Okavango Delta Aerial

Okavango Delta Aerial

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Email banner design

Today I have designed a 'banner' to go as part of my 'signature' in my emails. For those that think I have just spoken some alien language..... basically it's a picture that will show up automatically, along with the other information text that I already have,, at the end of each email I send out. 

I am having to think now of promotion for the exhibition and find ways I can 'spread the word'. We use banners on emails where I work at the zoo and today whilst sending out a couple of emails it suddenly struck me that this would be a good thing to do with my own emails. Never done one before ... but I have based it on the flyer I did earlier this year. This is so I have a running recognisable theme for my promotional activities for this exhibition.  

Bearing in mind that I am not a graphic designer, although I did pick up some rudiments at college, please don't judge my attempt too harshly.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Artist in Residence week

Last month, for the first week, I was Artist in Residence at Nature in Art. Their programme of artist residencies runs almost a full year annually, starting in January and going on through to the end of November. A wide variety of artists participate, sometimes as a solo artist sometimes doubling up or as part of a group. A wide variety of skills are covered such as sculpting, printmaking, calligraphy, woodcarving as well as painting and drawing all in a diverse range of mediums. During my week I concentrated on oil painting, but started a pastel on the last day to save me transporting a very wet oil painting home in a very tightly packed car.

The front of Wallsworth Hall with a magnificent Geoffrey Dashwood sculpture, on loan for his exhibition, standing outside.

I set the studio up into 'zones'. As you entered the little 'porch' of the studio there was a display of my work from my job as Wildlife Illustrator at Bristol Zoo. Then moving into the main part of the studio you first saw a small selection of my paintings, then there was an area set out for my In The Footsteps of Elephants exhibition project, followed by a table with cards and other small merchandise on. 

Lastly I sat to one side of the studio painting at an easel.

I started the week off with a loose bull study. When I do these at home I usually limit the time I spend working on them to a max of 4-5 hours - just as a challenge to myself to speed up and not then go on to work in too much detail. The eyes are finding it harder to do detail work so, preparing for the future, I am developing a more loose style. This does sadden me as I do love doing detail, but I am also enjoying trying something that goes against my need to create something precise.

I have in mind a painting of a bull by water that has been formulating for sometime... so this study also doubles up as a kind of try out for it. 

Next on the easel is another piece that I have been consolidating in my mind for a couple of months.  I will do a post, called 'The Message Piece', all about the thoughts behind this piece very soon.. so look out for it.
I saw working on it during my residency as an opportunity to gauge reaction to it. It is something a little different for me to do and therefore I'm not too sure of a) how it will turn out and b) how people will react to it. But it is something that is in me and has to be done... so here goes...

This was as far as I had got by the close of play on the day before I went home. I am pleased that it seemed to strike a chord with a number of people who saw it, so I hope that it will work out well painting wise and therefore make it into the show. I have some worries (challenges) ahead, as I will have to battle with my desire to keep working into a piece to get it finished in detail. Holding back and making each subsequent elephant looser will be a huge challenge for me. I am confident the next bull in line will go fine.. but it's the three after that, numbers four and five in particular, that I wonder if I can achieve the look I am after without being able to keep on painting to 'get it right'. But hey, what's life without a challenge!

On my last day I decide to switch to doing something in pastels. The reason for this was I wasn't keen to transport and risk smudging a very wet painting home in a car that will have so much in it that it will be stuffed to the hilt. So I started this little study. The surface is a sandpaper finish that is almost black and I figured a brightly lit bull would stand out lovely on it.

I didn't quite finish it on that last day, so it was completed (as you see it here) back in my studio near home. I am pleased with the look and have plans to do at least one more like this, probably as a 'pairing' for this one.

I had a lovely week, as usual, during my residency.. meeting lots of lovely folk, some new to me, some well known. The interest in the exhibition is encouraging and I hope to see some of those, who plan to come and see it, again next year. 
If you popped in to see me - Thank you so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to do so.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Artist in Residence week fast approaches

I am looking forward to my Artist In Residence week at Nature in Art, which is coming up very soon - 2nd to 7th September. It is always a pleasure to visit there for a day, so a week is a real treat. 

At the moment I am busy getting projects ready to do whilst there and a gathering a few bits and bobs to have available to sell. I will be showing some of the work that I have been doing for the exhibition (which will be at this venue September next year) as well as other work such as some examples of what I do as Wildlife Illustrator at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

Nature in Art is a lovely place to visit and they have a great little coffee shop serving lovely lunches and super cakes and puds. If you are in the area, please do pop in and say hello... I shall be in the studio out in the gardens.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Elephant related news

The conservation research charity I am doing the exhibition for is, as you all should know by now, Elephants For Africa (EFA). They have recently updated their website and it is well worth a look to find out more about this small but important team. I am proud to be connected to them and the work they do is something I am keen to support. Please, if you have time, take a few minutes to browse their webpages and if you can find a way to support them through purchases of art or merchandise and/or donations you can be sure that the money goes directly to their work.  

For the last two years the study work area of EFA has moved to the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans National Park. Previously they were in the Okavango Delta for 10 years, and I visited them there a year before they moved. Another elephant conservation charity is now working in that area, Elephants Without Borders (EWB). They continue the release and monitoring of some of the individulas from the captive elephant herd at Abu Camp. One of the adult females, Gikka, and her daughter, Naya, who I got to know briefly during my stay, were the most recent individuals released back to the wild. Gikka was a Kruger N.P. cull orphan from many years back and Naya was born into the Abu Herd (fathered by a wild bull) in 2003. They are now living free together and Gikka has another calf - conceived and born in the wild. Recently EWB posted a sighting from the air of Gikka, Naya and the calf. They are reported to be doing well and I am so glad to see any postings of their progress. 

Gikka was one of my favourite characters of the Abu Herd, partly because of her spirited nature. I am so happy that she and Naya have made a success of their return to the wild. Long may they roam freely and without fear.

Catch up

Hmmm... My last post was waaaay back at the end of June!!! So what has been going on?

Well first off... I have a new work environment. Some funding has come my way which has enabled me for the first time EVER to have a dedicated workspace for my art. My own art studio. It's actually rented, so technically not mine, but the important thing is I have a separate space to work and gather my art paraphernalia together.  It was a bit of a long-winded process sorting out the money side and during June I started setting up. I have already been painting in there... Ivor's portrait was finished in there and I have started on a small pastel piece since but haven't got very far with that. 

The hold up has been a few other commitments to organise and prep for, so consequently I have hardly seen the studio during this month (July). Hopefully after the weekend of 9th and 10th, in which I am tutoring a drawing workshop in Devon , I shall be able to get back into the studio and crack on with some work for the exhibition.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Ivor has left the easel

So here he is... finished.. finally! Queue the fanfare, drum roll etc...

It has taken a while to get there, but hopefully the trials of the wrinkles has made it worth it. 

I am quite pleased with him: but as always an artist tends to always see what they could have done better perhaps, do differently. That I think is a good thing... keeps us striving to do better next time. That said I am tending to think this could be one of the main pieces for the show.. one of my best to date for this exhibition.

He is painted in oils on a 18" x 24" canvas and will be hung without a frame, as was always the plan. I want that contemporary feel for this piece, that I think frameless sometimes gives.

I had seen Ivor during my stay in the Okavango Delta... he is a very handsome young bull and was one of the bulls recorded in the work the Elephants For Africa research charity had been doing in that area for almost a decade. I asked Dr Kate Evans about him...He was first seen and recorded by the researchers on Valentine's Day 2009 when he was estimated to be 15 years old and appeared to be going through independence as after the initial sighting when he was with two other young bulls (two years his senior) and a female group, he was seen mainly with other bulls. His nature with the researchers was described as very sweet and easy to be around, never having charged (mock or otherwise) them.

When I saw him he appeared to be alone, but other bulls could well have been nearby. He would have been around 17-18 years old by then and was feeding in an area that was quite busy animal wise that day. Along with him there were a few giraffe, a troop of baboons and a kudu bull with several females ... all within very close quarters to each other. It was a lovely sighting as we watched Ivor (as a focal was done on him) and the others for over half an hour. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Bristol Festival of Nature 2014

Last weekend (14-15 June) was the Bristol Festival of Nature. Elephants for Africa had a stand in the Green Forum Tent and it looked great. Well done to Kate for all her hard work putting that together to look so good. 

I was able to tear myself away from my new studio to help on the stand for both days and although it was tiring I enjoyed spending time chatting to Kate and her other friends who were helping man the stand. We met a lot of interesting and interested folk and raised a healthy sum to help fund the charity's research work. 

What was also beneficial to me was the boost to remind me what I was working towards... Not that I ever forget, but it was good to have that contact with the charity again. It is seven years since I first met Kate at the festival in 2007 and our plan for the exhibition began. 

Thank you to everyone who stopped by to chat to us about the research and elephants and especially if you bought something to support their work.

This is Dr Kate Evans - Founder and Director of Elephants For Africa and Josephine (on the left) who is one of the researchers involved with Elephants For Africa.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Exhibition Flyer

This week saw the arrival of my first In The Footsteps of Elephants exhibition flyer. Next weekend (14th-15th June 2014) I shall be helping out on the Elephants For Africa stand at the Bristol Festival of Nature, so I thought having some flyers to advertise the exhibition would be a good plan. I know the exhibition is not until next year but I am hoping to build up interest well in advance to try and reach as many people as possible. 

The front of the flyer features part of the portrait of Ivor (one of Botswana's free-ranging bulls) that I am currently working on. I wanted to use this image as I felt it was eye-catching and would work well to initiate interest - getting people to pick up the leaflet in the first place is half the battle. 
Keeping the amount of text as minimal as I could, I started to design the text around it and asked, Anna, one of my graphic designer friends if it it would work. She made a few suggestions, basically just tweeking text size.  I used a QR Code generator to get that funny looking black and white chequered box. For those of you who don't know what it is.. it enables smart phone users (who have a QR code reader app) to get a link direct to this blog. I'm trying to keep up with modern times.. and luckily it is very easy to do. It's great tool for getting more information, to those who might be interested, instantly. 
As yet we have not had confirmation of the dates for the exhibition, so I have only ordered 250 leaflets for now. As I designed and ordered them online, the dates can be added later easily enough and I can order more at any time.

As mentioned earlier, this image is just the front of the flyer... I have two more smaller images on the back with a brief exhibition description and internet addresses for  the venue (Nature In Art), the charity (Elephants For Africa) and the exhibition project blog and Facebook pages. 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Bristol Festival of Nature

Elephants For Africa, the charity for whom I am doing the fundraiser exhibition next year, will be at The Bristol Festival of Nature June 14th - 15th. 

I shall be helping out on their stand in the Green Forum Tent over the weekend.. not sure of when but possibly both days. Dr Kate Evans, Director and Founder of the charity, will of course be there, along with two of the students who have done research work for their PhD and Master studies with the charity in the field. Here's a great opportunity if you would like to talk to some 'on the ground' people working with elephants. 

The Festival is a great event with many wildlife, conservation and related organisations taking part... do come along and say hello.

Friday, 18 April 2014


Spending time out in the bush for about 8-9 hours during the day, I inevitably met or saw other residents of the Delta, not just the Abu herd.  Mostly these were of the small variety- birds, invertebrates and a baby leopard tortoise. 

One of the mahouts, Boago, brought me this cutie to see. The mahouts told me it was a female, as she didn't have the groove on her scutes underneath and they estimated her to be about 9 months old. After a quick look we put her back where she was found, to carry on her way.

Baby leopard tortoise

Mantis nymph sizing up my index finger

Although the bigger animals were around, they would have known about our presence and kept clear, that is, all except one VERY big resident.

I had been out on a route drive that morning with two researchers, Charlie and Mphoeng, since around 7am and on our return route back to camp, they dropped me off with the mahouts at their day camp with the Abu Herd, around 9.30am. The camp was under a grove of Langostine trees, which was at the edge of a large open pan. Right across the other side of that pan, in the distance, stood a large wild bull elephant. 

Charlie and Mphoeng headed off to get a focal on him from a respectful distance and to ID him, before they went back to Seba camp. As it turned out, he only had a number to identify him in their records, so Charlie named him Hunter, after a TV wrestling star.

I settled in with the mahouts, Mohambo and B (which is short for Boago – pronounced Boaho), and an hour or so after the researchers had done their focal on Hunter and left, I asked Mohambo if I could go and sketch ‘the girls’ before it got too hot around midday to sketch out in the open. I went with Mohambo, over to the tree line on the side of the pan to the right of the camp, Gikka, Sherini and Paseka were browsing just in front of the trees amongst shrubs and bushes. 

Sherini in the background, Paseka foreground left and Gikka foreground right

We kept an eye on Hunter, across the pan, who was staying relatively still in the same spot. We couldn’t see what he was doing, but he stayed pretty much close to the spot he was in when I had first arrived earlier.

Rough plan of camp in the langostine grove and the pan where Hunter was. This isn’t to scale.. it’s just to give an idea of the scene and where we all were in relation to each other.

We had been there a short while as I sketched Gikka, when we saw that Hunter was now slowly heading our way.  He was in no hurry and looked very chilled and relaxed. What should we do?

Mohambo told me it was ok and to keep sketching as he kept an eye on Hunter’s progress. Soon the girls were visibly aware of the approaching bull. I say visibly as it is quite possible they had been in communication all morning with the bull and knew he was there. Elephants can communicate at frequencies much lower than our hearing can pick up. As he approached they stood looking his way with their trunks up smelling the air. 

Gikka's reaction to the approach of Hunter

Hunter slowly moved towards us, or rather the girls of the Abu herd. Sherini was further away from us than Gikka and he headed towards her first, but never actually went up to her. I had stood alongside Sherini - her eye was above my head (I’m 5’8”) and it felt like she towered over me. But now as Hunter got close to her, this elephant I had seen as big, now suddenly seemed to shrink in size. Hunter stood way higher than either Sherini or Gikka. How tall was he? 

I asked Mohambo if wild bulls, visiting the girls, was a problem. He replied that the bulls aren't aggressive towards the girls so they were quite happy for them to walk among them. Sometimes a bull will mate with one of the adult females if they are in oestrus; a few calves have been born into the Abu Herd this way. 

Hunter comes to say Hi to Gikka. She turns sideways at his final approach and there were a series of low rumbles.

We backed off a bit as the bull slowly walked from Sherini’s position towards Gikka, but he seemed unconcerned with our presence, obviously more interested in the girls. The wind shifted direction slightly.. I was aware that it had been in our favour blowing our scent away from the bull, but a small shift changed the direction towards him. 

It was then that he took notice of us. I can’t believe he was not aware of our presence before that..  but the change in his focus was apparent. He lost interest completely in Gikka. His head went up and he stood still, ears forward, gently wafting as he sized us up. I knew I shouldn’t run, so I looked to Mohambo.... What do we do now? He reached smoothly down and picked up my backpack in a slow but fluid movement and indicated for me to put my sketchbook in it. Time to move.

Hunter studying us

Mohambo directed me to start walking back to the encampment, slow and sure.  “Walk smartly, but casually.” He advised. Easier said than done. The ground under foot was rutted and not easy to walk across without pressure, such as a huge bull elephant just yards away. Now it took some concentration to try and keep body movements relaxed as I stumbled over the ground. Relaxed, yet casually hurried!

As we walked away I looked over my shoulder and my heart leapt as I saw that Hunter had begun to follow us. That walk back to camp and safety, making a bee-line for the grove of trees, over several hundred yards of rough terrain away, seemed like 5 miles! Trying to hurry, but not look like it, whilst trying to watch the ground through rough grass for safe footholds so as not to slip or make any sudden jerky moves AND constantly checking over my shoulder to see the looming shape of the elephant coming up behind was not an easy task.

Mohambo positioned himself, so that he was always between me and the fast approaching bull. Kate’s words rung in my ears, “You can trust the mahouts with your life. They will take care of you.” Although Hunter walked slowly and easily, his long legs paced out much longer strides than our own and so pretty soon he had caught up and was walking alongside us! I couldn’t resist using the camera that was slung around my neck and took a few shots when I could. Hunter didn’t flinch or seem at all agitated. He just walked alongside looking down on these puny two legged stick animals as they made their way to the trees; he could probably sense that one was quite relaxed, but the other had elevated heart beat, breathing, excitement and anxiety, even if she did point that clicky thing at him a few times and look on him with wonder and awe. He kept pace with us then right up to the grove of trees. 
I was only too aware that at any time, he was close enough to create a problem, if he chose to.

Hunter strides slowly alongside

I had the standard lens on my camera at the time... no need for zoom!!

B was resting under the trees and so didn’t know we had a bull parallel walking us back to the now very flimsy looking camp. I was drawn towards the makeshift tent (a tarpaulin sheet thrown over a metal frame) and watched with a heady mix of some trepidation and excitement as Hunter’s big grey form skirted the camp, just visible through the thick cover of branches and leaves to my right. We were safe now, right?

He made no sound as he followed the tree-line. Then there was an ominous sound of branches breaking and a great rustling of vegetation as Hunter pushed through the outer line of trees and bushes surrounding the camp. And there he was! Larger than life! Standing in the camp area about 40-50 yards from where my feet seemed planted on the ground. His entrance had been noisy and showy.. not with trumpets or rumbles, but just the sound of him shoving through thick bush cover after the silence of his approach round the trees, was dramatic enough.

At some point I’m sure my heart must have stopped or my instinct to breathe was interrupted, or both! He was an awesome sight and I looked from him to the ‘tent’ I was standing behind, it was hardly a good ‘hiding’ place. Not exactly a place of safety; he could brush that frame aside like a feather! I wondered how out of practice my tree climbing skills were as I looked around for somewhere safe to go to, should I need it. The tree by the tent looked sturdy enough to withstand a bull elephant's pushing and shoving, but even that I couldn't be sure of. 

Mohambo and B stood watching him; they looked relaxed and unperturbed. Hunter walked showily across in front of us, coming out into a more open spot under the trees.. clear line of sight both ways. He was side on to us, his head held high and he shook it a few times, sending his large ears out noisily as they slapped his neck and shoulders.  He proceeded to pull a few small branches off a tree and thrashed some nearby vegetation. He was showing us his strength, his size and just letting us know he was the boss around here, I guess, in a relatively mild way for an elephant. Even so, the impact on this puny human was impressive enough. Whilst marvelling in the experience and spectacle, it was also on my mind of what would happen if this turned into something more threatening? Just before Hunter had crashed through into the camp, I had asked Mohambo what if this bull got aggressive and charged. Mohambo said he would shoot a warning shot and that usually works; he was happy though that it wouldn’t come to that, as this bull was “ok, just curious”. But he did say that should the bull come for me, he would have to ‘drop’ him. Strangely I felt guilty that this would have to happen, should things go that way. I fervently hoped Mohambo was right in his assessment of Hunter’s mood; I didn’t want to be the cause of an elephant’s death, even if it was to save my own life.

As Hunter did his thing… B held the twiggy branch he had been idling toying with whilst he rested and Mohambo casually leant on the rifle. They didn't look worried at all, just watched the bull displaying. So I took my cue from them..  what Hunter was doing was very showy, and I couldn't help but feel some trepidation at the power and strength he displayed,  but he didn’t come across as aggressive. His behaviour seemed to be about stating his presence with a little intimidation rather than anything more menacing.  

This phase didn’t last long, once his ‘point was made’ he then stood watching us for a bit before settling down to munch away on the trees and plants around him. At that point Mohambo and B motioned at me with their hands. I wasn’t sure if it was to indicate to me to back off or for me to come closer. I assumed the latter… surely!
I started backing up. Mohambo smiled, shaking his head “No, no this way.”
“Are you sure? I asked incredously… he nodded and said “You can’t sketch him from back there.” !!
So I carefully walked to their position, every broken twig underfoot sounded like a gunshot. I was now standing about 20-30 yards away from this incredible bull. Not knowing how long he would be there I quickly took a couple of photos before attempting to sketch. Talk about pressure! I could feel my blood pumping around the veins in my temples and my heart had been hammering so hard I could almost feel it now knocking the insides of my ribcage; added to that my hands were shaking slightly with excitement. It was hard to switch off from all that to get the brain into sketching mode. I have to say I struggled to sketch. I did something that looked sort of like an elephant, but it was bad and didn’t look much like him. I wasn’t happy with my attempts and it has taken me a long time to decide to show them on here. As a compromise, I admit, I have masked out one side of each head sketch.. it is just too embarrassing to show the complete mess I made, so I'm showing only the bits I'm happier with. Although not by much! 

Mohambo whispered as I sketched “Breathe Su. Breathe.” My brain had been concentrating so much on sketching and that damn big bull, it seemed to forget to keep my lungs going properly! I let out a long badly needed breath. Then it was hard to try and breathe calmly as my lungs fought to gain the oxygen I had denied it for… well, I don’t know how long. Obviously long enough for Mohambo to notice and suggest I remedy!

Eventually Hunter took his leave of us and departed from the grove of trees in a much quieter manner than he arrived.

He walked away slowly and steadily back out across the pan, leaving me with a 40 minute encounter I will never forget. As he left I silently thanked him and wished for him a long life, safe from human greed and cruelty, with many strong calves to continue his lineage.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Sketching the Abu Herd

As I mentioned in the previous post, ‘The Abu Herd’, I spent some time out with the mahouts and the elephants. Kate kindly arranged with the mahouts for me to spend three separate days with them; as I understand it.. this was not normally something that was done - to take non members of staff out all day with them like that during their month off. So I was very honoured that they agreed.

The mahouts looked after me very well; my life was literally in their hands and I had complete confidence that they would keep me safe, They knew the landscape and animals within it so well... they knew what they were doing.  I was sitting on a thin padded car seat cushion out in the bush where there were leopard, hyena and lion…not to mention wild elephants and other big animals. No fences, no vehicle around me… just me, two mahouts and a rifle… oh, and a small ‘captive’ herd of elephants. 

What an experience

As you can imagine these were very special days for me. The experience of sitting out in the bush just listening and watching it go through its day was priceless. Added to that, I got to be by or near the elephants as they spent their day browsing or, in the case of the younger ones, playing and exploring.

Abu (left) and Naya interacting

For anyone that would be a pretty awesome experience to remember, but as an artist it also gave me a great insight to the feel of the bush, watching the light change the landscape, seeing elephants relaxed and part of the landscape - not just as a short time from the back of a vehicle, but a whole three days worth of such input. This changed the perspective of my experience of the bush. Also being on the ground - not elevated in a vehicle above the landscape, but at foot level with everything, the plants, the animals gave another element of that different perspective, visually and mentally.

I sat for long periods just trying to take in all the sights, colours, sounds… doesn’t sound like work, but it is. It relates back to the whole first hand experience thing. Observation... taking in what you see not just as a glance, but really looking into colour, shapes, depth, how things are in relation to each other, how things differ with changing light conditions etc. Having that extra insight will add depth to my understanding of the landscape and the animals within it, to better enable me to formulate compositional ideas and depict my ideas in paint. In observation you are not just looking, you are trying to understand what you see in all its separate elements and how they fuse together. 

This aspect of the process is very important. So when the idea was proposed that I put on an exhibition to raise funds and awareness for Elephants For Africa (EFA) there was no doubt in my mind I had to go and see it for myself. To not go there and then to have to paint from photographs taken by someone else, when I had no knowledge of the moment in time such images were taken, was not an option for me. If I have not seen it for myself, I will not paint it. 

I took this decision a long time ago.. I used to paint from all sorts of photo references that were not mine. For example… I love tigers, so I used to paint them a lot. But I have never seen a tiger in the wild (…yet), I have not seen how it is part of its landscape.. so I took the decision that until I do, I will not paint a tiger in a native, natural landscape. I have seen and taken photos of captive tigers.. so for the time being when I paint a tiger I put it with a non-descriptive background.. something to suggest where it might be. That ‘law’, for me, applies to everything I paint. So when this project came up… no option, no choice... I had to get to Botswana somehow, to get those references and see it for myself or else I could not/would not do the exhibition.

Paseka and Lorato chasing the truck, with Kitimetse being ridden at the rear

My days with the mahouts and elephants started around 8am either hitching a ride out on the back of the truck with the mahouts when they followed the elephants out from the Boma or being dropped off by one of the research team after the mahouts were set up at their temporary camp. I took with me a container of water and a packed lunch to keep me going. I stayed with them all day until they started the return to the Boma, via a mud bath, around 5pm, usually being picked up by Kate or Charlie, another EFA researcher. So… around 8-9 hours sat out in the bush with the elephants.  Utter, utter hell!

There was a purpose to this time spent with the mahouts.. apart from being an incredible observational experience, it enabled me to get close to the elephants to get details photographically and to sketch in a way that I could not do from a vehicle; to learn their shapes, young and older individuals, concentrate on legs, heads, bodies etc. And also to watch behaviour and see how they move, stand, rest, interacted, play etc. It was a base for me to build up my knowledge of the animals physically. I may not have got it all down on paper or captured digitally through a lens, but it went into my mind where it is recalled to help when I draw or paint back in the studio.


Obviously there were limits. I could not wander at will.. I was out in the wilds, not a theme park - no cordon of managed safety around me. I could sit in the ‘camp’ area (tent, some cushions, a water container, bags of nibbles for the ellies, a rifle and a few car seat cushions) usually set up under a stand of trees and if I kept within a few yards of the ‘tent’ (basically a sheet of tarpaulin thrown over a metal frame) in full view of the mahouts, I could move freely on my own. But as you can see the area was not open bush, so I was very restricted in that sense.  

But if I wanted to go further to explore or spend time with the elephants, a mahout had to be with me. I understood this.. working in a zoo.. if a keeper sets you limits on movement or contact with animals in their charge… you do it no question. Working with dangerous, or potentially dangerous animals, limits are set for very valid reasons, so when the mahouts said only go so far or don’t get any closer than x or y.. I did it. Despite the fact that I would have loved to have wandered on my own a bit further out from the ‘tent’, to spend hours sat by an elephant on my own to sketch and watch or to reach out and touch the skin of one… make that physical contact.  But these animals didn’t know me and even the youngest calf was more than capable of knocking me flat to the ground intentionally, or not, in play. I had limits to adhere to for very serious safety reasons; I am not complaining about that.. I completely understand; being used to it in my own working environment at the zoo. The straight fact is...I was in an amazing situation and I loved every minute of it.


When I sketch animals, for some reason that I do not know, I prefer using pencil, but when it comes to sketching landscapes I used (for this trip) either my water-mixable oil paints for full plein air paintings or waterproof ink drawing pen and watercolours for a more light sketch approach.
When I was wanting to sketch the elephants I felt very conscious of asking the mahouts to stand with me for any length of time, not because I was shy of being watched as I did, but because I felt awkward asking them to spend their time that way. Seems silly now, but at the time I was worried about ‘wasting their time’ or being too pushy with my requests of time with the elephants… after all the herd were here to relax and be away from people!!

Sometimes the ellies were out in areas where although they were under a shady tree, to get in a position to sketch them, I was under the full force of the daytime sun; as it was at least 90 degrees in the shade, standing out in the blazing sun for more than half an hour started getting uncomfortable and, well, not really sensible.

As for the body shape… I wasn’t always looking to try and do the whole animal.. I would pick out an area on the body and try and get familiar with that - legs where they join the body, ears, heads, rear views etc. It wasn’t important to get a whole animal done, I wanted to use the time to learn about the details. I took many photos of them doing what ellies do all day, but also zoomed in on feet , tails, mouths, eyes, legs, skin from the front, side and back. 

This was something I couldn’t do out with the researchers on the route drives. These points of reference are something I can refer to if I need to understand their anatomy when I’m composing a drawing or painting. 

So the sketches are very much my learning experience of the animal/landscapes; consequently, as with all learning experiences, some I am not at all pleased with and some I am quite happy about. 

I struggled particularly with the width of the head between the tusks. Just could not seem to nail that, despite repeated tries.. some attempts were better than others, but I never seemed to get enough width in, just kept underestimating. So from that I learnt to take extra care when drawing that area of the body.. to question that particularly and reassess my sketch/drawing to make sure I am happy to work it up further. 

Concentrating on different parts at a time I could look at elements in isolation and then see it as part of the whole. 

Naya strolling by

The front legs of an elephant are deceptively long and quite elegant in relation to the massive bulk of a torso evolved to house a digestive system capable of handling huge quantities of comparatively nutrient poor grass and greenery. The ears are very individual and vary shape and size wise. Likewise the tusks. At the time I was there, Cathy had long tusks that swept round to the front of her trunk with tips that just crossed over each other, almost touching at the crossover point. She made use of this feature of hers at times and use to rest her trunk on this handy frame.

 Cathy resting her trunk

The elephants weren't the only mammals I sketched.. One of the mahouts, Vincent, got sketched as he rested on one of the cushions after lunch. I tried to do it so he didn't know I was sketching him, think I got away with it. I didn’t do him justice though, he is quite a handsome chap.

I also did some landscapes. This wasn’t about creating a pretty picture, it was about learning the shapes, textures and colours of the landscape. The truest way of getting good colour reference, for me, is from life – to apply the colour whilst the scene is there in front of me so I can try  my best to match the colours I see. I will have my photo’s to work from back in the studio, but I can’t rely on the colour as the printing process or screen set up can change the colour off its true line. So plein airs and watercolour sketches give me a base line to refer to. 

Even though I had already been sketching and doing some plein air paintings of the landscapes I could see from my tent, that landscape was quite green as I looked out across a lagoon and the flood plain. But out with the mahouts and elephants I was on a dry area of land.. so the colours and vegetation were different. So it was important to get some colour references from that landscape too. 

I left my water-mixable oils back at camp (all about lessening the load when out in the bush) and used the watercolours and ink pen instead. But one day I forgot my brushes.. I had the paints, but nothing to put it on the paper with. So after doing my sketch that I really wanted to colour… what was I to do? 

Painting with a stem of grass

I looked about me…. pondering my plight. Be resourceful, Su, use your imagination what could I do… 

How about a bit of grass instead! Of course, makes perfect sense! 

I selected a good strong stem of grass and splayed the stout end slightly, plied it with colour and tried it out. Voila! Worked a treat. So this sketch was painted using a progression of several grass stems.

I plan to do another post on my time with the mahouts this time focusing on animal encounters, in particular a big grey chap called Hunter.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Abu Herd

Abu Camp is the sister camp to Seba; a high-end luxury camp catering to a wealthier clientel and is located approx 20 minutes drive away (over rough tracks) from Seba Camp, where I stayed. Seba Camp was originally the research and training camp, with no guest accommodation, as this was where the elephants of the Abu Herd were originally based. The elephants now have a Boma complex at Abu Camp from where they give elephant back safari’s to the guests of that camp.


The Abu Herd started in 1990 with three captive elephants from the USA - Abu (senior), Cathy and Benny were brought to Africa, by Randall Moore, to feature in a film, Circles in a Forest, and instead of being returned back to zoo’s, safari parks or circuses after the end of filming, he kept them in Africa to live out in the bush on a 450,000 acre private concession of wilderness within the Okavango Delta. To add to these three adult elephants, he acquired a ‘brat pack’ of six young elephant orphans saved from culls in South Africa. These were three females Sherini, Gikka, Nandipa and three males Mafunyane, Thando and Seba (Seba was rescued to star in another film Whispers).  With these elephants he started the Abu Camp and Elephant Back Safari experience.


Since then the core group has been expanded by additions.  There has been seven births within the group (fathered by wild or released bulls) -  To Sherini 4 calves Raditlou Wantha (dying soon after arriving two months premature), Pula,  Young Abu and Warona. To Gikka one calf - Naya, and to Kitimetse two calves - Lorato and Naledi. A ‘problem’ wild young bull, Mthondo Mbomvu, from Zimbabwe joined the group in 1993 where he quickly settled down under Abu’s (senior) firm guidance and two ‘natural’ orphans were adopted (Kitimetse and Paseka) who were both found after attacks by predators.


Randall Moore’s vision was to eventually release elephants back to the wild, if he could, and from his herd, ten have been released to live in the wild since 2002  - seven bulls Benny, Abu, Mafunyane, Mthondo Mbomvu, Thando, Pula and Seba and three females Nandipa, Gikka and Naya. Nandipa and Gikka have since had calves conceived and born in the wild - Nandipa three and Gikka one. Four deaths - Abu (senior), Benny, Seba and recently Kitimetse has passed away not long after the birth of her last calf, Naledi, was born.

When I was at the camp, there were eight elephants in the Abu herd - Cathy (born 1960), Shereni (I have no record of her DOB), Gikka (again I have no record of her DOB), Kitimetse (born approx 1996), Young Abu (born to Sherini 2006), Naya (born to Gikka 2003),  Lorato (born to Kitimetse 2008) and Paseka found in 2009 as a very young calf – adopted by Sherini.


During the month I was there, Abu Camp was closed as it was having a revamp and the elephants were having their annual month off from work. For the herd the day started with their mahouts bringing them browse and cleaning their Boma, followed by some training and research work. Once a week Dr Kate Evans would go to the camp to take samples of dung (as comparisions to the samples she took from the wild population) and she would also do regular measurements like height and foot size. After this was all done, usually around 7am, the elephants would then be ridden bare-back out into the bush. They would be ridden to a few choice spots where the mahouts would set up a very temporary day camp and settle the elephants for the day to feed, interact and play. Sometimes wild bulls would pay a visit to ‘check the girls out’ and occasionally mate with them. A couple of mahouts stayed with the elephants all day to keep an eye on them and around 5pm the other mahouts would return and ride the elephants back to the Boma, via a mud bath to cool off and have the necessary natural mud spa treatment that elephants need to protect and condition their skin.

Part of the research of Elephants For Africa is being involved in the reintroduction and monitoring of the released elephants. Tracking the radio signals of the individuals when they are within the area, checking their condition and if possible getting dung samples from them. Being able to have access to the Abu Herd gave another aspect to the research - collecting data and samples from them and being able to compare that data with their wild counterparts was invaluable. I visited the Boma with the researchers four times to see them at work, but missed out on the fifth and last visit due to having sudden chronic back pain for the last 5 days of my stay in camp, in which I was confined to quarters! That last visit was one in which I was due to have my photo taken with the elephants, mahouts etc. So I was not a happy bunny about missing that.


I also spent three precious separate days out in the bush with the Abu Herd and their mahouts. Those days out with the herd in the bush were priceless… I could spend time sketching and photographing the elephants close up and used this time to try and learn their shape, stances and details. 

When I was out on the ‘Route Drives’ with the researchers, there was no way I could get close enough to get such details and most of the time it was impossible to sketch (due to the rough terrain - I travelled standing up in the back of the Landrover with one hand holding desperately onto the vehicle and the other clamping my camera to my body to stop it getting bashed about). Also these Route Drives were the researchers at work... it was not a 'game drive' for me, so apart from stopping to do focals on any elephants seen, we were pretty much always on the move. Although they did stop for me now and again to get photo's, but time was of the essence and I was very aware that they were working so I didn't like to ask. Sketching and photo opportunities were continuous so I could not expect them to keep stopping, especially not for any length of time. 

Young Abu

When I was able to sketch in the vehicle… I just drew quick ‘impressions’. Also I was very aware that I had to limit my sketching activity. I could have sketched loads, but I was limited to one sketchbook, so had to ‘ration’ myself. I really could have done with three or four sketchbooks, but weight allowance for the smaller flights on my journey to and from Botswana and the Delta restricted my art supplies drastically.

But mostly, during the time with the Abu Herd, I just watched and listened to the wind, birds, insects and, of course, the elephants.  That time to ‘feel’ the bush around me, watching the change in light through the day, to sit and notice insects and birds come and go all around me and to be shown plants and animals by the mahouts, learning from them some secrets of the bush and watching the Abu Herd elephants relaxing was all very, very precious and all sunk into my subconscious to influence my painting later when I was back in the UK. 

I shall write more of some of my adventures during these three days.. most especially I look forward to writing about the encounter with a wild bull elephant named, by the researchers as, ‘Hunter’. 


Since I was there in March 2011 the group dynamics of the Abu Herd has changed. Gikka and Naya were released to the wild later in 2011; Young Abu, of his own accord, left the herd in 2013 and both Sherini and Kitimetse have had calves - Warona and Naledi. Gikka and Naya have adapted well to wild life with Gikka conceiving shortly after her release, and now has a wild born calf in tow, which is fantastic news. But to counter that, I was greatly saddened to hear that Kitimetse has passed away in January this year, just about 2 months after giving birth to Naledi - who is now being hand-reared, as Cathy and Sherini, although lactating, did not have enough milk for another calf.


So now the herd is down to two adult females – Cathy and Sherini and four calves – Lorato, Warona, Naledi and Paseka. Lorato is the oldest at six years and little Paseka, who was the babe of the herd, is now the second oldest at 5 years. I bet between the four calves, there’s a lot of mischief and play… what a handful they all must be!