Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Gus the friendly gorilla

I'd just been to Dublin Zoo a few months earlier and taken about five hundred photographs of the residents. I'd been hoping to catch an iconic photograph of a gorilla beating its chest. posing/pouting as they usually do or failing that just looking bored! I got the latter as they're stubborn beasties that never do anything to order. 

Chester Zoo had been no better – indeed the orangutans and gorillas looked even more drugged up there! At both places it would have been advantageous to have had a longer lens than a 300mm as the monkey enclosure with its tyre swings, ropes and wooden play furniture was on an island that didn't encourage these swinging primates getting too close to the public.
I desperately wanted to paint an animal but as everyone on pastel sites appeared to be going the obligatory cute cat/dead dog I had to be different. I looked at parrots and macaws on the Fotolia stock library website where I'm a member, then at lizards and chameleons but nothing was really jumping out at me! Maybe because I had purposely avoided lions, tigers and crocs! OK joke time over. 

Finally after a night wandering around a Fotolia zoo of photographs I stumbled upon Gus my gorilla and for a few credits he agreed to be downloaded and pose menacingly on my desktop! I loved this big guy. He agreed to my house rules and never once bared his teeth, raised his fists or threatened murder despite me throwing him in the bin several times. It's great when you find a pacifist gorilla who'll turn the other cheek. 

This was mostly a soft pastel job with Gus' body hair created with various shapers and kept it place with fixative. His tough skin was a mixture of soft pastel and the thicker Conté a Paris pastel pencil which seemed to give off a heavily textured and rough feel. I liked that, particularly the way I managed to capture his hands. More so than his body hair which I was never happy with. And I tried endless times to make it look unkempt and uncombed but it always ended up as if I'd called in a hairdresser to give him a blow dry. The soft photo below doesn't help. There was more definition in the hair. Anyway the failure to get this right was disappointing and showed me how far I still had to go as an artist.
On a more positive note I liked his eyes and his face and I feel Gus would have recognised himself if I'd shown it to him. The fact that no-one else really appreciated his apely likeness when I showed them the painting worried me and I didn't really want to be carrying around a photograph of Gus in my wallet just to prove a point. People so often get the wrong idea! Why can't tatch (moi) just have a girlfriend like everyone else! 

So that was my third painting done and that marked the end of my first term in Dawn's pastel class.

I did have a buyer for Gus when I brought him to Moy but never parted with him. I don't think he's one of my better paintings now. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Monday Night Pastel Classes at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn

It was a last minute decision to splash out £58 on a pastel class at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn. This was the first time I had signed up for anything in their evening programme and I guess I only did so because Lawrence, one of the members of Lisnagarvey Art Society, had recommended this class to me.

The news on that first night was that a sewing class had hijacked the usual room (the one Lisnagarvey Art Society meets in) and we were in a smaller one where four tables were not high enough to get your knees under – I think this was a children’s art room! Not to worry!  There were about sixteen in the class – mostly ladies. There were quite a few beginners so I didn’t feel too overawed. Dawn Allen the tutor was absolutely brilliant, spending fifteen minutes with everyone, looking at work, encouraging, throwing out little tips, giving advice and answering questions – and I had loads of those. She was a proficient pastellist herself so I knew she was speaking from vast experience when I asked about the best paper to work on and how to strip overworked pastel off a page. 

My pastel style is quite different from most pastellists I see online or in books. They definitely don’t go into as much detail as myself. Trial and a lot of error has shown me that Unison Soft Pastels and most brands of pastel pencils don’t work very well together. The exception to that would be Conté a Paris pastel pencils which have a thicker and softer lead and though it’s not a perfect marriage they’ll do for everything except the really detailed work. For that I have learned to forget about Unison and go straight to Pitt or Derwent pastel pencils. They work perfectly for me and my style of painting.   

Looking back now I didn’t really do much work during my time there – I missed two, maybe three weeks due to being too busy with work. I used the two hour class to experiment and trial techniques on scrap paper that I would later work into my paintings whenever I was confident it would give me the desired result. For that reason the bulk of my paintings were done in my studio at home. I worked on three pieces during that first ten week spell at the pastel class – Gold Hill, Ballintoy Harbour and Gus the Gorilla. They’re all nearly finished just requiring a few last minute touch-ups and a signature before I take them to Fiona for framing.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Ballintoy harbour

Several years ago, I took a week off work! Hard to believe eh! My Nikon and I spent a week touring the much celebrated north coast of Northern Ireland. Although I have lived in the province for most of my life I'd never really spent a lot of sightseeing time in this holiday area. 

I'd heard of the Mussoden Temple but had no idea where it was, I'd seen Dunluce castle from the roadside but never walked among its ruins and I'd noticed how pretty Ballintoy harbour looked in tourist brochures but never ever visited the place. To my credit I had been to the Giant's Causeway on a typical wet and rainy Northern Irish summer's day when I took an English friend there to see this world heritage site and I left completely underwhelmed at the experience. 

I have just never bought into the myth that we have some of Europe's best scenery on our doorstep. As someone who has travelled widely in 1980s and 1990s Europe I have to say the area around Lake Como in Italy, Grindelwald in Switzerland and the fjords in Norway eclipse anything Northern Ireland has to throw up, so excuse me when I pick up my passport and head for the International Airport. OK I'll never get any work from the NITB now after that dismal advert!


While clicking through my digital images of that July week on my Flickr site I came across Ballintoy harbour. Ten minutes later I had made it the header image for my Facebook page and the subject of my second pastel painting. I delved into the raw files in my archives to see what other photographs I had taken of the spot and discovered another twenty taken from various locations around the harbour. I debated which one to use and in the end plumped for the original Flickr shot. 

In my first pastel, Gold Hill, I was excited about painting the quaint little houses and a hill full of cobblestones and I think I succeeded. With Ballintoy it was all about capturing the water and the boats. The harbour walls and the little building were rather secondary issues. Gold Hill had taught me how to approach them. On spare pages of pastel mat I trialled and errored water at Lisnagarvey Art Society. Ex teacher Jo took ten minutes out and showed me the best way to pastel reflections in water. I was struggling a bit. Even the spiky grass was giving me problems I hadn't encountered before. I wondered had I chewed on too much with this pastel.

In the end the best idea was just to start it – I could always rip it up if things weren't going right. I fingered in the sky in about twenty minutes using several different chalks to achieve the distance I was after and then added a few wispy clouds. It had started off OK but when it came to the grass I rather screwed up. It just wasn't looking right and I binned it.

I went straight for the grass with my second attempt. No point in wasting any more sky blue chalks  if I failed again! I used pastel pencils this time and stroked rather than covered the area. It worked better for me and though it wasn't exactly how I had envisaged it I used the second attempt as a tester for grass, water and boats! 

That meant I started on a third Ballintoy. I wasn't frustrated or annoyed that I couldn't get it right first time, even second time. I knew pastelling was going to be a learning curve and that's why I attempted difficult subject matter. I was very aware I was miles out of my comfort zone with this painting but I was confident I could make a satisfying attempt at capturing the scene.

I think my final version was my fourth attempt. The grass which I hadn't initially seen as a problem finally got sorted and the water which I envisaged being my 'waterloo' turned out to be easier than I had anticipated. I was happy with the reflections and the different colours of the water. I cheated with the boats a bit and lost a few of their thin masts and anchor ropes - call that artistic licence, no wait call it I hadn't a clue how to do thin lines! And I didn't want to be binning a fourth and starting a fifth now that I had come so far.
So that's the story of Ballintoy harbour. The photograph above is not the last version but the only one I have got. 

I exhibited this pastel in my home village of Moy in May 2015 and Beth, a woman I had known most of my life was so taken with it she had to have it. I really didn't want to be parted with 'my newborn' but relented that she could have it in September/October once I had lived with 'baby' for a while. I gave it to her for a knockdown price with the idea I would make another Ballintoy 'baby' sometime in 2016.   

Friday, 24 October 2014

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, England


I consider Gold Hill my first real painting. 

When I lived in Cardiff away back in 1978 several of us took advantage of a bank holiday weekend and headed to a friend's house near Cirencester on the edge of the Cotswolds where we were given a guided tour of that beautiful part of the world. Shaftesbury was more southerly however and we went there out of respect for the 'Boy on the Bicycle' 1973 television ad for Hovis my favourite commercial at that time. I wanted to walk up that hill humming the theme tune from Dvorak's Symphony No 9. However I'd no bicycle and no brass band and what words from the ad I forgot, I simply made up. If all this makes no sense, it'll all become a bit clearer when you watch the two YouTube clips below. Sorry about the quality of the first one below. It looks like it was recorded from a television with an early iPhone.

A few weeks earlier the Two Ronnies (Barker and Corbett) had spoofed it so my version was probably more like theirs! It was interesting to note the lack of ivy and other greenery climbing up the walls back in 1978. 

 I was already planning another few paintings from that mad weekend with the crazy hockey girls – my besties at the time. I remembered a scene from our day out in Lower Slaughter when Georgie and I just sat on a little wooden bench and soaked in the beauty of the cottages, the pond and the mill with its working waterwheel in front of us . And another either from the bridge at Castle Coomb or Arlington Row in picturesque Bibury! Two more places I now hold with deep affection.  

Best seen at this linkhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/tatchie/15794527496/in/dateposted/ 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Pastel pencils

Somewhere along the way I discovered pastel pencils. I am sure it was after I enrolled in Dawn Allen's Monday night Pastel Class at the Island Arts Centre. Several people were using them and as I'm a detail person I had to investigate their possibilities.

That meant a trip  to YouTube where I came across Colin Bradley's channel. I signed up on his website and received a course which I never followed through as I didn't want to be drawing a cute little kitten. Male macho patheticness – I know! I was quite surprised by how small Colin's paintings were. I had visions of working at around A3 size but as his were closer to A5 I needed to rethink.

I loved his website and I learned a lot from various videos and I'm grateful he give me a nod in the direction of Faber Castell Pitt Pastel pencils and as no-one else was likely to buy them for me they were a Christmas present to myself. Just in time too as I was just finishing off a painting of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, England and the cobblestones were giving me huge problems. I had laid down too much soft pastel and was finding it nigh impossible to get the pastel pencil to define the cobbles. On Dawn's advice I took drastic measures, put on my yellow coat and safety helmet and ripped out every cobblestone with a stiff haired paintbrush so I could start again. Fun? Hell yeah!


I did get it right second time around. See the next post. I used soft pastel for the ground base and then the pastel pencils to build upon that layer.

Friday, 26 September 2014

First purchases

I started off using the most horrible hard pastels that I had bought from the art department in my local Easons store and quickly gave up on them. Memo peeps – avoid the 'Simply' brand of art materials if you're serious about your art. I took to the internet. Sennelier, Rembrandt and Schmincke were all advertised as being among the best soft pastels on the WetCanvas website I visited. In truth there are so many brands out there it's confusing and you don't want to be spending a lot of money on something you are not happy with.

On a September trip to Manchester to see my friend Caroline I found an art shop near Piccadilly Gardens that allowed me to roadtest several of these brands so in a grand butter v margarine type showdown, and with no blindfold, I pitched them against each other in a most unscientific fashion. As this was the first time I had handled these fragile sticks of pigment I judged them basically on how they felt between my fingers and on the marks they made on the paper. With more gut feeling than anything else I decided on Unison! Imagine my surprise that they were the cheapest too!

That started me off on a Unison Soft Pastels spending spree – the Landscape and Portrait boxed versions bought from online retailer Jacksons Art because Ken Bromley Art Supplies, my first point of call didn't stock them and Jacksons were doing better prices than Amazon. co.uk  at the time.


The question of paper vexed me. Fed up with using cheap textured paper I went to Art & Home in Holywood and got a trial pack of different pastel paper, trialled them all, read a lot of reviews on Google and watched umpteen YouTube videos. I finally plumped for Clairefontaine Pastelmat as I simply just didn't get on with Velour. There was something about its furry feel that made my skin crawl and the flimsy nature did nothing for me. Yes, I know that my fellow Dungannon-ite Emma Colbert uses it but hey I am a completely different artist and I don't really like animals that much. Quite by accident I met Emma selling her wares in Victoria Square before Christmas and she gave me a small sample of Velour to try out. I found out the pigment spread and wasn't very conducive to my idea of detailed work.


I read on a website recently of a self-esteemed female pastellist that you should never do pastels on white card/paper. Blimey! That was as dumb as saying you should never paint oils on a white canvas. I have always used white because when I was at school I was told to draw on white paper and when at Art College studying Graphic Design all the pads I bought for mocking up advertising ideas with magic markers were white. So I am kinda used to drawing on a white background and while I am always experimenting with pastels I am probably forever wed to my 360gsm white Clairefontaine Pastelmat. Let no person break us asunder.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Two Apples and a Pear

I had to start somewhere so my first painting was a simple still life of two apples and a pear and I was reasonably pleased with how it turned out for a first attempt. Even had two friends who wanted to buy it though thankfully we never talked how many noughts would be on the cheque. Yeah, you're thinking the same as me – one!

Working on that pastel gave me confidence that I could maybe be a painter - even on crappy paper (it wasn't pastelmat in those days) so it didn't lend itself to my overworked style. It did get very muddy towards the end and I lost interest in finishing it.

The painting still lies around my house probably feeling a bit unloved as it's my only unframed work and a reminder to stop while I'm out in front!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Artistic background

Doing two years A Level Art under the eminent Ivor Coburn and spending three years at Art College being messed around by Derrick 'bloody' Barrett taught me to draw exceptionally well. I loved the time I spent in artstudentland drawing life models and sketching en plain air in North Wales at old disused slate mines near Nefyn and at pretty little seaside villages like Pwlheli and Abersoch. I was in my element.

Back in the college concrete block at Cardiff we were then taught how to draw from life or photographs using the Grid Method. It made life a little easier than just using the eye and intense concentration all the time. Soon, even the weakest artists among our class were all drawing fairly realistic Brut bottles of aftershave and our pretty life models started to look less disfigured and have breasts that weren't lopsided.

In those faraway days I did an A3+ pencil drawing of my hero Harry Chapin, an American singer songwriter, who came to play concerts for us in bombed out Belfast when most other musicians thought it too damned scary. A wonderful human being, Harry died in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway, New York in July 1981 and with his demise my pencil drawing career kinda passed away too. I just didn't have the heart to do another epic piece – nor the time either, as graphic design, advertising agency life and then Apple Macs took over my increasingly cluttered and messed up world.

Despite the drawing being a wee bit worse for wear (I accidentally sat on the bottom of it one day, crumpling it) my old schoolmate Ray kindly framed him for me and it now hangs high in my hallway.


With my art world reignited recently I initially used the Grid Method I learned in my student days for my early pastel work. More recently I confess the mortal sin of using Frisk Tracedown Graphite paper to proper plan my paintings. Some would call that cheating but I don't care. It saves me time and that's not something I have a lot of. And if it helps me get perspective right and other things in the right position well why not take advantage. It's not as if I would trace every last wrinkle on your face. And of course if you want to pit your drawing skills, en plein air, against mine you are very welcome.

So folks regardless of what some luddites might say I would recommend Frisk Tracedown Graphite paper. Make sure it says Graphite at the top as there are different versions available. I bought the A3 pack and there are five sheets of carbon inside. It can be used time and time again. It seriously is an absolute godsend for busy people.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

New beginnings...

For years I have been yearning to paint but my work as a self employed graphic designer has always got in the way. Nights were taken up moving my mouse around Photoshop and then InDesign when Adobe bought over Freehand and made it redundant! 

When the idiot bankers messed up the world's economy I had my hours slowly cut down for me. Eighty hours a week became a more managable 50 and I was able to have a social life again. I started to go to the cinema, meet friends for tea, watch Netflix and miniseries, see my nephew play football for Portadown and even go to Ulster rugby games. Finally I tried painting. I only lasted two mornings at a watercolour class at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn. I found the tutor rude and overbearing and never bothered going back for the other ten classes. The itch was still there though...


I somehow managed not to scratch my artistic crave for around two years but in January 2014 I gave in and joined Lisnagarvey Art Society. It met on a Tuesday night at the Island Arts Centre. I watched people like Ray Elwood and Grahame Booth demonstrate, talked to members of the Society about their paintings and just looked on as they worked on their latest piece in oils, acrylic and watercolour.  In May I decided that Lawrence's work fascinated me the most and that started me out on my journey in pastels.