Wildflowers, clouds and a photobomb

Cow parsley in the afternoon sun. The view is from the start of the flowers looking up at a summer blue sky filled with fluffy clouds

The sun was shining for the first time in what feels like ages yesterday afternoon on my walk. I spotted a few lovely things I thought I’d share in lieu of prints (which are percolating) while I work on my website and newsletter.

Did I mention the newsletter? 😉 Do sign up and you’ll receive the inaugural issue which is due soon!

My dog is largely oblivious to flowers though flowers have evolved to take full advantage of his longer hair and the “feathers” on his legs and feet with their cunning “sticky” seeds. I swear it’s like taking a piece of Velcro for a walk. EVERYTHING sticks to him. Still, this has improved the biodiversity of my garden where most of his nature finds are removed.

Anyway, on our travels in the warm sun and cool wind we saw: Queen Anne’s lace and little fluffy clouds (shout out to the 90s music fans out there!).

A close up of the disc-shaped umbel of a cow parsley plant. Umbellifers have many of these, which are made up of many tiny flowers held on short flower stalks.

Anthriscus sylvestris is important for lots of insects, including bees and hoverflies, as it’s an early source of pollen. It’s also a nectar source for orange-tip butterflies.

I rather like the most common name for this beautiful flower, “cow parsley” sounds bucolically pretty but has other common names depending on where you are in the UK: Queen Anne’s Lace, fairy lace, lady’s lace, wild chervil, hedge parsley, Keck (or Queque depending on where you are in the UK), Wild Parsley, Adder’s Meat, Devil’s Meat, Bad Man’s Oatmeal, and the worst—and yet most sensible—of all; mother die.

Perhaps Queen Anne’s Lace refers to Queen Anne’s habit of travelling the country in May, which led people to believe that these lacey flowers decorated the hedgerows especially for her. Another common name “mummy die” was presumably used to discourage children from picking these pretty flowers. For pretty they may be, but they can also easily be mistaken for some poisonous umbellifers like hemlock.

If you think you’re seeing more cow parsley than usual in the verges as you venture further afield this year, you probably are. Alas they are becoming a monoculture in our verges due to roadsides being more fertile than they were 30 years ago (agricultural run-off, cuttings left in place by local councils, and even car exhausts all contribute). Although it seems counterintuitive, many of our wild flowers needs much less fertile soil to flourish so they are doing less well on our verges.

NB this is not Daucus carota which is called Queen Anne’s Lace but only in North America.

We also saw Horse chestnut flowers (Aesculus hippocastanum):

A close up view of horse chestnut flowers showing some still with their yellow nectar guides while the majority of pollinated flowers now have reddy-pink guides

Horse chestnut flowers are mostly white (though there are some cultivated red/pink ones). The flowers have nectar guides which are yellow when the flower first opens and change to deep reddy-pink once the flower has been pollinated. Why the colour change? Well, bees can’t see red colours so they no longer visit the pollinated flowers, only the pollinated ones.

We also saw a very photogenic dandelion clock:

A dandelion clock stands along in front of the grass at the very edge of a verge.

Well, it was photogenic until the canine photobomber detonated it and it all stuck to him ready to float away merrily as we made our way home...

A black dog sits in front of the cow parsley at the edge of a verge

‘Alert’ – Limited Edition Relief Print

A black and white relief print of a male starling. He’s standing on some old, weathered wood. His wings are tucked but he is alert, and his head feathers are raised. Whatever he is looking at is out of the image and he is facing right to look at it. Perhaps he’s spotted a chunk of fat ball another bird has missed, or another starling has decided to join his feast.

Inspiration

I’ve spent a long time this spring watching the starlings picking through the lawn looking for invertebrates. They’re so gregarious and gently quarrelsome.

I love the iridescent colours of their feathers and the tawny coloured arrowheads at the tips.

It’s sad that although still relatively common in gardens, these glorious little birds have declined so much elsewhere that they are Red Listed.

The UK Red List for birds keeps track of how different species are doing, and any birds that are rated red are in need of urgent action. Shockingly, one in four of our birds is now on that list, 67 species in total.

Source: RSPB website

Design

Here’s the drawing transferred to the block (in reverse), ready for me to start cutting.

The drawing transferred (in reverse) to the linoleum block, ready to start cutting

Here’s the block inked up for the first time, ready for me to pull a proof and see what more I need to do to the block to make it print just so.

A black and white relief printing block which has been inked up for the first time. The block is of a male starling. He’s standing on some old, weathered wood. His wings are tucked but he is alert, and his head feathers are raised.

I’m not sure if the paper I use will take any kind of water based colour but once the prints are dry I might have a bit of a play with the test prints to see whether I can get away with it!

A black and white relief print of a male starling. He’s standing on some old, weathered wood. His wings are tucked but he is alert, and his head feathers are raised. Whatever he is looking at is out of the image and he is facing right to look at it. Perhaps he’s spotted a chunk of fat ball another bird has missed, or another starling has decided to join his feast.

If you would like to buy one of these prints, be quick as there are only 30 in the edition!

The ‘Instruments of Hope’ Series of Relief Prints

A linocut relief print of a retro chrome microphone gleaming under studio lights.

...And now for something a little bit different!

My other half is an ardent gig-goer. In ordinary times, he is out at gigs two, three or sometimes even more times a week.

He really missed seeing new and familiar artists at his favourite venues in 2020 and we know many of those grassroots music venues were already struggling before the virus threw a massive spanner in the works.

So, for his birthday, I made him this print. I told him he could either a) own the only print ever, and I would destroy the plate afterwards (yes, I love him that much!) or...

b) he could have a print and I would sell the rest as an open edition with £5 from every sale going to his favourite music venue(s).

“Better than that,” he said, “could it go to the Music Venue Trust?”

Music Venue Trust logo in black and white
Save Our Venues - The Red List is a national initiative launched by the MVT to prevent the permanent closure of music venues most at risk due to the Covid crisis.

During the last 8 months, Music Venue Trust and Crowdfunder have worked together to prevent the closure of hundreds of grassroots music venues. With no end to the crisis in sight, we are now refocusing that work to spotlight those venues under most imminent threat of permanent closure. The #SaveOurVenues Red List highlights the grassroots music venues at most risk.

We’ve checked all the available funding, financial support, furlough schemes, business support for these venues, and what is on offer is not enough to prevent them being lost. These 30 venues are on the Critical List and need your help.

These grassroots venues play a crucial role in the development of British music, nurturing local talent, providing a platform for artists to build their careers and develop their music and their performance skills. These venues also play a vital role in the cultural and economic vibrancy of any village, town or city.

Once I'd realised the scale of the task the MVT was facing, one print became two prints and soon enough I'd put a whole band of prints together! We want to make sure that when everyone can get out gigging again, there are places to do it, so we hope that the 'Instruments of Hope' prints series will help the MVT support grassroots music venues.

Do head on over to the gallery page if you’d like to buy one the prints in the series and help keep grass roots music venues open.

Please Note: Donations to the Music Venue Trust will be made privately by me as an individual from sales of this print.

A suggested arrangement of black and white relief prints of a retro microphone, a black semi-acoustic guitar, a keyboard, a bass guitar, and a snare drum with brushes. Each print is A5 in size and has a narrow black border. They are in slightly wider black “frames” the size of the paper (A4). They are arranged in the same manner as the five dots on a dice; two at the top (mic, portrait; keys, landscape), one in the middle (guitar, portrait), and two at the bottom (drum, landscape; bass headstock, portrait).

Choose your own “Old English” adventure

Oh. My. Goodness…

At University I fell head over heals in love with Old and Middle English.

My supervisor had a map on his wall which was titled thus: “The Dark Ages Good Old Days”. I thought this was the most perfect way to sum up such a fascinating era.

I loved the sounds of the words, the illuminations in the manuscripts, the amazing art objects. All of it just amazed and delighted me.

And in another of those “many worlds colliding” ways, I don’t think I could love this beautifully made “Choose Your Own Adventure” way to translate and solve Old English Riddle 57 any more.

‘Red’ – Limited Edition Relief Print

A linocut relief print of a red squirrel standing up and facing the viewer with his tail up behind him and his forelegs almost touching on his abdomen.

Inspiration

Alas I have only ever seen a Red Squirrel in a captive breeding population but these plucky little mammals have made a comeback in Scotland thanks to some fantastic conservation projects and an increasing Pine Marten population. It is thought that since Grey Squirrels spend more time on the ground than the native reds they are more likely to come into contact with the martens, with a lower population of greys as a result.

The red squirrel eats seeds, nuts, berries and although they will cache food they are not as good as their grey counterparts at remembering where they put it… so they may also be responsible for planting a good few conifers.

That wonderful bushy tail helps the red squirrel to balance and move around in the branches as well as when jumping from one tree to another. It may also help keep the animal warm while it sleeps.

Red squirrels moult twice a year; a thinner summer coat is replaced by a thicker winter-ready coat in autumn. This is also the time for longer ear tufts, naturally!

Design

Those ear tufts definitely had to feature and that tail was going to be fun to carve!

I alter the design as I work on the plate. The squirrel itself changed the most during the course of making the plate. As you can see, it started out rather dark.

Original graphite drawing of a pheasant

The arrows on the linoleum floor tiles show which side of the tile should be laid facing up (the one without arrows) and they don't affect the prints at all.

The graphite drawing in reverse on a linoleum tile

I decided I wanted the pine to be slightly abstracted, so while I was cutting I decided to outline the needles which would in turn be all white. This creates a gentle juxtaposition between the bold, graphic pine fronds (a throwback to my days illustrating books) and the much more naturalistic cutting of the squirrel.

Lino tile with a pheasant design mid-way through cutting. All the negative space in the grasses has been cut away

Once the squirrel and pine were all outlined and I had established the outside of the tail, it was time to focus on the way the hair on the body falls over muscles and limbs.

It never ceases to amaze me that it is possible to describe a 3D sculpted form in a 2D medium, especially one like relief cutting where you must rely on either the presence or absence of ink... The absences in the tail were a lot of fun to carve!

Finished plate of the red squirrel carved and ready for the test print

And here's the plate before its very first inking for a test print. Typically I am very conservative with how much I carve away before I test a print. Once it’s gone, it’s gone in relief printing, so it can take many test prints removing a hair here or adding some more negative space there until I arrive at a final design for the plate.

If you need this winter-coated, ear-tufted red squirrel in your life, hurry over to its gallery page as there are only 30 hand-pulled prints in this edition!

‘The Prize’ – Limited Edition Relief Print

A linocut relief print of a brown trout leaping from stylised water towards a may fly. The trout's mouth is open and splashes and drops show dynamic movement, even in a static print

Inspiration

When I was very young I found a male Pheasant tail feather. This was duly carried home with much care and became one of the most prized parts of my growing collection of nature finds. Every walk in the countryside seemed to be accompanied by the sound of a cock Pheasant crowing to attract more hens to his harem or let other males know he was there and he meant business. “Chuuuur-kuk!”

Their natural fear of humans means it is rare to get close enough to a Pheasant to admire the cock birds’ iridescent blue-green heads, white neck ring and bright red wattles. These, together with the pale coloured hooked beak, ought to make them look somewhat regal, but I find their ear tufts give them a charmingly comical look.

Ours was one of the pockets of the country where Pheasants have naturalised, though with many “escaping” from shoots over the years it is hard to tell which birds were bred for sport and which by wild parents. All the same, one truly memorable day we found a Pheasant nest in last year’s bracken under a hedge. A shallow bowl, not two inches deep, lined with grass and filled with eleven smooth, pale olive green eggs, still warm; the hen wasn’t far away so we retreated to watch and she returned, checked the eggs were as she left them and settled down to brood.

A few weeks later we saw another hen with twelve stripy chicks still in tow. Amazingly they can fly only two weeks after hatching so these flightless little ones were pretty young, still. The hen was hard to make out against the landscape with her mottled plumage and it was only when the chicks moved that we could see them at all.

Design

I liked the idea of a showing a pheasant in the offseason, the summer grasses just starting to go to seed—a prize for the hens in his harem.

In a previous life I was a graphic designer and this sensibility informs my printmaking. The grasses would need to be very bold and graphic, some positive and some negative where they were placed in front of the pheasant. This also meant all the gaps between the grass—the negative space in the design—would need to be cut away.

Original graphite drawing of a pheasant

I alter the design as I work on the plate, so this drawing is a little different from the finished print at the top of the post.

The graphite drawing in reverse on a linoleum tile

Once I transfer the drawing to the lino tile, that helps me see things I didn't see before the drawing was reversed. And so the design evolves: as I cut more material away, I re-draw, and reconsider.

Lino tile with a pheasant design mid-way through cutting. All the negative space in the grasses has been cut away

Here's the design mid-way through cutting. All the negative space in the grasses has been cut away, no mean feat with the 0.5mm U gouge given to me by the friend who started me on my linocutting journey! Though as this was my second print I had bought a set of cheap linocutting tools to clear the material from the outside of the plate. Doing all that with a teeny gouge really would have taken me forever.

I took some of the loose grasses away from the bottom of the plate in a later stage.

Finished plate ready to print

And here's the plate before its very first inking for a test print. I carved more material away, especially on the head but as you can only take material away, it’s good to err on the side of caution.

If you would like to buy one of the hand-pulled prints from this edition of just 30, thank you! Please head over to the gallery page.

‘The Catch’ – Limited Edition Relief Print

A linocut relief print of a brown trout leaping from stylised water towards a may fly. The trout's mouth is open and splashes and drops show dynamic movement, even in a static print

Inspiration

When I was very young we lived near a fishery. Some of my favourite walks took us around the big lake which was bordered by a long rhododendron alley on one side and overhanging beeches and willows on the other.

I loved to feel the air change passing through the tunnel of rhododendrons. The air was stiller in the dense shade and cooler, even in the height of summer. Even the smell of the air changed as the tunnel captured the unique scent of the waterlogged soil into which the rhodies pushed their eager roots. The sound changed, too, from the soft muffle of earth-bound steps to the rubbery metallic tang of wellington boots tramping over duckboards with their carpets of chicken-wire to aid grip.

Leaving the tunnel behind and making towards the head of the lake which was fed by a river, the soil changed; its texture became sandy and very satisfying for writing words in with a finger or a stick. Turning, the whole of the lake was visible all the way down to the road bridge over the waterfall leading to the lower lake.

When there was a breeze, the wind would pick at the top of the water, making hundreds of wavelets that ran away towards the fall, but on a still day the water would be mirror-calm, waiting.

One such calm spring day, from the side of the lake overhung with trees, I first saw the spectacle of Brown Trout leaping from the water to catch the bounty of the Mayfly hatch.

A drawing of a brown trout on a lino tile

Design

Originally, I planned to make this print as a testament to those who fished the lake from the banks and boats, as eager to catch a trout, as the trout were to catch the bounty of flies, who in turn were intent on displaying and breeding. The trout would be under the water and the fly attached to a leader.

But, as so often happens (in fishing as in drawing), as I continued sketching, the trout started to jump for the fly and the design for the print took shape.

Lino tile showing arrows

Process

Many printers use battleship grey linoleum. I learnt using an offcut of a linoleum flooring tile and a gouge donated by a friend.

Since then all my prints are cut from the same flooring tile because I have found that it holds even the finest of details and can withstand hours of being rubbed by hand with a baren to create an edition.

Finished plate ready to print

The same friend who donated the gouge and lino offcut also donated ink and a mostly unused pack of Japanese washi paper to the cause. I’m not sure either of us foresaw that this generous gift would lead to me finding a medium that allows me capture how I feel about a subject with lines and gaps and ink and paper, but there isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not glad for lovely friends!

Finished plate ready to print, inking up for the first time is always an exciting moment!

If you would like to buy one of these prints, be quick as there are only 24 in the edition!