This Week: Frosty Pebbles

I didn’t go outside much this week because the conditions were far too icy, but did put my Yaktax onto my wellies (think: snow chains for shoes) to put food out for the birds. We get robins, sparrows, green finches, chaff finches, tiny coal and blue tits, plus starlings and magpies. The latter we also call flying penguins because of something the in-house art critic once said.

I watch them from my studio, the kitchen, our bedroom, and one day will put pencil to paper and make a drawing of their flitting about rather than drawing it in my head only. Swoop in onto the top, jump down onto the seed tray, hop and hold on the fatball feeder, everyone scattering as some danger is perceived. A drawing about movement and interaction. Perhaps different colours for the various species.

To get to the birdfeeder I had to step over some pebbles that edge the grass, covered in a layer of frost. Without the greens in the grass, it looks quite different, more like tinsel.

I hadn’t really make a nest in a wire basket to keep some of the smaller pebbles warm.

This is frost on the back of an outdoor chair, reminding me of barbed wire spikes on the top of a wall. Look also at the spiky shadow on the table cloth.

This Week: Potter’s Pink in My Magenta

A few moments from my week, starting with the high tide at Banff.

That’s Macduff looking postcard-picturesque in the distance. I took a number of photos, but in this one the waves in the foreground have created a triangle that echoes the triangle of blue in the sky, with the triangular slice of land as a counterpoint. It’ll probably feel contrived if I put this in a painting, but for second I took the photo it was ‘real’. The angles of the waves at this point can get quite chaotic as they’re influenced by the sea walls to the left and river to the right of where I’m standing.

I’ve been looking at drawings by Egon Schiele again, and having a go at my version of the ones where he’d used minimal line, with the hands drawn but not arms, leaving the viewer to ‘see’ the ‘missing bits’. This drawing is the one I like the most, of the in-house art critic sitting in his chair in my studio.

I moved the bright and cheerful flowers my friend Lisbeth sent me onto my studio table and started a mixed media piece. When I got to this point, and saw that what was supposed to be magenta was rather dull, I took another look at the bottle of what I thought was magenta watercolour, and noticed I’d changed the label to say “magenta + potter’s pink”. I then remembered I’d done this after reading that potter’s pink will make a mixture granulating without shifting the colour too much as it’s a weak colour, but guess it was a bit much. Lesson learn: make the label clearer!

Studio cat wasn’t impressed by the work-in-progress. (It was dry at this point!) I’ve since added some unadulterated magenta to it, but it’s still very much a W.I.P.

The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t children’s book on the table is “Enormous Smallness“, on the poet E.E. Cummings. I was intrigued by how his life’s story and poems would be conveyed in an illustrated book. Read: interview with the illustrator Kris Di Giacomo.

Studio cat’s advice was, as ever, to sleep on it.

This Week: Sculptural Rather than Colourful in My Garden, and More Monoprinting

A few moments from my week, starting with a few things that caught my eye as I wandered around the garden this morning.

The colours in the garden have changed to their late autumn palette, and sculptural shapes become evident as leaves have fallen. Decidedly frosty mornings, with the sun is sitting low in the sky (geographically I’m at around 57°N). When I’m not wandering around the garden, the tops of the hedgerow often have lots of little sparrows sitting in them; I counted around 30 yesterday.

Inside, in the warmth of my studio, I’ve been doing some more monoprints based on a photo of the in-house art critic sitting in his comfy chair in the bay window. I’m ignoring that it prints in reverse for the moment to make things simpler for myself.

The top two are ghost prints of the lower two monoprints. The inadvertent mis-inking on the top of his head which has led me to thinking these should be titled “I’ve a hole in my head”. I was not consciously channelling my inner-Munch “Scream” but rather exploring different backgrounds to the figure. I like the softer one (bottom left) done with a cloth rather than the more graphic (bottom right) done with a scraper.

I dug out a watersoluble graphite stick pursue the idea of creating similar tones through different mark making. I didn’t push this drawing very far because I liked it so much at this stage.

There’s dry pencil on dry paper, water brushed over the pencil to create a wash, wet pencil (the point dipped into my water pot) on dry paper and on wet. It was a 4B so is quite dark though not quite as black as the photo suggests. The paper having a slight texture rather than being smooth increases the range of marks I could make.

I also discovered viscosity printing, where you deliberately make one ink less ‘sticky’ than the other and can then print two colours simultaneously. My results were dubious but did give me a sense of the technique and that it suits my impatience.

  • LEARN:
    WRONG!: Mistakes, Inaccuracy and Failure in Drawing: Livestream talk by Edinburgh-based figurative artist Alan McGowan, Monda, 11 December 2023, 7pm GMT (UTC+0)
  • READ:
    “Our species’ failure to eradicate war is a failure of the imagination, a failure to imagine what it is like to be anybody else, without which there can be no empathy and compassion — those vital molecules of harmony, the other name for which is peace.”
    Maria Popova, About War, The Marginalian 16 Nov 2023
  • READ:
    History teaches us that time can bring about reconciliations that seemed at another time impossible, but only when violence has ceased, whether by agreement or through exhaustion”
    Kathleen Lonsdale, “Is Peace Possible?”, quoted in “The Building Blocks of Peace” by Maria Popova, The Marginalian 6 March 2022,

This week: Expressive Painting at Higham and Autumn Colours

A few joyful moments from my week.

Higham Hall

I spent most of the week south of the border, at Higham Hall in the English Lake District, leading my “Expressive Scottish-scapes” mixed media workshop. Once again it was a rewarding week, with great results from everyone. My thanks to all participants for your hard work and enthusiasm, and to all the staff at Higham.

Creative solution to slightly misaligned new drain below an old drainpipe

This time I was in room 24 overlooking the courtyard, which may not be ensuite but its bathroom has the hottest shower I’ve ever encountered at Higham. I shouldn’t mention it also has a double bed, reasonable wifi and cellphone signal because then you’ll all be requesting this room.

The studio is in the old stables off the courtyard behind the hall. With my workshop being limited to 10 people (or occasionally 11 if there’s a request to ‘plus one’) there’s room for everyone to spread out.

My workshop is a mixture of activities to explore my approach to painting — layers being a core concept — and favourite colours, mixed with time to paint your own choices with my input. So many inspiring results! One of my favourites was a Talisker Bay piece which wasn’t entirely successful at the end the very first activity but that through the week became more colourful and layered through accidental colour additions and bits of demonstrating/trying materials, ending up with all sorts of interesting mark making.

Heading home was a constant reminder of the colour changes of autumn. I don’t usually include figures in my paintings or photos, but this one gives scale to the oak.

Back in my studio I made a big note to put at the top of my Higham notes that you-know-who-you-are requested I do a session on concertina sketchbooks in next November’s workshop. My next task is to unpack, but what’s the rush?

This Week: Expressive Painting Workshop at Higham Hall, and Getting There

A few moments from my week.

I undertook my longest journey in my e-van since I bought it in the summer, to the Lake District for my workshop at Higham Hall; it’s about 300 miles. This recharge point not far off the motorway in a village had gorgeous autumnal colours. So much calmer than a motorway service station.

I had fun kicking through the autumn leaves and taking photos of the colours. The black rectangle is the top of a rubbish bin, with the sky and a tree reflected in it.

Being at Higham Hall to lead another “Expressive Scotland Mixed Media” workshop is as enjoyable as ever. The new door from the hall to the courtyard means there’s now step-free access to the studio. All sorts of beautiful paintings being developed by participants, and the copy of Henry Moore’s sheep sketchbook in the studio library being passed around with the consensus that his proportions are a bit dubious in places.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “The Librarian”, c1566

I discovered that the veggies and fruit portraits artist had done one with books called “The Librarian”, and I think it’s as clever and amusing as his paintings I am familiar with. It was one of this week’s images on the Pictdle daily art puzzle.

This Week: Life Line Exhibition and Workshop Planning

A mixture of moments from my week.

The Life Lines online group exhibition curated by Fife Contemporary is now live. Thank you to friends and family who attended the online opening, and to all involved. Take a look at my work here… All my paintings are for sale, including the concertina sketchbooks; email me and I will let you know the details. Some are on my website with prices, but not all (yet).

I wrote out a plan for my “Expressive Scotland” workshop at Higham Hall next week, mixing things up to keep it fresh for myself and participants who’ve done workshops with me before. My next issue was deciphering it as I typed it up into a daily plan, but it’s done now and I have test-driven the new activities to try to ensure the instructions work for what I have in mind.

Studio cat Juanita waiting for the rain from Storm Babet to stop, and demonstrating how powerful backlighting can be. Fortunately we were on the edges of the storm, though it was still very wet and windy.

I became a curtain-twitcher when a neighbour had fancy new “tractor” delivered. But not that curious that I went out in the rain for a closer look.

The mail-order bouquet a very special friend in Australia sent has had me colour mixing in my head, both the red-oranges of the big roses and the white versus not-quite-white carnations. Or is that cool white vs warm white? Thank you again, you-know-who-you-are!

This Week: Yellows, Degas’ Monotypes & an Invitation

A mixture of moments from my week.

Stepping out the front door I encountered a swirl of leaves from trees who’ve decided it’s autumn. The yellow of the salt box made the yellows in the leaves seem to pop out. They’ll pile themselves in the corner there and wait for the spring garden tidy.


On a perfect blue-sky autumnal day, the in-house art critic and I had a picnic at the beach watching waves marching in across the bay, listening to pebbles rumbling, and enjoying the turbulence between the incoming and receding waves at the water’s edge. There were patches of yellow on the hillside where gorse is flowering.

Don’t listen to the wind, don’t look at the wind, don’t talk about going out in the wind to rescue the clematis

Yesterday a red-warning level storm hit parts of Scotland; fortunately our little corner of Aberdeenshire avoided the worst of the wind and rain. This morning I put out food for the birds and straightened the clematis tower (there are some big stones holding the base).

Continuing my explorations with monoprinting, I discovered Degas did monoprints and that there was an exhibition of them at MoMA in 2016. You can read an extract of the catalogue here and see photos of the exhibition here. (Link to video if you don’t see it above.)

A4 size print

I did another set of monoprints featuring the in-house art critic, exploring how what seem subtle marks in the ink translate into more evident marks in the print. This is because I’m using an etching press, and the pressure from the roller lets these transfer. There are bits I like in each, and bits that don’t work for me. Overall they make my fingers itch to try again.

You’re Invited: Next Thursday Fife Contemporary is having an online launch of Life Lines, an exhibition bringing together artists affected by the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and opens up their creative practice on an online platform. Beginning 11:00am, Thursday 26 October 2023 the online exhibition will launch alongside a virtual tour of the exhibition and discussion with some of the artists. Book your free space at the online launch event here. My part of the exhibition features my pebble paintings, many of which I haven’t shared online. Please sign up even if you’re not sure you will make it as it shows support for the organisers.

This Week: A Nasturtium & Monoprinting

A mixture of moments from my week.

A running joke my Ma and I have involves the time my Ouma, who had extremely green thumbs, complained about how nasturtiums insist on spreading everywhere whereas we have been only too happy to have them grow at all. Seeing one tiny flower from the seeds I planted made me laugh about this anew. The grass gives a sense of scale.

I was determined not to let the wind get hold of my paper this week. I took only a brown pencil, an indigo Inktense pencil, a sharpener, and a waterbrush because I knew it was going to be windy. I will either take this concertina sketchbook again another time or add colour onto the headland drawing section in my studio.

My two favourite pebbles on this day:

I also found a U for my pebble alphabet:

In the studio I had a go at monoprinting for the first time, using the A2 press I bought from a Banff-based printmaker earlier this year when they upgraded. Monoprinting involves inking up a smooth surface (I used a large piece of perspex leftover from when I made my roadside tiny gallery on Skye), wiping into this to create the image (working dark to light), putting a damp sheet of paper over this, and running it through the press. Lots of variables and a lot to learn, but I had great fun.

The inked plate

The idea to try this was prompted by this week’s homework from the online Expressive Drawing workshop by Edinburgh-based artist Alan McGowan I’m doing.

The atmospheric results make me think this could well be the technique to use for imagery relating to the in-house art critic’s brain that I keep thinking about. My favourites I hung up on my print rail (there are magnets glued to the clips, which then stick to the was-for-curtains metal rail).

The A4 one was done with graphite ink.

I’m using oil-based printing inks that clean up with water, thus avoiding solvents, but made the mistake of thinning it with water on the perspex not extender, so it lost the tackiness that makes it transfer to wet paper and smeared with the pressure of the press. The effect is interesting, but doing it wasn’t deliberate. All part of the learning curve.

“No, I wasn’t sitting on them a moment ago,” said Little Em.

Printmaking is delayed gratification mixed with the unpredictable; lifting the sheet of paper to see the result is a bit of a birthday-present moment every time. Studio cat Freyja who sat on a chair watching me isn’t entirely convinced.