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  • Of Platonic Flies

    Just finished reading David Abram's book Becoming Animal, and I'd recommend it. He's a very endearing wordsmith, and I completely agree with his message: that what is means to be a human animal is totally reliant on the physical, temporal world and our relationships with everyone/thing else here. Reading it felt like coming home.

    At one point he talks about the Platonic and Aristotelian uses of the word 'idea'. Plato taught that individual forms of things are manifestations of perfect versions which exist as non-tangible 'ideas', whereas Aristotle used Plato's term 'idea' for a group of individuals which share a common form - what we now call a species. Both 'idea' and 'species' come from roots meaning the look, outward form or appearance.

    That got me thinking about how we define and illustrate species. As a naturalist, I prefer illustrated guides to animals and plants rather than photographic guides precisely because the organisms are idealised and averaged, playing down the individual idiosyncrasies of a weevil called George and clarifying the common form of the species to which George belongs. Which is great for getting to know George's tribe, but shouldn't detract from your relationship with George!

    (There are lots of other advantages to illustrations too - like getting the most useful position to show identifying features, having similar species in similar poses, making differences clearer, having everything in focus and getting rid of shadows and glare.)

    As an illustrator, I had to do this myself - trying to grok drawers full of pinned specimens to create a painting of an ideal which would serve in a practical way.

    Below are a couple of the paintings I did for a guide to blowflies - those wonderful under-sink macerators of nature... although these two aren't strictly blowflies, but close relatives. The book, by the way, is Blowflies by Zakaria Erzinclioglu, a forensic entomologist who sadly passed away 10 years ago.

    Top: Flesh-fly, Sarcophaga carnaria (Sarcophagidae)

    Bottom: Gymnochaeta viridis (Tachinidae)

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  • Souvenirs from Earth

    In Douglas Coupland's wonderful book Generation X, Elvissa says at one point:

    "... after you're dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what's going to be your best memory of Earth?... What one moment for you defines what it's like to be alive on this planet. What's your takeaway?" and then she goes on to say "Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don't count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you're really alive."

    Of course, there then follow exquisite jewels of prose which totally tap into the idea of mono no aware I talked about last time. So I got to wondering 'what is my moment?' and of course as I started to think about it, various things arose from my memories, but I simply couldn't choose. So I decided to write them down in a way that wouldn't favour one moment over another, and ended up buying a circular card index and writing down a load of (positive!) memorable moments. It was a very enjoyable exercise, and one which will feed into my journalling - I recommend it!

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  • Ray Bradbury - mono no aware

    Of all the science fiction short story writers I read (and he didn't like to be called a science fiction writer, but rather a fantasy writer), Ray Bradbury probably has the finest sense of mono no aware of them all. Not familiar with the term? It is a Japanese phrase which, according to wikipedia (anarchist encyclopaedia? What's not to like?) means "the pathos of things", and is used to describe a gentle wistfulness at the transience of things. I like to think of it as 'nostalgia for now'; the sort of homesickness you might feel for the past, but instead you feel it in real time as you look about at the world. It's a strange sensation, and I get it a lot.

    Getting back to Ray, it's not so much that he wrote with nostalgia about small town America (although he did), but that all his stories are shot through with this feeling, conjured by deep understanding (grokking) of the sensual world. Yes, he uses it to set the scene, with the sureness of a waiter flipping a table cloth into place, but often the whole story hangs on this sense of mono no aware. For example, a couple of his 'empty world' stories like The Vacation and The Last Night of the World memorialise 'trivial' actions and scenes, making them as important as anything we achieve in life. In another story, Frost and Fire, he dissects the engine of mono no aware and uses it to drive the narrative in which people's life spans have been reduced to seven days.

    And so to the lovely cartoon by Tom Gauld, printed in the Saturday Guardian (16/6/2012, page 15). When you consider the etymology of mono no aware, with 'mono' meaning 'thing' and 'aware' an 'expression of measured surprise (similar to "ah" or "oh"' [ wikipedia again], or even some kind of sigh), then his take on Ray's passing holds even more pathos... thank you, Ray; thank you, Tom!

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  • Artists' Journals & Sketchbooks

    This book was written by Lynne Perrella in 2004. Since then, Quarry books have published many books about art journalling, but this still remains one of the best, and certainly was a huge inspiration for me when I started.

    Using a wide range of contributing artists, it takes a broad sweep from incredibly messy to very controlled styles, and from the most straightforward book formats to expressive pieces which go well beyond books.

    To begin with, you’ll just want to flip the pages and enjoy the extreme creativity – but this volume offers far more than that; more techniques than you can shake a paintbrush at, including stencils, photocopies, paint styles, transfers, altered photos and slide-mount artwork. But these techniques assume a fair amount of knowledge about materials and general art methods; they aren’t the hand-holding exercises you get in some ‘how to’ books. Also, you don’t get step-by-step guides to the construction of pages, although there is a wealth of interesting detail about the pages which are illustrated.

    If you are completely new to art, then you may find the images lush, but the techniques a bit baffling. If you have done some art before, then you will be inspired and stretched, and will come back time and again to learn more techniques as you become more confident, making this book something you will treasure for years...

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  • A Book of Weevils

    Let's face it, beetles in general are pretty amazing, but then you've got the subgroup weevils, which include some of the cutest organisms on the planet, with over 60,000 species worldwide and over 500 British species! Fantastic. They've been a favourite of mine for ever (I'm a sucker for snouts!), and with this in mind, I thought I'd fill a book with weevils.

    So far, only 7 images and 61 pages to go! It's harder than I thought.

    Check out the weevil page on wikipedia - there are some gorgeous photos. The one which really caught my eye is this one (first image below), of a Cionus hortulanus, in a stunning picture by Lukas Jonaitis. Apart from this not looking like a happy weevil (the legs are all bunched, suggesting feigning death, or worse), the thing you can't fail to notice is the black spot on its back. To me it makes the whole weevil look like a seed out of which another insect has emerged... Now, this weevil is found on dark mullein (Verbascum nigrum), but the seed images I've found for various Verbascum (but not V. nigrum) show seeds around 1 mm in length, so is this weevil (around 6 mm in length) imitating a seed from an associated plant? From which a weevil has emerged?

    Below Lukas' photo are a couple of pages from my weevil book - done in acrylics, household emulsion and various pens. Also, at the bottom is an illustration I did of a tropical weevil many years ago in watercolours - see how the paper has faded - it looks like woodchip wallpaper!

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