Positive anthroposcenery #2

The Rhinoceros beetle; currently common in the UK (Wildlife Trust). Its lifecycle depends on dead wood and so it may reasonably expect to outlive us.

This painting is in very dilute watercolour on a mirror tile. The effect is to ‘ghost’ the image and put the viewer prominently in the scene. If we don’t reduce our emissions dramatically and quickly, while it may outlive us, this may not be for long.

This weird beast with apparent suckers on its margins is a Comma butterfly and I have given up on mirror tiles!

18th August. My intention was to paint a scene I photographed a few years ago – Brighton beach with a ‘city’ of wind turbines and ships on the horizon. It has not gone well.

Acrylics thinned with gloss varnish on black card. The wind turbines became trees, the pebbles were about to become people, the title was very nearly ‘New Forest’, and then thank goodness aesthetic common sense prevailed.

So this is where I am tonight and where I will stay until such time as I can muster an image from my internal bank of images that isn’t a twee parody of itself.

20th August. I set that aside, started something else, ‘edited’ that out with white primer, and went off to admin my head into a different place by making and applying labels to the paintings I’m taking to the art trail next week. By the time I was done I realised that my primary problem with these aborted attempts was commitment to the subject matter. Lovely as butterflies, beetles, the sea, and my never-to-be-seen bug hotel are, I find it hard to pull a meaningful image from them that makes me want to get it right for them. So I’m back with the osprey.

How are they anthroposcenic? Because the nest I watched much of lockdown last year is built on a solid platform, put there and maintained by the Woodland Trust who also run the remote camera through which we were able to follow the breeding pair, Louis and Aila, through egg laying, hatching, and the eventual fledging of three robust chicks with the wingspan of a Smart Car. The live stream brings in donations that fund the work of the charity and support the return of these magnificent birds to the UK. So not only is this anthroposcenery, it is positive anthroposcenery and I want to do it justice.

It won’t be the first time. I had a go last year and while I hadn’t got Louis’ markings right, he did look pretty much like an osprey. I’d used a canvas board and collaged parts of the nest which gave it a sharp, and three dimensional quality. It hasn’t gone to the art trail because I still like it.

So this is a dual challenge, the first is to manage this different scene, taken from a screen grab of the video, and the second is to make something I like at least as much as the first one.

21st August.

I’m doing a bit of blocking in and I’m pleased to find that the paint slides nicely over the earlier surface that I’d mixed with gloss varnish. The shapes are appearing – and no, those aren’t two cabbages bottom right. Moss.

This is the bright and unfiltered phase where all the elements are shouting their loudest. Eventually, with brush work detail in place and more layers of colour where necessary, they will be subtly moved back while the birds and their nest take the spotlight. That’s the plan anyway!

22nd August. More layers. The gloss varnish mixed with the earlier layers is doing its job perfectly as paint slides on and remains transparent.

This round is about adding more colour layers to some areas to create borders between elements under a further layer (the bird in the midground and the hill behind, for instance), to start on feature definitions such as the eye of the female bird in the foreground, and to de-Disneyfy the sticks on the nest. Some elements need to go back and some to be re-shaped – an actual landscape doesn’t always make for the best composition for a painting even though it might have served a photograph well. And those eggs look as though they have lettering on them!

Some muting and realigning – that midground hill line for instance, a gloss varnish layer to make further layers more slithery and the brush strokes more apparent, and at last, a bit of collage. I did this with the previous painting of an osprey because the nest is so striking – bright white and blue due to the ageing accumulation of branches the birds add each year. This time I’ve used parts of a photo on plain paper and held it in place with gloss varnish. The technique also contemporises what would otherwise be a relatively traditional painting.

24th August. I’m in the midst of setting up my contribution to the Steyning Arts art trail at an absolute grotto of a shop in the high street. The sort of place you’d move into and wear everything on sale. Goods are sourced directly from the makers in India and support small businesses, often run by women. So much right about this place. The gallery is upstairs so I’ve been very much in favour with my step-counting watch. There’s more to do and it involves a white sheet that I don’t have yet so I’m back with the osprey.

It’s been looking a wee bit unpromising but I recall the previous one going through that phase before a couple of layers of something and an eye in exactly the right place turned it all around.

The hillsides are odd and the sky line is invented because that adds perspective to an otherwise unmoored image. The newly applied collage is bright and breezy and needs to be subdued but my plan is to paint it in so that, while the cuts and angles remain, the textures and colours are applied pigment. I need to move that clip top left so that the margin isn’t compromised. Interesting that I’ve only seen this on screen, and not noticed it at all in the physical world.

The chick needs some attention and I’m not sure what yet. This may become apparent as I work on other areas. The eyes of each adult bird are in the right place – a triumph!

I’ve removed the tree on the left completely, which is what I eventually did in the previous painting. As essential as it is in the real world, it’s a compositional sore thumb in a painting.

There are highlights on the hills which I’ve applied so that, under muting, they will be evident but not drawers of attention. Those eggs still look less speckled than decorated but I’m very happy with the eyes.

So that’s the edges, the eggs, and some plumage detail (needed a knife for that!) dealt with. It can settle overnight and tomorrow I can start reducing the quasi-fantasy tones top right. In the clip I have, the light is coming from the left and just adding some shine to the birds’ backs so I’m thinking I may keep the sky as it is in that corner then mute the hills in the far background. There are highlight layers already laid down and so, hopefully, those will sit indicatively under a deepened tone.

25th August.

Some of the difference here is due to time of day – the image above is mid afternoon in bright sunlight, the previous one was taken early evening, and gloss surfaces are always tricky. This feels to be coming together; I like the glow in the middle of the nest and the blue/white of the sticks and twigs. The birds are almost there, give or take some burnishing effect to their feathers where the light would hit them; and the hills are dropping back nicely. It’s a funny old lumpy landscape behind that nest and I keep trying to simplify it without losing the sense of it. The two trees are all but gone and the brighter colours are muted, but still there’s too much complexity for my eye – notwithstanding the focal point is beginning to look like an avian nativity scene!

This is moving closer to its final iteration. I’m going for mist on the hills which will serve both to mute that top line and add the atmosphere I’ve often seen on the live stream. It needs some adjustment which I’ll make with a damp flannel just to make sure it’s lying naturally. I’ve also added some paper collage into the middle of the nest to give it depth, and painted over it with a dark wash of Payne’s grey and burnt sienna. The chick looks slightly weird and although they do look odd in reality – all wobble and gape – I think, like fiction, an image has to be within a viewer’s range of acceptability where the context is realism. In the screen grab I have, it’s quite blurred but it is fully extended and making feed me noises so it looks like a tiny snowman from behind. Perhaps just muting it will do the trick.

Muted chick, streaky mist, birds still the focus but with a bit of invented atmosphere. I may be done.

To summarise then, this qualifies as anthroposcenery because the base structure of the nest is built and maintained by the Woodland Trust, which also qualifies it as positive anthroposcenery – humans trying to rectify what they almost destroyed.

The process for me starts with finding a commitment to the subject then using a combination of reference images drawn from that subject to realise a composition that best suits the purpose of the painting. I make many changes along the way, looking at what happened and adjusting something or changing the structure if I like where it’s going. I am invested in this programme of restoring a population of breeding osprey to their own habitats across the UK. This pair successfully raised and fledged three chicks last year but sadly, the adult female did not return this April. Louis though, found a new mate and raised two chicks with her on a different nest in the same area. Quite soon they will all make the journey to Africa, the chicks for the first time and on their own.

Next year’s slow TV stress buster watch.

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