Seeing, imagining, drawing


Herculaneum was hit by waves of superheated gas and dust moving faster than an express train before being buried in 15-30 metres of ash.  It was forgotten.  Much later a new town was renamed Ercolano, in honour of the ruins discovered beneath its foundations.

We sat in front of the baths, looking across the columns which once lined the ancient exercise yard.  I had wanted to show the current multi-story buildings, decked out with drying washing, perching small and uncertain above the steep cliff of the excavations and the walls of the dwellings the volcano destroyed.  I misjudged the scale and found no space for the modern buildings above the grey border wall.


My daughter has written cryptically about her sketch, done at the same time: “I was thinking at the time that I will do it a little different from my other drawings”.



Staple Rock

At St Abbs Head, the rounded cliff tops fall away into grass-covered, steep inclines, which drop straight down to the rock-strewn sea.  Looking from on high, it appears that the sharp blade of Staple Rock is suspended over the waves, hanging there ready to drop and cut the sea in half.  A scramble down the scree allows access to a lower platform.  From this view point, the triangular stack is firmly rooted, its base visible through the water.

2014-07-14 St Abbs (1)

I covered board with charcoal and clawed back the tones and shapes first with my fingers and then with water and finally with layers of white acrylic.  I poured sepia calligraphic ink onto the central mass, squirted it from the water bottle and rocked the board until the ink settled and dried in the sun.  The darker tones were mixtures of sepia and paynes grey inks or charcoal.  Lastly, I used watercolour over the various tones created by acrylic white and charcoal for the sea and sky, grass and flowers, and the receding stained rocks at the back.

The distant sea was teeming with moving white specks, distant feeding gannets, added with a shake of the brush.

2014-07-14 St Abbs (2)

Here are the preliminary sketches from the same day, made first in ink lines, liberated with water to create the tones, and then in freehand watercolour.

2014-07-14 St Abbs (9)



Pettico Wick

St Abbs sits on the right shoulder of Britain, just below where the landmass tapers to a narrow neck and is topped by the head, which is the bulk of Scotland.  It is a headland of high cliffs.  In the summer, the precipices host colonies of breeding kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills.  For this painting, I was sitting high up on cliff tops at St Abbs, looking northwest to where land curves round out of sight to the nuclear power station and Dunbar, on to the mouth of the Firth of Forth and then to Edinburgh.

2014-07-14 St Abbs (3)

One evening last week, I walked 20 yards off road to Pettico Wick, a small bay at the north east of the headland.  Suddenly, a story  jumped out at me, a narrative of lifeless depths and sudden fiery violence.

2014-07-14 pettico Wick (2)

This is the first drawing I did, as usual using pen and ink and water on the fairly resistant paper in the Moleskine sketchbook. It has been adjusted using the “glow” filter on the photoshop app.

What I tried to show is the bay and sea, with a jetty stretching from land to slide beneath the water.   To my left are the regular layers of sedimentary rocks sloping down into the sea. These are formed of compacted silt, mud or of greywacke, a term for irregularly sized mineral granules set in a fine clay-like matrix. These rocks  fracture with simple percussion.  In front, only a hundred yards away are sea stacks formed of amorphous dysplastic lavas, the same stuff that forms the right hand cliffs.   These rocks are much harder and resist the limited force I can bring to bear.

The original sketch is below.

2014-07-14 19.45.41

It was obvious that in this small bay, I sat on a boundary marking ancient cataclysms.

I now know that the rocks on my left were laid down in very deep seas about 430 million years ago.  This is before our ancestral line could be dignified by the term fish.  The greywacke rock comprising mixed size rock grains is apparently formed from submarine avalanches and turbidity in the deep water of oceanic trenches or at the edges of continental shelves.  Some 15 to 30 million years later, volcanic eruption sent lava flowing in various directions.   This was at a time when fish had radiated and come to dominate the seas.  The relative resistance of these hard rocks has created the headland to my right.





Vesuvius morning light

201311115 Naples 2

I spent a day and a half in a hotel and in a meeting room in L’Istituto Nazionale Tumori “Fondazione Pascale”.  As the car wound up the hill between the two, I caught a glimpse through the roadside barriers of the dramatic wedge of sand making up the Bay of Naples with the sun suddenly glaring from behind the dark shape of Vesuvius.  I tried several times, in odd moments, to recapture this in my sketch book.

201311115 Naples 1

I have in mind a set of simplified shapes that might be captured in a lino print.

201311115 Naples 3


I sat on the rim of an ancient volcanic crater and stared down into the depths.  Where once magma had bubbled to the surface, now a pen was built to hold stock.  But what animals had been farmed on this barren surface strewn with loose shards of volcanic rock I could not tell.  I guess though that the bowl-shaped hill acts as a natural sink to collect what little water exists here.  The seaward side of the volcano had eroded, giving views onto the flat plain and on to the coastal town.

On an earlier cycling trip, I had forgotten to take brushes.  Painting with paper towel in a small notebook is not delicate.

This coastal mound had the feeling of a vast slumbering dog, head on outstretched paws.  In my first attempt I lost the proportions of the rear, fore-shortening what should be an elongated hill.

I redrew it in pencil, but painted it later when I had brushes once more.


a rip in the ground

This is the first in a sequence of paintings in which I  explore how the flat basalt plain was rent by powerful forces.

The sky and foreground were rendered in charcoal then gouache and ink whereas I painted the distant volcanic craters in transparent glazes.

The composition leaves a bit to be desired, not yet giving the sense of raw power that must have shapes this scene.

Amended 24/04/2012 – I photographed this again in natural rather than electric light and with a fixed rather than a handheld camera. It comes out rather better I think.


Bare time for creativity this last week.  Sitting on my table is the skeleton of the painting from my most recent post.  It will not now be finished and posted before I go on holiday tomorrow.

So here is instead a memory of a previous visit to tomorrow’s destination.

This fumarole is one of many scars upon this land.  Here molten rock sits perhaps just hundreds of feet beneath our feet, a stable point of heat across which the Earth’s crust migrates.  This whole land has formed from eruptions through the ocean depths starting 15 million years ago.  The last was just yesterday, geologically speaking, finishing in 1736.  An eyewitness recorded “In the first night a huge mountain grew out of the ground and, from its peak, enormous flames that kept burning for 19 days could be seen”  Central volcanoes were surrounded by a vast acreage of slow moving lave that cooled and hardened into contorted forms.  Today these hills seem at first bare of life although they are already colonised by lichens and even some flowering plants.  None the less, the colours in the landscape seem unnatural, arising from the disgorged minerals not from the stems and leaves of plants as we are used.

I painted this perhaps 2 years ago.  I will do more this next week.  I think this landscape lends itself to experimenting with charcoal and gouache.

I have previously posted paintings from this place.

Volcanic landscapes

This basaltic landscape in Lanzarote resulted from very recent volcanic activity, geologically speaking.  The rock is twisted into harsh, sharp features and is barely colonised by lichen.  I drew in ink using one such piece of rock on one of these sketches.  Yet the fields of ash bear crops in circular depressions dug to trap condensing moisture.  In the background sit the calderas and the rocks are stained in unexpected colours.