Happy Holiday Memory

I’ve been casting around a bit for something new to draw. Although I have lots of pictures printed off, none of them seemed to hit the spot, somehow. I really fancied having another go at portraiture; I really enjoy the challenge of trying to make the faces come to life, but who to do? I’ve not taken many ‘people pictures’ recently, and Mark gets a bit fed up of being my ‘muse’ (although I think I’ve started to really get him something like right!)

A progression of Mark drawings!

Well, I was looking through some holiday pictures, mainly for use in my other blog (https://sanonthelam.wordpress.com, where I describe a day, usually on holiday, with some pictures.), and I came across a rather nice photo of my Mum and Dad. Back in 2014, whilst we still lived near Montreal, they had come across to see us, staying for a month. In the midst of that stay, we all went on holiday, taking a two-week trip to visit San Francisco, Monterey, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Tucson, Sedona and the Grand Canyon. A three state tour, with an internal flight (Reno to Phoenix), it was quite a trip. I had photographed Mum and Dad, with the Golden Gate bridge in the background, and it was a happy photo. People who know her, know that Mum is a cheerful person but that she hates having her picture taken, so you don’t often get a smile! That was the problem with my last attempt at a portrait of them, neither of the subjects were smiling, although it was only my second-ever portrait so there was a lot to improve!

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Anyhow, here is the reference photo, taken at the northern end of the Golden Gate bridge, in San Francisco, on a misty morning in June 2014.
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I liked the pose, I liked the smiles (much more natural), I didn’t much like the rather boring background (I know, it’s the Golden Gate, but it doesn’t look like much in this photo), so I determined to draw the subjects first, and decide after what sort of background to add. It might be just a colour wash or it might be a real place.
The next choice was of materials. Nearly all the portraits I have done have been in watercolour pencil, including the original parent portraits and all of the Mark portraits except the monochrome one. It does lend a nice softness to the features. However, I had also worked coloured pencil over watercolour pencil on a portrait of two friends, a technique which definitely added some definition:

(the right-hand picture is the ‘final’ with coloured pencil added)

And, of course, the ‘Monochrome Mark’ picture was entirely coloured pencil. I’d enjoyed that one, particularly, so I decided that this portrait would be coloured pencil, and I would use the Bristol vellum that is currently my favourite surface. Using Faber-Castell Polychromos and Caran d’Ache Pablos exclusively, I got the portraits completed in just a few days. Maybe Mum is a little pale in colour, but I had done a number of layers already and didn’t want to go over again in case I lost the more delicate shading, which I think worked quite well. Dad, a red-haired Englishman, always has quite a lot of colour, especially when he’s been out in the sun, so he’s quite true to life.

I debated a bit on the background. I was a bit concerned that too busy a background could overwhelm the subject matter. I thought about just a colour wash but really wanted to try something a bit different. Looking through the picture files from the holiday, I considered landscapes at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon (all those layers of rock!), Sedona, Fisherman’s Wharf at San Fran and at Monterey…none felt quite right. Then I found a picture of Big Nose Kate’s Saloon at Tombstone. We had visited Tombstone when stopping at Tucson; Dad really wanted to go there having been brought up on Saturday morning Westerns at the local fleapit and, of course, the story of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We went to Boot Hill graveyard, the re-enactment of the gunfight (hokey, but surprisingly well done and enjoyable) and wandered down the boardwalks of the Western town. I thought this frontage could convey the location as being somewhere different, and provide an interesting backdrop, but it could not be denied that it was pretty busy!
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Well, ‘faint heart never won…’ and all that. I decided to go for it, and I’m glad that I did. It doesn’t seem to overwhelm the real subjects, whilst providing some interest and a lot of colour. I really enjoyed the process of incorporating the background into the picture. I know it may be the wrong way round, but it works for me-I would never have thought to use the saloon picture at the outset, although maybe Mum is a tad overdressed for Southern Arizona in mid-June. Anyhow, I’ve just got to get parental approval; they did say that they liked the previous attempt but I’m hoping that they will like this version a lot better!
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‘Downtown Tombstone, Arizona’, 9 x 12 inch coloured pencil (Caran d’Ache Pablo, Faber-Castell Polychromos), with OMS (Gamsol) to blend, on Strathmore 300 series Bristol vellum.


Inktense Exercise

I’ve got myself into a little bit of a rut…not in a bad way, you understand, but I have been tending to reach for the same sets of pencils for every picture, i.e. the Pablos and Polychromos in coloured pencil, and the Supracolors and Albrecht Durers in watercolour pencils. Now these are all excellent pencils, so it’s not too surprising, but I do have some other pencils stowed away in my pencil cabinets. Some are quite specialist and have been rather neglected; none more so than my set of Derwent Inktense.

These are rather unique in the pencil world. They look like pencils, draw like pencils but, when wetted, look like ink wash. The colours are vivid and beautiful, but perhaps a bit too bright for my usual subject matter. Because they are ink-like, they don’t have many pastel or pale colours. I’ve therefore tended to use them infrequently, mostly in my wharf and boat pictures, when I’ve wanted to add some intense colours to buoys, hulls, life rings, and the like, but completed the rest of the piece using the standard watercolour pencil. I really wanted to see if I could do a whole picture using only the Inktense pencils, a bit of an exercise in making do with what you have (although it really can’t be considered a hardship!).

So, for subject matter. I didn’t think that I could do much in the wildlife area, because the Inktense set lacks the browns, beiges, greys and greiges that I use so much. Instead I thought I’d try a street scene. I’d recently been looking through some pictures taken in Italy, back in April 2000. These were originally film prints, but I had scanned them into my computer so I was able to scale up a picture from the standard 5 x 7 inch print size. We were on Capri (somewhere we actually didn’t take too, that much), and I’d taken a picture of one of the little windy alleys that count as streets there.

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I thought it might work so set about making a very detailed graphite pencil drawing on watercolour paper. I don’t usually draw quite so detailed a picture, especially when using coloured pencil, because the graphite tends to smear and make the colours muddy. In this case, however, I thought it important to get the proportions right from the start. The 72 set of Inktense includes an outliner, an non-soluble graphite-like pencil, that you can use to draw your outline. I was going to use this, but it is very soft, softer than the coloured Inktense, and I couldn’t get it to take a point-it kept clogging up my sharpener. Maybe the hot summer weather was the problem here?

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Now I knew I wouldn’t be copying this photo exactly, because the set just doesn’t have the lighter colours, so I decided to use the lightest yellow possible to do most of the walls and build up from there.

colour chart derwent inktense

Sicillian Yellow turned out to be a good choice for the base colour, with Saddle Brown, Tan, Willow, Oak, Amber and Mustard all helping to develop the colour of the plaster. Although it was April when the picture was taken, I decided to do a little artistic licence and add some additional flowers and greenery to the balconies, and brighten the clothing of the people. Skin tones are a real problem with Inktense, I ended up with a mixture of Crimson and Tan, blotted off with a paper towel before it could get too dark. I would not want to try a portrait with these pencils!

Inktense pencils will sharpen to a point, but they are very soft and it is easy to break the point on the drawing. When you apply the colour it can look really dull and not at all the colour you were expecting. The same goes for the leads of the pencils, many look green when they are really grey, brown or even tan. Add water and the true colour is revealed. this makes blending a bit of a trial; it is important to make a colour chart and not rely on lead colour or even the pencil ends colours, they are not true. The colour dissolves really well and easily but, once dried, it isn’t re-wettable. That can be good if you want to add more colour afterwards, or are working details next to an already painted area, but not good if it dries before you have time to get a whole area ‘washed’ and so end up with a tide line. I found it best to concentrate on completing a smallish area before moving on.

It was a quick picture to complete, however, much quicker than the watercolour pencils or, especially, the coloured pencils. I think it took about 12 hours, including the detailed drawing, which is much less than ‘Good Companions’. I enjoyed the exercise, am pretty happy with the completed picture and it has even got the ultimate accolade-Mark likes it! Not a given for my ‘non-wildlife’ pieces.

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‘Via Listrieri, Capri’, 5 x 11 inch, Derwent Inktense pencil on 140lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).



Memento Catti

They have played a pretty major part in our lives, almost from the time Mark and I got together. We currently have two rescue cats, which we went to pick up in a blizzard (as you do) since Mark struggles to be ‘cat-less’ for too long. You might remember that I had a go at those cats last year (the picture was named as ‘The Girls’), drawn in watercolour pencil on watercolour paper.
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Well before we got our current treasures, in fact back in 1991, we had another pair of cats. Mark and I had not been together very long before he announced that what our home needed was cats. He had always had pets growing up; cats, dogs and, thanks to an animal-mad sister, a variety of smaller furry friends. I, on the other hand, had never had a pet as a child (bar a variety of goldfish from the fair and a tortoise that turned up one day in the garden, and later disappeared just as mystifyingly). To be fair, my mother, who worked full-time, knew who would end up having to look after any animal, so I don’t blame her. I had had part-shares in a rat when a student. Technically, he belonged to a previous boyfriend but he spent most of his life at my place. Rats make surprisingly good and friendly pets, as long as they are handled when young enough, but they don’t last long-2 to 3 years is as good as it gets.

We have always believed in giving homes to rescue animals, rather than hunting for kittens, so we headed to the Cats Protection League local office to look for a suitable animal. We were immediately drawn to a beautiful tabby, who was extremely friendly towards us. We had found our cat! But, in the same enclosure, there was a tiny little black cat, very timid, and we learned that both had come from the same home. We couldn’t leave her behind, so we ended up with two, the male tabby and the little black female. They were renamed ‘Teddy Sheringham’ and ‘Des Walker’; anyone who was a fan of Nottingham Forest Football Club back in the early nineties will recognise the names. It didn’t matter that the new ‘Des Walker’ was female (she was black, so one out of two!), she became ‘Des’, ‘Dessie’, or often ‘Desperate’ or ‘Desperado’ for evermore. She had an endearing habit of sitting on my chest (well, there is a bit of a shelf!) but remained skittish with strangers.
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She was like a black hole for the camera, sucking in the light!
Des unfortunately died sometime in 2001 or 2002, before we moved to Canada. Ted came with us and lived here for three years. Des, therefore, was before the age of digital photography, at least in our house, and so we have no good pictures of her, except for a couple of iffy prints. For Ted there are a couple of digital images, although no good ones. It seems like we forgot to photograph the cats, until they suddenly weren’t with us any more! Anyhow, I thought I’d like to have a picture to remember them by, even if I’d only have dodgy reference photos to follow. In the end I used these:

Neither are great, but I hoped I could make something of them. It helps that I knew the cats, I think, although it was a good exercise in using less than stellar references! I had previously had a go at Ted, as one of the two subjects of ‘Catnapping’:
Although this wasn’t his best side, albeit, it was a very familiar pose. that cat would sleep with (or on) anyone!

Both of the previous cat images were in watercolour pencil, although I’d tried coloured pencil for our friends’ cat, ‘Ivy’, and it had gone pretty well.
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I decided to stick with coloured pencil for this new picture, and to use the Bristol vellum, which seems to be my current surface of choice for coloured pencil work. The two cats were to be in the same image (as per usual, we had no picture of the two of them together, although Ted and Des were far more likely to cuddle up together than Bubble and Joy are).

Teddy is a joy to paint. He was so beautifully marked that, even with the poor reference shot, it was easy to make him look quite real. Des was much harder. The reference picture was lacking detail, since it is a very old print, and she was all black (actually, there was one tiny white tuft), although there were subtle shadings that I could use. She ended up looking a bit scary, I think, even if in reality she was the sweetest cat. Mark says she looks like a miniature Puma, but of course, that is exactly what she was!

I’m actually very pleased with how this turned out, given the iffy references. They are recognisable as our dear old duo, and should make a nice memento to match ‘The Girls’. I’ve called it ‘Good Companions’, because they were.
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‘Good Companions’, 9 x 12 inch coloured pencil (Caran d’Ache Pablo, Faber-Castell Polychromos) with OMS to blend, and Uni-ball Signo white pigment ink pen and Staples black mini-gel pen fro whiskers, on Strathmore 300 Series Bristol Vellum.


American Oystercatchers are very rare in Canada. In fact, so rare that there is really only once place to (fairly) reliably see them and that is on Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia, which just happens to be where we live. There has been at least one pair trying to breed every year since we have lived here, as well as odd single birds. They favour The Cape, the island off the end of Cape Sable island, where the lighthouse is situated, but can be seen feeding out on the sand bars at low tide from The Hawk and, post breeding, from adjacent areas such as Daniel’s Head, before they head south for the winter. It’s a tenuous hold in Canada but worth celebrating, so I thought I’d try a picture.

Now, I like Oystercatchers, but they are one of those species that never seem to look ‘real’ in pictures, so I have rather shied away from trying to draw them. However, I came across a picture in the files that Mark took back in 2015, our first year here. It was of a breeding pair with the proof of their breeding, a fine, almost grown youngster. It’s a great image and I thought I’d give it a try.
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One of the issues with these birds is that the big, silly bills and the bright yellow eyes of the adult birds really don’t come over well in pictures. Especially the rear bird, where the bill looks unusually hefty. We think that is because the head is tilted slightly, giving  a view of more than the direct profile and thus has the effect of broadening it. You can see that the youngster lacks the bright yellow iris and the fully red bill (and consequently looks a bit less odd!).

The white feathering of the underparts and underwing was fun to do, in different shades of greys (using just about all of the greys in both the Polychromos and the Pablos). It looked very dingy until I’d put in the background, an attempt of the bokeh of the original picture. The rocks around The Cape are liberally covered with rockweed of a greeny-yellow colouration, which is what the birds are standing in front of. I didn’t want the background to overwhelm the picture so avoided detail whilst still trying to convey the colours. Mark felt I’d rushed it a bit, and he might be right, although I was pretty happy with the vegetation. The sea? Not so much. Sea and I have a definite hit-and-miss relationship. The worst bit is the weird blob, to the right of the head of the young bird. I think this is actually a partially-submerged lobster trap, covered in weed, and on the picture it is pretty indistinct. I made the mistake of trying to blur it out a bit on the painting, and ended up with a muddy blob. I should have just left it out altogether. I think I may go back to it and try to either define it a bit or take it out a bit, not sure which. I think the lesson is, don’t be too literal, don’t stick slavishly to the reference image!

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‘American Oystercatcher Family’, 8 x 10 inch, coloured pencil (Faber-Castell Polychromos, Caran d’Ache Pablo) with OMS to blend, on Strathmore 300 series Bristol Vellum.

I had to pack up my studio after the last picture, because we were replacing the windows in the study and I took the opportunity to decorate (wielding a much bigger paintbrush!). We were living in chaos for 4 days, replaced two windows and a full paint job, finally getting everything moved back in on Day 5. I really missed having my drawing board set up, ready for use, which made me most grateful for the comfort of my little studio space, with everything set out just so. The new room is much brighter and cleaner-looking, though, so it was well worth the work. I’m still rehanging pictures, surprisingly I’m almost reluctant to cover up that pristine new paintwork-rather an odd reaction for an artist, I think!


A return to the watercolour pencils for this piece, and a little try at something new, as you will see. I was trawling through my picture files because I really could not decide on a new subject. I knew I did not want to do another flower study right away, and I did want to go back to the watercolours. I came across a picture of Mark’s that I’d popped in my file for future use, a Prairie Warbler, taken a couple of years ago in the autumn.

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Lots of nice feather detail on this bird, and I liked the positioning on that reddish-barked twig, but it is actually rather a dull-plumaged example. In the same file I had another picture of Mark’s, of a much brighter individual, taken at about the same time of the year (both in October).

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I decided that both birds could be combined in a single piece (with a little artistic licence!) and I could work on a larger piece (11 x 15 inch) than my more recent pictures. I thought I would do one bird a little smaller than the other, to give the impression that the top one was further back in the tree; not sure that that actually worked out in the end! The natural slight diagonal of the twig that the first bird is sitting on serves to draw the eye upwards and along through the picture, so that was the perch I chose to put them on.

It was fun going back to the watercolour pencils. I used the Caran d’Ache Supracolor and Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer exclusively for the birds and the foliage, shading small areas and then wetting with my tiny brush (watercolour liner 0000 size), so it isn’t a fast procedure. A couple of ‘work in progress’ pictures illustrate this.

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Out of interest I recorded the pencils I used to fill in the wing panel that is missing in the above picture; astonishingly it was 15 different pencils! Working with the coloured pencils has definitely affected the way that I now work with the watercolour pencils. I am much more likely to layer over different colours before wetting, similarly to coloured pencils before blending. I think it produces a deeper colouration, although it may lose the translucency that is meant to be the essence of watercolour? Ah well, its all a learning exercise, and I do like the final result, whether ‘watercolour-like’ or not.
Incidentally, colours used in that small panel were:
F-C Albrecht Durer: Cream, Light yellow Glaze, Cold Grey I, Cold Grey III, Warm Grey III, Green-Gold.
C d’A Supracolor: Slate Grey, Charcoal Grey, Cocoa, Olive Grey, Olive Brown, Light Olive, Green Ochre, Pale Lemon Yellow, Cream.
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Panel done!

The birds and foliage done, it was time to consider the background. Both photos have an attractive bokeh of autumnal tones, something I have struggled to reproduce in both watercolour and coloured pencils. I have noted a tendency amongst pencil artists to go to pan pastel as a medium for backgrounds, and this might be worth a look (although I don’t have any pan pastels, so it’s a moot point right now!). I have used watercolour pencil shading previously, graduating downwards to darker tones, and that was an option, although it can be difficult to wet the pencil lines sufficiently to lose the ‘linearity’ of the shading. One technique I had never tried was to shave off bits of pencil lead and wet it on a palette, to produce a wash that could be applied to the paper. I didn’t want to use my primary pencils for this experiment, so I dug out some of the Derwent Watercolours, that have been rather neglected lately.

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A sharp craft knife was used to shave bits of pencil lead into one of the wells of my watercolour palette. A flat watercolour brush added water to dissolve the shavings. I used four greens (Water Green, May Green, Grass Green and Mineral Green), an ochre (Burnt Yellow Ochre) and a dark red (Burnt Carmine) to try to mimic the background tones, but without being too picky.

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One thing to be careful of was getting wood shavings in the wells. I found that I did transfer splinters of wood to the paper and they were a pain to remove. Also, it took some time to dissolve, although the Derwents always were harder to wet than the other pencils, so a different make might be easier.

The dissolved colour was transferred to the paper using a flat brush (size 12) and a filbert, with the rounded edges (size 8) that I found very useful for getting in close to the main images. I tend to think of these as ‘large’ brushes, but I guess they really aren’t that big for conventional watercolour use. However, if you generally use a size 0000 liner brush, these are ‘biiiggg’!

The colours blended pretty well, avoiding too many ‘tidemarks’, although I had to learn not to be scared to put water on the paper. Amazingly, there was very little bleed from the already painted bits of the picture, something that I worried about before getting started. This is my experience using watercolour pencils, in general, the colour stays where it is put much more readily than conventional watercolours, something I like for my purposes, although I can imagine it would be a pain for ‘looser’ watercolourists, who want it to flow. I don’t think that the result is perfect, but I’m pretty pleased with it and I do think it a step up from previous bokeh attempts, especially with watercolour. Another technique to remember, going forwards, that I’m sure will come in handy.

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‘Prairie Warblers’, 11 x 15 inch, watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Derwent Watercolour) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

Forest Floor

Pink Ladys-slipper (Cipripedum acaule) is an orchid, but not one of the showy ones that you buy in pots at the florist. This one grows wild in the woods of most of Canada, but it is still quite a thrill to see one. They like acid soils and semi-shaded locations, so the floors of pine or deciduous forests are a favourite habitat. The flower is named for the large, pink, pouch-like petal hanging down from the single stalk, which was thought to look shoe-like by the original describer. Its other common name is Moccasin flower, so the same thought obviously applies! Orchids are always special so I was very pleased to find a small group growing in a mixed wood, here in Nova Scotia, a few weeks ago. Of course, I took a photo, and thought it might make a subject for a painting.

As mentioned above, the pink pouch is only one petal, the other petals are the rusty-brown, thin appendages at the top of the plant.

I determined on a coloured pencil piece and chose Bristol Vellum paper. It was a chance to use some pretty pinks, from both the Polychromos and Pablo sets. The Pablo ‘Granite Pink’ has always been a favourite tint for ‘just a hint of’, that I’ve used a lot in the watercolour pencil set and that isn’t really replicated in Polychromos, although that set is sometimes superior for its red and pink shades. Caput Mortuum and Caput Mortuum Violet in Polychromos have become my ‘go to’ shades for rusty browns, whilst the Pablos are unsurpassed in olivey-greens that give a more natural tint to foliage. I was very happy mixing and matching these sets when drawing the flowers.

I had envisaged this as a botanical-type drawing, with the flowers standing alone, similar to my last piece (of the Poro-Poro flowers of Panama), but it looked a bit lacking when I’d finished it. I started to fill in some of the dead twigs and branches lying on the forest floor and it looked a bit better, but it really seemed to need a background. I was scared of overwhelming the delicate flowers but a plain shaded background seemed inappropriate, so I decided to do an approximation of the forest floor-not accurately (that way lies madness!) but to give some idea of the colours and shapes of the dried leaves and dark voids of the floor. I was to wonder if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, very quickly after starting this!

A ‘Work-in-progress’ shot of the background going in. I was making it up as I went along, but I had noticed that different areas of the floor had different predominating colours. The top left was rather dark, behind the flower heads was lighter and beige-y, whereas more central regions were more russetty, where there were more dead deciduous leaves, so I tried to concentrate colours a little to reflect that. I think I got a bit fed-up when I got to the top-right, because that area looks too uniform in size and shape, but it improved as I moved back down the page. Incidentally, I used the Derwent Drawing pencils exclusively for the background; this set has lovely earthy colours that work really well for this sort of effect. The result? Well, certainly not photo-perfect, but quite painterly and I hope it sets off the flowers without overwhelming them with detail.

‘Pink Ladys-slipper’, 9 x 12 inch coloured pencil (Caran d’Ache Pablo, Faber-Castell Polychromos, Derwent Drawing) with OMS (Gamsol) to blend, on Strathmore 300 Series Bristol Vellum.

I think a different subject for the next one, it’s no good getting into a rut!


I like to have something on my drawing board to be working on, when I get a moment or two free. Time has been in rather short supply over the last week or so, various long distance appointments, the art show and the start of renovation season has severely limited my available time. I therefore decided to do a relatively simple picture, that I could pick up and put down as necessary.

I also wanted a very ‘clean’ subject, after the complications of ‘Collared Aracari’ and its complex colourations. I thought a flower picture in coloured pencil would fit the bill, and looked out a photo I had taken in Panama a few years ago.

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These flowers are on a tree, about 15 ft off the ground, so it was difficult to get full flower views, but the tree is quite spectacular. It flowers in December and January, and often when there are few leaves on the tree, so the flowers are seen in their full glory. Typically, I did not know what it was called, and so this was ‘Yellow Flower’ in my photo files. However, thanks to the magic of Google, I have since found that this is the Poro-Poro (Cochlospermum vitifolium), a native tree that is also often planted in gardens and that is considered to be resistant to fire.

I decided to draw this spray of flowers and buds, and wasn’t sure if I would include a background. I resolved to do the main image and decide after. Well, I really rather enjoyed this picture; it isn’t a large image, being at full zoom, so I kept it small at 8 x 6 inches. I was able to tackle a flower, or a section of stem, as and when time permitted, and finally finished it today. Once completed, I decided I liked the simplicity of the flowers on the white background (I think a darker mat will set it off nicely) and perhaps it looks a little like a botanical specimen drawing?

Anyhow, it certainly kept my drawing muscles working. Now to find another subject in the same vein-those decks don’t stain themselves!

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‘Poro-Poro’, 6 x 8 inch coloured pencil (C d’A Pablo, F-C Polychromos) with OMS on Canson XL recycled Bristol (smooth side).