"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home" (Twyla Tharp)

Watercolours ...

Greetings card © Vicki Lee Johnston

I hope this year has been a fruitful one for you - I know many family and friends have had a hectic time of it and felt the year has been a whirlwind.  That's certainly how I feel but a lot of things have been accomplished despite the busy-ness and has led to thinking about ways to savour the things we enjoy and make what we do more manageable and organised so we don't get bogged down with stuff.  Decluttering is a big part of the process, not only our belongings but also the way we work, to only have what is beautiful and useful in our homes and workspaces.

I love colour, especially watercolour - and I find the pigments fascinating also. The more I learn about pigment properties, the more I realise that the colour I choose in the first instance can save a lot of time in the long run.  How many times have we gotten further into a painting only to realise that a colour is not behaving the way we want, either it's too opaque, we can't lift it because it's heavily staining, the colour is granulating when we want a smooth wash ... if we familiarise ourselves with each pigment it can avoid a lot of problems and potentially save a painting.

My first teacher showed me how it was possible to make hundreds of colours from only six, a warm and cool choice of yellow, blue and red.  The colour charts above are the very first thing I painted and I learnt a lot about colour mixing.  However I had no idea that there was so much more to it!

After frustrating errors with watercolour finishes I became more interested in why these problems were happening, why I couldn't lift a colour, or why my colours weren't smooth.

 Soo many colour charts!  Learning how each pigment works ...

As you can see, I have done a lot of homework and tried to familiarise myself with each colour and divided it into cards showing the range of colours and properties for each one.
However, it's all very well having the colour charts in a nice filing system, now it's time to find the watercolours I need for a painting and because I have too many they reside in multiple tins and drawers and I find myself becoming a bit disorientated before I even begin laying the first wash.  I  wanted something to house all the stuff I need to get going, for it to be easy to find, easy to sort and categorise and still look neat once packed away.  Although things can get chaotic during a painting, I like to be able to pack things away in their place.

My studio, loads of places for all the stuff!
The most recent painting involved painting a lot of different leaves and quite a few colours.  This is when I realised my system wasn't working.

 I haven't worked out yet whether I prefer tubes or pans, but I am leaning towards watercolour pans.  I have bought a lot of empty watercolour full size pans and fill them from my Daniel Smith and Schmincke tubes but tend to buy Winsor & Newton pans due to recommended use by the manufacturer.

 I posted a question asking for suggestions in the  Botanical Artists Facebook Group, where you get loads of advice from fellow artists.  So many ideas were given which were very helpful.  Ultimately we have to find what works for us and in this situation I need storage and organisation, something to keep all the colours and charts in that I can take out of a cupboard or close up at the end of the day and it all looks neat.  It's not specifically a travel case, although it could easily be used for one, but if I were travelling I would definitely minimise my watercolours and tools and travel with a smaller setup.

This case was the perfect solution, it's a make up carry case but you could easily get a fishing tackle box or sewing basket, a wooden box, etc.  I liked the way the sections opened up and made it easy to see everything.    My husband very kindly cut up flyweight stiffener into squares for the base and also strips to fit in between the rows to allow for detailed labelling.  You could easily use foam core board for this job.  I find the tins which hold pans leave little room for labelling and if you want all the pigment info it's a bit fiddly, it's also not easy to take the pans out and use elsewhere.  I tend to splash around a bit and make a right mess in a tin!  Using this system I can easily take out only the pans I need and use them with my china palette.

When you first open the case

The sections fully expanded

I decided to use each square section for specific colours, top right are yellows, top left reds, bottom right blues, bottom left violets, browns and grey/black.  

Each pan is described by using an erasable pen on a sticker label and pasting it to the flyweight strip.  Of course you could also use foamcore board to put the base and sections it as well.  I wanted a decent space so I could see everything at first glance.

I leave all my colour cards and charts together at the base of the case.  The watercolour pad I used to make these charts is a perfect size to fit inside the case and under the tiers for easy access.

Underneath those charts are small boxes containing all the tube colours which I have used to fill the pans, all in their own colour sections relating to the trays above.  I also fit my colour strip fan in amongst those boxes, you can see it laid out below, with all the colour strips relating to the pigments in the case.  This colour strip fan is wonderful for choosing the right colour for a botanical subject as you can easily hold it over the subject and see through the hole punch area to get the closest match.


My new case with a rainbow of colours and colour charts and all the technical information needed!  It can be kept in a very small space and is portable.  I know it will save me a lot of time working out the colours I need - whether they be transparent, opaque, granulating, staining, single pigment, etc.  It will become second nature and eventually I will probably minimise the colours I use down to a much more manageable size.  You could also easily fit paintbrushes and a few ceramic palettes in the case so it's a very worthwhile option if you are feeling a bit disorganised and finding getting started on a painting frustrating due to chaos in the studio.  As mentioned before, this is more of a hold-all than a travel case, you don't need to take the whole kitchen sink when you travel or are out in the field!

My next painting is well under way,  very short deadline on this as it is due for an exhibition in early January.    

© Vicki Lee Johnston

I hope you find this blog post helpful and it encourages you to find a system that works for you.  We all work differently but most of all our creativity doesn't have to be limited to our artworks.  

"Necessity is the mother of invention" 

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Iris ...

Iris © Vicki Lee Johnston

I imagine all botanical artists are completely sidetracked by their subjects, no matter the environment.  Wherever we go our attention is often diverted by a beautiful flower, interesting plant or unique seedpod, even dead stuff gets our interest - because it's all a part of our amazing natural world.

When travelling in France we toured the location for the movie 'A Good Year' set near Bonnieux and Gordes in Provence.  The most beautiful region  of rolling hills, vineyards, stone architecture and beautiful estates like the Chateau La Canorgue where much of the filming was done.  

Chateau La Canorgue 

 It was here that once again my eyes diverted to the beautiful landscaping and a picture perfect iris blooming just under the waterfall.  I was fascinated by this flower as we had seen fields of them in all their glory in St Remy which I posted about here:

 I am always drawn to bold and bright colours and I was so focussed on it, I promised myself to have a go at  painting it one day.    Irises are great at being champions of colour and a it's a real challenge to capture the voluptuous show-off that it is!   I took a few hasty photos, drawings and forgot about it until recently I came upon them when redoing my art studio.

 I set about painting it knowing that I would have to use quite a few layers of watercolour to create the vibrancy.  I think often we are worried about going too far and overdoing it but in being so cautious often artworks may appear underdone.  As I wasn't painting this for a diploma or commission or exhibition I threw caution to the wind and just kept going, enjoying the process.

I worked a bit differently this time almost finishing the top petals to get the feel of the iris, rather than building up slowly over the whole artwork.  Call it impatience but for me if it's a time consuming subject  I need to see that the endless hours dedicated to the art is heading in the right direction.

Building up stronger and stronger but still hoping to keep enough detail to see the lifeline of this flower.   

I think for now I will set it aside and tweak it in a few weeks' time.  Our eyes and brain get so finely tuned to what we are painting that sometimes we miss important detail so for now it's on vacation.

 I couldn't seem to get the accurate colours and light in the photographing of the artwork so I took it outside in full daylight, only to discover there is a smoke haze so again, the colour isn't quite there but you can see how in different settings the painting changes significantly.

The iris earned its name from the ancient Greek Goddess Iris, a messenger to the gods who was thought to use the rainbow as a bridge between heaven and earth. By some accounts, the ancient Greeks believed the rainbow was actually the flowing, multi-colored robes of Iris. Others believed the beautiful multi-colored flowers were also part of her robe or the flowing veil from her dress. Thus, these flowers were named to honor the Rainbow Goddess and bring favor upon the earth.

© Vicki Lee Johnston

I'm sure there will be more iris paintings in the future, so enjoyable to paint.  
 They will always remind me of the wonderful time spent in the South of France. 

Art Studio ...

This morning as I sat down to a relaxing cup of tea I was blindsided by light coming from the corner of my eye.  I had been contemplating a large list of tasks and preparing for the day when my attention was drawn to the newly renovated art studio which sits in a far corner of the house. The sunlight was streaming in, it has that affect on me - like a calling, because somehow when I walk into it I enter a whole new world.  It has only just been completed as a purpose made creative centre - still pretty bare and lots of neutral shades to allow for the outside world to come in.

The light coming from my studio 

For the past few years I have used anything from the dining room table to the lounge room as my dedicated art space.  It just doesn't seem to work well when you are sharing your creative space with an area destined for another purpose.   You're exposed to all the crazy sounds and movement of those around you and while I love my art, I also adore my family and want to put them first.  I needed a place of quiet to allow me to process a train of thought and carry it through.

A few months ago I severely injured my knee, ended up on crutches, went through all the medical palava, ended up in hospital having surgery and was immobile for a length of time.  If you are suffering a setback with your health it can leave you feeling deflated but I did use this time wisely and creatively.  I convinced my husband to completely clear a spare room used for that all too consuming clutter storage - threw out a lot out, gave heaps away and then proceeded to strip it back to bare bones to rebuild as an art studio.

It was a great project and very motivating - choosing paint colours, pulling up carpet, etc - which I have to admit I could only direct from a chair so full kudos goes to my beloved for indulging me.  Our house was built in the 1880's so the boards under the old carpet were wonderful and I decided to leave them bare, rough and less than perfect.  This bodes well for using water and paint and giving a more rustic feel.  The room was painted in whites and neutrals to allow for the sunlight to stream in and reflect natural hues.    

Before - hideous shade of green
After - beautiful and practical

 One of the things I have always done in my home is to restore furniture - anything that has great bones and serves a good purpose has been painted to suit the environment.  I am not keen on dark furniture so pretty much everything in my home is painted the same alabaster shade of off white.  It allows the decor accents and plants to be the centrepieces rather than heavy furniture setting the tone.  Most of my furniture was also secondhand - especially the plan drawers, architects table, drafting chair, drawers etc - these days modern furniture rarely provides the utility space you need especially for a creative role.  Gumtree is an excellent resource to search for those ever elusive plan drawers to store our precious paper!

The architects drawers above on the left cost $100 but were a dark laminate so I painted it off white - it's such a great piece of furniture and allows me to stand at the desk as well as providing great storage for larger papers. 

Before - dark and uninviting
After - light and bright

I love to have lots of little drawers, I picked up this little unit above for next to nothing and painted it to suit.  It's a great piece and houses all my pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, all the fiddly little bits that I always end up losing. 

To create this space it came down to stripping the room, repainting the walls and painting secondhand future.  It cost next to nothing except for a lot of time and effort planning and carrying out the work.  I can't thank my husband enough for being supportive of this renovation, it was a much needed boost during my recovery.

Here is a portion of the room above - quite difficult to photograph for perspective.  It also shows the tall drafting chair I also picked up secondhand - because it's not good to always stand or always sit and this gives me the flexibility to have both.  I think if all the furniture items were left their original dark colour it would look very cluttered.

The light is really beautiful in here - I have positioned the easel so that it illuminates my drawing and painting area well enough to rarely have to use the additional light from my daylight lamp.  

This is not a large room but it is very functional, light and inviting.  I love being in here because let's face it, artists have an awful lot of 'stuff' and it's difficult to keep it all organised and looking presentable.    I may be an artist but I am very organised and I love everything to have a place, so this makes me very happy!  Everything is within arm's reach and there is plenty of storage.  It did take time and planning and sourcing the right pieces but it certainly wasn't expensive.
I enjoyed sharing my latest project because while it wasn't an artwork on paper, I think everything we do which allows us to focus on what we love creating is a step in the right direction ...