stories and illustration

River and Swans

Tweed Water

Tweed Water

This is the Tweed outside the small fishing hut, where the water falls over the weir, so the smooth surface turns into this thick silver wave. I have been working on a meticulous project (having  abandoned  acrylics and canvas for a while) and now I just leave the work table  for a taste of the cold afternoon air.

The sky is a delicate turquoise when the clouds clear.

Snow on the Hills

Snow on the Hills

I walked past the little temple that has warning signs that say it is a dangerous edifice

small temple

Small Crumbling Monument

past the willows, and snowdrops growing amongst the river debris after the floods, then through the Lees where the swans are grazing

wintering swans

Wintering Swans

then home again, as the shadows deepen.

One Little Light

One Little Light

February 26, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Girl with Goldfinch

Girl and Goldfinch

Girl and Goldfinch

This picture, together with nine others, was sold in my exhibition at the Berwick Watchtower (editorial amendment on February 27th- no it wasn’t – I looked through the pictures that had been returned, and lo and behold, Girl with Goldfinch, who is now going into another exhibition. This is a morning of amendments, as roughs of the trails I have been doing  were sent out, and changes to be made have been winging back this morning.  BUT, oh, how important to check these things at a stage where information and drawings can still be changed. The lettering is all hand-drawn, so difficult to make amendments once the ink  and watercolour are in place.  Very sad that there are no Birds of Prey at Beal any more).  I will need to go through my list of paintings and discover which ones were actually sold, but this will have to wait for today (editorial amendment 27/02/13 he-he-he). Now that I am making a blog, I have kept records of my paintings, which I never used to do. This painting was done on a background which I had worked over to make a texture that was fairly random, an effect I like.  The girl has an outline round her, which is unusual for me.  I tried to make her fit against the edges of the canvas.  At first she had a broken string in her hands, but I didn’t like the colour of this so I painted it over with neocolour blue crayon, then when I put a varnish on it just made a turqoise blur, which I like much better than the string. The goldfinch is very small.

When we were young we lived just across the road from a naturalist called Garth Christian, who was an early poineer of ecological thinking. In his house birds used to fly in through the windows and eat from one’s hand, and cling on to the curtains.  His garden went down to a small wood.  There was a bird table on the lawn, where nuthatches fed.  We were there one day, looking out of the window, and Garth said: “If you keep watching, you’ll see something interesting.”  A few moments later a hoopoe flew into the garden. So rare.  And so beautiful.

Bee-eaters have very rarely nested in England, they were nesting years ago in a sandycliff-face in Sussex and Garth took my grandfather and myself to see them.  The nesting site was in general kept secret.  I still remember looking at  those minute specks of colour thrugh the binocolars.  Many years later I bought a book by Garth Christian, called “A Place for Animals”, which I found in Oxfam in Bewick upon Tweed. When I got home and opened it I saw that  it was dedicated to my grandfather.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | Illustration, Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Barn Owls

Marvin and Blue Globe

Marvin and Blue Globe

Last week, whilst walking in a little wood above  River Tweed, just as I was emerging from the trees, I saw the unmistakeable shape of a barn owl wheeling  away from me. It seemed to me a strange place to see this bird,  but maybe that is because I became so used to them in the Liddel Valley, long ago, and have seen them nowhere else.  There, they sometimes sat on the windowsill of the old house snoring, my mother thought a tramp was asleep in the yard. Or you would see their blanched heart-face looking in. I have seen little birds land on top of a barn owl, trying to drive it away. It wasn’t just at dusk that they emerged, but during the day – there always seemed to be a barn owl, either flying overhead, looking down with those black eyes like two holes in the white face, or balanced on top of a small fir, or flying low over the rough pasture, looking for voles, that were plentiful there, in those days. Voles would get into the house, and run around frantically, tryng to get away, but always following the path they had run over before, round and round the room.


The owl in the photograph is Marvin, whom I bought as an stuffed owl in an auction, I had decided to pay exactly £32 and that is what I got him for.  There were hawks as well, I wish now I had bought one. In the Liddel valley we once found a dead owl, and my cousin said he knew someone in Edinburgh who stuffed birds, so we packed the dead owl up in a box and sent it off.  We never heard if it had got to its destination, the address wasn’t all that clear, perhaps somebody had their breakfast a mite disturbed.

Marvin lives in my studio He is what Baudelaire called his cat, l’esprit familial du lieu. Last summer I left Marvin in the window, looking out over the veetable garden, which was a mistake, as now his feathers have got blanched down one side, giving him a touch of the snowy owl. There arepersonal literary reasons for him being called Marvin (I have only just realised that Marvin is almost an anagram of Minerva, which is appropriate).

Owl and Mirror

The owls used to nest in the Spoot House, this was in the 70s, their chicks are grotesque and fascinating to look at. Then suddenly all the barn owls disappeared from that place in Liddesdale.  Maybe the fields were cleared up – grants were given to put in drainage to get rid of the outcrops of rushes – anyway, something changed in the habitat, and the owls vanished. Land was sold, and now the Spoot House has been turned into a dwelling place, where the dogs bark when they hear anyone going down the road. The place is less isolated. I remember on a sunny day my son standing rapt, looking out over the Liddel Valley, and when I asked him what he was doing he said: “I am listening to the machinery of the world.” You could hear a sheep bleat on the other side of the valley, it was so quiet. At night, if you walked down the road, it was pitch dark, unless there was a moon. No houselights. Nothing.

When I went back, many years later, the fields had gone rough again (I have got used to the wheatfields of Berwickshire, so the wild habitat of hill farms struck me quite strongly); and the barn owls were back.  I went into the old barn, and that familiar white shape flashed away in the corner of my vision, with that noise of wings.  I walked up the steps to try and get into the small room at the top of the barn (which was locked up) and at each step my boots crunched into a deeper layer of dark owl pellets and feathery bony detritus.

I don’t know where the owl I saw down by the river is nesting, I haven’t seen any barns round there.  In a tree is a big nesting box.

nesting box

Would an owl live here. It doesn’t seem appropriate, somehow.

I put Marvin up in the winter hedge to take his portrait, then put him back in the studio.




February 13, 2013 Posted by | Illustration, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Picture Maps

northumberland map 2

Trying to decide what colour to have the base of my new tiny ( ie. 11.5mm x 160mm) maps of Berwick and the surrounding area, I looked up some maps I did some time ago. I think the base of ochre, with coloured details, works OK on this map, rather than the more sombre raw umber colour that I had for the latest rough. There is a constant juggling between contrast and harmony, which of course are not mutually exclusive.  But doing a map of this nature, which is not a bird’s-eye view but a flat decorative surface which needs to be read as a whole, I feel that the colours need to be fairly consistent in tone. This map was done for the Aurora Project some years ago, and shows the location of studios of artists belonging to that project, over the region.

Alston map (2)

This map of the Alston area was part of a tourist project for the region. The original map was large, and was reduced when printed, which gives fine detail.  However, I cannot afford to work on an enlarged scale for the current project, as the lettering is being done by hand ( I took no part in the very nice lettering on the Alston map) and this is more difficult to read than print. Eventually I shall master In Design, for which I need to buy a new version, and my spanking new graphics tablet, so as to be able to do a lot more with lettering than I can do at the moment. But that is part of a project for this coming year.

In the meantime, I shall get back to my struggle to fit a large area of Northumberland, with a small area of the Scottish Borders, on to a shape that doesn’t quite match the shape of the journey, and try to do large enough lettering to be legible, without obscuring the various routes. Every commission has its own problems to work out, but I had a couple of fascinating days in good company, walking round Berwick, then driving round the wider district, including a journey over to Lindisfarne, taking photographs and thinking how to approach this interesting project.

February 10, 2013 Posted by | Illustration, Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment


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