May 18, 2022
This week the challenge will be to make a painting with flowers of different sizes and colours in the garden. Perhaps find two or three large blooms, poppies for example with spikes of blue Veronica and white daisies making a soft focus backdrop. The colours in your garden may be more harmonious like foxgloves withe pale pink and purple Aquilegia.
In week 2 we looked at dark backgrounds for pale blooms but in the real world you will find flowers against backgrounds that are similar or paler in colour and you may also find flowers like pale Rhodedendrons and Azaleas where the leaves form a dark green backdrop for the blooms.
This challenge should result in a fairly free painting of the flowers but with close attention as to how various background shapes, tones and colours work harmoniously or discordantly with some large flowers seen close to. Do look at the works of Shirley Trevena: Pinterest Board link below
These works on one level are quite free but are also highly organised. See how she arranges the little painting of spray carnations where half the painting is dark against light and this is reversed in the top half. Your painting may not be this extreme but be very aware of how the flowers appear against different colours and tones.
So far we have used very little in the way of a guideline drawn with pencil to map out the shapes so have gained a lot of experience in handling the paint with a brush. It’s now time for a slightly different approach.
This is the week where a tonal sketch before setting off on the final painting will help enormously in organising the composition with regard to the light and dark areas. It would also be a good idea to make another small study juxtaposing some of the colours you are going to use in the foreground with the smaller shapes and colours in the distance and play with the hues surrounding each flower.
When the sheet of of watercolour paper for the final piece is in front of you, make sure to mark the paper so that it is in the same proportion as the composition sketch or photo-reference chosen to work from. Do map out all the main areas and challenging shapes with pencil. Think about whether and where to apply masking fluid or a wax resist for the white/palest areas. It may be that it would be better to reserve the white of the paper by painting around the shapes to be left untouched and to used pigments that can be lifted out while the paint is still damp or after the first washes are dry. Note that “staining” pigments do precisely that and will sink into the paper so that when dry they are very hard or impossible to lift out.
As the painting progresses it may be that elements of the flowers and the background are worked at the same time. It can be great to leave some hard edges but there will be other places where it may be good to let wet paint bleed from one area into another. Make sure a damp sponge, “dry brush” (brush dipped in water then squeezed gently in some paper tissue) or just the paper tissue is to hand in case the flow gets out of hand.
Don’t worry about the end result, to some extent you will have to go with the flow, enjoy the process and have fun. Not sure whether this post will get illustrated but if not there is plenty of food for thought here and plenty to look at on the Pinterest Board.
May 13, 2022
As the lilacs are pretty much ended I was delighted to find a couple of headily perfumed blooms left to paint. The painting above was on a quarter sheet of Bockingford cold pressed watercolour paper which stood up to very wet washes, indenting wet paint to make veins in the leaves and lifting out areas to soften them and give and indication of petals.
The white of untouched paper shines through in the glass jar. This time I decided against masking fluid as I hoped for a soft look to the painting.
The three images below show how a smaller study was made on very damp paper working wet in wet then leaving the paper to dry before re-wetting the paper and adding further washes. Some lifting out was done while the paint was wet but the petal shapes were lifted out when the paper was dry.
This week’s challenge is to paint flowers as they grow in the garden using any of the watercolour techniques used so far and with the aim of capturing an impression of their character; how they look up at you as the pansies and little pink geraniums or how they point toward the sky like the iris in the photo below..
If you have time try to get out into the garden and sketch and photograph your favourite flowers. Make sketches of individual blooms, buds, stems and leaves to familiarise yourself with the shapes, and small composition sketches to explore the arrangement you may choose to paint. Iris and Weigela are blooming as are geraniums and Aquilegia so there should be plenty of colour around.
Before starting to paint explore the colours and brush strokes which will help depict the plant’s character and then review the composition sketchesmade outside and home in on one idea for the final painting. This may include just one or two plant stems relatively close up or with a backdrop of the same flowers or different plants giving an impression of a massed planting.
Experiment with colours and how they interact when mixed to find the hues and strength of washes you will need, erring on the side of making more wash and stronger washes than you think you may need. It is easy and quick to add water, not so easy to “drop in ” strong colour if it isn’t already mixed.
You may like to look at the following Pinterest board for some ideas on painting iris, link below:
May 6, 2022
The first part of this post is a recap of what we did in the last session. The second part explores painting pale flowers and backgrounds.
By increasing the pressure as the stroke is made and then decreasing the pressure as the stroke is ended and the brush lifted from the paper leaf shapes both thin and broader can be made with round brushes. We also used flat brushes to make a variety of marks resembling leaf shapes by twisting the brush as the stroke is made. Depending on whether the broad or thin edge of the brush is presented to the paper a variety of line widths can be made with flat brushes. Some of the best fun can be had by loading a brush; any variety and using it sideways as a printer on to dry or damp paper.
Below is a demonstration of a cornflower where flat and round brushes were used on wet and dry paper.
A wash of water was applied to half the sheet with a large brush and allowed to dry just a little. Colour was added as the paper slowly dried. Defined shapes occurred where the wash has been mopped with a “dry brush”, tissue or sponge.
When working in watercolour, especially when working on wet paper it is essential to have your colour washes mixed and at the ready, together with a sponge, tissue paper or to pick up excess paint as you proceed or to remove moisture from your brush so that the brush can be used to control very wet washes.
Now it is time to consider backgrounds both for dark and especially for pale paintings of pale flowers.
With a lighter touch a dark background to pale flowers can preserve a feeling of freshness as in the watercolour sketch of some apple blossom below. Here I did have a model in front of me and applied some colours using a round brush and very fluid washes on dry paper.
This was allowed to dry before dampening large areas of the sketch and dropping in colour. the shapes were refined using a small brush while the paint was still wet. Washes were allowed over the leaves in places refining their shapes. This time I stopped before the whole thing got too heavy and finally added some very pale yellow at the flower centre and a couple of pencil marks to indicate stamens. The result was lively and playful rather than accurate reflecting the joy apple blossom brings.
The point is that the background can often determine the mood of the painting and it is important that the way the subject is treated should be complemented by its background.
This week’s challenge is to paint pale or white flowers. Painting a background reveals the shapes of white flowers and is easier than painting pale blooms with no background. Colour, tone and how much to simplify backgrounds are all important factors to consider as well as deciding how free and loose you approach should be.
Inevitably you may question whether to mask or not to mask parts of the composition. Masking fluid can free you up to be more adventurous with the background but may make your flowers appear more graphic and less painterly. Painting around the subject may make you simplify more than was the original intention but that is not always a bad thing.
At the end of the day the only way is to experiment.
Some more ideas for painting white or pale flowers can be found on my Pinterest Board, Link below:
So first find some white flowers for the session and we’ll investigate ways to paint them in a way that has enough structure but still feels free and lively.
April 27, 2022
In this course the challenge will be to paint flowers freely in watercolour, using the brush for shapes and some really wet washes. Any under drawing in pencil will be kept to a minimum and the aim is to create some very expressive flower paintings rather than botanical illustrations.
The first two weeks will be spent on gaining confidence in drawing with the brush, suggesting plant structures with different brush strokes, applying washes either to to fill shapes or to paint around shapes. There will be a lot of dropping colours into wet paint or water and finding ways of controlling very wet washes and/or coping with and taking advantage of some of the happy accidents that occur on the way.
Complicated shapes may need a pencil guideline and we’ll practise filling shapes with water before flooding them with colour and also painting around shapes and making wet in wet backgrounds. This means it’s a good idea to think in advance about the overall composition, the colours you need and the tonal range. Keep the number of pigments you use low and experiment to find which mixes will suit the work best.
Your washes should be ready in sufficient quantity and in the concentration needed for the painting, before the first wash is delivered to the paper. Always mix stronger than you think you will need as the colours will often be added to wet paper and they dry paler than they appear when wet.
The execution may be quite fast and spontaneous but a bit of thought and planning ahead will be invaluable.
The three artists chosen for inspiration have different styles and by no means limit themselves to flower painting. One can learn a lot from studying their work so I have put together a Pinterest Board, link below referencing their work and techniques so do have a look. Each artist has a section within this board.
Trevor Waugh has a magical way of working with washes and has produced books on watercolour roses in conjunction with the RHS at Kew Gardens. Paul Riley‘s compositions of floral still life subjects are sometimes quite complicated, but a lot the techniques can be used in much simpler studies and one can learn a lot about drawing with the brush as well as working in broader wetter passages from his works. He enjoys using oriental brushes for linear work and mark making. I am sure many of you will know Shirley Trevena‘s imaginative compositions, rooted in observation but often with an unreal and exciting twist.
For this course it will be useful to have;
Brushes: One large round, one small round brush, a rigger brush and a flat (half inch or larger). If you have other kinds of brushes, great! They will all be useful.
Watercolour paper 300gsm or heavier: 300gsm will cockle a little when very wet so may be a good idea to stretch your paper or use a block for the more considered paintings but this is not necessary for the exercises.
A block to tilt your drawing board. This will be better than a table easel and we will be working flat some of the time and/or turning the paper round so this is much easier to arrange if a block of wood about six inches long and about 2 1/2 inches in cross section.
Watercolour paints and a palette with deep wells. If you intend to work large a daisy palette or a plastic bun tin palette will be useful, although for most purposes and up to A3 size I find my usual folding palette adequate. Tubes are easier than pans to work at a large scale and if using pans remember to flood your paintbox with water so the pans are moist and the colours can be lifted easily without scrubbing the pan with the brush. Some artists use a different hardy brush like an acrylic brush for lifting paint from pan to palette to lessen the wear on their watercolour brushes.
Also: water pots, paper towel, small natural sponge
A couple of flowers to inspire your brush marks and washes.
This first session we’ll make a lot of brush marks on to dry paper and on to paper that is damp or randomly spattered with water. When making these marks we will have flower structures in mind but the purpose will be to find ways of making marks and controlling washes that will give a lively and free way of expressing these forms in watercolour.
After the exercises an expressive study of your chosen flowers should be attempted. The exercises will be done in real time as they are demonstrated at the class session. Hope the illustrations will give you a few ideas for the session.
March 30, 2022
This week we are painting trees from a distance, perhaps a view from a window or from the ridge of a hill looking down on a wooded valley. Instead of being in a wood we are out in the open, looking down or up, to a wooded area or group of trees. The sides of the hills in the photo above are well grazed by sheep and the group of tall ash trees takes centre stage.
The challenge this week is to make a painting of trees in the landscape. Although the word is land-scape I prefer to split it rather differently to labour an important point. I like to think of the vegetation including trees becoming the cape or mantle clothing the lands, hence it is a good idea to establish the topography of the land before clothing it with forests or groups of trees.
It is also essential to make a note of the light conditions. In the example above light is falling very strongly from the left lighting up the slope on the right. The steep sided slopes would look entirely different if the light were from a different direction or on a dull day when the light is more diffuse. The most challenging weather, especially when painting outside, is a bright breezy day when clouds are scudding across the sky casting fast moving shadows as they pass.
Below are a few more of Jo’s photos giving examples of the sort of reference you may like to work from.
The images above should provide ideas for working from your own reference. Best would be from a place you have walked in or visited.
March 23, 2022
This week’s challenge is to paint a picture of a tree or trees at the water’s edge or even standing in water. Look for reflections and also how the tree is physically related to the land and the water. Are it’s roots exposed at the shoreline? And is it by a stream, a lake or on the coast?
The ferocity of the current caused by a flash flood may uproot and drag trees downstream, especially in a narrow gorge. Branches or whole trees may remain lodged on the banks. The picture below is of Catrigg Force in North Yorkshire where a tree has been tossed across the stream below the fall. The gorge itself is full of tall beech trees reaching for the light above.
The drawing below shows the ravages of winter storms on the Suffolk coast. Tree trunks roll around on the beach at Covehythe where whole roads lined with trees have fallen into the sea. The trunks are often sawn off as here and only the lower part and roots remain. Seeing these on a misty February morning was an eerie experience.
Looking North there were whole trees strewn on the shingles below the cliff and more trees can be seen clinging on before meeting the same watery fate.
I would like to see your paintings the reflect the mood of the place which will be related to the weather and time of day as well as to the landscape. This may be much more successful if it is a place you know well or have at least visited. A lakeside tree in calm weather may suggest peace, or if their is a breeze and a dancing in the trees perhaps a playful atmosphere. However, if the sky is dark and storms are raging you may be depicting a more dramatic scene.
If you are feeling particularly adventurous don’t be afraid to use your imagination. If you want to depict a storm with a flash flood and branches flying I suspect there will be few references in your photo collection or sketchbook, but you may have recorded the aftermath, so you could think about how it would have been during the storm.
Decide first on your subject and think about the aspect you wish to convey, then try out some rough sketches from your reference pictures before embarking on the final composition.
March 16, 2022
This week’s challenge is to paint or draw trees in a woodland setting. The woodland floor may be a significant part of the painting as in the pastel painting of Judy Woods above. This is a mainly beech wood on a slope, with many ancient trees with haunting shapes and and exposed roots. It seems to breathe mystery.
Another mysterious wood with an entirely different character is Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor. Here stunted oaks encrusted with moss and ferns emerge from boulders of granite.
Over the last three weeks we have been exploring the shape and structures associated with a variety of trees. In a woodland there will be other considerations as the background may be full of the myriad twigs and small branches of more distant trees. There may be an under-layer of shrubby plants and the floor of the wood is often far from featureless, so part of this week’s challenge will be finding a way to describe the backdrop for the main trees in the composition.
Your work may have a single tree or a group of trees as it’s main focus or as in the two examples below be a tapestry of the tree shapes and colours.
Perhaps start by coming to grips with the shapes of your chosen woodland, by doing some small preliminary sketches. Think about the composition possibilities at the same time, then plan out your final composition. Think about which medium would suit your purpose and how you are going to use the medium. Also look at the tonal range; is it generally light and airy or dark and mysterious. Then think about the colour. Ask questions; which colours predominate and are there any small areas of colour that add to the composition by their purity, or by their contrast in tone and hue to their surroundings. In the photo of Judy Woods the little speck of a red anorak draws our attention and at the same time gives a sense of scale!
March 9, 2022
Storms, Lopping and other Struggles for Survival
Very few trees reach their perfect natural form. They are either hemmed in by others, damaged by storms and animals and of course, lopped, pruned, and coppiced by people.
Project : Draw a tree that has been caused to struggle for survival by; a challenging environment, lopping, a harsh prevailing wind, lightning damage, being uprooted etc.
Trees stuck by lightning can literally be torn apart but wind damage can be just as severe and result in the tree being uprooted and the tangle of roots made visible. Like branches these root tangles overlap and thread through each other even more so than branches above ground.If a tree near you has come down do get out with your sketchbook and a camera. Make sketches and/or photograph from several viewpoints before homing in on a composition for your final drawing.
The drawing may be a whole or part of a tree but should tell something of its history; probably a whole tree where it has grown with a distinct list to one side because of a prevailing high wind, but in the case of a fallen tree, perhaps just the exposed roots. Either way try to make an interesting composition.
Other suitable subjects would be stunted trees growing out of stoney ground, or choked by Ivy.
March 3, 2022
This week we’ll get close up and look at more of the textures and structural details of trees. So we’ll look at their natural marks, bark patterns and branches, and also at healed wounds.
If you are fortunate enough to have a garden with trees you may like to embark on a project discovering its marks and structures. Perhaps start with the trunk and it’s bark and any scars from lopping or pruning, and observe how the patterns of bark change where a branch develops.
See how many small branches emanate from the stubs left behind when a branch is cut off. Sometimes this leads to huge thickenings as in the drawing of the Spanish Chestnut trunk above.
If you don’t have a garden try finding a tree nearby or work from photographic reference.
Project : Make visual notes of at least two of the following in your sketchbook and then make a considered drawing of a part of the tree that sustains your interest. It’s not a comprehensive list so feel free to add your own ideas.
1.Branches: observe whether these follow any sort of pattern, or in the case of palm or banana trees how do the leaves emerge and what happens to the dead leaf bases?
2.Bark patterns and marks as they appear on the main trunk and branches; also some trees shed bark pieces, some of the pines do and pieces can be gathered and drawn indoors. More detailed studies of these can appear quite abstract.
3.At branch points sketch how the pattern of the bark changes where new growth emerges
4.Scars and new growth
5.Exposed roots at the base of the trunk
6.Make notes of other life like lichens and moss that cover the bark in places introducing different textures or patterns.
You will have gained a huge amount of information about the tree in this drawing exercise and have found mark making equivalents for some of the patterns and textures observed on the way. Finally make a drawing of a tree, choosing not to draw the whole tree this time, but a part you find particularly interesting.
Heather has drawn from the same reference in three different media!
February 23, 2022
Drawing and painting trees is a huge topic but as trees are very often featured in landscape painting as well as being exciting subjects in their own right, it seemed a good idea to explore depicting their structure and character.
The first session will focus on strategies for beginning to draw whole trees. In week 2 we will take a closer look at; bark, burrs, and branching, then in week 3 draw lopped or fallen trees and exposed root tangles. For the three remaining weeks we will explore trees and their landscape settings for which you may continue with drawing materials or work in colour with pastel or water-based media.
Do look at the following Pinterest board, link below, for some inspirational ideas for drawing trees in literal, atmospheric and more abstract ways.
Some very basic notes on drawing trees are below followed by a list of the exercises for the first session. If you are already experienced in drawing trees just make a quick composition sketch and launch into a tree portrait using your choice of drawing medium.
We’ll start by looking at the overall shape of different trees and the first challenge will be to see how much you have already observed. Take a piece of paper, and from memory make small drawings of any kind of tree you can think of; e. g. cypress, oak, palm, fir etc. Do this rapidly then think about what gives each individual tree its character.
This may be;
The overall shape and symmetry (fir trees)
Angle at which the branches spread out (oak)
How branches are so flexible and long they bend downwards (weeping willow)
Way in which individual leaves fan out from the trunk (palm trees)
A mixture of some of the above characteristics and many more.
See practical session for materials and paper size.
Now look at a real tree, outside or from a photo, and observe it, questioning what gives this tree its particular character. The notes below don’t describe the only way to start a drawing but give a very straightforward method for coming to grips with a variety of tree forms.
Starting to draw
It can be useful to mark where the trunk is and indicate the main branches lightly and then mark out the general outline of the whole tree by a series of light dots and dashes. In this way you will ensure the overall proportions are right and the girth of the main trunk can be drawn the correct width.
When drawing a deciduous tree in Summer or an evergreen the next stage is to indicate the shapes of the main masses of leaves. These can then all be shaded lightly and more densely shaded on parts of each leaf mass that is in shadow. In the example below light is mainly from above. The lower parts of each leaf mas is darker than the upper side and the whole of the lower part of the tree is darker than the top. Look out for the differences in tone when one side of a tree is in direct sunlight.
Adding texture and detail
After that you may like to texture the foliage suggesting rather than drawing leaf shapes, and also texturing and drawing any useful detail on the main trunk and branches. For instance, when drawing a silver birch tree, it would be essential to add the distinctive dark marks on the main trunk and branches but may look fussy if similar marks were added to all the branches.
Only if you choose to draw a tree with really large leaves like a palm or banana tree will you be drawing individual leaves and associated structures such as dead leaf bases in any detail, so although the strategy will be similar you will be looking at the overall shapes of large leaves instead of clouds of leaf masses.
The best way to familiarise yourself with trees is to have a small sketchbook A5 or even A6 that will tuck into a pocket or handbag and draw with a pencil or ball point pen on every occasion you meet a tree, whether you only have two or the luxury of twenty minutes to sketch!
Use cartridge paper A4 or A3 and any drawing medium; pencil, ball point, pen and ink, conté crayon, thin charcoal stick or charcoal pencil,
1.Memory drawing: use an A4 or A3 paper and make several drawings of as many different kinds of tree as you can from memory. These should be tiny, two or three inch high thumbnail sketches, all to be made within about 15 minutes.
2. Drawings of two different trees or the same deciduous tree in winter and summer. This time work from observation, direct or from a photo reference. Take each drawing to the stage where the masses of foliage have been blocked in with directional shading or the tiny branch ends have been suggested. Both drawings to be made on the same sheet but still fairly small, between five and eight inches high. Take about 20 minutes for this
3. Make a tree portrait of the tree of your choice at a much larger scale to fill an A3 or larger sheet. The size may partly depend on the drawing medium i.e. smaller for pencil work A4 to A3 and larger A3 to A2 for a study in charcoal or conté crayon. If toned paper is used white may be used for the lightest areas. Working larger and for longer will enable you to draw more details. Add only what helps to communicate the character of the tree and strengthens the composition. Make sure the overall proportions and structure are in place before adding texture and detail, and constantly review the tonal balance of the drawing as you work. Larger paper may be used for a pencil drawing if you are working with very soft pencil in a loose way or have a lot of time to spend on a detailed study.
Spend between an hour to an hour and a half on this or longer if you are producing a highly detailed work.
February 11, 2022
For the last week the challenge will be to make a still life drawing taking inspiration from the coloured pencil and crayon drawings of David Hockney, born in 1937. He made a number of still life drawings in the late 70’s, sometimes of tables in restaurants and also of plants in pots, including a very representational drawing of a yellow jacket, hat and a suitcase on a chair.
Examples of these can be seen on my still life Pinterest board at
together with examples of Hockney’s etchings, lithographs and i-Pad drawings.
Some are relatively simple drawings, for example the two peppers, but note the proportion of white space and that it appears “right”. One deceptively uncomplicated but elegantly drawn composition is of a double bed with a green cover where an astonishingly even tone of green has been laid down.
It’s worth studying these works for the techniques used in drawing; where Hockney used line and where he hatched or scribbled or made other marks that show us what he was observing. Look for fast frenetic marks as in the drawing of peppers and where he uses slower marks.
Is it possible to tell what the artist is feeling? Look at that smooth green pasture of a double bed for instance. Look out for instances where Hockney works up some areas more than others, literally drawing our attention to what he thinks is important.
Also study the structure of the compositions and where composition relies more on line and form and where composition depends more on colour and shape for impact.
These days we are probably more familiar with Hockney’s later i-Pad drawings of still life subjects and you are invited to take inspiration from Hockney for your coloured crayon or coloured pencil drawings. Worry not if you have no access to coloured pencils, just draw with a graphite pencil or pencil plus pastel or pastel pencil.
I hope to add my as yet unfinished work, inspired by the other artists we have taken inspiration from over the last few weeks, to this post. meanwhile I am very much looking forward to seeing your Hockney inspired drawings.
Your Drawings inspired by David Hockney:
February 2, 2022
Mary Fedden OBE, RWA, RA was born in Bristol 1915 and remained a popular and acclaimed painter till her death in London in 2012. Fedden knew from an early age that she wanted to be a painter and trained at the Slade from 1932 to 1936, a pupil of the theatre designer Vladimir Polunin.
After her time at the Slade Fedden worked on portraits and stage designs for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, followed by teaching in Bristol till World War 2 broke out when she served in the Land Army, the WVS and as a driver for NAAFI in Europe.
She admired the early works of Ben Nicholson and his wife Winifred and also the still life paintings of Anne Redpath and the French painter Henri Hayden. She also received commissions for many mural works including one for the TV pavilion at the festival of Britain.
It was after the war that Fedden developed her own way with painting flowers and still life subjects and I believe was still greatly influenced by a sense of drama from her stage design days. Fedden’s still life works seem to me very theatrical, like little sets for the objects that they contain. These sometimes have landscape or window backdrops and the shapes are somewhat flattened as in Nicholson’s early works. She certainly breathes magic and wonder into quirky and ordinary objects alike. In one painting a teapot and an Auricularia has a background of an erupting volcano and a zebra in the middle ground! Such juxtapositions abound in her work and one can only imagine the stories behind them. Some examples can be seen on the Pinterest Board, link: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/jhall1282/still-life/fedden-mary/
Fedden did work in oil but favoured working in gouache, especially on rough textured hand made Indian papers. Her compositions were not set in stone from the beginning, rather she would make a few guidelines and improvise as she went along. She had a wonderful vocabulary of brush strokes and painted exclusively in the studio from the many drawings made in her sketchbooks. Do look at the short U-tube clip to watch her painting. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxOOKRhllPw
Many works also include some elements of collage. As well as quirky objects subjects often included a light source, a candle or lamp to dramatic or rather romantic effect as in “lilies at Moonlight”..
Looking at the works of Mary Fedden gives an interesting link with Ben Nicholson whose early work was one of her influences and next week’s artist, David Hockney who was one of her pupils at RCA.
For more of Fedden’s work see the link to “115 works by Mary Fedden” below:
Your challenge this week is to find an unusual gathering of objects and make a magical still life study from them. Think about the setting and especially the tonal balance in your painting as well as the colour. Suggested media: gouache, watercolour or acrylic with perhaps a collaged element.
January 26, 2022
Ben Nicholson was born in 1894 to artists Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. He attributed his interest in Still life to his father but trod a very different artistic journey, visiting the studios of Picasso, Braque, Hans Arp and Brancusi in the 1920’s and becoming intrigued with cubism. Cubist techniques of overlapping shapes and seeing objects from more than one viewpoint simultaneously, became firmly established in Nicholson’s still life work to a greater or lesser degree for the rest of his life.
He started training at the Slade in 1910 but left after a year. His contemporaries there included Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and Edward Wadsworth. However, after spending time in the studios of Picasso and Braque, cubism became the main focus of his output in the 30’s. This was especially so during wartime when he and Barbara Hepworth moved to St. Ives. Ben was asthmatic so unable to join the services and for a time he and Hepworth worked well together and Hepworth said they were each other’s best critics. Nicholson’s compositions often took in other influences besides cubism as can be seen from either Googling his work or the Pinterest board, link below. Sometimes a cubist still life may have a backdrop of a Cornish landscape as viewed from a window
We are principally engaged with Nichoson’s still life work which gradually became more abstract. In the 20’s he painted a wooden box with a rather flat depiction of a jug and mug where shape and colour and flat darker tones make up the compositions inside the lid and on top of the box. In 1930 he painted a simple composition of a mug and a little bowl. The forms overlap but the way in which the stag decorating the mug is painted tells us another story. The stag is shown as a flat motif superimposed over the other objects and overlapping the bowl and background. It gives us a different view of the decoration than would be seen if we were looking at it as seen on the curved surface of the mug.
This overlapping technique can be seen even more clearly in Nicholson’s drawings of three pears where he has drawn one pear over another as if we could see all those edges when viewing the set up. Also look at his compositions of objects arranged on table tops. Then try one or more of the following;
Challenge 1. Overlapping
Find a small group of overlapping objects (e.g. a couple of mugs, a bowl with some fruit) and draw as if you can actually see all the edges that you cannot see. Fill the shapes with tone or colour to make an interesting composition.
Nicholson takes this idea a whole lot further towards more extreme abstraction. He plays with shapes placing them at different scales and places in his picture than they are in reality or even could be in reality. Notice how in the table top still life studies the table top is up ended. In other works, perhaps only half a bottle or vase is seen, or shapes are repeated, tilted or reversed, and elsewhere coloured rectangles of deep or pale tones are introduced.
Challenge 2. Different Viewpoints in the same Composition
Make a composition using the cubist technique of being able to see works in the same picture as if seen from at least two directions, for example, a piece of fruit on a plate where the fruit is drawn as seen but the plate is seen as if you were looking down on it, or do something similar to what Nicholson does with the decorative stag motif.
Challenge 3. Rearranging Shapes and Repeating Shapes at different Scales
Make a cut out of a jug, goblet or egg cup at two sizes. Cut two of each, one on pale and one on a coloured paper. Cut at least one shape in half and play with the shapes on your support till you find a pleasing composition.
Remember you can;
tilt or reverse the shapes; use the negative shapes from which you made your cut outs; fit one shape inside another where the scales are very different; partly overlap shapes.
Glue to a support (this should be a heavier weight than your cut outs: multimedia paper or heavy watercolour paper should be OK). If any of your shapes have been cut from white paper consider painting a background colour on your support before glueing the pieces down. When everything is stuck down and dry, assess whether more drawing or painting is required. This may mean altering the colour or tone or adding texture or pattern to some areas.
You may prefer to play with the shapes and then draw or paint a composition based on your preferred arrangement instead of making a collage. The important thing is to play with shape and scale, tone and colour.
Challenge 4. Make your own composition
Either use some of Nicholson’s techniques for your own composition or paint your own version of one of his works.
January 19, 2022
Rearranging Matisse sounds like heresy, but is in fact a useful exercise because it illuminates the possibilities that arranging and rearranging objects bring. Matisse had a different interest in still life to Morandi. Matisse consciously sought to communicate what he felt about objects, and as early as 1908 told his students, “To copy objects in a still life is nothing; one must render the emotion they awaken in him”, whereas Morandi writes “The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, light, colour and forms.” Morandi was far more interested in communicating what he saw with his eyes.
The illustrations in this post include my version of “Still Life with Sea Shell on Black Marble” 1940. Matisse had some difficulty in finding a suitable composition for these objects and resorted to using cut outs of apples and string to mark the table edge before arriving at the final study. Matisse only ever intended this as a study for a final work but it is a method you may like to try. As you will see I have rearranged his objects after very rapidly noting the development of this work at the “Matisse in his Studio” exhibition at the Royal Academy several years ago. I also took serious liberties with the colour of the background and table top.
“Still Life with Sea Shell on Black Marble” is included in my Still Life Pinterest Board: Section Matisse, link given below:
Both artists used their objects as “actors” arranging them on “the set” and often using the same actors in different works. Both were interested in the relationships between objects but while Morandi searched for the nuances of light, shade and spatial relationships, Matisse also wished to bring objects and their associated memories into the equation. This extended to bringing a unity to arrangements of objects he had collected on his journeys or that he had grown up with, and throwing their surroundings and sometimes fruit and flowers into the mix. In Morandi’s still lives one never sees a still life before an open window or had any idea of how Morandi’s room was furnished whereas for Matisse the environment in which his objects existed often formed an integral part of the composition.
Matisse used vibrant colours purposely to communicate emotion, something totally alien to Morandi’s simplified but more observation based still lives with their muted colours depicting simple vessels. Curiously, Morandi’s work does give us emotion, as a sense of calm unity pervades his work without seeming boring in any way. However for those seriously interested in colour Matisse offers continual inspiration.
Matisse leads us through compositions that rely less on form as revealed by light than by shape and the juxtaposition of colour. Objects become simplified and patterns exaggerated so that we see emotion celebrated through a more abstract way of seeing.
Here are a few photographs of objects chosen for their shape and colour with some rearrangements! which may give you a few ideas for setting up. My ‘photos don’t include glimpses from windows or interiors but you may have just such a setting for your composition.
This week the challenge is to arrange colourful objects that may be everyday and/or have have personal significance for you and then make a colourful still life composition, using colour and shape in the spirit of Matisse. Alternatively you are invited to make your own version of a still life by Matisse.
January 12, 2022
From a medium sized sitting room in Bologna, overlooking a small courtyard with trees Giorgio Morandi (1890 -1964), lived and worked painting everyday objects. These objects inhabited his shelves and became arranged and rearranged for his drawings, oil paintings, watercolours and etchings.
He admired artists of the Renaissance, Giotto, Masaccio, Uccello and Piero della Francesca and also Cezanne, Chardin, described in Morandi’s words as “the greatest of all still life painters ” and Corot, who he though of as the master of stillness. This last seems of most relevance as Morandi’s paintings of simple things give a sense of timeless calm to the viewer.
The author Horst Bienick wrote “Giorgio Morandi only painted jugs and bottles all his life but in these pictures he said more about life, about real life, than there is in all the colourful pictures around us.”
The quotes above are from ” Morandi” edited by Ernst-Gerhard Guse and Franz Armin Morat published by Prestel 2008. You will find a selection of Morandi’s works posted on the Morandi section of my Still Life Pinterest board, link below:
All Morandi’s works are based on intense observation simplifying forms and understanding how light reveals forms and how shadows can hide form and soften edges so that one form melts into another. The photos are all of my everyday objects and were taken to illustrate this.
In a letter of 6th January 1957 Morandi writes, “The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, light, colour and forms.”
The way in which Morandi simplifies forms is most evident in his pencil drawings. The line is slow and deliberate, tracing the contours of what he sees. Areas of tone are added with diagonal hatching. In the watercolours, areas of tone are washed in as seen, immediately simplifying the forms and lending an abstract quality to these closely observed works. Morandi pays equal attention to the spaces between objects and the shadows the objects cast, as he does to the care he takes with the objects themselves.
Try arranging a few everyday objects in different ways. make simple line and tone drawings. Where edges between objects cannot be seen treat them as one form. Look at the images below and note the difference that changing their arrangement makes. You may like to draw from these but if you can, find your own subjects and draw from life.
Notice the appearance of the egg cup in the images below and also what happens to the edges where one dark ceramic is close to another.
During the session we will make either several watercolours or an acrylic painting in the spirit of Morandi.
January 4, 2022
Over the next six weeks our challenge will be to paint still life paintings in the spirit of William Nicholson, Giorgio Morandi, Henri Matisse, Ben Nicholson, Mary Fedden and David Hockney. These artists were chosen because of their very different approaches to still life subjects and also the different media and objects favoured by each.
Our first artist, Sir William Nicholson(1872 to 1949), is perhaps the most traditional of these artists. Alongside painting in oil, Nicholson was a printmaker using woodcut, wood-engraving and lithographic techniques and produced many book illustrations, posters and set designs for the theatre. For more detail on this look at the Wikipedia article; link below
Encouraged by James McNiell Whistler, after about 1900 Nicholson ‘s efforts were concentrated on painting. By this time he had already become well known as a portrait artist but is probably more celebrated today because of his still life works and poetic landscapes.
William Nicholson’s landscape and still life paintings were also greatly admired by his son Ben Nicholson whose work we’ll be looking at in a few weeks’ time.
My Still Life Pinterest Board samples a few of William Nicholson’s still life paintings and shows his enormous aptitude for painting lustrous, metallic and glass objects, depicting their highly reflective surfaces with deft brushstrokes that look fresh and convincing.
The challenge is to either paint your own version of one of Nicholson’s works or to set up a still life including similarly reflective objects to those depicted by Nicholson. The photographic illustrations in this post indicate some of the kinds of objects you may like to find for your own studies for which acrylic, pastel or gouache would all be suitable media. I will demonstrate in acrylic but if we have any oil painters amongst us that would be the best!
If you have time, familiarise yourself with your chosen objects, drawing them from a few angles and then decide on the composition. Nicholson often chose a very simple set up; just one or two main objects as in The Gilt Tankard which hangs in Clarence House or Still life with Glass and Spoon.
We’ll discuss starting and developing paintings at the beginning of the practical session. meanwhile you may like to think about the following;
If working in acrylic or gouache, I like to start by start by drawing in the main shapes with a brush, then lay in the dark and mid tones. Some may prefer a pencil line to indicate the composition but there is always the risk of becoming too detailed too soon, on the other hand there may be elements such as cutlery handles where some accurate drawing will be useful. Another way to start is to make an under-drawing in charcoal and fix this well before blocking in the main shapes. With all media, work on the large shapes first making sure the tones are right before depicting the smaller shapes and details.
Starting with a background that is near the colour and tone of the reference setup results in very harmonious, peaceful works. You may at some stage like to paint the same picture over a much more vibrant ground. For the lemon and rosemary in a jar, a sienna or even bright red could be chosen.
Acrylic, pastel and gouache are all opaque media or can be used opaquely, so the sharp details of pale reflections and highlights can be added as the final touches.
Have a good look at each photograph observing not only the obvious reflections but also where colour is more subtly reflected onto the different surfaces. You may have already done this but right clicking on each image will give you the option to open a larger version in a separate tab.
December 6, 2021
This is a cumulative course in which new techniques and media were added to those already used. At any stage students were free to add elements of collage.
November 27, 2021
This week I ‘m encouraging everyone to use a coloured or grey A2 paper or to pick up a different drawing medium to that used so far. There are plenty to choose from; charcoal, ink, pastel or conte crayon etc. Coloured, grey or even black paper can help you think in different ways about tone; using the paper as a mid tone for example or working on black paper where the artist supplies the mid and pale tones.
The following images were all drawn on white paper using a variety of media.
The subject is the same as last week, any small natural form that has to be greatly enlarged to fill an A2 or even A1 sized paper.
November 18, 2021
This weeks challenge will be to draw a more challenging form. The drawings should show the three dimensional form of your chosen object and also communicate surface structures and patterns with mark making.
Barnacles on a simple sea shell like a limpet as in the photos above and below would be an interesting choice as you can home in on just one barnacle or the whole limpet shell with it’s whole population of barnacles.
Another choice might be a small pine cone or a detail of a large one. I have included my crib sheet to help with drawing various natural forms at the end of this post. They are all drawn at a tiny scale and your challenge as last week is to fill a sheet at least A2 in size with your tiny object.
Another idea would be a skeletonised seed head or twig where the structures usually hidden below the surface are revealed.
Lastly, bones can also make very interesting subjects and the series of photos below show the same vertebra from a species of fish with dorsal spines seen from different angles. Information on the fish would be much appreciated! The viewpoint of the object you choose to draw will be very important this week. You may even like to do a series of drawings of the same object over the next two weeks.
All on A2 paper
November 10, 2021
Last week we looked at small but sculptural forms and how to make them look three dimensional. This week we’ll look at flatter or low relief forms with a view to depicting their character by mark making and line.
Look for an axis or a point from which a pattern of lines or curves radiate outwards and indicate this on your paper. Look for, in the case of a leaf as above, the point from which the veins radiate and draw them with regard for the angles between them.
To ensure your drawing is large enough make sure that at its widest and highest points these touch the sides of the imaginary rectangle enclosing the whole form. Best to do as last week and draw this rectangle feintly on your paper. Most natural forms are not completely symmetrical, nor will the point from which, as in the Ivy leaf above, will the point from which the veins radiate be necessarily the lowest point of your drawing even if the stalk is missing.
Leaves of course take many shapes, and the arrangement of veins may be along a central axis as in the holly leaf at the end of this post. Once you have drawn the main shapes of you object and added some tone where needed, you can then come to grips with the fun part, hopefully loads of interesting mark making. As ever practice various marks on some spare paper, on the bare paper and over areas of tone. Sometimes it can give a soft effect to tone the paper by light hatching over marks.
Try making dull marks with a blunt or rounded stick or pencil. Also try making well defined marks with a very sharp pencil or by either sharpening a stick of your medium to give a sharp edge. Keep a small piece of sandpaper handy for this. How much you suggest surface textures and patterns and how much you copy faithfully from the object is very much your choice and will depend on whether you wish to create an impression of the object’s character or go for ultimate realism.
Here are a few more photos of the sort of reference suitable for this week’s challenge.
Your Drawings: All on A2 paper