Watercolours; a Natural Selection

watercolour box

Winsor and Newton watercolour boxAfter thirty years, it’s time to upgrade my studio watercolour box. Most of the colours have dried out so I’ve given up on it over the past ten years, preferring to grab one of my more freshly stocked pocket-sized boxes.

I’ve been able to rescue a few of the colours that I’d refilled over the years and, thanks to a friend who spotted an unmissable bargain in a sale (thank you, Godavari!), I have a solid nucleus of Winsor and Newton artist’s watercolours new and unwrapped, ready to pop in.

But that still leaves a whole row of the box to fill.


Felix Scheinnberger’s Urban Watercolor Sketching prompted me to review my colour habits but for specific suggestions for natural history subjects I’ve turned to Agathe Haevermans’ The Art of Botanical Drawing and Drawing and Painting the Seashore.

The aniline dye magenta was named after the Battle of Magenta, northern Italy, 1859.
The aniline dye magenta was named after the Battle of Magenta, northern Italy, 1859.

My primaries are already pretty well covered so my additions fall into three categories; neutrals, violets and greens. Some of the violets, mauves and magentas are tricky – if not impossible – to mix so I’ve added several of those.

A Green Shade

sap green, olive greenSecondaries such as sap green and olive green aren’t strictly necessary because you can easily mix an approximation from various combinations yellows and blues but having them ready-mixed in the box can save a lot of time.

greensThe darker perylene green might be useful for shadows and leaf veins, as might terre verte and opaque oxide of chromium, a colour that I’ve struggled to find a use for in the past, unless I’ve been painting lichens.

In The Art of Botanical Painting by Margaret Stevens suggests that you should treat every green individually;

‘. . . nothing beats making your own green shade card; I know from experience that if you give six people a palette each with a blob of Cadmium Yellow and Cobalt Blue you will get six different greens, since everyone will use varying proportions of paint and water. There is no substitute for experimentation and practice.’

She warns that manufactured greens can look harsh and inappropriate if taken straight from the tube. I remember viridian dominating my greens when I first started to use it and I probably wouldn’t have included it if I hadn’t rescued it from my previous selection.

Botanical Grey

botanic greyIn Botanical Painting, Margaret Stevens describes ‘botanical grey’, a transparent mix of light red and French ultramarine. Used well diluted, sometimes with a hint of a reflected colour, it can be useful when painting white flowers.

davys greyI don’t have a light red but I’ll experiment with my Indian red (another ‘rescued’ colour) and ultramarine. I’ve never tried Davy’s grey before, so I’m hoping that will prove equally useful.

Winsor and Newton


I’m keen to support my local art shops so I ring around a couple but they don’t stock my favourite Winsor and Newton artist’s colours. Should I go for Daler Rowney instead?

Time to phone a friend. Illustrator John Welding confirms my feeling that Winsor and Newton are about the best, although there are colours in the Daler Rowney range, for instance the warm sepia, which some artists prefer to the Winsor and Newton versions.

This gives Barbara and I the excuse to visit Huddersfield where Calder Graphics in the wonderful Victorian Byram Arcade stock W&N artist’s colours . . . and more, it’s an Aladin’s Cave for those of us who are hooked on artist’s materials, but, after spending £55 on a dozen colours, I resisted the temptation to browse pens and sketchbooks!

Must go again soon.

Links; Winsor and NewtonByram Arcade


potatoHaving the plant right there in front of me should make it easy but, like all flowers, this potato is a restless sitter.

It takes me longer than I think to get so far and I’m far from satisfied with the result but the end result isn’t really the point of the exercise;

‘You can only reproduce something well if you [see and observe]. If you can decode what you see, you will be able to explain it, and anyone who sees your drawing will be able to understand it. The artist’s view is just as important and personal as the subject itself.’

Agathe Haevermans, Drawing and Painting the Seashore

I’m happy just to spend the day observing and hopefully turning that into a successful botanical drawing will follow on from that.

In Impressionism by sampling spots of colour in a detached way, you should be able to build up a convincing image even of an object in the landscape that you can’t identify. Courbet was supposedly able to accurately paint a patch on a distant hillside without ever asking what it was – a limestone outcrop, a patch of dried vegetation or a pile of chippings. The colour and texture were enough.

With botanic drawing you’re really trying to deconstruct then reconstruct the subject in order to clearly explain it.

potato flower partsPerhaps I should have taken the flower apart before I started drawing.


Pink Pig

Pink Pig sketchbook

I’m delighted to have made it into the Pink Pig catalogue (educational version) which has just dropped through the door. This is a sketch I made of the railway embankment in my Holly Green Sketchbook.

I feel it’s appropriate that I live just five miles from what might well be Great Britain’s biggest sketchbook factory, the rate that I get through them. On several occasions I’ve called there to pick up a bundle of a particular size of sketchbook, most recently I upgraded to their own brand of 270 gsm watercolour paper, Ameleie, in an 8 x 8 inch format which I’m intending to reproduce in print using one of the digital book printing services.

Pink Pig

If you’re sharp-eyed you might spot a couple more extracts from my Holly Green Sketchbook in the catalogue and by coincidence I’m sharing a page with fellow ex-Leeds and Royal College of Art student, John Ross. John spent most of his time at the RCA in printmaking, mainly in etching, ultimately producing The Biggin Hill Frescoes. My Royal College publication was A Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield.

John’s got as far as Andalusia but here I am still beetling away with my sketchbook in the country round Wakefield.

(That’s not quite the whole story because John recently spent a year in a project to restore the most Gothic of Huddersfield’s leafy parks, Beaumont Park).

Link; Pink Pig sketchbooks (they supply direct to the public but you might be lucky enough to find a stock of assorted Pink Pigs in your local art shop, which enables you to get the feel of them).

simply firesAnother link; my work also appears in a newly revamped website of Simply Fires. A small detail but I think it gives the site a warm and friendly look; which is just right for a family firm that supplies wood-burning and multi-fuel stoves!

The drawing of the coal bucket on their contact page was one I made when I stayed at Langsett Youth Hostel, which had just had a new stove fitted. Sadly, ten years later, the Youth Hostel has now closed, which is a shame because they would have been guaranteed a full house in ten days from now when the Grand Depart of the Tour de France passes within a hundred yards of their front door.


Potato Flower

potato flowerI take a break for coffee and when I return most of the flowers have closed up, so there’s an element of reconstruction in the watercolour.

Just the foliage to add now.

Potato in Pencil

potato flowers in pencilMr AtkinsonMr Atkinson, my maths teacher, saw me struggling with geometry and examined my pencil;

‘You could plant a potato with that, Bell!’

Sharpening up my act, this morning I’m drawing potato flowers with a 4H pencil, sharpened with a craft knife and honed to a point with an abrasive pad.

I don’t ever remember choosing a 4H for drawing but I’m taking advice from Agathe Haevermans’ The Art of Botanical Drawing and she often suggests starting out with a hard pencil. If you need to erase there’s less risk of damaging the surface of the paper because the harder lead stays on the surface.

For white flowers like these she suggests erasing almost to the point where your outlines become invisible, so that you don’t get pencil lines showing through your wash.

This variety of second early potato is Vivaldi and, by coincidence when I started this drawing they were playing Vivaldi’s Concerto in B Flat on Radio 3.

Sage Advice


sageI like to draw is on location, direct from nature so why have I brought this herb into my studio?

After reading up on botany this spring I feel the need to go in closer to my subject, something that I struggle to do when flowers are blowing about in the meadow.


I’ve resisted the urge to reach for my pen but I still want a sharp line so I use an abrasive pad to keep a point on my HB pencil. I need to do this four or five times during the course of the drawing.

Botanical Drawing

The Art of Botanical Drawing by Agathe Ravet-Haevermans has given me some gentle encouragement. There are meticulous examples of her work as a scientific illustrator at the Museum of Natural History in Paris but also a few sketches from her field trips in Madagascar and South Africa. Step by step drawings and swatches of the watercolours used in each example show how she depicts the flowers, fruits and foliage of familiar garden flowers and exotic blooms.

botanic drawing
Pink Pig 8 x 8 Amelele 270 gsm watercolour sketchbook, White Nights watercolours, Cotman reversible brushes.

My favourites amongst them are the different kinds of bark, the cherry tomatoes on a vine, the fungi and the bunch of carrots.

Encouragingly for the rest of us she concludes with a selection of her mistakes; ‘But is it such a disaster? It’s just time and a sheet of paper. The most important thing is to be able to learn from it.’

I’ll keep that in mind as I try to get into botanical mode.

Link; Agathe Haevermans, L’Institut de Systématique, Évolution, Biodiversité

Turkey Oak

Turkey oak

I’d been presented with a blue ballpoint pen at Horbury Street Fair so I used it to add a tone to represent the foliage of the Turkey oak in Barbara’s sister’s front garden.

cushionsIt was something of a family day as I’d drawn this when we called on her brother this morning. In between I was keen to head for the creperie stall at the Street Fair but, you know what these events are like, we kept getting held up by friends we hadn’t seen for months!

But the banana and Nutella crepe was worth waiting for.

Ten years ago Danny Gregory was with us for the weekend and we sat and drew at Horbury Street Fair.

Link; Sketchbook Skool link in Danny Gregory’s Blog

Wood Avens

wood avensThe bobbles of hooked seeds of wood avens are spreading out over the pavement at the end of our drive. My guess is that fifteen or twenty years ago it originally established itself from a seed carried here attached to the coat of a dog returning from a walk in Coxley woods.

It’s made itself at home at the edge of the spreading ivy beneath our rowan, the sort of shady place on fertile soil that this plant prefers. There is now so much of it that many of the seeds must be making the reverse journey back into the woods as dogs pass by each morning.

It’s a member of the rose family with a five-petalled yellow flower with five sepals. It’s lower leaves remind me of nettle but the upper leaves that I’ve drawn here are three-lobed.

Also known a herb bennet, which, according to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, comes from the medieval Latin ‘herba benedicta’, ‘the blessed herb’;

‘Its root has a spicy clove smell and was widely used in herbal medicine.’

Latin Roots

Its Latin name is Geum urbanum. Geum was the name of a herb mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. It might derive from ‘geuo’, the Greek meaning ‘to taste’, referring to those aromatic roots. ‘Urbanum’ means ‘of the town’.

Pliny the Elder died on 25 August 79 A.D. at Pompeii. A quote attributed to his nephew and heir Pliny the Younger opens the film Pompeii;

‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore’

I thought that Pliny the Elder might get a walk on part during the movie. If he did, I missed it.

Pompeii is an epic best enjoyed in 3D and surround-sound but I could have happily spent the time taking a leisurely tour through its impressively  reconstructed street food shops, villas and temples of Pompeii and missed out on the gladiatorial combat and eruption, impressive as they were. Perhaps we could have a prequel; A Short Tour of Pompeii with Pliny the Elder.


finsIt was just the pair of fins on the belly that I couldn’t name of when I drew this goldfish at the dentist’s last month. They’re the pelvic or ventral fins. It’s probably the fact that there are two names that I find it difficult to remember.

Members of the salmon family have an extra fin; the adipose, a small upward pointing fin between the dorsal and caudal.

This drawing is an amalgam of several fish that were in constant motion in the tank in the waiting room. They varied widely in fin length and colour patterns so I tried to keep coming back to the individuals that were closest to the standard goldfish.

Peace Lily

Peace lily, spathiphyllumThe Peace Lily, Spathiphyllum wallisii, is stemless, the leaves and flowers growing directly from the compost. Although it is from tropical America the leaves can be damaged by strong sunlight.

The flower reminds me of the cuckoo flower. It consists of a spadix – the sausage-shaped flowerhead – which is sheathed in a spathe; a leaf-like bract. The spathe is white to start with but gradually turns pale green.

Pencil and Watercolour

Drawn with HB Derwent Graphic pencil which I sharpened to a fine point on a metal emery board. Watercolours are White Night. I prefer Winsor and Newton but White Nights are perfectly acceptable and I’ve got a greater range of colours in a larger box.

Instead of the waterbrush that I normally use, I’ve gone for a Cotman no. 10 field brush and a Cotman no. 3 reversible (brush fits into handle). The number 3 is finer than I’d normally use but I’m trying to manage without a fine pen to provide sharpness in the botanical details.