Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Industrial Landscape of South Wales

This morning I went out with the walking group and we took the same route across the Castle Meadows to the Garden Centre that my son and I followed on my birthday. The ponies were still there with their foals

- but almost hidden under the trees, probably trying to keep cool as the weather has turned very sultry in the past few days.

Some of our walking group are literally 'walking their way back to health' and others are considerably older than I am so at that point we took a turning down a pretty lane that would bring us back in a circle to the Meadows again - and the Coffee Shop! However, on my birthday, no such allowances for age and infirmity were afforded me and my son and I toiled on up the side of the Blorenge to the Brecon & Monmouth Canal at Llanfoist Wharf - with me doing most of the 'toiling'!

(I took this photos this morning when I spotted a couple of wild poppies surviving in the clay soil!)

In fact this print is of one of my pastel paintings of Goytre Wharf, the next stop along the Canal from Llanfoist -

I rarely use so much green in my landscape paintings but it seemed to be the only way to convey the refreshingly cool shade under the trees on such a hot afternoon and it turned out to be one of my favourite paintings - the original now sold to a man who works on the waterways.

When I first moved here, it came as a surprise to me to find a canal in this part of the world. I had always associated canals with the industrial areas of The Midlands and the North of England and from everything I've posted so far about Abergavenny and its mountains and meadows, you'll very probably have formed the impression, as I did, that it's a rural area. The economy of the constituency of Monmouthshire is described online as 'agriculture and tourism'. But if you go just over the brow of the Blorenge, which I can see clearly enough from my windows to watch the hanglgliders and microlites descending, you find yourself in an area so well known in the past for its industry that it has become a World  Heritage Site on a par with the Taj Mahal!

As you drive up the steep side of the Blorenge, through the village of Llanfoist to former coal-mining town of Blaenavon, negotiating the treacherous hairpin bend known as The Fiddlers Elbow, you can see, if you dare to glance out of the car window, the remains of the lime quarries that provided an essential ingredient of the iron and steel industry. The lime was taken down the mountainside by tram and then onwards by canal. I heard from an old farmer whose family had lived by the canal for generations that at one time, the barges also transported timber used for pitprops for the mines in the South Wales coalfield, and also, during World War One, for use in the trenches.

All that industrial activity ceased long ago and the canal is now a tourist attraction for pleasure boats and there are some beautiful walks and cycle routes along the towpath.

Another relic of the bygone industrial age remains when you reach the carpark at the top of the hill. As well as the stunning views of Sugarloaf in the distance, there is a pond which was built to provide a water supply for the lime kilns.

Nowadays it's a good place to sail model boats and a focal point of walks in the area.

But it's when you continue on into the little Victorian-built town of Blaenavon that the industrial heritage of the area becomes clear.

The Big Pit at Blaenavon is now a major tourist attraction - you can go down into the mine, though my first attempt to take some friends and their grandchildren down, failed because there had been a thunderstorm just before we arrived and it had knocked out the electrics! More than 300 tourists were underground when the power failed so the lifts weren't working! Fortunately there is an emergency escape route, but the decision had been taken to suspend the underground tours for the rest of the day.

There is plenty to see on the surface though,  including the miners' bath houses (with soundtrack!) and a virtual tour of the mine, complete with sounds of the explosions. All a little too realistic for the six-year old who was clutching my hand! We did manage to go underground on our second visit, which I didn't entirely enjoy but I'm glad to have done it.

A couple of years ago, the BBC made a wonderful series of programmes, called The Coal House, about the lives of the miners in which three families lived as mining family in 1927 for a month, with no 'mod cons' as we know them, and the series was made at Blaenavon. One of the boys I was teaching at the time, was in the crowd of local residents who greeted the families as they emerged into present day living at the end of the month. It was compelling viewing and little Rhodri became well-known for his 'I don't like piggies!' Sadly, I haven't been able to find the relevant hilarious video clip - maybe the celebrity status it was causing was too much to handle for one so young?

The interesting thing was that, when the families met up a few months later for a follow-up programme, they all agreed that, although life was hard, often unimaginably gruelling, they were happier than in their 'real' lives because of the sense of community that we seem to have lost nowadays.

As landscapes go, I generally prefer 'working' landscapes to the more 'park-like' ones but that usually means farms and so on. The pastel painting from which I made this print goes just that little bit further....

If all this industry isn't to your taste, you can come back to the 'meadows' by watching this video clip of Iolo, a very popular Welsh TV wildlife presenter, in the orchid meadows of neighbouring Monmouth!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Poppies seem to have a particular appeal for artists.

Monet certainly painted them several times but he's not the only one; they seem to be an 'easy' subject for amateur artists too, maybe because those vivid red splashes of colour are so easily identifiable and make such an immediate impact?

Then again, in close up, they are, to my mind, the unbeatable champions of 'gesture' in the floral realm and it's for that reason as much as their colours that I love painting them.

But I grew up believing that all poppies were a pale orange colour. They seemed to grow everywhere - in our garden, in the paths, on bombsites and waste ground. And I always loved them, not so much for their colour as for their graceful curving stems and nodding heads, that made them seem somehow more alive than other plants. I never really associated those poppies of my childhood with the flat red artificial Flanders poppies that we wear on Remembrance Day.

But in Norfolk I was introduced to red poppies, sometimes called Shirley or Corn Poppies, in all their glory! And I painted them. But unfortunately, my pastel painting of poppies and daisies on the edge of a North Norfolk cornfield, was framed and given away long before I had a scanner so the best I can manage is a scan of an old pre-digital photo of it -

As you travel towards the North Norfolk Coast, outside Cromer and Overstrand, you really can't miss the red swathes of poppies growing wild in the cornfields! In fact a 19th Century London journalist, Clement Scott, came to Overstrand in 1883, fell in love with the poppies, as well as the local miller's daughter, named the area 'Poppyland' and wrote about it in the Daily Telegraph.

A friend in Hereford is lucky to be able to grow these black-centred, scarlet poppies in her flowerbeds -

- which gave rise to these:

Garden Mug mug
Garden Mug by helikettle
ceramic mugs made online with Zazzle

And a local neighbour's large, oriental-type poppies have been immortalised in this oil pastel painting, as greeting cards, mugs and even shoes!

I've tried to grow poppies from seed in my garden in Abergavenny with no success at all - the same goes for cornflowers which have thrived in my previous gardens so I suspect the soil is too heavy. My only success has been with the Californian variety, which I'm very fond of,

- so last year I raised some Icelandic Poppies from seed indoors and planted them in tubs and pots outside my kitchen door, where they flowered cheerfully and resulted in my most popular watercolour greeting card -

However they didn't seed themselves as I'd hoped so I was pleased to find some for sale in pots at the Garden Centre my son and I visited on my birthday before we came across the ponies. I was also somewhat bemused to see pots of these for sale -
- surely a weed by anyone's reckoning (though one definition of a weed is 'a plant growing in the wrong place'!)

It would have been far cheaper to have grown my poppies myself but time has been short this Spring so I dutifully paid the price with my voucher and we carried them in carrier bags for the rest of our walk, trying not to damage their fragile petals.

They survived and once they'd settled in to their new homes in the pots by my door, they've begged me to photograph them daily!

It's not always been easy to capture their brilliant, almost translucent colours - I'm sure that a more professional photographer would have found a way - but these are just a few that came out reasonably well -

I think I'm going to try following this advice and, if the seeds are still available in the shops, I'll sow some in pots, ready for next year...

These are some of the greeting cards in which I've tried to portray the 'daintiness' that is part of their charm -


As for these, they show a different, more flamboyant aspect of the poppy's personality, I think!
And, by the way, if anyone would ever like to use any of my photos, flowers or otherwise, as a reference for painting or drawing, just send me a message and I'll gladly email you a larger version.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Sunday Smile-Spot...

...not that England's footie fans have much, if anything, to smile about! Frank Lampard's unfairly disallowed goal pales into insignificance compared to England's 4-1 defeat in Bloemfontein this afternoon.

The young German team played very well, were a joy to watch and I hope they'll go further. But even someone who knows as little about what constitutes good football as I do, could see that our team made their victory easy for them. When I switched off the television, the head-shaking pundits in the studio were lacing their post-match summing-up with words like 'abysmal' and 'abject failure' and one compared Englands's performance to that of a Sunday morning under-10s team. The bewidlering thing is that our players are individually capable of great things when they play their club football and it's a mystery as to what went wrong when they came to play for their country.

One theory is that some of our best players were forced to play out of position - for which, blame the manager, whom some were describing as 'stubborn'. And maybe it was Fabio Capello's stubborness that prompted him to say, when interviewed, that 'we played well'?

The post-mortem will clearly run on and on but I'm sure there will be many here who will be delighted that England's World Cup run is over and normal life can resume - or, at least they can watch Wimbledon in peace from now on! But England playing Germany in the World Cup is so much more than just another football match, tapping in, as it does, to a longstanding rivalry. So, with the German Ambassador to Britain's permission, here's John Cleese in a classic episode from the comedy series 'Fawlty Towers', that might just go some way to lifting the gloom -

And if you're not a footie fan or if you don't support England, it doesn't matter, you can enjoy it anyway!

Friday, 25 June 2010

Statistics, Analytics and Insights

When I began this blog back in January, I intended it to be, at least partly, a record of my experience of selling my greeting cards online. And I hoped that maybe others who were just embarking on this journey might benefit from reading about my ups and downs and gain some insights into what works and what doesn't. Inevitably, I suppose, I've drifted away from that original intention at times but last week, I made a sale that surprised me and brought me back into a more analytical mode. So, as it's six months since I started out with the PODstores and I've passed the 100 mark as far as sales are concerned, I put on my bean-counter hat, engaged my left-brain and took a closer look at my sales so far. I was looking for some hard facts that might point me in the direction that would most likely bring in sales both in terms of what kind of greeting card (or products) I should spend my all-too-limited time creating and also where the most fruitful marketplace is likely to be.

I'd already established that for me, Greeting Card Universe, brings me more sales that Zazzle, in spite of what appeared to be far more visits to my Zazzle Store.(Using Google Analytics, suggested by Ulla, has confirmed that the 'store visits' counter on Zazzle is wildly inaccurate!) But I wanted to know whether a pattern was emerging about which 'style' of design was most in demand.

First I'd better make it clear that I have no intention of giving up on the 'style' that is 'me' and trying to do something different because it sells better! But I do have quite an assortment of styles that I'm comfortable with and it might be more financially rewarding to concentrate my efforts on the one, or ones, that bring most sales.

Also, I think it's probably a good idea to establish who and where one's market is! A few months ago a friend of a friend, who had worked for a greeting card publisher, had commented that my designs would probably appeal to the 'older age-group' - no great surprise there, given that I'm not so young myself! So it was the sale of one of my age-specific birhday cards for a 30-yr-old through Greeting Card Universe last week that prompted me to look into this question of demographics more closely.

Looking through all my sales to date through Greeting Card Universe, I discovered that more than 25% of them were in the 'Pen and Wash' style that in many ways comes most naturally to me. The few greeting cards that I've sold through Zazzle have also been in this style. And, on the whole, they were either designs for that 'older age group' - or for children, arguably bought by that same 'older age group'!


So this recent one clearly bucked the trend!

In second place, with about 20% of sales, were my collages, though I think that 'statistic' was slightly skewed by the large number of sales of my Christmas Snowman Collage -


All the other styles were represented by just one or two sales each, with a strong bias towards the floral designs.

It's a very different picture when it comes to sales through my 'partyplan' venture, Kitchen Table Cards, where sales have been more evenly spread across my various different styles. But my little analysis of my online sales, as well as being useful from the point of view of which medium to take further, maybe goes some way to explain why I sell more through Greeting Card Universe than through Zazzle.

I may be completely wrong here, but my impression is that Zazzle caters for a much younger generation of customer, a generation that is more interested in the 'trendiness' of their T-shirts' logo than anything else. As with my floral mugs, my 'pretty' T-shirts have been favorably commented on by other Zazzlers but haven't been sold. I created this one last week -

- and somebody commented that it 'deserves to do well'. But so far, no interest, which seems a shame. And it leads me to ask whether that 'older age group' is actually shopping for T-shirts at Zazzle. Seems unlikely to me! So am I wasting my time making 'pretty things' for the Zazzle marketplace? I'd like to hear whether other Zazzlers' experiences are at all similar.

Is there anyone out there who succeeds at Zazzle with floral designs?

Meanwhile it's time I was planning some new 'pen and wash' Christmas card designs - with us 'Silver Surfers' in mind....

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Art is Child's Play

A BBC programme worth watching.....if you have time!

'The artist doesn't know what they're doing and the viewer doesn't know what they're looking at and somewhere between the two, something happens' - from last night's programme in the 'Imagine' series, presented by Alan Yentob.

'Art is Child's Play' 

If you find that the link doesn't work - I just got 'page not found' for some inexplicable reason as the link is correct! - click on the link to BBC programmes on that 'page doesn't exist' page, then choose 'I' and scroll down to 'Imagine', where you can watch the whole programme. It's certainly worthwhile!

'When we are no longer children, we are already dead'  - Constantin Brancusi (sculptor)

Monday, 21 June 2010

Horses and Ponies

I promised I'd continue the post before last and let you in on what we found in a field, just after we left the Garden Centre. So here they are!

Foal Mousepad mousepad
Foal Mousepad by helikettle
Design customized mouse pads online at

Now I'll freely admit that I'm not a great horse or pony enthusiast - not at close quarters at any rate! Those teeth look far too powerful for my liking and as for the back legs, they terminate in some pretty scary-looking, iron-clad hooves and I always worry that the horse isn't aware of how they flail dangerously about because he can't see them! So I give them a very wide berth!

This scan of a scan of a very old photo shows me the last time I looked reasonably comfortable on horseback, (or should that be 'ponyback'?) on Ryde beach, in the Isle of Wight, next to the pier. 

I'm not sure whether I'm actually smiling or whether I'm wincing with nervousness?

On one of our many riding holidays in Wales or the West Country, when the family were young, I did muster all my courage and try again. But I was expecting it to feel as if I were sitting on a nice wide, comfortable bicycle seat whereas to me it felt inherently unstable, in constant, unpredictable, wobbly motion! So I quickly dismounted and wrote it off as a bad job! Fortunately horse-riding isn't a necessary part of my daily life; though I suspect it would have made more sense of all those Sunday morning trips to the stables, with seemingly endless waits in the car for the ride to come back, if I'd been willing and able to participate!

Horses do seem to feature in a lot of famous artists' work though, from the rather formal paintings for which Stubbs  is best known - which I don't much like at all - to East Anglian painter, Sir Alfred Munnings. Some of his paintings were exhibited at Norwich Castle Museum when I lived in Norwich and I loved their vibrancy, particularly in his less formal works.

I think I do best when I don't think about what I'm painting but treat everything, even a horse, as 'just' a collection of shapes and colours. These greeting cards are from pastel paintings of Shire Horses that I photographed towards the end of the day at the annual Shire Horse Rally that takes place in July in the park across the road from where I live -


They are also available as prints and posters through Zazzle and RedBubble.