Christmas preparations

Virgin and Child
Virgin and Child

Over the years since my daughter, Rachel, was born, I have always included a mock stained glass window among the Christmas decorations.  The first window was  small, just enough room for the Virgin and her Child, but moving house meant I needed a new design for a bigger window.

The first one was a straightforward representation of the Holy Family, but it was only made of paper and soon disintegrated.  I wanted something a little more sophisticated, more mature, less Victorian.  I was doodling design ideas, looking for something pleasing to the eye, using circles to indicate the haloed heads and sweeping lines for the robes,  when I suddenly realised that I had my design.

The Holy Family
The Holy Family

Careful arrangement of the “glazing bars” created the star, and there it was.    This time I made the frame and those glazing bars out of heavy card and the window is still with us, coming out every Christmas.  The sunlight coming through the “glass”  throws beautiful patterns on the carpet, and the house light illuminates the design for the outside world after dark.


A few years ago, I was asked to paint a picture for a themed exhibition celebrating any special day,  I chose December 25th and used my window design as inspiration.  The picture took over as I painted and instead of the protective impression of the original design, I found myself painting a great burst of light emanating from the Child, The Light of the World.

Christus natus est
Christus natus est

Then Rachel took the design and explored it in her embroidery world, –  Again an different ambience appeared, a sense of quietude,strength, and purpose  – this was all getting very interesting!

Now I need to introduce another strand in our Christmas preparations – Christmas cards.  For some years now Rachel and I have been using our work as designs for these cards, she with embroidery – and myself with paint.  These two interpretations were among the first – others have included a Christmas Tree angel and a chorus of angels.  This year we have nearly enough from past years to send to our friends this year but are short of a dozen or so.  I’ll tell you what we did next week!

Alford in the snow – third stage

Alford in the Snow 03
Alford in the Snow 03
Alford - after some thought!
Alford – after some thought!

When I really looked at my source, I discovered that my original drawing had wandered.  This happens when I am working exuberantly  with a palette knife as the photo on the left shows.

Now I have quietened a bit, and am working more thoughtfully with a brush, I have seen the error of my ways.  (I do paint carefully with a palette knife sometimes – promise!)

The wall and railings on the left were at the wrong angle, so that the road was too wide, and focus was lost thereby. The same was true of the wall and hedge on the right!  Oh, Steve!  Concentrate, girl!  But see what those simple changes have wrought, for the composition of the painting is greatly improved, the atmosphere more friendly, the whole painting welcomes you in.

Those points corrected, I added more colour and texture to the tall trees, making them less dense at the same time, brightened the twiggy hedges, and added some snow, that had been melting too fast.  The shadows cast on the snowy lane brighten the atmosphere – just the day for a good, brisk walk.  I feel altogether happier about progress and have reached that happy stage of refining the detail – and I am pleased with the finished painting.

Alford in the Snow.


SAA postcard partners

The SAA (Society for All Artists) are running a challenge, which is great fun, called “Postcard Partners” .  The idea is that two artists share a postcard and paint half each.  It’s the sort of thing that friends can do,  and since the winners of the prizes are picked at random, it doesn’t matter if you have any talent or none!

My painting group thought we would “have a go!”  Not that any of us thought we would win a prize, we did it for fun.  We were painting in watercolour at the time so most of this set of entries are in that medium, but I think we may try again, later in the term, now we have experience, maybe in different media.   The halves can be divided in any way suitable, straight, wavy, background and foreground, etc.  We were rather conservative this time but that may change when we try again.

So, here are our efforts.  Some of the group have been painting for years, and some are beginners, and at this scale it is hard to tell the difference!

SAA Postcard Partners
SAA Postcard Partners

My thanks to Judy, Jill, Benedetta, Julie, Harry, Ann, Margaret, Lorna, Pam, and Frieda, for an enjoyable afternoon.  The surface of the postcards supplied by the SAA was truly excellent, though you can make your own as long as they are the right size. My friends achieved some subtle effects, blending delicate washes on elephants, turbaned sages, Venetian scenes,  seascapes, pussycats and flowers; yet it also responded well to more precise work as in the party food and the landscape; it took line and wash very well, vide the enchanting pigeon at the top;  but pride of place must to the mixed media view of Venice (the dark one in the left hand corner).  Well done, everyone!

The Gates of Chester – third stage

I’ve drawn much more with the wax crayons characterising the stonework, suggesting the undergrowth behind the tree and finishing the wrought iron gates.  I added Viridian to the tree both as paint and as crayon together with some brown and black.  I also intensified the colour washes on the wall but I was working in electric light, and may have been too enthusiastic.  The colours seem to be working better now.

Wolfgate 03
Wolfgate 03

I think I like the effect of the crayon, but the curvy tree trunk needs attention and something – but what? – needs to be done to join the “Brusho” part to the rest of the picture.  I seem to have painted myself into a corner.  Time to sleep on it, maybe.

I returned to my source photograph.  I have missed out the grass edge at the front of the picture, thinking that yet another horizontal line right across the picture is unhelpful.  But there is the ghost of neatly cut grass at the extreme right hand side of the flower border which might break up the horizontal I do have, at least suggesting why we have that edge.  Maybe a little more “Brusho”to take the yellow and purples over the line in places?

Wolfgate Complete
Wolfgate Complete

It doesn’t look very different, but I have straightened the wavy trunk, extended the roots to imply some continuity with the pansies in front, and added more “Brusho” yellow, lemon this time to  suggest distance,to the upper edge of that section.

This is as far as I want to take it in this picture, but I do like the different effect the wax crayon makes.  Contrary to my prejudiced expectations, the crayon has given a delicacy and airiness to the finished picture.  I shall certainly try this combination on media again!


The Liverymen 02 – dressing the canvas

The liverymen
The liverymen

The actual scene didn’t exist – it was all in the mind – so it was going to be a composition of two men and a heap of objects somehow arranged to tell a story. It must tell of my two protagonists and their interests, and of the Livery, its age, customs and purpose. And I wanted a happy picture, too.

Martin and Brian entered into the spirit of things, furnishing me with details and photos of their interest and enthusiasms, and with the official photos of them in their robes of Office. One showed them standing together, facing the camera, their hands lightly clasped in front of them. That worked in the immediacy of a photo. But a more formal portrait would require a bit of variety. Another photo showed Martin seated sideways and turning to face the camera. Using this as a start, and echoing the pose of the left hand figure on “The Ambassadors”, I drew in Martin holding, not a dagger, but the traditional nosegay in one hand and resting his other hand on the dresser, thereby giving myself immense anguish – and of that, more later.

Thanks to Holbein, I had my two figures of good size posed on the canvas. Now I needed the story to unfold. They have a common interest in wine so we meet them sharing a convivial bottle of claret – doubtless Brian is telling a fishy story or two and Martin doesn’t believe a word of it!

The Gates of Chester – second stage

As you see, I have introduced my first washes, taking my colouring from those used in wax crayons.  I like the two textures together, and can see where more of the same will enhance the image.  It is helping me to move away from a strict representation of the scene, something I have been battling with for years.

However, I think the wax crayons are too emphatic, so I need to intensify the washes, and do more crayoning so that the marks don’t look like currants in a bun.

The Wolfgate 02
The Wolfgate 02

The foreground is rather interesting.  If you remember I had stuck down some crumpled tissue paper.  I then sprinkled that area with “Brusho” – how I wish they had thought of a better name – then sprayed with water.  I used only purple and yellow at first as being more appropriate for pansies then added green and brown to suggest foliage and shadow.  There was no variation in tone so that part stood up like a wall.  White gouache was floated over the upper edge penetrating into the garden a little which dulled the colour and made it lie down again.  I need to introduce Viridian into the tree.  It looks strident just careering around among the purples and yellows.

Alford in the snow – second stage

The next stage is adding colour – this is the bit I like.  I continued to work with a palette knife.  In this way the painting moves quickly, energetically even.  The colours are muted, red-browns, greys, and dark greens.  Some of the textures are created by paint catching the lumps and bumps of the underpainting, some by using the edge or tip of the knife.  All the time I am trying to match the tone of the underpainting so that the colour washes over the picture, enhancing not changing.

Alford in the Snow 02
Alford in the Snow 02

As you can see I got a bit too enthusiastic when working on the central tree!  It’s altogether too clumsy, not at all the airy leafless branches I envisaged and the trunk looks like a telegraph pole.  The colouring is fine, though.  So I painted out the tree and started again with more success this time.  I also added a suggestion of light twigs to the distant tree behind the church,  Then I reverted to a rigger to lighten the appearance of the middle tree, and to add detail to the gate and church.

Alford in the Snow 03
Alford in the Snow 03

I think this will work now but I feel I should abandon the palette knife.  I have had a crisis of confidence which happens to me at times, that is largely related to how much painting I am doing at any time.  A brush will be more comfortable, more controllable, though I don’t want to lose the energy in the painting.


Gates of Chester – first stage

Mixed media is not something I have been successful with – it feels vaguely like cheating!   – one should be able to achieve the desired effect in the medium of choice.  However, I did overcome many of my personal prejudices when painting for my book, “The Bridges of Dee” so it’s about time I dealt with this one.

The first necessity was to change the way I viewed painting in this way.  It’s not a cheat, it’s using things to express a different interpretation not in competition with a single medium but beside it.  It’s using the strengths and delights of all to show a new way of looking.  In truth, I’m only half  convinced,  but enough to give it a go.

The Wolf Gate
The Wolf Gate

I chose one of the City Gates of Chester.  The Walls enclose the entire old city, based on the original walls of the Roman Fort, though most of what you now see is medieval.  The Gates through the Walls have all been re-built or created since then except of this one and maybe the Kaleyard Gate, the most famous being the Eastgate with its ornate Victorian Clock.

The Wolf Gate
Detail – wax crayon

Dipping my toe gently into this new pool, I chose to work first with wax crayon emphasising some of the stones of the arch and the wrought iron gate. the brighter reds and yellow are to the right hand side while the purples and blues predominate in the increasing shadow on the left.  It’s all a bit tentative, but I’ll be able to do more on top of the watercolour wash.

The Wolf Gate
Wax crayon and prepared tissue paper

Near the bottom of the paper (Bockingford) I have stuck down crinkled tissue paper to create the bed of pansies.  I have used this on a whole painting before and do like the textured finish it achieves.  Integrating it as part of a painting will be interesting as the “join” has to be managed.  I’m sure I will need to do more in wax, but I am getting nervous of all that white paper.  Usually, the paper/canvas has an initial wash of colour within the first half hour.

Extra Bridges of Dee


When I was researching for my book “The Bridges of Dee”, I took lots of photos to use as inspiration but didn’t use all of them by a long way.  So I revisit my album from time to time to find compositions that work.

This is a quick watercolour, about quarter of a hour with minimal drawing.  It’s the opposite bank of the river to the painting in the book, with the Dee out of picture to the right. I like the size of the people in contrast to the height of the arch, and the sweep of the fence takes you right there!  I think the shadows at the top are a bit too strong – maybe a rusty brown rather than purple would have been better allowing the drama of the arch to stand out more. The reds and greens are enjoying each others company as usual.

The Liverymen 01- Beginnings

Where do ideas for projects come from? out of thin air often, but this one has a clear back story. It is a tale of two visits, one to an exhibition of paintings by Alma-Tadema in Liverpool, and the other in London, attending the Winter Service of a London Guild.

Unfinished sketch by Laurence Alma-Tadema. Image Copyright The Clark Museum, Mass.
Unfinished sketch by Laurence Alma-Tadema.
Image Copyright The Clark Museum, Mass.

The Liverpool exhibition was an eye opener. Alma-Tadema is a master of textures, his furs dense and soft, his silks airy, his flowers newly picked. Crucially, some of the pictures on show were unfinished, and looked a bit like my finished ones! They sparked an interest in emulation, something I would never have considered if he hadn’t shown the way.

Holbein, "The Ambassadors". Image Copyright The National Gallery
Holbein, “The Ambassadors”. Image Copyright The National Gallery

The Winter Service was a very different experience, all robes and ceremony, friendship and laughter, but it gave me a possible subject. A passing glimpse of the Master and the Honorary Clerk reminded me of another painter, Hans Holbein, and his painting, “The Ambassadors”. It shows the two gentlemen, beautifully dressed, surrounded by objects, many of them set out on a sideboard, which demonstrate their interests and enthusiasms.

So, I had my subject and my goal. The canvas is 50 inches x 70 inches – it needed to be at least that size if I was to have a chance at getting a likeness. I didn’t hold out much hope but it would be silly to tie my hands at the outset.

The first problem was sighting the figures on a canvas of that size. I have a projector, so I used a postcard reproduction of “The Ambassadors” to indicate where and how the figures stood, tramping back and forth across the studio with the canvas to get a clear image of the right proportions for this seemed to be at the edge of the projector’s range. Still the detail didn’t matter, and I had placed my figures.