News ‘n chat

A special piece

A long while back my mum wrote out her favourite Leonardo da Vinci quote on nature, on the back of a blank postcard, and asked me to make her a piece around it.  Dutifully I filed it away in a work drawer, promptly forgetting about it for a number of years except when I had a spring clean and it resurfaced.  I transferred it to a text file – in 2013! – and the same pattern continued.

As her special birthday approached recently I was completely stuck for a gift, when I remembered the postcard…

Calligraphy + illustration + framing = appropriate present!

All the things we had seen in Italy were floating around in my mind, and after thinking through various ideas – more along the lines of illuminated manuscripts initially, but I discounted these as too fussy – I remembered an appliqué work we had literally come across round a corner, in the Santa Maria Novella museum in Florence.  Suffice to say we both thought it was glorious:

Giovanna Garzoni (1600 – 1670), Santa Maria Novella museum – no copyright breach intended

First steps for the piece were to work out the number of letters, a basic outline plan and size; this shows my workings before I had finalised the alphabet:

My calligraphy is just passable and I probably get away with it only because of the illustration, but fortunately I have a lot of resources and kit from my late Great Auntie Hilda who was a brilliant calligrapher and teacher.  After looking through the books I have of hers, I went with an uncial alphabet from The Craft of the Pen, by John R Biggs:

Copyright Blandford Press, John R Biggs, 1961 – no breach intended

It’s a great book for the illustrations and visual instruction in forming letters, but there are also pleasures to be had in the surrounding text: I prepared myself to ‘…guard against vulgar and ostentatious eccentricities’ and ‘inebriate showmanship’, whilst always bearing in mind that a P ‘looks vulgar if the bowl is made too wide’.  Lovely stuff.

I didn’t want to overthink the decoration too much, so I just got on with drawing up the text on heavyweight watercolour paper, and chose one of my auntie’s steel pens with a reservoir, using W&N sepia ink.  John R Biggs would have been horrified by my posture, but I got the job done without mistakes – for some reason I had a sudden difficulty with spelling the word ‘subtlety’ – and then had a cup of tea to calm down.

Here’s a section of my trial sheet, I always find it nice to look at afterwards and in this case the colour is more representative than in the final photo.

The flowers and foliage were drawn out roughly before using watercolour, and were sourced in most cases from a reference book.  I always tried to bear in mind the spirit of the Florence piece and the quotation itself, and to be honest what mum would actually like!  I really enjoyed and relaxed into this stage and hopefully this is reflected in the fluidity of the illustration.  Here is the final piece:

Watercolour and ink

I was rather worried about getting it to the framers on time, hence the dreadful photo above, but as time goes on I have come to realise more and more that pressure seems to be a good workmate for me.

I’m happy to say it was very well received!  Here it is framed and sitting in ‘present corner’ on the special day:

Tuscany highlights

I know I’ve been rather quiet of late on here, but this year I have been very lucky and achieved one lifetime’s ambition – to visit Tuscany.  After a Prosecco-fuelled 10 days of art pilgrimage with my mum, I have finally seen paintings, frescoes, buildings and landscapes that I have been dreaming of for 25 years!   So whilst we hit the Uffizi, traced the Vasari Corridor across the Arno, contemplated the Annunication at San Marco and watched the swifts circling the Duomo in Siena, we also made it to other highlights, Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo and his Resurrection in Sansepolcro.  Unbelievably the latter was just revealed after a long restoration.

When life gives you…

The wonderful Museo Archeologico in Arezzo has a fantastic collection of Roman and Etruscan artefacts, one of the most beautiful being this gold-glass portrait; and one of the least beautiful being this temporary exhibit:

Here’s a few sketchbook pages, they don’t really do anything justice but are a record of a very happy trip.  Now off to re-watch Room with a View and The English Patient…


After Gillray, 1789

Faber-Castell pens

Can’t take credit for the lovely colour palette.  Whilst the original caricature is all about making fun of the French, this is not a political comment as a) I was interested in the costume, b) I like them a lot and c) I’m testing out these new bad boys!

Mmmmm pens – super Christmas present

Family portrait

The reason I’ve been a little quiet of late online, amongst other things, is that I’ve been working on a lovely new commission.

I was asked to produce a family portrait for a ‘landmark birthday’ (hey, it’s not my place to divulge!) and as the conversation continued, we discussed their love of Laos textiles, a recent discovery for the family on their travels.

After some research the geometric design of many textile examples lent itself to the framing and linking of little portraits, showing the other family members.  Working through the roughs you can see it took me a few iterations to fix on the simplest idea, of one larger overall frame for the main portrait:

40th birthday - roughs01

40th birthday - roughs02


Working from family photos, I started with the portraits in brown coloured pencil:

Progress before colour
Prior to applying colour

Rough colour overlay on final drawing
Digital colour













After some tests I abandoned my original intention of using inked patterns – in a different piece it would have been great, but the way things had transpired I felt it would overwhelm the delicate pencil portraits. I reckon I made the right choice. See what you think!

Family portrait - coloured pencil
Family portrait – coloured pencil




It’s all I have to bring today

This is a recently completed private commission – a lovely piece to have been asked to do, and to have worked on.  The poem seems immediately quite simple and light, but of course speaks volumes.  As it followed on from ‘Silver’ I was in more of a calligraphy-based mindset, but I had to try and come up with something that had a timeless quality, and retained the lightness; and I thought a more modern, illustrative interpretation.  I decided the poem text should be overlaid, but this was after some wrangling over a purely text-based piece, or some kind of hybrid.  I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to get to, but as ever the challenge is articulating that…

Sketchbook concept rough
Sketchbook concept rough

Sketchbook coloured pencil rough
Sketchbook coloured pencil rough

The client wanted an ‘English’ landscape, something like a South Downs view – essentially the landscape is mythical but based in reality, and hopefully feels expansive.  As I progressed through the coloured pencil drawing I started adding text about halfway through as seen below, attempting to layout the poem lines in a tracing paper overlay to gain some sense of where words might ‘hit’ the landscape elements and details, which was probably the most challenging aspect as any kind of significant rubbing-out wasn’t really an option.  I needed to revisit the strength of the text a few times, firstly making sure that it didn’t get lost and secondly that the colours of the letters were essentially stronger and darker versions of those underneath.  There was a LOT of pencil sharpening going on.

Halfway, text in the planning
Halfway, text in the planning

As the personal context for the poem was a spring event, I incorporated March flowers and plants into the foreground. I must cite a wonderful reference by Keith Jones, Seasonal Wild Flowers, for this information.   The Caslon Old Face alphabet was sourced from one of my great Aunt’s books, co-authored by none other than the inimitable Quentin Crisp:

© Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1976. No breach intended.
© Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1976. No breach intended.

This is the finished piece, with details – excuse the slightly rough-around-the-edges photos!

Finished piece - coloured pencil
Finished piece – coloured pencil