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.
A 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:
Spending 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:
Almost 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
September 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.
A 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.
Being 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.
Regularly 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.
I 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.
December 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!
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!