It’s the last day, meteorologically speaking, of winter but at times it has seemed more like spring today. It’s a good time to go through my pocket sketchbook, to upload the drawings that didn’t made it into my posts.
The View from Brontë Tower
For so much of the winter, we’ve been preoccupied by medical matters, especially in Barbara’s brother John’s gradual recovery from a stroke at the beginning of December. He’s now back home and doing well.
The stroke unit at Dewsbury Hospital is on the fifth floor of the Brontë Tower, with views, on a clear day, of the tops of the Pennines. They were at their most striking one clear sunny morning, after a snow shower over the moor tops.
Just time at 4.30 for a quick session drawing the pheasants that have been gleaning spilt sunflower seeds beneath the feeders for most of the day.
Working in fountain pen with regular ink speeds up the process of drawing. I’d normally use Noodlers waterproof ink because I find it so useful, being able to add a wash of watercolour without the ink running but, in the time available today, regular ink seems to flow more freely. Besides, I’m in the mood for a drawing with an inky quality to it. For once, I won’t add the red, green and red gold of the cock pheasant’s plumage.
60 seconds looking, 8 seconds drawing
I enjoyed watching The Great Painting Challenge from ZSL Whipsnade Zoo yesterday. The warm-up exercise that Pascal Anson gave the contestants, urging them to spend 60 seconds looking at the elephants, then only 8 seconds drawing, is more or less what I’m trying here – except without Pascal standing there with his stopwatch: the pheasants are so active that I’ve got no choice other than to try and take a mental snapshot of a pose, then draw the whole thing. But I do then work on the details of the plumage in short bursts.
8.00 a.m.: A sparrowhawk flies over the rooftops followed by a loose flock of smaller birds, which appear to be mobbing it. The sparrowhawk swoops down on one of them, but misses out on its breakfast.
On the sunflower heart feeders, a pair of bullfinches are joined by a siskin.
8.45 a.m.: A buzzard circles over farmland beyond the houses. Buzzards are such regulars now but because I first got familiar with them in the Lake District and on Speyside, at a time when they were far less common than they are today, they still conjure up a feeling of wild places for me. It’s great to be able to sit on the sofa with a mug of tea after breakfast and see one soaring in the distance.
We had a single clump of frogspawn in the pond yesterday; today there are thirteen.
Back to the future: welcome to my school for the space age, as envisaged in my art homework in 1965. I was ahead of my time: that airy auditorium reminds me of the Scottish Parliament, which didn’t get built until forty years later. No wonder I felt so relaxed and at home, when we visited Holyrood last summer.
The Writing on the Wall
My high-tec teaching aids are now commonplace in the classroom: projectors, televisions and my analogue version of today’s computer-controlled whiteboards.
When we call on our friend Diana, I usually struggle to draw her cat, PC, because, if he’s in, he hankers to go out but, once he’s out, it’s not long until he jumps on the outside windowsill to demand to be let in again. A busy cat.
Not today though, as it’s cold, dull and rainy out there. Snoozing in his basket or reclining on the windowsill, as he is today, you might imagine that PC would be far too laid back to catch a bird. Unfortunately not: Diana has had to stop feeding the birds in her front garden, which is a shame because she used to enjoy seeing goldfinches crowding onto the nyger seed feeder.
This weekend my old brass alarm clock appears in Harrison’s Garden at Nostell Priory, an installation by artist Luke Jerram to celebrate the 300th anniversary of one of John Harrison’s early longcase clocks, created in 1717 (see link below).
My alarm clock, made by Peter of Germany, dates from the late 1970s, when I needed something more robust to get me out of bed in the morning than the little travel alarm that my Uncle Fred bought me for my 21st birthday.
In a drawing from 1977 (or 1978?), I included the alarm clock hanging from a metal shelf unit in a cluttered corner of my room.
Whatever I bought for my room, I tried to select something that I might use as reference for an illustration, so I went for a brass alarm clock that seemed to me to be the essence of what an alarm clock should look like.
When I chose a brush to sweep the ashes from the hearth, I went for a traditional design: one that I’d be able to draw if I ever needed a brush as a prop in a children’s story. I chose well with that because, earlier this week, I used the same red brush, now with its bristles much worn down, to sweep up in the greenhouse.
These still life studies were mainly pencil and watercolour but I sometimes finished off with just a spot or two of gouache: the highlights on the handle of the brush are stipples of white gouache and the light tips of the bristles are streaks of yellow ochre. I remember being particularly pleased with how those bristles turned out.
One of my favourite paintings at the time – and it’s still one of my favourites – was Vuillard’sLa Cheminee in the National Gallery in London, so I guess that was the inspiration for this sketch of my own mantlepiece. I’ve still got a couple of those golden syrup tins on the end of the bookshelves right next to me as I type this. Today they’re mainly filled with pens and pencils.
I’ve still got the blue Thermos flask too; it’s on a shelf at the back of the garage, rusted through at the base but still usable. We’ve got better flasks now, but I can’t bring myself to throw it out, as it’s been on so many adventures with me. It once rolled part way down a cliff top slope on Skokholm Island, West Wales, and it appears in my Richard Bell’s Britain sketchbook, published in 1981 by Collins.
As a natural history illustrator, I found that when I visited a publisher and showed them my portfolio and some of my sketchbooks of animals, plants and landscapes, the editor would ask me, ‘Do you ever draw people?’, so at that time, in the late 1970s, I made a special effort to improve my figure drawing: sketching at local markets, enrolling in a life class and reading up on anatomy.
I drew a series of self portraits in pencil, looking for features such as my:
depressor anguli oris (a muscle used in frowning)
levator anguli oris (a muscle used in smiling)
zygomatic arch (the bony arch of my cheek)
I set up two mirrors so that I could draw myself the right way round, as others would see me. Curiously since I drew this thirty-nine years ago, I’ve hardly changed, apart from looking thirty-nine years older.
Moving flower pots under the bench in the greenhouse, I came across a black hunting wasp* with conspicuous white dots halfway along its antennae. There also appeared to be a white dot at the rear of its thorax. It’s been a mild day and it was even warmer in the greenhouse, even so I was surprised by how active it was. It didn’t appear to be just running for cover after I’d removed the plant pots, it appeared to be actively hunting on the surface of the damp soil. Its antennae were exploring all the time, moving independently of each other.
It was a little over a centimetre, about half an inch long, perhaps a little longer including the long antennae.
* It’s an Ichneumon – a relative of bees, wasps and ants – Ichneumon suspiciosus, a common species throughout the British Isles. Seeing it from above, I’d noticed a brownish tinge on its wings which was, in fact a broad red or orange band on its abdomen. The species also has pale spots to the rear, which I didn’t notice as it scuttled along.
I’ve done a bit more on the watercolour of ear fungus that I started drawing from a photograph a few weeks ago. I’d intended to keep things simple but I’m fascinated by detail and the macro photograph not only gives me a reference for the fungus, it also brings the miniature landscape of the bark of the felled tree into close focus.
I could go on working up all that detail for a few more hours, but I’m going to leave it at this stage because I didn’t intend this to be a sharp focus still life study. It’s fine as it is.
7.15 p.m.: The curtain goes up for the final performance of Cinderella, and I’m happy to see that the backdrop of Hardship House and Stoney Broke village looks fine. I’m glad that I put so much variety into the roofline and the chimney pots, because, once the chorus fills up the stage, that’s all that you can see of the scenery.
My forest scene looked suitably soft in my pen and watercolour sketch but in emulsion paint – which dries flat – and outlined in black line, it looks too flat and hard-edged.
At the curtain call, I’m called up on stage by Wendie Wilby, the producer, and presented with an inscribed clock to celebrate my fifty years scenery painting for the Society. It’s the nearest that I’ll ever get to a Lifetime Achievement award.