Tuesday 23 November 2010

Drawing & Painting Birds – New Book Release

Drawing & Painting Birds has now been released from the publishers.  All orders will be processed as promptly as possible - weather permitting!
Thank you all for your patience.

In April 2007 I was commissioned by the Crowood Press to write and illustrate a book about the portrayal of birds. It was to be instructional as well as, hopefully, informative and inspirational. The Publisher wanted the finished manuscript ready and delivered by October that same year, with a view to a January 2008 publication. It was never going to be an easy task, particularly as the book would have to sit alongside the seminal work “Drawing Birds” by the acclaimed artist and all-round top-bloke John Busby. In addition to this inhibiting and intimidating fact were the obvious problems associated with ‘teaching’ a subject which fundamentally relies on first-hand observation and dynamic interaction between tutor and student – especially in front of the subject matter. It caused many sleepless nights and jaw-grinding hours of angst. However, three years on and “Drawing & Painting Birds” is finally to be published.

Although that’s not to say the sleepless nights have stopped 

The book relies extensively on illustrations to support the ideas therein and it was whilst addressing this point that I realised that exclusive use of my own work could make for an uninteresting repetition of style. So I went cap-in-hand to fellow artists in the hope that they could help to provide images for the book. Incredibly almost everyone I contacted offered their unequivocal assistance; and although I have included many of my own drawings, paintings and diagrams, there are also over 200 illustrations by some of the foremost artists of the genre. New acquaintances were made from some existing personal heroes and old friendships cemented throughout the three years of global communication during the composition of the book.

I would like to extend my unbridled gratitude to all the artists who provided such a sumptuous collection of work – indeed enough to fill at least another three volumes – which provided both regular entertainment (and distraction from the task of writing) as the visual delights teemed through my letterbox and populated my electronic mailbox.

Therefore, although I would hope the reader finds some worth in the text, I have no doubt it will be the artwork of these wonderful people which will captivate most of all. I count myself fortunate in the extreme to have secured the help of some of the very finest practitioners of their art. I can only hope and pray that my own scribbles included among the 420-odd illustrations do not look too out of place among the many sublime works which populate the 160 printed pages.

Drawing & Painting Birds is published by The Crowood Press on December 3rd, 2010. It is available directly from them www.crowood.com and, as they say; “from all good booksellers;” Waterstone’s, Amazon, WHSmith, etc, etc.

Signed copies are also available directly from me (please see the notification on the right >)

By way of a taster, here are a few sample images from the book:




Artwork by (in no particular order);

Robert Bateman

Ed Keeble

Alan Dalton

Beth Rosenkoetter

Juan Varela

Darren Woodhead

Paul Bartlett

Andrew Ellis

Katrina Van Grouw

Charles Tunnicliffe

John Busby

Barry Van Dusen

Debby Kaspari

Bruce Pearson

Nick Derry

John Threlfall

Frank Van Boxtel

Szabi Kokay

Paschalis Dougalis

Mike Woodcock

Monday 2 August 2010

Arctic Skua - the Loveliest Bird

Okay, so it’s the first day of Stromness Shopping Week and it was bound to be a beautiful day. By the evening I was ready for a breath of fresh air after being stuck in the gallery all day for the sale of one sodding card! £2.50 is not going to allow retirement any time soon. . . .

The weather was still very pleasant after dinner so I loaded the scope and tackle into the car and made for Yesnaby. Lugging the Nikon and the Velbon 7000 video tripod a mile and a half with satchel of art gear and sketchbook was well worth it as I a dark phase skua rises over the ridge to investigate me. I meander across to my favourite rock (a la Shirley Valentine), place my binoculars on the ground and, as I swing the scope of my shoulders there’s a ‘crack!’ – the scope’s weight has snapped the holding screw off the tripod quick-release plate – oh super! I know it’s my own fault for being an idle sod and carrying the scope attached to the tripod, but the realisation only serves to darken my mood. The birds are too far away for binoculars – drawing through, at any rate, but I have a quick scan of the scene and locate a pale-headed skua. I’m pretty sure what it is but I have to get the scope hand-held onto the bird – a fully fledged arctic skua youngster! Now let’s no longer mince words about this bird – if arctic skuas were the commonest bird on the planet they would still grace any orni-porno site, as it is they are looking down the barrel of permanent oblivion from these isles, which makes this sight every so slightly welcome.

But the scope’s knackered. I try to bind the thing to the tripod with the strap which is fairly successful until; I realise that in doing so I’ve also fastened the barrel focus tightly too – smashing! Off it comes and I realise there’s no way to make it sit. But, by balancing the scope on the tripod head and moving it ever so carefully I can peer through the eyepiece and at my baby – gorgeous! I make a quick drawing in tone and just as I have got the hang of using this delicately balanced rig, a fecking dog-walker comes over the brow and straight through the territory. Fecking w@nker – but my birds are immediately at him and his mutt and I barely contain a laugh as this burly lad screams ‘fuck-off, fuck-off’ whilst waving his arms about at the dive-bombing skuas. Tit!

But it does give me the chance to see the chick can fly; albeit not with the sleek and graceful lines and curves s/he will (hopefully) achieve in the fullness of time. However it drops down behind the ridge and out of view. I’m just about to pack in when I notice one of the parents nearby. Again using the balancing act I train the scope and make a couple of drawings when from nowhere, the fog comes rolling over the hill obscuring just about everything. Ah - the joys of a warm day at the coast.

Then the chick is there again. And it’s doing something I’ve never seen – plucking at vegetation and eating it. Most curious and something I need to read up on. It’s hunched and shuffling gait recall its close relatives the gulls and it begs from its parent similarly; tapping on the bill in expectation. Then everything’s gone – the fog is total. I’m left with a trudge back to the car, dripping sketchbook and ruined tripod with barely a drawing in the book. But absolutely elated!

The sketches show a dark-phase arctic skua and then the same bird observed through the thickening fog, having relocated slightly. The studio piece is a composition using the fieldwork of the dark-phase/light-phase skua pair.

The following day I was determined to make amends for the debacle with the scope and, having replaced the quick-release plate, transported the scope and tripod separately. Entering the skua territory today was like being on a different planet; gone had all the gloom and mood of the previous evening (enchanting though that was), to be replaced by bright, warming sunlight and something I rarely have to contend with in Orkney (this year at least) – heat haze!

Fortunately my birds are growing accustomed to my hunched shuffling through their space and, as soon as I flop down on ‘the rock’ they seem to settle; the dark bird coming to rest not 30 metres from me. I intend to make a few investigative drawings, but my eye and pencil seem content to enjoy the one pose this bird has settled into and soon I have made a colour study describing the immediate scene.

Scanning the moor for alternative viewpoints I chance upon a youngster, then another; again one bird remains fairly motionless and allows involved study for 20 minutes or so. The light breeze occasionally rearranges the bird’s plumes and it flicks away the midges from its face.

A yowl of anger makes me turn and one of the neighbouring skuas takes off after a great black-back which has taken the wrong course. It sees the large gull off and helter-skelters back to its resting place among the sedges, calluna and cross-leaved heath. Then I see the cause of its worry; another fledgling – three in total in this small area. This is excellent news considering the skuas’ main provider, the arctic tern, has had such a terrible season and very few remain to be parasitized. I watch the adult and the youngster for the next half hour, all the while scribbling in my sketchbook.

The sketches are of the adults and youngsters:

The studio painting is derived directly from the first colour study I made:

Sunday 4 July 2010

From The Field to The Studio

I spent some time during June continuing the theme of light as a mood and not merely a way of illuminating a painting. The members of the local eider population are accessible and compliant models for drawing and painting and also photographing; they are powerful in structure yet soft in plumage and offer much for the artist to contemplate. The auks – guillemots, razorbills and puffins – have similar characteristics with the added complexity of highlighted darks and shadowed whites.

"The Ledge" is a painting involving interaction on the cliffs and deals with highlight and shadows falling on disparate hues and textures.

There is always a dichotomy regarding the depiction of puffins; the well-known clown of the cliffs and the fierce little predator living life on the edge. Of course the puffin knows nothing of these labels and characterisations – it is what it is and it does what it does. This puffin painting is an attempt to de-anthropomorphise this species and to see them in terms of design and composition.

Living in Orkney, I’m never far from awesome and inspirational land and seascapes. In certain weather conditions however, the urge to work plein air is curtailed by the knowledge that a force 8 could see paper, paints and artist taking to the air and, ultimately, to the sea. The camera was invented for such conditions . . .

Interpretation of one’s photographs is as much a challenge of mood-setting as that of value and hue application.

Once again bird-survey work has been a major occupation this spring and has eaten into a lot of available sketching and painting time. It does, however, ensure that I get out into the field in all weathers and at the extremes of the day. This brings me into contact with various birds in different light and weather and each bring unique stimuli to the painter of the natural world.

This common sandpiper was calling in alarm as I entered his water-margin territory on the Loch of Swannay in the north-west Mainland during a daytime survey of the loch. His melodious calls echoed around the locale and were dueted by those from his mate who stood-off a short distance away on a low dyke. The mare’s tails are just emerging and create a low pre-historic forest through which I see him.

One evening I punctuated my surveys in Birsay and detoured to the Burgar Hill moorland nature reserve where a pair of red-throated divers had a nest. As I stopped the car I noticed a ringed-plover scuttling around and he was quickly joined by his mate. Like tiny clockwork toys, they ran, stopped, ran across the stony and bleak ground. The rain and overcast sky brought a certain harmony to the scene; muting and merging the colours.

nd then there are those moments of fortune. Already booked on the ferry for my only off-Mainland surveys, I get news of a red-necked phalarope on a tiny marsh. Once surveys were out of the way, I ventured towards Ness, the north tip of Shapinsay where a deeply scoured tractor track leads to a typha-fringed pond and almost immediately I spot the diminutive wader swimming across the water, picking at insects and other morsels on the meniscus. From time to time the skittish nature of the mainly juvenile redshanks forces them airborne and the phalarope joins them, more out of politeness than fear. It is the first bird back on the lochan and resumes his business long before the larger birds drop back out of the sky. This painting is a recollected scene during that afternoon; the male red-necked phalarope scooting his way across the water whilst a juvenile redshank ignores him completely.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Some Effects of Light

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been fascinated by trying to portray strong light and, as ever when the sun shines (and I’m allowed to sneak off on my own) I head off to the low cliffs around Skiba Geo; terns, fulmar and eider are plentiful. Visits to this part of West Mainland are usually timed to coincide with survey work I am doing this season, during which today I had 15 eider nests in a 50x50 metre quad, two of which were actually touching tails as they incubated!

I’m interested in how light affects the subjects, not only by the direction from which it illuminates them, but also by the local atmosphere through which it travels. For instance, the first painting shows a group of three eiders seen from fairly close quarters (less than 30 metres) which are almost flood-lit, from directly above and from the left; the atmosphere is clear. The second piece shows a similar arrangement of birds but, besides being lit from above/behind, there is the sense that the atmosphere has a certain gravitas, formed by the relatively dense moisture content in the air and the distance from which the birds are seen. The quality of light in this second piece is very different from that in the first; having a solidity and weight (and maybe hue?) to it lacking in the first.

In the two arctic tern paintings, I am trying to deal with the light, but also with the incredible subtlety of these birds’ plumage. The greys are extremely changeable due to the angle of light and shade and almost shimmer as the birds move; very beautiful and challenging to paint.

The last painting relies very much on the lessons from the previous pieces. I used field drawings and photographs in the making of this painting (as in all the above, too) and paid particular attention to the way the different textures and colours of the birds’ feathers reflected and/or absorbed light; how they integrated hues from their surrounds and expressed a variety of these and how the slabs of rock reacted to the strength of light.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

BBC Wildlife Magazine Wildlife Artist of the Year

Being a wildlife artist is a fundamentally solitary occupation – birds are easily disturbed and working alone reduces the potential for spooking the subjects – so I enter a few competitions from time to time as a way of keeping in touch with the outside world, and to let others know what I’m up to.

Earlier in the month I heard that two of my paintings had been shortlisted for the “BBC Wildlife Magazine Wildlife Artist of the Year Award” and would I kindly take them down to Wiltshire for judging. This would have cost an absolute fortune, but fortunately my good friend Nick Derry also had two paintings shortlisted and his parents were taking those to the judging. They agreed to take mine, too. The only problem was, I didn’t actually have any of the paintings that were selected; I had sold them last year! So after begging them back from their rightful owners I sent them on to Nick’s parents who took them to the judging yesterday (Monday, 17th May).

Last night I found out I had won in my category of ‘World Birds’!!!!
Here are the two paintings which were selected;

The glorious May has also continued to thrill on the birding front. The dotterels which I was sketching last week were still around into the weekend and I felt the urge to make a colourful composition of them with some wheatears, using my marker pen and colour wash style. I quite like the spontaneity this approach brings to the painting, but I can see it wouldn’t be everyone’s cuppa.

Then again, I’m not doing it for everyone – I’m doing it for me!

Following the long-staying dotterel came another splendidly exotic bird – hoopoe. This Mediterranean beauty found a pile of topsoil on a farm in Finstown to be just the ticket for the past few days and I spent a couple of hours making these drawings as the bird sifted through topsoil in search of beetles and grubs and then as it took forty-winks.