23 March 2017

Dispatches from the jungle

I made this drawing sitting in the conservatory at Kew yesterday. The soundtrack was sometimes long stretches of quiet, just the scraping of hand spades and a fountain trickling, and then sudden bursts of schoolchildren on educational tours. The adults pointing out the marvel of banana plants, the kids delighting in the wishing well and maybe the jungley magic of it all.

I felt so at home sketching in that steamy warmth, the familiar-to-me scent of a thousand tangled plants taking in light and nutrients from the air. My bones, too, drink in the comfortable temperature and my whole body feels at ease and at home.

Not that my native Cape Town is by any means tropical, but it is sometimes hot.

I spent a couple of very happy years teaching in Petchaburi, Thailand, a provincial town in the rice paddies south of Bangkok, in the mid nineties. I learned to love the smells and sounds of the moist tropics, that gentle humid air and the laid back ease which seems to be a part of rural Thai life.  Later, when I was living in Japan and still teaching English, I kept coming back to Thailand for a break from the formality of Japanese small town living.

I remember lying in my hammock on the second or third day of a cycling trip along the Thai side of the Mekong in early 2000, trying to make this drawing while also keeping up a rickety conversation with one of the young women who was helping to run the guesthouse.

She was delighted that I could speak some Thai, and although I don't remember much what we spoke about, I remember feeling so sorry that I couldn't answer her great curiosity about life outside Thailand as well as I would have liked to, in my passable by but no means fluent Thai. She got called to help with dinner, and I was relieved to be able to get back to my travel sketch.

So many years later, I'm still crazy mad keen to find some way of expressing that tangled tropical leafy beauty. I'm still not satisfied that my drawings do it justice, but the greater victory is that I have started to understand that the results of my drawings have got nothing to do with anything.

Drinking in the leaf shapes, textures and colours while responding to the plants and scenery as best I can on paper, is a love song, enough in itself.

May I learn to be content with that, and to let go of the results.

01 April 2016

Meditation notes: drawing

I wish you could also smell these blossoms. It is a delicate scent, a bit like honey, a bit like almonds. Outside, I hadn't really noticed the smell of flowering plum (from a tree that has emerged, guerilla style in a corner of our teeny garden) but in drawing these branches, I appreciated the scent just as much as I appreciated the delicacy of the white petals and tiny stamen bursts.

I was also listening to a dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal,(that most understated and friendly of Insight meditation teachers at Spirit Rock meditation centre) on noticing how we are aware, on examining, gently, the quality of attention we have when we meditate.

The talk is a meditation guide, which is also helpful in the slow process of learning to consider how I am while drawing, on investigating how I could bring a quality of 'open awareness' to my work. 

The mindfulness of drawing, if you like.

What comes to awareness simply? Am I forcing my attention somewhere? Am I gripping the pen or gripping somewhere else in my body or mind? Where is tension arising? And so on. Go on, have a listen, it's slow, quiet and lovely.

The hardest practice is, on noticing something unpleasant, not to disturb the moment with a remonstration, with the thinking 'Oh I shouldn't be gripping the pen so hard'. It's just something that is, in that moment.

Also, I remembered about letting go of the results, just enjoying looking, just enjoying the pen tracing my eye movements. Not making a project out of this moment of observing some flowers. If the drawing is good and shareable, that's fine. If the drawing totally sucks or isn't in some way right for keeping or sharing, that's fine too. Who cares? 

The main thing is to keep trying and in simple way to enjoy the sitting there, the looking, the scratching of a pen across a page, the honey scent of spring blossoms in a tiny glass bottle on a table in afternoon light.

May we all find the freedom of awakening to the present moment, may we all find real peace, real happiness.

10 March 2016

A link to my illustrations in the TV gardening show, if you want to catch up

Here are of my favourite illustrations made for use in the graphics for BBC2 gardening show, Big Dreams Small Spaces, Series Two

I scanned my watercolours and sometimes reworked them in Photoshop, and then sent them to the team at Flock who wove into the graphics to explain 'garden as envisaged by owners before Monty Don' and then 'garden plan with Monty's input' which they animated to voice overs. 

I have nothing at all to do with the animations, and generally see them on TV for the first time - an exercise in letting go of creative control and just kinda seeing what happens

Episode 2 is still on BBC iPlayer if you feel like watching (and as long as you're based in the UK). If you want to save time and just move the slider to the plant animation bits, they come up at around 07:48 - 9:51 and 15:35 - 17:20.

Hoping to save my faves to video in time, in which case they can be viewed by all. If you haven't already seen it, here's a link to the title sequence from Series 1 which should work wherever you are. (Animation was by Room60 for Series 1, and the programme is produced by Lion TV for BBC2).

18 February 2016

My plants on BBC2 again - on tonight

I loved working on this last autumn with animation company Flock, who did the graphics for Lion TV's Series Two of Big Dreams Small Spaces with Monty Don on BBC 2. It's on tonight at 8pm, or here on iPlayer soon afterwards.

Looking forward to watching all the love, hard graft and heartache that went into transforming each of the tiny gardens mixed in with  a good dose of Monty's cheerful interventions.

Of course, I can't wait to see my watercolours whizz by - keep an eye out for the plants in the animated 3D garden plans(which show the gardens before and after Monty's suggestions for improved designs and planting.

Above are two of my favourite elements, an olive and an apple tree. No idea whether they made it in the final cuts, but I was happy with the way they turned out. More plants to follow, now that I can share more of this commission.

08 September 2015

Autumn colours seeping in

It's kind of the sketching version of shooting fish in a barrel, drawing autumn leaves. As in, you can't really go wrong. But I can also walk past them thinking oh my, how beautiful, I'd love to draw those some time, and then not draw them at all. 

Here's to celebrating the victory of following through on an intention, and an hour spent really meeting these leaves with whatever I've got: the jar of coloured pencils, the training of really looking at the dentate outlines and way the stalks angle, the fun of scribbling colour onto paper without gripping onto the leaves in front of me too much.

As to the reality of it's sort of pretty much autumn now, meh. I'm not in such a hurry to meet that just yet.

02 July 2015

Holiday drawing

I usually don't draw much on holiday, but I have a happy memory of drawing these early one evening while D was making dinner in the tiny kitchen of our shepherd's hut in the middle of a field in West Wales.  

We had space for a mini break in early June and the plan was to explore the Pembrokeshire coast. Although the weather report wasn't saying camping, I wanted nature and super simple.   

We found a shepherd's hut (which is really a small tin shack on wagon wheels) just outside Tenby, Wales on airbnb. Perfect for camping lite but without rain soaked walks to the loo block and nights of flapping nylon.

I loved that it was a short walk across a potato field to the cliff path and then a choice of windswept hikes along the coastal reserve. Simple.

The hut was super cute inside, and I didn't feel the urge to clear away a single thing. Usually the first thing I do when I get to a hotel or B+B room is take down offending pictures, stuff frilly/satin cushions into a cupboard and get rid of all knicknaks. (Ye olde shepherdess figurines and jolly wooden lighthouse ornaments, I'm talking to YOU.)

We had cows for neighbours, and a little local train choo chooed by every hour or so, and birdsong - welcome respite from the sirens and constant traffic hum of home.

There was even time and inclination to draw. I love that I drew these campion flowers loosely, without that drawing school thing of 'draw what you see not what you think you see' sounding in my head.  This has its place, but for me it has become a Rule of Drawing, which is totally tiresome. 

I draw what I like these days, and how I like, more and more.

03 April 2015

Happy Easter 2015

Hot cross buns, catkins, blackthorn blossom and daffodils in all shapes and sizes...Easter in the northern hemisphere makes sense. Of course it does - the rebirth of Everything, the joy and relief of another cycle drawing towards the light.

And yet, in South Africa, Easter comes at the very end of summer. Last swims in the Breede River, melty chocolate eggs, lamb on the braai fire with loads of garlic and rosemary super pungent from a long hot dry season. 

Traffic queues to get out of town just the same as here.

As I've been painting these last few days, tiny leaves have been unfurling in the vase and a fabriano has a dusting of yellow pollen from the catkins. I love the softness of everything opening gently and irrevocably, even in the grey light of a London Easter. 

I made this painting for my mum and dad and my dearest sis M and the loveliest L - wish we could be eating hot cross buns in the same place all at once. Lamb barbeque and snow are optional details.

Either way, and how ever it works out for you, I hope you have a lovely rest this weekend and lots of chocolate. 

19 March 2015

Painting wildflowers in December...

I was commissioned to paint a small wildflower painting for the lovely Catherine, erstwhile of St Mary's Secret Garden, as a leaving present, late last year. I normally like to paint wildflowers from life, so I went a-hunting in the parks and overgrown abandoned flowerpots of Lower Clapton. Incredibly, in December, I found feverfew and dandelion still bravely in bloom.

14 February 2015

Happy Valentine's Day

I am partial to Valentine's Day myself. It's nice to know someone was willing to wade into the commercial fray to indulge my love of chocolate and roses in any shade from ivory to deep red, single or multiple, just for me.

When we were little, my mum would buy us a chocolate covered marzipan bar and a flowering plant, perhaps a viola, for Valentine's Day sometimes. I loved that too - how it brought family into the day and made the day hinge a little less 'how many cards did you get?' at school. 

For a really good warm heart though, I have been working with this - I forget where I read about it. I'm going to try it for more than a few seconds today.

Do that thing of being the love you want to see in the world by meeting everyone you encounter simply by giving them your full attention and accepting them, even for a moment, just as they are. Not how you want them to be, but how they already are, just in themselves. Perfect, fallible, full of fear and joy, just like you. The person opposite you on the train, the checkout person, the security guard, the waitress, the people you are planning to meet, perhaps. Your old friends, your new friends. Your cat. The one you love too, if they should happen to be in your life right now, of course don't forget that one. No need to say anything in particular, just be the love.

If you can manage that for more than um, say five seconds at any point today, I take my hat off to you. But see if it isn't heartwarming.

Happy Valentine's Day!

16 December 2014

Christmas in Cape Town

Oh yes. I'm swapping the promise of a frosty winter wonderland for watermelon by the pool. As of today, I'm outta here, London. Much as you looked beautiful in the sparkly winter sun today.

Home for Christmas - family, birdsong, tic tic of sprinklers on the lawn, swimming with my niece. Beach and mountain. Long dirt roads. Old friends. All the people I love most in the world in one town.

A different wonderland to be sure. And not winter. Great happiness.

24 November 2014

Chinese food illustrations

I haven't posted in a while - sometimes it's good to start with whatever I've got, rather than driving myself nuts wondering what would be the perfect post. 

So. Here's a sneak peak of some new food illustrations I've been working on. 

The notes are from a visit to the V+A museum, that wonderful place where I am always instantly in love with some or other beautiful thing. Or things. The fine ceramics and painted scrolls of the Chinese galleries this time, and a perfect starting point for my food theme.

The Hackney Marshes are so so beautiful at this time of the year, all the wet leaves and now bare branches and the reassuring smell of vegetation gently decomposing, turning to soil, nothing wasted at all. 

Airtime in nature, away from screen and sketchbook, space to unravel new ideas and get perspective on old ones.

Where do you go to unravel your ideas?

23 October 2014

My illustrations on BBC2 with Monty Don this week!

Wow, what a fantastic week for my illustration! Landscape animation whizz Matt Parker over at room 60 turned my plant watercolours into 'Before and After Monty' sequences for a gardening show with Monty Don on BBC2. That's the title sequence up above there with Matt's butterfly making magic with the 4D effect.

It's on from Monday to Friday at 7 p.m. all this week. 

While I love seeing my work in print, and also watching it develop on paper when I'm painting, seeing it unfold in garden vistas on TV takes it to a whole nother level, I gotta tell you. 

Wow, the glowing box in the living room with my very own agaves and astilbes populating the screen!

Heh heh. I am loving that. A lot. 

So much the better that it's a gardening programme featuring real people with their very understandable struggles to match idea to plot and to reality, with the ever cheery and affable Monty dropping by to deliver solid good advice and, occasionally, a hand in the digging and planting. 

Nice work if you can get it, eh, being a gardening rock star? Here's a review in the guardian.

For now though, I'm happy to stick to watercolour plant illustration. 

Warm and cosy and (mostly) indoors works for me at this time of the year - my South  African hands have never quite been able to deal with planting onions in November.

Below, a keyframe from the series, which is how I supplied the illustrations originally.

09 October 2014

The Big Draw at Hackney Central Library

The first of my three Big Draw workshops for Hackney Libraries started with no less than 60 reception and year one children filing into the activity area in Hackney Central Library. 

That's a whole lot of little drawers, folks. I haven't seen that many 5 and 6-year olds in one room since I taught English in Japan, but at least we all speak the same language here.

Seats found for everyone, coats and high viz jackets removed, hands in the air, don't touch anything yet, listen to the teacher - that'd be me. (I wasn't on crowd control luckily, gentle reader, that was the job of the hard working teachers and their assistants. Masterly they were too. Respect!)

I wanted the children to experience the joy of drawing with charcoal, and asked everyone to listen to the sound it made as they crumbled and squeaked their sticks across a page. 

One boy told me it reminded him of the sound of a fox rustling in the bushes. 

Heh. A sound designer/foley artist in the making, I do believe. Pixar, you read it here first.

(Note to self on charcoal drawing and 5 - 6 year olds: wet wipes. In abundance.)

The next activity I had planned wasn't quite age appropriate - I asked the children to draw the feeling of being on a busy bus. Some tried, but most children went straight into drawing an actual bus, so I went with that. I'm guessing here but 5 and 6-year olds are probably pretty literal minded at this stage, or at least I would have needed to set that up differently. 

The game of 'musical pencils' went down a storm though. It's something I do in the studio myself when I'm getting all tight and stiff with line. As soon a song on iTunes changes, I pick up a new drawing instrument at random and keep working  with whatever I pick up until the next song and so on. Magic often happens that way for me.

For the kids, we handed out different drawing materials, and had a librarian - the very helpful James - stop and start a CD. They loved putting their hands up when the music stopped, and deciding on a new pen or marker.

Library users were not all equally enamoured alas with 'To market, to market' blasting away, but hey. 

Sixty little people had fun drawing, and they learned to listen to the sound of charcoal on a page. Mission accomplished.

Next 2 workshops - free, drop in and good for all ages - are at Dalston CLR James Library on Friday 17 October (more info here) and Stamford Hill Library on Tuesday 21 October, click here for more info. 

Maybe see you there - we'll be rustling pencils either way.

26 September 2014

Letter to Malevitch

Dear Kazimir, 

I first met you during a slide show in a gloomy lecture theatre as an art student at the University of Cape Town. Those lectures were pretty early in the morning so if I wasn't always that awake, when you came up, forgive me. 

Also, a slide of a painting of a black square is a little ho hum, I think you might agree. Last week, we met properly, eyeball to canvas, at the Tate Modern and I saw I had misjudged your work entirely.

I remembered that you were a Russian artist who painted a black square on a canvas and then a white cross on a white canvas and that was a Big Thing at the time, which was somewhere in the tumultuous context of the peasant revolts, of Stalin and Russia in the 1930s. 

(History isn't my strong point Kazimir, so that's roughly about right I hope.)

It was a surprise, on meeting your work at the Tate Modern again, to discover that you also painted portraits of your dad and later your mum. Tender, naturalistic portraits. And wooden bungalows, peasants in the fields. Homages to cubism, to futurism in rich, deep colour. Not the sort of thing I saw you as doing at all when we first met.

I had no idea that you were so into colour. Richly glowing hues, shimmering like icon paintings sometimes. 

The chalky limestone-white backgrounds of your abstract work, the deep almost black plums, yellows both sunny and dirty. Red squares talking to black squares, pinks. Soft greys. I found the language of Suprematism to be surprisingly lyrical. 

The Black Square and all the critical engagement where you were finding a new place for art, was but the half of it, I see that now. 

As a painter, you also paid your dues as a master of colour, space, and the dance of shapes both abstract and figurative.You brought your heart into painting as much as your head, and as such it was a pleasure to get to know you better.

12 September 2014

Everything Changes/Goodbye Summer

Hey, where did the summer go? Seriously. I painted this before heading to Turkey for a week of swims in the Med (which I am deeply grateful for, for sure). The holiday ended, in my case, in a stinking summer cold which meant I was indoors for 10 days watching the sunlight dancing in our London garden. 

A few more weeks of answering emails and next thing I know is I'm packing for a ten day vipassana meditation sit in Herefordshire. Reluctantly. I wanted to bail and seriously considered a last minute cancellation. 

So much time away. So many things to take care of, so much to enjoy and do as an illustrator, as a social media trainer, as a wife and friend. So much on in London.

I got on the train though. And, by the end of the ten days, I was super glad that I did.

I wish I could say it was a time of thoughts landing as softly as autumn leaves on the forest floor, that ten day sit. In the interests of full disclosure though, my mind was more like a bucking filly, clanging into every thought, kicking and rearing at every unpleasant sensation for most of the time. Nothing special about that, I guess.

So much wildness in the mind is revealed when all else is stilled, when life is lived with an inwards focus, sitting in meditation for many, many hours a day as is the programme on mediation courses in the tradition of U Ba Khin and SN Goenka. Unpleasant sensations abound, to put it mildly.

But there are breaks, respite is possible. The woods are my place to soften focus, to loosen my grip a bit. As I walk in the heightened state of sensory awareness that slowly arises on about day 3 or so, I find there is something new to see each time.

Small things: the moss among tree roots, tiny scratch marks around mouse holes in the ground, a pale spider, backlit in the early morning sun, waiting, just waiting in absolute spider trust for the next sustaining moment to unfold.

Tiny, slow changes also, things I'd usually miss completely: over the ten days, small patches of yellowing leaves turn here and there, the beginning of autumn. Apples ripening.

Time to let go of the summer, smilingly, as our meditation teacher, Goenkaji, would say.

Of course, there are also wonderful moments: long, deep, spontaneous in-breaths, the gentle blessing of Hereford rain on the roof of the meditation hall. Space between interior conversations expanding, softly. The capacity for healing opening up, compassion and joy arising as thoughts began to land more gently. 

Thoughts that gradually lose their importance and sense of permanence, no more and no less worth clinging to than the yellowing leaves floating onto the woodland floor. Everything changes, all in a flux, all in a flow (in Goenkaji's words).

More information on 10 day Vipassana sits in Herefordshire and worldwide is here - do feel free to contact me if you're at all curious to know more. It's the best gift you can possibly think of giving to yourself all year. Of that I am sure.