On my way back from morning dog walks, these winter tree silhouettes kept catching my eye. They are particularly beautiful in contrast with the orange field in the background.
It’s easy to make excuses not to sketch: my shoulder hurts, the weather’s too hot, the weather’s too cold, too wet, too windy, it’s winter – I’m uninspired, there’s nothing to see…
Then I started to pay attention to how beautiful the sky can be as the winter sun sets behind skeletal trees. Its position slightly shifting everyday so that eventually it’s setting over the road and visible from my bedroom window, which has a radiator under it.
So with no discomfort excuses I succumbed to the urge to try and capture this lovely view. I drew the trees in water resistant pen at a leisurely pace and left my sketchbook on the windowsill with my brushes, a jar of water and my paint box so that the next time the sunset was dramatic I could quickly paint the watercolour wash over the top.
I repainted this version so that I could sell the painting without disfiguring my sketchbook and it’s now my plan to redraw the trees in preparation for a new attempt next time there’s drama in the sky.
This view over the Essex countryside to Osea Island is one of my Dad’s favourites. He collected those stones and placed them around the base of the trees over many, many years during many, many dog walks. So I was delighted to be able to paint it for him as a birthday gift.
I worked from photographs; starting with a pencil drawing which I overlaid with water resistant pen before adding washes of watercolour paint.
I set out last Saturday to sketch Maltby Street Market. It’s a weekly food market which is just round the corner from my flat in Bermondsey, Southeast London.
Maltby Street Market is actually set up in Rope Walk; a narrow alley bound on one side by railway arches housing bars and restaurants and on the other by stalls serving all manner of British and international food.
I’d had the urge to capture this characterful and complex view for some time. There’s something compelling about the colourful flags strung overhead the bustling throng that always descends to sample the delicious treats on offer on Saturdays and Sundays. I also love the hanging signs for Vermouth 49 and Little Bird Gin. You can just see the Shard looming in the background.
It was a bright February day, the light was fantastic but the chill gradually seeped right through my clothes and into my bones. I reached a point, despite having simplified the view when I knew I’d have to leave, warm up and add the finishing touches to the sketch at home.
I think the full length, double page sketch (top) turned out pretty well but I prefer this crop (above) which has a more abstract quality.
The Bar Tozino people had a tricky start to their day. The lock on their front door had broken so they had to dismantle the door to get in. That set off the burglar alarm so there followed a raucous half hour when the whole area was beset by wailing. Despite that they were very friendly and generously let me sit and draw at one of their outside tables undisturbed for several hours. I ordered a delicious pisto (like a ratatouille with a couple of fried eggs on top) to keep up my energy levels. Delicious.
Himachal Pradesh was on my wishlist from February but the weather was just too cold to make the trip pleasurable until spring finally arrived halfway through April.
I kept seeing gorgeous photos on Instagram and eventually booked two sets of accommodation in the Tirthan Valley. It was still damp and rainy when we arrived but we had a wood burner and electric blankets in our room to turn the chill into cosy.
To reach Himachal Pradesh from West Bengal we took a taxi from Siliguri to Bagdogra, flew to Delhi then on to Chandigarh (both steaming hot), then hired a car and driver to drop us in the Tirthan Valley.
Flights from Delhi to Kullu Manali (Himachal Pradesh’s airport) are extremely expensive and unreliable due to the weather conditions, and while night buses from Delhi to Kullu are cheap, they take about 10 hours and don’t have proper sleeper berths (just reclining seats).
So that’s why we opted for the car and driver; door to door convenience, comfort and a reasonable price. Salman the driver loved the trip too, it was his first visit to Tirthan and he was mightily impressed by the phenomenal landscape.
A landscape which I found impossible to capture well in watercolour. I made one attempt which ended in frustration so I covered the mess with a collage and did a simple sketch on top. Life is too short to labour over landscapes when you can simply admire them.
Still with an eye on the weather in desirable destinations like Manali and Mcleodganj (the Dalai Lama’s base in India) at higher altitudes we decided to stay put in the Banjar region until we had to return to Delhi and then to London. Comfort won out over curiosity; a sign of age perhaps.
Himachal Pradesh is a fantastic place to finish my trip. The weather is gentle as are our generous hosts here in the Tirthan Valley.
I also found this epic book in our guesthouse and was immediately hooked.
India had been a profoundly wonderful and confusing experience, there were many points when I felt like I’d had enough but then something amazing would happen and I’d bounce back.
Arundhati Roy, perhaps as only an Indian woman can, weaves a beautiful tale entwining the tragic, seemingly eternal (and universally human) threads of sexism, racism, classism, religion, corruption, exploitation and violence in ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’. The book is mostly set in Kashmir and Delhi but encompasses the whole of India.
“They aren’t very good at other people’s pain. But then who is? … What we have on our hands is a species problem. None of us is exempt.”
A sad but funny and fascinating read and a great Indian history lesson.
Europe will undoubtedly seem pale after India but I will be happy to dress and express myself as I wish again without worrying that I’m offending anyone.
That’s a huge luxury, as is white privilege – being born in a relatively rich, secular and democratic country.
Himachal Pradesh is so beautiful in the springtime and the people of the Tirthan Valley are so warm, kind and hospitable. We climbed up a really big hill today; up a dirt track, stone steps, through flowery meadows full of butterflies, we passed a waterfall, a few slate roofed cottages and a tiny school. Near the top a dog started barking at us quite enthusiastically; his lovely family gave us a glass of cold cordial and invited us in to see the temple in their new wooden house. We had very few words in common but they worked.
Little sketchbook homage to the humble bidi (or beedi) a cheap but tasty Indian smoke. Basically it’s a leaf rolled around a tiny bit of tobacco, secured with a string. There was a bidi factory in Bundi, a beautiful town in Rajasthan that I visited in January. The bidies in the image above are painted, the rest is a collage of beautiful bidi packaging.
Next stop Kolkata, West Bengal (3 hour taxi from Khajuraho to Satna then 20 hours on the train to Howrah Station), which we approached with some trepidation.
For a huge city it was, however, a revelation: friendly, fairly relaxed, fairly clean, really beautiful and easy to negotiate on foot.
With cheap, delicious street food to boot; Kolkata is famous for kati rolls – egg dipped flat breads which are fried and rolled around the tasty filling of your choice.
We passed a few fun days wandering around the Park Street neighbourhood, exploring the city’s green spaces and crossing the Hooghly River by ferry.
Our next target destination was Darjeeling the famous tea town. I had a romantic idea of Darjeeling – quaint and charming, nestling up there in the Himalayan foothills and the opportunity to arrive there in the heritage ‘toy train’ was irresistible.
We flew to Bagdogra, spent the night in Siliguri and the next morning promptly arrived at New Jalpaiguri Station for the advertised 8:30am departure of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway service from the narrow gauge platform.
At least an hour late, the tiny engine pulled up with three little carriages in tow. It took at least another half hour for the engineers to prepare the train for the trip up the mountain.
The journey (scheduled to take seven hours in total) was indeed picturesque; the little train pluckily chugged upwards taking several fascinating ‘z reverses’ to accommodate the incline.
Then, 15km short of Darjeeling a piece of the engine fell off, the train stopped and it became apparent that we would have to make our own arrangements to finish the journey by road.
Luckily, at dusk, after an hour or so of flagging down vehicles with little or no space for hitchers the lovely man (second right) in the photo above pulled over. He breezily packed us and our new German friends and all our luggage into his warm, comfy car and expertly drove us the hour to town.
The first first thing that struck me was the cold. A see your breath in the house cold. A wear all your clothes in layers, in bed, cold. Luckily our homestay host provided a heater and hot water bottles and the view of Kangchenjunga from the balcony (at 6am before the clouds rose) was stunning.
The food was fabulous too, inspiring me to immortalise this delicious and typical Indian breakfast of puri sabji. The puri are fried flat breads which puff up and are chewy and crispy at the same time. Sabji or sabzi is the generic word for cooked vegetables, usually in some sort of gravy.
We met up with our new German friends in a local Tibetan style restaurant to reminisce about our toy train misadventure and feast on momo and wanton (both dumplings)…a meal so delicious I was again inspired to capture it in paint.
Of course we drank some excellent tea in Darjeeling too and took the obligatory tour around the Happy Valley tea factory. But Darjeeling is not the charming hill station town of my imagination; it has a few pretty parts but is generally damp and dank, congested with traffic which makes the air foul with fumes and suffers from cascades of rubbish dumped down its sprawling labyrinth of terraces.
We spent our last Darjeeling days at another homestay, the beautiful Little Singamari and were treated to yet more fantastic home cooking.
This is a fantasy amalgamation of my favourite dishes cooked by Ramila, our hostess.
We set off for a few days in Kolbong and stayed on an idyllic organic farm. The two hour jeep ride to reach the farm was a bit of a roller coaster ride, one local lady promptly threw up as soon as she exited the jeep at her stop.
Luckily the driver made a slight detour for us so that we didn’t have to drag our luggage up the last kilometre of track to the farm.
The weather was warmer, the air cleaner, all our food was home cooked, mostly homegrown and organic. Our hosts were delightful but could only accommodate us for a few days as they were busy with another project. It was hard to leave.
We decided to head for Kalimpong, a chilled out town with a similar climate to Kolbong where we could wait for the weather to warm up before we set off to explore higher altitudes without freezing.
We both succumbed to bugs, one respiratory and one gastrointestinal, nothing major but enough to make us grind to a halt. Luckily we were in safe, comfy accommodation with a nice view…a good place for rest and recuperation.
I was inspired by the gorgeously bright colours used to paint the murals in the prayer rooms at two of Kalimpong’s Buddhist monasteries when I made this portrait of Rob. I also love the way they include the cloud and flower motifs. Kalimpong is well known for its orchid nurseries hence my choice of flower.
So the day I set off for Hampi I see this on Instagram! It’s going to be worth the effort…
An early morning taxi from Varkala to Trivandrum, two domestic flights: Trivandrum – Chennai – Hubli, another taxi from Hubli airport to Hubli Junction railway station, a train to Hospet, a tuk-tuk to my guesthouse, an overnight break and then a local bus from Hospet to Hampi!
And Hampi (this link can explain the history better than I can) proves to be a delicious and mind bending mix of surreal geological accidents and logic defying Flintstone style construction.
Of course with my meticulous research (not) I was well aware (not) that the day of my arrival coincided with the Makar Sankranti festival so the bus from Hospet was packed to the gills and Hampi was swarming with visitors.
Here are a couple of pen and wash sketches…impossible to capture the mad grandeur of the landscape but fun trying.
The site is vast and I’m staying in a guest house (Funky Monkey – friendly, nice food and music, bathroom prone to flooding through the ceiling a couple of times a day but no drama), which is in a sort of shantytown in the centre.
I’ve taken to rising just after dawn (6:30ish) and going out for a wander in ever increasing circles then returning for breakfast a few hours later. That way I have the place virtually to myself and it’s fairly cool.
This morning I got up a bit earlier and since I was fully covered decided to visit the imposing Vishna temple next to the guest house. I left my shoes at the entrance and didn’t take any photos inside.
A friendly man showed me around, with the unspoken agreement that I would pay him at the end of the tour. He took me to the inner shrines, demonstrated a 700 year old camera obscura which projects an image of the huge tower (top left and bottom right in the photos above) onto an interior wall at sunrise, pointed out some stone carvings of Vishna in his various animal forms and some others which were frankly pornographic (unexpected, given the sacred nature of the site and the Hindu’s prudish attitude towards sex).
Just inside the entrance, to one side there was an elephant chained by his feet to the floor. His face and ears were painted with the red, yellow and white markings of the blessed. As I went in I noticed him pacing, as far as the chains would allow, in a rhythmic way reminiscent of a depressed person rocking. On my way out I saw two women offering him food, he knocked them to the ground with his enormous trunk. Shaken, they got to their feet with a laugh and left. Another woman sat to the side and spoke to elephant; I think she asked why he was so angry. Aptly he threw rubbish at her. I’d be well pissed off under similar circumstances but in the absence of industrial strength chain cutters and a PETA intervention order I left the sad scene.
On my first day in Hampi I’d noticed some people on the top of a huge crop of rocks but, tired and disoriented I wasn’t able to find the way up.
This morning, quite by accident I stumbled (not literally, I am quite sure footed for an old bird) upon the stone staircase around the back of the rocky mountain. I scaled it…admittedly not without misgivings, bouts of gentle vertigo and a few rest stops…
But the view! And the sense of calm…and achievement…and awe at the vast beauty of the landscape juxtaposed with the crumbling buildings. I’m so happy to share that view with the squirrels, birds and lizards.
Luckily I found an easier way down, although I did shuffle part of the way on my bum.
So I’m quite chuffed at this point, imagining the delicious breakfast I’m going to have when I get back to the guesthouse…when a cheeky monkey bounds over and robs me of the bag of bananas I’ve been carrying since I left the first temple. No way I’m arguing with him, ha!
There are centuries worth of stone carvings at Hampi; some of them crude and some so skillfully intricate it boggles the mind. Obviously the surviving carvings exist in various states of dilapidation and most are fully accessible to examine at close range with eyes and fingers.
I saw many, many examples of the woman above, all unique. I love the way her arms are entwined with the stone archway so I decided to paint a version of her.
I chose to do a Workaway at a hostel in Jaisalmar because I wanted to go on a desert safari and the hostel owner said he wanted some help to decorate the rooftop terrace (along with some basic IT tasks).
When I got here it was apparent that many people had already contributed to the roof terrace decoration…some in a lovely way, some in quite a haphazard way!
So, my exclusive rights to the wall space scuppered I set about capturing the beautiful view (above) of the fort while planning my strategy for mural painting in limited areas amongst a hotch-potch of other images.
I decided on a stencil with the .most obvious theme for a desert safari hostel – the camel.
I found a craft knife and the lid of a photocopy paper box in the market by the fort and set about preparing my template.
Having painted several camels, a bit of red shading and yellow highlighting I added a border inspired by a Rajasthani folk art design.
I did go on a camel safari, it was tremendous fun if a little hard on the thighs. Even though we didn’t venture very deep into the Thar desert the peace and vastness of the landscape were still impressive. We had chai on the dunes while watching the sunset, then ate dinner around a campfire before settling down to sleep under the stars. Gorgeous.
While wandering around Jaisalmar old town I was struck by the number of Ganeshes painted on the houses.
Then someone told me that since Ganesh is the Hindu god that removes obstacles and blesses new starts the people get him painted on their houses every time there’s a wedding. In fact the paintings serve as a kind of invitation since they contain the names, date and location of the union. Ah-ha!
I had a go at a Ganesh…
Then I got invited to a wedding! I went up to the fort for a massage, my second in a week since hard beds, overnight travel and painting have taken their toll on my middleaged bones. There’s a team of sisters who offer Ayurvedic loveliness in their home but the house was very busy when I got there so I expected to be turned away. One of the sisters explained that they were preparing for her niece’s nuptials and I got my massage and an invitation to the part of the wedding ceremony which would take place two days later.
And it was a delightfully colourful evening – the whole marriage ceremony takes place over several days and nights and costs the bride’s family an absolute fortune. There were saris of every hue, mountains of delicious food being cooked and consumed (the bride’s family aren’t allowed to eat though) and a cocophany of drums and firecrackers when the groom finally arrived at midnight. He strode moodily to the stage at the front of the main room at the ashram and sat on a sofa.
The bride, who was hidden in a back room for most of the evening then walked to the stage under a kind of awning. The groom appeared to ignore her completely for a good long while. I left the party at that point.
I saw the bride’s brother a couple of days later. He said his whole family were exhausted after the extensive marriage ceremony – the final part of which lasted through the night. They were also grieving the loss of the their sister / daughter / niece from the household but grateful that at least she still lived in Jaisalmer. He added that he had already started saving up for the eventual wedding of his eight year old daughter.
Jaisalmer has a frontier town feel – it’s close to the border with Pakistan and there were several days when there were fighter jets roaring overhead (Indian government posturing I was told). It’s certainly the most ‘male’ place I have stayed in so far. There were a few women with jewelry and vegetable stalls in the market and a few women street cleaners but their presence was mainly domestic and behind closed doors.
There were no female staff at the hostel and while I was mostly treated with kindness and respect there were times when I had to robustly defend my boundaries around personal space. I did it with as much patience and good humour as I could muster.
There is definitely an advantage to sticking around in one place for a bit longer than is usual on the backpacker trail. Taking time to talk with local people and other travelers creates deeper connections and insights.
I met a splendid fellow from Spain who went to the wedding with me, then the following evening I joined him for dinner at the home of a delightful local couple who have a shop. They were all so sweet and generous and the food was the best I’ve had in India.
To add to the excitement there was an election for the legislative assembly of Rajasthan on the 7th of December. The election takes place every five years and this one was eagerly anticipated because the people were generally bitterly disappointed by the broken promises of Modi and the right wing BJP who won in 2013.
The BJP is India’s largest political party in terms of representation in the national parliament.
Campaigning for the centre left Congress party (INC) which is associated with the Gandhi family was enthusiastically underway while I was still in Bikaner and in Pushkar there were reminders to vote spray painted on the lakeside ghats.
It took four days for the votes to be counted and when Congress was declared the winner on the 11th of December there were fireworks, drumming, chanting and cheering well into the night.
This is a tale of a wild goose chase!
Sadly all the prickly pears are in Andalusia are dying because of an infestation of insects but someone told me that there was one still alive on the coastal path which runs through the natural park known locally as La Breña, a pine forrest which covers the area between Barbate, San Ambrosio and Los Caños de Meca in the province of Cádiz.
So I set off to find it and draw it…
It was a needle in a haystack situation!
I did however enjoy the spectacular views from the cliff top and sat up there in a howling wind for an hour or so to sketch this view out over the Atlantic to Atlantera. That´s Morocco in the background.
I have a new tip off for a live prickly pear which is closer to home…fingers crossed!
To celebrate my 50th birthday on the 5th June I traveled to beautiful Andalusian town of Ronda in the province of Málaga.
I booked into the lovely Catalonia Reina Victoria Hotel and spa for a bit of luxury pampering…
….and it was lush. I think the anti-aging facial was a bit too little too late but it felt delightful!!
I painted this view of the Tajo de Ronda from the balcony of my room while I was sunbathing.