Experimental landscapes II: St Abb’s Head

Arriving at St Abb’s Head, I began an experimental approach suggested by tutor, Greg Poole. The overall purpose is to mess with your head and warp your cognition as you transfer observation to page. I took a page and folded it thus:

Imagine this folded into a book, with the spine on the left and pages still uncut. I numbered each panel, as a book, from front, one, two through to the back. The idea then was to draw each landscape on a double page of the book … but remember that unfolded, each of this pair was disconnected from the other. Regrettably, after three panels, I became hyper self-critical and abandoned this.

Still, I keep thinking on how to do this again. A key aim was to make us think about edges. In sketching nesting kittiwakes on page 1 and 2, one bird crosses from one panel to the next, but each was drawn separately.

They don’t quite match in the middle, but that is the point. Drawing each panel knowing it had to extend to the next meant I did not frame my picture neatly within my rectangle. My visual narrative thus extends to the rest of the world.

Greg is an interesting and insightful artist and tutor. In a very informal course structure, he kept me thinking.


St Abbs Head: Experimental landscape I

St Abbs Head is a majestic torn and contorted precipice colonised by kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills among others. I was somewhat overawed, perched myself looking down onto the cliffs with birds soaring out to sea and returning to their nests. I attempted a technique I’d used before but never outdoors: layers of charcoal, gouache and pastel, seeking textures and colours emerging from greys.

This approach works by building layer after layer, allowing these to dry over days, permitting time to look and think. As an open air sketch, it risks being crude and overworked, making texture for its own sake.

That same day we were scheduled to take the boat to Fidra to draw the nesting birds there. The first landing party had left and we stood on the quay waiting for the boat to return for us. It seemed a long time. Here’s a page from my pocket book of Fidra through the telescope.

Actually, the boat had grounded, wrecking its steering gear. Our colleagues who had landed had to be rescued by the RNLI lifeboat. That’s why we ended up at St Abb’s Head for the remainder of the day.

Interestingly, it is claimed that Fidra was the geographic inspiration for Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I have previously illustrated a scene from that book: a high basaltic plug stands proud behind a marsh from which birds rise in alarm at the sounds of foul murder. I’d used the layered charcoal and gouache and ink approach step wise over some weeks.


What else is watching the kittiwakes?

An old man passed me as I sat on the harbour side. “You painting? Ach! Just painting seagulls.”

I am watching and drawing kittiwakes nesting in clefts up the castle wall.

On the top of the castle and on roofs of houses and balancing on the wind are the seagulls, herring gulls. They are watchful and waiting. Sometimes kittiwake chicks fall. Sometimes kittiwake nests are unguarded.

The herring gulls also have mouths to feed. They nest on rocks outside the harbour, beaten by the sea. Their chicks are larger, more mobile than those of kittiwakes, small downy dinosaurs on their scaly legs, stretching their nascent wings.

These were drawn at the end of the week-long seabird painting course. I had changed my approach, working larger size and with charcoal to speedily mark down shape and tone of moving birds. I was trying now to watch for a number of seconds, close my eyes and retain the image and draw from that, rather than attempt to copy directly.