The sketch should focus not on birds alone but derive its energy from the underlying rocks and surrounding atmosphere.


This place, Bass Rock, is a basaltic plug, the core of an ancient volcano thrust up into what is now a shallow sea.  The many thousands of gannets who come here each year to breed, the predatory gulls looking to steal an egg, are mere décor on this venerable surface.

Breeding colony of gannets on Bass Rock, Scotland.

Breeding colony of gannets on Bass Rock, Scotland.

This paraphrases the guidance from John Busby who brings to this subject both breadth and depth of artistic understanding. Both scientifically and artistically, we have to draw in the surroundings to animate the bird.

20130617 Bass Rock gannets 6

Charcoal sketches of gannets against the underlying limed granite.

Charcoal sketches of gannets against the underlying limed granite.

Charcoal sketches of gannets against the underlying limed granite.

Sitting surrounded by these large birds, overwhelmed by their noise and smell, it is hard to escape their essential beakiness.  This is what grabs the eye, literally if they were given the chance.

How long is a gannet's beak?  This one has morphed into a Malibou stork.

How long is a gannet’s beak? This one has morphed into a Malibou stork.

This is a fundamental error in draughtsmanship.  The beak is closer to the length of the head.

Capturing the shape of the gannet's head.

Capturing the shape of the gannet’s head.

The watercolour headlining this post was painted at the end of this first day, an attempt to decorate the rock with the nesting birds preening, displaying, defending their sites.  At home, I reworked this to get a more striking balance of tones and colours and added the many other gannets careening through the air.

This was the original.

Gannets on Bass Rock: watercolour sketch on site

Gannets on Bass Rock: watercolour sketch on site

Reflecting further, were we to imagine the landscape looking back at us, the distinction between gannet and sapient ape would be trivial, both minor variations on that recent innovation, the walking fish.  What links us, aerobic metabolism, quadrapedal morphology and the rest is greater than what divides us.  But neither ape nor bird are mere superficial dots, for both carry forward that metabolic drive, that spark of fire that first ignited in submarine fumaroles long before the Bass Rock volcano exploded and that has shaped this planet as profoundly as any other force.

16 responses to “Energy

  1. Sounds like it was a terrific workshop – loved the sketches – but really wanted to put the before and after sketch together – which I did by opening another window etc.
    There are beautiful passages within both images but I would not like to say that the latter is better. The first has some wonderful immediacy and subtle colouring whilst the second is certainly is more powerful. Would love to see both ‘in the flesh’ so to speak.

    • So after your comment I went back to look. I had felt that the field painting was too muted and wanted to strengthen the tones. In retrospect, I should have not painted in the background so heavily. Anyway, the repainting really just represents further experimentation, playing with contrasts and tones. if the picture is spoiled its no big deal. Only the second now exists of course.
      It was a great workshop.
      Thanks for calling by.

      • For me, I don’t think the background is painted too heavily. The contrast with the birds works well. Nice painting.

        As an aside, like Veronica I wanted to compare both versions of your painting. Presumably we weren’t the only ones. I will remember for my own posts to make sure I put before and after images next to each other, even if I repeat the image in the post.

        Thanks for sharing your workings!

      • Thanks for calling by.
        I will take on board the point about comparing paintings together. We all learn from each other, mistakes and all …

    • This is thought provoking. It is something like John Busby is getting at – using both a scientific understanding and an artistic appreciation of the landscape and interweaving this with the birds. Some of the others got excited on the second day, moving down the rock to the harbour platform to watch the gannets playing on the updraft as the wind picked up.
      This is definitely what I aspire to but no mean challenge.

    • Thanks. I need more confidence to see my initial sketch into completed drawings – I had abandoned these as failures at the time. Faced with the reality in front of me, I find it hard to step back enough and abstract into a drawing. Its a cognition thing and can, I think, be learned through practice.

  2. You do such wonderful work in the field, Kestralart. I admire that.
    Heads up to you on what is happening with another artist on WordPress, this month, who also works in the field, literally. Al creates sculptures from things he finds along the riverbank at Ohio Falls. His blog is featured in an art show via the computer until September 1st. You can find out more about him here:
    By leaving a comment, there, others, viewing that display, can click on it and find out what others are doing with their art on WordPress. You art would be a fascintaing addition to that show !

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