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Monday 31 March 2014

March: in like an Adder’s head..out like a Peacock’s tail.

The adders were my ongoing subject for Beautiful Beasts in March and this old weather proverb can go both ways, but we had a beautiful sunny weekend so maybe it is going out like a beautiful shimmering peacocks tail this year.

Chris and I had a walk around Woodwalton Fen yesterday which was fascinating. More of Woodwalton Fen to come, but in the early chilly morning it was beautiful. Birds, bees, a distant Marsh Harrier and the black water of the meres  reflecting a struggling sun. I thought about my adders again.

 The large adder print


The block and some of the mess, the rest is scattered on the floor and around the house.


2 colours..9.5 x12 inches


3 colours… A proof print

In all I made 8 prints, each quite different, trying a variety of combinations as I cut away. They don’t call this reduction printing “suicide printing” for nothing! Once you have cut you can’t go back. I will post more stages on Print Daily soon.

This is one I liked..

Fenland Adders: Keepers of Peaty Treasures.


Four colour reduction print 9.5 x12 inches

What’s it about?
Well, in my personal, alternative reality, wild things generally have a better time than in real reality.

It’s a grey breezy day with clouds bubbling up in a huge fenland sky. My beautiful adders, keepers of the secrets buried in the peaty darkness of the fenland soils, rise up to survey their domain. One black and one patterned. They watch the distant peat cutters. The sensible mouse keeps a safe distance. What are those things scattered in the soil? Who knows what lost treasures, bodies and bones are buried in the peat? It is a subject of enduring and delightful speculation.

It’s back to bees this week!.. then maybe eels :)

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Thursday 27 March 2014

Tree Following: Chestnut Bud Development.

Despite a bitterly cold day today, spring is racing ahead and it’s hard to keep up. Some of the Horse Chestnut trees in the village are getting leafy. Now I am looking more at trees in general it is interesting to note how early this tree has come into leaf. It must be one of the earliest.

The newly opening buds are really beautiful. As the feathery, deeply ridged new leaves open up they reveal a tiny new flower spike, each floret tightly curled.

On the drawing board

This bud is only just opening and the protective scales and the outside surfaces of the leaves are still hairy


Watercolour and pencil 6 x 8” approx

This one has opened up quite a bit more. The small leaflets are breaking free.


This one has opened further: pencil and watercolour approx 6 x 8” approx

This twig below has no flower buds, they are only developing into leaves. It’s hard to believe these tiny delicate furled things will develop into the huge shady parasols of the mature trees. For me it’s always that bucolic scene of dozing cattle, swishing tails and chewing cud, sheltering from the sun under its generous spreading boughs. Such a beautiful parkland tree.


Pencil and watercolour sketch 8 x10

Lucy, who is organising the tree following posed the question. “Is it possible to tell before the buds open up which will have flowers and which won’t.”

I have never really thought about it so had another look at the tree today.

What I noticed is that the buds low down or near the trunk are not opening to flower spikes, just leaves. Buds at the end of the outside branches all seem to have flower spikes. Which makes quite a bit of sense. Flowers need to be up and out there, where the pollinators can find them. 


The big candelabra flowers spikes will be a challenge to draw! 

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Tuesday 25 March 2014

Cormorant Sketches

There are quite a few cormorants on the reservoir here. Sometimes I see them skimming the surface of the water, soaring up high into the air, sitting on the outlet towers or, at Perry, perched on the breakwater by the boats.

This is where I found them this week. I am hoping to make a drawing/print/painting of a cormorant or two for Beautiful Beasts and wanted to get to know the shapes a bit better.

There were about 6, two young ones and two wing drying adults and a couple swimming around.
You can’t get very close to them, they are very shy, so it’s really a case of watching and making rough sketches.
They do, however, stay quite still on the breakwater drying their wings or snoozing.


A4 Sketchbook: First sketches of cormorants on the breakwater (with a couple of bouncing jackdaws at the bottom of the page).


A4 Sketchbook: More very quick sketches of the wing drying while they were still on the breakwater.

Some of them were still there when I left.  Others took to the water before flying off. They make quite a bit of noise when they take off and I love the big flapping wings and the big trailing feet


The quickest and probably the best sketch A5 sketchbook


A5 sketchbook colour note. The breakwater is orangy red. which makes an interesting contrast.

More cormorants to come.

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Friday 21 March 2014

Catching Up: More British Museum Sketches and more adders

Last Saturday I returned to the British Museum for a couple of hours to do a bit more research and sketching.  

Working on the Beautiful Beasts blog has made me wonder why we so like to make images of animals. Of course, the use of animal imagery in art, design and utilitarian objects warrants a lifetime of study, each culture having its own different beliefs, magic and symbolic systems and there is a wealth of info in the Museum.

I go to the Museum  to read, as much as to look and draw and on Saturday I particularly wanted to read about the Egyptian mummified animals and then get a quick visit to the fabulous Beyond El Dorado Power and gold in ancient Colombia” exhibition of exquisite golden and ceramic artefacts.

The animal mummies in Egypt were prepared for various reasons; a favourite pet to accompany you, an offering to the appropriate animal god or as food in the afterlife. In the main animal mummy case are cats, small crocodiles, falcons, a baboon, bronze relic boxes for a snake and an eel, a beautiful ibis case and fish “coffins”. There is nowhere to sit, so it’s a matter of drawing on the move while dodging the crowds .. the lines are a bit wobbly!


Everyone is fascinated by the cats. One in particular has a smile. One apprehensive little girl wanted reassurance that they were really dead.The linen wrappings are very beautifully executed with contrasting coloured cloths in a geometric pattern.

In another case were two forlorn bulls which don’t attract much attention, so I could wedge myself in a corner by the case to draw.

“Bulls were sacred to several gods. The famous Apis bull at Memphis was considered the earthly manifestation of Ptah, through which he issued oracles” from the British Museum Website


The wisdom of the bull..

Beyond El Dorado

On to the El Dorado exhibition which was packed. It was impossible to stand and draw without getting in the way of the tide of people, so I just made a few notes

. Bird_staff decoration

This is an exquisite little gold staff decoration. From the British Museum Website.

“The exhibition will explore the complex network of societies in ancient Colombia – a hidden world of distinct and vibrant cultures spanning 1600 BC to AD 1600 ….The remarkable objects displayed across the exhibition reveal glimpses of these cultures’ spiritual lives including engagement with animal spirits though the use of gold objects, music, dancing, sunlight and hallucinogenic substances that all lead to a physical and spiritual transformation enabling communication with the supernatural.”

There were some interesting snake related items. I was particularly pleased to read that snakes were revered for their ability to move easily between the elements of earth, water and sky (through jumping) and through the shedding of their skins were linked with concepts of renewal…..Go snakes!



A few notes of the lovely little ceramic figures from Lake Guatavita. A5 sketchbook.

There is so much material to work with and so many ideas to pursue. If you are ever in need of inspiration, a trip to the British Museum is the answer, but take a sketchbook not a camera. You will see much more.


Adder Progress…is slow…

But steady and I am back to the adders for Beautiful Beasts this week. The two 2 lino prints in preparation are going to be an opportunity for more experimentation.

It’s the end of March very soon and so I am concentrating on getting previous idea resolved and a few things finished.

One quarter of the year already did that happen!

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Sunday 16 March 2014

Charcoal Kilns from Grafham and Holme Fen.

Charcoal, made at Grafham Water, from the reservoir willows

This rather special charcoal was made for me by Grafham Wildlife Trust wardens Aidan and Greg and their charcoal burning gang and it is, of course, made from the local willows.

charcoal_thumb[1] ch-2_thumb[1]

It’s the first time they have tried making charcoal for drawing. Normally it’s chunkier pieces for BBQ charcoal as you can see by the bag.

The secret is to have a very slow burn, steady heat and flat straight twigs.The twigs are normally laid in sand in tins.
This looked good. Aidan told me the biscuit tin they used was destroyed but this is definitely usable charcoal.

To work with it is unpredictable. Some parts are too hard and then you will find a very soft section which gives a sudden rich dark line. It was, without doubt, very pleasing to draw the Grafham Water willows with willow charcoal made up in Grafham Water woods.

The charcoal kilns are in Littless Wood.  I made some sketches a couple of years go. Their simple solid geometric shapes are very pleasing, against the more organic lines of trees and foliage.

There are two kilns there… or certainly were last year, I have not been back yet this year, but I must get back, now the track is drying up.


The kilns are not so large.. the tall trees give some idea of them in the landscape.

charcoal-burning-3-bg2 cb1-bgcb-bg2 wheelbarrow-and-sand-and-lo

A wheel barrow with sacks and some logs ready to burn.

You can join a charcoal burning party along Aidan and Greg with the Wildlife Trust.The next course is on the 11th May. I would love to go but we will be away…in Amsterdam…so can’t really complain.


Holme Fen Charcoal Kiln: a remnant from the Second World War.

But I did go back to Holme Fen with Sue on Friday, for a couple of hours sketching and to find the charcoal kiln that I had read about in the guide.
A small sunken kiln base, without its conical top, is all that remains of the extensive tree felling and charcoal burning operation which took place during the Second World War to provide charcoal, possibly for wood gas to power vehicles or for gunpowder.

The ring of iron is sinking into the peat. It is being overtaken by rhododendron seedlings and brambles. In the still chilly morning with very little but birdsong to keep us company it was a beautiful place to sketch.

holme-chc1 Holme-chc2

Two line sketches done on site. I often add tone but we only had half an hour so no time for much more than notes. I did not have a camera with me, or rather I did not have the SD card, but I jotted down enough info to make a slightly more atmospheric drawing when I came home. It’s a simple enough shape and the foliage was mainly ferns, rhododendrons and brambles. I had made a note of the sun direction and cast shadows and a small detail of the rim.


Holme Fen Charcoal Kiln. pen and ink. A4

I had also taken my chunky Grafham charcoal with me and made a couple of sketches of the beautiful silver birches.



For me, used to dark woods of oak and ash, these tall pale ghostly trees with the light shimmering from their silvery trunks make for a strange treescape. Lovely, ethereal and slightly unsettling. I am looking forward to returning soon.

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Friday 14 March 2014

Drawing Willows with Willow Charcoal.

2013 Willows: Last year I made some drawings of the Willows at Perry. It was April.

pollarded 1bg pollarded 2 bg willow branches bg willows1bg willows2bg

2014 Willows

Today I went back to the same spot. There are new pollards and the pollarded trees from last year have sent out huge strong shoots.



Three sketches of the same log. The one top right was from last year. Now like some magic hedgehog it has sprung long spines.

I made some pen and ink sketches. The shapes of the new stumpy pollarded trees are strange. They give the landscape a desolate look, ruins of old tree.

pw4-bg pw5-bg


Pen and Ink sketches A4

And the 3 in charcoal.


Exuberant growth from last years pollard.


The twisty truncated branches on their short bases remind me of some trimmed internal organ.


Charcoal Sketches 12 x16 inches  Perry Thursday 13th March.

It is rather special charcoal ..more of that in my next post…..

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Wednesday 12 March 2014

Horse Chestnut Tree…Some Progress

The Height of a Tree

On Saturday I co-opted Chris to help me try to calculate the height of the Church Field Horse Chestnut Tree.

There are various ways, I had not realised so many. A handy guide from WikiHow gives some instructions. “Measure a Tree

I opted for a very simple one of asking a friend to stand by the tree.


So here is Chris standing next to the tree. With a bit of rough calculation we think the tree is about 58 ft high. It is also interesting to see a 6 ft figure by the tree. The human figure really gives an idea of the scale of these magnificent trees.

Two More Sticky Bud Development

I’m trying to catch the bud development of the Horse Chestnut twig.

I have two buds beginning to split, which I drew today. As the sticky scales develop, and open up,  the first four leaves begin to show at the very tip. They are furry, covered in white fine downy hair and tightly curled up.

It’s a fascinating contrast of smooth, sticky, shiny scales with the downy hairs of the emerging leaves .




Watercolour and pencil sketch: 8 x 5 inches


Watercolour and pencil sketch: 9 x4 inches

I am keeping all the Tree Following posts together on another blog:  It’s going to be nice to see the continuity through the year. Also it’s easier for the other tree followers to find. If you are taking part, this is the week to sign in with Lucy. There is an update box once a month on the 7th which will stay open for a week.
There are lots of people, not just from the UK, taking part. It will be fascinating.

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Monday 10 March 2014

Black Adders from the Black Fens

Holme Fen
On Saturday we went to Holme Fen, a remaining fragment of peaty forested fen, not what you would expect from fenland really.


Shimmering silver birches at Holme Fen on Saturday 8th March

It has a fascinating history and was once a part of Whittlesea Mere, the largest lake in lowland England which was 3 miles across and a venue for ice skating in the winter, fishing and sailing. It was drained at last by the Victorians in 1851 with John Appold’s, Steam Pump brought up from the Great Exhibition.

“The wind, which of autumn of 1851 was curling the blue water of the lake, in the autumn of 1853 was blowing the same place over fields of yellow corn.” Skertchy (1877

But one small piece of the reclamation, which is now the Nature Reserve was considered too wet to cultivate and gradually returned to birch forest.  
My information from Natural England’s trail leaflet PDF here.

The Peat 
Walkng through these elegant birch woods was easy going, the ground under your feet is springy, so unlike the yellow sticky mud that we have been trudging through here for the past few months. The peat here escaped exploitation and despite astonishing shrinkage, (as you can see by the Fen Post), they think the peat still extends 3 meters down over most of the site.


Chris standing by the post. His head is by the 1870 marker. The peat was level with the top of the post in 1851. The peat had shrunk to this mark in only 19 years.

Fenland Adders

Black, beautiful peat, back-breakingly dug for years mostly for fuel, also creates good adder habitat; black adders in particular if you read old accounts of peat cutting from the Fens. They were said to rise up suddenly, unseen against the black fen soil and frightening the land workers.
Other grim Fenland adder stories in Witches and Black Adders from Yaxley History which make me feel even more sorry for these lovely snakes.

In 1963 Sybil Marshall published the Fenland Chronicle, her parents memories written in their Fenland dialect and detailing life on the Cambridgeshire Fens. It is a fascinating read and tells some good adder stories. More of those another time but she does say:

Needless to say we had a healthy respect for adders-nobody only a born fool would want to be too familiar with them. They abounded in the fen and were a common sight to the turf diggers who couldn’t be said to be frightened of them, even if they didn’t make pet on ‘em”

It would seem logical for adders to be black as camouflage against the black fenland soil but they consider adder colouration is more genetic than in response to habitat.

black adder Paul Smith

Paul Smith’s photo from the ARC website again see more here

 Adder Sketches

I am still thinking about how to develop the adder image. More sketches today. I wonder if I can redress the balance a bit with my portrayal and have an adder loving fen man with adders fondly clustering round, or perhaps 2 dancing adders ( the mating dance) with the peat diggers in the distance.


Rough ideas  A4 sketchbook


2 thumbnail ideas for a possible print.

I am also rather interested in their eyes. They are a beautiful orange red with a slit pupil unlike the grass snake and slow worm whose eyes have round pupils.


Watercolour sketches of the eyes; adder,grass snake, slowworm ( which is really a legless lizard, hence the eyelid)

Adders and Grass Snakes  have no eyelids but a transparent scale called a brille which covers the eye and is part of their skin. Just before shedding this brille  turns blueish, clouding the eye.  After the old skin has peeled away, the adders eye is returned to its glowing brilliance. Amazing.

For more adder love see artist Ben Waddam’s short film on a peat bog adder here.

PS: If you were wondering about the name Blackadder it doesn’t have much to do with snakes!

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