West Dean College Sketchbook Project

The Sketchbook Project is brought to you by the Short Course programming team at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation. It is designed to bring you regular inspiration from the Gardens which can be used to draw, paint, stitch or print using the colours, textures and shapes from the images in your work whilst at home. 

Join the conversation and share your creative responses on social media tagging @westdeancollege and @westdeangardens and using #westdeantogether

Week one: Fritillary

Fritillaria Meleagris is commonly known as the Snakeshead Fritillary (fritillary means chequered).

A) For a textile outcome, you can use the fritillary as a starting point for a chequered patchwork, or appliqué design using one colour on a white background.

B) Look at Charles Rennie Macintosh's fritillary watercolour and you will see he used the white of the paper and plum/crimson/maroon paint, leading you to think about negative space lino cuts and block prints with polystyrene or potato.

C) Use the repeat pattern within the petals to create your pattern using stitch or a lino cut.

D) Try a simple mark-making exercise using charcoal. Be inspired by the form and shapes of the flower head and stem, petals and grass fronds. Think about how the flower feels, visualise the soft touch of the petal and make that mark, rubbing in the charcoal with your finger, or a soft cloth. Use a rubber to work into the charcoal to make the pattern of the petals. Use sweeping strokes for the grass fronds. These responses could be used to start an abstracted idea, either by repetition or enlarging an area. Alternatively, look at the structure of the tree branches. Contrast your response to these different subjects.

E) Rather than a representational study, how about abstracting the information from the photograph? Use colour inspired by the purple and greenish-yellow, overlay with mark making inspired by the pattern on the petals, contrasting with the spiky grass fronds and the flowing shapes of the flower form. Complementary colours are at work here. Think about catching the vibrant colours, textures and form to unleash your creativity. Use any paint medium. There is a freedom in creating abstract art - it leaves room for intuition, serendipity and playfulness.

Week two: Trees


St Roche's Arboretum, 20 hectares, is one of the less well known delights within West Dean's designed landscape. Historically, the Arboretum has been known for its collection of large specimens of North American conifers that grow surprisingly well on the thin clay soils overlying chalk. Indeed, the late, internationally renowned, dendrologist Alan Mitchell commented on their quality by saying that "the Arboretum has all the character of a North American forest" and despite the depredations of weather and age this remains true to this day.

It is also the burial place of our founder, Edward James, who had a particular passion for trees and the arboretum and who specifically asked to be buried surrounded by the woody guardians that he loved so much.


  • Ink is a great medium to use when experimenting with the linear structure of the trees. Try blowing ink across the page for branches. Find sticks to use instead of a pen or paintbrush to make marks. Crumple up paper dipped in ink and use to print or use in a collage for bark textures.
  • Texture could be embraced in a drawing exercise through frottage (technique of obtaining an impression of the surface texture of the tree by placing a piece of paper over the surface and taking a rubbing). Frottage can be a starting point of the drawing. The rubbing can be taken with a soft pencil, charcoal or crayon, even an old lichen covered stick from the ground can be used as a drawing implement as it too leaves interesting marks on the paper when rubbed against the bark. This frottage experiment can then be worked into using ink and other drawing media and alongside inspiration from the photographs. 
  • Explore painting trees to abstraction using either monotone, a limited palette  or an unrealistic palette such as the red and blues Mondrian uses in some of his tree paintings.  
  • To create texture in fabric; with synthetic fabric (lining fabric is ideal), lay on top of a sheet of tin foil of the same size, crumple up the fabric and tin foil together and pop in a moderate oven for a few minutes, remove from oven and allow to cool. The fabric will retain the texture /memory of folding.
  • Make a sculpture using found materials or discarded materials that you can find around your house. Corrugated cardboard is an ideal material to cut, bend and carve - for inspiration check out the installation by Eva Jospin in the Hayward exhibition – see below. Collect twigs on your daily walk and bind together using string to create your own tree. This can grow over the weeks.


  • Piet Mondrian’s fascination with trees developed out of his earlier landscape painting. His abstract pantings were based on realistic sketches which he reworked almost to abstraction. He condensed the trunks and branches to a network of verticals and horizontals. He acknowledged the inspiration of nature but added, ‘I want to come as close as possible to the truth, and abstract everything from that until I reach the foundation of things’.
  • Sculptor Giuseppe Penone's current work is mostly focused on trees. Exquisitely attuned to volume, mass, and space, Penone crafts trees out of materials like bronze and wood, revealing the disarming similarities between bark and skin, branches and limbs, trunk and torso. He is one of the artists featured in Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery. Director Ralph Rugoff leads a virtual tour of this group exhibition that looks at how artists over the past 50 years have explored our relationship with trees and forests.
  • Short Course tutor Carole Waller has just printed some beautiful silk scarves developed from a photograph she took of trees just coming into bud outside the workshop doors, whilst teaching at West Dean in March. You can see this design on her website.
  • Other Artists inspired by trees include, David Nash, Rebecca Partridge (one of the Visiting lecturers on the MFA Fine Art programme at West Dean), Tacita Dean, David Hockney and Gustav Klimt.

Week three: Star Magnolia


The alluring pink flowers of the Star Magnolia ‘Rosea’ in West Dean Arboretum fade to white over time. The Star Magnolia - originates from Japan, flowering in early spring and is a shrub not a tree, making it perfect for small gardens.


The elegant magnolia tree has inspired artists and designers for many centuries.

  • COLLAGE; you could draw the shape of the flower form, then cut it out.  Draw the form several times and cut these shapes out and rearrange them onto a larger piece of paper. Look for Henri Matisse cut-outs for inspiration and a guide.  These shapes could also be painted in block colour like style of Matisse.  Otherwise you could layer the shapes, overlapping several at a time to make a design or trace the one shape several times. Consider completing the image by looking at the tonal quality of the petals using watered down ink, watercolour or food colouring.
  • PASTELS lend themselves to express the delicacy of the magnolia petals, as well as the structural patterns of the branches. Try using a variety of coloured paper for a base.
  • STITCH; Machine embroider is essentially drawing with thread. Use a minimal tonal colour palette to build up layers.
  • WIRE; Use soft fuse wire, enamelled wire of coloured wire – anything that you have at home ,to create textural sculptures. If you fix these onto a bamboo stick or wooden pole, they can become part of your floral border
  • DRAW; Explore delicacy in drawing, fluidity shapes, layers and playing with scale.


  • The Magnolia has been a favourite subject of many Japanese artists in paintings, prints and textiles, he flowing branches of this tree are covered with an abundance of organic flowers in early spring,  Many Art Nouveau artists and designers have also been inspired by its organic fluid and entwined forms which lend themselves perfectly to illustrations, paintings, jewellery and other decorative arts.  You will also see the flower used as decoration on many Moorcroft pottery vases.
  • Georgia O’Keefe is renowned for her bold flower paintings which waiver between realism and abstraction
  • Damien Hirst and David Hockney are both currently engaged in painting blossom – Hirst with oils and Hockney using his Ipad

Week four: Nature's Stripes


The pictures depict plants grown in our Tropical House at West Dean Gardens. One is a Spathiphyllum or Peace Lily which originates from the Tropical Americas and South East Asia. The other is Codiaeum `Petra’ which is from the Euphorbia family, native to Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia where it grows in open forests and scrub. They both require high humidity and not too much water at the roots. Both being ideally suited to a living room environment which can be warm with poor light levels.


Many artists develop designs and compositions by focussing on the linear aspects of natural forms or landscapes.

  • DRAW; You could represent the photos by drawing tonally either with charcoal, pencil or ink. Think about where the darks and light areas are in the photo.  If you squeeze your eyes almost to shut and peep through your eyelashes you can see the tones of the photograph more clearly.    Look at how the light forms stripes across the leaves of the greenhouse photograph.  You could begin by plotting out the grid formed by the shadows in the greenhouse and then add the leaf shapes later.  You could take a small section of one of the images and focus on the in between shapes or negative shapes to produce a drawing.
  • PAINT; Use the colourful greenhouse image and emphasise the light on the leaves to make an impressionist style painting with visible brushstrokes, dappled light and lots of colour avoiding the use of black.  Otherwise you could use the stripes and negative space of the bamboo image as a starting point for your painting.
  • TEXTILES; use the technique of appliqueing different fabrics together either to recreate the leave, bamboo or fungi forms in the photos, or in a more abstract composition. Check out Short Course tutor Maxine Sutton’s abstract compositions using this technique on Instagram.
  • PAPER & FIBER; The fungi forms are inspiration for developing three dimensional forms either using paper of felting (if you already have the fibers at home, –or you can buy these online). Short Course Tutor Richard Sweeney creates sculptures by folding paper – check out his instructional videos on Youtube.
  • PRINT; Achieve bold or subtle stripes by using a range of print processes – stencils, lino, collagraph or even the simple potato cut. Short Course Tutor Vicky Oldfield shared how to make collagraph prints without a press on social media last week.


  • Bridget Riley is the first artist that comes to mind whose work uses the dynamics of stripes, and who recently had a retrospective exhibition at The Hayward Gallery, London. In 1960 she evolved a style in which she explored the dynamic potentialities of optical phenomena. These so-called 'Op-art' pieces produce a disorienting physical effect on the eye.
  • Sean Scully is another contemporary artists using bold colour and stripes. Drawing on the traditions of Abstract Expressionism, he creates strongly articulated pieces: canvases on heavy stretchers, abutting panels and architectural constructions that project themselves into the viewer’s space. Abandoning precise delineation for a looser, more painterly handling of paint, his use of colour, subtle nuances and stark contrasts testifies to a concern with light and beauty.
  • Agnes Martin, who spent her later years working in the desert in New Mexico, became known for her square canvasses, meticulously rendered grids and repeat stripes, Martin thought of her works as studies in the pursuit of perfection;
    ‘When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.’

Week five: Rhododendrun


Rhododendrons are incredibly useful and valued plants in the garden. They can be either evergreen or deciduous and different species can provide flowers from late winter to early summer. Predominantly found in Asia, most Rhododendrons require a fertile, moist and reasonably drained soil. To achieve the best results in a garden, the soil should be acidic which makes the Rhododendrons in our Arboretum quite staggering, given the shallow and chalky soil of the area. Rhododendron ponticum was used as rootstocks for many more showy forms because of it’s tolerant and robust nature. In the Arboretum at this time of year, you can see the high percentage of the lilac flowered ponticum which would account for some of its success up there.


The blowsy and voluptuous colours of the rhododendron flowers can’t not inspire you to paint and draw.

  • Drawing with colour for a change, using coloured pencils, felt tips, crayons etc  Try starting on coloured paper or card.  Or if you don’t have any coloured paper then wash a piece of paper with paint first before you begin to give a good vibrant background colour.  This will give a starting point.  Light colours can be achieved by collaging pieces of white paper onto the coloured background, sticking down with Pritt stick or PVA. Then working into these areas.

Painting – again you could start with a coloured ground.  Perhaps using a vibrant pink or purple wash to begin with and then adding the green into the negative spaces.  Think about colour mixing, how to achieve the perfect pink.  Which red and which blue will achieve that perfect hue, intensity and value. You could make a series of experiments in colour to investigate colour theory. Which colour would complement this colour perfectly etc.


  • ​Georgia O’Keefe is well known for her strong detailed paintings of stamen and petals.
  • Short Course tutor Emily Ball explores the sensuality of the flowers through the application of paint whilst Botanical artists, Sandrine Maugy and Mariella Baldwin focus on conveying details.