Wild Artist, February 2014
“I would love to begin this by writing: “I’ve been drawing birds for as long as I can remember” but…
…as is often the case in life, things are seldom so straightforward. Birds have been a passion since my early teens but, aside from a few laboured drawings for the logbook, my interest in art came later. I did enjoy art at school but if I’m honest I chose it because it was an easier option than other subjects and, remarkably, we were allowed to go into the town unsupervised to sketch. I left school with absolutely no direction and was shepherded on to A levels at a nearby sixth form. My heart wasn’t in it and I soon got side-tracked and was shown the door. That looked to be the end of my education but fortunately art college took pity on me.
To my surprise, art college was completely different from school and I really enjoyed it; suddenly I had direction and drive. I focused on fine art but strangely seldom combined it with my passion for birds. It was only later when studying for a fine art degree at Falmouth that the two interests came together and with a fellow student, John Walters, I began drawing wildlife in the field. This went down like a lead balloon with the fine art tutors who considered that wildlife as subject matter was more suited to illustration.
It was too late for me. I was hooked on drawing and painting in the field so swapped disciplines and transferred to a wildlife illustration course. That, however, was a bit of a blunder on my part as there was a very strong emphasis on graphics and layout, which I found dull and totally uninspiring. I went on to study for a masters in natural history illustration at the Royal College of Art and, at last, found some middle ground that allowed me to focus on my fieldwork.
I’m attracted to work that has been completed outdoors directly from the living subject and this is how I choose to work. Direct contact with nature always throws up surprises and interesting situations and being subjected to this allows greater insight into nature and can result in original observation and compositions. The light and weather conditions change frequently, sometimes quickly and dramatically, so adapting to these changes adds further challenges.
While I was studying at the RCA I used to spend the summers at home in Norfolk, working as a warden on Blakeney Point, looking after nesting terns and waders. We lived on site and when off duty much of my spare time was spent drawing and painting the birds. The wardening contract and term times overlapped slightly but the college was really flexible and allowed me to follow the entire breeding season from arrival and displaying through to hatching and fledging. The more time spent watching and drawing the more behaviour I witnessed and recorded. I became completely engrossed in sketching the wonderful display sequences and the fascinating behaviour.
These involved studies of bird and animal behaviour have become one of the main elements of my work. To fully understand, record and paint entire behavioural sequences requires endless hours in the field simply observing. As a result I have perhaps spent less time trying to develop my painting techniques but the sacrifice is more than worthwhile for the sense of fulfilment in unravelling the meaning of initially bewildering behaviour then recording the entire sequence in paint.
One thing that surprised me at art school was, with the exception of my art foundation course, how little traditional drawing and painting is taught at art school. These skills are often self-taught and I found a significant source of learning and inspiration came from interaction with other students. I agree with Ian Lewington that drawing and painting are skills that you don’t have to be born with but can be learnt. Enthusiasm and hard work are the essential requirements and in my mind these qualities are as important if not more important than both formal training and natural talent.
To begin learning about a species I spend long periods simply drawing it rapidly from lots of angles. Living creatures are constantly moving so my sketchbooks are often full of lines and fragments of unfinished drawings – once something has moved it is pointless trying to finish a sketch as you will be making up the rest and learning nothing.
Piece by piece those important lines that capture the essence of jizz and expression become clear. It is only when comfortable with this first step that I find it possible to progress to painting, it can be a frustratingly time-consuming process but there is a positive – the more time spent watching, the more behaviour is witnessed. For those just starting off drawing and painting it often comes as a surprise and definitely a comfort to find out that many established artists continually find drawing and painting a challenge and many efforts end up being fit only for lighting the fire – there’s always smoke coming from my chimney.
The traditional pencil and watercolour are my chosen materials but I have a great respect of all mediums from the woodcuts of Robert Hainard, linocuts of Robert Gillmor to the large-scale oils of Bruno Liljefors. For capturing movement and light, watercolour is a wonderful medium and I have much admiration for the skill of watercolourists such of Lars Johnson and Darren Woodhead. My great love, however, is the use of line and from the first time I saw the work of Eric Ennion and John Busby I was captivated.
The use of a simple line and a few washes of colour may at first glance appear simplistic but capturing the essence of a living creature with the minimal use of marks requires great skill and understanding. The small studies and drawings in ‘The Living Birds of Eric Ennion’ – were a revelation to me and I think that many of these tiny studies capturing moments of light, movement and character are amongst the beautiful images of birds ever made. I’m fortunate to have a few Busby seabird drawings at home and the sense of movement in those masterful compositions is quite incredible. There is something magical about his sensitive use of line that continually draws the eye around the picture.
My current preoccupation with behaviour takes up much of my spare time during the spring and summer and I really enjoy being lost in a strange world somewhere between art and science. Artists such David Measures and John Walters who use of drawing and painting as a tool for understanding the nature greatly interest me. However I find as much inspiration in reading books by great observers and scientists like Desmond Nethersole-Thompson, Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz who are not only remarkable observers but skilled writers sharing their finds in very accessible, beautifully written accounts.
Working on Blakeney Point rekindled my teenage interest in migration and I especially love the autumn falls on the Norfolk coast. This kind of birdwatching, employing what Ian Wallace regards as age-old hunting instincts, I find very fulfilling but it can be all-consuming and is often not conducive to producing artwork. So during this season it can be a real battle to strike a balance between artwork, birdwatching and family life.
During ‘hunts’ for migrants I’ve occasionally been fortunate to encounter some rare and difficult-to-identify species that require careful observation and detailed note-taking. I’m continually staggered at the quality of artwork to be found in modern field guides. I occasionally draw dead birds as much to learn about their structure and mechanics as their plumage. After finishing a page of studies I’ll often look at the illustrations in the field guides just to see how artists like Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterstrom, Lars Jonsson, Ian Lewington et al. have rendered the fine detail. You can’t fail to be impressed – not only is every feather tract well represented but they are presented in both a natural manner and in positions that allow direct comparison to similar species. The results are so far removed from what I try to achieve but increasingly I see parallels between levels of correctness that they have achieved in the field of identification and those I strive for in the field of behaviour.
Although content watching the wildlife of Norfolk, I have travelled to many other parts of the world to paint birds. The objective of many trips has not been to see a wealth of new species but to see familiar ‘British’ birds on other parts of their migration routes. Most cherished are entire summers spent in Northern Finland, Varanger and Siberia painting breeding waders and passerines and trips to Ghana and Namibia to paint migrant birds in their wintering quarters.
Books by James McCallum:
A series of books featuring James McCallum’s paintings and observations have been published
The Long, Wild Shore – Bird & Seal Seasons on Blakeney Point
Wild Skeins and Winter Skies – Paintings & Observations of Pink-footed Geese
Arctic Flight – Adventures amongst Northern Birds
Larks and Leverets – Wildlife on Norfolk Farmland
North Norfolk Summer Sketchbook
Wild Goose Winter
North Norfolk Wildlife through the Seasons