Category Archives: watercolours

Drawing, maths and languages

Yesterday, when I was talking to one of my friends, she told me that you could see, across the various Facebook posts (my instagram pictures are usually sent across to my Facebook account), how I was getting better at the drawing all the time.

This made me happy for the obvious reasons of you’d like to think that as you do more of a thing, you get better. But this was also the friend with whom I had the original conversation of “I was never very good at drawing” where I realised that I got irate with people who said that about maths or languages and pointed out to myself, about art at least, that for most things, few people started out very good at anything, it was very much a learning by doing thing that got them better. And that I’d never given much time to art because “I was never very good at it”.

So the above is some approximation of Mount Fuji, done on a train last week or the week before. Let me tell you, drawing on trains in Ireland is not easy. The trains bounce quite a bit. You need to get the drawing bit done in Heuston before the train sets off. The painting bit, requiring a lot less precision, is okay.

I’ve found myself in conversations about learning Irish during the week and the message I have taken away from it is that many people, in Ireland at least, are unable to draw advantages from things they have to do, even when they don’t want to do it. When you point out those advantages, you get yelled at.

It is fair to say that usage of Irish is not particularly broad, but that’s not why anyone really learns it, and even if you never see yourself speaking Irish, there are tangible benefits to learning it as it has a lot of sounds that are just not in English which may be useful should you want to learn another language later.

What that language might be is also something you cannot dictate at the age of 4 or 5.

I don’t speak Irish on a day to day basis, mostly because an chaighdeán and I speak slightly different varieties and I just don’t understand the radio a lot. But I do speak French and German significantly more regularly and I am learning Finnish. Having learned Irish has fed into all three of those, especially the Finnish (as it happens). Knowledge is only wasted if you are the wasting type.

What saddens me most is the argument that education should be dictated purely by what most people are likely to need to earn money. Education should be directed towards equipping people to learn on an ongoing basis, and towards teaching them to think.

When I see a lot of arguments online in Ireland, I feel that in those two objectives at least, education has failed. Much of the argument also centres on how education has failed to provide adequate vocational training. If we focused on education like this, then arguably, 80 years ago, it was fair enough to get people out of school when they were 12, not worry too much if they could read or write, because sure, they weren’t ever really going to need it, were they?

We got to a space in our country where we provided an adequate basis for people to develop their own views on their lives and then move on. I sometimes feel that with a focus on what “industry needs” and “what people need for their careers” that we will lose that view of education, that it is a tool for living, and not just a tool for an employer.

Which brings me back to art.

It’s hard to make a living from art. Most people can’t. An awful lot (embittered photographer comment coming up) of people expect to be able to get art for free or “a credit, which will be good for you”.

Most of the people I know in the tech sector, so people who do the currently fashionable professions of tech related programming, network management or software design, system administration or whatever you’re having yourself, have developed hobbies which are fundamentally not tech focused. Anecdotally, for the women, it tends towards craft work, knitting, crochet, sewing, and for the men, it tends towards craft beer, and, wood turning.

This leads me to think that despite arguments that the tech sector can be very creative, in terms of designing solutions to problems, that creative side of things is not really tangible enough.

I regret massively that I did not take up drawing and painting at a much earlier stage in my life (and I’m going to write a couple of excuses in a moment).

Part of that is because there is, I think, a truth missing from our lives. It really doesn’t matter how good you are at something provided you are enjoying doing it. And if you focus on enjoying it, you may wind up getting good at it.

We are not all born to be Olympic champions but that’s not why people go running every day.

School is where we should be getting the fundamentals of these skills, the building blocks on which we can build stuff later. Anyone who knows anything at all about languages knows that you never stop learning. No one who is 40 years old today has a static command of their native language. Anyone who works in technology has an ever increasing set of use cases for various words whose meaning was actually reasonably set down prior to tech, eg, analyst, architect, and, let’s face it, computer. Yet, I suspect if someone popped up and suggested that the ability to draw might be a skill which should be part of a rounded education, the same arguments coming from the cohort who see no value in Irish for the simple reason that they were never very good at it (and didn’t bother trying) would be advanced in terms of art. This is a pity because it is predicated on the idea that people are born good artists. But drawing is a skill which can be acquired to some reasonable level.

When I went to school, there was a tendency of seeing some people as good at art, and some as less talent. In many respects, art was seen as a talent and less as a skill. People in my class were seen as good at drawing and the others…well. I was, for the most part, one of the others, bar on one occasion, when I drew a holiday scene, actually won a prize for it, and still had a teacher demanding to know why I didn’t colour in something which, in real life, was white.

In an act of rebellion, I coloured it in pink, when, age the age of 8, I lost that argument. Pink was about the one colour this thing was never going to be. Looking back now, I don’t much remember the praise.

I remember the surprise, the astonishment, that someone from the “Not good at drawing group” (but terribly good at maths and English) had produced something that didn’t look like a spider had been at a paint box. I retreated back to the maths and the English. It seemed somehow safer.

No doubt, there were others who retreated to something else from the maths and English. We all, as children, have our safe places.

There is research around that suggests that kids learn better when effort is rewarded rather than success. I don’t have a link to it handy but it’s particularly interesting in the context of other research which says in the US, in particular, children from Asian families have a view that working at maths will enable you to get better at maths, whereas in other groupings there is a view that you have to have some sort of leaning towards it. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m inclined to see some merit in that argument, and not just limited to maths.

As it happens, I did Mount Fuji twice, once in my watercolour book, and once as part of my inktober getting better at drawing notebook which isn’t so great for paints. This is how it looked first.

#inktober #inktober2015 #sennelier #hahnemuhle #fineliner A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

When my friends can actually recognise the places I am drawing, this makes me feel very good. Drawing is fun, and you can learn how to do it. The same is true of most things.

Birds of A Clef: Mex

I have a sketchblog on the go (also on this domain) but I haven’t really been publicising it much.

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Anyway, I have a couple of projects on the go, one being the vans, and the other, rather suddenly, being a collection of birds from a project called Birds of a Clef. It has caught people’s interest for some reason with the net result that requests have come in.

Like this one, for example.

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I see these taking more control than the van did.

Rainy Saturday

It’s been raining.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. My garden, such as it is, could do with it.

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And I have been painting. Some lucky family members are going to get postcards in the future – dependent on when I have stamps sorted out.

Way back in the early days of my search for suitable paper, I picked up a set of watercolour postcards. I’ve played and failed with them over time. I wasn’t very good at painting, by which I mean, noticeably worse than I am now. But there were half a dozen postcards left and the only thing anyone gets in the post lately seems to be bills. Postcards were once a thing. Now it’s email and pinterest pins, and FaceBook posts.

What you see above is pretty much my painting painting kit (I have pencils as well, let’s not go there). The paintbox on the left, my mother bought for me. The one on the right I bought yesterday as a spill over. It came with 12 half pans of colour to, out of which I took 7 which I don’t use much, put in five commonly used colours as spares, and added a couple of new colours which I didn’t have a lot of success in mixing. The half pans are a mix of Cotman student half pans and two or three Winsor & Newton Artist Grade colour. I can’t get the Cotman half pans loose in Dublin (so far) and while I’m well aware that the W&N are technically “better”, I really can’t send too much money in their direction right now. But the blank spaces are for other colours I may feel the need to get in the future.

I like the little boxes because they are small and tidy – compared to my camera equipment, for example. I have looked at some of the enamel (otherwise known as “expensive” boxes) and while I strongly believe in getting the best tools you can go for, the truth is, I got into this whole thing not because I had visions of producing great art, but because the urban sketching movement appealed to me, the whole idea, I suppose not so much of location painting, because sometimes I just don’t have time and there’s a camera on my phone which I use to take snaps of things I may want to revisit with a sketchbook later, but recording the environment around me because it changes. Dublin has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Not doing the paintings on location, however, means that to some extent, a lot of my stuff can’t go on the urban sketcher feeds yet. However, for those days when I do hunker down and do some painting on location anywhere, I don’t want to be schlepping a whole art studio around. All that gear, excluding paper, fits into a pencil case.

Anyway.

The pictures aside, this is basically my art journal kit minus the paper. Two small paintboxes, a pencil, a fineliner, an eraser and a waterbrush. I have a set of actual brushes too, but one of the things that is handy about the waterbrush is that if I keep it filled, one thing I don’t need is a bottle of water. I had a vision of this all fitting into my handbag, which it did until I added the second paintbox (it doesn’t really matter that it doesn’t now because what also didn’t really fit was any thing like paper). I use Caran d’Ache water brushes, or that size in particular, because I like using them, they seem to survive longer than my Derwent ones and they behave better as well. I have one Pentel one as well. Like a lot of things in Ireland, the supply of some art materials can be difficult and the easiest water brushes to get now are Derwent ones; Easons had some yesterday and the Art and Hobby stores stock them as well. It was in an AnH store I got the Pentel one; it’s the only one I’ve ever seen here and therefore I’m somewhat sparing in my use of it. Kennedys have recently started stocking the Caran d’Ache ones so if you are in Dublin at least, that’s an option.

One of the things I have blogged about in some detail is the regrets I have about not keeping a travel art journal when I was travelling over the last 20 years. So when I sat down this evening, to the sound track of a fog horn (seriously), I sat down to paint places I have been. I’ve been to all three locations above. Two lighthouses, one in Ireland, and one in almost a direct line due south, in Spain. For people who know me, the lighthouses are probably not surprising. The other one is Sydney Opera House, and that’s round 4 of its sails in my life. They are getting better all the time. I do have the journal set aside to start revisiting places I have been and now I am starting to draw these places.

Caran d’Ache GRAFWOOD

I started learning to draw properly recently, mainly because I was bored with photography, had some time on my hands, and liked watercolour pencils. After some interesting attempts at buildings in Dublin, and especially the Neues Rathaus in Munich, I decided a bit more effort needed to be made on basic drawing skills, perspective and all that. It’s like scales for music; practice isn’t exactly the most scintillating activity ever but it makes the nice and fun things easier.

Most of my non-coloured pencils in my art box are watersoluble graphite and when I started trying to draw things with it, I found they were very, very soft. Fantastic in a way – 10 year old me loved soft pencils – but not so much for drawing. So I gritted my teeth and went back to Kennedy’s to see if they had harder Caran d’Ache pencils, or Faber Castells as a second choice. I’m nothing if not brand loyal and to be fair, while they aren’t appropriate for trying to draw the nose of an Airbus just so, the Technalos are lovely pencils, the ballpoints and fountains are lovely pens and the two lots of coloured water colour pencils are sublime. Kennedy’s had a decent whack of the Grafwood pencils which are not water soluble. What little I knew about pencils suggested I needed H variants rather than B variants, so I bought four of them, I think H, 2H, 3H and 4H.

Having tried all four of them at this stage on varying things like faces of very scary people, aeroplanes, more aeroplanes and bits of aeroplanes, specifically wings, I have to say I like them a lot, and especially, I could see myself having H and 2H on hand all the time. They are much harder than what are in any of my mechanical pencils (which I suppose I could also use) but they are a pleasure to draw with. The 4H is very, very hard, and I can’t see myself using that very much, but then, I didn’t think I was going to need pencils like these in the first place so who knows. On my desk, there are a handful of other wooden pencils, 2 crystal Faber Castells which are three sided and I also have some of the special woods collection Caran d’Ache, the 3rd collection I think.

I’m having ethical issues with those pencils. They are gorgeous – I mean seriously gorgeous – but once they are gone, they are gone. So do I use them or not? My instinct is to say yes.

In the meantime, because they were bought specifically for the purpose, and especially because they are nice to work with, the Grafwoods will be the top sketching pencils. I need to do something about storage for them and I haven’t thought about it yet.

If you read any pencil reviews at all (I do sometimes), lots of things matter to people who are serious pencil experts. I’m not one. The Grafwoods come painted with a sort of metallic looking lacquer, and the colour varies with the lead weight of the pencil which makes them comparatively easy to identify quickly. I like this. It makes the lacquer have a second more utilitarian function rather than look pretty. They are a nice weight in my hand. And of course, they feed the brand loyalty which I have had since I was 15 for the company that makes them.

In the meantime, no one is getting to see the actual sketches

access to art

There’s a moment, when I have a blank page in front of me, and I freeze. I can’t draw, and I’m faking it.

I won a prize for art at school when I was about, oh 9 or something. I was surprised. Other kids were better at drawing at me – I saved most of my effort for my times’ tables. And art class at school, well…we had it a couple of hours a week but we just sat down, attempted to draw stuff, and generally I had indifferent to a complete lack of success. I was pretty handy drawing the diagrams for the chemical experiments but you know, a ruler got you out of a lot of trouble for that.

I really regret this now.

One of the things which really gets on my nerves is people saying “I can’t…” and yet I was doing the whole “I’m not that great at drawing” act which is a little bit hypocritical. And I happened across an unusual movement (unusual for me, that is) called Urban Sketchers.

I like the idea of location drawing although more honestly, I prefer the sort of art travel journal side of things. So I don’t always sketch on location, but often take reference photographs and do some art journalling later. Sometimes it’s hard as in, I haven’t done anything of note today, and there’s nothing to draw.

I like water colours but I struggled with them, and then I discovered watercolour pencils. Sketch with the pencils and then apply water using a brush. I’d like to say simples, but the sketching bit is hard.

Of course, the one thing that  happens when you pick up a new hobby is you become invaded by a certain amount of gadget freakery. The reason I had welding glass handy for this morning’s eclipse which I missed anyway was some camera related gadget freakery. Painting/art is no different. You have no idea how many pencils are to be got. Spend any time reading pencil review blogs where they are just discussing the sort of pencils I had at school and you realise that beyond computers there is a level of geekery which cannot be equalled. I love mechanical pencils but this is something completely different. And then there is the paper. Which is not exactly perfectly available at the moment either. Plus I am choosy.

For the purposes of the pencils, I use a mixture of four sets. My absolute loves are my Caran D’Ache Museum Aquarelles. They are lovely to colour with. They are also impossible to get in Ireland. Mine were acquired in the London Graphic Centre and I have a set of 12. Caran D’Ache sell a couple of configurations, and the pencils can be got individually too. In an ideal world, I’d have the full set of 72. It may be possible to ask Kennedy’s Art Supplies on Harcourt Street to order them as they are Caran D’Ache retailers.

In addition to them, I have a set of Faber Castell Albrecht Durer pencils, also 12, with a slightly different selection of colours. There is also, I think, a 120 colour set of those. In fact, about 4 years ago, Faber Castell did a special anniversary box set of all their premium coloured pencils. I would kill for one. I really would. It’s a beautiful thing. I got my Albrecht Durers from the London Graphic Centre, although they can occasionally be got in some form, usually 12, I think, from the Art’n’Hobby Shop and I have seen them in Kennedy Art Supplies for definition. Evans may have them as well but I’m not sure about that.

The first water colour pencils I got were actually Caran D’Ache’s as well, and I only had a couple of them initially, and they were from what was, until 2013 when the Museum set was born, their premium line, the Supracolor II set. They come in boxes of varying sizes – mine is 18 – but I think the biggest set you can get is around 120 as well, either in a tin box, or a presentation wooden box. I covet that presentation wooden box. I got them in Kennedy’s Art Supplies on Harcourt Street which is, incidentally, a lovely shop. I’m pretty sure Cork Art Supplies have them as well although I’ve never been in there.

The other set, which is probably easier for most people to get, because they came from the Art’n’Hobby Shop, are Derwent Inktense. They are slightly different in terms of make up – I’m not an expert on what’s inside the wooden pencil case. In addition to Inktense, which is pretty much Derwent’s premium watercolour pencil range, they do a straight range of Watercolor pencils which can be got in both Easons and the Art’n’Hobby Shop. My experience is that as far as the watercolour pencils and the Inktense range are concerned, Jervis Street tend to have both, and it’s pot luck with the other branches.

In terms of quality, the Museums are out on a plain of their own, far out ahead of the others. I love them. Next in line, it’s difficult to call a difference between the Albrecht Durers and the Supracolor II. I mix and match. Of my own supplies, the ones I am least likely to use at the moment are the Inktense. The set I have is a 37 piece set including a large number of Inktense blocks. If I had my time back, it’s possibly I would not get the set that includes the blocks (although they have their uses the odd time).

Paperwise, that’s a bit more hassle. The selection of paper on offer in Dublin is…disappointing. The current art journal is going into a mixed media A4 pad by Canson as it’s the right size, there’s more than 12 sheets in it. It’s not pure watercolour paper but it’s doing what I want it to do. There aren’t a lot of other choices and I haven’t tried enough of them to write a definitive view on which is my favourite. I know for the art journaling I like A4 sized paper. For anything outside the art journal, I haven’t really settled yet.

Watercolour paper comes in a couple of different guises, in terms of how it’s pressed, how textured it is, and who manufactured it. Most common, I have found, is Cotman, closely followed by some form of Langton, with Daler Rowney Aquafine and Nouvelles Arches occasionally to be found. From the point of view of a small travel journal, there does exist a Moleskine watercolour sketch book but I have never seen it for sale in Ireland.

The other gadget you’ll require for this game is some sort of brush. I use water brushes which are handy little freaks which you can fill with water and avoid the having to carry water around with you. You have to make sure you get them clean before contaminating colours, and you can use them for pan watercolours as well. I’ve never tried the tubes so we won’t go there.

They are not easy to find in Ireland, sometimes, but the Art’n’Hobby Shop chain tends to have some examples. I got a Caran d’Ache one at the London Graphic Centre and based on my current limited knowledge, they only appear to manufacture one size. Derwent sell three sizes which you can occasionally get in a three pack (recommended, in my experience, that’s usually 3 for the price of 2 priced), and the only other brand I’ve seen here are Pentell, one of which I own.

Being honest, the one I use most often is one of the Derwent ones, their number 3. It’s a nice brush and it has the benefit of being comparatively easy to replace as yes, the Art’n’Hobby Shop tend to have them. The Pentel can be generous, and overly generous, with the water. I love the Caran D’Ache one, but I tend to be mean with it because I can’t get them here. It’s likely that the next time I see them, I will buy two or three. The Derwent one I am using at the moment is starting to show signs of suffering.

I also have five or six Daler Rowney brushes. Theoretically I need to carry a bottle of water and water receptacles around to use them. I tend not to. Having used them in the past, they are very nice brushes, and the range I own gives me a lot of flexibility.