Kestrel art

It is a remarkable thing, simply to stand on a ledge 40 feet down the cliff face, with another 60 foot drop beneath, and almost share the volume with the birds.  White kittiwakes wheel and soar, playing on the air currents, beneath and above and at eye level.  Far below, tiny black purposeful guillemots fly fast-winged, insect-like, direct from the sea to the rocks.  Something breaks this pattern about 20 feel below me.  I see first something smaller than a gull, brown, launching from an inland ledge, flying seaward across the inlet to a high stack.  I lose it, until again it flies across the chasm to the opposing face.  After a few minutes it completes the triangle back to its starting place.

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I watched through binoculars.  My notes say, 16/7/14 St Abbs Head kestrel seen last night and today.  Flies from cliff to cliff.  This time carrying a small mammal.  Calls, then eats, standing on prey, ripping.  Then carefully places prey on shelf of rock and cleans beak on foliage before flying off.  Defaecates while eating.

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I had not expected to see this common falcon here, on a sea cliff.  When I first looked, I thought I might instead see a peregrine.  I am not sure where it was hunting – despite searching, I never saw them hanging on the breeze over the pastures just inland of the cliffs.  Over the next two days I regularly saw a pair flying their triangle across this inlet.  The male has grey plumage.  This was the female.

Some birds I drew

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The title of the post is credited to a comment made by artist Nancy Farmer on a recent post.

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These drawings were made in ink, with water to create the tones, in an A5 sketchpad.

I stood on a narrow spit of grass-covered rock with steep drops on either side.  Kittiwakes wheeled above me, at eye level and far below.  Much of the time the birds flew so close that I could draw directly without binoculars.

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Many birds were returning to their nests and partners, with ululating greetings by both parties.

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Others seemed to be riding the rollercoaster of the air, mostly gliding, with only a few downbeats of the outer parts of the wings.

They circled fast, away from the cliff.  Then turning in, they descended, dropping their legs and splaying their toes to use as airbrakes as, perilously, they neared the rock face. There, rising air gave them lift. Gaining height but slowing, they turned and accelerated, soaring out to repeat the manoeuvre.

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I had to watch and watch again, trying to fix their shapes in my mind.  It seemed that the white body and head was suspended beneath the rigid plane of the wing, reminiscent of a hang glider or a Cessna light aircraft.

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I found I was drawing rhomboids, one for the inner wing, made up of the arm and secondary flight feathers, and another for the outer surface made of the fingers and primary feathers.  These moved and changed shapes in relation to each other through the cycle of soaring, wheeling and braking.

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And always there was the noise of the onomatopoeic kittiwakes.

Staple Rock

At St Abbs Head, the rounded cliff tops fall away into grass-covered, steep inclines, which drop straight down to the rock-strewn sea.  Looking from on high, it appears that the sharp blade of Staple Rock is suspended over the waves, hanging there ready to drop and cut the sea in half.  A scramble down the scree allows access to a lower platform.  From this view point, the triangular stack is firmly rooted, its base visible through the water.

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I covered board with charcoal and clawed back the tones and shapes first with my fingers and then with water and finally with layers of white acrylic.  I poured sepia calligraphic ink onto the central mass, squirted it from the water bottle and rocked the board until the ink settled and dried in the sun.  The darker tones were mixtures of sepia and paynes grey inks or charcoal.  Lastly, I used watercolour over the various tones created by acrylic white and charcoal for the sea and sky, grass and flowers, and the receding stained rocks at the back.

The distant sea was teeming with moving white specks, distant feeding gannets, added with a shake of the brush.

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Here are the preliminary sketches from the same day, made first in ink lines, liberated with water to create the tones, and then in freehand watercolour.

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I sat on a grassy dome of ancient lava, ate a mutton pie and painted this small sketch. In the left corner is Pettico Wick, the little harbour marking the transition between the hard igneous cap of St Abbs Head and the softer sedimentary rocks making up most of the coast line.

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Along this coast are cliffs made of high angled slabs of layered rock.  These layers were laid flat during the Silurian period more than 400 million years ago when fish first developed jaws and land became clothed in plants.  What is so striking here is that these layers have been contorted and tightly folded by unimaginable forces, affecting the shapes of the overlying grassy slopes.

I drew this in indelible ink before washing over watercolour.  Below are fast line drawings as I tried to get a sense of the scenery.

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My knowledge of the geology comes from monographs called the Coastal Geomorphology of Great Britain.

Collision landscape

I stood on the road a few hundred yards inland from St Abbs head, leaning against a gate.  The land rolled downhill in front of me.  The line of trees marked the position of Mire Loch, a thin strip of water sitting on the fault line between the ancient layered soft rocks and the buttress of volcanic rock that now protects them against the sea’s battering.   At the very left of this sketch is the little bay of Pettico Wick from where the road ascends again up the headland.

What I wanted to convey is the irregular lumpiness of the far landscape, built on petrified lava.

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Incidentally, my activities were of great interest to a herd of bullocks who wandered over to try to lick the paints, belch gently through the barred gate and generally obscure my view.

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This second sketch was executed a few days earlier at the opposite end of Mire Loch to Pettico Wick. There is a conscious change of technique between the two paintings.  For the second one, I used a waterproof Indian Ink marker to better define the masses and demarcations.  This freed me up to construct with areas of unpainted white paper.   Unlike a careful pencil drawing, which carries the option of erasing over and again, the pen still requires commitment to the marks once they are made.

By the way, Maxine Dodd is using currently fast drawn lines and watercolour to capture images of the Tour de France, an approach I much admire.



Pettico Wick

St Abbs sits on the right shoulder of Britain, just below where the landmass tapers to a narrow neck and is topped by the head, which is the bulk of Scotland.  It is a headland of high cliffs.  In the summer, the precipices host colonies of breeding kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills.  For this painting, I was sitting high up on cliff tops at St Abbs, looking northwest to where land curves round out of sight to the nuclear power station and Dunbar, on to the mouth of the Firth of Forth and then to Edinburgh.

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One evening last week, I walked 20 yards off road to Pettico Wick, a small bay at the north east of the headland.  Suddenly, a story  jumped out at me, a narrative of lifeless depths and sudden fiery violence.

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This is the first drawing I did, as usual using pen and ink and water on the fairly resistant paper in the Moleskine sketchbook. It has been adjusted using the “glow” filter on the photoshop app.

What I tried to show is the bay and sea, with a jetty stretching from land to slide beneath the water.   To my left are the regular layers of sedimentary rocks sloping down into the sea. These are formed of compacted silt, mud or of greywacke, a term for irregularly sized mineral granules set in a fine clay-like matrix. These rocks  fracture with simple percussion.  In front, only a hundred yards away are sea stacks formed of amorphous dysplastic lavas, the same stuff that forms the right hand cliffs.   These rocks are much harder and resist the limited force I can bring to bear.

The original sketch is below.

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It was obvious that in this small bay, I sat on a boundary marking ancient cataclysms.

I now know that the rocks on my left were laid down in very deep seas about 430 million years ago.  This is before our ancestral line could be dignified by the term fish.  The greywacke rock comprising mixed size rock grains is apparently formed from submarine avalanches and turbidity in the deep water of oceanic trenches or at the edges of continental shelves.  Some 15 to 30 million years later, volcanic eruption sent lava flowing in various directions.   This was at a time when fish had radiated and come to dominate the seas.  The relative resistance of these hard rocks has created the headland to my right.





Marsh harrier, hunting

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A couple of weekends ago, I went early in the morning to the Bird Sanctuary at Blacktoft Sands on the Humber.  Sweeping across the reed beds with my binoculars, I chanced upon a female marsh harrier sitting just above the foliage, preening and stretching her wings.

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Periodically, she flew across the marsh, hovering and then dropping, wings above her, to snatch prey.

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10 minute sketch

I took a quick walk before breakfast, up a hill to a viewpoint looking down on the Tweed as it enters the sea. Before I reached the hill top I got caught by the light refracting through cloud over the sea, with a potato field and the herring bone pattern of tractor tyre tracks in the foreground.

I used the materials I had on me – pen, conte crayons, a few stubs of chalk pastels and water for this simple sketch.

Family Beesiness

This is my son Jon (with younger brother and sister) and his prototype affordable flatpack hive for urban beekeeping on display at the New Designers Exhibition in London last week.

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These are not in production yet – a lot more work to do to commercialise this.  However, we hope to test the prototype in our garden this summer.  His new website is called Purplewax.

The Mule is a Black Swan

Isaac Azimov guided my transition from children’s books to adult literature.

In Azimov’s Foundation novellas, mathematician Hari Seldon uses the probabilistic science of psychohistory to chart the decline of Galactic civilisation into ten thousand years of ignorance and disorder.  Seldon makes a well-placed intervention, founding a colony of archivists on the planet Terminus at the unregarded edge of the galaxy.  This becomes the Foundation, the seed from which a new civilisation is to grow, shortening the dark ages to a single millennium.

After only a few hundred years, however, enemy ships invade the home planet Terminus.  A mutant calling himself the Mule, with overwhelming psychic powers, has rapidly forged a power strong enough to overcome the Foundation.  This cataclysmic event was outside the scope of Seldon’s probability-based science to predict.

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However, Seldon had also founded, in secret, another colony.  The Second Foundation is populated by psychohistorians, trained in his science, able to predict galactic events based on a new balance of probabilities and then act to bring his planned future back on track.

Isaac Azimov has been feted for his predictions made in 1964 of our life today.  He could see forward to something like mobile phones and tablets but never predicted the internet.  In the Foundation stories, however, he captured the essence of what people later recognised in the 9/11 attack or the 2008 financial crash and called Black Swan phenomena.  Black Swan Events are outliers to any sensible informed educated probabilitstic understanding of our world.  They, by definition, have major impact but are unpredictable in any useful way.   Importantly, though, Black Swan Events will inevitably occur at some point if we wait long enough.  For the Foundation, the Mule is a Black Swan.  Seldon knows cataclysms will occur unpredictably so he builds flexible systems able to recognise and respond to such events when they occur.  By imagining Seldon, Azimov also encapsulates the concept of anti-fragility, planning resilience in the face of unpredictable events.

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There are no black swans in these illustrations, drawn at Blacktoft Sands as the rain drifted in through the ports in the sides of the bird hide.