Monday, 15 June 2015

The travelling naturalist from across the ocean

On Saturday (13th June), I had the most inspirational day with a fellow naturalist and artist, sharing our love of the natural world.
Being active on social media can be seen as a negative in life at times, but it has put me into contact with many people who share the same interest and have become very good friends, the latter of which we often to get to meet up with at times.
Susan is one of those people.  We 'met' via Facebook and have often shared images of the natural world and exchanged comments.  Working as a Naturalist and Environmental Educator as well as an Art Tutor, Susan and I have lots in common.  She hails from Vermont in the USA, so it is also great to share the love of her home state, even though I have only visited there once.
She contacted me a few weeks ago and asked if we could spend the day together looking at some native flora and fauna whilst she was visiting the UK.  Being based in London meant that she was only a couple of hours from where I live and we arranged to meet in Winchester ready to explore.
I had to get my thinking cap on and I decided that Old Winchester Hill would be a great place to visit, seeing as we only had a day and didn't want to spend too much time on the road.
The day started off a little over cast, but it was ideal as we ambled along to the Iron Age Hillfort.
I say 'ambled' because there was so much to see and chat about.  We were soon comparing plant species between the two countries and also chatting about local names for plants too.

The slightly cooler weather meant that insects were stationary for a bit longer, and we got the chance to see a Wasp beetle (above).
Susan taking in the view from the hillfort.  Straight away we were admiring the orchids that were growing on the more gentle slopes when you first start to walk around the fort.
Our first sighting of orchids and other flowers
Common spotted orchid
Whilst we sat and had our lunch we had the delight of listening to a Yellow hammer in a Hawthorn bush nearby.  Its song sounding like 'A little bit of bread and no cheese' was evident once your hearing was tuned in.
We were thoroughly spoilt with other birds too.  At one point a Skylark sang above us, its beautiful and melodic song being heard across the hill.  We also saw Swifts catching insects in the warming air, and several times a Kestrel hovering above the slopes of the hill looking for prey.
After lunch we started off to find a place to settle for the afternoon and sketch.  On the top of the hill fort there was plenty of botanical subject matter, but a wider variety of plant species was more evident on the slopes.
Our first discovery was the Fragrant orchid.  It was a very subtle pink and had long spurs to the flower with the lobes of the labellum being of equal length.  The scent from the flower was very subtle, but apparently is more evident in the evening.
 We carefully navigated our way down the slope and sett up our sketching kits.
As our sketch pages developed our love of colours was evident.
The beginnings of my sketch page. 
 For both of us we felt that we wanted to speed up our sketching technique a little.  Being absorbed by the detail means that sometimes you do not achieve as much as you would like.  It was still essential though to get the main characteristics of the plant.
We continued to sketch and the weather became warmer and warmer with a steady breeze.  As the clouds moved overhead the colours changed on our paper and at times a little modification was needed.
Hoary plantain appeared on my sketchbook page.
Whilst we sketched and our pages developed we shared different techniques and ideas.  Every now and again we got up for a stretch and we soon realised that the time had gone so fast.
It was time to move on.

As we re-traced our steps back the sun was shining and there were flashes of blue fluttering through the grasses and flowers.  The blue butterflies are small and never seem to be at rest for long. 
These images show a Common blue, the lower picture showing one sunning itself on Crosswort.
A couple of Painted lady butterflies were seen too.
The chalk path you can see to the left and in the distance was the one that we decided to take.  The side of the hill was very steep, but going this way meant that we got to see a few additional plant species:
The Common twayblade

One of the Milkworts
Once we got to the top we re-discovered some Yew trees that we passed earlier. One particular tree was dappled with the early evening sun and as we stood under its twisting limbs we gave thanks for such a wonderful day.
A day that neither of us will never forget.
Thank you Susan.
As it approached 7.00pm we took one last look across the landscape and made our way back.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Muscardinus avellanarius - Getting to know the Hazel Dormouse

The Hazel Dormouse is a very endearing looking animal.  The fascination with this animal is so often enhanced due to how it appears to us - in books, images and paintings.  Often in a curled up state of cuteness.  Indeed, even I have portrayed it in this way.

Their name is thought to originate from the French word of dormer, which means to sleep.   They go into this state of torpor when hibernating in winter.

The Dormouse is protected - it is illegal to disturb, kill or injure, capture or possess as Dormouse or to damage or destroy its place of nesting.  I have often accompanied Licensed Dormouse Surveyors on surveys, and this license is a strict requirement if studying this creature and if there is the need to then handle and disturb them for monitoring purposes.

For further information on this species the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species has a fantastic website full of facts and figures and up to date reports on the status of Dormice and other animals.

My home county of Hampshire has its own Dormouse Group, as do several other counties.  There are often activities that you can become involved in.

Back to the artwork.  One of my latest commissions involves a Dormouse.  Not one in torpor I hasten to add, but a more active looking one !  So on with the research.

Checking my reference images.  The photo above is of a deceased Dormouse that a previous work colleague found.  He brought it back to the office and I was able to make some notes and take measurements.

I really wanted to get a closer look at the subject.  So back to one of my favourite places, the museum service and access to their natural sciences collection.
One specimen was available for me to view and study, and I was very lucky that it was posed in an ideal position.

Working from photographs is sometimes the only option, but being able to have the subject in front of you makes all of the difference, as you get an accurate sense of scale and colour, as well as the opportunity to take measurements. 

Of course, it helps even more when the taxidermy specimen is a good one.  As I mentioned in a previous post, those from the Victorian era, do sometimes have some unusual poses !

My completed study page.  As well as this information helping me with my current commission, it helps to build up what I like to call my 'resource bank'.

Once I had finished the study, I spent a short while drawing a tiny Shrew as well.

There will be more news on the Dormouse in a later post, but in the meantime I am busy preparing for the Kingcombe Arts Weekend in Dorset.
This will be at the picturesque Kingcombe Centre which is surrounded by the Kingcombe Meadows Nature Reserve.
Why not come along and say hello !
I will hopefully be launching a new lino-print that I have created as part of the Art & the Hedgerow Project, as well as a new range of greetings cards which are all limited editions and hand finished, printed on Somerset authentic fine art paper, made by St. Cuthberts Mill.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A new HP watercolour paper from St. Cuthbert's Mill

A short while ago I took part in a paper trial with a few other artists.  The purpose of the trial was to have a go at using an alternative hot press paper created by St. Cuthbert's Mill and give feedback on our results.  The Mill makes Saunders Waterford and Bockingford, as well as other papers.

I had 2 papers to use.  The traditional Saunders Waterford HP in high white and the trial paper in high white.
Above you can see the different swatches that I first created, using different painting techniques.
My initial thoughts were that I couldn't seem to get an even first wash on the paper, but as I continued, especially with an actual painting, this didn't seem to be an issue.
I also used an eraser on the paper to see if the surface of the paper was damaged at all.  I used a plastic eraser and also a softer 'gomme' eraser.  The paper surface stood up very well to the erasing and when I applied a watercolour wash over the area, the paint dried smoothly with no signs of paper surface damage.
I decided to paint a Seven-spot ladybird on the trial paper.  I wanted to see how I could build up the initial washes and the depth of colour that could be achieved.  The picture above was in the early stages.
The colour intensity was retained as I progressed further and I found it very easy to lift areas of watercolour too.
I would like to stress that these are only my opinions, other artists may have had different results, dependant on their painting style and techniques they used.
The good news is that a new HP paper will be produced by the Mill in the near future.  It will be called Saunders Waterford High White Super HP and will available in 300gm (squared) (140lb) and 425gm (squared) (200lb).
I certainly look forward to using this new paper and hope to use it alongside my favourite (and the one I have a stock of), until I decide whether to just use one of them.
A nice gift in the post today from St. Cuthbert's Mill - traditional Saunders Waterford HP
If you would like to read more about choosing watercolour papers for botanical art, why not have a look at:

Friday, 10 April 2015

Illustrating Spring flowers

Not long now until my next course at the Kingcombe Centre.
This place and the surrounding hedgerows, meadows and other habitats, are inspiring all year, but especially in the Spring !
The course starts on the Tuesday evening and finishes on the Friday afternoon.  So whatever level of experience you have there will be plenty of opportunity to really get to know your plants, and produce an illustration of your discoveries.
There are residential and non-residential options available.  For more information go to:
The Natures Details Spring and Summer Newsletter has now been published with news of an exciting new course coming up in October, along with other botanical art news. 
To read and download the newsletter click on the newsletter picture at the top of the right hand column or below

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Working with an Art Society

Over the last few months I have been lucky enough to be working with a local art society. 

Originally, it was just to cover their weekly 2 hour classes for a few weeks, and now I am continuing until June !

It has been a refreshing change for me.  Mostly, to do with the subject matter.  Not everybody favours a more detailed approach to drawing and painting, so I have had to think of subjects that suit will a variety of painting styles.

I wonder why some people are 'terrified' of detail and look upon it sometimes as a more negative approach to drawing and painting.  Hopefully I have reduced some of that fear and negativity, I'd like to think so.

One of the paintings from the marine themed week

A variety of pens to use for the pen and ink themed week and examples of my work.

The stages of a painting of Oyster shells using pen and wash.

Banksia pods depicted using different inks.
Top: Black Quink ink
Middle: Sepia ink
Bottom: Acrylic inks

You can achieve some wonderful effects using black Quink ink.  The pigments in the ink separate when they come into contact with water.  Quink ink is the traditional type of ink used in fountain and cartridge pens.

A Lotus seed pod in water soluble inks from a brush pen, and watercolour.

Over the last few weeks we have been using texture paste and other media to depict the texture of brick walls, stones and geological formations.
Don't forget that quite a lot of my personal artwork is focused on Art and the Hedgerow at the moment.  You can find out more on the Art & the Hedgerow Blog.
Happy painting !