Painting in the studio from plein air charcoal sketch

Often when out and about something catches the eye, whether a pattern, group of objects or angles etc.

These two charcoal drawings were made this summer on sunny days with strong light and shade.
Just for a change I decided to paint the scenes in the studio, using just the sketches and memory.
I used acrylics, applying lose washes and glazes building up from light to dark, similar approach to watercolour.

The result is a feeling of spontaneity and vibrance, helped by the larger sizes of canvas than that which
I normally paint.

Summer shadows, charcoal in A3 sketchbook, and below, acrylic painting from the sketch, 40 x 30″
High sun on the Stour, charcoal sketch, and below, acrylic painting
from the drawing, 36 x 24″

Late Spring: mixed media sketching in the woods

Late Spring, where the plant life is literally bursting out in colour accompanied by the buzz of insects and the trills and warbles of birdsong is a favourite time of year for a lot of folks. The day breaks early towards mid June, so no excuses – I made a flask of tea and got out in the local woods for some mixed media sketch studies in May and early June.

I’ve used all sorts of materials with the drawings here: oil and acrylic paint, felt tip and brush pens, charcoal, pastel, coloured pencil – whatever would give me the effect I was after. Spontaneity and free brushwork is important in my oil paintings, and with sketching I’m trying to make an interesting vibrant drawing. Responding to something rather than describing it.
All the work here is in an A3 cartridge wire bound sketchbook.

Broken beech
May 7, 2023. Broken beech: felt tip pen over spray fixed charcoal and pastel

Below on the left is a study of a stand of tall beech trees together with pines. I used gouache and watercolour, some acrylic paint, and felt tip pen over the top. I was interested in the grandeur of the trunks, reminding me of an early travel poster, with the light and shade cascading down to the ground, the track disappearing mysteriously round the bend. What’s around the corner?
The drawing on the right was made using some left over oil paint on my palette from a landscape study. Over the top of which I applied a little pastel and some more detailed work with felt tip pens.
I had been looking at the work of British abstract artist Victor Pasmore particularly his 1940’s paintings, so there is a heavy influence here, particularly in the stylised, dotted foliage.

May 25 and May 18 (right)

Painted from under a large oak full of character, with this very loose sketch I started with watered down acrylic over which is some charcoal, white conte and some pen work. This one didn’t quite come off the way I planned but I quite like the no holds barred ‘of the moment’ feel to it. There was also a Cuckoo calling nearby, a classic spring sound much less common of late.

Under the oak, May 28

Looking out from under the oak across buttercup meadows, with cuckoo just audible

There have been good numbers of Brimstone butterflies this year. This female looked to be settling as some clouds threatened a shower. Underneath the bramble leaves it is well camouflaged.

May into June

Below left: This avenue of stately beech trees were drawn in the late afternoon, using charcoal and pastel. I didn’t feel the need to render all the groups of foliage on the spot, but did add some felt tip pen and crayon work when back indoors, and some white acrylic to help separate the line of trees either side of the track.

On the right is a friend’s woodshed on their farm, at the entrance to a copse. The focus of my attention was the bright sunlight on the wooden frame, and the splash of dappled sun filtered through the elder in full flower on the left. This drawing is largely washes of acrylic with a small amount of crayon over the top. Like most of these sketches, it took about an hour and a half to get to a point where I felt I should stop! Interesting to compare these drawings with the plein air sketching I was producing ten years ago, and how I’ve loosened up! and also here

May 28, Beech avenue, and right, June 3 Woodshed

Here I was attracted to the very different shapes of the three trees. The oak in front is backlit by the sunshine, and there is a good carpet of bluebells. Largely pastel with some charcoal, I made another study (right) later indoors from the first one, using coloured pencils and charcoal, simplifying the shapes somewhat. More work needed to make this work, I feel.

Three trees in the Spring

Orchids can pop up anywhere
when trees have been cleared,
making them more visible in the
relative open space. This one is a
Greater Butterfly Orchid

Taking advantage of the continuing sunny spell, the two drawings below were made within a few feet of each other. I used acrylic washes so that the paint doesn’t ‘lift’ if I work over the top. With the hazel coppice on the left, I cut leaf shaped pieces of masking tape to leave those areas untouched, and paint freely over them, picking off when dry. I was rendering the effect of the sun reflecting off the odd leaf of ground foliage, and the reult works, but could benefit from a little more perhaps.

On the right the foxgloves looked splendid backlit by the sun in a clearing. I tried to describe what I was seeing without overtly drawing anything at all, to convey the sensation. There is more pen work over the paint with this drawing, I do like to try things out. Sometimes they work!

Hazel and foxgloves, June 7 2023.

Plein air painting: same view, different season

Red Roof 2, Frosty Morning.Oil, 11.75 x 16.5″ Dec 15 2022

I took advantage of a few days of heavy frost to return to a favourite subject. A view along a hedgerow leading up to a cottage with a red roof which I had painted in late summer of 2021, here . Now my challenge was to use the shadows and sunlit areas to create a strong value pattern that led up to the main subject. The crystals of ice that had grown daily clung on to the rough vegetation, except where exposed to sunshine for hours. There were plenty of muted colours in the shadow areas, and the vertical telephone poles were sharply lit on one side as the sun moved across the cold blue sky.

This painting is a different format to the summer version, extended to the right hand side. I had been working very quickly which gave the brushwork plenty of energy, similar to when painting with an imposed time limit. I find that to be good practice, preventing me from fussing over details.
After about an hour and a quarter I started to feel the cold, despite standing in the sun, and decided to stop.

I decent result. The feeling of cold comes across well – not just because I experienced it – as does the thin air and quality of late morning December light. A decent result.

Plein air painting along the Stour, heatwave and breeze

Revisiting the River Stour at Spetisbury after twenty five years, prompted by looking through old sketches. I came across a river scene I remember from early one summer morning. I was experimenting with water soluble crayon. How had the scene changed in that time? Would I be able to access the same part of the river? Yes, and I think I recognised the same stretch of riverbank, but things had changed and become more overgrown, and the water level was noticeably lower than that in my sketch, despite it being a similar time of year

The first painting was of very large trees – I think maybe Grey Poplar – on the opposite bank. Late August, very hot and against the light, the intention was to convey the high hot sun using limited palette of crimson, cobalt blue and a raw sienna plus white, on a pink ground. I worked quickly on a 24 x 20 inch canvas.

August Heatwave, Stour – first stage block-in

As the painting progressed I realised I needed to add a couple more colours to the palette but keep things restrained. After an hour and a half I was ready to stop. I returned for a second session to finish the painting a couple of days later.

August Heatwave, Stour. Oil on canvas, 24 x 20″

I looked for the same spot that I drew all those years ago. Not sure I found it, willows grow very quickly
and the whole feel of the place was oddly different.

River Stour, water soluble crayon on cream watercolour paper, 1997

For the second painting I chose a spot where I could see the river turn away in the distance.
There were egrets fishing the shallow water and there are always swans here. Next time I’ll consider including them. This painting progressed very well, and almost completed it in the first session, but returned for a second day to finish off. This time I used a ‘guest’ colour of lamp black – quite fatty and opaque as oil paints go. I rarely use black paint, but used judiciously gives a nice harmony across the colour scheme here. Learning to keep my brushwork looser and without fussing, I feel this is one of my better efforts this year, and working against the light is a real challenge, but I’ve captured something of that feeling in both of these paintings.

September afternoon, River Stour, work in progress day one
September Afternoon, River Stour. oil on canvas 20 x 18″

I also produced two smaller paintings. On a different stretch of the river, where willows have been planted to line the banks, and back at the first location on a breezy September afternoon.

Riverside willows, oil on canvas 14 x 18″

What drew me to this view was the contrast between the grey willows and the large dark oaks behind them, throwing them forward in the soft afternoon sunlight. With the painting below, the breeze whipped up suddenly turning the leaves to show their whitish underside. Colours becoming autumnal but still with warmth to the sunshine, a brilliant time of year. I intend to return later in the autumn to see how things have changed, and perhaps produce more paintings.

September Breeze, oil on canvas 12 x 16″

Plein Air Painting: new local views in oil

Here are two small 12 x 8 inch canvases painted in the same week, at different times of day.
Both are looking Southwest from the Downs here in Dorset.
The first painting went very smoothly, and was painted mid morning with a fair amount of cloud.
I used a red ground to help the greens and blues pop a little. Before I’d finished, a lady passed by with her dogs and stopped to admire my progress. She ended up buying the picture ‘off the easel’, which I was thrilled about, as that almost never happens! It’s now my new favourite thing.

Work in progress, red ground showing
The finished painting

The second painting didn’t go quite as smoothly, but came together right at the end. I had two sessions for this one, on consecutive evenings. The main problem was the low sun cast shadows on the right hand bank which moved very quickly. The first day I worked on the distance and middle distance, and by the time I was happy with that, the whole track was in shadow. The following evening I reworked the middle distance trees and concentrated on the track. It’s still not the painting I had in my mind’s eye when I started, but I’m content that it’s all a learning process!

The finished painting. Compton Abbas from the Capstitch, July evening. Oil 12 x 8

Pike in the pond – mixed media collage

Taking a break from the current spell of plein air oil painting, I switched mediums to work up the sketches I had made of pike, lurking almost motionless in the weeds. Difficult to spot as they look just like debris hanging midway in the water column. Irregular stripes along the body mimic waves of refracted sunlight. Perfect camouflage.

Medium sized Pike, sketchbook drawings

I used an old ink drawing of a landscape that had ‘failed’ some time ago and set about tearing up pieces of it being careful to include dark/light patterns or irregular marks. A patch of winter trees against the sky would serve as weeds in this collage. Laid out in an A3 sketchbook, the angle I chose for the fish is pretty much how I viewed it from the bank, and helps to suggest the fish is just hanging around at a slightly upward tilt.

Work in progress, mixed media collage

The only colour in the picture is the brown paper strip, complete with shadow, strategically placed to suggest the water surface. I find working this way very liberating, placing the pieces where it feels right, and not being too bothered about the literal.

The cropped version adds a little dynamic back into the composition. I reigned in the dappled stripe effect and added a suggestion of a shadow on the silty pond bottom.

The view from the middle of the road

Sometimes something catches my eye when driving, but there isn’t always a convenient place to stop.
The view from the middle of the road that was so inspiring means going back on foot to photograph or sketch the scene or whatever it was.

Here is an example of just that. Soft light on a crossroads junction on the Wilts/Dorset border, so typical of the countryside in May, with Cow Parsley in full bloom, new leaf growth providing many different shades, and the scratchy twitter of a Whitethroat nearby.

For this sketch I used coloured pencil over a yellow pastel base. Cropping in tightly on where the lane disappears round the bend, where the maximum contrast between values in the scene, draws the eye.

The small oil study was produced later in the studio.

… and speaking of whitethroats, here’s my paper collage from a couple of years ago. Trying to capture the busy character in a few simple shapes…


Painting in between showers

Three new paintings of local fishery ponds that have been left pretty much to nature. Apart from our designated nature reserves, places like these can be the closest we get to wilderness here in the UK.

In May, the very lush growth and new leaves on trees present a range of greens that I find challenging.
I usually mix greens with French Ultramarine and various yellows and reds, and added manganese blue with the third painting. As a result there is a certain azure quality to it, set off by the pink ground to the canvas, a change from my usual sienna ground.

Pond 9: Willow and Poplar. oil 16 x 12″

Painted en plein air in between showers, and at different times of day,
I’ll leave the subject now and return when the spring has changed to summer.

Cloud Over Pond 8, 3may 12 x 10 plein air oil painting
Cloud Over Pond 8, 3 may 12 x 10 oil
Spring morning on the ponds oil, 10 x 8 plein air oil painting
Spring Morning on the Ponds, oil, 10 x 8 28 April 2022

Pike in the old cress bed ponds

I’m painting ‘en plein air’ at some local ponds. See here. They used to be cress beds fed by an upstream spring, then abandoned to the wildlife for years, then stocked with fish for a time. Between brushstrokes and showers I’ve been looking into the thirteen ponds with binoculars to cut through the glare to see what i can see. In most there are schools of Orfe (Ide), and one pond in particular also have a few Crucian Carp, Tench and Pike.

Sketches of Pike in the very weedy ‘pond number 12’

The Pike are various sizes from tiny youngsters (used to be called ‘Jacks’) up to about fifteen inches or so. There may be some larger, of course. Camouflaged with pale irregular bands on the body that concentrate towards the rear. This cleverly imitates the rippling sunlight through the water. They hang motionless at a slight angle in open water in the sun looking like a dead stick. Once you get your eye in, they are easier to spot. The binos help enormously of course. The ponds themselves have different characteristics, such as very weedy, very silted up and so on. The fish don’t seem to mind.

This swan family have chosen a very weedy pond to hang out.

Set yourself a challenge

New year, new paintings. Attracted outdoors by a welcome break in the flat grey days we’ve been subjected to,
the bright sun streamed across this lane, sparkling off the wispy young hazel growth and bathing the near bank
in sunshine. Essentially looking into the light, my challenge was to convey this drama with little tonal value changes for the most part, and try to describe the brightness.

I decided to rework the hedge when back indoors the following day and re-establish some values. A few flicks of white for sunlight catching the branches is easily overdone, I think I got away with it. Win Green Hill in the far distance helps the feeling of depth enormously.

Winter sunlight, Brookwater Lane. oil on canvas 10 x 12 Jan14, 2022

Rapid plein air sketch developed further indoors

It’s March 2, 2021. Spring has been showing itself for a while once more. There are new buds, small birds are more noticeable, the sun is higher in the sky – when we see it – and you can feel the energy in the air.

Time for a quick sketch with a broad black marker on an A4 cartridge pad, looking up from a gully in my local wood. Keep it simple. On the ground the bluebell leaves are through the leaf litter a good two inches, not yet forming a green carpet.

Looking up the slope the trees beyond catch the light from over my shoulder, a metaphor for the whole experience, maybe.

I worked on this further when back indoors. While I like the pen drawing, and the gouache version (right), possibilities opened up when I began cropping in to the image in Photoshop, concentrating on the upper section. These are quite lively semi abstract images and might lead to further development.

A little mixed media

Every now and then it’s good to loosen up and try something different. Here are some recent sketchbook pieces with gouache, coloured pencil, charcoal and some collage.

Sunset in treetops, Mixed media sketchbook collage, 13 x 10 inches, Jan 2021
Bush End ice and snow, mixed media sketchbook drawing, 13.5 x 11 inches, Feb 2021
Winter on the Hill, mixed-media collage 11 x 11.5 inches Feb 2021

A country footpath, en plein air painting

A rainy morning but just enough time for a quick oil study of a country footpath in Hertfordshire, UK.

Morning Footpath: Oil , 8×10 inches, Oct 2020

A couple of days later, I returned with a larger canvas to paint another view of the same footpath. This needed two sessions, a couple of days apart, and a few tweaks in the studio to complete.

Footpath 2 – with Ash tree on the bend: Oil , 14×18 inches, Oct 2020

Painting en plein air Hertfordshire

Marden Hill, Hertfordshire

Marden Hill, between Welwyn Garden City and Hertford. An area of largely unused paddocks and meadows popular with dog walkers and the occasional birder. Overhead, Red kites are now common, and Ravens soaring in pairs is no longer a rare site, as in much of lowland Britain. I was fortunate to disturb a Redstart on autumn migration in the low, berry laden brambles that cluster around some remaining fence posts. Nuthatches quip in the high beech trees and oaks that sit on the high ridge, exposed to the wind.

Still very warm in September, the exposed trees on the edge of the wood drew my attention. Several trees had fallen, leaving a gap that threw those that remained into relief against the sky. They seemed to stand defiantly at angles competing with each other, rocking in the breeze.

I made this quick sketch in gouache and coloured pencil on a red ground, aiming to record the late summer afternoon mood.

Going back several times to the same spot, producing a pencil sketch and then painting in oil on card (old backs of drawing pads, primed with acrylic, can be very useful when you are fresh out of ‘proper’ canvases or panels).

The afternoon sun streamed through the wood, catching the top of the young tree in front of the tall, swaying beeches.

I like to visit the same location in different weather conditions, time of day and even seasons, to get to know it well – picking out likely spots to paint or draw. This area, with its scattered mature trees planted with intent many years ago, now has the look of a forgotten landscaped park.

There will be more to be had here.

One man’s weeds

weeds reference

It’s mid-summer. The early morning sun lights up the long grass and all is a grey orange, hard to describe but wonderful to look at.
In the field beyond my weed filled ditch is a rotation crop full of blue flower. There seems to be a bee every square metre, and there is a gentle hum.

Over the next couple of days I try and capture my response to this on a small 8 x 10 canvas. It takes several sessions of about half an hour each, and stopped when it all ‘felt right’.

I went further with the theme but with a completely different approach,
and created a paper collage of the same scene in the studio.
This time I included one of the butterflies that passed by regularly as I stood there.

A garden still life

It’s early summer, the weather is good, time for a warm up painting or three before I sling all the gear in the car and try my hand at a few en plain air landscapes. Looking around in the garden for potential subjects I noticed a red chair and big yellow plastic bin calling attention to themselves under a fruit tree that sails across at an angle, on which I’d hung a basket of lobelia. There’s a nice balance where the viewer’s attention is kept by the colours and angles, with the shadow of the tree taking you back around. I moved things around slightly here and there until I was satisfied with the placement of the objects, and then started to loosely sketch onto an 8 x 10 inch canvas. It was then that I noticed the patch of long grass and nettles behind was a bit bland, so I placed an aluminium pot there to ‘fill the void’.


I usually cover canvases with a thin layer of raw sienna to avoid painting on white. After a simple pencil line I go over this in very thin ultramarine to roughly indicate the main spaces, and then thinly block in the dark areas. I’m also using my oldest and much loved wooden sketching easel which I’ve repaired a few times. It’s not too stable out in the open in even a slight wind, but you make do. Hanging a heavy kit bag on it helps a lot.

I’m also using a very limited palette of just two blues (ultramarine and cobalt), two yellows (lemon yellow and yellow ochre) and two reds (light red and cadmium red) plus white. I can mix everything I’ll need from these, even using the white sparingly. It’s good discipline too, and will help me avoid using too many unnecessary colours. I prefer turpentine to any other medium, not just because I just love the smell!

Stages Garden still life wip oil on canvas 8 x 10

Garden Still Life, oil on canvas 8 x 10 inches
Garden Still Life, oil on canvas 8 x 10 inches

As I was working just outside my own back door, I took my time and completed the picture in six sessions of about half hour each, over a couple of weeks. Partly because the shadows had to be in the right place and therefore the sun had to be shining! I spent nearly as much time looking and assessing and making decisions about what comes next or what to change as I did actually painting. This is normal for me, it’s an all consuming experience. I was careful to describe the aluminium pot in just a stroke or two, and the yellow bin didn’t need much work at all, you can see the stain of the raw sienna on the canvas easily. The only area I’m not too sure about is the patch of nettles but overall the finished painting is ok. On to the next one….

Baba’s Last Journey Part 10: Celebrations

Saturday 13th May. Dawn. I’m up and ready, full of anticipation for what the day ahead brings. I take my coffee outside, where two family members have been up all night, sipping beer and keeping vigil over Baba’s coffin. The dj and his two buddies are asleep, one slumped over the music console, the others in white chairs hired for the occasion. The Naija style R&B is still playing, and is very loud. There is a feeling of premature aftermath which is difficult to explain, like it must have felt like before a day’s great battle. Time for eggs, onions and peppers.

Waheedi is late with the attire for everyone. There is tension, understandably. The outfits for immediate family including myself, are handsome and voluminous. Rich ultramarine blue and white for men, tasteful green and golden yellow for ladies. Other attendees wear outfits according to this colour dress code. Even Waheedi and family employees are to wear matching outfits it turns out, so much work, no wonder he is late!

The original idea was that Baba would spend the night at the old house in Isale Osun, but plans are flexible, and so the trumpeting, drumming, dancing cortege is on its way there now. Disappointingly (and predictably, perhaps) the road is blocked to the old house and access only possible when N15,000 is shelled out– ‘welcome to Nigeria: now bend over’. Shameful.

Oke okanla
A view down the street from First Baptist Church, Oke Okanla, past the new church build project in progress, and looking up to the existing church from the grounds.

All captured by the official videographers, the family members and onlookers pay their respects. It is crowded and noisy, and I would have liked to have been there to see this, but we must go straight to the First Baptist Church, as time is pressing. The church stands on one of the highest rises in the town, and from its tower there will be views taking in the whole of Osogbo. The new, even larger church is being built close to the road at the front of the grounds. It is still all block work and bamboo scaffolding at this stage. There is no hurry here. Full of butterflies, bees, lizards and scorpions, the grass slopes down away from the church towards the family plot, easily seen in its white marble splendour.

The church is packed to the rafters with people, including the upper balcony. It is a big space. The walls are decoratively painted which helps create a light atmosphere, even though there is plenty of dark wooden furniture and structures. Fresh flowers are everywhere. There has already been a memorial service in Kaduna and in Jos, where Baba Lawoyin knew many people from his time there in service to the church, and the Pastor and other clergy are here today. Among the congregation are many people that have travelled long distances. They are of mixed faiths, sharing orders of service, praying and singing together. This is one of the stand outs I have learned on my travels, that people are people and will just get along, without the long nose of politics interfering. Another is the obvious contrast between this and a similar event back in the UK/West, where things are much more sombre. This is a wonderful celebration, and I know which I prefer.

Everyone looks very fine. It is refreshing. A gathering of people from far and wide to pay their respects and honour a very popular man. A man of god. There are sermons and a fine speech by eldest son, Segun, now officially head of the family. The immediate clan are invited forward to sing and clap hands at the front behind the coffin, while the band and the choir play on. It is the same choir from yesterday at the house. Tradition has it that row by row of the congregation pass by dancing, dropping money into a hat. I go round several times, in the noise and confusion not realising at first that I should be with the family too! But at least I earn the title of best dancer, which I’m sure is patronising in the kindest way possible!

After the service we attend the burial at the bottom of the grass slope. Prayers at the graveside. I start to realise I am very hot and sweating in my attire, but it won’t be long until I can relieve myself of the outer garment and fila. I take my turn to shovel some soil into the pit, and we make our way back up to the top of the hill. Suraju is close by, looking after my much needed water!

The celebrations are in a large hall in the northern sector of town. Here is where all the food cooked overnight is served (well, I am sure some of the food, especially some meat, didn’t make it that far….and went to feed some of the locals). There is an mc in a dark suit fronting a large band playing Afrobeat crossed with gospel, and some entertainment in the form of dancers and a spectacular short play involving actual fire eating. There is plenty to drink, and I must say a large whisky was very welcome. Family members are to dance while the mc chants along and mentions them by name. The better dancing the more dash placed on your forehead is the way it goes, and I am also singled out for this treatment, so having loosened up with a whisky or two I’m much less self conscious than I might otherwise be, and enjoy myself, albeit a little stiff in the hip movements! There are some really good dancers here, some young men in particular stick in the memory. There are lots of introductions and handshakes, and I know I won’t remember everyone’s name. Sikiru is here with some other lads from the house, and advises me not to wonder too far from the action as there is no security and as he puts it “not everyone is your friend”. This is good advice.Hall dancers

Plenty of photographs and video, both from official and unofficial sources. A photographer offers to use my camera to take pictures of me and other guests, and always on guard and alert I straight away notice him slowly wander further and further away as I chat and pose for other photos. He is hoping I will be distracted enough to not notice what he is doing, and so I retrieve my camera from him before it is ‘lost’….

Good to see the basket lady and her companions from town turn up.
(episode 5)

Eventually the party’s over. We are last to leave. It has been an extraordinary day, and I feel privileged to be here, once again.
There are more adventures before we leave Nigeria in a few days’ time, but for now Baba Gabriel Oladosu’s last journey is complete, and he is at rest.

Baba publications


Baba’s Last Journey Part 9: Wake-keeping day and night

May 13th

Up early to witness the goings on in the back yard. The air is slightly misty and cool before the sun comes up. I’m already too late to witness the slaughter of cow number one, which is now pumped full of air, I’m told to make it easier to clean off the hairy coat from the skin. There is the inevitable comparison to Pink Floyd’s famous inflatable pig from the “Animals” album cover. Some boys look on before starting work on the cobble driveway again. Nothing is wasted. Our slaughter man proceeds to dismember the animal on blood soaked concrete and plastic sheeting. There are no prime cuts here, just meat and skin in chunks. When served up, it’s a matter of luck if you end up with a piece of meat that isn’t very chewy and tough, but that’s how they roll here. I witnessed the demise of cow number two, took video and photos for my own education, I guess, but perhaps not suitable for display on this page. An education, certainly.

There is a general mood building, and has been for a couple of days, part excitement, part sadness. Austin has finished installing lights along the compound walls, inside and out, which are now newly painted and smart.

Baba Lawoyin’s immediate family, including myself, are wearing blue and silver outfits for the wake-keeping day. Waheedi the taylor and his team are late delivering them to the house, understandably as he has outfits for tomorrow, including friends and associates of the family to produce and deliver. It’s a big task. I am changed and ready. I have the honour of collecting Baba, together with eldest sons, from the mortuary at the hospital, where he has been ‘on ice’ since March.

At the hospital, we are invited to inspect the workmanship of the funeral parlour team in presenting Baba in perfection, led in his open coffin, looking at total peace. He is dressed in a glorious vintage style white cotton gown. It is hot in the sun, and the odour of the embalming fluid is too much for me and once experienced, is never to be forgotten. While discussions are held and we await the arrival of the hearse and the band, I seek the shade of the ward block nearby. The nurses have nice white uniforms with matching shoes and white bonnets with a red band, and appear to be a throwback to the 1950’s, but very smart. It is a peaceful, sunny morning, with a Woodland Kingfisher calling from a thicket in the hospital grounds, and butterflies flitting lazily past.

The bearers and the band arrive to escort the coffin back to the house, and we follow. The mini bus and the hearse stop 100 yards from the house, everyone gets out. The band strikes up their drum and trumpet tune suitably loudly and the bearers hoist the coffin aloft, the two dancing girls at the head of the procession. Family members are invited to carry the coffin (symbolically, the bearers always in control) and it is set down, raised up, turned around, and when down low, family again are invited to dance around it, laying money on top, as is tradition. It all looks flippant and casual, but is in reality tightly controlled and choreographed, and looks amazing. It’s a good twenty minutes before the procession reaches the courtyard and places Baba where he will rest for today and tonight, before the church service tomorrow.

The music continues. An elderly man no-one knows and dressed in a bright yellow kaftan is clanging two pieces of metal together rhythmically hoping for dash. A talking drum band play on throughout, people placing notes on their foreheads encouraging them. They respond with louder, faster drumming. People are dancing, taking photos and video on their phones, and there are many bystanders. Oscar shows off his dancing skills as Baba’s coffin is placed on its plinth. Austin mocks him playfully by pretending to place money on his forehead. It is a celebration of life, after all, and uplifting to witness.

Afternoon Service

When the dust has settled, there is still much to do. There is a constant supply of jolloff rice and sweet potato served, group photos taken, bottles of beer drunk. In the afternoon, the Pastor from the First Baptist Church, Oke Okanla, (where tomorrow’s service and burial will be held) arrives with his team and delivers a service in the yard complete with choir. The heavens open, lashing rain pours down but thankfully we are mostly kept dry by the awnings and canopy erected just hours before. On the table in front of the Pastor is one of Oscar’s batik designs. The official videographers somehow keep their equipment dry. The rain on the roof almost drowns out the words spoken, there is a service sheet, but everyone seems to know them anyway.

afternoon service

All night vigil

In the afternoon, ladies of all ages come from the old town, singing and clanging small metal bowls together, celebrating Baba’s life. They come into the house and sing and chant phrases led by an elder, and I guess, as in much of local custom, they have the opportunity to leave slightly wealthier than when they arrived… All are dressed in specially prepared and coordinated traditional attire with different blue and yellow schemes.
Infectious and emotional.

The ladies in the back yard were cooking food for tomorrow’s celebration feast, and would be there all night. There were stoves fuelled by gas, and the main fire was still going strong. Earlier the slaughter man had boiled the whole cow’s head, horns and all, in a large cauldron over this fire. He readily posed, without any prompting, holding a horn in each hand as if balancing the head in the cauldron. Today’s cheap plastic bowls and utensils are eye-catching and colourful, but I couldn’t help thinking that only a few decades ago, this would have all been done with grass baskets and clay pots. I was offered a meat roll, which was delicious. There are those that will sit with Baba all night, keeping a vigil, though I decide to get my head down for a while, as tomorrow will be the big day.



Baba’s Last Journey Part 8: The pressure is on

This morning the generator outside the window wakes me. When it stops, I can hear the long heavy trumpet sound of the (infrequent) train announcing its departure. There are no barriers or fences along the line, unlike in the West, and folk and livestock wander freely across the narrow gauge track going about their business. We bump over the line every trip into town. The grass grows in between the silver rails, and the litter billows up and settles as the heavy diesel locomotive rumbles on by, exhaust blowing blue in the heat haze.

I make my way to the kitchen, stepping over Austin and Ibrahim who are still sleeping in the darkened, open-plan dining room on a mattress and rolled up blanket. Ibrahim is muslim, and has the distinctive slightly hooked nose and dark complexion typical of Northern tribes. He drives, and is employed by Sister Jumoke as a handyman/general assistant, and has been brought down to Osogbo to help out. Many hands make light work. As I step outside, coffee (with fantastic, distinctively flavoured and near black local honey) in hand, I try my Yoruba with the boys. They like to try their English, and after hand slapping, finger-popping greetings (I rarely get the last ‘snap’ right) there is usually a few questions about the UK, and what it’s like outside Nigeria.

In the garden opposite, behind a high fence, are palms and masquerade trees, plus some other broad-leaved species. Some Grey Plantain-eaters, a type of Turaco, flap as if in slow motion into the top of a fruiting palm. We will be visiting the gentleman resident here with an invitation in the next few days.

It’s getting busier and the pressure is on, in an obvious way. The boys laying the stone on the driveway/courtyard, breaking stone up by hand and setting in dry mix concrete, have their work cut out. There are more boys to help, recruited by Ade. There are problems just when you don’t need them – isn’t that always the way? The big Nissan pick-up needs a tyre, and we are unlikely to get one of the right size today, it will have to come from out of town. This truck is dark navy blue, and I have an idea that people often think we are a government vehicle, such is the similarity, that we are often given a wide birth with it!

Baba’s Youngest son Ayo and senior son Segun arrived from Abuja last night. Segun is busy writing for the Order of Service and Celebration of Life booklet. It will be in English and Yoruba, and as usual with these things, running more than a little behind schedule. After all, there is a deadline! With Jumoke’s daughter Uzo arriving from Baltimore USA, and Toyin’s two younger sons Zack and Daniel arriving from the UK today, it will be busy. Out with Lalu and Maureen, we are sending packages from one of the bus stations in town. Seemingly chaotic with the blue suzuki mini-buses coming and going, parking at all angles on the deeply rutted bare earth yard, the man in charge behind his shuttered kiosk window barks instructions. He knows everything. All the destinations and numbers of the buses are handwritten on a well-worn chalk board on the wall next to the window, and I have no doubt it all runs smoothly despite the chaotic appearance!


On our way into town I see a small boy rolling a tyre along with a stick. Timeless. Some other uniformed schoolboys call out as we drive by, calling me a “white black man” as they see I am in native dress and fila, a reply in English and wave goes down well, all good natured.
After the usual business of the day we buy some Wara from the girls we see regularly. They know us by now and give us first opportunity to buy from them. I have permission to take their photograph (Back home later in the year, I turn these into paintings on canvas). Suraju has been asking us for a picture of him and me, and when we get some prints made as a surprise, he is really chuffed. He invites me into his tiny wooden house in Isale Osun to see where he will place it. On the wall next to pictures of family members, I am honoured indeed. I travel the last mile of the journey back to the house with 40 eggs in a thin plastic bag on my lap. This time I manage not to break any, despite the deep potholes!

This evening we settle Uzo, Zack and Daniel into their hotel nearby, and have a drinking session on the verandah, a little bitten by the mozzies. We return up the hill to our house at nearly midnite. An old boy guards the wooden pole barrier that is lowered, and as he lifts it for us I see he has a hunter’s shotgun over his shoulder. No deterrent if you are determined, but comforting to note there is some community spirit.

Next morning I have a Guiness hangover, but I can blame my grouchy mood on the malaria tablets (so the small print says). With Uzo and Maureen, we visit the churchyard where Baba will be buried at the First Baptist Church, Oke Okanla, and the family house at Isale Osun, where we visit the school opposite the house for the first time. The kids are understandably unsure of what is happening – who are these people? They are sharing books and pencils between them, and Uzo is a little shaken by their lack of resources. Keen to help somehow, this we do on our last day here, more on that later.

Back at the house, two of the three cows arrive to be slaughtered, Halal style. The boys working so hard on the drive get really upset as the cows are walked across the wet concrete and a lot of shouting ensues, a fight breaks out and a machete is raised in self defence by a wide eyed boy. Bloody hell! Fortunately the situation is diffused, but for a moment there it was looking seriously dodgy.


There are some guests arriving for the celebrations already, and introductions, handshakes and group photographs are ongoing. Some people have not seen each other for years, after all.
The slaughterman readily poses with ‘cow number one’ for me, and round the back of the house, catering supplies and all sorts of pots and pans, some the size of witches cauldrons, are being prepared. The slaughter man has his well-worn but hopefully sharp knives laid out neatly on top of a barrel. A big fire is lit. A group of ladies are preparing vegetables and peppers for the cooking up, and are singing and chanting. They will go on all night and into the morning. All of the boys are still here, some are bunked down for the night. In the lamplight, I chat with Oscar and Sikiru about the West, and food production, meat slaughter, packaged food, organic food, supermarkets. The differences between cultures, but all governments have agendas etc.

There is a definite sense of occasion, tense and exciting at the same time, like watching a clock ticking just before the alarm goes off. Tomorrow is a big day. The Wake keeping begins. First though, will be cow number one.

Baba’s last Journey Part 7: Are you having the fish?

Wednesday evening cousin Yomi took us to nearby Abeggi, or ‘bar behind the trees’ for a Guinness or two. Having a drink here is something of a tradition when we’re in town. Basically an open grass space with a bar and dj stage at one end, in front of a line of very tall masquerade trees. There are low clipped hedges around the perimeter, and very little lighting. The outdoor tables and chairs are the stackable, plastic type, and easy to move around when it rains (frequently). The waitress service is quick and the music is foot-tapping good. It is always a good idea to cover up though, as the mosquitoes are always ready and waiting. Last year three of us were sat here, Yomi, Toyin’s brother Ayo and me. Ayo was talking and I suddenly interrupted…”Did you see that?” I asked. “Yeah I did” Yomi replied. Ayo had his back to a UFO as it flew over, with solid blue and red light, covering all the sky in a straight line, in about three seconds. Too low and fast to be a plane or chopper, and who knows, one of ours or one of theirs. We’ll never know the truth of what really goes on in our skies!

Day 6, fish sauce

This evening we repaired to another bar, more akin to a member’s only drinking club. The cars outside are mostly new four SUV’s and BMW’s. The owner was genial and pleased to see us. It was obvious Yomi is a regular. Some other regulars were huddled in the half-light around a table lit by a candle in a jar. We placed our order for beers. “Are you having the fish?” inquired Yomi. “Um, yeah?” I replied, thinking it was a spicy table snack, like the peppered beef on cocktail sticks at Abeggi. Suddenly the threatening grey clouds emptied what seemed like angry gallons of warm rain upon us at once, with strong gusts of wind threatening to blow our canopy away. We headed for an open door, water sloshing everywhere, and found ourselves among crates of beer and stacks of plastic furniture. No lights. We all thought this would be a fine alternative if we were to be stuck! The bar owner came to the rescue with flashlight and umbrella, escorting us one by one into the main building, cautiously negotiating the deep drain channels (fine in the daylight but in the dark?) now running fast with a mini torrent of water. In the low light of the indoor bar, past the kitchen, a tv was showing English football behind a bar in the corner. A couple of guys were sat on bar stools watching. A group of drinkers sat at a low table to one side, as we headed for the back of the room. A low ceiling and the dim light levels created a strange atmosphere, but we were relieved to be in the dry. Our fish arrived. Absolutely not a snack. Each of us had a pretty reasonably large catfish, laid predictably in a fish-shaped white plate filled with hot and spicy brown sauce. I have to say it was really tasty, though a little too much for me, as we’d already had sweet potato and beans back at the house, but I made an effort. In the gloom I couldn’t quite see what I was eating, but as this was his ‘after work’ evening meal, Yomi tucked in with relish – eating the head, eyes and all. The sauce was the cook’s own recipe, and was truly more-ish, especially before it cooled a little.

The following day at the house, painters painted, Sunday continued his sewing and hammering, and there seemed to be more foam, more wood, more rubble everywhere. Then I realised some extra chairs had been bought (typically here, from a roadside seller) to strip down and cover with the new fabric. Here the armchairs and sofas are luxuriant in dimension and finish, usually some sort of leather style with shiny bits…an African thing. I supervised some boys planting the potted plants we bought to fill in the gaps in the border. Enjoying gardening as I do, it was difficult not to do it myself and the lads were curious as to why I would get my hands dirty rather than just tell them what to do.

Auntie Sade, the housekeeper, kept us all well fed. It got to the point where there were so many boys around helping with the building work, and all needing high carb food, she was less than happy cooking all day long. I understand her frustration, though Austin the electrician introduced me to freshly cooked yam with honey drizzled over it. Nice.


drive cobbles
Progress on the laying of stone on the drive. The fence is newly painted, and posters of Baba Lawoyin are spread evenly along

On the bare ground I noticed four lizard eggs, perfectly shaped, white, matt and soft. About 15mm long and seemingly just randomly lying around on the dirt and gravel, only losely together, which made no sense to me. I picked them up carefully and placed them out of harm’s way. I’ve no idea if they were viable, or if this scattering was normal, but people seemed to think so. Certainly the agamas are absolutely everywhere.

Out in town, we always pass the roundabout manned by two or three friendly traffic officers. Their uniform consists of black trousers and boots, white gloves and eye-wateringly bright plain orange shirts, topped off with a black beret. On a bright day, even they have a parasol handy. Recognising our van they wave us by with a salute and big grin, sometimes with a greeting shouted out as we pass, sometimes even after we’ve passed. Today was a bright day. I could feel the back of my neck burning as I stood in line at the ATM, with Suraju chatting with someone he knows nearby.

Cash and cuts

We’re also changing some cash sterling into niaira with the money changers in the Hausa district along Sabo Road on the south-east side of town. We’ve been here many times, and the guys recognise our car, shouting out their exchange rates as we pass by. This time we see an intense looking boy who has a nasty looking stitched cut on his palm. To us it looks a little inflamed, and we give him our anti-septic gell and instructions on cleanliness and how to use it. He is very grateful. We have to wait ten minutes or so while our cash is being changed somewhere up the road, so I’m invited to sit in his wooden booth out of the sun. Suraju closes his eyes, holding on to the walking stick (now fully commandeered) and micro-naps. We were to check on the boy the following week, and all was well, with the cut healing nicely.

The power steering on the van is getting stiffer, and we soon see we have a fluid leak that needs fixing today. Driver Ade takes care of this, and tells us of a boy killed on the road earlier today, knocked off his machine most likely, where the driver failed to stop and drove on regardless. A reminder that life is cheap here.

Back at the house, today’s rain is coming in quickly. Lashing, squally wind batters the bananas and palms and it’s a wonder they survive. Water runs down the street within minutes, and dries up almost as quickly. I take the opportunity to draw up a couple of postcards to send back to friends in the UK. I’ve been watching the weaver colony in the tree at the gas station, the drongos and kingfisher on the phone lines, but it is the Red-headed Malimbe, a type of weaver, that I decide to draw. I saw this in the morning on a palm in the gardens of the house opposite. A new bird to tick off.

Red-headed Malimbe, a new bird for my postcard home series

This evening, Baba’s middle son Lalu and wife Maureen arrive from a long trip from Baltimore, USA. I’ve not met Maureen before, but we immediately hit it off. Yomi takes us all to the bar for beer and fish supper, but I decline the fish this time, opting to just drink the Guiness and watch the others enjoying the hot sauce. In truth I don’t think I could have finished it.

Baba’s Last Journey Part 6, Godzilla for your Garden

Find me a flower

Back at the house, everything is getting a lick of paint ready for the wake-keeping and guests. The blockwork perimeter fence (all boundaries are called fences here, even if it’s a wall) are being rendered and painted a uniform light grey, and posters of Baba are being spaced along its length, inside and outside. In the yard, there is a narrow planted border held by kerb stones painted alternate black and white, which really needs some extra plants to fill in a few gaps.

mixing 2
Mixing the render for the outside fence

We need a garden centre. Is there such a thing in rural Osun? The nearest thing we will find are the roadside plant sellers, with their collection spread out under the cool shade of trees, with flowers and shrubs for sale grouped in rows and blocks for ease of watering. We take Suraju with us to a plant seller on the outskirts of town. We pull up on the side of the road and a girl approaches. We explain what we’re looking for and are invited to have a good look around.

The terrain was a little tricky so Toyin stayed in the van. I’ll have a look around, take snaps of likely candidate specimens on my smartphone, and back at the car we can negotiate a price. As a method it worked well, overcoming some language difficulties at the same time. Everyone informed, very democratic.

The plants are laid out on a slope partly shaded by trees, across a shallow ditch running with clear water. Some tadpoles are floundering on the plank which dips into the water as I put my weight on it. I rescue them by carefully flicking them back into the stream, and point them out to a young girl standing close by. I can tell she thinks I’m crazy. There are large sculptures for sale, of dinosaurs (Godzilla, really), ostriches, and what appears to be a group of World War 1 life-size soldiers. Close inspection reveals them to be a type of concrete render over a fibreglass base. Not sure I’d have one but they do have a certain quirky charm.plant seller

We also need palms and potted plants to give the house a finishing touch ready for the visitors. Also a good idea for the family house in Isale Osun, but we figure we can hire those, even though they may be eaten by the goats.

The soil at the house would benefit from any manure we could find to give the new plants a boost. Suraju makes a call. On our way into town he directs us down this street and that until we pull over at a point he has arranged to rendezvous with a couple of middle-aged men in traditional attire who are carrying shovels. The three of them are in animated conversation in the back of the mini-van as we arrive at the top of the road leading to the Osun Sacred Grove.

It is dusk, and the light is fading. We pull up over a stream winding its way through the undergrowth and litter. One of the men descends (nimbly, for his age) down the steep embankment and begins clearing a patch to access the silt underneath, bagging it as he goes, complete with bits of plastic rubbish. This is our compost, and will serve us well. Perfect material to give our flower borders a nutritional boost. The men disappear off back to their neighbourhood on foot after loading the bags and saying goodbye. Job done.

Night Drive

As we are near the entrance to the Osun Grove, we take the opportunity to drive through and out the other end, on what is oddly called Osun Grove Street, passing through water and deep muddy potholes, out to the unfinished outer ring road. I’m keen to walk this road one day, so it would be useful to see where we eventually come out. A couple of times Suraju gets out of the van to physically check the best way past various hazards.

It is very nearly dark by now, which only adds to the atmosphere, the magnificent trees silhouetted against the purple and indigo last light in the sky. Scattered houses show themselves by their square yellow lamplight. There is no knowing how far away they are, or what nocturnal forest dwellers are in between. Some bats and all sorts of moths and bugs pass in and out of the lamplight as we make our way down the ochre yellow dirt track that eventually leads us onto the new ring road and back into town. To me this is all very exciting. and I absorb everything like an enthusiastic schoolboy, and get to know a little more about the territory and its wildlife. Home for pepper chicken, bitter leaf, sweet potato and a chilled mango. If there are any left!

nightdrive dog
Driving through the forest by the Osun river out to the ring road

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 5, The basket ladies

At Isale Osun, we stop to check the progress of the builders. They are keen to show us the new toilet pit they have nearly finished, located in the inner courtyard. To get to it meant weaving left and right through narrow dark spaces between houses, past the odd chicken and one or two goats. The only light at one point was from dusty beams striking down from holes punched in the tin roof. Spielberg would approve. After we had inspected the impressive hand-dug and very square, deep pit (complete with a right-angled turn into the seat area for modesty), I stopped to exchange pleasantries with the elderly lady who we had photographed several times. She was sat on the floor eating Okra with one hand. I didn’t understand what she was asking me of course, until one of the girls turned up as if on cue and translated. She was asking me to join her, but as we had to move on I respectfully declined, and not just (as I tell myself) that Okra is not my favourite thing. It’s a little slimy for me.

On our way back through town we pass some small shops by an empty market square. The main building across the square is of the old colonial style, and as with most of these buildings, the hot/wet/dry climate soon eats away at the fabric of the building. Timber shutters and doors become bleached in the sun and the slow creep of algae from the ground is encouraged by the heavy seasonal rains. On the far side are smaller shops, some with pillars holding up the tin roof, some painted bright blue (a popular colour here), and some with the cheaply produced and often delightfully crumbly concrete colonnade ‘fence’.
A single market stall stands empty in the foreground.

market sq
A single market stall stands empty in the foreground.

A pile of baskets caught my eye. There were also pots and scourers, and food tins re-modelled into oil lamps, small stoves and even graters. Nothing that is remotely useful is wasted here, and it seems there is a whole industry of inventive recycling.

basket ladyThree ladies sat under the roof gossiping, until we got out of the car, that is. One lady in particular was wearing a striking blue and yellow outfit and seemed to be the more senior in rank of the three. She had a handsome face with prominent tribal scars, and her inner calm and sense of humour shone through. I’m sure we didn’t look as though we needed any baskets or lamps, and so a conversation started. It turned out that the ladies knew Baba Lawoyin, and knew that he had passed on recently. We gave the lady in blue and yellow (regretfully didn’t catch her name) an invitation to the Celebrations, they happily posed for photos and we went on our way.

basketlady with shop
What attracted me was the pile of baskets and the lady’s striking outfit.

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 4, Banks and Batik

Monday 1st May

Towards evening, we collect artist Oscar from one of the bus stations who has endured the hot and uncomfortable day long journey from Abuja and is commissioned to produce some batik fabric to be used on table and altar tops. A good looking, trim man in a dark t-shirt and jeans with pointed tan leather shoes, a big grin with perfect teeth, he looks much younger than his 49 years, and is one of those expressive, driven characters that as well as working with fabrics, produces poetry, sings, paints and even dances. In the next few weeks we will have many conversations about art, the importance of being focussed to achieve your goals, western values as opposed to African tradition etc.

Early next morning I turn the bedroom fan off – a relief from the noise – together with the generator, it’s like sleeping on a helipad. The quiet still air in the kitchen has a pleasant aroma, a mix of fruit, last night’s cooking and cleaning materials. Mangoes are piled high in the fridge, as it is the height of the season. They are especially sweet and juicy, and in the coming week there is not much room for anything else in the kitchen, save for a couple of bottles of beer and a tin of Peak Milk! A box of matches is balanced perfectly on the cupboard doorframe, where Auntie Sade the family cook habitually leaves them. You could find them in the dark.

I stroll outside with my coffee and scan the trees in the compound opposite. I always do this, looking for anything interesting that may show up. This morning a pair of kestrels are noisily flapping in the top of a fir tree, a western grey plantain-eater flies in and clumsily lands at the top of a masquerade tree, and a group of starlings busy themselves from one tree to another, and then fly off out of site, the reddish brown flush on their wings standing out from the overall near black plumage. A new species for me, I identify them in my trusty field guide as forest chestnut-winged starlings. Because we are here in May, the migratory black kites are all over town, wheeling skilfully low over the streets on constant lookout for a morsel or an unsuspecting lizard. I made them the subject of one of my hand-made postcards back to the UK.

kite postcard

The next few days are taken up with trips into town, the business of the day often involving standing around in banks for long periods. Either depositing sums to pay a bill connected to the funeral expenses,  or using the ATM to withdraw. Sometimes three separate banks were visited in a morning. And again in the afternoon. By the end of the trip we were at least on nodding terms with most parking attendants in all the major banks in town!

Naira bills are counted with a machine, the operator wears a mask as a token protection from the micro dust, (some bills are very, very dirty) and the question “are you the last person?” is heard more and more as Nigerians in general are getting used to the idea of how a queue is supposed to work. That’s not to be unkind, many a road journey is made twice as long as it need be due to the selfish behaviour of many drivers. No lane discipline. That and the potholes of course.

Alongside the reliable yet slow ‘desk to desk’ method of completing paperwork, some aspects of modern life are being tested out in countries like this, such as biometric data gathering for setting up an account, either in a bank or with a cell phone company, for instance. I’m wondering how a cashless society would work here, as cash is very much part of the day-to-day culture, and long shall it remain so. In established businesses such as banks, there is a delightful mix of old but serviceable wooden furniture, ceiling fans and modern office chairs, with slightly grubby looking computers, and piles of paper files sit alongside the teller’s smartphone. It’s as if the ultra modern world is being shoe-horned into a hot, dusty climate almost against its will. It has its own charm. Modern electronics companies, such as cellphone company retail premises, are very polished, with pull-up banner stands supplied by the marketing people at HQ, smart well-trained staff and keen and helpful doormen, usually wearing eye wateringly bright coloured shirts with epaulettes and black trousers and boots, all topped off with a beret.

Oscar has spent a couple of days getting a feel for the place and its people, and is ready to design his batik covers. He has been commissioned to produce something with a flavour of Baba’s home town, and has teamed up with some local artists to use their facilities. We go along to see the work in progress.

By now Suraju has all but commandeered Toyin’s walking stick, which seems to suit him, gesturing with it while chatting to acquaintances when we are queuing at the ATMs. He buys a bottle of roasted peanuts from across the street, as we’re all a bit peckish.

Batik is a traditional craft for this area, and so is the use of indigo dye, though Oscar’s work is going to be black and white. The guys are working on tables that are half in, and half outside of the studio. I notice two infants asleep on a blanket on the floor inside, so we carefully avoid waking them. All is smiles as we take photos. Oscar larks around showing off the fabric, and sings a (long) song. I’m invited back to try out the technique for myself, which I’d like to do, but that’ll have to be some other time.

batik set

We were also checking the progress on work to improve the drainage and generally tidy up the old family house in Isale Osun. A local civil engineer was brought in to advise, and some boys had been set to work. The young foreman even contracted malaria at one point so we obtained the ‘one fix’ solution from a nearby pharmacy for him. He carried on working. Never let a spot of malaria slow you down eh?.

engineer surajuditch
Local civil engineer advising the young builder foreman and Suraju on raising levels over the open drain. On the right, a toddler carries her plate on her head.

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 3, Isale Osun

Some rooms in the house have air conditioning, some do not. Ours does not. I switched on the light and a gecko made its way out of sight into a gap in the window frame. The upright standard fan noisily moved the air around adequately enough though. Welcome back.

The heavy rain in the small hours, loud on the tin roof, has cooled the morning air. I noticed how much the paw-paw tree in the yard had grown since last year, and how the bananas had been thinned out. Some wood has been collected ready for cooking the food for the wake keeping. Apparently three cows will be slaughtered in the yard, halal style. Looking around I found an old Peak Milk wooden box that was destined for burning. Being of possibly 1950’s vintage, and therefore worthy of a place indoors, this will do nicely as both a doorstop and a makeshift bedside table. Anything to keep your things up off the floor away from the (very large but harmless) ants is a good thing. Peak Brand evaporated milk is very common in the stores here, and more convenient than fresh milk for obvious reasons. As a little luxury, I’d been travelling with an unopened bar of dark chocolate that had melted fully (shoulda known) and re-shaped itself to resemble a large smooth pebble. After being in the fridge overnight it was now solid again. Too solid.


Sunday has been employed to re-upholster the lounge furniture, plus some new easy chairs in a similar style, to accommodate visitors to the house in comfort during the course of the celebrations. He doesn’t speak much English so our communication is restricted to common hand gestures and my rudimentary Yoruba greeting, which goes down well. He is working outdoors under cover, using an old mechanical sewing machine, and there is foam, timber and fabric strewn about. It will be like this right up until the wake-keeping day.

There are painters and plasterers too, with their assistants who are working in bare feet and look as though they should be at school.

A trip to Isale Osun

Next, we’re out and about in town with driver Ade, a cousin. A sturdy, reliable guy in his thirties with a stout jawline and ready smile. He lives nearby at Bosun’s catfish farm (more on that later) and is charged with supervising the boys who will be refurbishing Baba Lawoyin’s old family home in the old town, at Isale Osun, and also the driveway here at Baba’s current house. Isale Osun is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Osogbo. In Baba’s childhood years, there were green spaces to play football and plenty of trees, but over time houses and businesses have sprung up in close proximity to one another. We go along for the ride, there is work to do, after all. The intention is for Baba to spend the night here, at the home of his birth, the night before the funeral in a candle-lit vigil, so people can come and pay their respects before he leaves for the church. His last journey. It’s a big tradition, I can feel the buzz of anticipation of the events to come. Posters of Baba have been posted on the outer walls and the whole place is getting a lick of paint and general fix up. Everyone is keen to have photos taken with cousin Toyin, the young children though, are just curious as to who these strange visitors are.

Family members pose with Toyin at the house in Isale Osun

There is a strong sense of community here, where different religious beliefs live side by side. Mostly Muslim and Christian but also Animists, and there are traditional Osun worshippers too (we would meet some at the water’s edge in the Sacred Groves before the end of the trip). Everyone celebrates each others religious holidays, and it is not uncommon to find both Muslim and Christian family members in the same household. This plays a part in maintaining harmonious community relations where the population is roughly split 50/50. To Western ears this sounds strange, as our understanding of such things is tainted by politics and vested interests and we forget that, at the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to get by. For me, this is one of the major take-aways from trips here.

The ladies cooking up are happy to stir the pot for my snap. I notice the standard “stockfish” is not local, but actually cold water mackerel…

Suraju joins us (another cousin) and will be helping out wherever he can. He lives opposite the traditional family house and comes across as a quiet man of few words, the type that understands English well enough but chooses not to let on. He has a very dark, shiny complexion with prominent tribal scars on his cheeks, with slightly bloodshot, yellow eyes.

Suraju (right) poses with this garage owner in downtown Osogbo

A bit of a local politician, he seems to know everyone and is easily distracted talking to other locals. With us daily for the rest of the trip, Suraju quickly became indispensable when we needed an extra pair of hands, or just to know which part of town we needed to be to find this or that. He has a unique charm and is a lovely, lovely man. I like him a lot.

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 2, Over the blue hills

We set off for Osogbo. A short distance down the expressway we pull up at a pre-arranged rendezvous point (gas station) to meet the printer (a cousin) who has with him the funeral invitations with matching envelopes. Cheerfully brushing off the pressure he has been under to deliver to a deadline, he has no idea yet how late the copy for the Order of Service booklet will be! Of course I can say that in hindsight, but my own experience tells me that these things never run to schedule, but the man, or woman, at the end of the chain always has to deliver!

Our driver was Michael Oladiti, known as “Ditti”. A tall, quiet man who also works for Bosun as a mechanic, he lives along our route in sprawling Ibadan, and is keen to get us to Osogbo and return home before dark. The drive to Osogbo took around three hours, much shorter thankfully, than the last time we travelled this way (which took an incredible 12 hours, partly because the road wasn’t finished!) and was uneventful due to the unhurried yet professional manner in which Ditti drove. The now familiar southern Nigerian scenery of thick green bush, orange sienna soil, roadside truck repairs, hawkers and machines (often with two, three or even four riders on board, sometimes whole families with babies) passed by the window for mile after mile. Trucks often have hand painted signs on the tailgate or sides and cabs, some artistically rendered like murals. Some have polite warnings about overtaking or spiritual messages..…”God is great” is common. As we made our way, we listened to the laid-back music of Evangelist Ebenezer Obey, whose songs of philosophy and faith are accompanied by light guitar and percussion. I liked it so much I ended up buying the cd’s from Ditti.

Ditti drives us to Osogbo from Lagos. The two trucks in front are painted by the same artist. The nearest has an eagle and snake motif, and both are heavily laden with vegetables

At Ibadan, I looked beyond the endless sprawl of rusty tin roofs punctuated by churches and mosques, with black kites wheeling above, to the blue hills beyond. I was reminded that just there, a few miles over those hills in the Omo Forest Reserve, a population of chimpanzees apparently still survives and, it is rumoured, even some forest elephant. Doesn’t seem possible amongst all this noisy, choking activity, and one of these days I would maybe find out for myself. It’s a comforting thought that we share the world with all sorts of wonders. All conjoured up in the mind of my younger self with just one word – ‘tropical’. For this I have to thank the Brooke Bond tea cards my sister and I collected as children in the 1960’s. One album was Tropical Birds, illustrated by the great Charles Tunnecliffe. As a small boy, looking at those images of exotica fuelled my imagination and now of course, I have seen some of the very same birds that are illustrated in that booklet at first hand, both in Venezuela and in Africa. I’m pretty sure that early experience has carried through to today, which is probably why I find all this so exciting. Perhaps I should make it a mission to see all 50 birds in real life…but that’s another adventure.


There is something special about arriving in to the company of people you have missed, and sure enough we received a very warm welcome. Timely, too, allowing Ditti to return to Ibadan that afternoon before dark. Many hands made light work of packaging the invites we had brought from Lagos into their envelopes and in turn sorting them into bundles for out-of-town destinations.

Baba Lawoyin had a long and distinguished career working for the Baptist Church in education, and travelled widely, living in the North in both Jos and in Kaduna. Consequently many people from across the country knew him, and his extended family comprised both Christians and Muslims. I would get to meet a great many of them in the coming weeks. 

The string-tied bundles would be distributed by the Suzuki mini-bus public transport system, and after measuring us up for the outfits we will be wearing for the wake-keeping and funeral in a couple of weeks’ time, taylor Waheedi and his colleague took the bundles to the bus station. Everyone mucks in and helps out around here.

As dusk approached, heavy clouds were lit up by yellow and orange lightning, flashing left to right across the sky, momentarily silhouetting the palms and masquerade trees. I’ve never seen lightning that was not white so another first for me, and I felt curiously at home.

Orange lightning under heavy clouds as the day draws to an end

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 1, Lagos to Osogbo

I am travelling once again to Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria, with Toyin. We are attending the funeral of her father, Gabriel Oladosu Lawoyin, who passed peacefully away in March of this year, with some members of his family at his bedside. He would have been an incredible 112 years of age in May. The three week trip was quite the experience, recalled here in this series of posts.

Lagos to Osogbo

I can never resist looking down at the scenery below on daytime flights, and here we are over the small fields and woods of France, crossing to the island of Palma, then on across Algeria almost due South. Flying over Algeria seemed to take at least half of the six hour flight time. What’s it like down there amongst the sun baked rocks, my boyish imagination asks.

Lagos, 5pm. The thickly humid and warm air of West Africa hits me, a cocktail of diesel and kerosene, and something else uniquely African which still defies description. Nigerians returning home will know what I mean, it’s immediately exciting. We disembark and begin the long stroll, eyes on you at all times. Men and women sit or stand around casually, some buried in their smartphones with only their lanyard badges identifying them as staff of some sort. There is an air of nonchalance, with many more staff than would seem necessary for efficiency. There was a little impasse for a minute or two when I was asked by the pair of female immigration officers to present a yellow fever certificate, which I didn’t have. I’m sure they would have settled for dash, but we explained the reason for our trip was to attend a funeral, which drew their sympathy. The uniformed officer standing behind them had the shiniest black shoes I’ve ever seen, and in relief I told him so. He immediately broke into a broad grin “Do you like them?” Smiles all round, and we are on our way.

After the usual scrum to have your luggage numbers checked by another phalanx of uniformed men and women (I can imagine the confusion that would occur if they didn’t match) you look to see who is waiting for you, so you can make a b-line for them and brush aside the hands reaching for your luggage and leave the chaos behind you!

In our case Bosun was there to greet us. I already knew his younger brother Yomi, and Bosun is jovial and witty in a similar way. Both instantly likeable, they can be difficult to tell apart, apparently something to do with the spectacles and shape of the head –  their words, not mine. Both men have a dry sense of humour and are quick to see the comedy in any given situation. There are two other brothers I’ve yet to meet, and all four have excelled in their respective careers; academia, aviation, oil and medicine.

We lined up outside the terminal waiting for our driver to come around. More uniformed women made the process of passenger pick-up as smooth as it could be, and eventually we were loaded and on our way, through the Lagos traffic and southbound onto the Third Mainland Bridge, past the waterside communities of Makoko below us and on to Lekki peninsula. Turning off on the 7th expressway roundabout where Chevron have their large and very secure looking compound, we approach the first of several checkpoints in the impressive Northern Foreshore gated community. If they don’t know you, you don’t pass without checks, which may have to be an actual phone call to the house you’re visiting – very reassuring for residents and visitors alike. But it could feel like a prison if you’re not used to such high security. No-one complains. The benefits are obvious.

On arriving at the air conditioned cool of their splendid newly built and spacious house, Bosun’s wife Funmi offers us chilled bottled water, and we’re delighted to hear some chicken and jollof rice is nearly ready to serve! Funmi works for a German firm, and is fluent in the language, and also speaks a little French. She has an easy laugh and a big smile, and long extensions and braided hair and blue jeans is her trademark look.

Before the very welcome supper, there is time to stroll down to the water’s edge to admire the view across the lagoon. Bosun explains that land reclamation and housebuilding is ongoing, which will eventually alter the view, but for now it is peaceful and still. Across the lagoon, at the far end of the Third Mainland Bridge causeway, an illuminated and animated billboard flashes its message brightly in the blue-grey darkening atmosphere. It looks like a rogue pixel on a cinema screen, and is kilometres away, but when we travel back to the airport at the end of our trip, we see that it is gigantic. The sun turns the sky a coral red near the horizon, and right on cue, a fisherman punts across the water. He stares at me and doesn’t respond to my wave. I have no camera, but Bosun has his smartphone, so we manage to capture a pretty good image of this timeless scene.

A fisherman paddles past as I stand on the grey sandy shore

Back at the house, I see a collection of health supplements and ingredients on the kitchen table; organic cider vinegar, turmeric, coconut oil, black cumin oil etc. Something we have in common is researching the best nature can provide in enhancing your diet to stay healthy in a toxic world. For me, as a cancer survivor, it’s an important part of my daily routine. Turns out we use a lot of the same stuff, ‘you are what you eat’ has never been more true.

Bosun also has a huge collection of books on purpose built shelving both upstairs and down. Even on the stairs. It’s really a library. A quick glance at a few spines tells me most all of them are about how to do things; aquaponics, organic farming, fixing landrovers, financial management. Some are political, some historical. All are valued. I purposefully don’t ask the obvious – if he’s read them all – as we share some malt whisky. It’s been a long day.

Before we leave for Osogbo the following morning, there is time for a little birding. A group of ladies stroll purposefully by in their trainers, exercising ‘round the block’ almost power walking, and greetings are exchanged. At the water’s edge, the sun is already hot, and the shallow clear water laps quietly up onto the grey sand. Dozens of hermit crabs stroll this way and that in the shallows, and one or two small mudskipper fish hop about out of the water. A short distance out, some poles are standing upright out of the water. Two pied kingfishers occupy one each, while a third flies by and hovers briefly, looks down but does not dive. Off to my left the green reeds are easily over ten feet tall, and beyond them on the power lines sit a pair of little bee-eaters, their sharp black bills and yellow, black bordered throats just visible against the light. By the house on an empty plot, lush with grass and pools of water, a black heron hunts by shielding the water with its wings. I first saw this on a David Attenborough documentary years ago, and now here we are, exotic birds with unique behaviour strutting around amongst the plastic in new Lagos suburbia. Sharing the square space was a pair of white-faced whistling ducks and a noisy spur-winged plover. One of the things I like most about travelling here, is that my own notion of the exotic can often turn out to be commonplace, and wildlife is altogether tamer than at home. Makes the world smaller.

view to the lagoon

Durbar Prince

Durbar Prince
Durbar Prince: pen and ink over lightly smudged oil paint on paper

Durbar Festival, Kano, Nigeria 2016

This young man looks very cool in his finery and shades. Not held for some years due to recent troubles, we were lucky enough
to be VIP guests at last years’ Durbar. Grandstand view and mingling with the riders in the paddock after their parade, it was a very hot but very exciting afternoon!

Auntie Sade

Continuing with the series of portraits of folks met while on trips to Nigeria. Seems to be a thing developing here. This is Auntie Sade, who I met for the first time in 2014. Sade is the reliable housekeeper and amazing family cook. I’ve often seen her preparing meals with industrial quantities of tomato and pepper (chili) with freshly prepared chicken – feet, beak and all. Now in her mid seventies, she prepares food in the traditional way, and so wraps her
moi-moi in Uma leaves (Thaumatococcus daniellii also known as Yoruba soft cane) rather than foil or plastic bags.

Agbara kekere

This painting is of the second girl selling Wara in Osogbo. Tiny in stature, and carrying her very young baby around with her (underneath her shawl for this picture). I was interested in her expression, hard working and really tough with a relaxed, confident air. I used the Yoruba words for petite and strong in the background, applying them in no-nonsense Gotham Black to the container wall behind her. On the canvas her complexion is more subtle, but here the image processor in my camera exaggerated differences between tints and hues. Something to do with white paint in the mix possibly.

Wara seller 2, “Agbara kekere”, acrylic on canvas 600 x 900mm 23.5 x 35.5 inches

Wara seller

On trips to Osogbo, we always buy Wara from the same ladies. It is a type of milk curd sold fresh and is delicious cooked either boiled or fried with lemon, and quite healthy, it turns out. Click here for more info and recipes. The ladies are familiar to us and come over to our car if they see us around town, as we will usually buy from them. This time around I asked for photos with a view to using them later. The girls were happy to pose with and without their bowls balanced on their heads. For this first painting I’ve used the light to describe the girl’s features, complete with tribal scars, as she poses in the shade. I covered the canvas in dark washes using a very limited palette and painted thinly throughout, doing just enough to describe what I was interested in and no more.

Wara seller, acrylic on canvas. 16 x 20 inches June 2017

Roller wire

Keeping the West African theme going, here is a Broad-billed roller that conveniently perched
on a wire opposite the garden wall just long enough for a quick scribble in my sketchbook.
There is a three year gap between that observation and this painting. I kept the rendering lose and simple,
giving the flat blue sky some interest with vertical brush strokes, and showing off the subtle mauve and
maroon colours of the plumage. A fairly common site along roadsides in Nigeria, this species has the
brightest yellow bill that stands out against any background.

Broad-billed roller acrylic
Broad-billed roller, acrylic on canvas 16×20 inches, 2017

Monkeys in the Grove

This painting is of a Mona monkey, part of a troupe that visit the Osun Grove regularly, where they are tame enough to accept bananas fed by staff and locals. Painted using acrylics, plenty of colour and the use of energetic brush strokes evoke the vibrance of Osogbo, the serenity of the forest and my excitement at being there.

Previously I have experimented with the faces of these monkeys with a view to producing some designs for t-shirts or whatever. Something that’s on the back burner, which is piled high…


Recycling parts of a failed watercolour painting into collage

Sketches from three years ago used as reference for this paper collage. Agamas, though absolutely
everywhere in Nigeria, never let you get close, and these two females looked down on me with
confidence, verging on smugness, knowing they could dash away at lightning speed.

Agamas on top of the wall. Drawn from life in the garden, Osogbo, Nigeria

agamas watercolour
Taking the sketches a bit further with some colour.
“Has he seen us? Yeah I think he’s seen us…”

I’ve recycled pieces of what was a ‘failed’ watercolour painting (we’ve all got them…), in this case
a landscape of a wheat field and evening sky, to hint at the texture and colour of the lizards atop
the garden wall in Osogbo. I omitted the actual wall, as I wanted to concentrate the viewer’s
attention on the lizards under the huge banana leaf. It may have been interesting to include
some shards of glass for a spot of urban realism, but I decided against it. For the impression
of bright sunlight bouncing off of every surface, it seemed ‘less is more’ was the way to go.

Agamas, collage 2017
Agamas, paper collage, 530 x 350mm approx. 2017 Placing the minimum of elements still seemed to take nearly all day until I was happy with it.


Sunbird on the porch

I’m producing some small African bird paintings seen on recent trips
to Nigeria. Choosing as a subject the Variable Sunbird that came into
the yard at the house in Abuja, visiting the flowers (sometimes quite
noisily for such a small bird). As a starting point, I looked back through
my sketchbook notes and used some photos of the porch wall, heavily
textured and stained with algae.


I was keen to use the texture on the wall in the image

To try and keep it fresh and lively and not overwork things, I decided to
mock up a version in paper collage. This way I could work out the pose,
and placing of elements, but also my limited stock of coloured paper
forces me to simplify. Male variable sunbirds have iridescent plumage
that reflects brilliant metallic turquoise and green turning to purple,
but can appear plain black or even dull olive in certain light. I was after
nailing this early on, so when getting around to a painted version
using the collage as the main reference, I won’t get distracted with
unnecessary detail and ‘realism’. Hopefully I may even end up with
something I had in my mind’s eye to begin with…just for a change!

Trying out the basic shapes. I hadn’t decided very much at this early stage, although keeping it simple was important

sunbird on the porch
The texture of the wall was achieved by tearing off a layer of paper stuck over another. The effect is pretty random but works just fine.

The two-tone leaves, and diagonal cuts in the clay pot recall
some African textile style, and the whole composition ended
up being about colours and shapes, and quite poster-like.
I’m quite happy with it just now, but never one hundred
percent certain anything is finished, maybe that’s a good
thing though?