Monday, December 31, 2012

Guest post on the BAASA blog

I wrote a guest post on the topic of "Inspiration" for the Botanical Artists' Association of Southern Africa. Please go and check it out, and if you're interested in botanical art, consider joining BAASA. We have workshops, courses, exhibitions and expeditions. It's great for networking, too.

Here are a couple of photos from our last trip, in November.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Butterfly on porcelain

Last month the local BAASA group had a porcelain painting workshop. I painted this butterfly on a random milk jug and am now totally hooked, I just want to paint on every bit of china I see, but don't actually own the necessary supplies myself. BAASA!?

Anyway, it's really great because you paint on already-fired porcelain or bone china, which means whatever you have around the house or find at the shops is fair game. The paints are overglaze powders that you have to mix with esoteric oils and things, and fortunately most of the time what you see is what you get in terms of colour. You need to fire the painted pieces in a kiln, sometimes several times between layers especially if you are trying to get a nice bright red, but when you're done the design is permanent: you can wash it, eat off it, whatever. I'm hoping that a couple of us will get together in the future and share materials so that I can do more. I started a sugar bowl to go with the milk jug, but someone sadly cleaned off my drawing (in a special porcelain pencil that disappears when fired; normal pencil will become part of the glaze and be permanent) so I have to start over again.

I never used to be able to draw butterflies, because I couldn't get them even close to symmetrical. Then one day I realised that you could draw half a butterfly and trace it in reverse for the other side. Even later (like, last month) I realised that you can use a simple four-square grid to guide you in situations where tracing doesn't work so well.

I drew a few for you to demonstrate - figured that horrible mouse-drawing would replicate the effect of trying to use a disappearing pencil on a wobbly moving object with a curved surface.

The aim here is to show that you don't need to draw beautifully to get the right effect - the grid will allow you to achieve the basic symmetry that will make your butterfly look right. The first one is a bit wrong: in general the thorax needs to be in the "crosshairs" because both pairs of wings (and all the legs) grow out of it. I haven't drawn in their heads. You need to make the head small and inconspicuous to look right; our instinct as humans (duh) is to place special emphasis on the head and eyes, making them a lot bigger than they should be. This makes the butterfly look cartoonish rather than real.

Butterflies, butterflies, I am going to go and draw lots of butterflies now!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

to everyone who celebrates it, and a very merry anything else to anyone who wants one! 

I'm somewhat tongue-tied in matters of faith - whatever I try to say has a tendency to turn out terribly cheesy. So in lieu of a proper Christmas post, I will point you to three places on the Internet where I know I will always be able to find a good Christmas post when I need to read one:

I have linked to the home page of each one rather than to a particular post; although I see each has at least one Christmas-related post up already, it's not the 25th yet and I'm sure there's more to come. 

Cheers guys, it's a good feeling to know there are people out there reading my dim ramblings. And as not the most social human being, it's nice to be able to keep in touch with my real-life friends this way too - you know who you are ;)

All right, gotta go before this all gets too maudlin. Love ya!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Party time!

Happy new b'ak'tun! (Or possibly piktun...)

I have 3 things to say about the Mayan calendar rollover:

  1. The people are called Maya, not Mayans.
  2. Reading about the Mayan system of counting makes me wish I were a maths genius so that I could a) understand it and b) become the Tolkien of maths and invent a whole new fictional mathematical system for my epic fictional civilisations. Someone who is a maths person get onto it, please!
  3. In this whole doomsday kerfuffle we have all missed the chance for a MASSIVE New Year's party of note. This makes me sad. Is it too late yet? I think we all need to make our New Year's parties this year double as New B'ak'tun parties. Come on make it happen!*
*And I want photos!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Out of the Attic: Lighthouse

While it might seem like a cop-out to do an Out of the Attic post after dropping out of sight for so long.... ah, who am I kidding, it's totally a cop-out to do an Out of the Attic post after dropping out of sight for so long. But I'm doing it anyway.

This is an old oil pastel doodle of a lighthouse that I did ages and ages ago, and is interesting for two reasons: One, it just popped out of my head, no references or anything. I actually have a dreadful visual memory so I don't work like that very often. Two, at least one person has said to me that it's their favourite thing that I've done, and at least one person has said to me that it's the worst thing that I've done and that I should get rid of it stat. It can't actually be the worst (never inquire about the contents of certain drawers in my home) but I thought that extreme range of reactions was pretty interesting. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pictures of perfection

" you know," said Jane Austen, "make me sick and wicked", and I suspect that Holly Hilgenberg would agree with her. I've been thinking an awful lot lately about the recent article she wrote for Bitch magazine, entitled "Better homes and bloggers" (As well, of course, as all the comments). And a lot of those thoughts have been, I have to admit, kinda bitchy.

Disclaimer: Not everything I say here refers to Holly's article. This is a response to many, many articles and discussions of the same kind, many of which were much less balanced than hers. This one just happened to be around when I finally snapped.*

The thing is, I have a bit of a problem with criticism. And while Hilgenberg's article is directed at "lifestyle blogs", not "art blogs with occasional road signs and plants that look like illegal drugs", my problem with criticism is more all-encompassing than that.  What I mean is that I don't dislike only criticism directed at me, but any criticism. I get all antsy and defensive, like Leave Britney Alone Guy, of people I don't know, of people I don't even like.

OK, let me qualify that. Please, go ahead and criticise governments, court decisions, laws, politicians. Oh, right, politicians. They illustrate my point beautifully. Here it is: Criticise Julius Malema for his blatant opportunism and lack of any principles or sense of loyalty. For crying out loud stop going on about that woodwork thing. All that proves is that he's no Jesus, and we already knew that.  And criticise Sarah Palin for being so bloody Republican, but please leave her dress sense, family and face alone. See what I mean?** That's it, it's personal criticism that I hate. And talking about Sarah Palin's face, why is it always women we attack more often, and more personally? And by we, I mean other women. Liberal women. (Wasn't liberalism once meant to involve tolerance?) Feminist women.

That's the basic point of Hilgenberg's article: that women who write sweet, whimsical lifestyle blogs are anti-feminist. Why? Because they portray "pictures of perfection" - an old-timey, rustic type of "perfection" - that other women compare themselves to and, inevitably, come up short. Her argument, or the parts of it I took in through my defensiveness-glasses, boils down to two main points:
- Bloggers present idealised and edited versions of their lives. This makes other women feel bad about themselves.
- These bloggers are too rich, white, straight and middle-class, and they spend too much time doing crafty things at home and too little making money in offices. This promotes patriarchy as well as racism, sexism, homophobia and... classism, I suppose?

I'll come back to the first point later, but the second point is the one that bugs me, because while I agree with it on a societal level (it would be wonderful to see more blogs from people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and blogs that showcase a variety of lifestyles), it becomes problematic on an individual level. What is Jo, or Elsie or Abbey or Anja, to do about it? I once saw an astonishingly honest reply by a black (female) writer to a white (female) writer who had asked her what she, personally, could do about the fact that her voice (white, female) was overrepresented. Stop writing, said the black writer, and instead work to support writers of colour. Harsh, hurtful, honest as hell, it was her opinion and she had the courage to state it.

However, hardly any of the writers of this sort of article would be able to say the same thing, because it would make them massively hypocritical, since mostly (in line with the whole overrepresentation thing they're critiquing) they themselves are as white (straight, cis, etc) as the women they're criticising. Pointing fingers at other white (etc) women is their way of atoning for their own whiteness (etc); allowing their own voices to be valid while calling for other white (etc) voices to be silenced.

Because that's really what you're doing, when you say to anyone, however privileged and sugary, "There are too many of you, there should be fewer of you": You should either change, shut up or go away. Some things we can change - I'll get back to the charge of apparent perfection. But some we can't: I could sit in the sun every day and I wouldn't become any less white - I'd just die of skin cancer. (OK, this is where the criticism really hits home.) And that's where my mind goes when someone says there are too many of me: They want me to die. Silly, of course. Overdramatic, of course.

No one really wants me to go away, or even keep quiet for ever; they just want me to go around all day meditating on my sins privileges. But would the world really be made that much better if Jane Aldridge and Ree Drummond swapped their "lifestyle" blogging for feminist critiques of everything? Surely it's better for people to write about what they know, what they like, what they do best? Surely if someone is as incredibly privileged (and I mean that strictly descriptively, not perjoratively) as these women, it's good for them to turn that into a bit of entertainment, a bit of pleasure, for others? I'll be honest: I really enjoy reading these blogs. And I think there are other people who do too. I like looking at pretty pictures, and I don't think there can ever be too many "Instagram shots of early-morning trips to the flower market".

Ah, I think I see it! The weird subconscious reason why this particular article bothers me. It's the "Instagram", the "quirky", the "authentic", the "sewing machine tattoos" and most of all the article's illustration - she's invoking the bogey of the hipster! In almost exactly the same way as white women criticise white women for being white women, hipsters criticise hipsters for being hipsters. And the word gets ever closer to being meaningless. (I'll save that rant for another time!)

All right. Let's get back to the original point: the "pictures of perfection". Now, I don't personally have any problem with people who want to showcase only the pretty parts of their lives. I don't feel inferior when I read those blogs, and I don't resent their good fortune - mine is good enough, and we all know that no one can be untouched by tragedy; some people just choose not to blog about it. In fact it's comforting to me, when stuff isn't all that great, to retreat into the candy-floss world of bloggers who don't write about the bad things. But it seems that some people don't feel that way. They want "real", they want vicarious tragedy, they want angst. Do they really want all that with their daily dose of whimsical outfit posts? Oh well. It's easy for me: there's no way I'm going to post about my own personal issues because I'm not the only person in my life, because the innocent need to be protected. But maybe I'll have a rant now and again. Just to keep it real.

* Snooping around doing "research" for this post, I found Holly's own blogs. She has lots of serious stuff, but also clothes. And her writing is really good. And the subheader of one of her blogs is:
" independent. vintage. resale. thrifted. fashion writing ". One of us! One of us! "Hipsters", I mean. And whimsical she-bloggers.

** The exception is Hitler. You're allowed to do anything to Hitler's face and I won't bat an eyelid.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A white impala in the Kruger Park

Well, there we all are on our way to this year's dig, travelling up from Croc Bridge towards Lower Sabie, when we see some cars stopped up ahead.

Now sometimes of course you are the first to spot some amazing creature, or it steps out into the road with no one else around, just you and him. But for the most part, the first sign that you're going to see something exciting isn't a footprint or a sound, it's a traffic jam. You see cars stopped, your heart starts beating faster, you make haste slowly and as quietly as possible to where everyone's looking at... something. Then you try to decipher their body language. From which window are the camera lenses and binoculars pointing? Close to the road or hunkered down in the grass way off in the distance? Sometimes you wonder how the first person to stop ever figured out how that darker bit of bush, that flick of an ear, was in fact part of an animal. And most importantly, what is it?

There's a definite hierarchy. Massive philosophical divide between those who stop for birds and those who get annoyed at them. You won't get a traffic jam for any of the more common herbivores: impala, warthog, wildebeest, zebra, kudu. Impala are the default setting, so common they don't count when you're taking bets on what you're going to see first. They're so beautiful though, when you really look at them. The most elegant antelope. You stop if they're right in the road, a nice photo op, or if you're Communing with Nature and Appreciating the Ordinary. Some old Kruger hands who think they're too cool won't even slow down. Giraffes, maybe a few cars if they're nice and close. Likewise for buffalo, simply because they're Big 5. Hippo. They're not so common, but they look it because you always see them in water.  Traffic jams form for elephants, if only out of necessity. Rhino, definitely, because they're so rare. And they're a cause at the moment, a war.

And then the apex, the predators. Lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs. Everyone wants to see a predator. When we stop to see what the cars are looking at, I'm disappointed when I see the herd of impala calmly grazing all over the place, on both sides of the road, because that means it, the thing they're all looking at, can't be a predator. And that means it's got to be something less exciting, because what's better than a predator, right?

We stop behind the last car in line and slowly edge forward. Everyone in the minibus is craning their necks and peering between blades of grass to try and figure out what everyone else is looking at. And then I see it, something that looks a little different, right in the middle of the herd of impala. It is not a normal impala colour.

bushes with a pale blur

It resolves into something like the picture in the last post. "Um," I say. "Um. I think it's -" I didn't want to sound stupid, but I was pretty certain of what I had just seen. "A white. Impala." I can't tell you for sure if anyone went "Nah, can't be" or if that was just what I was expecting them to say, but then we moved forward a little more and-

white impala Kruger park

It is a white impala - and it's a young male. That makes him the African equivalent of that legendary creature, the white stag. Technically a boy impala is called a ram, as it's an antelope rather than a deer. (Deer have branched antlers and lose them every year, while antelope have unbranched, permanent horns. There are no native deer around here.)

white impala Kruger park

He also seems to be a true albino, with no pigment at all. His eyes are pink. There has been another white impala reported in the park, a female with black eyes.

white impala Kruger park

Here he is with a normal-coloured female.

white impala Kruger park

And here he is pretending to be a unicorn. I swear that was what it felt like. Like we'd spotted a freaking unicorn. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A legendary beast

I still don't quite believe this.


Here's a hint: What do thousands upon thousands of drunk students have in common with a couple of saints, Arthurian legend, Narnia, Harry Potter and... me!?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A new subspecies. Science!

Phytotaxa just published an article with one of my illustrations in it. It's a new subspecies, Euphorbia melanohydrata subsp. conica. This is the most complicated pen-and-ink drawing I have ever done - most of the time you can get away with just doing a little branch of the plant, but with this one I felt I just had to draw the entire thing, because it is absolutely surreal - like a baby Martian Christmas tree. The article is open access, so you can read the whole thing here.

All those tiny fractal branches and subbranches and live branches and dead branches and flowering branches were so much fun to do. As were the roots. And trying to describe the shape of the plant itself using only branchlet shapes for shading.

A bit of a closeup.

Did you know you can get your latest new-species news on Twitter? I'm not really a Twitter person, but this does strike me as slightly absurd in the best sort of way, so I'm all for it. Here's the Tweet that introduced the world to baby Martian Christmas trees.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

With a little help...

I've been having a little bit of a hairy time lately, but I think things are starting to look up, and I've been coping pretty well - with a bit of help from some small friends. Here's a hint -

Friday, May 11, 2012

My plant tree

My biggest project right now (nearly finished!) is another textbook/notes sorta thing, a lot more technical than the first one. I now know more than I ever thought I would want to about the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain, and I've spent hours and hours drawing tiny little cells undergoing meiosis and mitosis. On the good side, I can feel my brain expanding. On the bad side, the results aren't really what you'd call decorative.

One exception is the picture I'm showing you here. It's an illustration of "subdivision of kingdom Plantae" (that was my brief, the rest was entirely up to me. Told you my brain was expanding.) I could have just done a tree diagram with the names of the various divisions, but then I thought "tree diagram, har har" and made an actual tree diagram, with examples of plants from every division growing out of it. I'm hoping it will help the students to envision the relationships between the plants better than a plain wordy diagram would have done.

The copyright for this diagram is going to be transferred to the Tshwane University of Technology.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ink landscapes

And here's what I've been up to. At least, a bit of what I've been up to.

These are going to be decorative fillers for a book on, I think, the flora of the Highveld.

They were originally just going to be simple little doodles.

I guess you could say they grew on me.

The second-last one is my favourite; I'm rather proud of the water reflection.

Now I have to go and draw some more.

P.S. What's worse than breathing in an unidentified insect?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Go and read this blog.

As you can see, I haven't been around lately because I've been doing nothing but drawing like a crazy drawing person. This has happened because I put things off a lot due to personal issues, and now I have to do it all at once. So when I resurface I'll have a lot to show you, but I don't really know when that will be. In the meantime, go and read this blog. It ends in 2010, but there's a lot of archive to get through. This girl writes like a freaking legend.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tiny, delicate, gold.

Hmm, I think I need to start with an explanation about how I read other people's blogs. I love reading blogs, read them constantly, but I don't - can't - do the Google reader, feed, catch up with "my" blogs every day kind of thing. Too much clicking, too few words. Reading is like oxygen, I need large amounts. Instead I like to read them all in one go. I'll find one that catches my eye, and follow it back and back until I lose interest or run out of posts. Then I'll start reading a new one, and try to forget about the old one for long enough for a good number of posts to build up before I check on it again.

That's how I came across this post, from October last year, by a super cool Australian called Hannah-Rose Yee. (What is it with these Australians and fashion, all the Country Road clothes in Woollies are calling my name. I hear them at night.... Wait, what was I talking about?)

Anyway, although the phrases "Olsen twin" and "fashion icon" do not belong in adjacent areas of my brain, Hannah-Rose's genius is such that as I read the post I found myself remembering certain things - like how much fun it was aged 12 or so to run around with my best friend in matching anklets, also, that I have a pair of jeans that exact length hiding in my wardrobe that haven't had nearly enough wear lately, and lastly, that in my jewellery box lurk at least three thin gold chains dating back to the time when thin gold chains were the thing to give to a little girl of a certain age, only I never wore them because I was running around in purple leather anklets instead. That, in other words, a pair of delicate gold anklets had become suddenly, inexplicably, desirable - and, unlike those Country Road clothes, well within my reach.

It seriously took me less than half an hour to turn one of my old chains into these. Most of that time was spent picking out the beads - I wanted them to be similar but not identical, and a sort of gold-ish neutral so that the whole thing would be a bit understated. By the time they were done I was having way too much fun to stop there, so naturally my next thought was "so how will they look if I wear them as a necklace?"

The answer was "pretty good, although the second clasp in the front looks just a little superfluous." Superfluous, huh? My inner voice thinks it's all educated and stuff today. So I made it non-redundant - take that, inner voice! - by adding a brass star charm (stolen from my charm bracelet) on an extra bit of chain (hey, I'd already cannibalised the findings from the second chain, it wasn't about to miss a few more links).

Then I realised that the extra length of chain would be just enough to let me wear it as a bracelet as well. It took me a while to figure out how to loop it through, but it worked. So here I am, feeling all smug and thrifty, with the ultimate Transformer piece of jewellery (It's a bracelet! Now it's a necklace! Now it's two anklets! I feel like I should be selling it on some over-excitable home-shopping show). I'll probably end up wearing it as a necklace most of the time, as I'm a necklace person through and through.

I found it the tiniest bit intimidating to try and hack fine jewellery like this - that pesky inner voice was all like "I can't do this, it's proper jewellery", but it's actually the easiest thing in the world to do. You just have to note that although the links in these fine chains can't be opened and closed, all the slightly larger ones used to attach the findings (clasps and so on) can be. So you have to cut the small links, maybe you lose one or two; but for the rest it's just opening and closing jump rings like anything you can buy in the craft shop.

So, what's hiding in your jewellery box?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chrissiesmeer photos, part two

The one evening we went frogging. Frogging - it's like blogging, but with more frogs.

That was awesome. There's not much I like better than running around in a swamp chasing small animals. Kind of like all the best parts of my childhood.

Also, cows:

And this gorgeous crablet I found climbing through a ditch in search of these:

(We were both in the ditch. I think I was the only one interested in the pineapple flowers, though.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I started this painting almost exactly a year ago, stomping around in the rain with my mother at the bird sanctuary looking for guineafowl to photograph. My mother's a bird whisperer, or possibly a magician, as after a completely unsuccessful morning we were walking back to the car when she decided to call one (not any sort of proper bird call, just, you know, "come along, guineafowl") and lo and behold, one appeared out of nowhere, came right up to where she was throwing imaginary food at it, and posed for pictures. He was the model for the left and middle birds, while the one on the right is based on a stuffed one from a museum!

I apologise for the bad photo quality - I have a dreadful habit of finishing things at the last possible moment, making it impossible to get proper scans done.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Chrissiesmeer photos, part one

Even if you live in these parts, I think, it's quite likely that you've never heard of Chrissiesmeer. Here's how to find it. Grab a map, and look just left of Swaziland. If you're on Google maps you'll start zooming in and there will suddenly appear, or coalesce, a scattering of lakes like a little blue rash - or perhaps, more poetically, like the Pleiades. West of Mbabane, north-east of Ermelo, south-east of Carolina.

It's very... countryside. Most of the time if you head off into the wild blue yonder, you're going to the bush, but this could never in a hundred years be called bush. It's grassland, wetland, pine plantations, farms. Countryside.

Rode on those horses around that lake at what felt to me like a flat-out gallop, although it was probably only a brisk canter. There were seven horses and although only four had riders, the others kept up with us anyway so it felt exhilaratingly like riding with a herd of wild horses, thundering through the long grass and reeds at the water's edge.

In the foresty area we saw a few shy duiker and a pair of new-to-me buck which I think were possibly reedbuck. It's such a treat to see an animal you've never seen before! All of them were too quick for my camera, sadly. But Chrissiesmeer is mainly about flowers and frogs. Oh, the flowers!

Why, yes, that is a couple of the fattest, healthiest Agapanthus inapertus you have ever seen, with a Eulophia leontoglossa orchid (yellow) and Brunsvigia natalensis in the background just for good measure.

And yes, that is a frackin' great field of the same agapanthus. What is this I don't even.

More botanical madness to come, but I'll leave you with this picture of the sweet pups belonging to the guest farm where we stayed (I highly recommend it). The border collie is my favourite, as he has heterochromia and can keep up with a herd of wild horses, but the pointer reminds me of Nosy in this book so I adore him (her?) too.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Playing with grass, textures, and some very, very mixed media

How mixed? I don't hear you ask. But I'll answer anyway. I started with paper. Then I added: Pencil; water-soluble ink; non-water-soluble ink; watercolours; oil paints; shiny metallic oil paints; turpentine; water; digital editing. This is pretty much my ideal process - I will always try to cram more media into any given picture. The incompatible media result in some very interesting textures and bold colour combinations without muddiness.

The drawing is awful, though. It started out as a longish rectangular picture, but the right hand side was just so bad that I cut it off. There is still some horrendousness around the horizon line on the right hand edge, but I couldn't get rid of that and still have a picture.

I'll just pass it off as a cautionary tale. Listen here, children: having two lines (here, the grass and the mountain) arbitrarily touch instead of either crossing or having a gap in between them is just as bad as, in fiction, having an arbitrary coincidence with neither plot significance nor relevance to the theme. If your writing is all about the randomness of life, for instance, you might have a pass, and likewise under some conditions it would be okay to break this line rule.

Of course, both incontrovertibly happen the whole time in real life, but are still unacceptable in art. Reality is unrealistic. Seriously though, we do it all the time without noticing, and it's one of those things that can make an otherwise fine picture look unaccountably icky. (Until you notice it, of course, then it looks accountably icky.) Oh no, now everyone who reads this will only look at the mistake. And don't even ask me what that pink thing in the sky is. It's art, OK?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I'm still here

Well, last night I found out that I have at least one friend who reads this blog to check that I'm still alive - which has made my recent lack of posts somewhat unsettling for her. (Hi Bonnie! I don't know what I'd do without you :))

So. I'm not dead, I just don't have a life at the moment (a small distinction, but a crucial one). I'm going to try and post more often. And in the meantime, just to show you guys that I care - here. Have a picture of some plant insides.