Love wildlife? You’ll love this.

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Wildlife and Art combined is the topic that begins this year’s blog posts.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of the Aigas Field Centre. I lead the Art Week there each year and it’s a truly lovely experience. Aigas is closed for the winter season at the moment, but you can still experience it from the comfort of your own locked-down home.

Among the many feeding stations around the grounds, one has a camera trained on it, providing real time images for anyone who cares to take a look. Here’s the link As I’m writing this, I’ve been watching Siskin, Red Squirrel, Goldcrest and various other woodland species. It’s joyous, at a time when we should seize on every good feeling we can find.

I love that we’re on eye level with the wildlife. It really gives a sense of being in their world.

Better yet, it gives us an opportunity to sketch wildlife without even leaving our homes. Granted, the birds move very quickly, but the plus side is that they often return to the same poses. So spend time just looking and analysing what you see. Then start with a few simple shapes, correcting and adding more detail as you go. Even the simplest lines can give a sense of the pose.

As with anything, practice makes perfect. Or at least makes improvement. Perfection may take longer!

We’ve dealt with how to sketch moving subjects on this blog, so do look back at those posts for some pointers. If you want more in-depth help, check out the post on How to Draw Wildlife book recommendations. Links to both are below.

Do add links of other wildlife live feeds in the comments below, if you have any particular favourites you’d like to share.

If you’d like to join us on the Aigas Art Week this year, the dates are 25 Sept – 02 Oct 2021. Contact Aigas for more information.

Related Posts

How Do You Draw Birds When They’re Always Moving? (Part 1)

How Do You Draw Birds When They’re Always Moving? (Part 2)

Four Books To Help You Draw Birds

If you need help with the fundamentals of drawing anything, I recommend starting here, at the beginning of the Aigas Art Challenge.

Posted in Aigas Art Challenge, Art, drawing, Nature, Uncategorized, Wildlife, Wildlife Art | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learn To Paint With Acrylics

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Exciting news, especially if you’ve been considering taking up acrylic painting.

I’ve been asked to write a series of articles for Leisure Painter magazine next year. There will be thirteen articles: one published each month, starting with the January issue, plus the Summer issue. The theme is acrylic painting, aimed at beginners and those new to acrylics. I love acrylics, so I’m looking forward to enthusing about their possibilities.

So often beginners start with watercolour, which is the hardest painting medium to master, so I’m especially keen to encourage people to give acrylics a go. It’s a much more forgiving medium.


I’ve been writing regularly for Leisure Painter magazine this year. This month my painting was the cover star.

The first three articles will cover the basics – types of acrylics, which materials to use, characteristics of acrylics etc.

Each article thereafter will take the form of introducing a particular technique (brushstrokes, blending, scumbling, knife-work, sissing, spattering….), plus a step-by-step demo that includes the technique. Over the year readers will develop their skills, from having very little knowledge of acrylics to having experienced a range of techniques. Subject matter will vary too – wildlife, landscape, still life, underwater scene etc.

Before the acrylics series starts, I have two features about acrylic inks, in the November and December 2020 issues (scheduled to be on sale at the beginning and end of October).

Please tell any of your friends who might be interested in taking up painting, about this.

You can download a free sample issue of Leisure Painter, or its sister publication The Artist, here.


Related Posts

Which Acrylic Paints are Best?


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Expressive Fun With Charcoal

Note: Affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Thanks for supporting this site. Full disclosure policy here.

Following on from my last post, today we’re looking at Charcoal.

Willow charcoal is similar to vine charcoal. They’re just made from different tree species, but willow is the more common. Vine charcoal is more crumbly, but easier to erase. I’m talking about willow charcoal for most of this post, but the techniques would work for either type.

Most people’s first experience of charcoal was a primary school, when they were given a piece not much thicker than a matchstick. They proceeded to get as much charcoal on themselves as they did on the paper. Or maybe that was just me?

Much later in life I discovered that charcoal is a wonderful medium, with endless possibilities and far more options than those matchstick-like pieces.

We’ve mostly looked charcoal for portraits lately, but it’s ideal for any monochrome subject or where you want to explore the tonal variations. I’ve even taken it out for field sketching and landscape work.


Top Tip: If you use charcoal outdoors, take an extra sheet of paper to cover your finished drawing while you return to base. Otherwise you’ll find the drawing has left it’s mark all over the facing page in your sketchbook.

Here’s the low-down on the various thicknesses of willow charcoal, named and graded according to diameter.

  • Thin sticks                4mm diameter
  • Medium                     6mm
  • Thick                          8.5mm
  • Extra Thick               10mm
  • Scene Painters         12mm (also known as “landscape charcoal”)
  • Extra Large               14mm
  • Tree Sticks                18mm

Charcoal is sold in boxes of a single size or assorted thicknesses. Bear in mind that, originally being twigs, they can vary in size; a thick “scene painters” stick many be larger than a thin “extra large”. It is possible to work delicately in charcoal, or expressively with bold sweeping strokes. The thinnest sticks are good for detailed work, whilst the thicker sticks are better for large scale work or blocking in areas of tone, so it may be appropriate to use several different sizes on the same drawing.

Charcoal dates back to the cave painters, then it became commonly used for outlining a design before painting a mural, and now is used for tiny drawings through to enormous sketches. It is often used to draw on canvas or board prior to working in (oil) paint.

If you’re drawing on paper, use a cartridge paper with enough “tooth” to hold the charcoal and give a range of finishes. The effects you’ll get will depend on how much you blend the charcoal and how much pressure you use.


In this portrait, you can see how the texture was varied to show the contrasts of skin (blended) and hair (unblended).


Charcoal pencils are like drawing pencils except that the core is made from charcoal rather than graphite. The fine tip is useful for detailed or small works. They are graded like pencils from a hard HB to a soft 6B. Although less messy than pure charcoal they cannot be used on their sides for broad strokes.

Which ever type or charcoal you prefer, you can use it to build a range of tone, shading in much the same way you would with graphite. (See related posts about shading below.)

Tinted Charcoal



Tinted charcoal pencils (a mixture of charcoal particles and natural pigment) may be used to add a hint of colour to a charcoal drawing.

You can also buy tinted charcoal in blocks, either as a set or individually. These are ideal for use on larger areas of your drawing, and are water-soluble for a range of drawing techniques.



Charcoal and charcoal pencils can be sharpened with sandpaper or a blade.

Using willow charcoal

Method 1: Use the charcoal to make a line drawing, adding tone as the drawing progresses.

Method 2: Use a broad piece of charcoal on its side to create only areas of tone. No lines!

Method 3: Cover a whole piece of paper with a thin layer of charcoal, blending the strokes to give an overall medium grey tone. Draw over the grey to create lines and dark tones. Use a putty eraser to draw in the lighter tones and highlights.

Top Tip: cut a piece off your eraser and reserve that for when you’re using charcoal. Otherwise the whole eraser will turn black and will leave smudges on your pencil drawing.

Method 4: Make a line drawing and then use a damp brush to smudge the lines, creating areas of tone.

Compressed Charcoal


Top Tip: As both sides of the boxes look identical, draw an arrow on each end, so you know which is the top. Otherwise you’re in danger of dropping every stick on the floor when you slide the box open.

An alternative to willow charcoal is Compressed Charcoal, which is available in a range of white, grey and black pastel-like sticks, each stick usually being about 9mm in diameter.

The black sticks have a darker, more velvety appearance than willow charcoal. Neither type is better than the other, they just give a different look to your drawing.

Similarly, they’re not better or worse than willow charcoal, just different.



Method 1: A drawing is built up from dark to light by using the different toned sticks in turn.

Method 2: Confine yourself to black sticks, and vary the tone by varying the pressure of stick to paper.

Method 3: Make a line drawing and then use a damp brush to smudge the lines, creating areas of tone.

Compressed and willow charcoal are rarely used together in the same drawing, though as with any art, it’s up to you how you express yourself.

Both willow and compressed charcoal can be fixed with a spray or liquid fixative. I’ll show you how to fix your drawings in a future post.


Related Posts

Aigas Art Challenge #4

More About Shadows


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Discover John Singer Sargent’s Portrait Drawings

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Friday’s challenge was all about how to draw the human face, a skill that will benefit you whether you’re making a quick sketch, or a full portrait.

Today I’d like to recommend a book that I’ve referred to many times in my art career and in my teaching: Portrait Drawings: 42 Works by John Singer Sargent. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Sargent’s art on this blog before, and you only have to look at the images in this book to see why. They’re stunning! 

I know that many people don’t like charcoal, due to it’s messiness, but it’s a surprisingly forgiving medium. 

It has a great tonal range, and lend’s itself to all sorts of subjects, not just portraiture. Available in thin sticks, through to large blocks, charcoal is capable of fine detail or large scale coverage.
Take a look through the portraits in this book and you can see many examples of concepts we’ve covered in this blog over the past few months, or will cover in the future:

  • Types of shading – solid tone, hatching, cross-hatching
  • Use of varying tone – light, medium and dark – throughout the drawing
  • Expressive mark-making
  • Using an eraser as a drawing tool instead of a correcting tool
  • Facial structure
  • Quality of line
  • Use of highlights
  • Texture
  • Background tones
  • Tonal transitions

Sargent’s mastery of these techniques bring his sitters to life. We may not all achieve his level of draughtsmanship, but we can all learn a great deal from studying his work. 

This book gives us a chance to learn from the best, without having to trek around numerous galleries. You won’t even see many of these images in galleries – they’re scattered around the world, often in private collections or maybe not on display in their museum homes.

So if either drawing people or improving your drawing skills interests you, I recommend Sargent Portrait Drawings. Analyzing and copying Sargent’s methods for achieving different effects will be really beneficial.

If you prefer a more comprehensive book, there is a hardcover book of 60 of Sargent’s Portraits in Charcoal.

Either would be an excellent addition to your art library.




Or you could go for the whole Sargent immersion with Sargent: The Masterworks.

I’m off to look again at my copy.






Related Posts:

Aigas Art Challenge – Drawing facial features

Aigas Art Challenge – Proportions of the human face

Learning from the Best

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Aigas Art Challenge #14

Note: Affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Thanks for supporting this site. Full disclosure policy here.

This week’s challenge follows on from last time – how to draw the human face.

If you missed last time and want to check it out, click here.

This time we’re looking at the proportions of the face when you look straight at someone.

So your challenge is to draw either your own face or someone else’s, as though you’re looking straight at them.

If that sound’s scary, read on and we’ll demystify it. It’s much easier to do if you understand how things line up.

Obviously everyone’s face is different, though very subtly in some cases. Look at your subjects to see the basic shape – is it longer than average, heart-shaped, round…?

Even though they’re all different, all faces have the same structure. So keep the proportions in mind, but make allowances for the fact that each individual may have slightly larger than average ears, a wider jaw or a smaller nose etc.

Start with a basic oval shape. If you’re subject’s face is long, make your oval slightly longer and thinner proportioned too. This is just a guide – you can always adjust for individual quirks later. Now let’s see what lines up with what:

Face copyA.  Draw a line dividing the face in half. That’s the eyeline. (Yes, I know it looks too low. Bear with me.) The eye width fits into the face width about five times. So you have a space, an eye, another space, the second eye and another space, each being about the same width.

B.  Divide the lower half of the face in half again. That’s the bottom of the nose.

C.  Divide the remainder in half again. That’s the bottom of the lips, not the central line between upper and lower lips.

D.  Put a centre line down the face.It’s easier to make things symmetrical if you do that.

E.  The middle of the eye is directly above the corner of the mouth

F.  The inner corner of the eye lines up with the outside of the nostril.

Here’s how it works on a sketched face:

Sketch face

Ears fit between the eyeline and the base of the nose line.  You won’t see much of them from the front, and they may even be hidden by the hair. They may be larger on an older person.

Cheekbones start from near the top of the ears and curve towards the mouth.

The neck is quite wide, fitting between the outer corner of the eye and the base of the ear. It’s wider on a man than a woman.

Hair isn’t flattened to the skull, but will be outside your initial oval.

Once you’ve drawn the shapes and proportions, you’re ready to shade the face and add some details as usual.

So that’s it. Not as scary as you might have thought, once you know the proportions.

Now it’s your turn!

Remember to post your art on social media, using the hashtag #AigasArtChallenge.

If you’re new to the Aigas Art Challenge and want to start from the beginning, click here.

We’re still hoping that this year’s Art Week at the Aigas Field Centre will go ahead. The dates are 3rd- 10th October 2020. Do get in touch if you’d like to take part.

The Art Week dates in 2021 are 25th Sept – 2nd Oct. Why not join us?

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How to Varnish a Painting

Note: Affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Thanks for supporting this site. Full disclosure policy here.

I recently promised you a post on how to varnish a painting. So here it is.

First things first: varnishing a painting gives your art a layer of protection against environmental exposure. Since some pigments are shinier than others, and the way the paint is applied has an effect, varnishing also unifies the appearance of the paint.

You should varnish an oil, alkyd or acrylic painting, but not a watercolour or gouache. Those should be mounted, glazed and framed instead. An acrylic or oil on paper should not be varnished, but framed in the same way as you would a watercolour.

I don’t varnish an acrylic painting if there are different areas of lustre, because I want to maintain the contrasts, not unify the finish.


“Seams Like Gold” is mostly flat, matt colour but has raised, iridescent areas. So I wouldn’t varnish it because I want to retain the contrasts of texture and lustre. I usually varnish paintings that use only standard acrylics.

An oil or acrylic may be framed after varnishing, or it may be left unframed if painted on a panel or canvas. Leaving a painting unframed can be particularly effective if the work is on a deep canvas or panel in a modern style. 

When to varnish

You need to be sure a painting is thoroughly dry before varnishing, or you’ll have a painting that is still trying to dry under a layer of varnish that is drying at a different rate. That’s a recipe for disaster.

I like to wait a couple of days for an acrylic to dry, a week or more if there are thick layers of paint or mediums. I wait six months to be sure an oil is dry, or a year if the paint is particularly thick.

Which varnish?

There are various decisions to make when deciding which type of varnish to choose:

  • Matt, satin or gloss?
  • Spray or a liquid?
  • Permanent or removable?

My choice is usually matt, liquid and removable. 

Matt, because it’s similar to the paint’s natural appearance and I don’t like a high gloss finish. Liquid, because I’m not confident in getting an even coat with a spray, especially on a large painting. Removable, because who knows what might happen to the painting in the future, so I like to have the option of reapplying the varnish.

I’ve always used this Winsor and Newton varnish, formulated for oils and acrylics, with good results. As well as the matt version, it’s available in satin and gloss.

You, or other artists, may have completely different preferences. It’s entirely personal choice, so do whatever appeals to you. 

How to varnish:

I must admit that if you ask ten different artists how to varnish, you’ll probably get ten different methods. This one works for me.

Firstly banish any pets or people from the room. You don’t want any stray hairs drifting about, and your loved ones don’t want to be breathing in solvent fumes. Cover your work surface to protect from varnish drips, splashes or spills. Lay the painting flat on your work surface.

You’ll need a wide brush. I aim for one about 3 inches/ 70 mm as a minimum, larger if it’s a big painting. It it’s a new brush, “paint” it vigorously (while still clean and dry) over some clean paper to rid it of any loose bristles. You don’t want them dropping out once you’ve started varnishing.

Shake the bottle of varnish gently so the contents are evenly mixed, but without creating lots of air bubbles.

Top tip #1: warming the varnish before use helps it to flow. Don’t heat it. I just stand the bottle in a bowl of warm water until it’s a little above room temperature. 

Work in a well ventilated area. I often varnish last thing before leaving the studio. Then I’m not stirring up dust or being tempted to check the varnish to see if it’s dry.

Top tip #2: I usually work on primed board, so varnish an off-cut at the same time as the painting. Then I can test the off-cut for dryness rather than the painting. 

Pour some varnish into a separate container that’s large enough for your wide brush. 

Take a little of the varnish onto your brush and, starting in the top corner, apply it onto the painting. Spread it over the surface from one side to the other and top to bottom, until the whole surface is covered. Using the brush in any direction, work the varnish in so that it covers the paintwork, getting right in to any nooks and crannies in the paint.  

Now for the final finish. You want to spread the varnish out evenly, so each part of the painting has a single thin layer. Starting again in the top corner, pull your brush slowly and gently across the wet varnish, from one side to the other in a single horizontal line. (Being right-handed I tend to start in the top left corner, but do what ever is comfortable for you.)

Lift the brush off the painting and go back to the side you started from. Move the brush’s starting position further down the painting so the top of the brush just overlaps the bottom of the previous stroke. Draw the brush across the painting again, with that slow, gentle horizontal movement. Repeat the process, working your way down the painting until the whole surface is covered.

Check that the surface is free from stray hairs, bristles, insects, air bubbles or anything that shouldn’t be there. Large air bubbles can be popped with a pin; small ones tend to disappear as the varnish dries. Now leave it to dry for several hours, or preferably overnight. 

Top tip #3: if you have a large sheet of stiff card/ MDF/ hardboard etc, place it just above the painting to stop any stray hairs, dust or insects falling on the wet varnish. 

Now step away from the painting and don’t keep coming back to check on it (or is that just me?) 

Remember to clean your brush. Once the varnish is dry, open a window to get rid of the solvent smell.

The following day you could give your painting another coat of varnish. I usually make the brushstrokes perpendicular to the first layer.

That’s it. You’re done. Now make sure you have a good photograph of the finished painting, frame it (optional), add its title, medium, measurements etc to your database and then you’re ready to sell the painting. Go you!

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Solving The Case of Brush Storage

Note: Affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Thanks for supporting this site. Full disclosure policy here.

So many brush cases. So many choices. So which should you choose?

I have brushes for acrylics, brushes for oils, brushes for watercolours and even brushes for pastels. Over the years I’ve tried various brush cases – soft fabric ones, rigid plastic ones of various appearances and bamboo slatted ones. I’ve seen canvas ones, crafted wooden ones and even homemade versions.


So which do I favour and why?

I’m heavily in favour of one of them… and that one is….

(Drum roll, rising suspense….)

This one,

This brush roll is my pick because:

  • It’s slatted, so the air can circulate around the brushes as they dry. A closed container leaves the moisture nowhere to go, risking mildew forming on the brushes. You like to be able to breathe; so do your brushes.
  • The slats are close enough together to deter insects. Moths in particular like brushes, so your best sables need the best protection you can give them.
  • It’s rigid, so you can slip it in your rucksack knowing that your brushes are secure and protected. The fabric one I used years ago could get squashed in transit, and with it the brushes. Wrecked brush tips before you even reach your destination is definitely not what’s wanted.
  • Brushes are held securely in place, even if the roll is upended. Upend a rigid plastic case and you’ll find the brushes end up resting on their tips. Not good.
  • It’s big enough to hold long and short handled brushes. These holders can vary in size, so do check before you buy. A holder 36cm long should fit even your biggest brushes.

Show your brushes some love with a bamboo brush roll.

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Transform Your Sketches With Watersoluble Graphite

Note: Affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Thanks for supporting this site. Full disclosure policy here.

Have you discovered Watersoluble Graphite Pencils yet?

I find that most of my students know about watersoluble coloured pencils, but few know about watersoluble graphite pencils. I think they’re awesome, and you might enjoy them too. So here’s a little more about them: 

First things first: they are available in various brands and usually have either a paintbrush symbol or a water droplet depicted on the side to denote their soluble quality.

ws graphite_72Unlike other pencils, they are only available as soft grades, usually HB, 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. Sometimes they’re graded Light Wash, Medium Wash, Dark Wash and Very Dark Wash or even just Light, Medium and Dark. It just depends on the brand.

There are two types: wooden with a graphite core, or wholly graphite with just a coating to save you from getting graphite all over your fingers (or is that just me?). Derwent’s Graphitone or Koh-i-noor’s Progresso Aquarell being two examples of the latter.

They’re available individually or in sets. A single pencil is about £2, so this is one piece of art kit that won’t break the bank. Unless, of course, you’re treating yourself to the wooden boxed set. (Why not? You deserve it.)

You don’t have to use them with water – they’ll work perfectly well as a standard graphite pencil, so they can be used for general sketching.

If you do choose to use them with water, there are various techniques to try:

img050 copy

All above marks made with Graphitone 6B.

  1. Dry pencil onto dry paper, wet brush used to move the graphite
  2. Dry pencil. Wet brush used to pick up graphite from tip and then painted onto wet or dry paper.
  3. Dry pencil onto wet paper
  4. Wet pencil onto dry paper
  5. Wet pencil onto wet paper
  6. Spattered (flick your wet brush over the tip of the pencil)

If you use them onto wet paper, the tone of the mark becomes darker and more intense. Use them on dry paper with a brush, and you can lighten the tone by adding more water.

Which paper should you use? I use them in my sketchbook, which has thick cartridge paper. Thin paper would cockle when water was applied.  If I were going to do a major drawing for sale, I’d probably choose a Hot Pressed watercolour paper. Or a Cold Pressed/ NOT surface if I wanted a more textured effect. 

I particularly love these pencils because they provide an area of smooth tone, which is brilliant for shadows. Much better – and easier – than trying to create that with a standard pencil. Or maybe you want a base tone that can be further enhanced with pencil marks, either while the initial layer is wet or after it has dried. 

The only downside I’ve found, is that if you use them to make a pencil drawing and then use a brush to spread the graphite, you can find that your initial lines have disappeared. I get around this by making my initial drawing with standard pencils, and then adding graphite washes with the watersoluble ones. That way my drawing stays intact and I’ve added the tonal areas I wanted.

BBA sketches

Black-browed Albatross tonal sketches from my Falklands trip.

I don’t use them for every sketching session, but when I do, I invariably find myself thinking “Ooh, I must use these more often.”

Alternatively to pencils, Viarco makes watersoluble graphite powder, sticks or tablets, giving even more options for watercolour-like washes and expressive mark-making

If you’re torn between sketching with graphite or wanting something more colourful, Derwent’s Graphitint could fit the bill. They’re a tinted graphite whose colour becomes more intense when used with water.

Even more possibilities! Sketching has never been so much fun. 


A perfect partner to the watersoluble pencils, are water brushes. Fill the reservoirs with clean water, pop them in your pencil case, and you’re ready to go out sketching, with no need to carry a water pot or a pile of brushes. Anything that cuts down on the kit I carry gets a thumbs up from me! 

So you see how there are a wealth of possibilities with watersoluble graphite? We can practise our sketching without confining ourselves to standard graphite pencils for ever more. Not that I have anything against standard pencils – we just like to have choices, don’t we?

So why not try out watersoluble graphite? Let me know in the comments how you got on. 




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Aigas Art Challenge #13

Note: Affiliate links may be used in this post. I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you use my affiliate link. Thanks for supporting this site. Full disclosure policy here.


We’re back with the Aigas Art Challenge this week, and doing something a little different.

Have you ever wished you could draw people? Over the next few challenges, we’re going to explore this subject. You’ll need a pencil and paper and a mirror. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to draw a self-portrait!

Many years ago I started going to art classes to learn to draw people. I recognised that I wanted to be able to do it, but I didn’t know how. I’d had a go at drawing myself, and it was an unrecognizable mess. I didn’t want to draw my family, for fear of comments like “Is that how you really see me?”, “Who is that meant to be?” or “I don’t really look like that, do I?”. Let’s face it, it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of those kinds of comments.

So if you really want to draw people, I strongly suggest going to classes. You’ll have tuition, plenty of practice, and models are used to being drawn, so they don’t care if your drawing looks like them or not. (While classes are postponed under lockdown, You Tube videos are the next best thing.)

This week’s challenge is to draw your lips, eye and nose. Not the whole face; the three different features, in isolation, and in any order. (See, no self-portrait.)  

The good news, is that drawing people is the same process as drawing anything else. Biggest shapes first. Bigger shadows before smaller ones. Detail last of all.

So let’s dive in to the tips.

Irrespective of ethnicity, the structure of the face is the same. The proportions may change, but the basic structure doesn’t.

First we’ll look at drawing an eye:

The eye is not symmetrical. Take a close look at yours and then answer these questions:

  • Look at each corner of the eye. Is one lower than the other, or are they level?
  • How much of the iris (the coloured part) can you see? 
  • Where does the eyelid start and finish? Is the eyelid the same width all over?
  • Do your eyelashes point upwards or downwards? Where are they longest?



I hope you noticed that you can’t see all of the iris, unless you opened your eye very wide. Usually the top is obscured by the eyelid. You should be able to see that the eyelid casts a shadow across the top of the eye too.


Now the lips:

Look carefully at the lips, and you’ll notice several important points. _MG_3934

  • The lips are always darkest in the corners
  • The top lip is darker than the lower (assuming the light is coming from above)
  • There is a darker line between the upper and lower lip. The middle part will probably be horizontal, but the ends may be angled upwards or downwards.
  • The outer parts of the lips are usually only slightly darker than the skin tone. In most people the lips don’t have a dark outline.

What else can you notice?

Now for the nose:

The easiest way to draw the nose is to start with a teardrop shape, but instead of joining the two sides in a point at the top, leave a space. Now add a curve at each side, each ending just above the lowest part of the teardrop. Then join the curve to the teardrop. Don’t make the nostrils too solidly dark and circular or your nose will resemble that of a pig.


The nose is usually darker underneath and at the sides, with a highlight down the centre and on the tip, assuming that the light is coming from in front and above. If the light comes from one side, the side furthest from the light will look darker.

Next time we’ll, look at the proportions of the face, and discover how the features line up with each other.

Until then, try practising under different light conditions. You could try drawing the other eye, or an eyebrow.

Remember to post your art on social media, using the hashtag #AigasArtChallenge.


Note: The next challenge will be posted on 24th July. I shall continue to post every Friday (and at other times as my schedule permits), but the non-challenge weeks will be more general arty tips and techniques.

If you’re new to the Aigas Art Challenge and want to start from the beginning, click here.


We’re still hoping that this year’s Art Week at the Aigas Field Centre will go ahead. The dates are 3rd- 10th October 2020. Do get in touch if you’d like to take part.

The Art Week dates in 2021 are 25th Sept – 2nd Oct. Why not join us?










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How to Choose a Sketchbook

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With so many possibilities, how can you choose which sketchbook to buy?

Rather than me recommend a few favoured sketchbooks, let’s explore each part of the book in turn, so you can make an informed choice for your own individual practice. For added entertainment, I’ll even share a cautionary tale from my own experience.


Personally, I favour the Daler Rowney Ebony range, and have several different sizes on the go for different purposes. I looked at each element in turn and then found the range that had all the characteristics I required.

Hardback, spiral bound, paper heavy enough to take water-based media, and available in a range of sizes.

Size and Shape

Sketchbooks tend to follow the standard sizes A4, A5 etc., with the addition of square and panoramic formats. Think about the type of drawings you do. If you’re always on the go and want to slip your sketchbook into your pocket, A6 might suit you perfectly. Inspired by landscapes? Panoramic may be your choice.

Consider whether you need portrait or landscape format. A portrait format will open out to give a 3:4 proportion, whereas a landscape format will become panoramic when opened out.

For general sketching, A4 or A3 are probably the most useful. I usually take an A4 outdoors with me – it fits neatly into my rucksack and is large enough to fit several drawings on a page. I’ll take A3 if I know I’m going to be working on a larger scale.

You don’t have to abide by conventional sizes though. An artist I know cuts an A4 spiral bound landscape pad in half lengthways, to give two books that are long and thin, but not as extreme as panoramic format.

If you really like working on a wide scale, you could try a concertina style sketchbook. Simply start on page one, and keep drawing until you reach the end of the book.

Binding – glued, saddle stitch, spiral or case-bound?

I’m not a huge fan of glued pages, as they tend to become loose with use. If you want to remove pages though, it’s easy to do so.

Saddle stitch looks like they’ve been stapled. It’s a useful type of binding, provided the paper is quite thin and there aren’t too many pages. So expect to see this type of binding at the budget end of the spectrum.

Spiral bound sketchbooks give the user the advantage of being able to fold the cover and used pages back – very useful if space is tight or you’re sketching outdoors on a windy day. The disadvantage is if you want to continue your drawing on the facing page, as the spirals will disrupt your masterpiece.

Case-bound books are hardback with stitching to secure the pages in place. You can easily continue your drawing from one page to the facing one, but A3 can get a little unwieldy.


The cover will either be hardback or softback. I recommend hardback, as it’s more durable, especially if you’re working outdoors on a regular basis. If budget or weight is an issue, or your sketchbook never moves out of your studio, softback may suit you better.


Now for the important part: drawing surface. Most sketchbooks contain cartridge paper, in either smooth, medium or rough grades. For most of my sketching I like a fairly smooth paper, with just enough “tooth” to hold soft graphite or conté crayon.

Medium and rough papers have a texture, whereby the drawing tool just catches the ridges. If you love a textured appearance to your drawings, these surfaces would be a good choice, but if you are a beginner or you’re likely to work with sketching pens, you may find a smoother paper easier to work with.

Maybe you want a specialist paper? Handmade, like Khadi, or a watercolour pad? 

Also important is the weight of the paper. When you’re perusing the sketchbook ranges, look for a number with the letters gsm (grams per square metre, sometimes written as g/m2) after it, as that will tell you the weight (and therefore the thickness) of the paper.

A sheet of photocopy paper is usually 80gsm (sometimes 70gsm or 90gsm). You’ll want a thicker paper than that in your sketchbook, especially if you are going to use watercolours, line and wash or water-soluble pencils. A 90gsm paper will cockle when wet, so choose something 140gsm or above. You’ll probably still see some slight cockling, but it’s an acceptable level. 160gsm is adequate for me, but if you do a lot of watercolour work, 200gsm may be better for you. 

Check the colour of the paper too. While most sketchbooks will have white paper, some have black, which is great if that’s what you want, but far from ideal if you were expecting white! The Arboreta or Moleskine ranges have cream coloured pages; far less glaring if you’re sketching outdoors on a sunny day.


Which do you want, the budget range, the top notch version, or something in the middle? Prices range from £1.50 to about £40, so there’s something to suit most budgets. That said, beware of buying the most expensive. Why do I say that? Here’s a cautionary tale:

Decades ago, when I was learning to draw, I was given a beautiful sketchbook as a Christmas present. And I do mean beautiful. Gold embossed. Case-bound. Smooth off-white pages, each protected with a crisp sheet of tissue paper. Truly the Rolls Royce of sketchbooks.

The problem? It was just too good. I didn’t dare make a mark for fear of ruining it. To this day it sits in my studio, as empty as the day it was purchased. Sketchbooks are meant for exploring ideas, making mistakes, experimenting. They are inherently scruffy. Turn beauty into scruffiness? I just couldn’t do it. Maybe one day…

Sometimes our best drawings are made on poorer quality paper. Why? Because we’re not worried about making a mistake. Suppose I gave you a sheet of photocopy paper. You’d probably start drawing without hesitation. What if I gave you a sheet of paper worth £100? I don’t think you’d draw with such freedom; maybe you’d even keep it for a “special” drawing.


Other considerations may be whether or not you require a sketchbook that conforms to vegan standards. Maybe you’d like a book with elastic to hold the book shut when in transit? Or perhaps a book that’s part cartridge and part watercolour paper?

Sometimes you’ll see sketchbooks with perforated pages, so you can easily remove a page if you choose. I bought one of these for my Falklands trip, and look what happened! 


I shalln’t be buying a perforated pad again. To be fair, it’s had a LOT of use.

So now you know the options, decide what you need for each part of the book. Then it’s just a case of matching your requirements to the ranges on offer.

Try the Jackson’s website for your research, as you can filter the possibilities by format, gsm, surface, brand etc. 

Happy sketching!

If you liked this post, you might like my previous post Watercolour Paper- The Differences Explained.

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