Arctic Tern Painting and Winter Update

This acrylic canvas painting of an Arctic Tern was a Christmas present, so now that the gift has been given I can post it here:

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Tux’s family lives near the coast, and when we visit I enjoy watching terns hover over the water, scouting for fish before they strike. As usual with phone pictures, the colours and lighting have been exaggerated a bit. Sometimes I wish I had a giant scanner just for paintings because taking pictures of them can be quite a challenge if the lighting isn’t ideal, and in my studio it’s far from ideal.

This time of year it’s almost always dark in the house. It’s near the base of  a large hill which is higher than the winter sun, so regardless of windows we can’t see the sun at all in the depth of winter. On nice days we still get blue skies and light of course, and on a sunny day I can determine approximately where behind the hill the sun is, but we can’t see the sun itself. Now I understand why so many holidays were originally based on things like the changing seasons; we are eagerly waiting for those first golden rays to reach over the trees signaling the return of warmth and light. After living in the city for three years, now I finally understand the Norwegian love of sitting in the sunshine, and why the easter holiday is such a big deal here. On one of the first days when I was in Canada this past Christmas, I realized it was sunny outside and I stepped out onto the porch, eager to feel the warmth on my skin, but it was -15C and that didn’t quite go as I expected. I hurried back inside before my feet froze to the deck boards. It was sunny almost every day while I was there, and not every day was that cold (boxing day was +9!), so now I consider going home for Christmas to be my “sunny holiday” for the winter. Norwegians go to Spain, I go to Canada ūüėČ

I still love winter, and we have plenty to keep ourselves busy indoors, we just can’t do much outside these days because the whole landscape is a sheet of ice. 

It’s so slippery even the cat wipes out!

I sit inside painting and planning the coming gardens, waiting. It will be a relief when we can just walk outside and not worry about breaking a wrist or tailbone. I’ve got some lovely new bruises just from walking across the backyard to check on our new wildlife camera.

Speaking of which, here is our first catch from the “critter cam”!

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There have been loads of fox tracks around and we were told that a fox lived under the barn, which is why I’m determined to keep our kitty indoors at night as much as possible. It was fun to finally see the fox itself. I’ve seen lots of moose and deer tracks in this spot too, and we were told there are badgers around too, but so far haven’t had pictures of anything other than this fox and a neighbour’s cat prowling around.

As soon as I arrived back in Norway after Christmas, exhausted and jet lagged, we took a 10 hour drive up to Trondheim to pick up our “new” 40 year old electric garden tractor, which we are very excited about. The tractor came with solar panels for charging, so it’s totally self sufficient and emission free. These were never sold in Norway; it was imported from the states and as far as we know it’s the only one of its kind here, so we are absolutely thrilled to have it. It’s something we can fix ourselves if it breaks down since it was built before everything was so high tech and built to be “disposable”, so things were made to be fixable. The tractor came with all kinds of attachments, and we are super excited to see what it is capable of. I especially love how quiet it is compared to the diesel tractor or the gas lawn mower.

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Now things are starting to feel normal for the first time in what feels like forever. There are no more major life changes on the horizon. We’re settled in, the chaos of the holidays is over and I’m recovered from all the travel and getting back into work mode. I’ve got a contract coming up soon so I have had to push myself a bit to get back into drawing, which is always difficult if I’ve been away from it for a while, especially picking up where I left off on a work in progress. The current project involves a nematode being trapped by a fungus, like this. Nature can be pretty gruesome!

Hope you’re staying cozy and warm this winter ūüôā

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Winter from the kitchen window ‚̧ 

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Pen and Watercolour

Our epic NASA style living room setup had to be dismantled when we were showing our apartment and I haven’t had access to the big Cintiq computer for a few weeks. It’s been too hot¬†to even think about leaning¬†over that warm¬†screeen anyway, and with all the chaos of buying a farm and selling the apartment I haven’t been doing any artwork lately. I’ve been itching to draw something now that the craziness has calmed down and we have a few days left of¬†summer vacation, so I started experimenting¬†with combining pen and watercolour. It’s been nice to take some time and practice with the watercolours, and to have something constructive to do in the apartment that doesn’t involve sitting at a hot computer all day. We’re going a bit crazy now that the apartment has sold and there are just a few more weeks left until we take over the farm. We just want to get started on our¬†chicken coop already!

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The calendar is packed somewhere in another dimension so we made a really crappy one just for the countdown. August 26th is the big day!

I think I’m starting to get the hang of watercolour pencils, but I still feel pretty limited to¬†the colours I have available, despite having¬†32 pencils to pick from. In the world of realistic painting, 32 colours is nowhere near enough if you can’t blend! Blending watercolour pencils just doesn’t work well at all. It can be unpredictable because¬†some colours are significantly stronger than others, and they just don’t mix very well so it will take some experience with these particular pencils to know which ones do what. It’s almost as if they each have unique personalities. It’s also pretty hard to do trial and error right on the page since the paper can only handle so much water at a time. The perfectionist in me gets antsy about not getting the colours exactly right, but it’s a good opportunity to teach that part of me to chill out and just accept that art is allowed to¬†be sloppy.

Tufted Deer

This deer was meant to be more of a blue-grey/beige colour, not so much pink and tan, but it works well enough. Also yes it has fangs, more on that in a future post ūüėČ

I’m really having a lot of fun¬†doing these combination pen/watercolour drawings. It might be just a lack of skill, but using the watercolours doesn’t seem to offer the contrast I want. The only deep colour I can reliably get is black; the rest of them just get too¬†watered down (go figure). Ink lines give the work a more crisp, finished feel, and the¬†pictures¬†remind me of illustrations from¬†science textbooks or kid’s story books.

Here’s an example of a straight watercolour drawing I did a few weeks ago after¬†we had to dismantle our balcony garden for showings. It sucked to have to rip up perfectly good pea plants, but they were climbing on the railing and there weren’t any other options to save them so I thought I’d artistically commemorate one of the nice big pods before letting it dry out for seeds.Sugar snap pea July 2016.png

The drawing started off ok, but I gave up on it after a while because I got impatient with the colour. I couldn’t quite reach¬†the deep, vibrant green of the healthy plant; instead it looks yellow and weak. The scanner did exaggerate the yellow a bit, but you get the idea. The bright areas¬†just sort of fade into the paper, and it didn’t seem to matter how much I tried to darken the shadowy parts, they¬†just washed away. I tried to darken it with black and a bit of blue but things were just getting muddy at that point so I quit. I don’t love the composition anyway. Now that it’s been sitting for a few weeks I probably could come back to it with a fresh mind¬†and go over it again to get richer colours but I think the paper has had enough (you can see how much it’s buckling!), and my reference specimen is a dried out husk now so I’d just be winging it. I’m saving the peas to plant in the spring as this was a good strong plant until I had to pull it out ūüôā

I think this drawing would have been a lot more successful and fun to do if I had used ink first. There is something very satisfying about filling in a line drawing with colour, which is probably why those adult colouring books have become so popular. The pen lines also help me keep the watercolours under control a bit too once I apply the water, which makes that part a lot more relaxing.

I’m starting to get a technique that works well for these. First I do a light pencil sketch to lay down the foundation of what I want to draw. Then I erase the pencil very gently, trying to avoid damaging the paper. I leave just a hint of pencil behind as a guideline for the pen.

Next step is the ink drawing. This needs to be fairly precise so it helps to go slowly and carefully in order to get it right the first time. This step takes the most concentration.

Grasshopper lines

Finished ink drawing waiting to be coloured in

By the time I’m finished with the ink, I’m excited to dive in with the colours. All those empty spaces are irresistible, and just beg to be filled¬†in. I try to do most of the dry colouring at once and minimize the number of times I’ll need to apply water. It doesn’t take much before the paper starts to buckle, even with fairly decent watercolour paper.

I’ve found that I usually need to go over the drawing a few times, especially to get more vibrant¬†colours and deep shading. I forgot to take a picture of the dry coloured bug, but here is the finished product:

Bug with fuzzy antennae

I also drew an anteater, just cause they are cute and strange.

Anteater

There will definitely be more of these coming up. I love trying new things, so any ideas or suggestions¬†for subjects are always welcome! ūüôā

How to Create Deep Blacks in Acrylic

This past winter I was hired for my first art commission. The client wanted a cow for her living room wall. I was eager to try something new, but had no idea how I would create the effect of shiny black fur using acrylic.¬†As anyone who has ever painted anything in acrylic knows, using pure black doesn’t give the effect you want it to. Adding more black doesn’t make it darker, and trying to lighten it just makes it flat and grey. For anyone else who has struggled with this, allow me to share with you a little trick I learned while working on¬†two paintings of animals with shiny black coats.

Unfortunately I don’t have a scanner big enough for full sized canvas paintings, so I have to use my iPhone to take pictures of them. It’s pretty much impossible to get a true representation of any painting using an iPhone, even in the best light. The problem is when the phone adjusts the focus it tries to compensate for the brightness/darkness in the focal¬†area, and that can really mess with the contrast and depth of the colours in the photo. If anyone has some advice for dealing with this, please let me know!¬†

So having said that, here are two examples of paintings I did over the holidays which taught me a lot about painting in black.

The first is Sadie, my mom’s Boston Terrier. I painted this as a Christmas present, and it doubled as a practice run for¬†the calf¬†below, which was the commission project. It was super convenient that both paintings had exactly the same colour palette.

Sadie

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The key, I learned, is to use actual black very sparingly. Only for the deepest darkest pure black areas like a pupil. Often in any kind of painting, I find that it’s the surrounding area that¬†brings out¬†the thing you want to emphasize, rather than the thing itself. It might be difficult to see in the photos, but I used a slightly lighter colour in the iris immediately surrounding the pupil to add life and dimension to the eye, as well as bring out the deep black in the pupil itself. Since the pupil is a small area which is truly black, absorbing all light, it is ok to use just a pure black paint straight from the tube.

To cover large areas, you can actually mix black¬†as needed using ultramarine blue and burnt umber. I had no idea blue and brown would mix black, but it worked perfectly! Thanks Google! Of course what you will make is not really black, but that’s the point. Pure black is flat, but with a mixed “almost black” you can adjust it to add subtle variation and shine, which creates depth. When you want to add life¬†to something like an animal with a shiny black coat, use different ratios of blue and brown to adjust the “temperature”, and play with it to get the effect you want.

For the most part the ratio is flexible. More brown makes it warmer and blue makes it cooler. Experiment to see what works for your painting. A small amount of white helps lighten the mixture enough to bring out the shiniest parts without having it look flat and grey.

Hope that is helpful for anyone who has been struggling with using black in acrylic. It’s easier than you might think ūüôā

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headaches and Charcoal

Panther Charcoal

This drawing was¬†from a few months ago. I had a bad headache for six days straight and decided to try drawing¬†something to take my mind off it. It’s probably no coincidence that this is what I ended up with¬†as it depicts¬†pretty accurately¬†how I was feeling at the time. Surprisingly,¬†the headache actually started to let up after I finished the drawing. Maybe the headache itself was an angry snarling beast that needed to be released onto paper.

This was also my first time using a blending stump with charcoal. I had recently bought a new set of drawing pencils that included one but at the time I had no idea what the white thing was and actually had to google it. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is what I’m talking about:

 

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The white piece on the right is the blending stump. Basically, it’s just a¬†roll of compressed paper that you can hold like a pencil.¬†You use it instead of your fingers to smudge the charcoal and create nice smooth blending effects. When the stump starts to develop a thick layer of charcoal (or graphite) on it, you can use the sandpaper block on the left to freshen it up again and reshape the¬†point if needed.

This thing makes¬†charcoal a little easier and less messy to work with. My parents will probably remember a lot of black fingerprints¬†and smudges on the walls and doors in and around my bedroom when I was a teenager. I didn’t know about these things back then and I always just used my finger to blend. Charcoal is still as messy as ever, but this thing does reduce that quite a bit, and makes it possible to create much more refined effects than you ever could by smudging it with a finger.

Another important tool to use in this kind of work is the good old kneadable eraser. If you’ve ever done any pencil drawing you probably know what this is, but for anyone who doesn’t know, here is a picture of one sitting next to a regular eraser:¬†image1.JPG

The kneadable eraser is very similar to that blue tacky stuff you can use to put pictures up on the wall, and actually I have heard¬†that you can use that stuff¬†as a super cheap kneadable eraser but I’ve never tried that myself.

The kneaded eraser is AMAZING. As far as I’m concerned it’s purely magical. It can be squeezed and shaped into whatever form you need to create precise effects. You can make it round and blunt, and just gently dab or brush over the drawing to create softer highlights, or you can make a fine point for a more defined effect. You can also use it to clean up smudges and refine edges. It’s much more versatile and precise than a regular eraser, but not as effective if you have a lot to erase or need to clean up a large area. I consider both types of erasers to be equally essential to drawing with either pencil or charcoal.

When I get to a¬†point where I start causing more harm than good in a drawing, I call it finished. It’s like when you’re curling your hair.. there comes a point where you just start messing it up the more you try to work¬†with it, and you have to just stop and say you’re done. I find that drawing¬†or painting in any medium¬†is exactly the same. When I’m done¬†with a¬†charcoal drawing, I spray it with¬†a fixative to keep the charcoal where it should be and move on to the next thing.

Watercolour Pencils

Watercolour pencils are amazing!¬†¬†I picked up a set of these a few months ago and have been playing with them now and then. I wanted to try oil painting but the paints are quite a bit more expensive than acrylic, and I was already doing plenty of acrylic painting so ¬†instead I considered watercolour. Watercolour paints looked rather messy and since I don’t have space for a proper studio at this point, watercolour pencils seemed like the next best thing. Turns out they are a blast.

Basically, they are just coloured pencils and you use them the same way as dry ones. BUT, when you brush over the drawing with water, the pigment dissolves into paint right on the paper!

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I went all out and bought one of those brushes with water in the handle, but you don’t need that. It works just as well with a regular brush dipped in water, and I do prefer that for fine detail or very large areas. This brush also gives you a bit less control over how much water you’re applying, and it can quickly become too much so in many cases a regular brush is actually better but I do enjoy using this as well.

Here is a before and after:
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On the left is the dry original drawing, and on the right is the final result after going over with a brush. The colours become richer and allow greater possiblities for blending and shading.

Of course it’s not as simple as just slopping water all over the drawing and it magically comes out perfectly. The water pulls the pigment around just like paint, and you can blend and mix colours right on the paper. The colour becomes richer, but also darker, so it definitely takes some practice and getting used to. It’s difficult or impossible to lighten it up or add highlights once an area is already dark, and going over a particular spot to correct something doesn’t work very well.

It’s a bit difficult to know how the colours will blend, and I think the type of paper has something to do with this as well. I tried a few different papers and noticed very big differences in the results. I ended up buying a nice pad of watercolour paper because regular paper tends to buckle and I found drawing paper didn’t behave nicely when I was trying to blend colours.

To help figure out how the colours interact with each other, the Faber-Castell starter kit I bought provided a chart and suggested combining all the pencils to see what they create. Here is that chart:

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The letters stand for which colours were mixed in each square. R for Red, O for Orange, etc. It’s very handy to look at the chart and see which colour I’m after, then know which pencils to blend to achieve that colour.

Eventually I decided I liked these quite a bit, so I bought a bigger set with a better range of colours to choose from. I wanted to paint more natural tones like browns and greens, and the original 8-piece starter set felt a bit limiting. Here is a drawing I did after using the new set:

Bluethroat brushed¬†I definitely want to practice this more to get a better handle on blending and shading but overall these are a lot of fun to work with and it’s very easy to get a cool watercolour effect without mucking around with watercolour paints.