Archives for category: watercolour artist

Rajasthan is like an artist’s dream. Scarcely a day goes by that I’m not browsing through my sketchbooks and photos from my visits there, and frankly it’s all too rarely that I get to paint large studio pieces from my times there.

So it was with much anticipation last month that after almost two years I was able to dedicate myself to completing a watercolour of the horse market that I spent a week or so exploring in 2011 (part of the much larger Nagaur Camel Fair, discussed in an earlier blog entry).

20130605-080342.jpgPhoto of the horse market, Nagaur Camel Fair
February 2011

During that week I sketched-out a number of possible compositions for paintings, in an A4 layout book that I always carry with me. Over the years I’ve roughed-out thousands of these little thumbnail drawings, only a fraction of which I’ll ever paint, but they’re an important part of the process. They’re a way of storing ideas and problem-solving compositions, and sometimes a colour version is necessary as well

20130605-081342.jpgHorse Market – Rajasthan
Layout sketch

Once the composition is decided on, I begin work on the drawing. Before this though I’ve ‘stretched’ my paper(Arches 356gsm medium cold-pressed) onto my drawing board. This traditionally involves wetting the paper, spreading it onto the board and applying special gummed tape to the edges. As the paper and tape dries it is stretched taut like a drum, and allows for water and paint to be applied without buckling the paper. Ideally. However, I’ve never been any good at this…I’ve wasted days and days, and reams of paper attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to get it right, so these days I cheat – pva glue around the edges of the dry paper and a dozen or so heavy art books placed on the paper while the glue sets in 2 hours…presto!

20130605-082525.jpgI’ve found over the years that the more time I spend on my initial drawing, the easier things will be for me as I’m painting, and so in this case I spent a solid two days drawing a quite detailed outline of the whole piece.

20130605-082758.jpgThe drawing

When time allows, I take a day off after completing the drawing, or half a day, avoiding my studio, and so I return with fresh eyes to adjust any elements that stand out – these are difficult to see after one or two solid days of focusing on the piece. Once the initial drawing is ‘tweaked’, I need to start making decisions about what gets painted last – these elements often need to be masked out, in order to keep the paper white. This isn’t an issue with oil or acrylic painting, but with traditional watercolour where white is only attainable by keeping the paper free of pigment it’s very important.

20130605-122450.jpgDetail after the first wash. Small streaks of masking fluid are used for more delicate areas.

Once the horses were masked – wide-gauge masking tape, with a scalpel to cut around the outline – I washed in the under-colour, in this case a rich golden-magenta combination. The sky is lightest, then darker down towards the foreground. A bit of wet-in-wet here to get that beautiful graduation that’s such a feature of watercolour. Then as layers dry(if I’m in a hurry with aid of a hair dryer) I begin to slowly build-up tone – the trees, canopies, etc.

20130605-121536.jpgAfter day one of washing-in. The scrap paper to the right is my testing ground – I go through at least a dozen per painting…

Background colour study
I do a small, actual size colour study of the background before tackling the tricky lighting.

(detail) Background
Once I’ve got my head around how to get the effect I’m after, I tackle the horses and canopies in the left-hand background.

20130605-123004.jpgAt this point I’ve established the basic tonal scheme of the background, and I begin adding detail and colour. Always keeping on the lighter side – much easier to add pigment than subtract in watercolour. I’m almost treating it as three different paintings which I complete in turn – background, middleground and foreground. I’ve begun working on the tent and black goat here.

(Detail) The goats

I spent a day working on this little patch, the two lovely goats that were pegged near the tent. Again, the white you see is the paper, so I’m careful layering in the colour, leaving an outline of back-lighting around the goats, particularly the spotted one, as well as the white of his face. I tweak little elements all the way, in my reference photos both goats’ faces were hidden from view, but I wanted to show at least one of them, so I lowered the pile of hay the spotted one was munching on.

20130606-084104.jpg(detail)The family

I spend another day working on the family. At the start of the day they’re painted as a solid block of colour, I then begin to model the fabric and faces, giving them depth and texture. I use the two or three base colours that I’ve used from the start, which are mixed in little plastic containers from my tube paints(Art Spectrum watercolour). For the more localised colour(fabrics, etc.) I use one of my Windsor & Newton travel sets of half-pans(solid pigment). The faces are particularly tricky at this scale – the girl’s face is the size of my fingernail – and it’s a prolonged process of adding and subtracting colour to get the highlights right. Pigment is removed with a daub of water and a tissue, while the white’s of her eyes have been very carefully left un-touched from the initial underpaint.

20130606-090119.jpg(detail) The horses de-masked!

Happily my masking worked well here – all too often paint manages to seep through overlapping tape and leave hard-edged ‘stains’ on what should be pristine white areas. Watercolourists can become very good at hiding mistakes – adding elements to cover mishaps, scraping back, and on occasion, even sand-papering the surface. So I’m presented here with my two main horses to meld into the piece, and the first step is to marry them to their surrounds by washing-in their tone and lighting with my original golden and magenta washes(note; this being an intense dusk scene, the uniformity of colouring is more important than a more neutral daylight scene).

20130607-085507.jpg(detail) The white horse, first wash.

(detail) First wash on the pinto.

At this stage I’ve almost finished the white horse, and I’ve got to carefully paint in the strong lighting on the pinto. He is almost ‘spot lit’ in the scene, the only place where direct sun is hitting. This, almost theatrical, effect is at the heart of this piece, and the strong contrast will draw the eye straight to him, and from there around the scene. All the while I’m tweaking elements, areas and overall tone and colour, important in such a complex composition.

20130608-093341.jpgThe Horse Market, Rajasthan

Some of my favourite outings when I was living in London were my ‘Cathedral days’, when I’d take a well-earned(entirely subjective…) day off from my studio painting, and head to one of England’s many superb cathedrals for a day of sketching and total history-nerd indulgence…There were too many to show all, but here are some highlights…

Canterbury Cathedral
pen & wash
18x12cm sketchbook

Canterbury was my first excursion, an hour or so from Victoria Station and I was deep in the heart of Kent. Such a beautiful town, the cathedral rises above the tiled rooftops like a glorious gothic crown, particularly from the vantage point of the numerous medieval town gates, from which I did this sketch above.
Canterbury Cathedral Cloister
18x12cm sketchbook

One of my favourite features of gothic cathedrals are the cloisters. There’s something so beautiful about the combination of ornate stone colonnaded walkways and the lush green lawns they enclose, with often a single tree in the centre – lovely places to sit and sketch, read and write.

I was amused to learn that Ely(pron. ‘eely’) near Cambridge, was so-named for just that reason – it was a fine place to catch eels! For almost as long it’s been famous also for the cathedral known as ‘the ship of the fens’, because it’s visible for miles around the flat landscape of Cambridgeshire.
Ely Cathedral
18x12cm sketchbook

This(above) is a somewhat inelegant view of the main tower, but on a particularly cold September morning my main priority was shelter, and this was the first cafe with any sort of view…
A photograph of Ely Cathedral’s most celebrated architectural feature, the octagonal ‘lantern’.
Ely Cathedral
(Selected for 2007 Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters’ Annual Exhibition, London)

This was my first success in London’s very established and competitive watercolour exhibition scene, selected to hang in the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters’ Annual Exhibition in 2007. It was such a thrill to be hanging in an exhibition once home to Turner, De Wint and Cotman watercolours – part of the allure of painting in London is the calibre of painters that have gone before.
I chose an unusual view, the foreground is dominated by a large, shadowy, rather ‘squat’ building, with the sun-lit cathedral looming in the distance.


Ethelbert Gatehouse, Norwich Cathedral

Norwich Cathedral has a very distinctive profile, a thin spire issuing from a sturdy Norman tower, but my favourite sketch that day was of the Ethelbert Gatehouse. This is in fact the interior, less showy, façade, but it was lovely nonetheless, and I loved the striped stonework, reminiscent of Tuscan architecture.

I knew Lincoln cathedral primarily through the paintings of Peter deWint, and with these dancing in my head I trekked up to this great northern city.
Peter deWint
Lincoln Cathedral from the River
Private Collection
Peter deWint
Lincoln Cathedral
145.5×120 cm
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Not many Londoners would consider doing a day trip to Lincoln – 2 1/2 hours from Kings Cross – but that’s only about one end of Melbourne to the other, and besides – it was all about the Cathedrals on these trips. From the station I got my bearings, and sat down by Brayford Pool to sketch this very famous view.
Lincoln Cathedral
12x16cm sketchbook

Lincoln Cathedral

Just a few weeks later back in my London studio I began this painting of what I consider the most glorious of all the English cathedrals – The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln.
This is the view from the ramparts of Lincoln Castle, the winter sun is low, the shadows long, and the magnificent western façade of the cathedral – said to emulate the gates of heaven – looms imposingly.
I loved the mosaic of brickwork and tiles and from this vantage point, and the way they – and the cobblestones of Castle Hill – led the eye to the cathedral. To add some human scale I added a man walking his English springer spaniel through the empty streets.
Perhaps it’s obvious just how much deWint’s compositions influenced my own…all I can do is quote my favourite Picasso line – “Good artists copy, great artists steal…”

Nave of the Chester Cathedral
25x14cm sketchbook

I visited the lovely Chester Cathedral from Liverpool where I was spending a weekend painting a tall ship festival. I’m so glad I made the side trip, the red sandstone used in construction really gave the building a richness and warmth that was very distinctive.


Thomas Girtin
Peterborough Cathedral from the West Front
Courtauld Institute of Art

Peterborough’s distinctive west front was wonderfully depicted by Turner’s great early friend and rival Thomas Girtin – in my opinion it is one of English watercolour’s earliest masterpieces.
When I visited Peterborough in November 2006, two of the three great arches of the facade were entirely covered in scaffolding, and so I heavily cropped my viewpoint, and did this rather spare pen and ink sketch. Inside, the greatest features are the original painted medieval ceiling of the nave, and a lovely example of English fan vaulting in the New Building

Peterborough Cathedral
22x15cm sketchbook

Certainly one of the most celebrated of England’s great cathedrals, Salisbury is a must for any painter – thanks of course to Constable’s justly legendary depictions of the great spired church. I had a bit more time here, I spent the night, and so saw the cathedral in numerous conditions, light and aspects. What I loved was the ring of fields that still mostly surround this building – I dare say this rural swath in the sizeable city owes it’s continued existence to Constable’s paintings.
John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds
oil on canvas
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Salisbury Cathedral
pen & wash
20x24cm sketchbook
Salisbury Cathedral under Scaffolding
Salisbury Cathedral Coister
14x22cm sketchbook

York Minster was the first great gothic cathedral I ever visited, as a 17 year old on a family holiday to Yorkshire in 1987, and it’s fair to say it left a lasting impression on me. In my mid twenties one of my very first architectural paintings(after years of specialising in wildlife art) was a view of the minster’s superb west front. Years later, while living in London, I took a weekend and visited York again – the great minster was like visiting a very old and dear friend.
It is the largest cathedral in Northern Europe, and is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. I didn’t quite know where to start sketching, I did another simple pen drawing of the towers from a distance, and then this brisk watercolour of the particularly wide nave as the organist warmed up and filled the air with enchanting music.
York Minster
26x18cm sketchbook

Once again it was a painter who led me north, this time to Durham, and their great Norman cathedral.
John Sell Cotman
Durham Cathedral
British Museum

Cotman is one of the giants of British watercolour, and his architectural pieces in particular captivate me. I requested to privately view this watercolour deep in the bowels of the British Museum’s prints & drawings room, in fact I looked through many of his sketchbooks there, a fantastic way to study a great artist’s process.

I undertook a sketch of a similar view of Durham, looking up from the banks of the River Wear, though I may not be so audacious as to attempt a full studio painting of this aspect – Cotman looms too large.
Durham Cathedral from the River
18x26cm sketchbook

Durham is the greatest Norman Cathedral, and the Galilee Chapel within is one of the loveliest spaces in all of England.
The Galilee Chapel, Durham Cathedral
18x26cm sketchbook

Durham Cathedral

There are lots more cathedrals I visited and sketched in my two years in the UK – the sweet Borough Cathedral right beside my favourite market at London Bridge, St Albans – the only English Cathedral Rembrandt sketched, distinctive Wells in the heart of Somerset, and the exquisite cloisters of Gloucester. Each have their own ancient history and distinctive story, and I thought my self so fortunate being able to explore them, and to follow in the artists footsteps of centuries earlier.

So another successful fortnight up in Sydney, the third time I’ve been the resident artist in the livestock pavilions at the famed Easter Show. I love that I’m always in the thick of it up there – below is a photo of the traffic in front of my table at any given time…

It’s quite reminiscent of my days in America actually, I’m given a space in the giant room, hang my work as best I can and sit back, await the crowds and hope to sell some paintings. In the States I shared the room with 50-100 other painters, here it’s me and about 500 head of cattle. Less competition from the cattle, but at least the artists, to the best of my knowledge, wouldn’t periodically relieve themselves right in front of my display…

At the Easter Show though it’s less about selling work off the wall and more getting commissions from farmers, who spend up to a week camping out here with their livestock, with hopes of winning one or more ribbons for their prize bulls or cows, which in turn raises the profile and stature of their stud.
As my early blog entries attest – I really adore painting livestock, and it’s become quite a specialty of mine over the last six or seven years – not surprisingly since my studio was located on that bucolic paradise, King Island.

Simmental Bull
Private Collection

How it generally works here at the show is a farmer approaches me about an animal they want painted, and I’ll come over to their stalls and sketch and photograph the animal/s as they request.
Below is a shot of me photographing three superb Charolais’s(two bulls and a cow), which in this case will be a triple portrait as a pair to a similar painting I did for her two years ago(pictured also).


Charolais Triple Portrait
Private Collection

When time allows I’ll do a sketch from life also.

The finished result will be a portrait of one of these superb animals, in the case below a quite formal, full body portrait of Archer, named best Australian Shorthorn this year.


Of course one of the perks of spending two weeks at the show is my lunch breaks, where I get to wander around the grounds grazing on sheeps’ milk feta(practically straight from the ewe…), the fruit and veggies brought in from the districts, and then marvel at the livestock that’s made it’s annual journey from a hundred secluded valleys and plains into the big smoke. And if I’m particularly lucky I get to paint it.

Jersey Cows, sketched from my table display.

Well I’ve just returned from a week of painting on King Island with some friends, and it was such a good time that I think I’ll try to make it an annual event! The ingredients are all there – a stunning island with equally dramatic, serene, bucolic and varied scenery, lots of fine local artists with divergent styles and mediums, and to boot – my mother’s family home and her beautiful holiday units AND gallery for showing the work in after all our painting expeditions!

Badger Box Creek

First painting day, Badger Box.

We were lucky to have some beautifully warm weather on the island, and after a swim at YellowRock Beach I did this watercolour of the gleaming white sand and dunes.

Yellow Rock Beach

Back of the Dunes, Yellow Rock

Sophie sketching at City of Melbourne Bay

Sophie’s lovely oil of City of Melbourne Bay.

The food of King Island is justly famous – this was one particularly extravagant lunch, locally caught crayfish…

Seal Rocks is one of the most dramatic landscapes on the island, and we all perched on the rugged cliffs and took on the views…

Seal Rocks

Seal Rocks

Up on the Slip, Currie Harbour

Opening night, putting our week’s work on the wall.

Diane’s painting of City of Melbourne, watercolour.

We three visiting artists at the exhibition opening night, Sophie Dunlop, Diane Mah and myself.

In October, 2005, I traveled to Japan with an exhibition entitled ‘Gondwana’, held at Galerie Konoha, in Tokyo. The work was almost exclusively Australian wildlife paintings, and, in hindsight, was somewhat ‘lost’ in that great mega-city – although I did have success selling a number of my travel paintings from my Japanese wanderings.

Temple Gate Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

I spent a couple of days an hour west of Tokyo in Nikko, and was enthralled by the very ornate and colourful 17th century temples that are scattered amidst great cedar trees and the encroaching mountain forests. The effect, to my eyes at least, is that of a great earthly paradise – this is undoubtably one of the most beautiful places on earth.


I traveled by train around Japan, always a lovely way to get around, and this glorious volcanic mountain was just outside of Aomori, about as far north you can get on the main island of Honshu. This was early one morning, I woke up in my little hotel near the train station, and proceeded to walk an hour or so out of town to get this sweeping view of the fields with ‘Iwaki-san’ looming in the distance. Smoke wafts up from a farmer burning off, and I loved how the peak was ‘capped’ by a sheath of cloud. To the right the top-most leaves of a tree are being warmed by the days first golden rays of sun.

Hokkaido Sika Deer
(pen and wash)

From Aomori I got a ferry over to Hokkaido, lured there by the expansive wilderness of this near-pristine island. I was a little early in the year to see the superb Steller’s sea eagles that winter there from Siberia, feasting on the returning salmon(much as their close relatives the bald eagles do on the other side of the North Pacific), but there was still plenty of wildlife to see, including this magestic stag Sika deer which I sketched at rest in a wildlife reserve.

Nijo Castle, Kyoto

On my return to Australia I took to painting a number of scenes from my trip, getting them ‘out of my system’ as it were. Nijo Castle is one of the great monuments of Japan – I could happily devote an entire exhibition to painting the gardens, profiles, interiors and elegant facades of this heart of Japanese political history. Once again the architecture of Japan is at total harmony with the trees and landscape.

Diabotsu of Kamakura

Just south of Tokyo is the coastal city of Kamakura, the 12th century capital of Japan. Once again there’s an astonishing array of temples to be explored, linked through the wooded hills by pilgrimage paths that one of the great pleasures of Japan. At one such temple is this imposing Buddha statue – Diabotsu – which originally stood inside a great hall, but locals gave-up re-building it in the 15th century after it was destroyed(for the umpteenth time) by a typhoon. (This is quite a small watercolour for such an impressive statue, but it’s for a future exhibition in Japan, and visits to many homes over there have me inclined to keep my Japanese paintings modestly sized).

Photo of my trek up the snow mountains outside of Nagano in 2006

Just a few months after my exhibition I returned to Japan, absolutely intoxicated by the country. I now had some friends in Tokyo and Kyoto, and as well as re-visiting them I explored some new regions, and returned to Hokkaido expressly to see the Steller’s sea eagles I’d missed in my earlier trip(I finally saw some, in the Shiretoko National Park – but am yet to paint them), and to sketch the sublime Japanese cranes.

Sketching Japanese Cranes in Hokkaido
Photo – Kiyotaka Kamehata & Yuzuru Harako, from their book アサヒヤマ 旭山動物園写真集

Japanese Cranes, Hokkaido

It was quite an effort to get to this remote field in southern Hokkaido, a famous viewing spot for the cranes who winter here – but well worth the trek! I spent an afternoon watching the elegant birds flying in and away again, preening and feeding(the same farmer has scattered grain here for the birds for over 40 years), and most enchantingly of all – seeing them sing and dance in their legendary courtship displays – inspiration to Japanese artists through countless centuries.

Heian Jingu Temple, Kyoto

And finally my most recent Japanese painting, completed just a few months ago. This was a beautifully serene temple complex my friends took me to in Kyoto, in the late afternoon as the sun began to glow golden. One day soon I’ll return to Japan with an exhibition of this work, and explore more of the beautiful temples and gardens, national parks and thriving cities of this remarkable country.

I do love mushrooms…Not in a hippie, ‘man, let’s do some ‘shrooms’ way, I just think they’re the most quirky, character-filled little delights around, and for years I’ve bundled them home from markets – and occasionally from the woods – to paint back in my studio.


On King Island there was a great stand of pine trees that lined the road to Currie, and in autumn I could be found plucking out the jewel-like red ‘muscaria’ toadstools to paint.


I particularly love how fresh and vital they appear the first few days after springing up through the pine needles, then after 10-12 days they’re bloated and haggard, stained and dimpled, and more resembling an ancient relic that’s withstood a thousand harsh winters in the ground.


The Swiss Brown(these are good because after you paint them you can pop them in an omelette…)


This elegant little white tropical toadstool I plucked from the balcony of a hotel room in Singapore(obviously I stay in only the finest establishments…)


A Pine Mushroom, one of the Queen Victoria Market’s finest.


A Shiitake Mushroom, painted in my hotel room in Hokkaido, Japan, once unwrapped from the origami-like tissue and brown-paper parcel the local grocer packaged it in for me…


A Caesar Mushroom. Now, I paid around £8 for this thing at the Borough Market in London – and he wasn’t very big…really tasty though…(Which is something you’ll hardly ever hear me say about, say, my Giant Panda paintings…)

Vienna is one of my favourite cities in the world, a place I’ve visited many times since my first encounter at age 21 in 1991. It had been spoken of lovingly as I grew up by my aunt Gabrielle, who was an opera singer, and for whom the city held much affection. Sadly Gabrielle(‘Auntie Gai’) passed away that year while I was living abroad, and as a small homage I visited the Austrian capital, with an idea to tracking down a building in the background of one of my favourite photos of her from the mid-70’s. Of course, it turned out to be the Wiener Staatsoper – the Vienna State Opera House.

Auntie Gai, Vienna State Opera, c.1977

My most recent visit was last June, a glorious summer stay, with my focus being the legendary Spanish Riding School. Under the ornate baroque roof of the school’s arena I watched a stunning array of the beautiful Lipizzaner horses – mares and foals, and young, un-trained stallions(the extravagant classical performances are held here only in winter), and I also traveled out to the summer stables of the school on the city’s outskirts for some sketching; I was met with some bemusement by the locals…

Sketching at the Heldenberg Lipizzaner stables

Lipizzaner stallion, Heldenberg.

My hotel was very close to The Belvedere Palace, home to many gorgeous Klimt and Sciele paintings, but my attention was particularly drawn this visit to a group of 18th century bronzes by Frans Messerschmidt, and I filled a few pages with his amazingly contorted head studies.

Head studies, F. Messerschmidt

Belvedere Palace

Finally, as someone whose only breaks from the studio most days are cafes, I consider myself something of a cafe -‘connoisseur’ is too urbane – I’m a cafe ‘junkie’…and one of the great pleasures of Vienna are her ‘palaces’ to coffee. I indulged hours at a time across the city, writing, sketching and reading morning after morning(thank you to the developers of The Age app), shifting from the bohemian charm of Café Hawelka one day, to the colonnaded excess of Café Centrale.

A Summer Coffee, Café Hawelka

Café Centrale

I’m planning on my next visit to approach the Spanish Riding School about a residency of some sort – an unabashed attempt to stay for more than just a few days at a time in glorious Vienna.