Monthly Archives: May 2014

Five Ways to Improve Your Drawing

Keeping up with your drawing ability is an important activity for any working artist. Just like sportstars and professional musicians, it’s important for an artist to keep their hand in, practice.

Why practice drawing?


View from a train

A great way to improve your drawing ability is to make fast, 30 second sketches. True they’re not going to sell for millions but they will fine tune your skills. Remember these are warm up exercises, they’re not for public consumption.

Quick drawing exercises develope the hand and the eye to observe and commit objects to paper. They teach you to look at scenes and evaluate them.

How can you develop your skill?

Sleeping dog

Sleepy Megan

Laying out simple everyday objects and timing yourself for rapid sketches can get you started, but there is always the temptation to add a few seconds on at the end to finish the drawing.

Remember the excerise is about learning to instantly see an object and record it. So here are some ideas to take away temptation from your sketching.

Draw on the Move

Drawing on the train or bus presents you with a landscape that will rapidly be changing and every second a new picture developes. Practice capturing the essence of what is happening as you travel.

Sketch things that naturally won’t keep still

Kids and pets are great for this. They normally have boundless amounts of energy and you need to be on the ball to catch the scene. You have to be fast because you never know when they’ll be off doing something else.

waterfall Italy

Marmore Waterfalls

Sit down and paint the sky. Rapid records of the moving clouds is a relaxing way to practice your skills. It can provide a perfect way of stress release, patiently watching the sky change.

Running water, especially if you live near a lively stream, can be a excellent way of honing your abilities. Running tap water will do but its not the same as a river. You could fill the sink with dishes and put the plug in. Add an element of chance to see if you finish before you get water everywhere.

Blind drawing can also be fun

Stare at an object for a minute and then turn away and draw it. This helps with your memory and picturing a scene. You quickly learn to break down objects into parts and build up a memory shorthand when observing things.

These short exercises will help you to develop your style, encourage you to look and understand things more closely and improve your technical ability.

The more you look, the more you’ll see and the better your drawings will become.

Why Learn to Draw?

On today’s computers with their incredible drawing power, is there really any need for art students to learn traditional drawing techniques? Well, yes there is!

Learning the basics

TubesBeing taught the basics; pen and ink or pencil drawing, handling watercolours, oil painting. The lesson in figurative drawing, still life and landscapes gives the student a good artistic grounding. It’s the very essence of being an artist, whether you eventually decide to create installations, paint abstract pictures, chip away at chunks of marble or design by computer, it all starts with understanding your environment.
Being able to reproduce a texture, shadow or outline with nothing more sophisticated than a pencil gives you a direct connection to your surroundings. You gain an appreciation in a way that is just not possible by clicking an appropriate icon on a software program. You are directly in touch with your world.

Connecting with your art

pencilsArt is so much more than just mark making, it is about reaching out, in a very real way and touching your surroundings. This is only truly possible by observing and recording it. Drawing helps train the mind, eye and hand capture nature’s beauty in a way that is connected and personal.
The skill of drawing represents the earliest form of recorded communication and drawing gives vent to our expressive selves. Our ancestors, living in caves drew, showing their landscapes and animals. And today, whether fine art, craftwork, telephone conversation doodles or simple mindless vandalism, we still have a desire to produce images.

The thrill of drawing

paintbrushesDrawing software can certainly produce subtle, flowing lines, perfect circles and deep, dark shadows. However, the process cannot compete with the thrill of mixing the exact hue or reproducing the curve of a piece of fresh fruit. There is a zen-like moment, an elemental feeling, when the artist is in tune with the world and is producing a magnificent harmony.
I am not against using computer designing at all and I do think that they are capable of rendering wonderful results. It’s just that I also think that it’s important for art students to do their time before the easel, tube in hand and charcoal streaked across the cheek. Getting down and dirty with your art is the only sure way to learn and love the process.

Drawing on experience

Not experiencing the art of drawing is to miss out on the tactile, sensual interaction with your surroundings in a way that cannot be replicated by computers. It should form an essential part of the education curriculum and be encouraged as a social pastime. After all, Art is Fun!


The Gates of Spello


The Gates of Spello
Watercolour and ink 22cm x 33cm (For Sale)

The Story of Spello The Umbrian hill town of Spello sits at the opposite end of Mount Subasio to Assisi and has a long history stretching back to Roman times. You can still see the remains of its ancient amphitheater although it is in poor condition when compared to some in the area. The town is built on the side of a hill, where it’s pink and grey stones shine out in the early morning light. There are a number of gates entering the town and four are featured in the painting. The gates of Spello From left to right

  • Porta di Venere – twin towered Roman gate.
  • Porta Urbica – worn but very decorative Roman gate.
  • Porta Consolare – this would originally have had two towers but now only has one, topped with olive trees. The statues are from a sarcophagus discovered in the town.
  • Portonarccio – a medieval gate built from recycled Roman stone.

Pinturicchio detail

Santa Maria Maggiore – the Steepled church housing frescoes by il Perugino and Pinturecchio. The later’s work featuring a view of the town from the 15th century. When you pass the town on the train you gradually pick out more and more detail but it’s not until you thoroughly explore the streets and alleyways that you get a real feel for its beauty and complexity. Prints for sale If you like this and the other pieces in the collection you can get prints here. 🙂

Spello and Spoleto

Spello Umbria


A couple of months ago, whilst dog sitting, I managed to take a trip around the two hill towns of Spello and Spoleto.  Both are on the main Rome – Ancona railway line and you get great views as you pass but to truly feel them, you’ve got to get off the train.

Spello’s layout

Spello layout

Spello layout

Spello is situated at the opposite end to Assisi on Mount Subassio and drapes itself over the lower slopes. It’s an old town, with Roman roots, ancient gates, an amphitheater and other impressive buildings.

Spello detail

Spello detail

The steep cobbled streets certainly give you a good work out as you explore. One of the iconic sights of Spello is Porta Consalare, the gateway with olive trees growing on top of its tower.   Spello2As I searched out more detailed photos to complete the painting I noticed Pinturicchio‘s work in the town mentioned a lot. So refreshing my memory on this Perugian artist who trained under Perugino and possibly worked alongside a young Sanzio Raphael, I found he’d painted a couple of frescoes in the town. What was interesting about his work was the typical Umbrian landscape he put in his backgrounds. The lakes, the hills and trees but more specifically his hillside towns, for which the province is famous. And it is the gate towers and steeples of Spello that  gave me the inspiration for the composition.

Spoleto’s historic centre

Spoleto Castle and aqueduct

Spoleto Castle and aqueduct

Twenty miles south, Spoleto is dominated by two architectural feats. The austere but imposing castle, built by Cardinal Albornoz, oppressively gazes down on the town, while its delicate looking aqueduct “Ponte delle Torri” straddles the valley. The skyline, here is dotted with a number of towers and steeples, with the one belonging to the Spoleto Cathedral housing both the artworks and body of Filippo Lippi, who died in the town in 1469.

Spoleto sketch

Spoleto drawing

The composition of Spoleto proved to be more tricky than Spello when trying to pose the buildings in a convincing manner. The castle and aqueduct were pretty much a given but the churches and other buildings were a little more difficult to arrange, but I think the finished result gives the right feel for Spoleto. Along with Trevi and Montefalco these four towns make an interesting sight as your train coasts along the Apennine Mountain trail. The trip between Terni and Spoleto is particularly enjoyable as the railway cuts its way through a deep sided rocky gorge. If you find yourself in the area, hop on the train. It’s an enjoyable trip.

St Francis’ Tuscan Retreat – La Verna

Tuscan hermitage

St Francis’ Convent at La Verna;
Watercolour and ink 30cm x 50cm (For Sale)

La Verna’s story

The site of St Francis’ sanctuary at La Verna was given to the gentle friar by Count Orlando of Chiusi in 1213. Here the saint built a simple hermitage and used the peaceful mountainside as a tranquil place away from the hubbub of the 13th century.

It was on Monte Penna that in 1224 St Francis, while fasting, received the stigmata. An event that was captured some 200 years later in Ghirlandaio’s painting, and featured the sanctuary in the background.

What started out as a simple hermitage with a little chapel has now grown into a fully functioning friary with a church, refreshment cafe, souvenir shop and the monks quarters. La Verna is also home to a number of pieces of art with several ceramics by Andrea della Robbia.

La Verna

La Verna

The Painting

The painting features the monastery buildings perched upon the sheer cliff of Monte Penna, with the woodlands above, along with the little chapel and the summit marker. From this high vantage point you can see the green, Tuscan countryside and also over the borders into Umbria and Le Marche as well.

The final painting features heavy, black ink line. This is partly due to my stained glass background, where it is normal to view pictures as surrounded with an outline. But also being colour blind it helps me differentiate between the reds, greens, oranges, greys and pinks. And I like the look.

Further information

You can see the progress and ideas behind the painting by checking out these earlier posts that record the work.

Prints of the picture are available to buy by clicking here.

The Idea Behind Painting La Verna – Part Three

The painting’s structure

Drawing composition

Drawing composition

When starting to draft up the sketch I always divide the paper into thirds, this gives it a natural, balanced composition and is a guideline for roughly drawing the scene.

The La Verna sketch had an obvious religious sentiment too so I made use of the centre line to form a ragged cross motif within the painting. This runs through the rocks and into the bell tower, using the retaining wall on the right and the base of the monks quarters on the left for the cross piece.

Colouring La Verna

Being colour blind this part is always a challenge but with trees you’re always on a winner with green. There are of course only really four greens to work with, lemon, grass, olive, viridian, add a touch of blue or white to suit. This gives you a nice range from yellow green to a blue green.

La Verna cliffs

Cliff face

The rocks were fun. Being a combination of greys does mean that I get to choose from pinks, purples and deep reds. You’ve got to love grey. So I decided that purple with its religious connotations was ideal. You can’t beat the occasional bit of symbolism.

La Verna Monastery

Monastery buildings

The buildings were also difficult as they are so varied. In the end I went with pinks for  the church, browns for the general buildings and a yellow for the large monks block.

One of the last things I always paint are the red roofs. Like the cherry on a Bakewell Tart, it’s the special piece of the painting for me and rounds the process off with a treat. I know Italian tiles are a blend of terracotta, ochre and oranges but for me these have a tendency to get confused by the greens, so the best solution is to make them a bright, stand out red. That way there is no confusion over whether they are tile or foliage.

SummitThe sky initially had a large cloud behind Monte Penne but I didn’t like it and over painted it. Instead I thought a fluffy white cloud on the right, symbolically representing good, nice things etc, while a grey storm cloud on the left for evil and badness.

The background is a faded representation of the hills, fields and woodlands of the area. This just to tie the whole composition together without over powering and losing the central image.

Look our for Part Four – finishing the painting.



The Idea Behind Painting La Verna – Part Two

The sanctuary at La Verna was initially a place of solitude for St Francis. Today it is a busy, working monastery perched precariously upon a rocky outcrop of Monte Penna . The idea is to use the works of Ghirlandaio and Gozzoli as reference points to create a new perspective on this Tuscan, religious tourist attraction.

The problemLa Verna cartoon

La Verna cartoon

with getting the composition right is the sheer number of buildings present today. In Ghirlandaio’s day there were about half a dozen, the current site contains nearer fifty structures.

I decided to do this by flattening out the perspective and moving the monks quarters through 90 degrees. Using the open courtyard as the focal point and placing the buildings around it, keeping the large cross and the sheer cliff face in place.

Layout sketches

Layout sketches

The steps down to the hermitage and into the caves I moved around a little to make the rock face more interesting and to record St Francis’ hideaways. It did mean however, that the long, glazed corridor was missed off and the peak of the mount is somewhat stylised but you get the gist.

LaVerna3Although the rocky outcrop is based on Gozzoli’s cliffs from the Magi Chapel, you can still make out the rough shapes of the rocks. The foreground follows the same contours as the actual ground and the foliage has a similar feel to the area. The large trees are an invention but if you ever visit the site you will see trees like this all over the place.

LaVerna2Once the layout had been decided upon, detail sketches were made and a rough outline drawing complete. This gave an idea of the composition and look of the painting.

Check out the finished painting in Part Three.