The Long and the Short: Two Concertina Sketchbooks

Concertina Sketchbook closed

Remember my daisies in a concertina sketchbook from June? Well, it’s a format I’ve been playing with on and off over the past wee while. I came across a description* of a concertina sketchbook as a sketch that flows into a painting that flows into a sculpture, which I thought very apt. I am enjoying the tactile interaction of the format, holding it in my hand, turning over the pages, the sense of a story unfolding.

Shorter makes it easy to stand on a shelf, to display like a piece of sculpture. This four-page one features a Minch seascape, on 350gsm paper, with a cover made using some of my splatter fabric.

This is one, the pocket size from Seawhite, was done using pencil only, sitting in a friend’s garden. I did ponder adding some colour to it, especially the blue of the shed, but have decided I like the simplicity of the pencil, letting it be a story in line only. I am still fighting the need to add a note on it about the shed being a tiny one, it’s not a normal-sized shed I’ve drawn totally out of proportion.

*Source: “Ann Cowan creates the most beautiful A5 concertina sketchbooks. These are unique in character as sketches that flow into paintings that flow into sculpture.” Smithy Gallery, Instagram, 11/11/2020

My Harbour Sketches

Following on from my blogs with photos of the little harbour in the Scottish Borders I was at last week (She Sees Seaside and Harbour Details), here are some photos of what happened when I got my paints out. Having multiple days of sunshine in November was a real treat.

The first day I walked about taking lots of photos, then ended up sitting at a picnic table watching birds you can’t see in the photo, including some swans. I got out my sketchbook telling myself that making just one quick sketch would be fine, to not worry about how ‘good’ it was as it’s impossible to do everything on single trip to a location.

Pencil first, then watercolour

The second day I got out my oil paints and had a go at a composition that’d been bouncing around my head all night. Yes, I could have done thumbnails and studies first, all that preparatory work that does help produce pleasing results, but my fingers were itching to paint this. So I jumped in at the point that was appealing to me, knowing that I might not do it justice but that it’s worth a try anyway.

The low winter sun of November means the hill behind me casts its shadow over the harbour from quite early in the morning. I was sitting on this convenient little wall running alongside a bit of road.

Below is the point at which I got cold and stopped painting. It has a few things I like about it, such as the sense of chain on the wall, the curved corner, and the green on the nearer harbour wall, and things I don’t. Mostly I am pleased I had a go at it, and I regard it as a “good learning painting” or study. The next morning I walked around a bit here having a closer look at elements of this composition, such as the width of the nearest wall (which is narrower at the top than the other walls, having a stepped top to it).

Oil paint on wood panel. 9×12 inches.

The next day I got out my favourite Payne’s grey acrylic ink and did some ink and watercolour paintings. The fishing shed with its row of colourful doors, the view through the harbour entrance to the old cottages, the stacks of creel nets. And, no, I never did get around to the boats themselves.

I stopped at this point because the shadow from the hillside caught up with me, and I moved to a new spot in the sunshine.
First attempt
Second attempt. The narrower format works better, I think.

The last day I spent using pencil only, making sketches with notes about things that had caught my eye. Information gathering for a studio painting.

When might I start creating some studio paintings based on these sketches? I don’t know. It may convert into something soon, it might sit and simmer, it might be never. I don’t have a plan for it, I was simply enjoying being in a very paintable location, with a friend who was also painting.

Video: “Here Comes the Sun” Seascape Painting

Here Comes the Sun Minch seascape painting

Watch over my shoulder as I paint one of my largest ever ‘Minchscape’ seascapes, a diptych on two 100x100cm (39×39″) canvases. The commission brief was for it to be bright, abstract in the foreground with yellows, with vivid blues of the sea and sky.

My starting colours were phthalo turquoise and yellow; a delibrate move away from my beloved orange and magenta starting points so it would be a fresh challenge to energise me anew, in the hope this would come across in the painting, which I think it does.

If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.

Music by Micah Gilbert, a singer-songwriter who lives a few miles from me.

Here Comes the Sun Minch seascape painting
“Here Comes the Sun”. Diptych of two 100x100cm panels. Acrylic on canvas.

I decided to call it “Here Comes the Sun” because I ended up with this Beatles song in my head after painting this and because whilst I was painting it I had to put a board up to block the sun shining through the window and lighting up the left-hand canvas from behind.

Experiments with Seascapes on Wood Panel

How to turn a ‘happy accident’ into a technique so an effect can be used repeatedly and built upon, that’s one of my thoughts behind this painting. The context is a smaller painting I did in a quiet moment when staying with friends last week, when I was supposedly tidying up my paints for the day: using acrylics in a watercolour-like way on unprimed wood panel, with the colour of the wood the equivalent of the white of the paper in a watercolour.

15x15cm, acrylic on wood panel. Sold.

I was in two minds about the headland so have left it off this second painting, though I hear my friend’s “it gives context” comment as I think about it. I also changed used a bigger wood panel, to an A3 size (equivalent of two sheets of printer paper).

Part of me thinks I have overworked it and part says it’s underworked. I might add more white on it as it’s disappearing into the wood, as I did with the previous painting. I’m also pondering the direction of the woodgrain and whether I should have used this panel as landscape (horizontal) not portrait (vertical).

Hopefully fresh eyes tomorrow will decide it for me. All else fails, I use it as a panel for a painting with thicker paint.

Video: Rocky Seascape Painting with Texture Paste

This little seascape was done on two wooden panels using acrylic over texture paste. If you wonder why the panels aren’t blank when I start, it’s because they’re two I’d previously painted a little on but never taken the ideas further. I knew the texture paste would cover a lot of the colour (it dries as opaque) and that I would then add Payne’s grey acrylic ink as the first colour over the texture, which would hide even more whilst creating a lovely dark in the recesses of the texture. (Note: the video does not have sound.)

The panels when the texture paste and Payne’s grey ink had dried. I dropped some of the ink onto the surface, then sprayed it with water to spread it around without touching the still-wet texture.
Size 30x15cm (two panels of 15x15cm). Acrylic on wood.

How Long Did It Take to Paint?

How long it takes to create a painting is a measure of time and nothing else. Sometimes things flow; other times it takes considerable effort to get a painting to a satisfactory point. More time spent on a painting doesn’t inherently make it a better painting.

There’s also the question of what’s being included in the calculation: is it only when you’ve a brush in your hand applying paint or does it include planning and pondering and development work such as sketching? Every painting carries with it the history of every painting that came before. And there’s that some people wield a brush at a faster pace than others.

If you’re in a situation where time is limited, such as life painting with a model or plein-air painting at sunset, you might adapt how you approach the painting to the time available.

Yet “how long did it take” remains intriguing, something to measure our own painting skills against others and our previous paintings. Perhaps because it’s a tangible thing amongst all the intangibles of art.

I don’t often keep deliberate track of the time I spend painting, but a few days ago I did because I surprised myself when I paused for the first time and realised it’d only been 20 minutes. It had felt like longer and I was intrigued by how far I’d gotten already; my previous paintings at this location had taken me far longer.

Starting time was 10:30. Oil paint on 9×12″ panel.
I try to step well back regularly when painting to see things with fresher eyes.
The main difference between the last two photos is the rock on the lower right; it took me longer to realise I needed to change this than to do it.

When I got to this point, I was conflicted because I felt I wanted to stop but as it’d only been an hour I worried it was it too soon to stop but then would I overwork it if I continued? I took me a bit of pondering to decide it was okay to stop. The question then becomes, do I include this time in how long it took me to paint this?


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Painting Daisies in a Concertina Sketchbook (with video)

If you’ve not met one before, a concertina sketchbook has one long zigzag page that folds up between the covers. How many pages it has and what type of paper depends on the brand; the one I’m using in this video is from Seawhite and slips into a case. (If you don’t see the video below, click here to go to my Vimeo channel.)

I started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, then watercolour in a dropper bottle (including two granulating greens), watercolour from my set using a brush, acrylic paint (cadmiun yellow light and medium), a mixed blue-grey acrylic ink (the masking tape on the bottle tells me it’s a colour I’ve mixed), white acrylic ink (Sennelier’s super-opaque white), and ultimately a touch of orange acrylic ink to deepen the yellows in the flower centres.

The decision as to how many pages to do was intuitive, a feeling for how many would be manageable across the width of my table (and off a bit) and would probably not be totally dry by the time I got back to the start with a new colour. I’m drawing daisies from a mixture of memory and the ones in the jug in front of me, which I turned around at various points so I was seeing ‘new’ daisies.

The colours initially are a bit gloomy, but when I add the bright green these become “background shadows” and everything turns brighter. I had visualised this brighter layer of green before I started, I just didn’t know exactly when I would do it. I’ve got a list in my mind of what layers I’m going to do (colours/materials) but if you’re new to working like this it’s worth taking the time to draw up a list, and having everything to hand, so when you’re painting the decisions are already made and you can concentrate on painting.

What will I do with the rest of the pages? At the moment my thought is to continue with flowers, probably the pink foxgloves that are flowering now too, but I’ll see what I feel like when I start again.

This is only the second concertina sketchbook I’ve used; the first has a watercolour of the sea/weather from my studio on every pair of pages, with a consistent positioning of the horizon line across the pages (drawn in with a pencil before I started). I’m sure there will be more, not least because I have a little Sennelier one with thicker paper I won in a competition and the Moleskine one the in-house art critic gave me last Christmas to try.

From Location to Studio Painting: “On Edge”

The connection between the sketching and painting I do on location (and the sitting just looking) and the painting I do in my studio isn’t always direct, but sometimes the dots that need to be joined are fairly evident, as with this studio painting finished a few days ago:

“On Edge”. 30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel.

Its path started last week when I painted at Duntulm (northwestern tip of the Trotternish Peninsula on Skye) at low tide on consecutive days, ending up with two watercolours and two studies in oil paint.

If you’ve looked up Duntulm on a map and seen the word “castle”, don’t get overly excited as there’s not much left.

The first day it was misty, clearing as the morning progressed. I started sitting on the grass, looking down over a stretch of rocky shore (there’s quite a drop where the grass ends in the photo below), painting with watercolour. The mist slowed the speed with which the watercolour dried, making wet-into-wet easy and an interesting change of pace with the paint.

I had my big set of pan watercolours, along with bottles of fluid watercolour and my beloved Payne’s grey acrylic ink (which I didn’t use for once). The red fabric is the corner of my raincoat which I was sitting on.

Then I moved along and down a bit, to a grassy bank, and got out my oil paints.

I stopped painting on this because I got tired, so it’s more of a loose study or sketch rather than a finished plein-air painting. Closer-up photo further below.
Sea, mist, winding road, sheep, and wild yellow irises

These two photos give a wider view of the location, and how the colours of the sea change with the light conditions of the two days.


Back in my studio, I put the watercolours and two oil paintings up on my easel as I painted at my table on a wood panel (with a layer of clear gesso on it).

Texture paste was applied with a palette knife, both Lava Black, which is a coarse-grained texture perfect for sandy shores, and Golden’s Light Modelling Paste which dries to an absorbent surface on which watery acrylic behaves a bit like watercolour.

The latter can also be scratched into with a sharp edge fairly easily when it’s relatively newly dried. If you look at the lowest band of rock in the next three work-in-progress photos, you’ll see how I abandoned having a band of rounded slabs of rock and scratched into it with the point of a palette knife so this section looks more like the others.

Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 3

Here’s the final painting, plus several detail photos:


Where next? I’ve already started another studio painting based on this location, again using texture paste and acrylic but this time on an unprimed wooden board. Without gesso on the board, thin acrylic sinks in and the woodgrain is revealed, as you can see below:

It having dried overnight, I’ve started adding some colour to the rocky shore. Trying not to lose the woodgrain on the right-hand “sea section” is inhibiting me as I’m painting, as are my favourite bits of my just-finished painting because I keep comparing the two. The “sea area” surface is very absorbent any any stray paint will soak in and dry almost instantly, so I’m second-guessing what I’m doing before I do it, rather than responding to what’s happening as I paint. It’s what I mentally label as “trying too hard”. The photo below is where I stopped struggling with it and left it to dry again; I will give it a break for a couple of days.

Video Painting Demo: Bluebells

Watch over my shoulder as I paint using the reference photo from the painting project for June as my starting point inspiration (along with my visual memories from the times I’ve been in the Uig woodland and seen bluebells). I’m using an A2 sheet of 350gsm watercolour paper, with watercolour, coloured pencil, and oil pastel.

At one point I take the masking tape off to try to stop myself overworking it; the next day when I continued I taped the edges again, cropping a bit at the top. You’ll see quite a bit of my putting down paint and then lifting most of it off with a piece of paper towel; I was worried about getting too dark too soon, but may well have hesitated too much. The video is at 10x speed, except for the bit where studio cat comes to inspect (at 06:41).