very happy to say that I have had three paintings accepted into the
Society of Wildlife artists' annual exhibition 'The Natural Eye' at the
Mall Galleries in London. The exhibition runs from Thursday 30th October
until Sunday 9th November. It's a great show which features some of the
very best wildlife artists. I've made a point of going to see it for
years now and I've never been disappointed. I feel very honoured to have
had my work accepted and, for me, it is an ambition realised. Well
worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.
I love to paint birds. I was once asked in an interview with a local newspaper 'Why birds? What's the attraction?". I have to admit that I'd never really thought about it before then, I just painted birds. There are of course several reasons for why I paint birds, they are a subject that I know pretty well, they are available subjects to gather reference for, they are a popular subject for buyers and collectors etc, etc. But the main reasons are that birds are simply beautiful and their behaviours are fascinating to watch.
Every now and then though I like to go off at a bit of a tangent and paint other subjects, always rooted in the natural world, I have no interest in painting cars or steam trains for example, but not always birds. I have had a hankering to paint a bull for a long while as I often come across these magnificent animals on my travels. So, a while ago I took a day out to paint this fellow, 'One horn'. I chose to paint him on a fairly large scale, hoping to do him justice as the beautiful beast he was and I wanted to let a bit looser with the oil paints too. He was great fun to paint, I particularly enjoyed his fleshy eye and the way the hair curled over the muscles in his neck.
Oil on canvas board
Sometimes, whilst out birdwatching, I will come across scenes that just have to be captured. Like this landscape for instance. This is a scene from Oare Marshes nature reserve. It is looking back towards Uplees from a point on the Swale known as Dan's Dock, which was a jetty used for an old and very much defunct tile and brick works. This scene was captured on a day when the light was pretty grey and fairly flat but it was so evocative of so many scenes on the coastal marshes around the area that I live that I couldn't resist.
Towards Uplees from Dan's Dock
Oil on MDF
There are times when the light is just gorgeous, and so many miss it because it is too early on a Sunday morning for most people to be up out of their cozy beds. I love the early mornings though, and partly for that very reason. I need the solitude and the freshness of the air to recharge and revitalise. Some mornings before the sun gets high into the clear skies of spring, it sends its rays slanting through the fresh grass sparking the greens into yellow and outlining everything with blazing light. It was on a morning like this that I spotted this Gypsy Cob standing still and quiet in a field where the sun's light caught in all the hair hanging on the shaggy beast, surrounding it with a glowing halo.
Oil on MDF
But, in the end I will always come back to the birds.
Recently I have been tackling oil painting and, in order to get a proper grip of the techniques and processes involved I have been painting quite a lot of small study type pieces before tackling something larger or more compositionally considered.
One of these pieces is this 10"x8" of a male House Sparrow feeding on seeds on the top of a wall. I have a hankering to paint a whole group of Sparrows hopping about together and this is just for me to get a first feel for the idea. Incidentally, the collective noun for Sparrows is actually 'Host' so I should say a 'Host of Sparrows' which makes them sound rather like Angels! I like that idea.
Jo over at 'A scent of chocolate' was confused as the the bird's identity. Fair enough I thought, although she's a nature lover, she's not a birdwatcher so I enlightened her. We then got into a discussion about the colour of the Sparrow's breast and belly area. She said that she didn't remember a British bird like that and it turns out that what was causing the confusion was that she was seeing a bird with blue feathers whereas I was seeing a bird with grey feathers.
I thought it might have been a monitor problem and told her, jokingly, that she might want to adjust hers, but she tried viewing it on different screens and saw the same thing on all three so she asked; 'The bird isn't blue so why did you paint it that way?'
The file I posted was a photograph of the painting that I took when it was first completed because, obviously I couldn't scan it with still wet paint. This has, admittedly, caused a slightly blueish colour cast over the whole thing which probably hasn't helped the issue but it's not too far off. She asked others to comment on the colour of the bird and it seems that some agree with her saying that the bird is blue. By the way, can we ignore what someone described as the 'puky' (sic) green in the background! I plan to use something different for the bigger piece because I agree that the grey green isn't going to work, (which is one of the reasons for doing these little prep studies).
Now, green issues aside, all this set me thinking so I did a little experiment.
Using photoshop I investigated the colour breakdown on the photo. The actual colour breakdown of the bird's chest and belly area is, on average, around 50% cyan (blue) and 50% magenta (red). So the colour of the pic is essentially a purple/blue. A Sparrow's chest and belly feathers are generally described as simply 'grey'. This obviously varies with individuals and our perception of the 'colour' will vary with factors such as the environment, the ambient and direct lighting around the subject, whether the feathers are wet or dry and so on.
So why did I paint the bird that colour?
I don't use black in my paintings, it's just too flat and it tends to 'kill' any life in the painting so the grey tones (strictly speaking grey is achromatic) created using just black and white can be very 'flat' looking. To combat this effect I, in common with many other artists, use a combination of Ultramarine blue and Burnt umber (brown) to create my 'black'. Once I start adding white to this mix I get 'greys' which are inevitably blue or red tinted (cool or warm). In general, shadow areas tend towards being cooler so my natural inclination is to lean towards the blue when painting them. I do sometimes use a touch of Dioxazine purple for shadows but, as I didn't in this instance, we'll leave that for some other time.
I think what it boils down to is; the bird is 'grey', the paint used to represent that 'grey' is blue, red and white. If you know the local colour of a thing then that's the colour you will see.
So my question would probably be: Why wouldn't I paint it that colour?
It's all about perception. Take a look at the work of an artist that I consider to be a master; http://sosa2.com/Birds/index2.php Check out the Rock Ptarmigans in the lower left corner. Not one of these birds is white. They are a glorious mix of purple, blue, pink and yellow cream, and yet it's perfectly obvious that they are 'white' birds.
What colour is snow? It's white isn't it? Have a look at another Sosa painting: http://sosa2.com/Birds/index5.php 'Woodcock II'. This snow is blue, purple, lilac, yellow, pink, but the colour you perceive overall is still 'white' because you know that snow is white.
Here's another one, take a look at my Peregrine painting, 'Commanding presence', from a while ago. On a Peregrine's head is a 'hood' of dark grey, its chest and belly are a creamy 'white' (once again this is a generalisation). But because of the way the sunlight affects our perception of colour I have used the same dark blue for the part of the bird's head that is in the light and the part of the bird's body that is in shadow and yet I hope that this conveys a sense of the light rather than indicating that the local colour is blue in either case.
There's tons of 'stuff' that's been written about colour, some of it fanciful, some of it scientific, some of it, I'm sure, is utter nonsense, and some of it, I'm equally sure, makes perfect sense. Somewhere in the back of my head when I'm painting I'm probably aware of everything I've read and everything I've seen about all this 'stuff' but in the end I just go with what feels right to me and, as an artist, that's surely the way it should be?
I had wondered if we would see anything of Summer in June this year following the endless, wet, grey ‘Spring’. But on the very last day of June the Summer began. I was off out to Elmley early to make the most of it. My Mother has been in hospital for the last three weeks, (thankfully she is back at home now), so I have not been able to go out on my usual trip and I needed to reconnect with the wide open spaces and the wildlife that lives there. It really is good for the soul and a great help as an antidote to the stress that comes with a loved one who is unwell.
One thing always striking on the marshes is the sky, it is a big sky. One that runs uninterrupted overhead, a massive dome of the endless. In the clean blue of a Summer’s day the sky dazzles and makes you giddy with a kind of inverse vertigo as you turn your face to the breathtaking space above.
The wide, blue sky
The long awaited warmth has brought the marshes to life with insects and butterflies. Small tortoiseshells are everywhere, there are six visible in this photo.
Six Small Tortoiseshells
I count myself lucky to be able to see sights like this because, contrary to appearances, these beautiful butterflies, like so many others, have suffered a huge and worrying decline in recent years. When photographing butterflies I find myself utterly focused on the beguiling beauty of the star of the show and it is not until later, when I review the pictures, that I often discover a supporting cast of creatures, equally interesting but not always as showy as the velvet winged wonders at centre stage. The first photo here has a buff-tailed bumble bee busying itself on a thistle bloom and in the second is a hoverfly. Of course Small tortoiseshells were not the only butterflies about, there were Whites, Meadow Browns and Common Blues too.
Buff Tailed Bumblebee
The Summer sun has also brought other creatures out of hiding, cold blooded ones that need the sun’s rays to warm them and make them active. I saw this shining copper and bronze beauty crossing the track, taking extra warmth from the heated stones. When I was a young boy slow worms were plentiful and I would regularly catch them and release them just for the fun of doing so. I once took one home and secreted it in a drawer in my bedroom. I suppose I should have realised that it would simply climb out and make its escape but I was young and that the poor creature would even think of doing such a thing didn’t even occur to me. I first knew that this one had done just that when my Mum, who is not a big fan of reptiles, came hurtling down the hallway the following morning shouting about a snake that she had found snuggled up under her dressing gown on the chair beside her bed... Sorry Mum.
These days, on the rare occasions when I do see slow worms, I prefer just to watch and photograph them while they go about their business undisturbed. Besides which, I have discovered that I’m not as quick as I used to be but the slow worms are still just as fast. Although this one was obvious on the grey stone of the track, once he wriggled into the grass it was easy to see just how effective his camouflage was.
How a Slow worm disappears
Close inspection of the grass stems revealed yet more beauty in the shape of Damselflies. I’m afraid that my ID skills are limited when it comes to these fine insects so if anybody out there with greater knowledge than I would care to tell me what I have here I would be grateful. Whatever they are, they are certainly beautiful and elegant and great fun to discover. The Damselfly’s bigger cousins, Dragonflies, have been scarcer this year too although there are some about if you look hard enough.
For all the distractions of insects and reptiles I go to Elmley primarily for the birdlife and I decided to stop on a spot on the seawall where I had a view over the marsh and I could find a subject for sketching. The sun was so hot that I had to put my scrim net scarf over my head to protect the back of my neck from burning. This had the added benefit of helping to keep some of the mossies away too but, as you can see from this photo by my friend Andy, it didn’t look too glamorous!
The fashion choices of a discerning wildlife artist!
The next photo here shows the scene in front of me and I have circled the position of a lone Oystercatcher that was snoozing quietly in the sun. Through the scope I had quite a good view so I settled in to sketch and to paint. I decided to use watercolours for the first time in ages and this is the result. I think I probably need more practice! Oh well, that should give me a good excuse to go out next week!
I am delighted to be able to report that I have had three of my paintings accepted into the finals of the BBC Wildlife Artist of the year competition 2013.
I have work in three of the categories this year; British birds, World Birds, and Animals in their environment.
In the British birds category I have 'Highspot'.
I very often encounter Stonechats on the RSPB reserve at Elmley. They are charming birds that can be very visible. The reason they are so easily seen is their habit of using the highest spot they can find to use as a vantage point for spotting their insect prey. Often the 'highspot' will be a bush or a fencepost but on one occasion I watched a male hunting from a solitary stick which, for some reason, rose high above the surrounding reed bed, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. He would perch and, when he spotted something, he would fly down into the reeds only to retake his place on his 'highspot' quickly after. This is great from a sketching point of view as I can focus my scope on the perch and know that my subject will pretty soon be back in the frame.
In the World birds category I have 'Striated Heron, Sungei Buloh'.
I have been very lucky and have been able to visit Singapore for great holidays over the past two years. Sungei Buloh is a wetland reserve in the North of the Singapore and is a haven for wildlife on what is a pretty densely populated island. Striated Herons are common there and it would be very difficult to visit the reserve and not see at least one of them. They stalk the shallows using the stealthy technique typical of the heron family. I watched this one as he hunted and caught several small fish whilst he was being observed by a number of large mudskippers. I think they knew they were too large for the heron to tackle but it didn't stop them keeping a wary eye open! I used a letterbox format for this painting to accentuate the Heron's carefully crouched stance and leave room in front of him for him to move into giving the bird a sense of movement. If you follow the Heron's concentrated gaze you should see the small ripples which give the faintest indication of a tasty morsel just below the surface.
'Striated Heron, Sungei Buloh'
Striated Heron sketches
Finally, in the Animals in their environment category, I have 'Mellow fruitfulness'.
Lapwings feature quite a lot in my sketchbooks, mainly because when there is little else to be seen on the reserve at Elmley, there will almost always be a lapwing to rely on and they have such 'sketchable' faces that it would be a shame not to keep sketching them. One of the best things about sketching from life is that I get to observe situations that are just a little unusual from the way we think they should be. When I saw the Lapwing in the same field as the large fruiting bodies of the field mushrooms I knew it was a situation which would be ideal for a painting. The creamy, rounded forms of the mushrooms seemed to match the soft forms of the chest and belly of the Lapwing so I combined the two into the painting of the Lapwing showing how perfectly, if somewhat accidentally, it was camouflaged in its environment.