Wild Artist, March 2014
No Studio, just the field.
I am a passionate field painter, and i believe that working outside with the elements, for me brings a sense of the subject onto the page that I would struggle to do any other way. I have no studio, just the field.
For me, there is nothing better than just been out, feeling wind against the face, a hint of warmth in the low spring sun or the excitement of watching something happen in front of me. Recently i was sat painting Goldfinches, a species that i have worked on a lot recently when suddenly I was driven to look up, as silently as a cloud drifts but a female Sparrowhawk caught a Robin within a few metres of me, dropping to begin to pluck it so close to me that its deep yellow eyes stared through my own. This is what been out and working is about for me, energy, excitement, unpredictability and that magical sense of witnessing something happen.
I am regularly asked if I always wanted to be a painter, and the truth is that I never pushed it. It has fallen into place, a driven passion and love. I have always been an outside child, for me I feel ‘jailed’ being indoors, driven by a passion for natural history and always had a similar love of drawing. Drawing and Natural History has dominated my life. When I was recently in Varanger, as part of the Gullfest crowd, I was talking to Martin ( Garner) one evening; I recalled to him how perhaps my desire to follow my heart dawned on me when i was 9 or 10. The day is question was sports day to see who could represent their schools on a Saturday morning. The 60 metres dash was down to its final 8 or so ‘athelete – lets’, and I was up against the familiar crowd. The whistle blew and off we went. To my surprise, with 20 metres or so to go, I glance to my left and right and everyone was behind me, I was winning, 15 metres to go and it dawned – if I won this, Saturday morning around the reservoir with my mates would be out, gone would be Kestrels, Gulls and Lapwings – Little Owls and Woodpeckers – so I slowed and came fourth! Decision made, and even though I would never have been fast enough to take it any further, I needed my time out so much more.
Another aspect of childhood that shaped my course was the day that a few friends and I joined a mailing book club. Primarily this was to bulk order The Birds of Yorkshire so that we could all afford it but also through this, I purchased Drawing Birds by John Busby. Suddenly this book was to change the way i thought about bird painting and painting in general. Within a couple of turns of the squar-ish pages, I was transported into fleeting moments of posture, character, energy and life on the page. John is a dear friend of mine now and what he has done for painting of the natural world for the last 60 and more years, can never be overvalued. His drawings and paintings are as fresh now as ever, and I urge those who are unfamiliar, and those who know his work well, to look, look and look again. That made my journey begin, as I know it has for countless others.
Hours upon hours were spent making marks, sometimes terrible mistakes but occasionally a rare success. It was only through the guidance and enthusiasm showed by great Artists and friends such as John Busby and of course the late David Measures, that it became possible to have a way of doing this.
That Watercolour feeling
There is no better feeling in the world than when brush and colour are flowing over the paper surface, almost void of my physical actions. I strive for the days when I am zoned in so much that I am connecting so intensely with the image on the paper that I forget or almost cannot recall how or when i achieved the mark. An almost Zen-like state of painting. Watercolour does this for me. At school colour was at first alien, and I recall my teacher complementing my drawing – though asking for more colour! Colour fascinates me, and it was my tutor at The Royal College of Art that got me to forget the pencil and push the colour. I teach myself now, and though I love line, the power of line is masterful – one only has to look at Busby, Talbot Kelly, Ennion and currently James Mccallum to see this. However, we all have our own way of working and for me I know that I naturally draw with paint and colour, and rarely even take a pen or pencil out with me. As I do not pre-draw, and all my marks are just in brush, I feel a deep appreciation for every mark, run, well that the colour on paper makes. Watercolours are so simple yet perhaps the most complex of all mediums. They are made for working in the field, yet so fragile that any change in quality of mark, any hesitation or even climate change can be read in the result. To me they are so basic yet intrinsically complex that they are just simply magical.
And then, at the same time as the paint is going so are the subjects. I have developed this awareness of energies too, and as I often spend the whole day in one spot, it constantly amazes me how by becoming part of the environment, and then you also become sharp to events or happens around. How often have I switched my gaze to see a passing distant Fox or silent unusual bird flying over, or that Sparrowhawk. For me these are the story of the days, and will be drawn or written on anything I am working on.
And then there is the weather. I recently heard a humorous song by Flanders and Swann, A Song of the weather, which kind of summed up a day out in the office for me. Yes, there are days when my page has been wiped clean with a sudden onslaught of rain or snow yet somehow, whether it is how i have had to tie the board to the trees to escape the buffeting wind or how ice has formed intricate patterns in the washes of colour, the environment has had a say in the end result, and I treasure this. Watercolour reacts so delicately to any change and these changes become part of the story, part of the days’ event and they shine through in any end result.
It all happens when I am out…
I am currently absorbed in masses and tangles of vegetation that hide our birds and wildlife. I am blessed that within minutes I can venture from the heather clad hills through winding wooded valleys to open estuaries and stunning rocky shorelines. The winter here is one of the reasons that brought me to these parts, and the natural history just seems to get more and more spectacular. This wealth of habitat has meant endless supplies of subjects. Recent winters have seen me sat in among the thousands of Fieldfares that gorge on the Buckthorn in Gullane, a spectacular combination of noise and colour. The recent years welcoming arrival of Waxwings featured heavily, as do the hours i have spent wandering through local woodlands where Roe Deer feed so unobtrusively and come early spring, a rustle in the bracken could just be a basking Adder. Painting for me is about what happens when I am out, unscripted stories of the day and excitement when often it is least expected. My subjects are never really planned – can you ever with certainty when working outside – although over the months ahead, the snow, wind and rain that no doubt will come and go, I am sure there will be many more special days ahead. I have been very honoured to have travelled worldwide painting – once the bug has bitten it is hard to forget – as well as recently being very honoured to have been involved with the BBC and their Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch programmes.
What lies ahead?
I need to paint and in the future perhaps add to the two books I have done. I teach myself, and enjoy it so much. There is something very special being involved with encouraging people to see and record. The end results do not have to be Turner- esque, what is important for me is encouraging the visual memory and the joy witnessing the event can bring. And now life for me is turning a full circle and I can see this drive of the natural world in my own boys. That is what life is about, for sure. I would say to everyone, go out, experience, recall and who knows by reacting in any way, shape or form you may just keep that memory longer.
‘Up River, The Sound of the Esk’ Birlinn 2009
‘From Dawn Till Dusk’ Langford Press 2005
The Great Fen, Langford Press 2006, Aig on Oir, Langford Press 2005, Drawing Birds, John Busby, Helm 2004,
Trees of the Forgotten Forest, The Wildlife Art Gallery 2004, Mature Forests, Lynx 2003,
Living Paintings, Quinta Do Lago 2002 and Drawn to the Forest, The Wildlife Art Gallery 2000.
Swarovski / Birdwatch magazine Artist of the Year 2009
Swarovski / Birdwatch magazine Colour Artist of the Year 1999.