SketchBox Catch Up – December, January & February

The last SketchBox post I wrote was published back in November, but I completely forgot to write about them since. Something must have happened in December and January to make me forget about them until now. I wonder what that could be?


Well, better late than never. Here’s my report on the December, January and February boxes.


I was expecting a Christmas-themed box of green and red so I was relieved when the colour range was broader. You could make a red/green dominant artwork using the pencils if you wanted to, but the blues freed you from seasonal overload.

The prompt was “snow globe” and, with the box arriving well after most recipients who are going to post or vlog about them, there were plenty of literal snow globe artworks already. I went for The Globe instead. Then some fruit so I could experiment with getting yellow by scribbling on the palette with the gold pen and painting with the residue. I like all the supplies, and the Stoneground Gouache – the hero of the box (according to vloggers) – is lovely to paint with.


It was winter over in the US, where SketchBox comes from, so the box was full of brown and orange shades. Here in Melbourne it was warm and humid. Maybe that’s why I thought of south to central American design terracotta pottery – I was longing for some dry heat. The prompt was ‘flame’. Pottery comes out of flame. Is that reaching too far?

I was expecting there to be a box with pastels eventually. I love and hate pastels. I have come to hate dust-producing art materials that set off my asthma. They seem to like me though – I get good results from them and am rather chuffed at how this came out.

This was definitely one of those boxes that seemed to have a smidge bit too much in it. The charcoal wasn’t really needed. The white pen is great, but the white pencil went better with the other supplies and the box didn’t need two whites. I think I’d have liked some smudging tools instead, or a kneadable eraser.


It’s easy to imagine these colours were inspired by a late-winter northern hemisphere longing for spring. But they are very garden-like regardless of season. At the moment my crepe myrtle is in bloom with magenta blossoms, despite (or perhaps because) I pruned all the branches off ready to dig it out of the ground because it had looked mostly dead. It doesn’t look this good, though! The prompt was ‘fantasy’, so this a fantasy of the crepe myrtle I wish I had!

This was the first time I redid a SketchBox artwork. The first piece became very muddy after I added another layer of watercolour and discovered the first one was not as dry as I thought. I also did a piece where I puddled, dropped and splattered the supplies, but didn’t like the result.

I think I had these false starts because there was quite a bit of scope for different methods and styles of artwork in this selection of art materials. The bleed-proof white made lovely opaque hues when the liquid watercolours were mixed in. The pencils added texture and interesting gradients when used under or over the watercolours. But I felt the vivid saturation of the three watercolours was the most exciting aspect of the box.

I have one more box to go to reach a year’s worth of SketchBoxes, and I’ve ended my subscription after that. That includes one I ordered separately, not as part of the subscription. It’s been a great deal of fun, and I’ve tried art materials I’d never have bought, or ones I use but different brands to what I usually buy. I’ve tried combining materials in new ways, too. There comes a point when the novelty wears off, though. There are only so many kinds of art supplies so eventually the types will start to repeat (and I certainly don’t fancy getting another box of markers!). I’m planning to do a summary of the twelve boxes after I receive the final one, choosing the most and least favourite materials, and reviewing the artwork I did.

SketchBOX November 2023

I got my wish for a more interesting colour scheme with November’s box. In fact, there were lots of colours!

After watching the SketchBox instructional video, I felt the most intriguing part of the box was the circle-making device. But after I viewed a few YouTubers opening the box and testing its contents, my most anticipated art supply shifted to the dot pens. They looked very intriguing.

The box arrived a little earlier than usual. I did my usual swatching and testing. I drew a circle using the device as carefully as I could, then used a cup to trace an accurate circle close to the same size, and the first one was waaay out. Which is a shame, because it is a cool idea. The Faber Castell and Marabu markers bled easily on the paper, but I don’t know if that was the pens’ fault or the paper – and the paper is made by Marabu too so I can only assume their pens are meant to be used with it. I received a small pack of the Marabu markers from The Paletteful Pack I ordered early in the year and didn’t like them much for making art, and I didn’t change my mind on this second try. However, having two thicknesses of nib will make them handier than Sharpies around the house.

The theme for the box was mandalas, and the prompt was ‘intricate”. I figured I’d make lots of circles and try all the markers, similar to what’s in the SketchBox instructional video. After that, I took my favourite items from the box and drew a mandala, using my 40 year old school Math-o-Mat to draw out accurate base pencil line work.

It was fun, but overall just okay as a box. I’m not much of a marker user and the aesthetic was more ‘doodley’ than ‘arty’. But I also figure not every SketchBox is going to contain the sorts of art supplies that suit me. It’s all about trying new things, after all, and in this case the dot pens certainly fulfilled that promise.

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SketchBOX October 2023

This box arrived mid-afternoon of the day before I woke up with Covid symptoms. I was tempted to put is aside to open the next day, but decided I didn’t want to wait.

As someone who lives on the other side of the world to the company that creates these boxes, and who doesn’t care much for Halloween, the colour scheme of this box (and the previous one to be honest) have seemed a little ‘meh’. But when I looked around me for a subject to paint that was relevant to who and where I am, my eye was caught straight away by the nasturtiums sprawling through the garden with their bright orange petals, yellow and purple hearts, and green leaves. Perfect!

The acrylic ink was lovely to paint with, and the white ink is impressively opaque. The box came with a fillable pen for mixing up your own colour, so I decided to push it as far as possible and by making a mix that included the white. It worked, and is still working fine two weeks later – I was afraid it would dry up and clog the pen. The paper didn’t buckle and is nice and smooth. The brushes are easy to work with and since I probably wouldn’t have tried a dagger brush if it hadn’t come with the box I’ve learned something I wouldn’t have without the box.

The orange brush pen was both fascinating and a bit disappointing. The filament tip works just like using a paint brush, but – my only criticism – the ink seemed to get duller as it dried.

This is the eight box I’ve received and I’m still enjoying the experience. I’m hoping November will have an interesting colour scheme because I expect December to be predictably Christmassy.

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Norfolk Island

A few months back, when we were considering where to go for a week’s holiday, one place we looked into was Norfolk Island. While chose Lord Howe Island, the idea of going to Norfolk Island still appealed, but weren’t getting around to arranging a trip. Then one day I did a search for “artist holiday Norfolk Island” and the first link that came up was for a watercolour painting trip in October.

Almost everything was included in the package – I just had pay for one leg of the flights and organise insurance. It was nice not to have to do a lot of research and bookings, and assume that the artist would have vetoed the accommodation. Paul was okay with coming along on a holiday where I’d be painting a lot, since the teacher would know where all the nice views were that he could photograph, and he could take our car and go exploring if he wanted to.

The first day we went out painting, it started to rain. We retired to a function room at the accommodation to finish our paintings from photos. The subject was Bloody Bridge:

Despite the name, that isn’t gore in the creek but a water plant that had died due to lack of water, which seemed ironic considering why we had to abandon the spot.

The second location was St Barnabus’ Mission Chapel. It was a windy day, but less so there than in more open areas like the beach:

That night I did a sketch of one of the whale oil lamps in the chapel. It’s sideways here:

On the righthand page I painted a big, rusty buoy at the front of the accommodation.

The next location was Slaughter Bay. It was sunny but very windy, so we sought shelter within the penal colony walls. Rather than doing a painting on a board, which would catch the wind, I painted in my sketchbook.

However, the wind played a trick on me, flipping over a few pages without me realising before I slipped them open, which meant I was obliged to fill in three spreads before I left Norfolk Island.

We had an afternoon to spend at the agricultural show, which was fun but didn’t take up the rest of the day so I suggested to Paul that we go exploring. We found our way to Anson Bay, where I found a good, sheltered spot to work.

The water is mostly white because it was so rough it was nearly all foam.

That evening we had a BBQ at Emily Bay. I did a really quick sketch of the sun going down. It was very rushed, what with the light changing and the wind so strong it kept pushing my water cup across the park bench I was sitting on.

The next day, the location Belinda picked was… Anson bay. So to do something different, Paul and I walked down the steep track to the beach, and I painted in my sketchbook.

The following day we were back at Slaughter Bay, but this time to paint the rotting boat hulls on the shore.

I was seeing some rather peculiar colours – green shadows and lurid yellow grass anyone? As we headed home I realised I’d had my sunglasses on the whole time. Later, in our room, I over-painted with Ultramarine in the hope of alleviating the crazy green cast.

We had a tour and free afternoon the next day. I must have been sitting right over the back wheels on the bus, so ended up with a protesting back and a headache. After a bit of food and a rest, I felt better and decided I needed a walk to straighten things out. We went to do the walk at 100 Acres Reserve, and near the end stopped at a park bench so I could paint a different sort of scene to beaches and historical subjects.

That meant I’d filled the gap in my sketchbook. I could have stopped there, but I did add another spread later. Before then, we had our last painting session at Cemetery Bay:

My aim, other than having fun, was to get more familiar and confident with watercolours so I could do better sketchbook art, and I feel like those last two pieces show some success. I learned some new things about the medium and ways to apply it, like that some pigments are opaque and how that affects mixing, and that watercolour doesn’t have to be all about trying to get pigment to disperse in puddles of water in a pleasing way.

On the day we headed home we had several hours to fill, so I did these two vehicles from photos on my phone. The purple tractor was at a lavender farm, and the mini utes are everywhere on the island:

Overall it was a great trip, and so nice to hang out with a lovely group of fellow artists. Because I was painting so much, Paul and I didn’t get to see all of the island, so there’s more to experience should we ever go back.

I’m finding these week-long trips a nice length – enough for a change of scene but not being away from home very long. We both agreed that we wouldn’t do a package artist holiday together again, but Paul is fine with waiting while I do a spread in my sketchbook on a holiday we arrange and take together, and I am more confident that I could go on artist holidays on my own.

With that in mind I’ve started doing some research into the next island we want to visit. Already, I can see plenty of potential painting locations, as well as more attractions than I realised were on offer. And I’m tweaking my painting kit to take on Belinda’s advice, and a few changes that might make it lighter to carry and easier to use.

Making Watercolours

It’s a year since I did the Ink-Making workshop. Since then I’ve made several more inks – the main session six months after when acorns were in season and I used some of the leftovers from the Print & Paint with Natural Dyes workshop. One thing I had intended to try but hadn’t got around to was making watercolour paint.

A few weeks ago I finally gave it a try. I decided to use two commercial pigments intended for making paint (titanium white and carbon black), one earth pigment I’d sourced myself (yellow ochre), leftover indigo powder from ink-making and two extracts from the printing workshop (weld and madder).

First up I made some watercolour medium based on a recipe by the Dogwood Dyer. All the medium recipes I’d found used powdered gum Arabic, but I wasn’t able to find it for the ink-making course and I still had some stock solution from that workshop so I used that instead.

Then I got to making paint. The first one I tried was titanium white, which worked perfectly. So I was pretty confident starting out with carbon black. It mixed into a thick, dry paste so I added more medium until it was the right consistency. But even then, when I painted a bit onto some card it could be brushed off once it was dry, so I dug it out of the paint pan and added even more medium.

I was a bit nervous trying the ochre, but it worked out ok. The paint is a bit transparent and slightly gritty, so a little disappointing. The indigo was also ok – so intense that it really needs watering down to appear blue.

The weld had solidified in the jar, so I abandoned it. The madder was still ok, but mixed into a dark, oily brown rather than the red I was expecting. I consulted the Dogwood Dyer’s troubleshooting tips and added more gum Arabic to it, which improved the consistency.

Later I painted some dogs to try them out.

Overall, I found it rather uninspiring. I’m not sure if I was just in a bad mood or something, but I came away thinking making watercolours wasn’t fun or worth the effort. Making dyes was more enjoyable. I may try making watercolour paint again, just to see if it was bad beginner’s luck, but for now it’s just a box to tick on my Things To Try list.

SketchBOX September 2023

Lately I’ve been practising and experimenting with painting landscapes using watercolour, having used them while on holiday and wanting to be a bit more skilled with them. For references I’ve dug out an old tin of holiday snaps and reference photo rejects. So when the September sketchBOX arrived, with its Autumn theme and colourway, I simply flipped through the same tin for something suitable.

The box contained four gouache tubes, an acrylic paint pen, cream toned paper and a brush.

The first photo that used the colours provided was of chillies. Not sure if this is very Autumnal, but from what I recall of growing them, they were ready to pick around that time of year. The paint went on first then I outlined with the pen.

I wanted to see how well the paper held up to being almost completely covered in paint, so the second reference I picked was of Chinese lantern flowers. It only curled a bit – and I did remove the tape holding it to a board when it was just dry rather than waiting a few hours or overnight. This time I drew in the outlines with the pen before painting the gouache on top.

Everything in the box was good quality and great to work with, though the brush was a tad big for painting most subjects that would fit on the size of card. The size of the tubes would be great for a travel kit, but I’d want a bigger range of colours – or at least one blue.

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Student Sized

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I took a box of acrylic gouache with me on our holiday, hoping to do some non-sketchbook painting. Whenever I travel I try to reduce the size and weight of my belongings so that I only have a check-in sized bag and a carry bag/handbag of some kind. I got to wondering if there was an acrylic gouage set available with smaller tubes of paint.

A quick search online confirmed that there was, but it was only available in a shop in the CBD. As it turned out, I was going to go past the shop on another errand, so I rang ahead and had it put aside for me. Much to my surprise, the box was enormous.

The packaging said it was a ‘student’ box. Thinking about the YouTubers I’ve watched trying out the jelly gouache boxes that are so popular with young painters, I had an ‘aha’ moment. Those boxes are huge and have chunky lids that clip onto the base. This box was trying to be the same thing. Trouble is, that’s not very practical for travelling.

I took water-soluble oil paints to Central Australia some years back, packed into a neat plastic container. This turned out to be the perfect size box for a pared-down set of acrylic gouache tubes, brushes, acrylic medium, film canister water reservoir and palette. The latter is a sheet of plastic cut to fit. The card stock I planned to paint on would be taped inside the lid when worked on.

Though I tested the multimedia card I intended to use the week before, it wasn’t until I got back that I found it had curled up. So maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that I only painted in my sketchbook during the holiday. I’ll stick to painting in sketchbooks when I use this set again, which I hope to do soon.


Until a few years ago I’d hardly ever been to an artist demonstration. I saw a couple at the last art society and have been going to most of the new society’s events. I’m finding it a strange but interesting experience.

In one I felt a surprisingly strong repulsion to the artist’s method, not because it was bad or the result wasn’t appealing, just because the method was the complete opposite of mine. In another the technique was fascinating but the materials and tools were just so plasticky. The most recent one inspired me to try the method and medium in my ideas sketchbook. The artist used acrylic ink then drew over it with Micron fine liner. I like the result:

I found I learned something in every demonstration, even the ones I didn’t like. Even when the medium was one I don’t use.

The most recent meeting was a Sponsor’s Night, where the companies that provide prizes and discounts to members came along and demonstrated products. They gave away sets of Black Widow pencils. I’ve been doing a lot of pencil drawing in my ideas sketchbook lately, and was thinking of getting a set of non-water-soluble pencils, so this was great timing. I gave them a go.

They are lovely to work with. Very creamy. My only complaint is that there are very few blues and no black or very dark colour, which is why the lower two snails are done as monochrome and two-colour. When I looked online it didn’t seem to be possible to buy the pencils individually, but when I dropped into the Art Shop they had a small range. However, not many blues again and no black. Other sets seems to have more blues. The set I got is called “Dragon” which has more greens and red-oranges. This sort of curated collections of colour with themes always seem a bit silly to me. When I buy a set of art materials, I don’t intend to only ever make art in one colourway. But then, maybe other artists do.

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For years now I’ve been ‘recycling’ solvent by letting what I’ve used to clean brushes sit for a while until the pigment settles, then pour off and reuse the clean part at the top. Every few years I’d toss the sludge at the bottom. But it turns out that you can make paint out of it. The colour you get is a muddy mix of every hue you’ve used since saving it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Or even beautiful.

I don’t recall exactly where I heard of this, but as soon as I did I knew I had to try it. Some tutorials I’ve seen suggest storing the paint in a jar, but then you have to put cling wrap on the surface to prevent it forming a skin, so I much preferred the option of scooping it onto an empty paint tube.

Once I’d hunted down those, I scooped out the sludge from my settling jar, spread it over my mulling slab and picked out lumps and bits of paint bristle. It was much too sloppy a mix, as it would end up quite liquid once I’d added linseed oil. I contemplated leaving it there for a few days for the solvent to evaporate, but since I was doing this indoors (with an exhaust fan going), I didn’t want to leave fumey, wet paint exposed for long. So I scooped it up into a coffee filter, folded the edges in and left it overnight. The next day I was chuffed to find it had worked. The sludge was now a typical oil paint consistency.

I spread it on the slab again and added a bit too much linseed oil because it came out of the bottle too fast. Next time I’ll use a spoon or dropper. I mulled it for a while, then scooped that into an empty paint tube and folded over the end. There was exactly enough to fill the tube.

The colour is a paleish browny green. I’m planning to use it for sketching in at the start of paintings. It’s not so muddy a colour that I can’t imagine it being useful apart from it being a bit runny.

It also gave me another idea – to premix shades I mix up a lot, like the alizarin-viridian combination that makes a great black, which I use in almost every painting. I have some smaller tubes I can use for that. It’ll save time when setting up to paint plein air.

SketchBOX August 2023

This box arrived while I was on holiday. Though I’d watched unboxings on YouTube and taken note of the strengths and weaknesses of the products, I was a bit stumped as to what to do with them. It wasn’t until I got home and was unpacking that inspirations struck. Putting my unused bathers away, I noticed I still have the goggles and snorkel from a trip I did to Rarotonga in the early 90s. The goggles have that human-designed-but-organic-shape that make for great still life subjects.

They’re actually aqua and black, but easily converted to the yellow-green and grey of the markers.

The PanPastel was an interesting addition. The set would have been sufficient – even generous – without it. I have a black one already, which I bought to use at life drawing sessions but didn’t like. They feel… volatile? I’ve become really wary of art supplies that produce dust since I developed asthma. I can see why artists might be excited by them, though. The pigment is really rich and the blending sponge creates a lovely soft effect.

The rest of the supplies were fun and mostly familiar. I haven’t used Olo markers before. They worked well and similar to the Copic. The eraser is nice. I have another (olive) colour to add to my growing collection of Copic fine liners – what’s not to love about that?

Since I subscribed the themes have included reactive and non-reactive water-based paints, water and alcohol markers, liquid graphite and PanPastel. What’s coming up, I wonder? They’ve done oil pastels, gouache, colour pencils, charcoal, ink and hand-lettering in the past. Maybe they’ll do water-based oil paints. Or print-making. Or scratchboard. Or something I’ve never heard of before.

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