Light, tone, colour

As an artist, I have been trying to express myself through line, tone and colour.  In a similar way, the Pope is a Catholic and bears are ardently exploring the fundamental nature of their being by crapping in the woods.

2015-08-08 Siden Hill Wood watercolour (2)

Talking of woods, I walked on Saturday for several hours around a small copse, part of the nature reserve, which appears is visited rarely by birders (or by bears exploring their spirituality).  I can draw undisturbed.  Buzzards were roosting in the northern edge and periodically sweeping out across a recently cut field and back up over the trees, voicing their decrescendo cries.

On both the last two weekends, at one particular point, I could hear above me in the high foliage a duet, each a sequence of sharp calls of slightly over a quarter note in each of four or five bars.  Then a rest before a repeat sequence.   These moved through the canopy but only once did I glimpse a brown barred body.  The closest I can come to identifying these is as sparrowhawks.  This is based on the RSPB website, though many other recordings show sparrowhawks to make a more rapid staccato sound.

The picture above was an exercise to get myself drawing.  This comprised a quick pen sketch in fast ink then watercolour over this.  I stopped myself short of obscuring all the white paper.

This was the second sketch of the same composition, with photos on site of its first steps shown below.  Watercolour was spread on wet then lifted with damp tissue.  I drew into this in a mixture of paint and conte crayon.  The most essential colour is the pink which sits between and behind the greens and yellows.

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This last was intended simply as a tonal study of the sunlight slanting down onto the trunk and leaves, in charcoal and white on warm-grey paper.  However, I found it hard to resist overlaying this in the greens and browns, thus losing the point of the exercise.

2015-08-08 Siden Hill Wood conte crayon charcoal 1



Last week’s buzzards

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Today it has rained solidly and I have missed any chance to go out and draw.

Last Sunday, I got up early to go out, leaving the family to sleep in.  I wanted to walk round the area I had seen the buzzards roosting.  I was caught on my way out by my 8 year old daughter who decided she would come too.  She agreed that she too would draw the landscape on condition I would then find somewhere to buy her breakfast.

2015-07-19 Barston fields (7 Hannah)

So we only walked half a mile or s up the path but were rewarded with buzzards calling from several directions.  She noticed the first to launch into the air and we watched it circling and feinting as it hunted.

We stopped in the corner of a field.  The exercise is to structure the composition in light watercolour and work into it in conte crayon.  I show here both our sketches. We shared the same palette but my paper had more weight and texture than hers.   I also took a knife to mine to recapture the highlights on the barley heads.  Composition is interesting.  I realise I am trying to create big blocks of foreground colour in the sketch but to make this work I need to make the trees recede and give more strength to the sky.  I had hoped to explore this idea again today, but as I say, it is raining solidly.

some evening

2015-07-12 Barston fields (1)

I have found, near the bird reserve, a 3 mile circular walk though fields.  Over these last three weeks, thigh high barley has been ripening from blue green to yellow.  Thick poles of corn have yet to reveal their richness.  The oil seed rape has flowered weeks ago and now forms dense forests of waving seed pods, with sporadic wild oats reaching above.  The ground between the plants is bare but there are wide margins to the fields offering some corridors to wildlife.  One short half mile stretch seems to harbour the favoured roosting spots for buzzards.  I hear them calling, mostly hidden in the foliage though I spotted a pair calling alternately in one tree.

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Here I am experimenting further with small sketches, washed in first with watercolour, before working over this with conte crayon, eraser and knife.  These were from an evening walk ten days ago.

Bowling up hill

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The drizzle rapidly speckled the paper as I drew.  I was watching over the children in the playpark, and saw these guys playing cricket up hill.  If the fence behind was the wicket, the batsman was out more than once but never yielded the bat.  When he hit the ball bowled up to him, it was inevitably a six, as he had the advantage of the elevated ground.

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This was while waiting for new tyres to be fitted.  She is standing at a high counter drinking hot chocolate.

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These pen sketches of lapwings and a black headed gull were done at the same time as the drawings of the chicks posted previously.

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I am always enthralled by the urgent piping of oystercatchers.  A group of five formed up on the mud and paraded in ranks, hunched, bills open, calling in chorus.

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These sketches were done in a café while out yesterday, playing with dominant and non-dominant hand drawing.

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Field sketches

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I started working from left to right, swinging the telescope across the stony islands in the pools, drawing what I saw, switching between charcoal and pen.  For some sketches in pen, I played a game, aiming to do six drawings in six minutes using six lines each.  I managed four drawings, but could not find the discipline to limit myself to six lines.  The lapwing drawing was the closest to what I intended.

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The roosting black headed gulls were scattered into the air.  Another birder said, obscurely, “did he drop it or swallow it?”.

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A lesser back backed gull had settled back on an island further away.  It had caught a chick apparently.  I spent the rest of the time watching the predator.  It spent a long time assiduously preening yet I think, always with an eye on the black headed gulls and their chicks.  It was mobbed on land by a diving black headed gull and later on water by a lapwing.

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It was joined by a second – its mate? – and they flew off north.  I think the same bird swept round and came in low over the trees to attack the colony from the south.  I don’t think it caught a chick and it was seen off with a pair of the smaller black headed gulls flanking it left and right.

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Tomorrow, I will watch again, this time aiming to capture the gulls in flight, the mobbing and the raids.  However, time passes.  Even within a week, the chicks may be too large and no longer a target.

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To see inspirational field sketches which combine simplicity of line and shade with capture of character, movement and shape, its worth googling images using the term “John Busby birds”.  A search on Amazon brings up two pages of his books.  I met him two years running through the Scottish Seabird Drawing course which he founded and led.  As for many others, he had been an influence on me through his books  for many years before that.  I was sad to hear that he died and his funeral was yesterday.

Walking back

In contemplative mood, walking from one place to another on busy paved roads surrounded by buildings, I found a short cut through woods within which I was disturbed only once by a passing cyclist.  I stood and drew this in black ink and water.  I walked on holding it while it dried, plucking leaves and picking fallen bark which I rubbed in to stain the paper.

2015-05-27 Walking back to the station

This next was done while cycling along a canal.  I keep meaning to work back into it to clarify the shapes and tones but now I am thousands of miles from my tools so post it as it is.

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These other little drawings include one of a moorhen chick, one of many I saw foraging in and out of reeds a couple of weeks ago, and ink sketches done in pubs and restaurants.

IMG_1896 2015-05-23 family meal

IMG_1897 2015-05-16 moorhen chick



Schroedinger’s election

It’s six in the morning and I write this after taking down the election poster, but not yet knowing the outcomes.  Reflecting my mood, I am listening to Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat.

The last polls suggested the leading parties were neck and neck, leadership of the next government balanced on a knife edge.  For as long as I don’t look, this is still true: we have at one and the same time both Labour and Conservative-led coalitions.  In a few minutes, I will collapse the probabilities by looking.  And I fear that what I will find is a Conservative near majority.  Their interests converge with those of the Scots Nationalists in breaking up the country so a narrow cadre of financial interests can rule without check the broken remnants.

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Election day was also my son’s tenth birthday.  The day turned out themed around sloths, his totemic animal.  Here he is last weekend, sitting on the train reading Philip Pullman on his way to watch his mother run her first 10K race: 58 minutes by the way.

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Here are my remaining sketches from the last week, an attempt to visualise the bird beneath the feathers.

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The gift


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2015-04-06 wader sketches (1)

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For the last year or so I have drawn quickly in fountain pen, committing myself to the lines as they hit the paper, prioritising expressiveness over draughtsmanship, movement over accuracy.

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However, I have returned to pencil and have spent more time just watching a single species, even just focussing on the head, aiming to capture more accurately its structure. It is difficult to picture the skeleton and muscles beneath the feathers.  In the lapwing, I think the neck vertebrae articulate behind, not beneath, the skull then bend in an S shape to join the body (see this related species’ skeleton).  So part of what we see as the back of the head is actually the upper neck, with plumage squaring off the shape.  There is a pronounced bone ridge above the eyes.

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2015-04-06 wader sketches (2)

I was uploading these pictures last night when I happened on a programme on the radio which I found profoundly moving.  Mark Thomas is a comedian, of my generation, who cut his professional teeth on the alternative scene biting into Thatcher.  In Bravo Figaro, we meet a man of his time, a South London self employed builder, a hard grafter, with little education and a thirst for self-improvement, and handy with his fists outside the home and within it.  As Mark describes it, his Dad was a bit “punchy”.  This is not a metaphor.  In his father’s prime, the family trod carefully, on eggshells as they say.

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We are then taken through the story of this man’s love of opera, his unlikely breaching of the bastions of England’s middle class.  Mark interviews his brother and his mother, interspersed with his father’s words which are few and inarticulate as he now has a degenerative brain condition.  From this he constructs the material for an hour long comedy narrative.  There is no reconciliation, not even forgiveness, no sentimentality but the story leads to that thing I describe here as the gift, both surprising and surreal.

If you are of a certain generation and grew up in impoverished South London or somewhere like it, some of this will resonate. I found, at the end, that I was shedding tears.


watching the watchers

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I was rooted staring at a virtual vertical rectangle into which the watchers stepped, stopped, turned and stood, looking at the heaving seas, smoke and broken boats that make up Manet’s canvas depicting the sinking of a famed confederate raider off the French coast.  The constantly shifting traffic part obscuring the painting – individuals staring, pairs turning to each other to comment, a couple meeting there and nestling into each other – was accompanied by the soft rhythm of quiet foot steps and low voices from the surrounding gallery.  I wanted to film this, but each time I took out my phone, the guard loomed threateningly.

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I migrated from the Inventing Impressionism exhibition to another show, the Rubens legacy at the Royal Academy.  Here I found a spot to sit facing a huge fantastical violent canvas, where I could draw people as they were captured to gape at the piece.

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Birds, as subjects for drawing, are themselves continually watching, alert for threats and opportunities.  Great created grebes, seemingly asleep with their heads tucked well back near the middle of their bodies, behind the broad prow formed by their white necks, in fact are moving purposefully, staying together as a pair, slowly rotating on the water.

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