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