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!

Friday, 21 February 2014

Goldfinches and German Shepherds

I've been working on a new portrait this week, of two extremely handsome German shepherds. I really enjoy drawing this particular breed of dog; I find the stark contrast between the dark and light fur very appealing and the markings around the eyes and eyebrows are stunning.
It always makes a world of difference when my clients provide me with clear, sharp photographs. In this case, the reference photos are perfect, with every detail in focus which really makes the process enjoyable. Every tiny fleck of colour in the eyes is there for me to see.
I've made good, fast progress on this piece, considering it's an A3 which is my largest size option and usually takes quite a while to complete. I only have the neck fur of the first dog to finish before I can move on to his brother. I haven't yet hit any major issues (touch wood)  to hold me back, so I've been able to work swiftly and calmly-my favourite!

In other news, I was volunteering at Pulborough Brooks on Tuesday again. In comparison to the rather quiet days we've had, no doubt caused by the horrific weather we've experienced where only the truly brave and hardy individuals have ventured out to us, the centre was BUSY! Of course, I soon remembered that it's half term and that explained the groups of thigh-high children running around. It made a pleasant change to see the centre buzzing with lots of people although it certainly wasn't a stress-free day! 

Despite being kept busy, I managed to find a few moments here and there to peer through the scope and found the reserve to be as busy as the centre, even with the intermittent showers. There was a sizeable group of corvids, mostly rooks with a carrion crow and jackdaw or two in the mix. We've noticed the fieldfare grouping together in larger numbers, probably due to the flooding limiting the field space available for foraging. I saw a group of around 40 and in amongst them I managed to spot three goldfinches holding onto the taller grass, swaying in the wind. That was a treat for me as we don't get them in our garden and I've only briefly spotted them once before. 

I'm excited to see the different wildlife as the seasons change; Spring isn't far away and with breeding season approaching, it should be interesting to watch for new spand different behaviour.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

From 4 hours to 6 1/2 minutes in a few clicks!

As promised, I have put together a new time-lapse video using footage from my most recent portrait. It is a much more relevant video when compared to my first attempt; you play those two side-by-side and tell me you can't see a HUGE progression! It's still cringey to watch the first one but good for me to see how much I've improved since doing that portrait.
I had fun and games with this video, mainly issues with my backing music. From my collection of music, I found a great song from one of my favourite artists that worked really well with the whole time-lapse ("Music is Through" by Jamie Cullum if you are interested!) and even the timing at the end was perfect. Unfortunately, it wasn't until I played the whole thing through from start to finish that I realised Mr Cullum swears twice during the song. I ummed and aahed for a while, wondering if I could get away with it, but in the end I decided I couldn't. Uploading it onto Facebook and YouTube would have meant I'd have to include an "explicit content" warning (as crazy as it sounds for two words!) and I didn't like the thought of putting you all off with that! Plus, I'm hoping to have the video on my website when I update it soon so for the sake of professionalism, I went with something different.

So John Coltrane takes the lead on this one, another fabulous musician who I love listening to. Let me know what you think of the new video!

Friday, 7 February 2014

Buzzards and the first signs of Spring.

When I opened my curtains this morning, I quite honestly blinked in the unfamiliar sunlight that filled my room. In comparison to the persistently hideous weather we've been having, today was lovely; the sky was bright blue and filled with fluffy white clouds. I decided to make the most of the break in the rain and go for a walk through the woods, accompanied by my mum.

Before we'd even left, I could hear the piercing call of a buzzard and looking up, I counted not one but five of them circling just ahead of where I stood.  This was the second time in recent weeks that I'd seen buzzards hunting as a group, something I only recently learnt that they do. When I set out walking, three of them had dropped down and I watched them hovering just above the tree canopy. I always find it fascinating how birds of prey can hover  so perfectly even in high winds. They must have incredible strength in their wings.

There was plenty of song from other birds, most noticeably great tits and robins, the latter spotted frequently on our walk. We also came across several clusters of snowdrops, a sure sign of Spring waiting in the wings! Not only those but bluebells and daffodils have started sprouting.
On the side of one bridleway, we found a fungi we hadn't seen before so I snapped a photo for ID when we got home. It turned out to be the scarlet elf cup (what a fabulous name!), an edible fungus found in late Winter and early Spring. Not that we tried to eat it-I can't stand regular field mushrooms, let alone bright red ones!
I was absolutely thrilled to catch sight of both a goldcrest and a treecreeper in the same minute and only a few feet from our driveway. I've seen the treecreeper a few times before but this was only the third time I've seen the goldcrest so I was pretty happy. I'm surprised I saw it because of its size and speed but there was no mistaking that strip of yellow on the head and pale colour around the eye. 

I'm glad I managed to grab a breath of fresh air because it's pretty likely I won't have another opportunity for a few weeks at least. Bring on Spring!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Keeping on top of things!

This morning I sat down with my order book and a piece of paper, with the intention of working out my current booking situation. I don't keep track of my orders digitally; I much prefer to physically write them down on to paper as I know from experience that computers can throw hissy fits at any given moment and then where would I be?! Plus, I'm old-fashioned and stubborn. I have a Filofax instead of a digital planner and I'm perfectly happy with that.

I've had a number of bookings from customers with March, April and May deadlines, what with Mother's day in March and for some reason, there are a LOT of birthdays in April! This is honestly one of the things I find hardest about my work-trying to work out when each piece needs to be started in order for it to be completed in time and also taking into account shipping, especially when pieces are going overseas. Thankfully, three of the bookings coming up are collection pieces, so I'm not under such  a tight deadline with those. It's just really tricky sometimes to work out time-frames.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is this: "How long does it take you to draw each piece?" I have learnt that I have no straightforward answer to this. As I've said before, I don't work to set hours. Each piece I do is entirely unique so there are so many elements that could have an effect on the time it takes me. I recently did a portrait of a gorgeous tabby cat called Elsa; it was in the smallest size I offer (A5) but took me a lot longer than I expected, due to the tiny tabby markings in her fur, which required lots of pencil-sharpening and patience!
I really should time myself with each piece I do, just so I can get an average timeframe, but I never remember! My process is very stop-and-start as I find it can be too heavy to work for 5 or 6 hours solid, although that has happened in the past and I really struggled with it. 

It's about this point that I'm starting to stress out, much like before Christmas. It's only because I don't have a definite idea of how long each piece will take me and I absolutely HATE not knowing and not being able to plan things exactly. I'm learning more and more about how to be disciplined and to avoid procrastinating too much so that I can make the most of my time. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Pulborough sightings

Today I was volunteering at Pulborough Brooks. Despite the weather being one of the driest and clearest days we've had in some time, it was pretty quiet with very few visitors on the reserve. I really don't mind it when it's that quiet though as I spend lots of time, in between putting out stock, peering through our scopes and binoculars trying to spot the birds.
The herd of black fallow deer often seen on the reserve.

The reserve is currently flooded (no surprises there!) so a lot of the regular wading birds have moved on, but the lapwings are still about and today a large group of them were huddled on a tiny strip of grass not yet covered by the flood waters. They are wonderful to watch and instantly recognisable with the long flick of plumage on their heads. Most of them today were sitting with everything tucked in, trying to shelter from the wind although there were a couple running back and forth chasing off anything that got too close. 

There are plenty of wildfowl occupying the waters at the moment as well. Today I watched large groups of wigeon bobbing on the choppy waters like tug boats and I managed to focus on a male and female pintail; I'm sure there were more of them but I didn't spot them. It's the first time I've seen pintail and even through the scope,  there's certainly no mistaking that long tail (much like the lapwing's head!) 

The visitor centre has a large, floor-to-ceiling window which gives a fantastic view of the reserve when you first enter and I honestly never get tired of looking out of it. Just the other side of the glass are two thick hedges which are always full of various small birds, mostly sparrows, robins and blackbirds. There were four dunnocks flying to and fro today, easily identified by the grey of their underbelly. 

I also spotted rooks and jackdaws, two moorhens and three male chaffinches, so overall not a bad day for birdwatching!

Monday, 3 February 2014

Technology in Art

I often get asked "do you draw from life or do you use photographs?" Now, I feel slightly ashamed to admit this but I have never been particularly good at drawing from life. Correction: I've never thought I was good at drawing from life. It goes back to my self-critical gremlins who delight in sitting on my shoulders while I try to sketch what I see, and whispering behind their hands, laughing at my attempts to be loose and free with my drawings. 

When it comes to pets though, my reasons are purely practical. To start with, I know from experience that animals are damn tricky to draw in the flesh, as they are prone to unpredictable movement. Said experience is taken from the few times I have attempted to draw my cats while they are looking adorable and content in sleep; my theory is that they have some kind of camera/sketchbook sensor built in so the SECOND you start to draw or try to take a photo, they move. The same applies when they are snoring and I want to take a video-they don't wake up this time, they simply stop making the cute noises and I'm just filming a sleeping cat like some kind of feline stalker!

Anyway, I digress. Quite a lot. I don't draw pets from life because they are prone to movement and the last thing I want is to get started on a drawing and to find them rearranging themselves into an entirely different pose. Of course, if they are awake, that's a whole other story, at which point preventing excessive movement is near impossible. Especially for over-excited puppies! Yes, I could make quick sketches of them and then take my own photos for reference later, but that's simply not how I work. 

From another practical point of view, I offer my services to customers all over the country AND all over the world, so to draw from life/take my own photographs would mean narrowing my potential market to an extremely localised area. So no, I don't draw the pets from life. I use photos provided by the customer, whether that be a single one or 50 different shots.

Initially, I would print the photos out to the size I would be working at and refer directly to that. It meant that all the important details (e.g. the eyes, nostrils, certain markings) were correctly proportioned for me to take reference from. I have since progressed from this technique, actually after I was gifted a Kindle Fire for Christmas 2012 (thank you kindly, Dad!) and have discovered the wonders of zooming in!
Zooming in is truly wonderful, when compared to a static photo on paper that you have to peer at with squinted eyes if you want to see tiny details. There was honestly no going back after I started drawing from my tablet but it made me really think about the use of technology in art today. Obviously computers are highly prevalent in all types of art and fields such as graphic design and illustration have progressed a great deal with the use of computer programs and digital drawing. 

I often consider how I would work if I were an artist in an era before tablets, computers and cameras were even invented. There would HAVE to be sketches made, lots and lots of them, and the entire piece would depend on the quality of these sketches as I wouldn't be able to take photographs for reference later. I certainly wouldn't be drawing portraits of dogs in New Zealand, unless I was to take a very long journey, by boat, to work there. I really do find it amazing how accessible technology is nowadays and it has completely altered the way we live, in every respect. 
I have recently started using Photoshop to make my initial drawings. I don't mean physically drawing using PS, just having the photo blown up to the correct size and drawing from the screen. I have always done my mock-ups using PS but I've been trialing this new technique to maximise the accuracy and likeness of the first sketch, as it is in my eyes the most important part of the process. 

I am always terrified of that very first pencil stroke, I will happily admit that. If the initial drawing isn't perfect, then you can guarantee that the likeness of the pet isn't going to be correct. I spend a lot of time getting the drawing right so I'm always looking for ways to assist me and improve the process. In a nutshell, I have started using reference lines on the mock-up to create anchor points on the page, so I only have to measure the same distance on my paper to know exactly where I need to draw each element. 

Essentially, it echoes the very old technique of drawing a grid across your page and working square-by-square. I don't follow this exactly, but the concept is the same and it has really helped me. I used to be happy enough to free-hand it and tweak bits as and when I needed to, but actually I'm saving a lot of time and upset by following this new way of plotting the piece out. 
As wonderful as this is and as much as I have found it helpful, I can't help feeling like technology has made art lazy. Or perhaps this is the wrong way to look at it? I suppose there is still a certain level of skill required to understand the shape of a subject and how to replicate it on paper, we have just found new tools to help us. Compared to an old master using piles of sketches as reference, we use photographs and instead of using an old-fashioned grid system, I'm using digital anchor points. No, it isn't laziness, it is development and progress. New tools in a new era. 

Perhaps I should have a go at drawing one of our cats from life. I might find that my style, technique and process will be entirely different when faced with something that is likely to move and can't have lines dragged across it! I am constantly at war with myself over technology. A lot of the time, I hate how much time we all spend online, myself included but at the other end of the argument, I really do rely on gadgets for my work. 

I can't help wondering, what would it have been like to be an artist in a technology-free world?

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Taking time out

This is partly related to my previous post about volunteering. I briefly mentioned how I was starting to understand the importance of balance between work and other elements of my life so I thought I'd touch on that some more.

I spent Saturday evening at my friend's engagement party in Reading, and stayed the night. She was one of my housemates at uni and because we are both busy and live a couple of hours apart, we only manage to meet up occasionally, so I am really happy that I was able to celebrate her engagement with her! However, I was only gone a day but I really couldn't help feeling like I should have been working.

It's crazy to have that mindset when I was away for less than 24 hours and the last time I had more than an evening off was probably Christmas! The plain truth is I feel guilty about the time I spend away from my work, even when I'm not particularly busy. It's always a constant presence in the back of my mind.

So far, I have only been able to put this down to the fact that my working hours are not set, I will work at all hours of the day and on evening and weekends too, so my brain doesn't shut off like it would if I worked a 9-5 job. Granted, I'm sure those of you with a 9-5 job still bring your work home with you on occasion and often find your mind unable to shut off; it's a given with any working role. The difference with self-employment is that the work is at home, so there is only so much you can do to forget about it "out of hours". It's especially tricky when your studio is also your bedroom, so there's always a constant reminder of what needs to be done.

I do make the effort to see my friends when I can, I just find it REALLY hard to switch off! I can't imagine how hard it will be when I go on holiday this year. I think it's bad when I finish drawing for the evening, settle in the lounge to wind down, yet am already thinking about what stage I'm at with a piece and what still needs to be done. I wish I had some sure-fire way of disconnecting myself from it all, even for a short time. I love my work but I also know how beneficial it is to relax and recharge.

Do you have ways you help yourself disconnect from work?