Sunday 27 December 2009

Birds & Beasts In The Depth Of Winter

Almost Christmas; another milestone ready to disappear into oblivion through the rear-view mirror as we hurtle forward through time at excruciating speed. Where the hell has this year gone to???

In three months time we’ll be celebrating out first anniversary in the Gallery and, I suppose the fact that we’re quite happy to continue with the business must mean we’ve gotten something out of it – albeit not much financially – but it has been a great way to meet folk (locals and visitors alike), and to exchange birdy tales. The last month has been very quiet, but has at least given me a bit of breathing space within which to concentrate on fulfilling a few commissions gleaned during the warmer months.

The peregrine portrait is a diversion from my usual work; I don’t tend to make straightforward portraits much nowadays, but this piece presented many challenges. I made several false starts to the painting until I found myself in accord with the way the piece was heading. The blocked-in feel of the background was difficult for me to achieve, not technically, but I had to stop myself going back in there and layering more detail and texture on. I thought the result fairly successful.

When a very nice couple came into the shop they seemed more interested in discussing the distribution of species (rather than my preferred topic; the re-distribution of wealth – theirs to me!) and they left with a smile and a promise to return at the end of their holiday. Hmmm – everyone always says they’ll be back. They won’t!
But they did return a week later, buzzing with the experience of connecting with a nice flock of snow buntings over at Mull Head. I’d been kicking a lovely snow bunt along the path at Ness Point on my twice-daily walks with mad-dog Donnie for about a week too and showed them the sketches I’d made one morning. Good move. We discussed a commission, sizes and prices.

The ensuing watercolour is one of my favourite pieces of work from the past few months and it was enthusiastically received. The returning cheque was more than enthusiastically received by the paupers of Stromness (us).

An unfortunate incident presented me with yet another corpse to study from;
A teacher at Edie’s school had noticed a bird being flushed a short way by a passing car and, as she went to see where it ended up, re-flushed it and it flew directly into a neighbour’s window. The house-owners came out and identified it as a young curlew and I was telephoned to collect it, if I wanted it. Walking up the drive I could see the bird draped over a window ledge. I could also see it was a woodcock. Straight home and to work.
The second was a beautiful ‘alba’ barn owl – a rarity up here – that had been fund in the South Parish of South Ronaldsay. My good friend Paul Higson was good enough to collect the bird and I made a start on a study. I didn’t, however. Feel I was doing the bird justice so I curtailed my work and popped the body in the freezer for another day.

It’s always good practice for any artist to tackle subjects which take them out of their own personal comfort zone and commissions often do this. Up here, agriculture is a way of life and most families have a connection with the land and livestock. The sheep are north country Cheviots and were owned by the father of a friend who wanted to surprise his dad on Christmas.
The hares and lapwing painting is a similar scenario; a husband’s secret pressie for his wife (added pressure n the painter, knowing a marriage could be at stake!)

Other self-motivated pieces from recently are the brown trout painting and this observational piece of a local hooded crown on the beach

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Saturday 3 October 2009

American Plovers, Vireo and a Sandhill Crane

Wow! Autumn is always eagerly anticipated by all birders; the promise of north European migrants being flipped slightly westwards by easterly winds and onto our isles, there to be savoured and enjoyed, is the stuff of dreams. But we rely on the right conditions; these have to be conducive for the birds setting off on their migratory routes south through Scandinavia, then for easterly winds to blow them squint towards us and finally for precipitation of some sort to force them to land once they are in proximity. All we have to do then is go out and find where they are! It’s a fine plan. Sometimes though, it doesn’t work out like that.

This autumn for instance, the prevailing weather systems have been continually and aggressively from the west and, although we have had a few classic drift migrants (barred warbler etc) flounder to our shores, most have managed to make their way south, unhindered.

But what Mother Nature takes with one hand, she appears to have more than compensated with the other. Following on the kite-tails of the last hurricane, the airflow has been almost incessantly from the west and with it have come visitors not seen in these parts for many-a-year. American Golden Plovers are frequent if unreliable tourists to Britain – we’ve got at least three, two adults and a juvenile, merrily swanking around out li’l ol isles and showing the local greeny-yellow guys just what the meaning of ‘smart’ is. Just this week our near-neighbours in Shetland have been playing host to dapper chappies such as buff-bellied pipit and the mega-rare Veery; two deciding Zetland was as good a place as any to spend a wee break. I found a Pectoral Sandpiper whilst taking mad-dog Donny out for his morning constitutional along the Stromness golf course and just yesterday local birdwatchers were thrilled to get the call from our own Rare Bird Alerter, Paul ‘Mega’ Higson that he had cunningly enticed a Red-eyed Vireo to reveal itself from a Tankerness Plantation by ‘pishing it out’. This is the first record for Orkney!

However the prize for the bird that really captured the imagination has to go to the Sandhill Crane. With just two records for Britain in 1981 and 1991 (Shetland and Fair Isle) and an archaic one from Cork in 1905 (shot), Orcadians were delighted to have this leggy stunner strut her stuff around the stubble fields of South Ronaldsay. Although it almost wasn’t to be.

Y’see, the bird happened to drop into a field in the middle of nowhere and the local farmer, not caring too much about which species of wildlife wanted to share his land, just let the bird alone and got on with is own work. For ten days! After nearly two weeks of nodding courteously at this strutting wonder, he elected to find out what it was. Several interconnecting phonecalls ensued resulting in Mega’ Higson chucking brother Mark in the back of his saloon and venturing to the South Parish, fully expecting a Common Crane at best, heron more likely. On his arrival, and after checking his state of awakedness, he identified the bird as a Sandhill Crane and subsequently fell in a ditch. He may still be there!

The bird has now earned its place in British Birding lore; hundreds of enthusiastic folk having made the not-inconsiderable journey north (some less-so south-bound from Zetland and a few from Denmark and further afield) and almost all having connected satisfactorily with our friend from the west.

Immediately prior to the first of the pioneering birding troops arriving, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of hours in the early morning of the 23rd of September, all alone, just enjoying the tranquil beauty of a splendid bird, lost but contentedly feeding in a stubble field on a farm in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, watched and ignored by a posse of great black-backed gulls and a couple of lapwings.

And this is a painting worked from the sketches which I have published as a limited edition print. I think it encapsulates the essence of that first encounter with a superb and enigmatic bird – one I’ll certainly never forget.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

As Plain As Black and White

The summer is moving inexorably into autumn, with winter peeking around the corner at every turn. The vibrancy of colour and clamourations of the seabird cities are a fresh but passing memory and my thoughts are turning to darker days.
All the energy and effort of working towards the Summer Sketchbook exhibition has been quite draining and in antithethis to this I wanted to work much larger and without the constraint of colour (this may sound curious, but colour can be restrictive - certainly to me). I embarked upon a series of drawings from round about and further afield.
Charcoal is a wonderful medium - instant and unfussy. The drawings are approximately 3 feet across.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

A Summer Sketchbook - An Exhibition

During the spring and summer of 2009 I was employed by the RSPB to monitor the breeding birds of the north isles of Orkney. I was living out of my campervan; no family ties, kids neither demanding attention, nor dog walking to do, I was alone in unusual lands ripe for exploration. The work entailed visiting the breeding areas during the early morning and at evening time, thus leaving the bulk of the daylight hours for watching the birds. And for drawing them. Occasionally I would seek out new, unexplored areas, but more often I would return to my survey sites and observe my subjects at a more leisurely pace and from a less intrusive distance. This is when I got to see the birds just ‘being themselves’; I really started to get to know them just a wee bit. I also accumulated further data which contributed to a more complete assessment of the birds’ breeding status.

When the opportunity to stage an exhibition was offered, I turned to the many sketchbooks full of scribbles, written notes and colour studies. Re-visiting these images, sometimes several weeks after the event, allowed me to take a new and fresh look at the drawings and the birds which I had portrayed. In some cases I felt the original drawing which I had made in situ was relevant and I reworked the piece only slightly (if at all), adding little to the source image; other pieces, although derived from an encounter with an individual bird or experience in the field, have benefitted from being able to glance back from distance; the salient elements of the experience distilled and refined somewhat. Almost all of the paintings are annotated with the notes made at the scene of the original observation, placing a particular event in time and location. This is my way of interpreting the visual delights of an Orkney Summer.

Here is a selection of works destined for the exhibition. Incidentally, I am going to be publishing a limited edition commemorative catalogue of the exhibition. It will be A5 landscape, 32 pages in colour and will be limited to 50 copies signed and with a unique inscribed vignette. If anyone's interested and would like to reserve a copy, they will be £12.50 +p&p.
Please email ( to order.

Monday 8 June 2009

Gulp – doesn’t time just whizz by?!
Already halfway through 2009 and barely an update to the blog (sorely missed, I’ll bet) but, unlike previously when I had been trapped in the studio, this time is because I have been out-a-doors most of the time. My contract with RSPB was renewed just at the point when time was plentiful but cash was, as ever, in short supply. So the surveys start but almost simultaneously, we get the opportunity to take on the lease for a shop on the local high street (well, the only street, really!) and we then find ourselves having a full-time job each and in addition having to set up a new venture and provide stock for it.
So, many hours of painting slates, framing prints and nicking paintings off the walls at home and we open the shop. For one week.
Then we have to take a trip south to see mum (already scheduled) and manage to miss the most potentially lucrative week of the year; Easter.
Anyway – stuff happens and you just have to get on with it, don’t you?
Working for the RSPB this year is somewhat different as it entails plotting up on the North Isles for several days at a time. Luckily we have recently invested some of our overdraft in an aging motorhome (more of which elsewhere, at another time) which gives me the perfect base from which to work and also a haven to return to. It also functions perfectly as a mobile bird-sketching hide; something which added an extra reason for me fetching the van all the way from Glasgow one wintry night early this year.
Anyway the trip to see mum worked out well – particularly the return jaunt up the west coast; camping in the van at Loch Ness, Fort William and Ullapool (three highlights of many scenic eye-poppers). The Ullapool stop being spent at the campsite at Ardmair – a wonderfully evocative place, more so for me because it was here that I first ever came to Scotland – and fell in love with the place irrevocably. A few things had changed in the intervening 26 years (!) but the place still holds all the mystique and romance that I felt when a wee nipper. We saw an otter in the bay, too – another old friend from west coast trips. Talking of old friends, whilst at mum’s she ferreted out an old painting that I did many years ago (1987 to be precise, when I was 24 years old. Jeeps, I can’t even remember being 24 years old!). It’s of sanderlings and I know for a fact that I had only ever seen one before – and that at Broomhill Flash, Wombwell in South Yorkshire. Anyway, pride aside, here it is;

Back in Orkney and straight into the RSPB job. Always wonderful to get out to the isles, just occasionally being in the wrong place at the wrong time causes a lot of heartache. I’ve never seen a snowy owl in the wild and when one turned up in the county I was buzzing. But the bird (a young female) spent several weeks playing with my head; it was seen in two different locations not ten minutes from my home in Stromness several times over a period of four weeks, and each time I succeeded in missing the bird. It then turned up on the Island of Shapinsay – not only one of the islands I am working on as part of my contract, but also the island we lived on when we first moved to Orkney. And where was it seen, this be-speckled white northern beauty? Sitting on an old fencepost, in a field at the farm that I used to bloody-well own!!!! Talk about taking the Michael!
Eventually, however, I received a call. The call. Snowy owl showing well in a field in Holm (pronounced Ham, up here). Only 25 miles but starting to get dark and I know Sally’s not going to be happy with my suggestion that I abandon the kids’ bathtime, and the evening meal, erm, and her and go and look at a bloody bird!.
“Fine – just GO!” she suggested. “But if you don’t effing see the effing thing, don’t effing come back!!!” she quietly advised.
I exchange the Freelander for a teleporter and zap into the field within half an hour (don’t forget, not only does Orkney have no motorways, there isn’t even one metre of dual carriageway in the county, so travel can be a tad laborious at times). Not tonight though. And there’s the owl. But it’s not the little minx that’s been toying with my birdy emotions all the while; nope, it’s a pristine male bird, doing all he can to look like a white feed-bucket beside a square concrete strainer.
A very pleasant and most satisfying 45 minutes of drawing later and one happy chappie on the road back home. No dinner, I grant you; but fulfilled in every other sense.

So, having got a ‘life-tick’, birding was bound to be straight forward from here-on in. Yes? Nope!
Just one more species was to send my dials spinning before the end of May – and this one was a really old friend; one that I saw only ever-so briefly 30 years ago, it standing in a ploughed field, 200 metres away from me, somewhere near Hoyland (I think – the memory is somewhat shaky).
I’m on the north isles – Shapinsay to be quite precise (yep – wrong time again) and the phone bleeps with a text ‘dotterel in South Ronaldsay’. ‘Jayzzusss Feckkkk-ittt’ I scream, frightening the curlews. By the time I’ve done the surveys and caught the boat back, these birds have long gone – probably mincing about on some upland tundra hilltop enjoying their curiously inverted summer nuptials.
I write them off, thinking I’ve done without them for thirty years, I can manage another thirty; no bother. I then ‘do the math’ as our Am. cuzzins say and image me-self at seventy-six, chasing a bunch of fancy plovers across a wheat field. Hmmm.
But, once again, the phone goes into sex-mode. Top birder and all round good-egg Paul (who runs the bird alert service in the county), knowing my personal plight with these birds has arranged for a small party of seven dotterel to conveniently land in an open field, right by the airport in Tankerness, and here he is giving me the tip-off.
What he’s unaware of, of course, is the fact that I’ve been out all morning and half the afternoon, wasting ‘quality-time’ and fecking-expensive fuel looking for – erm – dotterel.
Aaaarrrgghhh! I replace the handset very carefully, knowing I am in grave danger of ripping the whole communication device off the wall.
I glanced at darling wife whose face told something of a story, so I sulked for half an hour, at which point she told me to “Piss off and don’t come back!”.
Well, I thought, this an opportunity too good to miss and with her 'blessing' I sped off to the airport. No fecking sign - Brrastid! Quick call to Mr Higson who told me to go to the house with the washing (?!) I did and was there allowed wonderful access to their land and superb, if distant views of the birds.
I realise they are fairly settled, and are having difficulty leaving the site ‘cos of the wind, so I settle down for a session. I hear a cardoor slam and three very perky dotterel-spotters in high spirits tramp across to me 'Ssshhhhh!! - shut the duck-up' - I rather irritably snarl - but too late and the birds are offski. I sit jaw-clenched and white knuckled as apologies spill forth, but I decide to pack up, go the house to offer my thanks and phone Sal to see if I would be getting any dinner.
“They're back”, Ian has chased me to the car. I phone Sal back and plead for a little more time. Strangely the line goes dead. Hmmm, must be out of battery, I think - so go back to the dotterels for another hour and a half, during which time they’re harassed by a cock lapwing (who had a nest approximately four miles away); they attempt to continue their migration, but the wind just keeps blowing them back, so settled back down in the field. They were still there when I left at six o'clock.
I thought I'd better check if I still had a marriage to go home to. The jury's still out . . .

A few field drawings and a ‘finished’ piece from the same;

Some other stuff from ‘the field’ over the past few weeks;

Monday 2 February 2009

Stuck In The Studio - No Bad Thing!

I haven’t had much time to get out and draw over the past month or so. The adverse weather combined with the extreme dearth of daylight hours has meant that any artistic endeavours have been studio-based. Fortunately I don’t have to go far to find inspiration as our house is a waterfront property with red-breasted merganser, eiders, shags and gulls swimming past the kitchen door.

And the weather is always interesting. Our property, like many in Stromness, has flooded in the past. When there is a combination of extreme weather conditions; high tide, low barometric pressure and a strong south-easterly blow amalgamate to push water into the Haven where it has nowhere else to go. The water rises and the breakers come rolling in. These are tense times and we watch both the sea and the clock to check when we are highest risk and the subsiding tide and/or a reduction in wind strength are greeted thankfully. Most of the time though, we can just enjoy the natural spectacle of wind whipping whitecaps of spray and foam onto greeny-grey peaks of saltwater; the gulls hanging and driving against the force of the air, the waterbirds seemingly oblivious to the incongruity of the climate.

Two of my best friends have been pontificating over what should adorn their newly refurbished living room wall and, having finally made a decision, I was summoned to the ‘Old Island’ of South Ronaldsay to discuss a panting and take some photographs. A favourite place is Harrabrough Head and I make my way across the fields to the clifftop. I was amazed to find over a thousand fulmar already on the cliffs and pairing off – this is the first time I’ve seen fulmar here this early, although in the Western Isles they are known as Christmas Gulls because of their propensity to return to the breeding cliffs early. It was a gorgeous day, a stiff breeze as sharp as a knife coming off Scapa Flow and a light of Narnian brightness. The walk along the cliffs to The Cathedral served to remind me of why I moved to this remote part of the British Isles and my quick snaps for landscape reference were adequate for the job.
All over Christmas and into the New Year I worked on the large canvas and finally delivered the painting to Terry & Ingrid just a day before he was due back at sea fishing the waters around Rockall, Iceland and Shetland.

I have been invited to contribute to a Wildlife & Sporting exhibition at The Jerram Gallery, Dorset so a few ideas for paintings which had been lying dormant for a while have had a bit of life breathed into them. One in particular was a divergence from my usual work which, since I moved to Orkney at the beginning of the millennium, has been almost entirely based on encounters with nature up here. In our previous lives, Sally and I had the run of a tenanted 30 acre smallholding and one of our favourite aspects of the property was the moor; an area of rough upland pasture, giving way to banks of fragrant gorse then birch, oak, sycamore woodland where chicken-of-the-woods grows. There are badgers, three species of deer and, of course, foxes.
With the painting “A Heavy Fall: Red Fox” I was confronted with the problem of harmonising an essentially warm-coloured subject (the fox) with the predominantly cool hues of the snowscape background. I also wanted to create a sense of silence and stillness within the painting. There are in fact very few rufus tones in the fox’s coat; the effect being created through contrast between the grey-blue background.

I have also been asked to make a couple of sheets of sketches for a client in Holland. These are always fun to do and they allow me to go, through my imagination, back to the woodlands of Yorkshire where I was brought up.

The long-eared owl drawings have also been re-visited and I decided to make a larger, more involved painting. I was particularly interested in making simple marks on the canvas and not getting bogged down in superfluous detail. The resulting painting is a study in concealment. I have made no attempt to hide the owl, per se, but have tried to use the owl’s natural cryptic plumage to resist an immediate reveal.

But back closer to home for the next three pieces.
The shelduck painting is one which I thought I had completed in 2008 but I realised there were certain issues which I felt I had to iron out before exhibiting the piece. I’m fairly happy that the painting works ok now.
Eiders are fabulous birds and I’m lucky to see these from the house on a daily basis. We have just had to endure another bout of winter storms and keeping our 200 year old house warm is expensive, but the effect this weather has on the artist’s psyche is immeasurable. I’m constantly inspired to try and capture something of the power and awe these winter storms have as well as showing how wonderfully adapted the birds which live in this habitat are.

The fulmar painting follows a similar theme. A fresh, face-stinging morning walk with the dog leaves my ears ringing and my finger-ends throbbing with the returning blood, but I am straight onto a canvas and the basic colours are blocked in within minutes. The whole process of making the painting takes a couple of days, but the sensation of being on the ocean with them is easy for me to recreate in my own mind’s eye - I just open the kitchen door and take a buffeting walk on the pier.