The ford by the mill wheel, evening

The small river emerged from dark woodland and spread in shallow ripples over the road.  I drew in the rain, drops splashing onto the page, spreading the ink and disabling my pens, catching the colour from the conte crayons and smearing it in dark-toned puddles.


The image in my mind was darker, with the mid ground trees gleamed faintly green against the deepening evening shadows.  The dried remains of that years reeds glowed yellow-brown above the reflected tones in the water.


On and off, through the evening, I revisited this sketch, scoring into the surface with a knife, scraping back tone with sandpaper and hard eraser, reapplying tone with charcoal and watercolour.




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The river Gannel has created a narrow tidal flat between steep sided low hills.  I came upon this from the side where a smaller spring joined the flow.  I cycled as far as I could until my road was submerged, stopped there, looked down and drew the water as it flooded and retreated against the silt, grass and planks bordering the path.

I drew, as usual, in fountain pen and water, light strokes of conte crayon and then strengthened the shapes of the wavelets with brush pen and black ink (shown below).  The heavy black ripples were a mistake, unbalancing the sketch.  I wanted to highlight the posts and planks against both silt and water.  Dissatisfied, I reworked the mud bringing in pinks and blues to supplement the ochre.  I rebuilt the wavelets textured white acrylic ink and, when dry, rubbed in crayon, losing all but a few white reflections.  It won’t bear further manipulation and the image is now too distant in my mind, so this (above) is how the sketch is finished.

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Back to drawing birds

The Italian countryside, the heavily wooded hills and marshy lowlands were largely devoid of bird song.  An eerie quiet pervaded the landscape.  In the marshes, the few ducks were well hidden and the open water was mostly populated by herons, egrets and flamingos.  I understand from the media that Italians’ passion for hunting has overwhelmed the ecosystem and left it depleted of its natural bird life.  I did see a family of wild pigs snorting their way through the undergrowth.  Again, I read that wild pigs had been devastated by hunting and the population has been rebuilt using a strain from Hungary which is smaller and which breeds more rapidly.

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I shared a bird hide made of dry reeds with a photographer smoking a cigar.  He caught some fabulous shots of circling raptors and a kingfisher which alighted close to us.  I concentrated on the flamingos and egrets.  These were some distance away.  I stated drawing, spotting through the telescope and copying awkwardly onto the pad.  As juvenile flamingos came closer, I worked more loosely using brief glimpses through binoculars and drawing more from memory.  There is a tension between seeking anatomical accuracy for an unfamiliar species versus failing to capture movement through slavish copying.

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I found once again that I have no standard technique for drawing in the field. Here, in great frustration, I have switched between drawing in pen, and painting a rapid shape which is then overlaid with conte crayon.

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Complex systems

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This weekend, I have been thinking about complex adaptive systems.

Wikipedia tells me that complex adaptive systems contain multiple diverse interacting components and that the system is structured such that it adapts and learns from experience.  At least, it appear to learn.  The system is not conscious or reflective on its experience.  An ecosystem can be seen as a complex adaptive system.

In a cancer, the malignant cells are themselves diverse: some dividing, others resting; some forming a tumour, others infiltrating adjacent tissues, others again invading blood vessels and migrating.  Then there are the array of non-malignant cells: those forming blood vessels; inflammatory cells responding as if this were a healing wound; immune cells perhaps recognising and killing cancer cells, perhaps exciting such killer cells, perhaps damping the immune response.  All these various cells are in communication with each other, sending short range messages by direct contact or chemical signals.  This complex adaptive system is called the immune microenvironment of the cancer.

I am not prone to hyperbole.  Still, I think we* sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated, using new drugs to manipulate the immune microenvironment of cancers.  The drugs are becoming available.  The challenge is to understand the immune microenvironment sufficiently so we use the drugs effectively.

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This piece started with a layer of charcoal, the images driven by recent reading and current music.  I tore into the dampened paper creating highlights and texture.  This was then obscured by layers of gouache and acrylic paint, allowing charcoal and sea salt to disperse slowly, suspended in the very wet washes.   After a week or so looking at it, turning it one way and another, eventually I saw in it a narrative suggesting a complex system.


*”we sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated” – by “we” I mean the worldwide cancer community – patients, carers, researchers, clinicians, health care providers, research institutions, industry and those who commission and fund cancer care



On a Sunday, the Blythe Valley Business Park is mostly deserted.  Many lots are vacant, with a short tarmac drive leading into rough grass.  It has been landscaped around as a nature reserve with paths through trees and between flooded gravel pits.  There are kestrel and buzzard but few water fowl, just a couple of mute swan pairs and some coots.  The last two weekends, I have heard cuckoos calling but have been unable to locate them in the trees.

Three times I sketched the stream as it wound through undergrowth.  I continue to use pen and brushpen, liberating the ink with water and letting it bead and dry on resistant paper

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Its tough getting time to draw currently.  I have virtual access to my workplace so it follows me everywhere, into evenings and weekends.  Tomorrow, I hope to go out early and draw.

I admire the work of Yorkshire artist, Jo Dunn.  What strikes me is the way she uses the unpainted paper so skilfully between her bold strokes.

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These pieces were painted in half an hour each at the waning of a March day before cycling home.  I tried consciously to use white paper in the composition, but the results are very different to Jo’s approach.

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I am going to try again tomorrow.  If I can interpret the scene with gaps between bold marks, it is because I have Jo’s example in mind.


Jottings in May II: Cycling and painting

A comment from another artist blogger reminded me to post these sketches made while cycling the canal towpaths a few weeks ago. This first one is in a tiny pocket watercolour book.

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Here I followed a heron as it flapped a few hundred metres at a time ahead of me. I stopped far enough away to observe it, tonally blending with the bank but reflected in the water.

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This abstraction from the scene was drawn in pen during a meeting some days later.



My previous post was painted the evening before the start of the five-day Seabird Painting Course.  This next piece marks its end, painted from the English side of the border looking across the River Tweed to a Scottish woodland, the morning I set off for home.

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No masterpiece I know, but it combines much that makes painting pleasurable for me.  It is loose and a little abstracted.  It was painted directly in under ten minutes, against the elements, with me standing only part sheltered from rain beneath a tree.  The falling water kept the paper damp and moved the pigments: the trick was to stop before all turned to mud.  Later, when the paper had dried, I placed a single additional layer of paint to strengthen the grass and woodland and the mud water margin.

The Seabird Painting Course is a long-running annual event, founded and led by the great wildlife artist, John Busby.  I had been once before but still, this year, found it an remarkably challenging.  There is fabulous guidance and support, not just from the four tutors but from the twenty or so other students, an accomplished and diverse group.  However, the settings remain overwhelming – I could never decide whether to obsess over anatomical minutiae, capture movement and drama or paint the big picture.

In the next series of posts I will set out my sketches with my reflections. Though this blog is open to public consumption, this is primarily for my own benefit – to consolidate something of what I have learned.

In my notebook I have jotted the following thoughts to explore:

  • Energy in landscape
  • Energy on the page
  • Experimenting versus making a mess
  • The quality and texture of the paper
  • Tonal drawing
  • Mixing greens
  • Secondary processing – printmaking or modelling, from field sketches

Working in the rain and snow: Hull Pot

The Yorkshire Dales are pocked by deep scars: chasms eroded out from beneath the limestone by running water.  There is an excitement in this landscape in which springs erupt unexpectedly out of rock, run a distance and descend again into dark sinks.  Everywhere, my walking was accompanied by sounds of accumulating snow-melt: gurgling, rushing and roaring.  I purposely planned my route to paint at two deep pot holes.

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The day was accompanied by drizzle veering into snow.  I set up to draw in these conditions using a large sheet of heavy textured watercolour paper folded into sixteen panels that would slide into a plastic protection.  I decided to experiment with soluble graphite and inktense watercolour pencils.  This way, I could snatch brief interludes in the weather, use the drizzle itself or ground water, and work with limited materials I could hold in my pockets.


This proved tricky.  I could indeed work into the snow-dampened paper and the falling flakes or drops added to the texture.  However, I had to work for just a minute or two or the whole thing would wash off.  Drying in my pocket, the adjacent surface lifted some of the pigments though also added to the textures. This then was the first sketch.

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Only later, with the paper thoroughly dried, did I work again into this with conti crayon, watercolour and knife to create the image I wanted.

I am editing this post in response to a comment below to add links to my use of this folded paper approach, in case you are interested.

random doodles


I have been working without much break on a grant application for the last month but completed this week.  Its fun to work with intellectually stimulating people.

This was an idle doodle in a spare moment using acrylic inks on smooth paper.  I think the seduction theme from Neil Gaiman’s Beowulf was playing but clearly did not influence the painting.  I watched that film recently for the first time.  The soft pornographic portrayal of Grendel’s mother was faintly comic, but her prehensile hair as reptilian tail and the haunting evocative music as the hero fought and lost the hardest battle were fine points.