Goblin Gloves: painting foxgloves

Foxgloves, digitalis purpurea, against a back ground of blue and ochre on canvas

The weather’s filthy: wind, rain. It’s gusting 60 mph down on the coast. So it’s nice to be inside painting something that reminds me that summer really is here…somewhere. It’s certainly not outside.

Foxglove laid across canvas, paint brush in background painting flowers on canvas

Aren’t they strange? They must be one of the largest British wild flowers. I remember as a child being drawn to them, taller than me, graceful and yet..what is it. They had presence. They beckoned. An old saying about Foxgloves is ‘They can raise the dead and kill the living’. I remember, doing as all country children do, taking off the flowers and putting them, over my fingers. I didn’t know then that everything of the Foxglove is poisonous, leaves, flowers, stem, pollen, roots but I came to no harm.

Foxgloves in foreground, Catherine Forshalls hand painting Foxgloves on canvas in back ground

The flower is mentioned in a list of flora compiled during the reign of Edward III, (1327-1377). The botanical name is Digitalis purpurea, but there are lots of lovely folk names for them, Goblin Gloves, Dead Men’s Bells, Fairy Gloves, Gloves of our Lady, Fairy Caps, Fairy Thimbles, Witches gloves, bloody fingers, Virgin’s Glove, Floppy Dock, Foxbell, Flowster-Docker, Finger Hut, Flopper Dock, King Elwand….. The Celts considered them the most magical of all herbs and called them Lus Mor, the Great Herb

Woman, Catherine Forshall painting foxgloves on canvas, monochrome, behind her deep shadow

The painting will be part of a series of canvases of wild flowers with the sea in the back ground for a show called ‘Coast’, which will take place next November at the Flying Colours Gallery in Chelsea.

If you would like to be kept informed of forthcoming shows email me at catherineforshall@yahoo.co.uk

All photographs © James Forshall



I’m painting periwinkles. There is a shell fish called a periwinkle but as you can see this is the flower.

Hand holding blue periwinkle flower in front of periwinkel painting by Catherine Forshall

I think of it as a southern European plant. They were some of the earliest flowers to come out around the house when we lived in France. At the end of January I was surprised to see one flowering in the Devon lane which leads to our house. The snowdrops are out and there are couple of very bold primroses which have been out for over a month encouraged by a heating pipe which leads to the studio. I love the violet blue of the periwinkle and the modest, simple, five petaled structure of it’s face. It is an omen of warmer days, of shorter nights, and spring.

Periwinkle painting by Catherine Forshall, blue, five petaled flower on green background

 Photographs © James Forshall

The Red Cliffs of Budleigh Salterton: sketching seaweed

On Saturday we went to the Beach at Budleigh Salterton.

Woman, waves, gulls, shingle, beach

The sea was a pinky mauve from the earth washed down by the river Otter.   I wanted to find seaweed to sketch for a large canvas that I am about to start. I thought that with the recent storms there might be much washed up, but I only found a little Oar weed and Egg wrack on the upper shore, the Oar weed, a burnt sienna/sepia colour.  William Harvey  , an Irish naturalist, an inspiring draughtsman, produced 3 beautifully illustrated volumes of seaweed illustrations, in which these two are shown. Curiously he died not far away in Torquay in 1866.

Oar Weed Pebbles

I’ve always been attracted to the red earth of the cliffs above the beach at Budleigh. I found a clump of red earth that had fallen and took it home to use as a pigment for the background of the sea weed sketches. I used to do this when we first moved to France, nearly 30 years ago. There I did a series of landscapes using the pigment from the rusty orange earth above the Lot Valley, near Lherm, the same pigment that was used in parts of the cave paintings at Cougnac 25,000 years ago.  The medium was spit and animal fat. I use something out of a tube.

Red Cliff, seagull, sky

Red Cliff, cliff erosion, Budleigh Salterton

Fishing gear, bouys, beach,

Hands, seaweed, Oar Weed, shingle beach

Boat on Beach Budleigh Salterton

Oyster Creels, white washed wall, beach

Silhouetted figures above Beach Budleigh Salterton

sketching, oarweed, handsSketching Oar weed

Earth pigment rubbed into page of sketch book

Rubbing in the pigment for the background

Sketching, Egg wrack, seaweed, red earth pigment

Sketching Egg wrack

Photography © James Forshall  www.jamesforshallphotography.com

Hunting for Sea Holly


Someone told me that sea holly had been seen on the spit at Dawlish Warren. It is a beautiful, prickly plant which has become increasingly rare.  I think that its strong, spiky lines would suit my style of drawing and I was keen to see it. So this morning I set off down the west side of the Exe estuary, following the the railway line on the edge of the water, past the pretty harbour at Starcross, small flat fronted cottages, and a lateral moraine of ugly brick houses crammed into once fertile pasture.


Dawlish is an unpretentious seaside holiday town at the mouth of the Exe.  A spit of silt, and sand formed 7000 years ago projects East into the estuary and this has been turned into a nature reserve. Over the last two and half centuries it has been reduced from a width of 250 yards to 50 yards. It is probable that despite the efforts to preserve it the spit will be washed away by rising seas later this century.

ImageThere was bright flinty sunshine and an icy wind. It was -2 degrees when we left the house and the sea holly sensibly no where to be seen, but on top of the dune there was marram grass. I remember it whipping my legs as I raced down to the beach as a child. It’s useful stuff because it can survive with little water, anchoring the sand until other species can establish themselves. So I settled down to draw it and, although I did not find sea holly, I found shells dropped by the sea birds, bleached by salt and sun.Image

I found spiney cockles, also known as red noses, razor shells, small scallops, called queenies,  slipper limpets, and a large mussel, called the painter’s mussel, because it is handy for holding paint.  I have a plan to sketch and paint them all. Their colours are so delicate. It is as if they have been rinsed in washes of pale blues, greys, violets and pinks and browns and dried in chalk dust.Image



Photography by www.jamesforshallphotography.com

Mill Creek, Dittisham


I had to deliver a Spider Crab print for a client of the Bowie Gallery in Totnes. Once I had dropped it off I went onto Dittisham. The idea was to have a cup of coffee looking out over the Dart Estuary. We walked down the north side of the village. It was very quiet, almost silent. I think it is warmer here than further inland. Leaves on some of the shrubs had come out, one felt reluctantly, and looked naked against the cold grey March sky.  An alley lead down between gardens to a slipway into Mill Creek, the estuary for the Barbary Water, leading into the Dart Estuary.

The shelter it provides makes it valuable for many species. Short and long snouted seahores have been seen here, mussels, and sponges. My idea was to look for Mytilus galloprovinciallis, the Mediterranean mussel. I love painting it’s blue-violet shells, some of which shade through to a light brown.  The tide was going out, leaving the dark egg wrack slumped on the shore between blackened stones and glassy mud, home to ragworms, food for seabirds. It wasn’t as cold as Mylor because the cove was better protected from the wind, but it was still cold.

I didn’t find any mussels, instead cockles. They live just below the surface of the mud, which just shows you, there is somewhere for everyone. I took some of the empty shells home to sketch. I like their beautiful markings which are so fine that they could have been engraved with a needle. Our collie loved being by the water, and the mud. Oh, yes, and I took a sliver of peeling paint from one of the rotting, clinker built boats for it’s blue.   A good day: on the way back we saw periwinkles in the hedge rows.


Photography © by http://www.jamesforshallphotography.com