A damp afternoon

Misty distant woods and field margins. Hares, pheasants and deer tracks.
The sound of running water, the ‘good earth’ aroma of autumn leaves.
As I wait for my washes to dry enough to carry on, it starts to rain.
Fine, soft rain, but enough to force me to abandon this painting.
The four hares in the field remain undisturbed.

damp-afternoon-sm

 

Into the Sahel part two

The sun is high as we weave slowly down an axle breaking dirt road into the bush. After every obstacle, our man looks round to check our progress and waits for us to catch up. On either side of us the pink granite-like rocks glitter as the sun catches them. The leafy green bushes are interspersed with small trees of various shapes, and as always I keep an eye out for birds. The track rises through the high ground and down into a flatter plain where small scale agriculture again dominates. Over to our right, people are gathered in the deep shade of the low trees, and we wait briefly while the site engineer is found and advised of our arrival.

We arrive at the mine, and while we wait for the engineer following, it is a relief to sit in the shade and feel a slight breeze. We enter through the gates and as it is Sunday, no-one is working. There are Chinese workers here, and they are taking delivery of their bottled water supply. Looks like enough for a month, though in this heat, perhaps not.
“Welcom from Ingaland” shouts the loud and curious security guard with the Kalashnikov. After brief introductions, our mini tour begins. We pile back into the pick ups and drive the short distance up the hill from the compound. It’s too hot and too steep to walk.

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Our tour guide, the mine engineer, is from Cameroon and studied in Belgium, he says.
We are looking at a large, dynamited water filled crater, where serious operations began only a year ago. Back down the slope, we are shown the massive machines that break up the rocks and the whole process is explained in Pidgin English and a little Hausa. The view from here is spectacular, with mile after mile of green wooded hills as far as the eye can see, and so I think about this site in context of the landscape. I could describe it simply as a large hole in the ground, a blot on the landscape, surrounded by derelict equipment and broken vehicles, but that would be unkind. The people that are showing us around are visibly proud of what has been achieved here, the 24 hour operation recently hitting the vein of gold. Unfortunately container loads of unprocessed rubble holding gold and whatever else within regularly leave for further processing in China, something the new government would like to change.

As we leave, the security guard again cheerfully shouts “Welcom from England.” I smile and wave convinced I’ve made a new friend, should I ever pass this way again.minecollagelo2

Another slow drive along the trail leads us to the mining camp. The river to the left is running at a trickle through the grassy clearings and shrubby thickets, with deeper pools spread out across the bed of pink sand and boulders. Picturesque is the word that comes to mind, even though we are in a harsh and obviously unforgiving environment.

It is mid afternoon as we arrive at the camp. There are dozens of young men here gathered under the trees. Cooking pots and fires, machines and tarps are dotted around, but there is no mining machinery here as yet. Many men carry long machetes.

Advanced word has been given of our visit as everyone is paying attention except for one or two who are lying down out for the count – there is an amount of weed smoking and glue sniffing here. Some young girls from local villages are selling food and cooking for the men. Staying close to home and with little or no ‘education’ these girls are hoping to find a husband here, something of a cultural imperative, then. The makeup they are wearing shows that they are available. The eldest is barely 14.

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Jumoke gets an update from the young graduate who supervises the site, while we take photos. There is a lawless atmosphere here, and the young men digging in the dirt all know the risks they take. For instance, just feet away from the gathering are hand dug holes in the ground that looked to be several metres deep – I couldn’t see the bottom. A definite hazard even in daylight, I dread to think what can happen here at night.

We leave later than planned, and as the sun casts long shadows across the crops, I watch all black, red eyed fork-tailed drongos flying off from low perches to catch insects, my thoughts turning to the obvious and stark culture differences I’m seeing on this trip. There will be more. The long straight roads back to Kebbi are in good enough condition for Sanusi to speed along at a reasonable lick, travelling at night here has it’s own dangers. Making allowances for other road users with no lights, too much light, and Fulani cattle herders, we arrive safely back in Kebbi just after dark. I’ve not had many days like this one.

 

Into the Sahel part one

Birnin Kebbi stands on the southern edge of the semi-arid Sahel, close to the border
with Niger. Today Sanusi is driving us North to visit a working gold mine, and then
on to another, much less well developed operation in which Jumoke has an interest.

On the road out of town, the Neem trees lining the route have large puddles sitting in
their shade from last night’s rain. Business is conducted under them. It’s also common
to see boys taking time out, lying lengthways across their motorcycles, or machines.
A two hour drive on long straight roads, the flat landscape of leafy bushes, sand and
rock is broken by patches of corn, rice and watermelons. Larger trees and palms
have been left standing here and there and provide shelter from the sun and rain.

leanto_shelter_lo

The blue horizon of higher ground is covered in rocky woodland and bushy scrub. The occasional worker in the fields, termite mounds and strange trees attract my attention as I take all this in. Some trees have the look of a baobab, cartoon-like with bunches of leaves on the end of fat branches and even fatter trunks. There are cattle egrets, rollers and kestrels, swallows and swifts, and I imagine the leopard, caracal or jackal that may be lurking in the distant rocky outcrops, staying out of site until the end of the day.

Roadside compounds are enclosed with neat mud brick walls and rustic wooden hurdles. There are lean to shelters and canopies with benches underneath for socialising, mostly in the early evening. Looking past the pile of discarded tyres and plastic litter I see that inside the walls there are round, thatched mud brick huts of varying sizes raised off the ground. I allow myself to imagine that this stockaded community style is necessary to protect livestock from wild animals. May even be true.

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We slow down to make way for cattle and goats being herded down the highway by Fulani men and boys. Traditionally dressed with long cotton gowns and pointed straw hats, their long walking sticks are used to encourage their red Sanga cattle to keep moving. The goats follow the cattle, and some kids that are too small to keep up are carried. Two men lead camels which are fully loaded with all the equipment the group need, for these are truly nomadic tribesmen. Some Fulani, or Fula people have settled, and as an ethnic group they are spread across many African countries. There are about 7 million in Nigeria.
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Eventually we turn off the main road onto a dirt track for a hundred yards to a corral of wooden hurdles where some men are waiting in the shade of a small tree. After a brief discussion, and a much needed leg stretch for me, a tall, thin middle aged man with prominent cheek bones and a pencil moustache leads us on his machine to the
first mine.

 

 

Slow line, quick wash

Here are some line drawings from my sketchbook where I’m using a sepia coloured felt-tip pen to draw the scene. Quite a slow, deliberate process compared to my usual freer pencil drawings, and with a couple of these I found it useful to add some watercolour to ‘key in’
some of the spaces.

This first spread shows two drawings of a country road not far from home. I was interested in a graphic, linear shorthand to describe forms and textures. No need for a colour wash here.
country-roads-sketchbook

Cat’s Hill Lane, Ludwell.
I spent the Easter break with family in Dorset. I’ve driven past this winding lane countless times over the years and only now decided to stop and draw it. The couple walking their dogs came from behind me and strolled down the lane. I waited until they reached the shed before sketching them in. I added some colour to the verges and meadows, including the far field where the cows are grazing.
cats-hill-lane-ludwell

This drawing is of a small stream winding its way through a copse in the spring sunshine. The bottom of the stream here is muddy but in other places it is stony and moderately fast flowing. In many places the water is only two inches deep, but there are some deeper pools where small fish find a decent living. I edited out quite a lot of ‘tree bits’ and settled for just enough to describe the overall look of the spot.
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At the end of this small copse, the stream emerges and cuts across the green lane before
falling through the roots of a tree in a mini, noisy waterfall and creating a deepish pool, before continuing on through the hedgerow. I got the watercolours out for this one.
stream-over-path-watercolour-april-7-2015-sm

Into the Spring

Here are a few sketches from the countryside around me. With Winter now passed into Spring, the sun is higher in the sky, with brighter days lingering longer into early evening.
There is much activity, and so much energy around, with leaves about to burst open, birdsong and Hares having dust-ups in the middle of the green wheat fields.

This first sketch is of a sunny hedgerow leading up to a wood on the hilltop.
Although drawn back in February, the day was bright and the wind was kind.

winter-hedges-in-sunMarch 20th, late afternoon, a little weak sunshine and a cold wind. Still fully kitted out in hat, scarf and gloves (aiming to avoid any unnecessary discomfort) maybe I’m just getting old! This drawing is the same view from a little further to the right. I wanted to show the hedge curving uphill to the wood, from where a buzzard was mewing. Both of these were painted on the spot on 140lb paper.

up-to-the-woods-march-2015The two sketchbook drawings below started out as felt-tip pen sketches and colour was added back at home. I like this method as it forces me to simplify things and the marks become more gestural and stylised. Also, I can’t seem to be able to “paint” landscapes indoors, I have to be out there, in the moment.

I can’t resist the bend in a country lane. I think it’s because I’ll always wonder what lies beyond. With the field entrance drawing, using Naples yellow in the sky sells it as early evening, and the looming dusk atmosphere comes across pretty well.

sunday-lane-feb-2015-sm

evening-fields-march-2015-smThis picture was painted on another cold afternoon, but there was some sunshine. It’s a painting of not much at all, but the rows of young broad beans sweeping across the field lent themselves to the cause well enough. Apart from being a memory aid, I do see the
cold when I look at it, so it has a subtle something about it, so I’ve included it here.

bean-field-march-2015

 

Osun sacred groves

Osun sacred groves are a UNESCO world heritage site, dedicated to the ancient gods
of the Yoruba religion set in a small patch (75 ha) of tranquil forest where the founders
of Oshogbo were said to have settled some 400 years ago.

We were accompanied by Kasali Akangbe Ogun, who together with the Austrian artist Suzanne Wenger and a team of local artists, restored the site from the 1960’s onwards, creating fabulous sculptures and shrines to various Yoruba gods and goddesses.

After the rain stopped, the birds started twittering, and we positioned a wooden bench under a gap in the tree canopy above, though occasional drips from the leaves landed loudly from upon high directly onto the drawing…watercolour in the rainforest, in the rain…doesn’t get better than that.

igbo-ifa-osun-main-entrance-smNature reclaims all that is hers and the sculptures benefit greatly from mosses and litchens, finding a home on the rendered clay works. Adds to the mystery and spiritual energy of the place.

kasali-sm1

osun-sculptures-smAs the patch of forest is a sacred site and therefore protected, there is much in the way
of wildlife, though difficult to see, and there are a group of quite tame Mona monkeys
that come to the entrance cabin to be fed bananas by visitors and staff.

osun-monkeys-sm1I tried to capture these monkeys very quickly before we left, constant movement and life energy…if only there was more time!monkeys

A house in the country

After two days in Abuja, we drive Southwest to Osun State and the town of Oshogbo, where my hosts for the trip have their family home. It’s a ten hour drive, made worse by some bad potholes and some crazy drivers. Some driver’s decisions seem so wreckless they become comical, but the many overturned heavy lorries and abandoned vehicles serve as a sobering reminder that safety is held with scant regard here.

For almost the entire journey the highway is flanked on both sides by forest and bush, beyond the small scale agriculture and the odd village and settlement, and (frequent) petrol stations.

petrol-stationA pair of hornbills is often seen flying across to the high trees, and the occasional hawk or small eagle is seen wheeling in the middle distance. The raw sienna coloured soil fits perfectly with the lushness of the greens, and the moody grey skies hide the sun but not the humidity.

We arrive after dark, the streets in Oshogbo are still busy with trade, and even with their kerosene burning wicker lamps, I wonder how anyone can see quite what they are doing.

lines-at-dusk1The call to prayer from the nearby mosque wakes me at five, the cockerels are crowing at six, and the gospel singing is rousing at seven…but there is no intention to stay in bed, there are new things to be discovered out there.

Stepping outside, the first thing you notice are the agamas. They are literally everywhere, so much so that I don’t remember even taking a photo of one. I did do some sketches though, and I was intrigued by their slight air of superiority, always one eye on you, knowing as they do that they are always going to be one step ahead of any predatory move by a slowcoach human!

 

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dogs

A house in the capital

Just arrived in Abuja, Nigeria. It’s evening, the air is heavy and warm. The clouds are rolling in steadily, shading the low sun. Opposite Jumoke’s house, Gospel singing is heard from a neighbour across the street. A dark sunbird perches briefly on the topmost twig of a vine on the wall before dashing off, and a group of Little Swifts wheel around the sky above the yard, their white rumps bright against the moody blue clouds.

For this rapid sketch I chose a side view of the porch, the architecture softened and complimented perfectly by the potted palms. Around the grounds, tidy clipped shrubs are set off nicely by the cobbles and weathered paving. A large clay pot sits in the gloom under the largest tree in the garden, waiting to be re-discoverd, its lovely hand crafted rings highlighted by the weathering algae.

abuja-house-smgarden-textures

The wet tropical climate weathers the concrete, plaster and paintwork. All in a day for those living here, but for me, having a thing for texture, colour and rustication as I do, I find myself pointing a camera at virtually everything…!weathering

Stebbing 235

Here are some sheds sitting on a bend in the road that were once the premises of a small village business. There are interesting details, such as the concertina sheet metal doors, the home made sign using old 3d letters from car license plates that faded from use in the 1960’s,  and rust has taken hold of the sheet metal and galvanised roof, but the site is still in use. I love this sort of thing. It’s a real gem.
concertina-doors

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kcv-brake
For my watercolour and ink drawing I chose a viewpoint from the grass verge opposite, as I was interested in the ragged edges of the tin roof and the willow trees behind that framed the buildings nicely. Starting with a rough pencil guide, I laid muted watercolour washes working over them in places with mid toned and then darker black ink washes to achieve the muted effect, finishing with some black dry brush textures and a few lines. I titled the drawing ‘Stebbing 235’ after the old telephone number.

stebbing-235-warercolour-pencil-ink-june-2014
Only when I’d finished did I see that among the wild flowers in the verge were these bee orchids. Fab.orchid

Blake’s Wood

This is Blake’s Wood, local nature reserve of predominantly Sweet Chestnut, Hornbeam and Oak. I’m in the small parking lot, using the bonnet of my car to double up both as an easel and a table to set out my gear. All quiet, sun low but still bright, the different spring greens now merging into similar mid tones as they mature. The faint aroma of the honeysuckle climbing up the tree next to the sign board is attractive enough, but not the subject of this picture. Instead it’s the evening dappled sunlight, the loud, warbling burble from the Blackcap who seems to circle me, first behind, then here, then over there.
It’s the light falling through the leaves and onto the ground. The sign board invites you to engage, you are here on the map…have you seen all the woodland creatures they mention in the text? Yes of course.

A stranger arrives and parks up. He comes over “can I see?” Yes of course. “Nice”. We chat about wildlife in general, and conclude we have both heard a cuckoo nearby, an ever rarer treat that was once much more common. With camera equipment and a natty camo t-shirt, Adam explains he’s off around the corner where there is some remnant heather heath, hoping to capture a shot of some adders that he’s seen there, bathing in the evening sun. Just great.

blakes-wood-watercolour-may-2014