Saturday, 3 January 2009

At large

An age ago, when Zimbabwe still had a thriving tourist industry, and food, and a working currency, an economy, hospitals, schools, productive farms, a working population, and much more, we went there on holiday for a few weeks, and mostly did the kinds of things relatively rich western tourists do there: visit Victoria Falls, the Matopos and Hwange National Park. We spent hours out in the bush with a guide watching this parade of incredible wildlife go about its often bloodthirsty business.

Drawing wildlife has never really done it for me. Most of the animals one usually comes across in nature stay far away enough to make them turn into little more than ink blobs on the pages of my sketchbook. But in Zimbabwe we came so close to ridiculously huge animals - elephants, giraffes, buffalo, hippos, rhinos - often moving helpfully slowly, that they could register even on my A5 sketchbook.

I was reminded of this experience recently on a visit to Arundel Wetland Centre. There were no hippos showing their heads above the water, vultures circling over a kill, or giraffes heading down to the watering hole, but there was a great range of wildfowl, including sheldecks, shovelers, siskin, teal and snipe, not that I'd know what they'd look like without the swathes of information on hand in the visitor centre.

These birds couldn't possibly be recognised by the drawings I made of them through the windows of the cafe as we all sheltered from the cold. Most took somewhere between two or perhaps even three seconds to complete. There is a thin slice of time for the dark shape of the wildfowl on the bright, reflecting water to leave some mark on the retina before it is turned into lines on the paper. Look back and it's impossible to find the relevant duck among the throng milling about on the water. Markings, size, colour, bills, plumage and crests, all what differentiates one kind of bird from another, are turned into a few lines in a few seconds.

It's rarely successful, drawing like this. I can't imagine an ornithologist would be able to recognise any of these. Birds are rarely bird shape at first glance, to put it badly: they swim away from you so the shape of the head is lost, or hunt for food under the surface of the water, so that a simple silhouette becomes a kind of visual nonsense. There's time for something essential to be put down, but nothing more, not for me anyway. After making works about the inertia and solidity of architecture, there's something very enjoyable about this.

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