I follow an erudite blog posted by a graduate student in zoology that mixes good science in plain language with great photos and quirky amusement.
Recently she posted about a poetical form unknown to me, the double dactyl. I got hooked trying to make one up for myself. I followed her lead, writing verse about science.
Reading this, you should be aware that three lines are each constructed of a pair of triple rhythms like “higglety pigglety” whereas the fourth line stops on the fourth, stressed, syllable. A sign of poetic failure is probably having to italicise the stressed words:
Epstein-Barr virus was
Found in a cell line that
Came from a cancer that
Grows in the jaw.
Intell’gent surgeon that
Spotted conundrum that
Chronic Plasmodium makes
Virus do more.
This relates to discoveries in the 1950s when Denis Burkitt, missionary surgeon in Uganda, biopsied the continent, probing the geographical limits of the previously unknown lymphoma that now bears his name. His prepared mind worked out that this cancer must be associated with a virus spread by an insect vector, ideas that led to Tony Epstein finding his eponymous virus within a cell line from a Burkitt’s lymphoma. Confusingly, it was then shown that the virus is ubiquitous among humans and spread in our saliva not by insects at all. Others showed that Burkitt’s lymphoma is driven by the coincidence of children acquiring Epstein Barr virus very early in life plus suffering repeated bouts of falciparum malaria (Plasmodium falciparum is of course spread by mosquitoes and wreaks enormous injury on exposed populations). So Burkitt did not fit the final pieces together but it was his enquiring mind and observation in the field that founded areas of science that have been enormously productive in understanding cancer.
Just before I started my own doctoral work in this field, I had the chance to visit Uganda. I was not painting then. Later, when I was just starting to use watercolour, I had no reference photo to remind me. Thus my painting carries my memories of where I was first based, on the shore of Lake Victoria, but I copied someone else’s composition – from a book or the net I cannot remember. From Entebbe, I flew to the West Nile (where Burkitt had made his observations some 30 years earlier) in a tiny plane through vast confectionary clouds, piloted by a slightly mad guy with a Biggles moustache. The hospital was on the Congo border by virgin jungle filled with the whoops of apes.
I pay a yearly subscription for access to a private nature reserve. Here there is a small wooded hill, largely ignored by the twitchers who congregate at the hides facing the flooded gravel pits. I am self-conscious painting in company whereas this secluded wood is free of children, walkers and dogs. This allows me to spend time just looking and experimenting in paint.
I painted this in March, weather shifting between drizzle and sleet, a dry-run perhaps before my sketches in the Yorkshire Dales later that week. At the top of the ridge, weak sunlight through the trees gave a luminous quality to the lichen covered fallen logs. My painting had elements I liked, but the woodland floor was over-painted and dull (the digital image flatters the actual painting by being back-lit on your screen). This weekend, I scraped it back with a knife, re-painted a single layer of green over the refreshed paper and brought more reds into adjacent areas for contrast.
Minds play tricks and odd thought pathways become ingrained. Each time I cut into paintings in this way, an ugly little phrase recurs in my mind: “It has been knife work up here”, a comment by the Elf Legolas in the Lord of the Rings as he reports his tally of slain orcs. I find I have sympathy for the orcs, represented as a caricature of and metaphor for the industrial working class, invading and despoiling the rural idyll, mobs marshaled by elites and slain in their thousands.
In the Yorkshire Dales recently, it came as a revelation after years of painting in the field: sketches in open air are not finished pieces. Instead, they need to contain sufficient information to complete the painting.
Sure, for some artists, the field is the studio. But this skill comes from both talent and practice. For me, standing on the edge of Hunt Pot, with the sound of tumbling water in my ears, the evening light dimming to dusk and the first specks of drizzle settling on the paper, I was liberated by the realisation that my watercolour sketch was a beginning, not an end.
The information I gathered in the field was the colour and overall composition. I could not achieve the tonal contrasts or precision of drawing that I wanted at that moment. These came later, from scraping back to white with a knife and hard eraser, and building layers of deeper colour with brush and conte crayon.
The palette is aurolean, ultramarine, phthalo blue, rose madder genuine, burnt umber and burnt sienna. Some of the deeper tones are paynes grey.