Against A Wall


It’s a grey, damp day, and cold. It doesn’t feel like Spring when the wind whips icy rain against the window and when on the tops of the hills it falls as snow, lower down as sleet. Days like this with no sunshine and very little colour feel like a dead-end, a bit like running up against a brick wall.

But then again walls are not uninteresting. Whether brick or stone, they can be very promising. There’s always more to see when you settle in to where you are and look. They’re not as simple as they seem.

Walls have presence; even half broken down a wall is a substantial thing with a history and a meaning. Where doors and windows have been bricked up or moved, the whole purpose of the wall has changed but the story is still there to be told right from the beginning. People walked in and out through those doors, sat inside and worked by the light from those windows, and looked out. It’s tangible history, set in stone – and you can reach out and touch it.


Weekly Photo Challenge

Thumbnail Sketches

If you were asked to describe someone you know in just ten words, could you find a way to distill everything into a thumbnail sketch as brief as that?


Sometimes a drawing can capture the essence of a person better than words. I like trying to do this, trying to draw people as they’re moving about and doing what they do. Trying to describe them in a few lines. It’s terribly hard to do but addictive.


I like drawing people in the park; they’re relaxed, (usually) and absorbed. I went there yesterday and stood and sketched for half an hour, until I got too stiff with cold and had to move about. There were the usual dog-walkers and people out for a stroll (including a man in track-suit trousers walking in a very funny way) and as it was half-term there were more families than usual in the playground, including parents and grandparents pushing their children on the swings and playing in the sand-pit. Some of the adults were happier watching from the sidelines and took charge of looking after buggies, or leaned on the railings or sat watching on a bench.



The children are of course the hardest to draw because they’re bouncing and jumping and running and climbing and crawling and sliding almost without stopping – and drawing movement is the most difficult thing of all. But what fun trying! It makes you look harder than you’ve ever looked at anything, and everything else disappears.

Twist: Observed Eating Oranges


Eating oranges requires care, especially when they’re juicy and you’ve stopped to rest, and are sitting perched on the top of the battlements of the castle you are visiting. You don’t want to fall and end up fifty feet below in the moat, but you don’t want to drip orange juice all down your clean linen shirt so you twist, and lean over, and spit the pips over the edge when you think no one is looking. Except of course you don’t realise it, but in fact you are being observed, and not captured on camera but recorded nevertheless.

It’s strange how often people are oblivious to being drawn, either because they assume they’re not the subject of the drawing or perhaps because they simply don’t notice, being much more conscious of a camera. I’ve sketched people in all sorts of public places, including playgrounds with children accompanied by adults, where if you took out a camera and started to take pictures you’d cause a commotion. I’ve learnt to be very careful about this and to respect people’s concerns, but it saddens me more than I can say, that taking photographs can feel dangerous and threatening.

But in general nobody seems to mind being drawn, even if they notice, which very often they don’t. Perhaps drawing is still understood in a different way. Perhaps the interest being shown feels more respectful, that nothing is stolen, that no harm is intended. Or perhaps it’s simply a question of identity and anonymity; drawings are not like snapshot identifications. It’s not like being caught on a cctv camera. There’s no real sense of violation of privacy. I don’t know.

However fast you draw, it’s a lot slower than pressing the camera shutter. Drawing is like a gentle exploration, a process of getting acquainted. The very best photographers are able to do this too, but for me it’s never quite the same – which is why I carry a sketchbook as well as a camera. Given the chance, and giving myself enough time, I’d rather look a bit more closely, understand more, and get acquainted.

Oasis Of Colour

This time of year is the hardest, when the skies hardly ever seem to be anything but grey, and the drab dullness of wet woods and sodden fields is only occasionally lifted into life by the sudden brief appearance of the sun. I’d been yearning for colour so badly that it had become a real sensation of emptiness, like hunger or thirst.


It had been raining for days and I hadn’t been out for more than a few minutes at a time, so when I got to the park again after almost a week I was completely taken by surprise – carpets of colour; purple and lavender and white, flashes of bright emerald green, and the tiniest punctuation of yellow. There was even a moment or two when the sun came out from behind the clouds. I got down on my knees in the wet grass and pushed my face as close in amongst them as I could, and just looked, and took great long breaths of colour.



They are not yet as beautiful as they were last year, and perhaps they won’t be – perhaps that was the result of freezing temperatures that carried on well into March, so that they arrived late, in April, whereas this year the ground has been drenched with rain and stayed unfrozen for the entire winter. But the effect on me was the same, and always will be; it’s like coming across an oasis after travelling for months in a desert. I just have no words for how grateful I am. For those of you who are still in the grip of winter, may Spring come soon, and in the meantime I send you the blessing of crocuses.


Paying Attention


Half way up the bank above the upper terrace of lawn stands a huge rotten tree stump. Alone in a sea of grass it looks more like an outcrop of rock than the remains of a tree and its presence there looks intentional; it commands such a dominating position above the smoothly mown surface of the grass below that it can be seen from the other side of the park and stands out like a beacon.

The other day I climbed up the bank to take a closer look. I’ve passed by so many times without stopping that up until now I’ve only known it as a landmark and I thought I’d like to get to know it better. I have no idea of its age (I tried to count the rings but the surface is too worn and pitted), or its history, or what stories it might have to tell.




There are too many things, and too many people that I don’t pay enough attention to. It’s just so easy to think Oh, there’s so-and-so, and not even stop to acknowledge the unique individuality that is that tree or that dog or that person. I do it all the time, and I thought about this as I crept over and around and even underneath this stump-of-a-tree that is so rich and wonderful a thing, and so much more extraordinary and beautiful than I’d thought it was, seeing it every day from a distance.

Looking closely at one thing and giving it my full attention, being fully there with all my senses and thinking of nothing else reminds me of how much I miss, when much of the time I am not feeling and seeing and being, but rushing about thinking of – what? Of the past, of the future, of things I’ve got to do and things that haven’t happened yet. And in this state I am nowhere at all, not here, not there, not anywhere.

I like to be reminded in this way. I am gently tugged by the sleeve by something I too often ignore, and letting myself be led I find again that there is wonder and magic and extraordinary beauty all around, if only I choose to stop and pay attention.

A Different Point Of View

I like to look up.

I think this is something that runs in my family because it was my sister who first introduced me to taking photographs of trees by leaning on the trunk and looking straight up, making a picture from a squirrel’s point of view (or perhaps the viewpoint of a dog who has just chased the squirrel up the tree). NOVEMBER 2012 020

NOVEMBER 2012 022

It’s extraordinary how different something can be when looked at from another angle, how all your preconceptions can be knocked sideways. Size, scale, and your own relationship to where you are all suddenly seem very altered.

Then there’s the wide angle, or the macro close-up. You can take the long view, stand back and see how everything fits into the larger landscape, or you can get in close and immerse yourself in something so intimately that everything else fades into oblivion and is lost to sight and mind.

Copy of 2011 PICS OF THE YEAR (11)

Almost as a matter of course these days I look at my feelings from different perspectives, sometimes backing off and seeing how they fit into the larger scheme of things, and sometimes observing them, fondly and face-to-face, trying at the same time to be detached and not to pass judgement.

Sometimes I sit for a while, just watch the the flow of things, watch the ripples…..and sometimes I look deeper, and try to see beneath the surface.


Love, and Never a Word Spoken

One afternoon not long ago I fell in love with an emu. It was at the annual fair, where the showground always has displays of animals – mostly horses and cattle – but sometimes some more exotic creatures.

In the centre of the animal enclosure was this enormous bird, corralled in a pen with no label or sign-board to say what it was or give any information about it whatsoever, and I gazed at it in wonder. Taking photographs simply wasn’t enough – I took out a notebook and started to draw, and became totally engrossed.

It was huge – a great feathery mound on massive, powerful legs which for most of the time were folded underneath it, supporting its extraordinary bulk like two perfectly positioned brackets, and the more I looked the more I found there was no part of it that didn’t fascinate me; the tail feathers were amazing, almost like fern fronds as they emerge from the growing plant, all crimped and crinkly, and its feet – I held my breath in awe when it finally rose to its full height and came over to inspect me, and I could see the huge scaly toes tipped with horny claws, and the soft squashy pads of the heel of the feet that looked as if they could run very fast over any terrain, and do horrible things if used as a means of defence.

The thing about drawing, rather than just looking at something or taking photographs is that after a while your awareness of everything else drops away; standing in that busy showground I could have been completely alone with that bird, in the middle of nowhere. And then something else happens; you’re drawing something, and you begin to feel that somehow the boundary between where you end and it begins is somehow blurred, and there’s no longer a profound distinction between the two of you. Which is when I realise I have fallen in love……

We live in a culture dominated by words, and learn and inform ourselves constantly by reading, talking, and thinking verbally – in fact so much so that we believe we can only understand something, or know something, or learn about it, by using words. This is so utterly untrue, that when you get used to the idea of letting go of verbal thought and instead start to understand in a non-verbal way, you realise how narrow and restricting it is to think all the time in words.

Of course drawing isn’t the only way to step aside from thought and immerse yourself totally in something so that you are in a different world of understanding. I know people who do it by gardening, and others who play an instrument, or listen to music, or walk in the woods, or play with their children. There must be hundreds of ways. Every day in the park, I watch people walking their dogs who are finding this kind of connection, and there have been cats, and dogs, and horses, and even guinea-pigs who have given me immediate entry into joyful, wordless love – there’s no other word for it. Thankfully I know that for me, drawing is always a reliable doorway into the non-verbal part of my mind, and I need this doorway – to get into this other way of thinking, of being in the moment.


Stopping is something I do repeatedly when I’m out walking. I can’t avoid it, and don’t try to; in fact it’s become so habitual that I would be a very annoying walking partner (I almost always go for walks alone). Whenever I’m out, and wherever I am, now and again something will suddenly catch my attention and I’ll come to a standstill, then retrace my steps and have a closer look.

This means I can find myself looking at some strange objects, in unexpected places, and whenever I suddenly stumble upon a collection of interesting looking things, frequently time passes without my realising how long I’ve been wandering around and exploring.

The colours and textures of things like this are just irresistible. I often like them even more if I can’t identify them, because I’m not labelling them in any way, thinking, oh, what a fabulous old boat (these pictures were taken in a boatyard). If I’m thinking at all, it’s something more along the lines of Oh! Oh! and nothing more lucid than that.

I’ve come to realise that walking about and then stopping, physically, is a really good way to stop mentally as well. Stopping in front of something that I can gaze at in wonder is just the start. Then comes the part when everything else starts to slow down and stop, too, and I can find myself slipping into stillness, and silence, and being aware of nothing else except the peace of the present moment.