The final Betsy chalk sketch


I tweaked the ears to show that the inside edges have curves and are not plastered against her head, and I also gave a better suggestion of where the ear creases from the top: it’s a sweep that begins closer to the head than the midline of the top of the ear. Just little things, but it’s lots of little things that make up effective observation. That’s why I didn’t stop there, but tweaked again.

Then I realized that I’d made her ears too symmetrical. When one looks distinctly lobed at the bottom, the other tends to look more rounded, without that ‘pinch’. So I swiped at the chalk again and dated this one the 9th, though in fact it’s still the 8th.

And NOW, I’m DONE! Time to move on.


Memory sketch of Betsy on my blackboard

This morning Betsy and I stared at each other: she was watching to see what my next move would be, and I was tracing her major head shapes with my eyes, trying to learn them. Put another way, I was trying to memorize her geometry. I didn’t draw her till this afternoon, though. This is what — with many finger swipes — I ended up with. The chalk is just plain blackboard chalk, with rather a dull point, but I rather like the radiant if smudgy result.


The chalk is pink but the light from the window makes a bit of it glow like a flame.

Birthday card for the husband...

This is the outside. The inside and back both have quips, including: ‘it may be quite simple but… it was so cheap’. And: ‘I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words — You are my only husband in all the world!’

The glue for the keyboard glitter besmirched the black keys somewhat — it clumped, and I didn’t want to rub the paper too much to smooth it out  — but the effect is still good. Watercolour markers, ink, coloured pencils, and insoluble markers, with charcoal and 4B graphite for the under-drawing.

The glue for the keyboard glitter besmirched the black keys somewhat — it clumped, and I didn’t want to rub the paper too much to smooth it out — but the effect is still good. Watercolour markers, ink, coloured pencils, and insoluble markers, with charcoal and 4B graphite for the under-drawing.

Colour, like flavour and texture: why do we like it?

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 11.05.26 PM.png

My favourite colour has always been ‘blue’. But not this blue, left, even though I do like navy in small doses.

Not my favourite colour tones, by any stretch. These look yellow-browned and opaque: I prefer colours like jewels, with white light apparently glinting through them.

Not my favourite colour tones, by any stretch. These look yellow-browned and opaque: I prefer colours like jewels, with white light apparently glinting through them.

And certainly not THIS blue, at right, which I honestly don’t care for at all. It’s like the blue in the Google logo, which seems jollier only because it has other colours to bring it along, so to speak.

So which blue? Well, anything from eggshell blue to translucent turquoise blue to the brightest blue of the sky. Something nearer cyan: a greenish blue. And then there is red.


I can’t stand orangey reds, or reddish orange. I don’t like the look of the waiters’ outfits on old 1970s Columbo episodes (the film has aged and this apparently has made the reds look a dark, morbid orange). I like the New Criterion magazine, but wish they wouldn’t keep putting out so many issues with my absolute least-favourite orangey-reds on the cover. (The dark one is the worst offender, and looks worse in real life.)

Upshot: I love slightly greenish blues — greens that themselves have some yellow-white, bright and lustrous — and for reds, I like bluish ones. I clearly favour one side of the visible spectrum over the other. The question is: WHY?

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 11.06.00 PM.png

Bucida buceras in watercolour, en plein air

Schminke Horadam half-pan paints and Winsor & Newton watercolour sticks.  1 September 2018.

Yesterday I managed to get out, with my tiny folding teak table, my tiny folding chair, my Schminke paintbox and a couple of brushes, with a plastic flask for water borrowed from an old Cotman travel box, and painted this lovely tree. I'm pretty much obsessed with this species of tree, as some other sketches from this sketchbook attest. The branches have a lovely floating effect, with dainty clusters of little leaves, pendulous like bunches of grapes but also frothy like ostrich plumes, and its tiny flowers in spring make it look dusted with gold. I stopped painting because a few drops of rain fell, so I hastily plonked the sketchbook in a carrier bag and toddled home. But just as well: there's nothing more I want to add.

My paintbox. The half pans are held in place -- more or less; the black one on the end is coming out here -- with magnetic strips cut into squares. Before I did this, they were always sliding around and falling out.

And yesterday's cloudscape...

A Changing View: when I started working on this, the clouds were less grey on their undersides, and less plainly rain-laden. So this picture shows, from left to right, the view of the sky as it changed before my eyes. The mountains were outlined first but coloured last. The only pastels are in the sky.

Cloud patterns (and sky colours) over the mountains are often enormously varied and complex, and this picture captures that. Here I worked with pastels and a bit of watercolour (pencils and paints) on Canson Mi-teintes pale blue paper. I chose the more textured side just because I thought it would grip the pastel better. It didn't really grip at all -- if I hadn't been told this was paper for pastel I would never have guessed -- and I don't care for the mesh effect, really (clouds don't have grids, do they?). So this clearly won't be my go-to paper -- and when I do use it next time, I'll be sure to use the smoother side!

'The Friends', painting

... in watercolour paint (sticks and half pans), gouache, pastels, watercolour pencils, non-photo blue pencil, and ink. The right side, with the detailed ridge with all its trees, is a deliberate contrast to the left, in which I indicate space and distance without wanting to 'fill it in'. So this picture accomplishes the objective of closely observing and recording what I actually saw, while keeping the scene open and airy and not being a slave to the masses and masses of indistinct detail. Here I picked out what I wanted to look at and what I wanted to recall. The rest is an impression that highlights the importance of the featured trees you see.

Mountain views

... in rain and shine (and very often, both at the same time). The top view was done in pencil but I wanted more definition and drama so I laid on some marker. The bottom view is in Schminke Horadam watercolour, with Winsor & Newton watercolour sticks and soft pastels giving added texture and solidity to the near mountain ridge

'The Friends'

version one of The Friends, June 2018

I can't seem to get enough of this pair of trees that stands just beyond the chalet, with mountains in the background. They are a maple of some sort (left) and a pitch pine (on the right). I like the way they complement each other, and I particularly like the way the pitch pine holds its upper leaf clusters aloft like candelabra (charmingly, the pitch pine is also known colloquially as the candlewood, for its resinous knots). These pictures in my 6" square sketchbook were made with watercolour marker.

version two, still with watercolour markers but looking more like a linocut.

I suppose that really I should draw these trees on larger paper, to give them some room and perhaps to stick them up somewhere on my bedroom wall. Below: a still of 'the friends' from a video I took of stormy weather.





Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 7.02.31 PM.png

Still life + photo reference

Betsy, from a photo dated 7 April 2018


This is the picture that kicks off my new square mixed-media sketchbook (Bee Paper Company, 6 x 6 inches). The photographic reference is Betsy herself, as a not-quite 3-and-a-half-month old puppy. That photo was taken indoors, in the evening (see below). What I did was 'transfer' her (along with her beanbag) out into the lanai, where my fuschia and Alsobia dianthiflora were hanging, though not in the proximity seen here. The blue swashes between them represent the white voile curtain on the other side of the lanai door. Beyond we glimpse a shaded fence and a vague profusion of foliage -- but I'm not aiming here for precise realism or even particularly convincing perspective. This picture might instead be titled 'A few of my favourite things', to wit: the hanging plants and the puppy. The plants were drawn from life (but see the Alsobia as my camera now shows it, with many flowers). Incidentally, I coloured the Alsobia leaves in an olive way because that's how they appeared to me in the sunlight at the time. The photo shows the plant in a different location, and the leaves look more Castelvetrano unbrined-olive than the anchovy-stuffed ones I drew. But: I was drawing from life!


A kind of still life

I was planning to paint, in watercolour, a reduced aspect of this scene, but actually I like the whole thing as a still life from real life -- the fruits that I habitually like to eat, and use in cooking; the flowers my husband brings home because I like cut flowers in a vase; the pencil and sharpener, with that lovely bright redcurrant-jelly red; the deep blue pot by the vase that is growing a cutting of Alsobia dianthiflora (unseen in the photo); the cheap but lovely glass bowl dotted round its rim with glass beads; the pool robot in the water beyond (and the cloth on the table is simply cheesecloth):


Selenography: word of the day

Collins English dictionary defines this as 'the branch of astronomy concerned with the description and of the surface features of the moon'.

I came across it while encountering the stunning pastel works of master pastellist John Russell (1745 - 1806). I love the portrait of the little girl with cherries: it's her hair that says the most about how alive she is: it seems to swing with her head as she holds the cherries out to show you.

Then there is the selenographic portrait of the moon waxing gibbous. Amazing, and amazingly modern as a subject -- but more carefully rendered and studiously observed than most contemporary pictures (Russell was a serious moon-watcher). Both of these works are reproduced in the glorious book, The Art Of The Pastel, which I am making my way through with great savour.

'The Face Of The Moon' by John Russell. Pastel on paper strained over a wooden stretcher. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

'The Face Of The Moon' by John Russell. Pastel on paper strained over a wooden stretcher. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

The false dichotomy of 'colour' versus 'design'

Screen Shot 2018-04-13 at 11.17.39 AM.png

April Love

by Arthur Hughes, a Pre-Rapahelite painter, c. 1855-56. The man in the background is weeping, and holds a rose with fallen petals. The mauve of the woman's dress was a new pigment derived from coal tar, and was 'all the rage' for a few years in the mid-century. In sum, the young lady may be disappointed in love, but she is certainly fashionable!

It's a game artists often like to play among themselves -- the game of 'if you had to be in one camp or the other, would it be the colorito camp (traditionally represented by Raphael) or the disegno camp (likewise represented by Leonardo)?'. Of course from a modern perspective Raphael has it all, but other Renaissance masters sometimes were more critical, and the 'pre-Raphaelite' painters of Victorian England wanted, if I don't misunderstand their objectives, a return in painting to 'slice of life' pictures rendered in worldly detail (as opposed to otherworldly detail, in the imaginary realm of gods and goddesses). To put it another way: They wanted their pictures to be more like what we understand as illustrations, each with a story that unfolds as we take in its lifelike, carefully chosen details. The Royal Academy of Art had been holding up Raphael as a model of what painters should aspire to.

But I digress. The 'colour' versus 'design' (or 'drawing' or 'lines') idea is one that survives because it is possible to create art using only one or the other. The American artist Tom Hoffman creates watercolour paintings that mainly consist of swipes by a brush, using colour to represent distance, solidity, and form (both the general shape and any details). Then there are artists that work primarily with graphite or ink and achieve a high degree of realism with it. But in the main, I think that both viewers and artists themselves feel that the pinnacle of satisfaction in art is the meeting of colour and line -- the interplay between them, with line relenting to let colour do its work, and vice versa. In short, not only do I as viewer and artist have one foot in each camp, I really think that the camps are irrelevant to what I enjoy and what I hope to achieve. To be truly delighted with an artwork, I generally require not only the presence of colour but more especially the contribution of colour to the mood and sensual appeal of the work. At the same time, colour that is highly vague, all the same texture, suggestive of nothing but art itself -- that I find to be a dead end rather than an avenue of pursuit. For me, colour really shines and takes on meaning when it has recognizable form -- when it's giving life to a design that has a place in space and time. This is one reason, maybe the main reason, why landscapes have triumphant popularity in our era: we never tire of them because we never tire of seeing arresting colour married to arresting forms. And the fact is, it's silly to think that as artists (or viewers) we have to choose: one wouldn't ask an audience after a Mozart concert whether they most admired the sound of the instruments or the notes they played: we all know that the magic comes when they work together. 

And now a box to put them in...

This box also has a fitting for a tripod.

This box also has a fitting for a tripod.

This is the Sienna plein air pastel box -- though I don't see any particular requirement for the 'plein air' bit: this would be just as useful indoors if you had no other pastel compartments and no other easel. This will however be super for summer in the mountains, when I have to leave my studio behind. On the back of the lid, unseen, is a tray that latches on to the side edge, as a work area: meanwhile it sits within the lid top and is secured by two little magnets. (See the commercial picture, below.) The provided hook can be used to dangle a cloth, as shown. On the easel for demonstration purposes: a new work in progress. I often note that in any film or book, the artwork shown 'in progress' is actually and obviously a complete and finished work! I don't know why it never occurs to movie directors that they'd be more true to life if they hired an artist not to paint the whole thing but just to paint part way and stop! Or lend, for a fee, an unfinished work. Even art books, unless illustrating step-by-step instructions, share this tendency to show finished works rather than otherwise. So there you go: I am showing the box with its adjustable edge supports, with a great deal less than halfway-through work between them! It's just basic fine-grit black sandpaper that I had on hand in my toolbox!