The Alchemist Altered Book

Recently I’ve been commissioned to do an interesting project, an altered book inspired by The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

I read the book back in the 90s when it was first translated into English. I regret giving my copy away as I’d like to reread it and it had a lovely cover. I tend to like any story about pilgrims, seekers or about following your dreams. I think the book appeals more to the young who have life ahead of them to explore and discover. I can’t remember much of the story but when I think of the book, deserts, sunsets, arches and sacred buildings come to mind.

I was given a few quotes from the book to inspire me. Here’s one:

Quote from The Alchemist

Quote from The Alchemist

For ideas I looked at Islamic arches with their typical patterns and found some images of Moroccan doorways I love:

Two Moroccan Doors

Two Moroccan Doors

Then I made some sketches and started work on a new special edition book of The Alchemist that I was sent which already had some beautiful illustrations.

Rough Sketch for Altered Book

Rough Sketch for Altered Book

Using watercolour pencils and gold acrylic paint I decided to embelish the top pages with a gold leaved vine and feature an archway based on an islamic arch on the second page layer. I was able to indulge my love of desert colours, the pinks, yellows, honey and sand colours. The lefthand side is a star filled night, the right, a beckoning sunset or sunrise – perhaps representing hope, dreams and the future. A pathway leads towards the sun.

The Alchemist Altered Book

The Alchemist Altered Book

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Summer and Autumn Anthologies

I am very pleased to have pieces of writing in the Spring, Summer and Autumn anthologies published by Elliott and Thompson and The Wildlife Trusts. Spring and Summer are on sale now and Autumn will be out on the 25th August. I feel honoured to have writing alongside writers such as Gilbert White, Melissa Harrison, Helen MacDonald and Amy Liptrot.

Summer and Autumn Anthologies

Summer and Autumn Anthologies

Autumn Anthology Inside

The beginning of my piece about badgers.

My piece in Summer was about the hares on Havergate Island, an island I’ve mentioned before here. Below is an extract:


“…Evening, and the moon over Orford Ness is round and full, a warm, butter moon. Below, in its light, I can make out the dark shapes of fishermen casting into the rippling Narrows. The hares will be out feeding on grasses and herbs now. At night I sleep and dream reed-lined, silt-laden dreams, drifting channels in my skiff, hugging the shallows, calm and sheltered from a ravaging sea beyond. I wake and the winds are playing havoc with the wind turbine again.”

Butter Moon

Butter Moon over Orford Ness

For Autumn, I wrote about a badger encounter I’d had with my partner in Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire. I find myself often drawn to nocturnal wildlife:

“Nocturnal wildlife has a special fascination; it usually lives out of sight beneath the radar of our everyday, human lives…”

(As I am writing about my writing, back in February, I wrote a piece about seeing Manx shearwaters and storm petrels on the island of Skokholm, birds of the night. You can read it on the Caught By The River website.)

As my Autumn piece is about badgers, I thought I’d show my latest altered book, Badger Family. I was given a tatty old Observer’s guide to Wild Animals, beautiful in a wabi sabi sort of way. I’ve transformed the book’s interior into a woodland scene with badgers.

Badger Family Altered Book

Badger Family Altered Book

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Making an Altered Book

I thought I’d document the process of making an altered book – my way!

Below is a slider showing the process of making The Edge of the Wood altered book. Click on the dots or arrows to move between slides.

Making an Altered Book Second Hand Book Tools Opened book with Paper Image 3 Showing Paper Stuck in Image 4 Pencil Sketch Image 5 Start of the Drawing in Pen. Drawing Underway Board Beneath Drawing Cutaway Pages Showing Cutaway Page Cutting a Page. Finished Altered Book Detail of Altered Book

The Edge of the Wood and Deer in the Forest below will soon be on display in Avocet Gallery in Rye.

Deer in the Forest Altered Book

Deer in the Forest altered book

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A Coloured Altered Book

I’ve been spicing up one of my altered books. No longer just black and white (with silver and gold apples) my Silver Apples of the Moon and Golden Apples of the Sun book is now coloured. Is this an improvement?

Silver Apples Golden Apples Altered Book

Silver Apples Golden Apples Altered Book with a bit of colour

While colouring it in with watercolour pencils I was reminded of creating comic strip pages when I was a child. I dug them out the other day and read them with amusement. I’ve no idea what the story is about but I know I liked comics as a child and was inspired by the Tintin books that my brother had. These comic pages must have been done when I was about ten or eleven but there’s no date on them.

Handmade Comic Strip

Handmade Comic Strip made in the 70s.

A Page of a Picture Story I made as a Child

A Page of a Picture Story I made as a Child

I also discovered an old Brighton and Hove Gazette newspaper in which I had one of my drawings. It’s not that great, but could I have done any better at fourteen?! By the way, I didn’t have a day out with Prince Philip that was my history teacher! :)

Old Newspaper with my Drawing

Old Newspaper with my Drawing

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New creations

It’s the time for nests! Everywhere I hear birdsong even in the middle of town and it’s lovely. As a child I would climb trees in the hope of finding a nest. Sometimes I did, but those I found – and collected – never had any eggs. I wouldn’t have disturbed them if they had. It’s very special getting a glimpse into a nest with eggs.

In our garden there are a couple of magpies building a nest in the top of a dead sycamore tree. The nest looks oval with a sort of thatched roof. They’re probably not yet tending eggs – my egg book says April – May. It’s good to watch them in action. I like magpies although they have a bad name and are so numerous these days. I remember a lovely animation featuring magpies on the IPM Radio 4 website that accompanied a short programme about bird watching and dementia.

Magpie Page in Egg Book

Magpie and Nest

Magpie and Nest

I have a few new creations that feature nests, apples and wings – altered books and small canvases. My Blackbird Nest altered book was on Folksy and sold very quickly:

Nest Altered Book

As it’s Spring, I had to create a Spring altered book which depicts a blackbird nest and woodland scene.

Spring Altered Book

Another one illustrates the poem, Song of the Wandering Aengus by William B. Yeats. I have chosen to illustrate the last few lines of the poem:

..And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

The left side of the book features the moon, half the tree of silver apples and a woman. The right side features a man sitting in the sun below the half of the tree with gold apples.

Silver Apples of the Moon Golden Apples of the Sun

The poem is an old favourite of mine, first heard to music sung by Donovan in a youtube video with some lovely, loose illustrations.

The altered books are part of the Words Exhibition at Obsidian Gallery in Buckinghamshire. I also have Memory Tree Books, a little “Winged” canvas and some cards in the exhibition. The Wings canvas is similar to a commission, Stone Angel Wings, that I did last year (see photo below) It was originally based on an altered book I created some time ago.

Stone Angel Wings

Stone Angel Wings

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From the Forests Beneath The Waves

Forests are still my thing, what better than a forest beneath the sea, a kelp forest. The colours, for one, are beautiful – perhaps some of my favourite colours, aquamarine, turquoise, blues. I imagine it to be a world of beings passing through – seals, brittlestars, rockfish, sea urchins, otters – in the arms of kelp – the odd diver, the odd wreck splintering and lost, discarded bits and pieces tossed by muted currents, swaying waters that whisper the secrets of the land beneath the waves. A forest dream of a world.

Kelp Forest

Enter the Kelp Maidens.

Kelp MaidensI have painted two new long boards on reclaimed wood, the Kelp Maidens. They are varnished with exterior varnish and ready for the outdoors.

I am a little familiar with the Kelpie myths – water spirits that live in lochs and rivers in Scotland, water horses that shapeshift into men or women. My kelp maidens are slightly different, there is no hint of horse, no horse’s mane or hooves. But they live in the kelp forests, amongst the fronds of Saccharina and Saccorhiza (and other kelps) in Scottish waters – they are like the names of two sisters :)

While I was painting my kelp maidens, the Guardian published a series of Forest Fable podcasts. All the fables are good, but one of them, The Princess’ Forest by Alec Finnay just happened to be about the myth of a submerged forest off the coast of St Kilda where a giant woman was said to reside. It is said that she was addicted to hunting deer in the forests between the islands of Harris and St Kilda before the seas came and flooded the land.

My Kelp Maidens are now in the lovely shop Way Out There and Back in Littlehampton along with some of my other paintings and cards.

My River Sisters painting, that was in the shop, has just gone to a new home. I’m delighted!

River Sisters

The River Sisters

The Blue Forest

A new painting, The Blue Forest, (yes it’s blue as usual and I’m still with the forest theme!)

Way Out There and Back

Some of my other paintings in Way Out There and Back.

Kelp Maiden Altered Book

A coloured altered book featuring a Kelp Maiden, which I have put on my Reflections Folksy Shop.

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Forest Altered Books

As a child I loved pop-up books. A friend once sent me a pop-up postcard of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain featuring a thoughtful, solitary figure. It was a beautiful, inspiring card. I have mislaid my card but I found a photo of it on the web:

Alhambra Postcard

Postcard showing the Lindaraja Balcony within the Alhambra.

I am now altering books. I made my first altered book, angel wings a few years ago. Now I am working in pen and ink and with the forest as my inspiration, I’ve started with a square paperback book, a sort of thick pamphlet.

Book to be Altered

A book to be altered as an experiment.

Altered Book Half Finished

Forest altered book half-finished.

Altered Forest Book

Forest Altered Book

Detail in Altered Forest Book

A deer in the glade.

Altering a book is like creating a stage-set, a little window on to life or on to a dream. Life seems very much like that at the moment, I am in the wings, I have a secret view into a strange, alternative world that is sleeping or buzzing, busy with dreaming, busy with weaving dreams. (I am reminded of a lovely folktale from the Isle of Skye called The Dream Makers. It is about deer too. Sharon Blackie has written a lovely version of it on her blog here.)

I am fascinated by burrows, badger setts and secret havens. I like to find signs of the presense of animals – smeuses (gaps in vegetation made by the passage of animals), ‘couches’ of flattened grass where animals like badgers have lain while away from the sett; feeding signs. It is interesting to think that beneath my feet, along a woodland trail, might sleep a badger.

Badger Sett

One of the entrances to a badger sett in Newtimber Woods.

I bought a couple of the small Observer field guides secondhand. They’re not rare or valuable but I do like them and treasure copies I’ve had for decades. I thought that I’d work with an image that I’ve drawn recently, of a badger sleeping beneath tree roots which is inked in with a gold sky:

Slumbering Badger

Can you see the face amongst the roots?

Books to be Altered

Old Observer field guide books.

Badger Altered Book

The badger altered book underway.

Badger Altered Book

A badger sleeps beneath tree roots.

With another old book, I have created a forest scene, again with deer and a central tree with spreading branches and roots. I cannot decide whether to complete the picture behind the deer or leave the pages of text. I quite like seeing the writing, the essence of the book still evident.

Forest Deer Altered Book

Forest Deer Altered Book

Click on the image to see a larger version.

The book of the forest. I have other ideas for altered books – portraits, goddesses, icons – but I don’t think I have quite finished with forests, trees and deer yet.

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Night Garden

Cave garden altered book

In the night gardenI’ve continued with the idea of a cave garden. It doesn’t make much sense having a garden in a cave where there’s no light, its as crazy as carpeting pavements. Still, I decided to create cave garden pages in my altered book and found some grass specimens in one of my collections; barren brome, wild oat grass and the ‘clapping hands’ of couch grass decorate the pages. I liked the idea of being in a garden inside a cave and looking out at a landscape and sunset. The page is really just a rough start but I thought I’d display it anyway.

I haven’t got around to visiting a garden yet although I have in mind a place called ‘The Breathing Space’ where a friend has created a willow dome and made it a place for people to go to meditate and enjoy nature. You can see her blog here. Instead I stayed in and worked on a few illustrations on the garden theme. Here is one of them called ‘In the Night Garden’. I’m aware of the children’s television programme of that title, but I don’t care!

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Shunning the light

Woman Shunning the Light

Altered book with woman's face

Buddha Head in tree roots

Woman with Candle

Days ago I imagined I was in a garden. Usually I like wild places but I definitely yearned for a garden of stillness and contemplation. I let the day dream unfold and take me to a cave, a cave garden, in which to meditate. Walking back with the shopping, my thoughts were adrift in powder blue, and I was surrounded by cave drawings of sea creatures, birds and flowers. Peaceful, it reminded me of a painting of Radha and Krishna in the Grove as can be seen here.

I need to find a garden.

The opalite light breaks into brightness. It has been glorious for days, but somehow too bright, too blazing. Its starkness has made me want to turn away and hide. I’ve felt inspired to draw and made this sketch that I’ve called “Woman Shunning the Light”.

I have now added the picture to my ‘altered book’.

She has the face that so often crops up in my pictures. It isn’t my face but the face of an unknown, mystrey woman that looks similar to the Buddha’s head in this photo taken in Ayutthaya in Thailand. She has appeared in my “Woman with Candle” painting, taking light from a dying sun to carry with her into the night. (I have altered the colours of the painting in photoshop to make it bluer – you can see the original on my website paintings page here.) It has an Edvard Munch/Van Gogh inspired sky.

I stumbled upon a passage by Bill Plotkin from his book ‘Soulcraft’ which makes me think about the light and the dark:

People who live excessively upperworld lives take a transcendental view of everything. They tend to see light, love, unity and peace everywhere. They are attracted to the Course in Miracles or aspire to, “enlightenment,” via an ungrounded approach to Buddhism….

…People who live excessively underworld lives see the world darkly. They tend to see hidden meaning, mystery, and the undoing of things everywhere. They gravitate toward the occult and the paradoxical. They want to penetrate to the center of everything and understand it all by standing under….

A holistic approach to spirituality interweaves the ascent and the descent, rendering balance to the experience of both the upperworld and the underworld.

You can read more of the passage here.

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Angel altered book

I’ve turned once again to my altered book. I was listening to the duet Panis Angelicus by Cesar Franck, which is one of my favourite pieces of music. It was one of my mother’s too. I remember her when I listen to it and it means “Bread of Angels” in latin.

Ephesus faceAngel statueI kept thinking of flying swans so I decided to give my book wings. They looked like stone angel’s wings before their wash of blue, so I found some photos of angel statues I took a while ago in a cemetery and a haunting, “gasping”-faced statue I took at Ephesus in Turkey which I particularly like. I printed out copies and stuck them in along with some latin lyric scraps of Panis Angelicus. I tore up a page of notes that I’d made for my “about me” page (that I’ll put up soon) and stuck the pieces on to the wings. I intend to do more with shreddings, scribblings, fragments, messages and murmurings in other projects.

Angel altered bookHere is my stone angel swan carrying the night on its back.

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