Razorbills and guillemots and kittiwakes: St Abbs Head

20130620 St Abbs Head

I moved out along a narrow spine of rock with a steep drop on either side.  To either side the cliffs projected out to sea in a series of ridges.  The sun was hot and no wind disturbed the paper.  On the vertical surface facing me, kittiwake pairs were spaced out, nesting along the narrow cracks and faults in the rock.  The guillemots formed denser colonies on sloping surfaces lower down and on the tops of the more isolated stacks.  The red sandstone was mottled by lichen and guano and sunlight.

Energy III

In June, I spent a morning on the rocky island of Fidra.  A worn paved roadway, with rail tracks and rusting winding gear, rises from the small harbour to the lighthouse.  Everywhere are herring gulls, and at that time, herring gull chicks. Though we saw they cannibalised their own, we were careful where we trod and stayed still for long periods to minimise the disturbance.

Here I sat on the path looking down on the gulls hanging on the wind over the Forth and the mainland beyond.

Gulls hanging in the wind

Gulls hanging in the wind

This version has been edited, bringing in warm colours in the foreground and working, and reworking the gulls the achieve contrast.  I scraped away the line of rock in the mid ground on the left.

Field sketch - Fidra

Field sketch – Fidra

Part way through, I was bombed by a gull, on my hat and scoring a direct hit on the paper.  Interestingly, the guano forms a resist, scattering the paint in a lively way at certain points in the picture.

Greg Poole had pointed out how the rocks on the left seemed stuck to the wall that in reality was in front and higher.  He asked whether I needed to connect this spur to the island with paint, however it appeared to the eye.

However, his key comments were on how the energy flowed through the composition.

Energy flows in composition

These were the comments:

As I painted to the edge of the paper or to the clips holding it to the board, I pulled back the brush (open arrows).  This loses the connection of the subject to its surroundings and dissipates the energy of the composition.  Interestingly, the large blank spaces at both bottom corners hold the picture’s energy because the brush strokes are moving to the centre from the edge (solid arrows) though again perhaps I should have continued the strokes to the lower edge.  Of course I can crop the picture, but even then the strokes within the retained picture have been restrained and diminished.

RBSA Open Exhibition

Below is my piece “White Birds” (centre) at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists Open Exhibition until Christmas Eve (http://www.rbsa.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/open-all-media-exhibition/).  Honestly, this exhibition is well worth seeing – There are many beautiful and skilful pieces on display and I will be going back to look round again.  I feel honoured to have had this piece accepted.

White Birds - on display

I posted this originally earlier this year:


and have also included it in my page tab “exploded and eroded”


Opening onto the sea

A small sketch on Arches rough paper with a limited range of colours and the squirrel mop brush on a hot day in Mallorca.

Now I am preparing to submit some pieces for an exhibition for the first time.  And I am learning that there is more to display than sticking a bit of wood round a picture.  My experimental pieces like Drone III and White Birds have irregular edges and uneven surfaces from the action of the medium making them difficult to mount properly.  I will find out later this week what has been made of them.  I need to select three of the five pieces I am having framed.  Even writing about this feels a risk – there is a low probability of these pieces being accepted (even lower if I don’t get my act together and submit the form by Wednesday!).







Secret cove ii: plein air

This was my first attempt at this picture, leading onto the studio version posted a day or two ago.  I was perched on a slab high above the valley floor, sun on my neck, the repetitive cry of a falcon behind me.  image

The cove is at the end of a short gorge between high limestone walls. The rock beds are uneven and diagonal; thrust up, I guess, by the African plate moving north. However, there are strong vertical lines scored in the stone faces, carved by rain continually dragging the minerals down. The tops of boulders are pocked by deep grykes.

Our life spans are so short, it is easy to miss that this is a dynamic landscape, that over only a few millennia a high plateau has been undermined by caverns; waterborn solutes forming stalagtites then columns then rock curtains, before that transient carved beauty collapsed and crumbled leaving the present chasm.

Aberlady: storm clouds

Distant lightning flicked under low clouds and the delayed thunder rolled inland across the estuary.


The eiders had been roosting on the far sand bank.  As the tide seeped in, they shuffled into action, one by one launching themselves to swim up river.


When I was writing this post, I wondered why I had drawn with the charcoal tip and not with the side.  I then remembered that these drawings were done early on that last day of the course.  I was warming up.  Later, I also migrated along the coast.  The drawings of gull chicks posted previously had actually been done later that day.  They were bigger, freeer, more expressive.  Drawing is a process and it was taking time to get my eye, hand and brain into gear.



The last day of the Seabird Drawing Course in June was spent in at Aberlady, a rocky coastal strip cut by a river emptying between sandbanks into the Firth of Forth.  I made rapid sketches in charcoal of curlews probing the sand.


Pickings seemed lean when suddenly, one found a crab.  His whole demeanour changed as he set off up the bank with another in hot pursuit.  I had only left myself a tiny bit of empty paper for this avian drama.


Although using the scope, I was practising watching, closing my eyes to fix the image and then drawing without a second look, rather than trying to copy moving birds directly.I don’t capture much detail but I am trying to get a better sense of movement.  Charcoal is such an expressive (if clumsy) medium for this.

On the far bank, under storm clouds, were a line of dozing eiders.  I took watercolour notes for a later painting.




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.