Can black be too black?

After having been out enjoying the warm weather, I have now finally finished my Tawny Owl and very close to finishing the Barn Owl but I have another dilemma. As both owls are nocturnal, I decided to use pan pastel to create a night time background for the Tawny Owl. Despite the use of several layers of the black pastel the background has come out a bit too patchy for my liking. I am considering whether it is worth going over it again… but would a uniform black be authentic as the night air is not a constant black. Should I just leave it patchy?

Coming to a decision has implications for how I decide to finish the barn owl. I am now wondering if I should just leave the barn owl on the dark grey which is the colour of the paper!

Is a very black background too black and a dark grey more accurate?

What is worth pointing out is that looking at both images of the owls on my screen it would almost seem as though there was no difference…it may vary with different viewers screens… therefore perhaps I am worrying about nothing and the important outcome is that whatever I decide… I should be consistent!

When the sun shines…

With fine sunny weather it was important to make the most of it. The campervan was packed up with all the necessary essentials plus drawing materials and my partner and I headed for Port William on the Galloway coast, Scotland. With extensive rocky shores to explore, it was difficult to fit in any drawing time.

There was an array of colours and textures to record but little time to sit and draw them. As always I had my trusty camera to capture these views and store them in preparation for sketching when there is more time … probably during cold, dark winter months.

20 images illustrating colours and textures from the coast
Collage illustrating colours and textures from the coast

The Right Background

Until recently I have not been big on backgrounds!

Also, very rarely have I used colored paper preferring to keep things simple!

That was until I was given some A4 black paper. The first sheet was used to draw a deer using just a white pencil and occasionally a black pencil to go over areas where I was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic with the white!

I enjoyed the simplicity of the process.

Portrait of a Deer using a white pencil on black paper
Portrait of a Deer using a white pencil on black paper

Then after that positive result I plucked up the courage to use some anthracite colored pastel mat for the Tawny Owl. The dark color as well as reflecting the nocturnal nature of the bird certainly creates impact that a white background fails to do.

Having been pleased with the results of using a dark color, I have now started on a Barn Owl using the same anthracite colored paper …although looking at the images below you would not think that!

The Tawny Owl is nearly finished but the Barn Owl has still got quite a bit of work to do before he is finished.

Work in progress of a Barn Owl and a Tawny Owl
Work in progress of a Barn Owl and a Tawny Owl

One drawing that I did finish recently was this Badger… I wonder what impact a dark color would have had on him!

Portrait of a Badger
Portrait of a Badger

Too late unless I decide to draw him again… which I probably will at some point but in the meantime he will be my next study using mainly a white pencil on black paper!

Paper – Searching for a Back-up

Pastel mat by Clairefontaine has been my preference for color pencil work. It allows a lot of layers and you can work in a lot of detail but I don’t want to rely on just one type of paper from one particular supplier. What would I do if something happened to that supplier and that type of paper was no longer produced?

Therefore, I have been experimenting with other papers such as Hot Press watercolor paper by Arches, a Bristol board by Strathmore and a drawing paper by Canson. So far they have all produced mixed results. I still need to do more experimenting with the Bristol board and the watercolor paper.

Most of my experimentation  has been on the Canson paper with the production of a Gorilla that I was quite happy with which l repeated on pastelmat. Although both produced different results I had no preference as they were both equally appealing for different reasons. Although sketchy the Canson one had a hairy charm that was appealing while the other had a much more refined look.

One gorilla drawn on pastelmat and the other three drawings on Canson a grain
The gorilla on the top right drawn on pastelmat and the other three drawings on Canson a grain

After that experience I continued with the pastelmat for a while then I had another go at using the Canson… first with a fox which was completed earlier in the year and then more recently with a Badger.

The fox has worked well while the Badger is OK . Then I started on this Tawny Owl mixing pan pastel and colour pencil. It was then I remembered why I liked Pastelmat. The way you can blend colour pencil and pan pastel on Pastelmat is just perfect.

Collage showing the work in progress of a Tawny Owl drawing
Collage showing the work in progress of a Tawny Owl drawing

In my view the pastel does not work so well on the Canson as I did try it on the gorilla drawing. It is not really designed for that. The pastel mat is far better but of course that is what it is designed for.

Clearly the paper you choose depends on the type of drawing you want to produce and the materials that you want to use.

While I will still use Canson as I do like the texture… it will be for specific projects where I feel the structure of that particular paper will enhance the drawing.

With regard to my main body of work, I will continue using the Pastelmat as it is still my preferred choice for projects that involve the use of pan pastel.

That then brings me back to my initial quest… the search for a back-up paper with similar properties to Pastelmat.

The search continues…

Flower Conclusions

I like flowers particularly wild flowers. There is nothing better than to go for a walk in the summer months and spot all the different plants as they each take their turn to come into flower before disappearing for another year.

Collage showing nine different images of wild flowers
Collage showing nine different images of wildflowers

Drawing them forces you to focus in on the details such as whether they are hairy or not, how many petals they have and whether there leaves are arranged alternately up the stem or are opposite to each other. It is definitely a good way to get to know them better.
But the drawings I am currently producing… while useful for identification are at this point just sketches.

Collage showing sketches of flowers
Collage showing sketches of flowers

It will be sometime before I can represent them in a way that I am really happy with.

I still spend a lot of time photographing flowers. Most of them are just snaps as represented in the gallery above. These are OK for recording purposes but I really want to capture the subtlety of texture.

Photographing them out in the field is hopeless… particularly if like me you live in a windy part of the world!

The other option is to bring the flower inside and while it is useful in terms of having full control, the downside is that it wilt fast so you have to be quick to capture the moment. Also, you are in effect destroying the flower in the process of photographing it. Is that right?

I did for a while buy interesting flower shapes from florists but that was proving to be expensive! Although, I did produce some pleasing results as illustrated in the gallery below.

Cut- flower collage showing 4 different flowers
Cut- flower collage

They are of course not the wild flowers that I really wanted to capture.

Capturing that delicate subtlety of wild flowers will take a lot of photographing and a lot of playing about… but hopefully I will get there.

In the meantime I am starting a nocturnal theme.

Portrait of Tawny Owl work in progress
Portrait of Tawny Owl work in progress

New drawing subjects for summer!

The days are getting longer and when the sun is out you can feel the warmth making local walks more enjoyable.

In the local woods splashes of white, gold and pink are appearing as spring flowers make the most of the light before they are shaded out by the leaves in the trees.

Here is a gallery of three different flowers that I can spot locally:

From left to right are the white Wood Anemone,yellow Lesser Celandine and pink Cuckoo Flower
From left to right are Wood Anemone, Lesser Celandine and Cuckoo Flower

Photographing flowers is not always easy. Getting the right light and suitable equipment to get as close as possible to capturing the detail is only part of the problem. Just as you have everything set up along comes a breeze and you end up with a shaky image. But this year the challenge is to draw flowers from the photographs that I have taken and double check their details from diagrams within field identification books.

Another advantage of drawing the flowers is that I can isolate a particular specimen from the background and if I choose to do so, emphasize a particular characteristic.

This way you get to know the plant better. Everything from the intimate arrangement of petals and leaves to whether the plant is hairy or hairless. These finer characteristics can only be appreciated by observing a plant carefully.

Here is a start on the Wood Anemone, the first of my spring flowers. It is also known as the windflower and while it looks delicate it is in fact strong enough to withstand a stiff breeze. Another interesting observation is that the petal like structures are described as sepals. Usually in other flowering plants these are the structures that protect the petals but the Wood Anemone is described as having no petals!

I have chosen the Wood Anemone as it is a good indicator that spring has finally arrived.

Wood Anemone
Wood Anemone

The first point to note from this experience is that I have lots to learn about drawing leaves!

Photographing art- a time consuming business!

Photographing art to create digital images is necessary for the promotion of artwork but it is time consuming.

When you do not have the best of facilities!

There is nothing worse than producing dull grey images like the one above!

Thankfully many mobile phones are now capable of producing well lit images. All I need to do is make sure I photograph my work on a suitable bright day.

The images produced in this way are suitable for viewing on a computer, but I now want to create good quality prints. Unfortunately the majority of camera phones do not produce images of a suitable quality.

The ideal option for me would be to scan all my images as I do possess a scanner that has a high resolution option. This for a long time was my preferred way of recording all my artwork. But in recent times this method can no longer be used as the scanner can only do up to A4. Everything I do now is much bigger. I have tried to source an A3 scanner but there is no suitable model that is within my price range.

Another option would be to go to a local print shop but experience so far suggests that most print shops only offer low resolution scans for documents and marketing leaflets. Businesses that do offer these services are too far away for me to consider using in the short term.

Therefore the only remaining option for me is to photograph my own artwork. That is OK as I do have access to a Nikon camera that can create medium sized prints. Ideally I would like at some point to create larger sized prints but I guess that will have to wait.

Going to a professional photographer would be an alternative option but the cost prohibits that for the time being.

In the meantime it is up to me to make sure each image is well lit and is as sharp as possible.

I can make use of my own kitchen as it is big enough and in the morning it has an even light. This can also be enhanced if need be with daylight lamps and reflectors.

Good sharp images are also possible as I do own a good tripod and I can eliminate the potential for camera shake further by makeing good use of the camera’s timer option.

Despite this, images can still look a bit grey. The grid below illustrates the problems.

The first image represents the grey dull image that a camera can produce. The second image shows what can happen if you over use the brightness and contrast controls and the third is better but not perfect!

To remedy this I do need to make better use of the light metering possibilities on the camera. This is a skill that I have yet to fully master but I will persevere!

Thankfully I can experiment by takeing lots of images and then just delete what is not required.

Once the best image is selected then only minor adjustments should be required on a computer.

I suppose you could compare tweaking the brightness and contrast on a computer with displaying a picture in a gallery. If the lighting is poor the artwork will not look at it’s best. However a few minor adjustments to the lighting can make the artwork really stand out!

Is this a good comparison.

I am not sure but in the short time I have a lot of experimenting to do.

Choosing Size for Impact

In recent times all my drawings have been around the size of an A3 piece of paper. I now very rarely draw anything smaller as I feel that details could be lost.

For many of the subjects I wished to draw, this A3 size seems to be the optimum size. Not too big and not too small.

In early January I decided that more impact was needed for a story that I wished to tell. To achieve that I not only went with drawing the piece on black paper but also scaled it up to a bigger size. The initial sketching was started and that seemed to go well… then I never touched it again.

Now I have argued that there was a clash of schedules and l had taken on more projects than I had intended and… yes there is an element of truth in this.

But, if I was being entirely honest with myself there was also an element of fear and perhaps regret at attempting something so big particularly as I regard myself as being at the start of my artistic journey.

Now I could of course have gone the other way and gone smaller. There is no doubt that small, even the miniature can have a wow factor.

I have seen some incredibly detailed pieces of artwork such as watercolor paintings only 2 inches square that are beautiful.

They are exquisite and the skill involved in getting so much detail into such a small space can only be admired.

However, putting to one side the fact that I do not have the necessary skill to achieve so much detail in such a small piece, I am not sure the subtle approach is appropriate for the type of message that I want to put across.

My purpose is to raise awareness of wildlife issues and I want to shout as loudly as possible which is why I took the decision to go big and bold with the Orangutan and baby. The message of loss of their habitat to make way for oil palm plantations is one that should not be ignored.

Family Portrait of an Orangutan and Baby
Family Portrait of an Orangutan and Baby First work in progress

However what is the point of aspiring to shout a message when I am fearful of doing so!

It was time to confront the fear!

The whole of last week was spent confronting that fear

second work in progress of Orangutan and Baby
Family Portrait of an Orangutan and Baby 2nd Work in Progress

This drawing of an Orangutan and her baby measures 70 cm x 50 cm and is the biggest drawing I have ever attempted.

To overcome the fear, I ignored the subject and just took small areas at a time mapping out the different shapes. Now I am slowly building up the layers. Approaching it this way has made it less daunting. There is also the opportunity to really focus in on the details of different elements such as the hairy hand, the nose, the mouth and the the arrangement of the hair in the mother as well as striving to capture that close relationship between mother and baby.

It is important to get this right and I won’t rush it. I will do a little bit at a time and carefully work out the best way to interpret each part of the drawing as I continue to rotate between other drawings.

Unfortunately it will take some time before I am ready to shout about this but it is better to get it right!

Technique and Substance

Portrait of a Red Squirrel

I came across these terms in an article on contemporary art. There the observation was made that a lot of artists have great technique but very little substance .

It made me think!

Up until now, the focus for me had been on improving my technique but what is meant by substance? Does my art have substance and how is it measured?

My art does have a theme which is wildlife. It is what I am interested in and… it is what I enjoy drawing. But my assumption is that the writer of the article on contemporary art would regard that in itself as insufficient to give the art substance. So, should I be placing more emphasis on the substance of a drawing?

On reviewing the drawings that I have completed, most are head portraits where the challenge had been to improve my technique particularly in the rendering of the eyes. It is important to me that my subjects have well drawn eyes. In my view, this is what brings life to a subject. But what motivated me in the first place to choose a particular subject to draw?

Take this drawing of a red squirrel, it does radiate “cuteness” , but that was not the attraction. My interest was more to do with the way this particular animal seemed to have suddenly stopped on that branch with a direct look of inquisitiveness. I imagine the squirrel to be asking the question:

Portrait of a red squirrel
Portrait of a red squirrel

Is there an opportunity for food here?

If the squirrel was not inquisitive, it would struggle to find enough food.

On the other hand, this Hare that I have still to finish is not as cute as the squirrel.

Portrait of a Hare_Work in Progress

Surviving in open fields and on mountain tops constantly exposed to the elements and predators particularly those that may fly in from above, must result in the animal living constantly on its nerves. To me that wide eyed alert look suggests fear and I imagine it to be constantly asking the question:

Are you going to eat me?

Would giving more emphasis to such concepts improve the substance of my art? Who decides what substance is?

Another drawing worth considering is the cheetah.

Portrait of a Cheetah
Portrait of a Cheetah

It is an animal built for speed and to reflect that, there are a lot of what I would describe as loose strokes but in this context, hopefully, it conveys motion and therefore I am relaxed about that.

As for another piece that I am currently working on which is an Orangutan and her baby… this is a piece that I did consider in a bit more detail.

Family Portrait of an Orangutan and Baby
Family Portrait of an Orangutan and Baby_Work in Progress

It is on a dark surface. I did that deliberately as the fiery orange and reds of the animal against the black background in my view inject an element of fear into the piece. This is particularly relevant when you consider that the motivation behind the piece was to raise awareness of the indiscriminate destruction of their rain forest habitat. The fear experienced by these animals when the destruction begins can only be imagined!

However, I do accept that these interpretations of my art are mine and I guess they may not necessarily be shared by the viewer. Should that differing view be considered a problem?

Through discussion with my partner, we both agreed that every picture does have a story. But, how that story is interpreted will be up to the viewer. I may draw a squirrel with the intention of interpreting the inquisitive nature of a squirrel so vital for it’s survival but for others, they may be happy to admire it for its cuteness. The fact that I used loose strokes to convey the speed that a cheetah can achieve may be criticized by some but for others the choice of stroke is irrelevant. What matters to them is the entirety of the piece and whether they like it or not. Does that difference in opinion of the technique matter?

For me what matters the most is that I am happy with the piece and that it has meaning to at least someone! Now, I do acknowledge that my art may not be regarded by many as deep and meaningful. But then, I don’t think it matters how academic or how simple that meaning is as long as it is accessible. Differences in the opinion of the interpretation of a drawing and the technique and style of a piece creates the opportunity for discussion. That is what makes art interesting and I would suggest is what gives it substance. As for the measurement of that substance surely that can be measured by how much discussion a particular piece of art generates!

In conclusion :
I will keep drawing what I draw, strive to improve my technique and will think a bit more about the story my art is trying to convey. What I will not do is get too hung up about substance!