Tuesday, 19 December 2017

It's all in the nuts ! Getting to grips with using walnut ink.

As some of you will know I am a huge fan of using inks and love nothing more than experimenting with an ink to see what I can achieve with it.

A few weeks ago, it was time to get out the walnut ink that I had bought from that fab art shop in London, Cornelissen.  I decided that I wanted to add another dimension to my pen and ink work by creating a tonal pattern to the paper surface.

I have long been an admirer of Dorota Haber-Lehigh and the exquisite watercolours she creates on a paper with a walnut ink base, especially her 'Fragments' series of work.  The surface colour, tone and pattern so seems to suit autumnal/fall subjects.

The first stage was to experiment with different papers.  Presently, I have only tested one paper, namely Stonehenge, using the white, cream and fawn coloured papers.  I tend to use this paper for some pen and ink work and also graphite work too.
It is not as heavy as watercolour paper so I had to make sure that I taped it down around each edge completely, so that when it dried, it went completely flat.

I was really interested in firstly, how the diluted walnut ink looked on the coloured paper options and secondly, the natural looking patterns that I could achieve.

Left to right: white, cream and fawn paper

Rather than me ramble on, why not have a look at the video I produced describing the process I took:

I would add that there are other ways of producing a wide range of effects on the paper surface, one being spraying diluted walnut ink onto the damp paper from a small spray bottle - that is going to be my next experiment !

So what were my conclusions?
  • The Stonehenge 100% cotton paper has quite a soft surface even before applying the water and ink, so I was aware that applying that much moisture may effect the 'tooth' of the paper.  Once dried I tried it first with a dip pen.  The paper certainly didn't like this and the ink was very easily absorbed and bled into the paper fibres which made it impossible to work on.
  • Rather than using the two brushes I did to apply and manipulate the ink, perhaps a spray bottle used to apply the ink, will have less of an impact on the paper surface
  • Next I tried a 003 Pigma micron black technical drawing pen and it took this really well, as you can see below.  The other image shows a close up view of the paper surface and you can easily see the surface fibres.

  • I was impressed with how the coloured Stonehenge paper suited this.  Obviously the cream and fawn papers gave a warmer result, where as the white was less so.  I liked all though.
  • When I applied the watercolour wash after the ink work, the paper took the paint very well, but I was very gentle with it and let each layer dry before applying the next.  Some blending was possible, specifically on the Maple samara blending the green and golden colours whilst still damp.
  • Next I definitely want to try the technique on a heavier watercolour paper.  So watch this space !
I haven't finished quite yet though - the video raised a few questions from viewers in terms of the durability of the walnut ink and also its origins.

Is walnut ink light-fast ?

In the past walnut ink has not been that durable and as well as not being stable the contents of the old style ink were quite acidic too and would therefore damage the support.

More recent formulations seem more durable (see below).

Is it water-resistant ?

Unfortunately no.  Saying that though, when I applied the watercolour to my ink drawing there was no shifting of the surface colour.  So, I think that as long as the base of walnut ink is diluted and further subsequent watercolour washes are applied carefully it should be ok.
But be aware if you were to use it for line drawing and then apply a wash.

Are the more recent inks actually made from walnuts ?

Several of them still are - see the table below for further information.

The yellow highlighted line refers to the ink that I have used.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Milkweed & Monarchs - a journey of discovery

I have been on my travels to the sunny state of California to attend the ASBA (American Society of Botanical Artists) conference in San Francisco.

That was a fantastic experience spreading my wings in the global family of botanical art.

Not only that I had a few days after the conference to visit an amazing artist and friend, Elizabeth Romanini of The Natural Line.

There was the wonderful opportunity to explore the area where she lives and discover some treasures of the natural world.

In the wildlife friendly garden that her and her husband have created it is full of visiting birds, including several species of Hummingbirds.

 There is also an array of plants still flowering in the warmer than usual October sunshine.  I was attracted to one plant by its seedpods, and also didn't recognise the plant and its other features.

I then discovered that it is a variety of Milkweed, an important plant in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly (more on that in a while).

The seedpods provided me with the perfect subject to start a new sketchbook and get my pencils moving again after the positive intensity of attending the conference.

My normal graphite pencils were used, initially a 2H and then moving onto the H grade.  When I am composing line drawings, I do like to include tonal variation within a line.  It helps to give more depth to the line drawing without having to apply continuous tonal shading.  The H pencil is ideal for adding some darker tonal values to the lines as it is slightly softer than the 2H, without being too soft that it smudges or sheds too much graphite.

One of the possible trips was to visit some Monarch butterflies at a local state park on the coast - Natural Bridges State Park.  This was perfect as I had often admired illustrations of the Monarch, particularly those created by Betsy Rogers Knox who exhibited these illustrations of Milkweed and Monarchs at the RHS in 2016.

I don't really know what my expectations were at the time, as I hadn't had the chance to read-up on the butterfly's journey within its life-cycle.

When we arrived at the state park there was an area giving examples of ideal food plants for the Monarchs including Milkweed of various varieties, including African milkweed.  We walked along the boardwalk into a wooded area and then I was faced with one of the most amazing spectacles that I have ever seen in the natural world. 

CLOUDS of butterflies hanging onto the leaves and branches of the surrounding Eucalyptus trees.

The State Park's website explains perfectly why the Monarchs visit and stay there over the winter months:

'The park's Monarch Grove provides a temporary home for thousands of Monarchs. In 2016, 8,000 Monarch Butterflies overwintered at Natural Bridges. From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a "city in the trees." The area's mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.

In the spring and summer, the butterflies live in the valley regions west of the Rocky Mountains where the monarch's companion plant, milkweed, is found. For most of the year, where there are monarchs, there are also milkweed plants. Monarchs drink nectar from milkweed flowers, and female monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed leaves. Milkweed contains a toxin that, when ingested by the caterpillar, makes it toxic to other animals. These toxins remain in the butterfly as well, providing protection from predators that would otherwise eat the monarchs'. 

 So when I was seeing them, they hadn't even reached peak numbers !  It was still so fantastic to see.  The grove was quite shaded when we visited, but occasionally the sun would peak through on some of the trees and the butterflies would then become more active and their bright orange wings would gleam in the sunshine.

'Migration is variable and numbers and dates are different each year. The monarchs typically begin arriving in mid-October and leave by mid-February  (In 2013 and 2016, the monarchs had left by January). At Natural Bridges, November is often the best time to for a walk to observe the monarchs. The Monarch Grove has been declared a Natural Preserve, thus protecting these butterflies and their winter habitat from human encroachment or harm. This is the only State Monarch Preserve in California.

The grove contains eucalyptus trees which are located in a gently sloping canyon, providing the Monarch needed shelter from the wind. These winter-flowering trees are also a convenient food source for the butterfly. On chilly days when the temperature drops below 60 degrees, the butterflies cluster together in the eucalyptus trees for warmth'.

Monarch butterflies becoming more active in the Fall sunshine

Feeding on nectar from a cultivated variety of Scabious (left) and the nectar rich flowers of Ivy (right)

African milkweed seedpods


  • I am taking a break this term from my weekly course at Peter Symonds College AHED, but courses will return to normal in January 2018.
  •  The second part of my online course will be making its debut soon.  Drawing Nature - Part 2 will focus on structured drawing techniques.  The course is suitable for all levels of experience using graphite pencils as a drawing tool.  For more information see the Illustrating Natures Details tuition website.
  • I have a new gallery style website, which I have been working on over the last 9 months.  It certainly was a relief when the task was completed and will hopefully be an improved place to showcase my artwork.  Click here for the Natures Details website

Thursday, 1 June 2017

A composition challenge - Navelwort - Umbilicus rupestris

Well, after a break of no writing on the blog for nearly 9 months, I am finally back.  I didn't intend to be away for quite so long, but the setting up of the online tuition and new painting projects has taken up a lot of time.

The painting projects continue, all of which include subjects that I am excited to paint and haven't painted already.  Several focus on medicinal plants for an exhibition that takes place next August (more about that to follow later) and I am also painting Yellow-horned poppy for the Botanical Art Worldwide Exhibition in 2018.

Now I am a painting member of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society, I also need to complete a painting each year, which is then assessed and if acceptable will be included in the garden's archives. The subjects for the paintings are plants from the garden and this year I have chosen Navelwort Umbilicus rupestris.  It is a plant that I have always wanted to illustrate after spotting it growing on the ruins of Corfe Castle many years ago.
In the Physic Garden it grows on the pond rockery that has stood in the centre of the garden since 1773.  It is a Grade II listed structure and thought to be the oldest rock garden in Europe.  It also features stone from the Tower of London and black Icelandic basalt donated by plant hunter Joseph Banks.
 Sketching and colour notes of Navelwort on a chilly April day in the garden

The Navelwort leaves growing  in the pond rockery

The paintings need to be strictly botanical in style and if applicable show the different growth stages of the chosen plant.
The Navelwort isn't a large plant, although the flowering stems can sometimes grow quite tall.  The leaves can also be scattered, as you can see in the image above.  They are quite 'fleshy' and a have a little dimple in the middle.  The individual flowers are tiny, as are the seedpods when they are fully formed. 

So as you can imagine, there are many different elements to include in the composition.  How did I deal with a challenge such as this ?

Stage 1: I drew each element from life in my sketchbook.  Luckily I had some old field sketches of the plant that I could re-use as well.

Something to think about:  How can you know what is a successful composition until you have drawn each element ?  Treat each element as an entirely separate drawing until you have them all completed.  This where study pages really come in handy.  I have often had a composition idea in my mind that then doesn't work when I experiment with positioning the individual drawings.  See this as a good thing !

Stage 2:  Below you can see the individual elements having been traced onto drafting film and being positioned on the paper that I will be using for the painting. 
At this stage I haven't properly drawn the enlargements and dissections properly - I am just exploring ideas.

The drafting film is called Polydraw and is similar to tracing paper, but more durable. I use a Rotring Isograph pen for the tracing, although any permanent fineline pen with a very fine nib would be ok.
Using ink for the tracing will ensure that it shows through the watercolour paper when tracing on the lightbox.

Something to think about:  Work within a framed area.  As is the case with this painting I have to work to a particular size of paper, but having a frame drawn on the paper helps to interpret the balance and symmetry of a painting when I place the individual elements on the paper.

Stage 3:  

Here the drawings and tracings of the enlargements and dissections have been completed and are combined with the rest of the composition.

When drawing enlargements and/or dissections, draw each part in order of dissection.  This really enables you to get to know the finer details of the plant.

Another reason to draw them in order is that it helps in the decision making process of how many stages of enalargement/dissection there needs to be in the final composition.

Something to think about:  Draw and trace each stage of the dissection, even if you think you will not need them all.  In other words, draw more than you may need.  Less frustration in the long run !

Stage 4:

I have decided upon my final composition and the individual elements are taped down on the lightbox within the frame size decided earlier. The watercolour paper is then placed over the top (Fabriano 300gsm - old stock).

I have thought about the flow of the elements around the page, telling the life story of the plant in a logical progression. Here it is following an 'S' shape starting with the leaves, going to a stem with flower buds, then a full flowering stem and the finally to the dried flowers stem and seedpods and seed.

The other aspect that I have also considered is the alignment of the dissections and enlargements.  

I also take note of the negative space to ensure that there are no unnecessary spaces where your eye can be drawn to rather than the subjects.
In the case of this illustration some of the spaces will be filled with the painting of the substrate that the plant is growing on and in and enough space for the scale bars, of which there is likely to be 3 or 4.

Something to think about:  I was lucky enough to be at a lecture on composition led by one of the Botanical Artists from Kew Gardens, Lucy Smith.  One of the many things she said was to be aware of vertical symmetry and horizontal harmony.
This was something I really thought about with the positioning of the enlargements and dissection.

One other thing that I have always considered when creating a composition is the number of objects on the page.  Flower arrangers nearly always work with using odd numbers of flowers and if positioned well can give balance to a floral arrangement.  Can you tell the number groupings in this composition ?  Answers are below the next image.

3 main groups of leaves
3 stems
5 small drawings - enlargements and dissection

I hope that you find this post useful if you have to create a composition with multiple elements.  Do let me know if there are any other subjects that you would like me to cover in blogposts.  I can't promise that I can respond to every request, but will pick out several if suitable.

Other news and useful links:
  • The next 'in person' course with available spaces is:
Have a look on the website for more info.

  • All of the tuition from Natures Details is now on a new website:  Illustrating Natures Details. The original Natures Details site will become more of a gallery website over the summer months.
  • I will be taking part in Hampshire Open Studios this year, which I am really excited about.  I'll be exhibiting at Great Abshot Barn along with 10 other artists and crafts people.  I also hope to be demonstrating most days too.  So why not pop along and say hello !