You’ve arrived at the blog-page of my website. The most recently published post is just below this one – simply scroll on down.

To help make it easier to find posts on different subjects, this post will stay at the top of the blog page to point you where you might want to go.

If you want to find my sketching record of the restoration work at Cliffe Castle Park in 2016 and 2017, the link below will take you to all the posts in the series. (Only about 10 are shown on screen at a time, so when you get to the bottom click ‘Show Older Posts’.)

Cliffe Castle/Drawing The Work

Other Cliffe Castle posts that are not directly about the restoration work, but about activities and daily life in the park are archived under the category:

Life In The Landscape

And posts about the perimeter walk project that started in July 2018 are under the category

A Park of Many Parts

If you’re looking for a particular post or subject, you can always go to the Home page or the foot of any other page, and scroll to the bottom of the screen where you’ll find a Categories drop down menu, and also a Search button.

If what you want is simply to see the sketches from Drawing The Work on their own, rather than seeing them as part of the story in a blog post – I’ve put a selection of the sketches on the Drawings page.

Advertisements

I’m doing a prolonged, slow walk around the perimeter of Cliffe Castle Park, sketching as I go. (There’s a map at the end of this post). Part 1 started (for no particular reason) in the Sensory Garden close to the Holly Lodge entrance, and I’m moving on in a northerly direction, anti-clockwise, across the Sports Field parallel to the Skipton Road….

Watercolour sketch of the view across Airedale from the top of the sports field

So…. if you leave the Sensory Garden through the gap in the hedge you find yourself at the top of the large, gently sloping field that stretches all along the lower edge of the park between the Skipton Road on one side and the path known as Dark Lane at the other. The views from here are some of the best you can find anywhere in the park – standing here looking across Airedale its hard to feel you’re in town and not way out in the country.

Sketch of oak sapling on the site of the venerable beech....

About two-thirds of the way down the field at this point you can still see the site of the giant tree that until last summer dominated the whole of this landscape. The Great Beech was truly remarkable and I wrote about it in a tribute post when I marked its sad passing – I wish I had sketched it before it eventually had to be felled, but I always found myself unable to draw it or even photograph it in a way that could express its enormous scale. I wish I’d tried to sketch it; it was extraordinary, and looking again at the photos I did take made me remember what it felt like to stand underneath its colossal branches. Generations of people in Keighley knew and loved this tree.

But the sapling oak that’s been planted here seems to be doing well despite the hot dry summer.

The field isn’t laid out for sports in any formal way – no pitch for cricket or football – it’s simply a good place to play games of all kinds, and big enough for a lot of games at the same time.

Quick sketch of girls playing rounders on the Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

A couple of weeks ago I watched a group of girls who’d come prepared to play a game of what looked to me like rounders, but while I sketched them a lot of discussion and organisation was going on, and after a while that game seemed to be put on hold and a tennis ball was batted about a bit. Hey, what does it matter what game you play? It was a lovely afternoon, not too hot, a pleasant breeze blowing, everyone enjoying themselves.

Sketch of two girls playing tennis in a rather informal way

I’ve seen all sorts of activities on this field; frisbees are popular, kites are sometimes flown, teams are organised, balls are kicked or batted or thrown (often for dogs).

Castellated top of the perimeter wall, Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

The castellated wall that runs round the edge of the park marks the boundary at the Skipton Road. Walls are a prominent feature of the landscape in the park, and they’re a subject in themselves – some are ancient, and some have been re-modelled and repositioned over time. From a sketching point of view a wall is a great thing to have in a landscape because it adds perspective and scale, and a nice sharp line to contrast softer shapes of trees and grass and people as well as often being a dark, solid form in the background.

Avenue of cherry trees at the bottom of the Sports Field, along the Skipton Road

Just inside the perimeter wall where the Skipton Road curves to the left at the roundabout there’s an avenue of ornamental cherry trees, and the unpaved path that runs along the edge of the field continues under the canopy of these trees, which in spring are a mass of pink blossom. In autumn the leaves turn delicate shades of apricot and lemon yellow and coppery red, and I picked up one or two windfall leaves that had already turned colour. I’m guessing that this line of trees may have been planted at the same time as the boundary was moved when the road layout changed – the older castellated wall ends just where the avenue of cherry trees starts, and the newer wall is lower and topped with flat flagstones. This means the trees are clearly seen from the road which was probably intentional, as they’re an eye-catching sight when they’re covered in blossom. But from inside the park they also successfully conceal most of the traffic on the Skipton Road, at least in summer, so the view is an uninterrupted leafy landscape.

To give an idea of where I started this walking project, here’s a map taken from one of the interpretation boards with my additions to show the location of the first two posts in this series. Part three to follow in due course!

Map of Cliffe Castle Park

Sketches of costumed participants at Cliffe Castle on World War 1 Day

Sketching people doing more or less anything is one of my favourite things, and if they’re dressed up in some way, even better. Cliffe Castle’s World War 1 Day last Saturday gave me more subjects than I could draw, and trying to sketch people you know and haven’t seen for a while is difficult too – I kept having to abandon everything so I could hug someone and say hello!

I learnt some interesting facts about uniform. One thing that had always intrigued me is how puttees are put on and fastened, and this was explained (though not demonstrated) by the wearer (who does lots of costumed re-enactments, of different periods). You start winding the puttees from the bottom beginning at the second bootlace hole, and when you get near to the top just below the knee you make a turn or twist in the wrap (‘you know, the way the Vikings did it’ he said by way of explanation. I had to admit if anything I know less about Vikings than I do about WW1 army kit, but I get the general idea). The twist is what stops the whole wrap falling down, before it’s fastened off with tape to finish the thing off. (Probably not like the Vikings.)

Sketchbook page of costumed participants at Cliffe Castle on World War 1 Day, including Frederick Butterfield, mayor

Frederick Butterfield (of the Cliffe Castle Butterfield family) was mayor of Keighley during the First World War and took a leading role in the campaign to save wheat by restricting the amount of bread eaten, and promoting alternatives (hence the recipes and samples of baked goods with different ingredients available to try – Trench Cake was delicious but I missed the chance to sketch it).

Vintage archive photo of Keighley shopfront display promoting campaign to eat less bread and save wheat

This extraordinary photograph was one of several showing the ways in which this message was broadcast. It’s all the more striking because the frontage of this building, Arcade Chambers in Keighley is more or less unchanged and completely recognisable today – but what stands out is the language and sentiments expressed on the posters and banners:

IF YOU WASTE A CRUST YOU WASTE A BULLET
NOT A SCRAP SHOULD ESCAPE
WATCH EVERYTHING AND SAVE BREAD

IF YOU ARE RICH
UNDER EAT YOUR BREAD RATION
THERE ARE MORE SUBSTITUTES
AT YOUR DEMAND

Plain speaking. Mind you, the banner at the top of the photograph is one we could do with today, and maybe we could do with a bit more of this kind of plain speech and use similar methods and locations. After all, there are enough empty store-fronts in our high streets.

STOP ALL WASTE!

One of the things I like best about blogging is reading other people’s blogs. A favourite of mine is The Perimeter by photographer Quintin Lake, an ongoing record of his long-distance exploratory walk around the British Isles. I love his choice of subjects and the way he frames his stunning shots, and his often wry humour is a delight. I would love to be able to tramp about the countryside (or the urban environment come to that) noticing and recording what I pass – though a walk on this scale would always have been beyond me.

I started to play with the idea of doing a perimeter walk of Cliffe Castle Park, sketching as I went (this being the extent of what I’m realistically capable of, spread over days or weeks or even months) – but not sticking slavishly to the edges. Like Quintin I’ll move inwards a bit here and there where necessary. And to make things more confusing I’ve not begun with a location that’s an obvious place to start as this is not at one of the gates – though it’s very near to the Holly Lodge entrance.

Two girls sitting on the wall in the Sensory Garden in dappled sunlight, one playing guitar

The Sensory Garden is still, like so much of the park, a work in progress – but it’s taking shape. The pre-existing raised beds are being planted with herbs, shrubs and plants that all have particular things to offer in the way of texture, scent and colour so that the senses of touch and smell will be as much a part of the experience as the ability to see, and at a height where touching and sniffing are a more natural and easy thing to do. I love this idea, and I found it interesting on this warm sunny afternoon that two girls had chosen to sit on the edge of one of the raised beds amongst the plants in the border, rather than finding a bench. Actually I notice this not-sitting-on-a-seat is quite a common thing in the park, and it struck me as I was drawing that I often do it myself – choose a spot, irrespective of whether there’s something there that’s designed for sitting on. It has to do with knowing where you want to be, I suppose. Anyway, there they were, in dappled sunlight, playing and singing.

Below the wall where the girls were sitting is the site of what will one day be an orchard – the top part of the enclosed field that stretches from the Sensory Garden down to the Skipton Road has been planted with young fruit trees, helpfully tagged with labels that include QR codes so that I was able to discover that this one is a young Bloody Ploughman. Perhaps another addition to the sensory experience will be taste! A little further down the field and stretches of grass have been left uncut to be little oases of wildflowers (this whole field has in the past been allowed to grow as a natural wildflower meadow) and there are grasses and clover, poppies and dandelions, dock and sorrel blowing in the breeze and the buzz of flying insects.

This journey of mine will be sporadic and most likely non-linear – I’ll probably jump about from place to place without following a regular clockwise or anti-clockwise route – but it’ll take me to parts of the park that I visit less often, and also demonstrate what an extraordinarily varied place it is. For its size it has an enormous range of different kinds of place – it’s truly a park of many parts.

Drawing of barbed wire from the trenches on the Western Front

It’s hard to imagine, a hundred years on, what it was like for the soldiers during the First World War fighting on the Western Front. Cliffe Castle’s exhibition Keighley’s War continues through the summer and August 4th will be First World War Day, a chance to experience some of the day-to-day realities of what it was like for the people of Keighley during those years. (A chance to taste bread from recipes of the time as suggested by the Keighley Food Control Committee will be one of the things I’ll certainly have to try).

But many miles away from home in northern France soldiers were enduring life in the trenches and it wasn’t until I sketched certain objects in the collections that some of the horror of it all came home to me. The barbed wire fragment (German wire, incidentally – all wire is different) is probably for me the most moving and haunting thing of all the objects I’ve drawn. Partly I think because of the shadows cast by the twists and barbs – it seems to say so much and doesn’t need much explanation.

Flechettes, barbed steel darts dropped from biplanes into the trenches on the Western Front

By contrast these things look horrible but it’s not immediately obvious what they are. They’re called flechettes, and they were dropped into the enemy trenches by English pilots flying bi-planes, which must have been dangerous but which the pilots objected to because of the nature of the wounds inflicted, and the fact that they could be dropped without warning and silently, except for the noise of the plane. It’s a measure, I suppose, of how far and how fast things escalated and how quickly attitudes hardened that we are able to be surprised at soldiers expressing dislike at weaponry and tactics that they felt were ‘ungentlemanly’.

Drawing of a brown rat

Life in the trenches must have been awful in so many different ways. Rats were a big problem. At home in Keighley most people would have been accustomed to sharing their lives with rats to some extent as an inevitable thing, but being plagued by hungry rats in the cramped and muddy darkness of the trenches would have been something altogether different. (This Brown Rat is a specimen in the Natural History Gallery; over time it’s faded to the colour of honey.)

Once again, drawing acts like a kind of time-machine. Sketching things like the barbed wire and the flechettes I really do feel like I’m looking through a window into the First World War and feeling myself connected to that time and place. It’s an emotional, disturbing thing, and over and over again I realise what an important role museum collections have to play. I don’t need immersive virtual reality installations; if I take the time to look properly at objects (and drawing takes time, and makes you look) they will quietly tell their story, make history come alive, and unfold a direct, personal understanding of the past.

For the whole month of June I’ve been taking part in a marathon international watercolour event, #30x30DirectWatercolor2018. By taking part I mean just doing as much as I could, when I could – not the painting-a-day that lots of of people signed up for – but I’ve been watching and reading about what all the others have been doing and it’s been an eventful month, full of wonders and surprises. The participants have been a richly varied lot – some professional artists, some experienced watercolourists, some complete beginners and some, like me, who use watercolour a lot but seldom without some kind of line drawing. This was all about jumping straight into paint, and thinking about shape, tone and colour. And simply enjoying what watercolour can do.

There have been some wonderful pictures shared (I’ve followed the whole thing on Facebook, though not on Instagram where many people posted) – but reading the stories that go with the paintings has often been just as fun and just as interesting as seeing the pictures. Like me, a lot of people found themselves flailing about in uncharted waters without having the familiarity of a pen or pencil to hang onto and almost every day someone would post cries of frustration or wail about how they felt completely at sea – but I never heard anyone say they were ready to give up. There were always responses of solidarity and support. ‘We’re feeling it, too!’ And as time went on, the unfamiliarity started to feel less alarming. Discoveries were made. Things got more exciting; possibilities started to outweigh the difficulties.

Watercolour is a very particular medium, and people seem to either love it or hate it. Some people try it once and never give it another go; others get so hooked on it that it becomes a sort of obsession. (It can get me like that sometimes – I’ve been known to dream about nothing more than pure watercolour pigments and the way they mix and interact; I remember a particularly vivid dream about cobalt blue and burnt umber……) One of the complaints you often hear is that it’s unforgiving and unpredictable – and therefore unmanageable – but its unpredictability is its greatest strength. At its best, in moments when everything aligns and goes mysteriously right, the most extraordinarily beautiful things happen.

We all know this. That’s why we never give up – it’s like a yearning or a quest for a mostly unreachable goal that we know to be sublime, and we try all kinds of things to acheive it predictably and regularly. Practice, practice, practice – but the thing is, practice alone is not enough, and there are no shortcuts.

Like dance, or calligraphy, or playing an instrument, or for that matter like reading a bedtime story or baking a cake, things will never go right if something inside you is wrong. It’s astonishing how clearly this shows up – but unsurprising. As I told myself this morning when baking whilst feeling hurried, harried, unbalanced and out of sorts; the cake bubbled out of its tin, burnt on the top and then collapsed in the middle. I took a deep breath, threw it out and started again.

What’s inside, shows up on the outside. It’s a simple fact; we need kindness in everything.

Watercolour drawing of Keighley National Shell Factory in WW1

When I was given a list of objects to draw to illustrate the Story Trail for the Keighley’s War exhibition at Cliffe Castle, some things seemed pretty straightforward, and others – well, not. One of them was a small sepia photograph of workers in the National Shell Factory in Keighley. Indistinct, detailed, crowded, complex, and behind glass – I was at a loss as to quite how I was going to approach it.

But as it turned out, it was perhaps the most fascinating and enjoyable subject of all the curious objects I drew, and a lot of this was due to the way I set about doing it.

My usual sketching method relies a lot on line, and a pen is what I generally start with. But here I could see that was simply not going to work – the photograph was simply a mass of complicated tonal values. So I decided to jump straight in with watercolour with almost no drawing, even in pencil, and build it in stages as a painting. (Click on any of these images to see them larger).

Stage one in the painting process, broad washes of pale colour

Once I’d got to the halfway point I realised it would be interesting to record it stage by stage, so I’ve had to simulate stage one by editing the second stage photo with a bit of bleaching and blurring, but basically the first thing I did was to put down large washes of pale colour and tone with no detail at all, reserving just a few small white unpainted areas. Then in the next stage I started to construct by blocking in more tone and colour, leaving pale spots for faces and highlights…..

Stage two, building detail slowly

Stage two, above, has moved on quite a bit from just pale washes. I worked with a 1/2″ dagger brush which was exactly right for this painting (I love this brush and use it more and more often – it gives you sharp, dead straight lines and very precise detail at the same time as lovely big, broad, fluid, flowing strokes. Very exciting.)

Stage three, below, doesn’t look a whole lot different but by this time I’ve started to deepen and darken certain areas and define some parts more clearly.

Stage three, more detail, darkening tones

And finally I worked in just enough detail to focus on some of the principal faces and some bits of machinery. (Here I did use a very small amount of line with a pen – and here and there a touch of watercolour pencil, plus tiny bits of white gouache for highlights).

Finished painting, details of faces, machinery, piles of munitions, the crowded factory floor and the roof structure overhead

I wanted to keep a feeling of the complexity of the scene which is extremely crowded and busy without getting carried away with the detail – so that the principal characters stand out as the focus of the story, along with the machinery they’re using and the work that they’re doing. It would be wonderful to know who these people were, their names, their stories – what exactly was happening there in the factory on this day, November 13th 1915. All I know about them as individuals is what I learned from studying the photograph, but drawing it let me sink into its depths, absorbing how it must have felt to work in this wartime munitions factory.

Just look – here’s the photograph.

Watercolour sketches of a pot of mint in the sunlight

Pot of mint in the sun on the kitchen windowsill – just watercolour with no line drawing to hang on to.

Sometimes it pays to turn everything on its head. Do something you do a lot of, but in a different way. You don’t really learn, or expand, or grow if you don’t shake things up a bit from time to time.

When I draw, I tend to think in terms of line and contour first. Sometimes if I’m drawing a subject that’s really all about big blocks of shape and colour it’ll be obvious that lines aren’t going to serve me well, and I’ll adapt – but still, in the main, lines are my way of getting a handle on things and so I’ll reach for a pen every time. Which is fine – except you can get stuck in habits that can be limiting.

So when Marc Taro Holmes threw up a new challenge for the month of June I decided I’d join in – no promises about how many days I’ll manage, but the idea of it is just too much fun to ignore.

#30x30DirectWatercolor2018 has its own public Facebook page for participants to post on, so anyone can see what we’re all up to – and people have been signing up from all corners of the globe. It’s all about watercolour with as little line work as possible – just what I need to get me out of my comfort zone and into thinking differently.

Close up of watercolor of pot of mint

I’m only going to do quick sketches and nothing in the least ambitious. But the fun will be sharing my experiences with others and seeing what everyone else is doing – and hopefully growing a bit in the process!

A new exhibition opens this week at Cliffe Castle Museum. Keighley’s War commemorates the end of the First World War, exploring some of the ways the lives of the people living in this part of West Yorkshire were affected by the fighting, the trauma and suffering, and the seismic social changes which were a part of the period.

It goes without saying that the First World War is not an easy subject to reflect on. History is full of dark times as well as moments that are easier to look back on – and this period in particular is full of things that are frankly terrible, a huge challenge to present it as the subject of an exhibition. But spending some time learning about the lives of our not-very-distant ancestors, the conditions in which they lived, the challenges they faced and the social changes that affected them is deeply worthwhile, and a compelling journey of discovery.

To offer this journey the museum has produced a clever, concertina-fold illustrated Trail that unfurls and becomes a guide-book to help visitors search out and find objects in the collections. Each one of these objects has a story to tell about the First World War – and I was asked to draw them to illustrate the guide.

Unsurprisingly, working on the drawings was an absorbing, challenging, and often disturbing experience. Getting to know something intimately by drawing it means that you literally get drawn in – and all these objects had a powerful effect on me. So I thought it would be interesting to share a bit about what this felt like and what I discovered – the story of the drawings, one at a time. Here are two; others I’ll write about in future posts.

The call to arms; Kitchener’s Men

Kitchener's Man armband

I had no idea what this was when I first saw it. A piece of stitched calico printed with the words ‘Kitchener’s Man’. I knew the famous recruiting poster of Lord Kitchener with his finger pointing directly out, with the words ‘Your Country Needs You!’ but I didn’t know that those early volunteers were called ‘Kitchener’s Men’, and because at first there weren’t uniforms to issue to these civilian soldiers they were given cotton armbands like this one to wear.

The men who joined up from a local district were often formed into single units which turned out to be an appalling decision. In their book ‘Kitchener’s Mob‘ Peter Doyle and Chris Foster describe how the idea of recruiting men into local “Pals” regiments – essentially all coming from the same community – was a tragic mistake when later these close-knit communities were devastated by the loss of their young men – fathers and sons, brothers and cousins.

The cover photo of the book shows recruits at Grassington Station proudly wearing their armbands – the Upper Wharfedale chaps leaving their home village on September 21, 1914, on their way to boost the troops of the regular army which had embarked for France on August 4. Massively outnumbered but with their murderous rapid rifle fire, they were attempting to hold off the hordes of German soldiers sweeping across Flanders and northern France.

As I sketched it I wondered if this armband could possibly have been worn by one of these men. They were on their way to the battle of the Somme, not knowing what awaited them in France……

Following the fighting from back home

Booklet, The Western Front at a Glance - WW1

This is not an especially rare artifact. You can still buy copies of this booklet on Ebay and elsewhere (different editions were published as the war progressed, at different prices) but what I was so struck by was the condition of this copy. It’s worn and dog-eared, well thumbed at the corners and cracked at the spine. Whoever owned this book must have pored over it daily, studied the route and the progress of – who? A husband? Brother? Son?

The drawing took a long time to do and I had the opportunity to immerse myself completely in the graphic style of the period – the colours, the fonts, the layout. And I kept thinking what a strange mixture of ideas it represents – on the one hand a kind of cheerful, eager, educational guide to troop movements and military events (it reminded me a bit of the I-Spy books we used to use as children) and on the other – a terrible reminder of what was happening day by day to the soldier in your family, so far from home.

Saying ‘No’ to War

As a counterpoint – and a different view of the events of 1914 – 18, the opening of the exhibition Keighley’s War coincides with International Conscientious Objector’s Day on the 15th May, a day marked this year by the Peace Museum in Bradford by a lecture called ‘Oh What a Lovely War-Resistance; music in opposition to war, 1914 – 18’. It’s easy to find recollections of heroism in acts of war; what’s not so easy is to remember the particular kind of courage it took – and takes – to refuse to fight and oppose military action. The Peace Museum is a unique celebration of the peace movement and its history, exploring the often untold stories of peacemakers and social reform.

More on exhibitions at both Cliffe Castle Museum and the Peace Museum in future posts………

Some people draw to relax. I’m never quite sure whether I do this or not; I don’t think I do. I know I don’t deliberately pick up a pen and a sketchbook and think, ah, this is going to really help me unwind. No. I wish it were that easy. But – then again – perhaps that’s not what people mean, by saying that drawing helps them relax. Drawing takes energy and it can be exhausting, but it does bring me into a state of focused attention – and that more than anything is what I need, day in day out. But when I’m not well and have very little energy this something of a dilemma.

Partly, it’s what to draw. If I found quiet still-life drawings of flowers or fruit really got me going it might be easier, but I don’t generally get excited by flowers or fruit, it’s just not compelling enough as a subject and I can’t bring myself to start, especially if I’m feeling low. What I find totally absorbing is things that move, and that usually means people or animals, (quite why this is I don’t know) – but give me the chance to watch someone at work, or hanging out with other people just holding a conversation, waving their hands about occasionally, doing something not too impossibly fast – and I’m hooked. Once I start drawing I’m lost to everything else. Pain melts into the background. Tiredness doesn’t count. It’s always been this way.

Sketchbook pages with gesture drawings of people talking and drinking

So if I see anything going on outside that I can sketch from the window, I’m engrossed. This warm weather has brought people out of doors to stand around and talk to each other in the street, or chat over the fence. I can try to guess the conversation (!) and just enjoy understanding what’s happening by looking at body language, learning about people by watching how they stand, what they do with their arms and their legs and their heads. And then, if I there’s no live action, there’s always the TV (the sketches on the left hand page were done while watching a film).

It’s amazing really, all the things a sketchbook can be. This is a really restorative thing for me – connecting, observing, recording, this odd process that involves a pen and a page and me looking and looking and moving the pen……

Gesture drawings of people

Now, if I could figure out a way to find flowers as exciting as people, I’d be able to get this stimulating-connecting-sketching thing to work any time I look out into the garden. If only flowers moved.

This is a degu.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking, rat? Mouse? But then you look at the tail…. and you say to yourself, hmm, dormouse? But the size rules that out (it’s bigger than a hamster) and you realise you’re looking at something entirely different from all of these.

Sketchbook page of degu studies in pencil

The first time I sketched them about a fortnight ago in their new home at Cliffe Castle all these thoughts were going through my head and I admit I was confused. In fact as I looked at their little rounded bottoms I kept thinking of guinea pigs, and just once in a while I’d suddenly see something in the eyes or the shape of a nose that made me think rabbit (though that immediately seemed ridiculous) so I kept on looking and drawing, although for a long while all my sketches looked either rat-like or guinea-pig-like – until I felt I knew what I was looking at. Degus. Very special little animals.

For sketching purposes it’s not that easy to see them clearly through the narrow link fence at the front of their enclosure (though after a while I discovered that if you crouch down until you’re on the same level as they are, you can see a lot better – perfect for children, a bit more awkward for me.) So to understand them better, when I got home I looked up some facts, googled photographs and did a couple of drawings from the screen –

Degus, sketched from photographs

– which meant that when I went back again to the animal houses a couple of days ago I had a better idea of what I’d be looking at. (I also learnt that they’re related to guinea-pigs and chinchillas and come from the high Andes, are active during the day but don’t like hotter temperatures, that they’re highly social, and that they live longer and are more intelligent than their near relatives).

Interesting facts – but I can learn a lot by watching.

So I stand with my nose pressed up against the wire, sketchbook and pen ready, and wait.

It’s a warm afternoon, and because of that they’re all inside their custom-built house which has two floors, several entrances and exits and lots of hay for bedding. I can imagine them inside all in a heap, snuggled together. (What’s the collective term for degus, I wonder?) I can just see a couple of noses, two pairs of beady eyes. They’re awake and watching me.

I don’t know if it’s getting cooler or whether they’re just curious, but one by one they start to come out of their house, sniff the air, look around. One or two of them do look at me, one from a lookout position at the top of the plank that leads to their second storey entrance, one perching on the edge of a large empty red bowl. I can see how their tails help them balance. I can see tiny toes, (I know there are five) and ears like crumpled petals.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

I can see their very impressive whiskers. And the tails – with their lovely black tufted ends that I try not to exaggerate, though it’s hard not to…

Watercolour illustration of a degu

Pretty soon one of them ambles slowly over to the green plastic exercise wheel, climbs in and gives it a whirl. I wonder whether I’ll be able to draw those flying feet and have serious doubts, but I give it a go anyway….. and there’s no squabbling when a second degu arrives and also wants a turn. They fit amiably side by side and go racing round together in perfect unison. I can’t draw that.

Drawing of a degu in an exercise wheel

The plastic wheel is also very good for gnawing….

Degu gnawing plastic wheel - pencil drawing

By now I’m beginning to feel I’ve started to get to know them, and the more I watch the more I want to touch and stroke those little rounded backs, feel the sleekness of fur, and if possible very, very gently touch a fragile ear with the tip of my finger. I can’t do that, but drawing almost does it for me; my hand may be holding a pen and touching paper, but my mind is feeling fur, whiskers, skin.