Hope’s Starlings – Murmurations

This painting of starlings has been used as the cover art for the indie/folk album Murmurations. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA I created random effects with paint drying slowly under cellophane then worked back into this with deeper tones. murmuration 1 I had several attempts at depicting this idea.  In the version above, the blocks of swaying rushes were formed by tensing the cellophane vertically in the lower section and the murmuration shapes came from pulling the upper part horizontally. I used wax resist on the murmuration to create granularity from beading of subsequent layers of drying paint. This painting is used on the inside cover of the album. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA In these first attempts, I had tried to paint in each bird individually, though this loses the sense of coordination of the flock.  Details from the painting below front the album insert and intersperse the lyrics. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA I have played Hope’s Starlings to and from work these last few days since singer songwriter Kate Sutherland sent me the albums.  This is an all female group, mostly singing unaccompanied or with gentle drum rhythm.  The sense of the album is of an ageless female spirituality rooted in the natural world.  It dragged out of my memory a similar use of pared down lyrics and minimal accompaniment to reach towards spiritual expression, albeit in a more overtly religious setting.

Complex systems

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This weekend, I have been thinking about complex adaptive systems.

Wikipedia tells me that complex adaptive systems contain multiple diverse interacting components and that the system is structured such that it adapts and learns from experience.  At least, it appear to learn.  The system is not conscious or reflective on its experience.  An ecosystem can be seen as a complex adaptive system.

In a cancer, the malignant cells are themselves diverse: some dividing, others resting; some forming a tumour, others infiltrating adjacent tissues, others again invading blood vessels and migrating.  Then there are the array of non-malignant cells: those forming blood vessels; inflammatory cells responding as if this were a healing wound; immune cells perhaps recognising and killing cancer cells, perhaps exciting such killer cells, perhaps damping the immune response.  All these various cells are in communication with each other, sending short range messages by direct contact or chemical signals.  This complex adaptive system is called the immune microenvironment of the cancer.

I am not prone to hyperbole.  Still, I think we* sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated, using new drugs to manipulate the immune microenvironment of cancers.  The drugs are becoming available.  The challenge is to understand the immune microenvironment sufficiently so we use the drugs effectively.

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This piece started with a layer of charcoal, the images driven by recent reading and current music.  I tore into the dampened paper creating highlights and texture.  This was then obscured by layers of gouache and acrylic paint, allowing charcoal and sea salt to disperse slowly, suspended in the very wet washes.   After a week or so looking at it, turning it one way and another, eventually I saw in it a narrative suggesting a complex system.


*”we sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated” – by “we” I mean the worldwide cancer community – patients, carers, researchers, clinicians, health care providers, research institutions, industry and those who commission and fund cancer care

Concealed heron

concealed heron

I cycled down to the nature reserve and  drew for a couple of hours, for the first time in a few months.  These sketches are below and on the previous post.  I painted the watercolour the same evening based on my sketch, my memory and crude shots taken with my phone pointed down the telescope.  The important components are the dark shadows and bright highlights on the reeds and long grass.  I started with too much raw sienna and had to claw back the white paper with a knife.  I might try this composition again, and if so, will reserve large chunks of white paper from the start.

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Energy III

In June, I spent a morning on the rocky island of Fidra.  A worn paved roadway, with rail tracks and rusting winding gear, rises from the small harbour to the lighthouse.  Everywhere are herring gulls, and at that time, herring gull chicks. Though we saw they cannibalised their own, we were careful where we trod and stayed still for long periods to minimise the disturbance.

Here I sat on the path looking down on the gulls hanging on the wind over the Forth and the mainland beyond.

Gulls hanging in the wind

Gulls hanging in the wind

This version has been edited, bringing in warm colours in the foreground and working, and reworking the gulls the achieve contrast.  I scraped away the line of rock in the mid ground on the left.

Field sketch - Fidra

Field sketch – Fidra

Part way through, I was bombed by a gull, on my hat and scoring a direct hit on the paper.  Interestingly, the guano forms a resist, scattering the paint in a lively way at certain points in the picture.

Greg Poole had pointed out how the rocks on the left seemed stuck to the wall that in reality was in front and higher.  He asked whether I needed to connect this spur to the island with paint, however it appeared to the eye.

However, his key comments were on how the energy flowed through the composition.

Energy flows in composition

These were the comments:

As I painted to the edge of the paper or to the clips holding it to the board, I pulled back the brush (open arrows).  This loses the connection of the subject to its surroundings and dissipates the energy of the composition.  Interestingly, the large blank spaces at both bottom corners hold the picture’s energy because the brush strokes are moving to the centre from the edge (solid arrows) though again perhaps I should have continued the strokes to the lower edge.  Of course I can crop the picture, but even then the strokes within the retained picture have been restrained and diminished.

Energy II

Pencil on cartridge paper, plus watercolour wash.  Bass Rock 18/06/2013

Pencil and conte crayon on cartridge paper, plus watercolour wash. Bass Rock 18/06/2013

As I start to write this post, on the iPlayer, Lianne la Havas is playing Glastonbury.  The camera pans across the crowd and drops down on a bloke drawing, I catch a glimpse of her body and guitar in black marker on paper.  That is a moment of drawing energy.

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Last week, my second day on Bass Rock, I set out to spend the first hour or so catching the movement of the birds preening, displaying and fighting.  I switched between pencil and a rollerball pen on smooth paper to make those marks fast.

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Here I have commented:

Quadrapeds!  Using wings as legs to brace themselves on the ground to wrestle.  Blood drawn.  Exhausted after.  Groups of up to 5 gannets join the fight, tumbling over the rocks.

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It is one of the tutors, Greg, who comments on another kind of energy within the drawn page.  I just spatter drawings across the paper according to where there is space but the drawings do not relate to each other.

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I am still struggling to get Greg’s point.  Is this energy like the organisation of frames in a graphic novel but without the sketches following a narrative?  Perhaps it is similar to the organisation within technical diagrams or on a mind map: cognition expressed on paper.   Perhaps this is more like poetry on paper: no overall composition in the linked sketches yet together they have a dynamic just as sounds might be linked into a whole despite not because of their meaning.

Capturing the shape of the gannet's head.

Capturing the shape of the gannet’s head.

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After this was said, I began to see that others on the course were doing this as their natural way of drawing.  I do not.  This is another challenge.

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This last painting had another energy.  The wind picked up in the afternoon scattering months of fallen feathers, dust and dried guano in all directions, onto paper, into paint, into hair, clothes and mouths.  Some of the texture above comes from this detritus incorporated into the washes.

The swell built below us in the Firth.  After hurried mobile calls, it became clear that if we did not leave now, we would not leave that day, and even now our boat would not be able to come in to pick us up.  Fortunately, the “rib” inflatable craft from the Scottish Seabird Centre was more robust.  It lay lower in the water than the steps from the platform, so we each had to leap with our gear, timing this with the swell.


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.

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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.

After the dance II

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Until I started watching, I never saw Black Headed Gulls.  Now I can see them, I see them everywhere on any open water.  They bob on the surface, like balancing bananas.  To my eyes, they wear an expression of bemused surprise.

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In April, they court, dropping their heads and arching their necks downwards, half opening their wings making a heart shape when viewed from behind.

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Now the colony is guarding and feeding the stumbling chicks.


This is a collection of graphite sketches over the past few weeks.

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After the dance

When I chanced upon and illustrated this ballet clip, I was already thinking about courtship through dance.  In late April I observed the final act of the ritual between a pair of mating grebes, but looking at the birding websites, I think the dancing had gone on through March.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself opposite a grebe nest with two chicks and remaining eggs unhatched.

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The male returned periodically and fed the chicks with feathers.  In so  far as I can tell, this serves as a stomach lining, protecting against the sharp chitinous exoskeletons in the infant diet.  The chicks took frequent outings on the mother’s back or struggled to hide beneath her wings when she was sitting.

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The following week, they had all moved on.

I have illustrated grebes previously.

Distant buzzard

I am always excited to see a predator.  On this day, I watched a peregrine recovering height following (I am told by the person who first spotted it) a failed dive onto a curlew.

In a distant tree, through the scope, I watched a roosting buzzard.

Hams Hall Buzzard (3)

Hams Hall Buzzard

I am working on my field technique, capturing the jizz of the bird.  This experiment in wash and conti pencil was from memory.

Hams Hall Buzzard (4)

And these sketches were done quickly from photographs on the Birdguides site in an attempt to simulate direct observation, exploring the rapid use of line and wash.

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Cormorants: afternoon light

So, after many weeks of famine, yesterday I feasted. Overwhelmed by a grant application that consumed every possible hour, I had not cycled or painted or drawn birds from life for many weeks. My one effort had been the random doodle posted about ten days ago: about an hour’s work but remarkably striking a chord with several people. Anyway, this weekend, in bright early spring sunshine, I spent hours cycling and watching and painting. I felt very rusty (as well as out of condition) from sitting long at the computer.

This was the last piece of the afternoon. Through the scope, I was caught by this composition: groups of birds on a stony bar in the flooded gravel pit, with the sun catching the reeds behind. Above this was a pile of large sawn trunks and in the distance a dense green grey shadow of tall trees streaked by the faint shapes of their bare branches. I made several attempts, irritated by my lack of skill, increasingly cold and stiff and working awkwardly with bars of sunlight alternating with shadow across the paper. Defeated, i set off for home, but finished this later in the warmth.

Despite all that, I think the original pleine air sketch had something that has perhaps been lost by the later reworking.