Archives for category: Animals

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.

A chameleon does not look much like this….

The animals have returned to Cliffe Castle. The resident creatures (more about them later) are now established in their new home, but on Easter Saturday they were welcomed back with a custom-made rabbit-treat cake with carrot candles and enjoyed the company of invited guests; ferrets, who raced, and an assortment of reptiles and arachnids who occupied the glasshouses. I’d been eagerly looking forward to this event but in the end I couldn’t make it, and only got a tantalising glimpse of what happened from Elaine, my friend and fellow member of the Cliffe Castle Conservation Group who sent me a picture of a chameleon sitting on her hand. (She owned up to being unwilling to handle the tarantula, even though she’s not afraid of spiders. I was happier to have the chameleon. Even photos of large arachnids are not exactly easy for me, though I’m working on this – I’d have liked to have tried drawing one. At a distance.)

Thanks to Elaine Cooper for her hand, the chameleon and this photo

The reason I was keen to see reptiles was a preoccupation I’ve had lately with chameleons, or rather the idea of a chameleon – as in the drawing at the top of this post, which doesn’t look very much like one. They have the ability to change colour according to mood or condition in order to signal this state of affairs to other chameleons and it’s this that I’d been thinking is such a handy device. I wish I could do it, or something like it, because it would be so useful.

My physical and mental state varies from week to week, day to day, minute by minute. The condition I live with (ME) means that I’m never feeling fully well, or at least very rarely and only fleetingly for a few minutes at a time. Mostly I’m on one of about three different levels of un-wellness and I tend to stay on the same level for weeks and sometimes months at a time, but I slide up and down between these levels on a daily, hourly and sometimes momentary basis just to add variety to the mix.

Definately a Green day, overall – but with early outbreaks of Blue shading to a tendency towards Orange in the late afternoon…..

It would be so useful to be able to colour code these changing conditions and broadcast them, in a subtle but demonstrable way. I present as a confusingly erratic presence (or absence) because it’s hard for other people to get a handle on what’s going on. It’s sometimes hard for me to get a handle on it for that matter.

I think of blue as the largely absent state of perfect wellness (happily I do get to experience this in a transient way once in a while, and it’s extraordinarily, gloriously wonderful) and the next level down would be green, which is my highest level and which I call Restricted But Reliable. The next level is yellow, More Restricted, Unreliable. After that comes orange, where I’m basically Poorly, Largely Unavailable; and the bottom level would be red, where thankfully I’ve been only rarely and for short periods, but it would be called something like Completely Unable, Count Me Out.

I don’t know much about chameleons but they seem to be able to change colour rapidly as their situation dictates, and this is how my signalling system would ideally work – and so as long as my colours were understandable to others this would seem like a very handy tool. I wonder if anyone’s tried this, or something like it…….?

Chameleons that are still imaginary but look a bit more like chameleons….

I plan to do some dedicated sketching up at the animal houses soon, and even though there are no reptiles or spiders (except very tiny ones, mostly hiding) I can’t wait to renew my friendship with the rabbits and guinea-pigs, and I’m looking forward to meeting some new animals that that I understand have arrived, which I’ve heard about but never seen. Watch this space!

Cliffe Castle, Cricket and KiteI celebrated World Wide Sketchcrawl day sketching in the grounds of Cliffe Castle in Keighley and although I went there intending to draw the house (which is not really a castle at all but worthy of drawing nonetheless) to practice sketching architecture, as usual I got sidetracked as soon as I saw three generations of one family on one of the lawns with cricket stumps and a bat, and later on playing with a kite. Drawing people for me is irresistible and however difficult it is I just have to try. I’ve had such a good time following the advice and tips that Marc Taro Holmes has been giving out on his blog – wonderful resources that he gives away free from his workshops on drawing people in motion.

Cliffe Castle, Saturday afternoonI’d been following reports from the USK symposium in Singapore – wow! What a wonderful thing it’s been – just watching videos and reading posts has been enough to fill me with even more enthusiasm for urban sketching. And now we hear that next year the symposium will be in Manchester!

I’ve only recently realised that sketching soft toys can be almost as interesting and challenging as drawing people – or at least it is when the individual in question is a loved and cherished character. It’s just as important to get a good likeness, and the shapes and textures are just as unpredictable and unknown. I occasionally draw a stuffed rat that I’m especially fond of (he came from IKEA).

Soft Rat

On the 11th August I’m going to try to be at the Teddy Bear’s Picnic at Cliffe Castle; there should be plenty of subjects. Little stuffed creatures are somewhat easier to draw because they don’t move about much, but accompanied at the picnic by their owners this may be less so. And I may find myself distracted once again by wanting to draw people. Who knows?



Not too much time for sketching – as I was too busy taking long slow looks at the selected artworks, but I couldn’t resist doing a ten minute drawing of a detail of Anna Lambert’s ‘Hedge Candlestick’.

Cliffe Castle was the only venue in Yorkshire to put on a Slow Art Day event, and one of only a handful in the UK – two of them being the Ashmolean in Oxford and Tate Modern – so we felt among distinguished company. Exciting to think of people all over the world participating on the same day, in a total of 205 galleries and museums in Australia, Africa, Europe the USA and Canada.

There’s something deeply pleasurable about taking a long slow look at a painting or sculpture and it was especially good to be part of a group doing it – we had a lively discussion afterwards and are looking forward to next year!


Outside the weather was not what it was two days earlier when I sat on the grass near the playground and then on the bank above one of the fountains (yet to be restored), and sketched in the sunshine.



Garden Snails

There’s something magical about watching animals in their own environment, and even if it’s only a garden snail I can be completely captivated by it once I’ve been watching for only a minute or two. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I promise you it’s not. Any chance I have I’ll drop everything to go animal watching – and sketching – even though here the wildlife (apart from birds) consists mostly of grey squirrels, and the occasional hedgehog and mouse, or vole – if I’m lucky. Our local museum has a natural history gallery of stuffed specimens where I can study more closely when I get too frustrated trying to draw something that moves too fast and disappears too quickly – including animals that are now rare hereabouts, like the red squirrel. (It’s an interesting fact – when snails are on the move they go faster than you’d think and tend to glide along without pausing, which makes them harder to draw than something that’s faster but which frequently stops and stays in one position)…


It may seem unbelievable but there was a time when elephants and rhinos lived wild in Yorkshire. These were the straight-tusked elephant and the narrow-nosed rhinoceros, both of which are now extinct, but between 123,000 and 70,000 years ago, (during a time called the Ipswichian Interglacial Stage) animals like these and the bison and the hippo were here, because the climate at that time was quite different from today, and because the British Isles were then not Isles at all, but were connected to the mainland of Europe by a land bridge so that all sorts of animals could wander up here if it suited them.

Oh, how I wish I could see a rhinoceros in the wild! When I think about how I feel simply watching grey squirrels, the very thought of being in the presence of an animal like a rhino in its natural home just takes my breath away.

But the truly appalling thing is that it may be a distinct possiblility that in only 20 years, no-one will be able to watch a rhino in its natural environment, because rhinos could be extinct in the wild. Gone forever.

Susan Portnoy has been talking about rhinos on her blog The Insatiable Traveller, and how an organisation called Rhinos Without Borders has a project to move 100 rhinos from South Africa which is home to 80% of the world’s rhinos, to Botswana (to read about why this is such a good idea follow the link above).

Susan and over 100 other travel bloggers are joining the drive to accomplish this by raising funds to move one rhino – and anyone can help by supporting and donating to the project #justonerhino.

I know rhinos are not the only endangered species. I know there are many other vital projects of all kinds around the world that need our support. But the rhino’s plight is extremely urgent, and for reasons that are entirely man-made, because of poaching on an escalating scale. Currently, on average 24 rhinos are being slaughtered by poachers every week, and the population is now so small that it can’t breed fast enough to keep numbers sustainable unless we intervene. Anything we can do, even to give just one rhino the chance of a safe home, has to be worthwhile.

Sometimes the problems that face us in the world are so overwhelming that it’s hard to see how we as individuals can make any difference but it really is the small things, one at a time, that count – and can make a change. In this case, for at least one rhino, that would mean everything.


page of birds

I much prefer to draw from life, but if I can’t do that I do draw from photographs, almost always pictures I have taken myself and invariably nowadays from a screen. I find it much harder to draw from pictures taken from another source, presumably because when I’m photgraphing something I’m doing a lot of looking before and after pressing the shutter, and even if this is not the same quality of observation that comes from drawing, it is helpful.

Creatures that move fast and are likely to flee or fly after a few seconds are hard subjects, though there’s a lot to be learnt by trying. It just isn’t possible to gain as much understanding from a photograph as you can from the real thing, and in the case of a live animal the greatest loss is the sense of connection and the degree to which you become aware of each other’s energy.

sketchbook page, guinea pigs

The robin and the barn owl I drew from photos on my tablet. The guinea pigs I drew this afternoon, observing them through the bars of their pen at the top of the park where I walk almost every day. I watch them closely, spending much more time looking at them than looking at the page, and they watch me carefully, keeping a close eye on what I’m up to. They are wonderful; I think that quite honestly I am happier drawing guinea pigs than any other animal, and possibly more than anything else. I completely lose track of time.