Annual holidays eh? Such a treat! For me they are increasingly a chance to get some mental breathing room to rein back my long-standing depression and let me paint for a while. Change of location I guess, away from everything. Lovely.
So, in a couple of weeks I’ll be off again to my all-time favourite destination, the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall.
I love working plein air, usually with a pochade box, a tripod and oils or acrylics. This year however I’m leaving all that malarkey at home so I can concentrate on watercolour.
Must say I’m nervous. I’m far more comfortable painting in oils or acrylics, but on the plus side this is an opportunity to practice. And, as a bonus, the switch will make my kit considerably lighter. My back’s going to thank me for that!
Personally I’ve always found pure watercolour particularly difficult. I really love the luminosity to be had, but struggle so much to keep things clean and ‘pure’. The very act of mentally deconstructing a scene to paint from light to dark makes my brain bend like a banana in a yoga class…
But, when I work on holiday my paintings are usually only intended to be sketches for pleasure, not finished pieces. Does it really matter how I resolve an image as long as it works for me? I guess not. Big plan then: loosen up and to hell with that transparency gig. I’m taking gouache. And pastel pencils too. I can hear the purists screaming; I feel your pain.
In terms of kit, I plan to take:
My trusty Frank Herring Dorchester watercolour palette. I’ve tried many through the years and always come back to this one. Lightweight and with plenty of mixing room. And as I’ve had it since the early ‘90s, I guess it’s pretty robust too!
W&N and Holbein artists’ gouache, although I’m not too certain about the latter. Probably my lack of experience, but I find the Holbein extremely strongly tinted and difficult to handle.
A self-sealing palette specifically for the gouache. Not tried this one before, (pinched it from Carole…), so let’s see if it really does keep the paint moist without an unholy mixture of runny Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson dribbling into my rucksac… Colourful, but it makes a real mess of your butties.
A plastic rosette palette for mixing gouache – I don’t want to mix it with my watercolours, well, not off the page anyway…
Da Vinci sable travelling brushes 3, 6 and 10.
A selection of synthetic brushes for the gouache.
Pastel pencils. Looks like I’m taking a lot, but will edit down each day depending on what I’m doing.
Various graphite and carbon pencils for sketching. There’re a few spares in there so again I’ll edit down to essentials once I arrive.
Masking tape (broad and narrow). I like to divide my pages, and a white border always looks so good.
As usual I’m going to keep my colour palette simple with warm and cool variants of the primaries: 2 reds, 2 blues and 2 yellows. I’ll supplement these with a few earth colours and darker variants to create denser areas of tone.
For paper I’ll be using my favourite: Saunders Waterford both in a large hard bound book (my Cornwall book) and in a few pads.
I’ll also take my Stillman and Birn sketch pad and a Moleskine watercolour journal for ‘light’ days.
And that’s it. Hopefully, Wi-Fi willing, I’ll be able to post more when I get down there. In the meantime remember I’m often more active on my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts so please check me out there too.
Hello everyone. I’ve recently returned refreshed from a brilliant two week holiday in East Devon. The weather was phenomenal, sunny and dry with only one day being washed out. And we watched Bottlenose Dolphins for a whole 20 minutes as they swam in the looking- glass sea!! Sorry, just had to get that out now because, well, because… DOLPHINS! YAY!!
It’s been over six months now since my dad died, and given how I’ve been feeling I’d reined back any artistic expectations for the holiday. My life approach at the moment is to take each day as it comes. If I feel like painting or drawing I will, if I don’t, then I won’t. The muse will come back when it’s ready, and judging by this holiday that’s not going to be long.
To keep things simple I just took my 6” by 8” Guerrilla pochade box with a few basic acrylics and my trusty Saunders Waterford watercolour sketchbook and Herring compact palette. I surprised myself by how soon into the holiday I actually wanted to paint – I was positively itching on some days. By the end of the fortnight I’d knocked out four acrylics and a few watercolour sketches. Doesn’t sound like much, but believe me this has been a big step forward.
I’m most pleased with a couple of the watercolour sketches. My wife Carole was painting fossils on Monmouth beach in Lyme Regis in Dorset. The light around her head was wonderful, and I worked quickly to establish her in as few brushstrokes as possible. I think the sense of strong sunlight really comes through don’t you?
My second is a view from Lyme over the bay towards Charmouth, an iconic spot for wonderful Jurassic fossils. I’ve not got the tonal depth quite right to big up the sunlight falling on the cliffs, but it’s sparked a desire to work this into a larger piece. Fortunately I bought a bunch of panoramic canvases while I was in Sidmouth. My thought is to work it completely in oils or alykds. It’s been a while, but I do miss using them and want to start the switch back, at least for some paintings.
So, rather unexpectedly, I seem to have come back with my head full of ideas and with a generally creative buzz. All manner of projects and fancies are popping into my head, and not all are painting related. There’s the painting above of course, but I also rather fancy having a crack at making a moody painting of The Batman. I’m sure some people might raise an eyebrow or two – surely not a ‘proper’ subject for a painter? ‘Tish’ and ‘Phooey’ I say to that – in the nicest possible way of course. It’s the scope for creating a dark brooding atmosphere by playing with the light that attracts – so many levels of black; besides he’s such an iconic character.
I also fancy breaking out the Sculpey this winter to reconstruct another dinosaur, possibly a Scelidosaurus. I sculpted an Allosaurus fragilis a few years ago, something else which I’m determined to paint and finish it in the next month or two. Scelidosaurus is very much a ‘British’ dinosaur with many of its remains being found at Charmouth –now there’s a happy coincidence J
But above all these I’ve just accepted a commission! It’s going to be in alkyds, it will be big at 40″ by 30″ and will feature an Italian Spinone called Jo-Jo – a gorgeous, slobbery hairball of a dog; she’s so lovely.
My immediate issue with all this returning enthusiasm is limited time. I know I can only do so much, and I’ve been putting off clearing my dad’s house for sale, a huge, emotionally draining job. It contains the sole remaining physical traces of the lives of my dad, my mum, nan and grandad. Everything I throw away, recycle or sell dismantles a little more of the fabric of their lives, fraying their memory. It’s truly heart rending.
So, watch keep watching this space, ‘Follow’ me on Twitter or ‘Like’ my Facebook page. Progress may be sporadic, but bear with me.
After what seems to have been a long run up, yesterday, October 25th, finally marked the arrival of the Closer to the Art exhibition and fair in Stone, Staffordshire. It was the second such exhibition organised by renowned dragon sculptor Andy Bill.
I’m no stranger to craft and country fairs. A long time ago in a previous life I both organised the former and represented my employer at the latter. So I already had a good idea how much work was involved.
However, this was the first exhibition where I’ve represented myself, and the butterflies were fluttering in abundance in the hour or so before the doors opened. Together with Carole, my wife, we set up on two tables right next to the main entrance.
Once the doors opened the show became very busy, very quickly; there was lots of local support. I had no real expectation of whether or not we would make any sales, but by the end of the show Carole had sold a needlecraft brooch and a beautiful beaded needlecase, and I sold three paintings, all of local landscapes.
All told it was an enjoyable and successful day. Would we do it again? We’d certainly consider it. I think we both learned a lot, although I might take a slightly different tack next time. I’d definitely consider offering more paintings with local interest, and possibly back them up with prints and cards to appeal to all pockets. Buying an original painting at a fairly small show doesn’t really strike me as an impulse buy.
And now it’s all over, I think I’m going to chill for a bit – it’s all been a bit intense. Besides something I have in mind for the Twitter challenge #portraitnovember, I’m going to revisit my Spider-man and Hulk sculpture as a bit of light relief. Heck, it’s about time I finished it…
Well we’ve now been on the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall since Saturday, and as usual, it’s great to be here. This really is a special place.
Sure, the area around the Point itself can be busy during the day. However my experience is that the visitors generally stay fairly localised, preferring to drive up, park, peer, visit the café then depart leaving the wider area relatively quiet. And from around 5:00pm everywhere becomes still. Suits me down to the ground.
I have to keep reminding myself that this is first and foremost a family holiday and not purely a painting trip, otherwise left to my own devices I’d keep sneaking off…
That said I have had some opportunities to paint en plein air. Have to say though I’m feeling very out of practice, and the results have been mixed.
This is a quick watercolour from Sunday overlooking Housel Bay from rocks near Bass Point. The light was striking, fleeting sunlit patches over the cliffs, but not sure I’ve captured it here.
Today I dragged out my pochade box stuffed with acrylics and wandered down to Church Cove. I really do like the Mabef system. It provides a solid work platform, and it’s usually a comfortable platform too unless you set it too high as I did (see photo) – oopsy. I know I could’ve adjusted the height easily enough but heck, I’m not that bright!
I’d prepared a panoramic board as I wanted to take in the wider view down the coast east of Church Cove looking towards Kennack Sands. The light was very flat today and I had difficulty from the get go determining tone and depth.
Any confidence I originally felt when I set up sort of melted away. Still, I laid it out and pressed on. And by midway it was not going well at all. In truth I almost had a ‘Fast Show’ moment when I developed a steely determination to pitch it over the cliff – but I resisted.
I often find I’ll hit a low point mid-way through almost every painting. There’s frequently a disjuncture between what I see, what’s in my head and what’s actually coming out of my brush. In this case I think I turned it around sufficiently for me to want to complete it at a later date. But for now it’s going into a box for a while.
Let’s see what opportunities the rest of the week brings.
I’ve always had great admiration for those hardy artists who devote much of their painting practice to en plein air (basically painting outdoors). Whether sun, rain, hail, wind, sleet or snow they’re ‘out there’ weaving magic with their brushes. The impressionistic freshness and vitality borne of being in front of the subject always shines through.
I love working outside, but it’s been mostly reserved for holiday forays when I’ve got time to get into it, far away from life’s distractions. Oh, and it’s always in fine weather. I know, I know – it hardly seems in the spirit of things, but what can I say? I likes me comfort…
Even being a fair weather painter isn’t without it’s challenges. I find bright sunlight is troublesome, and not just because of the sunburn. When such a strong light falls on the palette and painting, I find judging tones accurately becomes difficult. I often end up with a painting that turns out darker than intended – looks fine outside, but a bit murky when it’s back indoors. Working from natural shade is the obvious solution, and where it doesn’t exist, a white umbrella. Unfortunately I’ve still not found an umbrella which suits. Frankly, clamping one directly to an easel or pochade box doesn’t seem a sound solution when wind is involved and a ground spike is less than useless on hard rock.
Oddly, one of the biggest pitfalls I find when working en plein air is psychological. I may have the potential to paint well, but once set up outside it’s like my ability slinks off and hides somewhere dark. My response is to start rushing and make basic errors; I can feel very pressured.
Because I want to expand my plein air work, I’m making deliberate efforts to slow down, to take my time to really get a feel for the subject before randomly pitching in. As for being ‘on show’ or providing the ‘entertainment’ I have to say that I’ve only ever encountered kind comments and genuine interest from onlookers. Any fear of negative encounters is entirely in my head, and I shall be rid of it.
All tooled up
I guess everyone who works outside takes a while to evolve the ideal mix of kit to suit their style. As I work in watercolours and acrylics I have developed solutions for both which work best for me. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but I hope you’ll find this run down useful.
For wobbly watercolours…
Watercolours have always been one of the simplest and most mobile options. I’ve got my kit down to a tee now:
At its heart is the wonderful Herring Compact Palette. I must have had mine for close on twenty years now. It’s the full pan version with a dozen W&N colours. It lies very nicely balanced in the hand and has very generous mixing wells. Excellent. Over the years I’ve collected all manner of kits and boxes, some really lovely like the teeny-tiny W&N enamelled Bijou box, but I always come back to the Herring. Perfectly practical and practically perfect.
I carry three sable travel brushes. A 10 and a 6 Da Vinci, and a 4 from an unknown manufacturer. I did try a travel sable from Rosemary’s, but was disappointed. The handmade brush itself, an 8 or 10, was very nice but the metal tube handle into which it was set was woefully narrow. Inevitably the brush became damaged beyond repair. The Da Vinci brushes are well made and screw back into generous tough plastic handles scaled to suit the size of the brush.
Masking tape for dividing pages in my largest pad.
Rubber bands to stop pages lifting in the wind.
A Sainsbury’s yoghurt drink bottle for water and a small plastic cup (from an M&S pan-a-cotta).
A range of hardback pads. I usually make sure I have three sizes available back at ‘base’ to give me options when it comes to lugging them around. Inevitably I use heavy-weight Saunders Waterford Not; by far my favourite paper. It’s robust, stable and very tough and forgiving, and I love it.
Most times I’ll squish most of the above into a very small shoulder pack from the National Trust, but occasionally I’ll use a larger day sac to accommodate one of the larger pads.
…and awkward acrylics
Having used both oils and alkyds outside, last autumn I switched to acrylics. To be honest I’m having a love-hate relationship with them. I love their versatility, easy clean up and oil-like qualities, but I hate their alarmingly short drying time. Turn your back and they set in minutes.
While indoors their open time can be fairly generous, this shrinks drastically on a hot sunny day with a light breeze. I’ve tried slow dry medium, and a stay wet palette (the small Mastersons offering) but now prefer to carry a small spray bottle of water to keep the palette workable. Just a light spray on the palette every now and then keeps everything mobile.
The stay wet palette did work very well, but as I wanted to save unused paint for the next day’s painting I found I had to be careful to carry it horizontally to prevent the paint slumping together and dribbling out through the closed lid – no fun when walking over miles of cliffs.
I like to work on panels and the solution which best suits me is to carry them in a pochade box. So handy: an easel, wet painting carrier and paint box all in one. Downside? They can be heavy and bulky.
Sometimes if I fancy working on a larger panel I will bung all my paints into a rucksack and take out my Herring Versatile Easel. This lovely bit of kit is so light at 4.5lbs but remarkably stable. And it lives up to it’s name. There are so many configurations when setting up it will cover most eventualities. I also have one of their earlier incarnations which has a box attached, but the mechanisms are less robust and don’t lock. It was a great easel, but this new version trounces it.
Worth the weight
When walking any distance weight is everything. I found this to my cost when I insisted on taking my french easel down to Cornwall. Don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliant work platform, but at around 16lbs when empty the novelty soon wore off after trudging a couple of miles!
Here’s a selection of the boxes I’ve accumulated. They have all been used, honest – I’m just a very ‘neat Nigel’ by nature. From top to bottom there lurks that portly french easel. Then, to the left, my 12.5″ by 16″ Mabef. To the right is a nice handmade box by William Dorsett. The next is a 10″ by 8″ I made myself around twenty years ago. Finally, in the front, a small box for 7″ by 5″ panels (although no commercial boards actually seem to fit without trimming – really annoying).
Hmm, looking at that lot, maybe I have a bit of an addiction to pochade boxes and might need intervention… Good job I didn’t carry through with my obsession for this cabinet-made American beauty: the Alla Prima Pochade. I was sooo tempted, but ultimately it was a little too rich for my pocket. That and the fact that Ben Haggett, their maker, no longer ships to the UK because of many instances of in-transit damage caused, it’s thought, by HM Customs. Shame.
So, my current favourite is the Mabef pochade, which weighs in at 10.5lbs when full. At the time of writing Jacksons have an offer on this same model as part of their plein air month promotion. I can really recommend it.
I love its flexibility and in particular I like the simple clips which firmly hold the panel either portrait or landscape. They can be moved to accommodate a range of panel sizes too. Far better than the usual set grooves which hold panels on three sides and hamper edge to edge painting.
The box arrived with a custom modification courtesy of my wife – an additional grooved wooden spacer. This now allows me to safely store smaller panels too.
It has a great capacity for paint and brushes. When using it with acrylics I fasten drawing board clips covered in Velcro to the palette where they grip a plastic water pot similarly furnished with Velcro – prevents messy accidents!
In common with other larger boxes this one can be mounted onto a tripod. Originally I pressed my camera tripod into use, but at 7.5lb it is rather heavy. So I recently bought Mabef’s own wooden tripod from Jackson’s. At around 3.5lbs it’s lots lighter and with a wider top plate it’s far more stable too, reducing the pressure on the tapped bush. To make it even more portable I attached a brass loop so I can attach a carry strap if I need it. Although using an existing camera tripod is tempting, I’d advise getting one of these. As a sneaky bonus I’ve found it’s also compatible with my telescope, so that’s the dolphin/bird watching taken care of.
As to additional kit, there’s always the need to dress appropriately for the weather. Even on fine days I’ve been caught out by surprisingly uncomfortable chilly breezes. For the baking sun I’ve usually got a long sleeved shirt, sun cream and a daft hat to hand.
Depending on where I’m going I may take a rucksack containing water, wipes, kitchen towel, food and drink etc. and to bring ease to my grinding knees, a comfy seat too.
I think working en plein air qualifies as a ‘Marmite’ activity, you’ll either love it or hate it, I’m not sure there’s an intermediate state. If you haven’t already done so why not get out there and give it a go. It’s an experience well worth the effort.