Linocut: guillemot assembly

Last weekend I was back at Birmingham Printmakers, cheerfully learning the techniques of suicidal linocutting from Jacqui Dodds and Christine Bradshaw.

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I had done a tonal drawing sitting on the cliff top at St Abbs in June.  I had had the idea from the start about using this as the template for a print.  I wanted to use the blue as the mid tone for both the darks of the birds’ uppers and the shadows of the white underparts.

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I mixed a light blue ink for the first cut.  On reflection, I think I should have cut more white into the foreground and allowed the background to recede in the mid-ground blue.

For the second cut, I mixed a reddish brown which darkened when overlaid onto the blue.

When the third layer in black went on, it was like magic, suddenly pulling the whole piece together.

I’ll add a plug for my hosts.  The Birmingham Printmakers are celebrating 30 years of existence with an exhibition in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.   It’s very good though I was dragged around rather rapidly by my impatient children.

Thanks Jacqui and Christine.  I’m looking forward to joining BPM and doing more of this.

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.

Appartement II: pas de deux

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There is a grittiness, an edge, a rawness to this short clip of ballet.  It is not what you might call pretty.   This is courtship and it is about sex.

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These pencil and charcoal studies are derived from this clip from the Mats Ek ballet with the haunting strings of Fläskkvartetten (Innocent from Pärlor Från Svin).

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.

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

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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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Last week’s birds

I started in charcoal and with a snipe that was conveniently sheltering in reeds close to the hide. As the stiffness eased in my hand and brain, I could switch to watercolour.
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cormorant - watercolour

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Meanwhile, I have finally fixed my home computer so it connects to the internet (it involved scouring the drive for remnants of an anti-viral program that spookily had itself become malign).  The first installment of our cancer vaccine trial is published and this week I am hiding to write the next manuscripts, to walk and paint.


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.





Fishers – homage to JB (I)

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I was in Edinburgh last month to give a talk on Merkel cell cancer.  While there I wandered into the Scottish National Gallery and the exhibition of the paintings of John  Bellany.  The body of work is overwhelming.  Huge canvases, many made of several joined panels.  As a student he made ends meet gutting fish in the industrial fisheries.  The imagery of working men and dismembered fish becomes a theme throughout his work.   In Kinlochbervie, though we see only 10, there is a strong evocation of the Last Supper.  In Allegory this link of the fishery to Christian mythology is even stronger with three haddock carcases of nailed up in the foreground and the boat masts and crowds behind like soldiers with their spears. There is nothing new in the fish-messiah metaphor dating from the acronym ICTHUS as code for a persecuted religion and the frequent use of fish in gospel stories.  Here Bellany re-uses this metaphor in a gritty industrial setting.  Bethel and The Obsession follow a shared structure with strange tube-like men set upon a stage against sea and sky.  Something in these latter paintings was reminiscent of photographs I have seen of great sculpted people  set looking out to sea on Easter Island.

This is the beginning of an idea: developing the sketches of cormorants to a full painting of the birds standing tall and lined up at the water’s margin, like icons or idols, carved monuments as much as living birds.  Here then are the first sketches.

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This is a collation of the field sketches (most posted before) from which I am working.  Snow is limiting access to do more this weekend.

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Finally, all credit to the BBC for systematically making the nation’s art available on line.  That license – worth every penny.

A bittern in the dusk

After an hour or so painting, I was packing my materials away with icy hands.  There were several cars in the reserve but I had seen no one about.  A newcomer arrived.  “Is it still there? he asked.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  He led me to the one patch where the birders had gathered, concealed, and directed my scope to a shadow in the reeds.  I made out a broad based triangle in the fading light.  As it moved and then stretched I saw the brown and white  striped plumage of a bittern.  I had known they were resident, but had never seen it before.  I paint the common birds and have not skill to spare to hunt down and draw those that hide from me.  Still, now I know where to look …

Wigeon roosting

Here then are the quick sketches of the birds I commonly see.  Wigeon were in abundance and in plain sight.  The solitary heron stood opposite the hide, then stalked off round the water’s edge.

2013 01 13 Marsh Lane (7) Heron stalking the marsh edge

I am by the way most grateful for the generous and infectious excitement of the birder who dragged me to the spot and pointed me in the right direction.


The small river Blythe has burst its banks and flooded its flanking meadows, rushing under and around the old packhorse bridge. The water was high in the Marsh Lane reserve, swamping the small islands which usually host roosting waterfowl.

I painted this last of all, as the light faded, by the end in near darkness in the hide.  On someone’s blog recently (forgive me for not remembering whose) I liked the texture of conte crayon under watercolour and tried this here.

Railway bridge in fading light

Before that I had sketched birds for about an hour.  Most prominent were cormorants perched  on what was left of an island, surrounded by wigeon making an eery piping sound in the gathering dusk.

I tried to focus on simple gestural brush strokes, capturing the bulk of the neck and shoulders as they stretched and preened.  I mixed a neutral of ultramarine and variously burnt umber or burnt sienna (note that the scanner has rather accentuated the component pigments).  I could not resist going back and drawing into the paint but should have known better.  In the damp air, dry time was prolonged.  My careful strokes oozed into the mass of underling paint and both the detail and the spontaneity of the initial strokes were dispersed.

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I feel this year has been a journey in terms of my drawing from life.  In particular, when I was on the Seabird Painting Course in June, I felt clumsy.  I carried too much kit but had no consistency or comfort in its use.  Now I have pared down my field equipment, using a limited palette of tube watercolours and relying mainly on squirrel mops that deliver large strokes that respond to the touch and come to a fine line.  I keep to rough paper, often using better quality surfaces like Arches as here.  I carry a small tin with a few sticks of charcoal, pencils and a black conte crayon and use these especially for fast notes and for my first sketches to loosen up.