Story before bed

Over one week, I retold to my children a tale they know well, illustrating it on the iPad as I spoke .

Here it is.  Sweet dreams …

The children lived in a cottage on the edge of a forest.

They knew the forest was haunted: they went in only a few tress deep and never at night.

Lost deep in the haunted wood.

A cottage made of sweets. How welcoming for hungry children.

He nibbled the roof, she the walls.

Ensnared by a magical weave.

Asked for flesh, he offered a bone.

“I am too stupid: show me how to test the oven.”

All it took was one push

The released spells rent the forest.

Listen … Poo tee weet

It is written that of all the 31 known sentient species, only humans believe in free will.  This illusion arises because although perceiving the existence of four dimensions, none the less, their view of time is severely constrained to glimpsed, mostly falsified memories and a probablistic view of the future.  Their outlook on life is as if their heads were imprisoned in helmets and vision permitted only through rigid six foot scopes without mirrors or lenses to enhance the passing image while strapped unknowing to flatcars careering under their own momentum along interweaving railroads.

Even if you read the book thirty years ago, i bet you will get the literary reference right away.  If you are guessing, I won’t spoil the game but someone I hope will post it below in a comment.  It is a classic of twentieth century fiction (actually much based on fact, frighteningly).  I re-read it in snatched moments recently.  I’ve had little time to draw, hence this rather rough sketch.

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.

Treasure Island: violent death and birds in motion

Far away out in the marsh there arose, all of a sudden, a sound like a cry of anger, then another on the back of it; and then one horrid, long-drawn scream.  The rocks of the Spy-glass re-echoed it a score of times; the whole troop of marsh-birds rose again, darkening heaven, with a simultaneous whirr; and long after that death yell was still ringing in my brain, silence had re-established its empire, and only the rustle of the re-descending birds and the boom of the distant surges disturbed the languor of the afternoon.

“In heaven’s name, tell me, what was that?”

“That?” returned Silver, smiling away, but warier than ever.  “That?  Oh, I reckon that’ll be Alan.”

And at this point Tom flashed out like a hero.  “Alan!  Then rest his soul for a true seaman!  And as for you, John Silver, you’re a mate of mine no more.  You’ve killed Alan, have you?  Kill me too, if you can.  But I defies you.”  And with that, this brave fellow turned his back directly on the cook and set off walking for the beach.

With a cry John whipped the crutch out of his armpit and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air.  It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back.  His hands flew up, he gave a sort of gasp, and fell.  He had no time given him to recover.  Silver, agile as a monkey even without leg or crutch, was on top of him next moment and had twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body.

From my place of ambush, I could hear him pant aloud as he struck the blows.

You will of course recognise this passage from Robert Louis Stevenson’s book.  I have just finished reading it to my young children.  It has a remarkably high body count for a book for children but for all that remains a classic adventure story.

This painting was first posted a few weeks ago showing how the idea developed.  I had first wanted to show the Spy-glass, a volcanic plug of a mountain sitting proud above a marshy landscape, with trees in the foreground in which our protagonist is concealed.

I then played with this picture, turning it upside down and imposing reflected birds on the iPad.

From this I took the idea of developing the same underlying painting on the iPad into two versions rotated by 180 degrees, each one representing one of the two foul murders in the marsh of Treasure Island.

This is the actual painting after it dried and the various pigments settled.  Having explored it digitally in two directions, perhaps I will leave this as it is.  It makes sense to me visually now, but this has taken time.

Our previous bedtime book also painted a word picture of a marsh.  These settings speak powerfully to me of solitude and wilderness.  However, that fen was an altogether friendlier place.

upside down

I have looked and looked at this painting, searching for the direction that will take this to completion.  There is a dark narrative here to be revealed when the painting is done.

On a whim I flipped the painting.  Here is the iPad version, done quickly to explore ideas.



Experimental drawing

In the Experimental Drawing we are supposed to be working taking the methods of Len Tabner and David Tress.  As an aside, last week I was dead impressed by the work produced by the others: painting. tearing and re-forming abstract landscapes or using very mixed media with great results.

I’ve got a bit semi-detached from the class.  When I arrive it takes me a while to wind down from work and I’m usually hungry which is a downer on creativity.  I’d missed a couple of sessions and arrived more than half way through a week ago on the day we re-started with the new theme.

Last week, however, I’d been to a meeting all day about how to combine drugs to arrest cancer.  I came back on the train inspired and writing a proposal for work leading to a trial.  I was home earlier than usual and actually ate.  So I got to the class on time and with a plan.  I am still inspired by a book I’d been reading recently to my children.  I hit the paper with watercolour, then charcoal then threw gouache onto the unfixed graphite.  The result, above, is nothing like the class theme but it entertained me.

Below were my first thoughts from the previous week.

These are a beginning for this composition.  I will go in two ways.  I plan to re-draw this in landscape with more clearly thought through elements of the whole.  But I also intend to sacrifice these drawings, shred them and re-use the pieces.

Finally, I mentioned that these are inspired by my reading out at bedtime.  I post here my 5-year old daughter’s drawing based on our current book.  No prizes for guessing the book …

Across the Marsh to where Ettinsmoor meets the sea

“They were on a great flat plain which was cut into countless little islands by countless channels of water.  the islands were covered with coarse grass and bordered with reeds and rushes.  Clouds of birds were constantly alighting in them and rising from them again.  Many wigwams could be seen dotted about …

Eastward … you could tell by the salt tang in the wind which blew from that direction that the sea lay over there.  To the North there were low pale-coloured hills, in places bastioned with rock.  The rest was all flat marsh.  Seen under a morning sun, with a fresh wind blowing, and the air filled with the crying of birds, there was something fine and fresh and clean about its loneliness.”

Reading this to my children, I was struck how evocative is this passage.  I remembered reading it myself for the first time when i was about eight.

How influential are are ones childhood books?  Today, I am thrilled by the loneliness of marshland and the wheeling and crying of massed waterfowl.

If you have not guessed this passage comes from C.S Lewis’ “The Silver Chair”.

They cannot conquer for ever

Look! The king has got a crown again!

This was drawn in compressed charcoal on buff paper.  I have returned to a limestone block eroding from an arid karst platform, supporting trailing caper plants in flower.  My attention was drawn to a large hole, somehow reminiscent of an eye socket.  I have drawn this before, like a side view of an ungulate’s skull (  This time I saw a more anthropoid facies in the same image.  The overlying white flowers brought back to me a scene from Lord of the Rings describing an unexpected vision of hope for the beleaguered characters.  Unintentionally perhaps, my own image subverts this and is rather bleaker in mood.