This is a small scratchboard, 8″ x 10″ and something different from me. It’s a rooster that I saw wandering around the Adelaide Zoo looking very sure of himself. I’ve used acrylics and watercolours to colour it with. The wattle and comb were fun as I’d never done anything quite like them before. My wife wants to get chickens for our vegie garden so maybe one day I’ll have some of these of my own to work directly from. Mind you, I think I can do without the 5am alarm call that I’m sure this guy would regale us with.
As a kid I loved snakes – still do. Living in Africa, we had a continually rotating and large collection of them from the gorgeous and harmless green tree snakes to the highly venomous black mambas or gaboon vipers.
My dad was such an avid fan of snakes and other less fashionable animals he wrote a book about them. It’s called “Reptiles and Amphibians of East Africa” written in 1973, published nine years after his death by a grossly incompetent bureau after much hassling by the then grown up sons of his, me and my brother Mark. In fact, in 1980 we went back to Kenya and chased the publisher up. He agreed to meet us and had overnight obviously dug out the manuscript and run of a draft copy. Well, red rag to a bull – they had spelt his name wrong on the cover!! I couldn’t believe it. At that moment I should have demanded that they cancel everything but I had no idea what was to come. When they finally finished it three years later some of the photos were on the side, some had the wrong captions and some were so out of focus they were almost unrecognisable. Still, many years later it seems to be a collectors item and its poor production doesn’t seem to have detrimentally affected my dad’s name fortunately.
Talking of books, if Dad had survived, he was going to write another one in tribute to all the animals that are forgotten in the rediculous stampede to see “The Big Five” (named after the most dangerous animals to hunt – leopard, lion, elephant, black rhino and buffalo). This book was going to be called “Not Only Elephants”. I love the afore-mentioned ‘big five’, but the world is full of other incredible animals and sights and it’s such a shame to see tourists so totally dedicated to seeing only five of them because some hunter many years ago called them “the big five”.
Back to our snakes. The ones we kept were held in glass fronted vivariums with heaters and were all in my bedroom, never in mum and dad’s!! Still, good for me since I loved them. Some had locks on as they were the venomous ones but I knew where the key was and occasionally played with things I shouldn’t have – oh the stupidity of childhood.
One of the more fascinating snakes was what my mother referred to as seven foot of bad temper, a Jackson’s Tree Snake, seen here with me
It was jet black. In fact it was so black that when it shed (sloughed) it’s old skin, it actually smelled of liquorice. One day, my dad came home from work and checked on the snakes. The Jacksons was in a vivarium with a Powdered Tree Snake, a back fanged snake and particularly gorgeous. Dad looked for the Powdered but couldn’t see it until he saw the Jacksons, with a tail sticking out of its mouth. The powdered would have been about five feet long and the Jacksons had eaten it but it wouldn’t go all the way down. Dad grabbed the Jacksons, stood on a chair and held it by its tail, shaking ever so slightly. Bit by bit the powdered tree snake slid out onto the floor non the worse for wear. Two days later it shed its skin and that would have removed any remnants of stomach acids and all was well again.
They never shared a vivarium again though!!
This is the Powdered Tree Snake in question
Trivia; did you know that there is no such thing as a poisonous snake? Poison is something that needs to be drunk or eaten or inhaled. Many snakes contain ‘venom’ which is a toxic substance injected into its prey, or into you if you do the wrong thing.
Here are a few of the other reptiles that shared my bedroom, what a lucky boy I was!!
This pastel is a couple of years old but since I kept progress pictures, I thought it might be of interest to see how I went about things. It’s 16″ x 11″, soft pastels on Terra Cotta Colourfix.
I chose the terra cotta colour because I knew that, with his skin tones, this would do a lot of the work for me. It’s like an oil painter painting the whole of his canvas this colour before he starts.
The first thing I did was draw a grid to get my proportions correct. This involves drawing measured squares on my reference and also the paper. I do this on the reference in a computer program and then measure them to get the same amount of squares onto my paper. I then started working on my colour scheme and ‘finding’ my light areas, lightly erasing my grid as I go.
Then I add in some darks to give me something to look at.
I worked particularly hard on the eyes because I knew if I could get them right, his ‘story’ would be told through them.
When we see hair, we see many layers, so with white hair it’s important to start off dark to give the white something to be seen against and to give that illusion of depth.
Now it’s a case of working my way from right to left (I’m left handed) and working on the reflected light in the shadows. If you observe something carefully, shadows usually have light from surrounding areas bouncing into them, and this brings the surrounding colours with it.
And finally the finished piece again with a couple of closeups. I wanted to give him a wet eye look to emphasise age and a hard life.
Even though I’ve chosen terra cotta as the base colour and allowed that to do a lot of work for me, the colour pastel that I used most in this piece is also terra cotta. I find that this gives me a nice base to work the other colours into without interfering with the overall colour. This way I can blend my colours without using my fingers too much, something I couldn’t do if I only used the colour from the paper, and hence I can keep things as detailed as I want them to be.
I’ve used a combination of soft sticks and pastel pencils. I always seem to break the pencils if I use a sharpener so instead, I remove some of the pencil wood with a craft knife and then sharpen the pastel with sandpaper around a block.
I hope this has been useful to some.
I’m going to continue my short stories of amusing or dangerous events from my African childhood, or my travels as an adult.
No TV in those days so life was all about adventure and the outdoors. In fact, if you are living in East Africa, why you would want to watch TV is beyond me. I can hear my kids going “oh no, here goes dad again – ‘in my day you had to make your own fun’”. Well, I still make my own fun I think.
We would camp a lot. One time we were out in the bush in Uganda and there was a nearby waterhole which the indiginous people used as a bathing spot. We asked them if it was ok for us to swim there and they said “of course it is”. It was a small waterhole, what you see in this photo was pretty much all of it.
After spending a few hours there, this very crocodile walked out of the water and up the bank. It was an absolute monster and I can’t believe no one knew it was there. To my knowledge, none of the locals knew it was there and no one had ever been taken by it or any other croc at that waterhole.
The flood at Bushwackers.
Everyone looks back on moments in their lives when they realise that, but for a few seconds or minutes and through no fault of their own, they might have been killed. It may be avoiding some lunatic on the road, not being on a plane that crashed (a plane did crash in Addis Ababa once, killing quite a few passengers – my brother Mark was on the plane before it and the whole episode caused huge panic at my Grandmother’s home in Yorkshire until he walked through the front door, blissfully unaware of the crash or the state Grandma was in) or it may be something like wandering around in a river that had all but dried up. Yet again, we were at Bushwackers, camping by the Athi River. This is a very large river but on this occasion, drought had reduced it to less than a trickle. There were a few tiny pools of water in the middle, probably fifty metres from each bank and no more than an inch or two deep. Mark and I were there, collecting small freshwater shrimps that had become stranded and we assumed were going to dry up like toast pretty soon anyway. After an hour or so, we returned to the bank where the tent was pitched, for lunch.
I can clearly remember what we were doing. Every Easter, the East African Safari Rally would be running and sometimes we would watch the final stages in Nairobi as the mud splattered cars came home. The crowds would be huge but all the Africans would leave when the great Joginder Singh arrived, whether he won or not. This time we were camping but keeping up to date on the radio. All of a sudden, whilst listening to the broadcast, we all noticed that the ambient sound had changed. There was a huge roar in the background that we hadn’t noticed up til then and we all looked up together and saw that the river stretched from one bank to the other and had become a raging torrent. Boulders, six metres in height were completely underwater. The force was something to behold. Dad went downstream taking photos and was convinced he saw someone being washed away to their death.
Mark and I were standing in the middle of all this less than fifteen minutes earlier. Rain had fallen upstream and caused a flash flood. It must almost have been a wall of water that came down and we would have had no chance of survival had we found a few more shrimps.
The dwarf toads.
When you are the mother of two animal mad kids and wife to a man who is even worse than his children, chances are you are going to come home one day and regret ever getting married. My mum had to put up with a lot, from being dragged from England to live in Africa, moving from house to house, town to town, village to village. She shouldn’t have had to put up with our hobbies as well, but that’s exactly what mothers do.
One day she came home just after Dad, Mark and I had come home from a collecting trip. She opened the bathroom door to run herself a much needed bath when she was met with a sight she would never see in North Yorkshire. There were over forty dwarf toads (of the type below) hopping happily in the bath. Well, where else were we supposed to put them?
I’ve been updating this site because I’m going to make it my main website and blog rolled into one, a bit more user friendly. As such, I’ve been going through a lot of my old art and also my old travel and family photographs. This has reminded me of some very funny, or not so funny at the time, experiences from my childhood.
I know I have a brain. I even think it works fairly well. However, sometimes it just disappears for a few minutes.
Our favourite camping spot was a place called Bushwackers, about half way between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya. We used to search for animals and we would fish in the Athi river. One day my brother was using the only rod we brought with us so I borrowed a line on a spool from the campsite owners. This photo was taken just before the incident.
You can see the spool I was using. After we’d been fishing for a while, my brother cast in again and I tried to cast further than him. Unfortunately I let go of the spool so the hook, line and spool all went into the river. This would have been worth less than a few cents but I didn’t want to lose it because it was the camp owner’s not mine (I tried to take my responibilities very seriously). I jumped off this rock, ran downstream about 50 metres and ran chest deep into the river hoping the line would wrap itself around me and all would be well. The next thing I knew was my dad running towards the river at 100 miles an hour, shouting at me to get out, and when I did get out I received the biggest smack on the head I ever have had accompanied by some language that I didn’t understand at the time. Dad was terrified!!
The Athi river is home to hundreds of crocodiles. We’ve seen many of them at this very point. I’ve seen many of them at this very point. Like I said, the brain went missing for a few minutes.
This photograph is of me and my dad. He was an engineer on the East African railways, building bridges. However, he was also fascinated with animals and especially snakes. He even wrote a book called Reptiles and Amphibians of East Africa.
We lived for six months in a place called Tabora in Tanzania when I was nine years old. Somehow we ended up with a 12 foot python seen here with us in this photo
We had this snake for most of the six months we lived there and in that time it ate one frog. Pythons can go long periods of time without food – it simply means they’ve fed well at some point in time recently. Maybe it had eaten a small antelope before we ended up with it. Anyhow, we also had a chicken. Chickens are fine food for a python and you’d think it would keep its distance for fear of becoming ‘chakula’ (food in swahili), but no, not this chicken. It used to wait til the python coiled up for a sleep and it would clamber into the middle of those coils and go to sleep itself. It never did get eaten – not by a reptile anyway.
One of our many pets was a zorilla. This is a polecat and the best way to describe it is Africa’s equivalent of the American skunk. We called it ‘Yardley’ after the perfume of that name. It once went missing for two weeks almost in the middle of Nairobi, and turned up on our doorstep once we thought it was either gone for good or dead. It looked very much worse for wear but it recovered just fine.
My dad loved his photography and this is a shot he took of the zorilla.
This was in the days before digital cameras and clever things like Photoshop. If you wanted a picture like this, you either had to wait for days or weeks out in the wild or you had to be clever yourself. This was set up in our spare bedroom in Nairobi, green plants up against the wall, stones on the floorboards. The snake is a pretty realistic looking plastic cobra (much better than the ones they give you at fairgrounds nowadays) and the zorilla isn’t looking at the snake’s head, it’s actually looking at me, standing out of the picture, holding a juicy lump of raw meat.
I mentioned before that we loved fishng at Bushwackers campground. One time we’d done particularly poorly, not even getting a single bite. On our way back to camp, dad encountered a poacher, not a rhino horn poacher but just a local bloke tryng to feed his family with some fish. He could catch fish but not where he was, on the camp’s private property. Dad threatened to report him but the guy made a deal, promising not to do it again if he revealed a great fishing spot to us. Dad let him go and we went in search of this spot. After three hours of trying, we thought we’d been done and went back to camp empty handed and annoyed at the poacher.
In the morning, before breakfast, we decided to have one last go. We had half an hour to spare before we needed to pack up and go back home to Nairobi. In that half an hour, we caught 72 tilapia. Fed us for weeks!! Here I am with Dad and my Grand Mother holding some of those fish.
I’m sure I’ll be back with more stories one day.
It’s amazing what a difference the base colour makes. I have two zebra pieces, both done on Art Spectrum’s Colourfix, a sanded surface. One previously posted which was done on the Terra Cotta colour, and a new one of 19 zebras done on the Storm Blue colour. Both are zebras in Etosha National Park in Namibia. Both were at different times of the day, in fact different days. One had some wind and cloud, the other had no wind and was nice and sunny. I wanted the single zebra to look like it was in a scorched earth, whereas the new one is a cool winter’s day, almost no reflections because of the light wind. The choice of base colour was crucial to get these different effects. Since I used coloured pencils for the most part (although I used pastels for the sky and water in the single zebra one) the base shows through a lot as the pencils simply can’t cover the sanded surface of the Colourfix as well as pastels can. It sure chews up the pencils too. It’s a great surface for pastels but possibly not as good for coloured pencils, you need to work much harder to get the colours bright.
Here’s the new one followed by the one I’ve talked about in an earlier post. Quite a difference!