Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Down Below the Dunes

   Last Sunday we went a little way up the coast with friends to walk by the feet of the dunes at the mouth of the River Ythan.  The night before, after some guests went home, we'd slipped out for a walk in the haar, a heavy and cold sea fog that comes ashore on the east coast of Scotland.  The fog was so thick that the city and lighthouses all disappeared and our hair grew wet.  We walked far out on the spring tide sea floor, and took off our shoes to wade through icy tidal streams.  And then to warm up, at home we built a roaring fire, wrapped ourselves in blankets and drank the hottest tea.  So it was a surprise that the following day the weather was warm enough to wear the summer clothes that have been hiding at the back of the wardrobe since we moved here.  The whole day was a hazy blue dream.


Coming down to the estuary, there were seals basking just across the river and eider ducks everywhere.  We stood looking at the few little families of seals clustered by the water's edge, rolling onto their backs and watching little light-grey cubs break away from the others to bump along up the beach.  And then we looked further, out towards the sea...

I'd never heard it before, but grey seals, at least when they are in a large group, make an eerie howling cry which sounds like a lonesome wind blowing.  Somehow we hadn't noticed them at all at first, and I suppose we really did think all that wailing was just the wind whistling past.

Every now and then there would be another sound, a great rustling and splashing as a huge number of the colony would inexplicably all start shifting down the beach and out to sea, all at once. Though, there were always many who lingered behind, too.

And so we strolled on, drank tea from a flask and ate scones from a bag.

It is so hard to stay indoors these days.  There is always the temptation of beaches, light in the sky until eight in the evening, fresh air on bare legs, and the flowers in the branches overhead, with little breezes to make the petals flutter down like snowflakes.

  Just now it seems it would be so lovely to stop time for a little while, at least.

Thursday, 22 March 2012


   Behind these windowpanes that look out onto the rooftop world of birds, there has been a blizzard of tiny brush strokes, despite the warm and early spring outdoors.  

Miniature strokes, best calculated in fictitious units of measurement, have traced their way over a tiny wooden board and then over each other until layers of paint stood on layers of paint which stood on layers of paint.

Some days I painted feathers all day long, and then went to bed only to continue painting them in my dreams.

I only have a small table-top easel that I carried home from Istanbul a few years ago, rather than a big, fine one that adjusts to different heights, so sometimes it becomes painful to paint.  But even when straining in low corners, back bent, shoulders locked, and lip bitten, I took pleasure in the making of this.  Though, of course, it is very nice to step back, straighten my spine, and see it finished.

I have always liked sparrows, enjoyed watching little groups of them hopping about and taking dust baths only an arm's length away.  One of my earliest memories is of sitting outside on a sunny morning watching them while I waited for someone to take me to school.  It must have been when I was only about three because I was at my grandparents' house. 

I have read somewhere or other that for medieval artists, sparrows symbolized the baser, coarser aspects of human existence.  Because their little flocks lived in such close proximity to people, they were seen as a mirror of society and used as a tool for criticism of lewd behaviour.  I'm no longer sure where I read that, but I do tend to feel a bit more for them than that.  In Japan, someone once told me than they carry the souls of the dead to the other world.

I did try to give each one of these birds painted here a sense of individuality and purpose, a little glimmer of something different in each face in the group.  A choice, maybe.

Another thing I tried to accomplish was to move the viewer's eyes through the painting, snaking back and forth across it all the way down to the bottom, to where the line of sparrows ends, so that each bird would be examined in turn as the eyes travelled past them.

Perhaps this post has repeated that sort of snaking motion through the painting.  So, at the end of this side-stepping procession of words and images, let me put together these details and share the whole painting...

Feathers, oil on wood, 24.5 x 30 cm

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Quiet Days

   A week or more ago I almost posted these photos and some other words, but went to sleep instead.  Now a fat moon is rising over the rooftops in front of me, blueberry and vanilla bean ice cream is being made in the kitchen, and I will try again.  Sometimes this computer just acts like two mirrors aimed at one another so that perfect living rooms and handmade dishes play out to infinity and it is better to sleep.

Oh, quiet days.  Some of them are spent only painting wings, feather by feather, as new paintings gestate in some secret place.  Most other days covering for people at work, counting the hours.  Everyone is on holiday.  And yet, all through the drudging hours I am secretly full of joy, pregnant with unmade paintings.

Yesterday we walked through the dark and gusting wind and pouring rain to listen to a free lecture.  I had wrapped a scarf around my head and shoulders to keep off the rain, since there was too much wind for an umbrella, and when I went inside and took the scarf off, all the dye turned my hands black.  Luckily that was the worst of it.


Enough shuffling about in shadowy winter, the sun pools in quiet places and lingers a little in the sky after the working day is through.