Is there a right side to watercolour paper?

Stupid questions are the essential ones; the questions people are worried about asking because they think everyone else knows the answer… But you know what? They don’t! And they really wish they did too…

Our first question- thank you Beth- is about watercolour paper:

Is there a right side and wrong side to paint on?

The answer is… not as such. I like “Not as such” because it means “no” but kind of “yes” but not quite. The reason I am not-as-such-ing you is that both sides are paintable but they are different and the extent of the difference varies between brands.

images

saunders spray

Two main criteria will determine the difference between the two sides of a watercolour paper sheet: texture and sizing.

  • Sizing: the size is the glue that is added to the paper to make it stronger and also less absorbent, so that you don’t feel like you are painting on blotting paper. Most papers are sized INTERNALLY, while the pulp is being made, and EXTERNALLY, after the paper roll is made and pressed.
  • Texture: the topside of the paper is called the felt side and the underside the mould side. The mould is made of wire, so its texture is more regular than the felt side. On some papers you can see the wire mesh pattern imprinted into the texture, on the underside.

If we consider the three main manufacturers of watercolour paper – St Cuthberts (Saunders Waterford) for the UK, Arches for France and Fabriano in Italy- their papers are sized internally and then they go through a bath to be sized externally, so both sides are coated equally. This means that as far as sizing is concerned, there is no difference between the two sides.

For the texture, the situation is not quite as straightforward…

Both sides are paintable but they look slightly different: because of the wire, the mould side has a regular mesh texture while the felt side has a random texture. Some artists prefer to paint on the topside and others prefer the underside. As for what the manufacturer intended, it depends on the brand. Saunders Waterford expects the painter to use the felt side but Arches and Fabriano favour the mould side.

cuthmill1To summarise, papers do have a topside and an underside but not really a right side or wrong side to paint on. The best way is the way you like best!

To finish with, this is where I am asking for your help: this series is interactive so please ask away! You can ask questions in the comments section of my YouTube Channel Flora’s Patch, or send me an email, or leave a comment on my blog or a message on my website by going to the contact page. Thank you and happy painting!

My thanks to Catherine Frood from St Cuthberts Mill and Clifford Burt from RK Burt for their help in my research.The photos are from St Cuthberts Mill.

There will be a follow up to this post, with two rather exciting events: in July, I am going to a meeting at RK Burt with the Fabriano envoy, to discuss how their new machines have affected their papers and to do a blind test of different papers. This should be very interesting. Then later this summer, I have been invited to visit St Cuthberts Mill, having a tour of the paper making factory, which I am also very much looking forward to.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Pigment Spotlight- The non-granulating French Ultramarine aberration

When I heard that there was a new, Non-granulating French Ultramarine, my heart missed a beat. It definitely didn’t feel right.

I had that feeling you get when a long trusted and beloved friend does something so bad you didn’t even know they were capable of it.

My favourite blue had stopped behaving like it should and my understanding of pigments was being tested.

It reminded me of the story of the fox and the scorpion. A fox is about to swim across a river, when a scorpion asks: “Please can you help me? I need to get to the other side of the river but I can’t swim. Will you carry me on your back?” The fox is not too keen on the idea of carrying a lethal creature on his back. “How do I know you won’t sting and kill me?” “Well, it would be very stupid of me. If I sting you while you swim across the river, you will drown and I will die with you.” The argument seems irrefutable, so the fox agrees to help the scorpion. As they reach the middle of the river, the scorpion stings the fox. With his last breath, the fox asks: “Why did you do this? In a few seconds I shall be dead and you will die with me!” The scorpion answers simply: “I am so sorry, I couldn’t help myself, it is my nature…”

French Ultramarine granulates; it is its nature.

With some trepidation, I started my research into the so-called non-granulating French Ultramarine. Within a few minutes I was relieved.

Non-granulating French Ultramarine is NOT French Ultramarine at all. It is a mixture of Phthalo Blue (a very good non-granulating blue) and Dioxazine Violet, a controversial violet that has not performed well in lightfastness tests when used in watercolours.

The pigment French Ultramarine PB29 doesn’t even appear in the formulation. It couldn’t, because it would make it granulate! Granulation is its property, its quality, its raison de vivre. You can’t take that away from it. Like the scorpion who can’t help stinging the fox, French Ultramarine can’t help granulating. The extent of the granulation varies depending on the technique used, the paper’s texture and which other paints are mixed with it, but it never disappears. As French Ultramarine was invented as a substitute for the celestial Lapis Lazuli pigment- which itself granulates enthusiastically- it doesn’t really make sense to want the annihilation of the granulation process anyway.

Because PB29 is not part of this paint at all, it absolutely shouldn’t be called French Ultramarine. This is, at best, misleading. At worst, a dishonest market strategy to sell a new paint. It could be called French Ultramarine Hue, which is what manufacturers do when a paint is the colour of a particular pigment but doesn’t actually contain any of it. Even better, it should have a completely new name, without highjacking the fame and success of the long trusted – and bestselling- French Ultramarine.

I also object to the fact that this is a mix of two pigments, which is a step backwards compared to a single-pigment paint, especially as one of the two is unreliable.

If you want a non-granulating violet-biased blue, Phthalo Blue Red Shade (or Winsor Blue Red Shade for Winsor & Newton) is the best one. It is pure, not granulating at all, intense and lightfast. You can add a touch of Permanent Rose if you need your blue to be more on the violet side.

Don’t fall for the Non-granulating Non-French Ultramarine deception. It’s a chimera. Enjoy the liveliness of a beautiful, pure, genuine, granulating, PB29 true French Ultramarine.

Ratings:

Useful range of colours                   0/5

Sufficient lightfastness ratings      1/5

Level of saturation                           2/5

Irreplaceability                                 0/5

Total: 3/20

watercoloursplashes3

Save

The Birdbath Coup

“It will never work”       “They will completely ignore it”       “It will always be filthy”

That was Mr. Flora’s Patch’s verdict on the general usefulness of a birdbath. Eventually he gave in, probably because it was easier. On a sale day at the garden centre, I got my birds a bath and proudly installed it by the birch tree where the feeders hang. We filled it with water and sat in the patio, with an anticipatory stance that was probably enough to scare the birds away even if the new, unfamiliar structure wasn’t going to.

Within twenty minutes, 3 species of birds had tried their newly discovered, dedicated feature: the first one, surprisingly, was the pigeon (he is usually a bit of a scaredy cat); the second one was the blackbird (frantic as usual); the third one was the robin (always nosy that one…)

The unexpected entertainment factor is that every bird has its own bathing style.

The dove and the pigeon’s disparity

birdbathdoveblog

birdbathpigeon1blog The graceful dove and the clumsy pigeon

The prettiest bathers have to be the collared doves. They sit on the ledge and try one foot first. They look like a 1920s young lady in a rather stylish pale grey bathing costume with a little black collar for good effect, extending her pointed toes to test the temperature before risking a full bath. Compared to the fat pigeon who lands straight in the centre with a big flop that sends the water over the edge, the collared doves are the most graceful creatures on Earth. When several visit together and sit around the edge, they look like a live incarnation of Pliny’s doves. It is magical.

The robin’s little engine

The wildest is the robin. He gathers momentum first by standing on the rim, looking intently at the water in great concentration. Then he jumps right in, plunging his head under water before coming up in a great bust of energy, the beads of water rolling down the back of his neck and flying in great arcs from the tip of his wings. He flaps his little wings so hard that he actually uses them as a method of propulsion, sending him right across the bird bath in half a dozen strokes, turning at the end and swimming back to his starting point like a tiny feather duster gone mad. He then comes back to rest on the rim for a minute, taking a breather before going back in for another wild bath. When the night falls, he flies up to the birch tree above, exhausted and happy, ready to fall asleep in a wet fluffy ball and dream of being a flying fish in a dish made of stone and carved roses.

birdbathrobinblog

The slightly blurry robin

The blackbirds’ back crawl

As usual, the blackbirds, both Mr. and Mrs., are rather energetic. Unlike the tidal wave of the pigeons, their effusions are like a rainbow of droplets. They manage to shake every millimeter of their body all at once, making the most of the cool water on a hot sweaty day. They come out looking disheveled and disappointingly not much less stressed than they were before their swim.

birdbathblackbird2blog

The hyperactive blackbird

birdbathblackbird1blog

What?!

The goldfinches’ day out

Yesterday for the first time the birdbath was invaded by a flock of goldfinches, chatting away noisily as they shared the pool Roman style, on what looked like an organised spa day trip for small colourful birds. Unfortunately they were moving so fast that I never managed to get a single picture of the group in focus. I expect that their exciting chattering could be heard in a two-mile radius.

birdbathgoldfinch1blogbirdbathgoldfinch4blog

The sparrows’ disappearance

The sparrows actually like to go underwater! They sit on the edge for a bit, evaluating the depth of the pool, then they take the plunge and completely disappear, flat on the bottom, until suddenly their little heads emerge over the rim. They make me feel like a lifeguard on duty, ready with my resuscitation kit! As several of them do this together, I wonder if they’re holding some kind of competition, Le Grand Bleu style…

birdbathsparrow1blog

Can you see me?

Sparrow underwater antics

Ta-daaaa!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

birdbathsparrows4blog

Sparrow aquatic antics

There are still some inhabitants of my garden who have yet to get their feet wet: I have never seen the wrens, the blue tits, the great tits, the long-tailed tits or the greenfinches capering in there. I am keeping an eye out and will update the post if I catch them.

I wish the squirrel would have a go as well. I bet that would be funny!

birdbathsharedbath2blog

Pool party, the Pliny’s way…

mosaico_delle_colombe_largew

…The real ones

I must admit, one of the arguments against the birdbath was justified: it IS always filthy and a bit of a chore keeping it clean, but worth every scrub of the brush for the constant spectacle it offers.

I shall finish with the rudest of them all (no surprise there!)

birdbathmooningpigeaoblog

The mooning pigeon (He totally knew I was there…)

Save

Save

Pigment spotlight – The Perylene family

The Perylene family is relatively new to the exclusive pigment neighbourhood. The first Perylene was discovered in 1912 but didn’t move in until the 1950’s. Even then, it was not widely seen and only became part of the artist community in the 1980’s. Even today, their position is not as prominent as other families, such as the Cadmiums or Quinacridones. I suppose this is because of their shyness. They are beautiful, but not as heavily dense as the Cadmium (also considerably less dodgy) and not as showy as the Quinacridones.

  • Perylene Green (PBk31)

I thought we might as well get rid of this one from the start. Perylene “green” is not a green but a black pigment with a green hue. Like most black pigments it is obtained by combustion, in this case burning a derivative of perylenetetracarboxylic, i.e. another Perylene. This is a bit of a mouthful and just means that like most blacks, it is made by burning some substance. As a result, the pigment is rather dusty and in my opinion not ideal for watercolour, even less for botanical painting. Shadows painted with Perylene Green will look flat and dirty, which doesn’t help with the difficult task of rendering the bright colours of fresh blooms.

  • Perylene Scarlet (PR149)

Only Daniel Smith currently offers Perylene Scarlet. It is not part of my palette because its lightfastness is not as good as the other Perylenes’. It doesn’t seem to me like an irreplaceable colour and therefore not worth taking the risk of using a potentially fading paint.

perylene strips blog

  • Perylene Red (PR178)

A dullish red with pink undertones, this is a good pigment that I do not use often. This is probably because I am not attracted to red flowers, unless they have the deep crimson velvety texture of the most dramatic, heavily scented roses. However, I do use Perylene Red for fruit. Stripes on apples, blush on pears, leathery pomegranate skins, or any fruit for which a more common red would be too bright.

I use Daler-Rowney Perylene Red. Daniel Smith also offers a good version in their range.

  • Perylene Maroon (PR179)

This red maroon is even duller than Perylene red, but again, being a reliable pigment, it does have its uses. I don’t think that I would plant any flowers of that colour in my garden. However, I find it useful for the same kind of circumstances as Perylene Red, when the markings on the fruit are less pink red and more brick red. I also use it quite a lot for foliage, especially in autumn. I am actually looking at some rose foliage right now that has this exact red shade in the young shoots.

In my palette I have the Daler-Rowney version. It is also offered by Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith.

windfall

  • Perylene Violet (PV29)

A rich purple maroon, perfect for hellebores, orchids and all black flowers like tulips and violas, it is also excellent to render the deep velvety texture of the dark roses mentioned above, such as ‘Deep secret’ and ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’.

Rose 'Souvenir du Dr Jamain' - A bit high maintenance for my kind of gardening but it makes me so happy that I give it the extra attention it requires. I also love the mysterious name... who was Dr Jamain?

Rose ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’ – A bit high maintenance for my kind of gardening but it makes me so happy that I give it the extra attention it requires. I also love the mysterious name… who was Dr Jamain?

Perylene Violet is the most versatile paint in my palette. I do not understand how watercolourists can live without it. It might even be difficult to find one of my paintings in which I haven’t used it. I can hear the chuckles of those amongst you who have been to my classes and who know that I use it in almost everything. It has even been suggested by the cheekiest that I pick my subjects specifically to allow me to use Perylene Violet. But I’m not sure… sitting in the garden now I can see it in so many plants: the foliages of a rose and a serious-looking Penstemon, a few Aquilegia blooms, a lingering dark red rose, some self-seeded all-invading cheeky-beyond-measure Erigeron, the stems of the ‘Zorro’ Hydrangea, the whole of the imposing Malus ‘Royalty’, the spectacular bark of the Prunus ‘Serrula’, the wood of the quince tree, the stalks of the honeysuckles and the Cyclamen, the tiny barely-existing-yet apples on the Malus ‘Blue Moon’ and of course ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’, just about to open fully… the list goes on but I wouldn’t want you to nod off…

As for my favourite version, I like the more saturated Winsor & Newton version than the slightly duller Daniel Smith paint. This might not be important for bark, stems and foliage, but when painting a flower it is important to use the most saturated colour available. It is always easier to dull down a bright colour than to brighten up a dull one.

Verdict on the Perylene family (measured in watercolour splashes):

This is a difficult one because the family is definitely split in two factions who are not on speaking terms. The Perylene Black and Perylene Scarlet I would forget about. The black is banned from my palette and the scarlet not reputable enough. So I will actually forget about them and pass a verdict on the remaining three, Perylene Red, Maroon and Violet.

Useful range of colours                   5/5

Sufficient lightfastness ratings      5/5

Level of saturation                           3/5

Irreplaceability                                 5/5

 

Total: 18/20 watercolour splashes

watercoloursplashesblogx18

Save

Save

My first YouTube video

I have posted my first home-made video on my brand new YouTube channel, Flora’s Patch.

It’s the first of a four-part demonstration of a sunflower painting. The demonstration will also be published in Artists & Illustrators magazine in the summer, as a “masterclass”. (That’s what they call it, a bit more dramatic than “demonstration”…)

This first part is all about shadows:

Oh wow, I was just going to include a link but it actually plays the whole thing right here! Unfortunately I didn’t exactly do it on purpose… I’m still pretty pleased.

Enjoy the video, and don’t forget to subscribe if you want to be updated when I post part 2. It’s free, you just need to click “subscribe”.

Happy painting!

Plant of the month – May 2016 – Aquilegia

Order: Ranunculales                  Family: Ranunculaceae

Subfamily: Thalictroideae        Genus: Aquilegia

Type: Hardy perennial                Propagation: Seed

Native to: Europe and North America

I never planted an Aquilegia, yet at this time of year my garden is full of them. They are not fancy ones with strange colours and extra long spurs at the back of their heads, which always remind me of an alien creature freshly out of a Giger designed spaceship. Still they have a good range of colours, from pure white to pale pink, lilac and mauve, deep burgundy or rich violet. I even get the occasional double white and double pink. The name ‘Aquilegia’ is for the Latin word for eagle, “Aquila”, because the petals resemble eagle claws. So alien is not that far off really. Just a bit scarier.

gigersalien

The Aquilegia has a few common names. ‘Granny’s Bonnet’ is the most well-known and self explanatory. “Columbine” again is from a Latin word, this time for “dove”, because the petals look like little doves in a group hug. This is the peaceful, sweet version of the eagle’s claws. In spite of their sweet appearance, Aquilegias are toxic (especially the roots and seeds), so the eagle version is probably closer to the truth than the gentle dove.

After the flowering season, I let them dry out in situ. When the seedpods are ready, I give them a good shake before cutting the stems, encouraging self-seeding should they wish to propagate. They usually do. The reason the fancy ones tend to disappear from the borders is that these new pretty varieties are more fragile than their more robust ancestor. This fragility means that they are short lived. There is also the fact that Aquilegias being interfertile, these recessive genes beauties are taken over by the dominant genes dinosaurs and the results of their frolicking revert to the wild version generation after generation. In other words, the aristocratic parents die young and their descendants become more and more common.

My favourite specimen this year is an all-white beauty growing under the Camellia. The white is the purest I have ever seen on a bloom. It looks like a commercial for washing powder, whiter than white that might blind you if you look straight at it for too long. The petals are so delicate that they look like insect wings, transparent enough to let the sunlight through several layers. Yet with all this delicate lacework, their stems are straight and strong, seemingly indestructible as they sway in the strong May winds. A perfect alliance of fragility and strength. I really hope this one comes back again.

blogaquilegiawhite

So in conclusion, eagle or dove?

Perhaps a gentle eagle, or a fierce dove, or as the Aquilegia itself a cross between the strongest eagle and the tenderest dove…

 

 

 

 

 

Tech-free week-end for a new border

After visiting a friend’s garden on the Isle of Wight (Yes Sally, I’m talking about your lovely garden), I came back to the mainland full of inspiration to create a new border. Fortunately, I somehow infected Richard (Mr Flora’s Patch) with my motivation and we decided to have a go during the Bank Holiday week-end. Three days should be enough to create and plant a border, rebuild the low walls around two existing borders, start on the long-planned – since last summer- herb garden and mow the lawn as a finishing touch? Hhhhhmmm….

I can’t exactly remember how it happened but as part of the same conversation we decided unanimously that we spend too much time on our laptops. Before we realised what we were getting ourselves into, the gardening week-end turned into a tech-free gardening week-end. Doubting our will power, we actually went to the extent of unplugging the router so that no-one could have a sneaky look at their emails while the other was busy planting a Petunia, oblivious to the abominable treachery.

Day 1 – Saturday

Our first mistake – although I do not think it counts as a mistake because we had a lovely time- was to invite some friends for lunch in the garden. Great company, good food, good wine, nice weather and well, we were still at the table at 4pm. By the time they left we were kind of tired. We made a half-hearted attempt at digging the border, a bit of weeding and pruning here and there, but our progress was slow and then we kind of crashed, had a little lie down in the grass and before we knew it, it was tea time.

On top of our blatant lack of results, we didn’t even get to read our email or go online, so we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

This is what the new border looked like at the end of day 1. (Oooops…)

blogborderday1small

Day 2- Sunday

Invigorated by a beautiful blue sky and feeling slightly guilty about the day 1 fiasco, we made an early start. Some were earlier than others. Richard was out there digging by 7am. I joined the team around 9.30am.

By lunchtime, the border shape I had designed with the yellow hose was dug up, a couple of Hydrangeas were in, looking undeniably happier than they did in the pots they overgrew years ago.

Lunch in the garden, a quick nap under the birch tree and back to work.

Around 3pm, I started to suspect that we didn’t have enough sorry-for-themselves-in-their-pots plants so we nipped to Haskins to buy a Japanese Anemone called ‘Wild Swan’ that I had been coveting. We came back with the Anemone, a strange looking blue grass trying to make an impression of Simon Gallup 1986 hairstyle and a pack of six herbs to make a start on the herb garden.

At the end of day 2, the results were more satisfactory.

blogborderday2small         anemonewildswan

Day 3- Monday

Monday dawned cold and windy. Adding to the un-inspirational weather, we were pretty tired from what was a pleasant but exhausting Sunday. Our morning efforts were not particularly energetic and we got side-tracked before lunchtime, with a trip to Winchester to buy garden furniture. We managed to gather one last reserve of vigour in the afternoon, replacing the borders’ walls of collapsed stone with a tidy tessellation of salvaged old bricks. After this we were as collapsed as the old stones, but we could finally crash into our new garden sofas and admire the result of our hard week-end of work. The herb garden will have to wait until next week-end and mowing the lawn wasn’t that urgent anyway.

blogborderday3small

As for the tech-free trial? It was tough at the beginning but by Monday night we had almost forgotten that Internet existed and we have now decided to have tech-free Sunday every week.

I wonder how long THAT’s going to last…

 

 

 

Liberty London

 

liberty-at-christmas

Regent Street
London W1B 5AH (Entrance on Great Marlborough Street)

 Liberty London just had to be my first sewing shop review. I realise that this is not the most original choice and certainly doesn’t make me feel extra-rebellious, but this is where my textile inspiration really sparked off…

Their Tana Lawn is an iconic fabric that anybody who ever picks up a sewing needle cannot ignore.

 I suppose it might be possible not to like the shop but I can’t imagine how. From the moment you go in (through the flower shop into the scarves hall is the most dramatic way) you have to be mesmerised by the wood carvings, the galleries, the small (ish) themed rooms, the creaking wooden staircases… I still remember discovering the haberdashery department when I first came to London as a student. I was in a foreign country, speaking a different language that I loved (thanks to the singing and lyrics of Robert Smith and Justin Sullivan) without really quite grasping it, yet Liberty felt like home and has ever since. To this day, after the ordeal of the journey to and through London, I walk over the threshold, take a deep breath and instantly I start to relax. The new Alex Monroe jewellery collection, the Liberty print nightwear and lingerie, the haberdashery, the restaurant, the small but magnificent flower shop… where to start?

As this is a sewing shop review, I should probably concentrate on the 3rd floor. The main hall holds the fabrics, organised by type and prints, from ditsy to large abstract. To the side there are a series of smaller rooms hosting haberdashery, patchwork fabrics, kits and sewing notions. Then you move into the yarn hall, with all the wools and cottons, arranged by colour, filling shelves upon shelves from floor to ceiling. The next room is where all the Liberty print accessories are: kitchen things, clothes, stationery, objects of decoration… definitely my favourite floor. Although one floor above there is THE settee. Every time I go to Liberty’s, I pay THE settee a visit. It is made of grey velours printed with a design of large white Romneya, it’s a beauty. I sit on it for 10 minute, imagining it in my living room, then give it a little pat on the arm and say farewell see you next time…

What I also like about Liberty (apart from everything else) is that the decoration changes all the time, so each time is a new discovery.

I usually finish my visit with a snack in the restaurant, where they serve a really nice cake. I savour it while I keep daydreaming about June’s Meadow, Emilia’s Flowers, Hera, Picardie, Wild Flowers, Mitsi and Strawberry Thief…

Pompom rating:

Range of supplies                        4/5

Friendliness                                  4/5

Prices and value                           4/5

Originality and feel                       5/5

Total 17/20 pompoms

Best for:

  • Their famous Tana Lawn
  • Great flower shop
  • People who love a magnificent building full of personality and history, as well as textiles and yarns