Flower-a-Day, Week 3

At the beginning of the third week, my friend KRin brought over a rose from a bush given to her to commemorate her late husband. It had an amazing scent of cinnamon, and was a lovely matte orange.

She wanted to watch me paint. Unfortunately, I do find it hard to talk and paint at the same time, and tend to ramble inanely when I do.

As I said in the last post about these paintings, I’m struggling with defining edges and depth. In dim light with a matt single-colour flower it’s hard to see much definition. Though the camera captured the shadows more easily than my eyes perceived them. And I suspect I was at the edge of the capacity of the paint set, too. I eventually outlined the rose with black paint applied with a paintbrush.

A few days before, an order for some Winsor & Newton designer gouaches arrived and I was keen to try them. Especially as I hoped they’d give me the subtle but effective range needed to show depth. Working with a photo of a flower that had the same kind of matte (mostly), single-colour petals, I took my time and I’m pretty happy with the result.

The next day I sat outside and attempted to portray this convolvulus flower. I wasn’t happy with it until I deepened the shadows with black later.

I tried the purple variety the next day from a phone pic.

While it’s very rough, I do feel like I captured the light.

The next day I headed to the native garden. The flower I picked is tiny, and when I found I wasn’t getting much subtlety I decided to approach it as if it were a printed fabric design using only three colours.

I tried the same approach the next day, but the result wasn’t as satisfactory, though perhaps I’d like it better as a fabric design if it the flowers and leaves were more densely packed.

Same area and also a native, but this time only using pencil.

Looking back, I created the best and worst flower art in this week. That tree peony turned out so much better than I expected, using a medium I’m not overly familiar with. But the chocolate lilies disappointed me.

The Art of … Getting Art Done

Lockdowns have meant I’ve been to few art classes in the last two years. In the first lockdowns I barely managed a few simple sketches at home. I’d anticipated a freezing up of creativity because I’d read about going into ‘survival mode’ during stressful times, which I’ve experienced before, so I don’t feel bad about that.

In the past I’ve managed to do some art at home, but always when I had no classes, and as soon as I started going again I stopped. I’ve assumed this meant I had a limited need for art, which classes satisfied. Recently it occurred to me that it might not be that classes fulfil my need for creating art, but that going to classes reduces the incentive to do art at home.

It’s not that classes discourage me, but to set up a workable space and regular habit takes focus, time and dedication, and that doesn’t happen because I don’t need it to.

I’m not going to stop going to classes. Feedback is essential, and hanging out with other artists is inspiring and motivating. What I am going to do is see if I can keep painting at home as well.

When I rearranged my craft room a few months ago to have a permanent sewing area I also examined my painting space critically. Acknowledging that I don’t want to stand to paint, I moved out my floor easel and put a table easel on my work table instead. My art materials cabinet was already beside the table, which completed what is now a cosy painting corner.

I’ve been making paint charts, started on a painting that will be a Christmas present, and done the occasional flower painting there. Some issues still need to be resolved. Lighting, for a start. There’s no good spot in this house for natural light. I’ve requested an easel light for my birthday so hopefully that will solve the problem.

Creating a habit is the next challenge, and for that I need to plan ahead. The art that I’m doing and two little cat portraits waiting in the wings will keep me occupied for a month or two, but I have nothing after that. I might need a bigger objective, like the portrait painting I challenged myself with a decade ago. Something that won’t be stalled by lockdowns and such.

Flower-A-Day, Week 2

On day 8 I tackled another rose, this time using watercolour pencils blended with a little water. I’m not as happy with this one. The rose petals had a pink line around the edges, but in the painting this just looks like a pencil outline.

The following day it was wet, so I painted clivias from the shelter of the desk. I started with the intention of using only paint, but couldn’t get enough nuance from the brigh, saturated colour so delineate the edges, so I resorted to pen, which looks great.

Another day of unappealing weather so I went through my phone pics searching for flowers, and hit upon photos of grass tree flowers on Flinder Island. I enjoyed doing something different. A pale yellow silhouette of the plans went on first, then some green and grey, then I switched to watercolour pencils for the texture, then switched back and forth to get the darks and background. If I’d painted this for a travel diary I’d have been very pleased.

Another photo reference, of the native pigface that grows on the embankment next to the pool. There is no black in the background in real life, but I liked the contrast and drama it created.

On day twelve I drew the flower that identified the Dietes plant that had sprung up among the Dianellas, before getting Paul to dig it out.

Only lucky day thirteen I painted this magnificent rose I’d spotted the day before. It has the most divine scent, despite the unromantic name of ‘stainless steel’.

On day fourteen I popped outside to paint an azalea. The sunlight was quite hot though the day itself wasn’t particularly warm. Unfortuantely, I don’t have the label for this one.

I didn’t use the watercolour pencil until the end, when I added some texture by working into wet paint.

I’m learning something with every flower, whether by making mistakes or trying something new in approach or medium. Portraying depth and defining edges are proving a challenge, but at least I’m getting the flower in the middle of the page now!

Flower-A-Day, Week 1

The sketchbook. Teeny weeny.

For the first flower, I went out into the garden looking for something relatively simple to start with. And accessible. Most of our flowering plants are on a steep embankment, but I found this little nasturtium had sprouted behind a low retaining wall where most of my lavenders died.

I learned two things from this: first to consider carefully if the picture needed a background, second that sometimes you can’t mix a colour and need to add a new pigment to your set. In this case, I brought out the Stuart Semple palette, which had an orange bright enough for the flower. From then on it was my first choice when I wanted to use paint.

Next, the red hot poker had one last flower on it, so I decided to do that before the opportunity passed.

Much happier with this one. I realised that at eye level the tubular flowers rarely come straight at me, but up and down.

Next, I was going to paint bright yellow flowers on one of the natives, but they were already past their prime and their position on the embankment was not going to make for comfortable painting. Instead, I headed for the Unexpected Succulent Garden, which has been looking amazing recently.

I hadn’t intended to add the leaves, but got inspired. But adding them put the picture off balance on the page.

Soon after I started the next one, I went and got a seat. I thought I’d be able to sit on a rock, but I was wrooooong. I got myself a stool.

It really needed a green background to contrast with the red flowers. The paints weren’t getting me the feel of the subtly striped petals, so I ducked inside and got some watercolour pencils.

I’d be happier with this if I’d managed to centre the flowers on the page. I had to look up the name of the succulent and this one, and I was amused to find this one was an African Daisy. A couple of years ago I went looking for African Daisies for the front garden, not realising I already had them in the kitchen garden.

The next day was really cold, so I turned to my iPhone’s photo albums. And I finally managed to get a flower centred.

Again, watercolour pencils made adding texture much easier.

This plant isn’t in flower at the moment. It’s in the giant tongue-like leaves stage. They’ll die off and the plant will all but disappear until the flowers emerge from the ground next autumn, first with bright buds like giant parrot beaks, then opening to make these alien-like flowers.

The following day was lovely for flower painting.

The label stuck into my gardening diary told me this was a Dianthus. It didn’t mention that Dianthus are ‘pinks’, which it turns out is another name for carnations. Now I understand why on gardening shows presenters would sometimes gesture to a bed of not-pink flowers and call them pink.

Turns out the colour pink is named after the flowers, not the other way around. And pinking shears are named after the shape of the petal ends.

This one was quite the research black hole.

The seventh flower was a rose. One of my climbers.

No paint this time, just watercolour pencils without water. It suited the densely packed petals.

Overall, I found that I was always better off trying to painting what I saw, including flaws, rather than ‘fix’ anything or try to ‘just paint the gist of it’. Taking photos and looking at the thumbnails helped to reveal overall flaws too, and a friend’s honest assessment that the carnation looked a bit flat helped me fix the problem.

The painting have taken between 20 mins and an hour and a half. I’m sure I’ll get faster, or at least better at choosing quick subjects when I’m short on time. Though it is nice to spend more time as well when I have it.

Recovery

Recently I was watching a video in which an artist talked about burnout and I realised she was describing how I’d felt in the last few years toward my work. I’d assumed that back pain was the cause of my lack of enthusiasm – after all, it’s hard to be keen about doing something that hurts – and I hadn’t considered there might be more to it. Acknowledging the burnout felt right, like finding the piece of a puzzle. And because it’s hard to recover from something if you don’t know you have it.

Deciding that this was the year of being flexible and avoiding commitments was a good idea, in retrospect, but it’s been frustrating as well as beneficial. While it’s been less stressful, the break has confirmed that I do need an aim or challenge to work toward. But I needed time to consider what I wanted to do, and what I am capable of now.

Looking back, I’ve always maintained three passions in my life: writing, art and craft. I’ve turned two of them into work, as a designer for four years, a self-employed illustrator and designer for nine, and a writer for twenty…

… and as I typed that last paragraph, I remembered that I was seriously burnt out as an artist by the time I wound up the illustration business. It took time and taking up a new medium (oils) to recover my love for art. Maybe that’s what I’ll need to recover my enthusiasm for writing.

I’m in no hurry to get writing again, though I am feeling like I’ve recovered some interest. Until I do, I have art and craft to call upon for my aims and challenges. Yet at the same time I’ve been wondering how I can avoid spoiling either by turning them into work. Well, ‘work’ and ‘work at’ are entirely different things. Deadlines, clients and money are involved in the first, but aren’t essential for the latter. What matters for the latter is learning, practising and improving. Becoming good at something can be fulfilling in of itself.

I think that’ll be more than enough for me for now.

The 7 Day Urban Sketching @ Home Challenge

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been watching lots of fast motion videos of artists working and talking about their methods, and one I stumbled on was a young woman, Taria, who runs the Urban Sketching World website. She had done a series of videos of herself sketching at home during lockdown earlier this year, presenting them as an artistic challenge for others to try.

Having decided I should do some art around the house, this seemed as good a place to start as any. I have a sketchbook I draw and paint in when I go on day trips or weekend away, which I had nearly filled, so this could be a way to finish it off, too. It turned out to have five pages left, so this challenge would not only complete it, but get me started on a new sketchbook.

The first day’s theme is ‘art supplies’. Always fun and easy to depict:

The second day’s is ‘something from the cupboard’. I chose the shelves in the door of our TARDIS liquor cabinet:

The third theme is ‘plants’. I live on an acre with more than half of it garden, from native to vegetable beds. Spoilt for choice there, you’d think. Only it was freezing outside so I brought in this little pot:

Theme number four is ‘modes of transport’. I’m always up for drawing my Mini, and I was fortunate that it was a sunny day:

The fifth theme was ‘the room’. I thought this one would be difficult, so I was thinking about it ahead of time. I settled on the corner of the kitchen:

Day six’s theme is people. Lockdown meant my subjects were limited to me and Paul, but then I remembered that people like to walk along our street and drawing people quickly is an interesting challenge. However, in 1 1/2 hours only four people passed, and one of those I spotted too late. So I started sketching Paul, then realised I didn’t have enough space so abandoned that and drew his head.

For the seventh day we could draw anything. It was a dim, overcast day and it was hard to make out the cat on his bed under my desk, so I went for something brighter:

It’s been fun most days and a great way to reacquaint myself with my sketching tools. It finished off my old sketchbook with a ‘bang’.

I’ve been considering whether I’ll do Inktober, but I’m not sure about the prompts. Another idea is to paint the same subject a day for a set time. A friend is doing horses for a year and is still at it seven months later – and she says it’s worth doing even if she’s totally over drawing horses! Trouble is, there’s a good reason I called this blog ‘creative fidget’. I tend to cycle through my interests so I don’t get tired of any. Daily drawing might not be my thing. Still, I am intrigued by the idea of regularly drawing or painting flowers. The subject has never attracted me in the past, but I really enjoyed painting the spring blossoms. I can do some from photos and some from life, and play with different mediums.

Helping Hands

Recently I’ve been watching art demonstration videos on YouTube, starting with James Gurney, then various other artists. Inspired, I’ve been doing a bit of art at home and wishing I could go out and paint en plein air.

Many more portable easel options are available since I last looked, from expensive ponchard boxes to cheap DIY set ups that attach to tripods. I was particularly amused by a laptop conversion I saw, though I suspect it wouldn’t be a practical solution in the long run. I have a DIY ponchard box I made in 2010 and a plastic version I put together for our trip to Central Australia. They all rest on my knees, which means I need to sit down when painting. Having something fixed to an easel would be much more flexible.

I bought James Gurney’s video on his DIY sketching easel and as I watched it, I couldn’t help thinking all that wood looked heavy. Or at least, heavier than I was willing to carry. All the clips and magnets holding things to the boards made me wonder if the boards could be eliminated and the clips remain. A bit of searching later, I bought this:

It’s called ‘helping hands’, and is for soldering. I was worried that the arms would be too weak to hold a palette, diffuser and sketchbook/canvas board steady while I worked, but they’re impressively sturdy. It has a hole in the base for screwing it to a table, which Paul enlarged and created a thread that matches the quick-release plates on tripods. And that hollow in the centre is just right for a water container.

The next step was to gather the things the clips would hold. James uses pencil tins as palettes, and I didn’t manage to find one before the lockdown, so had to order a tin of pencils online, which took ages to arrive. The first diffuser I came up with used bamboo skewers and bendy straws for the frame and white plastic sheet for the fabric, but both double-sided and masking tape peeled off the plastic so I wound up sewing on some white poly-cotton instead. I wasn’t going to attempt to buy kite fabric from Spotlight as they’re slow getting orders out so with Aussie Post delays on top who knows when it would arrive. At the moment if something can’t be bought in a supermarket, chemist, baker, butcher or green grocer, I’ve got to either make it using bits and pieces around the house and garage, or just do without.

Once I had all the components lockdown had eased enough that I could leave the house for a ‘picnic’. Reluctant to go out on my own in case people approached me, I invited a friend to keep me company and shoo people away. She agreed and we set a date and time… and when the moment came it was waaaay too cold.

I had to begrudgingly acknowledge that all this waiting for the perfect conditions was silly, and I should just paint, darn it! I found a sketchbook challenge and put the easel aside. But then it turned out one of the themes did require a bit of outdoor work:

I’m pleased to say that my easel idea worked. I wound up swapping the front and middle sets of arms around so that the front ones weren’t in the way and the book was closer to me, which meant the water bottle had to sit on the palette, but that was fine. The least successful thing was the diffuser. It flaps around in the wind too much, which is a problem with the construction, not the arms holding it. I’d need a lighter tripod if I’m going to carry it far, too, and the IKEA kid’s paintbrushes are about as good as you’d expect.

Overall, a surprisingly successful, if rather whacky, DIY easel.

Unlocked

Post lockdown blues. Re-entry anxiety. I think, perhaps, that I have both. There’s such a buzz about going back to ‘normal’, but normal is, well, normal. Nothing that exciting when it comes down to it. Just normal with added ongoing anxiety.

The anticlimax of that realisation comes with a nagging feeling that maybe my normal is lacking. Hmm, I might be onto something there.

When I consider what I missed most during lockdown, it’s going out for fun: seeing friends and family, visiting museums and galleries, and going second-hand and vintage shopping. Socialising is now possible, but it has an element of anxiety. Mingling with strangers in a museum or gallery, after seeing how selfish and idiotic some can be, would not be anxiety-free. Shopping, too. And I look around the house and think, “We really don’t need more stuff!”.

I got to wondering if there’s something else to go out for. Something I can enjoy with Paul or a friend, but doesn’t put us among crowds. Something to acquire or collect that doesn’t take up much or any space. I thought about photography. Or sketching.

Then I did something I’ve been intending to do for a while now: joined an artist association. Their website suggests they’ve been quite active in lockdown with challenges and Zoom sessions. Unfortunately I’ve missed the last challenge for the year, but there is an online exhibition coming up.

If you want strangers to stay away from you the last thing you should do is paint in public, but there are ways to get out and work undisturbed, like painting in the car or at friend’s houses. Maybe they will have more suggestions. There’s no harm in trying, right?

Creative Fidgeting Consciously

So my thoughts about the sustainability of making had me opening my visual journal and exploring the “eco-ness” of four of my hobbies: craft, art, cooking and gardening.

Gardening was the least worrying, as I like to repurpose things, grow food, buy organic weed killer (in bulk to reduce packaging) and put plastic pots in the recycling. I’d already decided to switch from plastic to cane or fabric carriers for weeds. I think I’m doing okay there.

Cooking produces a lot of packaging, but I’m already reducing that as much as possible and making my own nut butter, crackers and other things you can’t easily buy without non-recyclable packaging.

Craft has some issues – mainly the use of toxic dyes and inks – but I probably buy second hand materials and repurpose things as much as, if not more than, new. In fact, reusing, repurposing and refashioning is pretty much a hobby in itself. Even my mosaics have mostly been about fixing or repurposing something.

Art is… actually quite problematic. Natural pigment isn’t always better than synthetic – cadmium is carcinogenic, for example – but (I think) synthetic comes from petrochemicals. Stretched canvasses are so cheap these days I wonder if, like cheap clothes, they’re made by underpaid workers, I hate to think where the wood comes from as most cheap wood is stripped from old growth rainforests, and I have no idea what the fabric is made of (probably plastic – and the surface coating repels watery paint, so it isn’t gesso). Then there’s waste. I’ve alway struggled to decide what to do with artwork that doesn’t turn out well. Doing something frequently enough to get good at it can leave you with lot of unwanted work headed for landfill.

Thinking about this, I realised that working on paper more might be better, as it can be recycled. Oils are still better than acrylic, since I work with a spatula mostly and wipe the excess on rags. When I do use brushes I let the turps I wash them in sit until the paint particles settle, then tip off and reuse the turps. I keep old brushes for rough work, then stirrers. In the past I’ve taken the canvas off unwanted paintings and sewn it into bags, then recovered the frame with new cotton or linen canvas, which makes stretched canvasses more reusable than canvas boards. However, making my own canvas boards may eliminate the possibility I’m using wood stripped from rainforests or plastic fabric. I even thought about weaving my own canvas fabric, but it would be slow and occupy the loom when I want to weave other projects.

After my brainstorming session, I went out into the studio and considered the art supplies I have. I realised it will take quite a while before I need anything new. So there’s not a lot I can do to make my art practise more sustainable right now. I’ll keep these ideas in mind for when I do run out of materials, and reach for paper based art methods over canvas more often.

Just Heads

Early this year I decided I was a bit tired of painting portraits that took five or more months to complete. So after I finished two big ones I set about doing some ‘exercises’ – small portraits that had the same dark background and close enough to the head that little clothing was included. I also decided, and I took reference photos, that I wanted the sitters to not look at the camera or have an open mouth smile and the post didn’t have to be front-on. I reckoned I could do one of these per month.

It proved to be great fun. While I do like painting backgrounds and clothes, minimising them meant I could hone my skill at depicting skin and hair and eyes. Being able to paint heads from the back was a rare treat, too. By December I had eight paintings, not far off one a month since I started them a few months into the year.

Now I’m wondering what to do next year. Keep painting my little ‘exercises’, go back to big portraits, or try something else? People have often said to me they like my underpainting, which I do in watery acrylic paint in either alizarin red or viridian green. I might try doing one intended to be the final piece, starting off with the usual big sweeping paint strokes then adding finer ones, perhaps layering alizarin over viridian or visa versa.

I’ll see how I feel when classes start again next year.

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