Wednesday 25 November 2015

A tale of four horses

Every commissioned portrait I make is special, and I don't mean because of my artistic skill - far from it! I mean because of the subject. It's because each animal is a one-of-a-kind individual in their appearance, their personality, and their life story. It's also because each human-animal relationship is unique.

When I'm asked to create a portrait of an animal, I'm aware it's because there was something extra-powerful between that human and that animal. I try to come to know each animal as well as I can in the brief time we might meet or, if they've already left this world or simply live too far away, from what their owner can tell me about them. I also work to uncover the particular connection between the person and his or her beloved four-legged friend. It goes without saying that capturing the animal's likeness in a portrait is important. I would add that infusing it with personality is crucial. And when I'm able to tap into the bond between the animal and its human partner, I feel like I've really done my job. 

A pencil drawing I made when I was about 14.
Horses were my first love (see my past blog A History of Horses) so any time I can work on something involving horses, I'm pretty happy about it. Over the last while I've been working on a coloured pencil portrait of not one but four horses - a project to delight the soul of a horse-loving artist like me.

However, along with the joy of creating this new work of art, the project has presented some unique challenges. These four horses span their owner's entire history of horse ownership dating back to the 1970s. Each represents a different time in her life, a different place, a different riding style, a different discipline, a different role. Each horse spent years with her, up until its death with the exception of the most recent arrival who is still going strong. They are of three different breeds but all are chestnut in colour with white markings. Even the two that share the same lineage - quarterhorses - are quite dis-similar in many ways, one with a high-headed, inquisitive expression, the other with a more reserved look about him.

Because three of the horses are deceased I'm limited to available photos - not a significant problem except when considering the size relationship between four animals who never actually lived together and each of whom are different shades of chestnut. The subtleties of their colour differences are not captured well in photos, particularly old slightly-yellowed snapshots. Conversations and consultations with the owner plus her lovingly written descriptions of each horse, his/her personality, and their time together have filled in the gaps. When I asked her, "Why chestnuts?" she said she didn't really know - they found her. She also told me about what she learned from each horse, and is still learning from the last of the four who came into her life not all that long ago - things like patience and bravery. Her bond with each of these individuals was and is unique, shaped by her life and by what each of them brought to her.

And so I am working on this most enjoyable project, starting with this preliminary sketch where I worked out the scale and composition.

They are arranged so that the horse from the most distant past is on the left, progressing through to the most recent on the right. The still-living horse on the right looks away from the other three, signifying his difference from the others.

Below is a photo of the drawing in progress (not a great photo because I took it on the fly using my phone camera under less-than-ideal conditions). I'm never good at photographing my work in progress because I'm simply too caught up in the work to be mindful of stopping to take pictures. However, this one particular photo shows the drawing developing from the ghostly horse on the left, where I'm just starting to build the image, to the more developed horses across the drawing to the right. I'm left-handed, so I usually work from right to left.

Both I and the owner are satisfied with each horse's expression and posture, with the relationship in height between them, and with the overall composition. Now it's just a question of persevering and getting it all done, and done right.

Some time later (and I don't count the hours), the drawing is nearly there:

And, finally, a photo of the finished product, framed and ready to go home:


Thursday 8 October 2015

Getting to know the neighbours

Over the past few weeks of autumn, I spent an extended stay at my Gulf Island refuge, my little yellow cottage in the woods. Not much happens there, by mainland standards, but I'm enjoying the process of gradually getting to know my neighbours.

There's the deer family who have been making themselves seen from almost Day One, a year ago, when the cottage became part of my life. Back then the resident doe had twin fawns in her care who have now grown into young adults but still hang around, sharing mom's company with this year's singleton fawn. I wrote about her early June when I saw her during the first hours after her birth (see Finding Solace).

The resident deer family. Elder brother (centre) sports striking new antlers.
"My" fawn, checking out the rock sculpture I created in my front yard.

There's also a kingfisher family who hangs out at the bay across the road. I watched one day as they appeared to be teaching their youngster fishing techniques, swooping across the water while chattering enthusiastically.


The water in the bay that day teemed with schools of tiny fish, offering a banquet for the kingfishers and no doubt for a heron who was resting quietly nearby, basking in the sun likely with a belly already full from a morning's fishing.

The trees around the cottage always abound with birds but none equal the pileated woodpecker for style and panache. I always know his/her whereabouts by the steady knock-knock-knocking of beak on tree, a steady hammering that echoes through the woods.

Among the lesser creatures who live in the neighbourhood and make themselves seen at this time of year are prolific numbers of spiders. I found a few good-sized ones indoors who I escorted carefully back outside. I respect them and honour their place in the ecosystem but do not relish sharing my living quarters with them, particularly the large ones I found lurking in dark corners when I first arrived back at the cottage after an absence of a few weeks. I'm not sure what kind they were, but they were big and brown and kinda creepy.

And for a small island there are some magnificent, positively enormous banana slugs to be found. 

Down at the shoreline it's been a wonderful time to observe birds, some residents, others transients. I often saw species congregated together, and at least one that was new to me - a black turnstone - giving me another check-mark in my bird book.

An abundance of oystercatchers.

Oystercatchers with crows, a heron and a gull

Black turnstone

A cormorant with pigeons and a gull

It also turned out to be a good time for marine mammals who call the waters around the island home. A pair of humpback whales escorted my ferry to the island, and weeks later, a pod of orcas lead me back to the mainland.

While I was waiting for the ferry home, leaning against the railing at the dock and soaking up the fall sunshine, I heard a "whoooosh" of air and looked down to find myself being observed by a curious seal.

Overall, it was a quiet, meditative time. I puttered around the cottage (the ultimate fixer-upper if ever there was one), went for walks, and worked on art projects, enjoying the solitude shared only with Lily and a few friends who came from the mainland to stay for a night or two.

Young Lily, for whom there is basically no better place on Earth than the cottage, can now add "sheepdog" to her list of accomplishments. One afternoon I was indoors and heard her barking hysterically. I looked out, and this is what I saw:

A blurry photo, taken hastily with my phone, of a
half-dozen wayward sheep headed up my driveway.

A small flock of sheep, who appeared to be on the lam (pun intended), were marching purposefully up the driveway only to be met by Lily who was intent on keeping them firmly at bay - all bristling, barking 20 pounds of her. She was getting her message across, and the sheep paused, eyeing her respectfully. However, they seemed to be on a mission so I quieted her and we let them pass. They disappeared purposefully and silently into the woods behind the cottage. No shepherd came looking for them so I expect they found their way back home eventually via some alternate route, likely to the farm just a few driveways down the road. 

This was probably the single-most exciting event of my sojourn, demonstrating just how low-key my time at the cottage really was.

Lily - not just a pretty face!

It truly is a refuge, my little yellow cottage in the woods, on an island in the Salish Sea. And I'm pleased to be getting acquainted with my interesting assortment of neighbours, marauding flocks of sheep and all. 

Sunday 23 August 2015

Rocky mountain high

For whatever reason, I find I am forever drawn to coastal environments. Perhaps I'm genetically programmed or it's a hold-over from some past life, but given my druthers I head for the sea. However I recently turned my back on the coast and worked my way inland and uphill to a place about as far from the coast imaginable, to the alpine environment high in the Rocky Mountains.

It had been a long, long time since I'd spent any time in the mountains - decades in fact. I'd driven through or flown over the Rockies many times on my way elsewhere, but I hadn't been up close and personal with this part of the world in recent memory.

I'd forgotten the vivid blue of Lake Louise rivals that of the Caribbean Sea I have come to love so well in my travels...

... and that the riot of alpine flowers is quite glorious during the brief summer season of blooms.

I discovered that Moraine Lake, a short way from its internationally famous sister Louise, is every bit as gorgeous - maybe more so - in the depth and variety of colours achieved by its waters and in the surrounding spectacle of dramatic mountain peaks.

I got acquainted with the abundance of bird and animal life that call these rarefied places home, including rodents like chubby ground-squirrels...

... and squeaking pikas, busily engaged storing mounds of "hay" for the approaching winter.

Several times I also observed swimming water shrews harvesting floating insects at the water's edge but they moved too quickly for a decent photo.

But my delight was in the birds... scores of them... particularly warblers which were rearing their families during the brief alpine summer and taking advantage of the short but intense season of profuse insect life. Usually glimpsed fleetingly during their migration through my home turf, here they were putting on a show and not at all camera shy. 

Yellow rumped warbler

Before long they would be heading to lower elevations and milder, more southerly locations for the winter months, but in mid-August they still had a couple of weeks of work ahead of them to get their babies and themselves ready for the journey ahead. 

And of course there were the resident members of the corvid family in abundance.

Clark's Nutcracker

The real treat was a couple of days in the back-country area of Lake O'Hara, a place were visitor numbers are regulated so there were no bustling crowds of international sight-seers, only more dedicated outdoorsy people, but the sights were no less spectacular. More birds, little furry beasties, gorgeous, pristine scenery, and thankfully no up-close-and-personal encounters with the local grizzly bear population. It's a place I would gladly visit again.

Lake O'Hara
Goldeneye duck
One of the area's many hiking trails

The disturbing note to all of this is that the magnificent glaciers that once reached the water's edge of many of the region's lakes have now shrunk to a fraction of their former sizes, and it's impossible not to believe this is anything but the outcome human-induced climate change. There is speculation that the alpine lakes' vivid colours will fade once the glaciers eventually disappear and no longer feed minerals into the water. What a sad shame that would be. And what other impacts would the loss of these glaciers have on this magnificent, fragile environment?

For the time being, I will hold this trip to the Rockies in my memory. Although the seashore is where I feel most at home, I'm left feeling exhilarated and inspired, with ideas for future artwork in the making.

McArthur Lake


Thursday 9 July 2015

Starting small

Small things have always appealed to me, both as an individual and as an artist. Maybe it's due to a lifetime spent in south western British Columbia, cocooned among trees and foliage. I'm tuned into the flicker of feathers, the wobble of a wiggling insect, the unfurling fiddlehead of a fern, a ripple on the surface of a pond. I can be distracted by dew on moss, the intricacies of lichen, the patterns of leaves, but mostly, as my readers and art appreciators know, I'm drawn to birds and animals. They're like sparks of energy, especially the wild creatures encountered unexpectedly in the forest or on the shore. I'm not one for expansive landscapes or vast, open skies. While I adore the shoreline, where forest meets ocean, I like the security of trees and boulders nearby. I'd just as soon peer into a tidal pool as gaze out at the open ocean. When I venture onto a mountain top or into a prairie, I'm prone to be looking down to see what's going on around my feet rather than admire the grand vista.

A small drawing of
an oystercatcher.
Now, as I'm lured back into my studio once again for some art-making after a sabbatical of several months, it seems fitting that I start small. The vivid hues of dyes flowing through silk feel overwhelming at the moment, and my attention span is too short to cope with the hours upon hours required to complete a large, intricate coloured pencil piece. What fits for me right now are small drawings - little things that fit in the palm of my hand or, if I'm fulfilling my liking for skinny shapes, across two hands.

There's a sweetness about working small, an innocence to be found in exploring a subject on a basis that's limited by size and therefore time. I can capture the essence, the attitude, the pose, the feel, a little bit of the environment, a few details, and voilà... it's done. I'm working with my familiar friends - my coloured pencils - but by working small there's no huge commitment, no great struggle, just a satisfying foray into consigning an image to paper. The right thing when life's other challenges are just shy of overwhelming.

I also find myself lured by subjects that honor the renewal of life. A friend of mine has the good fortune of having a flycatcher couple nesting by her house - actually ON her house, wedged onto the plastic box that houses telecommunication cables. The birds themselves are not particularly striking - small but exquisitely beautiful in their simple elegance.

Their nest, squashed against the wall, is a marvel to behold - a cozy work of art woven from moss and lichen and bits of grass. The pair is now in the process of brooding a second family, having successfully launched four babies into the world a while ago.

The flycatcher's nest filled with sleepy chicks.

Another bird family - some killdeer - very nearly brought me to my knees recently out of simple gratitude for the opportunity to witness them. The mother did her species' characteristic broken wing performance or I would not have even realized there were chicks in the vicinity, but there they were: fuzz-balls on chopstick legs darting among the seaweed and boulders on a Vancouver Island beach.

They blended so well with the environment I noticed them only when they scurried from one point to the next where they would freeze, motionless, till they carried on again. Their parents shrieked warnings continually all the while, or perhaps they were attempting to distract me, despite my assurances that I meant no harm and the respectful distance I maintained.

While I expected that my art might be changed in some fundamental way when I returned to the studio, so far I am finding comfort in simply scaling down. It feels OK just to focus on subjects I love in a medium in which I'm fluent. The time for experimentation may come, but not just yet... not till I regain my equilibrium and learn to breathe again.

And now, back to the tiny drawing board.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Finding Solace


One of my greatest sources of solace these days is time I spend at my little yellow Gulf Island cottage. I find comfort in the simplicity of life on this small island in the Salish Sea, in a ramshackle-but-cozy abode set among tall trees, just a short stroll from a quiet beach.

All around me at this time of year there are song birds. From my porch I regularly see and/or hear creepers, nuthatches, towhees, various sparrows, chickadees, wrens, robins, warblers, flashy pileated woodpeckers and their less dashing cousins the downies, hairies, flickers and sapsuckers. I am often entertained by songs I'm unable to identify.

This evening when we wandered down to the beach, Lily and I watched a flotilla of adult Canada geese with a crèche of goslings of various ages making their way along the shoreline.

Eagles, ravens and gulls abound, as did migrants like mergansers, loons and scoters earlier in the spring. However the transients, like these surf scoters (below) that I observed from the ferry last month, have by now moved on.

On the private island across the straight the exotic cry of peacocks – yes peacocks – echoes across the water, giving the evening an enchanted air.

I awoke the other morning to an owl calling softly outside my window. On another dawn a rustling sound on the roof caused me to look up and there was a raccoon hanging over the eaves peering upside-down into the window above my bed!

One day turned out to be all about amphibians. Out for a walk, Lily and I found an captivating spot: a secluded little pond. 

Frogs abounded, leaping into the water as we approached. This one seemed to know we meant no harm and was kind enough to hold his pose among the moss at the base of a tree:

I noticed a ripple on the water's surface and looked a little closer, only to realize the source was several salamanders, lazing about together in a comradely fashion.

Back at the cottage some time later that day, dear little Pacific tree frog hopped just a few feet from my doorstep and alighted on a rotted stump where he/she waited patiently while I fetched my camera.

But the highlight of the day was this:

Islanders tend to take the abundant population of deer for granted, mainly viewing them as pests that require high fences to protect vulnerable plants, and methods to control the burgeoning deer population are often controversial topics of discussion. However, I don’t think I will ever feel anything less than profoundly grateful for being granted a moment like this. 
The doe hid her tiny fawn among the trees by my driveway and later returned (Lily was confined to the house for the duration). Unfortunately my camera battery failed and my spare was in the car when she called her baby from its hiding place and nursed it for a time before disappearing into the undergrowth. Perhaps that was something I was simply meant to observe and not record.
It was a sweet and special moment, offering me a glimpse of the continuity of life, of renewal and rebirth at a time when my mind all too often dwells in the past.