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.
Snipe - charcoal snipe - charcoal

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.