Category Archives: Media & materials

Sketchbook: My first serious attempt at abstract art

After experimenting last night, I decided to fill an A3 watercolour page with a wash using a few shades of pastel pigment picked up and applied with cotton wool. I applied the yellow and then a few shades of complementary purples and blue (see second drawing below). I was so pleased with the effect I spent some time staring at it and suddenly felt drawn to return to an idea I had in my first module of drawing a line that represents my relationship with my daughter. Except this time I was reflecting more broadly the nature of ego, identity, the hopes and fears that having children represent and the risk of projecting ourselves onto them or damaging them in some way. My mind then wandered to that first module and experiments with mark marking.

For reasons I do not entirely understand, and without really thinking too much, some ideas formed in my head of feelings I wanted to represent. I  gently used conte carre to create two lines, and then a gentle line flowing away from then. I went over what I see to represent two figures with water to darken the line. Finally I developed the cotton wool technique further and added the hot orange in the bottom right. I found this to be a deeply meaningful experience and was thrilled with the results as a representation of the mind, of hopes, fears, love, damage and everything that goes with familial relationships and the raising of children.

I wanted to continue the story so then moved onto the next drawing (see first drawing below). For me this needed to represent a stage before what I had just drawn, so I chose to separate the two figures with the warm orange to represent a divide, a thought, a hope, and the second figure bending away from that expectation and pressure.

By now I felt very absorbed and wanted to do the final stage in this to represent joy but also fear as a fragile being moves into the world and begins to find their own way – a child perhaps. I was certainly thinking of my daughter when I worked on this. I decided to reverse the colours as this is her own story, and have organic forms moving into a brighter sunset yellow to represent a dawn for her but a sunset for the parent – loss but in a positive way. Finally after pausing I added the final line in conte carre to represent the figure.

If I were to be harsh I’d say this is unlikely to score my points in high art. Who am I but a beginner using hackneyed colours to represent certain emotions with a crude technique. But if I put ego and what the external world values commercially or technically to one side and speak for me personally, then this is probably one of the most moving experiences I have had. When I laid the three drawings alongside I could see the story I wanted to convey,  I actually loved the result, and I feel there is more in this series I wanted to do to continue exploring the ideas I am thinking about at the moment.

I didn’t tell my husband what these drawings are about but asked him what he thought. He is aware I am reading about and thinking about these issues at the moment so perhaps was biased but he said he could see it was about relationships and in particular parenthood. I am going to ask a few friends who don’t know what I’m thinking about at the moment what they think this is about to see how they respond out of curiosity.

This was a strange mix of emotions – I would be interested to know if my tutor thinks this is normal – I felt very at peace afterwards but also very energised. This work suddenly means a lot to me and contains themes which I think I could spend a life time exploring, and with a technique and medium I really love. I wonder if it scales, so my next thought is to look at how I might work in larger format. This is something my tutor has encouraged and I haven’t felt strongly enough about any idea or confident enough with any media to try it yet but I feel driven to do this now.

When I got up this morning I could see even more things in the drawings that I hadn’t seen before. The figures are almost like needles and thread, like the patchwork of our lives that we weave. I have decided to title the three ‘Triptych’ because it both describes the fact it is three but the subject matter too:

“Despite its connection to an art format, the term is sometimes used more generally to connote anything with three parts, particularly if they are integrated into a single unit”. (Dictionary definition)


Sketchbook: David Blackburn, abstracting and pastels

Last weekend I was looking at a watercolour I had painted of Venice, and decided to have a go at doing it in an abstract way using the Unison pastels my husband had bought me. I didn’t really have a plan, I just decided to pick some colours I thought were complementary and try to emulate using blocks where I could see different colours, brights and darks. Below is my first pass. I hadn’t used a ruler for the horizon and being left handed I seemed to have inadvertently got the blocks sloping downwards which was frustrating. I need to remember to pause and step back more from my work when I become absorbed in it.

I straightened up the lines a little but decided it was too harsh so began to blend the edges between the blocks a little, as well as adding some rounding on the domes of the building to create more interest.

[insert picture here]

I wasn’t sure where to go next with it so decided to pause and research some more pastel techniques. This was quite nerve wracking as the Unison soft pastels go down so quickly and this was working on A3.

I aspire to create the light and warmth that David Blackburn achieves in drawings like the one below, which glow. If I only had £8,000 to buy it! A guide to pastel techniques has just arrived by post so I will experiment further before returning to my drawing.

Useful pastel sites

I am collecting together all the useful pastel resources I find into one place.



Layering with oil and acrylic

I’m a little behind with posts this week. The house is in chaos as we are decorating. Paint and more paint! It is interesting that I have become much bolder in my interior design colour choices since starting the course!

Last weekend my dad gave me a lesson in one of the painting techniques he uses which I was interested in as it involves layering with different media, and we covered layering on module one of this course. Dad and I have never spent time together on a hobby like this before so I’m thrilled we’re able to enjoy this together. We jointly painted the canvas below, sharing each task as dad explained how to do it and why.

The background suggestion of foliage is achieved by dabbing white acrylic with a screwed up paper towel, focusing a concentrated amount where the sun / moonlight needs to be bursting through the trees. Black and grey acrylics are then applied with a sponge tool and brush to create the trees, bushes and pathway. Once the acrylic dried we applied liquid clear over the canvas to allow the oil to move around the canvas freely. We then applied two different blues, green, indian yellow and crimson to add the colour. For the sun / moonlight, we gently worked additional white oil over the concentration of acrylic white, dragging a few lines out to suggest rays of light.

I was surprised how fast this method of painting is – probably 2 hours in all. It taught me you can achieve a lot by the suggestion of what you are seeing, allowing the eye/brain to fill in the rest. We discussed composition and the trees leaning in to where the path leads to draw the eye through the painting. I can see how this technique would translate to charcoal and pastel, for example gently lifting it off where you want the light to appear. I’m not sure how you would achieve this in pencil so this is something I need to go away and explore.

The challenge of finding the found object 

Collage, assemblages, found objects as valid art are all new to me since starting this course. The past three weeks I have diligently scoured the pavements as I walk the 6.2 miles every day to and from home, the station and work find papers and small items. This also leads on from my interest in layering – in this sense with items – from module one.

What a disappointing exercise! Nothing but bottles and bottle tops, drinks cans, sweet wrappers and the odd rizla packet down by the allotments where the kids smoke weed. But why? Is it a sign we are cleaner as a society? Hardly, by the volume of food and drink related detritus. I wonder if anything it is a sign we don’t write on paper as much. Brits are known for being heavy smartphone users. On only two occasions did I spot anything interesting and they were items too large to pick up so I photographed them instead – a shoe and a perfume bottle.

Happily this experience has led to an idea for a drawing but I’m still a little frustrated at the lack of interesting litter (although glad also that we are keeping our towns and cities pretty clean). I rarely wander at lunch but this week also had a stroll around London near where I work and found the same i.e. nothing but the odd food / drink wrapper or can. I read this week about Theaster Gates‘ work and how he uses items found in buildings in his locale, investing the profits in social regeneration e.g. through the Rebuild Foundation which is very impressive. This takes the concept on a level and shows beautifully how art can inspire and benefit communities using profit from found items.

Artist research: Paul Cesar Helleu

My style of using pastels and pencils is to blend. As part one of the course is focused on different types of mark making, I researched pastel artists to see if I could find any art work where the pastel-work is primarily lines. Paul Cesar Helleu (1859-1927) is mentioned in the course materials and I was delighted to find many examples of expressive use of line without much blending in his work.

I copied Helleu’s Elegant woman at the rail pastel drawing to see what I could learn. I chose black, white and brown conte chalks. I couldn’t replicate the fine line of his marks as my paper was too grainy however I still learned a huge amount from the exercise. My work-based art tutor confirmed I needed to use smoother paper, perhaps hot pressed or not paper. He also suggested using a pencil holder which helps you to draw straight lines as it reduces the impact of the curvature in lines caused by the natural movement of the wrist and arm.


As I normally draw portraits it was challenging to move onto full figures. I was surprised how long it took to get the curvature of back and waist right and it is difficult to rub out conte chalk so this was quite an unforgiving exercise. I misjudged the length of her left arm but I was pleased with the shape of her skirts. I was also surprised how much you can convey with relatively little tonal shading and detail. I am definitely enjoying this looser style of drawing. I feel more encouraged to sketch knowing I can get still a convincing sense of form and likeness in this way.

I really like Helleu’s use of line. The background lines reinforce the path of the woman’s gaze which I particularly enjoyed. The direction of the rail reinforces this. I have not thought about background lines in this way before.  My work-based art club tutor said that diagonal lines are often used in drawings of women as they are gentler and less masculine than vertical lines and confirmed.

I enjoyed the way the use of tone in this piece moves the eye gradually around the drawing. The large chunk of shadow between the woman and the rail draws the eye first so your eye naturally focused on the elegance of her waist line. The contrasting white of the arm then leads the eye up to the most delicate detail which is on the face. The darkest darks are the the collar and hat which frames the detail on the face. The black lines down her spine draw the eye down waistline, which the eye is drawn into by the curved darks on it. The eye is then drawn down by the vertical lines of the skirts. I am fascinated by how well this use of tone and line works as a composition device. I have ordered, on recommendation of my work-based art tutor, The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art so I can learn more about effective composition and inform the progression of some of my sketch book ideas.


Is drawing fine art?

My childhood enjoyment of drawing was primarily with soft pastels. They seemed more accessible and immediate than paint. I loved the texture on my fingers and the process of blending. Despite my enjoyment, for reasons I am not quite sure, I always felt somehow inferior to fellow students who could paint. In my school years there was no internet so I had no wider community of artists to tap into and my local library was not very big.

Now, some 25 or so years later, I have returned to my love of drawing and was interested to see if pastels are indeed viewed as the poor relation in the art world. So, whilst waiting for my Foundation in Drawing course materials to arrive, I devoted some spare time over Christmas 2016 to researching pastelists and how the medium has been regarded across history. In the process I discovered this gorgeous, vibrant piece by Odilon Redon, a whopping 91.44 x 132.08 cm currently held in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. I was stunned by the depth and glow of the colours.


My searching for famous pastelists revealed a plethora of incredible art which I will post about in future. My research then took a turn. I was sad to discover my gut feeling was right. Swathes of art websites state that oil is seen as the most “valuable” and collectible medium because it does not deteriorate, is easy to transport and therefore less likely to damage when pieces are moved to galleries and exhibitions. It seems this view began in the 15th century when the masters viewed drawings as preliminary sketches for paintings rather than works of art in their own right.

It is heartening to see pastelists fighting back and there seems to be many sites saying there is a resurgence of interest in pastels. I particularly enjoy the vim of Bill James who has set about doing research to educate and counter against the prevailing view. He writes on his blog:

“…pastels last longer than oils before you need to refinish them, if they need it. Because of the oil binders that are used to make oil paints, things will happen to any oil painting over time. Paintings will most likely darken with age. Along with that, if you use the wrong procedure in order to apply oils to a surface, there definitely will be problems in the future in the form of cracking. With pastels you do not have that problem because there is a minimal mixing of a binder, which is usually gum arabic or gum tragacanth. The binder will be mixed with colored pigment to form a paste, which is then rolled into sticks of pastel. Also, as with oils, there is no mixing of colors – the mixing is on the surface by applying a layer of pastel over another.

…because of the way pastels are made, they are the most permanent of all the media used to paint works of art. Because there is a lack of oil binders, there will be nothing to degrade the quality of the work itself.”

I hope in my lifetime to see the prevailing view of pastels change but given we have 500 years of history against us I do not plan to hold my breath!