I know it’s February 2017, but I insist that I’m not late with #inktober2016, I’m simply still going!

The Moleskine sketchbook I bought for it arrived late. No matter, I thought, I’ll soon catch up. Then I lost a couple more days testing inks and means of application on the unfamiliar paper. Too many days to do it justice, I thought, I gave up and put it aside. Rolling forward a few weeks I forgot all about it.

Then, after following James Gurney for years, admiring his facility with brush and pen, the thought occurred from nowhere that his study of calligraphy and signwriting were significant influences on his painting. That, I thought, is how one can include some, or all, or reference to, the sign in the sketch with a clunky brush – not just practice but a particular kind of practice.

I began. With pen and brush and ink. Lots of ink.

I’m still going.

And yes, the impact of just a couple of hands (Foundational and brush Italic) and only four months practice has had a significant impact on my sketching too.

Why art?

“I believe every artist had someone who told them they weren’t worth dirt and someone who told them they were the second coming of the baby Jesus. And they believed them both. And that’s the fuel that starts the fire.”

Bruce Springsteen
(Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs, 23rd December 2016)

Nailed it.

My dad, who I adored and who believed in me, died when I was 12. My mum has been… difficult… I am currently occupied with bending over backwards trying to keep her happy while she transitions to a nursing home. Need I say more?

I’m making art when I can. I have too. It’s difficult.

Pen and ink


The choice in art materials in Western Australia is limited and what can be found is costly. The small market is dominated by a few chain stores which doesn’t encourage competition or variety. Getting anything from elsewhere is limited by the crappy exchange rate and outrageous postal charges. (Especially so, given how slow and unreliable it is – things just disappear into Australia Post and that’s the end of that… and it takes so long ordinarily that you don’t even know you have a problem until you’ve waited 6 weeks or more. Sigh.) And no, that equation is not balanced by higher wages, we simply go without.

Therefore I was so blown away to see a fountain pen with a converter at Officeworks – I did the only sane thing – mentally crossed as much as I could off my grocery list – and bought it! No matter, I learned to cook from my war-years grandmother who could feed a family very well with very little. (Seriously, the best steak is the cheapest kind – preparing it her way makes it more tender than the most expensive.) The pen on offer was a Pilot Prera with a medium nib and the C-50 twist converter. Delighted.

Sadly their ink offerings were more normal – they have Quink in blue, Quink in black , or getting REALLY creative: Quink in blue-black. Since I have no interest in making my subjects looks like Smurfs I had no difficulty controlling that much excitement. Instead, I made the trek to the Big Smoke to see what T.Sharp and Co might have in stock and found a tiny bottle of liquid deliciousness: J.Herbin’s ‘Cacao de Bresil’. In Perth. Oh, my. Life is looking up.

Staedtler Lumograph black


Staedtler have made a new version of their trusty Lumograph pencils, that are as good as the old ones, but solve an enormous problem. The very thing that makes graphite beautiful – that silvery lustre – loses it’s subtlety when photographed. Great in a gallery, not great online. These days, when one is far more likely to share one’s work via social media, than a social occasion – that’s a problem.

I use graphite a lot, but end up with little to show on Instagram because I am not going to share something that looks nothing like the work in front of me.

In the photo above – comparing four grades of the Black pencils against the same in the original Lumographs – it’s easy to see the dulling in the middle tones of the graphite – the 4b and 6b look pretty much the same. In the real they’re as close to matching as I could make them, in a reasonable amount of time on ordinary cartridge paper.  Now, I am certain that special paper and a pro photographer with fancy lights could make it come out looking right, but who has that on hand for capturing a sketch to put on Twitter?


And with just four grades – 2B thru 8B – one can do a passable rendition of a 10 step Munsell scale and photograph that too. I’m impressed.

lumograph_black_pointsI can hear someone our there muttering that the same value range with a matte finish can be had with charcoal. True, but it isn’t going to offer up a super long point via an electric sharpener (or helical crank or a KUM long point) and be tough enough to scribble and shade with abandon. I think we’re talking graphite tough with charcoal benefits.

History of drapery in painting

Anne Hollander’s book Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting has been reprinted and is available to order from Book Depository or Amazon and, no doubt, many other places.

hollander_fabricI have been so keen to read this book, but second-hand  copies of the original 2002 edition haven’t been affordable and I didn’t want to make an expensive mistake. There are no copies in the West Australian state library system, but Trove revealed there are actually two copies here, both in university libraries. I don’t have borrowing rights for either. (Trove is a wonderful resource but it does generate great envy – the other states between them have 22 copies, including many available to the public.)  In desperation, I called on a friend who happens to have the correct library card…

After reading it cover to cover, I will never draw or paint my scraps of fabric in ignorance again. The wealth of history in drapery through the ages, the significance, the styles and layers of meaning are complex, enthralling and eye-opening. It is one of those books from which note-taking is useless because there would be so many I would need to re-type the whole thing. It’s value is as a reference so all those half-remembered passages may be re-examined with more care when needed. Or dipped into for inspiration by flipping through to look at the pictures or, rather, the pictures she has chosen to juxtapose.

Even though it was written by a respected scholar in conjunction with an exhibition it is actually an engaging, easy read, with a story to tell. Yes, I was concerned that it would be dense or worse, one of those catalogues with tiny illustrations and a difficult essay that doesn’t say much at all! My quest was rewarded and, in my experience, If you too are into making art of drapery and want to know about those whose footsteps we follow: this book belongs on your shelf.

I certainly got what I needed from the library book – the sure knowledge that I will order a copy of my own.  I am very grateful for the loan.

Long point sharpeners

Long point sharpeners

I love to work with graphite and chew through a lot of pencils in doing so. Seriously, I buy them by the box… I am also very fussy about the point,  they have to be long and sharp, but I don’t want to waste time with knife and sandpaper because I would rather be drawing. Achieving that holy grail of getting reliable, fast and long has seen a great many frustrations and waste along the way.

The current line up includes three solutions for my three situations.

Long point pencils
Sharpened with, left to right: KUM hand held, Staedtler rotary and Ledah electric sharpener.

The KUM Long Point sharpener is cheap and portable. Not the cheapest pencil sharpener if compared with those on offer at the supermarket, but the cheapest way to get a long point. It lives in my sketch kit for touchups on the go. I usually carry four pencils pre-sharpened, protected with some sort of cover (currently the Faber Castell 2001 eraser caps because they are pretty much the only thing available here). With the KUM along to keep them going, I can draw for hours.

My studio sharpener was, for many years, one of the old Staedtler Mars Rotary 501-20s. I wore it out. Giving up on it and throwing it away was difficult, made even more so, when I realised that I wasn’t going to be getting another from the stationery store. The new model is OK, but does not deliver quite as sharp a point my old one did. It is still the studio workhorse. Maybe I’m doing something wrong? I love that the plastic claws don’t scratch up the pencil body as many crank sharpeners do.

The past few months have seen me confined to a small room in the house (because my studio is unheated, my version of asthma is triggered by cold air and I’ve been ill). Undeterred, I got help to make room for an easel, improved the lighting as much as I could and figured what media is compatible with a small space and a dodgy set of breathing anatomy. Graphite, of course. Unfortunately there is no right-hand desk edge to which to clamp the Staedtler so thoughts of, maybe, buying a second one evaporated. That’s how the electric Ledah arrived in my life. Look at that point!

Saint George Shaw

I am locked out of my studio by flu-induced conjunctivitis and struggling to see through watering eyes that go gritty on the eyeball if I try to keep my eyes open and are glued shut by crusty lashes if close them.

Frustrated at being unable to work, irritated by the wasted time and not wanting to be left sitting in the dark with my own even darker thoughts I needed something to listen to. The Saints of Somewhere site was a random bookmark in my browser list titled “Things to listen to”. That will do, I thought, I can lay down with the lights off and listen, and maybe learn, and not totally throw away my day.

As luck would have it, the episode I had saved is one where Kirsty interviews George Shaw. Loved it. Highly recommended for anyone who has little time for the rah-rah world of fake posivity and a keen sense of urgency about how little time there is to get good enough to do what they need to do before their time is up.

Times up. Sorry for any typos, thought shared, returning to lights out.

Munsell tutorials on video

Paul Foxton, from Learning to See, has released two video tutorials over the past month. Each one features a beautiful little flower painting, is hands-on practical, self-contained and easy to follow. Which would I recommend? Both!

They are available at Gumroad for “pay what you want”. I will add that the suggested $10+ is a bargain. Be generous.

Time’s Unfolding: A Flower Painting Demonstration

Paul Foxton's video tutorial "Time's Unfolding"

Time’s Unfolding, the first of the two tutorials demonstrates a flower painting from setup to finish, covering everything from sight-size, grid-assisted drawing to value control and the thoughts behind the motif. What I like about the way Paul teaches is his way of breaking down complex ideas into practical steps that can be applied to any subject. (He’s a master at skipping the mumbo-jumbo. A rare skill.)

The point he really nails in this one is that it’s about slowing down and taking the time to look (with the aid of a few simple, home-made tools to help figure out what you’re looking at).

Secret Treasure: A Munsell Painting Demonstration

Paul Foxton's video "Secret Treasure"

The second video, Secret Treasure: A Munsell Painting Demonstration, builds on the first, and as the title says, is much more about what Munsell is and how it can be used to assist in making a painting. It begins with a practical guide to describing and analysing colour, before using Munsell as a tool to mix and match the colours needed to make a particular painting.

The delicate transitions in his little flower motif are exquisite, but the point he makes is that matching them it isn’t rocket-science, it’s about taking care in comparing one patch of colour to the next. Munsell is used to describe the differences between each mix very clearly in terms of hue, value and chroma. Again, no mumbo-jumbo, it’s about learning to see the variations and use them.

I’ve been using and writing about Munsell studies since 2007 (my ‘colour theory’ category should find most of them), but Paul’s video is a much easier way to learn!

Graphite blocks

I was really keen to try Artgraf’s watersoluble graphite in a tin when I saw it on a YouTube video recently. Unfortunately the price here, with a poor exchange rate plus ludicrous postage costs to Western Australia made it prohibitively expensive.

So instead, I did the only sensible thing and tried to make some. I came up with two versions – using stuff I already had on hand.

Home made graphite blockVersion one used Cretacolor Graphite Powder mixed with a little gum arabic. I used about a tablespoon of the graphite and added the gum arabic a few drops at a time until it mixed to a stiff paste. I used a flat palette knife to mix it on a glass palette, then scooped it into an empty lipgloss container. I left it to dry with the lid off which took about 4 days (it’s winter here and my studio is cold). It was a bit messy but clean up was easy with a couple of baby wipes. The result: works really well!

Home made graphite block

The second kind used a couple of watersoluble graphite crayons – el cheapo Mont Marte – because that’s what I happened to have. (If you try making some do make sure your brand of crayons are the watersoluble kind – not all of them are.) I cut the crayons to fit the container and squeezed them in to fill it. I  could have used it straight away like that, it worked fine. Instead, I chopped the tiny leftover pieces of crayon quite finely, stuffed them into the gaps and added a little water to try to melt them into the spaces. Silly me, I was trying to make mine look as pretty as a bought one! Not necessary. I left it with the lid off to dry too.

Either method is recommended. The first made a paler tint than the second  – think 2H vs 8B in graphite terms – so I can see myself using both together in the same drawing.

If I could buy a proper Artgraph tin at a reasonable price locally I would do so in a heartbeat, until then: very happy.


Problem paintings

Everyone at some time has work that isn’t working. What matters, is figuring out what to do about it and when. I have a set of panels which are part of a new, experimental, body of work that has been hanging around like the proverbial bad smell. I made sketches and colour studies and went back the drawing boards – digital and paper based – several times.

I have been so determined to make a breakthrough I haven’t been able to think about anything else, yet was still making little progress. Then the procrastination set in. I didn’t even want to go to the studio…

This morning, I decided that what I needed was somewhere to put them –  out of of the way but not out of mind – so I can free up my easel for something rather more fulfilling. It’s not the end of the matter, but they can just sit there while I think about what to do with them.