Thursday, 4 December 2014

Minions Wanted!

Today, I'm blogging from my sick bed. I haven't updated this blog since early September which doesn't sound like long but so much has happened over the past three months that it seems a distant memory.

You might wonder why I am blogging when I'm ill. Well, I have learnt something new about self-employment that I was already aware of when I started MMD but has become painfully apparent to me in recent weeks: there is no one to cover me. I sometimes forget, when I'm wrapped up in a portrait and only come up for air for a cup of strong tea, that I am in fact running a small business. Every aspect of this, including accounts, marketing and admin, is listed on my job description; there is no one else to do any of it. Yes, I could hire someone to do the accounts, for example, but I'm definitely not in that position and thankfully they currently remain fairly straightforward.

My point is, when life happens, which it does and chooses the most inopportune periods to do so, my work simply has to sit on my desk until I'm in a position to get back to it. There's no calling in sick; no co-workers to take on my workload; there is no pause button. That's scary. Let's go back to my present state of germ-harbouring (sorry!) Yesterday I woke up feeling pretty unwell after coughing all of the previous day. I still dragged myself out of bed, had breakfast, got dressed and got going on my To-Do list.

 I had a lot to do and, with Christmas lurking only a few weeks away, a short time to do it in. I packaged portraits, printed vouchers, answered emails, drew out a new portrait and ventured out into the bitter cold to pay a trip to the post office. By the time I got home, I felt horrendous. There was absolutely NO way I could do any more work. Today is even worse; I woke up early (because I was hot, not because I wanted to) and could only just manage to make myself a cuppa before falling back into bed. I'm not handling it well though because I am VERY much aware that I have so far lost a day and a half of work time. The work waiting for me sits heavily on my mind.

Back in October, my Nanna passed away. I won't go into details because those are personal to my family and I,
but it resulted in my having a fortnight off. I tried to get on with a portrait at the time but I wasn't focused and I didn't want to spoil the piece by forcing myself. Some things just have to wait. There was lots to arrange and extended family were staying with us, so I just took the time.

 I had worked out a schedule for my Christmas commissions and those 2 weeks obviously set me back. I got myself back on track after a while though and began to feel a little less pressured. Right now, I'm worrying every moment I'm not working. That's not healthy and certainly won't help speed up my recovery but it definitely comes with the territory of self-employment.

When there is nobody to cover you, there is a higher level of stress because you can't relax. I know I'll be able to make up the time; I just wish I didn't have to. I also know full well that I have yet to find the balance between work and my personal life. Maybe it isn't completely possible to find a perfect balance of the two. When I do find time for myself, say coffee with friends or a ride on my bike, I find myself feeling guilty for not working. Now, I wouldn't feel like that if I worked 9-5 in an office but, at the end of the day, I DON'T work in an office and my hours are not restricted.

 I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing and that people continue to commission me; I never would have believed it two years ago. What would be extremely welcome though, is an "off'" switch! If you are in the same position as me, I would love to know how you handle this! Tips will be most gratefully received. In the mean time, please send helpful minions who know their way around pencils!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Getting organised

When my order book is very busy, as it is at this time of year especially, and my energy is almost entirely focused on my portraits, I find it particularly easy to let other aspects of my business slip. It's about finding a balance and I will gladly admit that balance isn't my strong point.

First and foremost on my mind recently has been my tax return which, to be fair, isn't due until January, but I really didn't want it hanging over my head longer than it had to be and I knew once it was done, I would relax that little bit more. Also, I'm off to Venice for a few days in a couple of weeks and I was aiming to have it done before then, since my return meant that Christmas would be EVEN closer and my panic would definitely set in!

Unfortunately, it isn't a half-day job (for me anyway; I'm not sure about others!) and I spent a long time printing out invoices and expense receipts until I had a huge pile of paperwork to go through which in itself took a whole evening. It made realise that I really should make a conscious effort to be more organised with my accounts. I guess it's one of those things you learn as you go with a small business. I keep all my receipts and I have an order book but I've decided that it would make my life SO much simpler if I kept up-to-date with these things; i.e. print out invoices once they are paid and the order is complete and shipped. 

Now that my tax return is done and submitted to HMRC, I definitely feel a teensy bit more relaxed and the fact that I've started a spreadsheet listing the status of all of my outstanding orders has helped me gain a sense of control. I've placed orders for packaging materials that were running low and started making notes for my website update in the new year, so now I feel completely justified in breathing a small sigh of relief.

It's amazing how much difference it can make to take a few days out just to get things ship-shape again. I feel like a weight has been lifted. Oh and I have to mention the beauty of writing a to-do list; it really helps! It's been said before my many but there really is a sense of immense satisfaction that comes with ticking an item of the list.

Now just to tackle my long list of portraits!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Wildlife in France

I recently came back from a trip to France with my family. We were staying with my aunt who lives in Bourges, about 40 minutes away from the official centre of the country, which gives you an idea of just how smack-bang in the middle we were! It's a beautiful area with an awful lot to offer and we spent some lovely days visiting various sights, including a walk along the Marais. This literally translates as the swamp but it's certainly far from a swamp, or how I picture one to look! It's a series of waterways that runs for miles through Bourges and surrounding areas, creating little islands of land that are used as allotments. 
It was a bakingly hot day (a max. of 38 degrees!) so there wasn't a huge amount in the way of birdlife. There were several families of coots with chicks at various stages of development; some brand-new and still fluffy and other nearly fully-fledged adults. I also spotted a heron flying across the horizon. 
Most exciting for me though was the pair of little grebes I glimpsed briefly. Although I've seen great-crested grebes before, little grebes were a new one for me so I was quite pleased that I spotted them before they ducked under the water and swam off. I actually heard them before I saw them; they have a pretty distinctive call
Not a great photo but they didn't stick around for the paparazzi!
As I said, it was extremely hot for the entire week and this meant that there were a huge amount of butterflies out and about. I snapped a couple which is an achievement I feel, as they are the most difficult creatures to photograph! They either flutter around so quickly you can barely identify them or, when they land, they close up their wings and hide away their beautiful colours! 
Walking along the marais, I also spotted a beautifully coloured moth which I'd never seen before and had to Google for I.D. The only reason I knew it wasn't a butterfly was because of the shape when it landed. When I had a look online, I discovered that it was in fact a Jersey tiger moth. Another first for me!
Look at that fab pattern!
The other thing I noticed while in France was a huge number of birds of prey in the skies and in the fields. That particular area (Bourges, Sancerre etc.) is very much arable which is very different to the grazing land around us at home. There were buzzards, kestrels, hawks, all sorts!

My favourite moments were sitting in the garden and watching the butterflies in the mornings, although I won't miss the flies over there; they bite!

Featured in Etc. Magazine

If you follow my Facebook page or are one of the few who read this blog, you will know I recently did an interview for Etc. Magazine. Well, the issue I am featured in is now live on their website and the hard copy of the magazine is out soon, and yesterday I got to see the finished piece.

You can read the full interview at this link, just look for pages 109-111. Apart from the rather unflattering photo on the first page (I've never liked my arms!) I'm really pleased with it! The journalist asked for some examples of my work and I sent a large selection over but I never imagined they would include so many pieces. That is a bonus really as it shows a good variety and proves I don't just draw dogs!

I can't wait to get my hands on a hard copy at some point next week (hopefully) then it will feel real. Let me know if you have read the article and what you thought about it!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Exciting news for Miss Magpie Designs!

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from one of the feature writers at Etc. magazine asking whether I would do an interview for them as they were interested in doing a feature on my work.  I'm quite familiar with Etc. (a complimentary magazine that is part of the West Sussex County Times) and have seen some lovely features in previous issues about local artists, craftspeople etc. (ha!) so naturally I was extremely excited to be asked!

As they were aiming for publication in the August issue, it had to happen quite quickly to work with the deadlines so I answered some questions via email then had a photographer visit last week to take some pictures of me at work. The latter was interesting as it meant I had to have a HUGE tidy up of my work space, which is at one end of my bedroom (no studio just yet, maybe one day...)
Quite conveniently, I happened to have a portrait in progress on my drawing board so that made it much easier for me to 'pretend' I was drawing for the photos and I think it will help to show a little of my process in the article. I can't wait to get a copy of the issue and see the piece although I'm quite nervous at the same time; especially having my photo in there! Hopefully it will provide a little local advertising for me as I have a reasonable online presence but not too much locally at the moment.

If you live in the Sussex area, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Etc. in August and let me know what you think!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Tis the season to get fledging!

After all the built-up excitement around our two nesting bird families, the nuthatches and blue tits, I had to come to the conclusion over the past couple of weeks that the chicks have now already fledged. I wasn't fortunate enough to catch the event as it happened and I suspect this will be because the parents chose a very early morning when the garden would have been much quieter and therefore safer for the fledglings. As disappointing as this realisation was, I still feel very fortunate to have witnessed the activity that I did. Seeing the nuthatches excavate their nest hole and patch it up with mud; watching the blue tits pulling tufts of cat and horse hair into the nestbox; hearing both blue tit and nuthatch chicks chirping away whenever a parent bird arrived with a wriggling grub in their beak. This is behaviour that I've never been lucky enough to see before and for that reason, I feel very fortunate.

That said, this past week or so has made up for the lack of fledging activity as the garden has played host to a variety of species, young and old. For a while, during the nesting period, it all went very quiet out there and if the nuthatches and tits hadn't been nesting, I think it would have been a rather dull few weeks, bird-wise! Understandably, during that time, all breeds of adult birds are very much occupied by the important task of raising a brood of chicks, something that doesn't allow for much lesiure time to visit feeders. I have noticed now that the garden has come alive again. It's absolutely bursting with life, including all our usual suspects; robins, blue, coal and marsh tits, blackbirds, dunnocks, chaffinches, woodpigeons, nuthatches, great tits and great spotted woodpeckers. Those last two are the most exciting to me, as it hasn't only been the adults I've spotted!

At one point maybe a fortnight ago, I noticed one rather scruffy-looking great tit pecking around on the grass, watched very closely by an adult. The bedraggled bird still had some of it's downy chick feathers attached and it was very yellow. Several days after this and daily since, the feeding station has been bustling with a flock of juvenile great tits, maybe eight or nine of them, all still with a yellow tinge but well-developed and the same size as their parents. They all stay close together, choosing to huddle in the surrounding trees and jostle for space on the feeders. There is a lot of chasing too and once one or two take off, the rest seem to follow quite quickly!
We are certainly no strangers to the woodpeckers in our garden. It is a daily occurrence to see at least one of them on the peanuts, but more likely we will see both the male and female on separate visits throughout the day. Occasionally they visit together which is a wonderful sight. This week though they have been joined by a juvenile and I have assumed that it is their chick, although I know that there is more than one pair of woodpeckers in our area. It was instantly recognisable by the nearly all-red cap and rather sandy coloured belly feathers. The behaviour too, especially when it was joined by one of it's parents, was a very good indication that this was a recently-fledged juvenile. When I first spotted it, the adult male was also there and the juvenile hung from the top of the feeder waiting to be fed by the adult. 
I took this picture at the end of May and since then, the red cap has started to fade towards the back. All three of the woodpeckers are certainly making good use of the peanuts as they are almost permanently hanging from them. Frequently,  I see both the juvenile and one of the adults together on the feeding station and on a few occasions I have seen all three of them together in the garden. One of these moments looked like it could have been a flying lesson for the juvenile as it was hopping from trunk to fence and then flying low across the garden. 
They have such a distinguishing call as well that I quite often hear them before I see them! I often remind myself of how lucky we are to have woodpeckers visiting. I know our rural location is the reason we get such a wide variety of visitors and I never take this for granted.


I was asked to draw a lovely staffie/boxer cross called Cassie who sadly passed away recently. The customer Vicky provided a wide range of photographs but there was one in particular that she liked and wanted me to base the portrait from. It showed Cassie in a classic pose that captured her personality and included her feet, which was an important factor for Vicky.
As you can see, it's a wonderful expression but the photo itself is slightly washed out and not a true representation of Cassie's colouring. I decided I would have to do a little 'patching' so to speak, and take sections from the other photos to create a truer representation.
I used the above photo as my main reference for the colours and also took several of the facial features, such as the eyes and nose, from another provided image, then 'patched' these onto the original photo to create a more realistic version of Cassie's face, giving me more detail to work from. This is what I ended up with:
You can also see I have grafted on a new foot on the right as in the original photo, it was folded under and would have looked like a stump in the portrait! I couldn't help thinking of this new version of Cassie as "Franken-dog" every time I looked at it! 

Sometimes one photograph just isn't enough and I do have to refer to several, but being able to take parts from several images and patch them together is really helpful for me and I think that the final portrait turned out well for it; at least, I hope it did! 

**Artwork is Copyright of Emily Summers 2014. Please do not reproduce**

Friday, 30 May 2014

New work and jumping out of my comfort zone!

I recently completed this commission of a beautiful white horse. It was only the second horse I have drawn since starting MMD; the first was a birthday gift for my friend last year. My most common subjects are of the canine variety, with cats coming a close second, but I certainly don't feel that the dogs hold me in a particular comfort zone. Yes I draw a lot of them but they are all different; different breeds, colours, long and short fur etc. etc. so I never consider myself to be drawing the same subject over and over by any means.
Having said that, it was definitely a refreshing change to draw Ollie. I have become very much accustomed to the shape of a dog's face; the direction of the fur around the muzzle; the fold of the ears; the shape of the big pink tongues! Drawing a horse is a whole new experience as they are such a different shape! Most noticeably the long, long face ending in large nostrils and with two eyes very far apart, there are very little similarities between drawing a dog and a horse, perhaps apart from the sparkle in their eyes.

I'm hoping to receive more horse commissions in the future but even better would be rabbits, chickens or even lizards! That would be GREAT fun!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Birding update-the last few weeks!

I've been pretty darn busy these past few weeks! My waiting list for portraits is lengthy so I've been working non-stop on new pieces and barely had time to think about blogging let alone actually doing it! Having said that, I have managed to squeeze some birding in here and there, including a couple of exciting spots (for me anyway!)
I paid a visit to one of my local country parks, Buchan, during April after reading that their female great-crested grebe had finally joined the male there on Douster Pond. I had never seen one before so thought it would be the perfect opportunity to tick another species off my bird list and if I was lucky, catch them doing their infamous mating dance. I wasn't disappointed!
I only caught a small snippet of the dance, but it was enough to see them shaking their heads and swimming away and back in a perfect mirror-image of one another. I was really, really pleased to have seen it. They certainly are beautiful birds, particularly the russet colouring around their heads.
I also enjoyed watching this cormorant busy himself with lots of diving to the bottom of the pond. Trying to catch a photo of him when he kept disappearing was a challenge; I had to try and predict where he would resurface next! Alongside the grebes and cormorant were coots, moorhens with four very new chicks, canada geese, foraging blackbirds and mallards. Buchan had mentioned on their Facebook page that they also had Mandarin ducks on the pond, but sadly I couldn't find these. I wish I had as they are another species I haven't seen before! 
 We've had further visits to our garden from goldfinches this month which I am thrilled about. If only they would invite their friends along; the most I've ever seen is four but usually I'll only spot two on the feeder.
Last month I went on a long walk through the countryside. We followed footpaths we'd never walked before and discovered fields and tracks we never knew were there. Best of all, we heard the first cuckoo of the year, a day before it is traditionally heard! What an unmistakable call; I don't quite know how anyone can possible mistake it for a wood pigeon. I also spotted a blackcap on that walk and plenty of butterflies including orange-tips, small tortoiseshells and peacocks.
The blue tits have officially nested in our new nestbox. I collected fur taken from our cats' brush and some hair dropped by the passing horses on our lane and put it out for the birds; it was extremely popular and was carried away by the tits very quickly. It was wonderful to see them with beaks full of fur and knowing that their nest would be the cosiest in the neighbourhood!

Both the blue tits and the nuthatches have recently started carrying insects into their nests. It's hard to tell the parents apart but after reading up on their nesting habits, I've decided it's a bit too early for their eggs to have hatched (I certainly haven't heard any chicks cheeping) so the food must be from the male feeding the female as she incubates the eggs. I'm greatly anticipating the day when the chicks fledge!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

New season, new pond.

During late summer of last year, inspired by the RSPB's "Homes for Nature" campaign, I installed a mini pond in our garden. As we live in a rental property, I wasn't able to commit to a full-size pond (one day I will though! It's one of my dreams) so I used an unused cat litter tray as a base and edged it with rocks. It served well as a small source of water for the birds mainly but aside from a toad I found nearby and some fly and mosquito larvae, it wasn't particularly successful at attracting wildlife.

Last week, we had visitors to the house who were accompanied by some rather energetic young children. Unfortunately these children were rather handsy and I found out after they had left that one of them had picked up the rocks edging the pond and dropped them from a height into the water, cracking the bottom of the tray and draining all the water away. Let me tell you, I would be ten times more angry about this if I'd had any wildlife occupying it! Still, I was a little peeved but it actually have me the perfect opportunity to build a better one from scratch.

I was only able to make the hole slightly wider as there are large tree roots either side which I definitely had no intention of destroying. I extended it further outwards and made a shallow sloping ledge to allow any wildlife to easily get in and out. I also made the center of the hole deeper. 
I included two oxygenating plants; ivy-leafed crowfoot and cotton bud rush. I'm hoping these will not only help to prevent algae from growing but, as they are both flowering plants, they will attract insects. I've also arranged a group of paddlestones around the front to create some hidey holes and piles of pebbles at the deepest part of the pond. 
It looks a lot more pond-like now in comparison to the litter tray version! It will take a few days for the water to naturalise as I didn't have any rainwater to use but once it has, I'm looking forward to seeing if any local critters fancy moving in. At the very least, the birds will be happy to have their drinking/bathing station all spruced up! 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

April brings intruders!

The nuthatches have been toiling away non-stop these past few weeks to prepare their nesting hole. I have really loved watching them working so hard and it's now easy to see the result of their work as the hole in the oak tree is visibly 2/3 smaller and dried with mud. I've managed to spot them a few times coming in with beaks of dried leaves which they will be using to line the base of the nest, creating a soft bed for their eggs.

Today I witnessed the reason for all of that hard work closing the hole.
I have to say, this is the first time the jackdaws have visited our back garden. They are quite frequently out on the big front lawn (which actually belongs to the 'big house'; we are a gate lodge) but I've certainly never seen them venture into the back. I guess they've found something interesting enough to tempt them in!

I'm in a bit of a dilemma over this. As far as I know, the nuthatches haven't yet laid their eggs; they were still bringing in leaves and mud yesterday so I'm only assuming this is the case. Once they do, however, I'm sure the jackdaws will be back to stick their beaks in and cause trouble and I really hate the thought that they might actually cause harm to the birds or their eggs. I know it's nature and you shouldn't interfere but it's pretty damn hard when you've watched these birds work hard to build a safe place to nest. I'll be keeping a very sharp eye on the situation.
Photos snapped this morning after refilling the tray with black sunflowers.

In other news, I have seen the blue tits go into the nestbox several times carrying bits of twig and straw in their beaks, so I think I can venture to say that they have started nesting in there-hooray! It's still no guarantee they will actually lay eggs but the signs are all positive so watch this space!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Lodge Hill Nightingales

The changing distribution of the Nightingale since 1968. Photo by Edmund Fellowes.
(Image from BTO-Above from left to right: Maps from the 1968-72, 1988-91 and 2007-11 Breeding Atlases.)

A few days ago, a friend and fellow wildlife-lover sent me a link to an open development plan case being led by the RSPB, Buglife and Kent Wildlife Trust. It's quite a complicated case but I will summarise for you to give you an idea of why I'm feeling outraged:

-There is a MoD site in Kent called Lodge Hill which was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) last year, largely because of the significant and highly important nightingale population there. It neighbours a stretch of ancient woodland, also declared SSSI (in 1984) and hosts a variety of habitats including badger setts, bat roosts and a range of breeding birds. (see Kent Wildlife Trust)

-Medway Council has proposed a plan to build up to 5000 houses on the site. An initial proposal was put forward but due to the SSSI declaration, it was withdrawn. A new plan is in progress and awaiting a final decision. 

- Offsetting the population of nightingales to another suitable habitat was suggested as an option but was "proven unfeasible". 

I have hugely simplified the facts here and believe me, there are many more, but I feel these are the most disturbing. I am putting forward my opinion, that of an amateur naturalist with a limited understanding of the broad subject of nature and habitat. Having said that, why should my opinion be less valued than any others? What I am taking away from this is that a site has been officially declared scientifically valuable yet development on the land is still being pushed. Does the term SSSI have no meaning? 

According to the Natural England website, "SSSIs are the country's very best wildlife and geological sites. They include some of our most spectacular and beautiful habitats...It is essential to conserve our remaining natural heritage for both current and future generations...SSSIs are important as they support plants and animals that find it more difficult to survive in the wider countryside."

This to me sums the situation up entirely. Conservation of natural habitats is essential for preserving our native species. Especially a species such as the nightingales, a bird that is on the amber status list and has seen a significant decline in numbers over the past few decades. The majority of the national nightingale population is found in the South East and Lodge Hill supports 1.3% of this. This beautiful and iconic breed of bird needs all the help it can get and disruption of it's habitat will almost certainly have catastrophic effects. 

It's clear that the need for sensitive handling hasn't been overlooked by the parties involved, evident by the suggestions of offsetting and creation of alternative habitats. However, it isn't the nightingales alone that need to be considered, though they are the most important factor; the several species of bat; numbers of newts, lizards, toads and adders; populations of breeding birds; these are all paramount in the sustainability of this habitat and will be impacted by any form of development on this land. What simply needs to be recognised by the council, MoD and developers is that this particular site is NOT a viable option for building. 

It's situations like this that leave me concerned for the future of nature. So many wonderful organisations work tirelessly to fight on nature's behalf but there are always those on the other side who don't seem to care. Who don't seem to recognise that if we don't do everything we can to protect and preserve the species and habitats we have now, we could lose everything. Sorry to sound melodramatic but it's the truth. 

I plan to email Medway Council in regard to this case and I strongly urge you, lovely reader, to do the same. A large impact of public protest would be amazing. Here is the email address to use (thank you, Kate!) and the case is "Lodge Hill, Kent development". 

I'll be interested to see this case develop and will keep you updated.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Nesting and the new kids on the block!

It's all been happening in my garden today! You may remember I recently put up a nest box in our oak tree and have been keeping a watchful eye on it each day. There have been a few blue tits nosing about and showing a little interest and gradually they have been getting closer and closer, peering in through the hole. Today I was lucky enough to see not one but two blue tits enter the box fully. The second in was quickly chased out by the first and then the first went back in. I'm really pleased although this behaviour is no guarantee that any birds will actually nest and lay eggs in there but the signs are certainly promising.

I can't help thinking that the oak tree is beginning to resemble the bird equivalent of a high-rise apartment block, as just a few metres above the best box is a smallish hole in the trunk which the pair of nuthatches have started popping in and out of. Today in particular showed them pecking away at the edge, perhaps to shape and deepen the hole enough for a nest. I mentioned this behaviour to my colleague at Pulborough who have me an interesting fact; nuthatches are the only-or at least one of the only-birds who place mud around the entrance and walls of their nesting cavities. I assumed this is done to insulate the nest but after a little investigation, it would seem they do it to seal up cracks inside the holes, create a smooth pocket for resting their eggs on and create a snug cavity that will be too small to allow any large predators in. I will certainly keep my eyes intently peeled to catch this behaviour live-it would be wonderful to witness!
You would think that, for an amateur birder, that would be plenty of excitement for one day but it didn't end with the nuthatches. I had my regular scan of the garden with the binoculars when some movement caught my eye in one of the closest trees that hangs over from the woods. It took me a while to get a decent look at the two birds that were chasing each other through the branches because they were so fast!! They weren't still for more than a few seconds at a time which made it extremely difficult to ID them, but I knew they were definitely a species I hadn't spotted before. At first I thought they were goldcrests because of their size and speedy movements but there were no bright yellow hair-dos to be seen and they had dark stripes (supercillium) across their eyes. I briefly considered wrens although I could tell the shape just wasn't right and the absence of dark, stripey plumage was confirmation.

These birds were very pale in colour, with light grey/brown upper parts and creamy yellow lower parts, and at the lowest part of the belly, underneath the tail, there was a slightly brighter yellow patch. The trail itself was reasonably long and the beak small and thin. The only other birds that came to mind as potential positive IDs were the chiffchaff and the willow warbler and I know it's tricky to tell the difference between the two. Looking at my various books, plus a little Googling, I am now fairly certain that they were willow warblers. These are actually on the Amber species status list, so if they were warblers, it was fantastic to spot them; I'm even more certain after looking at various photos and video clips of warblers.

These are all positive signs that we will have an exciting season for wildlife in our garden, fingers crossed!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Pet Selfie Competition!

Last Wednesday, I was rather overwhelmed to see that I had reached 2000 likes on my Facebook page. I don't think as much as I used to about numbers on there as it doesn't seem to translate to much, especially since the good people of Facebook are making it more and more difficult for my posts to be noticed and I know I'm not alone in this! Having said that, everything kicked off for me on there, it's where I started out with my bird drawings and then developed into the pet portraits, so I guess I do feel grateful to an extent. Particularly where my loyal followers are concerned, those who have been there from the very beginning and are constantly offering me words of support and encouragement-you're ace!

To celebrate this small milestone, I wanted to do something a bit different from the regular "like and comment" giveaway. I've done a couple of these in the past and had great responses but there isn't much interaction involved really and I thought it would be nice to come up with something that everyone can get involved with and have some fun with. I decided to hold a "Pet Selfie" Competition which is self-explanatory and gives everyone an excuse to indulge in the "selfie" craze! Come on, taking a photo of yourself is fair enough but when you've dragged your unwilling stubborn camera-shy lovely pet into the frame, it becomes 10 times better!

I've had an incredible response so far, with SO many funny and sweet photos sent in to me. My intention is to post them in an album on my page and get my followers to vote for their favourites and I briefly considered creating a short-list of my 10 or so favourites to make things easier, but I just don't think that will be fair. I am quite happy to let you decide for yourselves!

I know from experience with my two felines that taking photos of them is HARD, really, really hard. I'm pretty convinced that Theo in particular is allergic to any form of camera or he just has the uncanny ability to recognise a piece of technology and turn his face the other way the moment my finger hits the shutter button. Cats. It's lucky we love them, eh?!

I can't wait to post the selfies up and see how people react-I couldn't possibly choose one favourite so it's going to be a close call I reckon! (Entries close Wednesday 12th March at 12pm if you'd like to enter. You can find more details on my FB page)

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Liebster Blog Award!

So I haven't been back on the blogging wagon for long at all. I've had a couple of blogs in the past but struggled to stay interested in them and now I've started again, blogging about two of my greatest passions, I'm enjoying it and always feel inspired to post. I was so pleased to see this morning that the lovely Ruth of Blue Eggs and Tea (I'm SUCH a fan of her cute illustrations!) has nominated me for the Liebster Award, aimed at blogs with small followings and designed to get us networking and discovering new blogging talent!

This is such a lovely gesture, especially since most of the time I write my posts assuming no one is actually reading them!

Here are a few questions Ruth gave me to answer:

1. What's your favourite subject to blog about and why?
I really love blogging about wildlife, especially the birds in my garden! It's so calming watching them and, on the days when we get a new visitor, very exciting so sharing that with other like-minded people is a delight.
2. What's the ONE thing that reminds you of your childhood?
Tricky, tricky, tricky! I'm just like you Ruth, I have a terrible memory, particularly when it comes to remembering my childhood! Not good for someone who is only 23... I do remember when I was maybe 6 or 7, spending Friday evenings in front of the Muppet Show and eating Heinz baked bean and hot dog pizzas! It was something of a tradition for a while and has just stuck in my mind. Probably because those pizzas were super tasty!
3. Mountains or Sea? 
Definitely sea. I'm a bit of a water baby and always love snorkeling and exploring rock pools when on holiday; I've considered learning to scuba dive and get my PADI license but I'm being a bit of a coward about it so far!
4. When I'm happy I like to...
Hug my family members :-) Whoever happens to be to hand; Mum, Dad, reluctant brother, even MORE reluctant cats...
5. What's your biggest dream?
I'm sure I'm not alone when I say my dreams change all the time. Right now, my dream is to be able to make a full-time living from pet portraits. Give me another 5 or 10 years and I'm sure there will be a new dream or two!
6. Art Gallery or Museum? 
It depends on the museum/gallery. I'm more inclined towards an art gallery; I studied Art History for a year at college and have been hooked ever since.  I've been lucky enough to visit the Louvre and Uffizi which were dreams come true!
7. What makes you get up in the morning? 
Oh dear, I'm not very good at getting up in the morning! I love my sleep and waking up naturally to sunlight streaming into my room is always a winner. Also a good cup of tea.
8. If you could go to the airport today, where would you fly to?
If it had been a couple of weeks earlier, I would have flown to Venice to see Carnivale. It would be nice to visit Venice before it sinks though...
9. What's your favourite bird? 
My favourite garden bird is the nuthatch. Definitely one of the bullies of the garden but they are so entertaining to watch and remind me of little ninjas with their black eye masks and gravity-defying moves. I really love raptors too, especially buzzards which we get a lot of in our area.
10. What's the best thing you ever bought?
This will probably sound quite trivial, but I have a gorgeous faux fur blanket that is THE softest thing in the world and perfect for cosying up on the sofa. It was a real bargain when I bought it, something like £19 down from £50 and I use it so much. I'm always saying it's the best £19 I've ever spent!

I nominate Lauren Cherice DesignsEmma Margaret Illustrationmy lovely friend Cat and Freya Lines Designs to continue passing on the blog love and answer a few questions!

1. What's your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
2. Dog or cat?
3. When it comes to food, what is your guilty pleasure?
4.Who do you admire?
5. How do you cheer yourself up?
6. If you could do any job in the world, it would be...
7. Favourite Summer activity?
8. What item, other than your phone, would you be lost without?
9. Spring or Autumn?
10. Do you have any bad habits?

It will be interesting to see the answers to these! Thanks again Ruth :-)

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Going big!

I've started work on my next portrait and it is something entirely different from the two German shepherds! I'm still working in the large (A3) size but for this piece, my subject is a very fluffy feline called Orbit, with stunning markings of brown, black and ginger.
(This pic doesn't really show the scale but you can get an idea of the colours)

I have to say that I was (and still am) a little daunted by the prospect of this piece. It is the first time I have done such a large single portrait; normally, the large size is the option most customers go for if they want two or more pets drawn. When I first sketched it out, I realised just how much of a challenge I might be facing as I am simply not used to working on such a large scale. I knew I would be working in a much broader stroke style and getting down layers of colour across wide areas, particularly on the bottom half of the portrait, which features Orbit's very white chest.

Although I feel just a teensy bit intimidated by the scale of this portrait, I'm genuinely interested to see how it progresses and how I handle things such as refining and sharpening the details. What's quite amusing is how unnerved I am by the single orange eye staring out at me! It is about the size of a 10p piece, quite possibly the largest eye I've ever drawn, and to have that fixed on me while I'm working is slightly daunting. I like to think it's keeping me motivated and focused; every time I get up to make a cup of tea (translation: procrastinate) the eye of Orbit follows me across the room, as if to say "where are you going? Get back to work this instant!"

Perhaps I should have a motivational, all-seeing eye pinned to my wall permanently in the future...

Monday, 3 March 2014

Not Just a Portrait.

Over the weekend, I completed the portrait of the two German shepherds Spike and Rocket. I really enjoyed this piece and am extremely pleased with the outcome, as is the customer who tells me she was in tears when I posted the scan!

Sadly, both of the dogs in this portrait have passed away; one a couple of years ago and the other much more recently, only a few weeks ago. This portrait was commissioned by Gemma as a surprise gift to her husband and on several of my w.i.p photos, she had remarked on how lovely it is to see 'her boys' together again.

Something I try to keep in my mind at all times when I'm working on a portrait is that I'm not just drawing an animal; I'm drawing someone's pet. As a crazy cat lady life-long cat lover, I truly understand how much our pets can mean to us, especially when you have one in particular for many years as many of us do. When it comes to having to say goodbye to that pet, it is surely as difficult as saying goodbye to a family member.

Potentially, I have done more portraits of animals that have passed away than those that are still with us. It's always very sad when a customer gets in touch and tells me that they recently lost their dog/cat but the very fact that they choose to have a portrait done in memory of said pet, and not only that but they choose ME to do it for them, is a wonderful sentiment and one that I am aware of throughout the whole process. Obviously, I always strive to capture as much of the subject's spirit and character as I can in my drawing; it just helps to remember that, whether the animal is still with us or not, the portrait is going to be a lasting reminder of that furry family member.

I would say that knowing I am creating such a personal piece of art is my biggest inspiration. When I find myself struggling, it really does help to remember that I am drawing an animal that has brought joy to someone's life and that they deserve to have their likeness captured to the highest possible quality. I like to think, or at least I hope, that I do achieve that with my work.

Every time I am commissioned, it is an honour.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Exciting Garden Visitors

If someone was willing to pay me to watch the birds in our garden every day, I would be very happy indeed. I spent a long time yesterday intently watching the activity from the upstairs toilet window through a pair of miniature binoculars; it is perfectly positioned to give me an uninterrupted view of the garden, the feeders and the large oak tree that plays host to many a feathered friend.
This oak tree is normally quite busy with blue tits, great tits and a nuthatch or two, all queuing for the next free spot on the feeders. What I noticed yesterday morning, however, was just how unusually busy the branches seemed to be. The ivy was absolutely shivering with life. The sun was shining on the leaves and highlighting various wings and beaks peeking through, some sampling the dark berries produced by the ivy. 

It was thanks to a particularly bright patch of sun that I caught sight of a redwing. For a split second only, I thought it might be a song thrush but the instant I saw the red smudge just below the join of the wing to the body, I knew it was a redwing and the pale stripe above the eye confirmed this for me. Extremely exciting to spot one in our garden, as I've only ever seen them on the reserve at Pulborough.
 I naturally ended up training my binoculars on the redwing for some time until it moved to the other side of the trunk, out of sight. I observed a fair number of blackbirds, both male and female, flitting about the oak, maybe six or seven, certainly more than we've had in the garden at any one time. The song thrush also made a brief appearance to gulp down a few ivy berries. A short time later, the redwing was back in view, though higher up the tree, and I was thrilled to see that a second had joined him. TWO redwing. In a garden that hadn't seen  any, as long as I had been watching it! I did wonder, with all the bustling activity at the top of the tree and on the other side too, whether there might be more than those two, but without visual confirmation, it was only speculation.
 The thrush enjoying the sun light and berries
I was content, after this discovery, to carry on watching the garden, spotting both the male and female great spotted woodpeckers together, as well as a long-tailed tit, coal tit, two dunnocks and the male and female chaffinches among the blues and greats. The male chaffinch was still looking quite peachy on the chest, his summer/breeding plumage still yet to come in, and the robin was picking up small twigs here and there, obviously preparing for the all-important task of building a nest!
A shy dunnock
A peachy Chaffinch 
The male GS woodpecker
I finally got around to signing up as an RSPB member and, as I did it online, I got a nest box as a welcome gift which went up over the weekend. It would be lovely if a family of tits moved in!
I had a great day for spotting at PB on Tuesday too. Sightings included 60+ lapwing, a heron, a linnet, a mixture of wigeon, pintail, mallard and shelduck on the water and goldfinch, greenfinch and chaffinch on the feeders. 

I hope the redwing stick around and encourage a few more to pay a visit; they are very beautiful birds!