I’ve been spending a lot of time at Yorkshire Arboretum as artist in residence, catching up on the many changes as spring progresses. A subject I have been really keen to paint is shadows of branches on tree trunks. From the start of my residency I began to notice the strength of tone in these shadows on larger oaks in particular. Tonally they are as strong as the branches themselves often continuing over the ground around the tree. They make a fascinating subject sometimes forming some really interesting shapes. It has become something of an obsession, the painting process feeling almost abstract at times although very much the result of life observation.
The shadows of bare branches are a particular feature of winter and early spring so I have been making these studies in anticipation of emerging foliage. It really teaches you to draw what you see rather than what you think you know. Painting a dark shadow of a branch on a trunk can at first seem daunting, but with careful observation of the subject you start to realise that this is what we see all the time. Next time you pass a large tree try looking at the shadows rather than the bark and you may see what I mean.
It has been a delight to be in the grounds as spring advances. A visit on March 22nd came after an intense early frost (-5.7C). By mid morning the sun felt really warm in a light breeze- one of those early spring days when for the first time in a long time you realise that you are overdressed. The goat willows were in full bloom and heaving with insects, especially queen buff-tailed bumble bees. Amongst them up to four small tortoiseshells nectaring on the flowers. I stood mesmerised by the sight, sound and smell. suddenly after a long cold winter the warmth hit me. The sight of the yellow flowers and orange tortoiseshells against a cerulean blue sky was a true tonic.
A single chiffchaff freshly arrived belted out its name from a nearby ash, those two rather plaintive notes repeated over and over again pure joy to my ears. I had good views and managed a few sketches of this restless bird. The lake has a pair of little grebes. I spent some time sketching these incredibly fluffy grebes with their gorgeous burnt sienna cheeks. Patient observation enabled me to find the nest site which will soon be hidden by emerging leaves.
We have had an intense run of hard frosts at night, in fact every night in April thus far has seen a frost to some degree. Although some days have turned reasonably warm the night time temperatures (and lack of rainfall) are wilting some plants and probably holding back a certain amount of bird migration. Swallows remain very scarce. I find myself gazing into the blue sky willing Hirundines and swifts to be here when I know that most are still days or weeks away. But there is no doubt, the season of sky gazing in a craned neck posture has begun!