Creative sketchbook course – Manchester

I attended a two day course on Creative Sketchbooks with teacher Brian Raymond at Creative Art Courses in Manchester. Fellow students were mainly from the OCA on fine art/drawing and textiles courses. Debbie, a fellow student, organised a subsidy for the cost of the day from OCASA and the tutor. Thanks Debbie!

Brian taught us a number of ways to make sketchbooks more vibrant and useful. My particular interest is using sketchbooks to develop ideas and Brian took the time to work with me on this.

During the course we learned:

  • how to prepare sketchbook pages using collage and underdrawing covered with gesso or emulsion paint which created a more interesting base for drawing than a white page.
  • using a series of drawings of a plant in pen and ink to develop areas of interest and ideas. Brian emphasised the importance of keeping previous work visible to encourage this development.
sketchbook course 1
First sketch
Sketchbook 2
Developing sketch looking at folds in leaves and negative space
sketchbook 3
Developing idea of transparency and folding
  • using a page decoratively to reflect a theme while doing an investigation of a theme – through activities such as frottage, colour & texture studies, experimenting with materials.
sketchbook 4
sketchbook 5
dividing the page and using sections to explore different aspects such as colour and pattern
sketchbook 6
creating an artists page based on the work of Kitty Sabatier
sketchbook 7
pushing aspects of the drawing – line, colour, collage, Using Kitty Sabatier as an influence.
Sketchbook 8
Final piece using ideas and techniques developed in the sketchbook
  • Annotating sketches comprehensively to look at what is interesting, what works, what doesn’t.
  • inserting pages and using interesting formats such as fold-outs, layering, etc to add interest to a sketchbook and make it more coherent.

I really enjoyed the two days and will certainly take many of the ideas learned into my sketchbook work. I am not comfortable with creating a sketchbook as a decorative object in itself but the ideas of page preparation, concept development and experimentation, annotation and artist research are all really helpful. And I do like my final drawing too!

After completing the course I found a couple of videos on sketchbooks on the OCA website which are also useful:

Turning sketches into finished work

Keeping a sketchbook useful

The Coal Coast. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen study visit

Hawthorn Hive, afternoon 31 May 2000. Beached section of a mine ventilation duct; bricks among boulders. © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

The Coal Coast exhibition features documentary photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen work on the East Durham coal coast taken between 1999 and 2002.

The study visit was held on the opening day with a talk from the artist who described how she became involved in the project to document the legacy of coal mining on the North East Coast and its communities. She stayed in a caravan a couple of nights a week and spent the whole day on the beach from dawn to night time.

The photographs document the effects of coal mining on the coast including the litter and mineral/coal deposits. The pictures are in colour and the composition and focus on colour, whether in landscapes or close-up composition is extremely well done.

Does the beauty of the images work with or against the focus on human industrial debris?

I was interested in discussing composition with OCA tutor Wendy McMurdo. The artist’s composition varied with some very symmetrical images and some off-centre. I tend towards symmetry in my composition which is something I am trying to get away from but I was interested in Wendy’s take on this as so many artists do use symmetry. Wendy asked which were the most interesting pictures to look at and I had to admit the unsymmetrical ones had the most interest. Although, I do still like symmetry! In the pictures below – Dawdon, evening September 2001. Your eye follows the receding wooden piles and zig-zagging waves to the end of the cliff and rock which is to the left of centre – however, the horizon is pretty much straight across the centre. In Crimdon Dene, the image is much more symmetrical. The image feels more abstract although it is clear what it is. I feel it is still an effective image.

The Coal Coast
Dawdon, evening 11 September 2001. Wooden piles, remains of supports for rail track for wagons tipping pit waste in the sea. © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. 


The Coal Coast
Crimdon Dene, afternoon 15 June 2000. Coal Dust, winnowed from shaly pit waste by action of the sea, streaming on the surface of the sand. © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen 

The Coal Coast

I was interested in Konttinen’s detailed and poetic captions for her photographs, for example the above picture is captioned: “Hawthorn Hive. Afternoon 24 May 2000. Iron pyrites pounded to sand, bleached shells of starfish: footprints of bird.” I like the way this image seems to be black and white until you notice the tiny patch of yellow/brown on the lower starfish.

The exhibition can be found here

Research point. Historic and contemporary artists who work in series with the landscape

I’m delighted to return to Peter Doig. One of my favourite artists who produced a series of paintings based on Le Courbusier’s Unité d’Habitation apartments in Briey-en-Forêt, north east France. Doig recorded the site using a hand-held video camera then painted his series over a number of years. Four of the paintings in this series were exhibited at the Tate Britain in their Peter Doig exhibition in 2008. Fortunately, the exhibition is still on the Tate’s website and the series of pictures can be viewed here. I love the way the thick woodland around the building creates strong verticals against the building’s horizontal lines. There is a strong feeling of a battle going on between nature and human creation.

I recently saw a film about Monet ‘Exhibiton on Screen: I Claude Monet’ which was an exploration of Monet’s life through his own letters read out by an actor while the film showed the work he was producing at the time the letters were written. It was an excellent film and described the struggles Monet went through including painting the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. Through the series Monet explores how to portray different times of day and weather through variations in colour and tone.

Georgia O’Keefe produced a series of paintings of the Cerro Pedernal mountain in New Mexico which she could see from her home. Like Monet. O’Keefe explores the changing colours and tones due to weather effects and time of day.

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Painting the same subject repeatedly allows an artist to build up information for themselves about how landscapes change depending on weather, time of day and season. Over longer periods of time changes in actual landscapes can be noted such as trees growing or dying and new buildings and roads being built.




Looking at composition and working towards Assignment 3

In the middle of my landscape module it is becoming clear to me I have a fairly limited idea about what makes a good composition. I have to admit I turned to youtube for some ideas.

I came across a 23 minute video by artist Jill Poyard. ‘Developing an Eye for Landscape Composition’ which is aimed at students and is excellent at outlining some of the theories of composition while emphasising that most artists produce work which doesn’t follow these theories! I like the way the video looked at composition in relation to paintings to examine how artists composed their work.

I’d recommend watching the video but my notes are as follows.

Landscape differs from other forms of art in having to tackle:

  • atmosphere: sky, air, and the way this affects how we view a scene especially at a distance
  • weather: has a strong affect on the mood of a painting, sunlight, shadows, rain, mist.
  • land forms and features.

The landscape can be broken into a series of planes with the lightest planes being horizontal and the darkest being vertical.

Determine a focal point and look for lines that lead the eye around.

  • Don’t split your painting in half
  • Don’t place your focal point at the centre
  • Do use an odd number of elements
  • Do vary sizes and space between elements

Rule of Thirds

This is a popular design format similar to the golden ratio. Divide your composition into thirds vertically and horizontally. Place focal points on some of the intersections between the lines. Place your horizon on one of the lines.

Other compositions

A very low horizon line has interest

The L shape is a classic

The S shape leads your eye into a picture – for example a river or road.

A strong diagonal

A large central object – either lighter or darker than the surrounding area


Triangulation – either the whole composition or elements of the composition.

I have subsequently spent a lot of time with a camera taking pictures and attempting to get my compositions to conform to some of these ideas about composition. I instinctively place the horizon lower or higher than the third point suggested by the rule of thirds and also have difficulty with the idea of multiple focal points. I have always been attracted to dark and fairly central focal points and elements of symmetry while looking for ‘lines’ in the composition which lead the eye around the picture.

The Ashmolean – permanent collection

After the Degas to Picasso study day I took the opportunity to look round the permanent collection. With only an hour to look round I couldn’t see all of the extensive collection. I enjoyed two rooms full of small oil sketches. I didn’t know this was a thing but there were beautiful sketches by artists like Constable, Leighton, Camuccini and many more. These were preparatory sketches for classical landscape painting so were free-er and more modern-looking than the finished pieces. Some were unfinished showing the process of building up a landscape from pencil or charcoal sketches to tone and colour. In this unfinished picture Camuccini sketched general lines of composition in black chalk concentrating on the middle distance rather than the foreground.

Giovanni Battista Camuccini. Landscape with trees and roots.

Others focused on a single aspect such as a cloudscape by Constable.

John Constable. Study of Clouds. Oil on Paper


Frederic Leighton. Gateway, Algiers. Oil on board.

I loved the composition of Frederic Leighton’s sketch ‘Gateway, Algiers’ featuring a glimpse of the sea through a white archway and feeling of heat created by the colours with hints of blue, pink, grey and cream and strong shadow. The line of the sea is on the golden section.

The modern art section of the Ashmolean is small and tucked away but featured some amazing pictures. Sadly, there was no photography allowed.

Wassily Kandinsky. Murnau-Staffelsee 1. 1908

Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau-Staffelosee 1. 1908. is a stunning landscape painting with vibrant colours depicting a late evening scene. What are those flashes of blue white  in what appears to be the foreground?

I also loved Howard Hodgkin’s “Like an open book” 1989 – 90. The thick, colourful paint makes the picture a physical presence which is reinforced by the painting over the frame. It is like a memory made solid & quite remarkable.  Sadly it isn’t featured on the Ashmolean’s website.

Neither is Jenny Saville’s amazing drawing “Study of arms II” 2015. Charcoal and pastel on tinted acrylic ground on watercolour paper. A beautiful figure study of Saville’s daughter showing the movement of her arms while sitting for a drawing.

To do: I have come to the conclusion that you can’t rely on a modern art gallery to put all their collection online! I will sketch as well as writing notes and am seriously considering taking coloured pencils to better represent pictures in my learning log.

Degas to Picasso study visit

The Degas to Picasso study visit was an interesting experience. The exhibition itself was based on a single private collection and featured a lot of works on paper. As I am currently on a drawing course this was not necessarily a bad thing and it was fascinating to see how artists such as Degas and Monet used drawing to explore ideas and composition.

As it is a private collection, there are no copies of the work online as far as I can see and no photography was allowed in the exhibition. I made some drawings in my learning log some of which I have inserted into this post.

Monet did repeated studies of a sailing boat beached on the shore at Saint Adresse. I admired the vigour of the drawing which was in charcoal, with vigorous lines and broad tones. I couldn’t find an example from this series on the internet.

Another artist who did many studies of the same image was Degas whose  “after the bath” of a woman drying her leg was a beautiful drawing using charcoal, white chalk and pastel on tracing paper. This is featured on the Ashmolean’s exhibition page. The exhibition also showed how Degas repeated images using printing techniques, often removing detail to bring an image down to its essential form.

I was drawn to a small Odilon Redon drawing in pastel and graphite on brown wove paper. “Christ on the Cross” 1910. The more I see of Odilon Redon’s work the more I love him, This drawing was vibrant with colour and had a fresh and modern composition.

There was a good representation of cubism at the exhibition. I found the cubist pictures quite cold and unemotional (of course Picasso’s Guernica and Weeping Woman are very emotional so it isn’t always the case). While I enjoyed looking at Albert Gleizes works “Still Life” 1911 and “The City and The River” 1913 I was struck by how the techniques of cubism are now redolent of graphic design and company logos with strong colours and black outlines.

I preferred Andre Masson’s “A Celebration” 1958. An abstract pastel drawing on orange brown paper Masson used the techniques of automatic drawing to produce and energetic and emotional swirl of colourful marks.

Again, as a drawing student I did appreciate the notes on media that the Ashmolean gave us. It brought alive for me the fact that these artists sat with the same materials that we possess – paper, chalk, pastels, pencils, and produced amazing and beautiful things.

Research Point. Artists using landscape.

Fig. 1. Landscape with a woodland pool. I find this landscape drawing by Albrecht Durer quite touching. The artist carefully detailed the foreground reeds, but left a section on the right unfinished. It seems to be an artist capturing a scene made unusual by a certain play of light, to help them remember it. Have I seen a sky like this at sunset where the blue fades out to white and the clouds are in shadow? It looks like the kind of scene about which you might say: “That’s amazing. I wish I had my camera.”

Fig. 2. Pastoral landscape by Claude Lorrain. In this drawing I like the way the artists has captured the clouds and birds in the sky. The day looks breezy. The composition is balanced and the use of brown ink and wash in the foreground with a cooler grey ink and wash in the background adds depth to the picture. The textures and tones are all beautifully rendered.

Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum
Fig. 3 Claude Lorrain, Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum c.1634

In this oil painting Lorrain uses the perspective of the classical buildings to lead the eye into the picture. Despite the towering ruins, I’d describe the scene as lively with the activity in the foreground, the feathery foliage, clouds and birds.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Sky above clouds

Georgia O’Keeffe painted landscapes throughout her life, some quite detailed, some tending towards abstraction. Her shimmering colours brought you into the hot landscapes of New Mexico, the cool turbulence of Lake George, New York or, in fig. 4., the clouds as seen from an aeroplane.  I like the playfulness of this picture.


Fig 1. Durer, Albrecht. Landscape with a woodland pool. watercolour and body colour. 1497.

Fig. 2 Lorrain, Claude. Pastoral landscape c.1665 Pen and brown and grey ink, with grey-brown wash.

Fig. 3. LORRAIN, Claude. Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum c.1634, oil on canvas

Fig. 4. Georgia O’Keeffe | Sky Above Clouds II | 1963 | oil on canvas | 48 x 84 inches | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum