Seven Small Sketches: Art in the Time of COVID-19 (and other disasters)

It’s been a few months since I last posted, and a lot has happened in that time. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in devastating death tolls in some countries, along with basic freedoms many of us take for granted – like being able to go to the gym or socialise with large groups of friends at the pub – being taken away as governments bring in various restrictions to try to curb the spread of COVID-19. Schools have closed and a lot of jobs have either been lost or been forced to make a rapid transition to online in order to stay afloat. Here in Australia, these restrictions seem to be working, with very few new cases reported each day and a relatively small number of deaths, but it’s still early days, so we can’t afford to become complacent, and it will probably be a while before things go back to the way they were.

With many of us suddenly finding ourselves at home with (theoretically) a lot more time on our hands, it’s not surprising that we can feel pressured to get more work done, to take up a new hobby or put more time and effort into mastering an existing one. I say “theoretically” because, as I’m sure most of us have discovered, more time at home does not equal more time to work, especially when we live with other people who also can’t go out anywhere or do anything. It’s really difficult to get things done when you are being constantly interrupted; I have a hard enough time trying to work with a 2-year-old German Shepherd constantly demanding cuddles or barking at the postie, so I can only imagine it’s ten times harder for people trying to work from home with children (especially if they also have to supervise those children while they do classes online). Not to mention the constant worry at the back of our mind at all times, about whether someone we love will get sick, or that money will become tight, or the general frustration about not being able to go out or have time to ourselves. No matter how much you try to put it out of your mind, it’s still always there, gradually sapping your energy.

I should add a disclaimer that I’ve been fairly lucky with regards to the shutdown in that it has not affected either of my jobs (and therefore, my income). My teaching job for uni has moved online, and my retail job is busier than ever. So while there have been a lot of things I’ve found stressful about the shutdown, money isn’t one of them.

On top of that, I’ve still been struggling with my own issues from last year. I’m still angry and upset about having to discontinue my PhD and the likely prospect that I’ll never be able to finish it, while the health issue I developed last year is still progressing (albeit slowly), and though I have a tentative diagnosis, I’m still not 100% sure what it is, let alone if it can be treated.

Even before Semester 1 started back in March, I feel like I did very little of anything worthwhile. I only did one or two drawings and I didn’t do any fiction writing. Once uni kicked off, I quickly became busy with class preparation and assignment marking, which didn’t diminish after we were suddenly forced to change from on-campus classes to online delivery because of the coronavirus. I also got put on a contract at my retail job at the same time, so I’ve gone from doing one shift there every week or two, to doing three shifts every week. This has been good for my bank account – and it’s also been the one thing that gets me out of the house – but it’s left me with little time for any of my creative hobbies, and when I have had time, I’ve generally not had the energy or motivation, so I’d end up just faffing around in Animal Crossing for several hours, and then feeling guilty and ashamed when my Switch’s low battery indicator came on because I’d spent the time on video games rather than doing anything useful.

I think it was while I was obsessing over where I was going to move my fruit tree orchard and how I would arrange the villagers’ houses in Animal Crossing that I had a thought: wouldn’t I be better off putting this creative energy into something where I’d actually have something to show for it at the end? Now, I understand this isn’t an entirely healthy mindset (see my note below), but it also got me thinking about how I could do something creative when I just really couldn’t be bothered.

Disclaimer number 2: while it’s important to try to do what you can and keep yourself busy, it’s okay to not be as productive as normal or to not finish everything on your to-do list every day, or even to have days where you just can’t do anything but survive. These aren’t normal times, so for a lot of folks, the best they can really hope to do is make it through until some semblance of normalcy returns; anything you manage to achieve on top of that is just icing on the cake (and if ‘wasting time’ playing video games helps you maintain your sanity and take your mind off how crappy life/the world is, even just for a little while, then the time wasn’t wasted). This post isn’t meant to guilt trip anyone into trying to be productive when they’re not physically, mentally or emotionally up to it; it’s just supposed to provide some ideas and encouragement for people who do want to do something creative but maybe don’t know where to start or have limited time and energy.

In light of this, I sat down and actually started to make lists of creative things I thought I could do that wouldn’t require too much time or energy. I considered trying to write short stories, but my writing muscles seem to have atrophied somewhat in the years since I did my writing and editing course (I have been re-reading the novel I was writing to try to immerse myself in the world again, but haven’t managed to do much more than bash out a few sentences in the manuscript). I thought about finally starting on a painting I’ve had an idea for since late last year, and doing it in steps, but I realised that anything that would take me more than one or two sittings to complete is probably something I won’t complete at all. None of the ideas I came up with seemed workable. It wasn’t until I was doing my annual desk clean, during which I clear away piles of notes and excavate lost stationery, that I found a rectangle of watercolour paper I’d cut from a larger piece and then clearly forgotten about for some reason. The scrap was rectangular and about half the size of a credit card, and although I couldn’t remember why I’d cut it out, it occurred to me that it was probably big enough to do a miniature painting.

Thus, Seven Small Sketches was born.

Seven Small Sketches
As is the case with most skills, art is something you have to practice regularly if you want to improve. Regularly churning out large drawings or paintings isn’t feasible for me (or a lot of people) most of the time, but doing regular small paintings is something that much more achievable. The painting I attempted on the watercolour paper scrap was a disaster, but instead of being discouraged as I usually am when I mess up a painting, I didn’t really care because I hadn’t put that much time or energy into it. I got out a small pad of watercolour paper that was almost used up and used masking tape to create 8 small rectangles. To help myself achieve the ‘regular’ part, I set myself a goal of doing one small sketch each day for a week.

This was what I ended up with (references for the photos I used are at the bottom of this post).

Even though it was a fairly small challenge, part of me still expected to fail, so I felt a genuine sense of achievement when I got to the end of the week and actually had seven new piece of art to show for it. Yes, they’re only small, but they’re still paintings and drawings that didn’t exist before. Completing this challenge has also given me the motivation to keep trying to make art, even if it’s only small pieces like this, rather than feeling bad about the fact my art supplies are just sitting in my drawer unused.

Tips and Ideas
If you want to have a go at your own Seven Small Sketches challenge, here are some things to consider before you get started.

You’ll need to decide what medium/s your small sketches will be created with. Depending on your art goals, you might choose to experiment with a different medium every day of the week, or to focus on one medium. The medium you choose will also influence the surface you’ll draw or paint on, so if you’re going to do what I did and use one piece of paper (or canvas) for the whole week, you’ll need to plan ahead. Otherwise, you can just use separate miniature canvases or pieces of paper for each piece.

As with mediums, you may decide to paint or draw a different subject every day, or to do the same subject but from different angles, or different variations of the subject. As a compromise, you could do a themed week of different subjects that are somehow related, or perhaps do several different paintings in a new style (like impressionism or abstraction) that you haven’t tried before.

Depending on how much time and energy you have, you may still be doing full-sized art works as well as your Seven Small Sketches. These sketches can be a useful tool for developing ideas for those larger pieces, as you can use them as a practice run or try out different ideas, colour schemes or compositions. This has the bonus of removing any anxiety about trying something new on a larger piece, because if you make a mistake in a small sketch, nothing has really been lost.

If possible, try to allocate a particular time each day to work on your Seven Small Sketches. Pandemic or not, it can be hard to find time for art, especially when we’re busy with work, but if you can set aside even half an hour a day, that should be enough time to create something. One advantage of the Seven Small Sketches challenge is that it’s contained to a single week, so if you know you’ll have a week where you’ll have a bit more time to yourself, you can have a go at doing it that week (similarly, don’t take on the challenge if you know you’re going to be really busy with work or family or whatever, as you’re likely setting yourself up to fail).

It goes without saying that you’ll need drawing or painting supplies, but it’s worth thinking about how your choice of materials may affect how you work on your sketches. Because these are supposed to be small and hopefully fairly quick to complete, it’s best if you use supplies you can set up and put away as quickly as possible (including cleaning up). If you already have a studio space set up with your paints, brushes and/or pastels etc at your fingertips, this is less of an issue, but for me space is limited, so I have to put all my supplies away when I’m not using them. This is why I didn’t use oil paints or soft pastels in my Seven Small Sketches challenge; I figured I’d spend more time setting them all up and having to clean it all up afterwards than I’d spend on the actual drawing or painting. It’s up to you, of course, but I chose to use small tins of pencils rather than getting out my full-range sets of Derwents or Caran D’Ache, and rather than digging through my box of watercolour tubes, I used my little Expeditionary Art Toolkit. If you’ve got any of those ‘sample size’ sets of supplies that are often thrown in as freebies with art orders or sold cheaply to introduce new customers to a product, this would be a good project to use them on.

At the end of your Seven Small Sketches challenge, make a note of the date you started and completed it. Similar to keeping a journal, this will help you monitor your progress and over time, you’ll be able to look back at your collection of sketches and see how your skills have improved.

Sometimes life will happen, things will go wrong and you won’t be able to complete the Seven Small Sketches challenge. And that’s fine. Doing seven drawings/paintings a day for a week is a goal to aim for, but the art police aren’t going to come and bust your door down if you miss a day because you were sick or tired or just too mentally/emotionally drained to pick up a brush. Pushing yourself to create when you’ve got nothing left only exhausts you more and it usually doesn’t result in good work (and even if it does, is it worth it if it leaves you so burnt out afterwards that you can’t function for a week?) so you’re better off taking a couple of days or a week to recharge and then pick up the challenge again when you’re ready. Even if you don’t do art for all seven days and only manage four or five? That’s still four or five pieces of art you didn’t have before, and it’s still time you spent improving your skills. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t finish a challenge. Just pick yourself up again and try when you’re ready.

I hope this somewhat rambly post has given at least some people a bit of encouragement and motivation to get out their art supplies again. If you do decide to do your own Seven Small Sketches challenge, I’d love to see you post your creations using the #SevenSmallSketches hashtag on social media so that other artists can follow along with your progress.

Day 1: Indigo bunting, based on a photo by Michelle Cassandra Vincent (watercolours).
Day 2: Ladybird, from imagination (coloured pencil).
Day 3: Mountain landscape, based on various photos by Joe Price in the Photos for Artists group on Facebook (gouache).
Day 4: Waterlily, based on a photo by WthrLady in the WetCanvas Reference Image Library (oil pastel).
Day 5: Pumpkins, based on a photo by dancinghen in the WetCanvas Reference Image Library (acrylics).
Day 6: Lighthouse, based on a photo by Alice Hoagland Burghart in the Photos for Artists group on Facebook (crayon).
Day 7: Fox, based on a photo by Paul Green in the Photos for Artists group on Facebook (ink).

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Pencils: Derwent Lightfast Pencils (review)

I know the Derwent Lightfast pencils have been out for a while now, but I’ve only just got around to picking up a set to try. When they were first released, there were only 36 colours in the range, but this was later expanded to 72 and then, more recently, to 100. Usually I go for the full range straight away, but having been bitten by that a few times – buying a whole set of pencils only to find that I don’t care for the texture or that most are not lightfast enough for use in work I might display or sell – I decided to just start off with the set of 12.

Here’s the colour chart for my tin of 12.

In the past, I’ve generally been pleased with the selection of colours that Derwent chooses for their tins of 12 pencils, which serve as a good introduction to their ranges (see my review of their Procolour pencils, for example). The only gripe I have is that they never include a white pencil, but for the most part, it’s easy enough to just buy a white in open stock. The Lightfast 12 colour set includes a white, which is great, but some of the other colour choices Derwent has made here are… bewildering.

The first thing I noticed when ordering the pencils online was the lack of a proper blue. At first I thought I could use the Mid Ultramarine over the Violet to get something approximate to a dark blue (like Prussian Blue or Ultramarine), but because the Mid Ultramarine has white pigment added, all this does is create a lavender colour. Most other 12 colour tins include a Prussian Blue (or Ultramarine), and a Phthalo Blue. Given this set only includes a ‘watered down’ blue, you basically can’t get a true blue; even for Australian skies, Mid Ultramarine is still too cool and ‘lavender-ish’ to be suitable. There’s also no magenta, which means you can’t get a true pink (using White or Salmon with the Scarlet just makes a sort of pale orangey red). Omitting two primary colours while including Yellow Ochre, Sandstone and Brown Ochre (when one or two of these could be left out with no real harm done) makes no sense to me. Heck, the tin includes a white, so why did they feel the need to give us a blue with white pigment added instead of just giving us a straight Ultramarine Blue? I had planned to do a drawing of a crimson rosella as my demonstration for these pencils but because I wouldn’t have been able to get that vibrant blue for its feathers, I had to change my plans. When I went and looked at the colour charts on Derwent’s site, I saw that even some of the larger sets are lacking in blues; the 24 colour tin adds a Blue Violet (which has PV23 in it), and the wooden box of 48 adds a Denim blue, but it’s not until the 72 colour tins that a solid selection of blues is included. Reds and magentas don’t fare much better; you won’t get much aside from Scarlet until you get to the 48 colour tin.

On a side note, you know how all the Derwent tins have those little coloured lines along the bottom on the front to show you how many colours and what colours are in the tin? Don’t be guided by that indicator on the Lightfast tins, because it bears no resemblance to the colours you actually get (it seems they just copied it from their other 12 colour tins). One good thing about the Derwent Lightfast pencils is that they include the pigments used in each colour, so you know exactly what you’re getting (unfortunately the tin I got must be old, as the pamphlet inside only lists 36 colours).

Grumbles about colour selection aside, I quite like how the Lightfast pencils handle. In terms of texture and firmness, they’re very similar to the Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils, which are the only other pencil brand currently on the market that only includes lightfast colours (Faber-Castell’s lines are generally highly rated but do contain some fugitive colours). If anything, the Derwent Lightfast feel slightly softer, but the difference is negligible. However I think the Caran d’Ache Luminance white is slightly more opaque than the Derwent Lightfast white. While doing some swatches to test, I also noticed that the Lightfast black is more of a warm black, while the Luminance black has a colder hue (which isn’t a good or bad thing, just an observation for those who may be interested). For the most part, the leads were quite sturdy, though unfortunately I had a lot of breakage issues with my Violet pencil, and after being used in only one drawing (and only for a few layers), it’s now about a third shorter than all the other pencils because I had to keep sharpening it all the time.

Their competitiveness in terms of price depends on where you buy them; Caran d’Ache sets seem to be more expensive on average anywhere, but the cost of individual pencils varies widely. On UK store sites, the Lightfast pencils are a lot more expensive than the Luminance, but on Australian sites (at least those that have them open stock), the Lightfast pencils are cheaper, at about $3.75 per pencil. If you plan to sell or display work you do with coloured pencil, it is worth shelling out the extra money for the peace of mind you’ll get knowing your drawings won’t fade.

Here’s the drawing I did with my set of Derwent Lightfast pencils (for a step-by-step demonstration of how I did it, click here).

Overall, I liked the Derwent Lightfast pencils and was generally happy with their quality and performance. I would recommend choosing your own colours from open stock rather than buying one of the smaller tins, otherwise you’ll likely find yourself missing important colours (that being said, a tin can be a cost effective way to get a decent selection of pencils quickly). If you already have the Luminance pencils, there’s no need to rush out and buy the Lightfast ones, though it might be worth getting a few individual colours that don’t exist in the Luminance range. However if you’re looking to get your first set of lightfast pencils, a 72 colour set (or larger) of Derwent Lightfast would be a good purchase.

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Coloured Pencils: Violin (demonstration)

I drew this violin for my review of the Derwent Lightfast pencils, and figured it would make a good demonstration. As always, you don’t need to use the exact pencils I’ve used; just find the closest colours in your own pencil collection. The photo is by Karen Broemmelsick and was uploaded to the Photos For Artists group on Facebook.

Also, apologies in advance because I’ll probably get the names of some parts of the violin wrong (I did try Googling though). No one in my family has any musical talent, and unfortunately, I am no exception.

Derwent Lightfast Pencils:
-Sun Yellow
-Yellow Ochre
-Mid Ultramarine
-Brown Ochre
-Natural Brown

Brush and Pencil by Alyona Nickelsen
-Colored Pencil Touch-Up Texture
-Colored Pencil Titanium White

Stonehenge 250gsm paper (13cm X 18cm)

Step 1
Draw or trace the outline of the violin onto your paper. Put a light to medium layer of Yellow Ochre in the edge of the violin, leaving some small white gaps for highlights if possible (I’m aiming to do this if I can, but if I accidentally colour over them, I’m going to use the Brush and Pencil products to put the highlights back in). Go over the inner edge with Natural Brown to create the shadow. About half of the edge should be in shadow, but try to make the very inner edge especially dark.

On the body of the violin, put in a light layer of Salmon where the highlight will be, then go over this with White (still using light to medium pressure). Apply a light layer of Yellow Ochre to the rest of the body.

Also note that I’m not worrying about leaving the strings white as I’m going to paint them in later with the Brush and Pencil products as well.

Step 2
Put in an even layer of Black for the background, using a light to medium pressure. Go over this with Violet, making it darker at the top and bottom. Next, go over it with Mid Ultramarine, using a medium to heavy pressure in the middle and a light to medium pressure over the top and bottom. We’ll leave the background for now, but we’ll come back to it later.

Using a very light pressure, apply a layer of Scarlet over most of the body of the violin (except the Salmon/White highlight), leaving a few areas of Yellow Ochre from step one showing through. This will help create the natural variation in the colour of the wood. Using a light to medium pressure, go over the body area (except the highlight again) with Yellow Ochre, feathering your strokes around the edges of the highlight to create a smooth blend. Sharpen your Natural Brown, Sandstone and Scarlet pencils to a very fine point and put in the wood grain. Though having some lines be a little wider than others will help make the effect look more natural, most of the lines should be fairly thin, so you’ll need to sharpen your pencils quite often. Also, as tempting as it may be, don’t use a ruler for these lines; wood grain is almost never straight, and having straight lines on your violin will make it look weird. Don’t be afraid to use lighter or heavier pressure in some places. Keep most of the lines dark (Natural Brown) but have a few Sandstone and/or Scarlet overlayed with Sandstone for variety. Where the wood grain crosses into the highlight area, use a very light touch and create the grain with Sandstone and/or Scarlet.

Step 3
Colour the bridge of the violin in with Sun Yellow, adding a layer of Yellow Ochre over the section in shadow. With a light pressure, add another layer of Scarlet over the body for the reddish brown areas, and then go over all of the body except the highlight with a medium to heavy pressure with Sandstone, changing to Yellow Ochre for some of the lighter areas near the bottom. Add a light to medium layer of Natural Brown for some of the darker areas and then go over this with another layer of Sandstone. You might need to repeat this process a few times to build up the colours, and if you lose the wood grain, just go over it again with your Natural Brown, Scarlet and/or Sandstone pencils. Go over the edge of the violin with Yellow Ochre and a heavy pressure, blending it into the dark Natural Brown shadow.

Go over the background with Black, using a medium to heavy pressure at the top and bottom and a light to medium pressure in the middle. Burnish the whole background area with Mid Ultramarine.

Step 4
Use Violet to colour in the F holes, then go over it with Black and a heavy pressure. Use Violet to colour in the purple bits at the bottom of the strings. Colour the fingerboard and tailpiece with Black, using a lighter pressure for the highlighted areas and heavy pressure for the areas in deep shadow. Go over the lightest parts with White, gradually blending outwards with less pressure, then add another light layer of Black to unify it.

For the highlighted area on the body of the violin, apply a heavy layer of White, blending out into Salmon as you get towards the brownish parts. Blend some of the highlight colours over the browns and golds to create a smooth transition. You may need to go over the wood grain again at this point, with Natural Brown and Sandstone. Sharpen your black and add the decorative line detail just inside the edge of the violin’s body.

Mix up some Brush and Pencil Titanium White powder with the Touch-Up Texture liquid to form a goauche-textured paste. Add any highlights necessary on the edge of the violin and on the tailpiece, and then, using a ruler if you want, paint the violin strings. All that’s left to do now is sign the drawing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this drawing demo. I’ll have a review of the Derwent Lightfast pencils up shortly.

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Australian Bushfires 2019-2020

Summer bushfires in Australia are nothing unusual, but the 2019-2020 fires have affected the country on an unprecedented scale. Even though I am nowhere near the danger areas already destroyed or potentially threatened by the fires, I have some friends across various states who have been forced to evacuate. There’s not much I can do to help, aside from donating, but I thought I’d also put together a post with a few links for any of my readers who want to contribute.

The emotional and economic toll of the Australian bushfires has been immense, with several people dead, many homes lost and rural businesses and towns deprived of the tourism money they desperately need to survive (not to mention half the country is now covered in smoke to the extent where the air quality is now hazardous in some major cities). People who have been forced to evacuate also have had no access to food or clothing, though folks have donated these things in large quantities to the extent authorities are now saying they don’t need more physical item donations and requesting cash donations instead. The Victorian Government has set up this page to allow people to donate, with money going directly to the affected communities.

Our firefighters – many of whom are volunteers¬† – are also doing their best to save as many homes and lives as they can. To donate to Victorian firefighters, visit the CFA’s page. You can also help the NSW firefighters at the RFS site.

In addition to the financial and economic impact on humans, there’s also been a devastating impact on the environment, with many animals killed, native plants destroyed and potentially whole species of flora and fauna wiped out. On top of that, a lot of animals have been hurt, or have had their habitat burnt away and have nowhere to go.

Here are some charities that are helping to look after animals that have been displaced or injured in the fires…
Wildlife Victoria (VIC)

If I find more links for donations that will help either firefighters trying to stop the blazes or people and animals who have been affected, I’ll update this post, but otherwise, thank you to anyone who donate.

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Letting 2020 Through The Front Door While 2019 Climbs Out The Back Window

It’s that time again, when we all reflect on the year just passed and make promises to ourselves what we’re going to do differently in the year to come: New Year’s Eve.

As I conduct a post-mortem of my 2019, scooping out its insides before dumping them into little metal trays beside me, there’s no sense of closure of accomplishment. At the start of this year, I thought I would end it having submitted my thesis for my PhD after 6 and a half years of research and being able to look ahead with joy and optimism about the opportunities it might bring. Instead, the problems that had plagued me throughout my entire candidature continued to do so, and new ones also arose, making it pretty much impossible for me to do my data analysis and finish my write-up before mid-December, when my thesis was due. On top of that, I’ve developed a frightening and progressive health issue which I still don’t have a diagnosis for, and worrying about it has utterly consumed any residual emotional energy I might have had left. So, in October, instead of being on the final stretch of thesis revisions, I found myself forced to discontinue my PhD and walk away from the project with nothing to show for it except depression and a new-found obsession with gardening (hey, I had to find something to fill in the time).

My gardening assistant.

So, what’s ahead for 2020?

I’ve never really been one for New Year’s resolutions, probably because I see so many other people make them, stick with them for a week or two before having a misstep and then basically throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Well, I failed, not going to bother trying anymore” and returning to their previous bad/unhealthy habits.

But in 2020, due to 2019 being an absolute train wreck of a year in just about every way possible, I’m going to try to make some changes for the better. That being said, I’m also acknowledging up front that there will be days where I ‘fall off the wagon’ or some goals that I can’t meet, at least entirely, and deciding that it’s okay to stumble here and there as long as I get up and keep trying. And yes, I know that people who want to make changes could do so at any time, not just an arbitrary time like New Year’s, but for me I always struggle with this time of the year, thinking to myself, “What have I achieved? Nothing.” (especially true this year). I’m hoping that listing my goals and being specific about them will help me turn New Year’s from a time of moping to a time of doing. Also, even if I do trip up sometimes, some healthy food/exercise/art/writing is better than none.


Eat less sugar: I’ve already been doing this for a few months now, but I want to take it further and try to cut out as much added sugar from my diet as possible. I’ve pretty much stopped having energy drinks completely (only had 2-3 in the last 3 months), and I’ve been getting low-sugar varieties of yoghurt and chocolate (on the rare occasions I have chocolate; I’ve mostly stopped buying that as well).
Eat more fruit and vegetables: Again, I’ve started doing this already but I know I can do better. I tend to eat a lot of processed meals (like microwavable pasta and canned soups) so I want to cut those out and start eating more fresh food so I know exactly what’s in it. I’ve also started eating at least 2-3 pieces of fruit every day so I want to maintain this, plus include more dark leafy vegetables.
Eat less fast food: This is another goal I’m largely doing already but want to maintain. Aside from a pizza or pasta three or four times in as many months, I’ve pretty much stopped getting takeaway food, and on the rare occasions I do need to buy something to eat for lunch while I’m out, I’ve been going for healthier options like salads or sandwiches. At least at uni, both campuses I teach at now have a number of healthy options to choose from, so I’m not stuck with eating fatty fried food if I don’t have time (read: am too lazy) to bring lunch from home that day.

20 mins per day/5 days per week: This is one of my most important goals but also the one I’m most likely to struggle with. Aside from walking to the shops/train station and walking the dog sometimes, I basically don’t do any exercise (much of this is because of my knee problems, which make most weight-bearing activities a no-go). I bought that RingFit Adventure game on Nintendo Switch and so far it has been quite good (and fun) at making me do a variety of exercises, but I know I need to do more, and more often. I plan to join a gym (once I find one with no contracts where I can just pay weekly; I’ve already booked in for a free trial on Thursday morning with a friend) and go 2-3 days a week, and then on another 2-3 days a week I’ll continue with the RingFit Adventure game. I’ll mostly be doing cardio stuff like cycling, but hopefully I can then try other types of exercise once I’m stronger and fitter.

On a side note, my Diet and Exercise goals have nothing to do with losing weight, as I’m already at a ‘healthy’ weight. However, though I’m fairly slim, I am woefully unfit, as I discovered a month or so ago when I had to run two blocks to catch a train, and it almost killed me. As I collapsed onto the train seat, gasping and panting like a beached whale with asthma, I realised that if I was this unfit now, what would I be like in my 50s or 60s? That was an unpleasant wake-up call and though I’d known for a while that I needed to change my habits, that was what finally gave me the boot in the arse I needed to do something about it. At least my new gardening hobby is good in that in addition to providing me with flowers and fresh vegetables and herbs, it makes me spend time outside in the fresh air.

To try to help me stay on top of my diet and exercise, I’ve purchased an exercise book and written out a list of important vitamins and minerals people need and what foods they are found in. I’ve also written out some different types of exercise that I should be able to do (things like weight lifting and running are a no-go because of my knees, but things like cycling and swimming should be achievable for me). I’m going to use the same book as a sort of journal to record what foods and drinks I eat each day and how much exercise I do. I know this sounds like I’m going to be one of those stick-up-the-bum health nuts, but I’m not going to be counting calories or pulling out my calculator to work out how many micrograms of each vitamin I need to eat; it’s basically just so I can see at a glance what I’ve eaten and what exercise I’ve done (and how much) over the course of a week or so, and then eat or do a few things differently the following week if I think there’s anything lacking.

Do some sort of art at least 2 days a week: I love painting and drawing, but due to lack of time/energy and poor mental health, I haven’t done anywhere near as much as I should over the last year or so. I want to try to get back into the habit of making art at least semi-regularly, even if it’s just a small sketch in a journal or painting the size of a postcard. The more frequently you practice a skill, the faster that skill develops, so I hope increasing the frequency of my painting and drawing will being a much more noticeable improvement.
Spend at least 3 hours a week on my creative writing projects: I love writing fantasy novels, but aside from occasionally scrawling notes on the back of shopping receipts while in class, I basically haven’t touched any of my works in progress since starting my PhD. I want to ease myself into it slowly by spending 3 hours a week with my writing, even if I don’t actually write anything to start with and just re-read/absorb the work so I can get back into the headspace for writing. Hopefully after a while I’ll be able to spend more time on it each week.

Make a decision about my PhD: Technically I can go back to my PhD again at any time within the next 4 years, but I don’t really want it hanging over my head that long. I’ve set myself two ‘deadlines’ for deciding. One at the end of June, 2020, where I’ll try to decide if I want to go back or not. If I’m ready, I’ll get in touch with my supervisor and get the ball rolling. If I still don’t know for sure, my second deadline for deciding will be December 2020. At that point I may be in a position where I want to pick it up again. However, if I’m still undecided after a year, I’m going to take that as a sign that I’m never going to be ready and that I shouldn’t go back, and accept that I will never finish my PhD. Much of this will depend on if I get a diagnosis or resolution for my on-going health issues, as if it keeps getting worse and/or I don’t know what it is, I’ll be too worried about that to focus on my research. There is a part of me that still wants to finish my PhD, but I also don’t want to spend time on a project that has made me bitter and miserable when I could spend that time doing things I enjoy, especially when I may not be able to do the things I enjoy in the future. On a side note, I’m also not sure finishing my PhD will be worth it even if I do overcome my health issues; since I couldn’t do my data collection until late this year, I don’t have any published papers to accompany my thesis, which will make my thesis more or less useless in terms of getting a job in academia. I know that I am still in a very negative frame of mine when it comes to my PhD, though, which is why I’m distancing myself from it for 6-12 months before I make a decision.

So, what resolutions is everyone else making (if any)? What strategies are you going to use to maximise your chances of being successful?

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Alvaro Castagnet Watercolour Workshop – Melbourne Australia 2019

Since beginning to take my art more seriously in my late 20s, I’ve watched a lot of tutorials and read a lot of books about painting in various styles, particularly in watercolour. While there were a number of artists whose work I loved, I especially began to gravitate towards the style of artists like Joseph Zbukvic, Herman Pekel and Alvaro Castagnet. One day several years ago I received an email from Senior Art Supplies advertising that Alvaro Castagnet was running a workshop right here in Melbourne, and I eagerly rushed to the art supply shop’s website to register… only to find that the workshop was completely booked out. Every year or so, another email would go out, and every year I’d check my emails after a full day of teaching only to find I’d missed out yet again.

In January this year, when Alvaro posted on his Instagram page that he would be doing a workshop in Melbourne soon, I loaded the Senior Art Supplies page on all my devices and surreptitiously mashed the refresh button during summer semester classes, keeping one eye on my screen and the other eye on my students, who were working on their tutorial activities. It might sound ridiculous but it paid off, and I managed to get into one of the March 2019 workshops at long last. In November another workshop was advertised for December, and after the trainwreck that 2019 was for me in so many ways, I decided to go along again to give myself something fun to look forward to.

So, this post will be part review, part gushing/fan-girling and part talking about some of the things I learned during the workshops.

Workshop Structure
The workshop ran for both days of the weekend, from about 9.30am to about 3-4pm on both days. On the first morning, Alvaro introduced himself (though he didn’t need much of an introduction) and talked for a little about how the workshop would run, ie. He would do a demo for us and then while we were attempting it, he’d come around and give each person some brief feedback. There were about 16 people in the workshop, so it wouldn’t have been possible for him to sit with each of us and go through each aspect of our painting, but by looking at our work and pointing out issues or problems we needed to fix (and how we could fix them), it was still a good way to help us improve. Each day we would do one painting in the morning, have a break for lunch and then come back for the second painting in the afternoon. It was a pretty full-on weekend, but it was heaps of fun, and I feel like I learned a lot.

Some Valuable Lessons
As the students worked on their paintings, Alvaro walked around giving us advice, telling us things we needed to improve on. In addition to this feedback for each student, he also offered up some pearls of wisdom while he was painting his demonstration pieces. Some of the things he said were things I knew on an intellectual level but was still trying to put into my practice and incorporate them into my paintings, but there were also things I had previously not considered and which, once I thought about it, made a lot of sense.

Make a Mess with Elegance
This was more of a throwaway comment rather than advice, but it still resonated with me, and some of the other lessons I mention below tie into it in various ways. “Make a mess with elegance”. I think this sums up watercolour quite well; it can be a difficult medium to control, so often an artist has to put the paint on their paper and see what happens, and then work with whatever they’ve ended up with (yes, I know this is a generalisation and doesn’t apply to some painting styles). For me, painting with watercolours sometimes feels like trying to control chaos, and though I don’t always succeed, I still have fun trying.

Paint a Lion, Not a Pussy Cat
One of Alvaro’s comments from the workshops that stuck with me the most was, “Paint a lion, not a pussy cat”. I remember during the first workshop, I was horrified to see his dirty palette (I’m one of those anally retentive people who must keep each individual colour clean and pure) and how he just mixes all colours – even bright ones – in the same spots as muddy greys. But as he worked, I could see how the colours that looked muddy on the palette looked natural and organic once they were on the paper. A dirty yellow ochre transformed into a building with sunlight shining on it, while a mess of blues and browns became lively shadows. While ‘pretty’ colours like pure blues, pinks and purples might be useful for some subjects (like flowers) they tend to look unnatural and lifeless in landscapes and cityscapes. Alvaro said that a painting with pretty pinks and blues is like a ‘pussy cat’ and a painting with colours mixed has more impact and is like a lion’. Again, this might be a generalisation and not work as well for some subjects or painting styles, but I have noticed that my paintings look better when I mix some muted colours rather than using a bright colour straight from the pan or tube.

Don’t Draw with the Brush
During one of his demonstrations, Alvaro said a lot of students make the mistake of drawing with their brush, rather than painting with it. Much of this lies in how they hold the brush. When people hold their brush at or near the ferrule, close to the bristles, it mimics the way we’ve been taught to hold pens and pencils our whole lives. While this grip might be suited for fine control and detail – as required for writing or for photorealistic painting and drawing – it doesn’t lend itself well to the loose, expressive brushstrokes required for impressionist painting. When Alvaro paints, he tends to hold the brush near the end of the handle and often uses his whole arm to make his brushstrokes, rather than just his wrist. Even when he is adding detail, like highlights on figures or wires to telephone lines, he still uses this grip and makes fast, confident motions. This is probably something I most struggle with, as I tend to make small marks slowly (for fear of doing it ‘wrong’) and then end up with a stilted, lifeless stroke on the page. When it comes to larger marks, like filling in areas of sky or buildings, I tend to fiddle with it, going back over a spot to try to fix something I’m not happy with (which usually makes it worse) instead of doing it in one hit and then leaving it alone so it retains a fresher look.

Don’t Paint From a Photo Unless You Can Improve It
At one point during the workshop, one of the students asked Alvaro what he thought about realism as a painting style. The gist of his response was basically, “If you’re going to make a painting that looks like a photo, you might as well just take a photo.” And I can see where he’s coming from, even though I enjoy painting realistic art and am good at it (at least when it comes to some subjects, like still life and florals). But even though I like realism and can do it well, I want to be able to paint more loosely, more freely. Not necessarily in exactly the same style as Alvaro, but definitely with that impressionist feel.

He also talked about the importance of composition. While it’s often helpful to use a photo as a reference, copying it blindly will not result in a good painting. In addition to simplifying things for the sake of a stylistically appealing painting, you sometimes need to add or subtract things from the composition, or move something from one location to another.

Composition and simplifying details are both things I need to work on, which I’ve known for some time. But seeing such a skilled artist apply these things in practice – watching how he sketches his initial drawing and explains why he’s changing things from the photo, and seeing how he applies the paint to the paper – are so much more helpful than reading theory from a book.

Simplify Figures to Match the Setting
On the second morning of both workshops, Alvaro took some time to demonstrate how he paints figures, as he’d noticed that most of us were struggling to do them well. When a figure is part of a landscape or cityscape, it needs to be painted in the same ‘style’ as the background and objects around it. This means that in impressionist paintings, the figures are often not much more than squiggles and blobs with a few details and highlights in other colours. In fact, it seemed that this was how Alvaro painted his figures; by making rushed and seemingly random marks with his brush, and then refining them with smaller strokes.

He also showed us that the same principles and methods can be applied to other organic parts of a scene, like cafe tables full of people in a street scene, or animals on a farm.

One comment Alvaro made during the workshop was that if two artists entered a competition, and one painted perfect backgrounds but poor figures and the other painted average backgrounds but perfect figures, the latter would win. He also suggested that we should aim to spend some time practicing figures each day, which I have done with varied success; though I occasionally get a nice looking person or group of people, most of my attempts just look like a mess.

Paintings from the Workshop
The paintings completed during the workshop were all based on photos taken by Alvaro. I must admit I struggled to find my stride a bit. I had intended to spend the weeks leading up to the workshops doing a lot of practice watercolour paintings, but unfortunately life got in the way and I didn’t have a chance, so I went into the workshops having not painted for a couple of months. I resigned myself to the fact I would not be producing any grand works of art in the workshops, and it’s lucky I did, because I felt like a gorilla with a concussion trying to perform brain surgery with a spanner. These are the only two paintings (one from the March workshop and one from the December workshop) I did that weren’t completely terrible, though I still don’t know what the hell I was trying to achieve by scribbling a half-arsed bicycle in the foreground of the second one.

(on a side note, Alvaro painted the figure on the right in my second painting, after I had tried and mangled it horribly. My Dad thought that having a figure painted by a world famous artist might make it worth more, but I had to point out that since the rest of the painting around it was rubbish, he’d probably get more money from selling a roll of toilet paper)

If you’re a watercolour artist of any skill level and you have the opportunity to go to one of Alvaro’s workshops, I strongly recommend doing so. It was $300AUD, but when you consider it’s basically a full two day workshop, the price is quite reasonable. Not only will you learn a lot from him, but you’ll also have fun in the process.

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Art Roundup: November 2019

It’s been a while since I did an Art Roundup post, but I finally have a new painting that wasn’t part of a review or demonstration, so I thought it was time I did another one. There’s only one painting for this post, and technically I finished it in December, but I started it in November.

Chonky Pie – Winsor & Newton Watercolours
One good thing about being forced to discontinue my PhD is that now I have all the time in the world to play video games without feeling guilty. Lately I’ve been playing Pokemon Shield on Nintendo Switch, and while there are a lot of hits and misses with the new Pokemon designs, one of my favourites is Appletun, a dual Grass and Dragon type*. I wanted to practice my watercolour painting since I’m a bit rusty and I’m going to a workshop later this month, so I thought I’d paint this little chap.

That’s it for November. Hopefully I’ll have a few more drawings or paintings to post at the end of December.

*It has a high Special Attack stat but its Speed is terrible, but it’s just so cute I still had to have one in my team.

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