Jill Moger SWLA: Inspired by Spires


Jill Moger SWLA describes the inspiration for and creation of her huge ceramic sculpture of the Hydrothermal Vent that can be seen in The Natural Eye 2018.

"I was first inspired to make a ceramic sea chimney whilst watching a video of a manned submersible dive down to a volcanic rift valley in the Pacific ocean. Massive and multiple spires of solidified lava hove into view - strange, mystical shapes culminating in pinnacles and chimneys with multiple stacks up to tens of metres high. They looked sculptural - the unique and strange life forms teeming all over the surfaces were so beautiful that I felt the urge to try and recreate a version of it.

I found many references to hydrothermal vents online, plus a few books on the subject and set about learning as much as I could. The life on and around a hydrothermal vent is fascinating and largely unique. The scientists who discovered them in the late 1970s had not expected to find life two miles deep in total darkness, with extreme pressure and temperatures of around 750F.

How does life thrive there without photosynthesis? With chemosynthesis. Mineral-rich fluids erupt out of cracks in the earth’s crust and react chemically with the seawater. These chemicals feed the billions of microbes which in turn feed the populations of higher animals. Sometimes the chemicals symbiotically maintain creatures, as with the striking and unique red-plumed Giant Tube Worms (Riftia). The microbes within the worms survive by converting the chemicals and minerals (importantly, hydrogen sulphide) into sugars which in turn feeds the worms. Vent Snails, Brachyuran Crabs, Yellow Mussels and clams graze on the microbial film on the vent surfaces. Squat Lobsters, Yeti Crabs (yes, they are hairy!), Zoarcid Fish and octopuses scavenge and prey on each other. Most of the life here is white or colourless - why expend energy on colour production in total darkness?

It took several months to work out the best way to make my ceramic sea chimney. It needed to look tall but be small enough that I could easily reach the top with a step ladder. I prefer to make life-sized sculpture so I aimed for a height of six to seven feet – perhaps a young eruption with young life. I knew that a multitude of four to five foot long red-plumed Giant Tube Worms would not work and neither would Giant Clams the size of dinner plates!

It was not going to be possible to make my chimney in one piece, not only because of the modest size of my kiln but also because of the vagaries and unpredictability of clay. Unless the structure is an even thickness throughout, large clay forms can warp, slump, crack and always shrink during the long firing processes. These possibilities need to be allowed for.

Following several scribbled sketches, I settled on making the main shape in a number of parts that fit together in a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw.

The basic clay needed to be rough, strong and thermal shock-resistant. This created another problem because different clays shrink at different rates. The rougher clays only shrink about 6%, whilst the white stoneware and porcelain that I use for fine work shrinks by 16%. This meant that the finely made life forms, when attached to the basic chimney, would fall out in the firing! I was going to have to do some careful mixing of clays to achieve a more even shrinkage between them.

The chimney is made of ten pieces – three at the base, two in the second layer and three upper storeys. The subsidiary chimney has two parts and sits neatly at the base.

Each piece was separately made by building up the walls with internal supports and the life forms were added along the way.

Tube Worms, mussels and shrimps were all made in small batches so that I could place them en masse on each piece of chimney to achieve some balance and harmony. The more singular species such as fish, octopus and crabs, I placed on or amongst them as appropriate. The exact positioning of animals evolved as I worked.

I placed thick polythene between the sections of chimney wherever they touched in order to be able to take them apart easily when ready for the first of four firings.

Each was coloured and glazed using the same palette, with lustres added where useful for example the shrimps have the illusion of looking slightly transparent.

After all the firings the fitting back together of such a comparatively large ceramic structure had its difficulties, but with a little chipping, filing and some internal reinforcements, all was well. I hope you enjoy looking at it."

Jill's work will be on show as part of The Natural Eye 2018: The Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition (25 October to 4 November).

View the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition Online Now


Image credit

Hydrothermal vent life - Pompeii worm, yeti crab

John Busby Seabird Drawing Course Bursaries


The SWLA offers three bursaries for places on The John Busby Seabird Drawing Course. The next week-long course is to be held in June 2019 at seabird colonies around Dunbar and the Firth of Forth. This is a fantastic opportunity to work alongside around 20 established and enthusiastic artists, and get an insight into the diverse approaches that those artists have to working in the field.

Find out more and apply for the John Busby Seabird Drawing Course Bursary

Kittie Jones course tutor

"I have had the privilege of being involved in the John Busby Seabird Drawing Course since 2012 when it changed the direction of my work - opening my eyes to new possibilities and putting me in contact with an international group of like-minded people. I am now lucky enough to be on the tutor team, and I watch with interest each year as the students go through the week, experiencing the challenges and triumphs of working outdoors."

Every year the SWLA fundraises in order to provide bursary places for the course. This year, five diverse artists took part in the scheme, each on a different creative journey. Below, they outline some of their experiences of the week.


Adele Pound

"Fieldwork has always been important in my work, however before the course I was aware I had become stuck and lost abilities that I once had. Fieldwork calls for a specific set of skills: accessing and identifying birds, the logistics of deciding what kit to take, use of optics and strategies to deal with weather conditions. These were beyond the scope of my conventional fine art education. As a result, I had rarely met artists who use fieldwork in their practice and had essentially invented this for myself, working largely in isolation since graduating with inevitable limitations in what I could achieve.

The course really opened my eyes to what is possible in the field. The tutors and the other participants demonstrated to me throughout how much more ambitious I might be. I saw materials used that I would never have imagined taking into the field. I discovered I was able to cope with weather conditions I would not have attempted to work in if left to my own devices. The supportiveness, warmth and enthusiasm of the group helped me to engage with and enjoy the challenges. I was surprised by what I was able to achieve by the end of the week and by how much my thinking had changed.

The tutors were inspiring. Each brought different aspects and personalities and their passion and enthusiasm was always apparent. It was obvious that their overriding concern was for everyone to get as much as possible from the week. Despite the large size of the group, they were sensitive to the struggles of each individual. Several times I received just the advice I needed to help me progress, whether it was to try a different approach or to persevere with a drawing I had given up on. There was genuine delight whenever someone had a breakthrough."


Emily Ingrey-Counter

"One of the highlights for me was getting to know other artists and sharing our experiences at the end of each day. Naturally I discovered that in the emotional highs and lows of any given day I was certainly not alone. Although the prospect of sharing our work with the whole group was daunting, I found the feedback surprisingly encouraging.

Another highlight of the week was visiting the Bass Rock. The weather, winds and swells were in the right alignment as both groups were able to get access to the gannet colony for a whole day. A huge privilege. It was noisy, smelly, dirty and quite fantastic! I felt like I had landed on another planet, with 150,000 inhabitants tolerating our presence. Due to the wind, the birds were constantly in flight around us hovering, landing and taking off. We drew with intensity and focus for about seven hours. Amazing! The following day the swells were too strong to land on the island so we sketched from the boat for an hour - this was a great way to develop fast sketches, but challenging in terms of motion sickness!

The informal tutor guidance throughout the week was really helpful. I was reminded of some key elements that had been creeping out of my drawings - “keep a breathing space in your picture”, “what excites you about your chosen subject matter?” and “think about keeping the energy in your work”. Through many discussions with the tutors and artists on the course I was encouraged to value what I do, something that’s easy to lose sight of. I am really grateful to the SWLA for making this week possible. I hope the things I have learned will continue to echo through my work. It was such a privilege to meet so many people on this unique journey of making art inspired by our natural world."


Helen Kennedy

"I had come to the course with little seabird knowledge but great enthusiasm to learn. Both the tutors and my fellow course members were generous, not only with their extensive knowledge but also with lifts to the various locations we were to draw in. Equipment was freely shared. Never having used binoculars or scopes whilst drawing before this was particularly useful. I was able to draw on the wealth of experience around me. It was interesting to see the different approaches and working methods: what to take on long days field sketching; and how to work comfortably and efficiently in a range of weather conditions. The evening meal at the end of the day was a good time to share experiences, highs and lows. Seeing other people's work was a joy.

When I began the week I knew I wanted to understand more about seabirds. I hadn't anticipated how entranced I would be. The grace of the kittiwakes at Dunbar harbour, the charm of the guillemots and razorbills at St Abb's Head, the challenge of the gulls on Fidra. I shall be forever grateful for the opportunity to draw gannets on Bass Rock - the most visceral, astounding and beautiful place.

I have never looked so intently or for so long at birds before. It was at times difficult and demanding. The tutors were always there with energy and enthusiasm and not a little kindness and patience. I could not have asked to share the experience with a more lovely group of people. I benefited greatly from their support and expertise.

Coming away I felt a bit dazed. The week had been very intense. Looking through the work I produced I have a great sense of being at the beginning, so much to explore and learn. It is an uplifting thought."


Lorna Hamilton

"John Busby in Drawing Birds said ‘To copy from nature without resolving our own thoughts is a barren process’. I copied from nature for many years and when I applied for the John Busby Bursary, I had stopped painting altogether and had pretty much given up on my art. I knew the barrenness John had spoken off and it was not a nice place to be. I was desperately looking for an answer because nature and art were something I had once loved.

I came to the course expectant to receive the answer I needed and I was not disappointed. I was greeted with a warm, friendly atmosphere and a group of tutors and students willing to share, encourage and inspire. I couldn’t help but be affected by the infectious enthusiasm and passion for wildlife and painting outdoors. This sparked in me a new desire to draw and paint nature, not solely focusing on a finished painting but learning to enjoy and embrace the process of seeing, understanding and mark making. I feel I have still much to learn but the course has helped me see that this process is full of rich experiences with much value and rewards.

The process of learning to see was a revelation to me. Although I’ve painted for over twenty years, being in the field presented me with challenges and difficulties that working from photographs in a comfortable studio did not.

The amazing thing about this course was that I started having totally lost my way in my art but left with enthusiasm, motivation, excitement, a longing to learn more and a burning desire to work in the open air. It has given me direction and purpose and for that I am so grateful. Thank you for the opportunity to be part of the wonderful legacy of John Busby!"


Liz Myhill

"The biggest challenge during the week would be attempting to capture the essence of a moving, living creature in an interesting way and to understand its form and anatomy. And that is not to mention being overwhelmed by some of the surroundings we were working in and the challenges they presented - such as a very windy, gannet-infested Bass Rock where one of my drawings blew into the colony and, although thankfully retrieved, came back full of peck holes!

The week definitely was not without its struggles as I grappled with trying to balance good draughtsmanship and accuracy of form with interesting mark-making and the sheer feeling of being overwhelmed by wanting to try so much in such a short time. It felt really important to try and take some time just to appreciate and absorb the feeling of place.

Each day brought fresh new discoveries and ideas. The tutors wide range of approaches led to a fantastic balance in the feedback and different chats we had, each coming from a slightly different angle. They were all so generous, knowledgable and full of enthusiasm. The various drawing exercises we undertook really resonated and pushed me to try new ways of working. By the end of the week I think everyone felt they had achieved some kind of breakthrough, I certainly had several moments of sudden clarity about my practice.

The week itself was amazing - stunning locations, great company, new challenges, but what I like best is the fact it doesn't stop at the end of the week. There are new things I have learnt, things I want to try and a whole new group of like-minded people who I'm sure I'll be in touch with for many years to come."

Find out more and apply for the John Busby Seabird Drawing Course Bursary

Image credit

Kittie Jones SWLA Gannet colony, Bass Rock

SWLA Project : KYST - My Home Island of Bornholm


KYST (‘coast’) is the name of a project Ben Woodhams SWLA has been working on in 2018 on the Danish island of Bornholm, in the Baltic Sea - his home for the last ten years. KYST takes the form of a series of 52 consecutive walking tours following Bornholm’s coastline, one for each week of the year, with each walk no more than two or three kilometres.

"Each week I start the walk from the same spot where I finished the week before. The concluding walk in the last week of the year (Friday, 28 December) will take me right back to where I started on Friday 5 January – the pier arms of Rønne harbour, Bornholm’s point of entry and exit.

Vang Harbour, Bornholm

Each walk begins at dawn and ends at dusk. During each journey I move slowly – clockwise – along the coastline and observe and record my experiences as I go with the aim of making some sort of physical record of my journey on that particular day, on that particular stretch of the coastline. Everything is completed on the day, in the field, between the sunrise and sunset, and everything I produce is part of the project - also the disasters and disappointments, of which there have been many.

Example of Woodhams' 'slice paintings'

During the course of the journey, I have passed through rocky, deserted shores, sandy tourist-filled beaches, small fishing villages, and built-up areas and industrial fishing harbours. On some of the journeys I have been completely alone, on others surrounded by people. In midsummer I was out for over 18 hours, in midwinter less than seven. So far I have been out in freezing snow storms, baking summer heat and torrential rain.

Pissebække, Bornholm

KYST is a journey through time and space, a voyage of discovery and exploration, with Bornholm as a gigantic clock face, sundial or calendar. Each walk is a story of a day, of the changing weather patterns and tidal flows and the rising and setting of the sun. By physically moving through the landscape I move through periods of geological time, in some places passing through millions of years with just a few steps. The arrival and departure of migratory birds, the flowering and wilting of vegetation, even the coming of the tourist hordes, all tell a story of my journey through the year and around the island.

Walking to Vige Harbour, Bornholm

I am fascinated by the process of observation and the way in which the physical act of looking – really looking – creates a deep physiological connection between ourselves and our environment. I am equally fascinated by  how we respond creatively to this process of observation, and the relationship between the objective physical act of observation and the subjective act of interpretation. And I am deeply fascinated by how this process unfolds within the natural environment and the passing of time and space.

While birds have been the focus of my efforts, I am equally fascinated by changes in the sea and sky through the day, and the landscape itself. I’ve been painting lots of ‘slice paintings’ where I split up a sheet of paper into different timed segments, and I’ve also experimented with letting elements of the day itself (the wind, the frost, the rain, the traces of birds and insects…) somehow decide the course of the drawing.

Eider Studies, Tejn Harbour

On the KYST day itself, I upload some images on my Instagram account and on returning I collate the images and write a blog of the day on my website, including a GPS map of my route. Next year, I will be producing a book and touring an exhibition of the KYST project."

Ben's work will be on show as part of The Natural Eye 2018: The Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition from 25 October to 4 November.

View the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition online now

Apply for a Bursary from the Society of Wildlife Artists to do a similar project

Image credit

Ben Woodhams SWLA

SWLA Artist Residency: The Urban Black Kites of Delhi


Last winter, Christopher Wallbank SWLA travelled to North India on a residency organised by the Royal Drawing School and the International Institute of Fine Arts (IIFA), which is based in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh. As part of this residency, Wallbank spent ten days documenting the urban Black Kites of Delhi. Here he describes his experience:

"My aim was to observe how this medium-sized bird of prey has adapted to an urban environment, and to witness the stories of the people who live alongside it.

Returning to Roost, Lodi Gardens

The Black Kites were common in the skies above Delhi - a rare constant in a city of contrasts. Searching for Black Kites to draw would, in one instance, lead me into the commotion of Old Delhi’s traffic-swamped streets, where they circled and jostled for space overhead. Another time, I found myself in a tranquil city garden, watching them float over the crumbling ruins of mogul tombs, crossing flightpaths with huge fruit bats in the dusk sky.

Travelling to the sprawling concrete of Ghazipur, where Black Kites congregate in their high thousands around the sector’s vast markets and slaughterhouses, led me to the furthest extremes of the capital. Here, children and teenagers work to salvage what they can from the same piles the Black Kites scavenge. They would often inspect the progress of my paintings, suggesting improvements for the sky or where to add more ‘cheel’ - the local name for a Black Kite, derived from the sound of its mewing call.

Above Ghazipur’s markets loomed a landfill site that had grown into a two-hundred-foot high hill, cutting an imposing landmark on the skyline. The Black Kites, just distant specks, powdered off its peaks and ridges in a way that evoked memories of seabird islands in summer. The site’s summit was like another planet, swamped in a cloud of noxious smog and dust, Black Kites drifting silently in the oxygen-less soup.

Black Kites over the summit of Ghazipur rubbish dump

In Delhi, a sketchbook and pencil are useful for eliciting conversation from inquisitive passers-by. For this reason, my favourite place to work in the capital was around the great mosque Jama Masjid, in the heart of Old Delhi. Members of the community here shared my joy in watching the Kites and maintained the tradition of feeding them; one man I spoke to described it as his “way of giving back to God”.

Black Kites being fed outside Jama Masjid, Old Delhi 

A Delhi family giving back in a big way are two brothers; Nadeem Shehzad, Mohammed Saud, and their cousin Salik Rehman. I visited the family’s three-room apartment from where they also run a rescue centre for the Black Kites. Being the guardians of these birds is no mean feat - Delhi’s Black Kite population is in conflict with a completely different kind of kite, the popular paper kites flown competitively all over the city. The low-flying, slow manoeuvring Black Kite has a problem with avoiding the paper variety. When they collide, the razor sharp string especially designed for competitive kite flying slices the Black Kites wings. Initially, Nadeem and Saud struggled to find vets who could treat the resulting injuries, so they began to teach themselves. They have since completed hundreds of wing operations independently, unwittingly becoming authorities on the procedure.

Saud operating on black-eared Kite with severed bicep

I visited the brothers in what they called the slow season and watched Saud operate until ten at night. Nadeem showed me their rooftop aviary housing seventy two injured birds; this was nothing, he told me, compared to the peak competitive kite-flying season, when it will house three hundred recovering Black Kites at any given moment: "we never get time for sleep", he says. 

Recovering kites, vultures, and storks at the Rescue Centre

Christopher's work will be on show in Out of the Frame as part of The Natural Eye 2018: The Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition from 25 October to 4 November.

View the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition online now

Apply for a Bursary from the Society of Wildlife Artists to do a similar project

Image credit

Christopher Wallbank SWLA

A Barn Owl in Watercolour

Blog Post. TURVEY. Simon. Barn Owl 2015 Commission.jpg

We were recently approached by a client who had seen and fallen in love with a work by Simon Turvey SWLA which had sold before she could purchase it. Commissioning an artwork allows art lovers to purchase a painting in a similar vein to one that they might have missed out on buying in the gallery. However it adds something to that experience too. It is a chance to have a conversation with the artist, to be involved in the creative process, to reflect on what it is that you love about their work. 

In this case our client, Christine Down, was particularly drawn to Simon's Barn Owl watercolours.  Commissioning Simon to paint a further work in this genre allowed the artist to revist these beautiful birds and brought Christine's interests into the equation.

Christine Down said:

"The Commissions Service at Mall Galleries put me in touch with Simon who accepted my commission for a barn owl.  The watercolour he produced is an amazingly realistic study of a barn owl sitting on a branch and is beautifully painted.  Commissioning a picture from the artist makes it very special."

Simon Turvey painting Barn Owl