IT’S OFTEN NOT recommended to transport frogspawn from one pond to another because of the danger of spreading infection but I feel that I’m safe accepting a couple of clumps from a neighbour across the road whose pond always gets more frogspawn in it than it can accommodate. Our new  pond has plenty of room, although the tadpoles, now hatched but still no more than short black dashes resting on the mass of jelly, are going to be at risk of being gobbled by the Smooth Newts that are already settling in to the new pond.

The tap water has had a week now to lose the small traces of chlorine that it contained so I was keen to add some oxygenating pond weeds. My neighbour saved me the trouble and expense of a trip to the garden centre by letting me have half a bucket of strands from his pond. Now the newts have some vegetation that they can lay their eggs on.


Periwinkle growing in the hawthorn hedge.

THE NEW POND has become disputed territory and there’s a continuing battle between rival Blackbirds. Not only does the sparkling new pond serve as a prominent landmark, it’s also a valuable resource for nesting materials. A female Blackbird appeared to be gathering mud from between rocks we’ve put around the pond to anchor the liner. The mud cup in a Blackbird’s nest is further lined with dry grasses.

The Blue Tits are popping in and out of the nest box but we saw a large bumblebee fly to the hole and crawl inside, so I wonder who will end up in possession.

To the left of the pond I originally tried to create a bog area but I could never get it to work in practice and it never became anything in particular, just whatever became established which might include teasel and hosta but was just as likely to include bramble and hogweed, both of which have their value for wildlife but they can begin to take over.

We’ve levelled the area off ready for turfing, ideally with a wild flower lawn turf, but until we roll that out the House Sparrows are enjoying dust-bathing in the finely raked soil.

I started this mainly wildlife sketchbook in May last year. Hopefully I'll be well into my next wildlife sketchbook by May this year.

It was cooler than I expected this afternoon as I sat in the sun drawing the Periwinkle growing near the rhubarb at the foot of the hedge but it made me feel as if I was at last getting my life where I want it to be. Instead of constructing ponds, creating raised beds and weeding, it is at last getting to the stage where I can relax a bit and just enjoy being out there. Hopefully my sketchbook will start to reflect the arrival of spring.

House End

WE’VE BEEN on the move today but without the car, which has taken a while to get through its MOT test, as things keep cropping up. After 12 years, it’s time to change it, so we took a test drive today in a small car that proved a little too small for me.

On the return journey from the dealers I sketched passengers on the bus. There’s something that you can’t do while you’re driving a car.

Curiously if both Barbara and I are travelling together it works out cheaper to go by taxi as we did on the outward journey. Most bus travellers buy a season ticket but for short journeys without a season ticket we’d always do better going in the car (which we feel we have to have to run our book business).

Once when we were without a car we had to take the bus to make a delivery on the other side of Wakefield and the bus fares of £16 or £17 more or less soaked up any profit we might have made on the order. Having a coffee when we arrived probably soaked up the remainder!

I’m not sure why we had to go together with the order. Guess it’s more fun with company.

Starlings love the dense foliage of the holm oaks which are neatly trimmed into fat topiary lollipops in the Cathedral Precinct in Wakefield.

Around the Pond

THIS  RATHER GLUM snowman has turned out looking as if he’s working for air traffic control. He’s from an exercise in Create 3D like a Superhero. This lesson was about ‘How to Mirror Objects’ and the way you do that is to ‘flip’ a copy of the first arm you’ve made. There wasn’t of course any necessity to add a carrot nose, coals for his eyes and an Alpine backdrop but I’m enjoying going through the book and I’m now getting familiar with where skies, textures and props like the dead tree can be found when you’re 3D modelling in Vue 10.

We’re making progress with the pond too. Today we partly rebuilt the raised bad behind the pond, the bed we made with the spoil when we dug the pond 25 years ago.

The first birds that we’ve seen drinking at the pond were House Sparrows. They were coming down to the gently sloping edge that we made with access for wildlife in mind.

As I’d expected, when I dismantled the low drystone wall at the back of the

pond, I found Smooth Newts, perhaps 10 of them, hiding away in various crevices and I released them out of harm’s way. I hope that they’ll find their way back to the pond as it begins to settle in and take on a natural look.

There was at least one newt in the pond, in the deepest section, with it’s head under an oak leaf that had blown in. It was as if it was thinking ‘if I can’t see them, they can’t see me.’

I’m keen to get oxygenating pond weeds in sooner rather than later, if only to give the newts a place to hide.

Wakefield Naturalists

This month’s observations at the Wakefield Naturalists’ Society include a record of an Eagle Owl taking Wood Pigeons at Nostell. The Eagle Owl isn’t of course a native and it’s thought that this one is a local escaped bird. It’s the size of a cat but with wings. The pigeons won’t have seen anything like it before.

Grass Snakes and Great Crested Newts have emerged. On the third of March an early Sand Martin put in an appearance at Calder Wetlands. Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies are on the wing, the early record for the Peacock proving that they’re overwintering here, rather than coming in as migrants each spring.

Spring Flowers

BLACKTHORN is now in blossom, buds are swelling on the trees and in the park the first tulips join the squill and crocus that are already in flower. Rosettes of familiar looking leaves, perhaps sowthistle or Nipplewort,are turning car park edges green. If the weeds have started growing that’s a reminder that we should start sowing vegetables.

Gorse has been in flower on Storrs Hill for a month or more. This morning a Kestrel hovers above the field below the scarp, using the updraft from the slope.

Making a Pond

EVEN BEFORE we’d finished filling it, a frog had found its way into our new pond, plump-looking, so presumably a female ready to spawn. We had disturbed her as we went hunting for stones to cover the PVC liner around edges. I’ve been putting off the task of reinstating our garden pond for months but once we’d got our materials together and allowed ourselves enough time for the job, it was a reasonably simple process.

The worst part, which we completed yesterday, was dismantling the old pond which had sprung a leak, caused by damage to the liner I suspect. I thought that I’d have some pondweeds to rescue but after six months all that remained in the sump of the pond was smelly black silt and debris which I spread on the garden. I was pleased to find that there were no rodent burrows beneath the liner, a problem which led our neighbours to replace their leaky liner with a fibre glass pond, a more expensive option and more difficult to install.

Pond Liner

At the garden centre we found a Blagdon 0.5mm PVC small pond liner, 3.5 x 4m, precisely the size that I’d calculated that we would need, in a pack that included synthetic underlay. It comes with a lifetime guarantee.

The way to calculate how much liner you’ll need is:

Length plus twice the maximum depth x width plus twice the maximum depth

I took a photograph of the pond and printed it out with the dimensions when I set off to the garden centre.

We asked for advice on covering the edges and the man at the aquatic centre drew us this diagram to suggest a shallow shelf around the edges with stones resting on the liner, half in and half out of the water. The edge of the liner folds up behind the stones and you trim off the surplus when the pond is full. This has the advantage that the upstanding edge of the liner prevents water wicking away to the surrounding soil.

We already had the level of the previous pond to work from, but as I cut the 6 inch by 1 inch deep shelf along the far edge of our pond, I kept checking it with a straight edge and a spirit level.

How to Construct a Pond

With apologies for the illustrations – I’m still experimenting with filters in Photoshop! 1. Remove all stones and roots from the hole, trample around to make the ground as smooth as possible then (and this is optional) spread a layer of sand around the hole. Our pond is an inch or two more than 3 metres x 2 metres (10ft x 6ft 6in) with a maximum depth of 45cm (18 inches). That’s sufficient for a wildlife pond but a pond for fish should be 6 inches deeper. It slopes very gradually from the left to allow access for birds and animals. On the other three sides there’s a ledge about 20 cm (8 inches) deep for pots of water plants. 2. Spread a fleece liner across the hole. This is simpler, though more expensive, than the layer of damp newspaper that we used for our first pond, along with an old carpet. Barbara pressed the wet newspapers into place with her bare feet.  I guess it’s a sort of therapy. But the soft synthetic fleece is better because it never rots and it adapts easily to the shape of the hole. 3. Next comes the pond liner. Make a couple of large tucks or folds (a dressmaker would call them darts) to allow the liner to adapt to the contours but you don’t need to precisely fit the liner into the hole as the weight of the water to do that. Place a large stone, one without sharp edges, at each corner to prevent the liner flapping about in the breeze.

At this stage it’s hard to believe that this will ever become a natural-looking pond.

4. Fill the pond

5. As the pond fills add rocks around the edge.

6. Cut off the corners and any surplus liner around the edges and cover the edges with flat stones and turf.

At the left-hand edge where we had used some mossy rocks, the pond looked as if it had been there for years. We’re going to leave it for a few days before adding pondweeds, to allow the chlorine in the tap water to dissipate.

Links; Thanks to the Nautilus Aquatic Centre for the helpful advice.
Blagdon the Pond Masters

Rubber Stamped

My first attempt at a pen and wash effect using the filters in 'Photoshop'.

MY ILLUSTRATOR friend John Welding was telling me about a science fiction short story from years ago about a world where instead of having to go to the trouble of drawing things artists had only to dial up the appropriate rubber stamp.

That day has arrived because the new version of Photoshop that I’m using includes a stamp filter (left). So much quicker than making your own lino-cut.

Filter Gallery

I’m new to this version of Photoshop so this is the first chance that I’ve had to play around with the Filter Gallery, which is useful as you get instant full size previews of the effects of the filters on offer. By using slider controls you can fine tune the effect.

The Watercolour Filter (left) simplifies the photograph to blocky colour.

To get the effect of a pen and watercolour wash drawing you need to add line. In Photoshop, as with most other image manipulation programs, you do this on a new layer.

Find Edges

This time the filter you need, ‘Find Edges’, doesn’t appear in the Filter Gallery; you’ll find in the Filter Menu under ‘Stylize’.

This gives you rather more than the pure line that you’re after (right), even if you try converting the image to grayscale before you start as I did in this example. There are no slider controls to filter out the tones. You now need to go to . . .


To reduce this to pure black and white you need to use the ‘Threshold’ command from the image menu, something I’ve used a lot when scanning my pen and ink artwork when I wanted to print it in line rather than tone.

Just to keep you on your toes, the Threshold command can’t be found amongst the Filters. It’s in the Image menu under Adjustments. Like most of the filters this has a slider control so you can go from almost black to almost washed out.

The ‘pen’ layer, as you might expect, needs to go on top of the ‘watercolour’ layer but to make it transparent you have to set the ‘pen’ layers properties to ‘Multiply’ instead of ‘Normal’ (top).

The finished result wouldn’t convince anybody that I’d used real pen and ink and watercolours but I love that chunky effect and I’d be tempted to use it when I’m painting real watercolours.

Vine Cottage

ACCORDING TO my mum’s note in block capitals pencilled on the strawboard back of this little picture, this is ‘Vine Cottage, Sutton-cum-Lound, Retford, Notts. (As it was until 1969)’ It’s also signed on the back in ballpoint pen ‘Drawn by Richard A Bell’.

It was drawn in the early 1970s, when I was at Leeds College of Art. At that time my grandma and granddad (my dad’s mum & dad) had moved out of the cottage to a bungalow so, when granddad asked me to repair a cardboard box that he used to keep his hearing aid in (hearing aids were rather cumbersome in those days), I decided to decorate it with a drawing of their old home. I pasted a hand-coloured photocopy of it on the box lid. I often used a fine Gillot 1950 nib at that time and Special Brown Pelikan Indian Ink. Those comma-like dots above the roof are thrips or thunder-flies which found there way into the frame when the picture hung in the bungalow.

I was able to reconstruct the appearance of the cottage by looking at various old photographs of members of the family standing in front of various corners of it. I made the frame too. I was quite handy in those days.

Mother’s Day Album

My sister Linda, mum and boxer puppy Nina at Vine Cottage.

With Mother’s Day (the British version) coming up soon, I’ve been going through some of those photographs today, scanning original box camera negatives, for a little album.

One or two of the negatives have probably never been seen as they were half frames at the end of the roll, so I hope my mum gets some surprises looking through these.

Looking at them on my new monitor, I’m seeing them as they’ve never been seen before, as the negatives were always contact printed same size, a little over 2 inches by 3. On the screen I feel they take on a 1950s cinematic quality. They’ve got a more sophisticated patina to them than the colour prints that would replace black and white ‘snapshots’ in the 1960s and 1970s.

Storybook Granny

I feel as if they are stills from a movie, a movie with a meticulous art department because all the costumes and props are so perfectly of the period. And (if it had been a movie) the casting director had an eye for character. I feel that my Grandma Bell is the perfect storybook granny, rosy cheeked and twinkly eyed, saying things like ‘Ho, ho, hum!’ and ‘Where the Dickens had he gone?!’ and even ‘Who’s been leaving all these tranklements about?’ (tranklements being an old dialect word for ‘bits and pieces’).

She’s even wearing a gingham dress – regulation country granny costume, i would guess – in this photograph, standing by the towering hollyhocks in the tiny front garden, with granddad sitting in rustic porch in the dappled shade of the vine (or is it a creeper?) that gave the cottage its name.

Billy the Pig

Grandma and granddad were given a piglet, the runt of the litter, to rear and I was delighted when I came across the negative of this photograph of my dad looking at the pig, Billy, in his sty on my granddad’s allotment.

When Billy’s time came, every bit of the pig was used. I remember that one of my grandma’s favourites was brawn, a kind of potted meat made from the pig’s head.

The majority of these old photographs are simply of relatives posing self-consciously for the camera but for the album I’ve looked for anything that doesn’t come into that category.

This sun-drenched photograph of granddad, my mum’s old school friend ‘Auntie’ Jean and my dad, is so unlike most of the other snapshots, which rarely show any adults behaving naturally. Jean is evidently, as I always remember her, making some drily witty comment, causing even my generally serious-looking granddad to smile, while my dad sits drinking tea, smoking a cigarette and looking into the middle-distance, very much as you’d expect an ex-army man who has spent several years in the North African desert to do.

First Celandines

THE SUN has brought out the Lesser Celandines on their steep, sheltered, south-facing bank in the old watermill race, where Coxley Beck descends to follow its conduit under road and canal to the river by the Bingley Arms.

I keep seeing two Robins, behaving in a reasonably friendly manner in the front garden. One of them has been singing from the bare branches of Sumac above the dense growth of Ivy on our neighbour’s fence. I suspect that it is considering nesting in there. I bought an open-fronted nest-box a month ago. It’s time that I put it up.

A few Dandelion flowers are beginning to show, pushing up by the pavement by walls. I took up the old brick path last week. I’d made it from bricks recycled from an outbuilding my brother was knocking down 15 or 20 years ago. House bricks aren’t really designed to be used as paviers. Some had crumbled away and as they have frogs (that’s frog as in the slot in each brick) Dandelions and other weeds have been able to become established in the cavities. Hopefully the paving stone path that we’ve laid won’t get so weedy.

Lantern and Leaf

WE CALL at our niece Sarah’s new house in Wakefield and, while chatting over tea and homemade cupcakes, I draw this lantern and leaf.

Just as I’m uploading these sketches back in my studio I catch sight of a silhouette against the blue sky; a Buzzard soars across above me.

That’s the kind of thing that I was hoping that I’d see more of when I moved my computer to this end of the studio by the metre square Velux window in the mansard roof.

I notice that the cock Pheasant has now broken off his bowing and bullying display to a hen Pheasant who was sitting on the plank bench in the corner of my meadow area. He was strutting and bowing on the ground below the bench.

Every year I think that I might get around to doing a decent drawing of the Snowdrops, to start the season as I’d like to go on but, as in previous years, I’ve left it just that little bit too late and they’re already past their best. Those in the shade of the hedge look the freshest.

Put Your Feet Up & Draw

I’ve drawn my left hand so many times while in waiting rooms but drawing my feet is better left until I’m relaxing at home. As I said the other day, I’m enjoying these pen and ink drawings, although here I’m back to ArtPen rather than pen and Indian Ink.

I was taking a look at a Photoshop magazine in the supermarket. Most of the projects don’t appeal to me as they tend to focus on touching up portraits or adding surrealist flourishes to photographs but a step-by-step workshop on turning a photograph of plant pots on greenhouse staging into pen and wash appealed to my both in its subject and its treatment.

Put simply, I gathered as I scanned the pages with no intention of buying the magazine (this is a man thing according to a woman we were talking to the other day), you use a filter that selects edges only then tweak it a bit to give a pen and ink effect and you add a free watercolour layer by hand. It was remarkably effective in reproducing the free and easy charm of pen and wash.

Even taking a close look at the final drawing I think that I would have assumed it was hand drawn but it raises the question of why would you wish to deny yourself the pleasure of hand-drawing all those shapes.

Talking of Photoshop tutorials, the box that I drew around my drawing was prompted by Daniel Fieske’s Gnome tutorial that I followed through the other day. As I was trying to build up tone in my drawing in the weave of the jeans, the knitting of the socks and the out of focus background, it made sense to add an edge, rather than fade out in a vignette and have the tone fade out too.

I’m  very literal when it comes to drawing and you might say well there’s no box around subjects in real life but then there aren’t outlines, stipples and cross-hatchings either. As with Fieske’s Gnome I’m actually conjuring up a little world in any sketch even when I’m following what I can see with reasonable care and attention. The frame helps suggest that this should be taken as a view into a little world (in this case a rather unappealing corner of a world occupied by my feet).

I’m sure that I’ll get launched again on my book work soon and I wish that I could keep this kind of looseness and animation going in my illustrations, which will be in pen and ink. I seem to stiffen up my style and become rather earnest and uptight when I know that I’m working for publication.