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Tone and colour, Day 1

I am a botanic artist. Watercolour is the medium that most botanic artists use because it translucent. It allows the light to bounce through the paint, giving a luminosity and depth. Many artists handle watercolour like masters (or mistresses, as so many of us are women).

Not me. Give me a pencil and I can draw you a garlic bulb. Finding tone with a pencil is wonderful. Finding tone/hue with watercolours is often a battle. 

So, when I saw a workshop on tone, hue and colour mixing I was there! 3 days of painting — bliss 😀 (It certainly helped to know that it was the first week back at school for the year. In my old life as a primary school teacher I would have been there, distributing books and pencils and organising seating arrangements. Now I was painting in books, using pencils and not giving a toss about who sat where!)

As an added bonus the workshop was taken by Helen Burrows, very talented botanic artist and teacher. She is a superb painter of camellias.

In this series of posts, I thought that you might like to see a little of behind the scenes of a painting.

We began the day twisting ribbon, that very decorative ribbon with wire edges, into interesting curvy shapes. Then Helen spoke to us about grey scales. She was horrified when a couple of us, including me, not only hadn’t ever done a grey scale, but didn’t really know what one was. I know that you will know, but let me explain it to the others. 🙂

Tone is the amount of light that falls on an object. Think of that art room cliche, a spherical object, such as an orange. If the light is coming in from the top left where it hits, top left, will be the highlights. The bottom right of the shape will be the darkest (except for a sliver of reflected light….). In between those two areas will be various tones from the very light to the very dark, and a range of mid-tines between. Understanding those tones and translating them to paper will give the orange its 3D effect.

A grey scale becomes a very useful tool. Because I had never done one before, I didn’t realise how useful. This photo is of my grey scale. As you can see, 10 is as dark as your pencil can get and 1 is the white of the paper. You can also see that there is not a lot of difference in my scale between 3, 4, 5 and 6. Interestingly, I now realise that this is an issue in my drawings too. My mid-tones (3, 4, 5 and 6) are often very similar in my work. Having a grey scale handy will be a good reference.

Grey scale for an 8B pencil
Grey scale for an 8B pencil

On to our ribbons. Helen asked us to use our grey scales to create tonal drawings of them. As I said before, I love pencil, and so was able to get right into this task. I was pleased with my drawing. I think it has  drama and life.

Tonal drawing (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)
Tonal drawing (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)

Then we moved onto mixing a neutral tint for an underpainting. And that’s where things started to go wrong!

A neutral tint is, Helen explained, made of the colours that you would be using in the painting, mixed so that they become interesting greys. Interesting greys?! The others were coming up with beautiful colours, soft and sensuous. Mine were not working! They weren’t grey, they weren’t soft. It didn’t help that I was using cerulean, a blue that is notorious for granulating on the paper. Sometimes that effect is wonderful, sometimes, like now, just annoying!

I applied it to another drawing of the ribbon. This is what I ended up with 😦  although I added the rose pink later in an attempt to improve it. It didn’t. I had no lovely soft greys, no lovely soft washes. Just clunky lumps of colour.

Grrrr (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)
Grrrr (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)

At this point I may have looked like a middle aged (hmmm, maybe slightly older!) woman, sitting at a table, battling painting. In my mind I was a child, rolling around on the floor, having a good old tantrum ~ “Mine’s not working!! Everyone else can do it!! I don’t like this!! I don’t want to play any more!! I want to go home!!!”

But, after promising myself the adult equivalent of a lolly (a glass of wine ~ at home 🙂 ) I picked myself off the mental floor and started to work out what I was doing and not doing. While I don’t usually go to the extreme of a mental tantrum, as I am painting I often go through a time when I feel that it is not going right ~ just not jelling into what the finished work should be. Usually I work my way through that and then, at some time the painting just pops into place.

This ribbon was doomed from the outset. No amount of work was going to make it all right, but that’s okay. I think that often we are so focussed on the final product (“This has to be a perfect painting/novel/poem/etching etc”) that we forget that playing and having fun is such an important part. And you learn through play too.

So I left the room on the first day with a smile, only slightly nervous about Day 2. Did Helen really say we were going to paint ROSES? Roses are tricky. Roses are for grown up painters, not for me.