Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Wishing you a Happy Christmas !

The blog will be having a little break over the Christmas period, but I just wanted to say a big thank you !
I really appreciate the support you have given me with the Natural Year Blog.  It is great to know that so many people can take an interest in the natural world and art across the world.
Christmas blessings and happiness to you all.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Drawing & Painting Nature (ii) - from museum specimens

There are many of us that love drawing and painting nature, but actually getting out there and building up field sketches can be difficult, especially if mobility is an issue, but also some species are rare or difficult to see.  Also, we may have to complete a commission and need to research for this.

Drawing from photos is ok, but you cannot really get the feel of the animal concerned, its form, proportions, the way it moves, its behaviours, true coat or plumage colour etc  These all go to making up a really good composition.

When I worked as an Ecologist doing wintering bird surveys (wildfowl and waders), there was never any time for sketching of course, but I spent hours identifying different birds and watching their behaviour, sometimes through a telescope, and this all helped to lay those foundations for accurate observation.

In the old days - not doing a bird survey, but watching Harbour porpoises in Scotland
So where else can we observe nature ?  We can of course visit wildlife parks and zoos, but it can be daunting standing or sitting there sketching with people peering over your shoulder.
The other resource available to us are museums.  The specimens are of course stationary (which is a help) and in some cases you may be able to 'go behind the scenes' and draw from their collections not on display. 
In today's world of budget cuts, some natural science collections do not have a specific person responsible for them, so arranging access to collections can be an issue if that person's time is limited.
I am very lucky to have access to a Museum Services natural science collection and over the last few months I have been able to spend several visits sketching insects and birds, with many other items still on my wish list, including fossils too !

Stag Beetles and Rose chafer beetles
So the aim of this blog post is to give you some hints, tips and interesting facts about using museum collections as subject matter.
  • Approach a museum service with a flexible approach in terms of when you can visit.  Be aware that if the staff have other short-notice commitments, these may have to take priority.
  • Be aware of what you are wearing.  If you have to handle specimens or move boxes some clothing can get in the way.  When I first visited, I was in the habit of putting my glasses on my head when I didn't need them - if you are peering over drawers of delicate insects this is a complete no no, you can imagine the damage if your glasses were to fall.
  • Follow instructions of the staff when handling specimens.  If you are not sure ASK. 
  • I was able to take this Stag Beetle out of the drawer, but I had to make sure it was pinned to a piece of the special foam.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling specimens.
  • Some specimens may be extremely old and therefore their condition may not be perfect.  Usually they are still useful in some way.  Sometimes if there is more than one specimen of a particular species, using several of them together to get the information you need for your study is a good idea.
  • Bird specimens will have been posed in a particular position and bear in mind that if using an older specimen, this pose may not be truly accurate. This may be due to the taxidermist not having been familiar with the species, or it may have been posed by a less experienced or 'hobby' taxidermist, as some of them were in the past.
  • You will often find that those specimens created and posed in Victorian times may not be as accurate as some of those posed in more modern times, such as the 1970's when taxidermy was still taking place.

  • Remember the specimens will have glass eyes, especially the birds.  So take this into consideration.  They can appear somewhat stark, so if you can look at photos or actual birds to get the feel and accuracy of a natural eye.
  • The plumage on this Tawny owl was in excellent condition and I could really observe the details and pattern, as well as formation of the wing feathers.

  •  There were several specimens of Kingfishers that had been posed in different behavioural positions - diving and flying, this was a great help.
  • Be aware that space may be limited.  It maybe a good idea to take a limited painting kit, very much like a painting field-kit.  Although you can see above that my paintbox was rather big !
  • Remember to take other useful items, such as a magnifying glass and of course a camera.

I realise of course this may not suit everyone, and you may not be happy with handling what are dead animals.  One thing to bear in mind is that even though many specimens were collected in a time when it was considered 'fashionable' and the only way to increase knowledge as an amateur naturalist, they have quite often been gifted to the museum service as a result of a benefactor's passing, in some cases several generations later.

It is far better to keep such collections together, rather than spilt them up and sell them for profit.  Using them for educational purposes, in whatever way has got to be more positive.  I know when I visit the museum service, they are just thrilled that the collections stored away are benefiting me in my development as an artist.

As a treat here is a video of my latest sketch completed this week.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

A purple problem !

For me purples can be a bit of a problem, I can never seem to get that really rich purple colour that I am trying to achieve, particularly the rich velvety purples that you see in pansies.  Also when requiring more of a rich blue-violet mix too.
You may wonder why I am concerned about this in the middle of winter ?  I ran out of time in the summer with one of my paintings - of Round-headed rampion.  This is a plant found on chalk grassland and can be seen on Old Winchester Hill in Hampshire, as well as a few other sites in the South Downs National Park.  So I need to get this painting finished using field sketches and photographs.

But what purple to use ?  When I mix my own initially the mix looks perfect, but then it dries a little dull.  Sandrine Maugy has also mentioned this in her book 'Colours of Nature' and goes onto say that this is a common problem with purples.

When I first started painting with watercolours, way back in the depths of time, I would always turn to Dioxazine violet based purples (PV23).  Over the years there has been much discussion about the lightfastness reliability of this pigment, so I have steered clear of it for a long time.  If you would like to read more about this issue, the Handprint website goes into more details.

One suggestion is to use either Indanthrene blue (PB60) or Ultramarine blue (PB29) mixed with Quinacridone violet (PV19).  (Upon further research I have discovered that Daniel Smith's Imperial purple contains these pigments PV19 & PV29 - so maybe that is worth a try ?)

Those of you that have followed by blog for a while, know that I am fascinated with colour and its properties.  I know I work with a limited palette of 6 colours for teaching, but what I call my 'studio palette' has far more colours in it, that of course I am always willing to add to !  The 6 colours form my 'foundation palette' and the others are often used alongside.

So it was with delight that I thought I may have found a solution to the 'purple problem'.

Daniel Smith's Primatek range of paints have some gorgeous colours, some of which granulate, which can be an advantage when painting some subjects.  These paints originate from naturally occurring pigments.  One of these is Amethyst genuine.

So yesterday I excitedly started doing a few colour tests and these are the results.

Left: Amethyst genuine mixed with Winsor blue red shade (W/N), Indanthrene blue (W/N) and French Ultramarine (W/N)
Right: Amethyst genuine mixed with Anthaquinoid red (D/S), Permanent rose (W/N), Old Holland magenta (O/H)
  The mixes retained their strength even once dried and produced a nice range of blue-based violets and red-based violets.  This colour is meant to granulate, but I found in stronger mixes of colour the granulation wasn't that obvious in the final results, but was more visible in lighter washes.

I thought a solution had been found, but once I looked closer I noticed that there was a slight sparkle to the dried areas of paint.  This is common with several of the Primatek colours because of the natural pigment qualities.  But do I really want a sparkling Round-headed rampion ???

The naturally occurring sparkle to some lovely purples !
One thing to bear in mind, is that I am likely to produce cards and prints from the finished painting, so the sparkle will be a hindrance rather than a help in the reproduction process.
I have decided to keep on investigating and may well try Daniel Smith's Imperial purple next.
It would be great to hear of any of your favourite purple mixes, and I will let you know how I get on with my next purple challenge.
Happy painting !

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Drawing & Painting Nature (i) - Butterflies & Moths

I thought that we could do with some memories of the summer as we progress through the winter, in whatever part of the world we may be in.

My camera is always close by my side, although I must admit nowadays it seems to be my camera phone.  We seem to be able to catch images of nature in an instant, and this has certainly been the case for butterflies and moths.  Whether it be when I am out for a walk, in the garden or even looking at the few dead specimens I have.

These colourful and fascinating creatures certainly do brighten up the summer and at the end of the season I am always left with a collection of images that I would like to incorporate into my artwork.

But how to go about drawing and painting from the images ?  I think the best thing for me to do is to break my approach down into stages:

  • Find out the species of butterfly/moth.  Ensure that you have correctly identified it.
  • If you are drawing and painting from photographs, ensure that you reproduce the drawing to the correct scale.  Find out the measurements and proportions of the species, before you even put pencil to paper.
  • If you only have one image, look at other images in books and on the internet to ensure that you have the right characteristics.  Remember that there may be colour differences, dependant on the quality of your image.  The patterns and colours may also differ between the sexes of the same species.
  • Do not just work from one image, use several to refer to.
  • In some instances, especially when drawing from a set dead specimen, you can draw one side of the butterfly and then flip it and trace it to draw the other side.  The symmetry of butterflies is great, but one thing to remember is that this will be more difficult to portray when using a photo as reference, due to perspective of the wings and the position the butterfly/moth may be in.

This Painted lady can be considered symmetrical, take note of how the pattern on the wings is identical on each side.  The red line acts as a central-axis from which to start the drawing.
  • Once the thorax and abdomen are drawn, draw the outline of the wings.  As well as using geometric shapes to help guide you (as above), you can also create other shapes, some forming a figure of 8.
 You can see the blue line depicting a figure of 8 over this image of an Orange-tip butterfly.  This helps to get the proportions of the wings correct.  I am also always comparing where things are in relation to each other e.g distance and angles between two features.

Again, with this image of a Peacock butterfly, you can see a figure of 8 in place to act as a guide.
  • Once the outline is in place the next very important step is to draw in the venation of the wings.  This is essential as these lines will act very much like a map, and if drawn correctly will guide you as to where each marking goes.
The venation is quite clear on this slightly battered specimen of a Swallowtail, and you can see clearly how this would help you define where the markings need to go.

  • Now onto the painting.  There are various techniques to use when painting butterflies, but the most important thing of all is to get the correct colour match.  Again, if working from photos make sure you work from several and research to find out the most likely match.
  • Butterflies and moths are often hairy on the abdomen, thorax and the base of the wings.  Once the main features and wings of the butterfly are painted, I then work on this hairy detail last of all, using a small spotter brush.  I often mix a little permanent white gouache in with the watercolour too.  The paint is then applied using a hatching technique which helps to portray the texture of the hair.

This section from my 'Circle of Habitats - Grafham Water NR' illustration, shows several butterflies and also a moth.  You can see the hairy and textured abdomen and thorax of the Tortoiseshell butterfly and also the more subtle texture on the Common blue butterfly (right).
Another painting technique used is stippling.  This is useful to use when depicting some of the markings.  It has to be remembered that each of the butterfly wings are made up of tiny scales, so a solid shape of colour would not necessarily portray this.
This Speckled Wood butterfly from the same illustration is composed of mainly browns and neutral colours.  It would be very easy to paint sections of the wings in solid colour, but even on such a small area, there are still going to be tonal variations, dependant on where the light is hitting the specimen and the individual scales too.  So it is just as important to build up areas of colour gradually from light to dark.
I hope this has given you a good starting point in illustrating butterflies and moths from photos.  There are many natural history illustrators with years of experience of illustrating Lepidoptera, so here are a few of the artists that inspire me, with links to their websites.
Tim Freed
There are also several conservation organisations here in the UK and also overseas, that help to conserve butterflies and moths, by taking part in research projects, monitoring programmes and also maintaining valuable habitats for these species.

In 2015 I will be teaching a workshop for the Society of Floral Painters on the theme of drawing & painting butterflies and other insects.
In addition there will also be another exciting opportunity to come and paint these subjects at a Natural History Illustration Summer School, that I will be teaching in the summer of 2015.
News of this and another summer school will be launched in the New Year - watch this space ! 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A few of my favourite things ..... from my studio

I belong to some  fantastic art themed groups on Facebook, where we share images of our work, ask for advice, talk about art materials; and one of the things we like most is probably seeing and chatting about what we have in our studios. 

Several people have also asked me which Daniel Smith paints I use, so I thought that I would combine this and a few of my favourite things from my studio into a blog post.  I hope you enjoy it.

Brush Pots 

I always make use of favourite mugs that are of no use anymore for my brushes and pencils, but the three I use most are seen here.

The white mug was my Grandfather's RAF mug from the second world war.  He was always a great supporter of my artwork and interest in the natural world, so it is nice to think I have something of his in the room where I seem to spend the most time !

The other two pots/stands have been made by my husband and were some of the first things he made when he took up wood-turning.  The tall pot is made of teak, which was quite a tough wood to turn, and the other brush stand is a piece of birch that had seen better days, but I loved the pattern of the grain and the other markings in it.


Over time I have used a variety of brushes, but I always come back to my favourites, the Isabey 6228 series.  They are made of Kolinsky sable and are of fantastic quality.  I find they are very hard-wearing and really keep their points well.

As I am using my brushes all the time and it is hard to keep track of which ones are the newest ones, I try to put a label on the bottom of each saying when I bought them.  Hence why it says 'Aut 13' meaning Autumn 2013.  The ones I use most obviously wear more quickly and it is easier to tell.

I also love using Rosemary Spotter brushes Series 323.  These too are Kolinsky sable.

They are designed to be used for miniature painting, but many botanical and natural history artists use them for rendering fine controlled detail.

Pencil Sharpener

Fair enough, you can't take this pencil sharpener when sketching in the field, it would weigh your bag down a bit !  In that instance I use a scalpel to sharpen my pencil.

This is what I use in the studio and during my classes.  It gives a wonderful long point to the pencil.

The advantage to using a sharpener like this is that the sharpening mechanism actually revolves around the pencil.  This means that the pencil is not being twisted whilst being sharpened and there is less likelihood the core of the pencil being broken.


I have many botanical and natural history books.  Field guides, floras, but also art books on these themes.  They are often catalogues from exhibitions, but also include art history books too.

My all time favourite set of books is 'Drawings of British Plants' by Stella Ross-Craig.

What attracts to me these is the clear and detailed illustrations which I so often refer to when illustrating native plants.  I may not be illustrating the whole plant, but being able to see what a small botanical feature actually looks like, helps to me understand the true morphology of the plant.

My natural history collection

Much of this I have collected myself or it has been given to me.

I have numerous boxes filled with bits and pieces that I use for my workshops and courses and for my own illustrations or commissions.

My young nieces are mesmorised by it all and have already caught the bug of illustrating nature in their own sketchbooks.


Last but not least onto the paints !  When I teach I use a limited palette of 6 colours divided into warm and cool colours, but the box on the left is what I call my 'studio box'.

It contains the 6 key colours but also includes other colours that I use when needed, and also some colours by Winsor and Newton, Schminke and Sennelier.

Once my students are confident with the 6 colours and realise the array of colours that they can mix, they too gradually introduce some of these additional colours.  It may for example be that they find that they need an alternative to the warm red, or the same for the cool blue.

I must say that my favourite brand of paint at the moment are Daniel Smith paints.  They are such smooth and easy to use colours, although when I first used them I soon realised that the you don't need to pick up quite so much colour from the palette with your brush, compared to some other brand of paints. 

When I first discovered DS paints a few years ago, I bought some of the Primatek colours.  These are colours that are natural mineral based colours and therefore retain the characteristics and quality of the original mineral pigment.

They really lend themselves to painting natural objects and landscapes too.  Many of these colours do granulate, which you don't always want I know, but this can be an advantage for particular subjects.

I try to ensure that the paints I use consist of single pigments, but there are a few that that do contain several pigments.  These are not colours that I use on a regular basis, but when I do use them I try not to mix them with too many other colours, otherwise it is very easy to end up with a 'muddy' wash.

So if you are wondering about what colours to choose, I thought it a good idea to categorise some of the colours into warm and cool, and in some cases give an equivalent colour.

Cool yellow
Hansa yellow light - a good alternative to a lemon-based yellow

Warm yellow
New gamboge - available in other brands, but this one is transparent
Quinacridone gold

Cool red
Anthraquinoid red - a good alternative to perm alizarin crimson, but slightly richer in intensity

Warm red
Pyrrol red - a semi-transparent colour which is a good alternative to a cadmium red
Perylene scarlet - a vivid red which is also semi-transparent.  DS say that it granulates, but I have never noticed this.

The two warm reds above are perfect for painting rose-hips and poppies.

Cool blue
Cerulean blue - the great thing about DS Cerulean blue is that it is semi-transparent.  In other brands it is often opaque.

Warm blue
Cobalt blue - the same applies for this colour as for the colour above, it is semi-transparent rather than opaque

Other colours
Other DS colours that I find useful are:

Rhodonite genuine - a very gentle pink

Transparent Pyrrol orange - a vivid rich orange, great for autumnal subjects

Raw umber - a great brown to have in your palette, semi-transparent, but a different colour raw umber than to other brands

Buff titanium - Yes it is opaque, but handy to have for painting fungi and shells

Undersea green - Sometimes I do use ready-made greens, and this is a good one to have.  It does granulate, but I found that very useful when I was illustrating a Medlar fruit.  The granulation helped to portray the subtle texture of the fruit, especially when the colour was mixed with quinacridone gold.

Sap green - a handy one to have in the palette when you are in a rush for a green !  It works well when mixed with other colours, although you do have to be careful as it is made up of three pigments

Indigo - In the past I have at times steered clear of Indigo as it often contains a black pigment.  This one does along with a blue pigment, but an advantage is that it is transparent

Well I must get back to my painting.  I'm still working on that fungi painting, which I really do hope I finish this week !

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Further fungi .....

I mentioned in a previous post in October, how I had started a painting of fungi.

The species originate from an area of woodland in the New Forest, which is in the county of Hampshire, UK.

This is just a quick post to update you on the progress of the painting. Three more species have been illustrated with a few more still to go.

The species are Sulphur tuft (top right), Cortinarius sanguineous (lower right), and a tiny Amethyst deciever (left).

On another note, my exhibition has been well attended and several paintings have sold.  The exhibition is on at Hardings Picture Framing and Gallery in Warsash until 18th November.

I'll be painting again in the gallery on Friday 14th November from 10.30am - 3.00pm.  The image for the new blog banner above was taken in the gallery last week, painting sand dollars in my sketchbook.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

2nd Solo Show & In Praise of Picture Framers

Today my second solo show opened to the public at Hardings Picture Framing and Gallery in Warsash near Southampton.  The exhibition is open 4th - 18th November.

I feel incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to exhibit at Hardings, it is somewhere that I have visited for the last twenty years, most importantly for framing requirements.

There have been periods of absence, normally when my previous careers have meant that there was no time for painting, hence no pictures to frame.

Each time I have been back, Jeremy, the owner and framer is always there to offer advice and make new suggestions.  He has got used to the requirements of framing botanical art and the criteria I have to adhere to for exhibiting with the national and international societies.

For many years, I have used a plain oak flat frame, quite narrow, but which seems to never date.  This has tended to suit both botanical and natural history artwork.

What has been most exciting in the lead up to this most recent exhibition has been the anticipation in seeing how some of my latest pieces have been framed.  Most of these have not been botanical and I was thrilled with the results (I didn't know how they were going to be framed). 

I thought I would take you on a 'close-up' trip of some of the frames that Jeremy has created.

These two paintings are acrylics on a natural linen canvas board.  These are two of my favourite pictures in the exhibition, and that is down to the framing.  The canvas boards have been attached with acid free tape hinges and placed on mountboard.  What really helps to show these paintings off is the wide border to the mountboard and placing them in box frames.  The colour of the wooden frames compliments the colours of the canvas and the painted natural objects.  Finally, anti-reflective glass has been used, which makes it almost feel as though there is no glass at all.

Again, with this picture the mountboard is nice and wide, and this is enhanced by using a wide frame.  The colour of the frame is just right, and although is dark in nature, the distressed grey effect really does match the soft greys and black in the Jay's feathers.
Following the theme of wide mounts and frames, this frame also has a distressed effect, but is paler in colour.
For the Stag Beetle painting this dark frame perfectly matched the warm black of the beetle and the box frame makes it feel as though you are almost looking into a cabinet of curiosities.
My Quail's eggs painting has proved popular in the past, so here is mark ii (top picture).
Dream Eggs is at the bottom and these pale but warm coloured wide frames, draw your eye into the subjects.
So, tips for artists on finding and working with your framer:
  • As well as supporting local business, using a framer near to home can help to cut transport costs down (if you can find one nearby).
  • When visiting a framer for the first time, look to see the range and variety of frames that they stock, as well as mountboard.
  • A good framer will listen to you, rather than dictate what frame should be used.
  • Vice versa, listen to your framer.  He or she may come up with new suggestions for frames or even the proportions your mount should be.
  • They may even be able to order in a particular frame that they do not hold generally in stock.
  • A good framer will be up to date with the latest framing trends and framing techniques, for example using slips, French mounting etc.
  • If you are an artist needing framing done on a regular basis, ask if there is any chance of a discount.
  • Some framers will make up a frame for you with backing board, glass and mount, at a reduced price, if you are happy to frame the picture yourself.  (This can be stressful though, especially when there is a tiny bit of fluff behind the glass when you have just sealed it up !)
Lastly, appreciate your framer, and if you are pleased with the work, spread the word.  We all need to help each other.
Thank you to Jeremy and Claire for all of their support in bringing this exhibition together.
So, the exhibition is on until Tuesday 18th November, during normal shop opening hours.
I will painting in the gallery on Thursday 6th November and Friday 14th November 10.30am - 3.00pm
Hardings Website

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Autumn Ramble and further fungi .....

Yes, I am back after a short break.  This time of year is certainly a busy one.  The residential course at the Kingcombe Centre in Dorset went very well, the botanical art courses have started at Peter Symonds College AHED in Winchester, and there has also been Saturday workshops happening too !

On top of that I have been trying to find time for my own artwork.  I have several pieces that I am working on for the SBA - The Society of Botanical Artists exhibition, which will be in April next year.  Hand in is in February, so time is running away fast.

When I was wandering around the Kingcombe Meadows Nature Reserve and its surrounds the other week, there were so many subjects that I wanted to paint - in the hedgerows and banks, meadows, woodland and the orchard at the centre too.

The course was concentrating on painting Autumnal fruits, berries and seedheads.  I never plan what will happen with demonstration pieces, but it was enjoyable to keep going with the one I started for the course.  Here it is completed, Autumn Ramble - Kingcombe.

Autumn Ramble - Kingcombe.  © Sarah Morrish 2014

The main subjects we covered during the course included painting rosehips and creating highlights; painting dark coloured fruit and depicting bloom on fruit; mixing browns from 3 colours and how to depict lichens on twigs.

When I returned I taught a print-making workshop at Swanwick Lakes Nature Reserve in Hampshire. What an exciting experience that was for everyone involved, some really dynamic prints were produced !

So, onto my latest picture.  Yes it involves fungi, species that I have found in an area of woodland in the New Forest.  The habitat consists of mainly Beech trees with scattered Oak trees and some boggy areas around the perimeter, with a few coniferous trees present.  Rather than keep you waiting until I finish the painting, I thought I would share each stage with you and tell you a little about some of the fungi I have illustrated.  The fungi on the left is a Russula species.  On the right is a specimen that can look like shiny jelly, especially when it is first forming in small globules.  Its name is Purple Jellydisc Ascocoryne sarcoides.  A saprotrophic fungi is one that lives and feeds on dead organic matter, and this is just what this fungi does, normally found on the deadwood of Beech.

This week coming is half-term, so no botanical art teaching, but on Friday I will be teaching a print-making workshop for 11-16 year olds, so that will be a change of audience.  I will also be preparing for my exhibition which starts on the 4th November.  If you are in the area it would be great to see you !  I will hopefully be painting in the gallery on Thursday 6th November.