Friday, 31 January 2014

Volunteering for the RSPB

I started volunteering at the RSPB Pulborough Brooks nature reserve back in October, working once a week in the visitor centre. I applied for a number of reasons; my interest in wildlife and conservation being one and the fact that I work from home another.

I don't commute to an office or a studio and I don't have colleagues in the traditional sense (unless you count the two cats!) At times, this can become a bit isolating and every so often it gets to much, so I do really enjoy the days I can get out of the house, even if it's for a supplies run or a brief trip to the post office.
In my role as a volunteer, I feel as if I'm doing something really worthwhile, while spending time away from my studio and giving my brain a change of scenery. The best bit by far is having the chance to speak to like-minded people who share my interest in wildlife, particularly the visitors. I've had some lovely conversations with customers about the birds in their gardens, the animals on the reserve etc. and on a few occasions I've been able to share information about wildlife from my limited knowledge-base and people have genuinely been grateful for what I've told them. That makes me very happy!
My employment background is retail-based so working in the centre allows me to use my merchandising, till and customer service skills but being the first port of call for visitors, I'm also picking up valuable information about the reserve, wildlife and the RSPB as a whole. It doesn't hurt that the staff are pretty lovely too!

It's funny; when I first looked into volunteering, I had no idea that there was an RSPB site just 20 minutes from my door. I finally got the opportunity to walk the reserve itself a couple of weeks ago (only 3 months after starting work there!) and spotted some wonderful species of bird, including long-tailed tits, cormorants, canada geese and a kestrel, as well as my very first sightings of wigeon, lapwings and greenfinches. I'm slowly learning about the site and it's inhabitants and meeting wonderful people too; I even had the privilege of meeting Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB on Wednesday!

I'm really pleased I've found a way to balance my work with my other interests. With the amount of time I spend on portraits, I often forget it's important to step away and allow myself time to refresh. There are definitely pros and cons to working for yourself!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Big Garden Birdwatch

When I'm not working on portraits, I spend a lot of my free time watching and learning about wildlife. It is my other great passion besides art. Living where I do, in a beautiful rural part of West Sussex, I am quite spoiled for wildlife activity as we are surrounded by woodland and our garden backs straight onto a large section that is always teeming with rabbits, deer and various species of bird.
Last weekend was the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, the largest wildlife survey in the world. I took part for the first time last January and was very excited to do so again this year, keeping my fingers and toes tightly crossed that in that short hour, we would be visited by the variety of feathered creatures that are usually found in our garden; I wasn't disappointed and in total I counted 11 different species which is a positive result!

I decided to do it early Saturday morning as I know from watching the birds at various times during the day that the activity levels are very high earlier in the day. I'm rather glad I did because although it started off misty at 9am, the sun eventually burnt that off and it was lovely mild hour to sit in the garden with a flask of tea and my notepad. My mum did it with me and we were both amazed by the amount of calling and singing there was going on! It's certainly true what's being said; that the birds must think Spring is here.

It was a actually a day of firsts in terms of what we spotted-normally we frequently see one great-spotted woodpecker on the nuts or fat feeders but this time we had both a male and a female at the same time! Not only that but we had a pair of nuthatches on the feeders when we usually only ever see one at a time, so on top of a fabulous range of species, those spots were real highlights!
Here's our list:

Blue tits: 6
Great tits: 4
Marsh tits: 2
Coal tits: 2
Nuthatch: 2
Great-spotted woodpecker: 2
Robin: 1
Blackbird (f): 1
Carrion crow: 1
Woodpigeon: 1
Wren: 1

It was by pure fluke that we spotted the wren as it was over the other side of our garden, standing on a pile of wood and the only reason we looked over there was because we spotted the robin land there! 

We get both the coal and marsh tits quite frequently in our garden, pretty much daily for one or the other. I'm having to assume that the marsh tits are marsh and not willow tits, as I know that willows are much more scarce but look incredibly similar to the marsh. I did ask the RSPB if there was any easy way to tell them apart and in a nutshell, there isn't! If the silly things would keep still long enough, we might have a better idea but I'm sticking with marsh tits; it's much more likely.
I'm actually peering out of the windows a lot more frequently now, as I've become much more aware of the activity in the garden. What with Spring just around the corner (hopefully!) it seems the birds are becoming much busier, both stocking up on food for the cold nights and searching out that perfect mate.

**Don't forget: if you took part in the birdwatch but couldn't submit your results online (they had a few tech issues) then you have until 16th February to do it**

When unique becomes imitated...

I'm really happy to have found a niche market and an area of art I can specialise in while enjoying it immensely at the same time. I am fully aware that I'm not the only portrait artist out there but what is great is that each artist has a different style, whether that's through the media they use or their physical drawing/painting style.

I do the majority of my work updates and posting of content through my Facebook page and I try hard to keep everything I post unique and true to myself and my work. What's been frustrating, even more so in recent weeks, is that I've noticed that my content is being imitated elsewhere. I'm not going to give details because I'm not interested in targeting, naming names, etc. etc. but I've been keeping an eye on it ever since I noticed it a couple of months ago and I'm now feeling so frustrated by it that I just had to voice it to let off steam!

It seems to be more obvious to me now, probably because I've noticed it and am aware of it much more than before and it's frequent too. It's not my work that's being imitated, it's the content and my style of posting. I know that probably sounds a bit woolly but if I was to give a list of specific examples it would be much clearer, I just don't want to do that. It's things like the wording in a status update or the photos being posted being far too similar to my own previously, to sit comfortably with me.

What bothers me with this is that I wrack my brains each and every day to come up with interesting and unique ways of sharing my work and progress with my wonderfully loyal followers and I just wish my ideas weren't being taken and recycled! The reality is, FB isn't making it easy on us small businesses so we have to put in a lot of hours of brainpower and physical networking to keep ourselves on the map. It's really, really difficult but worth it when you get amazing feedback from grateful customers. What takes value out of that worth is when you see that someone else is just making use of the hours you've put in and putting them to their advantage.

I'm aware that, because I've given no in-depth details or examples, this all seems a bit of an overreaction on my part but I simply needed to get my frustrations down on paper (so to speak!) in the hope that it would make me feel a little easier. At the end of the day, there are hundreds of supremely talented artists out there, each and every one with their own style and that something that makes them unique. What's important is FINDING that unique element and working it to it's fullest. Find a style that works for you and your work that is your own, and you are guaranteed to be remembered for it.

**Just to clarify: I have absolutely no problem with the artwork-there are hundreds of amazing artists on FB and many portrait artists all of which have their own styles and that is fantastic! I was just bothered by the style of content on this page.**

Friday, 24 January 2014

New Discoveries

The thing I love most about creating a portrait is that every piece brings with it surprise! When I'm drawing a breed of dog I've not done before, I enjoy discovering new lines and shapes that bring it together, but in particular, I absolutely delight in combining different shades of pencil to create just the right colour for the fur/eyes/nose (delete as appropriate)!

Right now, I'm working on a large triple portrait made up of two spaniels and a boxer; if you follow my Facebook or Instagram, you will have seen the WIP photos. The boxer is a glorious colour, a mix of russet, chestnut and *ahem* ginger and I've spent quite a bit of time layering lots of different shades up to recreate the glossy coat. I have to admit, after drawing about a quarter of his face, I began to feel unhappy with the effect the colours had produced. I had to step back and have an umm and ahh for a few minutes before I decided that the fur was coming across too yellow-it needed a red tone to balance things out.

I had been using these three shades as my main colours up until that point and had planned on the Burnt Siena (right) being red enough to make it work.
So I decided to break in a brand new shade (pause for gasps of excitment!) Yes folks, I'm living on the edge! I got a new tin of Polychromos for Christmas which, as well as containing my tried and tested favourites, had lots of new colours to try out too and it was one of these that ended up being my saviour in this case. 
The pencil on the right again is called Venetian Red (what a lovely name, don't you think?!) and I initially thought it looked a little too pink to work, but it turns out that's exactly what was needed. One I started working that into my layers, the overall colour of the fur came to look exactly as I wanted; a much more realistic interpretation of the original photo. I do so love it when a plan comes together :-)
It's always a pleasant surprise when colours I wouldn't have considered using at the beginning suddenly turn everything around and heading in the right direction. Layering deep blues and violets underneath brown and black to create a really glossy black coat or adding a little pale blue to the twinkle in the eye, they're all things I'm picking up constantly and applying other pieces. You never stop learning; that's what is so exciting about being an artist!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Progress in a Short Time

I recently put together a time-lapse video of my work, using footage from one of my very first portraits. It was great fun and really simple to do, and I think it is a good alternative way of showing my process, instead of the static images I normally use.
I can't TELL you how much I cringed while making it though! The reason for said cringing was entirely down to my technique in the footage, or lack thereof. I find it incredible that my skills have progressed quite so much in such a relatively short period of time and looking at that footage has made me realise how much I have learnt in the last year or so. My style has become a lot more detailed and since starting to apply base layers, I have been able to achieve much more depth and texture within each portrait.
For instance, the above piece is the very first portrait I ever did. I had never done one before so had no particular technique to follow; I was somewhat winging it. The customer was very pleased with it and felt it was a true reflection of the two dogs' characters which is great but looking at it now, there are some things I would definitely change. I made no allowance for mounting/framing and the style to me seems a lot more cartoonish than my current style. I would love to have another crack at the same dogs, to apply the skills I have picked up. 

Using another example shows my progression in an even clearer light. 


The first photo is the portrait I worked on in the time-lapse and the second piece is a very similar one that I completed for Christmas 2013. The most noticeable change to me is the fact that I don't use black ink anymore. I still use white ink for the final highlights; it is something of a signature thing for me which I have been doing since 2012, as I love to pick out the twinkle in the eye or the shine on the nose and the bright white ink helps me do that. However, I no longer use the black ink to bring out the darker areas. I have to say, I'm glad I stopped using it! The more recent portrait has a much more realistic quality about it which pleases me.

I'm supremely grateful that I have been given enough opportunity to progress my skills; if my lovely customers didn't keep booking with me, I'm not sure I'd be able to improve as swiftly as I have done and I only look forward to making even more improvements in the coming year!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Cyber Support Network

**Apologies if the end of this post turns a little gushy!**

The reality of our era is that we all spend A LOT of time online. I'm certainly guilty of using several different social media outlets frequently but in my defence, the majority of time I spend on them is for business purposes. I promise that isn't an excuse; it is genuinely the case. I would say maybe 20% of my time on Facebook is personal and the rest is all spent replying to enquiries and comments on my business page or sharing progress photos. All useful and important stuff, in my eyes.

As for Twitter and Instagram, they are purely business and have been invaluable sources to me in that respect. I always swore I would NEVER join either of them, but I have discovered that I would simply have been shooting myself in the foot if I had continued to be stubborn, as all three of these sites combined have provided an incredible source of support for me. I have spent a lot of time networking and creating a small following of loyal fans, several of whom I have become good friends with. It seems strange saying that about people you have never met in the flesh, but it's the truth; at least, I feel comfortable enough to say that about them, they might not feel the same!

Working from home has it's pros and cons (a post on that coming soon), one of the cons being that it can get quite lonely working by yourself and when you hit a low point with your work, as I often do, that's the moment when you wish you worked in a bustling office where you can simply turn to your neighbour, vent your frustrations and receive some kind words and helpful advice in return. I have discovered that having a small network of fellow artists/designers/crafters just a few clicks away has really helped to fill that gap.
I Love My Cyber Friends
I find I am chatting to the same people everyday which is just lovely and the more I have been chatting, the more I have felt able to call them friends! They understand exactly where I'm coming from when I say that something hasn't gone to plan or I've spent the day procrastinating and got nothing done. I suddenly remember that there are hundreds of others out there going through exactly the same thing every day and I don't feel quite so isolated. Being able to chat about things that aren't related to work too, now that's the best part and what really makes you feel you're talking to friends.

It would be lovely to one day meet up with some, if not all of these lovely cyber friends in the future. There are often creative events organised designed for this very idea but so far, I've been unable to make any of them! Still, it's truly warming to know there's a friendly bunch of people willing to put up with me and my ramblings-you all know who you are ;-)

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Self-criticism and learning to take compliments.

I hold my hands up and happily admit that I am far too hard on myself. It has been pointed out to me by friends and family many times before and I am well aware of it, but it very much comes with the territory of being an artist.

With each piece of work I do, I go through a rollercoaster of feelings; I will start off quite liking the piece, then it will suddenly look very, very wrong at which point I have learnt it's best to take a break and come back only when my frustrations have lessened. I generally get off the rollercoaster feeling pleased with what I've created (although on very few occasions this isn't the case!) and this process repeats itself with every new piece.

When I'm at my low point, there is nothing anyone can say to me that will convince me what I'm doing isn't complete rubbish. I work through it and I come through the other side.

What I struggle with the most is accepting compliments. This applies to my personal life as well as my professional and I'm sure I'm not alone! I never know what to say when someone tells me my work is good; I even struggle with the obvious "thank you". It's not so bad when it's online as I can quite happily reply without feeling ridiculously awkward but when it's in the flesh, even with close family, I really, really can't handle it.

For example, on Thursday I went to a friend's birthday meal, armed with a portrait of her two dogs that I had spent the previous week working on without being able to share any progress shots for fear of her seeing it. I was excited to give it to her as she loves her dogs and I'm one of those people who finds great delight in giving people gifts.
So she opened it and was delighted, then passed it round the table for everyone to look at. All the while this was happening, I felt supremely awkward and had to suppress the overwhelming urge to busy myself on my phone so I didn't have to see the reactions of my friends. Silly really!

Why do I react that way? I was pleased with the piece; in fact I really enjoyed drawing it, so I'm struggling to get my head around why I find it so hard to share in everyone's admiration. Maybe it's because sharing something you have put so much into, emotionally and physically, is scary. You're making yourself vulnerable and open to criticism.

Actually, I have a slightly worse example. My step-mum commissioned me to draw her sister's westie for Christmas just gone, and naturally I accepted. This was before I remembered that I would in fact be there with them on Christmas day, so would see her opening it-but wait! That's not all! The westie in question would ALSO be there on the day, as he couldn't be left alone for long periods of time.

To recap; I would be drawing a portrait of a step-relative's dog, would be in the room as she opened it and the subject of said portrait would also be in the room, available for direct comparison.

Now, that may not seem like a situation worthy of panic to you, but to me, it only seemed to treble the normal levels of pressure I deal with when drawing someone's pet. Needless to say, when the day came and the portrait was unwrapped, it was warmly received and Snowy was more interested in tripping people up than looking at his likeness, but I STILL managed to feel uncomfortable, even more so because this time it wasn't a gift from me, I just happened to be the artist. So saying "you're welcome" in response to the thanks didn't seem appropriate to me.

I don't think my self-criticism will ever go away. It may well improve a little with time but I'm sure you fellow creatives can sympathise with me when I say that it comes with the job.

On the subject of fellow creative folk; do you suffer with same problem? How do you deal with it?

I would love to hear from you, if not only to make me feel better about my crippling lack of self-confidence!

Friday, 17 January 2014


The first post is always the most tricky, isn't it?

I have written a couple of blogs in the past, but never had much staying power and always felt a little pressured to constantly update them with new and exciting content. This one will be different; I plan to use it as a tool to explore the ups and downs of being a self-employed artist and record my processes.

A few things about me, in case you're new to the world of Miss Magpie Designs!
-I'm a pet portrait artist and my chosen medium is coloured pencil and acrylic ink on Murano paper.

-I work from home in the Sussex countryside and my "studio" is my bedroom.

-I'm an old soul! The only heavy drinking I do involves tea and one sugar and I much prefer a wrinkled old paperback over an e-reader (although I do use a Kindle in my work; a future post on that to come!)

If you're a fellow artist/illustrator/general creative type, you may well find something of use in my musings-do feel free to introduce yourself, I don't bite ;-)