Friday, 5 April 2013

First blog - super inspired by Gullfest

Just over a week ago, I got back from Varanger in Arctic Norway. I'd been to Gullfest, a birding festival organised by the Norwegian pro nature architecture company Biotope in co-operation with many other local businesses and people, based on the island of Vardø in which, although birds were the primary focus, the vibrant and amazing Arctic culture of Vardø and its people was also celebrated. As if this wasn't cool enough already, the people who had gathered at Gullfest from various countries around the world, united in their passion for birds, were a truly excellent bunch, bursting with enthusiasm and dedication. In short, Gullfest was probably the best and definitely the most inspiring birding event I have attended in my admittedly rather limited birding antics so far. 

Amazing birds
Inspiring people
Beautiful places
Unique (and delicious!) culture

Amongst the people present were artists Darren Woodhead and Ian Lewington. Ian is one of the world's foremost bird illustrators who has created plates for numerous bird guides, and Darren is a watercolour artist who produces all his work in the field. I was wowed by Darren's dedication, working in blizzards, sub-zero conditions and even on a boat to produce stunning paintings, and amazed to find that world-renowned bird illustrator Ian actually has no formal art training. This was one of the facts that Martin Garner of Birding Frontiers dropped into his inspiring presentation on the opening night of Gullfest at the North Pole pub in Vardø, the theme of which was following your passions. Martin described Vardø as a place that was also beginning to pursue its dreams, just as he and the organisers of Gullfest had. Art was also to be seen on many of the abandoned buildings around Vardø, the result of the street art festival Komafest that had taken place in 2012 to draw attention to the depopulation of remote areas in North Norway, and Vardø feels like a town that is starting to realise its potential with the help of some very dedicated and enthusiastic people working together.

Darren Woodhead gave a presentation about his art and how you can learn a different way of seeing to depict the natural world.
Ian Lewington explained how careful observation and understanding of bird anatomy is vital in producing bird illustrations.

A typically enthusiastic scene - Martin, Louise and Tormod on the Hurtigruten.
Street art in Vardø.
More of my photos are on Flickr, here and here.

I felt humbled and to be honest, a bit intimidated by all the knowledge, passion and skill present, although Martin assured me that they mostly 'just blagged it'! Everyone was only too happy to share their knowledge with me and I learned a lot, but how could I maintain the inspiration and continue to expand my understanding once I'd returned to everyday life in suburban Birmingham? It would probably take a bit more than blagging! I would like to spend more time in the field but working full-time and studying for a degree in Environmental Science with the Open University means I have very little free time - I usually go birding about twice a month. I'd also sporadically done some bird drawings and paintings in the past, but again felt that I didn't currently have time to do this. So I have decided (perhaps rashly) to set myself a project in which I will work my way through the Collins Bird Guide, reading about and then drawing one bird a day. I will also do at least one drawing in the field every time I go out birding. I reckon I should be able to make at least 5-10 minutes every day for this, and have posted a fuller description of The Rules.

As a starter, here are some fairly dreadful field sketches that I did at the weekend at RSPB Sandwell Valley where I volunteer - you can see why I need to practice! 

It's probably obvious that the oystercatcher kept still for longest. That pesky teal (barely more than a couple of lines) kept still the least longest! Even though they aren't very good I already have found it a very useful experience, for example I noticed how the white cheek patch on Canada Geese appears to change shape slightly depending on the posture of the bird. Also, the shelducks were somewhat unusual in the Valley - a pair had apparently been around for 2-3 weeks which hasn't happened before, and they seemed to be checking out the area for suitable nesting sites. Really hope they stay and breed so I can see the cutest ducklings EVER!


  1. Hi Jane,

    Just happened on your blog via Biotope. Its superb! Both this post and the principle - by the time you've worked your way through the Collins you'll be hyper skilled!

    I am enjoying reading through past posts and look forward to seeing new sketches.

    Happy birding,


  2. Hi Jonny. Thanks for your kind words :o) It was partly talking to you and Rob on the ferry back to Kirkenes that inspired me to get blogging. Haha well hyper skilled would be great, I'd be happy to just be moderately more skilled!

    Cheers and bye for now,

  3. Hi Jane,

    Great to see you blogging and awesome to see how Gullfest has inspired you to draw. Your work is awesome and from being inspired and acting on it you have become the inspirer (I'm not sure that is actually a word......but is should be)!
    Great work and I look forward to seeing your latest work when you blog about it :-)

    Best wishes

    P.S: I saw Darren again on the weekend, he still refuses to use white paint ;-)

  4. Hi Tristan,

    Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate it :o) there was so much positivity and enthusiasm at Gullfest (lots of inspirers! It's a word now!) it gave me the idea and the confidence to have a go at this, it's great to know others are enjoying reading and seeing the drawings too. They are pretty variable but I think I'm slowly improving overall.

    Haha if I remember only one thing from Darren's talk at Gullfest it will be his aversion to white paint!

    All the best,