Perfectly Frank

TRYING TO think of a birthday gift that combined my brother’s creative side in the kitchen with a reference to his accident-prone Springer Spaniel Frank (who survived snowdrifts and thin ice in France last week), I spotted these two bottles in the supermarket; Marston’s Pedigree Classic English Pale Ale and Frank’s Original Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce.

All they needed to personalise them was a little logo of the Original Pedigree Welsh Springer Spaniel Frank himself. Perfect!

Sketch Pad

THIS KIND of Sketch Pad is unfamiliar to me; it’s the virtual Corel Painter version, Sketch Pad 4, which was available as a free download when I registered my Intuos 4 wireless pen tablet. Having worked out how to pair the tablet with my computer via a Bluetooth connection, this is my first attempt to draw with it wirelessly.

Thanks to Bluetooth, I can now rest the tablet on my knees but relating the angle of my pen strokes to the angle that will appear on the screen is going to take a bit of practice.

Some users report being able to work as far as 50 feet from the computer, so I could take the tablet down the garden. It would be interesting to see whether the resulting drawing bore any resemblance to reality. It would be like the blind drawing exercise in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

This sketch of Netherton Hall, a little to the right of the pylon in my view across Coxley Valley was made using the tablet in Autobook Sketchbook Express. It shows how far I have to go until the techniques become second nature. Choosing colours from the various on-screen palettes and slider controls is an awkward process compared with mixing watercolours from the pocket box of Winsor and Newton’s that I use daily.

Yorkies on Walkies

AS IT’S HALF TERM, there were children, grandparents and assorted dogs at Newmillerdam this morning. One woman was gyrating in a slow motion ballroom twirl, holding one arm up and passing it over the other as two little Yorkshire Terriers kept circling around her, sometimes in opposing directions, as if she was a maypole.

Later it was a little Jack Russell on a long lead that made a complete circuit of an unsuspecting black Labrador. Perhaps there was some rivalry as to who would be the first off the mark if their owner, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Ask the Boss’, should produce a doggy treat.

It’s good to see the lake full of liquid water again and Mallard, Canada Goose and Tufted Ducks going about their normal business instead of waddling over the ice.

I drew the Yorkies with my pen tablet using Corel Painter Sketch Pad, which I think feels a bit more natural to use than Autodesk SketchBook Express but these trees in Sainsbury’s car park were drawn in my usual pen and wash.

Beauty and the Beast

WAS MY scenery, painted as flat colours with outlines picked out in black, too cartoony?

It’s good to come to a performance to remind myself what all that effort was actually for. The cast, which includes a number of younger new faces backed up by some of our regulars, give their all and there are some confident performers and singers amongst them. The humour is what you’d expect from a pantomime so the cartoon backdrops work fine.

When we first enter the Beast’s Castle, via a clever scene change that involves tab curtains being opened as old cobwebby gates fly open, I think for a moment should I have gone for something more distressed and gothick but the scene soon moves to melodrama, humour and children dancing so the suggestion of a baronial hall is about right.

Coming to a performance gives me an opportunity to draw, even if it is in the dark on the back row, other than that all I had time to draw today was my left foot.

Pen Tablet

Whatever brush tool I select in SketchBook Express my lettering turns out wobbly when I'm using the pen tablet.

AFTER ALL that work putting up shelves, assembling my new desk and designing a new plan chest/worktop, I can now put the finishing touches to my studio. My old graphics pad, a Wacom Volito, won’t work with my new computer so I’ve gone for the Intuos 4 wireless pen tablet.

What better way to test it out than trying it out in Sketchbook Express, which has been described as a Mac equivalent to Microsoft Paint, available as a free download. I used  pencil, fibre tip, chisel tip pen and brush tools in this drawing.

It’s a strange experience to be drawing on the pad on my desk but reacting to the marks appearing on the monitor in front of me. It’s easy to draw a line at slightly the wrong angle.

One advantage is that for a change I don’t have to show my left hand holding a sketchbook.

Like the Volito, the main use for this Intuos tablet is likely to be for preparing scans of my drawings for print. It’s difficult to draw with a mouse and it can be a bit fiddly even to select shapes or erase with it. The Intuos is about as near as I’m going to get to being able to draw on screen without going to the enormous expense of a touch screen.

I’m happy to revert to ArtPen and watercolours as we drink our coffee after a meal at the Bar Biccari.


THERE’S A NEW Pheasant, a cock Pheasant distinctively marked with white flashes above the eyes, in the garden this afternoon and, at least when I happen to look out and see him, he’s not being challenged by our regular bird, who’s down amongst the snowdrops near the hedge with a female ambling along beside him. The newcomer has also brought a partner. The two of them stroll up to the bird feeders.

The Treecreeper that works it’s way up the north side of the Golden Hornet crab apple tree – the side covered with powdery green algae – is an infrequent visitor to the garden. It makes its way up to the top of one of the main branches then flies off towards the large oak in a back garden three doors up the road.

Saint Valentine’s is traditionally the day that birds pair up and there’s a definite buzz of spring about. I’ve been up in attic and shortly afterwards I’m aware of a hum next to me; a queen wasp that was probably hibernating in the attic has a emerged and is sitting at the bottom of the window whirring its wings. I let it out but I’m afraid that it’s still a little too early for her to start a new colony.

Raspberry Canes

WE CUT the autumn-fruiting raspberry canes down to about a foot a few weeks ago, although we should have done this a bit earlier when they became dormant in the autumn. Soon they will be springing into new growth, so it’s now time to cut them down to the ground. However hit-and-miss we are with pruning, we always get a decent crop from this variety, Joan Jay. The canes need tying back when they’re in leaf and producing fruit but at this time of year you can appreciate what small footprint they take up in the raised bed – about 3 feet by 1 foot.

We’ve still got jars of jam that we made with them in late summer and early autumn.

It’s a good idea to thin them out and stop them spreading too much so we dig out five plants to give to friends who want to start growing them.

This little Toad had a narrow escape; Paul the gardener and I were clearing the old fence panels behind the greenhouse and it was only when I was sweeping the path that I uncovered it, crouching in a hollow under a sheet of plastic – an old potting compost bag – that I’d put down some time ago to suppress weeds. I’d been working right next to it but luckily it had survived unscathed. I released it out of harm’s way behind the compost bins.

Crouched next to the Toad in his lair was a small round slug. Perhaps this slug was a commensal companion; destined to become lunch!

A Robin flits about us as we work. It’s evidently noticed that, as we cut back matted ivy and prickly cotoneaster to remove the tumbled and twisted old larch-lap fence panels, we are disturbing woodlice and spiders.

Bedraggled Corner

SO MUCH to do! But this corner behind the greenhouse, inevitably the most neglected corner of the garden, isn’t going to take too much sorting out if I divide it up into separate tasks such as cutting back, digging the veg beds, clearing the greenhouse and replacing three fence panels that blew down in the autumn.

I saw a total of six daisies on the grass verge on Quarry Hill this morning. How do they manage to flower after the snow and frost we’ve had recently? Being close to the road and sheltered by buildings might help and perhaps as the slope faces the setting sun they get what warmth is available at this time of year but I suspect the main reason is that cars parked on the verge overnight radiate enough heat from their engines to create a pocket of marginally warmer soil, giving this handful of a daisies a head start.

The Village Scene

AFTER LAST weekend when making it up as we went along meant one or two false starts in painting the castle backdrop, I had intended to prepare a colour sketch before we started work this morning. Typically, other things intervened throughout the week so here I am looking at the scene we’re painting over from last year’s production of Treasure Island wondering how I can convert the interior of the Admiral Benbow tavern into the opening village scene of this year’s pantomime.

The fireplace and chimney of the tavern become the well (drinking fountain in the shape of the head of a lion, this is Beauty and the Beast) and the chimney of the village bakery, while the view of the bay seen through the window of the tavern becomes the bakery’s window, piled high with baskets of baguettes and croissants.

But a boulangerie without a door doesn’t make sense and the only place to put it is in a little two-storey block replacing the chimney, dispensing with the drinking fountain.

I want to retain the view of a distant forest, glimpsed through a row of poplars at the edge of the village, because the next scene takes us to an enchanted forest (which doesn’t require a backdrop!).

Pigeons in the Wood

WOOD PIGEONS have been gathering in the treetops – about a hundred of them fly up over the wood on this cold and misty morning. Their regular foraging in the fields has been first snow-covered then frozen solid this week. We’ve got a book delivery to make today and we feel glad that we didn’t have to set out yesterday when we pass a car, which must have skidded on the ice, being towed out of a hedge. Casualty departments were 40 to 50% busier after the freezing rain.

After feeding on sunflower hearts around our bird feeders, the Pheasants often pause to nibble the leaves of broccoli in our cabbage patch as they walk down the garden path back towards the meadow and the wood.

A Heron, looking rather fed up, sits hunched on a perch for an hour or more on a branch of one of the Crack Willows by the stream. It appears to be undisturbed by any dog walkers who may be passing by below.

Voles, Moles and Unwelcome Guests

There are vole holes in the lawn and mole-hills in the flower border near the bird table but the burrow that I’m not so keen to see is one that leads from under a paving slab straight under the plastic compost bin. I can see that the chopped end of an onion has been dragged down from the bin. I want to recycle all our vegetable peelings but we can’t control which creatures are attracted to nibble them. I think that the answer is to re-think the way we compost anything that is potentially edible and relocate our plastic compost bins, currently behind the shed, to the main wooden compost bins at the end of the garden beyond the greenhouse. We never put any cooked food on the compost heap but then, being brought up in the Yorkshire tradition of thrift, we contribute virtually nothing to the estimated 7.2 million tons of food thrown out each year by households in the United Kingdom. It has been estimated that the average family with children throws out about £680 of food each year.

Ivy Berries

This evening two Wood Pigeons fly down to eat berries on the mass of Ivy that grows over our neighbour’s fence. A male Blackbird also tucks into this seasonal supply.