Some Coot, Coots or maybe Cootses

The Coot, Fulica atra, the dark waterbird.

Coming back from holiday always takes a bit readjustment and I am well behind in my various projects. I didn’t get any sketching done in Amsterdam so output was low but input very high.
The Museums, bars, canals markets, food and people were so much fun and so interesting, even in the rain, that we are going back in the autumn.
However it was my turn over on Beautiful Beasts last week and after seeing a feisty coot on one of the canals I decided to do some coot sketches.  You can read more about these sketches on Beautiful Beasts: see Canal Coot and A Cute…ah no….a Coot Chick.

Near the Rijksmuseum, sections of the canal have been planted with nesting platforms of water plants, just a few feet from the bank. This small coot was very busy chasing anything and everything, including us, away from her nest which contained at least one not-very-pretty little chick.

canal coot

Her ugly baby

But I am very fond of coot and see them all the time round the reservoir. I had made this sketch of one of our local birds last year.


It’s also also given  me the opportunity to finish a trial scraperboard of a coot chick which I had started some years ago.


Scraperboard on the desk..


Scraperboard 4 x 5 inches

In reality the very small chicks are odd looking, with their red/orange bald head and a halo of yellow feathers. They lose these quite quickly. The characteristic white shield of the adult bird, which gives rise to the old saying “as bald as a coot” takes about a year to develop.

coot-baby-sketch-bg      coot-wcol-bgv

Coot are comical and very attractive. I am fascinated by their feet. I am planning a print.:)

Black Adders from the Black Fens

Holme Fen

On Saturday we went to Holme Fen, a remaining fragment of peaty forested fen, not what you would expect from fenland really.


Shimmering silver birches at Holme Fen on Saturday 8th March

It has a fascinating history and was once a part of Whittlesea Mere, the largest lake in lowland England which was 3 miles across and a venue for ice skating in the winter, fishing and sailing. It was drained at last by the Victorians in 1851 with John Appold’s, Steam Pump brought up from the Great Exhibition.

“The wind, which of autumn of 1851 was curling the blue water of the lake, in the autumn of 1853 was blowing the same place over fields of yellow corn.” Skertchy (1877

But one small piece of the reclamation, which is now the Nature Reserve was considered too wet to cultivate and gradually returned to birch forest.
My information from Natural England’s trail leaflet PDF here.

The Peat

Walkng through these elegant birch woods was easy going, the ground under your feet is springy, so unlike the yellow sticky mud that we have been trudging through here for the past few months. The peat here escaped exploitation and despite astonishing shrinkage, (as you can see by the Fen Post), they think the peat still extends 3 meters down over most of the site.


Chris standing by the post. His head is by the 1870 marker. The peat was level with the top of the post in 1851. The peat had shrunk to this mark in only 19 years.

Fenland Adders

Black, beautiful peat, back-breakingly dug for years mostly for fuel, also creates good adder habitat; black adders in particular if you read old accounts of peat cutting from the Fens. They were said to rise up suddenly, unseen against the black fen soil and frightening the land workers.

Other grim Fenland adder stories in Witches and Black Adders from Yaxley History which make me feel even more sorry for these lovely snakes. In 1963 Sybil Marshall published the Fenland Chronicle, her parents memories written in their Fenland dialect and detailing life on the Cambridgeshire Fens. It is a fascinating read and tells some good adder stories. More of those another time but she does say:

Needless to say we had a healthy respect for adders-nobody only a born fool would want to be too familiar with them. They abounded in the fen and were a common sight to the turf diggers who couldn’t be said to be frightened of them, even if they didn’t make pet on ‘em”

It would seem logical for adders to be black as camouflage against the black fenland soil but they consider adder colouration is more genetic than in response to habitat.

black adder Paul Smith

Paul Smith’s photo from the ARC website again see more here

Adder Sketches

I am still thinking about how to develop the adder image. More sketches today. I wonder if I can redress the balance a bit with my portrayal and have an adder loving fen man with adders fondly clustering round, or perhaps 2 dancing adders ( the mating dance) with the peat diggers in the distance.


Rough ideas  A4 sketchbook


2 thumbnail ideas for a possible print.

I am also rather interested in their eyes. They are a beautiful orange red with a slit pupil unlike the grass snake and slow worm whose eyes have round pupils.


Watercolour sketches of the eyes; adder,grass snake, slowworm ( which is really a legless lizard, hence the eyelid)

Adders and Grass Snakes have no eyelids but a transparent scale called a brille which covers the eye and is part of their skin. Just before shedding this brille  turns blueish, clouding the eye.  After the old skin has peeled away, the adders eye is returned to its glowing brilliance. Amazing. For more adder love see artist Ben Waddam’s short film on a peat bog adder here.

PS: If you were wondering about the name Blackadder it doesn’t have much to do with snakes!

The Bone Drawings: Beautiful Labyrinth, Something of the Rabbit, Lucy’s Skull and a Tiny Corset.

I have spent a very happy week drawing bones for Beautiful Beasts. After sketching and printmaking it’s great to sit down for some concentrated observation. I started off with sketches and then looked for some particular aspect of the bone that appealed to me. Here are the drawings. For more explanations and photos etc click on the titles to go to the Beautiful Beasts blog posts.

Under the Skin 2: The Beautiful Labyrinth….

A long bone I found near the reservoir. At one end there is glimpse of the interior structure. That’s what I liked


A4 Sketchbook: pencil.


The whole bone: pencil


Detail of above… the part I liked


Pencil study of the beautiful labyrinthine structure. I could have gone on for days …

Under the Skin 3 : Something of the Rabbit about it

A curious thing, I now know to be a rabbit’s jawbone.


Pencil with a stray piece of dry grass.


Watercolour study


Drybrush  watercolour study


Under the Skin 4 : Lucy’s Skull and the Tiny Corset

The lovely muntjac skull that my friend Lucy gave me.


A4 Sketchbook


Watercolour Study


Gouache study

The Tiny Corset

The last bone. It’s a small upturned skull which was casting a long eloquent shadow, or it’s a tiny corset for a fairy, whichever you prefer.


Pencil:  4 x 2 inches.

Footbone note : The reproduction of pencil work has always been problematic. It still is. Scanning tends to reflect the shiny dark pencil and lightens the image. It  becomes a poor thing in relation to its original, with many mid and light tones missing. It’s fine as a record but when I see fine pencil work on the internet I can appreciate just how good the original must be.

Small Beginnings: Devil’s Toenails

“Beginnings” are always exciting and surely nothing can be more exciting than the earliest forms of life. Fossils, I thought might be the perfect place to start my year of exploring the world of Beasts. This first week then will explore my local fossils. I live by Grafham Reservoir whose shoreline is littered with shelly fossils. They are mostly Gryphaea remains, otherwise known, delightfully, as “devils toenails”.

Gryphaea, a fossil bivalve

This beautiful image is from the Natural History Museum’s page on the Gryphaea of Lyme Regis.
The ones we see here are much more weathered and misshapen but there is still the magic feeling  of handling something so very ancient. They are from the early Jurassic period approx 199-189 million years ago. There must be millions of them here. Most of the ones from the shore here look like this:


Devils Toenails from Grafham Reservoir shore Jan 2014


A typical piece of the “shingle”in today’s sun. It’s mostly made up of bits of graphaea from a bay on the reservoir that I, really creatively, call Devil’s Toe Nail Cove.


Devils Toenails 2012 Sketches from earlier P&L post, inspired by their odd shapes. In life the Gryphaea were bivalves and relatives of our oysters. From Bristol University’s site  Fossil Types

 GRYPHAEA (or Devil’s Toenail): An extinct genus of bivalve. It is believed to have been an unattached recumbent recliner on the sea floor, with its very own self-righting mechanism if a strong current knocked it out of the sediment.

From the Natural History Museum’s Gryphaea page

“As a bivalve it possesses two valves. The valves are markedly unequal in size and shape, the left valve is strongly incurved, the right valve is small and flat. The left shell is thick and its surface is marked with numerous ridges. They lived on the sea floor with the flat right valve facing up, it probably acted like a lid, when open allowing water carrying oxygen and nutrients to flow in and be filtered out of the water.”

Having read this, it now makes more sense of the shape.

Devil’s Toenails: Graphaea Fossils from Grafham Water


Pencil on cartridge 8 x10”

I did find one today with a fraction of the “lid” intact. See the drawing top left. It explains some other odd shaped things I have found.

Devils Toenail?
The name does seem rather obvious when you see the gnarled and twisted shapes. Some may have thought they were the actual  toenails of demons. In that case there were legions of demons around Grafham, which could account for quite a bit. More about these strange creatures, other local fossils and their inhabitants tomorrow.

A Lucky White Hart for 2014

Here’s to a New Creative Year of prints, drawings, paintings, books, 3D and more.. Four particularly lovely things to look forward to:

  • This month I start contributing to Beautiful Beasts, an art blog shared with my friend Sue.
  • I will be developing ideas for the Dragon Puppet.
  • More printmaking will be happening over at PrintDaily
  • And I am getting ideas, research and sketches together for an Indian inspired piece.

Four particularly lovely things from the past few days:

  • Seeing the truly inspiring Shunga Exhibition at the British Museum (which is, without a doubt, my favourite place). Sex and superb printmaking is a heady mix.
  • Dining delightfully on delicious Dim Sum in Chinatown.
  • Watching Small Town Murder Songs with the extraordinarily sublime soundtrack from Bruce Peninsula.
  • Watching Lucinda Williams performing Joy from quite a few years ago..sheer Joy.

And as it’s a time for resolutions I have a few art related ones; to get back to sketching, to get out to more different locations to sketch, to get the oils out and, finally, this year, to get a long overdue website up. I did make a start today. It is going to be a busy year..


White Hart: reduction lino print with gilded leaves.

see printdaily

A sighting of a White Hart was considered a good omen by some.

Let it be so!
A Happy New Year to All!