Penguin Awareness Day

We call ourselves animal lovers, but, we have to admit, there are far fewer of us that love cockroaches than furry, four legged bundles and beats. And seeing as today is #PenguinAwarenessDay, I thought I’d talk a bit about one of my personal favourite species, and why they do (and do not) appear in my art often.

January is an important time for penguins, as it’s mid summer in Antarctica the cute little Emperor penguin chicks are now fat, gangly, moulting teenagers. While they enjoy some much needed sun, their trip to the sea to fatten up is now much shorter. Summer won’t last long, and soon it’s time to start all over again!

I had the pleasure of encountering penguins a number of times, however, never in the wild: the closest I got were puffin sightings in Anglesey, Wales. But the few times I saw them in bird parks and zoos, I was amazed by their comical waddle, their curiousity, and how odd they feel – a mixture between a hard rubber tyre and soft leather, would be the best way to describe it.

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The African or ‘Jackass’ penguin, in Madrid’s Zoo Aquarium

My love of penguins extends to some watercolours and a few accessories, too!

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‘Cosmic Penguins’ from my Cosmic Nature series, and my favourite avian scarf!

Few animals are as resilient as penguins. From chinstrap penguins being mercilessly hurled onto the rocks, being pummeled by the full force of the Southern Ocean as they fight to get to their chicks, to the desperate struggle of female emperors to adopt chicks if their own have perished. Perhaps no other animal sees less sunlight per year, too. And living under temperatures below -50 degrees Celsius, I believe that penguins deserve their credit. They are just one of the many species that are going to be effected by ice sheet melt, plastic-riddled oceans and global warming.

For the love of penguins, send them a thank you card!
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Penguin-themed greeting cards and products available at Redbubble
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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

 

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!

No Forest Too Far

The world is quite literally on our doorstep. Thanks to globalisation, immigration, airline travel and our amplified imagination, almost every corner of the world has been discovered, trampled on, and had a selfie taken with it.

Yet there are still places in the world that most of us have never heard of. Species we’ve never heard of; a habitat we never knew existed. What is even more surprising and sobering, is that some of these species could be gone before we even realise they were ever there.

A prime example is the saola, affectionately known as the Asian unicorn, an animal as legendary as its name implies. The saola is only as old as I am (in terms of its exposure, having only been discovered officially in 1992), but already it is facing severe pressures. Its evergreen forest habitat sits caged in from all sides, hemmed-in by the Annamite mountains, along the borders of Vietnam and Laos. The saola is unfortunate enough to be caught between two extremely industrialised and developing countries, and it faces habitat destruction, which people to exploit to hunt for food, traditional medicine and more.

Saola Watercolour Painting

“Only recently discovered, saola are already extremely threatened. At a time when species extinction on the planet has accelerated, we can work together to snatch this one back from the edge of extinction.”

Dr. Barney Long, WWF Asian species expert

No forest is too far away for us to ignore any longer.

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.

Our Place in the Universe

Monarch Butterflies Acrylic Painting
Monarch Butterflies Acrylics on Canvas

Rulers of the sky,
No vulture ever soared so high
As to see its own creation.

No butterfly ever flapped its wings
And changed the beating of our planet’s heart.
Rulers of the land,
Our footprints trampling the carbon
Out of stardust-turned fossils.

The lion never left so much waste
That the decomposers decomposed.

Rulers of the sea,
The humpback’s moonlight sonata
Drowned by hulls, by steel, by the sounds
That even silence cannot ignore.

Rulers of the cosmos,
The persieds streak through matter
To which we have no consequence
We are merely matter
That does not matter.
Against what we cannot contemplate,
Numbers to great, heat too hot,
Horizons that cannot be broken.

Looking up to the heavens we should realise
Only we can see this.
Looking down to our planet
Only we can save this.

Do We Really Need Zoos?

I’ve visited many zoos around the world in my twenty five years on this planet, and I always looked forward to indulging in my love of nature in whatever small, humble way I could, land-locked in the centre of the UK or, more recently, relocated on a tiny Mediterranean island with virtually no native mammal species.

So during my recent trip to Madrid a day out to the city’s zoo was definitely on my to-do list. However, after my visit I found myself feeling unusually hollow and felt as though I had come to a new realisation since my last zoo experience eight years ago.

Zoos have moved on a great deal since 1828 when weird and wonderful animals were transported from across our colonies for our gawking eyes and our amusement. Facilities have improved, cages (or enclosures) have gotten bigger, and education, welfare and conservation have become a much higher priority. Zoos have allowed many people, me included, to learn about species that they would not have otherwise been able to see, and zoos inspire and intrigue us at all ages.

However, I left the city zoo feeling that this showcase of the natural world, as diverse and immersing as it was, was just a falsity. A portfolio of species in a context that simply does not exist in the wild. I struggle to see the benefits of zoos claiming conservation aims when they have managed to successfully breed a family of rare giant pandas, only to keep them confined to a relatively small and featureless enclosure with no possibility of ever introducing them into the wild to diversify its minuscule population.

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I struggle to see the educational purposes of keeping (as far as I could see, at least) a lone wolf in an area not big enough for it to break into a run. This is not a typical or an accurate representation of the wolf in the wild. We all know that the wolf is a highly intelligent, social and transient species that roams vast areas and holds a huge territory with diverse habitat.

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The rather lonely (and also rather scrawny) Arctic wolf 

I struggle to see how children benefit from being held in front of a fence by their parents for a photo, when the child is not even old enough to know that he is a child. Or how older children can learn anything aboutanimals by banging on the glass screaming, or commenting (yet again) that they found Dory.

It’s problematic for me, one who wishes to indulge in nature as much as possible, and who craves contact with the natural world, to feel such apathy for this place. Whilst I am certain at least that the animals that I saw had their basic needs taken care of, behavioural, spacial, social and psychological restrictions are clearly felt. It definitely gave me some serious food for thought.

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I’d love to know your opinions on this matter.

You too can join the Conservation Conversation. Click here to find out more.