Tuesday 19 April 2016

They see me vole-in'

In which Wren discovers the King of the Water Voles, has a good rummage round the back of the internet, and bemoans the fact that she never got to go to one of Walter Rothschild's parties.

Eventually, we will get to the vole point, I promise.

About 80% of what I draw comes directly from my own imagination.  I'm used enough to my own style to know exactly what I want my subject to look like before I start, and I just refer back to my own mental image if I feel I'm getting off track.

The World's Happiest Bat - Clearly not in the 'hyper realistic' category

Sometimes, though, if I want to draw something very realistic, or something I'm not that familiar with, I need a photograph for reference.  It would be extremely rare that I copy the photo religiously - only really if someone has commissioned a pet portrait and wants that exact image, or as a personal challenge to myself to see how photo-realistic I can make something.

However, it's common for me to use these photos to check details I'm not sure of - for example, the exact colouring of a bird's plumage, or the exact position of a bear's ears on it's head.  Sometimes all the details are already fine in my head, but I just need an outline to study to make sure I have the posture right.

As a student, I spent hours copying images out of books and magazines.  This was immeasurable help when it came to practising and learning drawing and painting skills, and finding my own style.  However, practising at home in my sketchbook, and selling my work commercially are two very different things.  If some extremely resilient wildlife photographer has risked life and limb in order to take a picture of a lion's face just as it decides it fancies cameraman for dinner, then I have no right to sit here in my English cottage and sell that image as my own.  The most dangerous feline round here is The Cat, and although rather large, he's never threatened a food source that doesn't come processed and pre packaged.

So...  How to find photos to use as studies?

1.  My own photos.  Easy peasy.  I always take my camera/(phone) wherever I go, and take a ridiculous number of photos of anything that looks like it might come in useful later.  (Especially in wildlife parks etc - whilst the wildlife of Hertfordshire is charming, it doesn't tend towards the wildly exotic).

2. 'Down the back of the internet'...  Or more specifically, sites full of public domain photos, like morguefile or pixabay.  There are thousands of photos on there, of just about anything.  I started off just trying to find a couple of images of specific animals, but it's turned into a bit of a rabbit hole.  Partly because you do have to rummage quite a bit, the stuff that comes up is fascinating.  A weird mix of professional stock photo images, unused images from local newspapers, shots from amateur photographers, photos that look like they were part of student art projects...  All kindly made public domain and free to use!  I've spent hours just putting in random keywords like 'eye' just to see what comes up.

It's been a great source of 'reverse inspiration' - rather than just having an idea and then finding a matching image, I've found so many images that have then led to new ideas...

Exhibit A.  (Or - 'Study with Scarf and Shadows')

3.  Vintage vintage vintage.  One day that will stop being a buzzword, you know.  Until then, I do actually mean vintage.  As in, so old that they are now out of copyright and have become public domain.

A few years ago, I was luckily enough to stumble upon a two volume 'Encyclopaedia of Living Animals' in a second hand book shop.  Opening it up to a random page, I was very excited to see a photo of a Tasmanian Tiger - an animal which is, sadly, very much NOT a 'living animal'.  (Well, to be fair, I don't think any of the animals pictured are living any more - except maybe the giant tortoise.  However, I mean not living in terms of now very extinct as a species).

I bought the books on the spot, and they have given me many hours of pleasure, horror and sheer confusion ever since.

The caption reads: "'The Hon. Walter Rothschild's Team of Zebras" - Mr. Rothschild was practically the first Englishman to break in zebras to harness.  At one time these animals were thought to be quite untameable'.

(I love how he was practically the first...)

This book is horrifying in that nearly every animal is accompanied by a cheerful note saying how best to cook it, wear it, or keep it as a pet. It is a rare animal that escapes a comment such as 'makes delightful trimmings for ladies hats' or 'used to make carriage rugs'.

If the animal in question is kept as a pet, they are invariably photographed in the grounds of a stately home, or even with their aristocratic owner.  Walter Rothschild seems to be the most prolific of the exotic pets club.  When I bought these books I was still living up North, and wasn't aware how many weekends I would end up spending in various Rothschild properties that are now National Trust.  We've now spent many happy days at Waddesdon Manor, including one evening watching an open air showing of 'Skyfall' on the great lawns, whilst it poured with rain.  Stately home, James Bond and rain.  Possibly the most English event ever.

Apparently Rothschild used to throw epic parties there.  Can you imagine a huge glittering Edwardian party in an enormous country house with a man who has a zebra carriage and rides giant tortoises in his spare time?


I do feel cheated by history sometimes.

Anyway... yay for lots of reference photos.  I knew I had a point in there somewhere.




You see, I was asked to draw a pen and ink illustration of a water vole.  Woohoo for a commission!  Very good.  Happy Wren. Except...  After much effort with points 1, 2 and 3, I realised that I could not find any water vole photos that did the job.  They were one of those animals where I had a good idea what one looked like, but not as specific as someone who likes water voles so much that they commission an original drawing of one.

Then, on Flickr, I found the work of Peter Trimming, hereby known in this household as 'King of the Water Voles'.  This man has clearly spent hours lying around the soggy English countryside waiting for water voles to pose for him, and has then been kind enough to release them on a creative commons license.

For work like this I tend to take several studies from the photos, and then draw my final pieces from the studies.  So the finished drawings may not look that much like the original photos, but as they were so helpful, I wanted to make sure that Mr Trimming got his full attribution.  All hail Peter Trimming, King of the Water Voles!

The commission has gone off to it's new home, but as I also made so many supplementary drawings I've put my two favourites (the ones pictured here) up for sale as prints on Etsy...  HERE

Meet Wallace!

Wallace close-up

And Wesley!

Wesley close up

Sunday 27 March 2016

First paintings and prints

Otters and Hedgehogs and Squirrels, Oh My!

So, my knitting patterns have been online for a couple of months now, and I've even sold a few!  It's so exciting to know that somebody you've never met, on the other side of the world, will be making something you've designed.  I really hope that they enjoy knitting them as much as I did.

Now that they're up and running, I've had a bit of a confidence boost in that I really feel that I might be able to make something of all this.  I've always dreamed of being able to make a living from my artistic/creative endeavours, but always assumed that it wasn't something that 'real' people could do.  I thought that the time and effort needed would have to go on having a 'real job' where I knew I was getting a salary.  Well, as I said in the last post, shoulder has put paid to a 'proper' job until my next round of operations, so a silver-lining full of time has now dropped straight into my lap.

Currently, 'Of Cats and Wren Designs' is expanding rapidly as I see what works and what doesn't, but I'm loving the freedom of being able to add whatever I'm working on at the moment. is now in full swing, and I also have my Etsy shop now open  The knitting patterns are there, but I'm now concentrating on moving on with my own original artwork.

It's wildlife art that is my first love (as you will have probably noticed over previous posts!).   Here are my first watercolours available to buy...

You can see them in the Etsy shop HERE or in the gallery of my website HERE...

"My animal watercolours are produced by layering washes of paint with fine pencil detail, building up fine veils of colour and texture until they reach the perfect level of ‘furriness’.  The finished effect is a beautiful balance of stylised pattern and charming realism."

If you look at a close up you can see what I mean about the stylised fur...

I liked the idea so much that I kept experimenting with the idea of how far I could take the stylisation/realism.  I've been studying a lot of old medieval woodcuts recently, and wanted to see what I could do in that style.  Unfortunately I don't have access to a printing press, medieval or otherwise (or wood, or wood carving tools, or printers ink - you get the picture).  So, I started to see what I could do with my trusty pen and paper.

These were the results, and I absolutely love them!...

Otter Print

Otter Detail

Hedgehog Print

Hedgehog Detail
Squirrel Print

Squirrel Detail
I like them so much I've had them made into prints - if you want one they're available in the Etsy shop.  I've had them mounted so they're all ready to be mounted in their new home.  You can see more of the originals on the website here.

Sunday 21 February 2016

The Not-Simon Cowl

Involving the brave new world of knitting design, misunderstood accessories and feline models.

So here it is, my first 'proper' downloadable knitting pattern.  Best of all, it's FREE!  Just click here  to enjoy the warm glow of money-less crafty shopping!  Bask in the smug thrill of knowing that you've fed your knitting habit without spending a penny!  Gaze in wonder at the beautiful download appearing on your desktop for exactly 0 monetary outlay!

(And then return and buy lots of other patterns for real money, because I've got a cat to feed, haha).

Speaking of cats...   Who is this dapper fellow modelling my cowl?

Isn't he handsome?  I would use him for all my modelling needs - except that a lot of my other stuff is baby clothes.  I've descended far enough in to Crazy-Cat-Lady-ness, I think knitting baby clothes and then putting them on the cat would be a level of crazy I couldn't come back from...  

So, the beautifully modelled cowl is my first and FREE design available to download. (Did I mention that before?).  The pun title comes from a very predictable confusion stemming from a non-unexpected lack of women's accessories by The Boyfriend.  In short, it is a Cowl (basically a circular scarf) and not a Cowell (a repugnant peddler of dross, whom I would not wish to have wrapped round my neck).

Here's my 'official blurb'...
This cowl is designed to show off the best of two shades of variegated wool, blending them together to create lovely colour shifts all along the finished piece.  
The deep rib makes for a wonderfully practical neck warmer – you can wear it pushed down deep into your collar for a simple, elegant look, but as soon as a chilly wind strikes you need only tug at the top and – voila! – it expands up to cover your ears and chin too.  Invaluable for sneaky seasonal weather when you don’t want to bundle up in a massive scarf, but still want to be prepared for sudden cold snaps.  

I had beginners very much in mind with this pattern - I know that when I was starting out I found it really aggravating that all the cowl patterns I could find seemed to be either in the round or involve grafting, neither of which I felt confident about.  I've designed this to be knit flat in one piece, with some sneaky tricks to avoid the difficult stuff`!  This is a guaranteed no-scare pattern!

Thursday 4 February 2016

No business like Wren business

OfCatsandWren Designs is now open for business!

Bad news:  Shoulder has put me back out of full time work for the time being...

Good news:  Trying to find a silver lining in the situation, I now have more time to devote to creative projects, and those projects are a great distraction from pain issues.

So, business time!  I've started off by writing up some of my knitting patterns and making them available for download.  Click here to take a look!   I've included a mix of gorgeous grown up accessories, adorable baby clothes and sweet extras for children.  They're also available to purchase here, via

Finally, there's also a Facebook page for the business, for sneak peeks and breaking news! (Because it's all go in the world of knitting design...)

Check out the patterns and see what you think!

Monday 27 April 2015

The Bundle Blanket - #lksecretgarden

In which we cover shoulder escapes, medicating felines, Ancient Egyptian marriage ceremonies, and a knit-a-long blanket. 

I'm off work today, as earlier this week my shoulder joint decided to make one of its regular bids for freedom.  Fortunately since my last surgery these attempts have been less frequent, but are still pretty unpleasant.  More so in a way - when escape was a daily occurrence I could relocate things with a swift knock (amazing the things you get used to!) - nowadays the surgeons have built me a shoulder-joint-Alcatraz, so if it wants to throw itself out you know it really means it.

In an attempt to find something useful I was capable of doing amidst waves of painkiller haziness, I decided to give the cat his monthly bug treatment (like spot-on, but from the vets and I can never remember what it's called.  Some catchy Latin translation of 'spot-on', probably... 'Spot-on-ocet' or something).  He hates it.  Which is not all that surprising really - it he enjoyed having foul smelling oil dunked on the back of his neck it would be a bit odd.  

Anyway, despite bribing with Dreamies and an extra bowl of wet food, it ended in a brief wrestling match (which he won, as I have one working arm and he has four).  He stormed out though the cat flap yelling about how I'd betrayed every trust he'd ever held sacred.  I did get most of the stuff on him though.

Having being thus abandoned, I went for option 2 in the 'useful things to do on codeine' list.  (To be fair, it's a very short list).  I've been working on the 'Secret Garden' blanket knitalong since it started in 'Let's Knit' magazine in January.

My project 'to do' list is so long now that I've developed a real hang up about knitting things that are just for me.  I have so many things I want to knit as gifts for other people, as well as trying to get some designs finished and written up to sell, that I feel really guilty sitting down to work on something for myself.

However, I justified this KAL (besides "it's pretty and I want it!") by telling myself that I would learn a lot of new stitches and techniques, that it would be really good to finish a big project, and that the squares are small and quick enough to finish between other projects.  All this has turned out to be true, which is nice!  The squares are simple enough to do between other things, which makes them good 'knitting palette cleansers', particularly between wildly different projects, or two fiddly ones.
Some of the patterns are a bit complex, with quite a bit of cabling/counting etc, but on the whole once the pattern it set you can merrily go backwards and forwards with minimal thought.  Hence why they are useful go-to projects when feeling useless and foggy brained.

The wool I'm using is lovely, which helps.  I used the recommended yarn, which is Rico Design Essentials Soft Merino Aran.  It's 100% Merino Wool, and is so soft and springy.  The colours are gorgeous too, although the ones I'm using are different from those in the magazine (they were a bit bright and acidic for me, I've gone for deeper tones).

I'm a bit behind as I've had so much else on, and I'm making the larger size blanket, which involves knitting two of each square.  The first three months are now done though!


Honeycomb and Double Parallelogram 
Colour - Blackberry


Twisted Pyramids and Knotted Cable
Colour - Sage


Diamond Lace and Garter Stitch Steps
Colour - Dusky Pink

An idea of the colours together so far...

I've picked 3 'red' shades and 3 'blue' shades, and a light, medium and dark of each, Hopefully they will work well together!  

In a rather lovely display of life intertwining with knitting projects (as it always should do, in my humble opinion), shortly after I started this blanket my boyfriend asked me (and The Cat) to move in with him!  He has been away in Afghanistan for months (feels like YEARS!), but was back on leave in February.  We were watching a documentary about the Ancient Egyptians by Dr Joanne Fletcher (a personal heroine of mine) in which she was describing marriage ceremonies.  Part of the marriage proposal was the ceremony of 'Bringing the Bundle', where one partner would bundle up their possessions in a blanket, and present themselves at their partner's front door.  If they are let in, then *huzzah* - the two of them are now living together.  

The Boyfriend was joking that I would be turning up on his doorstep with a huge pile of wool, a shedload of books and a cat (and not much else!).  Given the way that things are going, I should hopefully finish this blanket around (or before) July, when I'm due to move in.  We have decided that I will ceremoniously wrap the blanket around a book and The Cat and step over the threshold, thus marking the moment we move in together.  The blanket can represent my knitting, as well as a shared obsession with history and documentaries!

I should go and knit some more of it now...

P.S. If you want to watch Dr Joanne Fletcher talking about 'Bringing the Bundle' you can do so here...  This particular clip is for the school's version, so not what we originally saw, but still interesting!

Thursday 6 November 2014

Sketches - Harry and The Cat

Just a couple of sketches by me - one of Harry the dog, which I gave to his people as a moving present, and one I attempted this evening.  I didn't get very far because *someone* got up and sat on my sketch book in the middle!

Everyone's a critic...


Monday 19 May 2014

'Moomin' Blanket Square

I've had a bit of a break from the Boyfriend Blanket, whilst I busy myself with other secret plans and clever tricks...

However, I've just finished (or Finnish-ed?) the latest square - my version of Moomintroll!  I've loved the Moomins ever since I was a little girl.  A few weeks ago I was trying to explain to The Boyfriend exactly what the Moomins were (I have their pictures on my travel bag, which he was looking at).  One thing led to another, and very soon afterwards we found ourselves with tickets to Helsinki, to visit the Land Of The Moomins in person!

So this square is in honour of our upcoming Finland trip.  Other Moomin fans, please feel free to use the pattern for your own (non profit) use, as long as it is good, noble, and in the spirit of the residents of Moomin Valley!