Sketching The Birds At Belhaven Bay

Since the start of 2022 I have been going down to Belhaven Bay regularly to sketch the birds in a coastal landscape for my next body of work.

View of Bass Rock at Belhaven Bay

I love walking down to the coast from the house. The adventure starts as soon as I set foot outside. Once I head out of the estate I pause to take in the view of Bass Rock and the sea, which disappears from view as soon as I walk on.

I wander along “pot-hole lane” that hugs a farmer’s field as it snakes up and down and then under a railway bridge.

Past the Belhaven Hospital and community garden, I continue on a quiet road that is always brimming with birdsong. A brewery sits behind a red stone wall, a colour that seems to be embedded everywhere in the town, the soil and the cliffs.

At the end I go straight across at a crossroad and I spot the bay between the trees. Already I feel uplifted and like a child, excited and full of anticipation about watching and sketching the birds.

Drawing Gulls

When I get there, I walk along part of the John Muir Way to a bench that overlooks the bay and tidal estuary. Here I can see the birds and the landscape from a slightly elevated position. It gives me a sense of space, something that is important in my work. I then make sketches and drawings that inform the next stage of my process; for example, colour studies done in my studio.

I sit, listen and breathe it all in, watching the birds, the weather, the landscape. I make marks on the paper using a soft pencil, anywhere from 2B to 8B; sometimes I use something more fluid like ink.

The gulls – herring, black-headed and one or two lesser black-backed gulls – seem to position themselves facing west, often bracing in the wind. Occasionally, when the tide is low, a dog speeds across the sand and the gulls take flight. What were white specks in the distance, are now wings and shapes swirling and circling in the sky coming towards me, trying to find a safe spot to land and resume preening or standing still in the wind.

I have noticed the times I’ve been going how much sunshine there has been, considering it’s winter. It has been dry, too. The wind is often around, stirring up my paper, flapping the edges even though I’ve clipped them together. It’s part of the experience, being in that moment when I am drawing, so I let it happen. In that way the wind becomes part of my drawing. I make some notes about the time of day, the weather conditions, what birds are around, and where the tide is.

Usually I bring a flask with tea and a snack with me, and without fail I find I need them. After an hour I pack up, the cold having gone into my bones and I walk home the same way I came, warming up again as I move my limbs.

Gulls Taking Flight

Most of the time it is easy to get out. It’s an essential part of my work so I know its value and also how wonderful it feels.

Here and there are days that aren’t so easy for whatever reason. It reminds me of when I used to run regularly. How often I had to encourage myself to put my running gear on, lace up my trainers and go out the door.

I used to say I would “force” myself, but these days I find that word too harsh and opt for “encourage” instead. Especially reminding myself how I will feel afterwards…I find I am more likely to be enticed by the carrot than the stick.

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