Wednesday 12 May 2010

By way of a change-Some paintings

I thought it was about time that I posted a few paintings here so that everyone can see that I have actually been doing some work.

First up is the most recent piece; 'New neighbours'. Inspired by the return of the yellow wagtails over the last few weeks it shows a resting hare with a somewhat disdainful look as he watches the new neighbour busily searching for insects among the vivid green grass of late spring.

New Neighbours

I have been experimenting with water lately and the next piece, 'Liquid sky', is part of that exploration. It shows a black headed gull floating on some of the bluest water I've ever seen. Water is a reflective surface and on days of bright sunshine and clear skies the intense blue of the sky is mirrored on the open water. This painting is mainly about the patterns that appear as the water ripples and breaks the reflection into fleeting shapes.

Liquid sky

Just as the water reflects the blue of a clear sky it also echoes the grey of cloud cover and this effect can be seen in the next painting, 'Two islands' The wind breaks the reflection into fragments as it ruffles the surface in a completely different way to the last picture. The two tatty little islands appealed to me in some way that I can't really explain and I added the mallard pair sheltering from the wind as interest to others.

Two islands

'Otter House' was a commissioned piece and it shows an otter as she pauses at the end of a garden that backs onto a river. One day I hope to own a property like that! The reflections in this painting are of the opposite bank and are consequently green.

Otter House

Nature provides a myriad of moods. Resting birds seem to embody calm and when water is involved the scene can take on a quietness that we can all relate to and need to experience for ourselves from time to time if only to escape from the babble of modern living. This stillness is the effect I tried to achieve with the next painting 'Still snipe'.

Still snipe

Similarly it is not difficult for us to identify when normally busy birds like the ringed plover in the painting 'A short pause' decide to stop for a while and enjoy the feel of the warm sun on their backs.

A short pause

Other birds will continue on as always, even in the heat of the summer sun. The air shimmers and insects flicker over the dried mudpile that this stonechat uses as a perch completing the 'Sun, mud and stone' of the title. Again, this is an impressionistic painting done to try capturing the feel of the scene as experienced and an exploration of the effects of light.

Sun, mud, stone

Another recent painting inspired by one of my trips to the Elmley reserve is 'The potterer'. Redshank are all staccato movement, short, sharp and very 'birdlike'. In spring they can be seen twitching around in the puddles of flooded fields left by heavy, late winter rains. Tips of grass and dock poke through the puddles in a random array echoing the bird's movement and the bottom of the puddle can be seen through the shallow water.

The potterer

More puddles in the painting 'Proceed with caution'. Like a military patrol this group of four red legged partridges steps carefully and keeps a wary eye open for ambush as they proceed along a muddy track. Perhaps they were previously on the receiving end of the shot from the cartridge discarded in the grass.

Proceed with caution

Finally a more dramatic painting; 'Too late'. I'm lucky enough to encounter wild peregrines fairly regularly and have seen them diving into flocks of lapwing hoping to cause panic and strike the unwary. This lapwing has not been paying attention and it's now too late.
I'm pleased to say that this painting has recently been shortlisted to the final round of judging for the BBC wildlife artist of the year competition. This is the second year that I have had work accepted for this competition and it's an achievement that I am very proud of.

Too late!

Thursday 6 May 2010

An hour in a ditch

The African safari experience is something I've never had. Quite apart from the fact that I couldn't even begin to afford it, I've always thought that there is an artificiality about game reserves where, once an animal is reported, a dozen vehicles packed with tourists sporting long lenses attached to the latest digital cameras turn up and surround it.

I prefer my wildlife encounters a bit more on the 'raw' side and the humble countryside surrounding my home can provide plenty of that. It's a darn sight cheaper than Africa too!

As part of the drive out to the Elmley reserve I use a road that passes along the edge of the Medway Estuary, mud flats and marsh to one side of the road and livery stables, orchards and fields on the other. I have often caught glimpses of barn owls hunting by the sides of this road. A couple of weeks ago, as I drove along my usual route, I saw the ghostly shape of a barn owl softly sliding along about six feet off the ground with the intense stare down into the grass that only comes when an owl is hunting. He passed by the car and switched direction to glide across the rough grass of the fallow field beyond the row of leafless polplars that act as a windbreak to the winds that sweep in off the estuary. I stopped the car in the next layby and quickly clambered out hoping to find a viewpoint between the trees where I could watch him quartering the field.

The wind was dragging the temperatures all the way back to November and the grey clouds darkened the sky, stopping the sun greeting the day with any touch of a warm spring welcome. I was well prepared though in layers of clothing culminating in an outer shell of army surplus camoflage. Even so the tips of my fingers instantly felt the temperature's bite and the cheeks of my exposed face became unresponsive and numb, something like the hours after a dental operation.

Just behind the line of poplars runs a ditch, it's not a wildlife filled streamlet with frogs and newts hiding amongst the lush green of well established water plants. At least not yet. Perhaps one day it may become so, but for now it is a recently dug, grey/brown gash in the ground with a foot or so of muddy, stinking water lurking unpleasantly in the bottom. It has a small bank beyond, where the detritus from the ditch has been unceremoniously dumped. I crouched and pushed my way through the poplars before kneeling down at the edge of the ditch where I had a view over the two adjacent fields only slightly obscured by the twigs of the trees to either side of me.

I could see the owl quartering the back of the field so I ignored the stinging of the nettles that I'd knelt on and the scratching of the thistle that had found its way between my calf and thigh. I trained my binoculars on the distant bird, clear against the slowly lightening, purple sky. His soft, rounded wings scooped up great gulps of the cold morning air and he floated on them like a giant moth. I watched and stayed stock still, kneeling in the mud and caring not one bit for the state of my trousers and boots. The owl had turned again and was working his way along the line of trees toward my hiding place. As he approached his features became clearer in the gloom and my heart beat faster until he passed within a metre or so taking my breath away with him. He followed the tree line again and vanished from view but I had a hunch that he would be back and five minutes later my hunch was proven correct when he reappeared at the top end of the field, once more along the treeline. I stayed in the ditch for just about an hour, my legs cramped and my face and knees froze. The stinging nettles continued to irritate but I knew that to move would be to risk breaking the spell and losing the moment. So there I stayed.

After a magic filled hour the owl dived down into the grass, swinging his legs forward at the last moment and he reappeared with prey in his talons. He made off in the direction of a group of farm buildings where I suspect he is nesting and at that point my knees could take no more and I decided that as my owl had finally been rewarded for all his efforts and the sky was at last light it was time for me to move on.

It's not glamorous or comfortable kneeling in a vile smelling ditch but the reward for me was an hour spent with a wild creature as he went about the everyday business of survival. I don't think that I would swap that glorious hour spent in the ditch for a moment of 'safari'. Time spent that way is far too precious.