Today I started on a Montezuma Quail in gouache and watercolour, with an eye to pattern.

Why am I posting an unfinished work? Apart from noting that a sketchbook rarely contains anything ‘finished’, I wanted to articulate for myself some of the narrative behind the work.

There are several creative threads coming together here:

  • Liz Steel’s SketchingNow Watercolur 2018 is currently emphasising colour mixing, which is making its presence felt in the background – I’m colour mixing elswhere, attempting to replicate an Arthur Streeton A4 landscape watercolour entitled Hawkesbury Valley (but that’s another story), hut here sticking to the ‘safety’ of plain colour – DS Potters Pink (left) and DS Monte Amiata Natural Ochre (right). I’ll combine watercolour backgrounds with gouache figures, though someone like Ros Stendhal might go for a background in markers;
  • Liz Steel’s course is founded on a deep understanding of paint consistency, since she’s a believer not in uniform flat washes of colour but in the materiality of watercolour by showcasing its unique qualities – colours mixing on the paper, granulation, backruns, etc. A lot of my favourite watercolourists (Tho. Gurtin, Gerard Michel, the late Florian Afflerbach use just watercolour washes, devoid of watercolour’s more mercurial properties, so this is testing my limits, though Paul Hogarth, another of my favourites, conveys whimsy through colour mixing on the page and backruns;
  • while there are superficial similarities between gouache and watercolour (paint texture, the addition of water, etc.),¬† I’m interested in the way gouache can both show and hide brushstroke, how water can turn it from “juicy” to “watery” and how layering can affect hard and soft edges;
  • while I normal run away from excessive pattern for its own sake, I’ve not long returned from Vienna where the 20th-century greats rebelled by exploiting pattern and the issue of pattern has been raised in https://scratchyas.com/2018/01/27/the-creative-plan-patterns/. As well The Guardian online publishes amazing nature photography on a weekly basis, inspiring in terms of how pattern occurs in nature – something that obviously inspires Roz Stendhal;
  • Roz Stendhal at https://rozstendahl.com does bird portraits, which have the appearance often of self-portraits and because she draws animals from life, they have a certain looseness, a development on more formal realistic copying (I think I’ll start with formal studies and loosen up over time);
  • I’m immediately feeling constrained by working 9×6″ – working larger seems more comfortable, but I want to gradually work down from Liz Steel’s Rosemary & Co. #6 brush – the Pigeon this week was done with an unruly #4, while today I’m working #2,3,4 (okay with #6 necessary for the background washes);
  • the issues of figure-and-ground are always prominent – whether they be the recent Blue Ginger stems or here, working with the bird ‘portraits’; Roz spends a lot of time and energy on backgrounds;
  • next week, I’ll be giving a talk on hand-made sketchbooks, so working on Fabriano Accademia 200gsm paper in a variety of media will assist. I’m surprised how well this Venezia Sketchbook 9×6″ is handling gouache – I notice the paper wants to curl a bit more with the watercolour backgrounds, but it’s still manageable and can definitely be worked on both sides of the page;
  • Australia Day means an annual dash to catch both the White Rabbit Gallery show Ritual Spirit before it closes (my regular ‘trip’ to China, with all the usual tropes of porcelain, incense, fire, bronze, contemporary Chinese artists crossing over into oil paint) as well as the Combined Art Societies, Art of Sydney show at Darling Harbour, replete with watercolours, animal portraits and a tiny minority of urban/built environment painting (even a drypoint print this year!). In this regard, there’s a link to Proko discussing why beginner artists’ work all looks the same, though his is in a figurative context.


6,7,8,9,10B Mitsubishi pencils on A2 cartridge

Miranda Fair (now known as Westfield Miranda) is Sydney’s first shopping mall – that is, the first regional shopping centre to have two department stores, Grace Bros and David Jones – built in 1964. It became the largest shopping centre in Australia in 1971.

I have no recollection of the shopping centre in my youth, since, at around 4km from home and inaccessible on foot, it was too far away.

As it has increased in size over the decades, the very large (and presumably very old) Moreton  Bay fig on The Kingsway, the main road, has become surrounded on three sides by the shopping mall. The tree, these days, is very much hedged in by the architecture. Public space has been considerably reduced to just seating around the tree, which admittedly is a lot cooler than seating in the direct sun. My colleagues did some excellent renderings of maranta leaves found at the base of the tree.

ShireSketchers had in mind people sketching at this venue today and I found it had unusually good potential for unobtrusive people sketching. There are few places in Sydney where remaining unobtrusive is possible; it attracts smokers who generally sit still longer than most.

I wanted to exploit the current summer sunny weather by drawing the tree, with its very dark darks. I knew in advance it would be ‘bookend-ed’ by the architecture.

I’ve been re-reading this week the published sketches of Penang artist, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, but instead of tackling a piece of paper 28x76cm, I thought I’d settle for A2 size. I did however use his 6B+ pencils and complete lack of any lay-in. I wanted one sketch for the 10am-noon session and because I work quickly, I didn’t want to overwork simply because the paper was too small.

I started far left and finished far right. I deliberately started at the left-hand edge of the paper (in the manner of Charles Reid) – and finished right at the right-hand edge of the paper. I found myself, unexpectedly, working a lot more blind contour than I ever anticipated. The mind continued to try to do its thing: ‘correcting’ my lines to make the subject matter more readable. During the 90mins, my pencils got blunt once and needed re-sharpening halfway through. I started with the lightest, a 6B and when that got blunt, picked up the next and so on, until they were all blunt and needed resharpening.

I was surprised how much I filled in the time taken; for a full two-hour sketch I could have easily filled a sheet 76cm wide. Countless people walked past but none interrupted me; this is the Shire, after all, where artists are allowed to do their thing in public – anywhere else and I’d be constantly watching my surroundings. Having attempted this today, I can see why Kiean uses a 28cm narrowness. I can’t be sure but the subject was not much smaller than sight-size.

I stopped after 90mins because I’d reached a Y-junction: do I ‘touch up’ the tree by making it darker and in general push the abstract qualities (thinking Kiean, Paul Hogarth, etc.) or push it in the direction of greater realism/naturalism? I’ve also resisted making any changes after-the-fact; in general, I think it’s dangerous to alter the spontaneity of an on-site sketch too much – one might as well do the whole thing again from memory, using the on-site sketch as an aide-memoire.

Several things I can do better next time:

  • time to invest in a tripod: I am tired of a jittery sketching style arising from the fact that I am constantly holding the book in one hand as well as pencil in the other – sitting with it on my knees meant the paper was falling forward, contributing to parallax error;
  • bring an A2 portfolio and a spare plastic sleeve for the finished drawing – carrying a block in one’s hand is no guarantee against injury or damage;
  • pursue an idea to came to me on-site: working outside the Murraya Restaurant (not open on Saturdays) on the lowslung brick wall provided (!) for the lefthand side of the drawing, then move to the next block eastwards to tackle the righthand side of the drawing. As it is, it doesn’t read as Miranda Fair or a shopping centre, but with these two viewpoints (meeting up in the middle of the tree), it would or might ( notice the tree looks better on the untried second location!);


28jan18 miranda fair RIGHT hand side.jpg

  • think seriously about tackling this in watercolour on-site (e.g. Canaletto Aquarelle paper, 35x50cm, 300gsm medium CP), even working without a tripod since then at least the water will run up rather than down the page (!).




Gouache study: pigeon

January 26, 2018


Pigeon, from reference photo, in gouache (W&N Black, Reeves Grey) on Fabriano Accademia 200gsm (Venezia Sketchbook, 9×6″).

In tackling watercolour, Charles Reid starts with contour drawing (not lifting the pencil from the paper), followed by a tonal study using soluble ink and water concentrating on shadow shapes (and appropriate amounts of water to keep the subject readable!). This drawing is a variation on that.

I used a #2 Round brush throughout, with a tip flexible enough to make calligraphic marks. Publicity for the Venezia Sketchbook indicates its suitability for gouache, so I thought I’d give that medium a go and there’s not a sign of any paper buckling on the reverse.

I’ve been working with the watery-juicy-pastey textures of watercolour and the beauty of gouache is that it falls naturally into the juicy-pasty category, but (witness bottom LH corner) can be used watery, with a “bead”.

Of course, gouache lacks granulation and watercolour “magic” associated with mixing colours on the page.

I’m pleased with the overall “loose” look since it reminds me of the inspiring bird paintings of Roz Stendhal, who I’ve been quoting to others lately as making her own sketchbooks from scratch. I’m sure my bird anatomy will improve with practice.

I made things easy for myself by gradding up from a photograph and centring the eye on the crossing points of diagonals (third down left to RH corner meeting with diagonal top LH corner to bottom RH corner). I did want my bird drawing to be reasonably accurate.



Why Daily? Regularly working the drawing “muscle”; exercises (identical to a gym workout) in eye-hand coordination, seeing shadow shapes and really ‘looking’ at reality instead of drawing what I symbolise in my mind.

Why timed? Working quickly is a necessity in plein air painting and location drawing because of shifts in light. In addition, anything more than 20mins will result in overworking – as in watercolour drawing.

Why these materials? Coloured pencils resist any lay-ins: one has to work alla prima. I leave careful composition and light pencil backgrounds to other media. A very light hard pencil, such as any in the H range, will leave lines which will show through the white drawing pencil. Working either black over white or white over black will result in a muddy, oily grey.

Why a series of themed drawings every day for a week? I’m trying to draw things I’ve never tackled before and I’m trying to move around a range of materials. I’m not one of these people who work a single subject in a single medium.

Why babies? I’ve never drawn them before, either from life or photos. One thing I am aiming for is the subtle difference between crying and yawning. I haven’t tested it, but I’m assuming there is a relaxation in the facial muscles involved in yawning that is not present in a cry. Of course, this is new iconography: you’ll never see a yawning baby in Medieval or Renaissance art when depicting babies was much more popular and routine than anything today. There is a personal precedent too: a while back I did some self-portraits on canvas paper with mouth open in charcoal overlaid with gesso, based on photographic self-portraits done in a formal studio concentrating on lighting setups.

Why black-and-white? If I can get these right in b&w, then I can progress to colour. I’m somewhat obsessed with Charles Reid’s use of watercolour in his figurative watercolours and I’m also fascinated by the granulation of Daniel Smith Potters Pink watercolour paint.


Today’s reference photo was a challenge because everything was in high key. There being so few darks – virtually none except the mouth – I had to go (very) easy with the Ivory Black pencil. There is a smudge over the ear, which worked well, but I’m aware that a much longer-timed drawing would involve much more finnicky smudging.

I’m disappointed I still haven’t got the proportions as could as they would be if there was a careful lay-in foundation, but that’s the price one pays for working alla prima with these challenging materials. And that was despite that today 90% of the time I copied the reference photo upside down.

Today’s photo included shoulders and chest, which poses additional difficulties outside the brief of this week’s sketches.

I am getting used to working from light to dark. If the very full, initial “lay-in” with white pencil only works, then I can work with pressing more heavily for the white highlights before picking up the black pencil.

Strathmore Toned Paper Gray 9×12″; Derwent Drawing Pencils, Ivory Black and Chinese White.



Now we’re getting technical: I’m reconciled to the fact that drawing pencil will never have the fineness of purer pigment as in pastel, especially in conveying skin. Ever-present is the filler associated with pencils and not pure pigment.

This week’s drawings have particularly eschewed colour to minimise the distraction of conveying the surface of skin exactly.

Perhaps the most room for improvement comes with proportions and the best way for me to study that is to examine carefully the photo upside down to see where I went wrong, combined with a planar study (brow muscles in particular). Characterising hair is also proving difficult.

I’m reading Charles Reid’s book on figurative watercolour at the moment so seeing shapes, especially shadow shapes, is important.


It’s necessary with this medium to work from light to dark and to keep the areas distinct from each other. It’s quite tricky to keep Chinese White away from Ivory Black – otherwise, an oily grey (see lower left cheek) arises. The head is still too elongated and can be generally more rounded. There will always be a certain roughness, arising from the texture of the paper, and too-strong tonal contrast arising from just a single black and a single white, but otherwise it’s good practice in getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of materials.

By the end of this week’s Yawning Babies, facial anatomy ought to have improved somewhat.

Pencil on toned paper – Derwent Drawing pencils on Strathmore Toned Gray paper.


More on this week’s theme of Yawning Babies.

A consideration of facial structure. I’m very conscious of the fact that the yawning creates very prominent movement in the main muscles around the brows and the chin.