Tuesday 29 April 2014

Sketching in the Field - Kit

My Travel Kit
 The weather's warming up, and with glimpses of the sun between showers, spring is starting to make itself felt. Plants waking up, new leaves appearing, new shoots peeping above the soil. My Fritillaries are in bloom, it's the first time I have grown them in the garden and I'm feeling ridiculously pleased.

 All this promises plenty to paint in the coming year, and the added excitement of field sketching.

Last year, as part of the SBA Botanical Painting Diploma, I had to take to the field - literally - and record all the plants in a chosen area, then paint them as field studies. Finally, a selection were composed as a finished piece. This brought some interesting problems. A local marsh produced lovely plants that I'd never seen growing locally before, so it was an exciting expedition. But deciding what to take, and how to carry it, wasn't without problems.

 I decided on a minimalist approach. I already had a lovely mini watercolour box from Daler Rowney, with a tiny Sable brush, but knew more would be needed. I wanted Sable, but didn't want to carry expensive brushes, only to find I'd mislaid or dropped them in the field, with no hope of ever finding them again.

 After much searching online, I found a set of four Sable Nail Art brushes at a price that made me think they probably weren't real sable, but they had such good reviews, I sent for them anyway. The brushes were a nice surprise. They handle really well, pointed Filberts, they're useful as wash brushes and detail brushes. They are pocket brushes, the handles doubling up as a cover to protect the hair in transit. One alteration was needed, a small hole drilled in the end of the handle/cover, to allow moisture to evaporate.

Tiny Daler Rowney Sable brush and Nail Art Brushes
 A small folding plastic palette, propelling pencil, dividers, plastic 6" rule, wodge of putty eraser, a remarkably cheap 130gsm A4 sketch book, packet of tissues, a plastic cup, and two bottles of water completed my kit. I should have taken my official sketchbook, but it was becoming unwieldy to carry and impossible to use without a table. Two bottles of water, because I was working in 90f and no shade. I should have had a large straw hat, but couldn't find one. All this went into a canvas satchel, but rattled round in the bottom, so I'm currently searching for a watercolour sketch bag to keep everything together. The satchel was a real find. Light to carry, but large enough to hold the inflated plastic bags holding a wet cotton pad and any collected specimens. I just need replace the London Olympics picture from the front flap with one of my own, that should be fun.

Sunday 30 March 2014

As one door closes, another opens.

At last, after Twenty Seven months, I've completed my SBA Distance Learning Diploma Course.  I don't know where the time went!  It seems only yesterday I received the box with my course materials.    
Diploma sneak preview © Polly O'Leary 2014 All Rights Reserved, polly0leary@aol.com
The paintings have been packed and sent, along with the sketchbook and now begins the nail-biting wait for the judging. 
Since sending off my work, I've had more time to think.   About what has made it easier to complete this course, and what has made it difficult.
Good brushes.  It's important to find brushes that suit your way of painting and which have the right spring and water holding capacity, with a really fine point.    I found that for me, my Da Vinci brushes with long fine points were the biz.
Good paper.   One of the most difficult aspects of the course for me was the variability of the paper provided.   I was used to the paper, as I bought some to practise with before starting the course and was very happy with it.   But the pad I was sent was a disappointment.   I bought a replacement one which was much better, but not perfect.  I am going to try contacting the manufacturer to find out why it is so variable.  It's almost impossible to do delicate watercolour work on paper that has patches which behave like blotting paper!
Good Paint.  Top quality artist's watercolours are essential to being able to render realistic images and cannot be skimped on.  But it's important not to get seduced by the often romantic blurb of the manufacturers.  I made a point of trying watercolours from all the major manufacturers and all of them are excellent.  Some brands have more colour choice.  One brand has a bewildering selection amounting to hundreds of different colours.    Those new to watercolour often think more colours are better, but when learning about mixing and about the different properties of paints it's better to stick to a limited selection.  In this respect, some companies are very helpful and put together sets which are useful for beginners and reasonably priced when compared with buying the tubes or pans separately.  However, it's best to be aware of which colours you are likely to need, as some manufacturers have a tendency to produce sets with colours chosen for Landscape artists.  Manufacturers also give different names to colours, but a quick look at the pigment number will tell you whether they are likely to be the same, eg. PY153 (Pigment Yellow 153) is named Indian Yellow by some manufacturers and New Gamboge by others, but essentially they are the same colour - a wonderful warm, transparent, egg yolk yellow in mass tone and a cooler yellow when used in a light wash.
The important thing is to get to know your colours really well, know what pigments they contain as well as their names, play with them, mix them, make notes and keep those colour swatches and mixes safe, you never know when you'll need a particular shade for a painting, and having it to hand makes life much simpler.

Monday 27 January 2014


Well after much thought and preparation, I got stuck into my first Diploma piece.    Fruit or Vegetable/s.   I'd had a hankering to paint this piece since last year, when I tackled the first Fruit and Vegetable Assignment, but as it was the middle of winter there was no chance of attempting it.   So I planned it for the Autumn, knowing that it would make a good subject for my Diploma piece.  

It made for a hectic autumn, completing the Working with Photographs assignment, and preparing,composing and completing the last Assignment - Mixed Flowers, whilst working on the preparation for the Diploma Piece, as I knew there would be no material available at the end of the year and after Christmas.   I did manage to get quite a bit recorded in my sketchbook, and also took plenty of Photographs, but it's never enough.  And of course it was coming to the very end of the fruiting season, which in Wales is very short anyway.   I do love a challenge.

© Polly O'Leary 2014 All Rights Reserved, polly0leary@aol.com

So how come I mainly painted leaves for this assignment?   There was fruit, and at one point I almost cried because the fruit are so fiddly to paint and Long Red Marconi Peppers started to look really attractive with the possibility of nice big juicy washes.  But as my dear son pointed out, I'd then be complaining it was too much red!  He was right, so I mentally gave myself a kick and carried on.   But those leaves!   Curled, holed, crispy and half-eaten, they were all so much fun to paint and against all my expectations, the unusual lack of snow and severe weather meant that I still had viable material in the garden!  I've put it out of sight now, as I started picking holes in it, even before it was finished.    Best to start work on the next one and take another look in a couple of weeks time.  Hopefully I won't be so critical of it then (fat chance!)

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Happy New Year

HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone !
Well, here we are at the start of 2014 and for course 9, on the last leg.    I'm not alone on this course so I'm sure we're all beavering away.    Good Luck everyone!    Nearly there !
Just taking a little time out today to acquaint myself with some new stuff from Jackson's Art Supplies, a late Christmas present.    My parcel arrived yesterday and here's the photo.
A new sketchbook,  some Spotter brushes - never tried them but should be useful for tiny detailed bits, and some paint -  Jackson's Cobalt Blue, absolutely gorgeous, and DS Quinacridone Deep Gold,  so rich and transparent and just an amazing colour.    Don't you just love new art stuff  ?

Thursday 9 January 2014

Guest Artist at Jackson's Art Supplies

Jackson's Art - Guest Artist Polly o'Leary

Well I should have posted this aaaaages ago, but have had trouble accessing my Blog.   Seems to be sorted now.  

I was amazed and thrilled to be asked by Jackson's Art if I'd like to contribute a blog page to their Guest Artist Blog.  Would I?  Do plants need sunlight?  LOL   It took a while to get the photographs of my work to a standard to be digitised, and then of course there was the write up.  But I got there, and now my work is published on the Jackson's Art Blog in the guest artist section. 

So you didn't see it here first folks, as you should have, but you did see it here at last.

Off now to work on one of my Diploma pieces, and hopefully not have to start again - again!

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Working in the Field

Working in the Field.

PollyO'Leary Clover Study -  © Polly O'Leary 2013 All Rights Reserved, polly0leary@aol.com
Clover Study by Polly O'Leary

I was so worried about the logistics of this assignment after last year’s disastrous summer. I even discussed with the tutor what to do should it be impossible to find any flowering plants. Last year, just about nothing flowered until September, too late for this assignment.

This year, we had the opposite problem, it was so hot that many things grew and flowered quickly and went to seed just as quickly. I chose a marsh not too far away for this assignment, as part of the assignment was to be visiting almost daily to record the different plants at the site.

I didn’t realise, though, that I was supposed to be drawing and painting every plant at the site, to send in with the finished painting! Good job I reread the brief about half-way through the two months or I’d have had even more work to do in the final two weeks.

Throughout June and half of July, I’m afraid I paid more attention to my oldest dog who was unwell, than to the assignment.   Unfortunately, despite our best care and the care of the vet, we sadly had to make the heartbreaking decision to say goodbye.

I have to admit, I more or less was sleepwalking for the rest of the assignment, apart from when the Horseflies found me in the marsh and decided I was delicious. Trying to accurately measure, draw and paint plants while fighting off these sneaky little biters was no fun. Forget the beasties and bugs of the Amazon, these little blighters were out for BLOOD and even managed to cut me through my blouse! I spent many a day trying to outrun them, whilst trying also to get some work done. In the end, I’m afraid I took samples of the more common plants and brought them home, although the marsh orchids stayed put, apart from three small flowers collected from the head of one particularly floriferous Orchid.

Two weeks doesn’t seem very long to accurately identify and record all those plants, draw up dissections, and then produce a painting of Five of them. But it’s long enough. I was even almost pleased with the painting when I sent it off, with photocopies of the fieldwork sketches, to my tutor in time for the deadline. And luckily he seemed to enjoy my work, giving me my highest mark yet!

Friday 14 June 2013

SBA Course 9 Seminar Day

The much anticipated day of the seminar arrived and I woke up in a hotel in London with a painful scratch down the middle of my chin, acquired sometime in the night. My family assured me that they hadn’t noticed, whilst talking to my chin. Lovely stuff, at least I could stop worrying about my hair going frizzy in the damp heat of an unexpectedly glorious day, no-one was going to notice.

I had a little time to spare before the seminar, so took the family into the exhibition to have a look around and get photographed with my pencil drawings. The student section is amazing to see, and easily holds it’s own with the main exhibition. It was lovely to see the work of people I have been in touch with who have finished the course.

All too soon it was time to wave off the family to their own adventure and make my way up to the second floor where we were gathering for the seminar.

There were several lecture tours of the exhibition, on differing subjects, to sign up for, and I signed up for most of them. Luckily, I left a few sessions free, the tours were running back to back and it all became a little frantic at one point with students rushing up three flights of stairs and through corridors, only to rush straight back down to the basement again for the next lecture. And getting very hot and bothered in the process.

I did find time to watch my tutor for the last three assignments, Sandrine Maugy, showing how to drop colour onto wet paper and just let it flow. Possibly one of the most difficult things to do in watercolour, as the need to ‘direct it’ can be overwhelming. However watching and talking to Sandrine about this technique made me realise I have been too busy trying to ‘make’ the colour do what I want when I should be sitting back and letting it happen. No wonder I’ve had trouble reserving my highlights.

I particularly needed to talk to the tutors about my sketchbook - ‘am I doing it right?’ as I have never really kept a sketchbook of my workings for paintings, I’ve always been a spontaneous, let it happen kind of gal, rather than planning everything to the last detail. But I am seeing the value of trying out several compositions and colour schemes, and doing colour tests before starting. I’m even beginning to put ideas onto paper that have nothing to do with what I’m working on, for future reference. Now that’s progress.

I also needed to discuss with my current tutor the problems I’m anticipating about working in the field. In this part of Wales, it’s more likely to be ‘working in the bog and marsh’ especially if this summer is anything like last year, which it’s likely to be as I’m on this course. It’s just my kind of luck that we bought a nice big tent a few years ago so we could have some cheap holidays with the dogs. A month later it started raining and we had the worst floods this country has seen for centuries! We were booked to camp in the Cotswolds and all the surrounding area was under water for weeks. We managed three days and still packed up in the rain!

Anyway, I wanted to discuss what my options might be if the weather does what it has done for the last five or six summers and it looked like bog snorkelling was my best bet. I now have a few options I hadn’t thought of and none of them include bog snorkelling.

Unfortunately, during the first lecture tour, my daughter tried to ring me, and my phone wasn’t switched off as I had thought. It’s a very loud ringtone as often I’m in a musical setting which can be quite noisy and sounded even louder in the hush of the echoing, exhibition hall. Being a new phone I couldn’t switch it off at first and, understandably, the tutor looked very annoyed. As I struggled to find the off switch people started to giggle, until most were roaring with laughter as I panicked and dropped the thing, then retrieved it whilst apologising profusely. Finally, I managed to switch it off, and the lecture continued. Later, whilst discussing my sketchbook with Kay Rees Davies, the phone went off again. I was mortified, and yet again couldn’t turn it off quickly, until everyone was laughing. I did manage to kill it completely this time though. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be forgotten, but what a way to be remembered, the woman with a red stripe down her chin, with frizzy hair and a mobile phone that kept going off! Not at all the impression I’d intended making.