Saturday, April 28, 2007

Delivering cheetahs to London

Apart from a slight hold up getting an all day parking pass at the station, the train trip to London passed smoothly. Even though I was carrying the painting myself I had wrapped it well, just in case I had any unfortunate encounters that could potentially damage it, and I certainly didn’t want ANY chance of that. The cab journey from Paddington went smoothly too and surprisingly quiet (I thought London cabbies were a chatty bunch…. Maybe I looked too preoccupied taking in the sight of London out of the windows) and I arrived at Christies in good time and with my precious cargo snug and safe in its bubblewrap coat.

With the few hours until my train back to Bristol was due to depart, I helped the ladies from the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation unpack the 60-70 paintings and sculptures. The works were to be hung around the room in the order they appear in the catalogue. When I arrived they were already well into the process of placing the paintings on the floor under the wall panel where they were to be hung.

It’s a funny thing…. When I left Bristol my painting was a fairly decent sized piece, yet sitting there on the floor, propped up against the wall along with all the other paintings it had shrunk in size……. it looked diddy and much smaller than when we left Bristol. I have experienced this phenomenom before with my work arriving at an exhibition, but this was quite a marked difference in the perception of its size!

There were a lot of paintings to fit in, with a number turning up later, so there was a lot of thought and juggling done before everything was placed where it should be. Then we removed the packaging and wrappings, which is the exciting bit, as you get to see the work unveiled. There is some stunning work going on show, which should make for a good auction. I was surprised at the size of a few of the paintings…… huge pieces over 8 foot! Very impressive; they will add a very dramatic dimension to the exhibition.

Once everything was unwrapped and placed, ready for hanging by some of Christie’s staff, we took a break to tackle our sarnies. After which it was time for me to head off home again. I was disappointed I didn’t book a later train, as I would have liked to have stayed, to help them finish. I felt like I was leaving before the work really started! Everything would have to be finished by that night as the ‘Viewing Days’, where the public can come in to see the paintings prior to the auction, start the next morning.

The walk from Christie’s to the nearest tube station was just a few minutes and then an easy jaunt round to Paddington on the Circle line, arriving in good time to catch my train home.
Now I am full of anticipation for next Wednesday and the actual auction.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cheetah painting ready for auction

When I came back from the framers last week I was essentially happy with my choice. I say essentially because at the back of my mind I did have a little niggle about the colour…. But couldn’t fathom what it was. After a day or so, I left the painting where I could see it for most of the time, to see if that which was bothering me came to light. A few days later it dawned on me….. the ‘antique oak’ brown was a little too dominant and was committing the cardinal sin of overpowering the painting…. just. Sometimes what you think will work really well actually doesn’t, once the whole moulding is wrapped around the painting. It’s just so hard to tell on a bigger piece of work just how good/bad a colour/moulding would look as a complete frame from just those small sample corner pieces you have to try ideas out with at most framers. It was too late to take it back to the framers as I wouldn’t be able to get there until today and I have to take it to London the tomorrow. So, taking my painting’s chances of selling into my hands, I did a little colour adjustment with some acrylic paint. Remembering a lovely weathered old section of tree trunk that I saw recently in my parents’ garden I used that as a rough colour guide. I mixed a load of white with some burnt umber, ultramarine and Windsor violet to get a warm soft grey brown. I scrubbed this over the ‘antique oak’ moulding in a thin application, getting it into all the cracks and rough texture, creating a ‘semi-transparent’ coating over the dark colour underneath. I rubbed it back with a piece of kitchen towel (strong paper tissue) to even out the colour and the result is a lovely soft brownish mauve that sits perfectly with the painting. I was expecting to have to try several different colours to find one that suited but as soon as I saw the colour effect I was getting I knew this was so right.

Now I am totally sure of the colour, no niggles this time. The moulding looks more like weathered wood, which was what I had in my mind from the start. It would have been impossible for me to explain this colour to the framer for him to create it for me and as it was, I needed the ‘antique oak’ base to achieve the effect and colour. I know he worked hard getting the colour he did and I feel some guilt at changing it but when all is said and done…. I have to be happy with it around the painting, and taking it to the auction having decided that the moulding colour was a little too strong would have bothered me for months afterwards.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


It's about time I posted another painting pic, so here's 'Whiskey', as mentioned in my last post.
She was in my life from 1983 to 1997 and was a very special cat and I still miss her. I painted it in 1988 when she was 5 years old and have since had several offers of tidy sums of money for the painting, but I will never sell it.

The medium is gouache and although I used black paper, I mixed my own black from lamp black, alizarin crimson and ultramarine to use as the background. Gouache is great as you can paint light colours over dark, which I did extensively in this piece.
The greatest compliment I ever had to this painting was when Whiskey had passed on one of our other cats, Lottie, still reacted to seeing this painting for quite a while afterwards. Whiskey had been 'top cat' in the house and Lottie had been at the bottom of the pecking order. I tried to show Lottie it was a flat image by holding her up and placing her paw on the glass, but she would have none of it... the Boss was still keeping her in place!

How can you sell your painting?

Some people ask how I can sell something I’m happy with. Well, there has only ever been one painting that I have done that I would not part with for love nor money…. That is the painting of my cat ‘Whiskey’.
Now and again I do a piece that gives me great satisfaction to look at, especially if it achieved what I had set out to achieve but even then I’m happy to sell it. But a strange thing also happens… when I finish a painting/batik/drawing somehow it no longer is mine. After the, sometimes, intense relationship you have in the creating of the piece, at its finish, that is over and there’s an almost immediate emotional detachment. And although I might sell a painting, I still have the image; I keep a photographic or digital image of each piece I do so I haven’t lost that image forever. It has to be said that I also need to sell the work to pay the bills, especially if the sales have been slow for a while. If I couldn’t bear to part with any of my paintings I couldn’t pay any bills, so I wouldn’t be able to paint/work as an illustrator for a living. I’m lucky in that I have the zoo job bringing me in some ‘guaranteed’ money for part of the year, but the zoo is a charity organisation so the pay is much, much lower than if I worked as a commercial illustrator out in the ‘big wide world’. Since going part-time my zoo wages barely keep my head above water, so I need every sale I can get.
Though I am very pleased with my cheetah painting, I have no qualms about putting it forward for the auction. My only hope is that it sells as well through the auction as it might through a gallery.
I was sat looking at it today and my eyes kept travelling around the landscape looking for animals half hidden in the foliage. Of course I know exactly what is there, but the painting gives me a feeling of being back in Africa and who knows, something might just come out from behind that dense shrub or a bird might flit into one of the bushes at the sides then onto the ground searching for tasty morsels. I guess it’s not the painting that is doing this to me, as such, but the memories it evokes of early morning game drives in Amboseli and sitting in our camp and looking out into the bush. I just hope something similar happens when prospective buyers look at it and that encourages them to bid for it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

I've been framed!

Last week I went to a local framer to choose a moulding for the cheetah painting. I was looking for something that was quite rustic looking… but it’s hard to find something that doesn’t look too manufactured. The aim is to find a combination of style and colour that enhances the painting rather than detracts from it.
After browsing through the selection of mouldings, the choice came down to two for colour choice - one was a gorgeous soft greyish green and the other a dark ‘antique oak’ brown. I loved the green but it didn’t ‘sit’ well for the whole painting and unfortunately with just a small corner section to try out against the work I couldn’t tell if it would work or not, so I chose the safe option and went with the ‘antique oak’ colour. There was no moulding in that colour that suited the painting; they all looked too polished and unnatural. But the framer found a flat moulding of untreated pine that had a roughened ‘unfinished’ surface. The plan was to colour this up to match my colour choice and put in a hessian slip to lead the eye into the painting.
On Thursday I went back to collect the finished frame and they fitted it round my painting. It looked great. One of the framers said it looked like you were looking out of a lodge window into the African bush beyond! I hope this is something prospective buyers like, if they think that too, and it helps to sell the piece.
So now I needed to get the painting to Christies in London. After ringing around a number of couriers, it became apparent that none of them would take an original painting; too much of a liability and too easily damaged. All, that is, except one. Great, I thought, now we are getting somewhere. Except that we weren’t. I had been recommended to use same day delivery to minimise risk of damage as the painting would most likely stay on the same vehicle with the same driver until it reached its destination, so I was expecting to have to pay a little more for this….. but not £165!
So a very quick decision was made in that I may as well take the painting to London myself on the train… it’ll be a darn sight cheaper and I will know it gets there safely. Taking advantage of online ticketing I managed to get tickets for £14.50 each way…. Bit of a difference! So next Friday… I’m off on a jolly to London.

Batik workshops

During July and August I have two batik workshops to tutor. In both the idea will be to produce one or more batik images, working with the medium in a way most people haven’t done before; creating a more pictorial image. I find them great fun to do and get to meet some lovely people in this way. I do love to see what people create, especially if they at first struggled with the concept of creating a batik image (as some do) and then turn out something quite stunning.
The first is for the Gloucester Arts and Crafts Summer School and this will be the first time I do a workshop with them. I’m very excited about this workshop as it runs for 5 days, so plenty of time for the students and I to get stuck in and have some fun with the medium. It runs from 23–27 July and 7 of 12 student places have already been booked, which is very encouraging. If you wish to have more information about this workshop please send me a private message via my guestbook and I will send you contact details as soon as I can.
The second is a 2-day workshop on 18 & 19 August at the Nature In Art Museum and Art Gallery, which is also in Gloucester. I have done several workshops at this wonderful venue and look forward to returning there. If you wish to have more information about this workshop click on the Nature In Art link and then on the Art Courses button. I was originally booked in February, which they have left in the Jan- May listings, but my new dates are further down the page.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Zoo w/c 16 April- Part 1

Well, what did I get up to this week.... Monday I started to continue with the rattlesnake drawing. But I didn't get very far before I couldn't focus and my eyes began to ache again. So accepting a certain amount of defeat on this eye strain thang, I've brought my optician appointment forward a few months to get them checked. It's no good if I can't work either at the zoo or at home.
Drawing and painting were out for this week again so I got on with a lot of 'jobs to do when not drawing/painting'. I have several species waiting to be illustrated a Von Der Decken's hornbill, a bush mantis, false black widow spider and a number of anemonefish and anemones. I will need reference for these so armed with a camera I went on a reference hunt. Getting photo's that I have taken myself and actually seeing the animal in question is a good preliminary step. It helps familiarise me with the species.
For the spider I had to go to the reptile house. There, one of the keepers had got on her hands and knees and scrabbled about in the inevitable dark cobwebby places of the reptile room breeding room to find examples of said spider. Apparently they have made themselves at home in this warm and prey rich environment; the prey being the fruit flies baby crickets etc that inevitably escape from the 'waiting to be fed to the reptiles and amphibians' containers. Unlike the real black widow these spiders are not dangerous, they'd hardly be allowed to run amok in the reptile breeding rooms if they were. However they can, as all spiders do, still bite.
By the time I had arrived she had just 'bagged' herself a 'juicy female' and a smaller less rounded female. Looking like the well known black widow, the 'juicy' spider had a huge rounded abdomen underneath which her tiny thorax and long dark shiny pointy 'poised for action' legs protruded. I'm not a great one for spiders.... had a fear of them from childhood. I blame my two rascally brothers for chasing me and, so say, putting spiders down my back! In the years I have worked at the zoo I have adapted and calmed my fear - I've had to as I've had to draw/paint quite a number of spiders - usually from life. I can now even pick a small sized one up...on a good day. And once even held a tarantula! I find them totally fascinating and even beautiful when looked at closely, but get one moving fast around me and my fears resurface.
Neither myself nor the keeper were wanting these spiders anywhere near our bodies. Whilst they are not the dreaded black widow they can still impart a bite and we didn't want to find out how much that might hurt. So 'safely' contained in a small plastic lidless tub, I angled the camera down for an aerial shot. Bless her, this little female spider wanted only to tuck herself into one of the tubs corners, so it was with great delicacy and care that the keeper, using VERY long tweezers, nudged her into the middle so I could get a better shot. For the signage of this species I do not actually need to illustrate of it. The display the species will be housed in is in a 'town house' setting - a mock room with kitchen area showing mice, a cellar and attic showing brown and black rats, a fish tank and on the 'stairs', a case-like display tank for showing spiders. This is where the species will go and a framed photo on the wall with a basic caption is all that is required for the spider.
The keeper liked the look of this 'juicy female' so much that she decided she'll keep it for the display. So using the tweezers with great care she attempted to seperate the two spiders by lifting the smaller one out using the silk it had laid down behind it. However there was a few seconds of 'worry' as on lifting the small one out it brought the big 'juicy' female with it dangling like hypodermic needles on a silk thread as they whipped around in the air in front of our legs. The 'juicy' one abseiled quickly to the ground which at first we didn't realise..... where had the spider gone!!! As the small spider was safely returned to a cobwebby corner, I saw the large 'juicy' one on the floor so quickly placed the empty plastic tub over it to not only contain it for my peace of mind but to protect her from being accidently stood on. Only then did I breathe out, at last, in relief.
Just another day at work!

Bristol Festival of Nature workshop

The Bristol Festival of Nature happens every year and for the past two I have held small drawing workshops as part of the activities. I have again been booked for this year (2nd and 3rd June) and I shall be holding two workshops on each day to show/teach people how to start off a drawing with a very simple technique.
Many people who don't draw but would like to, when they talk to me about drawing, say they wouldn't know where/how to start. There are many ways to approach a drawing and the technique I show on these workshops is one of using basic geometric shapes. I find it helps take away the 'fears' of an empty sheet of paper and gets people started quickly and easily once they have an idea of what to do. It's all about confidence... there aren't many people (old and young) who don't know how to draw the shapes of circles and squares, but how many know the shape, for example, of a lemur. This is the daunting aspect and puts many off. So instead of trying to draw the lemur shape straight away we draw circles, ovals, squares, triangles first... whatever fits best. And before you know it you've drawn a lemur!
I love seeing the look of achievement on someone's face at the end of a workshop; so different to the look of fear or dismay when I tell them what we are drawing at the start of the workshop.

For a step by step demo on how to draw a lemur, look in my blog archive (down the right hand side of the page), under June's entries you'll see 'How to draw a lemur'.

Click here if you want to know more about the Festival.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Last week at the zoo

Because of the Easter break, last week's working days amounted to just two. It's a tough life for some! And for the most part I was replacing ID signs again, so more printing, trimming, laminating and trimming. I also had some work to do on the computer - Photoshop'ing one of my reptile paintings.
When I had originally painted the Geoffroy's side-necked turtle, the style was such that I only needed a smidgeon of background to imply the animal was sitting on a rock. But the new style now requires a full background. So rather than painting it again or spending lots of time trying to match colours to add in an extended background I use the tools in Photoshop to create the extra background needed. I quite enjoy doing this.... it's a bit like playing!

I did actually start a drawing too. Another reptile - an Aruba Island rattlesnake. We haven't yet got this species in, so I am having to rely on photo's gleened from the web and books. I don't really like having to do this, without seeing the animal in real life, as photo's can be so misleading in many ways with things like colour, proportion or even whether its the correct species! So after having a quick chat, and review of the photo's I had accumalated, to one of the reptile keepers I have some idea of how I should proceed colouration wise and which photo's to regard as being dubious. From the remaining photo's I can build up my drawing, taking bits of information from different ones so that I am not doing a straight copy. Hopefully I shall get to finish it next week.

Special moments this week - seeing the two baby meerkats running around, bravely away from Mum or the baby-sitter. They are so tiny and move like little clockwork toys. They are drawing lots of attention from the public as they are so very cute. Hope to get some photo's soon.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

'Out on Manoeuvres'

Hyaenas. Someone once asked me... 'Why paint such a horrible, unappealing creature?'
Well, truth is, to me they are fascinating and at times endearing. They have a reputation as being 'filthy scavengers' and their character is much maligned. But they are, in their own right, very successful hunters - they're just smart enough to not waste energy if someone else nearby happens to have made a kill that they can easily grab. Along with the lion... the sounds of hyaenas calling, is to me, THE sound of Africa.
On the first night in Amboseli in 1999 I lay awake for many hours just listening to hyaenas calling to each other from three different directions. I taped some of the calls and just couldn't help grinning....... it was eerie and beautiful at the same time.
This painting is from that trip in Amboseli. One afternoon as we started to head back to our tented camp, we drove along the track for a short while with three hyaena running alongside. The sun was behind them and I loved the look and feel of it. I kept my video camera recording trying to capture not only the hyaenas but the swallows that were flying over their heads. They made continuous passes coming from behind and catching the insects flying up out of the way of the hyaenas feet. The footage I got was very shaken from the bumpy ride along the rough track but it gave me something to work from and build up using other points of reference. Most of all it gave me the atmosphere in the sounds and the light of that moment and the movement in the gait of the animals.
It seemed the hyaenas were on a mission, their direction and pace was purposeful and steady, a lolopping canter towards a waterhole surrounded by rushes. Were they just very thirsty or were they aware of something we couldn't see - a hidden carcass or an unsuspecting animal about to be flushed out?
The painting is in oils on canvas and is approxiamately 3 foot long. I love the 'letterbox' composition as it focus's the attention on the subject whilst giving the feel of the expanse of the habitat.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

First week back at the zoo

Well, three days to be precise, as I only work Mon -Weds when I'm there now.
As it is the week running up to Easter and therefore one of the busiest times of year for the zoo, my priority was to replace all the jaded looking identification signs on the animal enclosures.

So first thing Monday I was out with my notebook, walking the 12 acre site making a note of all faded, damaged or missing ID signs - which took about 2 hours to do. This walkabout also means that I can update myself on the animals and what's happening in the zoo grounds in general. As always there are new additions such as baby meerkats and a baby howler monkey, an Easter trail and a merry-go-round for the kids, an 'exhibition' of installation art in various positions around the grounds, and then there's the catching up with the various animal characters. Seeing how much a 'toddler' gorilla and red-ruffed lemur have grown, my old favourites - the Asiatic lions grooming each other in the sun, the red pandas up their tree (later in the year they are hidden by the foliage) and the fruit bats stretching their wings in the sun. The last time I was working in the zoo was just prior to Christmas when the skies were grey and the zoo gardens look bare as they were prepared for winter. Now the garden beds are full of colour and the grounds look alive and buzzing again. What a great time of year to come back!

Onto the matter of replacing signs........ When I first started at the zoo, over 11 years ago, all new and replacement ID signs were hand painted. The animal information and map was printed in a set format onto A4 paper from a computer and I painted straight onto this. Then it was trimmed and laminated to protect it from moisture and dirt. In time the zoo acquired a colour photocopier which had been donated and this was then used to copy the illustrations so that the originals could then be kept on file and I didn't have to keep painting replacements. The ID sign was printed from the computer and the photocopied illustration was cut to size and stuck onto it before being laminated. Eventually after a good few years of service the photocopier gave up the ghost and by this time the Graphics Dept, in which I work, had a good colour printer. Since then we have been steadily scanning in my originals and creating a file for each ID sign on the computer so that now replacements are even easier to do.
So Monday afternoon to Wednesday lunchtime I was printing off ID signs, trimming, laminating, trimming again and then applying double-sided tape to the back of each one. Then in the afternoon I was tearing off old signs and sticking up the new ones, all 97 of them. Quite a mammoth task but with the help of a work colleague the job got done in the nick of time.

So, no painting this week for me at the zoo, but I expected that, as on my return after my 3 months off, the routine is to make sure the ID signs are looking good. Next week I have a few more to finish off before I can start on the species that are awaiting illustrations and ID signs. At the moment there's a rattlesnake, a hornbill and a mantis and some new coral fish and anemones waiting for my attention.