Ginger Tom

“That looks twee!” said Barbara as she looked over my shoulder this morning as I was colouring in this cartoon. She’s right, I don’t normally do cuteness, so it’s been a strange experience, working through this cartoon course (see previous posts), as I’m obliged to try and work in someone else’s style. Again, I’ve changed the subject matter; this exercise in colour harmony features a monkey and a pile of bananas in the original example but I thought I’d include the daffodils that are now showing in our garden border and the large ginger cat that has adopted our back garden.

My priorities for the back garden might be attracting wildlife and growing vegetables but the ginger tom sees things differently:

  • stalking practice; sitting on the patio watching the birds on the feeders
  • liquid refreshement; using the pond as a watering hole
  • comfort break; using one of our freshly dug raised beds as the ultimate cat litter tray

This huge, fluffy ginger cat also enjoyed a spot of crazy breakdancing, pouncing this way and that on one of the veg beds like an overgrown kitten at play. The sparrows who normally hang around in the adjacent hawthorn hedge flew up in agitation, chirruping in alarm, apparently unsure what to make of this crazed predator.

Rainbow Trout

Continuing with the cartooning course, these are experiments to test how colours will blend in different media; in my case I used my regular watercolours for the peacock, coloured inks for the rainbow trout and Sharpies and other marker pens for the butterfly.

It’s a rare opportunity to use my Pelikan inks, which have been sitting in the back of a drawer for decades and getting them out makes me realise that I need to sort out my art materials. For instance, the cheap sable brushes that I bought years ago are now too splayed to be a pleasure to use and some tubes of gouache have dried out and set solid.

However, I still have enough tubes of gouache to try the exercise for building up a furry texture using a fine brush and this opaque medium. Apart from changing the species from a bear to a weird kind of furry fox, you can see I’ve stuck pretty much to the examples shown in the book, The Professional Step-by-Step Guide to Cartooning, (left, behind my bottles of vintage ink).

In the next exercise – which demonstrates the way you can use a limited colour palette, in this case red and blue ink – I substituted the cowboy in the book for Roundhead commander ‘Black Tom’ Fairfax, who pops up in my latest booklet Walks around Ossett.

I think that I’ll eventually be able to relax into a personal cartoon style but this drawing looks rather stilted as I was simultaneously following the style of the cartoon cowboy and the content of the equestrian portrait of Fairfax. The fanciful background sketch of Thornhill Hall (accidentally blown up at the end of Fairfax’s siege), which I’ve substituted for the wild west background of the cowboy, looks less self-conscious than the horse and rider.

Cartoon Course

I came across The Professional Step-by-Step Guide to Cartooning by Ivan Hissey and Curits Tappenden a couple of weeks ago and after the final push of getting my walks booklet into print, I thought that I deserved a bit of a change, so I’m going to have a few days off to go through some of the practice exercises in the book.

My main thing, of course, is drawing from nature, so why should I be interested in cartooning? This book is a practical introduction to drawing as a way of telling a story or communicating an idea, which is what I try to do in my publications. If drawing from nature was my sole concern, I could just as well present my drawings in isolation – framed on a gallery wall, for example – but invariably I present them as a sequence, along with varying amounts of text.

I’m hoping this book will make me rethink the way that I tell stories and communicate ideas in my publications.

Opposing Black and White

This first exercise calls for fineliner pen (I used a Pilot drawing pen) and black Indian ink applied with a number 3 round brush. Starting it in pencil, I’ve closely followed Ivan Hissey’s step-by-step but I’ve gone for a geological context rather than the darkened room of the original. I like the woodcut style, where you aim to balance the black and white portions of the image, but to get the sharp gouged line of a woodcut calls for some confidence and forward planning when you ink in with the brush. In the places where you can still see my drawing pen line it comes over as too soft and tentative for this style of cartoon.

I look foward to getting a bit more practice . . .

Life After Rhubarb

THE LAUNCH of Walks around Ossett went well at the Rhubarb Festival (yesterday and Friday) but it’s wonderful to get back to normal life!

I launched Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire at last year’s Festival. One of my first customers then was a woman from Nottingham who protested about any suggestion that Robin might be a Yorkshireman but I managed to talk her into buying a copy so I was delighted when – returning for this year’s festival – she said that she’d enjoyed reading it and she’d learnt a lot from it. I feel that’s quite an achievement!

It’s always a struggle to reach the deadline for this February event, following as it does the distractions of Christmas and, as often as not, some difficult weather for checking out the walks but it’s a good time of year to be starting afresh. Snowdrops, crocus and the first miniature daffodils are beginning to show and as we walked through the woods between showers this afternoon the leaves of bluebell, wild arum, golden saxifrage, dogs mercury and other woodland herbs were showing. I’ve got ambitious plans for drawing from nature and for book projects this year so hopefully I’ll be out there drawing the wild flowers as they appear throughout the season.

The Admiral Benbow

Here we are at the Admiral Benbow, the inn where young Jim Hawkins encounters Billy Bones and Blind Pew in Treasure Island. You might detect some echoes of last year’s Dame Dibble’s Dairy from Jack and the Beanstalk, in my sketch; this is because of my habit of recycling backdrops. Instead of starting the scene afresh, I’ve converted the half-timbered exterior of the dairy into the half-timbered interior of the inn.

This gave us time to flip the flats around this afternoon to quickly convert the sky blue scene of Jack’s Cloudland Castle into a tropical Treasure Island with palm trees, dunes and smouldering volcano (a detail that I don’t recall in the Robert Louis Stevenson original).

Spike’s Script?

The first big production of the Horbury Pageant Players that I got involved in was Treasure Island, in 1967, but that was in the days when the Pageants prided themselves on never doing pantomimes so the scripts we used were on loan to us from the Mermaid Theatre, where Bernard Miles’ production had been a great success. In that version, comic genius Spike Milligan played Ben Gunn, the castaway with a fondness for cheese.

In our 1967 version, my younger brother Bill played the pirate who took Jim Hawkins’ kit on board the Hispaniola. Bill told me that one of the scripts had weird figures doodled all over it.

I never saw this script and all the whole batch were returned to the Mermaid after the production but I’m convinced that must have been Milligan’s script, annotated in characteristic style by him during rehearsals.

It would be a small treasure of Milligana if it had survived!


I have been drawing recently but you wouldn’t know it from my sketchbook; these are all I have to show for the last week or two. I’ve been drawing the maps for Walks Around Ossett in the odd hours I’ve had between family matters and parcelling up my books. Parcelling up books and shipping them out to customers never seems like real work – it’s therapeutic but hardly taxing – but it is, after all, the way I make my living, so I shouldn’t grumble!

I think that I can see a patch of calm, clear water ahead but at the moment I really feel as if I’m swimming against a backwash and getting nowhere and that is reflected in this handful of sketches:

  • a couple of people at the Wakefield Naturalists’ meeting on Tuesday
  • a newspaper drawn when I waited to have my hair cut last week
  • two chair backs

The chairs are entirely typical of my unsettled life at present; I started drawing one chair then got moved on after I’d drawn two lines then – at my next port of call – I’d no sooner started drawing a second chair when someone came along and moved it!

Rhubarb Rootstock

Finally, this afternoon, after a morning painting scenery and an afternoon at a farm shop event, I got the best part of an hour to sketch. As it was a Rhubarb Festival event the most appealing subject to hand was a basket of forced rhubarb and an example of the rootstock from which the shoots are grown, at this time of year, in total darkness to ensure an early crop, at a time of year when there is a break in the supply of soft fruits.

The Cat & Clothes Line

Barbara shouted up to me ‘Just take a look at that cat on the lawn!’

It’s been a wild day, wild but mild; this morning our neighbour’s three-year old boy got blown over in a gust on the way to school and the handful of stallholders who turned up at Ossett Market were sent home because of the danger of goods and even stalls being blown around. I felt particularly sorry for the fishmonger with all his fresh fish, having to pack up his van. We’ve had a lot of rain too and the Calder is running beige-brown and flowing up over the bridge piers but not quite at flood level yet.

But some are enjoying the call of the wild; the frayed end of the broken washing line (broken by blue tits pecking at it!) was snaking and jerking around on the lawn near the pond, exactly in the way that you’d tempt a kitten to chase a piece of string, but on a larger and livelier scale.

Too much of a temptation for this black and white cat which was taking it’s usual shortcut back from the meadow via our back garden path. You can see (below) that at times it turned its back on it but then thought ‘Well, just one more go . . .’

It was so happy rolling on its back, pouncing and sitting with its ‘prey’ wrapped around its shoulder. Occasionally it did pause and look around as if thinking ‘This is silly, I hope no one is watching me.’ But it still couldn’t resist another mad tussle with the playful frayed end of the rope beckoning.

I’d love to have had time to make quick sketches but the last ten days have been taken up with preparations for Barbara’s mum’s funeral on Monday. I’m not going to really settle down until after there’s been that short ceremony of closure.

Over the past weeks and months I’ve slipped further and further behind with my latest booklet, the deadline for which is looming up in the next two to three weeks, but haven’t been able to make any real progress on it.


Thanks to our relaxed but relentless attention over the past few days to essential tasks, we’re hoping to get back out in the countryside next week, not to the wilder uplands of the Pennines that I’ve fondly imagined here, but at least we should manage to get out into the more homely farmland around Ossett to check out walks for my latest booklet. This is getting increasingly urgent as I’ve promised to have it ready to launch at the Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield at the end of February.

This pagoda reminds me of the ventilation towers on whisky distilleries, which I drew, years ago,  for Steve Cribb’s book Whisky on the Rocks but I drew this from the Bakehouse Cafe in Ossett; this is the largest of three pagodas on the roof of a Victorian building which I believe was once the town’s Conservative Club but which is now a wine bar.

I like to have fresh herbs in the kitchen, which are especially welcome at this time of the year when there’s a very limited supply from the garden. By the time this Marjoram outgrows its the ceramic pot it was supplied in, spring will be here and we can plant it out in the herb bed.

I’ve enjoyed having one or two comments to my postings,  many thanks for those, but I’m having trouble with spam comments at the moment so I’ll probably have to turn off the comments (not sure how I do that at present!), to allow myself more time for the drawing and writing the diary itself. What a nuisance!

Winter Gnat

This little insect, shown here 4 or 5 times life size, must have flown into a carrier bag I was carrying as we walked back from town across the park and got squashed. My microscope reveals that it’s a Winter Gnat, a two-winged fly that is conspicuous at this time of year when there are so few insects about. You seen them dancing in swarms in damp grassy places especially in the late afternoon, which was when I unwittingly trapped this one.

This seems to be a female because it has a curved dagger-end to its thorax which I guess is the ovipositor.

A Kind of Therapy

We had the phone call at 5.15 a.m. to say that Barbara’s mum Betty had died peacefully in her sleep at the Hospice. Rather than sit in a heap, we’ve worked our way through the day by gently getting on with the various tasks we’re obliged to do, such are registering her death.

Betty has been a largely unseen presence in my online diary for the last 12 years. There are dozens of drawings of the Hawthorns and the Ash log at the end of her garden. I’ve been asked to say a few words about her at the funeral. She combined a disarming innocence with a twinkle mischief so I want to get the tone just right between her sense of fun and the sadness and sense of loss we feel. And that inevitable feeling ‘I wish that I’d asked her more about her early life’.

School Museums

As we come out of the back entrance of the Registry Office on Northgate, Wakefield, we pass this unprepossessing 1960s prefab-style building which takes me back to my first inkling that I wanted to publish my natural history sketchbooks as an illustration student in the early 1970s. This is where I came because at that time it was the West Riding School Museum’s Service. Eric Woodward the director must have got fed up of seeing me but he patiently encouraged me as my idea for a Natural History of Wakefield grew from a wall chart to a booklet to facsimile sketchbook with fold-out maps, posters and prehistoric panoramas; a kind of History of the Entire Planet, which just happened to be centred on Wakefield.

The School Museums was just one inspiration for me. They sent out stout wooden boxes on loan which opened up to reveal little displays of historical objects, model dinosaurs, scale models of buildings and so on. I liked that idea of a carefully made Box ofDelights which goes out into the world with an informative display and some inspiring objects that you can examine hands-on.

As a college project I worked on a display about spiders and their webs which could be sent out to a school like a giant-sized pack of cards and slotted together. It never got as far as being added to the School Museums collection but I don’t think the materials – mounting card with transparent perspex for the step-by-steps of how a web is made – would have survived the rough-and-tumble of the classroom.

Chris Woffenden e-mailed me. He sums up how I felt when I saw this former creative hub converted to its present mundane purpose as a council storeroom:

Small world – I was a Graphic Designer/Illustrator there in the 80’s. Eric Woodward was a great encouragement to us all – whether drawing or model making etc. I grew up inspired by the delivery of those wooden boxes as a child at school in the 70’s – never thought I would work there. It was a sad day when it closed down – an even sadder one for the children at school at the moment that don’t know what they are missing.


The Runtlings, Ossett; The winter hedgerows are busy with birds: Greenfinch, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit and – probing the leaf-litter beneath trees – a few Redwings. A Kestrel hovers over the rough, grassy mounds on waste-ground around Dewsbury Sewage Works.

In my childhood, rough grassland dotted with thorns was a familiar habitat around old collieries, factories and railway sidings. Much of this ‘brown land’ has now been reclaimed for housing and office parks, and today, when more thought goes into landscape design, areas that would once have been left as derelict have been transformed into community parks with fishing ponds, copses and little meadow areas but, because of my childhood memories of roaming around post-industrial landscapes, I feel a touch of nostalgia for these pockets of unkempt scrubland, the hunting ground of the Kestrel.