Week 4 Visual Notes

The sketches from last week…and a bit of a mixed monochrome bag. There are some pens and inks and some tonal sketches because, at long last, I have decided to try a few oil paintings. I made a few unsuccessful attempts in the past but after being both inspired and encouraged by my friend Brenda, queen of plein air and my friend Denise queen of fabulous feline paintings I have finally got going..well almost.

I’m starting at the beginning by looking at tonal sketches. It’s something I do anyway, for my watercolour and design work, but have slipped into undisciplined and haphazard bad habits, skipping steps and doodling on the back of envelopes.

This time I am trying to knuckle down and do things properly.. so on Monday I left my much loved pen behind and I took gouache with me.  I am using gouache as a half way house between the pen and oils. It dries quickly so no problem with smudging. Again they are quick studies on 5 x 7 card, although I have left it a bit late in the year to start my plein air adventures. Typical!

MON Sept 17th


Brampton Wood tree.


The giant humbugs down the lane. Rolls of silage (?) wrapped in green and black striped plastic.

TUES Sept 18th

Lots of pen sketches for images see Burghley Sketching post.

WED Sept 19th

A disused farm building down the road,  20 mins

farm bg

The Church yard, just 15 mins because it started raining and gouache is not good in the rain.

church 1 bg

It’s sometimes hard to get across the importance and fun of tonal sketches..The mention of them can generate yawns.. I wonder why .. I really enjoy doing them. They do tend to become rather formal because you are looking for bigger shapes of tone, but it’s such good practise for seeing the lights and the darks.

THURS Sept 20th

On a busy day it’s back to the sketchbook and 2 very quick sketches on a short very early walk.

10 min sketches

Crows on crow tree.


A surprise of cormorants and gulls who flew up from the hidden shore line, it was grey and still dusky over Perry at 7.15 am.

FRI Sept 21st

An equally busy day but on my quick morning walk I had seen this wonderful long tree trunk so later I cycled up to the Visitor Centre to draw it.  I spent a blissful half hour sitting on the grass listening to the birds and squirrels. It rained a bit but was well worth the trouble.


The long, pine branch was like some strange giant millipede creeping towards the wood.


A bunch of rooks were on the field by Church Hill. I love rooks and am planning a linocut soon, so need to do some more rook drawing.

SAT Sept 22nd

This is something of a breakthrough day for me. My first ever plein air work in oils. I know, it’s only 2 little sketches but it’s a start.  It seemed an awful lot of faffing about to get the stuff organised but it was such a beautiful day that it was now or never. I cycled up to the spot where I was yesterday and made two quick (20 mins each) sketches of the tree line, then turned round to face the water.


After the gouache I am finding it slippery and smeary and that it mixes too easily. But I guess if I can persevere I may improve.

These are small, 5 x 7 sketches on card primed with acrylic.


The dark dark wood on a sunny day


Looking towards the water with a few people, a boat and a buoy.

SUN Sept 23rd

Two more small oils. I had sketched the first one in yesterday because of impending rain, which sure enough has arrived.


The lane to the reservoir.


Sky, from the water looking east, water tower to the left. Early Sunday morning. Fab sweep of white cloud before rain arrived. I am not sure how or if these will develop but I will do some more.. after all, I have bought the wretched paints now 🙂
I have really enjoyed doing them. They are not perhaps the compositions or subjects which I normally choose… maybe a little too formal for me…but they are just as I saw them.

Sunday Stoat

Earlier in the morning on my cold grey 7.50 am walk, when I thought it was all going to be uninspiring, I saw a stoat ( or weasel?). I am not sure who was more astonished.

Both of us were transfixed for a few seconds. It was utterly charming. I was standing still looking out over the water and it popped its head above the rocks, disappeared,  then like magic reappeared from behind another stone. It peeped out sideways from behind a small bush before scampering away. I willed my slow camera to snap just one picture.


Sunday Stoat, Grafham Water Shore

Leaf of the day: Brenda’s White Garden

I am having a day off today. After 4 days (..well four x half days to be honest) of working outside I am even more in admiration of plein air painters, especially those who actually work on finished pieces in situ. It is hard work, tiring and with endless annoyances.
Firstly just finding your spot, in sun or out of the sun and should your paper/canvas be in or out of shadow. Getting all your equipment out and set up, balancing it and yourself on stools, easels, benches or just on the ground. There are bugs, there are people, there are leaf blowers and mowers. If it’s windy things get blown over and there is glare from the sun and moving shadows which means that the scene has changed completely within an hour.. then there is forgetting something vital ..like a paintbrush or a pencil or a favourite colour… the list of reasons for not painting outside goes on and on.
But what you do get is a real connection with what you are attempting to paint, even if it all ends in frustration and with little to show. I have worked outside at various times in my artistic life but I have always found it difficult to concentrate and that is because I don’t do enough of it. By day four I was enjoying it more. I certainly think that if you want to paint any of nature’s details you MUST at some point go out there and draw from the real thing, or write notes, record colours or scribble or something. You can’t see what happens around a corner or behind a tree, or feel the texture of tree bark or smell the scent of a champaka, in a photo..
I was spurred into doing this by meeting Brenda and Dennis both plein air painters who paint in the gardens from time to time.
Fortuitously Brenda has an exhibition at Leu Gardens as this very moment, “Windows to My World” so I can still have a painting of the Gardens on the blog without doing any of the work! Marvellous.. so here is Brenda’s lovely little painting of the path to the White Garden, the view I also sketched on Tuesday. I know she painted this from from life as I had met her that day October the 16th to be precise.

White Garden at Leu Gardens by Brenda Hofreiter

You can see more of her paintings of Florida and a great photo of her with a bird on her head here.. http://www.brendahofreiter.com/abouttheartist.html . I must ask her how she got that bird to do that.
The exhibition continues until 11th February.

Leaf of the Day: Bugs in the Paint #3 Garden Sketches

Today has been a glorious day, with a chilly, misty start. You could smell the fog as it drifted across the lakes this morning and all the leafless Crepe Myrtle trees were wreathed in visible spider’s webs. A jetty on one lake I pass has a little lone Christmas tree which looked lovely silhouetted against the mist.

When I arrived at the gardens I went down to the lake overlook where great flocks of waterbirds were circling and skimming the surface, appearing and disappearing in the fog, all greys and blacks and whites.

The spiders webs were also uncomfortably visible here, hung about with mist and strung across the paths and between the trees, some huge, easily 3 feet across. I really prefer not to see them, and their not-so-little occupants. I sometimes feel I have been wrapped like a cocoon after a visit to the Cycad garden and I now adopt ‘the stick in front of face’ approach to prevent being completely disabled by spider’s webs. It’s doing nothing for my arachnophobia. Luckily the spiders are not as big as the recently recorded Huntsman Spider found in the Mekong delta with a massive 30 cm leg span. This, the bright pink cyanide producing dragon millipede and more here . If the spiders at Leu were that big I would be hugging the walls of the Mall instead of communing with plants and would have to switch to drawing home appliances. I wonder what the market for fridge and cooker drawings is like?

This week I had actually planned to work outside every day as my pledge to work plein air once a week has come unstuck somewhere. Yesterday was rather dreary but today I eventually did get out. So with a minimum of stuff, 3 sketchbooks..(two for watercolour so I can let one dry while I work on another and one for pen / pencil etc) one pencil, brown pen, one brush, little paintbox, water and new folding lightweight stool which will make life much easier, I spent 3 hours sketching and did a couple of watercolour studies.
I have to do this now as I really do want to draw/learn about/paint and record some bigger subjects. I sadly can’t bring everything back home to draw. Other than taking photos I have to go and draw these bigger things in situ especially the cactus for patently obvious reasons. So today was a start. The stool turned out to be a bit tricky as it is three legged and easy to fall off, but the gardens were mercifully quiet this morning. So here they are, a mixed bag of sketches.

From the Arid garden .. a cactus

and my favourite Gout plant, waving and saying hello ..

Elephants Ears from the Home Garden

Two views from the Pavilion which I drew back in April.. I love this tall lone pine tree. There is not much to it, but it is a great vantage point for the birds, and towers above the surrounding live oaks.

The White Garden

The path to the White Garden looking the other way from my April sketch.

There may be something here I can develop, but anyway it was a lovely way to spend the day in the eventual sunshine .. more tomorrow I hope, weather permitting ..

Leaf of the Day: Indigo.

The Indigo tree is simply beautiful. In the slanting morning sun the tiny flowers on their upstanding spikes glow like rich, wine red garnets. This is the Indigofera australis meaning “bearing Indigo”, and this is, indeed one of the plants from which the beautiful indigo dye is obtained. There are many species of Indigofera and the dye, woad, obtained from a different plant, Isatis tinctoria contains the same chemical “indigotin.”

This tree is delightful with its jewelled flowers spikes marching along the top of graceful arching branches carefully descending from tall to short. It’s a simple and elegant structure, the compound leaves are alternate along the branch and each leaf joint produces its own flower.

So simple but so so difficult to draw. Today was my drawing outside day but I spent such a long time just looking at the tree trying to working out the structure that I only had time for a couple of sketches and the watercolour below.
This one was just to see how the leaves and flowers relate.

This one was to try to see the twisting rhythm lines formed by the branch, leaves and flowers. I was looking up at this one. It’s a really beautiful form.

I could write pages and pages about indigo. It has a exotic history and complicated production methods. It was used as a cloth dye, and a manuscript paint from the earliest times. Today it has been largely superseded by synthetic dyes but there are still some small producers. In an article from Reuters last year journalist Daniel Flynn wrote about the decline of the famous Kano Dye pits in Nigeria.

Founded in 1498, the Kofar Mata pits are said to be the oldest in Africa and are the only survivor of Kano’s dye trade — which once included 13 pit complexes. Close to the royal palace, its colors have adorned the fabrics of Kano’s traditional rulers for centuries.
Zango inherited the traditional title Sarkin Karofi, or chief of the dyers, three years ago. He still believes there is a future for his trade because the hand-woven local cotton is much stronger than imported machine fabrics, he says.
Squatting on the far side of the pits, two lean blue-robed figures, their faces swathed in black turbans, haggle with one of the dyers. “The Tuaregs still come. They remain good customers,” chuckles Zango, nodding towards them.

Known as the blue men of the desert, Tuareg of Mali take their nickname from their billowing indigo robes.
“For most customers we soak the cloth in salt and vinegar to fix the color, but for the Tuaregs we leave it natural so that when it is washed, it dyes their faces and hands blue,” said Yusuf Sani, a guide. “That is how they got their name.”

Read more here

This beautifully evocative image from the BBC.

I will return to the subject of indigo soon. Its history and uses are fascinating and it is a favourite colour of mine.

Incidentaly, Ant was besotted by the flowers.
I had taken a couple off the stem to draw and he/she/it arrived shortly afterwards and spent a long time dancing around them, performing head stands, to get at the nectar I presume, and even carrying them around for a while… impressive strength.

My drawings today are a pencil study of a flower spike leaf and the colour sketch of a branch which I think I might develop into a painting as I love the shape of this branch so much.

The Indigo Tree

Leaf of the Day: Bugs in the Paint #2 and the Joy of Easels

Portable easels are like folding deckchairs and easy assembly furniture,they are treacherous, seldom really portable without your own dedicated sherpa, may fold, if you are lucky and are fingertrappingly unpredictable. If they are heavy enough to withstand a light breeze they are often too heavy to carry and then there is the tilt or not tilt issue. When you get a new one, it is advisable to try it out in the privacy of your own home. There can be nothing worse for your artistic credibility than to be seen by the public wrestling with your easel.. you can just hear the comments ” well if she can’t even get the easel up !”

I bought this … not, I have to say, the $500 “engineered by engineers” model, but something modestly priced that doubles up as a camera tripod too and tells me it is light and portable. So before setting off this morning for my new-resolution-plein-air-painting trip I thought I should try it out. I am not usually baffled but this took more than 5 minutes so resulted in a slight fit of bad temper. It’s a nice easel but has a stupid design flaw. There are two canvas support brackets which you have to fit…that’s fine..but when you come to fold it up, it does not fit into the carry bag with the supports still in place ….it’s all very boring, but it means that when you get to your location you have to re-fit these fiddly supports which themselves rely on a wing bolts and their accompanying small loose nuts…which of course immediately fall off into 10 inches of leaf mold. There are no spares… Another problem with this easel is that it does not tilt, which, for a watercolourist is a bit of a problem. I do have one that tilts but it does not fold down small enough for bike/backpack transport… sigh.. All I want to do is just go and paint something.

I have over the years had quite a few sketching easels and have never found one that is just right but now, as I have to cycle 3 miles to the gardens, the question of portability, weight, size, etc is even more important…then of course there is the question of the right backpack?… and then the right bike? I could go on for days.

Anyway I eventually arrived at the garden and had decided earlier in the week to make some sketches of the Soapberry tree and had, that day, made a quick pencil sketch and a small colour sketch.
The only reason for taking the easel is that there are no handy nearby benches, but I shouldn’t have worried about the public as this is a quiet part of the garden.

Initial pencil complete with muddy marks

Small 4 x 6″ sketch

There is an intention somewhere in my mind to make a series of drawings of this delightful tree. I enjoy working in series and sets and today I was just looking at the tree and the light. It’s a lovely time of year as the light is low in the morning but changes very quickly, so the few sketches I made reflect (somewhat) the shifting light. I made 4 small sketches and a some larger ones..I like some of them.

First sketch no sun

First sun on leaves.

More low sun

Sun hitting top branches more

Full sun on the tops of the branches

If I had to choose just one it would be this one below where the first sun is catching the leaves.

Morning Soapberry

Leaf of the Day: Bugs in the Paint #1 and Drawing

Today I did eventually get to Leu for the first of my new working-out-of-doors days resolution. The weather was kind, too hot really, and I did forget a few vital things but once you can get settled down, drawing outside is a lovely experience. You start to be a part of the landscape, (good and bad), and if you don’t mind the odd wandering ant, and, as yesterday’s quote said… bugs in the paint, it’s rewarding. Why? Because you see much much more than you do from a flattened photograph. That is also good and bad because you have to make more decisions about what you paint, but then there is so much more to choose from.

So what are these? Well, drawings. But what for? At this stage I don’t know. I would have to say they are explorations. Are they finished? I don’t know that either. It depends on your point of view and if you like sketches or highly photographic work.

The first three were of a corner of the Home Garden with a white picket fence which has a nice cut-out pineapple motif.

For these last two I just turned to look in the other direction where there is a divide in the path. I like paths which don’t have a visible start or finish. They have a story to tell.

A Few words about Drawing.
Sometimes its hard to explain what you are doing, when you are drawing. Some people want to be reassured you are doing something recognisable that they can identify with. That’s only natural but drawing has lots of different functions for an artist. Here are some quotes which may explain why we do it and how important it is..

Artists make drawings for a variety of reasons: to capture ideas in momentary sketches; to plan works for other media; to assemble a storehouse of forms and techniques for future use and to create independent works of art. Some drawings of course fit onto more than one category”
A quick sketch generally conveys an immediacy and freshness by capturing the essence of the subject without embracing the need for detail. By contrast highly finished pieces can provide a greater complexity and a more extensive examination of the subject.
And what can you “read” in someones drawings?
It is like looking at handwriting. Here John Canaday the critic writes in 1964
In a drawing an artist is most likely to summarise with maximum expertness and economy, everything that he has decided about what he believes in…to give us at full strength but with minimum elaboration the essence of whatever he has to say… In another kind of drawing the artist is fighting things out with himself and is even more vulnerable but can be even more triumphant when his drawing is an arena for experimentation and decision. He is most isolated yet most exposed in a drawing since nothing else comes so purely from within or shows him to us more intimately.

Thats why we do it! I love to see peoples drawings and I love to draw! It is all that, working out problems, gathering information and helping you to look and see.
I do so wish drawings were more valued today.

Of course I did take some time to wander round the garden (procrastination) and found a delightful little kumquat tree with many many fallen fruit. I am now looking for kumquat recipes. ( more procrastination)….

Leaf of the Day: Resolve, Review and Desert Rose Seedlings.

It’s the end of September, a grey, dull and drizzling day, the world economy is collapsing and its autumn. Autumn is not my favourite season. At least here, the dreary UK signs of autumn, fleeing swallows, dying plants and darkening evenings are not so obvious and, as it cools, we are opening up the blinds and windows and doors. I have cleaned the apartment from top to toe today and I am making a couple of new resolutions.

Today also marks 9 months of drawing and writing about plants and life here in Florida.
My back-to-basics art plan for this year was always to just draw and observe, and not worry too much about a finished piece of work and this will continue, but I have to plan for an possible exhibition next year so I need to push things on a bit.
So I am resolving to work outside at least one day a week…and spend less time on the computer!!.. I have been planning to get back outside and that chance encounter with the two artists last week at Leu was the deciding factor. That and the experiences of the beautiful landscape of the West still vivid in my mind, and some very interesting reading I have been doing since I returned.
One is a large glossy book called ” The Painted Sketch”, American Impressions from Nature 1830 – 1880″ by Eleanor Jones Harvey. It only covers a very narrow time span and deals solely with American painters but charts the rise of the acceptance of the artist’s sketches as “desirable and marketable works of art in their own right” and explains the role of the sketch for these artists and their public. They were an intrepid bunch going into unknown territories complete with oils paints, boundless enthusiam and a huge air of adventure.
“Armed with their sketch boxes, leading artists traveled to remote locations in North and South America and Europe to search out exotic landscape subjects. The public came to equate their adventurous spirits and fortitude with the American character, which gave added popularity to their small field sketches of natural wonders.
Fredrick Church’s small works, in particular, are wonderful. Here are three of them.

Clouds over Olana… 8″x12″..

Study for under Niagra…11″x 17″

Off Iceberg, Newfoundland… 4″ x 11″

Thomas Cole’s sketching box… 17″ x 13″ x 2.5 “

I love these sketches. I love to see the brushstrokes, the handwriting if you like of the individual artist and the confidence of the work. It’s often difficult for non painters to really appreciate the mastery and virtuosity of these works. So many people still equate “a good painting” with
photorealism. The value of these works and the works of plein air painters today is that they record things in situ and for me, there is an honesty about a painting made in this way. It’s not too hard, if you learn a few skills, to copy a photo at home …working outside is a different matter. Talking about one of Church’s sketches from an Ecuador trip in 1857 the writer notes that it,
“bears all of the hallmarks of plein air execution, notably bugs and dirt trapped in the paint, fingerprints from handling the wet sketch in the field and distressed edges from rough treatment in transit” … Fantastic.. a few bugs can often improve a sketch.

Deciding what to paint or draw is the first problem? What will I do? There are not really many remote and uncharted areas of Orlando to explore. Well something small and simple to start with, maybe just a charcoal. It doesn’t really matter what the medium is … it’s just getting out there to do it, that matters.

Desert Rose Seedlings and Pod
Following on from yesterday I thought I should perhaps record the (hopeful) progress of my Desert Rose seedlings.
I had written about Desert Rose and drawn a small branch here
The big pod I had first collected had split and opened before I could draw it, but I did take this photo.

Each side of the 2 arms of the pod split and opened up and the fluffy seeds flew off round the room. I had rounded them up and then had rather abandoned them to an inelegant old tinfoil pastry tin lined with damp kitchen roll. That was the day before we went away, two and a half weeks ago now. They grew, are still growing and I hope I can keep them growing, green fingers firmly crossed..
Here are the seedlings and the empty pod plus a seed. …


Desert Rose Seedlings, Seed and Pod

Leaf of the Day: Triumphant Nature, Ruins and some Plein Air painters.

There has been quite a lot of dominion over nature taking place here in the apartment complex this week. There has been much lopping and hacking, trimming and tidying , grinding and chipping. The tree tidiers, who are in constant work here, come in the shape of burly men, hydraulic lifts, an armoury of power saws and a chipping machine. The elegantly drooping palms have been trimmed to leave only a cheery top knot of leaves. Over enthusiastic shrubs have been chopped down and chipped and creepers stopped in their tracks. Phew… man has regained control of this unruly bit of Winter Park..it was a close shave.
Just keeping nature at bay here is a full time and noisy occupation. A particularly miserable job I think is the be in charge of the leaf blowing machine. In 90 degree temperatures it can be no fun to carry a heavy, noisy and hot machine on your back and trudge the streets chasing leaves. But it has to be done, we can’t have leaves choking up the drains, or creepers taking over pylons or tree roots splitting the pavements.

I recently saw some of the fascinating “Life after People” from the History Channel. It’s a film about what would happen if Man was to suddenly disappear. As you would imagine, it’s not long before nature begins to take over. Especially engaging is the fate of the skyscrapers which having eventually lost their glass become lattice of concrete engulfed by creepers and altitude loving plants. These new elevated ecosystems are full of birds and small rodents, ruled, of course by the great survivors, cats. Cats, who never really needing to come down from their high rise domains might, according to the particularly enthusiastic scientist, develop gliding techniques to get around, not unlike flying foxes. It’s a wonderful image.
National Geographic have a similar film”Aftermath, Population Zero”. You can go to the website for an interactive overview here. The films have mixed reviews but are worth a watch.

There is something that draws us to a ruin, isn’t there, something about those qualities of impermanence and transience, all closely associated with melancholy and much loved by the Romantics.
Fragments of past events and lives can induce a contemplative state of mind, contemplative of our insignificance perhaps. It all reminds me of the great atmospheric etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Temple of Hercules, at Cori 1769

Arch of Titus 1748,…there must be some cats in there somewhere..

or Caspar David Friedrich’s sombre paintings, like The Dreamer here.

I have to admit that I have thought some Florida landscapes can be like these. Just too artificially melancholy for my taste. A sunset painting of ancient moss draped trees with a solitary egret contemplating its reflection the black waters of a swamp does nothing much for me.

But today we did go and see a nice small exhibition at the City Hall Gallery Orlando. I quote from their publicity
“Far and Near Horizons” is an international art exhibit organized by two of the world’s foremost contemporary Landscape Painting groups – Landscape Artists International (LAI) and International Plein Air Painters (IPAP). IPAP members specialize in landscape paintings done entirely en plein air (outside), while LAI members paint landscapes in both plein air and studio settings. While the outlooks and temperaments are slightly different, the commonality of all the artists involved is a passion for painting nature’s landscape. It is a unique gathering of plein air and landscape artists using different painting mediums and representing five countries.”
Their concerns for the landscape mirror David Attenborough’s from yesterday’s post.
Michael Chesley Johnson, past Director;
Thankful for its inspiration, we are eager to see that it gets taken care of. And the best way to see that it gets taken care of is to put it on display for the entire world to see. Our hope is that our paintings will encourage others to become stewards of the land – just as we have become its promoters.”
There were not too many solitary egrets but some very accomplished and painterly works. To dispel any gloom that may have settled, here is a lovely bright pastel by Linda Richichi entitled Wetlands. This particular piece was not in the show but there were others, you can see more of her paintings here.

No time for a drawing today..it’s Saturday…

Leaf of the Day: Plains Tickseed

This is my third attempt to get this little flower back to the house unwilted. This one is on its last legs and, as I am drawing it at 8.00pm, I know how it feels, but it deserves to immortalised. I had sketched it down at the gardens today in situ. It’s so pretty and delicate with lovely yellows and russet browns and this is another one I will have to pay more attention to when I get round to colour studies more seriously. The Plains tickseed, coreopsis tinctoria — so called because the seeds look like bugs.(the translation from the Greek koris specifies bed bugs in fact), tintoria because this little plant was a well known source of a bright yellow dye. Below are the on-site colour sketch and a quick pencil study.

My second trip to Leu Gardens was not very productive in terms of drawings. I am not an habitual plein air artist and am easily distracted by what is going on around me, squirrels, woodpeckers, lizards etc, also this seems to be the time of the school outing, so I spent more time trying to find a quiet spot than actually doing anything.

It is sometimes very hard to decide what to paint given a free hand and so many possibilities, but time and time again I am drawn to the trees so I returned to gazebo view which I found on Monday and have decided to try to concentrate my efforts here. The gazebo is quite a plain little white pavilion but I like the aspect and the huge surrounding trees, so have I will make a few studies and see what I can do, without resorting to any photographs at all. So far, since starting the blog, I have managed to resist. I have nothing against using photographs as an aid, and as an illustrator it was absolutely necessary (a quick trip from the UKto India to sketch a Baobab for a 3 day deadline is a bit impractical). But working without them means that you get a different result and you have to look much harder which is partly the reason for doing the course, to return to more careful observation and just draw without even thinking of finished work. That can come later.
So I intend to take a step by step approach from pencil sketch to tonal sketch and colour note drawings, see how they turn out and (maybe) post the results. However today I spent a bit more time just looking at the greens and watching the light change on the trees..and the squirrels gamboling and the woodpeckers pecking ..I hope tomorrow I will find them less charming (in the literal sense of the word) and be able to concentrate better..

Plains Tickseed