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Wrens

The Eurasian Wren – Troglodytes troglodytes – it’s scientific name bearing reference to its tendency to disappear into crevices and cavities in search of food or a suitable roosting spot.  The Wren is a firm favourite with everyone.  Indeed I’ve lost count of how many I have painted over the years!  The Wren is not our smallest bird in the UK, that award goes to the Goldcrest and Firecrest, but it is sill a relatively small bird compared to everything else.  Measuring just 9 or 10cm and weighing between 7 and 12g what it lacks in size and weight it makes up for in personality and numbers.  There are estimated to be over 8.5 million breeding pairs here in the UK and I bet, even if you don’t realise it, you will have heard them sing at some point.  For such a tiny bird they have an incredibly loud voice.

Wrens are resident in our country all year round so you never really know when you may see one hopping about in the garden or whilst out on a walk.  Whilst a small brown bird, they actually have beautiful markings on their plumage.  Their body is quite dumpy, with both short wings and a short tail.  The latter is often held in a cocked position – one of the wren’s most familiar poses.  They eat insects and spiders and have a narrow, relatively long beak which is ideal for getting into all those nooks and crannies where a tasty meal may be hiding.

Wrens can be found in a wide variety of habitats, they are found in low numbers on really high ground, tending to favour woodlands, gardens, farms, moorland and heathland.  Their small body size and limited fat reserves mean they are particularly susceptible to very cold weather, so when the weather turns cold they turn to one another for warmth and will huddle together to roost and see out the worst of the weather.  The record seems to be 61 birds counted in one box in Norfolk in 1969.  Just imagine that!  Come the spring and the warmer weather the males are much less tolerant of one another and will strongly defend their territories.  They set about building a selection of unlined nests with which they court the female.  When the female finds a home that meets her expectations she lines it with soft feathers and lays usually between 5 and 6 small white, finely speckled eggs.  Each is just 17mm in length.  The male in the meantime maybe courting additional females!

Not a great example but gives an idea of a wren's nest

Nests vary in location and in the material they are made from.  The nest in the photo is tucked behind an ivy branch and is constructed of bracken, we’ve seen them made with moss and straw and tucked in a variety of little places.  Jo’s Mum even had a nest in her tumble drier outlet pipe…..!  The young hatch at around 16 days and remain in the nest for 2 – 2.5 weeks.  After this time they may return to the nest to roost or may use one of the male’s spare nests instead.  They are mainly cared for by the female although occasionally a male may help with the rearing of the brood.

The female can be as vocal as the male at times, warning off anything that comes near her nest or young.  Many a time we have been walking along our local lanes and we hear the tut-tutting of a wren and then the tiny little high pitched noise of fledglings in amongst the hedgerow.  They move about like little mice and can be difficult to catch sight of.  You very often hear them before you see them.  There are apparently 88 species of wren.  I’ve painted 3 of them!  I guess I need to get a wriggle on if I am to paint the other 85!

I hope you have enjoyed this blog as much as I have enjoyed writing about one of my favourite little birds.  I’ve saved the best to last in the hope that you have read this far.  About a week ago we caught movement in one of the cameras in our bird boxes.  We looked up and this is what we saw……

We were totally thrilled with this and it definitely won over the TV for viewing that night.  Anyway, must get on, I have 85 other species of wren to get painted……
Until the next time.
Keep them brushes wet.  Paul 🙂

A Caracal in watercolour

Whilst preparing some Facebook posts I came across some work in progress (WIP) shots of the caracal kitten painting that I completed several years ago. Since working on this painting I have really refined how I achieve realistic hair and fine detail on animals. Some of my techniques and materials have changed, but looking at these old photos they still give a good overview on how to tackle a project like this.
Initially I start from a really good reference photo, this one was taken by our friend Emma Rose Buck and my grateful thanks to her for allowing me to work from it. 
The first stage is to get the image transferred to my watercolour paper, I use Bockingford and for the kitten I would have used the old fashioned method of covering the back of my printed image with pencil and tracing over the top. I’ve now discovered graphite paper which really speeds up this process!

For anyone who follows my work you will know that I love working on animal eyes, a cat’s in particular are full of depth and interest so once I had applied a loose background wash the eyes were the next stage to this painting. It is important to retain the vibrancy of colour within the eye, but at the same time there needs to be highlights and hints of glassiness to make them look real.

As long as I am happy with the eyes I will move on to applying some foundation washes to the rest of the cat. These give a basis to work off for the fur and can be varied and darkened with additional layers to really develop the form and shape. In the photo below you can see that I have added some white highlights. Unlike many watercolourists I tend not to reserve the white of the paper, preferring to add the highlights as my last layer with white paint. These days I almost always use SAA opaque white watercolour, but in the days of painting the caracal I would have probably been using white acrylic or even gouache. They all work, the watercolour white is more difficult to get right, so you may want to use one of the other options, but it is all a matter of personal preference.

I tend to work in sections on any painting, usually starting with the head and moving across and down my subject. It ensures you are not always fighting drying times and allows you to really concentrate on an area and fine tune it. However, it is really important to keep stepping back and viewing your work as a whole project – making sure that all the different sections work together and are in proportion and the right colour. In the photo below, I am gradually building the layers of detail on the head, working from light to dark and finishing off with the white. Again it is personal preference how many layers you add, there are no hard and fast rules.

Below you can see the next stage of the painting where I have added the white to the forehead area – it really does start to bring it to life. Should the white seem too intense try watering it down a little more so it dries duller or alternatively in one pass of your brush, introduce a weak wash of colour over the top to tint it.

The second ear is worked in exactly the same way and blended in to match the areas that have already been completed. When working on a reasonable size project like this, where the colour is quite uniform over large areas, always make sure that you mix up enough paint. Nothing worse than running out and having to try and remember what you did to create a particular tone!

Applying layer upon layer of fur can be a very time consuming process, often with the under layer I will use a home made replicator brush. This is similar to, but not as uniform as, a rake brush. It allows me to paint several small lines at once and cover a large area much more quickly. However, the result can look too even, as if it has been combed, so it is a technique that I only use on layers that are underneath and forming the depth rather than the visible detail.

When you are near to completing a painting it is often a good idea to take a complete break away from your work. Take yourself off for a cuppa and come back with fresh eyes, you are likely to spot areas that you need to work on or adjust. This could well be sections that you were previously unable to see whilst you were so involved in the painting process.
Hope you enjoyed this overview of my caracal painting, until the next time – keep those brushes wet! Paul 😉

Understanding Watercolour – Part 2

For Part 2 we will touch upon three more terms many manufacturers use for their paints; lightfastness, hue and granulation.  I will try to explain in my non-jargon way what they are all about, hope you are sitting comfortably, my rambling is about to begin!

Lightfastness or Permanence
This refers to the likelihood of a colour fading or maybe discolouring when exposed to sunlight – as simple as that!  The manufacturers notes on this are just guidelines but worth thinking about if you intend on displaying a painting in direct sunlight.  Protecting your precious work behind glass and ensuring everything used in the mounting and framing process is acid free will certainly prolong your painting’s life.  Whilst there will inevitably be some changes to the colours eventually, don’t hide your work away in a dark corner of a room simply to preserve them, put it out on display it and enjoy it.  
It is worth noting that all manufacturers have their own way of describing the lightfastness or permanency of their colours. The two examples below give you some idea on what to look for on your tube. It could be a star, dot, letter etc.

Hue
The word hue has many different meanings within the art world.  The most obvious use of the word would be to describe all the paints you have in one particular colour range – all your greens have a green hue, all your yellows have a yellow hue etc.  

Yellow Hues

Secondly, on a paint tube or pan it can refer to a man-made colour which can give you a constant consistency of exactly the same colour over all the batches that are made.  Hues are generally mixed from different pigments to replicate old historical and well known colours.  Maybe the pigments for the original colours are now known to be toxic (cadmiums, ceruleans) or perhaps they are no longer readily available.  To keep artists happy they remain within the manufactured ranges but have the word hue on the label.   By manufacturing the colours, the lightfastness of them can sometimes be improved and the pigments are very likely to be of, shall we say, more of an affordable price! 

Thirdly the word hue is used to describe the grade of paint.  This links with last week’s blog when I talked about how much pigment was used within a paint.  In some of the cheaper brands there is more binder used, so whilst the colour stays the same it will take more working up in the palette and will be less intense on the paper.  Often these lower grade paints are not as lightfast and do not do so well over time.  I would recommend that once you can afford to move from the student / budget paints to the more professional grade ones that you do so.  I think you will notice a difference in your work and your paintings will be more likely to stand the test of time.

Have you ever noticed that some colours do have slight variations of a name, such a Gamboge and gamboges hue, now you know why.

Granulation
I’m sure you have noticed over time that some paints can leave quite a grainy texture when they dry. This is referred to as granulation or a granulating colour. French ultramarine is a classic for this and can give you some lovely effects, especially for skies!  I find other colours such as burnt sienna and burnt umber will often do the same.
So what creates this nice surprise?  It is all to do with the pigment particles – in some colours the pigments tend to cling together, this in turn creates an uneven wash.  When you have finer ground pigments the granulation will be much less obvious and you can create those smooth washes you might be after.
Over time you will get to know your paints, and you will know the ones that are going to granulate.  Should you be using some extremely expensive hot pressed paper and you would really prefer to know in advance what is going to happen, it’s worth checking out your manufacturer’s web site for the particular colours. They all make their paints in different ways, and mix their pigments to their own ‘recipe’, so the ‘same’ colour from two different makers will not necessarily react the same on your paper…..beware!

Have a play with your colours on a piece of medium textured watercolour paper and see which granulate.
I would love to hear how you get on with your paint testing, what makes and colours in your collection granulate?

Until our next blog remember to keep those brushes wet and bye for now,
Paul 🙂

Understanding Watercolour

We know that watercolour is a very popular medium from its simple concept, painting with coloured water; to the intensity of colour that can be achieved, to its amazing transparencies that can give your paintings that sparkle of life and clarity.

However there are quite a few terms which are used by manufacturers regarding the properties of their paints which can be confusing and maybe even off-putting.  Do they fade in the sun or are they ‘lightfast’, are they transparent or opaque, what’s all this about pigment and granulation and what on earth is a series?!

I hope my ramblings clear up some of these very arty words and help you to choose the right type of paint for the paintings you wish to create.

Transparency & Opacity
Watercolour is classed as transparent when it allows the white of the paper to show through from underneath. Transparent colours are great for layering over other transparent colours in order to achieve deeper tones.  Layering a transparent colour over itself will work in exactly the same way.  Transparent colours are used quite a lot by botanical artist to create some amazing soft layers in their flower and plant paintings.  
An opaque version of a paint will basically mean that it doesn’t allow much in the way of colour through from underneath.  So if you paint it over another colour, that colour stands very little chance of showing through.
As you know, I use opaque white for many of my paintings, this allows me to paint over some of the darkest areas for fine hairs, eye highlights and so on.
I usually class the transparency levels in three ways, transparent, semi-transparent and opaque.  When you have got a few spare minutes, maybe have a play with your own palette and work out how transparent each of your colours is or take a look at the packaging/tubes and see what they say.  This will really help you when you come to layer them in your work

Pigment
Basically pigment is what gives your paint its colour, it is held together with the use of a binder. The cost of the paint will reflect:
– The amount of pigment used within the binder
– How rare the pigment is and how much it costs to produce and include.  This can vary considerably from pigment to pigment.
– The quality of the binder used

Paints with richer, more concentrated pigments will give you the ability to mix your colours more easily.  As a consequence you will use less paint to obtain the same depth of colour.  You can work up lesser quality paints to achieve the same depth of colour, but you will use more paint and it will take slightly longer to apply all the layers needed.

Paint very often comes in what is called a series, this is because the colours cost different amounts to produce.
When you look on a tube of paint or a pan wrapper there is often a number or a letter displayed. The higher the number/letter the more expensive the paint is to produce as they can, for instance, have rarer pigments inside them.
So for example you may find cadmium yellow from the Winsor & Newton Professional range is Series 4 and burnt sienna is Series 1.  For the manufacturer they do not charge the same for each of their paints when they cost different amounts to produce.  Cadmium yellow is more expensive to produce than burnt sienna and therefore in all the ranges it will likely be more expensive.
So to add to the confusion, when you look at prices based on series number, a cheaper price doesn’t mean that a colour is any poorer in quality, it just means that it is less expensive to produce……now if you understand all that you are doing better than me!  

Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolours

Buy some paints, try them out, swap them with a friend and try theirs out,  Find the ones that suit you and your style of painting.  I very often say ‘buy the best you can afford’ and this is the reason why.
So there you go a little about transparencies, opacity, pigments and series.
Which paints do you use and how are they marked up for transparency and series? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.
Till the next time, keep them brushes wet!  Paul

Watercolour Paper Types

There are so many different makes and variations of watercolour paper.  They vary in  thickness, size, quality and texture.   Each one will have its own unique properties and each will react individually to the application of paint and water on the surface. There are many makes out there from Frisk, Arches, Winsor & Newton, Saunders Waterford and many more.  My personal preference is Bockingford mainly because I am used to how it reacts with the paints and it is always tough to replace a tried and tested favourite!

Paper Surfaces
There are generally three different surfaces to choose from; these are rough, cold pressed (NOT) and hot pressed.
Rough – This is the type of paper to use for a loose way of painting. You will find many landscape artists use this to help create interest within their paintings by dragging a nearly dry brush across the texture of the paper, giving a bumpy, broken effect.
Hot Pressed – This is very often a preferred choice for botanical and wildlife artists, the surface means you can add the finest of detail with the smallest of brushes. A very smooth paper for those finer paintings, created, as its name suggests, by running the paper through hot rollers.
Cold Pressed – This paper sort of sits in the middle and has a medium texture and is ideal for those finer marks, but with the addition of a slightly textured effect. I do find this better for large washes and is my preferred paper choice

Paper ingredients
There are generally two different types of paper used by watercolour artists one made from wood pulp and the other made from cotton.  Cotton is the most expensive as the excellent fibres give you a lovely surface to work on.  Wood pulp papers are usually machine made resulting in a repetitive pattern texture. Whereas the cotton papers are mould made using a cylindrical roller which give the paper a more random but even texture. 
There are choices from loose paper which may need stretching if used for large washes, spiral bound and my favourite ‘blocks’, which are glued all the way around other than a small gap where you can slice the paper off from the pad using a palette knife.

Sizing
This doesn’t refer to the actual size of the paper as that’s another topic!  Sizing is the solution which is added to the paper to stop it acting like blotting paper allowing the paint to remain on the surface.
The mid to top range papers have a gelatine added to the mix at the pulp stage this type of sizing goes all the way through the paper. Wood pulp papers very often have the sizing added on to the top of the surface after the paper is made.

Paper weights
Paper is usually measured in pounds (lbs) or grams per square meter (gsm).  140lb and 300lb weights are the most preferred by artists. The 300lb doesn’t normally need stretching, is much thicker but also much more expensive!
The general rule is that any papers under the weight of 200gsm will generally need stretching.
Your paper will need to withstand multiple washes and removal of paint.  A good watercolour paper can withstand this sort of brush and liquid abuse, whereas cheaper end papers can tend to fall apart on the surface.

Stretching paper
You would normally start by soaking your paper for a few minutes in a bowl or even a bath tub depending on the paper size. The actual time you do this for requires a bit of guess work, I’ve soaked an A4 sheet for approximately 4 minutes – but with all the different types this will vary depending on brand.
There are quite a few ways you can stretch watercolour paper, you can use a commercially made stretcher which works really well by anchoring down the wet paper on all four sides (a good investment).
Another method is after wetting the paper to pop it down onto a piece of thick board and gently use a soaked sponge to lightly take out any bubbles underneath.  Tape the paper down with gum tape (the type you wet only once otherwise you may take away some of the adhesive strength) and add a few staples around the edge.

So there you go, that’s a little something about papers ….. ok I do go on a bit!
At the end of the day I always say ‘buy the best you can afford’ which is the same for the paints you use.  Get used to the brand but don’t be afraid to try something new or swap with a friend and see if you prefer it.  You never know where your next favourite will come from!
Do you stretch your own papers what method do you use?

Until the next time, keep those brushes wet!  Paul