A Birthday Story

Ahma at 16

My mom, who would have turned 80 today, was a prolific writer. I have stacks of her notebooks filled with poems, essays and short stories in her small, neat handwriting. I thought I had read them all – but this morning, something new caught my eye. To my surprise and delight, it is a memory of her 16th birthday on March 11, 1952.


My mother and father were planning a dance in my honor at a downtown hotel in Bristol, Virginia. I had searched for months for just the right dress for the occasion, but nothing filled my grown-up sophisticated requirement. Finally, my mother and I selected a sky blue watermarked taffeta fabric and a Vogue pattern which had gussets flaring the skirt.

I thought this dress was too “young-looking” but Mama and the seamstress assured me it would be perfect. The fitting a few days later did little to change my opinion, but the dance was less than a week away.

Two days before the party, I went into town to pick up my satin ballerina shoes that were being dyed to match my dress. There, in the window of Mademoiselle’s Style Shop, was my dream dress! It was made of tissue silk. The full skirt floated down to ankle length from a scoop-necked bodice. Black and silver vertical stripes gave the look of a Scarlett O’Hara waistline.

I rushed inside and tried on the dress. This was exactly what I wanted to look like on the night of my 16th birthday dance. I would sweep my long ponytail up into a French twist and enter the adult world in sophisticated style — then I looked at the price tag: $120.  That may not seem surprising now for a party dress, but in 1952 it was startling.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait to get back home and announce that at last I had found the perfect dress, and if my parents would buy it for me I would never ask for another thing as long as I lived.

After hearing the price, my mother (who held the purse strings in the family) said, “No. You are too young to wear black, and it is ridiculous to pay that much for a dress.”

My father, who could still be swayed by female tears, said, “Well… your mother and I will talk about it.” But from the look on Mama’s face, I knew the discussion was over and I had lost.

The day of the dance arrived and Mama made a small compromise by letting me wear my hair up in a French twist. (Not much compared to a tissue silk, scoop-necked black dress, I thought, but at least I would have a hint of sophistication.) After spending an hour in Lucille’s Hair Salon, Mama and I went to meet Daddy for lunch at the hotel to check on last-minute preparations.

As I pulled out my chair, a long box tied with a pink ribbon slid out from under the table. Printed on the lid was Mademoiselle’s Style Shop. I lifted the top and there, nestled in pink tissue, was my dress. As I held it up and beamed with delight, my mother glowered at my father. She said, “She will never get your money’s worth out of that dress.”

Daddy’s reply, I realize now, was my greatest present. He said, “She has already given me my money’s worth.”

I kept that dress for 45 years. Two of my grandchildren played dress-up in it until it finally rotted away, as old silk will. But we all got our money’s worth out of that dress.







Draw Paint Letter: a new way to learn


Draw Paint Letter: the Artist-Naturalist’s Year

Learn through the seasons. Keep the videos forever.

How does it work?

Val Webb’s art tutorials, tips and techniques will be delivered to your email inbox on beautifully illustrated printable pages, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Fridays, you’ll also receive a link to a full-length video lesson. All video content will remain permanently online, available for you to practice and review whenever you like.

Draw Paint Letter will start on March 21, 2016 and will run for at least one full year. Students may join the class at any time during the year and will have lifetime access to all material sent out, from their personal start date going forward. The cost is $30/month and is billed monthly through PayPal. You do not need a PayPal account to make the payment using a credit or debit card.

Payment by check will be accepted for a minimum of 2 months of lessons ($60) at a time, and at the end of that period, a courtesy invoice for the next two months will be sent. To find out where to mail a check, email Val at studio@valwebb.com.

To stop receiving tutorials and video lessons, simply email Val and your enrollment will end at the close of your current 30-day period.


What subjects will we draw and paint?

Val is best-known for drawing the garden and the natural world, and much of our focus will be in those places. Drawing (pencil, charcoal, pen-and-ink, colored pencil) and painting (watercolor) subjects will include seasonal changes in animals wild and domestic, birds of all kinds including shorebirds and birds of prey, butterflies and moths, marine life, frog and turtles, botanical drawing techniques, wildflowers, heirloom vegetable varieties, tropical flowers and ferns, historic and medicinal plants, herbs, trees, the cottage garden setting, natural landscapes (forest, coastal, mountain and desert), creeks and rivers, open water, skies, and much more. Our subjects will reflect the changing seasons and, because the course is so open-ended, ideas and suggestions from students are also very welcome and can be easily incorporated into the weekly mix.

Many of our projects will combine drawing, painting and lettering in the tradition of classic illustration, beautiful nature journals and field sketches. Others will be stand-alone “outside the box” techniques. These are NEW videos and printables, made specifically for this course, and not recycled material from Val’s other online classes.


What drawing techniques will be covered?

Drawing techniques covered will include traditional pen-and-ink, “splash and splatter” techniques for dramatic effects, ink-and-wash and ink-and-brush, realistic pencil drawing, field drawing and sketching from life, charcoal drawing, making and using toned paper, colored pencil drawing and color blending.


…And what about painting and lettering techniques?

Painting lessons will explore traditional watercolor, “fast and loose” floral watercolor, pen-and-ink with watercolor, watercolor with colored pencil, drybrush, reverse painting in watercolor, ink resist painting, and more. Lettering projects will feature a wide range of hand-lettering styles in pencil, ink and watercolor, plus page design and “fancy field notes.”


Who can take this class? Do I need to be able to draw?

Draw Paint Letter is open to all. Class material is appropriate for anyone, at any level of art experience. No previous art experience is required, and Val teaches in a spirit of warmth and gentle encouragement. Our students range from “never tried to draw before in my life” to seasoned professionals polishing their skills in a specific subject area. Don’t let a lack of drawing experience keep you away!


To sign up, ask a question or just say howdy, email studio@valwebb.com



Draw and Paint Six Culinary Herbs

I’m bringing back my very first (and most popular) online drawing course, starting March 29.

Draw & Paint Six Culinary Herbs will incorporate all the things that make the humble kitchen garden a place of a thousand small delights. In addition to learning to create softly shaded pencil studies, spirited ink-and-wash sketches and richly layered color renderings that combine watercolor and colored pencil, we’ll also explore the history and folklore associated with our six herbs. Each lesson will include art demo videos, printable illustrated instruction pages and photo tutorials posted on our private class website — as well as illustrated tips on growing, harvesting and using our culinary collection.

You can take a look at the supply list and each lesson’s featured herbs here:

Mar 2016 Herb Supply List

Mar 2016 Info

The course is designed so that you can work at your own pace, without ever feeling rushed. Lessons will appear weekly beginning Tuesday, March 29, on a private, password-protected website. All 10 lessons will remain there until July 29. During those four months, you have access to the lessons anytime you wish to work on them. Feel free to take a week off (or even a month) for other activities. You’ll still have plenty of time to complete the course. Each lesson will include:

  • My video demo with step-by-step guidance for each new technique
  • Printable color instruction pages
  • Examples for each lesson, created to guide and inspire you
  • Personal help when needed, and feedback when each lesson is completed
  • Access to our own private online group where you can share comments and images with others taking the course around the world. (Participation in the group is optional. No instruction will take place there.)

Art topics covered in the course include:

  • How to develop the habit of looking deeply at your subject, so that you clearly see and understand its structure
  • Three steps to creating a quick and accurate foundation sketch
  • How to draw leaves in perspective
  • My “gentle pencil” technique for softly shaded pencil studies
  • How to combine ink and wash for fast and elegant herb drawings
  • Traditional layering of watercolor and colored pencil to build a richly detailed rendering
  • Color matching and color mixing – including highlights and shadows
  • The structure of an herb plant, and some basic terminology

Absolutely no experience is necessary. The supply list is simple, and contains no exotic materials. (In fact, if you recently took my online watercolor lettering course, you already have the brushes you’ll need. You can check them off your list!)

What about technology? Well, you will need four basic tools to “attend” this online class:

  • A computer, or access to one
  • An email account to receive informative messages or send in your work for feedback
  • A way to print out your illustrated instruction pages
  • A way to send images of your completed projects to me for feedback. You can use either a scanner or a digital camera to create an image, then email it.

The cost of the entire course is $50, which is payable by personal check, money order or through PayPal. (To use PayPal, let me know you want to join the class and I will send you a secure PayPal invoice with an embedded “pay now” button.) Email me to sign up, or if you need additional information. See you soon!

Five online classes start January 5

Five new class sessions begin in a few weeks: Watercolor Lettering, Drawing Dogs and Cats, Birds in Watercolor, Fairies II and a first-time-ever mini course. Scroll down for complete info…



Barred OwlDraw Owls: Designed for Darkness
Starting January 5, 2016 – work at your own pace
4 Lessons for Beginner and Intermediate Artists
Videos + 16 illustrated printables $42

Develop fundamental drawing skills in pencil and charcoal as you sketch some of nature’s most efficient (and beautiful) predators. Each week will feature a new technique and a new species of owl. No experience necessary — this class is specially designed for beginning and intermediate artists.

Lessons will be information-rich, each consisting of multiple videos and illustrated printable pages., and will be posted on a password-protected web page. A new lesson will post every two weeks. Instructor guidance and feedback is available as often as you like, through email.

Supplies for this course:

  • 4B drawing pencil, any brand
  • Soft kneaded eraser
  • Supply of inexpensive sketch paper for practice
  • Black charcoal pencil
  • White charcoal pencil
  • 2 sheets of toned charcoal paper (gray or buff)

To register, email studio@valwebb.com




Winter Session poster - CopyA

Drawn & Decorated Watercolor Lettering
Starting January 5, 2016
10 Lessons – work at your own pace



No previous experience necessary! Learn to create decorated letters using watercolor, Pigma Micron pens, pencils and a brush. Participants will have four months to complete ten projects. Class projects include:

  • Three easy methods for making decorative and illuminated initials.
  • Surprisingly simple techniques for Celtic knotwork.
  • Using “quickhand” techniques to make art journals or notebooks more beautiful.
  • Colorful, whimsical letters based on medieval alphabets (how to draw them, how to use them).
  • Creative page design that combines lettering and other images.
  • Vines and flourishes – watercolor letters inspired by Art Nouveau.
  • Guidelines for designing your own unique personal alphabet.
  • Combining color, form and attitude to make your letters sing.

To sign up, email studio@valwebb.com.


WC Bird

Birds in Watercolor and Beyond
Starting January 5, 2016
10 Lessons – work at your own pace






Learn a new technique each week, ranging from splashy impressionistic bluebirds in flight to softly shaded cranes on toned paper — no experience necessary for this avian art adventure. Work at your own pace, with five months to complete the material and as much instructor guidance and feedback as you wish. Includes a project using Val’s dramatic gouache resist. A fun and informal way to build your skills and enjoy the beauty of birds. To register, email studio@valwebb.com.



dryad and oak2Fairies II: Draw and Paint the Enchanted World
Starting January 5, 2016
10 Lessons – work at your own pace


This magical course continues where my Fairies I course left off: We will draw and paint enchanted landscapes, interiors, moonlight, candlelight — and the neighboring inhabitants of the fairy realm, including goblins and trolls, dragons and unicorns, tree spirits, the Woodwife and more. To register, email studio@valwebb.com.




Blog page dogDrawing Dogs & Cats
Starting January 5, 2016
8 Lessons – work at your own pace


No experience necessary — the only prerequisite for this course is a love of our four-legged family members. Working in pencil for some projects, black-and-white charcoal pencil for others, develop your drawing skills by learning to create glossy fur, expressive eyes, animals in action and at rest. Topics include drawing puppies and kittens at different stages of growth, four techniques for drawing white fur, drawing realistic dog noses, drawing dog and cat caricatures and more. Very minimal supply list. Pre-registration is required, and is payable by check or PayPal. To sign up, email me directly at studio@valwebb.com.


Ink + Brush = Appaloosa

Chip brush horse

For decades, I have loved the lively illustration work of that master of historical illustration, Victor Ambrus. And so it was Ambrus — and his lovely smudges and splatters — I had in mind when producing this demo for the online class, Draw Horses and Ponies. And when the technique includes lots of round inky droplets, the spots on an appaloosa seem like the natural place to go. I have experimented with fancier brushes, but this sort of serendipitous messiness seems to work best with a 50-cent chip brush from the hardware store.

New online mini course: Draw Owls

Barred OwlB

Draw Owls: Designed for Darkness
Starting January 5, 2016 – work at your own pace
4 Lessons for Beginner and Intermediate Artists
Videos + 16 illustrated printables      $42

Develop fundamental drawing skills in pencil and charcoal as you sketch some of nature’s most efficient (and beautiful) predators. Each week will feature a new technique and a new species of owl. No experience necessary — this class is specially designed for beginning and intermediate artists.

Lessons will be information-rich, each consisting of multiple videos and illustrated printable pages., and will be posted on a password-protected web page. A new lesson will post every two weeks. Instructor guidance and feedback is available as often as you like, through email.

Supplies for this course:

  • 4B drawing pencil, any brand
  • Soft kneaded eraser
  • Supply of inexpensive sketch paper for practice
  • Black charcoal pencil
  • White charcoal pencil
  • 2 sheets of toned charcoal paper (gray or buff)

To register, email studio@valwebb.com

Back by request: Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil


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Blog promo picOld-fashioned flowers! Veggies! Butterflies, bees and dragonflies! A new session of my popular online class, Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil, starts Nov. 3. Work at your own pace, with five months to explore all 10 lessons. No experience necessary. Click here for more info.

New online course: Draw Horses and Ponies

ink horseI grew up with horses and have always loved drawing them, so I’m very excited about this: Registration is now open for Draw Horses and Ponies, an “extended access” online course that allows you to work at your own pace. Use pencil, pen, ink and brush to draw horses of all breeds (from tiny Falabella miniatures to enormous draft horses) and life stages from birth to old age. Includes how to draw each gait, as well as jumping, shying and rolling. Draw horses under saddle and in harness. There is a lesson on drawing riders (both Western and English) and one on donkeys and mules. Explore realistic pencil renderings and playful, impressionistic brush drawing. No experience necessary!

Class size is limited.

The first lesson will post on a private website on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Lessons will post weekly, but the course remains open and active for five full months.  This means that you can start in November and create holiday gifts for your horse-loving friends and family if you like, OR you can start the course on your own schedule after Christmas and still have three full months to move through the 10 lessons before the window closes in April 2016.

sketchThe course includes 10 instructional videos, and 30 illustrated pdf pages for you to print and keep. I’ll provide one-on-one guidance and feedback at each step of the journey.

The cost of the course is $65. For information on how to sign up, send me an email at


See you in class!

Remembering Elizabeth Blackwell

Sketched in colored pencil on stained paper

Colored pencil on stained paper

The most recent project in my online Botanical Sketchbook Painting course is inspired by the work of a remarkable botanical artist who has been mostly forgotten in the 250 years since her death. A few remaining copies of her once-famous work still may be found in rare book collections and in the archival libraries of some of the world’s finest botanical gardens. Some people see Elizabeth Blachrie Blackwell’s story as a tragic one, and certainly it was not an easy life. But to me, it’s a story of incredible strength and determination.

Growing up in a seaport on the Scottish coast, Elizabeth inherited her keen intelligence and love of hard work from her father. William Blachrie was a wealthy merchant, a Burgess of Trade for the city of Aberdeen, Scotland — a self-made success who had started out as a humble seller of stockings and built up a considerable fortune for himself and his family.

Even in the puritanical 1700s, he was a forward-thinking man who insisted that both his sons and daughters were educated and independent. Elizabeth was trained in art, as well as in general subjects. When a favorite brother took up studies in botany, she soon became interested in the structure of plants. Three decades had passed since the publication of Maria Merian’s work on butterfly metamorphosis, and Elizabeth would have been aware of the celebrated German-born botanical illustrator. The world seemed full of possibilities.

And then Alexander Blackwell came into her life.  A member of Aberdeen’s highest society, his father was the Rev. Thomas Blackwell the Elder, a renowned classical scholar with a long and illustrious pedigree. His brother, Thomas Blackwell the Younger, became a leading author and historian. Alexander was a brilliant young man, the pampered favorite of his stern father, and his family expected him to accomplish great things.

But Alexander, handsome and impulsive, moody and irresponsible, was an adventurer. To the dismay of both families, Alexander and Elizabeth were drawn to one another. In personality, they were not at all alike: Alexander’s biographer calls him a “charming rascal” who swung unpredictably from one outlandish scheme to the next; Elizabeth was steady and was regarded as virtuous and kind, unremarkable in appearance but naturally cheerful and gregarious. The Rev. Blackwell refused to grant his son permission to marry. He had decided to send Alexander to Sweden to study medicine — and besides, Elizabeth did not fit his strict view of an acceptable wife. Her education in art, her interest in science, and her father’s merchant-class heritage all disqualified her from becoming a suitable partner for his son.

Undeterred, the couple did what so many have done before and since: they eloped.  They were away, and married, before anyone realized they were gone.

And so it was that Elizabeth accompanied her husband to Sweden, where he excelled (for awhile, at least) in his medical studies. His instructors considered him a genius. But his usual restlessness made him impatient, and he decided he had enough training. Without actually attaining his doctor’s credentials, he abruptly returned to Scotland and began practicing medicine. Within months, local authorities demanded he produce proof that he was a trained physician — so he packed up his wife and fled to London. Soon he was working as a proofreader in a large printing house.

Printing was regulated closely in those days, and all legitimate printers had to complete a seven-year apprenticeship and receive an official charter before going into the business. Alexander ignored the law, opened his own unlicensed printing house, and began attracting business away from rival printers. A reckless businessman who spent money lavishly, he eventually used up Elizabeth’s pre-marriage savings and then borrowed against future earnings. Several years passed and while they slowly sank deeper into debt, Elizabeth gave birth to four babies. Three died, but a little son survived. Somehow, Elizabeth never lost faith in her mercurial husband.

And then everything collapsed. Angry printers made an official complaint against Alexander and his print shop was shuttered by the authorities, the presses confiscated and hauled away. The family’s meager possessions were seized and Alexander, unable to pay the enormous fines levied for the illegal operation, was sentenced to debtor’s prison. Elizabeth was left alone in London with no source of income and a baby to care for. It would have been easy, in those bleak days, to turn back toward Aberdeen and go home.

But Elizabeth would not abandon her beloved Alexander in prison, and she had the flickering spark of an idea that just possibly could catch fire and win his freedom. During the time her husband represented himself as a doctor, Elizabeth had seen that there was a great need for an up-to-date medical herbal. New therapeutic plants were constantly arriving from the New World, and doctors needed accurate information on their cultivation and uses in treatment.

She sought — and secured — a grant to allow her to begin work on a new herbal. Elizabeth rented a modest room just outside the wall of Chelsea Physic Garden, an eclectic collection of medicinal plants from around the known world, and she began her work. Most herbals were created by three to five artisans who each performed one step of the process. But with no one to help her, Elizabeth had to complete the entire process herself: For each plant, she began with detailed drawings made at the garden. Then she used a steel needle to carefully etch her drawing into the surface of a copper plate for printing, and finally she hand-colored it using watercolors. Using impossibly fine lines and great skill, she even engraved beautiful calligraphy labels and notes on the plates — each letter and flourish in reverse!  At night, she carried her drawings through the city streets to Alexander’s prison cell and he dictated Latin names, dosages and plant descriptions. Day by day, one by one, Elizabeth created 500 separate pages — each with a different and highly detailed botanical subject. The task took more than three years.

Blackwell title page
Her completed book, A Curious Herbal, was an enormous success. Elizabeth marketed the herbal in professional journals and earned the endorsement of The Royal College of Physicians, a rare and wonderful accomplishment. It was praised by apothecaries and botanists. A savvy businesswoman, she negotiated deals with booksellers while retaining valuable rights to future publication of her work. Best of all, she paid off all Alexander’s fines and settled his debts. He was a free man.

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Unfortunately, his years in prison had not dampened the adventurer’s appetite for getting into legal trouble. Within five years of his release, Alexander’s lavish spending and a string of bad business decisions saddled the Blackwells with a fresh burden of debt. Elizabeth reluctantly sold most of her publication rights to raise enough money to give her husband a chance at another fresh start.

Ever charming, with an uncanny ability to impress strangers, Alexander arranged a position as a court physician to the royal family of Sweden. (Conveniently, he failed to mention that he was a medical school dropout.) He sailed away with a promise to send for Elizabeth as soon as possible. She remained in London, managing a small income from continued reprints of her popular herbal — and faithfully continued to send a portion to Alexander every month, knowing that he was often out of money.

What happened next is recorded in several versions, depending on the age of the account. The story appears in letters and journals from the late 1700s and early 1800s, and in historical references from the beginning of the 20th Century. Scottish historians tell the story differently from the way it is remembered by Swedish or English writers. But the general facts are these:

Alexander somehow inserted himself into a shady conspiracy to alter the line of succession to the Swedish throne. And, reckless as always, he was caught. As far as anyone afterward could see, there was no financial gain to be had — but playing an important role in a secret plot would have appealed to his sense of importance. And it would have been a grand adventure. There were international implications involving Denmark and the British royal family, so Alexander had committed a terrible crime.

Unsuspecting, Elizabeth was at last preparing to make the journey to join her husband. She had booked passage and was concluding her business in London when the news was announced: Alexander Blackwell had been executed for treason.*

Self-assured to the very last, Alexander joked with the crowd who awaited his beheading. After he placed his head wrong upon the block, he joked that he required instruction from the executioner from since it was his first experience with decapitation.

Elizabeth fades from sight that year, invisible from written history as most women were during that period. We know that she did not return to Aberdeen, but remained in London near the garden where she created her masterpiece. Successive reprints of her herbal provided a modest living, and she was surrounded by friends she had made during her years of botanical labor. There is no record of what happened to her young son, but we know that Elizabeth died in 1758 and is buried in the churchyard at Chelsea Old Church.

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Her beautiful herbal continued to be a valuable reference long after Elizabeth’s death. An edition was published in Latin. A major reissue in German was undertaken near the end of the century. English botanist Sir Joseph Banks brought his copy of A Curious Herbal on a 1768 South Seas expedition with Captain James Cook. The herbal was still a popular medical book well into the first decade of the 1800s. It was reprinted in a limited edition in the 20th Century.

Today, you can turn the pages of A Curious Herbal and see Elizabeth’s finely drawn botanicals online by visiting the book’s page at the British Library website:http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/blackwells/accessible/introduction.html

The scanned images of the herbal used in this post were provided by biodiversitylibrary.org.

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*A conflicting account describes Elizabeth actually arriving in Sweden, encountering what seemed to be a festival of some sort in the city. Arriving in the public square, she learned that the crowds were gathered to witness Alexander’s execution. I have not been able to find reliable evidence for this story.

Dragonfly days


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sample sketch dragonfly

I always think of my mom when I draw dragonflies — she loved them. She had dragonfly scarves, dragonfly jewelry, dragonfly garden art. A writer, she doodled tiny dragonflies in the margins of her notebooks. During the last week of her life, when she could no longer leave her bed, the biggest dragonfly I’ve ever seen landed on her windowsill and stayed for hours.

So, when I was looking for an insect subject to demonstrate drawing on earth-stained paper, I naturally thought of dragonflies. This fellow is drawn with just two colored pencils, a black and a white, but the warmth and complexity of the stained paper makes him so much more. He’s part of a demo video for my Botanical Sketchbook Painting class, which gets under way on Tuesday. I can’t wait!