely example of a graphite drawing developed by adding a watercolour wash - a classic technique. The initial 'search lines' which Ruskin used to arrive at the final form are still there. It's worth making a careful copy of it. By halting the slideshow - right click the image - choose the 'View Image' option in the drop down window.

Alternatively take this link: 'John Ruskin: Head of a Golden Eagle From Life' Click the 'Zoom Button' for a large image.

Enjoy a browse of the whole site there is a lot of material to choose from. The best way to learn is to copy a great master - it's a practice all studio apprentice artists followed.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Back in 1991 I acquired a copy of John Ruskin’s ‘Elements of Drawing’. It was a new illustrated edition with notes by Bernard Dunstan. I still refer to it from time to time. There is a wealth of information to be absorbed in the first chapter ‘On First Practice’ without going further.

The Ruskin School of Drawing has 9 introductory lessons based on ‘The Elements of Drawing’ which are available on line. Go to: and type ‘Elements of Drawing' in the search box

When the page downloads. Click on the blue page link 'Stephen Farthing’s Practical Drawing Classes' to access the lessons.

The lessons are short and at first they might appear trivial but they follow Ruskin’s teaching method – count them as initial concepts to be developed with practice.

The annual ‘Big Draw Event’ is supported by the ‘Guild of St. George’ a charity which Ruskin founded.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I think that’s probably a correct assessment in respect to their approach to their work. There are two instances in my experience that confirm this statement

I remember a clip from a video I have of Fred Cuming RA painting outdoors ‘sur le motif’. The painting was quite advanced when suddenly he took a 3 inch house painters brush and covered a large middle distance section with a neutral grey. Drastic – but clearly the painting was not going well.

Even more surprising was Lars Jonsson’s complete removal of a bird from one of his paintings. In one of his books he showed a step by step demonstration of an oil painting. It showed a group of six partridges in snow. All of the birds were nearing completion when the next frame had a foreground bird covered with white paper. Sure enough in the final stage the bird had gone and he used a line of bird’s footprints to lead the eye in to the main group.

The lesson is that however much effort has been put in if things are not going well ruthless rubbing out may be the only solution.

Friday, November 25, 2011


I’m working hard with Acrylics at the moment exploring the working properties of the Golden Open brand. They’re a terrific improvement on existing heavy body acrylics and paint put out on the palette will stay workable for a week before it begins to skin over – that is if the palettes is covered over and sealed - (I use a plastic box with a close fitting lid.) At present I’ve got three new paintings on canvas supports on the go but for extra practice I’m also reworking older paintings.The first version of Ramsey Island dates back to 1991. I used Rowney Cryla or Liquitex on 6mm mdf board. These are the original sketchbook drawings made on a summer holiday in Pembrokeshire.

The reworked version developed from seeing a rather overcast evening sky through the studio window.

Ramsey Sound has a group of rocks known as ‘The Bitches’ which are a hazard when the tide is low. I’ve been able to indulge my current fascination with birds by changing some of them into a flight of Oystercatchers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Sorting through some of my sketchbooks today I came across a booklet printed to accompany an exhibition of James Sellars  life and work.  James Sellars  taught at the Hereford and Southampton Colleges of Art.  He developed a range of painting styles  suited  to the medium he was using. He worked in pastel, tempera, gouache, etching, aquatint, and lithograph.

There is a link to ‘The Brotherhood of Ruralists’ website which has an illustrated page about him.

Collage also was a significant feature of his creative output – a technique which was adopted enthusiastically by his students. The cover design was produced by one of them. It’s a lovely arrangement of decorative shapes which also uses strong colour to good effect.  The balanced placing of the printed title works well and the use of a sans serif font is entirely appropriate.

I wish that designs for our Ludlow Art Society Exhibitions were conceived in a similar direct way. There is a valuable lesson to be learned from a study of collage for designing publicity material. The following is another link which gives more information about the artist.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Stewart Island is located off the southern tip New Zealand. It is wild, and unspoiled. I was there last February and after a rather hectic week I felt in need of quiet solitude.  I spent the week-end reliving the experience through photographs I’d taken searching for subjects to paint. 

It is a natural paradise and a haven for wildlife. A guided walk on Ulva  Island a protected nature reserve in Half Moon Bay in heavy rain promised a sighting of South Island Kiwis which are not nocturnal. I think the rain must have kept them under cover but one flightless bird did present itself. A Weka  which was browsing in the bush just a few feet away from the footpath and quite unconcerned by the walking party.

For this sketch I’ve used Liquitex Acrylic on Canson pastel paper.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Local Sparrowhawk.

He's the 'invader' I mentioned on the earlier blog. It's always good when he pays a visit because he's an interesting bird to draw. I hope he won't outstay his welcome by making his visits too frequently!


Activity on my bird feeders has virtually ceased. Last week it was the local Sparrowhawk that provided some excitement. I caught a back view of a grey bird on the lawn that I assumed was a pigeon until it raised its head and looked around. Sure enough there was the hooked yellow bill and sharp eyes. The birds on the feeders took flight and he set off in pursuit.

I assume he didn't make a kill because he was back briefly on his branch in the apple tree. He was off before I had chance to take a photograph all I could manage was a scribble from memory. It was annoying because he presented a back view and I wanted to study the tail feathers particularly the underside. There was a brief moment of hope when he presented himself on the ash tree at the end of the garden. Hope was dashed when he changed his perch and presented a front view where he would have had a clear view of the feeders.

The 'regulars' kept away never to return that day. At the week-end there was an invasion of Jackdaws and today they were back together with four healthy looking magpies. The Jackdaws and magpies have acquired the skill of clinging to the fat ball feeders and pecking away to provide pickings for their mates waiting on the ground below.

Once they're away the resident Great Spotted Woodpecker returns to claim his place on the nut feeder and a few tits and greenfinches return for seeds. No sign of the Chaffinch and Goldfinches we used to get browsing the lawn.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Pied Stilts, Lake Okaro.

Lake Okaro is a lovely quiet stretch of water near Rotorua on North Island, New Zealand. There was a small flock of Pied Stilts feeding in a small bay. They were disturbed by the slightest movement so I had to wait quietly for them to return. I made these flight studies of some of the birds with the aim of composing a painting. The three left hand birds flew on by the two on the right were preparing to settle in the shallows.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Welcome Visitors

These Bramblings were some of the welcome visitors to my garden last winter. The bird feeders attract a number of migrant birds each winter as well as resident ones. We never see Bramblings or Fieldfares until migrant flocks arrive. More common are Blue and Great Tits and Greenfinches but usually from November on things become more interesting.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My website: a rebuild

I've been preoccupied with my website for the past two or three days it's been badly neglected and I decided to make some changes. Now my current interest is wildlife – mainly birds – I decided to add a Wildlife Gallery. I started the website as a collection of pages which were medium specific - Watercolour, Pastel, Sketchbooks ie Drawings, and Digital. The Wildlife page is subject or genre orientated and it seemed best to show the works together rather than disperse them in the different media galleries.

When setting up a website the earliest advice I was given was to keep to a simple presentation. So I've always avoided moving text or motifs for banners – they may have a place for eye-catching adverts but they are a distraction on an artistic website. Back in 1999 I made a trip to New Zealand and met Grahame Sydney at his retrospective in Dunedin, He's New Zealand's most successful artists - a wonderful painter. I only mention this because his website is plain simplicity and it served as a model for my first designs. Since then I've added colour to my pages but I've tried to preserve simple clarity as a fundamental principle of design..

What began as the addition of a Wildlife Gallery page turned out to be a major rebuild which is taking much longer than anticipated. Files that once displayed well are now all over the place. Fortunately the newly added Wildlife Gallery seems to be working as was intended. For the purpose of displaying pictures I'm thinking pure simplicity works best. Take a look at Graham Sydney's website to see what I mean..

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Surprise Visitor

Our birdfeeders are beginning to attract more traffic now the weather is getting cooler. Nothing very spectacular so far Tits and Greenfinches mainly. It was nice to see a nuthatch and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on the peanut feeders. The surprise visitor was a Sparrowhawk which was perched in the appletree where the feeders hang. He was around for almost an hour which was great for taking photographs. It was not until I downloaded the shots that I noticed he seems to have just one leg.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


On a lovely sunny day I took a boat trip around Havergate Island from the little port of Orford on the Suffolk coast . I was presented with a view just made for watercolour. The Church Tower and Castle Keep made striking motifs against a cloudless sky. I took several photographs of them astern from the boat. Keeping to a strict topographical treatment would have resulted in a very elongated composition because the castle is some distance from the church. So I’ve portrayed them close together by taking the motifs from separate photographs.

Other memories which linger are of the small groups of avocets on the waters’ edge of Havergate. So I’ve included a little group of four. Strictly they’re in quite the wrong place. But does it matter when you’re painting a fond memory?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Magritte at Tate Liverpool

I went to see the Magritte exhibition today - pleased to have seen it before it closes. What an odd imagination he had. I love the way he plays with representation and reality. He paints a representation which the viewer reads as a smokers pipe then titles it; "This is not a pipe". In another work he turns the idea around. A framed painting of a slice of cheese is placed in a 'Cheese Dome' - the title this time is "This is a piece of cheese". There are other paintings where he confuses what is actuality and what is painted. The paintings of this genre are ingenious and amusing - they have more appeal for me than the strange and disturbung surreal works. A bird morphing into a leaf which is being eaten by a caterpillar a bit grotesque and unnatural. There are many more which are strange associations of recognisable things. A face with roses painted where the eyes normally are. What do they mean? Magritte claimed they do not mean anything -" because mystery means nothing eiither, it is unknowable." Perhaps that's all that needs saying. It was a huge exhibition and it took a lot of concentration to try and take it all in. I'm glad I made the effort to travel to Liverpool to see it.

Sunday, October 09, 2011


HAVERGATE ISLAND 28th September 2011 A beautiful day gave the prospect of visiting the RSPB Reserve on Havergate Island. A boat trip round the Island from Orford offered easier travel arrangements. It was a worthwhile trip – there was a lovely view back to the town as the boat left which would be a good subject for a watercolour. The first bird sightings were gulls and a Grey Heron then what we were waiting to see – Avocets.

Avocet and Gull: Watercolour

Then followed a view of a pair in different poses
Two Avocets: Watercolour

The problem with observing from a moving boat is that there is no time to observe behaviour or make sketches. I was forced to rely on photographs and work up sketches from them.
Three Avocets whiffling in to feed: Watercolour with Chinese White.

These three arriving offered a nice opportunity for a painting. I’ve used a mid-toned 160gsm Ingres pastel paper to show up the mainly white birds. White is a difficult colour to modulate. White feathers sometime reflect blue on other parts of the bird the impression can be of a warm grey. There are always subtle changes. A flock of 12 or more Avocets flew over going roughly North. Were they making for Minsmere where we’d had little success 3 days ago?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


MINSMERE 25th September 2011 Made a second visit in the hope of catching sight of Avocets. The birds again favoured the eastern pool of The Scrape so the long walk to the East hide offered the best prospects. The first bird encounter was some nesting Cygnets seen on the bank of a small stream near the path to the West Hide. There were five in all preening intermittently – I drew the most active ones.

Drawn on cartridge paperwith Pentel Sepia Colour brush and a Wash brush.

The next stop was the South Hide. A Grey Heron was standing on a rocky spit in a small pool among the Reed Beds.

The outline drawing was made with a Pentel Brush Pen. The black ink in the brush pens is waterproof which is fine if the paper is heavy enough to take watercolour washes. The background in this drawing was added with soft pastels.

There was more activity to be seen from the coastal path leading to the East Hide. A flock of six ducks took flight from the Scrape Pool. I caught this impression of the leading four with the help of a long lens shot. The photograph had reasonable focus but the only certain detail was the white tail feathers. So I’m still trying to identify them

Watercolour on 160 gsm Ingres Pastel paper highlighted with Chinese White.

From the East Hide there were good views of geese, ducks and waders resting or feeding on the extensive gravel areas of the Scrape. Four Avocets flew in but they chose to feed off the far edge of one of the gravel islands so offered only the occasional glimpse. I settled for a sketch of a pair of Barnacle Geese.

Watercolour on 160 gsm Ingres Pastel paper highlighted with Chinese White.

The last sighting on the way back to the Visitor Centre was the Konig Polski ponies browsing in the Konig Field. This is a sketch of the most inquisitive one.

Watercolour on 160 gsm Ingres Pastel paper highlighted with Chinese White.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


A DAY AT MINSMERE 25th September 2011 Today's plan was to visit 'The Scrape' to see the RSPB’s flagship species – the Avocet. But no they seem to have all flown. The consolation prize was a Little Egret foraging among the reeds.

Then also from the West Hide a Hobby in some rough vegetation on the edge of The Scrape.

There had been a reported sighting of a Snow Bunting but I had no luck. No luck either with any sightings of Bearded Tits in spite of possible sounds. So we took the newly made Reed Trail ever hopeful. Had to settle for a distant view of the Konic Polski ponies – curse myself now for not trying a long lens shot. The ponies have been brought in to graze the wetlands.

The next objective was the Bittern Hide an elevated structure accessed by 4 flights of steps and looking out over extensive reed beds. There are a stretch of reeds where the Bitterns should have been 'booming' – but they were silent! Sections of reeds have been flattened to make the area more Bittern friendly. One of these provided another consolation – two juvenile pheasants.

So I took the homeward trail through woodland stopping to record an Ink Cap Fungus.

Then a final sighting of a small group of Red Deer browsing among the trees to round off an interesting day.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


A well-pointed brush is a wonderfully expressive drawing instrument. Some years ago I enrolled for a course on Chinese painting and the tutor set us off drawing bamboo – a basic motif – as a first exercise. I never really took to Chinese painting but I became hooked by the excitement of making expressive marks with a well charged brush.

This drawing owes something to the direct watercolour studies in Darren Woodhead's book 'Up River: The Song of the Esk.' but I've used a simple monochrome treatment rather than full colour. My basic method is to draw with a Pentel Sepia Colour Brush and use a 'Pentel Wash Brush' to soften and blend the brush marks. The difficulty with this basic method is to create mid-tones. So in this drawing I've used an extra wash brush filled with diluted calligraphic ink.

The drawing was made in the studio and I haven't tried to depict any particular species. But the sketch is based around some of the winter visitors attracted to a bird feeder hung in an apple tree in the garden.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I'm a great admirer of Darren Woodhead's interpretations of the natural world. He works from direct observation outdoors and uses watercolour in a free expressive way to record his subjects.

I've never seen Darren's paintings displayed gallery wall so I'm afraid my enthusiasm has been generated from his book 'Up River: A Song of the Esk' and the paintings displayed on his website at:

I find Darren's kind of painting much more interesting than the more studied realist work done in the studio. You have to admire the effort that some artists put in to achieve photographic detail - and maybe that is what many collectors look for. Personally I fear that painterly qualities are often lost in photo realist paintings. When you look at the work of artists like David Sheppard for instance you quickly become aware of his brush work which confirms that you're looking at a painting not a photograph.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Searching for subjects for my next painting I came across these drawings of lapwings from March 2010. They are some of the first drawings I did from a hide viewing the birds through a newly acquired telescope.

There are three pages of similar sketches showing different poses to there is enough material to make an interesting picture.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I was aiming to make these studies of butterflies into a painting but I’ve reached an impasse. I didn’t want to present them separately as vignettes though the form has a long history. Chinese painters were very adept at catching the spirit of living things with a few beautifully formed brush strokes. Technical illustrators go to the other extreme taking the long stare route to record accurate detail but often only giving the merest suggestion of their subject’s environment.

Normally if I’m planning a painting I make drawings of the subject’s habitat en plein air when I can. This isn’t always possible if you are sketching or taking photographs of a bird or animal in a wildlife park but the difficulty is not insoluble. I took 10-12 digital photographs of this butterfly before it flew out of range. I was using a medium range telephoto lens set to 70-100mm to ensure the insect filled a good proportion of the screen. With camera studies of insects the photographer’s concerns are primarily sharp focus to record detail and whether his lense is giving good bokeh.

My objectives as a painter are not concerned with photo realism and precise detail. I’m more interested catching characteristic or unusual behaviour particularly if this can be expressed by painterly means. I’m a great admirer of Lars Jonsson, his bird paintings show sufficient detail for identification but he uses a freer style to record the bird’s habitat.

I’ll break the impasse I’m in with the butterflies eventually but it will need some research into appropriate plants to compose a background.

Monday, September 12, 2011


I’ve always been astonished by Charles Tunnicliffe’s sketches made in the field. The two books that have been published of his drawings. ‘A Sketchbook of Birds’ and a later one ‘Sketches of Birdlife’ give a wonderful insight into his methods.

My favourite though is ‘The Peregrine Sketchbook’ which is made up of sketches based on observations of a nest on South Stack, Anglesey. Most of the text and illustrations are taken from Tunnicliffe’s ‘Shorelands Summer Diary’. There are annotated sketches made in the field which have been taken to a more finished state in the studio.

But the real attractions for me are the watercolours which have a directness resulting from close observation. The large watercolours which he painted to show at the Royal Academy are the painstaking result of carefully worked out compositional studies and his handling of the watercolour medium takes your breath away.

Nevertheless his watercolour sketches and the scraperboard vignettes used in his published titles are where I find most interest. They are worthy of close study both by using Tunnicliffe's techniques and by transposing them in a different medium.

I've just noticed that I posted a blog on this theme back in January 2005 which is my tribute to his method - I've never found a better one. Though I do use a camera to supplement the drawings. I kid myself that if Tunnicliffe had had a digital camera with a 400mm lense he would have made his busy life easier by using one.

Monday, September 05, 2011

GANNET AND CHICK: a composition study.

This gannet and chick were in one of the well-known gannet colonies at Cape Kidnappers, North Island, New Zealand. Parties are taken to the most easily accessible colony on a level area at the top of the cliffs.

The birds make an impressive spectacle - chicks in various stages of plumage and adults frequently returning to feed them. The location is a photographers’ heaven and I took dozens of shots from which to compose paintings.

This chick getting the adult to regurgitate food is my first idea. I was planning to work the composition up into an acrylic but having tried a few washes on the pencil drawing I’m finding that a watercolour has more appeal.

Friday, September 02, 2011


This is the next stage of the preparatory study. I’ve explored the effect of suggesting the long grasses and wild flowers which partly obscured the jackdaws. I’ve used pastels and more acrylic brushwork. This is getting close to the effect I was searching for so I’ll leave it as is.

In the final painting I will give the birds more space and modify some of the poses as the heads are all side on and facing the same direction. I’ll be working in acrylic on canvas and I think the size will have to be around 16in x 24in so it will take some time.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


On the Itchen Navigation south of Winchester near St Catherine’s Hill there is a beautifully managed hay meadow. Last week it was at its best long grasses flowering plants offering cover and insects for a flock of jackdaws – a perfect subject. Here’s how it looked with the birds obscured most of the time:-

The only way I was going to make a wildlife painting of it was to take lots of pictures of the birds through a 400mm lens as they displayed themselves. The sketch is a draft compositional study where I’ve tried to capture the different postures of the birds.

I’ve used Rowney FW acrylic inks on a heavy buff coloured pastel paper. I’ll take the study further using soft pastel.

Friday, August 26, 2011

THE DAILY DRAWINGS - well they were once

I did these quick sketches at Mary Arden's House near Stratford upon Avon, a week ago. I'm not sure what breed the cockerell is; the nearest I can get from a chart is a 'Dorking Chicken.' I was hoping I could call him something more exciting. Charles Tunnicliffe did a lovely watercolour of a similar bird being buffeted in a gale. He called it ‘Cock in the wind’ so perhaps he wasn’t quite sure of the breed either. The painting is reproduced in ‘Tunnicliffe’s Birdlife.’ by Noel Cusa.

The second sketch is of a European Long-Eared Owl. I just had time to make a few lines when he was taken away to show his skills. Wild birds only do what they want not always what their handler would like. This owl made one impressive flight onto the lure and no way was he going to repeat the performance. He was a massive bird and obviously he’d decided to save his energy by hopping the short distance to get his meal rather than by taking to the air.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


The fairy world has a darker side quite different from fairies as beautiful children with wings on their backs. There is the dark world of Goblins who can attack us and eat up our memory – yes I think I’ve encountered a few Goblins recently.

There was a giclee by Sir Peter Blake of a brick wall with an overgrown border in front – the title ‘I saw a Fairy in my Garden Today.’ Well I’ll have to take his word for it. Then there was a dark little etching by Paula Rego of a woman reading a bedtime story to her child. Neither looked very happy – under the bed a face with a grotesque leer and hovering over the bed a strange creature with massive wings and claws – so no wonder!

The closest I came to liking the stuff in this gallery came with an invitation to open a cupboard. It had an installation ‘The Skullship and the Galls’ by Tessa Farmer. Here it is – there are fairies – I caught one and displayed it as an inset.

I find there's something attractive about it - it's how the natural world is - but it has nothing to do with fairytales.

Mottisfont, a National Trust property near Romsey, Hampshire is offering a summer of magic, mystery and discovery until 2nd. October. There is an art exhibition which explores the theme of ‘fairytales’. There are 30 original watercolours by Cicely Mary Barker painted to illustrate a series of Children’s books. These were published by Frederick Warne. Warne were Beatrix Potter’s publisher and they used a similar format for Barker’s ‘Flower Fairies.’ TM

There was also a nice drawing by Arthur Rackham he was a prolific illustrator of children’s books –best known in this field for the illustrations he did for an edition of ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales. CMB’s illustration was taken from the National Trust flier advertising the exhibition – the Nat. Trust logo at top left – gives the game away it’s not part of her original art work!

It’s worth running a Google search on both Barker and Rackham – they’re interesting artists and both worked at a ‘day job’ until they got established. That’s familiar territory for most of us isn’t it?

They both worked in ink, watercolour, and gouache and the linework of both is superb. Worth studying and making a copy.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

IN FAIRYLAND: pictures from the Elf World.

On our wedding anniversary last week Sheila gave me a charming card with this cover design. An apt choice because I’d been chasing butterflies in the garden for days – without much success! Getting good photographs of butterflies is hard - sketching them even harder. I persevered hoping to find new wildlife subjects to paint.

Nowadays figurative wildlife art is very much concerned with accurate objective representation. This design taken from a 19th century lithograph is an expression of romantic fantasy. The title of the lithograph is ‘The Fairy Queen’s Carriage’. The complete lithograph shows an airborne Fairy Queen sitting on a stalk of apple blossom drawn along by the butterflies.

We’re off to Stratford tomorrow to see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ back to enjoy Shakespeare’s fairy queen this time.

The artist is Richard Doyle 1824-1883 and the lithograph is part of The Stapleton Collection/The Bridegman Art Library.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yesterday the daily draw became absorbed into the beginnings of a watercolour. I didn’t want the Little owl project to go off the boil. With owls the eyes are the expressive element for me so after making a careful pencil drawing that’s where I began to apply colour.

The image has been cropped out of a quarter sheet of Saunders Waterford so there will be room to add an environmental background.

Monday, August 08, 2011


Daily if I can! This is a Little Owl drawn from memory. It’s the smallest UK owl and we got acquainted at the nearby Kington Rare Breeds Centre where he posed for a digital photograph.

I had a long look (10mins) at the image last night to try and memorise the owl’s basic shape and proportions. Then I concentrated on the feather pattern and finally the feet and beak. Then off to bed.

The drawing was made this morning in a cartridge paper sketchbook with a Pentel Sepia Colour Brush. He’s a nice compact form that I was able to record with light nervous touches. Then suggestions of the feather structure were added. I think it’s vital not to overdo this kind of sketch – a mistake I often made with earlier drawings.

I’m reasonably happy with this drawing as a quick statement but there are things I remember that have been missed. The head was tilted slightly upwards as he looked at me and the eyes were large and bright to give a lovely alert expression. Reason for another look at the photograph.!

I developed this obsession with memory drawing from studying the work of Lars Jonsson at an exhibition he had at Slimbridge. He does lovely watercolours of seabirds from a campervan parked on the seashore. He observes the birds intensely for about 15 minutes then works from memory. That’s a process he has to repeat if the bird moves of flies away
Not being as skilled as Lars I have to resort to dozens of photographs. They don’t always give you what’s needed and a quick drawing from direct observation can sometimes reveal a pose or a change of direction that the camera missed.
The drawing was done in the time it takes to drink 2 cups of coffee. I’ll use the stopwatch on my iphone for a more accurate check in future!

Sunday, August 07, 2011


I admire the work of Kate Atkinson who is a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) because of its expressive quality which verges on abstraction. I was taken by the following quote from her page on the SWLA website.

“Over my son's school life I have documented as often as possible the twenty minutes or so when the bus comes, by making gouache and sometimes acrylic paintings very fast and without forethought. They are as much about the weather and light as about the changing fieldscapes over the seasons.”

Setting aside a time each day for practice is a good idea which I’m trying to follow. I’ve not managed Kim’s ‘Daily Painting’ method – it’s simpler use of the time to draw. Fast drawing without forethought doesn’t produce results I feel I can show anybody so I’ve developed a memory training variant. This sketch was made in an A5 sketchbook with a Pentel Colourbrush. I looked hard at the subject for 5 minutes then made the drawing from memory.

Here’s a link to Kim Atkinson’s page on the SWLA website where you can see some samples of her ‘Daily Paintings’

I’ve recently redesigned my blog and I’m inviting friends to enrol as ‘Followers.’ This is easy if you have a Google or Twitter account. If not you’ll have to open a Google account if you want to add comments.

Thursday, August 04, 2011


The Ludlow Art Society is showing commendable foresight by accepting digital prints for its 65th Summer Exhibition. Here are the 3 prints I will be sending in.

The Exhibition will be at the Harley Centre, Ludlow. 20th - 29th August. 10.00am to 5.00pm
The starting point for my digital prints is a freehand drawing made with pen or pencil which is scanned and saved as a digital file. This is then opened in Corel Painter X. for further hand drawn additions using a stylus and graphics tablet.

The finished artwork is printed on Somerset Enhanced Velvet paper using archival quality inks. Somerset Velvet is a paper made from cotton fibres specially for fine art reproduction.

All of my digital prints are published as signed numbered limited editions. The numbering is shown to the left of the signature below the print.

The permanence and lightfastness of the print is comparable to a watercolour.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Had an interesting time stewarding at the Church Stretton Festival Art Exhibition last Friday. All exhibitors have an obligation to spend 3 hours on steward’s duty. I took along a fellow Ludlow Art Society member Margaret Oakes and we were allocated reception so I had to operate the till.
We arrived early to have a look round - Margaret is a canny Yorkshire lass so she always looks for the 'red spots.' She was quick to tell me there was one on my watercolour of a Burrowing Owl. There is a second week to go so if I sell another it will be jam for tea next week-end.

Normally on reception things are generally quiet enough for us to take turns to look around but not last Friday. Paintings were not selling like hot cakes but we did have a steady flow of visitors and we sold three in the first hour or so. We were just coming to the conclusion that it was unlikely that anything over £90 would sell when a lady came in with £150 of nice crisp notes in a brown envelope. To "Buy a picture for my daughter." she said. Margaret quickly dashed off to put a red spot on the label and complete the paperwork while I quickly put the cash into the till and binned the brown envelope.

It's a funny business you can never tell what will take peoples' fancy or how much they will pay for something they really like. So we drove back to Ludlow pleased that we'd done our little bit. Many of our LAS members look on compulsory stewarding as a chore but I confess I enjoy it. It gives one the chance to meet the public and talk about the work on show.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Spent a few days in Winchester last week and enjoyed a stroll along the River Test with my grandson. We were rewarded with the sight of some water voles swimming in and out of the foliage on the far bank. My grandson got a passable photograph on his mum’s Canon Ixus I got a blur on my mobile phone! Between us we had enough to make some sketches. Here’s the best of mine.
There’s a good photograph of a water vole on the July page of the BBC’ ‘Children in Need’ calendar. Cleverly contrived with some clover floating on the water - hence the title ‘In Clover!’ I wonder how long the photographer had to wait to get that shot?

Saturday, May 28, 2011


This is a fascinating exhibition which reveals what a versatile medium watercolour is. It's a mistake to judge the exhibition on who is in and who has been left out - better to develop an awareness of how artists have exploited the medium and why they chose it.

It was the medium of choice of artists engaged in scientific exploration exploring the flora and fauna of distant countries. At Ludlow Museum I did a course with Angela Gladwell who was trained as a technical illustrator at the RCA. She used to enthuse over very precise watercolour studies which naturalists used to record the structure and anatomy of rare plants and animals. So my initial interest was the ‘Natural World’ gallery

To my shame I could never work up much enthusiasm for this way of working as experienced from the book illustrations which Angela showed us. Seeing the originals in this exhibition though is a totally different experience. The drawing is so accurate and the colour laid so skilfully it takes your breath away.

My personal favourite in the natural history genre is a really striking watercolour of an osprey, with a fish in its talons, by William Macgillivray. He was a Scottish naturalist who became a very accomplished artist. I think it must have been drawn from a dead bird but drawing on his experience in the field he's placed it against a background of Scottish hills. Again he displays superb draughtsmanship supported by lovely clean washes on the feathers which gradate from a dark VanDyck Brown on the head to Burnt Umber on the scapular and tail feathers. The picture is on the Natural History website in the Macgillivray Art Collection at.

The most popular section is sure to be the Travel and Topography gallery where you see watercolours developing into romantic evocations of landscape. Many 18th Century watercolourists like Myles Birkett Foster were self taught. But it’s clear that the watercolours were built on close observation and careful drawing. Gradually although the tradition develops into more expressive styles that we’re more used to the graphite drawing is still visible as a kind of support.

There was a lovely watercolour by one of my favourite watercolourists David Cox where although the initial graphite drawing is sketchy he’s firmed up the main shapes with his washes.
Tour d’Horloge, Rouen 1829

On passing I caught a glimpse of a nice mixed media (w’col/gouache/ink) by John Piper. Watercolourists of his generation like Paul Nash, and Eric Ravilious are worth a closer look. I say on passing because after half an hour or so there was fire alert and the building was cleared. So I was spared the horrors of Emin and her contemporaries but I do regret not having more time with my two favourite ‘Blues’.

Arthur Melville ‘The Blue Night, Venice’

and JMW Turner ‘The Blue Rigi, Sunrise’

Don’t be disappointed if your favourites are not shown just immerse yourself in the sheer variety of the medium. The message I got is that if you want to ‘up your game’ brush up your drawing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


This is a set of studies of New Zealand robins. I photographed them in a nature reserve on an island in Lake Rotorua. They are heavier than our native robins but they share the same characteristics, alert, fearless and inquisitive if you disturb the ground they immediately fly down to search for insects at your feet. They don't have the red breast of the UK species - you'd take them to be simply black and white until you look closely. In nature blacks are never black neither are whites true white.

For these studies I used acrylic on a prepared canvas board. I drew directly with the brush it's easy to correct outlines and proportions with acrylic making it an ideal medium for sketches and studies. Each study is at a different stage of completion.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sheila Hancock Brushes Up: The Art of Watercolours

It was good to see Sheila Hancock on BBC1 tonight describing her enthusiasm for watercolour in plain words. Her commentary was a refreshing change from the pretentious obscurity of the language often used by art critics.

I never knew Alexander Cozens ended up in an asylum following what we would now describe as a nervous breakdown. A doctor at the asylum bought his watercolours but the commentery didn't make clear if this was Dr Monro who took Girtin and Turner under his wing when they were young. Dr Monro encouraged them to make copies of his watercolours - probably some by Cozens - to learn their craft.

There were some stunning watercolour sketches done by a soldier who had served Afghanistan and another by the much neglected Paul Nash. He was a war artist too but it was refreshing change to see a watercolour by Nash of a stand of trees on the Wiltshire downs. Refreshing because it was so different from the work of most contemporary watercolourists.

I must download the programme with BBC iPlayer to watch it again.…

Monday, January 24, 2011

There still remains detailed work to do on the head around the eye and the black tip to the beak has to be added - left until the end after the background is finished. There is much evidence of the use of 'bodycolour' on the bird and I've mainly used traditional Chinese White for this because it is a warmer white than Titanium. The danger with using bodycolour for me is that it can lead to tight drawing because of a preoccupation with detail. I'm not a realist and my preference with watercolour is to go for direct expressive brushwork. This will show up in the treatment of the background which can be handled more freely.

I put the painting aside for a while because a buzzard appeared again to browse on the field with the usual magpies and jackdaws. So I was able to study his behaviour through a telescope. I tried sketching two or three variants from what I saw of the bird's walking movement but they weren't very convincing. I have though shown more of the bird's left leg to give a better sense of balance.

I've also warmed up the background by working pure colours into a wet ground of Chinese White and letting them run. To tone in with this I've also made the bird's plumage warmer and worked up details. The pose proved to be more difficult than I expected so I'm pleased it is now finished.