Friday, 9 December 2011

Loose Ends.

The festive season draws close and brings to a conclusion what has been the most dramatic and traumatic year of my life! Lynn has finished her treatment and has finally gone back to work on a part time basis for the time being? My daughter is beating her depression and seems much better and I have started to turn my attention once more to Art and Music and earning a living? There have been some interesting birds arriving on my patch recently and I managed to get out to see some of them. Hen Harriers, Short-Eared Owls and a Great-Grey Shrike being among the highlights. As the weather turns I am anticipating more winter migrants turning up and I'm hoping that Lynn will be well enough for us to get out and about in order to see them?

The Great-Grey Shrike appeared out of the mist like a little ghost and alighted in a hawthorn at the top of a ridge. Shapes that were grey and colourless started to take form and substance and I could make out the line of a hedge stretching into the distance and the vague outline of fields behind. A red kite drifted into view and stooped to pick something up giving a sudden flash of red forked tail. Other birds began to materialise as the light grew stronger and I concluded that they were finches and sparrows? In a flash the shrike dashed towards us and swooped over the hedge like a small hawk, making the finches scatter in all directions! It was quite dramatic and we were treated to a lively performance for the next 20 minutes. As the mist rolled up the hill again it was as if a curtain had been drawn across the scene and we were obliged to take our leave? A magical moment!

A Hen Harrier was one of three that had been reported and together with a pair of Short-Eared Owls became the focus of attention for lots of local birders. We were on the 'Icknield Way', an ancient drover's path that crosses the chilterns and who's dust has coated many feet over the years from medieval pilgrims, anglo-saxon warriors and even the legions of rome! We followed it from Therfield Heath towards the market town of Royston and then up towards Grey's farm where at last we caught sight of our first Hen-Harrier! A 'Ringtail'. She swooped and stooped as she quartered the rough pasture and several times dropped to the ground, no doubt seizing a vole or small bird? There are lots of finches and larks here at the moment due to the farm being managed sympathetically for wildlife. A little while later we had even better views from the road leading into Therfield village! My paintings are of a pleasant memory of the occasion and even more so to see the smile return to Lynn's face after such a long time!
I am going to include a few more paintings and sketches from various encounters so as to tie up my 'loose ends' so to speak, in the hope that you will allow me to indulge myself in the sheer beauty of some of the many birds that visit my patch at this time of year? How can any artist resist the urge to paint them? or any photographer not want to capture their image? Poets may wax lyrical and great storytellers might bring them vividly to life in our imagination but lets all be thankfull that against all odds they are still here?

Although this isn't a recent sketch I saw a large flock of these gorgeous little finches at the RSPB headquarters at the Lodge in bedfordshire last week! They are very noisy and active and flocks may include common, lesser and Arctic Redpolls? I have always had trouble telling them apart? These are common redpolls feeding on Alder seeds.

Lesser Black Backed Gulls at Amwell. Hertfordshire.
May I take this opportunity to wish everyone a peaceful and wildlife-filled christmas and hope that even if you don't get everything you wished for? You at least get what you deserve?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Late Summer Dragonflies and Ripe Fruits.

Over the past month I have been watching dragonflies on my local patch and was surprised to find a few species hunting and hawking quite far from any substantial water! They seemed to like to rest at times among leaves and fruits and this gave me the idea to sketch them as I found them and to indulge in some coloured pencil technique. I used graphite pencils to create tone and depth and then built up layers of colour on top using Faber -Castell Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils. They can be easily blended with or without water and give brilliant, vibrant results! Its as near to being a child with a box of crayons again as I can remember? Totaly absorbing! Whenever I see ripe fruits and berries I cannot resist them and have to draw or paint them immediately! This year has seen a bounty of Hawes, sloes, heps and berries as well as a larder full of acorns, nuts and seeds and the winter thrushes have arrived in force to gorge themselves! I found some succulent apples hanging so heavy on the tree that the branches were arching almost to the ground! I only hope I have done them justice in my drawing?
The first frosts will signal the end for the dragonflies but not before bowing out in a blaze of glory! I hope you enjoy looking at my next two sketches as much as I did creating them?
Lynn has started radiotherapy treatment and seems at long last to have made giant strides forward in her battle with breast cancer! The prognosis is good and we are optimistic and looking forward to a positive future and being rid of this awful disease. She can walk further now and has a sparkle in her eye! We try to go birding as often as we can and we relish every moment!
My next sketch is of a Garden warbler that caught my attention one morning in my own garden as it foraged and flitted from leaf to branch almost un-noticed and silent! It stayed for a couple of days and then moved on giving a brief but joyfull interlude for which I was most gratefull!
I am always fascinated by bird migration and somewhat envious of the power of flight and the freedom it affords the feathered multitudes that come and go every season. The great journeys that birds make and the vast distances they cover are a constant source of wonder and amazement to me! Warblers are so tiny and seem so fragile and yet they always return each year from Africa and fill our hearts with joy! I know they face many grave dangers en-route yet I cannot imagine life without them? They are a constant source of inspiration and challenging subjects to draw?

Monday, 29 August 2011

All the fun of the fair?

The British Birdwatching fair has come and gone for another year and afterwards I was left wondering if It had fulfilled my expectations or if the atmosphere was somewhat subdued this year? The entrance fee was 25% higher and everything seemed more expensive and the crowds seemed fewer than before? In a way I was glad, because this gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with some of the artists and to ask for a critique on some of my work! Cheeky I know but I thought 'what the heck?' 'why not?'. They were very gracious and brutally honest and although some opinions differed widely they were all very encouraging! I recieved sound advice and precious pearls of wisdom from some of the worlds top artists and I have taken it all on board, and for that, I am truly grateful!  It confirms the belief that art is so subjective and we all see things so very differently! I came away feeling that I could achieve something with my art and that one has to be true to oneself. 
I showed the following painting to Michael Warren and he suggested that I rework the eye of the bird and darken behind the head and also pay more attention to the leaves, (which I have done!)  His sage advice was to always pay attention to detail and sketch in the field and to practise from life as often as possible.  I think that this has definitely improved the painting.  What do you think?  
The painting shows a Spotted flycatcher in the old apple tree at the Lodge, Sandy. These birds raised a succesfull brood and were a treat for visitors to the RSPB during the summer.

 Strong opinions from Jane Leycester Paige on my butterflies and flowers and some eye watering comments that quite surprised me but not once was she condescending or patronising! I was so relieved that she recognized every flower and my butterflies (although a bit too flat?) passed the test! She really liked the next painting and coming from one of the top botanical artists, that really made my day! I do tend to get carried away when it comes to painting flowers and throw in everything including the kitchen sink! I just can't help myself! This watercolour is no figment of imagination but an image of what was on show at this rare site in Hertfordshire and where Chalkhill blues still breed in abundance! I hope it does justice?
My next painting is a study of a Ring Ouzel seen on migration this spring at Holme Dunes in North Norfolk. She was as bold as brass and we got terrific close up views as she danced among the tussocks. I would like to thank all the artists that were gracious enough to let me bend their ear at this years birdfair especially the society of wildlife artists and the artists for nature foundation, Jonathan Latimer for his encouraging comments and to Szabi(nice to meet you in the flesh at last). John Threlfall for giving up his chair to my wife! Ian Langford for the beautiful book and for signing it and to all the artists who signed it as well! It just goes to prove that art can make a difference and can enrich our lives? Now? Where did I put my pencil sharpener?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Midsummer Musings.

Its been a strange month in many ways what with family circumstances (If you knew the whole truth you would not believe such things could happen all at once? Daughter(depression), Mother(alzhiemers),Aunt(died!),not to mention Lynn's chemo treatment!!!). One of the few things that keeps me sane is the chance to grab a few hours birdwatching and to sit with Lynn and finish my sketches! And then there's the wierd weather that can't seem to make up it's mind what to do? Has autumn arrived early? Wait a minute! Its stinking hot today with a chance of thunderstorms! Who knows what next week will bring? An early autumn does have it's compensations though? It means that migrant birds are arriving from the arctic breeding grounds still resplendent in their breeding plumage! Recently I had Wood sandpiper,Green and common sandpiper,Black-tailed Godwit and some gorgeous Black-necked grebes visit my local patch in the Lee valley. From the continent I had the pleasure of a Hummingbird-Hawk moth in my garden as well as a juicy selection of butterflies!

Check out my Black-Necked Grebe and Wood Sandpiper sketches following a recent visit to Rye Meads RSPB reserve on my local patch in Hertfordshire. Gorgeous!

There have been lots of families of warblers moving around my local patch recently including Willow warblers, Whitethroats and small groups of Blackcaps. The best time to see these is very early in the morning when the mist is heavy in the trees and the air is cool and still. I even had a fox run straight past me so close I could have touched it! Silence is golden! As the day warms up I can hear Turtle Doves and the first lark! Sometimes I don't want to leave!

I re-visited some old sketches and memories from earlier this year and came up with this watercolour of Yellow Wagtails seen at Titchwell in Norfolk from the new Parrinder hide. I seem to remember there were seven of these beauties on the brackish marsh. I hope you like this?

With a bit of luck I'm taking Lynn to the Birdfair at Rutland in August? I'm going to pick the brains of some of the artists there for any advice or tips and to drool over their work! I will try post my next ramblings at the end of the month? Best wishes to everyone.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Sketching and Painting Butterflies.

Circumstances have recently allowed me to resume a limited time in my wanderings and I am starting to see the emergence of some of the summer butterfly species on my local patch! I am also asked how do I go about creating a composition and setting it down on paper? I thought it might be a nice idea to include the process in my blog for anyone who may be interested?
The first thing I do is to choose a suitable subject and make some preliminary sketches of all the various elements I want to include. I then juxtapose these into one final sketch and make a decision as to how the finished composition might look? All I need for this process is a 2B sketching pencil and some heavyweight cartridge paper. The outline is then transfered to watercolour paper and any final adjustments made before I start to paint!

I have an idea in my head as to how I want the finished painting to look and I usually draw my inspiration from the natural suroundings in which my main subject is found! In this case it was a pair of Marbled White butterflies that were mating among meadow grasses and wild flowers and I was particularly inspired by the combination of Oxe-Eye Dasies and Wild Harebells nodding and waving among the grass stems! Such sights are becoming ever more rare and hark back to the days before intensive farming and the use of pesticides and herbicides! While surrounded by vast oceans of wheat and barley there are still tiny pockets of wild flowers and colonies of butterflies that cling on in odd places untouched by plough and spray and it is these that I search out every year! I record things as I find them in my sketches and paintings and now I can post them on my blog for all to share?
Once the sketch is finished I lay out my paints and brushes and wet the paper! The first washes are applied and I mix the greens as I go working quickly from light to dark! Some washes are added 'wet in wet' and I allow certain colours to bleed into one another! At this stage it is background washes that are layed down and once started I am committed and cannot turn back? It is important not to apply too much or too dark a pigment and keep things transparent.

More washes are added and the mid tones and mid ground are defined and small adjustments made before the final stage is reached. I usually know by now whether this is turning out ok?

After the final washes are completed I add highlights and shadow and turn my attention to the main subject, the butterflies themselves. I use a combination of sketches and photos for reference as I paint the butterflies and I try to describe them as accurately as I can? Even so! I am first and foremost involved in creating an 'impression' and the butterflies are just one part of the overall composition!

Any other highlights and shadow are added and then the painting is finished! Phew!
As I write this post I am pleased to inform anyone intersted that a couple of my butterfly paintings are being shown in an exhibition in my local market town of 'Hitchin' to celebrate the 'Hitchin Festival' which runs throughout the month of July. Look out for the 'Art Trail' if you happen to be in Hitchin anytime this month? Best wishes and I leave you with the finished result!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Early Butterflies.

I recently had a chance to sketch some butterflies on my local patch and felt inspired by the excepionaly mild spring weather and the abundance of fresh wild flowers. I can't recall in recent memory seeing such a flush of Orange Tip and Holly Blue and have counted dozens on my walks. Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Speckled Wood have visited my Hertfordshire garden just about every day and Green-viened White are everywhere!
This latter species sits well with the bluebells in one painting and so I indulged myself unashamedly as they flitted across a drift of mauve and blue in my local wood. Above me at the time are a pair of Sparrowhawks noisily building a nest and a Blackcap warbling continuously over my shoulder. For me this is pure escapism!
I normaly mix my own greens depending on the amount of light available as I compose and execute the painting but I also like to use ready made Olive green and Sap green! These help to give a cool tint and add depth to the shadows behind the herbage. It helps white subjects such as flowers and butterflies to come forward and stand out!

The following two paintings are studies of blossom which has been glorious in the garden and in the hedgerows this year! I love to include blossom in my bird and butterfly paintings and can't wait for any excuse to do so?

Oh! Incidentaly! The Buff tailed and white tailed bumblebees have been getting completely plastered on the cherry and apple nectar and gathering sackloads of pollen on the way!
My next study was done early on good friday in the church yard of St Mary's Aston which is a quiet village just ten minutes walk from my house. There are clumps and drifts of Cuckoo flowers (Lady's Smock) among the gravestones and at this time of year it is in full bloom. A favoured food plant of the caterpillar of the Orange tip butterfly! I painted this to the strains of J S Bach being played on the church organ and the experience was one of solace and reflection. Lynn has started chemotherapy and the first session has been pretty tough what with sickness and fatigue and she will have several more sessions of treatment over the next 18 weeks! All the staff at the hospital have been fantastic and very supportive and the prognosis is extremely good! We would like to thank everyone who has shown concern for their kind thoughts and best wishes and I can assure everyone that Lynn is being well looked after.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Hope springs eternal?

Dark days descended on us at the end of January when Lynn was diagnosed with Breast cancer and the bottom seemed to fall out of my world! These past few weeks have been very difficult and we are helping her to recover from a second operation! The prognosis is good and we are optimistic even though we know there are going to be tough times ahead? My mind has been distracted and I have not felt the inclination to go birding or to do much sketching! I have not had much time to indulge in trivial pursuits and the situation has certainly forced me to get my priorities into perspective! I am posting what few sketches I have here now, although when I will find the time or the inclination to do more I can't tell at the moment!
I saw these Hawfinches in Bramfield village on valentines day and they attracted lots of twitchers and long lenses from far and wide! Keeping to the very tops of the tallest trees meant that they were only seen at some distance! The following sketches were done in my Hertfordshire garden and describe a Blackbird that has stayed with us throughout the entire winter! The male found a mate and is now setting up home in the hedge at the back!

I have titled the following sketch 'Stormcrow' not to in any way deride the Carrion crow but rather to help describe the dark moods that have overtaken me at times this past month! I can honestly say that I have rarely felt so scared as I have done recently!
The painting of the three stoats was done a while ago after Lynn and I had visited Scotland and is a reflection on that happy holiday. I love the playful nature of these creatures and when I was a boy I was playing in the garden one day when a family of seven stoats ran across the road from the hayfield and straight into our shed! As they ran amok they nearly frightened our pet rabbit to death! I was struck by how lithe and agile they were and seemingly so fearless of everything in their path! I could certainly use some courage of my own right now?

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Brown Hares.

I recently had the good fortune to witness at close hand the fascinating behaviour of one of our most enigmatic mammals and was inspired to create some observational sketches and paintings to remind me of these encounters! Just before christmas last I was out among the vast open fields that run the length of a chalk ridge that climbs from the Beane valley out to the east of Herts and although intensively farmed for cereal crops, does nevertheless provide a refuge for Brown Hares. As I stood on the crest of the ridge I turned to face the wind and saw a trio of Hares on the next brow! I froze in the moment and quite literally so! as the temperature was well below freezing and the first snowfall lanced sideways and within minutes was coming thick and fast! The Hares were unfazed and were chasing each other in circles amid the spinning snow. They were leaping at times and boxing! and seemed stirred into a complete frenzy by the ever worsening weather. I must have stood watching for a good 30 minutes before they suddenly became aware of my intrusion and all three took off as one and raced away into the coming storm! Within a few seconds they had vanished completely!

The scene was quite magical and I felt very privileged to have shared in those intimate moments! By the time I had walked half way home the weather had unleashed its full fury and the snow was becoming quite deep! I did manage to see a female Sparrowhawk glide past me and alight not far ahead with what looked like a Blackbird gripped in her talons. It provided an unforgetable finale to a wonderful afternoon and inspiration for a future painting perhaps?

I have seen Hares on numerous occassions in the past and always marvled at their ability to endure the harshest of conditions out in the open in all weathers at all times of the year! Both Brown Hares and Mountain Hares seem to be impervious to frost and snow, rain or biting winds and are at the mercy of any number of predators, so it amazes me how they still manage to survive? They have my deepest admiration and respect!