Watching The Northern Lights

Watching the Northern Lights || Watercolor Painting || bymarion
There is a pile of new year cards on my desk today. While I’m writing all these, here is a little northern lights painting I made last month for my brother’s birthday. After this first attempt, I made another (hopefully better) one for which I was more careful to pre-wet the paper before painting the sky, so that the background color would turn out more homogeneous, and the colors of the aurora would merge nicely with the background. Just like for the winter woods painting, I used salt to get the starry night/frost effect. I’m having a lot of fun with that technique.

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Winter Is Upon Us

Window frost feathers

The temperature dropped down to -23°C/-9°F last night and when we woke up, before sunrise, the inside thermometer read barely 10°C/50°F. But the wood stove was soon roaring, hot cups of tea were poured and porridge was bubbling.

By the look of things, there’s no point trying to open the front door: frozen!

I spent the morning finishing my book and trying out some knitting tricks. I went back to my watercolor lettering experiments in the afternoon. Cleaning and straightening up a couple of calligraphy nibs was definitely useful to avoid ruining the paper, but did not solve the annoying ink (well, paint) flow problem I had. The paint kept forming a drop at the back of the nib instead of flowing onto the paper, which back in the lab, I would have called a surface tension issue – typical! Dipping the tip of the nib in soapy water did the job. If anyone knows about unwanted long-term effects of adding soap to watercolors, I’ll be really happy to know.

Now I need to practice shaping letters and layout. That’s tonight’s program, and I’m off to my desk! The house is getting (a bit) warmer, freshly baked loaves of bread just came out of the oven where they were replaced by a pot of baked-beans-to-be. Really, I wouldn’t trade this life for any other one.

a cat on the desk

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Clean And Bright

A clean box of watercolors

After a somewhat unsatisfactory attempt to make a bunch of hand-lettered new year cards the past few days, I took a break from doodling today and just cleaned my box of watercolors. Meanwhile I happily caught up on two and a half episodes of the Craft Sanity Podcast, which if my calculations are correct adds up to a good two hours.

Logically, I made the following resolution for 2016: mix colors on the palette exclusively (not in the pots – ahem).

It’s not exactly the kind of painting productivity that I had envisioned for this week, but that’s still one thing out of the way. A clean and bright box of watercolors is as good a start as any to a new year, isn’t it?

Failed lettering

Happy new year watercolor lettering || by marion

watercolor doodles

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More Winter Woods

Collage Pieces: Watercolor, watercolor pencils and cut paper

After making some sketches, it was time to make a finished version of my winter woods image. I decided to make it a collage for two reasons. First, I just like working with both watercolors and cut paper. Second, collage makes it easier to work on the different layers of the image, adding and removing elements and adjusting their positions along the way.

It’s a perfect technique for me, since I don’t have the patience to do a lot of planning and sketching — although I’m working on it!

If you want to see what an awesome artist can do with this kind of technique, do have a look at Phoebe Wahl‘s fantastic work. Needless to say, I’m nowhere near that level, but bear with me!

Forest background painting: watercolors and watercolor pencils
After seeing some tutorials here and there, I tried experimenting with watercolors and salt for the sky: I used coarse salt, so I obtained a pretty rough texture. Next time I’ll try finer grains. Initially I had not drawn any trees on this background, but I added some when I realized that the whole image looked really weird without them.

Scanning collage pieces
Since I wanted to be able to adjust each layer all along, and because scanning non-flat images doesn’t work for me, I scanned everything separately and made my collage digitally in GIMP. Many of you are probably used to working with either GIMP of Photoshop, but I’m rather new at it. I hope you won’t mind me sharing very basic techniques as I’m learning them. Also, any tips?

Using a green background (or a red one for the trees) as for chroma keying made it easier to find the contours of each object using GIMP’s foreground select tool.

Draft of the digital collage

After putting each object in a different layer, I was able to make a rough draft. Of course the contours still needed a lot of work, the quick foreground extraction left some unwanted transparency on the bottom left tree and there were too many saturated pixels on the path.Re-scanning the bottom part to remove saturation

I re-scanned the bottom part of the background with different contrast settings. This way I got rid of most saturated pixels, but the colors were still not very good.

Digital collage without shadows

Here is the result after I spent some hours cleaning the contours. Thankfully, there are good podcasts to listen to! I also adjusted the colors on the path and in the ray of light. I added the character’s shadow using the “perspective shadow” tool in GIMP.

Final digital collage with shadows
Finally I added some drop shadows to give the whole thing a cut-paper-y look.
What do you think?

This was fun,  I learned a lot, and I feel motivated to practice more.

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Big Eyes And Scanning Struggles

Einstein writing on the blackboard || Watercolor || bymarion

I could say that I’m sharing my desk with Einstein himself this week, nothing more, nothing less. But let’s just say that I made my own version of the famous portrait of Einstein writing on the blackboard. Although he’s plain flat watercolor instead of a relief cut-paper collage, he is officially joining my collection of big-eyed characters.

Einstein writing on the blackboard || pencil sketch || bymarion

As you can see, I changed the text a little. Ahem! But that’s because this painting was made to illustrate the first edition of the Outside The Lab newsletter, in which I chat about a political text called Why Socialism that Einstein wrote in 1949. You can read more about this here, if you’re interested.

einstein writing on the blackboard || infographic || bymarion

And here’s my final infographic, with a little shadow added digitally. The reason I made a flat painting instead of a relief collage was mainly to facilitate the scanning process.

Still, since I didn’t use high quality watercolor paper, it wrinkled when it dried. I had to flatten it to be able to scan in properly: I put the painting right side down on my ironing board, added a slightly wet towel on top and ironed it briefly, which did the job.

The scanning step is still a bit of a challenge for me, though, when it comes to color rendering, or dealing with the grain of the paper for example. Does anyone out there have any advice?

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Triangles And Winter Woods

geometric spruce sketch triangles bymarion

We’re still waiting for the first snow around here. I’m longing for walks in the quiet, white winter woods.

Meanwhile I’m experimenting with triangles, trying to find the best way to arrange them into a geometric version of a spruce. The first one looks like it’s flying, don’t you think?

geometric spruce sketch bymarion

I like it better this way, I think.

winter woods sketch bymarion

This is the idea I have in mind for my whole winter woods thing.

geometric spruce sketch gray bymarion

Trying to decide what to darken and what to keep white. There’s supposed to be snow on the branches!

geometric spruce sketch colors bymarion

I’m using my watercolor pencils for this one. I like it that they enable me to combine the transparency of watercolors and the texture of pencil drawings.

winter woods sketch color bymarion

That’s the progress so far. Now I’m working on some little fellows similar to these ones.





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Sketches And Color Tests

illustration // color test // bymarion

Cynthia’s Christmas in July post inspired me to try and come up with a greeting card design, too. Since summer seems to be over already here in the North of Sweden, this is perfect timing!

illustration // sketch // bymarion

The idea of a waiting line in front of a mailbox came to me randomly in the middle of the night. The next morning, I started with a quick and dirty sketch. I’m still using up the leftover student notebooks I bought to make lab journals when I was a physics postdoc. It’s not particularly good drawing paper, but the lines turn out to be quite handy.

illustration // sketch // bymarion illustration // sketch // bymarion illustration // sketch // bymarion

Then I practiced a little and made cleaner sketches of all the characters. I decided to stick to very simple shapes, so I could just focus on the characters’ attitudes – otherwise it would be too difficult for me to draw without a model.


Finally I was ready to make a clean sketch of my whole layout. That’s the point where I have to force myself to draw ONE line, which I find to be a very good exercise. Before going any further, I scanned my finished sketch. Backup, backup, backup: this is a precious habit that I have kept from working in a lab and processing data!

illustration // color test // bymarion

So, at that point I could just print my sketch and try different things with colors and inking. The inking turned out really ugly, and this color version was too cheesy compared to what I had in mind: it wanted to make my card more modern-looking…

illustration // color test // bymarion

… so I stuck to pencil lines and tried more minimalist coloring…

illustration // color test // bymarion

… and then even more minimalist. This was getting closer to something I liked. My partner suggested trying to give the image a little rougher, sketchy look, and I thought it was a good idea.

illustration // color test // bymarion

So I dropped my beloved watercolors and turned to my (also beloved) color pencils.
Here I am now. What do you think? What should I try next?

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Flowers And Letters


Summer heat is there! — oh, not for long, if the weather forecast is right. Meanwhile the flower rainbow is continuing to bloom all around the house. More yellow, more pink, more orange.

On my desk, watercolor lettering tests and experiments with image vectorization. I don’t really want to be thinking about fall already, but I’ve been making a logo for the Alpha Angle newsletter I’m planning to start next September:


It’s been incredibly inspiring for me to read about the process behind other people’s work lately. I find it so nice, especially, when people are open about trial and error. So I’ve decided to take the leap too, and to write a little more about how I’m making the images I’m showing you in my “on my desk” posts. If you prefer mystery, please skip the rest. Otherwise I’d be glad and grateful to hear your advice!

So, here is what I did here. First I wrote the text in pencil, and did a lot of local erasing/rewriting until everything was to my taste. I don’t really mind spending a lot of time on that step because I love drawing letters with a good old pencil on paper.

Once I was satisfied with the shape of every letter, I traced the final text with a black marker, and scanned it. I used Inkscape to create a vector image from the scan. I really don’t know how much this process can be optimized and I ended up spending a lot of time manually adjusting the obtained path to smooth out the contours of every word.

In the end I think it turned out pretty good for a first try, and I have to admit that working with vector images is awesome since it makes it possible to increase the image size without loosing quality.

But then I just really love painting text directly on paper with watercolors, like I did here. Here is a (first) paper & watercolor version.

outside the lab // watercolor

I like how the intensity varies from letter to letter, but it’s not easy to paint such thin letters with a standard brush (the text is 10,5 cm / 4 inches wide). In this case I messed up on the “d” of “world”, which is why I ended up filling all the vowels.

And now, while I’m practicing, I’ll let you with one more flower.


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Green And Gray

wild cherry blossoms





Before I know it, it’s past midnight. I’ll be up until the wee hours, these June nights are so bright.

It’s such a luxury — probably the biggest of all — to freely dispose of one’s time.

Sometimes as I gaze at the birds through the window I get to witness the birth of a cloud above the fields, or see a fox running by, or the couple of hedgehogs that takes a walk on the lawn every night.

Sometimes the wind carries smells of manure from the nearby farms. But the garden smells of wet earth and wild cherry flowers. Cycling around the other night, I paused several times to take deep breaths. There were so many different smells. Spring flowers, wet forest, freshly cut fir trees.

I’m not writing as much as I wish I would. There are garden beds to dig, seedlings to start, compost piles to turn, grass to cut — nothing to complain about, really.

And then there are these creative endeavours, slowly taking shape. Notebooks being scribbled into, orders sent, ideas becoming clearer, hands becoming more agile. Scalpels cutting paper and paintbrushes dipped in watercolors.


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Spring Things and Painting Things


Every day, I’m discovering new spring flowers ready to pop out in the garden. It’s my first spring here, and I am savoring all these lovely suprises.

watercolor illustration // chickens

Being self-taught, there are plenty of basic painting tricks I am discovering by chance every now and then. Recently I watched the inspiring video that one of my absolute favorite illustrators, Anna Emilia Laitinen, shared in this post. This is how I realized that taping the paper on the table with a little bit of masking tape relieved the stiffness I was feeling after sitting drawing or painting for several hours, constantly holding my paper in place with my left hand. Bye bye, pain!


This tree will be all green in no time. It’s placed perfectly in front of the south-facing windows, letting the sun in in the cold winter months, giving some shade during summer.

watercolor and cut paper illustration // close up

I’ve been working on cut paper characters for a little more than a year now. I make a sketch first, and then prepare all the pieces that I cut, paint and glue together. I like the texture and shadows that are created by superposing several layers, and I’ve found that working with cut paper was a great way to force myself to draw clean contours and precise shapes. I sure also felt safer making every character separately when working on a large piece such as this one. This time, I painted the chickens directly on the paper, and only added the wings and the eyes on top for a little texture.


Inside, by the window, seeds are sprouting. I have big hopes for this year’s vegetable garden. The first one I’ll grow in my very own place.


The field has gotten even greener since I took this picture.


Spring, confirmed. Chickens, done.
How about you, how’s your week been so far?

watercolor and cut paper illustration // chickens

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