Hornbill – An Approach to Painting

It’s time for another post. It’s almost impossible to blog at the moment without reference to the pandemic and consequent social (that should really be ‘physical’) distancing. All I will say regarding that is that I’m grateful I’ve got an activity such as painting which I can do inside and is relatively straightforward. If the restrictions last for months it is going to impact on mental health globally, particularly for those who live alone. Yet, on the other hand if this forces all of us to ‘withdraw within and reflect upon ourselves’ that would be no bad thing.

I want to describe the process I go through when I paint in the hope that it may interest those of you who don’t paint and those of you who do, or those of you who have other creative outlets. I also describe how zoologists think about extinction threats.

I find my initial ideas by reading, looking and thinking. I look through bird books and online as I find that birds are an endless source of subject matter. (I’ve been a keen birdwatcher for decades)

Last Christmas my daughter gave me Facing Extinction written by four ornithologists and published by Christopher Helm. The book is a sad testament to how we exploit natural resources for profit but also has some encouraging and heroic stories about conservation of species. One of the birds discussed is the rufous-headed hornbill which is ‘critically endangered.’ ( Zoologists use seven categories of extinction-risk. In increasing order of threat they are, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct.) Although the book is beautifully illustrated this hornbill was not featured but I soon found images online.

The authors of the book explain how deforestation is a major factor in species decline and loss. For example, palm oil plantations are responsible for the full-scale destruction of rain forest habitats. (Most of the tree species in rain forests have taken up to ninety years to reach maturity and they are felled in an afternoon!) The oil from these trees is found in a huge variety of consumer products such as shampoo, peanut butter and biscuits. To reference this I decided to paint a ‘portrait’ of the hornbill next to a palm oil tree.

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Here is the initial drawing which has a few notes regarding colours I intended to use. When I ‘compose’ a picture I think about negative space from the beginning. (Negative spaces are the shapes between objects.)

The next image shows one stage of the painting where I have at first painted the palm oil tree before finishing the bird.

horbill one

This is the finished painting. I wanted to paint the out-sized bill in bright colours and to suggest its horny texture. You may also notice I’ve added more feathery texture to the neck and more leaf fronds on the right hand side.

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The overhanging fronds may suggest a protective covering for the hornbill but if you look closely the tips of the fronds appear as if they are slashed. Why is this? This is where a title of a painting is crucial, just as with a poem. I sent the finished painting to a few friends (on WhatsApp) and got responses along the lines of ‘vibrant’ and ‘uplifting’. Now, see how your view changes with two alternative titles. Firstly, Rufous-headed hornbill, secondly,  Critically Endanged. Obviously I would opt for the second but I must admit that I painted the palm tree with as much care and attention as the hornbill.

I would use the term ‘eco-art’ to describe most of my recent paintings. At first glance this one may remind you of a poster for a Caribbean holiday and I do wonder if this was a subconscious factor in its composition. Without the title, perhaps viewers may simple see this work as a colourful painting?

As a postscript, climate change will probably pose as many problems as the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps we are at a turning point in history now and our very survival will be in question if we do not seriously address this problem. It takes an invisible ‘enemy’ like a virus to get the engines of government and communities engaged. Climate change does not seem as immediate as Covid 19 but both phenomena show how interconnected everything is. Covid 19 has caused a global response. What will it take to get governments to take comparative action to mitigate against the dire effects of climate change?

 

 

 

Skylark Between Generations

I listened to, and watched, skylarks at Corbridge on Sunday. Along by the River Tyne.

 

I set off with a sack of cares upon my back;

though the sunshine bathed my face with warmth;

and after spotting goosanders in the river

ended walking an inch above a sandy track.

*

I started out in bright sunshine

my mirror-mind besmirched with black.

My mood began to lift when I heard a tune:

a skylark singing a song I knew was mine.

*

My distant uncle heard the self-same sacred word

cut down in youth along with many men;

he answered another’s call but to his cost;

a soldier who sang about a wonder bird.

*

As I watched the dark envoy soar

I made a vow to John there and then:

to live my life in homage to his memory,

and to aspire to reach the other shore.

 

 

 

 

Starling Murmuration

murmuration

Winter sun bathes the bricks, white
tailed bumble bees tumble from
their winter bunks, stagger towards
ivy florets, the hinterland between
park and street – a refuge from exhaust
fumes and a thousand hurrying feet.
Rush hour and darkening sky
heavy with manic murmuration
starts a panic among the beetling crowds.

Upturned faces –
Sudden cessation of shriek –

Like a giant bat’s wing the flock
shrouds the city wall and hangs –
silent above the footfall.

Twenty or thirty years ago huge flocks of tens of thousands of starlings roosted in cities.  They no longer roost in such numbers here in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Joy of Birdwatching

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Shibdon Pond is a reedbed pond four miles from where I live. In the summer common terns nest here and in the winter large flocks of waders congregate and feed. This week there have been hundreds of lapwing, four common sandpiper, six- eight black-tailed godwit, gadwell, redshanks, one juvenile dunlin, seven (visible) snipe and of course grey herons, cormorants, gulls and mallard. It is a place you never tire of visiting and it is only a mile or two from one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe, the dreaded Metro Centre!

A friend kindly gave me a telescope for my birthday and this has opened up another dimension (literally) to my birdwatching. If you have children who are interested in wildlife you can’t start too early; don’t give them toy binoculars or telescopes! Get them good quality optics and they will thank you for it!

 

 

two immaculate greenshank

painting their upside-down selves

in the still water

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I follow a strutting snipe

magnified forty times

its straw-brown camouflage

doesn’t fool me!

+               +             +

ultramarine sky

and four hundred lapwings

shimmering in the still mirror

At the viaduct

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I went to a poetry workshop yesterday – the theme was nature. One of the exercises was to include a man-made structure, an animal and time.  I wrote this poem and this is one of my paintings I did a few years ago.

 

At the viaduct

The viaduct floating
in early morning mist.
A single figure with a dog
emerges from the drowned
stones. A staccato of barks
echoes under arches.
A thrush sings his three
time song, sudden wing of
burnt sienna – red kite towing
summer sun.

Red Kite on Pylon

512px-Red_Kite_32_(5939318225)I’m working on a longer eco-poem about red kites. In the meantime this one was inspired by one of Ted Hughes’ where he personifies/anthropomorphises a hawk.

Red Kite on Pylon

 

I sit on a strut of a pylon,

on top of a hill,

scanning the ground.

My kind rarely kill;

we scavenge for corpses; bits

and pieces of flesh.

This is our life most days.

It took a billion years

to perfect my amber eyes,

my brown forked tail,

and my scavenging ways.

Moorland Earth

I spend a fair part of my time walking in moorland where I can enjoy such sights (and sounds) as curlew, golden plover, lapwings, buzzards and hobbies.

Moorland earth

My feet squelch as I stride
in slow motion over and into
the dark peat, purple
and green earth.
One woman’s up to her knees,
but she’s got short legs so it’s a bit of a joke.
We pull her arms and she gurgles
like an emptying sink!

All this commotion stirs up
an ancient smell of carboniferous trees
and prehistoric smoke.

Melodious Warbler

I was staying with friends in France last year and every day this warbler sang its heart out from the same bush. It didn’t seem to have a mate.

Melodious Warbler

Every day
you were there,
pouring out your declaration;
your scratchy melody,
primed by a million year urge
to bind another
to your breast.

Perhaps your diligence
was in vain that summer –
no mate fluttered
to your tree-top throne. . .

Yet your musical offering
burst forth
with each new dawn,
undiminished.