Gannets nesting on Bass Rock III

How can I give you a sense of what it means to draw on Bass Rock?

At the landing point there is the cry of a peregrine overhead.

Climbing through the ruined castle, we face down the malevolence of the watching herring gulls.

Ascending, we are forced from the path because it has been taken over by nesting gannets. Gannets nest everywhere, covering the slopes, two or three feet apart, the length of a neck and beak.

I drew this, perched myself on a ridiculous three legged stool that sank unstably into the guano enriched mud that covered the rock.

Here are other quick line sketches I did of gannets stalking past.

Gannets nesting on Bass Rock II

Exercises in rapid brush stokes as the birds shuffled and moved around their territories.

I found this a significant challenge and was full of admiration for the more confident and expressive paintings created by others there.


Gannets nesting on Bass Rock I

These are large powerful birds. When they land, there is a thud.

I sat an arms length away, one length of a wing away, a neck stretch away, a stab of that long bill away.

The sharp ammoniac smell and the clamour haunt me still.

18/06/2012 Bass Rock, Firth of Forth


Tyninghame estuary on the North Berwick coast feels like a visual treasure trove, harking back to childhood seaside holidays.

There is a wide coastal plain, strewn with rocks, draped with seaweed, pocked by pools. Gulls, waders and ducks were far off at the shore line. Sitting and concentrating, I was surprised by the gurgle and splash as the incoming tide crept close.

I found a spot to paint, my umbrella canopy lashed to my tripod, the stem in my jacket pocket, braced against the wind and drizzle. The paper was not wholly protected by this contrivance – the top spattered with droplets.

As the rain increased I sheltered beneath nearby trees. Watercolour was now impossible but I thought perhaps I might get away with chalk pastel. Interesting effects anyway.

By the way. this is my 100th post. Thank you to everyone who has stopped by to look at my art, comment and even follow this blog. It really has made a difference to how I approach this work. I enjoy looking across your art in all its diversity.

Experimental landscapes IV: St Abb’s Head

The final one in the series:

Drawn from memory, sketches and photograph on my phone.

Charcoal and white gouache, watercolour and chalk pastel.

Experimental landscapes II: St Abb’s Head

Arriving at St Abb’s Head, I began an experimental approach suggested by tutor, Greg Poole. The overall purpose is to mess with your head and warp your cognition as you transfer observation to page. I took a page and folded it thus:

Imagine this folded into a book, with the spine on the left and pages still uncut. I numbered each panel, as a book, from front, one, two through to the back. The idea then was to draw each landscape on a double page of the book … but remember that unfolded, each of this pair was disconnected from the other. Regrettably, after three panels, I became hyper self-critical and abandoned this.

Still, I keep thinking on how to do this again. A key aim was to make us think about edges. In sketching nesting kittiwakes on page 1 and 2, one bird crosses from one panel to the next, but each was drawn separately.

They don’t quite match in the middle, but that is the point. Drawing each panel knowing it had to extend to the next meant I did not frame my picture neatly within my rectangle. My visual narrative thus extends to the rest of the world.

Greg is an interesting and insightful artist and tutor. In a very informal course structure, he kept me thinking.

St Abbs Head: Experimental landscape I

St Abbs Head is a majestic torn and contorted precipice colonised by kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills among others. I was somewhat overawed, perched myself looking down onto the cliffs with birds soaring out to sea and returning to their nests. I attempted a technique I’d used before but never outdoors: layers of charcoal, gouache and pastel, seeking textures and colours emerging from greys.

This approach works by building layer after layer, allowing these to dry over days, permitting time to look and think. As an open air sketch, it risks being crude and overworked, making texture for its own sake.

That same day we were scheduled to take the boat to Fidra to draw the nesting birds there. The first landing party had left and we stood on the quay waiting for the boat to return for us. It seemed a long time. Here’s a page from my pocket book of Fidra through the telescope.

Actually, the boat had grounded, wrecking its steering gear. Our colleagues who had landed had to be rescued by the RNLI lifeboat. That’s why we ended up at St Abb’s Head for the remainder of the day.

Interestingly, it is claimed that Fidra was the geographic inspiration for Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I have previously illustrated a scene from that book: a high basaltic plug stands proud behind a marsh from which birds rise in alarm at the sounds of foul murder. I’d used the layered charcoal and gouache and ink approach step wise over some weeks.

What else is watching the kittiwakes?

An old man passed me as I sat on the harbour side. “You painting? Ach! Just painting seagulls.”

I am watching and drawing kittiwakes nesting in clefts up the castle wall.

On the top of the castle and on roofs of houses and balancing on the wind are the seagulls, herring gulls. They are watchful and waiting. Sometimes kittiwake chicks fall. Sometimes kittiwake nests are unguarded.

The herring gulls also have mouths to feed. They nest on rocks outside the harbour, beaten by the sea. Their chicks are larger, more mobile than those of kittiwakes, small downy dinosaurs on their scaly legs, stretching their nascent wings.

These were drawn at the end of the week-long seabird painting course. I had changed my approach, working larger size and with charcoal to speedily mark down shape and tone of moving birds. I was trying now to watch for a number of seconds, close my eyes and retain the image and draw from that, rather than attempt to copy directly.

Kittiwakes nesting on Dunbar castle

I post these sketches of nesting kittiwakes for completeness and my own reflection.

This was Sunday, the first day of the seabird painting course. It was drizzling intermittently. I realise this was the first full day I had ever spent just drawing birds.

I struggled, balancing an umbrella against a stack of lobster creels, holding it against the wind. My bulk teetered on a ridiculously small folding stool. I was swearing under my breath as I dropped one thing then another.

I found it hard to really look, fiddling with binoculars and putting them down to draw. Then I used a scope with my left eye, trying to draw using my right. Neither was satisfactory. I just could not retain the image long enough in my mind to draw from it.

I used my familiar pair of acrylic inks, paynes grey and sepia, topped off with a simple layer of sap green. I tried drawing directly with the brush. OK, these are sketches of moving birds, but as the week went on, I saw what others can achieve in watercolour in outdoor conditions. There is a mile to go here …

Later in the week, comparing my crude pencil sketches with those by other participants, I realised I shade with diagonal lines only. There is no subtlety, no building of shapes of through blocks of tone. Well … this is called learning.

By the time I attempted this last sketch, rain closed play. You might just make out the birds nesting amid the rain spattered inked wall.

The next day was rather better.