Friday 25 April 2014

Museum Sketching

“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self. But the point is not only to get out - you must stay out, and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.”  Henry James

Sketching at the Natural History Museum
There is a thrill of excitement when you pack up your art materials to head outside to paint. In fact, I would rank it as one of my favourite things to do. So much so, that I always keep a field kit packed and ready.

My little field kit is actually a makeup bag. I searched long and hard for the perfect carrier and found this. It’s brilliant. There is a space for pencils and pens, a brush holder, and a detachable bag which holds my ancient little watercolour set, kitchen roll, clip (perfect for holding the pages of a sketchbook together on windy days) and set square (handy for plant measurements). It can also hold a small sketchbook if need be. If I want to go light, I simply detach the bag and use a few watercolour pencils instead with a waterbrush.

Three sizes of waterbrushes, essential for a field kit
This week I needed to go back to the Natural History Museum to have a closer look at owl’s feet, so out came my trusty little field kit. I also brought~ 
  • a fold-up palette with the earth colours that I have been using
  • some colour charts (just in case)
  • my camera and spare batteries
  • earphones to help you 'zone out' if it gets too noisy
  • a snack - there's nothing worse than sitting there with your tummy rumbling!

It’s always worth asking at the desk if you can borrow a chair. They are usually very obliging. However it’s worth also bringing a jacket or scarf to sit on, as a few hours on a cold floor can be quite uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to stand to sketch, but hey, life’s not perfect!

It’s better to go early in the day as generally museums are quieter first thing. The schools here are on holiday at the moment, so the museum didn’t really fill up until after 12. I find that people are  quite respectful and keep a polite distance, but it’s human nature to be curious, so you always attract a few watchers, especially children. When I went out and about in Egypt, I would always bring spare pencils and paper with me… kids just love to join in! This time I was joined by two lovely little girls who had their own sketchbooks and we all sat in comfortable silence drawing owls, much to the amusement of their mother.

I’m really glad that I went back in to study the feet as I noticed things that I would never have understood from a photograph. Some owls have quite hairy feet, but not the barn owl. Some owls have two toes in the front and two behind, however barn owl has three in the front and the hallux (hind claw), which is slightly higher than the others, a bit like a thumb. It’s well worth taking time to look at the real thing, especially one that is not likely to fly away!

Long eared owl, Asio otus
 I did another quick study of another beautiful owl, the long eared owl, before I left. It really is such a satisfying way to spend a morning.

An earlier study of a Kestrel, also done at the Natural History Museum

Back home, I managed to finish off my Barn Owl, Tyto alba. Sadly Barn Owls aren’t doing very well here in Ireland. Their population numbers have declined by over 50% in the past 25 years and they are now a Red-listed Bird of Conservation Concern In Ireland. European numbers are also declining. Some of the reasons for this are loss of habitat and road traffic accidents, but a huge percentage of deaths are directly due to rodent poisoning. It’s such a pity, especially when you consider that a pair of owls could kill up to 3000 mice a year. 
Owls are a far more effective, cost-efficient and environmentally- friendly  way of dealing with rodent infestations of crops than poison.

Dark breasted Barn Owl,  Tyto alba guttata  (Brehm)

So how you can help?  
Birdwatch Ireland is doing ongoing Research into Barn owls, taking notes of their numbers and investigating any deaths. So if you see a Barn Owl, alive or dead, it should be reported here.

It really would be a tragedy if we lost the Barn Owl from our land.


  1. Shevaun, I love your field kit--I'll look at make up bags with a different eye now! And what a great idea to bring along extra paper and pencils for children. My favorite thing when sketching in public is when children come up and watch or ask questions. Maybe they are budding artists! Your barn owl painting is gorgeous, and I love the long-eared owl and kestrel sketches too. I like how you concentrated on the eyes in both, then left the rest loose. Very effective!

    1. I love when kids join in. I think I would have been thrilled to have sat beside an artist and painted when I was 7 or 8. When my daughters were younger they would always come and sketch in museums with me... and they were much faster than me and more expressive too! Make up bags are really very suitable, and a lot cheaper than conventional art supplies. It's a pity we don't live closer Janene!

  2. OOH, I love your field kit. And to be able to go to the Natural History Museum . . . well . . . what can I say?
    I am about to submit a kid's book to a Canadian publisher that tells the story of an owl in an old Victorian bell jar. It also instructs the reader in the common ways owls are killed. Fingers crossed . . .

    1. The very best of luck with that, Candice... is any of it on your blog? My fingers are crossed for you! Dublin's so small that it only takes half an hour to drive to the museum (I live on the outskirts) and there's parking outside... so no excuse not to visit! Thanks :)

  3. I thought that looked like a make up bag! Sometimes I look at the makeup brushes in shops and wonder what they'd be like to paint with. I've seen a barn owl twice while I've been walking Ramsay. It was so quiet he didn't even notice it flying right next to him. Your beautiful sketches do justice to such beautiful creatures.

    1. It does the job very nicely though, and was cheaper and more practical than normal pencil cases! You should try out those make up brushes, Lorraine. They are probably better than we realise! How lucky you are to have seen a barn owl! Have you worked out where he might live? I have a lot more respect for them now having painted them closely and hearing how their population levels are dwindling. That's really sad.

  4. Shevaun, I think I fall in love with your field kit! I even browsed and plan to have a similar one for me :p although I am not sure when I can use it. I referred this useful post to someone asking about field kit (I hope you don't mind), your posts are always a handy reference.

    I love your barn owl!! ..and important facts you wrote about it. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Eunike, that's wonderful! I'm so pleased! Does this mean that we will soon see more of your beautiful artwork? As your daughter gets older, you will have to make up a field kit for her too, so that she can join you. My daughters used to come along with me when they were young! Thank you so much for the nice comments!


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