Kitti-wake

I have spent a lot of time watching, drawing and listening to the kittiwakes which form a colony each summer on the picturesque ruins of Dunbar castle.

Photograph of Dunbar looking across the Forth

The photograph above shows the view from Dunbar looking out across the Firth of Forth.  The Isle of May can be seen on the horizon to the right of the inlet and Fife is to the left. Out of sight is Dunbar’s busy working harbour.

Sketchbook drawing of kittiwakes

These sketchbook drawings were made at the end of April this year, it has been a very cold spring and the colony was only just showing signs of building up. There were just a few pairs to be seen amongst the birds and it was much quieter and more static than when I am normally there in June.

Coloured sketch of a kittiwake

During the seabird drawing week, which happens each year and was originally set up by the wonderful artist John Busby, we spend at least a day drawing the Dunbar kittiwake colony. It is possible to get close enough to make some good studies of the colony and it is an interesting sight for witnessing humans and wild creature co-existing.

Kittiwakes seem to be particularly hard to draw, my own early attempts were fraught. They are more delicate than gulls, with angular features and delicate black feet and legs which just don’t look like they should support them!

I love the lightness of touch in this piece by John Busby depicting the birds as they land in water:

https://i1.wp.com/www.discoverwildlife.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/800px_530px/gallery/kittywakes.jpg

I am interested in the shapes and patterns that are found in the stacked colonies common to a lot of sea birds. In the two monochrome drawings below I spent time trying to distil the birds and the rocks into shapes of tone, aiming to give a sense of the way colony life is about living in close proximity.

 

kittiwakes large

 

kittiwake and chicks.JPG

Kittiwakes are feisty sea birds, spending all their time out at sea except for a few weeks when they settle along our coasts to breed. By June the Dunbar castle colony is noisy and busy, the birds seem oblivious to the humans walking underneath their nests. I wonder how they adapt coming from the harsh realities of life at sea, to spend time amongst humans once a year.

The most well-known kittiwake colony in the UK is on the Baltic building in Newcastle, which has its own Facebook page!

John James Audubon’s Kittiwake print depicts the adult in the foreground with the juvenile behind it. Audubon’s large format book Birds of America depicted each bird life-size across each  39.5 x  28.5 inch page.

-kittiwake-gull-john-james-audubon.jpg

And finally my recent screen print Kittiwakes with the features of Dunbar castle in the background, progress shot first:

kittiwakes in progress.JPG

And final version:

kittiwakes final large.JPG

 

 

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Concrete Nature

male goosanders large.JPG

During November I exhibited some work as part of the exhibition Concrete Nature which coincided with the New Networks for Nature conference in Stamford. The theme of the show was focussed on nature in the urban environment.

I am surprised at how easy it is to live in the city whilst also being an artist focussed on the natural world. I am aware that most artists who work with similar subject matter live rurally; yet I have chosen to live in the heart of Edinburgh and occupy a shared studio with seventy others in an old warehouse near Leith docks.

At the New Networks for Nature Conference (which comes highly recommended) there seemed to be a lot of conversations about people who had bought and re-wilded their own small patch of land. Germaine Greer opened the conference and spoke about her book White Beech, which documents her experience buying a patch of rainforest in Australia: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/02/white-beech-rainforest-years-germaine-greer-review

Greer spoke well about the experience of learning how to go about re-wilding and was hugely knowledgeable about the native plant and animal species she was hoping to support through her endeavours. What particularly struck me were her comments about human and animal relationships – our need to learn to ‘be’ with animals, not invading their space or controlling their instincts, but living alongside them. I’ve not read White Beech but it is on my list!

I will admit to dreams of owning my own land, where I could have space to think undisturbed by other humans. However, I have come to realise that what I am able to do, in the city, is just as rich and fulfilling. I have access to a huge amount of spaces, filled with flora and fauna, many of which I inhabit regularly and am able to feel a sense of shared ownership over.

redwing and crocus facebook

I have watched bullfinches from the window of my third floor flat, flitting about the back yard in the handful of small trees which doggedly grow through the concrete and discarded mattresses. A flock of redwings feeding among neatly laid out rows of purple and yellow crocuses in a city park. A winter wagtail roost at the side of a busy roundabout – a couple of hundred birds wheeling around before settling in an unassuming urban shrub. Hundreds of knot fly high over the city and out to sea as I watched them from a harbour wall.

These are all momentary events which still stimulate my imagination when I think of them and remind me of a need to spend time watching the world, whatever environment I happen to be in.

 

Even on my regular drawing trips along the coasts of the Forth estuary, I am often within sight of the incredible Edinburgh skyline or the Forth road and rail bridges. I enjoy finding places to draw where nature and people are both in evidence. I don’t want the natural world to be something I go and see, but something I am part of and whose world I share.

The pieces I exhibited for Concrete Nature all originated within two miles of my flat. A crow overseeing the eastern stretch of the city from Holyrood Park;

crow screenprint small.JPG

a goosander from a flock wintering on a small patch of the Water of Leith near my studio;

city goosander relief print small.JPG

and finally a pair of blackbirds in the undergrowth of a forgotten corner of a park:

blackbirds in the park screen print large.JPG

I suspect I will have more to say on the subject of how nature lives in cities but I will finish this post with a quote from Richard Mabey from his excellent book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’:

‘Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to ‘belong’ in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots…Provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature.’

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Trees for Life

image for blog scaled

Surveying beautiful Scotland

Recently I spent an inspiring and informative week working as a volunteer for the Scottish charity Trees for Life in the beautiful surroundings of Glen Affric. I was inspired to sign up for a week with Trees for Life after hearing Alan Watson-Featherstone – the charity’s founder – present a talk about re-wilding with fellow advocate for all things feral, George Monbiot (see this earlier post for more on Monbiot: https://flyingcreature.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/2013-the-year-in-review/. With some trepidation we boarded the train to Inverness, our attempts to spot fellow ‘trees for lifers’ (big rucksacks, sturdy shoes, alternative vibe) came to nothing. Looking out of the window at the beautiful view, it was lovely to see lapwings wheeling around, low to the ground, as we passed the highest point on the line and found ourselves in amongst mountains with the Cairngorms to our right and Rannoch Moor to our left.

A wood ants' nest, a good sign of a healthy forest eco-system and an amazing structure

A wood ants’ nest, a good sign of a healthy forest eco-system and an amazing structure

Any apprehension about the week was quickly laid aside once we met the group and headed off for our introductory walk in the beautiful surroundings of Glen Affric. Within a couple of hours I had learnt all sorts of things about native Scottish flora and we had even spotted a female crossbill perched on the top of a Scots Pine – what an advert for the importance of re-foresting Scotland! All credit for the success of the week should go to the two group leaders who were fantastically knowledgeable, with an infectious enthusiasm for the natural world.  Our days were spent walking, working and wildlife watching. This was an experience to be recommended, more details about what Trees for Life do can be found on their website here: http://treesforlife.org.uk/ With trees on my mind I thought I would take the opportunity to look at artists and writers who have taken trees as inspiration. Of course, although birds and things that move, are my main focus, I realise that trees and how they shape the landscape are key to the survival of my chosen subject matter. I suspect I will pay more attention now to these remarkable living things – even if they do move a bit slower than their inhabitants! paul klee, fig tree Paul Klee, Fig Tree, watercolour Paul Klee is one of my favourite artists. The lightness of touch to his work is beautifully contrasted with a profound ability to depict universal experience. The painting above is a great example – it contains a childlike simplicity of execution whilst also serving as a more sophisticated response to the subject, stripping away any detail to capture something of the essence of a fig tree.  It has an intriguing effect of showing the tree to be emitting light, whilst drawing comparisons between the form of the tree and the form of its leaves – a multi-layered image. Klee is also very good at writing about art and in the following extract he draws comparison between the function of an artist and a tree.

‘May I use a simile, the simile of a tree? The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of a tree. From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye. Thus he stands as the trunk of a tree. Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into work. As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work. Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce vital divergences… [S]tanding at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules – he transmits. His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.’

Paul Klee, extract from On Modern Art pp 13 – 15
Samuel Palmer,  In a shoreham garden

Samuel Palmer, In a shoreham garden

Another favourite artist of mine is English visionary, Samuel Palmer. His trees beautifully convey a deep understanding of the form and structure of specific species, whilst also showing an expressive beauty which  imbues his images with a sense of magic and mystery. In the sketchbook page below we can see how he is looking for comparisons between the shape and form of each tree trunk. CIS:E.3512-1928 And in his beautiful drawing of an oak tree, notice how Palmer introduces points of colour to add a sense of mystery to the piece. That yellow along the curving line of the horizon is so intense it looks unreal, and yet we have all experienced colours in the natural world that don’t seem real. In his work Palmer draws our attention to that tension between experience and reality, through a combination of direct observation and personal expression. The composition, which allows the form of the oak tree to dominate,  helps to give weight to Palmer’s vision of the power of nature. 26 palmeroaktreebeach1828 Graham Sutherland is an artist who was directly inspired by the dream-like qualities of Samuel Palmer’s work. In the following painting, Sutherland has transformed a humble tree-trunk into a twisting, living form emerging out of the ambigous mossy darkness. I love the way in which his colours and marks directly reference specific sensations – the sunlit interior of a mossy woodland – but the form and structures of his work allows room for our imagination to discover further meaning.

Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods 1940 Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980 Purchased 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05139

Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods 1940 Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980 Purchased 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05139

Sutherland is well known for his series of crucifixion paintings and during his research for this he became interested in the crown of thorns imagery. The following quote illustrates the way in which he is able to look closely at ordinary subject matter and use drawing as  a starting point for imaginative transformation:

I started to notice thorn bushes, and the structure of thorns as they pierced the air. I made some drawings, and as I made them, a curious change developed. As the thorns rearranged themselves, they became, whilst still retaining their own pricking space encompassing life, something else – a kind of stand-in for a Crucifixion and a crucified head.

Below is a drawing by Sutherland which shows how he was able to take the structure of thorns and turn them into something human and symbolic: 3 graham sutherland, thorn study

David Nash is a British sculpture who has spent his artistic career wholly occupied with trees and wood. Author Annie Proulx puts it beautifully in the following quote:

It is pleasant to imagine that David Nash comes to us from the forest. He began, perhaps, as a sprout rising from the root of a fallen ash. The ash, with powers unknown to people, metamorphosed the sprout into human form and told him to go among ignorant men and explain the world of trees. For humans had lost their spiritual and aesthetic knowledge of forest, wood and bosque, seeing only exploitation and utility in trees. And when his human body wore out, the ash promised, he would return to the forest and again manifest as a tree. And so, half-human, half-lignum, Nash lives among us translating wood with humour, grace and extraordinary creativity. There was a time when humans were familiar with the sentient forest; Nash opens the door to that world again.

The full article the above quote is taken from can be found here: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/may/15/david-nash-sculpture-annie-proulx

My two favourite pieces by Nash define  the extremes of his practice – one exploring ideas of static change, the other considering transient change. His Ash Dome, created in 1977, is a ring of planted ash trees which Nash has shaped over the years to form a dome shape. The location of the piece is highly secretive and Nash regularly returns to tend to it and make drawings from it, using charcoal made from the ash trees themselves, such as the one below:

3david nash charcoal

Wooden Boulder, made in 1978, began with a large wooden sphere, shaped by Nash and left by him in the North Wales landscape. Nash subsequently tracked the journey of the piece as it moved through the countryside, often along streams and rivers, over a period of 25 years. Inevitably the journey of the boulder was unpredictable, it remained static for long periods of time before travelling quite rapidly, at one point it disappeared completely only to re-emerge five years later. I love the fragility of this project, the need to continue to look and discover the progress of the boulder, the way in which it gives us a deeper understanding of the processes of nature.

David_Nash,_Wooden_Boulder,_1978-2000 Both these pieces show a respect and understanding for the systems of the natural world, which I appreciate in Nash’s work. His work manages to contain a playfulness, whilst also making us think about the wider world around us in a more profound way. To finish – a recent drawing of mine made in an amazing, stunted forest on the edge of a windswept headland between Longniddry and Aberlady. I was there in February; the light was intensely bright and there were goldcrests moving about in the higher branches. At one point one landed on a branch very close to me and we eye-balled each other – one of those amazing moments where you feel a connection has been made between you and a wild creature – magic! hidden goldcrests drawing

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Hunted birds…

My first wood engraving, made to accompany a poem about pheasants

My first wood engraving, made to accompany a poem I wrote about pheasants

At the end of January I took part in a creative writing and wood engraving course at the National Gallery of Scotland. It is so informative as a teacher to experience being a student again and it is always inspiring being taught by people who are experts in their field.

In this instance I was in the very capable hands of Edinburgh writer, Mary Paulson Ellis and Jonathan Gibbs, head of Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art.

I’m very interested in the way in which images and words are put together. In one way or another much of my work begins with words. Reading poetry or prose can kick an idea off in my head and is always in the background when I am out and about making drawings and thinking about new work.

When I was at a low point during art college, having lost all focus and motivation, I read Nature Cure by Richard Mabey and realised that what I was missing was the natural world. I starting going up Salisbury Crags each morning, five minutes walk from where I live in Edinburgh, and slowly began to find my way again, finding comfort in the changing moods of the natural world.

Creative writing is not something I have done much of since school, so it was interesting to be having a go. For one of the exercises I wrote a piece about my memories of the place in Yorkshire where my gran had lived. A big farmhouse surrounded by fields, I tried to recall the memories which involved creatures: the call of a cuckoo each summer; hares resting and playing in the fields; and a flock of pheasants in the nearby wood. Spotting the white pheasant among the group always held a bit of a thrill, straining into the depths of the trees in the hope of seeing a pale shape moving through the gloom.

I ended up writing a short poem about pheasants in response to this memory. I have depicted pheasants in my work a few times. I made a series of moonlit pheasant monotypes which I really enjoyed.

18moonlit pheasant 1These were all inspired by a characterful male pheasant who spent a lot of time underneath the bird feeder outside the kitchen window at the Watermill, frequently getting showered by stray peanuts and looking a bit chilly most of the time. He also inspired this painting:

pheasant web

And this print, part of my British Birds screen print series:

Jones, Kittie-pheasant

I’m not going to put my poem up here as I think I am still a bit ‘green’ as a writer. I will, however, recommend the words of Sylvia Plath, and her beautifully constructed poem, Pheasant, written out at the bottom of this post.

Now back to the course. At the end of the first day, my head was full of the idea of pheasants, what they mean to us, what place they have in our landscape and memories, and what the future holds for them.

I read with fascination the Birds Britannica entry about the pheasant, it was full of statistics, all of which are pretty evocative, here are a handful (some have been updated):

  • 1000 years approximately – since they arrived in the UK from the Middle East as an edible delicacy
  • £1000 + – roughly the amount paid by an individual for a day of pheasant shooting
  • 20 – 30 million birds are released in the UK each year with about 15 million of them getting shot dead
  • £27 is roughly how much it costs per pheasant to rear them and ready them for being hunted

To spend any time thinking about pheasants is to realise that there presence in the UK is a complex issue.

Like many species we now cherish in this country, the hare for example, pheasants are an introduced species which has survived in the UK for many hundreds of years. And in fact, as suggested in Birds Britannica, some argue that they have shaped the landscape and helped to ‘maintain the fabric of the British countryside’.

I personally believe there is no perfect list of species that are ‘native’ to the UK and so if pheasants can fit into the ecosystem here without doing major damage that is fine. As an artist I would be happy to continue seeing their beautiful profile and rich colouring punctuating the landscape.

However, I cannot condone the way in which millions of pheasants are bred in captivity, only to be released for a brief period. Apparently half of the birds that are released don’t live long enough to be shot, instead they die from ‘exposure, starvation, disease, predation or under the wheels of motor vehicles’.

The knock on effects of this are an unnatural balance in our fragile ecosystem affecting a wide range of other species – from the newts and slow worms that provide food for the pheasants, to the variety of creatures that compete with them for food to big predators who benefit from pheasant carrion.

Hopefully that has got you thinking about the lives of these beautiful birds, now for some artistic responses to them in the form of prints, paintings and poetry, enjoy!

Animal - Bird - Indian, two pheasants

Two Pheasants. Early 17th century. Mughal dynasty. Northern India.

Image: Moonlit Pheasant lino cut Pheasant  You said you would kill it this morning. Do not kill it. It startles me still, The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing Through the uncut grass on the elm's hill. It is something to own a pheasant, Or just to be visited at all. I am not mystical: it isn't As if I thought it had a spirit. It is simply in its element. That gives it a kingliness, a right. The print of its big foot last winter, The trail-track, on the snow in our court The wonder of it, in that pallor, Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling. Is it its rareness, then? It is rare. But a dozen would be worth having, A hundred, on that hill-green and red, Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing! It is such a good shape, so vivid. It's a little cornucopia. It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud, Settles in the elm, and is easy. It was sunning in the narcissi. I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be. Sylvia Plath

Image: Moonlit Pheasant lino cut

Pheasant by Sylvia Plath

You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it. It startles me still,
The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing

Through the uncut grass on the elm’s hill.
It is something to own a pheasant,
Or just to be visited at all.

I am not mystical: it isn’t
As if I thought it had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.

That gives it a kingliness, a right.
The print of its big foot last winter,
The trail-track, on the snow in our court

The wonder of it, in that pallor,
Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling.
Is it its rareness, then? It is rare.

But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill-green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!

It is such a good shape, so vivid.
It’s a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud,

Settles in the elm, and is easy.
It was sunning in the narcissi.
I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.

Online source: http://worlds-poetry.com/sylvia_plath/pheasant

I particularly like the line:
‘Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling’ with its oblique reference to drawing/printmaking.

One day perhaps I will make a visual response to these lines:

‘A hundred, on that hill-green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!’

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A Year Reflected: Part II

july - arctic skuas, handaAnd so to the second half of the year – which was filled with teaching and travel.

The sea bird drawing course has become an important marker in my year since I first attended it in 2012. This year was no exception and the six days in early July served to renew ties with places and people and provide fresh connections and experiences.

Each year is different and this year had a number of stand out events for me.

fast castleA stunning day spent at Fast Castle was particularly memorable – an isolated peninsula just north west of St Abb’s Head – the weather was glorious, we watched lines of gannets flying past, sometimes eye-balling us as they went – the place was intoxicating. I spent time making drawings of a pyramidal sea stack directly below the peninsula which had a number of shags nesting on it – the contrast between the light and shade on the rock provided interesting shapes and rhythms which complimented the shapes made by the birds:

three shags, fast castle smallI also made a piece that day which aimed to capture a wider sense of the view across the Forth from this magical place:

fast castle vista smallIt turns out that Turner did some sketching at this inspiring location too – here is a page from one of his sketchbooks:

Rocks and Cliff, with Fast Castle Ruins Above 1801 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Rocks and Cliff, with Fast Castle Ruins Above 1801 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851rom Dunbar Sketchbook [Finberg LIV], Rocks and Cliff, with Fast Castle Ruins Above Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Image url: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-rocks-and-cliff-with-fast-castle-ruins-above-d02727

The week usually starts in Dunbar where there is a lively kittiwake colony occupying the crumbling remains of the old castle by the harbour. The stunning location and close views of the birds make it a perfect starting point for the week, however I have struggled in the past to capture the delicate structure of kittiwakes, alongside their feisty and belligerent behaviour. This drawing was a breakthrough for me, it aims to give a sense of the crowded nature of the colony.

kittiwakes smallSpending time on the Bass Rock is always a treat for the senses – it is an unbelievable place – this year I made drawings up at the lighthouse where I was able to watch birds in flight. The conditions that day meant that a lot of birds were hanging in the wind – a perfect opportunity to draw them. This herring gull drawing captures something of the sense of this:

flying herring gull smallAlmost immediately after the sea bird week I headed up to Ullapool for a summer school, teaching sketchbooks into print at Bridge House Art. The week was spent working with a great group of students in the inspiring new printmaking studio – an old converted garage complete with rusting chains, old signs and even a couple of genuine petrol pumps outside!

the presses group photo!

When I teach I often plan drawing trips to outdoor locations – I know how much drawing from life has enhanced and informed my own practice. The challenge of capturing a living landscape can be invigorating for students – with the changing light, constant stimulation of the senses and moving motifs. Working ‘en plein air’ encourages people to work with a clarity of vision which can be difficult to achieve in a studio environment. I traipse around trying to find students as they work, occasionally I notice things of interest and very occasionally I allow myself to stop for five minutes to observe them! It was early in the week in Ullapool and the students were all drawing along a wooded footpath next to a river, occasionally the trees would open out and reveal some playing fields or scrubland. As I was walking past these playing fields I noticed an unusual looking bird sitting on a goal post. My curiosity was piqued and I had to stop and take a closer look. It was a juvenile cuckoo – a curious looking bird it certainly seemed unsure of itself and was not at all afraid of me.

juvenile cuckoo

Cuckoos are fascinating and beautiful birds and there is still a lot we don’t know about them. Follow this link to find out about recent tracking of cuckoos by the BTO – it makes for interesting reading.

www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking/what-have-we-learnt

From Ullapool we went on a whirlwind road trip around the north of Scotland and across to Orkney. It was a great trip with some amazing landscapes and birds to be seen – the result was an extended wish list of places I must return to with more time and a sketchbook in hand! Highlights included – a trip to the wild, skua-filled island of Handa, close encounters with fulmar chicks, an Orcadian gannet colony, common gulls and terns in abundance plus the enigmatic Scottish primrose – click here for more images of the trip.

july - handa drawing skua

Returning to the city for August saw me hosting open studios, putting on a small exhibition with college friends and teaching a week of garden inspired drawing, painting and printmaking. Plus, making a monotype from this drawing of Bass Rock shags and their young in preparation for the annual SWLA exhibition.

shags under mallow, bass rock smallSeptember was warm and clear. I was largely occupied with teaching – firstly a lovely weekend in Yorkshire at Old Sleningford working with mixed media techniques and then into the start of term at Leith School of Art where I teach two year-long courses – one in printmaking and one in painting.

I did manage a day of drawing at the end of the month, returning to a favourite place, Aberlady Bay, to watch the geese descending on the bay at dusk after feeding out in the East Lothian fields. It was a day of stunning light and I got myself settled at the edge of a thicket looking across to the Edinburgh skyline. As the day drew in, the geese started to come in, two hours later there were still groups of them regularly flying overhead, honking, before gently tumbling down to land in the bay. Estimates suggest there can be up to 15,000 pink-footed geese in the bay and it is a wonderful sight and sound to behold.

aberlady drawing smallA much needed break in October found us in Corfu for a week staying with friends. Strictly a holiday and not a working trip I did manage to spend some time getting a sense of the wildlife of the place. A particularly memorable day saw us driving up endless hair pin bends to get to the top of a remote mountain track for a walk. Being in a very different landscape to that found in Britain provided me with an opportunity for reflection. This may have also been inspired by my holiday reading – George Monbiot’s recent book, Feral, about re-wilding ourselves and our planet. Monbiot speaks compellingly about how the over-management of land in the UK is narrowing the diversity considerably.

october - corfu walkBeing high in the hills of Corfu was interesting for a number of reasons – the track we took was surrounded with densely packed low trees and occasional clearings – it felt like there was a diversity of vegetation here.

october - corfu crocusRegularly the path would reveal small scale olive groves in all their shabby beauty – a farming method which is low impact in terms of changing the landscape or being turned over to large scale machinery. Jays and magpies are the main birds we saw but other birds were heard regularly and familiar sounds of robins, wrens great tits and blue tits surrounded the house we were staying in. Corfu airport happens to have a stretch of water running alongside it and as the plane taxied along the runway during the return flight, I caught sight of a kingfisher, silhouetted against the light.

I was delighted to have five pieces selected for the Natural Eye exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London again this year. I went down for the opening and enjoyed seeing some fantastic pieces on the wall, as well as catching up with people and spending a day in London visiting various exhibitions. I was even more thrilled upon my return home to discover that I had been made an Associate Member of the SWLA alongside two fellow sea bird drawing friends, John Foker and Ben Woodhams – a great honour.

I got down to some work in November – producing a new screen print and monotype combined, Blackbirds in the Park and beginning a flying gannet commission.

blackbirds in the park webI also enjoyed re-working an old British Bird series print of a Bullfinch. The print had been bothering me for a while, I was itching to make some changes so I decided to go for it – I was much happier with the reworked version – a completely different image.

winter bullfinch webDecember was busy with Christmas opens studios and the end of term. Christmas took me to Northumberland and north Fife visiting family. In amongst all the eating and socialising I did manage to make time for some reading and walking – new birds encountered were a female hen harrier, a black necked grebe and a juvenile great northern diver, plus this delightful grey partridge in a frosty field, not a bad list!

december - newport, partridge

Taking the time to reflect on the year gone by has made me realise how busy and full it was. 2015 is already shaping up to be the same ,with exciting opportunities on the horizon and new work to be made. New Year’s resolutions are stacking up, one of which is to try to write this blog much more so watch this space and have a creative and fulfilling 2015!

robin facebook

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A Year Reflected: Part I

june - young swallows at millI really value the days between Christmas and New Year as a time to reflect on the year just gone by and look forward to what lies ahead. This year has provided a number of clear, crisp days between Christmas and New Year. Short days – that intense yellow light of deep winter and the sharp, cold air which clears the head – can provide space and time to think. Reading about other peoples year’s brings a fresh source of inspiration – I particularly enjoy Caught by the River’s series Shadows and Reflections (great title) which invites its contributors to reflect on the year just passed. Newspapers full of lists spur me on to compile lists of my own: books I enjoyed in 2014, books I want to read in 2015, birds seen, exhibitions visited, inspiration found…

And so to the first half of my year –

January is my birthday month and I usually spend the day drawing with good friend and fellow artist Leo du Feu. The day is always a treasured event; this year we decided to take the train to Dunbar and explore from there. We headed due west to Belhaven bay along the cliff top walk with stunning views across to the Bass Rock. A diverse walk starting in the town and ending at the end of a dramatic pine plantation looking across Tyninghame estuary. We were lucky enough to see a kingfisher amongst many other birds that day. I loved these turnstones huddling along the concrete boulder in Belhaven bay.

January - turnstones dunbar
February
provided a brief stay on the shores of Loch Fyne with friends. After a late night of table tennis and beer, Paul and I were the first up in the morning and decided to walk along the loch shore in the early morning light. I’m so glad we did – we ended up spending about twenty minutes watching a young otter feeding and playing.

February - loch fyne otter

It was fascinating and thrilling to watch it rolling in the water, pink feet and nose facing the skies. There is something magical about seeing an animal at play, it is a powerful reminder that there is still much we do not understand about the fellow creatures we share our planet with. Here is nature writer Richard Mabey on play:

‘The ultimate expression of the comic way is play, an almost universal phenomenon among more complex animals (and which includes what humans call art), and one which, in its exuberant purposelessness, seems close to the heart of the whole business of life. Play is the opposite of Management by Objectives, the current creed which rigidly screens out spontaneity, imagination and surprise as parts of the creative process.’

from Nature Cure (2005, London:Chatto & Windus) pp 200-201.

I also made my first combined screen print and monotype in February. Being the two main print techniques I use in my work I had been thinking for some time about the possibilities of combining the two techniques – solid blocks of colour achieved in screen printing with the richer marks of monotype over the top (see the process in this previous post) . I was pleased with the results:

oystercatcher and curlew monotype 1 web
March
saw my first stay in the place my parents would be calling home by the end of the year – in the county of Northumberland, four miles in from the northern seaside town of Seahouses. It is exciting for me to have a base for exploring this new landscape, hopefully gaining insight into the changing moods and seasons of it. I have started to find my feet a bit now and am planning on spending time there in 2015. I look forward to discovering the abundant wildlife and engaging with the fascinating history of the place, much of which involves creatures: St Cuthbert and the eider ducks, Bede and the sparrow flying through the banquetting hall, the interlocking cormorants in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Chillingham cattle.

march - dad in the bog

Newham Bog, north Northumberland, March 2014

I also completed a commission in March for a blackbird in a palm tree for one of my  lecturers at Edinburgh University – it was a real privilege to make a piece for her and I’m pleased to say she was delighted with my response to the brief.

Blackbird in a palm tree, charcoal drawing

Blackbird in a palm tree, charcoal drawing

With the increasing light and warmth in April I was able to get outside a bit and fitted in a trip to north Fife with a particularly enjoyable visit to the sweeping beach at Tentsmuir point to watch the seals and look out for sea eagles (none to be seen this time but it did motivate me to read the fantastic Eagle’s Way by Jim Crumley – worth spending some time with).

I also was reminded in April of how many fascinating things were to be found on my doorstep – living a stone’s throw away from Holyrood Park in Edinburgh I am always surprised how removed from the urban you can feel in such a central city location. I managed to get close enough to a chiff chaff to get this photo:

april -chiff chaff

On the same day, as I was heading home, I noticed this fox, sunbathing amongst the gorse, it was so relaxed it wasn’t at all bothered by my presence:

april - urban fox

I spent a warm April day at St Abb’s Head drawing with friends – it was interesting to be there at the very beginning of the seabird breeding season.

Here is an extract from notes made in my sketchbook from that day, noticing the difference between April and June when I normally go with the seabird drawing course:

‘rafts of birds sit on the water – kittiwakes, auks…the cliffs are quieter, a few pairs have settled…the others seem to be waiting on the waves…the noises are less, but familiar, kittiwakes squawk mostly…fulmars are nesting – flying threateningly past me if I get too close – I watch two mating – it goes on a while, the female underneath, wing flattened (injured looking) against the rock…gannets all fly north in groups at different heights – they look strong in flight…the shadows on the cliffs change constantly – the waves below crash and froth violently.’

And a page from the sketchbook, trying to capture the different levels and directions of movement at this awe-inspiring place:

st abbsview 2

With May came a penultimate visit to my childhood home in nmay - redstartorth east Cumbria before my parents hopped across the pennines to Northumberland. It was a weekend of beginning to let go of the familiar, but also of unexpected new discoveries. A walk through the small bit of land attached to the Mill produced my first ever redstarts! I saw the female first, initially mistaken for a robin, until a strange flick of bright orange tail made me look again. The male soon appeared and I was able to watch them fly in and out of their nest hole in a tree hollow.

Back in Edinburgh I was maker of the month at Concrete Wardrobe on Broughton Street. I enjoyed printing my own wallpaper to go in the window of this fantastic shop which celebrates the work of many quality Scottish makers. I was also pleased to exhibit a large scale screen print for the first time, Coots and Swans, seen here in the window.

me outside concrete wardrobe small

And finally in June my family said goodbye to the Watermill at Little Salkeld. The place had been our family home and business for the last forty years so it was no mean feat to move everything and everyone out of it. We all gathered for the final weekend and amidst all the box packing and labelling I was able to take a few photos and enjoy some wonderful final experiences of the place.

The Mill - notice the four punctuation marks on the roof - familiar?

The Mill – notice the four punctuation marks on the roof – familiar?

The four young swallows at the top of this post fledged during the weekend we were down for the move. I watched them go from their nest in the shed, to sitting high up on the roof of the mill as their worried parents fed them, wheeling and diving nervously around them. By the time Monday came  they were confidently sitting on the power lines looking like kings of the world.

june - woodie at millThe kitchen window was probably where it all started for me. Looking out onto Sunnygill beck it provided a perfect hide for watching an abundance of bird life go by throughout my childhood and beyond. Regular visitors included great spotted woodpeckers, such as this handsome juvenile, photographed on the weekend of the move.

june - hare at millThis hare popped up to say goodbye – the first time I had seen one so close to the place.

In typical family tradition the move was not without a  selection of stray creatures being shoved into the back of motor vehicles (don’t ask) – in this instance it was Mr Cockaloo and Betty the orphan lamb along with a hen and four newly hatched chicks in a rabbit hutch!

june - betty and mr cockalooAnd I will end this post with some of the familiar colours of the Mill…

june - cranesbill at millAnd a final screen print taking inspiration from the lively dippers to be found flying up and down the beck each year – this one was busily feeding young in the wheelhouse of the Mill:

mill dipper web

Mill Dipper, screen print, 2014

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Women artists I love

A number of my favourite artists happen to be women as well so I thought I would write a post about them and their work. As always, there might be a bit of a bias towards the depiction of birds in the work I’ve chosen, but I’m sure my dear reader will understand!

I have known this Mary Fedden pencil drawing of a cuckoo for a long time. The quality of the pencil marks, the use of space in the drawing and the composition conjure up something both dynamic and understated.

mary fedden cuckoo drawing

Mary Fedden is most certainly an artist who works with her own set of shapes, often distorting the reality of things. Her birds tend to be chunkier than in reality and often inhabit simplifed worlds of mark and shape.

mary fedden bird

After visiting Orkney for the first time this summer I have been enjoying looking through Sylvia Wishart – a study, published by the Pier Arts Centre. Wishart’s work has a strong sense of place, a sensitive use of colour and an other-worldly quality to it. For many years her work developed in an abstract direction, although always remaining derived from the  landscape and history of the areas of Orkney she lived in.

In the following two quotes Wishart describes how a momentary occurrence proved the beginning of a significant body of work for her and a change of direction:

‘About twelve years ago a friend dropped in when I was out and with a felt tip pen drew on the window, amongst other things, a bird. This for the first time made me consciously look at the window, as well as through it and led to a series of paintings including this bird. I never washed it off, it just faded away. And ever since, that has led to a fascination with images found on the window pane, beyond and behind, leading inevitably to that ambiguity of space that has always held me.’

sylvia wishart, reflections

‘I had come back to ‘appearances’, after a long period of simplifying or ‘abstracting’. Now when three starlings alight on the fence I just draw them and I’m never sure if they are in the house or outside it, because there’s a blackbird at the back window and he’s been projected onto the front! All endlessly intriguing!’

Sylvia Wishart, etching

It is always informative reading how ideas for subjects begin. I like in this story how Wishart not only finds a new subject matter to grapple with – the reflected window – but also finds herself returning to observational work. It is notable that by returning to observing reality she makes probably her most bizarre and strange series of pieces.

As Philip Guston says: ‘The visible world…is abstract and mysterious enough. I don’t think one needs to depart from it in order to make art’.

Kiki Smith is an artist who is interested in the human body, mythology and the natural world. Her depictions of birds often contain strange narratives. Despite trawling the net I was unable to find much information about where either of the images below derived from.  They are beautifully delicate and intriguing works – Smith has a particular love of drawing fur, feathers and hair which often feature in her drawn work.

kiki smith birds

smith-kiki-1954-usa-ohne-titel-woman-with-bird-1709777

The following two paintings are both titled Sandpipers in Alnmouth and are by Winifred Nicholson. Both works contain a strong sense of a moment captured; although the birds are quite clumsily described, the geometric shapes they make give a strong sense of movement and lightness to them. The dynamic movement of the flock is offset by the stillness of the scene beyond – the well-balanced composition along with the limited palette of colours provide a sense of tranquility.

sandpipers flock, winifred nicholson

It is interesting that the artist produced two paintings of the same image – I wonder if the top one might have been painted on the spot or as a study for the second one which seems more designed (I prefer the top one for its feeling of immediacy).

Sandpipers, Alnmouth 1933 by Winifred Nicholson 1893-1981
And finally, a couple of paintings by Mary Newcomb, an artist who always brings a fresh point of view to things. Her work contains a great sense of colour and design, along with a lightness of touch and a poetic vision of the world.

mary newcomb, a hedge in november

This first painting is called A hedge in November and is a work I have been familiar with for a while. Every time I look at it I am astounded by how Newcomb has managed to capture such a strong sense of a wintery hedge through such unrepresentational means. In the berry tree on the left, the strong colours in the stems against the grey background contrast intensely with the heavy black forms of the berries. The beautifully silhouetted thorn branches on the right side of the canvas add to the  form of the hedge and give a sense of space to the piece.

mary newcomb, collared doves lifted by light

This painting, entitled Collared doves lifted by light, is new to me. My interpretation of the image is these are two doves on a blue-painted bird bath surrounded by red flowers. Once again there is a beautiful combination of abstract colour and form plus that noticing of an insignificant moment, which has been transformed into something beautiful, intriguing and fragile under the expert eye of Newcomb.

As always it is both nourishing and uplifting to see the work of other artists – I hope you have enjoyed this insight into some of the people who inspire me.

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