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Monday 31 October 2011

Snail Shell Bees: Step 1

I have nearly finished this painting and it has been fascinating to work on. Although I had roughed it out I wasn’t really sure how it would turn out at all and I had been quite anxious about starting it. But as it developed, it took on a life of its own and that’s just how I like it.

The atmosphere and the “feel”of a piece is much more important to me than technical perfection, which is why I could never be a scientific illustrator. I sometimes think it must be like writing a novel or perhaps a short story. You become drawn in this other world that you are creating, sometimes more involved in this imaginary world, rather than in the one you are really living in. My two bees became characters with a purpose and I have drawn them as well as I could.

The bees this time are Osmia bicolour bees, both male and female. Today the male who will be sitting on a snail shell.

The first steps, ideas and roughs and research.

Some people ask me how long I need to do a painting and I guess I need at least a week of thinking and research time before I do anything. I really need to get to know my subject, understand how it lives, where it lives and a bit about its character. This is sometimes  the slowest and most agonising part of the work,  because all you have is a piece of white paper and you have to start make all the decisions. It could be anything, any size, any colour, any composition but you have to bring something to life, create something from the  simple 2 dimensions of that  piece of white paper. You have to work a bit of magic.

I sit and doodle I read and I make little thumbnails until I get something which seems to work. That’s what  I usually send to a client and I have to tell them  that the sketch is just a guide, because things will change and more importantly need to be able to change. It has to be my decision. I would now rather make a painting that pleases me and have it rejected by a client than make something I am not happy with to please someone else. 

So to recap, this was the thumbnail I sent to Carol and Peter. The two Osmia bees, she is carrying a twig of some kind to cover her shell nest with. The male  hanging about .. as male bees tend to, waiting for a mate.


This thumbnail was very small about A6 I guess, and done some time ago

Looking at it again I re-draw and re-think it a bit. I am going to include something personal for Carol and Peter, just as I did for the B hypnorum commission. It’s more meaningful for them and is an interesting addition to the painting. It’s bigger than any of my other bee paintings and it has two bees this time. The image area is 12.5 x 14 .5 inches approx painted on a bigger size 19 x 22 inch size sheet of Fabriano Artistico HP 300.

It was originally going to be slightly larger still, but there is a “comfortable” size for these bees and I had to reduce it a bit. It depends what your aim is of course, but large bees can sometimes look a little unnerving!

bees bg

This is now sketched out at the size I want to paint.

I have changed the position of the male as I want him to look more at us. The gaze and the engagement with the viewer is important. I have always felt that to walk out in the countryside is to be observed by many tiny creatures. I like that feeling and I am happy to slide away from strict scientific constraints to create an image I want. After all, this is my painting.

Starting to paint

My current set up is not ideal. We live in two rooms in total, a big bedsit I guess, so everything is rather cramped  and the light is not good. But I have a lamp and a laptop stand to angle the board. It has to do for now and could be worse!
drawn out

I am always nervous about the first layers of colour, worried about keeping the surface clean and worried that I will not be able to give the bee character and life. But I need to get some colour down quickly, to get rid of some of the accusatory white paper!

two sm

Three sm

I have put some pieces of paper round the image to try to keep the Fabriano clean. I am not really a precise worker and do push the paint around quite a bit…splashes are frequent :).
I guess it is a bit of a cliché but I need to paint the eyes early on. I have to establish a rapport!

four sm 
I build up with brush strokes that follow the shape of the hair or whatever it is I am painting. It seems to help to give it an underlying structure, even if it is obliterated later on.

five sm

I am jumping a couple of steps for fear this should be like “watching paint dry” .. on with the wings. I don’t put too much detail in.

eight sm

and then a tidy up. It’s mostly watercolour with some white gouache for the fine hairs. The hair on a bee has different qualities on different parts of its body. Slightly silkier under the thorax and slightly bristlier on the top.

ten sm 

This is the end of day one. So far so clean!

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Sunday 30 October 2011

Thanks to Pocketchange

A big thank you to Max at the very eclectic blog Pocketchange.become for featuring Pencil and Leaf on their Best of the Web no. 38 earlier this week.

from pocket change 
I was in good company there. Thank you!

Meanwhile I have been working hard on the snail shell bees and some design projects. There are times I just have to ignore the computer, switch off the phone and lock myself away. But I will be back  to the blog next week with hopefully a few step by steps of the snail shell bees.

The weather has been kind and the reservoir has been beautiful in the Autumn light. I have walked most days seen many fascinating things which I wanted to write about and record but no time right now. There are very few bees and I have seen just the occasional honey bee and hover fly this week foraging on the only flowering thing left on the shore line, the Bristly Ox Tongue.

honey bee october bg 

Pollen covered honey bee

hover fly

Excellent bee mimic hoverfly. I think this might be Epistrophe eligans but I am not sure about my hoverflies.

Most days there is something amazing, be it a tiny creature, a beautiful seed pod or just some autumn colour and I am seeing how the leaves are falling away and revealing the structure of things.Something I have not really seen for many years.

On Thursday the dawn was pink and purple and the water misty, so much so that you could not see the opposite shore.  It could almost have been the sea.. 


Yesterday was a lovely day for sailing and  in the late afternoon the low sun lit their coloured sails.. they were like little jewels.


Wednesday 19 October 2011

Wonderful, Inspirational Fabre, again…

I have been doing some more general bee reading today, mostly about the fascinating little bees that use snail shells for their nests. I always like to read Fabre and I have mentioned him in the blog before.  If you had ever thought that wild bees might be boring or uninteresting…(how could you??)  just read the passage below. I know it is a translation but it is still such lovely writing.

From the introduction to Jean Henri Fabre’s  Book of Insects, retold from Alexander Teixeira de Mattos' translation of Fabre's "Souvenirs Entomologiques," 1921.

Fabre is describing his delight in getting a small piece of land where he can observe his insects uninterrupted…

“For forty years it was my dream to own a little bit of land, fenced in for the sake of privacy: ….And then, at last, my wish was fulfilled. I obtained a bit of land in the solitude of a little village. It was a harmas which is the name we give in this part of Provence to an untilled, pebbly expanse where hardly any plant but thyme can grow. It is too poor to be worth the trouble of ploughing, but the sheep pass there in spring, when it has chanced to rain and a little grass grows up.

My own particular harmas, however, had a small quantity of red earth mixed with the stones, and had been roughly cultivated. I was told that vines once grew here, and I was sorry, for the original vegetation had been driven out by the three-pronged fork. There was no thyme left, nor lavender, nor a single clump of the dwarf oak. As thyme and lavender might be useful to me as a hunting-ground for Bees and Wasps, I was obliged to plant them again.

There were plenty of weeds : couch-grass, and prickly centauries, and the fierce Spanish oyster-plant, with its preading orange flowers and spikes strong as nails. Above it towered the Illyrian cotton-thistle, whose straight and solitary stalk grows sometimes to the height of six feet and ends in large pink tufts. There were smaller thistles too, so well armed that the plant- collector can hardly tell where to grasp them, and spiky knap- weeds, and in among them, in long lines provided with hooks, the shoots of the blue dewberry creeping along the ground. If you had visited this prickly thicket with- out wearing high boots, you would have paid dearly for your rashness!

See here is a Tailor-bee. She scrapes the cobwebby stalk of the yellow-flowered centaury, and gathers a ball of wadding which she carries off proudly with her mandibles or jaws. She will turn it, underground, into cotton satchels to hold the store of honey and the eggs. And here are the Leaf-cutting Bees, carrying their black, white, or blood-red reaping brushes under their bodies. They will visit the neighbouring shrubs, and there cut from the leaves oval pieces in which to wrap their harvest. Here too are the black, velvet-clad Mason-bees, who work with cement and gravel. We could easily find specimens of their masonry on the stones in the harmas. Next comes a kind of Wild Bee who stacks her cells in the winding staircase of an empty snail-shell; and another who lodges her grubs in the pith of a dry bramble-stalk; and a third who uses the channel of a cut reed; and a fourth who lives rent-free in the vacant galleries of some Mason-bee. There are also Bees with horns, and Bees with brushes on their hind-legs, to be used for reaping.

On my doorway lives the White-banded Sphex: when I go indoors I must be careful not to tread upon her as she carries on her work of mining. Just within a closed window a kind of Mason-wasp has made her earth-built nest upon the freestone wall. To enter her home she uses a little hole left by accident in the shutters. On the mouldings of the Venetian blinds a few stray Mason- bees build their cells. The Common Wasp and the Solitary Wasp visit me at dinner. The object of their visit, apparently, is to see if my grapes are ripe.

Such are my companions. My dear beasts, my friends of former days and other more recent acquaintances, are all here, hunting, and building, and feeding their families.

A wonderful and affectionate introduction to our wild bees.

I, too, am hopefully on the brink of getting a small garden which sounds very much like Fabre’s… not overgrown as such but with nothing much there.  I will hope to create as good a bee haven as his and I did notice a small vine growing on the fence, so I will also be looking forward to having the company of wasps at dinner.

Snails shell bees roughs

I worked on the sketches a bit more today. They are Osmia bicolour male and female..

osmia bicol male smosmia bicolour female s .

snailshell bees

More about them in the next post..

I am just off to read a bit more of Fabre’s writing. You can find a great page which has links to his books on line here. This book site has been complied by John Mark Ockerbloom, digital library planner and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, who deserves a medal. We are so lucky to have resources like this!

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Saturday 15 October 2011

“Why on Earth are you Painting Bees?”

At a recent show an elegant man asked me this question.. not once but several times.

“Why on earth are you painting bees???”  He peered closely at a couple of paintings, shook his head and repeated his question.  “I can’t believe you are doing this?.. I mean, bees? Why? They must take you a long time? “

 “Yes they do” I reply

“Do you make a living at it?”

 “Well…” and I am reluctant to say this ….. “No”

“So you are like, some kind of bee philanthropist then..”

I am wondering if this was a kind way of saying “You are some kind of idiot..?”.. I am also wondering if I should launch into my full “Save the Bees” spiel…or just take this on the chin as a very valid observation.  After all “a bee philanthropist” has a nice ring to it and this man is not going to be swayed by anything I say, although he has had a couple of drinks so is actually swaying a little already.

While I am considering my reply an even more drunk man stumbles in from the street. I had spotted him outside. He had done a comic book double-take on seeing the poster at the doorway, theatrically scanned the dark interior with a hand shading his eyes and then thrown himself into the small crowd, demanding to speak to the artist.  He has seen better days, this man. His white hair is dishevelled and his teeth are yellow and gappy but his great big florid face is smiling. He must have been handsome once I thought. He has a cleanish yellow cardigan casually knotted round his shoulders which, from a distance, makes him look almost smart.

But my heart sinks a bit as someone points me out. He gets right up close to me, as drunks tend to do, and, just an inch from my face, shouts loudly and enthusiastically,
“Did you paint  these?… wonderful… I love bees. We need bees, they are so important…thank you,  well done .. lovely work.. if I had some money I´d buy them all.”

“Bless him”… I think. Sometimes, just sometimes “in vino veritas”!


So I guess that’s why I paint the bees. They are “so important” and I want people to know more about them and hold them in greater affection, appreciate their role in our lives and be thankful that we have them and learn to help them.  The trouble with blogs is that a present preoccupation might well have had its genesis many months ago and be lost in archive posts.. so for new readers or new visitors:

I paint bees because 2 years ago I found Dad’s old beehives behind the garage which sparked some lovely with beekeeper Joe’s help I painted a honey bee and put it on the blog; See Number Two Bee back in 2009.


From that came a 16 bee commission for Deborah (whose name in Hebrew means “bee”). The research was illuminating and inspiring.

See all about the bees and my research here: Deborah's Bees 

From there the idea for a UK show arose and “BUZZ” A Celebration of British Wild Bees” came about.. Firstly in London in 2010 and then this year in some other wonderful venues.


and now “BUZZ” and I  travel when we can and spread the Wild Bee Word to I have to say a mostly very appreciative and interested public.. and they are not all drunk :)

People are fascinated and want to know more so I spend my spare time researching and reading and soon there will be a book  “Wild bees for Gardeners”… It’s so easy to help them and so rewarding to be the helper.

“Why on earth are you painting bees?” he asked. I surely should have replied, “For the earth’s sake!

Bee philanthropist signing off….

Friday 14 October 2011

The Garden Bumble Bee and Honeysuckle..

I have almost finished this commission.. and I really do like this one. It’s been a real pleasure to paint this Bombus hortorum, the Garden Bumble Bee.  I am very fond of these bees and loved watching them clamber around Dad’s honeysuckle in the summer. I have said before how fascinating it is to watch how they move,  how they alight on the flowers, how they unfurl their extra long tongues and how they hold onto the sides of flowers with their feet.  I had been undecided about including that long tongue, but it is such a characteristic of this bee and after all she is approaching some delicious nectar filled flowers and this is very much how you would see her!!

This is quite a big painting.. well big for me.. Its about 14x15 inches. I just got rather carried away with the honeysuckle and I forgot to take more step by step photos…but, never mind, maybe next time.

For framing I would crop in, something more like this:

B hort blog

I tend to like off centre things and to have some nice white space. I work so hard to keep that space clean that I think I need to celebrate it :).

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Tuesday 11 October 2011

Late Bees on Devil’s Bit Scabious and Bristly Ox Tongue

Recently we have been having some fabulous late summer weather, sunny and calm and last week I went out with the camera to see who was still about. Close to us is an ancient wood whose records date back to the Doomsday Book, but on that hot, hot day I could almost have been back in Leu Gardens in Orlando walking amongst the mighty Live Oak trees. These English Oaks are just as impressive. 


There are not many flowers left for bees except along the edges of the rides where there are surprising and beautiful patches of pale blue Devils Bit Scabious Succisa pratensis. They are pretty and delicate, their nodding heads on long slender stalks bent almost double under the weight of some enormous queen Buff tailed Bumble Bees, B terrestris. There were also honey bees, a white tailed bee, carder bees, some tiny solitary bees and all sorts of hoverflies flies and a few late butterflies. A week before I had seen a lovely B pratorum queen and a late B hypnorum, all of them feeding on the scabious. This has to be a definite for the garden. 

terr on DBS

 white tailed hover fly dbs 

pasc dbs 

Along the shore line at the reservoir in the scrubby wasteground areas there are big patches of the wonderfully named Bristly Ox Tongue Picris echioides which are keeping the waterside bees going. I saw more buff tailed B terrestris queens,  the seemingly tireless carder bees B pascuorum, 2 big redtailed B lapidarius queens and some honey bees and one red admiral butterfly too.  It’s a curious and ubiquitous plant, its bumpy leaves are rather strange and form flat rosettes on the ground. This is possibly not one I would encourage in the garden.

ox tonguered admiralb lap and ox tongue

…and last night, with Buzz at the London Honey show, was really fun. Thanks Nikki and Jo and all at the Lancaster Hotel. Wonderful honey and very welcoming honey bee people .. even for my interloping wild bees. :)

Friday 7 October 2011

An Early and Affectionate A, “Bee”, C.

My sister and I are sorting, clearing, cleaning, and sifting through. Our decisions are agonising, our conclusions, inconclusive. A family home and its contents has to be dismantled and disposed of, somehow, somewhere. We are opening cupboards and hesitating over their contents. We look at each other for guidance and the pile of “ we don’t know what to do with it, but can’t bear to throw it away” gets bigger. 

Some little joys are our old books. Just half a dozen remain from our early childhood. There is one in particular. Tatty and broken backed, it is our first alphabet book. We both remember it so very well and the fact this little book has survived is surely a testament to its enduring appeal and the affection we all felt for it. It somehow escaped the jumble sale, the bring and buy and the charity shop and even our early artistic endeavours.

It is of course the charming “Ant and Bee”.

and and bee bg

ab3 bg67 bg89bg10 bg

We remembered so well the handsome mustachioed Bee and the natty Ant and their surreal adventures with the Kindly Dog, who wears a trilby, just like Dad’s.  It was a lovely, gentle and funny way to learn to read.                

Is it just too fanciful to imagine that this early book planted a seed for Buzz? It has also made me remember beloved Ant, my little companion in Florida who liked to join in the drawing.  He ran about my drawing board, in and out of my pencils and up and down my arms for months.

I read that the Ant and Bee series, which date back to the 1950s, are now very collectible. I have told my sister to guard this with her life !

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