Monday, 15 June 2015

notes from the airing cupboard.. Oranges in oils

So, I mentioned that I moved my workspace up to my small spare bedroom, and felt the benefit of being away from the general living space of the rest of the house. After the first painting, of an orange, which I'd set up in  shadow box, on top of a chair on top of a table, I decided it would be useful to have some shelves, to vary the height of my subjects. And then I remembered that the other wall is a set of cupboards, with lots of shelves! Da-naaa!!

So I turned my easel and lamp around, moved a few towels, placed the shadow box on the right shelf and set up the next arrangement. Oranges in the airing cupboard. Perfect...
Fruit in the airing cupboard..

One of the important factors in using the shadow box is the ability to control lighting, or to prevent more light than you want, on the subject. I lined the edges of the cupboard with black fabric, and used the cupboard door to block external light. Yes - a lot of time is spent preparing and setting up. This is so important. Composing, arranging and lighting your subject  is the making of the picture. It has to look delicious, or there's no point in painting it. So all this faffing about isn't a waste of time, it's the creative part. 

One lamp on the subject, another on the canvas. 

I did my preparatory drawing in my sketch book - I love this stage. This is a step which so many students leave out. Why? Drawing is information gathering - we draw information from the subject, to gain understanding of spacial and tonal relationships and to get the balance right. 

Something magic that happens when we draw before painting. Familiarity with the subject, an intimate getting-to-know it better. Then, at paint stage, we've already observed it, we kind of FEEL it, and the NEW decisions we are making are about colour - we still have to make the spacial and tonal decisions too, but we're half way there with those by then..

Underpainting, over a burnt sienna base colour
I painted the white canvas with a layer of burnt sienna, as a good base to paint on.

I propped my drawing up as additional refrence material next to my easel. Sometimes looking at the drawing helps, even though the fruit is still right there!

With this painting, I was trying out glazing techniques, and trying to be a bit looser. The canvas was one that I'd already opened, from my pre-Milliken Brothers days, and it was horribly rough and textured, which at least helped to restrict any over-tight tendancies. Sometimes though, it can feel like we're battling with the materials, which is not a good thing. I stuck with this painting till I couldn't stand the rough canvas any more, and moved on to the next one (making sure it was a nice fine linen).

For me, painting really is about the doing of it, rather than the completing of it. The hope is always that the next one will be better, and the next and the next...

Up and coming workshops: Oils weekend, Belfast. For info email

Saturday, 23 May 2015

An Adventure to Milliken Brothers, County Down

On a visit to artist Ian McAllister's studio I asked him where he bought his lovely big linen canvases. He casually said, 'Millikens', as if everyone knew who that was. Ahem. When he realised I hadn't heard of them (his jaw almost hit the floor and his eyes nearly popped out in shock at my unfortunate lack of knowledge...), he insited on taking me to introduce me, as they weren't too far away. He looked so pleased at the idea, and while I didn't anticipate much joy in visiting a canvas-maker, I do love a little run out, so off we went.

It was wonderful. 

This is what it looks like from the outside - a charming, unassuming, traditional house in an Ulster village. 

But behind these doors is a treasure trove of craftsmanship, highly skilled carpentry and attention to detail which will make every artist very happy indeed. 

The Milliken Brothers Alyn and David - their father was water colour artist Robert Milliken, who painted beautiful landscapes and birds.  I met Alyn, who showed me round the workshop, explaining that everything was made to order, and he showed me the biggest art 'board' I've ever seen - about 12 ft square, like a smooth wall, perfectly prepared for an artist to paint on. It was beautiful, even in its unadorned state, in the way a hand made staircase is.

The linen comes in a variety of thickness, from chunky and lumpy to fine and smooth. Having used only cotton canvas thus far, I was delighted to see how smooth the linen is, and I bought one, and Alyn gave me a small board to try as well.
I was impressed by the different linens, some thick, some very fine. 
Across the courtyard, next to a garden filled with sweet peas, was a series of low-roofed buildings, which included the office (fire blazing) and, much to my surprise, an art materials shop. 
The art shop!

If I'd not been smitten already, this would have clinched it for me. I can hardly describe the emotions I experienced - these buildings, the whole atmosphere, is just so authentically Irish. This is what old Ireland looks like, and it feels so personal. It was, of course, just like my granny's house.  It felt like coming home. Opening the low door and stepping inside.. gasp!
Inside, a very small selection of artist-quality materials. Specialist, and specific. Paradise.
Growing up with an artist parent must, I'm sure, be the key to the brothers interest in providing such good quality materials - not only the canvas and boards, but also the paints. If you are going to paint, use the right materials!

 It is fantastic to order canvas to the exact size you want to work, rather than using only pre-made shapes. I now only use the Milliken canvases - the trick is to plan ahead and order a few at a time. Their canvas is lovely to work on, as are the boards. And if you change your mind after starting the painting, they can take it off the stretcher and resize for you. (though that is too scary for me...) I highly recommend Millikens. It's not only me, of course. Here are what some others say about them

But there was more, my first visit wasn't over yet... Amongst all this deliciousness and amazing abundance of temptations, my eye was attracted to a lovely old sign... which had nothing to do with canvas or boards or paints... 

So I asked Alyn about it, and lo! - a little twinkle popped into his eye and a modest smile crept over his lips.. Turns out he's a lover of motorbikes.. I'd noticed some posters in the workshop of Triumph motorbikes so I mentioned them, and he told me that he owned one, as well as a Triton. A Triton is a rare breed of bike, a cross between a Triumph and a Norton, usually hand contructed, in the 1960's. Ooh, really? Would I like to see it? Well, YES! (Bear with me, I'm Visual, remember, I love looking at things)  Poor Ian, he was looking more than bewildered by now..  

 Alyn on his beautiful, shiny and immaculate Triton

The Triton was beautiful, and so well looked after it was like new. Did I mention being smitten before? Well, at the sight of this,  I was falling in love. Alyn told me some of its history, with affection, respect and a little bit of reverence too. After all, the bike is about 50 years old. I stared with envy, until he read my mind and asked if I wanted to sit on it! How could I not? Afterwards, he said that only 3 people before me had sat on it, and that I was the first woman. I felt deeply honoured, but at the same time, glad to get off without scratching it. 

This was one of the best day trips, ever. It's good to have a break from the drawing board - a break can turn from a visit to a surprise to an adventure, when you least expect it!

Upcoming workshops: Portrait drawing, Oils weekend, Landscape in water colour and a Drawing Trail around Belfast'sTitanic Quarter. For info email 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Orange on black cloth, oil on board, 20cm x 20cm

So... working on the dining room table for a couple of weeks was ok, but I began to get on my own nerves.  Besides, my new toy had arrived... a slim line easel. Time for a spacial rethink.

A... jigsaw?
Which was exciting until I realised there were no assembly instructions with it - puLEASE...!

Compact, but perfect. 
I chose a slim easel because the lovely big ones were too tall for my ceilings. And as I don't work very large, slim is fine for now. My thoughts had turned to my tiny spare bedroom - or the Box Room, as we call it in Ireland. I don't know if that's because you're only supposed to keep boxes in it, or if it's because it's the size of a box. But certainly, it's economical in scale. I squeezed the easel in, after draping the walls with black cloth (this was such a palaver I'm trying to blank it from my memory), put the shadow box on a chair to a height that I liked,  played with the lighting, then began drawing, in my Moleskine sketchbook. (actually, no. After all that, I had anice cup of tea. Phew. THEN began drawing) After that I laid in the underpainting on the world's smoothest, custom made board from Milliken's.  (

The thing I struggled most with was reflected light hitting my board, so I set up a piece of black foil - dangling from my lamp - to block it. You can see from the photo below that I have two lamps - one on the still life and another on my board. The rest of the room is pretty dark.The black strip in the middle of the photo is the light-blocking foil.

The camera is a wonderful tool, but there are (many) times when it doesn't serve, and trying to photograph paintings is one of them. Below is the finished painting, but the real thing has much colour in it's cloth and looks richer, more velvety. But, you get the gist.

Next up - Portrait drawing workshop, oils weekend, location drawing at Belfast's Titanic Quater.
For info email

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Oil painting set up - shadow box, Irish style

Last summer I spent much of my time planning and preparing for the Draw In Symposium ( which ran across two weeks at the end of August into September.
I came out the other side of that determinded to set aside more regular painting time for myself, and in order to do this, I resigned as distance learning tutor for London Art College.  Although I've loved it, it was the right thing for me to do - sometimes the best way to serve students is to produce more personal work, and practice. I've worked with their students for six years, but have many students that I am still (in May) seeing out, who started their course with me.  

So, a new routine!

One of the common mistakes I hear from students is in thinking that you must have a designated area at home, set aside specifically for painting. While this is desirable, it's not essential - what is much more important than setting aside space is setting aside TIME.

I decided to do some still life subjects using a shadow box, and put it on the dining room table, raised up on another box to get an angle that I liked. After playing with the light source, I started drawing. (light, by the way, is so transformative to a subject that it makes the difference between making something worth painting, and not. A perfectly ordinary object can be rendered awesome, by the lighting).

Drawing - this is the important act of beginning your observation of the subject - of form, light, relationships, contrasts, nuances of tone. It gets your eye and brain engaged and in sinc with the subject and prepares the ground for the painting to come.  Yet this is the step that many students seek to avoid! Preparation is key. Draw to prepare. Think of the word Draw to mean Gathering. You're gathering information. You're drawing together the information you need to make a good painting.  

Next I traced my drawing onto layout paper, and transferred it onto canvas by painting a thin layer of burnt sienna oil paint over the back of the layout,  and drawing over my lines with a pen, ready for my black and white tonal study. I think it's important to show you the table by now - filling up, but I haven't had to spread out much - the space required is small.

Note the glass of water -  do not get dehydrated.. It's fine to get so absorbed that you forget to eat, but don't forget to drink. 
Finished tonal study

Next up was the colour version. I traced my drawing onto another canvas, laid down an underlayer with burnt umber thinned with mineral spirit, and left it to dry overnight. 

Starting the colour

By now, I admit, I was spreading out a bit more, and I was worried as had a friend coming to visit for an overight stay... Fortunately, she's a lover of arty things and was happy to share the table with me to do some of her own work. This has GOT to be the sign of a good friend. 

Me and Claire, space sharing

One of the good thing about having a visitor, of course, is that it would be rude not to go OUT, especially when the weather is crisp and sunny. So we headed down The Ards Peninsula, one of my favourite places, and drove over the little islands to the Nendrum Monastic site, and on round to Daft Eddie's for coffee.  

You can't beat a nice dry stone wall. 
A break from the drawing board often means we work more quickly when we get back to it. We also see things with a fresh eye when we've had a change of scenery. If you know you're going to have a small gap in studio visits (or, dining-room table visits), it's important to leave the painting at a good place, so it's easy to pick it up again.

The finished painting

A colse up to show the slathery bits - this is one of the best things about oil paint, the slathers. 
Next up - Portrait drawing workshop, Oils weekend and a Drawing Trail around Belfast's Titanic Quarter. For info email

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

David Gray workshop at Atelier Nadai, France 2015

Last week I attended a wonderful oil portrait painting workshop in south-east France at Atelier Nadai, with the amazing artist David Gray (

Attending workshops is a great way to practice what we know already, as well as learn how other artists tackle the process of painting. David was generous with his knowledge, kind and funny,  and hardly told us off at all... 

The first day was drawing the face, using the traditional measuring technique, and it took us all day. By the end of the day, after a lot of sighing and groaning (in arty agony), squinting and reworking, we had transferred the image onto the canvas ready for the next day. (David did try to make it clear that in fact, HE was the only one allowed to sigh. SIGH.. By the fourth day, I had resorted to growling in frustration at my painting.) 

My drawing, flaws and all.. 

David started each day with a long demonstration before letting us loose. On the second day, we began with a colour study in the morning, and then moved on to the underpainting. Trying out a different palette of colours is always interesting, and David used a couple of colours that were new to me - I liked them (which is just as well, as I was going to be using them like it or not!). One new one was Quinacradone Violet. 

Peering at Davids demo. On right is the lovely Kyoko, who managed the studio and kept us in order.. 

My colour study, top, and the underpainting by end of day 2 

 We were in the studio for long hours, from 8am - 6.30, on average, but it was still a struggle to get everything done. David's hurry-up phrase was, "c'm-ON guys..."

The view from my easel - next to Inge, Laurette, Kristin and Jean-Michel. You can tell that David is a Proper Artist, as he's donned a smock.. 

  I painted the hair in less than an hour, as my taxi was coming to take me to the train station, ah ah aaaaaaah!! But, there's nothing like a deadline to make you focus and slap something down.

My painting by the end of day 4

As my painting was still wet, and very unfinished, by the time I had to leave,  I left it in the studio to dry. I look forward to receiving it in the post so that I can do some glazing.

The proof of the pudding, of course, is less what is completed during the workshop, and much more about what you actually take home with you to your own studio. I have spent two days painting since I got home, on an artwork that I'd already started. And yes, I am working slightly differently, I am seeing slightly differently and I... like it.  I DO feel the benefit of taking the course and would do it again. But remember, a course like this isn't dreamy - it's hard work and not for sissies. 

L-R, our group of Not Sissies:  Inge, Laurette, me, Nicole, Jean-Michel, Elias, Mirko, Keanu, at the back David Gray, then Kristin, Christophe and Michel Nadai. 

The students came from all over the place - Norway, Switzerland, South Africa, some from other parts of France, and David had travelled from Seattle. Obviously, we all take it pretty seriously! 

Atelier Nadai is evenly-lit, lovely and airy. Michel Nadai is a master craftsman, of painted murals and trompe-l'oeil ( and Kyoko runs the studio with an air of graceful calm. She also did an amazing job of translating everything David said, into French, as we went along. 

I know, south of France sounds lovely, but in March, the weather was baltic and wet - definitely the lower range of temperatures. But, we were there for the art and to be honest, it was pretty sunny inside the studio. 

For up coming workshops with me email: 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Titanic artwork

Yesterday I delivered a drawing to The Drawing Office, in Belfast's Titanic Quarter. It was an illustration of Lilian Bland, the first woman to build and fly her own bi-plane..! (as you do!)

Not the best photo, but you get the idea

I used 300b drawing paper, which was almost like card. I stained it with a mixture of Sepia and Black ink (seriously diluted), and applied it with a broad decorating brush. I always say that white paper 'isn't your friend', and tinting this sheet meant the drawing looked a bit oldish, but also softer on the eye. It saves a lot of elbow grease too in the pencil work.

With Maeve Curran, Destination Manager at Titanic Quarter
It will be hung as part of an exhibition in Titanic Belfast for the month of March as part of the celebrations for International Women's Day.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Ulster Festival of Art & Design

hello all drawers and frustrated drawers...!! Lots of great things on offer next week at Belfast's festival of Art & Design, all wonderful opportunities to meet and listen to great artists of our time. 

 I appreciate that some of them are during the day time, but if you (or your creative family member) are at school, and studying art  (or even teaching art) these events are a fantastic creative-experience-booster and worthy of seeking time out.. 

Wed 11th  March - 11am Oil painting demonstration and talk by award winning illustrator PJ Lynch    

Wed 11th March - 6pm - 7pm  Talk by Katherine Tyrrell about her book on Drawing, and how to take your on-line presence from blogging to book publishing. Katherine write the UK's  no 3 art blog Making A Mark and her talk will include ways to use the internet to your creative advantage. 

Thursday 12th - 11 am, a panel of artists (including PJ Lynch, Set & Costume designer David Craig and Michael John Angel, founder of the Angel Academy of Art in Florence), will each talk aout their work and join in an open discussion together with the audience. This will be full of vareity and show the broad range of options within the creative field, as well as lively and fun. 

Thursday 12th - 7pm, a talk by Michael John Angel, founder of the Angel Academy of art, Florence. John lively and passionate speaker, and is coming all the way from Florence to share his experience with us!!

As well as this, I am holding location drawing sessions at lunch times, and a tutored life class on Saturday 14th March at 11am. This is nearly full so don't delay if you are interested in coming. Suitable for all levels, from beginner to more experienced drawers.

Tickets are just £6 (or £3 concession) - if you are available, I recommend these events and hope you can come along.

Julie Douglas

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Spring Cleaning!

My new website went live yesterday, after many weeks of tweaking, writing, rewriting, scrapping, avoiding, putting too much in, taking most of it out again. 

Sorting out the mountains of information needed was a challenge to say the least, but the previous site was set up 9 years ago, so it was time for a Spring Clean.  If nothing else, technology has come  a long way since then. And so have I!

Mel's heart, from Tenby 

It's good to regroup and reflect. One thing I put on the site were photographs of some of my heart shaped stones. I have a friend in Wales, Melanie, who I taught with at London Art College. Today, after seeing my site, she sent me a very excited email saying - 

Julie, Julie! 

We took our visitor to Tenby and walked along the non pebbly beach and look what I saw! My heart for you, from Tenby :D 


It just shows you, those hearts are everywhere!

I'd like to say thank you to Paul McNally, who loaded all the information for me. If you're ever looking for Mr Patient and Efficient Designer, he's the man!

and I know there is the odd typo in there, but I need a few days away from it before I look...
                                  If you'd like a look I'd be glad that you did. It's


Friday, 27 February 2015

Festival of Art & Design, Belfast 2015

Arts and culture banner 2015
Festival of Art & Design

9th-14th March
This year’s Festival has over 70 events – a fantastic range of talks, workshops, discussions, performances and exhibitions all about art and design.

Fashion and textiles, drawing and painting, photography and animation, graphic design and illustration, architecture, sculpture, performance art……and much more

Internationally renowned artists such as Axel Scheffler (Gruffalo), Sylvia Ayton (Wallis Collection), Andy Stevens (Graphic Thought Facility), Mark Wallinger (Turner Prize winner) to name but a few.
Full programme at: 
Watch our short video:

Arts and Culture, Ulster University, Belfast campus, York Street, Belfast, BT15 1ED
Telephone: +44 (0)28 9536 7285 |
© Ulster University 2015

Monday, 23 February 2015

Delicious and unique offerings for March, Belfast 2015

After the success of the Draw In Symposium last year, I was asked to create a drawing theme throughout the Ulster Festival of Art & Design, which takes place from 9th - 14th March 2015 in Belfast.
The festival comprises of many lectures, at lunch times and in the evening, from speakers from all aspects of the creative field. I have always been impressed by the quality of the speakers, no matter what their discipline and I was delighted to be asked to contribute.

Here is what I have come up with - all events take place at Belfast School of Art.

On Monday 9th, Tuesday 10th and Friday 13th March" Lunchtime Location Drawing".  I will be holding tutored sessions at 1pm for an hour.

Saturday 14th March, 11 - 1pm,  I will be teaching a tutored Life Drawing session.

Wednesday 11th March,  at 11am - award winning illustrator PJ Lynch will be delivering a talk and oil painting demonstration.

PJ Lynch oils demonstration 

Wednesday 11th March at 6pm - Katherine Tyrrell, artist, author and the UK's number 3 art blogger will be giving a talk about her new book about Drawing.

Thursday 12th March 11am - Drawing Together: a panel of artists including P Lynch, Katherine Tyrrell, set & costume designer David Craig, and Michael John Angel from The Angel Academy in Florence, will each speak about their work and answer questions from the audience and each other. This will be unique and very interesting.

Draw Together - a panel discussing the nuts and bolts of drawing practice. 

Thursday 12th March, 6pm - Michael John Angel, founder of The Angel Academy of Art, Folrence, will give a lecture entitled 'The Training of the 21st Century Realist Painter'.

Student from The Angel Academy, Florence, with his work

Bookings should be made through the festival website,
All sessions are subsidised and very inexpensive.

I hope you will be at as many of these sessions as possible!

For more details see the website, or email me at