Looking back, I was always going to become a wildlife artist, I just didn’t know it at the time. There were various signs: I loved art, my bedroom was full of small plasticine animals I constantly made, bits of grot stuck to them, but dearly loved by me and fiercely protected. I threw my arms round every dog I saw, I went into raptures when there was a hedgehog in the garden, I talked to the cows on my way to school every morning, (I even gave them my bad school report to trample) and I was especially friendly with the children in my class who had multiple pets: I was always trying to get myself invited round for tea. When my granny knitted me cardigans, I always chose the chicken buttons. My pride and joy was a large colour photo of a cocker spaniel advertising Kodak film in the window of a local camera shop. I begged them to give it to me so many times that eventually they took pity on me and did. I drew this dog over and over.
As I grew up – in rural Scotland – I played out all day in the fields, went for long walks and learned that to be with the foxes, the hares, the birds or the insects was hugely exciting and very comforting: I loved their independence, their single-mindedness, their fine-tuned design and of course their vulnerability which I both identified with and wanted to protect. These were my friends. Outside was always better than in.
School was strict, parents were strict and art was not allowed when there were academic subjects to pursue. (I considered vet training but I was shamefully bad at all science subjects and advised to give them up). So for years I veered off course, earning a living as an actor and only drawing at evening classes as a hobby or escaping from film sets to get out into nature. But eventually after training as a counsellor and working as a political speech-writer, I found a way of living that would allow me time to get back to the easel more seriously and I went to Putney School of Art.
I now draw or paint large single images of my subjects, with no background and no distraction. Just one iconic view showing their fine detail and hopefully emphasizing their significance – to our environment, to our wellbeing, to who we are as humans and what we do with our planet. I work in charcoal, pastel, oil and acrylic. But I love charcoal best.
I don’t aim for a field guide representation because I am seeking out the character of my subjects as a way of drawing the viewer in. I always begin with the eyes and once they are done, I have established the connection that will bring them into being over the next days and weeks. While I am drawing I feel both peace and anxiety – peace in that I am absorbed by a single creative task and my monkey mind is still, anxiety because I fear I won’t get it right and will lose my understanding of the animal or bird I am so keenly trying to create. To me they become very real and very relatable. They are such a vivid representation of hope, of companionship but also of carelessness and loss.
I work from a mix of photos and sketches and travel all over the UK to find my subjects. I watch the birds on my garden feeder, the badgers in the lane, the stoats on the drive and the foxes in the field. I love the habits I observe: when the woodpeckers come to the feeder, all the other birds scarper. And when the Corvids come, everything scarpers. Badgers love peanuts. And if you put out an egg or a potato, often one will lie on top of it to stop the others getting at it. Stoats tumble over and over in perfect somersaults when they are playing.
In the summer when the studio door is open, I have a lot of visitors: swallow, chaffinch, siskin fledglings fly in and perch on the beams, tiny shrews bustle over the threshold and zip around the edges of the room, dragonflies, bees and butterflies zoom in and out. The only imperative: to quickly cover up all work in progress as the birds leave copious droppings as they fly about. Occasionally, the fledglings will allow me to put them back outside and there is nothing more moving than feeling a warm, tiny, almost weightless body in your palm, soft feathers tickling your skin and a little being trusting you to do the right thing. I will go on forever drawing these creatures. I feel privileged to act as an agent showcasing their magnificence.