Fisticuffs

As you can see in the unfinished figure on the left, I start my figures off as stick-men with a small circle around each joint.

THE VICTORIAN world of my forthcoming book isn’t always so cosy and nostalgic. This morning I’ve got a fight on my hands.

The golden rule about illustrating a fight, according to the advice given by several comic strip artists, is not to show the moment of impact of the fist. It weakens the action. I imagine that the reason for this is that if you show the moment before or after the impact, the viewer has to supply the missing action, making the reading of the cartoon more interactive.

The blow has dislodged the victim's hat while I made the assailant hatless to enable him to be more dynamic. The bowler hat made him look too much like a Dr Watson-type action guy, a goodie.

But in my first pencil rough (above, left) there isn’t enough contact between the two protagonists for the kind of full on, sustained volley of punches that I’m illustrating.

Once again, I can’t avoid a bit of characterisation working its way into my finished pen and ink and Pentel Brush pen wash drawing and I find myself taking sides with the victim. The man who’s just dealt the decisive left-hook looks like a bit of a bruiser to me. I wouldn’t like to meet him in the tavern on a Saturday night.

Weeding

I’m back to the agriculture in my next illustration of hand-weeding a cornfield, then, appropriately, a worker takes a well-earned break for a drink.

Well, yes, he has ended up looking a bit like a pirate. I wanted a change from giving him a hat so I went for a

headscarf, thinking of the heroic labourers in Work by Ford Madox Brown. But I might have to change that.

 

Frivolous or worse

Now this one really is difficult. I have to draw a woman who is ‘frivolous or worse’. As I have so few female friends who fall into that category I’ve gone for a cross between Nancy from the film version of Oliver! and a coquette from half a century earlier. And, come to think of it, there’s something of the flapper about her too. All the clichés.

It doesn’t work; she looks just a shade too sophisticated for the bawdy frivolity that I had in mind, as if she’s a toff slumming it (in the words of one the songs from Oliver!) rather than the bar being her natural habitat. She’s turned out a bit too much like Helena Bonham Carter hamming it up in one of the louche roles she enjoys so much. But I’m going to have to leave her for now.

 

A Bunch of Five

HERE ARE this afternoon’s little bunch of illustrations. The problem with drawing this schoolmaster’s breakfast (another of the odd subjects that I need for my book), is that at this scale – a scale sufficient to make a plate of bacon and eggs recognisable – the characters begin to take over. Well, the schoolboy is reasonably bland but the schoolmaster seems to be taking on a personality of his own. All that is needed here is an archetypal Victorian teacher.

‘What did he (or she) eat for breakfast?’ is one of the questions a novelist is supposed to be able to answer when creating a character. In this case the breakfast is the subject and anything else is a distraction.

I could have drawn this tangle of wool (left) just by itself but to make it appear truly knotty, I decided to include a figure trying to unravel it.

On the other hand this split-pin latch is distinctive enough not to need the help of a cartoon character to demonstrate it.

Crunchy wheat-cakes are next on the menu and they too are sufficiently self-explanatory . . . or do I need an ear of two of wheat lying beside them to distinguish them from oatcakes?

Finally, here’s one of those long benches from a traditional ale-house. This definitely requires the addition of a group of drinkers because otherwise it might look like a church pew.

Of the illustrations that I’ve produced so far, this comes nearest to the look that I want for my book. I’ve established my characters without letting them take over the cartoon, the balance of line and tone seems about right and should be suitable for the method of printing and I’m beginning to build up a homely and somehow familiar Victorian world, which suits my theme.

On the strength of this afternoon’s illustrations, I could reasonably expect to turn out ten illustrations a day . . . if, indeed, I ever get a day when I don’t have some other errand to run.

In the Dragon’s Den

In this week’s Dragon’s Den (BBC2 television) there were a couple of twins with a background in the fashion industry who were seeking a large investment in ‘Brat and Suzie’, a distinctive fashion label they’d recently launched. The quirky originality of their range depends mainly on the specially commissioned illustrations printed on each garment of animals engaged in various activities (for example, a raccoon riding a bicycle).

The ‘Dragons’ asked for some financial details;

“What are you paying for your illustrations?”

“Oh. It’s quite small; we pay for each illustrator a £20 flat fee. We blog about them and help them out as much as we can.”

“So they see it as a way of getting their illustrations around.”

Yes, a business that depends so much on the skill of the illustrators, with a turnover of a hundred thousand pounds and the illustrator walks away with enough money to buy him or herself a pizza and a glass of wine.

That sounds like a good business plan.

Woodland Edge

12.45 p.m.: WOOD PIGEONS clatter about and coo in a clump of trees and bushes by Coxley Dam. A Dunnock methodically pecks amongst the gravel, grasses and weeds at the edge of the parking area. Short heavy showers are interspersed with watery sun.

A Wren flits from the post to a clump of nettles, following the same route along this short stretch of woodland edge as the Dunnock but a foot or two higher, amongst the vegetation.

So that’s ground layer and herb layer that are being checked out for invertebrate prey. Up in the tree canopy, around fifteen feet above the ground, a Blue Tit is making an equally thorough investigation of the branches and foliage.

And of course there are those noisy Wood Pigeons too. They’re no doubt doing some feeding in the canopy while they’re there but I suspect most of their feeding is taking place in the surrounding arable fields and pastures, with frequent trips back to the cover of woodland when they’re disturbed.

Coltsfoot and a Crowd

I’M GRADUALLY getting there with the drawing style for my latest book. During our weekend away I picked up a copy of Private Eye at a station bookstall as my holiday reading. It was useful to be reminded how simply drawn cartoons can make a point so successfully. Private Eye is currently celebrating 50 years of publication and during its first half century the satirical magazine has stuck to newsprint for its pages, so they should have a pretty good idea of what works best in the medium by now.

Coming back to my drawing of Coltsfoot (top left), which I’d made a start on before we went away, I decided that I needed to simplify my design. When I’m drawing a flower from nature I like to include every detail that I see. My aim is to study the plant itself so who am I to decide what is or is not relevant.

These illustrations call for a different strategy. Real life can be confusing and I need to strip down reality to a few easily grasped essentials. Hopefully I can still catch the spirit of the subject.

Coltsfoot is a spring flower, so there’s none around for me to draw at the moment but working from a photograph was tending to make my drawing too literal. Instead, I’ve referred to a Victorian copy of Culpeper’s Herbal and tried to go for the simplicity of the coltsfoot illustrated on one of the colour plates.

Drawing a Crowd

I need to show a group of people crowding around a fire but with so many bodies blocking the view I couldn’t show the hearth itself. The tapering chimney breast isn’t typical of Victorian buildings but I felt that it gave more of a clue that the group were gathering at a fireside.

 

Scotch Mist

7.55 a.m. Inverness, Light rain: CLOUDS ARE lying in the valleys north of Carrbridge and the view of the Cairngorms as we pass through Aviemore is blotted out altogether. I hope it won’t be too long before we’re back in the Highlands again because I’d like to see more of this rugged landscape.

As we pass the distillery at Dalwhinnie I spot the pantechnicon carrying the ‘Pole Position Dodgems’ parked in a layby alongside the A9. Like us, the fun-fair is making its way back to the lowlands after its weekend in Inverness. They were pitched in Bught Park by Ness Islands. Somewhere in one those wagons must be the giant glossy fibre-glass figure of Jiminy Cricket which presides demurely over one of the spinning, dipping and diving rides of the fair. We once accidently brought a cricket back in our suitcase from the island of Rhodes, a male which we didn’t discover until a week or two later in our bedroom when he started making a noise like a smoke alarm in need of a new battery. Luckily he wasn’t eight feet tall and carrying a folded umbrella like the fun-fair’s Jiminy.

I spot Red Grouse, a deer (probably roe) and plenty of Buzzards from the train. The journey goes remarkably quickly as, apart from drawing the wonderful landscape that is passing by, we’re treated to two meal breaks; a breakfast as we pass through the Highlands and, as we reach the Firth of Forth, then the Northumbrian Coast, a lunch – as on the journey here – of feta and roast pepper quiche with a rocket salad in a balsamic dressing, accompanied by a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. By now the Scotch Mist has been replaced with a sunny interval and a mighty rain cloud hovering over distant Newcastle. As we pass through Berwick I can see Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands and Bamburgh Castle in the distance across the wide open spaces of this coast.

It will be hard to consider anything other than a bargain first class rail break on East Coast next time we feel the need of a relaxing weekend in Scotland. And I’m not getting sponsored by East Coast for saying that! I ought to, but I’m not; they filmed Vic Reeves’ artistic escapade (video still online at the time I posted this) on the East Coast mainline but he only travelled as far as Darlington, so he missed the most scenic stretch in my opinion. He took far more artist’s materials with him than I do! And they gave him a table to himself. There wasn’t room for that on this morning’s service with so many of us heading back south after the weekend.

Ness Island

WE WALK along the towpath beside the Caledonian Canal for a lunch break at the café at the Floral Hall then return to the centre of town via the footbridges to Ness Islands. I draw the standing waves at the upstream tip of the first island. It’s like sitting at the prow of a ship. Anglers stand waist deep in the river.

Giant Sequoia

At the downstream end of the second, longer island, there’s a large Wellingtonia or Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganticum, with drooping lower branches which make an effective umbrella when there’s a passing shower.

The reddish bark feels slightly spongy which must provide effective insulation from winter frosts and from the forest fires that occasionally sweep through the tree’s native habitat on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California.

Each leaf scale is 2 or 3 millimetres long

Looking up into the branches (top photograph) it appears as if the tree has long slender needles like a pine or fir but if you look closely the leaves are scale-like, as seen in this photograph of a dry twig (they’re green when fresh) that I’ve taken with a low-power microscope.

The Top of the Tree


Sequoias can grow to 50 metres but how tall is this specimen?

I made a rudimentary clinometer using my hand lens (which hangs on a loop of string) as my plumb-line to establish the vertical and the long edge of my sketchbook, held to my eye, to point at the top of the tree, marking the vertical across the inside back cover of the sketchbook.

I measured the distance to the tree as 76 lengths of my hiking boots and added another four lengths to get me near the centre of the tree, which was probably an underestimate. Because the ground fell away sharply at one side I was unable to measure the girth of the trunk.

By drawing out the angle to the horizontal and the baseline distance to scale (right), I can measure the height as 96 hiking boot lengths so that’s 96 x 34 centimetres (they’re big boots, but very lightweight!); that’s 3264 cm, making the Sequoia approximately 32.64 metres tall, about 107 feet.

Errors include the gentle slope of the ground down to the river and my eye being about 1.8 metres above ground level but those two probably cancel each other out. Also from such an oblique angle I couldn’t actually see the top of the tree.

Merkinch

DESPITE THEIR NAME, I don’t often see Common Gulls in West Yorkshire, or perhaps I mistake them for Black-headed Gulls in winter plumage, so I take the opportunity to draw a birdwatcher’s field sketch when we see one on the sea wall by the old ferry ticket office at Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, where the River Ness reaches the Beauly Firth.

Helpfully a Herring Gull flies down to give us a size comparison. Looking in the book, the only character that doesn’t match is the ‘dark bill’. The Common Gull has a yellow bill in summer but by now this will be getting duller with a darker ring near the tip. I notice that, even in my quick sketch, I haven’t shown the bill to be as dark as the eye or wing bars. Seeing it against the sea might also have made it appear a little darker than it was.

Tidal Pools

Herring Gulls, Curlew, Greater-Black Backed Gull, Oystercatcher and Redshank were amongst the birds feeding, or just loafing about, by the tidal pools of the bay between the old ferry and the breakwater where the Caledoniaon Canal enters the Beauly Firth.

Channelled Wrack

There’s a band of seaweed along the lower half of the sea-wall. At the top edge of this there’s Channelled Wrack, Pelvetia canaliculata, which has swollen ends to its fronds. These are the reproductive bodies. You can see the channels that give this seaweed its name on the underside of the fronds in the lower left of my photograph.

Spiral Wrack

Growing in a band below the Channelled Wrack, Spiral Wrack or Flat Wrack, Fucus spiralis, also has swollen tips but these are usually in pairs. The fronds have a tendency to twist, hence the name and, unlike the Channelled Wrack, they have prominent midribs.

Its tough leathery fronds have no air bladders.

Knotted Wrack

Below the Spiral Wrack, at the foot of the sea-wall, Knotted Wrack, Aescophyllum nodosum, spreads out onto the beach. It is also known as Egg Wrack because of those egg-shaped air bladders.

Polysiphonia

Looking amongst the Knotted Wrack on the beach, I found this red seaweed growing attached to one of the fronds. The three wracks are Brown Algae but Polysiphonia lanosa (it doesn’t have an English name) is a Red Alga.

Edible Winkle

Lying amongst the Knotted Wrack and Polysiphonia were shells of the Edible Winkle or Edible Periwinkle, Littorina littoralis. This gill-breathing sea-snail (a mollusc that is a member of the subclass Prosobranchia) feeds on seaweed.

The River Ness

Mas leat an saoghal, is leat daoin’ an domhain

If the world is yours, the people of the world are yours too.

Gaelic proverb on the wall of the Cuach Coffee Shop, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.
(A Cuach or quaich is a shallow, two-handed drinking cup, still used on Burns Night in Scotland)

DOES THIS PROVERB mean that if you go out into the world and become a part of it people will accept you and welcome you? It could just as easily be the motto of Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpine), “The Conqueror”, the ninth century King of the Scots who is reputed to have conquered the Picts.

Inverness, known as ‘the Capital of the Highlands’ is the only capital city that I know of where you can look down from a bridge and see the bottom of the river.

10.25 a.m.: A juvenile Herring Gull wheels down to the grassy bank on the far side of the river to peck and preen, oblivious of the people walking past yards away on the pavement at the other side of the wall. My sketches suggest that this is a juvenile that fledged last year because its back is beginning to turn grey (top left). In a first year bird, the back would be entirely mottled brown.

Some of the litter bins have posters on them asking you not to feed the gulls. The gulls are streetwise, hanging around on the bustling pedestrianised high street of the city, on the look out for scraps. They can recognise a bag of teacakes from a hundred yards away; a man and boy walk past, the man holding a white plastic bag of teacakes (for human, not gull, consumption) and soon three gulls and two crows appear.

These crows are black like the Carrion Crows we’re used to seeing in Yorkshire but we also see Hooded Crows which are grey with black head, breast-patch, wings and tail. Seeing this race of the crow always makes me feel that I’m in the Highlands. They’re also the crows that you’re likely to see in Europe to the south and east of the Alps. We see a number of hybrids of the two races.

An immature Grey Heron watches then strikes. I can’t see whether it actually caught a fish but I suspect that it did as it then wiped each side of its bill against the branch that it’s standing on.

Three Herring Gulls swooped down on the Heron and half-heartedly tried to dislodge it from its perch. They then took up look-out posts on the tops of buildings overlooking the river.


Highland Journey

WE’RE SPENDING Friday travelling up and Monday travelling back again so the East Coast rail journey of our weekend in Inverness is one half of our short break in the Highlands. It’s too long since we’ve been here – well over 20 years. We get to Scotland once or twice a year but rarely get any further than Edinburgh or Glasgow.

We’ve always driven here, so it’s 31 years since I last travelled up by rail. The names of the stations conjure up memories of my journeys to summer and Easter stints as a volunteer osprey warden in my student days; Gleneagles, Pitlochary, Blairgowrie and Kingussie on the countdown to Aviemore. After a year in Leeds or London at art college, going through the rugged pass north of Blair Atholl, with its screes and cascading streams felt like crossing the border into another world of primeval landscapes and spectacular wildlife.

Food and drink on the train are included as part of our bargain break, as we’ve upgraded to first class for the eight hour journey so I indulge in a miniature of Famous Grouse blended whisky as we drink in the landscape as the train pulls out of Gleneagles.

“I don’t normally drink whisky,” I explain to the stewardess, “but I felt I should as we’re entering the Highlands.”

“These aren’t the Highlands!” she retorted.

“Yes, but Gleneagles sounds like the Highlands.”

This reminds me of my three day Highland Tour with Dr Stephen Cribb whose book Whisky on the Rocks I illustrated. Famous Grouse is a blended whisky but the book investigated the geological story behind the process water – usually spring water – used in distilling single malt whiskies.

The taste and bouquet of the blended whisky brings back our visits to some of the famous single malt distilleries on our research trip. Places such Speyside and, north of Inverness, Tain where they make Glenmorangie. We didn’t have time to visit any island distilleries unfortunately.

Dog, Donkey and Geese

WHEREVER YOU are there’s something to draw but whenever I’ve got the chance I’ll go for a plant, animal or landscape so, in the bookshop, it has to be Tilly the Welsh collie if she isn’t hiding under the desk.

And at my biomechanics appointment although I had the usual waiting room subject matter of chairs and fire-extinguishers to draw I decided on the foliage of ash and sycamore, visible through a high window.

My biomechanical fault is that I have one leg about a centimetre longer than the other, so I wear insoles to even that out a bit but my annual check in with the podiatrist gave me a chance to get some expert advice on walking. On my 14 mile walk to Denby Dale a few weeks ago I’d developed small black bruises under my little-toe nails. This isn’t a biomechanical problem, he explained, it’s just the toe rubbing repeatedly against the side of the boot. A small tubular bandage that goes over the toe might be worth trying.

I asked about the backache that I get on a long walk. I tried a bum-bag instead of a rucksack this time but after a few hours I developed exactly the same ache in my mid to lower back. ‘We’ll load you up like a mule next time!’, he suggested, but the way around this would be for me to work out at what stage on the walk the ache starts and take a break just before that starts to happen. The muscles in your back that control posture are actually quite small, they’re not like the large muscle masses that you use swinging your legs and arms in the process of walking itself, so they tire easily.

I should think a fifteen or twenty minute break to do a drawing every 90 minutes would do the trick for me and I look forward to trying that out.

‘There’s life in the old dog yet!’ the podiatrist insisted, so I’ll take that as a professional opinion.

The bucket is a sketch for my new book while the donkey and geese were drawn at Charlotte’s ice cream parlour where we took my mum for a coffee for the third week running this morning, after her regular shopping and appointments outing. This is out in the countryside that I walked through for the first time on my long walk and, as we drive back by various attractive routes along country lanes, I keep spotting public footpath signs tempting me to come back and explore.