Betelgeuse and a Bee

We can’t predict the future.

But, in some cases, we can make fairly accurate estimations for situations that are extremely likely to occur, thanks to diligent research and hard science.

Betelgeuse, the red and brightest star in the constellation of Orion in the night sky, may be barely perceptible to the naked eye, but this cosmic orb is actually a super massive, unstable star reaching the end of its life, and ready to explode. It could be tomorrow, it could be a million years from now. But one day, it will happen, just as sure as our own Sun will die. Betelgeuse will grow, and grow, using up the very last stores of its energy, and will explode in a fantastically cataclysmic supernova. It will shine like a second Sun. We may as yet be lucky enough to witness such a spectacle, and we are, thankfully, some 430 light-years out of harm’s way.

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But not every scientific prediction and eventuality can be so epic and so benign to us as the fate of Betelguese. The humble bumblebee, an annoying summer visitor to some, a problem-solving, dancing, geometry-wielding genius to others, has a fate that seems to be hanging in the balance, very much as the stability of the red star in the heavens. Yet the fate of the bumblebee is much closer to home.

Bumblebees have seen a dramatic drop in their population levels, with as much of a third of their US populations having decreased in recent years (http://www.globalresearch.ca/death-and-extinction-of-the-bees/5375684). Bees are not only vital pollinators, allowing countless species of plants and flowers to pollinate and reproduce, but they are also an important part of our own elaborate food chain. From honey in its raw form to soaps, lip balms, syrups and more, bees have been powerful contributors to our desire for sweet tastes, soft skin and juicy lips.

But at what price? Climate change, growing use of harmful pesticides and invasion of foreign species are speeding up the crisis bees face, but ultimately we may be their biggest threat. It’s difficult to predict how soon such a population could crash, whether it is a local crash, or restricted to vulnerable populations or even entire countries. A small, colony-dwelling animal such as a bee is no doubt hard to study, and hard to calculate in terms of accurate numbers and breeding success. With only handfuls of dedicated beekeepers to help with the maths, once again it seems science can only predict what may be around the corner.

I’m not suggesting we throw away that little jar of honey that we love to spoon into our cereal, or to soothe a sore throat after a rough winter, all I am suggesting is that we stop, step back and switch of the lights. Crane your neck up, as high as you can, and see if you can spot Orion among the tango-haze of light pollution. Next time you hear the soft bzzzzzz coming towards your eye, don’t flap your hands to shoo it away. Stay still, stay calm, and take a look.

Birds, Birds, Birds!

Dinosaurs in drag.

That’s effectively what birds are. The scaly-legged, scaled-down and more decorative great-great-great-great grandchildren of the dinosaurs. Whether you believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs or not (but you really, really should), it’s hard not to be fascinated by these animals. Whilst some people are terrified of birds to the point of hysterics (see, it;s the dinosaur connection again!), most find them truly mesmerizing.

From the lonesome, lustful traveller to the birdwatcher to the ornithologist, birds hold a special place in our imagination. Whether it is their beautiful song, elaborate plumes, architectural prowess that rivals the best interior designer, or simply the quirky hopping, head-bobbing that they do so wonderfully. It’s really no small wonder that birds have been depicted in art for centuries. They have symbolised everything from purity to wrath, witchcraft and everything in between. As an artist I find that the bird makes for a truly unique and evocative subject, with a versatility that is difficult to recreate with mammals or other subjects. Birds have their own wonderful colour palettes and their own ready-made canvases, ready for us artists to pounce on.

Below, I’d like to share some of my favourite modern and traditional examples of the beauty of the bird in art and why they appeal to me in the way that they do.

Birds, 1914, Franz Marc

Birds in Art Blog

Hardly surprising that Franz Marc is on this list, but this  particular painting is here for a few reasons. This painting to me is not about a particular bird, or a particular species, but it captures the essence of what it is to be a bird: the pointed beak, the flap of the wings, their vocalisations. This painting evokes that startled feeling that you get when a flock of pigeons suddenly springs up into the air from just under your nose.

Illustrations in Ornithology, published in 1599


Whilst wildly inaccurate, these very early illustrations of Birds of Paradise from Papua New Guinea were not the work of over-imaginative artists, but the restrictions of working from dead specimens collected and traded half way around the world. The trade in paradise birds was booming, but the specimens were dried and traded without any legs or wings, so their beautiful plumes could be shown off in even more exquisite detail. But for early illustrators and ornithologists, this proved something of a puzzle. The theory was that these birds lived in heaven – Paradise, so didn’t need wings or feet at all. A truly beautiful story about a remarkable group of birds, and one I think any bird lover should take the time to read about. More beautiful than any designer dress!
Dodo, F. Hart

This 19th Century painting is sad reminder of the unfortunate story of the Dodo, a bird much loved by artists, writers, and much mocked and exaggerated too. This over-sized, flightless Mauritian pigeon has fascinated me from a very young age, ever since reading Dodos are Forever by Dick King Smith. Again, we don’t know how accurate this painting is as there are very few specimens around today, but this stunning piece of art and others like it are sobering reminders of humanity’s impact on the environment, and the vulnerability of specialised and isolated island species.

Modern artists too can’t help but fall in love with birds. Below are a few contemporary examples that I simply love, and yes, there’s one of mine in the list too!

For Me? You Shouldn’t Have!, Kimberly Kelly Santini

This absolutely charming little painting projects the little diva that seems to shine through in even the tiniest of birds. From singing with gusto to flashing their dazzling plumes, the smallest birds are often the boldest, the most brazen, and some of the most beautiful. If you can’t get out to see them in the wild; go to a sanctuary, an aviary, a pet shop, anywhere you can, and just take a look. Whilst searching the length and breadth of this island for guinea pigs a few weeks ago I got lost in the dazzling array of canaries, finches, quails, sparrows….I was astounded at their little variations, the unique qualities of each tiny little bird; perhaps that is how Darwin felt!

Carmines, Emily Lamb

The beauty and simplicity of this painting does all the work it needs to. The rest is up to the imagination of the viewer.

Wall of Birds Project, Ink Dwell Studio



This massive-scale, stunning work comprises  270 species of birds from all over the globe. This unique piece of art includes many extinct and living bird species from the Dromornis to the Kakapo to the Wandering Albatross, and many other species that have a special place in my heart. Another unique aspect of this piece is that every bird is painted life size and in stunning accuracy and detail, for a magical, bird-map view of the world.
Laysan Waltz, by Me!

Albatross Painting for Conservation
The albatross is my love-affair, my chocolate, my drug of choice. The albatross is a bird that is like no other; mating for life, performing perfectly-synchronised and often comical dances, boasting nature’s most magnificent wings. This seabird is a one of a kind, but unfortunately, it is also under threat in many of its key nesting sites, from Midway Island to Macquarie Island,  so it is a bird that we need to pay close attention to. The more I learn, the more I fall in love with them. You can read more about the making of this painting here.  (This painting is available for €500 to the first person asking kindly. A percentage of the sale will go towards The Foundation for Antarctic Research. I urge you to go and support such a worthy cause!)

Is there a particular species that moves you as an artist? Be it a painter, a writer, musician etc, is their a subject that captures your imagination like no other?

What Does Home Mean to You?

“A home without books is a body without soul.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

Oxygen, food, water, sleep, shelter. These are the five basic needs for human survival, and these are the fundamental characteristics of our species, and of many others. It is the way we have adapted and expanded upon these basic needs that has enabled us to evolve and flourish as a species. But over millennia these needs have seen huge changes, and have become some of the defining features of our species. We have turned food into an art form and an indulgence which is becoming a disease, we dedicate whole rooms in our houses and hours upon hours for sleep, doing something that very few other species do; we make beds, we sleep in them, and we mate in them.

Most animals survive with little or no shelter, but humans have taken this need further than perhaps almost any other species. Most animals will seek shelter during a torrential rainstorm; whether it is simply huddling together in a herd, gathering under a tree or, as our great ape cousins do, making a rudimentary umbrella out of broad leaves. But there is a vast difference between needing shelter and desiring a home.

What does home mean? Is home a basic human instinct, to build a shelter to protect oneself from the elements? Is it a den where one can raise offspring in safety away from predators? Is home a means to show off one’s wealth or status? Is home simply a feeling?

And what of about our animal relatives?

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Sketch on canvas for an upcoming painting exploring Home

Why is it that sometimes we feel at home, and sometimes we don’t? What is homesickness, and is the concept of a home changing?

I’ll be exploring these quandaries in a couple of blog posts to follow. I want to look at the definition of home by looking at what the word means to humans across the globe, and also looking at non-human animals, to gleam the origin, the root of this domineering human need. And of course, at the end of this exploration in words, there will be an exploration in paint!

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Sketch on canvas for an upcoming painting exploring Home

Art for Conservation

As a child, and I confess even as an adult, it is the work of people such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall that warm my south, and inspire me to believe that there is good in this world, and we are making positive steps towards change.

In the face of climate change, globalisation, war and overpopulation, animals are under greater threat than ever before. However, in 2017 we are in a better position than ever to protect and conserve them. Conservation has never been easier than it is in the 21st Century: we have social media, email, worldwide broadcasting and many other forms of media to share stories of struggling species, but also to share success stories and to encourage people and communities to work together.

David Attenborough Art Conservation
David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 was an epic explosion of art inspiration and admiration. You too?

For me, art is just an extension of this means to spread the word of conservation and its importance. David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey and Peter Singer (to name just a few) each have their own unique platform, presenting to use conservation not necessarily through heart-wrenching images of suffering or tragic tales of failure, but through provoking in us a sense of awe, wonder and hope.

For just one example, read about Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Programme, a  marvelous initiative helping communities to learn about the environment, and actively participate in it.

For me, art is conservation, Through paintings of rare and unique animal species and presenting them at exhibitions, showcasing them online and turning them into wonderful stationery and household products, wildlife is taking centre stage in a medium previously reserved for landscapes or religion. Beautiful paintings, just like those of Franz Marc, or those that I myself am painting, give us a unique insight into the world, and encourage us to care.

Through the promotion and sales of such paintings, we can also actively participate in conservation projects, through donating a percentage of sales and commissions to worthy conservation projects. It is your choice. This is why I paint, to inspire, to conserve.

Albatross Painting for Conservation

Click here to view the paintings currently up for sale for conservation.

Art Inspired by Nature – this is my passion project

Cheating

Over 12 million people in the UK tuned in to watch the opening episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II – and if you are anything like me, you were watching and you were moved by the male buller’s albatross, waiting patiently on his nest for his mate to return to him after many months of fishing far across the ocean. The music, the beautiful lighting and of course, our ability to empathise made us all feel for the male, and we sat, hopeful, eager, along side him until his mate finally arrived.

Then, they embraced in a unique albatross manner; coy, flirtatious, playing hard to get. There definitely is some bonding going on there, but how much it extends to true monogamy is a debate that scientists cannot seem to shake off.

Albatross Painting Work in Progress
‘Laysan Waltz’ In Progress

Birds are one of the few monogamous groups of animals, and albatross and their waltzing are some of the most famous, but recent genetic studies have shown secret affairs, illicit encountered and cheating chaps. The male albatross waits patiently for his female, calls to her, dances his heart out to her, whilst she could already be carrying another’s chick – and who’s to say he hasn’t been out for some extra-marital copulation whilst he’s been alone?

Recent studies and genetic testing have shown that as many as 24% of albatross chicks are the result of these affairs. A quarter of illegitimate chicks, in a species that is the cornerstone of  ‘mating for life’. It just goes to show that what we think we know, is only ever the half of it.

Albatross Painting Work in Progress
‘Laysan Waltz’ In Progress, Oils on Canvas – they’ll have feet soon!

And it’s also another example of where anthropomorphising can lead us into error; we’re projecting our own emotions and ideas of courtship onto the scenes that we witness, and draw our own wild conclusions. What to us appears as a beautiful rekindling of a lifelong bond, could be simply re-affirming who’s boss, or simply acknowledging a member of their own species.

I am guilty of this too. Half of the reason that I paint animals is to try to feel a little of what they feel, and for us to be able to connect with them also. Just as Franz Marc wanted to uncover the spiritual in the animal, I want to explore why nature is such a fixation in my life, and how (how on earth) it isn’t for others. Nature connects us to nature, and to ourselves.

For me, there is something truly magical in nature’s ability to inspire, whether it’s because of how we choose to see it or not.

Laysan Albatross Painting
This painting is available for €400 to the first person asking kindly. A percentage of the sale will go towards The Foundation for Antarctic Research. I urge you to go and support such a worthy cause!

Finding Harmony in Art Through Nature

The process of formulating a painting is fraut with difficulties.

What may seem to be a very simple relationship between colour, subject and form to an outsider, is often a complex web of decisions that you made, un-made, and didn’t make at all.

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Songs in Miniature, Oils on Board

The above painting is at first glance a fairly straightforward piece, in composition and chromatically. There are only really two tones here, and the piece holds itself together thanks to this quiet harmony.

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A beautiful location, painting in a 16th Century Palace…and I love the shot of this painting, but somehow, the harmony just wasn’t there. (I will paint this piece again one day!)

Nature works in harmony with itself; even though it doesn’t always seem to be the case. Raging savanna fires restore the balance of populations and fertilize the grass, the weak die so that the strong can survive. There is a delicate, complex web that unites all species, all habitats and all natural phenomena.

The harmony of nature is the theme I approach in painting. And New Zealand’s sparky, fat parrot the Kakapo is a perfect example of this. This unfortunate flightless parrot had evolved in perfect harmony with its natural forest habitat that was free of ground based, furry predators. But times change, and we, like the Kakapo, have to evolve with them or find a new harmony.

The purpose of this blog is for me to lay down some ideas for my next painting; figuring out what harmonies I need to figure out before I put paintbrush to canvas. It’s important for a painting to appear unified and effortless, whilst at the same time evoking a sense of a deeper meaning behind it (and I’m not talking the meaning behind a black square, either, I’m talking something real). How do I transform a subject, a topic that moves me, into a canvas that moves others?

Kakapo Watercolour Painting
Watercolour study for the upcoming Big painting!

Instead of looking at the finished painting as the goal, look at the whole process. An evolution in itself.

A Comparison – Lascaux and Guernica

In the quiet village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of France, stands one of the world’s finest examples of cave art, and in my opinion, one of the greatest artistic achievements ever. This complex network, like all prehistoric art, represents a great evolutionary leap into modern intelligence, known as ‘The Transition’. Lascaux was discovered by accident in 1940, and contains some simply mind-blowing paintings, both in skill and proportion. One only has to see the scale of the bulls in the Hall of the Bulls (one is more than 5 metres long) to be mesmerised.

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The variety of animal species, including aurochs (ancient bulls), horses, lions, ibex, bison, are painted in a seemingly uncontrolled method; with species sharing space, that would probably have given each other a wide birth in Nature. Also, some of the animals are super-imposed, painted between and across one another, some floating in odd positions, upside-side, bent around to fit with the subtle curvature of a fragment of rock. No backgrounds are ever present in cave art, the source of the rock provides it, and flora is never depicted, unless perhaps in unintelligible lines and dots. These aspects bear a certain similarity to Cubist art; the haphazard but clever layout of the composition, the intersection and angles of some of the animals, all seem to pluck them out of their realistic context, instead forcing them into an abstraction, a spectrum of un-reality. Even the reducing of some of the painted animals to a few carved or painted lines bears a similarity to later Cubism.

The Hall of Bulls and “Guernica”

The Hall of Bulls, the grandest, largest and one of the most heavily painted areas of Lascaux, sweeps across the ceiling, like the great arc of the sun from East to West, seeming to converge in the centre of the ceiling, over the entrances to the narrower, more hostile sections of the cave. Here, horses and bulls seem to run across the sky right above your head, leading us to question, how on earth was this painted, when our ancestors had no ladders, or the use of ropes and pulleys to create a painting platform? Indeed they were brave to enter in the chasms of the underworld, and for the seemingly cumbersome task of painting such majestic murals.

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In the same way that Lascaux is always mentioned at the forefront of prehistoric artistic masterpieces, so must one always mention and ponder on “Guernica” when discussing Picasso and the birth or modern art. Both create a significant impact whilst looking at them, even though their subject matter is very different. Let us first mention “Guernica”.

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“Guernica” was created by Picasso for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937, at the time when Guernica, a small basque town in Northern Spain was horrendously bombed by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War. The town was in ruins, completely destroyed, and Picasso felt in necessary to bring the attention of this war to the world. This huge, seven-metre-long mural is monochrome, consisting of only black, white and greys. It is shocking in its grim portrayal of the war, and though its style is cubist, and almost crudely cartoon, its impact is not decreased. In fact, the exaggerated faces of the screaming Basque people, the animated dead baby dangling from its mother’s arm, the raging horse dominating the mural and the fallen horse beneath it create a scene of almost pitiful hatred. Though controversial, “Guernica” achieved what Picasso wanted; awareness for the suffering during the Civil War. Today this painting hangs in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, as a standing testament to those who died.

The comparisons between Lascaux’s Hall of the Bulls begin here. Both murals are chaotic, with the figures, whether of animals or people, are all pushed together, almost colliding into one another closet to the centre of the painting. The positions of Lascaux’s bulls and horses, with small, barely visible stags between them, suggests an air of excitement, or fear – perhaps this scene was replicating a hunt, or a stampede, or the animals during bad weather – and its is in this same fashion in “Guernica” that certain figures are concealed and distorted by another. There is a strange mix, of animals and figures, that would not usually have shared the same space. Also, scale and proportion is altered; the fallen person in the left of “Guernica” is the same size as the wounded horse. Limbs are too large, eyes are misplaced. The stags in The Hall are tiny in comparison to the horses they run beside, when in fact, the two species are of fairly similar size. The horses and bulls trip over one another, all heading towards the centre of the ceiling Perspective is practically unapparent; it is only evident in Lascaux due to the shape of the cave walls, and background too, is minimal.

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These common traits give the murals further impact. Where perspective and background fall away, the mind is freed by their restrictions, able to draw up fresh conclusions that would have otherwise been limited. Is “Guernica” a scene inside a building or a house, is it in the ruins of the town itself? Are Lascaux’s bulls running at each other, or are they actually running in the cave? There are numerous possibilities.

Both creations leave us feeling mystified, amazed and insignificant. They are both depicting scenes that we can never truly touch, and never truly understand. They leave us questioning our own destiny; where we have been and where we are heading as a species. Perhaps Lascaux symbolises the fight for evolution between the species, and “Guernica” reminds us harshly of our own.

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As our ancestors re-emerged from the cave and began to create words, language, civilisations, obviously their production of art and their need for it changed. Art became something much more decorative, with body adornments such as jewellery, pendants and figurines being carved. Art became more portable, and pottery flourished. As art movements develop today, rapidly changing from one to the next and colliding in the middle, to create something entirely new, the same is true in Pre-history. Stone-carving took a back seat and metalworking was developed, and the Bronze Age brought about greater skill and diversity of art. Just like today, art was taken over to the artisans, instead of being mass-produced by the civilisation as a whole. The ‘Primitive’ art created by our hominid fathers gave way to the Symbolism of Ancient Egypt and the architecture of the Nile Valley. The richly detailed art of the Americas was the first Romanticism, and in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aborigines of Australia gave us the first glimpse of Surrealism.

As artistic movements reappear, as suddenly as though the sun sets, perhaps Pre-historic art will re-emerge, in thousands of years to come. Its importance in our transition from ape to man should not be underestimated. Without the ochre horses of our ancestors, we would not have any of the masterpieces we see today, in our museums, in our homes, and in our hearts.