Drawing trips offer an opportunity to work intensively with a new place, the challenge is to get under the skin of a place quickly in order to make work that offers a unique and personal response.
This year I have been lucky to take part in some group drawing trips to different locations, beginning in April with a fantastic trip to the Isle of May. An island situated in the Firth of Forth it comes to life in the summer months when it becomes an important breeding site for a number of sea bird species. It also has a diverse and dramatic coastline which provided much inspiration for my work this year.
It is often challenging and difficult to make drawings of birds, not least because if you get too close to them they fly away! I have learnt to settle a little distance from my subject matter and use my binoculars to look more closely at the bird. I then look at my paper and begin to lay down shapes that I can remember before looking through the binoculars again for the next bit of information.
I spent time observing and drawing the seals on the Isle of May this year. They are good subject matter because when they are hauled up on the rocks resting they stay relatively still. These drawings were made at an isthmus between the main bit of the island and the smaller peninsula of Rona. With the tide fully in there is a strip of water separating the two areas of land, as the tide goes out the two islands are joined together by a slippery, rocky platform. This makes it an interesting place to draw as it is in constant flux and gives views to the east and west. As I drew I was intrigued to watch the seals as they waited for the water to get high enough for them to swim between the east coast and west coast of the island.
In May I was invited to join a group of people on a trip to the Shiant Islands for four days. An archipelago of three islands lying in the Minch off the south east of Harris, the Shiant Islands have an interesting history and are currently in a period of natural transition. It is well worth taking the time to read the enlightening and beautifully written book 'Sea Room', which charts the history - in the broadest sense of the word - of the islands. The book's author, Adam Nicolson, owned the islands until recently when they were passed on to his son Tom.
I'm pleased to say that our stay coincided with the recent successful eradication of the black rats which had plagued the island, and its nesting birds, for the last two hundred years or so. You can read more about the eradication programme here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/shiantisles/work/index.aspx
We had a very comfortable few nights staying in the bothy on 'House' Island and exploring the dramatic landscape, flora and fauna of House island and Rough island which are joined by a rocky isthmus. A bonus of the trip was meeting the RSPB staff who were living out there for the season in order to monitor the successful eradication of the non-native black rats and the subsequent recovery and reintroduction of birds such as Manx Shearwaters.
It was a truly eye-opening trip, with memorable sightings of three juvenile white-tailed eagles soaring below us as we watched them from the high cliff-tops of rough island and a number of encounters with the numerous Great Skuas or Bonxies which breed on the islands and are fierce protectors of their nests. The landscape of the islands was something I did not want to forget, therefore much of my work reflects this.
The piece below was made on the morning of our departure. The RSPB folk had mentioned that there were black guillemots nesting at the back of House island and that morning I had spotted one on the water whilst having an exhilarating sea swim. I had not realised that Black Guillemots make a soft, high-pitched whistling sound, unlike the noisy gruntings of many seabirds, have a listen here. As soon as I knew this it was relatively easy to spot where they were nesting and I settled below the cliff to draw.
The initial reason for starting this drawing was the presence of black guillemots, I hoped I would get to see them if I stayed there long enough. I then became interested in a small rock pool in the bottom right of the drawing, a motif to hang the drawing from. I enjoy the way in which the composition encourages a sense of crouching in amongst the boulders looking out to the sea beyond, a crab's eye view!
I had just enough time to wash my clothes and unpack my bags after my Hebridean adventure and I was off to Shetland for a few days to visit fellow artists Liz Myhill and Lara Scouller who were on a residency at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse. A whirlwind few days ensued – I had been to Shetland once before and an abiding memory was the way in which the landscape and its creatures seem to be of equal status to humans. I realise this is my own intellectual construct but there is something different about the balance of life there that I can't put my finger on.
We managed to travel around a decent bit of the Shetland mainland and also got a day exploring on the striking island of Papa Stour which seemed to have an abundance of unusual coastal geology – stacks, arches and blow holes galore! Once again the colours and varied coastal landscapes were what caught my attention.
The piece below was made at the edge of a lively Arctic Tern colony with a number of common gulls nesting round the edges of this striking boulder beach. Across the water behind me as I worked were the noisy goings on of Sumburgh Airport, one of the main transport terminals for Shetland - humans and nature living cheek by jowl in a very particular Shetland way!
Yet another swift turn around and I was winging my way to teach on the annual John Busby Seabird Drawing week. It is always a privilege to be part of this nourishing and unique experience. I was lucky enough to meet John Busby and be inspired by his passion for the natural world. I have no doubt that discovering the seabird drawing week five years ago set me on my current creative path. Highlights of this year were meeting and working with Kim Atkinson whose work I had admired from afar; dolphin spotting at St Abb's Head and a brief hour on the Bass drawing whatever I could as quickly as possible!