Do the dead know what time it is?

That’s the title of the track I’m listening to.  Kenneth Patchen was perhaps best described as a Beat poet. On this track he speaks over jazz accompaniment.  I can’t close down the computer until the track finishes.  Go on Spotify and listen … really.

These are accumulated doodles done on the ipad.



mmm – I wonder what you make of these.  I’m not sure myself.



finger painting, no mess.

experimenting in charcoal and gouache

A week ago, I began a life drawing in charcoal on rough watercolour paper.  It proved difficult to build the contrasts because the tooth grabbed the grains and prevented me lifting tones with putty.  So I painted over it with gouache.

In retrospect, I needed to use more white in the mix or dilute the pure colours more.  However, I liked the graininess of the charcoal showing though the paint.  These next doodles were done later to explore these effects.



I was aiming for subtlety of colour, retaining the charcoal tones.  I based the second pair of doodles on a photograph in a book on the siege of Stalingrad.

I went prepared to use this approach in life drawing yesterday.  However, I followed instructions, painting the paper a mid tone to start, then building the picture with gouache white highlights then deeper grey dark tones before drawing into this with pastels and finally charcoal to give depth to the shadows.  I didn’t have time to re-model her torso properly.

I’ve begun to make more self-conscious use of warm and cool colouring to suggest depth.


I painted this a few months back.  I began with water in the middle of the page and dropped ink for the fun of watching it spread and then dry, pulled to the edge of the shape.  I dragged a brush through it and built in the colour and lines, taking my rhythms from the sounds of Philip Glass’ dance pieces “In the Upper Room”.

In our bodies, in the tissues, are cells sampling and consuming  the detritus of life.  On meeting a microbial threat or cellular damage, they undergo a radical change, migrating and activating so that on reaching their destination they spread out thousands of tiny dendritic tendrils to contact the many soldiers of the immune system.  They have taken up, processed and now present fragments of the threatening material along with signals to say … get angry.

We can harness these dendritic cells to fight cancer.


watching the dinosaurs

Over more than a century dinosaurs have become ingrained within our culture. Even if your acquittance with them is limited to Jurassic Park and reading to your children, you can name iconic dinosaurs: tyrannosaurus. velociraptor and … well you know, those long-necked herbiverous ones … I set out to sketch grazing geese in response to this post in  “Tetrapod Zoology” Sauropods were the really big dinosaurs, many tens of tons, held up on on four pillar-like legs.  They all had small heads on long necks.  Check out Mark Witton’s artwork on that post showing a herd of Diplodicus at a water hole.

What made the sauropods (diplodocus, brachiosaurus, apatosaurus and the rest) such successful dinosaurs over millions of years and how did they get so big? Some of their critical features are shared with their kin, the birds: highly efficient lungs incorporating air cavities in bones, a fast metabolism, warm bloodedness and egg laying.  They produced many small offspring and grew very fast.  Growth was obviously not limited to a single season and predator pressure must have advantaged gigantism (I think birds, by contrast, pretty much reach adult size  in a season and parental care plus flight are quite different ways to escape predators that largely do not drive size selection).

Why all sauropods had long necks is clearly controversial among scientists.  One hypothesis brought to my mind similarities with many birds.  Geese have small heads on long necks.  They do not chew their food.  Birds have a gastric mill, grinding food with swallowed stones.  Sauropods certainly did not chew but there’s not evidence for a gastric mill.  Their great bulk would have housed guts like vast fermentation tanks to release nutrients from the ingested vegetation.  It is common place to watch geese walk, stop, graze in an arc and walk on again.  A long neck allows harvesting from a wide area without moving the body’s bulk.  Perhaps a similar strategy in sauropods was a critical factor in enabling gigantism because for a very large animal it reduced the cost of accelerating and stopping to feed.

The geese here by the way are the common greylag, apparently the source stock of the farmyard animal.  They are dismissed even by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as being uninspiring.  I don’t think so.  I watched this group feed across a flooded gravel pit. My field sketches were limited but I took photographs.  These I later worked up into a charcoal drawing and finally added colour with chalk pastels.


getting colour to work

Previously, I’ve sloshed on water and acrylic ink to create my initial drawing and underpainting of tones.  I redefined the forms by  overpainting.  I changed the tonal balance with opaque white.   On this inked sketch, I placed colour with gouache or watercolour.  Sometimes this worked but often no shapes emerged and it was a mess.  I posted the better ones of course.

However, at the end of last year, I tried to work more systematically, with a pencil sketch setting out the forms and then layering in the watercolour.  But I have no system, no sense of direction.  What happens is more by accident than judgement.  I have perhaps lost spontaneity but not yet gained better control of the medium.

This week I restart life drawing classes (actually last week but I had a deadline to hit, defending a grant that supports us developing a cancer vaccine).   If anyone has comments or advice, it is really most welcome.

landscape sketches

I carry a pocket sized sketchpad and a pencil when out walking.  I make notes on landscape for paintings, few of which come to fruition.  These sketches come from Flamborough Head on the Yorkshire coast a couple of years ago.

Further inland is the spectacular natural amphitheatre, the Hole of Horcum.

Much further south in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, I was struck by the light glowing through and reflected from the vegetation – hard to capture in pencil.

Here was an attempt to show the colours while they were still fresh in my mind.  The featureless orange ground was in reality formed from rust coloured bracken – I have lost its texture.  I was most interested to show the transitional luminosity in the mid ground bushes – the upper parts glowing from the evening sunlight, the bases already shrouded in the dusk.

I admire gardeners and sculptors

To draw or paint with a really big palette.  That’s impressive and a skill I’ve never mastered.

I found my way  to the blog The Iris and the Lily.  There are beautiful photographs here, most recently of butterflies.  However, what caught my eye was the labyrinth Although the scale is different, this line in stone brought to my mind the sculpture of Andy Goldsworthy in Grizedale Forest in Cumbria, “taking a wall for a walk”.

Many years ago I came across a photograph in a scientific journal of leaves floating in an iced pool.  I was so struck I had to commit it to paint.

This was of course a photograph of famous sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy in which maple leaves were hand stitched into a mat draping the landscape.

Drawing birds in the field

Birds have long fascinated me as subjects for art, but I painted from photographs, not observation. About four years ago I bought a telescope and started to draw from life.  I had been taught to use a microscope – look with my left eye and draw using my right – so this is what I do.  I am experimenting with techniques.

Most straightforward is a simple pencil sketch, sometimes with a splash of watercolour over it.

I am picking the water birds abundant in the West Midlands.  I’m interested in movement and shape, not in rarity.  Drawing with ink directly into water pooled on the paper sometimes works.

These common birds show a range of interesting behaviours.  Preening creates a fascination of surfaces.

Working fast in colour to capture the moment is challenging.

Two major challenges for me are, first, to get a sense of the animal moving through its environment.  The second is to rapidly sketch the patterns made by birds moving and roosting in groups.

Other field sketches of birds have been included in previous posts:

I am applying for a course to develop my field drawing skills.  Fingers crossed – oversubscribed and many good artists applying.





not cute

When we depict wildlife, we cannot help burdening them with our stories and feelings.  Animals are often sentimentalised or romanticised as cute or noble.  I view animals through the prism of evolution, which encapsulates both drama and majesty.

Nonetheless, sometimes animals can carry a very human narrative when the scale of events is otherwise too vast to comprehend.  Wojtek the bear was first a mascot then a serving soldier with the Polish 22nd Transport Company.  His story, at least for some years, was one of comradeship: play wrestling, drinking beer, eating lighted cigarettes and ultimately working, human fashion, alongside the men.

The human story is of a country torn asunder by invasion and many thousands taken prisoner to the gulags.  Freed when their captors were themselves invaded and became their allies, Polish units made their way to Iran (where they acquired a bear cub) then through the Middle East and eventually to the liberation of Italy during 1944.