Thursday 24 January 2013

On commissioning an artwork

Over the past year I've worked on a number of private commissions, read here about two of them.

Working to commission is very different from preparing for an exhibition. With exhibitions I generally have free reign within a specific theme. One might imagine commissions would be restrictive but I don't tend to find that the reality. I enjoy the process.

I try to have an initial meeting with my customer, getting to know them and what they might like. Then I go away and produce preparatory sketches to give ideas of colour, composition, content, size. A second meeting to discuss what's liked more and less out of what I've done so far. Then I get started.

I'm always happy to be approached to discuss possible commissions - do get in touch!

In exchange for physio

In the summer of 2012, I delivered a painting of the Wallace Monument to the physiotherapist whose practice (Physiocube, Edinburgh) has been such a help to me since the onset of my RSI in 2010. It's a pleasure to be given opportunity to exchange service for service, rather than service for money. And if Picasso could pay for hotel bills using drawings and sketches...

Wallace Monument, acrylic on board, 45x82cm

A retiring doctor

Also in 2012 I was commissioned by my local doctor's surgery to paint the retirement gift of one of Linlithgow's longest standing GPs. This commission was a real treat to work on as over a morning coffee and chat what Dr MacKenzie decided he'd most like was a scene of nearby Blackness Castle and shore - where it turned out both he and I often go birding.

I made a few trips with my watercolours and produced various sketches to gather information and to start to think about what might work most successfully. After more coffee and chats I began the painting proper. The finished painting is acrylic on board and features a foreground oystercatcher - one of the species of wading birds regularly seen on the Blackness mudflats.

The final painting - Blackness Castle with oystercatcher, acrylic on board, 40x50cm

Blackness Castle (3), watercolour & acrylic, 28x38cm

Blackness Castle (1), watercolour, 28x38cm

Blackness Castle (2), watercolour, 28x38cm

oystercatcher sketches, Mary Erskine playing field, pencil in sketchbook, 14.5x20.5cm

Two other paintings inspired by my initial Blackness sketches: 

A painting of the castle, donated to Edinburgh's bi-annual Postcards for Sick Kids exhibition to raise funds for the Sick Kids Friends Foundation - "Helping sick kids and their families since 1992."

Donation to Postcards for Sick Kids 2012 - Blackness Castle, acrylic on board, 15x20cm

The other shows a shelduck with the Forth Bridges behind - only two bridges, so it'll soon become a historical document.

Blackness sketches, shelduck, (1), pencil in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

Blackness sketches, shelduck, (2), pencil in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

shelduck studies, pencil & watercolour, 14.5x21cm

shelduck, Tadorna tadorna, acrylic, 14.5x21cm

Wednesday 16 January 2013

2013 - January BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

2013 - January BTO WeBS waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

I missed my December count because of recurring Achilles tendon problems, so it was great to be back on my regular route today. Other than a couple of short light snow showers the weather was mostly fair. At times the low winter sun even managed to break through the clouds.

I began my count at 8.50am, turned around at the Philpstoun Bings at 11.10am and got back to the house, count completed, at 12.15. My cereal pot this time was eaten on the move, feeling a bit too cold to sit and breakfast at my usual spot overlooking the flood field, and too hungry to wait that long anyway.

I was watching the canal even more closely than normal, having seen last Thursday an otter in the stretch right behind my house. I've never before seen an otter in the wild and had certainly never heard of one in the Union Canal. No sign of it today.

No sign of many waterbirds either! Excluding gulls I saw only 16 that were eligible for my count. A poor show indeed. The canal wasn't iced at all but I wonder if a row of several below zero nights had put birds into hiding or made them fly elsewhere in anticipation of a freeze.

The flood field was largely frozen and there were only 12 individual birds to be seen, compared to 355 last November. Also, its size has decreased significantly since my last visit in November. Despite a lack of waterbirds the rest of the landscape was alive - 38 bird species seen in total.

At one point on my return a huge gathering of gulls was far up, away over Linlithgow. Black-heads from ploughed fields. They formed a circling column in the sky. Like a squat cyclone that spun slowly anticlockwise. Slowly and steadily, hundreds of gulls together creating this massive form.

black-headed gulls on fresh ploughed field

Waterbirds seen:

On and around canal:
moorhen - 1
mute swan - 1 (PCF, light green ring, black lettering. At St Magdalene's, Linlithgow)
dipper - 2 - on the burn beyond Philpstoun, as it runs under the canal bridge.

black-headed gull - 200+ (probably quite a lot more) - Due to field-ploughing beside the canal. They follow the tractors, raiding fresh turned earth.

common gull - I counted 2 amongst the black-heads but suspect there were quite a number more.

On the flood field:
mallard - 8
widgeon - 1 (female)
lapwing - 3

All other birds seen:
canal count notes, pen on card
buzzard - 3 - In and out of trees beside the ploughing, seeming hassled by such a mass of gulls.

yellowhammer - 30+ - in trees and hedgerow and field around Park Farm. In mixed flocks with the following eight (in blue):

tree sparrow
house sparrow
great tit
blue tit
reed bunting - winter males with warm chestnut caps.

4 - Not a close-up but nevertheless exciting! The first I've seen in 2013, and I saw none in 2012. These beautiful finches come from Scandinavia some winters and wow those who notice them with the plumage not unlike the chaffinch, but not the same. They have an orange chest colour that continues in wide streaks onto the shoulders and upper wings. A wide white rump patch shows as they fly their bouncy flight.

collared dove
goldfinch - heard, not seen
kestrel - seen often today, probably always the same one. It was flighty, always moving on as I approached its perch.

coal tit
greylag geese - 4 - They flew over, fairly high, heading north. I could tell the species distinguished by call, not visuals.

wren - walk along the towpath for any reasonable length of time and every so often one will were back or fore straight across the canal, only an inch or two above the water.

pied wagtail
raven! - Just one, but notable - only the second time I've ever seen one in the Linlithgow area. I heard its cronking call and looked up to see it passing over, very high above. Without that distinctive sound I'd never have noticed it. It flew a straight line east to west over the Springfield estate.

38 species seen.

And definitely not birds:

Fungi and lichens fascinate me, although I know very little so far. In the books I've seen various drawings and photos of the Earthstar family and a few months ago I encountered a whole squadron of them - like pods from outer space, gathering in the leaf litter below a large stand of lawson cypress. I think this is the Beaked Earthstar, Geastrum striatum :

Small fungal growths that seem to climb this stump alongside creepers of ivy, like juicy white slugs on their way to feast:

Minute stub-ended fingers only a few millimetres long, emerging from deeply fissured bark on the horizontal branch of a nameless tree (my oversight, forgot to wonder what species it was.) :

I'll put these photos on iSpot and update once I have the answers...

Friday 4 January 2013

New Year 2012 - 2013 in Kingussie. Walks, birds & red squirrels

Every New Year we go with a big group of friends to a self-catering accommodation somewhere in Scotland. This year was our third in Kingussie.

Kingussie sits within the boundaries of Cairngorm National Park and is a lovely place to visit. It has cafes and general shops, pubs and places to stay. The long main street is lined with pictureque stone houses. Air is fresh and wildlife is plentiful and there are walks and views in every direction.

It's an easy town to reach, 12 miles south of Aviemore on the A9 and 42 miles south of Inverness. There's been a railway station since 1863 and it's only two-and-a-half hours by train from Glasgow, two-and-three-quarters from Edinburgh or one from inverness. See timetable on the ScotRail website.

Day 1 - Sunday 30th December 2012

A wild day, mean weather. Jennifer and I in multiple layers - thermal then main then waterproof. We walked north towards the hills, along minor road beside the Gynack Burn. Robert Louis Stevenson loved to explore here during his 1880's holidays in the town, floating paper boats down the stream.

We only went a few miles, partly because of my currently tender Achilles tendon (left foot) but chiefly because of driving snow, sleet and rain. I managed one quick pencil sketch but it was too finger-numbingly cold for anything more. I added watercolour when I got back.

Gynack Burn, pencil & watercolour,  19x28.5cm

A second sketch was done from memory, trying to capture an optical illusion I'd seen while out - by the burn was a yellow-lichened tree, seeming quite spherical. On looking closer I noticed that the tree was actually a third taller than it originally seemed, so more like a rugby ball than a football in shape. The youngest branches and shoots were still maroon red, lichen not yet having had time to colonise them. They were lost against a dark background of firs.

yellow-lichened tree, by Gynack Burn path, pencil & watercolour, 28.5x19cm

We lunched in woodland just before it opened onto bare hillside where the wind blew even stronger. Jennifer found a shelter under low branches of firs. It felt snug but even here it was wet and snow was dumping down on us. Just before, in the woods, an extra fierce gust brought about a thumping all around as laden branches shed their loads. 

After sandwiches, and soup from a thermos, Jennifer headed back. I went more slowly, looking at snow and trees and river and distant hills. I found two yellow jelly fungi on a stump in a plantation forest, more phallic than perhaps any I've seen. I uploaded my photos onto the amazing iSpot website (if you haven't yet tried it - do!) and quickly had a response to tell me it was Yellow Stagshorn, Calocera viscosa, coloured orange due to frost damage (and it certainly was cold!)

In the upper slopes of Kingussie many people have bird and squirrel feeders in their gardens. Red squirrels are common, we saw 6 or 7, eating peanuts or scampering across a path. One scared off a jay that I'd been watching. It was the closest I've been to a jay. The jewel-like metallic wing patch matched an alert blue corvid eye. The body is mostly a salmon-pink-grey with a black moustache and tail and wing patch. You see a square white rump patch as the bird flies.

Probably because of the weather, I saw only eight bird species in the several hours I was out:

blue tit
great tit
coal tit
collared dove

our under-tree lunch spot
snowed trees by the Gynack Burn

snowed trees by the Gynack Burn

Yellow Stagshorn, Calocera viscosa

Yellow Stagshorn, Calocera viscosa

Day 2 - Monday 31st December 2012

Much better weather. Wind and spits of rain but no snow and no sleet. Blue sky broke through sometimes and shone bright against mixed clouds of ochre and grey.

I walked south to Ruthven Barracks, built by the Hanoverian government following the Jacobite rising in 1715. Leave the town by crossing the railway at Kingussie station. There's a level crossing but I chose the footbridge for the view - distant hills and mountains were deep dark blues. On either side of the quiet road are flood fields, extremely waterlogged at present. Fantastical lichened trees rose from the shallows and a few mallards swum amongst trunks and long dry grasses. I sketched standing up, using pencil with my sketchbook resting on a fence post. Watercolour was added in the evening. There were shaggy-coated horses eating hay from a rack in the field I looked across.

Ruthven Barracks, pencil & watercolour,  19x28.5cm

 The barracks are raised above the landscape by a man-made motte. I sat up there and painted, trying to capture colours and curves of fields and trees and hills. I hadn't long before Jennifer was to pick me up so I worked quickly and with no pencil under-drawing. Often I find this gives my most exciting results.

from Ruthven Barracks, watercolour,  19x28.5cm
Insh Marshes road, from Ruthven Barracks, watercolour,  19x28.5cm

With Michelle and the kids we drove to the Highland Wildlife Park where Jennifer and I get in free with our Edinburgh Zoo membership. Only four miles north of Kingussie, it's a great morning or afternoon out. The animals have lots of space and the collection includes many native and once-native Scottish species - pine martin, Scottish wildcat, capercaille, wolves, beavers. Also two polar bears, eagle owl, snowy owl and my favourite of all, a pair of great grey owls. Stunning creatures.

Great grey owls, Strix nebulosa, are chunky and fluffed-up to cope with the cold conditions of northern Europe and Asia and America. Every part of the body -even the toes- is thickly feathered. Squat wedge heads snap to and fro as they look around with a piercing and intelligent stare. The wings have an impressively large surface area compared to body size and weight, meaning that as with most owls, the great grey has very low 'wing loading' (read first paragraph here - Low wing loading minimises number of wingbeats required to stay aloft so the bird can move silently, gliding in to catch its prey of voles and other small mammals. One of this pair stretched its wings fully and flew directly towards me from the back of the enclosure. I managed one A5 page of really quick sketches but the park was closing and my hands were numbing again.

great grey owl sketches, pencil, 21x14.5cm

Bird count still quite low for the day but I suspected there would be more to see if I went beyond Ruthven Barracks to the Insh Marshes reserve... so the next day I did.

blue tit
coal tit
great tit
hooded crow (only one seen this whole trip)
collared dove
geese - grey ones but unsure which - too far away
various small songbirds, seen and heard passing over throughout the day. Not identified.

17 species

flood fields on way to Insh Marshes
sketching Ruthven Barracks
Insh Marshes from Ruthven Barracks
Evening catch-up - in the dining room adding watercolour to sketches and writing up my day. Minor distractions.

other evening activities - walnut-shell candle-boats to tell our fortunes for the new year

Day 3 - New Year's Day 2013

We saw in the New Year along with the rest of the village - out of doors beside the park with fireworks and dancing and free drams of whisky. At lunchtime on New Year's Day (it took longer than usual to get up) I headed off towards Ruthven Barracks, walking beyond this time into the grounds of RSPB Loch Insh reserve. Rather than exploring further I went into the Gordonhall Hide and was inspired to sketch paint a small part of the scene in front of me. A heron was crisply lit amongst brown-greens, mauves, earth reds and ochres. Dark reflected water. The bird's strong yellow beak shone beside bright white face and chest and blue-grey back. Black in the eye-stripe and in parts of the wings. Legs orange-yellow.

New Year's Day heron, Insh Marshes, pencil & watercolour,  19x28.5cm

On the return walk dusk was on me and quickly turned to night. The barracks were floodlit a gold yellow. Non-lit sections were in deep shadow. Sky and clouds behind the barracks were deep dark blues. Distant mountains showed some touches of snow but were mostly silhouettes.

Many more birds seen today:

blue tit
great tits
coal tit
long-tailed tit
raven - just one, it cronked and flew a circle over the water and a mounded isle as I watched from the hide.
greylag geese
lapwing - a whole flock, swirling over the marshes. Recognisable even from far away.
widgeon - many on the water, whistling gently to each other.
house sparrow
redpoll - likely but not certain. Bright red on head, Brightish red on chest. There were lots, along with other birds of similar size - perhaps the females or possibly linnet or twite. Light. Whites. Greys. Pretty and very delicately beautiful. 3 species I need to learn.
treecreeper - two together, in a mixed flock with the long-tailed tits and redpoll/linnet
a dipper - on the Gynack Burn
great spotted woodpecker
collared dove
whooper Swans
herring gull

28 species seen on the first day of a new year.

painting from the Gordonhall Hide, RSPB Insh Marshes
Ruthven Barracks at night

Day 4 - Wednesday January 2nd 2013

Our final morning. I managed a short walk around the nearby terraces to have a last look at squirrels and birds. Successful on both counts. Three or four red squirrels on feeders and trees. One was making the grunting that I already knew from greys.

Two new birds for the trip - goldfinch and pheasant. Which, along with:
blue tit
great tit
coal tit
collared dove

makes 12 species today.

my final two sketces - red squirrel, Kingussie, pencil, 21x14.5cm

A good trip.