I woke before dawn to see a crescent moon high in the southern sky. Now it’s a beautiful bright cold day with frost on the lawn and on the rooftops. I am longing to get out into the woods, but the car is broken, I’ve put my back out and we’re in lockdown. I’ll have to wait. Instead I’ve found a patch of sunlight to work on my new ‘forest’ book.
This book is about the forest at night. It’ll be titled Forest or Night Forest and will be mostly made up of illustrations with minimal text. It’ll be similar to a zine, but I like to think it’ll be more than a zine – I’m printing it on good quality, 160gsm paper.
So far I’ve drawn three two-page spreads of nocturnal forest scenes. One is of a nightjar flying at the edge of a forest on an early summer evening:
Nightjars are such special birds, I have a bit of a thing about them.
The other two-page spread is of a family of badgers in a forest glade. The full moon has risen higher, it’s bold and bright in a dark, starlit sky:
I intend to make limited edition prints of these illustrations on white, linen paper. I’m hoping the printers I use are able to take on print jobs during this lockdown. Meanwhile, I’ll plan the other pages in the book. These will feature owls, deer, woodmice, moths and possibly bats.
I have a bit of a thing about forests. I guess I’m a nemophilist – from the Greek nemos, which means grove, and philos, which means affection. That also means I’m a dendrophile, a lover of trees. And then I’m also a bit of a nyctophile, someone who loves night and darkness. Interesting, but right now I love sunshine and am looking forward to the light and warmth of spring.
Imagine it’s all quiet, except for the rustlings of woodmice and voles on the forest floor. Listen. In a shadowy tree top close by, sits a tawny owl hunched in his ruffle of feathers. Soon he’ll call to his mate. Be still and sense the forest; its blend of blue shadow, its lonesome shafts of bone moonlight outlining naked branches in shimmering white. Watch as a badger ventures out, rummaging in the leaf litter for earthworms beneath the tall oaks and beeches. Then a hind appears at the edge of the trees…
I’ve created an altered book inspired printed book, Deer in the Night Wood, because I was curious about whether it would work. There are no words in my book, the paragraph above just sums up the atmosphere of the night forest I had in my mind when I was drawing the inside cover.
The book is made of six sheets of card, including the cover, which is in colour.
My pen and ink illustrations are printed on both sides of the card in mirror image, so the scene is on the front and back of each page. The printer did his best to align them, but it’s very difficult to make the fit exact.
I papercut each sheet separately and folded them in half. Then I trimmed off the edges of each folded sheet – except for the cover – because the pages creep out beyond the edge of the cover and I didn’t adjust the size of them before printing. Finally I sewed the pages together with two stitches along the spine with a strong needle and embroidery thread.
Here is the finished thing, handsewn and slightly smaller than A5 in size:
I had a few of these books printed as gifts for my family. Each book may be printed, but the papercutting is by hand, which is quite a bit of work. I’m wondering whether they would sell? I’m not really sure. What do you think? Perhaps they are just meant as gifts, my gifts.
I’ve had my head down working on projects and not getting out as much as I’d have liked. It’s also been rather wet. Soon, I hope to have one or two new things to show that I’m working on. Meanwhile, I thought I’d put up a few of the altered book commissions that I’ve done this year.
Dragon in the Forest Altered Book
I was contacted and asked to make an altered book inspired by Terry Brooks’ magical kingdom. I haven’t read any Terry Brooks’ books, but I researched a bit and, along with a few guidelines from my customer, came up with the following:
There’s a dragon hiding behind the trees and a ruin of a house.
The Wintry Wood Altered Book
I was asked if I would make another Box of Delights altered book, this time based on the winter scenes in the story. It’s called The Wintry Wood. David Plaice gave me outlined drawings of what he wanted on each of the pages, apart from the last one which he said I could draw as I liked and make it a surprise. Below are three pages from the book…
… and a lovely video made by David Plaice of the book as a whole, with music by Ian Hughes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but The left hand pages of the book were inspired by my 2017 Romanian bear seeking excursions.
Deer in the Forest Altered Book
Finally, I worked on a pocket sized sketchbook and created Deer in the Forest. It wasn’t exactly a commission, until the first copy went missing in the US postal system and I was asked if I’d make it again:
I hope to share some more forest-related artwork soon.
On fine days this autumn, I’ve tried to get out into the woods and see some beautiful colours. Autumn is my second favourite season after spring, so when I decided to create a coloured concertina card, I thought I’d be guided by the colour around me.
When I think of woods, I often think of deer – and sometimes see them too – so I’ve created an autumnal, woodland scene with deer on the front and, on the reverse side, I’ve drawn a field with some hares. I’ve called it ‘The Woodland Edge‘ because so much happens at the edge of things! :)
Here is a photo of the deer side:
And here is the hare side:
Here are the full length images (click on the images to make them bigger):
I’ve used pen and ink with coloured pencils. I would have liked to have used coloured inks, but the water would have made the black ink run and I prefer to use my Art pen for this sort of drawing. I think the colour has worked.
Earlier this year I was contacted by author Christine Valters Paintner, who asked me whether I’d like to do some illustrations for her new book, Sacred Time: Embracing an Intentional Way of Life. Of course I would! I was very pleased to get involved.
Christine describes herself as a poet, a hermit and a mystic. She is also Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a photographer, spiritual director, pilgrim guide and teacher. Originally from the US, she now lives in Ireland.
Sacred Time takes the reader through the various phases of time, as marked out by the breath, by the hours of the day, the days of the week, etc. and by the different stages of life. It is a beautifully reflective book with poems and practices that encourage us to slow down, to contemplate and consider how we spend our time. We become more aware of our own path through life and the rhythms and cycles of nature that can give perspective as well as serve as anchors and inspiration.
I illustrated each of the eight chapter headings in pen and ink. Below are a couple of my illustrations. Click on the images to see larger versions.
The journey through the Hours is a poetic and symbolic journey through the movements of the seasons in each day. Each moment of the day has a certain kind of quality and invitation and we are invited to make those conscious and to live our lives in response to them.
From Chapter Two: Rhythms of the Day
You can see all my illustrations on Christine’s website here.
Sacred Time: Embracing an Intentional Way of Life comes out in February 2021. Keep an eye on Christine’s website Abbey of the Arts for updates and check it out for information about her programs, poetry and other books.
I’ve just read Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In one chapter she visits an environmental artist, Jackie Brookner, who created an installation covered in living moss and ferns and titled Prima Lingua (First Tongue). As soon as I read these words, I stopped reading and looked up; a strong image came into my mind. It was the image of a woman’s profile, dark against the light, emerging from the mossy rocks and ferns of earth.
Perhaps it was the word ‘Prima’ as in Prima Donna, First Woman, that conjured up this image for me. I don’t know. I researched the artist and found that her Prima Lingua sculpture is composed of volcanic rock and concrete, a giant ‘tongue’ covered in mosses, liverworts and ferns, which ‘licks the polluted water in which it stands’. Water is pumped over the tongue and cleaned by the moss and other life forms on the rock. You can see a photo and read about the art installation here.
I decided I wanted to create a First Woman of the Earth artwork and call her Prima Donna della Terra (Italian is easier than Latin). She would be one of my reclaimed scaffolding board icons. I just happened to have a board put to one side a year or so ago, ready for a painting.
One day I’ll train vegetation and encourage moss to grow over one of my board paintings.
I was curious to see what I would find if I googled ‘First Woman of the Earth’. What came up first was a narrative poem based on Lilith by a nineteenth century American author. Lilith was Adam’s first wife according to Jewish mythology and ‘made from the same clay’. I liked that. I learnt that she refused to obey him and also refused to return to the garden of Eden. I smiled at that thought.
Lilith also has other, complex identities, sometimes she is seen as the spirit of a tree. In Hebrew, the name Lilith means ‘night creature’ amongst other things. I am attracted to dusk and night wildlife, so that pleased me too.
My Prima Donna della Terra is not Lilith. Nevertheless, I like to think of her associated with the night and I’ve painted some night creature imagery on the painting that includes a bat, a deer, a moth and a young boar. Her origin I imagine to be Babylonian or Assyrian, perhaps Ethiopian as, once again, I think I’ve been inspired by Ethiopian religious art (see an earlier blog post).
I decided to paint both the front and back of the board. The woman on the front is looking out from the present to the future. On the other side, a figure looks back at the past. The front holds the day, the back, the night. Here she is at night in the garden:
What comes first the tree or the book? The tree of course – there would be no books without trees. However, having just finished an altered book, Beneath the Old Tree, I was inspired to find a really large, old, real tree. So, I decided to pay another visit to Kingley Vale, just north-west of Chichester in West Sussex, which has an ancient yew forest. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Each time I go there, I’m in awe of this wondrous, magical place.
In the forest it was hushed beneath the elephantine old yews. There were other people about – families – but their voices were muffled. Quiet and peaceful, the air was still, the forest floor was dappled by sunlight that streamed through the tangled spiralling branches.
Within this sanctuary are trees with enormous muscular girths and heavy limbs as smooth and hard as ivory; tusks descending to and disappearing into the dusty earth only to re-emerge nearby as offspring trees, creating a shambling, rhythmical cascade away from the main trunk. Each ancient yew stands within a fortress of these spidery, fluid limbs, each a powerful presence, deep, self-contained and stoic with a desire to reach out and touch the earth.
A bullfinch sounded in a hawthorn on the periphery of the grove, its sad note sung as though the bird was lost on the other side.
Some trees bear bark that is dry and peeling, others raw but smooth. As I ducked beneath each weighty limb, I felt the underside, polished by countless hands, rubbed to a shine by shoulders of both humans and deer.
Sitting within the hook of a limb, I felt safe and secure – anyone needing comfort should seek out a low tree to sit in.
Trunks fold into fissures and hollows, bulge with muscular growths. Some trees are whiskered by fresh, verdant shoots, others have openings like doorways or mouths frozen in silent song.
We came across a tree with its sides split, perhaps by lighning. Inside, the heartwood was deep arterial red. I picked up a square shard from the earth, a piece of the yew’s heart, to take home. Most of the trees bear wounds.
Some branches are algal green, elsewhere purplish pink, like the irridescent tip of a pheasant’s feather.
Little grows beneath a yew. They are both warm and inviting and brittle and repelling. A friend believes that here the yews talk to each other. She may be right.
After our amble in the groves, we emerged onto downland covered with chalkland flowers. Bees and butterflies busied around marjoram, birds foot trefoil and thyme-covered anthills in the bright sunshine. A roe deer leapt across the grassland and disappeared into the wooded hillside. Overhead a kite wheelled, it’s wings showing the gaps of its summer moult.
On returning home I wanted to create something in response to being in this forest. I decided to work in a looser, more carefree style and try out media I don’t usually use – chalk pastels and smudged penwork.
Below are some sketchbook drawings inspired by yews:
Perhaps it was fortunate that I missed the Hayward gallery exhibition Among the Trees because of the virus. I took this as an invitation to spend more time with real trees.
Back to my altered book. It’s of an old tree with a mass of roots within which hide a badger family. On deeper pages there is a squrrel, a fox and deer.
I have a new concertina card out now, Foxes Abroad, available to buy in my Etsy shop and website shop. It features a family of ‘country’ foxes on one side and a family of urban foxes on the other. The urban foxes are based on the foxes I sometimes see in the garden or out in the street at dusk.
Most people are familiar with foxes in the city, but if you haven’t heard their cries, here is a brief sound recording I made – it’s rather quiet so you may need to turn up the volume:
And here’s one of them bickering – it really sounds like a banshee!
There’s a fox earth at the back of the garden – where it’s a bit ‘wild’. My neighbours downstairs have just moved out, so I went down into the garden to photograph it. Overgrown with nettles, brambles, ivy and sycamore saplings, there was no fox smell, just the earthy scent of elder flowers:
Fox cubs are born around the end of March, so there may well be cubs venturing out now – I’ve certainly heard them. Apart from the hole and a few scrapings in the earth, I could see no obvious sign of the foxes. Fox prints are similar to some dog prints, but they are narrower and it’s possible to draw a cross between the digits and the pad on a fox print.
Thinking about paws and hands, I sketched a fox paw print. With colour, additional details and inspired by the Middle Eastern Hamsa Hand symbol, it turned into a Fox Hamsa Paw print.
The Hamsa Hand depicts an open right hand and is worn for protection, especially against the evil eye. It is sometimes thought of as the Hand of Fatima, the Hand of Mary, the Hand of Mirium or the Hand of the Goddess. The Fox as Goddess – now that’s an interesting thing to investigate… :)
Today, we saw what looks like a youngish fox sunbathing in its favourite spot. Kevin took a photo from our balcony: