Blog

Be an explorer

Before I could draw this Kidney Vetch, I had to first be an explorer.

What is an explorer? One definition states it is “a person who explores a new or unfamiliar area”.

Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing new or unfamiliar left in the world. Humankind’s footprint is all over it, and it can feel like there’s nothing that hasn’t already been written about, filmed, photographed etc. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still get a thrill out of being explorers.

This week I’ve been enjoying watching SpringWatch on TV. Every year the programme finds new ways of showing us what is all around us in a way that makes it seem like they’ve literally just discovered it. Yesterday we were treated to live footage of a bird called the Nightjar. Chris Packham was practically exploding with excitement, much the way I’d imagine the explorers of the Galapagos islands did when they discovered new species.

Except, the Night Jar isn’t a new species. Sure, it is rather secretive, due to its nocturnal habits, and its plumage helps it blend into the background, but it isn’t new. So why the excitement?

There’s a kind of excitement that comes of seeing something old from a new perspective. It literally feels like you have just made a discovery. For a brief moment you feel like an explorer.

I was recently asked to create a poster for a biodiversity project and was handed a list of names of native Irish plants and bumblebees to study. When I started to research the plants, I soon realised that the images found online were not quite as useful as I’d thought they’d be. Sometimes it was difficult to tell the actual scale of one flower next to another, and in particular, next to each species of bumblebee (which also come in different sizes!). The intricacies of the petal formations were also difficult to decipher from most photographs available online. So I went to the library and took out some books. This helped me work out what season each flower could expect to be found in bloom, and offered a few more details about habitat, size etc. But I felt I needed more. So I put my explorer hat on and went out into the field. One by one I found what I was looking for, sometimes after days of hunting, and other times when I was least expecting to stumble across them. Native Irish wildflowers like Kidney Vetch, Common Knapweed, Birdsfoot Trefoil, and bees such as the Common Carder Bee, the buff-tailed bumblebee and more were all out there, hidden in plain sight.

I hadn’t discovered any new species. But at each “discovery” of these unusual plants I got that buzz of excitement of an explorer. If I hadn’t needed to draw these flowers and bees in such detail, I wouldn’t have needed to go looking for them and I would have missed out on that feeling altogether. I literally would not have known what I was missing.

The completed Bee Map

The importance of drawing in children’s literacy

Some of my daughter’s early drawings.


“Long before our children learn about the alphabet and begin to write, drawing plays an important part in their literacy.” (firstfiveyears.org – Early learning)

According to Dr Noella Mackenzie, Associate Professor in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, we need to give children’s drawing ability the same kind of recognition that we give to their babble. When a child starts trying to utter words, we instinctively know as adults that we need to encourage and praise this, to help nurture their oral communication skills. But do we realise the importance of another, often overlooked early mode of communication… to draw?

“We need teachers to understand that drawing is an important mode of communication or text creation. It’s not just a precursor to writing real words, it’s a mode in its own right.” says Dr. Mackenzie.

According to Dr. Mackenzie, when drawing is encouraged, children can create sophisticated visual texts, which in turn enables them to instinctively start to add labels and words.

“How do we encourage them? We encourage it by valuing it. It saddens me to think that many children come to school drawing and talking but then we focus so much on the written word that the talking and drawing take second place.”

Once you start thinking about what Dr. Mackenzie is saying, you can’t help but see the difference in value we place on our children’s developmental stages. So many of us, without even realising we are doing it, place a higher value on children’s first steps, first word, the alphabet etc, but their drawing skills are seen as a kind of “nice to have but not that important really”.

Recognise the importance of the foundations of communication that children already possess and you will teach them that writing is simply an extension of these existing forms rather than a replacement.

Feed your stationery addiction

Test ride with my new Koh-i-noor pencils bought on a visit to Prague.

A part of me has always wanted to be a minimalist. But another, louder, harder-to-ignore part of me just wants to buy more stuff… particularly art materials.

Getting into sketching gives you the perfect excuse to shop without seeming too be wasting money… its an “investment” in your art…

We call it a stationery addiction for a reason. It really is addictive, and can get out of hand. But who doesn’t have fond memories of opening a brand new set of crayons or felt-tip pens when they were a kid?

Create an illusion

The painted ceiling of the Grandmaster’s palace in Valletta

Some things are set in stone and cannot be altered. But some might argue that everything is alterable, all it takes is a bit of imagination. Whichever way you see it, drawing can unlock new possibilities when dealing with home decor! You might not want to go as far as Nicolau Nasoni did in 1724, when he created this illusion of elaborate cornices and towers on the ceiling of the Grandmaster’s palace, but being able to draw can help create illusions of more space or make an awkward layout in your home more pleasing to the eye.

When you change the position of the furniture in your house you are in effect “drawing” the space with your mind and creating the illusion of a brighter/more spacious/cosier (delete as appropriate) room. That’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it. Its not procrastination. Honest.

Draw to soak up

Valletta in the winter

What better way to soak up the pleasure of a long awaited trip than to use some of those lazy days sketching your surroundings?

I hadn’t been back to my home country in just over 2 years when I drew this. The balconies and narrow streets of Valletta on a rainy day aren’t new to me, but that day I wanted to really appreciate its beauty all over again. So I sat down and drew every little detail of the architecture around me, to soak it all up like a sponge.

Play with patterns

A drawing from a photo I gifted to my dad

Patterns are such fun to draw! I’m sure you’ve seen the beautiful selection of “grown-up” colouring books on the shelves these days, boasting pages upon pages of intricate patterns for people of any skill-level to colour-in. I think they are a brilliant way to de-stress AND to experiment with colour combinations.

When I found an old photo of my dad in our old flat around the time of my birth, (I am aware that I’m giving away my age here! – nothing screams 1970s more than that rug and those sofas!) I immediately knew I wanted to get the coloured pencils out and go wild with those dots and swirls!

Drawing to inspire

Sketching the view in Gozo

The pencils scattered on the table belong to Fin, a budding wildlife specialist whose attention to detail is very impressive. I’m not sure what he thought of my rendition of the scene in front of us, but he wanted to draw at that precise moment, and so did I, so we set about our impromptu sketching session.

Finn is 5 years old. At that age, I think we watch other people very closely. When someone watches me draw, I hope it inspires them to draw too. Finn is already very keen to draw, so he doesn’t need any help from me, but I enjoyed working alongside him that day. I may have been hoping to inspire him in some way, but it works both ways: he inspired me so much with his own drawings, which I will post here with his permission.

Drawing to pass the time

It seems to me that no matter how organised we are with our time, life involves periods of intense business and periods of just plain waiting around for things. I can’t remember what I was waiting for when I drew this picture of my dog. But it was time well spent anyway.

Fund raise for a good cause

You don’t have to climb a mountain, run a marathon or pour freezing cold buckets of ice on your head to raise money for a charity you care about. Sometimes you can fund-raise from the comfort of your own home. I designed and illustrated these cards for Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland to raise funds for their wildlife hospital.

You can help someone see what you see

This is a scene from the village I grew up in. Its on the south coast of Malta.

When something means a lot to you, you tend to want other people to see the beauty in it too.

I have taken many photos of this village, but I think that when I drew this sketch I was picking out the parts that really mattered to me and pouring my love into the process of trying to render them faithfully on the page.

You will see for yourself if you look closely. Pictures are like that. They are as much about the process of making them as they are about the time spent looking at them.

Drawing can help with understanding nature

Flowers are a good example, but the above statement can be applied to any part of nature.

Just being close to living things helps us feel connected and more grounded. Plants, trees, water, grass, leaves, wildlife; whatever it is, I think being really close to other living things helps us understand nature in a way that is far more beneficial to our health than learning about them from books or through screens.

That’s not to say studying nature through other mediums to gain more knowledge about them isn’t useful. I love reading books and visiting websites about how trees communicate, how plants grow, how animals survive. But when I’m out there looking hard at the real thing, being in the same space which that living thing occupies, breathing the same air it breaths, and really studying its every detail to try to capture its beauty on a page, I feel I am getting to know it in a way I never would if I had just looked at it through someone else’s eyes.

The act of drawing the lillies above or the daffodils below, observing, (slowly, since drawing takes time) their every detail, the fragility of their petals, helped me to understand them so much better.