Category Archives: Blog Posts

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.

    Resolutions? Nope. Planning? Oh Yeah!

    New starts have always appealed to me, so it’s no surprise that I look forward to New Year. I do like the revelry and fireworks but I also love spreading big sheets of paper out in my studio and having a brainstorming session. I relish setting objectives for the year – its like starting a new painting and seeing the endlessly exciting possibilities. So although I don’t want time to fly by, I am always ready to ring in the New Year and start planning for the 12 months ahead.

    Artist Alison Nicholls in a new year planning session.
    Thats me – enjoying a planning session!

    Excessive planning?

    When I started my career as a full-time artist in 2004, I read all kinds of marketing newsletters and soon I had created lists of daily tasks, weekly tasks, monthly tasks and annual tasks. For several years this worked well for me, but the more I learned, the bigger my marketing/exhibiting/admin ‘to-do’ list became. I grew tired of the structure, and found that my painting was suffering, so for the last couple of years I’ve gone in the other direction and mostly ignored my annual objectives and tasks lists. But that hasn’t worked for me either, as I’m the kind of person who needs some structure and organization to be productive. So in 2019 I’m going back to ‘my’ basics – a New Year planning session and a slimmed down list of objectives for the year.

    Over the years I’ve discovered that this kind of planning helps me set achievable goals, advances my career and even offers me ways to evaluate my art, but I need to be aware that too much planning can lead to very little action!

    I have a theory that excessive planning particularly plagues watermedia artists because our medium requires so much advance planning to be fresh and expressive (more on this coming up soon).

    Does any of this sound familar?
    Let me know!

    Zebra Crossing

    I know its a cliche, but Zebra Crossing was really the only name I could give this video. This small herd crossed the road in front of us as we returned to camp one morning. Its unusual to be on a real road like this during an Art Safari, but the light made this a special encounter, as the zebras crossed one by one. You can see why the group name for a herd of zebra is a dazzle!

    Happy July 4th if you are an American!
    if you are not American, have a dazzling Wednesday!
    Until next time…

    Giraffes fighting photo by Alison Nicholls

    Its World Giraffe Day!

    Lets celebrate World Giraffe Day by watching giraffes in South Africa. These 2 bulls are practicing their fighting techniques. When its serious, their huge, bony heads hit each other with a ferocious force which can knock a giraffe off its feet. Not the kind of behavior you’d expect from a giraffe, right?

    I’ve seen a real fight only once, and it was very short, but violent. It was in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The bull on the left quickly realized he was out-matched and made a run for it, but only after a few heavy blows meted out by his opponent.

    Giraffes fighting photo by Alison Nicholls

    On this World Giraffe Day, remember that although giraffes can fight each other, they can’t fight habitat loss or poaching. So consider a donation to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to help this amazing species.



    Art chart by Alison Nicholls

    Art Tips: ChARTing My Progress

    Charting my progress is fun as well as helpful, when I’m floundering a little.

    I’ve just taken down an exhibition of my work, and I’m left feeling a little uninspired, a little unmotivated. There are too many ideas whizzing around in my head and I’m not getting started on any of them. So I decided it was time for a review of where I am with my art and where I’d like to go next. I found my stack of papers containing new painting ideas, admin tasks that need doing, social media plans, exhibition ideas etc.  I wrote them all out on a large piece of paper then saw that they fitted into 4 categories. The categories are linked by arrows. So, for example, when I travel, I create new art, which I market online. 

    Art chart by Alison Nicholls

    Here’s the really interesting part – the most important categories are Art and Travel (they have the most outgoing arrows) because they are my ‘creative’ categories and what happens there affects everything else. If I didn’t create Art or Travel, I wouldn’t have anything to market. And yet, guess which category consistently takes up more of my time than it should? Yep – Online Marketing!

    This does not come as a surprise to me, but every now and again I need a visual reminder like this to refocus my energies on what is most important.

    Which is why I am now getting up from the computer to go and check my latest experimental painting!
    See you next time.

    Zebra by Alison Nicholls

    Looking Back…to move Forward

    Looking back can show you how much has changed. So here are a few things that have changed about my art over the years. And a few really old paintings too!

    I used to paint or draw animals from photos, in a far more realistic style.

    Zebra by Alison Nicholls

    Zebra pastel from mid 90’s, by Alison Nicholls.

    When I painted from life (en plein air), I painted landscapes with an occasional animal but now I paint animals with an occasional landscape feature.

    Okavango Delta by Alison Nicholls

    Okavango Delta by Alison Nicholls

    Mabuasehube by Alison Nicholls

    Mabuasehube by Alison Nicholls

    For a long time I used to draw only in pencil, now I can’t imagine my art without color.

    Gecko by Alison Nicholls

    Gecko by Alison Nicholls

    Yes, my art has certainly changed.
    But if your art is not changing then you’re probably not improving.
    (And if you prefer these older artworks, please don’t tell me!)

    Keep on changing..

    What Happens to Failed Paintings?

    Artists make mistakes. Its true. Shocking, I know!
    So what happens to my failed paintings?

    If you liked the penguins you just saw (which it seems many people did) then here’s a look at the next version, which I’ll be sending to Artists For Conservation to feature in their Silent Skies Mural, showing all 678 species of endangered birds.

    And now I’m off to work on my next piece for the Silent Skies Mural – some White-backed Vultures.
    Thanks for watching!

    Giraffe Bulls Browsing by Alison Nicholls

    Giraffes – Paintings in Stages by Alison Nicholls

    Giraffes are unique in so many ways – which makes them perfect for painting. As you’ll see in this video, I started with simple washes of fluid acrylic on watercolor canvas. When they were dry I looked at the washes from every angle and suddenly the compositions jumped out at me – 2 bulls browsing in the narrow gap between tall shrubs, and a cow and her calf gazing off into the distance.

    A donation will be made from the sale of these paintings to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. The original paintings are currently on view at the Rye Arts Center in Rye, New York, until April 21. You can also see them on my website here.

    Read more about the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
    The Rye Arts Center is located at 51 Milton Road, Rye, NY 10580.

    Take care

    Birds & Beasts: See The Paintings

    March 22 was the Opening Reception for Birds & Beasts: Near & Far – my current exhibition with artist Sean Murtha, at the Rye Arts Center, Rye NY. We had a good turnout and are holding more events associated with the exhibition, including Sketching Workshops from Live Animals on March 24 and an Artists Talk on April 17 at 11am. If you live in the area, please come and see the exhibit. If not, you can see all my artworks in the exhibition here.

    Alison Nicholls Alison NichollsReception1 Reception1

    Enjoy the exhibition!

    Leopard - Patience by Alison Nicholls

    Stages of a Leopard Painting by Alison Nicholls

    I recently conducted a survey and asked what everyone would like to see more of regarding my art and travels. One request was for more works in progress, and for more about the inspiration behind my paintings, so here’s a brief video about my new leopard painting. It includes the initial inspiration, thumbnail ideas, composition and stages of the painting. It is difficult to video my work as it progresses, because I paint flat on a table. This means I have to place my video on a very high shelf and try to remember not to block the view when I am painting. Not ideal, but I’m gradually improving my video techniques, so watch for more soon.
    If you took part in my survey – Thank You! You can see all the results here.
    If you haven’t completed the survey yet, you can do so here.

    travel africa

    Travel Africa Features my African Art!

    A few months ago I was interviewed by Travel Africa, answering some interesting questions about my trips to Africa and the way I sketch and paint. Today the online article has been released and you can read it here. If you can. please leave a comment as this may prompt them to feature me again in their print magazine too. Thank you and enjoy the article!

    Meet the artist: Alison Nicholls

    Birds & Beasts at the Rye Arts Center 2018

    Birds & Beasts: Near & Far

    Birds & Beasts: Near & Far – that is the title for my next exhibition, shared with artist Sean Murtha, at the Rye Arts Center, Rye NY, from March 22 – April 21.

    Birds & Beasts at the Rye Arts Center 2018

    Giving an exhibition a title can be remarkably difficult. You want to get it right – to indicate what the exhibit is about – but leave a little mystery that will make people want to attend. Its especially difficult to come up with a title when you are are sharing an exhibit with another artist. So (despite my husband’s objections to the word ‘Beasts’) I am pretty pleased with this title and feel it nicely represents my art of large African mammals (some of which are of course, beastly!) and Sean’s art consisting mostly of birds who dwell near or on Long Island Sound.

    Drinking Impala by Alison Nicholls

    Drinking Impala by Alison Nicholls

    Of course, I wonder how much the title means to anyone else. After all, artists often squirm over titling each individual piece of artwork, only to find that viewers don’t really care what the title is. I hate to admit it, but I don’t have a clue about the titles of most of the art in my own home (those pieces not painted by me), so I wonder if all the angst is really worthwhile. Anyway…even if the title is irrelevant, I do hope you will come and join us for one of the many events associated with this exhibit – the Reception, the Artists Talk or the 2 Sketching Sessions with live animals provided by Animal Embassy, including (I am most excited about this) the wonderfully named Quilliam, the African crested porcupine!

    Quilliam the African crested porcupine with Chris Evers of Animal Embassy

    Quilliam the African crested porcupine with Chris Evers of Animal Embassy

    Read more about the art of Sean Murtha
    Read more about the Rye Arts Center
    Read more about Animal Embassy

    I hope to see you at the exhibition for a wild time!

    Spotted Hyena watching Impala by Alison Nicholls

    Spotted Hyena Watercolor

    In this spotted hyena watercolor, I made a conscious decision to add more habitat and landscape features, rather then just concentrating on the animals, as I often do. One morning, driving in Kruger National Park in South Africa, we came across this spotted hyena lying right next to the track, with its head resting on its forelegs. It was too good an opportunity to miss so I started sketching.

    Knowing that the hyena was likely to move its head, I started sketching from the back end. With the body and front legs sketched out, I had the opportunity to watch the hyena and choose whichever head and neck position I preferred. As I watched, a small group of impala appeared, browsing their way through the bush, probably heading towards the nearby river for a morning drink. The hyena turned its head to watch them and that was the pose I chose to sketch. A few moments later the impala spotted the hyena, barked in alarm and moved away. The hyena got up and casually walked right up to the car until its nose was just inches from me, at which point I did my window up! Then it walked around the car, stared in the windows on the other side and walked away.

    Spotted Hyena watching Impala by Alison Nicholls

    Spotted Hyena watching Impala, 11×14″, US$300 by Alison Nicholls

    Before we drove on, even though the hyena and impala were gone, I added some more details of the bushes behind the hyena, and drew the simple shapes for the impala. Paint was added back at camp (without photo or video reference), as you can see from this short video of my spotted hyena watercolor.

    You can learn these sketching and painting techniques from me on an Africa Geographic Art Safari in South Africa. There’s nothing quite like sketching from life in the African bush. But don’t take my word for it – come and see for yourself!
    Purchase Spotted Hyena Watching Impala.


    Take Part in my Art Survey!

    Here’s your chance to tell me what you think by taking part in my
    Art Survey!


    There are just a few short questions. It will take only a tiny amount of your time. And there’s even a question about sharing a mud-bath with a herd of elephants!

    Admit it – you’re intrigued…
    So, if you follow my art here or elsewhere, take part in my Art Survey

    I’ll look forward to seeing your answers!
    Until next time…


    Spotted Hyena – Night Scent

    The whoop of the spotted hyena is one of the most recognizable calls of the African bush. My favorite memories of sitting around the campfire at night include many occasions spent listening to distant hyenas, then being startled by a response from very close by. I have also been only feet away, eating dinner by the fire, when a huge clan of spotted hyenas ran down a track through the middle of Savute campsite at night. And on one occasion realized to my consternation that a particularly brazen hyena was sitting in the shadows behind my camp chair, waiting for us to go to bed so he could see if we had left any edible scraps in our campsite.

    Spotted Hyena - Night Scent by Alison Nicholls

    Several of my recent African field sketches include spotted hyenas, but these were sketched during the day, so I wanted to try painting a nocturne (night scene) of a spotted hyena foraging. My first thought was how I would cope without all the vibrant colors I usually use? Well, it turned out to be easy, because I mixed all the greys and browns in the painting from combinations of 3 lovely colors – Naples yellow, Anthraquinone blue and Quinacridone burnt orange. Its amazing what you can do with only 3 colors, used in different proportions, and many of my studio paintings make use of such a limited palette.
    The hyena in this painting is using its amazing sense of smell to test the air and locate food. You can see her strong neck which is necessary to anchor the huge muscles which give the hyena such a powerful bite. Their fictional reputation may be as cowardly scavengers but this is not at all accurate. Spotted hyenas are successful predators in their own right, are essential to the health of their environment, are a fascinating species, and are one of my favorites to watch and sketch.
    Spotted Hyena – Night Scent is an original framed acrylic on canvas, 20×16″, priced at US$1800. Please whoop if you’d like further details!
    You can see this painting, and others, on my website –
    Alison Nicholls

    January 2018 Art Challenge

    I started 2018 with an Art Challenge and here is a preview of my challenge so far.

    Art Challenge 2018

    As with any plan, once you get into it you realize things need a little tweaking. I started by thinking I’d paint a whole month of daily colors on 1 piece of canvas, but realized it would be tough to overlay 28-31 color washes without complete chaos being the result. So I started a kind of wheel effect, rolling the washes across and down the page.

    I wondered when was the best time to choose the color for the day – at the end of the day (when I’m tired) or the next morning (looking back on the day before). I still haven’t really decided which works best yet.

    It seemed like such a simple challenge. Who would have thought that painting one color a day on a piece of canvas would give rise to so many questions?!

    Paint on!

    Another dead-end. Elephant Calf by Nigel Nicholls

    Oh No – Another Art Dead-End!

    In many careers you start by studying, learning from others. Those who came before you have created a foundation of knowledge, gathered over the years, so there are many dead-ends you don’t need to visit or experiments you don’t need to repeat – because the answers have been found and are there for you to see and understand. In some careers you are legally obligated to learn and follow this accepted wisdom. A doctor must learn medicine and follow accepted practice, a lawyer must learn the law of the land and (hopefully) operate within it. So how does art differ from this?

    Another dead-end. Elephant Calf by Nigel Nicholls

    Well, from my years of experience I’d say that being an artist appears to demand that you turn down any number of dead-end roads on your route to improvement. Its true that many people study, that they follow the example of the great masters of the past and learn the history of art, but no amount of theory or knowledge of materials can make you a great artist. Its all about practice, trial and error, and time. Practice leads to competence. Trial and error leads to innovation. Time allows you to develop your own style.

    Art is about forging your own path (and trying not to trip over your trunk).
    Enjoy the journey!


    Sketching lions in South Africa 2015

    I’m Not An Expert Artist, Can I Still Do An Art Safari?

    If I’m not an expert artist, can I still do an Art Safari?

    This is a common question, because most of us have an underlying fear of not being good enough. But it’s a very easy question to answer. The answer is “Yes, an Art Safari is for you!”

    Art Safaris with Alison Nicholls

    Art Safaris are a unique way to experience the African bush and over the last 7 years I have had the pleasure of meeting and teaching guests with a wide range of skills – complete beginners who want to try a different kind of safari; artists who sketch regularly but have never been on safari or sketched animals; a jeweler who wanted to try sketching for a change; those who studied art but haven’t picked up a pencil for years; photographers and non-sketching partners who were intrigued and decided to try sketching for themselves; and occasionally one of our professional safari guides has also been tempted to follow along!

    Alison Nicholls Africa Geographic Art Safari 2016

    Join me at The Bush House, September 15-20, 2018.

    What makes it easy for anyone to join in and learn is that we are all working at our own pace, with our own choice of materials. There is no competition on an Art Safari, just a friendly, fun, learning environment. You can do this safari with just pencil and paper, so there’s no need to be a painter or watercolorist. I start by showing you how to look at animals and see simple shapes. Yes, even the strangest animals like giraffes or white rhinos can be sketched using simple shapes! Its amazing how quickly you can improve when you spend 4 full days sketching from life. Its the best way to learn and gives you a real sense of accomplishment too.

    Sketching lions in South Africa 2015

    If you’re not already convinced, here are some comments from Art Safari guests.

    High Praise for Alison Nicholls’ and Africa Geographic’s Art Safari! I guarantee there is something to gain in this experience for everyone. Viewing and sketching the animals live gives you a greater understanding of their movements and their enviroment.  
    Angie M from Canada

    For myself the time with you and our Art Safari was the highlight of 2017. 
    Susanne B from Switzerland

    My art safari experience with Alison was beyond my wildest dreams.  I learned so much about drawing the animals I saw.  We went out on two game drives a day and it was such an intimate experience.  Alison gave each of us individual attention and tips on our sketches.  It was so helpful and encouraging.  I cannot describe how wonderful it was to experience really looking at the animal when you are trying to sketch them.  We came back to the lodge to do some watercolor and more intimate instruction, as well as watch Alison work on some of her marvelous work she had done in the bush.  It was a trip of a lifetime filled with fun, learning and lot’s of laughter.  Thank you, Alison for a wonderful experience. 
    Debra S from USA

    Join me at The Bush House, September 15-20, 2018.

    If you still have questions, let me know.
    Come and join us!

    2018 palette by Alison Nicholls

    2018 Art Challenge

    Happy 2018!
    Want to join me in my 2018 Art Challenge?

    I like to think of each passing day as a transparent wash of color. As the day ends, that day’s wash is added to a canvas, painted on top of all the washes from previous days. Some days are light, airy pastels; some are vibrant primaries; some are darker tones; but when you look at the week, or the month, or the year, the canvas tells an exquisite story.

    2018 palette by Alison Nicholls

    2018 palette by Alison Nicholls

    So this year I will be mixing 1 wash of color every day, to reflect how I felt that day. I’ll paint it on a piece of canvas and add a new wash every day. Each week I’ll start a new canvas. (Tip, this will be far easier in fluid acrylic than in watercolor, because you can add multiple washes of color without fear of ‘picking up’ the washes below.) I may even try a monthly canvas, just to see how far I can push this.
    Let me know if you will be joining me!

    Paint on!