Watercolour 12 – Hellebore (never ending)

A quick update on my never-ending watercolour painting.  This is number 12 in my learning curve.  As you will see from this post I have been painting this for some time but if I am honest it not that long since we didn’t have  any classes from July to the end of September.

Anyway, this evening the stems started to go in which was just the lift I needed as I have been fiddling around with the leaves for ever and my enthusiasm has waned.  Leaves are not popular amongst us ‘botanical’ painters they are quite tedious and hard to get right.

Close  up the stems are a little wobbly as my hand kept shaking but never mind I think these are only noticeable really close up.

My goal is to finish it by Christmas especially as I’m not sure I can go to the classes next term.

Watercolours – going it alone

As long-term readers of this blog will know I dabble in botanical art.  I use the word ‘dabble’ advisedly since my abilities are far from the pristine scientifically correct paintings you see at RHS shows.  I have been going to classes once a week, 2 hours a week, about 26 weeks a year for a couple of years now and I have definitely progressed.  However, I have a huge stumbling block  in that I have no confidence at the best of times in the class and have to ask the tutor to show me each stage so any idea of having a go at home on my own are non-existence.

Anyway, the other day on Twitter a new follower (@penelopehellyer) commented that she dabbled in botanical art and she recommended the books of Billy Showell as a way of learning techniques and maybe overcoming my lack of confidence.  I had a look and ordered A – Z of Flower Portraits as this was obviously watercolours.  It arrived on Saturday and I wasn’t disappointed.  The paintings are beautiful and far more my style than some botanical illustrations I have seen.  In the book Billy shows some basic techniques, all of which my tutor has shown me, with step by step instructions and then there are 40 portraits of flowers with step by step instructions.

My youngest son egged me on reminding me that I learn better from books than being shown or told and for the first time since I started the classes I actually had an urge to have a go on my own.  Being on annual leave, and it raining, I decided this afternoon I would have a go.  So first step was to practise some of the techniques I had been taught following the instructions in the book – firstly wet on wet and then dry brushing which I find incredibly hard.  Anyway I am quite chuffed with the result, the drawing isn’t great but then I didn’t bother too much with it as I can draw and it was the painting I want to practice.

Next is probably a leaf – leaves are feared by all my class mates and you would be surprised at the lengths they go to avoid these green demons.  Not sure when the leaf will appear but the biggest thing is that I actually feel a little bit confident and didn’t bail out  at the first hurdle.


Hellebore Painting – Update

Some readers will know that I dabble in botanical art.  I am far from an expert as I only go to a class once a week during term time and have been going for a couple of years now.  As I have said before my biggest challenge is getting to grips with watercolour.  I can draw and am used to doing larger pictures in pastels so doing neat and fine is quite challenging for me, but I am slowly getting more confident with the brush and slowly improving.

The current picture is hellebores as you can see.  I started it back in January so have probably spent around 16-20 hours on it from scratch and if I am honest some classes I tend to daydream as I am just so tired by the time it gets to Thursday evening.  Most weeks I have to convince myself to go due to tiredness but it is always a good evening.  Nearly everyone has been going for some time and as well as being an art class it is  kind of support network for those going through a tough time or who just want to get something off their chest – it always ends up in laughter, the best medicine of all.

Because I only have two hours a week and despite the odd good intention I rarely do any work on my pictures in between classes, we generally work from photographs.  For this picture I started with a selection of photos of a hellebore I have which I took a couple of years ago.  Of course being a blogger I focus on the actual flower but when you are doing botanical art you need to have images of leaves, stems etc.  I have found myself considering this more and more when I take photos of flowers.  At the moment I am taking daily shots of an opening Meconopsis poppy with the intention of trying to capture the vibrant blue at some point in the future.

So because I had no photos with leaves on I had to start the picture with just the flowers and I have been taking photographs of the plant as the leaves have appeared.  Yesterday, in order to gain  brownie points with my tutor, I sketched in the leaves and stems.  I have  had to number them and the various photos so I can find them to paint from.  I have realised that the picture probably starts too far up the page so I may have to rejig the top leaf but that’s not as difficult as trying to get straight stems.  I have to admit to cheating and using a ruler for this picture as hellebores have such straight stems.  I am sure my tutor will raise an eyebrow at my perfect stems – something never seen in my picture before.

One of the best bits of doing this picture is that I have used masking fluid for the first time to mask out the centre of the flowers (see above).  It is amazing how much easier the painting is with this technique, you can get good sweeps of colour and then you just rub out the masking fluid and add in the anthers, stamens etc – fab

Anyway, in about six weeks I may have managed to make significant progress with the leaves and stems and I may even have a consistent shade of green – something which is harder than you imagine.

Watercolour No 11 – Aquilegias


Anyone who has read my blog for a while will know that I am learning to do botanical art.  I  have been attending weekly clashes for a couple of years now.  Although the classes are only 2 hours long and there are only 8 –10 classes each term.

My latest effort has been a group of Aquilegia flowers.  As our classes are so short it doesn’t always work using live material so I have used photographs for this composition.



As you can see there has been some artistic licence as the photos were not from the same plant but as I’m not up to competition standard this really doesn’t matter.


This is my picture about a month ago before I had to start adding in the details.  This is something I find incredibly hard and its all about trying to make the picture look 3D.  So I had to add in the stamens and pollen grains, put in veins on the petals and leaves and create shadow.  The reason I find this hard is that I am quite heavy-handed and before starting these classes I was used to working with pastels on a larger scale.  Pastels are far more forgiving than watercolour – it is quite easy to achieve a muddy effect with watercolour.  However we have a very good tutor who is a freelance illustrator and teaches us all sort of tricks to achieve the results we want and to rectify our mistakes.

I know people I have shown the finished picture to think it is good and I am very pleased with it but I also know, having seen other work, that it is far from the high standard of some of my class mates and I have quite a way to go to improve the finish.  I need to get better at fine lines so I get a crisper finish, I need to be able to apply the colour more evenly and I need to learn more techniques so I can replicate different textures but I am making progress. Here is my first finished attempt – some autumn leaves.

My next challenge, I think, is going to be some ginkgo leaves from the book Seeing Trees.  The photograph I have chosen will give me the opportunity to work on my application of paint evenly and also getting my fine lines better.  Don’t hold your breath though as I doubt it will be done much before Easter 2012

A Review: Wild Flowers by Sarah Raven

I was very interested to receive an advanced information sheet from Bloomsbury Books for Sarah Raven’s new book ‘Wild Flowers’.

I have always been interested in wild flowers. I remember doing a project over the summer holidays when I was a teenager on the composition of a hedge.  The project was for a school competition and involved me looking carefully and recording all the plants in a country hedge near our house (we lived in the middle of nowhere so I was quite lonely and bored!!).  I put an awful lot of work into the project and was delighted to win first prize.

I have continued to have a basic working knowledge of British wild flowers but I know that I have forgotten an awful lot and it is one of those things that I would really like to take some time and learn about again.  My current field guide to Wild Flowers is quite old dating from the 1970s, when I was at school.  It works reasonably well especially as the plants are divided into colours which really helps with identification but all the plants are illustrated with drawings and as a would be botanical artist I know how inaccurate these can be.

From the information I have received about Sarah Raven’s Wild Flowers I think this will be a wonderful addition to the bookshelf.  The book provides portraits of 500 wild flowers all accompanied by gorgeous  photographs by Jonathan Buckley.  Each portrait has a brief introduction by Sarah, she opens the portrait of Anemone nemorosa (Wood Anemone) with “A clump of these is like a group of four and five year old girls in their tutus, going off to their first ballet lesson:”.  I think this is a wonderful description and quite atmospheric.  The portraits then record the plant type, describes the flowers, habitat, distribution and gives a brief description of the plant.

It appears from the information sheet that the plants are listed by common names such as Wood Anemone, Yellow Archangel, Fly Orchid as opposed to their latin names.  I’m not sure if this is the best approach since we all know that wild flowers often have more than one common name depending on where they grow in the country.  I would also be interested to see if other common names are listed when there is more than one and whether there is some form of index which would help people identify plants by their latin name.  My only other criticism is that this is a large book, it’s not the sort of thing you would be able to take out in the field which is a pity.  I would prefer to have a book in my bag to  refer to rather than having to pick a wild flower to take home to compare to images in the book but then I suppose you could try taking photographs.

Sarah Raven’s books are generally well received so it would be nice to think that the fans of her cooking and gardening books will embrace this new direction and in turn learn to recognise and appreciate our wild flowers.  Especially if the promised 3 part television series is as good as previous television Sarah has done.

I will certainly be dropping hints in the lead up to Christmas!

Watercolour No 10 – Iris sibirica

Finally I painting that I am really proud of but then again I am a tough critic of my own work.  It has taken quite a few lessons to finish this and there are definitely areas which I wish I had the ability to do better but compared to when I started nearly 2 years ago it is a real improvement.  Before I started my Botanical Illustration classes I wouldn’t have even considered attempting a picture like this let alone drawing an Iris.

I was really pleased with my last picture of an Iris foetidus seedhead but this latest watercolour was far more challenging with the veining on the petals and trying to make sure it looked 3D.  Its much easier to make berries look three-dimensional than petals!!

I worked from a photograph of an Iris sibirica flower which I took in my garden (below) but as the colour had been washed out a little due to the sun I also worked from some other photos.  This is a skill my tutor uses all the time when he is coming up with illustrations for books.  I find it amazing that he can take a range of photographs of a plant or currently fungi and come up with a photo.  I can copy well but struggle when I have to interpret the pictures.  Generally, we don’t use live plants as we only have 2 hours a week so it is challenging to keep the specimen going from one week to another.

My next effort is of Aquilega McKana.  I have some photographs of flower-heads in various stages of opening so am trying to compose a picture from them.  They are incredibly difficult to draw which I hadn’t appreciated until I started.  In fact drawing flowers really is an excellent way of studying plant composition and form – you have to really stop and look.

As for the Iris picture it is now framed on my Mum’s wall as I gave it to her as a birthday present.

Watercolour No 9 – Iris foetidus

Regular visitors to my blog will know that I go to an art class which is called ‘Botanical Illustration’.  However, this title is a little loose as during the 18 month I have ben going there have been pictures of chickens, squirrels,  a bird of prey and a tiger!!  Our tutor is very laid back, his attitude is that it is our class and he is there to help.  But the one over-riding thing is that we all use watercolours.

I think I am not blowing my own trumpet too  much when I say I can draw, I have always been good at copying things.  I have used pastels and I am used to doing big pictures but watercolours has always appealed as I suppose it is the complete opposite to pastels.  You have to be neat, tidy, and generally things are more precise and on a smaller scale – none of these are my fortai!!

I think this tutor is the best one I have had.  He is excellent at assessing your strengths and helping you improve bit by  bit instead of finding lots of faults and undermining your confidence.  I feel that I have slowly and surely improved over the last 18 months.  He has shown me how to do fine lines, how to blend colours and how, more importantly, to mix colours with a limited colour pallette.

I have made particular friends with two of the other women that go and I think we are the naughty part of the class and we suspect the tutor dispairs when he gets to us and this really makes the class for me.

At the top of this post is my latest effort which I am thrilled with – there was no way I could have done this 18 months ago.  I could have drawn it and probably coloured it with pencils or pastels but I would have had no idea how to do it with watercolour and to be honest I wouldnt even consider giving it a go.  I may even frame this one.

Next is another Iris. This time a close up of an Iris sibirica flower head from my garden; lots of lush blues and purples.  I may have it finished by Easter but maybe not!!


Watercolour No 8: Autumn Leaf

On looking back through the blog I have realised that I forgot to show you  my last completed watercolour picture.  I am also posting them on this blog so I can keep a record of how I am progressing.

This picture was done over two weeks classes – so just under 4 hours I suppose.  I used a method called wet on wet.  In this you do a wash as your background colour – in this case it was a yellowy orange and then you blob on the highlight colours while it is still wet.  So for this leaf I blobbed on the burnt red and greens.  By adding the additional colours while the base is still wet means that the colours merge a little and you get a nice background.  Once this is dried you can apply another thin wash over to dull down the differences between the colours.  Then it is a case of adding the details: the stems and veins. Finally with a splayed dry brush you add in some fine lines off the veins to give the impression of the lights and shades in the leaf – which after all is far from flat.

I’m not sure what the leaf is from – I chased it down in the local supermarket car park before my art class like a woman possessed.  My teacher had told me to get some leaves with lots of colour in and then I missed two weeks classes and the leaf change seemed to be a little early so there was little around to choose from.  This leaf fluttered past me, teasing me with its red, pink, orange, yellow and green.  No doubt there were people who were thinking I was a loon.  I think it might be a Liquidamber as there are some growing in the supermarket car park but if anyone has a better idea I would love to know so I can label it.

I have now moved on to an Iris seedhead which is being painted from a photograph so I can take far more time and really work on getting the fine detail right which is something I am struggling to learn.



Watercolour No 7 – Narcissus Actea bulbs

Those of you who drop into my blog on a fairly regular basis will know that I have been dabbling in botanical illustration and attending classes.  I started my second year in September and have just completed picture no 7.

I am beginning to feel less intimidated by the watercolour paint.  Although I have used pastels and acrylics in the past I was completely panic-stricken when I came to start using watercolour.  I had got it in to my head that you couldn’t build up layers or it went muddy, that it was difficult to blend and that it was difficult to remove mistakes.  I have learnt, very slowly, over the last year from my first picture that none of this is true and that watercolours are just as user-friendly once you understand them and if you have an excellent tutor as I do.

It is a joke in my class when the tutor tells me that I have to do something finely.  I’m the new girl and some of them have been going for years and produce stunning work.  Stuart, the tutor, says you need to do the roots finely – I laugh “but I’m too heavy-handed”. Much merriment ensue, but not as much as when someone sets out all their painting stuff and then realises their subject matter is still at home. Anyway I’m getting there and think the roots on the narcissus bulbs are better than the ones I did on the beetroot a while back, I have more control over the brush.  I was shocked when I started the classes that we use one brush for everything, it’s all  about control and fine points – so not me!!

Having stared  intently at the bulbs for the last three lessons I can tell you that they are truly beautiful with very complex ranges of tones and colours.  I am really pleased with my latest effort.  Next I am going to do some autumn leaves just like my first picture but hopefully as I have learnt a lot this last year I will be able to take it to a new level.


One bulb is never enough

Bulbs have been dominating my thoughts for a couple of weeks now not least because my bulb orders arrived about several weeks ago and until two days ago I hadn’t got around to opening the boxes and checking the orders.  Last weekend I was distracted with taking down hanging baskets and potting up tender plants to overwinter so this weekend was earmarked for planting bulbs.  There was only one problem I couldn’t remember where I had intended to plant the bulbs I had ordered. (Note to self – next year make a list of what you are ordering and where you are planning to put them!!).

Today I unpacked the boxes and collected up the other bags of bulbs I have bought.  (Another note to self – when buying bulbs at the Autumn Show take a pen and write on the bag of bulbs what they are this will save time when you are struggling to decide which are Narcissus Paperwhite and which Camassia Alba.)  Anyway, as I unpacked the boxes some of my plans managed to struggle back into my consciousness so I decided to start with those.

Muscari latifolium – I have planted these in the front garden amongst a strip a Alchemilla Mollis which adorn the feet of my beech  hedge.  I was pleased this year with how the Alchemilla flowers picked up the young foliage of the Beech but I wanted something to add a bit of interest earlier on.  Hopefully the Muscari will spread through this area adding some early Spring interest and then the Alchemilla foliage can cover up the decaying Muscari foliage – we will see.

Camassia Alba – as I have probably said before I want some spring interest on the slope but wanted a little height and something that wouldn’t fall over in the slightest gust of wind.  Hopefully these Camassia will do the trick.

Narcissus Hawera – these have been planted along the edge of the gravel path so their scent will be smelt when you go to the pond and also as this area gets full sun in the summer and I understand that they like that sort of environment.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ – I planted 10 of these in the border along the driveway to finish of a drift which I have been adding to over the last couple of years.  I have 5 bulbs left but I can’t decide where to put them so I’m going to grow them on in plastic pots for putting out in the border when I have a clue where they should go.

Narcissus Actaea – these have been planted in two locations in the front garden, some by the drive and the rest in the far border where hopefully the red of the ‘Pheasants Eye’ will be picked up by the red/orange Primulas I have in this border.

I still have tulips to plant but it is too early for them, some Gladiolus communis sssp byzantinus which I can’t for the life of me remember where I was thinking of planting (and there are 20!), a Erythronium dens canis ‘Snowflake’ and a bag of Narcissus Thalia.  As I am planning a lot of plant moving over the next couple of weeks I am loath to plant the Narcissus and Erythronium out yet so I think that I will pot these up for the time being until my reorganising is finished.

I am now feeling a little happier and not so guilty every time I go into the dining room and see the boxes of bulbs but it was obviously playing on my conscience as when I was getting ready for my botanical art class this week and had to come up with something to take I  took some Narcissus Actaea bulbs; after all they won’t rot for a while which will give me plenty of time to draw them.  My tutor wants me to do a detailed drawing and then apply a watercolour  wash but at least that is two less bulbs to plant out for now!