Garden Birdwatch

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch survey form.

At 9.20 a.m., a great spotted woodpecker perches briefly in the crab apple so we decide to make that the start of our annual hour-long RSPB Garden Birdwatch. It’s just as well, because the woodpecker doesn’t settle, nor does it return in the next hour.

We record a dozen species; goldfinch are the most numerous with a maximum of ten in the garden at any one time and the coal tit, the last to appear, is the least frequent visitor of the birds on our list.

Pie chart of our top 10 birds, courtesy of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

Bean Sprouting

I’m ready to spring into action with the vegetable garden and, although it still a bit early to start sowing seeds, I can give myself a bit of practice by sprouting seeds indoors. In the past, we’ve tried alfalfa, one of the easiest to get going, but we weren’t too thrilled with the results, so today we bought a packet of mung beans for sprouting. We can always use beans sprouts, most probably in a stir-fry.

I’m starting them off by soaking them overnight and they’ll need rinsing and draining a couple of times a day for the next five to ten days.

The Kestrel’s Perch

As I sketch the view across Smithy Brook valley from the Seed Room café at Overton, a kestrel perches for a while towards the top of one of the trees in the copse at the top of the slope.

The fire extinguisher was the most interesting still life subject that I could find to draw in the doctor’s waiting room.

Breaking the Ice

10.30 a.m.: Most of the mallards and mute swans, along with a female goosander and a female wigeon, have gathered in a patch of open water on sunny side of the frozen Lower Lake at Nostell but increasing numbers of mallard are making their way to the corner near Sheep Bridge, where there’s a chance that visitors might feed them.

Not wanting to be left out, the resident swan family starts making its way over, keeping close to the shore where the ice is thinnest.

I think that it’s the male, the cob, that is taking the lead, pushing through the ice. He’s the larger of the pair and has a thicker a neck than the female.

Males have a larger knob on their bills than the females but I can’t see much of a difference between the two. Perhaps this is something that becomes more pronounced as spring, and the mating season, arrives.

Ear Wash

I photographed ear fungus growing on a log at Nostell this morning and I’ve made a start on a watercolour, working from the photograph, this afternoon.

Starting with a pencil drawing, I’m adding the lightest colour in each area. This initial wash looks exotically bright for the subject of fungi on an old log but, as you can see from the detail from my photograph, there’s a surprising amount of colour there.

The next stage will be to add the darker washes.


Watercolour Woodland

4 p.m.: This afternoon, the light is much the same as yesterday, so I get a chance to finish my watercolour. Working with a finer brush, a number 6 sable round, I start with the branches in the upper left-hand corner and work my way downwards.

I’m painting in a Pink Pig sketchbook on 270 gsm Ameleie watercolour paper which is smoother than the 300 gsm variety that I was using at the weekend but, as you can see from the close up, it still gives a hint of texture in the washes. It’s smooth enough to take a pen line.

It takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to finish the watercolour.

Link: Pink Pig sketchbooks

First Wash

This afternoon, instead of starting with a pen drawing, I quickly sketched the outlines in pencil then, working from the sky downwards, I added a wash of the lightest background colour in each area.

It’s the same technique as the ‘half-hour’ demonstrations that I followed at the weekend but I find that working from life gives me a lot more freedom as I’m not trying to follow a series of step-by-step instructions. The dark masses of the bare ashes and willows are varied so as I work I keep adding touches of sap green, French ultramarine or sepia to my background colour, blending them wet-in-wet.

With only twenty minutes available, I don’t get the chance to move onto the next stage which would have been adding details such as twisting branches, patches of ivy and darker patches.

Getting it in Proportion

Sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, looking up Queen Street, I’m attempting to draw the spire of St Peter and St Leonard’s Church, Horbury.

The proportions are so subtle; the tower’s structure reminds me of a four-stage Saturn rocket, about to soar skywards but it might so easily, with the addition of an extra foot or so of girth, start to appear crushingly earthbound or, conversely, if too slender, become too spindly and emaciated to inspire confidence.

It’s the same with the individual pillars: there’s such a slim ‘Goldilocks zone’ between undernourished and elephantine. I think that he got it just right.

The architect, John Carr(1723-1807), started his career working the stone in local quarries. As far as I know, he never had any formal training in architecture, nor did he ever make the Grand Tour, to absorb the classical influence of Italy but as bridge surveyor to the West Riding of Yorkshire, he had an eye for structure.

I walked past the church every day when I attended St Peter’s Junior School, which in those days stood close to where the dentist’s stands today. As I looked up at that wedding cake of a spire, so unlike anything else in Horbury, I’d imagine the kind of character that might be living in there, in the pilastered penthouse apartment above the rusticated clock section. Shutters and a the mini-balcony made me think of Spain or Mexico, so a mantillared señorita or a caballero.

The rotunda of columns could be a home for a minor Greek deity.

Foggy Morning

After my weekend watercolour workshop, it’s hardly surprising that Monday morning starts with me seeing potential subjects as the sun melts away the fog. But we’re setting out with places to go and people to see, so I’m sketching indoors again today.

The cushions provide me with a landscape in miniature.

Through  the top of a window I can see the branches of an ash, which is still hanging onto a few of its keys.

I add some crayoned colour to my cushion landscape.

Painting Waves

“This demonstration is about brush control and technique,” writes Paul Talbot-Greaves in 30 minute Landscapes in Watercolour, “both are essential for describing the waves crashing over rocks.”

The technique of scumbling involves pulling a not-too-wet brush across the paper but this didn’t work out quite as I intended for the sky. This might have been because the colour that I used, Cerulean Blue, tends to dry to a granular texture. I didn’t have the recommended colour, Phthalo Blue, in my watercolour box.

Like the snow scene that I tried yesterday, this watercolour is an example of deciding what to leave out, as the spray is represented by the white of the watercolour paper.

A theme through the four half-hour step-by-steps that I’ve tried this weekend has been keeping the colours that you use in a watercolour to a minimum. There are five colours in this painting and only four were needed for the snow scene. For example, the pale wash on the surf is the same colour mix as the darker patches of the sea – Cerulean Blue and Lemon Yellow – just very much diluted.

My thanks again to Paul Talbot-Greaves for devising these watercolour demonstrations and explaining the process so clearly.

Lost in the Forest

This ‘half-hour’ watercolour demonstration, again following the step-by-steps in Paul Talbot-Greaves’ Collins 30 Minute Landscapes in Watercolour, actually took me almost an hour but, as with any watercolour, part of that was waiting for the paint to dry.

I went wrong with the colour wash for the distant trees, accidentally mixing a darker green intended for the middle-distance trees. In trying to dilute this mid-wash, I ended up with wash-backs. But they do have a dendritic look to them!

Snow Scene

I’m getting a bit more confident as I work through the Half-Hour Demos in Paul Talbot-Greaves’ 30 Minute Landscapes in Watercolour.

I would normally follow the contours of a landscape in pen, as if the nib was tracing the routes that a climber might take over the outcrops of rock. Those foreground boulders would have been hatched with strata. Following the suggestions for this exercise, my initial pencil drawing amounts to perhaps a couple of dozen lines: if I’d been out on location, I would probably have got absorbed in the geological detail and I would have lavished that number of pen strokes on one or two of the rocks.

Less can be More

I’m learning to trust the viewer to complete the picture, so I’m  realising that the decision of what to leave out of a painting can be as important as deciding what to put in. Less can be more, so I particularly enjoyed suggesting the billowing cloud with the crisp edge of the initial wash of Cobalt Blue for the sky. Following Talbot-Greaves’ example, I didn’t even start with an indication of the shape of the cloud in pencil. It’s such a pleasure to just draw with the brush.


Also new to me was the suggestion of using a quarter inch flat brush for the shadows and the rock formations. Its chisel-shaped marks give an impression of blocky rocks. I’ll definitely use it again, in fact I’ll treat myself to some new flat sable brushes as my old sable flats are now rather splayed (and that number 8, above, has a warped handle!).

Link: Paul Talbot-Greaves