Thursday, September 22, 2011


A well-pointed brush is a wonderfully expressive drawing instrument. Some years ago I enrolled for a course on Chinese painting and the tutor set us off drawing bamboo – a basic motif – as a first exercise. I never really took to Chinese painting but I became hooked by the excitement of making expressive marks with a well charged brush.

This drawing owes something to the direct watercolour studies in Darren Woodhead's book 'Up River: The Song of the Esk.' but I've used a simple monochrome treatment rather than full colour. My basic method is to draw with a Pentel Sepia Colour Brush and use a 'Pentel Wash Brush' to soften and blend the brush marks. The difficulty with this basic method is to create mid-tones. So in this drawing I've used an extra wash brush filled with diluted calligraphic ink.

The drawing was made in the studio and I haven't tried to depict any particular species. But the sketch is based around some of the winter visitors attracted to a bird feeder hung in an apple tree in the garden.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I'm a great admirer of Darren Woodhead's interpretations of the natural world. He works from direct observation outdoors and uses watercolour in a free expressive way to record his subjects.

I've never seen Darren's paintings displayed gallery wall so I'm afraid my enthusiasm has been generated from his book 'Up River: A Song of the Esk' and the paintings displayed on his website at:

I find Darren's kind of painting much more interesting than the more studied realist work done in the studio. You have to admire the effort that some artists put in to achieve photographic detail - and maybe that is what many collectors look for. Personally I fear that painterly qualities are often lost in photo realist paintings. When you look at the work of artists like David Sheppard for instance you quickly become aware of his brush work which confirms that you're looking at a painting not a photograph.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Searching for subjects for my next painting I came across these drawings of lapwings from March 2010. They are some of the first drawings I did from a hide viewing the birds through a newly acquired telescope.

There are three pages of similar sketches showing different poses to there is enough material to make an interesting picture.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I was aiming to make these studies of butterflies into a painting but I’ve reached an impasse. I didn’t want to present them separately as vignettes though the form has a long history. Chinese painters were very adept at catching the spirit of living things with a few beautifully formed brush strokes. Technical illustrators go to the other extreme taking the long stare route to record accurate detail but often only giving the merest suggestion of their subject’s environment.

Normally if I’m planning a painting I make drawings of the subject’s habitat en plein air when I can. This isn’t always possible if you are sketching or taking photographs of a bird or animal in a wildlife park but the difficulty is not insoluble. I took 10-12 digital photographs of this butterfly before it flew out of range. I was using a medium range telephoto lens set to 70-100mm to ensure the insect filled a good proportion of the screen. With camera studies of insects the photographer’s concerns are primarily sharp focus to record detail and whether his lense is giving good bokeh.

My objectives as a painter are not concerned with photo realism and precise detail. I’m more interested catching characteristic or unusual behaviour particularly if this can be expressed by painterly means. I’m a great admirer of Lars Jonsson, his bird paintings show sufficient detail for identification but he uses a freer style to record the bird’s habitat.

I’ll break the impasse I’m in with the butterflies eventually but it will need some research into appropriate plants to compose a background.

Monday, September 12, 2011


I’ve always been astonished by Charles Tunnicliffe’s sketches made in the field. The two books that have been published of his drawings. ‘A Sketchbook of Birds’ and a later one ‘Sketches of Birdlife’ give a wonderful insight into his methods.

My favourite though is ‘The Peregrine Sketchbook’ which is made up of sketches based on observations of a nest on South Stack, Anglesey. Most of the text and illustrations are taken from Tunnicliffe’s ‘Shorelands Summer Diary’. There are annotated sketches made in the field which have been taken to a more finished state in the studio.

But the real attractions for me are the watercolours which have a directness resulting from close observation. The large watercolours which he painted to show at the Royal Academy are the painstaking result of carefully worked out compositional studies and his handling of the watercolour medium takes your breath away.

Nevertheless his watercolour sketches and the scraperboard vignettes used in his published titles are where I find most interest. They are worthy of close study both by using Tunnicliffe's techniques and by transposing them in a different medium.

I've just noticed that I posted a blog on this theme back in January 2005 which is my tribute to his method - I've never found a better one. Though I do use a camera to supplement the drawings. I kid myself that if Tunnicliffe had had a digital camera with a 400mm lense he would have made his busy life easier by using one.

Monday, September 05, 2011

GANNET AND CHICK: a composition study.

This gannet and chick were in one of the well-known gannet colonies at Cape Kidnappers, North Island, New Zealand. Parties are taken to the most easily accessible colony on a level area at the top of the cliffs.

The birds make an impressive spectacle - chicks in various stages of plumage and adults frequently returning to feed them. The location is a photographers’ heaven and I took dozens of shots from which to compose paintings.

This chick getting the adult to regurgitate food is my first idea. I was planning to work the composition up into an acrylic but having tried a few washes on the pencil drawing I’m finding that a watercolour has more appeal.

Friday, September 02, 2011


This is the next stage of the preparatory study. I’ve explored the effect of suggesting the long grasses and wild flowers which partly obscured the jackdaws. I’ve used pastels and more acrylic brushwork. This is getting close to the effect I was searching for so I’ll leave it as is.

In the final painting I will give the birds more space and modify some of the poses as the heads are all side on and facing the same direction. I’ll be working in acrylic on canvas and I think the size will have to be around 16in x 24in so it will take some time.