Art Diaries: Chilean Wildlife

Today I decided to do some quick and loose sketches of Chilean wildlife from my trip. Sketching in watercolour is great fun: it loosens up the wrists and allows you to create a quick impression of what it is your painting.

There were several amazing wildlife spots that we stumbled upon. Of course, if you know anything about South America, you’ll know its biodiversity is…well, diverse. And Chile is no exception. As you travel from North to South, the climate and even the season changes, so it’s no wonder there’s such variety. Who knew you could have guanacos, parrots and penguins all in one country?

Imperial, watercolours

The first sketch is from Punta Arenas (mentioned in my previous post). Upon arrival in this truly charming place, we had a re-fueling breakfast, having got perhaps only one hours’ sleep in 24, then decided to wander around the very chilly town. Punta Arenas surprisingly turned out to be the best place for souvenirs, and we came across a wonderful shop (I forgot the name) and found some really unique Southern items, not your usual kitsch souvenirs at all.

After that, it was time to watch England get mowed down by Croatia. I really thought, with the slimmest of hope, that football really was coming home. But no, instead the only thing coming home was me in 12 days time. It’s amazing that even on the wrong side of the world and the wrong hemisphere, you can still be calmed by the same creature comforts of a good meal and a beer.

Anyway, back to the sketch. We headed to the coast, and there it was! The gargantuan Pacific Ocean stretched out ahead of us in all its blue-grey glory. The beach looked as thought the weather had not been kind to it, but today the sea was calm. Off in the distance on a jetty, I got my first glimpse of wild seabirds in Chile. There were black cormorants resting with their heads curled under their wings, fat seagulls and…something that looked like a penguin? I hoped beyond hope, even though it wasn’t their breeding season so the resident penguins were far out to sea. Investigating when I got some, I discovered it was in fact an imperial cormorant.

I haven’t included guanacos in my sketches, even though I started painting one in the Torres del Paine. Too obvious. No, though the guanacos were amazing to see when they photo-bombed us on arrival at the park, or chased our car along the side of the road, it was the birds I was most fascinated in.

Chilean finches, tough little birds

The second night of our stay in the park we left our cosy lodge to discover that the surrounding walkway and lawn had been taken over by all manner of birds. The quaintly named cowbird, which looks more like a fat crow than a cow, a strange rail type bird with a long curved bill, and countless sierra finches that were hopping around in the grass. What surprised me most was how little these birds were bothered by our presence. I’ve found such small birds in Malta and Europe to be extremely skittish and nervous, but these guys weren’t going anywhere. One little fellow, an austral thrush, was feeling particularly brave and sat on the fence chirping at us, not quite willing to give up his claim to the territory.

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to the city’s resident animals: its dogs.

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Variations on a Grey

Hi there, it’s still sweltering over here in sunny Malta, so getting stuck in to painting frosty scenes and tiny icebergs feels a big ironic. I’ll talk about life in Santiago in my next post, but first I had to share with you the first of my Patagonia-inspired paintings. I’m planning a little series of oils, capturing the different nuances of light and colour that this wonderful place is so famous for.

Patagonia Painting

As an artist used to painting in pretty bold and varied colours, this painting was definitely tough. But I choose to take on the toughest first. I limited my palette down to just 5 colours: titanium white, ultramarine blue, Van Dyke brown, Naples yellow and a touch of paynes grey. In fact, I used more brushes than colours on this painting.

It was important to get the balance of tones right, to restrict them enough to create mood, but not too bold as to loose the impact of the fog. It really was this grey and un-saturated, I could hardly believe my eyes. I could see why they called it the Grey Lake.

Patagonia Painting

I very much enjoyed painting the foreground textures and creating depth here, with the intention of drawing the viewer’s eye forward and off the edge of the painting.

Patagonia Painting

Then, a few blobs of paint painted very carefully to create some distance icebergs.

Next up, I’ll be exploring Patagonia’s changing weather and that gorgeous glacial blue. Stay tuned!

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Surviving Winter In Patagonia

When home is a beautiful 35 degrees C during July, travelling to the other side of the world when it’s in the depths of winter probably isn’t the best idea.

It was quite possibly a crazy idea to honeymoon in the southern hemisphere in the grip of winter. But the Fates (teachers’ working hours) decided that we must travel in July: the depths of Patagonian winter. So, off we went.

And while it was certainly the coldest place I’ve ever experienced, it was a wonderful relief from the sticky, clammy, mosquito-riddled air of Malta. Acclimatising wasn’t so difficult: it’s all about adding clothing one layer at a time.

We couldn’t help ourselves. We were lost in the beauty of the place.

My first thought when we landed at Punta Arenas, capital of the Magallanes region of Chile and technically the southernmost ‘city’ in the world, was: this is cold. Cold, but undeniably beautiful. The low buildings, the muted architecture and the quaint high street reminded me very much of a Welsh town. It was surreal to be so far from all that is familiar, yet to feel so familiar. I half expected to find a little bakery selling Cornish pastries and tea, but sadly, not.

The sun was trying its best, but we’re very far South.

Punta Arenas was just a short stopover after our night flight, before we had to undertake the mammoth journey into the heart of the Torres del Paine National Park. Three and a half hours in a coach to Puerto Natales clinging to the edge of the park, then another three hours into no-man’s land. We were prepared for the cold, and we were prepared for the journey.

Torres del Paine is spectacular in summer, I’m sure. But I found it to be absolutely breath-taking in winter. The winter has several habits: of leaving the sun in bed until practically noon and tucking it in bed for an early night, for wrapping mountains in duvets of permanent cloud. Winter in Malta is a little…damp.

Whilst our short stay next to the beautiful Lago Grey didn’t give us a vast amount of time to wander off, we found just enough to do within trekking distance, and perhaps the more predictable yet generally biting cold conditions worked in our favour. We were lucky enough to avoid any hint of rain or the wind that we heard could be so ferocious.

A stunning foggy morning over the Lago Grey. I can see why it got its name, the colour is haunting.

The winter fog made for a spectacular lakeside walk, one in which the ground and the grass is frozen in place by a layer of frost, the beautiful yellows turned to the softest sand colour. You can walk straight through the mist without realising, until you feel a slight tickle of moisture on the exposed part of your face, and then, if you look behind you, you can’t see the hotel anymore.

The muted tones of winter are gorgeous (as I talked about in my previous post) and winter made them even more spectacular when the clouds almost inexplicably rushed away, to leave a perfect cerulean blue sky, intangible blue glaciers and golden yellows. Clear sky blessed us for a whole day, making the temperature that little bit more bearable and enabling us to take in some truly once-in-a-lifetime scenery.

Leaving the grey glaciers behind, with more than a little sadness.

All this said, I wouldn’t take trekking in Patagonia in winter lightly. The weather can change in an instant and we were lucky: just a week before the temperature had plummeted to -10 and much lower unleashing hellish snowstorms. If you have excursions or hikes planned, then fickle winter can very easily mess up your plans. And if you don’t wrap up warm, you’ll regret it.

However, another advantage to wintering in the Torres is that you’ll see very few fellow tourists. For myself and my husband, artist and writer on our secluded honeymoon adventure, people were the very last thing we wanted to see. I was more than grateful to avoid hordes of backpackers and hippy types, and was glad I was able to enjoy the beauty of this place without interruption.

Here are our top tips for wintering in Patagonia:

1. Don’t take your gloves off. Seriously, don’t. It hurts. If you must take photos, find a device that doesn’t require much fine dexterity of the finger tips.

2. Don’t wait for the sun. The sun is lazy down here, so don’t wait till 10am to get out of bed. Get up early, get creative while it’s still dark and tranquil. Go have breakfast and watch as the sun acts like some sulky teenager, slowly dragging itself into a barely vertical state.

3. Likewise, you’d better make sure you have something to do in the evenings. By about 5.30pm the sun starts to crawl back to bed, so unless you want to, you’d best fill your time with writing, painting and drinking pisco sour. Or hope there’s a good film on. Nights can be long and lonely down here.

4. Stargaze. This one is a must. The days may have been shrouded like Turin, but after about 10pm the skies cleared to reveal a spectacular black sky simply littered with stars and wisps of the Milky Way.

5. Get up high. Just a short hike from us was the Mirador Ferrier, a stunning lookout point over Lago Grey. Find a trail where you can ascend into the heights of Patagonia and check out the views.

6. Keep your eyes out for condors. Bouncing along on a catamaran I saw those stunning fingered wingtips, and I knew straight away what I was looking at. I grabbed the camera and luckily, but barely, it caught not one, but a breeding pair of Andean condors nesting on the lakeside cliffs.

See if you can spot them both!

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Inspired By A City

11,710km. 7 million people. 19 short days.

There’s a lot to learn about a city more than half the world away. A city that’s closer to Antarctica than it is to home. This post isn’t about art, it’s about thoughts. More importantly, the thoughts that Santiago stirred in me.

From watching England crumble at the semi-finals at the very bottom of the world, to hearing a silence so profound I could hear my own ears straining to listen, Chile is a surreal place. A country longer than some continents, a land of four seasons stretching from North to South.

Santiago felt to me like a social experiment. What happens when you throw luxurious shopping malls into the midst of strangled rivers, street-sellers and the socially under-privileged? Do you find conflict, neglect, empathy, or apathy? It seems the vast majority of the conflict arose in my own, and my husband’s deeply European minds.

We know of poverty: we’ve seen homelessness, perhaps not in our own countries but in Europe’s capitals. We’ve seen streets and schools depraved of love, but what I think surprised us most was the normality of it all. Inequality sits deep at the heart of this nevertheless wonderful city. Is it the fault of its present, it’s past or a sign of the future? I’m not sure, but I know that I was surely moved by one city’s fragmented, confusing pseudo-progressive normality. I love Chile: the people are wonderful, the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, there are beautiful natural areas, up and coming districts, but the rest seems to be a little jaded, a little stuck in the past.

But perhaps it’s not, perhaps I’m just a naive, middle-class European who needs to get out more. I’m glad that I was able to venture so far from home, far from my comfort zone and learn of the world beyond the Eurozone. It’s not all sunshine, but it is wonderful. For what is the use of travel if it doesn’t inspire us? From inspiring me to paint, to inspiring me to pay a little more care and attention to the world around me, and perhaps, a little humility too.

Map of human rights violations from all cross the world

Travel is hope.

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Plein Air Painting in Patagonia

It almost happened without me noticing. All of a sudden I felt a searing hot pain in my fingers. No longer absorbed in what I was doing, I noticed how numb my hands were. That’s what happens when you remove your gloves for plein air painting at -2 degrees Celsius. It’s cold, and it hurts.

It was intense, but it was definitely the most amazing painting and travel experience of my life so far. A honeymoon, an adventure story and a journey of discovery all rolled into one.

Witnessing the first fog-shrouded day in the heart of the Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia, I didn’t fully know what to expect. To say that this trip was inspiring is an understatement, as I’m still trying to process it all and to learn what I can learn from it.

What struck me most about this place was the colour. How muted, and how bold it can be. How quickly it can change.

Painting from a photo is one thing, but painting there and then when you’re absolutely freezing and the wet paint is actually forming ice crystals, is a huge challenge. The range of hues is simply magnificent, even when everything is muted by mist. The colours of the grasses, the bark and the sky are still there, but they’re wrapped in the most beautiful blankets of greys. It’s still, calming, yet slightly haunting. It’s impossible to see the sun, impossible to tell the time or to track the movement of either.

I quickly realised it was almost impossible to capture the values accurately, partly due to freezing paint, partly due to the fact I was standing and had nowhere to sit and mix colours – and indeed not the resistance from frostbite to do so. I didn’t realise quite how many shades of yellow-grey, green-grey, brown-grey and blue-grey were in front of me. As a result the painted sketch turned out to be too green, too vivid.

As if the violent compression of the value range wasn’t enough, I found it next to impossible to judge the hues much of the time.

Plein air painting in Patagonia was a failure, but the challenge made it no less enjoyable. Thankfully, I had a heated lodge with a stunning view in which to paint the landscape just close enough, but without losing any fingers. But still, the speed of the changing light and the dancing of the fog and clouds, even on the most spectacular sunny day, was near to impossible to capture.

In this instance I’m glad to be able to turn to my trusty digital camera, where time really has been stood still, so that I can paint that perfect scene and really explore these wonderful new colours.

I’ll be getting out the oil paints soon!


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Finding Darwin

“The climate is certainly wretched: the summer solstice was now passed, yet every day snow fell on the hills, and in the valleys there was rain, accompanied by sleet. From the damp and boisterous state of the atmosphere, not cheered by a gleam of sunshine, one fancied the climate even worse than it really was.”

Charles Darwin spoke these honest words as he arrived at the Tierra del Fuero, or the Land of Fire, the end of the world, the very bottom of South America. And he may be right: a coastline battered by sub-Antarctic seas, wind-lashed rocks and constant clouds and rain. And whilst I’m not venturing quite as far South as this, I’m fairly certain I’ll look at this land with a similar admiration and wonder as Darwin did.

Most people don’t realise that Darwin spent over a year sailing along the Chilean coastline, before he ever got to the Galapagos. And this beautiful country left deep impressions on him, from the terrible earthquake he witnessed to the local peoples and fossils he discovered.

Darwin’s hand-coloured geological map of islands off the South American coast – Cambridge University Library

I found Darwin fairly early on in life. Where most children find Sunday School, Pokemon or PlayStation, I found Darwin. I wasn’t old enough at the time to understand much of the Origin of Species, but I knew its words made sense. I knew that nature was beautifully cruel. I knew that I was connected to it. I knew I had to make sense of it. So I painted it.

In a way, I carried Darwin with me throughout my childhood. Devouring the differences and similarities between forms, understanding nature’s often hard-to-swallow brutality. Reading his books, to uncovering his travels, to getting that little bit closer to everything in London’s magnificent Natural History Museum.

In Chile, I hope to find Darwin. I hope to find the same wonder for all of nature’s forms, the endless forms most beautiful. I carry Darwin’s words to Chile with me, literally upon my person, and I hope Chile will carry nature back to me.

*cover photo from

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Art Diaries: A Trip To Rome

So, that’s one of my most challenging paintings completed. Surprisingly enough, I loved every minute of it. Even the bits I hated, where things seemed like they were going wrong. But the vision was clear, and that was motivation enough to stick it through till the end. Overall, I’m very happy with the results. I can see a few minor adjustments I may or may not make (once a painting has been signed off, I very rarely touch it again).

I realised a couple of important things along this particular painting journey. It was a perfect mix of reference photo (photos we took during our trip to Rome a couple of years ago) and imagination, and it just seemed to fit so perfectly.

I realised too that I didn’t enjoy or appreciate my trip to Rome as much as I could have done, or should have done. It was a trip taken with a heavy heart, for many reasons. This painting was my tribute to a wonderful trip, that could have been so much more wonderful. As a Rome-sceptic before I left, I now carry Rome in my heart, and I won’t be satisfied until I return.

Who knows? Maybe the starlings will be there next time too.

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