Category Archives: Blog Posts

Elephant and Impala by Alison Nicholls

Elephant and Impala

I’m quite proud of Elephant and Impala (though I say so myself!). Its a typical waterhole scene where the big bull elephant makes everyone else wait until he’s finished before they can drink. I sketched this in pen, concentrating on the elephant bull and adding feint markings for the landscape features and impala rams.

Elephant and Impala by Alison Nicholls

Elephant and Impala, 8×10″, $200 by Alison Nicholls

The watercolor I added later that day, from memory and imagination. I used just 3 colors – my favorite combo at the moment – Naples Yellow, Cerulean Blue and Quinacridone Magenta. I kept the warmest colors on the elephant bull, to draw him closer, and allowed the distant vegetation to fade into the background.

25% ($50) from the purchase price will be donated to African People & Wildlife in Tanzania. So, let me know if you’d like it, before I decide to frame it and hang it on my own wall.
Learn more about African People & Wildlife in Tanzania.

Sunlit Elephant by Alison Nicholls

Pros and Cons of Joining My Mailing List

In these social media saturated days, what are the pros and cons of joining my Mailing List?
Here are the Pros:

1.Preview my new Paintings
Yes, before I even post them on social media or put them on my website, you get to see all my new paintings in my newsletter. Which means you can snap up your favorite piece before the big wide world even knows it exists!

2.Win a Watercolor
If you Join My Mailing List before December 1st 2019, your name will be entered into the draw to win Sunlit Elephant – an original 10×8″ watercolor, created from life in Africa and valued at $200. Using some ingenious method, a subscriber’s name (hopefully yours) will be selected at random. The winner will be emailed and she/he replies within a week, Sunlit Elephant will be shipped free to the winner, anywhere in the world (if the winner doesn’t reply within 1 week, another winner will be selected at random). All current subscribers are automatically entered into the draw.

Sunlit Elephant by Alison Nicholls

Win this Watercolor: Sunlit Elephant, 10×8″ watercolor and pen by Alison Nicholls.

3.Art-filled monthly newsletters
In my colorful newsletters you’ll see paintings, photos, news about conservation organizations, information about my upcoming exhibits and lectures. Usually you’ll get just 1 lovely, colorful, email each month but around the holidays you might get a couple more. For example, on Black Friday you’ll receive my Colorful Friday email. And at New Year you’ll get my animal-themed, hopeful, New Year message. I certainly won’t bombard you with emails and you can unsubscribe at any time. 

4.Contests and Surveys
You can take part in my occasional contests and surveys, helping me make my newsletters even better in the future.

5.Insightful Content
Your newsletters will contain my insightful witticisms, bad puns and photos of my dog!

Here are the Cons:

1.Insightful Content
Your newsletters will contain my insightful witticisms, bad puns and photos of my dog!

So, having (hopefully) decided that the Pros outweigh the Cons, here’s where you can Join My Mailing List!

Good Luck in the draw for Sunlit Elephant!

Shepherd's Tree and Giraffe

Shepherd’s Tree and Giraffe

Trees, rocks and landscape features will be making more of an appearance in my upcoming paintings and here’s a great example – Shepherd’s Tree & Giraffe.

Shepherd's Tree and Giraffe

Shepherd’s Tree and Giraffe, 24×16″ acrylic on canvas by Alison Nicholls. Sold.

Shepherd’s trees are not tall but can be very sculptural, and they’re frequently browsed by giraffes, which of course also have elegant lines. I took the giraffe silhouette from a sketch I made in South Africa, and the tree shape I created in the studio, after studying my Shepherd tree sketches from Botswana.

The painting has a limited palette of only 3 colors – Naples yellow, cerulean blue & quinacridone magenta. Naples yellow is one of my favorite paint colors and I’ve added it to my field sketch kit too as it’s perfect for dry season grasses and the coats of many animals. These 3 colors make a wonderful range of grays, browns and pinks and even greens.

Shepherd’s trees have tiny leaves which spiral around the spiky branches but the overall effect is that the branches themselves often look green. I knew I needed to paint them boldly and left them until the end because I was afraid of ruining the painting at this late stage. To try and prevent that potential disaster I practiced painting the leaves on a separate piece of canvas, then dived in and painted them in bold strokes.

I’m delighted with this painting and would love to hear your opinion too. My newsletter subscribers always see my new work* before I post it on my website or on social media, and this painting sold when it featured in my October newsletter. So if you want first view of my new work, you can subscribe here. I’m donating 25% of the purchase price to African People & Wildlife to help in their ground breaking work in Tanzania.

See you next time!

* except my 10-minute daily sketches, which are posted to my Etsy storeInstagram and Facebook.

Learn more about African People & Wildlife.

Elephant and Impala by Alison Nicholls

New Botswana Watercolors!

Here are my new Botswana watercolors.
In the past I’ve usually sketched in pencil (then added watercolor), giving a myself a little room for error as I could erase any incorrect lines. However, these pieces were all sketched from life in pen. I’m a real believer in simplicity, making as few lines as possible on my paper, so trying to work like this in ink can lead to a lot of frustration and can be an easy way of getting through lots of paper when things don’t work out. At the beginning of my trip, in my 1st sketchbook, I was being too tentative (and was sketching a leopard, which I find one of the most difficult species) so I ended up tearing 2 pages out of my book and burning them. But as time went on, sketching with pen became a fun challenge, and I found myself wondering how how much I could say with a minimum of lines.

Elephant and Impala by Alison Nicholls

A large bull elephant makes impala wait for a drink as he stands at the waterhole, painted in watercolor by Alison Nicholls

In these two pieces, you can see how simple my pen sketches were. The elephant is sketched in a just a few lines, with no shading, and the impala are really only identifiable by their horns. I know that the addition of color will make all the difference so I don’t need to overdo the sketching. Similarly, on the piece below, I’m only concerned with sketching the simple shapes of the jackals and the stunted trunk of the bush one of them lies under. I know that watercolor will be better for the coloring on the jackals’ coats and for the leaves of the bush, so I don’t sketch those with the pen.

Black-backed Jackals by Alison Nicholls

I didn’t expect these jackals to hang around for long but it turned out they were waiting patiently for lions to leave a kill.

Knowing which materials will be best for which purpose is key. I can keep my pen sketch simple because I know where I will use watercolor to complete the sketch.
See you next time.

Soccer Game in Botswana

The Soccer Game

Soccer (or football) is huge in Africa. Almost every person has a favorite team, often from Europe. So when we heard there was a soccer tournament going on at Limpopo-Lipadi while we were there, we wanted to go along and support the team. I decided to sketch the game too. It was extremely hot and my paint was drying very fast, which made it quite challenging, but it was fun. Unfortunately, the Limpopo-Lipadi team (in green) lost to the police team (in red). Or maybe that was just as well!

I photographed the sketch and gave it to Limpopo-Lipadi to hang in the office. As a result, the photo of the finished piece isn’t great, but you get the idea. There’s something about live sketching like this that inspires me so much. Of course I can always see vast improvements I could make in the sketch, but when I look at it I remember the heat, the dust, the shouting and laughter. Magic!

Learn more about Limpopo-Lipadi game reserve and their wonderful Motse volunteering and community program.

Alison Nicholls
Art Inspired by Africa

Sketch of rural women in Tanzania, by Alison Nicholls

Women in Tanzania

Rural women in Tanzania usually have a fairly low status in society and are often completely dependent on their husband, even though women do much of the work in rural households.

Loibor Siret Womens Meeting

Loibor Siret Women’s Meeting

African People & Wildlife (APW) works in conjunction with many rural communities in Tanzania, and together their initiatives are helping women become financially independent, giving them a voice in the decision-making of their families and their communities. Bee-keeping is one such initiative and has the added advantage of protecting habitat because Tanzania has a strong Bee-Keeping Act which ensures that land cannot be farmed or cleared around beehives.

Sketch of rural women in Tanzania, by Alison Nicholls

Women’s Meeting, ink and watercolor sketch from life by Alison Nicholls

Learning about the bee-keeping initiative, which involves more than 1200 women, and being able to sketch after a meeting of the Loibor Siret women’s bee-keeping group, is a thrill. There can be few things better for a sketch artist than sitting in a rural village, surrounded by the sights & sounds of everyday life, while sketching a group of women chatting under a shady tree. This was my 4th visit to APW and it is wonderful to be recognized and greeted enthusiastically by women I have sketched on my previous visits.

Mama Helena sketch by Alison Nicholls

Mama Helena Beading, ink sketch from life by Alison Nicholls

Mama Helena, shown beading in the sketch above, invited me to sketch at her homestead afterwards, and sent one of her grandchildren to fetch a sketch I did of her last time I was in Tanzania, 5 years ago!

Alison Nicholls Sketching

Alison Nicholls sketching in Tanzania

Sketching with an audience is something I am completely used to and it’s fun to see the children’s faces as the sketch progresses and they recognize the person I am sketching.

Alison Nicholls Sketching

Not all my sketches go to plan!

I’m making copies of my sketches to be sent back to Tanzania, but I hope my next visit to APW will be in the very near future.

Learn more about African People & Wildlife.

Art in Tanzania with Alison Nicholls

Art in Tanzania

I see natural artistic talent every time I teach a children’s art class but it is particularly striking to see when you know the children have no art lessons at school, no access to art materials at home, and little exposure to art online or in print. Unfortunately, this can describe children anywhere in the world, including many parts of the the US & Europe, but on this occasion I am thinking of children in classes I taught while visiting African People & Wildlife (APW) in Tanzania.

One class was for students in the APW Summercamp and one for students at Loibor Siret Elementary School (this class also included teachers from other schools who wanted to see the classes in action). I have animal drawing cards which show a photo of an animal (wildlife & livestock) then the simple shapes and lines you can use to create a drawing of the animal. We aim to do 4 in an hour-long class, so the children concentrate on drawing the shape of the whole animal, not the detail on their faces or coats. As you can see, the opportunity to draw is really appreciated by the children and the teachers too!

The children you see in this video are members of their respective schools’ Wildlife Clubs (set up with help from APW). The highest achieving and most involved children in the Wildlife Clubs can earn a much sought-after place at APW’s Environmental Summer Camp – a week-long camp of learning activities at the Noloholo Environmental Center. Children who attend Summer Camp become eligible for selection for an APW Noloholo Environmental Scholarship, giving that child a full scholarship to secondary/high school at a good boarding school in the town of Arusha.

The cost for each scholarship is US$1200 per year. If you are able to offer a child this invaluable gift of education, please Donate via the APW website and choose this option:

(Please note: No child is selected for a scholarship unless funds are available for their entire secondary/high school education, so there will never be a case of a child receiving a partial education. However, although it is desirable to donate annually, you can choose to make a 1-time donation of this amount too.)
Thank You!

Learn more about African People & Wildlife.

Murals in Tanzania

Mural Magic in Tanzania

A major reason for my return to African People & Wildlife (APW) in Tanzania was to help with murals in 3 rural schools. The students created the designs using their own drawings and some images I supplied, then I made stencils to help transfer the outlines onto the walls quickly. The stencils proved very helpful and as a result it took each set of students only 1 day to finish their murals.

The name of the school and village (Loibor Siret, Kangala or Narakauo) is shown at the top of each wall, and the school’s Wildlife Club name is at the bottom. The Wildlife Clubs were set up with help from APW, and Noloholo is APW’s Environmental Center and headquarters. So Noloholo Simba Klabu means Noloholo Lion Club in Swahili. The other schools have twiga (giraffe) and faru (rhinoceros) as their symbols. I am making more stencils out of canvas (featuring different animals for other Wildlife Clubs) so more murals can be created by the students with help from APW.

I have visited APW 4 times, and every time I am struck by their continued success in “finding the balance for communities & wildlife”. There will be much more about my recent visit coming soon!

Learn more about African People & Wildlife.
Read about my previous visits to APW.

Thanks for watching!

Music on this video is royalty free, titled Acoustic Breeze, from

Alison Nicholls art materials for Tanzania

Packing for Tanzania

I’ll be off to Tanzania again in a couple of weeks, visiting African People & Wildlife to help with some murals in rural schools and do some art classes for teachers and students. Somehow, I hope to do some of my own sketching too, so here’s my latest video showing what I’m taking with me. You can read about my previous visits to APW here.
More soon!

Rock art in Savute Botswana

Learn from the Masters

If your goal is sketching wildlife and you want to learn from the masters, you could do far worse than look at rock art by the San (Khoi-San or bushmen). With a few simple lines they catch the essence of an animal, so you immediately know it. And through their lifestyle as hunter-gatherers they are unparalleled in their knowledge of the animals they depicted in their rock art.

Rock art in Savute Botswana

Rock art in Savute, Botswana

Over the years I’ve seen rock art in many locations in southern Africa including Matopos (Zimbabwe), the Tsodilo Hills (Botswana) and Twyfelfontein (Namibia). Most of the paintings are not in caves but are on the underside of overhanging rocks, while many of the petroglyphs (images chipped into the rock surface) are on fully exposed rocks.

How I start an elephant sketch by Alison Nicholls

How I start an elephant sketch by Alison Nicholls

Last year I was in Savute, Botswana, and revisited a rock art panel on one of the small hills in the area. I sketched the 3 main animals – an eland, elephant, and sable antelope. A few months later I was creating a video for my Art Safari guests, showing how I start my sketches of elephants. I remembered the elephant painting in Savute and realized the 2 main shapes I start my sketches with (a large block for the body and a smaller block for the head) are the same as the main shapes for the elephant in the Savute painting.
Maybe the rock art I’ve seen has influenced me more than I knew!

Twyfelfontein Namibia

Petroglyphs, Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Murals at APW

Murals in Tanzania

Painting on a wall while standing on a wobbly plank balanced between 2 wobbly supports, is something many artists will have done I’m guessing.

Alison Nicholls in Loibor Siret

Drawing out the initial mural design                                                African People & Wildlife

I was visiting African People & Wildlife, near Tarangire National Park, learning about the organization and their successful work with communities to allow people and wildlife to co-exist on the Maasai Steppe. Part of my visit involved art-related activities and on this occasion I was drawing out the design for a mural at the Loibor Siret primary school, so that the students could paint it. We were designing as we went along but it worked out well.

Mural design at APW

Mural design                                           photo: Deirdre Leowinata / AfricanPeople&Wildlife

Some of the paint literally slipped off the wall as we painted it on, so we have nothing red in the finished mural. And the brushes lost so many hairs that the lions took on a far more realistic look than I could have possibly hoped for!

Murals at APW

photo: Deirdre Leowinata / AfricanPeople&Wildlife

But many enthusiastic and capable hands made the whole experience great, and sometimes the trials are what the best memories are made of. I’m going back in June and this time the designs are being drawn up by the students, winners will be decided in advance, and with a bit of luck, 3 schools will end up with colorful murals designed and painted by members of the school community. However, this time I’m bringing brushes with me, and we’ll buy a different kind of paint. Live and learn!


Let Sleeping Dogs Lie by Alison Nicholls

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

We were looking forward to a quick cuppa, a nice mid-morning tea-break, but when we reached the big baobab in Savute, Botswana, we found that our spot was already taken. Let sleeping dogs lie…

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie by Alison Nicholls

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie – sketched from life in pen and watercolor, Savute Botswana 2018

The dogs made excellent sketching subjects, once I figured out whose legs and ears were whose. Painted dogs or African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are very social and like to lie together in a pile, in very close contact, so identifying which dogs to include in my sketch is the first thing I do.

Savute Wild Dogs by Nigel Nicholls

Painted dogs sleeping in a pile, photo by Nigel Nicholls.

Note the annoying piece of grass in the foreground – the bane of every wildlife photographer’s life. If I had a sketchbook for every time I’ve heard my husband ask why there’s grass in the way, I’d never run out of paper again!

Painted Dog Pile by Nigel Nicholls

Painted Dog Pile by Nigel Nicholls

Here’s the scene I sketched. Its so weird when I get back from our trips, see my husband’s photos and recognize my sketches. You’ll notice that the piece of grass is even more annoying from this angle…which brings me to another advantage of sketching – the artist decides what goes into the sketch and what stays out, so there are no annoying pieces of grass in my art.

Now I have to go find my own sleeping dog and take him out for a walk!

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, USA

Earth Day is all Wrong

Earth Day is all wrong. We seem to have everything backwards. Once a year we celebrate Earth Day; World Environment Day; World Oceans Day; National Tree Day; or World Wetlands Day. Sure, we should celebrate them because they are absolutely essential to our continued existence on this planet, but these “days” are a reminder of what is under threat, rather than a celebration.  Here are just a few of the endless examples of “days” we shouldn’t need: World Rhino Day; Endangered Species Day; Lion Day; Vulture Awareness Day; World Wildlife Day; Cheetah Day.

Kalahari, Botswana

Kalahari, Botswana, photo by Alison Nicholls

So I’ve been giving some thought to an alternative reality and some of the “days” we could hope to eliminate or celebrate at some point in the future.

Lake Kyle, Zimbabwe

Lake Kyle, Zimbabwe, photo by Alison Nicholls

Instead of Earth Hour (where we shut down all our electrical appliances and devices for an hour) wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where once a year we had “Power Hour”, when we’d try running all our appliances and devices at once, just for a laugh, knowing that we couldn’t overload our clean, green, renewable energy grid.

Mount Machapuchare, Nepal

Mount Machapuchare, Nepal, photo by Nigel Nicholls

Instead of Car Free Day, we might one day live in a world where “Pollution Day” is on the calendar – not as a celebration but a remembrance of the past and less-enlightened times.

In this world we wouldn’t need any of the wildlife “days” because none of these species would be under threat from habitat loss, poaching, or human-wildlife conflict.

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, USA

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, USA, photo by Alison Nicholls

And this could go well beyond environmental issues. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where “Remembering ALS (MND)” or “Remembering Breast Cancer” was held, because no-one suffered from these diseases anymore.

Do you have any ideas of current “days” you’d like to abandon, or future “days” you’d really like to celebrate?
PS. Yes, for all these reasons I didn’t write this post on Earth Day, although I couldn’t help myself – I had to celebrate the Earth with some photos from my travels over the years!

Wild Elephants sketch by Alison Nicholls

10-Minute Daily Sketches on Etsy

A 10-minute daily sketch is a great way to start the day, keep my sketching skills up to speed, and experiment with line and color. Every piece is unique. They are available at my Etsy Store priced at only US$60 each and 50% of the proceeds are donated to African conservation organizations. I begin each one with an ink drawing then add watercolor or fluid acrylic if time allows.

Wild Elephants sketch by Alison Nicholls

Wild Elephants sketch by Alison Nicholls

These daily sketches began when I attended a Portrait Party organized by New York City Urban Sketchers. There were nearly 100 artists, divided into groups of 12 and we sketched each person in our group, one at a time,  for 10 minutes. I enjoyed this experience so much that I continued doing a 10-minute portrait sketch every day after that.

Leopard Lines sketch by Alison Nicholls

Leopard Lines sketch by Alison Nicholls

Soon I decided to revert to my usual African subject matter as I realized this would be a great way to keep my sketching skills up to speed for when I return to Africa and sketch animals from life.  As my daily sketches started accumulating I decided to sell them on  my Etsy Store, with 50% of the proceeds donated to the African conservation organizations I support. These include African People & Wildlife (Tanzania), Painted Dog Research Trust (Zimbabwe), Cheetah Conservation Fund (Namibia) and others.

Kudu Bull sketch by Alison Nicholls

Kudu Bull sketch by Alison Nicholls

My daily sketches are based on the amazing photos taken over the years by my husband, Nigel. Working directly from photos is not normally something I do, but when I set a 10-minute deadline I have to concentrate on the basics and eliminate unnecessary detail, just like I do when I’m sketching from life in Africa.

Painted Purple (painted dogs) by Alison Nicholls

Painted Purple (painted dogs) by Alison Nicholls

Every sketch is unique, priced at only $60 and 50% of the proceeds are donated to African conservation organizations. I’ll be posting new pieces to my Etsy Store every few days so please join me for my 10-minute daily sketch journey!


See my husband, Nigel’s photos on Instagram.
Visit African People & Wildlife website.
Visit Cheetah Conservation Center website.
Visit Painted Dog Research Trust website.
Visit NYC Urban Sketchers Facebook Group.


What are your Big Five African trees?

What are your Big Five African trees?
If you haven’t been on safari in Africa, you may not know what I am talking about. It all started with the “Big Five” – a term coined by hunters, describing the most dangerous animals to hunt – the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Over the years it morphed into a marketing term – used to describe places where you could see these animals and other iconic wildlife species.

Real fan palm or mokolane palm.

Real fan palm or mokolane palm.

Then, because we all seem to like lists, along came the Little Five – the antlion, the leopard tortoise, the elephant shrew, the rhinoceros beetle and the buffalo weaver (obviously a play on the Big Five, but yes, they are all real species of insect, bird or mammal). Soon the Ugly Five appeared too – the warthog, wildebeest, vulture, marabou stork and hyena. I object strongly to this list as I love sketching all these animals and birds. In more recent years, the Big Seven has made an appearance – its the Big Five plus cheetah and painted dog (African wild dog).



On one trip we started discussing the Impossible Five. I think most people would include pangolin (I’ve never seen one), aardwolf (I’ve seen 2) and aardvark (also never seen one) on their impossible list. After that it comes down to your personal experience and where you are in Africa. Porcupine, brown hyena and painted dog are often included but I’d have to add bushpig, serval and caracal to the options.

nyala tree

Nyala tree

And then we get to the trees. As far as I’m aware, there’s no official Big Five tree list, and the trees you include would again depend on where you are in Africa. My list would be baobab; camelthorn acacia; nyala; real fan palm; and leadwood.


Sausage tree campsite, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana – don’t camp under a sausage tree when the fruits are falling – they are very heavy!

My list tends to change quite a bit though! Other trees that creep in and out of the list include sycamore fig; mopane; marula; sausage tree; and jackalberry. And of course I don’t have good photos of all my favorite trees, so many of them are not illustrated in this post.



So what are your Big Five Trees?
Let me know!

Baobab (Adansonia digitata)
Camelthorn acacia (Acacia erioloba)
Nyala (Xanthocercis zambesiaca)
Real fan palm (Hyphaene petersiana)
Leadwood (Combretum imberbe)
Sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus)
Mopane (Colophospermum mopane)
Marula (Sclerocarya birrea)
Sausage tree (Kigelia africana)
Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis).

Alison Nicholls at work in Botswana.

Artist At Work!

I need a line of T-shirts made with the phrase Artist at Work, because we artists are always at work. When I’m walking down the street I’m seeing the contrasting values between the sunny side of the street and the shady side. At the grocery store I’m looking at the piles of fruit as a bountiful composition. When I’m dozing off to sleep I’m thinking about my current painting, or dreaming up the next one. On the train I’m admiring the skies. When I’m walking my dog, my mind is often in Botswana, thinking about my next composition (until a mail van comes into view when I am firmly dragged back to reality by a terrible knashing of the canines courtesy of my German Shepherd). And this is my life here in the US, so imagine what its like when I’m actually in Africa, trying to get 36 hours of sketching into every day!

Walking my German Shepherd, Chase.

Walking my German Shepherd, Chase.

I keep a list on my phone called Next Time in Africa, and I note all the new art ideas I want to try out while I’m there. And what’s on the list at the moment? Many, many things including videos I want to take (so I can create an online sketching course); tree bark rubbings; and using ink on pre-painted paper.

Alison Nicholls at work in Botswana.

Here I am at work in Botswana.

I should add 1 more thing – get some Artist at Work T-shirts printed!
See you next time.

Ellies in Ink by Alison Nicholls

Sketching Strong Shadows

Mid-afternoon in Khwai, the hottest part of the day, and I’m sketching strong shadows. We’re sitting by the beautiful ribbon of water that winds gracefully through the grasses and off into the distance. A Nile crocodile lies on the bank with its mouth open, and elephants drink in the river. The light is harsh and the strong shadows made me decide to sketch with the marker tip of my pen, putting only the shadows down on the paper. It doesn’t work with every animal, but for the crocodile and the elephants it was perfect.

Crocodile in ink by Alison Nicholls

Ellies in Ink by Alison Nicholls

Next I tried some hippos, a goliath heron and an African buffalo.

Hippo, Heron and Buffalo by Alison Nicholls

I was really enjoying this, so of course the sun went down and daylight was vanquished by the shadows. But next time I think the light is too harsh for good sketching I’ll have a great way of handling it!

10-Minute Wildlife Sketches

It was only a matter of time before I started doing 10-minute wildlife sketches.

Turquoise elephant by Alison Nicholls

10-minute sketch by Alison Nicholls

It all started with the Portrait Party, where I really enjoyed doing 10-minute portraits of people. Every week day in February I did a 10-minute portrait at the start of the day. Then March arrived and I decided to switch to wildlife, starting with ink then adding watercolor, working on yupo paper. I’m using my husband’s amazing photographs, amassed over the years in Africa, so you can be sure I’ll never run out of options. Its really weird for me to be drawing directly from a photograph, but the fact that I have only 10 minutes keeps my mind focused!

More 10-minute wildlife sketches coming soon.
And yes, they are for sale!

Rural village scenes sketched in pen in Botswana by Alison Nicholls

Sketching Villages from a Moving Car!

Recently I discovered that sketching villages from a moving car might be more difficult than sketching wildlife!

Rural village scenes sketched in pen in Botswana by Alison Nicholls

These rural scenes were sketched as we drove down from Kasane to the Tuli Block in Botswana. Although we are driving quite slowly through villages, it’s still a challenge to sketch and you need to develop a photographic memory by looking, memorizing, then sketching. However, I soon found my stride because these rural scenes are etched in my brain, from my years of living in Botswana. I wanted to capture the typical sights of a village – people sitting by the road; herds of cows in the shade of a tree; donkeys and goats; village bars and small houses with satellite dishes. Pen was the perfect medium and I particularly love this pinky-gray ZIG Memory System writer. And sketching made the long drive go by much faster!


Even in front of Nature, one must Compose

“Even in front of nature, one must compose” is attributed to Edgar Degas.

Giraffe Bulls Browsing by Alison Nicholls

There are some who will argue that nature is perfect and it’s arrogant to compose, to rearrange things, in your art. But we all do this, all the time. You are composing when you move left or right to get that perfect photo of a landscape. And artists are certainly doing this all the time in their paintings. Even those who paint wildlife in minute detail using photographic reference are likely to be moving things around and combining several photos to compose their painting.

My style of art doesn’t rely heavily on photos or often include a landscape element, so composition choices in the studio are wide open for me. This can be both daunting and liberating, which is why I spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on the composition for my paintings. How many animals? What are they doing? Are they close to the viewer or far away? These are some of the numerous questions I ask myself when composing a painting in the studio.


I used to think I wasn’t composing when I was field sketching in Africa, but I realized I was wrong. For example, if I see a herd of 20 elephants, I’m not going to just start sketching the closest one, then move on to the next until I’ve sketched every animal in turn. If I tried that I’d be hopelessly confused because the animals would change places and keep moving – my sketch would never be completed and would most likely be a mess. Instead, I usually I pick an animal in the herd who I will base my sketch around. Once I finish that animal, I look for another, in a different pose, which will complement it. Then I pick a 3rd and a 4th. I may not have an idea of how the finished piece will look, but I’m definitely composing as I sketch.

So I’m not about to argue with Degas on this point – “even in front of nature, one must compose”!


Zebra-Painting-Demo by Alison Nicholls

Zebra Painting Demo!

Zebra Painting Demo is my latest video. I started a larger zebra painting which didn’t quite go to plan (it happens to us all), so I started again. But this time I painted on a smaller, pre-stretched watercolor canvas. Although the painting looks quite complex, when you watch the video you’ll see that it was painted in just 2 stages. 1st came the wash and once that was dry, the stripes, all in the same color palette. Enjoy the video but don’t miss the quiz question below!

Do you know what the longest land mammal migration is?

You might be thinking it’s the wildebeest migration in Tanzania and Kenya, but it’s actually the zebra migration in northern Botswana. Between 1968 and 2004 this migration was halted by the existence of miles of fences separating Botswana’s beef cattle from wild African buffalo (an attempt to prevent outbreaks of foot and mouth disease). Once the fences were removed in 2004, the migration started all over again. The average lifespan of a wild zebra is usually between 15-25 years, so none of the zebras alive in 2004 were alive in 1967, before the fences went up. That means none of them had ever been on this migration route. Nevertheless, when the annual rains began, zebra started trekking from the Chobe River down to Nxai Pan and others moved from the Okavango down into the vast expanses of the Makgadikgadi salt pans. It just proves that if we let them, animals will find their own way!


NYC Portrait Party 2019

Portrait Party – Sketching Strangers in 10 Minutes!

Last Saturday I did eleven 10-minute sketches of complete strangers at a Portrait Party in Manhattan. I signed up because I knew it would be good for my sketching skills and take me out of my comfort zone. As the day approached I was excited but also concerned by my lack of experience sketching faces. I had tried 3 or 4 practice sessions but those made me realize that 10 minutes is not long to capture a likeness.

10 minute watercolor and pen sketch from life by Alison Nicholls, painted at 2019 New York City Portrait Party with NYC Urban Sketchers

Shawne, one of my 10 minute watercolor & pen sketches

The Portrait Party is organized by some members of NYC Urban Sketchers who go out twice a week to sketch in New York City. Fellow sketch-artist Hazel Jarvis and I arrived at the portrait party to find loads of artists and a little organized chaos. Here’s how it worked. Artists were divided into teams. The 12 members of my Yellow team sat in a circle and one by one we took turns to pose for 10 minutes as everyone else sketched. When the 10 minute timer went off, you got your next piece of paper ready and then you all started sketching the next person in the circle. After 3 or 4 sketches we would have a short break, but basically it felt like we sketched virtually continuously for about 3 hours.

NYC Portrait Party 2019

Nearly 100 artists in 1 room – what could possibly go wrong?

NYC Portrait Party 2019

The Yellow team

NYC Portrait Party 2019

Anna, me and Jessica hard at work.

When we had sketched everyone in our team, the art was laid out in a grid. Looking horizontally showed you all the sketches by the same artist. Looking vertically showed you all the sketches of the same person.

NYC Portrait Party 2019

Setting up the Yellow team sketch grid.

NYC Portrait Party 2019

Yellow team sketches in the grid.

At the end, the floor was covered with big colorful grids of sketches of every conceivable style. It was amazing to walk around and look at them all. Some artists used watercolor, others used marker pens, charcoal or ink. It was very inspiring and there was a real buzz in the air.

10 minute watercolor and pen sketch from life by Alison Nicholls, painted at 2019 New York City Portrait Party with NYC Urban Sketchers

Janette, one of my10 minute watercolor & pen sketches

And how did my sketches turn out? I was pleasantly surprised by many of them. Here are a few. The great thing about having only 10 minutes is that you can’t get too stressed by each one – you just don’t have time.

10 minute watercolor and pen sketch from life by Alison Nicholls, painted at 2019 New York City Portrait Party with NYC Urban Sketchers

Tim, one of my 10 minute watercolor & pen sketches

I learned that sketching older people is easier – lines and creases are an artist’s friend. I also learned that a simple color palette gave me more time, because mixing colors just up took too many valuable seconds.

10 minute watercolor and pen sketch from life by Alison Nicholls, painted at 2019 New York City Portrait Party with NYC Urban Sketchers

Anna, one of my 10 minute watercolor & pen sketches

But mostly I learned that I loved sketching people!
I enjoyed it so much and felt it was so good for my sketching skills that I am planning to do a 10-minute portrait sketch every day now. It might cost me a fortune in paper but the experience is invaluable.

Separated color on palette

Watermedia – Mud and Magic

One artist’s mud is another artist’s magic in watermedia – that’s the conclusion I’ve come to recently as I spent time mixing interesting greys. Here’s a good example. I used Raw Sienna, Cobalt Blue and Cadmium Red Medium Hue to create the dark purple-grey-blue you see below.

Mixed color on palette

Mixed watermedia color on palette

Wait a few minutes and the hues start to separate out – now the color on my palette has turned a distinct pink.

Separated color on palette

Separated color on palette

So whats going to happen when I use it, wet in wet, on my watercolor canvas? Here’s the result when its dry – you can see hints of all 3 of the original colors and there’s a lovely, subtle granulating effect too. Is this what you expected when you saw the original color on my palette? I’m guessing not!

Zebra wash when dry

Zebra watermedia wash when dry

Using mixes like these takes a little confidence because the end effect will be so different to the color you see on your palette. Its the magic of watermedia!

Read more of my blog.


Painting Scorecard

In an art-related email newsletter, I came across the excellent idea of the painting scorecard. I can’t find the original article so, with apologies to the author, here’s how it works. You create your own painting scorecard, with relevant categories (composition, values etc) and use it to give each of your completed paintings an overall score. Here is a overview of the categories I chose to use in my scorecard:

Evaluating Preoccupied Pair with my Painting Scorecard
  • Composition – is it interesting / does it move the eye around the painting and towards the center of interest?
  • Light – is the light source consistent in direction and strength / did you use values successfully?
  • Color – does the color palette support the intention of the painting?
  • Washes – were you bold enough with your washes / did you use lost and found edges?
  • Detail – was it used excessively or expressively?
  • Intention – did I meet my intentions for this work?
  • Opinion – am I chuffed (pleased with/proud of) this painting?
  • For each category I give a score out of 10, then add them up for an overall total. The descriptions (you just see an overview here) ensure that I consider each category carefully. So far I have scored 10 paintings and have already found some interesting trends – showing areas I need to improve on.

    Creating the scorecard doesn’t just allow you to evaluate your paintings – the act of creating the scorecard also shows what you value in a painting. In addition, I am using my scorecard throughout my design and painting process, to remind me of the categories and their importance in the creation of a successful piece of art.

    Do you have any other tips for evaluating your art?
    Happy painting!
    See my thoughts about New Year planning for artists.

    Lion Painting Demo

    My lion painting demo shows how I used fluid acrylic and colored inks on canvas to create the painting, Preoccupied Pair. I started this painting in December and added the finishing touches a few days ago. Miraculously, I remembered to video nearly all the painting sessions so I could create this lion painting demo from start to finish!

    Preoccupied Pair is based on my watercolor field sketch from Botswana (below). The watercolor shows a mating pair of lions walking through grasses. You’ll notice the 2 pieces are quite different, because I rarely recreate a field sketch as a studio painting. In the studio painting I felt the lions needed to be larger and closer to each other, and I wanted to eliminate most of the background vegetation and the termite mound.

    Mating Lions watercolor by Alison Nicholls
    Mating Lions, field watercolor 11×14″

    They are 2 very different pieces of art, but each reflects my intentions and the different ways I work in the field and in the studio. Both pieces are for sale with a 25% donation to African conservation organizations.

    Do you have a preference for 1 piece or the other?

    See my watercolor field sketches.
    See my studio acrylics.