Dino 101 and Ancient Marine Reptiles – University of Alberta

During the summer of 2020, I thought it would be fun to explore my interest in the natural history of our planet and its many mysteries, by enrolling in a few (three, to be exact) online courses. I have been interested in myths and legends like sea monsters and their symbolism in different cultures for a long time, as well as the scientific knowledge behind them.

After researching a few courses online, I signed up for Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology and Paleontology: Ancient Marine Reptiles at The University of Alberta, Canada, which is currently running a number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS).

Since their extinction, the fossilized remains of giant dinosaurs and ancient marine reptiles have taken on an almost mythical status and have understandably inspired generations.

I find it interesting how people interpret any new species using their imagination and pre-held associations; I am reminded of a woodcut that Albrecht Dürer produced based on someone’s description of an armoured rhinoceros:

Albrecht Dürer, Woodcut, The Rhinoceros

I found the University of Alberta’s courses were fascinating and well presented, with generous resources to present paleobiology in a dynamic new way. They were great foundations to practice and learn scientific critical thinking.

Here is a brief overview of the courses at the University of Alberta.

Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology

The world’s first paleobiology MOOC, Dino 101 is led by Dr. Phil Currie, Curator of Dinosaurs and Professor of Paleobiology at the University of Alberta, alongside former MSc student of Paleontology, Betsy Kruk. The course consists of twelve lessons covering the Mesozoic era (Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods). Learn more about non-avian dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, Spinosaurus, long-necked sauropods like Brachiosaurus, and predatory Therapods like Allosaurus, Velociraptors, and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Lessons are delivered from museums, fossil-preparation labs, and dig sites, highlighting the rich resources of Alberta. To aid their learning, students can build a skeleton during the course, and use a fossil viewer.

Topics include:

  1. Anatomy
  2. Eating
  3. Locomotion
  4. Growth
  5. Environmental and behavioural adaptations
  6. Origins and extinction.

Paleontology: Ancient Marine Reptiles

This is a four-lesson MOOC presented by Dr. Scott Persons, a former Ph.D. student of Evolution and Systematics at the University of Alberta. The course assesses the diversity, adaptations, convergence, and phylogenetic relationships of extinct marine reptiles, and the changes that occur when air-breathing terrestrial animals return to the water. The course makes many comparisons to extant (living) reptiles and animals, giving students a comprehensive introduction to animal biology.

Fun fact: Ancient marine reptiles are NOT dinosaurs!

The course focused on the following extinct marine reptiles and how they solved the aquatic problem such as movement, sight, and hearing:

  1. Ichthyosaurs: highly specialized carnivorous aquatic reptiles from early Triassic to mid-Cretaceous; similar in shape to a dolphin or bluefin tuna, they were among the fastest aquatic creatures to have ever lived.
  2. Sauropterygians: Covers diverse species from the late-Triassic to end-Cretaceous reptiles such as the Turtle shaped placodonts with crushing teeth, to the long-necked elasmosaurus and large-jawed pliosaurs.
  3. Mosasaurs: As featured in the film Jurassic World, this group was among the largest and most powerful marine predators to have ever lived. They ruled the seas in the Cretaceous period and are the ancestors of snakes and monitor lizards.

Thank you to the scientists who took the time to deliver the courses in such a fun and engaging way.

Thank you also to Dr. Phil Currie for suggesting I draw the pictured dinosaur skull of their most famous specimen, a small pachycephalosaurid named Stegoceras that was first discovered in Alberta. Its domed skull, horns, and teeth have been remarkably well preserved, I enjoyed capturing the various textures in pencil:

1958 Lister-Chevrolet ‘Knobbly’ car drawing at Goodwood Revival

An homage to Goodwood Revival 2020

Goodwood Revival is a unique three-day festival held annually in September that recreates the 1940s, 50s, and 60s era of motorsport, with vintage cars, aircraft, fashion, and music celebrating the circuit’s original period between 1948-1966. Held on the grounds of the Goodwood Estate in Chichester, West Sussex, UK, over 150,000 vintage enthusiasts are encouraged to dress in period clothes to help immerse themselves in a historic car race day.

My family and I had booked to attend the Goodwood Revival finals day on Sunday, 13th September 2020, however, due to efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the event has sadly been postponed until 2021. The Revival attracts such large crowds of spectators that enforced social distancing measures would have impaired the visitor’s enjoyment of the event.

Watch the greatest Revival races online from 11th-13th September 2020

Despite being unable to hold the event this year, the Goodwood team has searched the archive and selected the greatest races from the history of the Revival to stream online over 11-13th September 2020. Fans can still immerse themselves in the spirit of Goodwood Revival by tuning in from 10:00 am on the Goodwood Road and Racing website and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Goodwood SpeedWeek, 16th-18th October 2020

Goodwood is also taking the opportunity to preview Goodwood SpeedWeek presented by Mastercard. Held without spectators at Goodwood Motor Circuit, this inaugural event will combine the best aspects from the Revival, the Festival of Speed, and their Members’ Meetings to add to its exclusivity.

Annual Revival favourites such as the RAC TT Celebration for GT cars and the Grand Prix race for the Goodwood Trophy, as well as supercar debuts and new car reveals from the Festival of Speed. Cars will leave the circuit to use areas normally reserved for spectators or buildings. There will also be the first-ever set of rally stages on both tarmac and gravel within the Circuit, gathering cars that represent nearly half a century of the World Rally Championship.

The event will be streamed live through the Goodwood Road and Racing website and their social media channels on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Viewers and fans will be able to get involved by participating in competitions, virtual polls, quizzes, and race predictions.

Why I drew the 1958 Lister-Chevrolet ‘Knobbly’ from the Revival

I had already decided to draw several classic cars, supercars, and motorbikes over a few months in the summer, due to a client’s interest in a commission. It also happened to be the birthday of a family member and taking the Revival as inspiration, I drew the 1958 Lister-Chevrolet ‘Knobbly’ in pencil as a gift.

There were many beautiful classic cars at Goodwood Revival, but I chose to draw the 1958 Lister-Chevrolet ‘Knobbly’ as its aerodynamic design, sleek, elongated curves, side exhaust pipes, and unique appearance immediately appealed to me. It was also one of the historic cars racing that day. This particular model caught my eye just before it was due to race on the circuit. I changed the racing number to a 7 as I knew it was the favourite number of the person for whom I gifted the drawing. I thought that a pencil drawing would give a handcrafted and classic, vintage look, as opposed to an oil painting in colour.

1958 Lister-Chevrolet ‘Knobbly’ car at Goodwood Revival, pencil drawing by Charlotte Iggulden

I am naturally inclined towards vintage and classic cars, possibly because I have been raised in a family that has enjoyed, collected, and driven classic cars over the years. However, as a fine artist, I think that classic car designs have a sophisticated degree of individuality and are incredibly beautiful; their handcrafted look appears as a work of art. I will admit that classic cars are not necessarily the most practical, but they are beautiful to look at and the feeling you get when driving or being driven in one adds far more to the driving experience.

Closeup of the 1958 Lister-Chevrolet ‘Knobbly,’ pencil drawing by Charlotte Iggulden

Lister Motor Company

Founded by Brian Lister in 1951, Lister Motor Company is Britain’s oldest car racing manufacturer and was the country’s most successful sports racing car of the 1950s; it won almost every circuit in the UK and was virtually unbeaten overseas. It is now perhaps the most respected historic race car manufacturer in the world.

Lister Classics is a division of the Lister Motor Company and was founded by Father and son team, Andrew and Lawrence Whittaker, who purchased the company in 2013 to continue building, restoring, and selling a variety of historic racing cars and tuned Jaguar vehicles. You can follow Lister’s official social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Goodwood Revival Fashion

As a gloriously fun step back in time, Goodwood Revival celebrates not only the cars of the 40s-60s eras but also the fashion styles. For anyone who loves vintage fashion, Goodwood Revival is a wonderful event to immerse yourself in.

The Goodwood Revival website has various site pages dedicated to vintage fashion, with ladies and gentlemen style guides for the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. There are also a few websites that provide style guides for Goodwood Revival specifically, such as the House of Foxy which gives advice on the ’40s and ’50s clothes for women.

Here I am dressed in a vintage 1950s outfit at Goodwood Revival 2019

Goodwood Motorsport Events 2021

To find out more about attending the Goodwood Revival and Festival of Speed events in 2021, visit Goodwood’s website to sign up for ticket alerts.

Whale Sharks: Giants of the Ocean

I painted this close encounter of a scuba diver swimming with whale sharks (Rhincodon Typus) in the Philippines as part of a series of commissioned oil paintings in 2016.* 
 
I included a scuba diver to highlight the incredible size of the whale shark compared to a human, as well as its majestic presence. I wanted to suggest their meeting as a wondrous yet intimate moment in time between humanity and nature.
 
*See more in the section ‘Whale sharks and biodiversity in the Philippines.’

Elusive and mysterious

Adult whale sharks are often found at the surface, making them popular with snorkelers and divers. Despite their friendliness, these creatures remain enigmatic to scientists and conservationists; their maximum size, lifespan, and age of sexual maturity unconfirmed. Researchers are also unsure why they have spots.*
 
*See more on these topics in the following sections.

Ocean giants

Whale sharks (Rhincodon Typus) are the largest known extant fish species in the world. They are not whales, but their size is comparable. They dwarf great white sharks in size; the average size of a whale shark is around 32 feet, whereas great whites grow to around 20 feet. However, whale sharks are believed to grow over 40 feet (20 metres), similar to that of a bus. They can also weigh up to 20 tonnes. Whale sharks do not have any natural predators.

Habitat

Most sharks prefer temperate climates, except for Greenland sharks, which live in the Arctic and Northern Atlantic. Some whale sharks have been found in colder North Atlantic water near New York, but most are found in warm, tropical waters such as the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

According to this National Geographic video, titled ‘Investigating the Mysterious Whale Sharks of Mafia Island,’ whale sharks help support small ecosystems, as they are often found with schools of smaller fish alongside them, presumably hoping to catch small morsels or plankton when the shark feeds.

My painting shows a school of smaller fish following one of the whale sharks:

Interestingly, this phenomenon has inspired local fishermen living on Mafia Island, Tanzania, to work alongside whale sharks to catch the fish without harming the sharks.

Deep divers

Although often found at the surface, whale sharks can dive further than 1000 metres. In one study, based in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea, researchers used three types of satellite-transmitting tags to track the movements of 47 whale sharks.

Their findings were impressive:

  • The whale sharks made frequent deep dives to at least 500 metres (1,640 feet);
  • Three of the tagged sharks made excursions below 1,000 metres (3,281 feet);
  • The deepest dive they recorded was 1,360 metres (4,462 feet).

Distinctive and unique spot patterns

Whale sharks are the only species of the genus Rhincodon, part of the family Rhincodontidae. They are classified within the order Orectolobiformes, which contains seven families of sharks and includes the carpet sharks. Carpet sharks are given the name due to their mottled body patterns, evocative of carpet-like designs.
 
Whale sharks are easy to identify due to their size and distinctive pattern of white spots and stripes. The patterns are believed to be as unique to each individual as a fingerprint is to a human. However, the purpose of their spots is a mystery. Typically, patterns occur to aid camouflage; wobbegongs (a common name given to the 12 species of carpet sharks within the family, Orectolobidae), use the spots on their bodies as camouflage as they rest on the seafloor, and to help them blend in with the reef.
 
Intriguingly, it has been suggested that the spots on whale sharks help protect the sharks from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Feeding habits

Most sharks are carnivores, but some, like the whale shark, are filter-feeders. Inside the whale shark’s mouth are several hundred rows of small, hook-shaped teeth. Although it has a mouthful of teeth, the shark doesn’t use them to bite or chew food.
 
The whale shark is one of three species of filter-feeding sharks, namely the basking shark, and the more mysterious but aptly named megamouth shark. The whale shark actively swims through plankton, sieving these organisms through its gills; it has been observed ram filter-feeding and at times, nocturnally. Whale sharks are migratory animals who appear to move to areas in conjunction with fish and coral spawning.
 
Sharks within the order Orectolobiformes have eyes set far back behind a small mouth. Unlike most sharks, where the mouth is underneath the snout, the whale shark’s mouth is nearly at the tip of its nose.
 

Reproduction and longevity

The whale shark is usually solitary, however, it is sometimes found in schools of up to hundreds of individuals. These animals are found mainly in the open sea, but they sometimes come near the shore. Their age of sexual maturity and reproductive biology is unconfirmed, however, scientists presume that whale sharks are ovoviviparous, where the females incubate fertilized eggs inside her before they hatch,  giving birth to fully formed live young. You can read more about ovoviviparity, and how it differs to viviparity, here. Each litter contains about 16 young, but litters of many more are possible. In the mid-1990s a female whose uterus contained nearly 300 young was caught near Taiwan. Like the other mysteries surrounding whale sharks, they have never been observed giving birth, and it is not known where this may happen.

It is thought that whale sharks are born between 40-60cm, but there are few sightings of individuals below 3m, and no one has yet determined where they go before reaching this size. However, one whale shark measuring just 38cm was found in the Philippines in 2009, suggesting it was a birthing ground and not simply used for feeding.

The gigantic size of whale sharks suggests they can live up to 100 years.

Whale Sharks, biodiversity, and conservation in the Philippines

As mentioned, the commissioned painting featured in this blog is part of an ongoing series of paintings of the Philippines.

Aside from its abundant natural mineral resources including gold and nickel (the country has the second largest gold deposit in the world), the Philippines is a biodiversity hotspot and a popular place for whale sharks to congregate; it is an archipelago consisting of more than 7,000 islands and is the smallest of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world. The Philippines covers only 2/100 of the total land area of the earth, yet 20,000 species of plants and animals have been recorded here, half of which are found nowhere else in the world. Read more on its biodiversity here.

Donsol, in the Philippine province of Sorsogon, has been identified as a whale shark hotspot, hosting one of the largest aggregations of whale sharks on Earth. 491 individual whale sharks have been identified at Donsol, this equates to 44% of all whale sharks identified in the country. Other large aggregations include Ningaloo Reef in Australia, Mexico, and Mozambique.

15 years ago, WWF Philippines partnered with Donsol and other tourism stakeholders to develop the Community-based Whale Shark Ecotourism Program and establish guidelines for whale shark interactions. Scientists are responsible for researching and studying individual sharks in an attempt to conserve them.

 

Endangered species

There are over 440 species of sharks in the world. These awesome creatures have outlived the dinosaurs, but many are now sadly threatened with extinction.

Due to threats to their ecosystem, whale sharks have been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered since 2016. Like all sharks and large fish, whale sharks are vulnerable to bycatch (becoming caught in fishing nets).
 
It is estimated that 100 million sharks and rays each year are killed by humans. If not victims of bycatch, most are killed by commercial fishermen for their fins and flesh. They are also sometimes illegally hunted and eaten as a delicacy in certain parts of Asia.
 
Sadly, sharks are greatly misunderstood. For instance, the orca whale is the ocean’s top apex predator, not the great white shark. On average, one person dies each year in the US from a shark attack. Cows, bees, wasps, dogs, and snakes are responsible for far more deaths each year in the US than sharks.

Indeed, whale sharks have no natural predators apart from people.

We need to remember that the ocean is their territory, not ours. Predatory species such as the great white, bull shark, or tiger shark, only attack if they confuse a person for their prey, usually fish or seals. It is best to bear this in mind if we choose to swim in areas of the ocean where they are present.

All sharks are vital to a healthy ecosystem

All marine life is essential to a healthy ecosystem and that of the planet as a whole. Sharks are vital as they maintain the species below them and are indicators of ocean health. The apex predators feed on weak and sick animals and ensure biodiversity.

Coral reef ecosystems, seagrass beds, and commercial fisheries have all declined due to the loss of sharks. Without sharks, larger predatory fish, such as groupers, increase in abundance in the coral reefs and feed on the herbivores. As the herbivores decrease, macroalgae increase and expand, leading to the loss of coral and the detriment of the entire reef system.

Majestic and awe-inspiring, yet vulnerable

I recently completed a four-week online course with the University of Southampton on ‘Exploring Our Ocean.’ One of the tasks was to upload an image, title, and description, to represent what the ocean meant to me; I uploaded my painting of whale sharks and titled it, ‘Majestic and Awe-Inspiring, yet Vulnerable.’ The wonders of nature surround us. For it to continue to inspire us, we should try to protect it from threats and exploitation.

Shark Week

With Shark Week upon us (9-16 August 2020), I thought it apt to share my painting of whale sharks. Created by the Discovery Channel to raise shark awareness, the event has grown online, with over one million hashtags on Instagram alone.
 
The Natural History Museum and the American Museum of Natural History have a ‘Nature Drawing Club’ and have included ‘Shark Week,’ so I have tagged them in the image on Instagram to help raise awareness of the vulnerability of whale sharks and the need to protect them.

End Plastic Pollution – Earth Day, 22 April

‘The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for God founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.’ Psalm 24:1-2

Every 22nd of April, environmental revolutionists and conservationists worldwide gather in solidarity to help protect and restore the health of our natural environment.

Since it was officially recognised in 1970, one billion Earth Day supporters have petitioned world leaders, national governments and local legislations to combat the (often) human made issues that have afflicted our planet.

The event this year addresses a topic that is difficult to ignore: Plastic pollution. According to Earth Day Network, over 300 million tons of fossil fuel created plastic is sold each year and 90% is emptied in landfills or ends up as litter. Chemicals seep into the ocean and soil, severely damaging our environment, wildlife and our own health by contaminating the fish we eat or water we drink.

I chose to use my oil painting, ‘Night Waves,’ to illustrate Earth Day, as over 70% of the earth is made up of water, with 96% consisting of the ocean’s salt water and the rest of arctic ice, groundwater and fresh water. The oceans are similar to rainforests in their biodiversity, they also produce more than half of the world’s oxygen and absorb more than half of its carbon. It is a precious yet fragile natural resource.

Historically, there has not been much regard for the ocean as a place to protect, and waste disposal has been rife. Disturbing facts seem to get more and more prevalent in recent years in relation to this last frontier of exploration; it is estimated that 4.6 billion tons of plastic are poured into the ocean worldwide per annum, suffocating marine animals which cannot digest it and polluting the environment. According to the National Geographic, one garbage truckload of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Plastic is no longer the miracle storage packaging, as its very longevity makes it virtually indestructible and non biodegradable. It is estimated that it takes around 10,000 years for ordinary plastic bags to decompose. Did you know that 4.5 billion coffee cups so far have been found in the ocean and around 8.5 billion plastic straws are thrown away each year, finding their way into the seaIt is estimated that over 100,000 sea mammals die each year from eating plastic.

Who didn’t feel upset at the sight of this sperm whale in Spain, who had been found washed up on shore having suffocated after eating 5 tons of plastic, fishing nets and garbage bags? Or the now famous image of a seahorse clutching onto a cotton bud in Indonesian waters?

The filmmakers of Blue Planet II said there was rarely a moment when they dived and didn’t encounter plastic in the sea. Alarmingly, we may also have been ingesting it in the form of microplastics, tiny beads of plastic that are found in many cosmetic products and when washed away down the sink find themselves in the ocean and into the bodies of sea creatures which we may be ultimately eating. In a recent study, over 83% of tap water samples worldwide was found to be polluted with microplastics.

The race to produce renewable alternatives has begun. DowDuPont scientists are revolutionising plastic bottles by creating a molecular chain that derives from cane sugar rather than petrochemicals. This sweet alternative is sustainable and will never run out, as chemist Paul Fagan says, bio-plastics are like returning to our past, where everything was made from plants. Engineer Toby McCartney is also pioneering a way of using recycled plastic instead of oil as a bidding agent in asphalt, creating longer-lasting roads and decreasing plastic waste. Scientists have also further improved a naturally occurring enzyme which can digest plastic; originally found in Japan, this enzyme can break down PET, the strong plastic most commonly used in bottles, in just a few days as opposed to hundreds of years.

Until a permanent solution has been found or a new plastic becomes commonplace, there are many quick solutions that can be adopted, such as investing in recyclable materials, refusing plastic cutlery, reusing bags or coffee cups. and using paper straws. A ban on microplastics in cosmetics has already been passed in the UK and cotton buds and plastic straws could be banned next year.

We all depend on a healthy ocean but currently only 2% of our seas are fully protectedYou can sign a government petition here to help end single-use plastics or make a personal pledge for Earth Day.

It’s time to save Nemo!

Being rooted and grounded in love. Take part in Earth Hour, 24 March 2018.

‘Being rooted and grounded in love.’
Ephesians 3:17-19

For 60 minutes on the evening of 24 March 2018, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will turn off non-essential electric lights as a symbolic show of solidarity to connect to the earth and help reverse climate change.

Organised by the WWF,  Earth Hour began as a lights out event in Sydney in 2007 and has since grown into a worldwide phenomenon, with businesses, individuals and communities across the globe pledging to protect the planet.  The event usually falls on the last Saturday of March, but has been moved forward a week in 2018 to 8:30pm-9:30pm on Saturday 24 March, due to Holy Saturday (the day after Good Friday) falling on Easter weekend. 

The worlds most iconic landmarks will be participating – Edinburgh Castle, Buckingham Palace, Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower. Last year, 9 million people took part in the UK alone! You can use this interactive map to find out what is happening near you.

Humanity has a heavy weight of responsibility for the future of the planet and to live with regard for the environment. Earth has been afflicted by deforestation, climate change, plastic, pesticides, fossil fuel pollution and wildlife trafficking amongst others, most of which have arguably been driven by greed and profit, with devastating consequences for our environment.  Earth Hour is a means to reverse the damage done before it’s too late, by encouraging people to make a small change in their lifestyle and to reject a throwaway culture. Backed by a global movement, real beneficial change can be made.

I chose to use my oil painting of the Ash Tree in our garden to highlight the importance of trees to our planet. This is a section of the canopy:

Climate change is a natural phenomenon that has been rapidly exacerbated by the flagrant burning of our natural resources and releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.

Through photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide emissions and pollutant particles in the atmosphere, then store the carbon and release pure oxygen, improving our air quality. Forests and trees in temperate regions also help cool the earth’s surface as they evapotranspire, by releasing moisture into the atmosphere and contributing to rainfall. It is estimated that 40% of rainfall on land is due to evotranspiration and according to Cool Earth, just one tree produces 324 litres of water per year and one acre of rainforest produces 76,000 tons of water.

On average, a new acre of trees can absorb 2.5 tons of carbon annually. A tree reaches maturity at around ten years, releasing enough oxygen to support two human beings.  They help reduce the greenhouse effect by shading buildings, reducing the need for burning fossil fuels to power air conditioining. Planting trees is the most cost effective way to remove excess carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, according to The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, 32 million acres of trees are deforested worldwide each year; this equates to 9.9 million acres of forest in Africa each year and 10.6 million acres of forest in South America.

Charities like Cool Earth helps put local rainforest communities back in control of the forests, protecting their future and that of the wildlife and biodiversity, rather than allowing vast swathes to be deforested for unnatural plantations such as soy production or palm oil.

Reforestation projects can help reverse the damage caused by global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere in the trees and soil. 20,000 new trees are being planted in the Seychelles as part of The Commonwealth Canopy Project, and here in the UK, woodland conservation charity, The Woodland Trust has planted over 30 million new trees, helping to restore devastated ancient woodland as well as creating new woodland areas.

There are many quick solutions that can help reduce CO2 emissions, whether its recycling more, turning your washing machine to 30 degrees, switching to a green energy supplier, becoming a flexitarian or composting food. What will your promise be?

For every promise made, Ariel will donate £1 to help protect the planet.

Earth Day is also soon approaching, held annually on 22nd April, the focus of which will be plastic pollution. Did you know that by 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea? It is always my hope that my art can show the beauty of the world and God’s creation, encouraging people to live closer to nature and to protect it for future generations.

Join the global movement today!

Thai orchid festival – Mothers Day celebrations at Kew gardens

‘If mothers were flowers, you would be the one I would pick.’

Here is a work in progress oil painting, inspired by the tropical orchids on display at the recent Thai orchid festival at Kew Gardens. The flowers were reaching towards the stream beneath the glasshouse bridge and I wanted to evoke the sense of tranquillity, where you felt almost as if you had arrived in an island oasis:

From 10 February to 11 March 2018, The Princess of Wales glasshouse at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was transformed into a tropical oasis, transporting visitors to the floral shores of Thailand in an extravagant celebration of its culture and botanical heritage.

My family and I attended the last weekend of the 23rd orchid festival at Kew for Mother’s Day. It was a feast for the senses, with over 4,000 Phalaenopsis (moth) orchids arrayed in  beautiful centrepieces, or seemingly ‘growing wild,’ either lining the paths or intertwining around trees. Their sweet fragrance infused the atmosphere and colour abounded, with hues of purple, pink, red, orange, yellow, green at every turn. Traditional Thai music was performed live in one area of the glasshouse, with the sound permeating through the garden, enhancing the immersive experience. The variety of tropical orchids and plants on display was breathtaking and a delight for every visitor and particularly every mother visiting the glasshouse on this special day.

Sculptures hewn from flora and fauna appeared at different intersections of the garden and a forest of mangroves lined areas of the path and stream. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a cocoa tree that was native to Thailand, and to learn that cocoa butter is often squeezed from its seeds. Incredibly, miniature rice paddy fields were also successfully cultivated in the glasshouse.

The main attraction of the orchid garden was the floating Palace centrepiece, measuring at 16.5ft x 13ft and intended to be a replica of Bang Pa In Palace in Thailand. 600 orchids adorned the sculpture, representing the rich diversity of their flora. The Royal Thai Embassy in London also generously lent a number of Thai crafted parasols to Kew for the festival.

Kew Gardens has worked alongside the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for many years, focusing on mutually beneficial projects that include the study and conservation of Thailand’s rich variety of flora and fauna. Their relationship was formalised in 2010, through a signing orchestrated by Kew scientist Dave Simpson.

Phalaenopsis orchid species are native to tropical Asian countries, including Thailand, Borneo, Java and the Philippines. However for this display at Kew, they were actually grown at Double H nurseries in New Milton in the South of England.

The Cymbidian orchids at the glasshouse were also British grown in East Sussex, supplied by McBean’s Orchids and are on regular display at Kew’s annual orchid festivals.

Surprisingly, several orchid varieties do grow wild in Britain’s temperate climate, see when and where you can spot nine species here. You can also learn how to grow them successfully with this horticulturalists guide.

A Tropical Paradise in the depths of winter – Butterfly conservation at RHS Wisley

‘You are altogether beautiful my love, there is no flaw in you.’ Song of Songs

Each winter the Glasshouse at RHS Wisley transforms, almost dreamlike, into a tropical paradise. Its 28 degree heat serves as a haven to over 7,000 butterflies that have travelled (with a little help from humans) thousands of miles to help educate wildlife enthusiasts of all ages on exotic butterflies, butterfly conservation and their importance to the environment.

Bred on a farm in Belize, Central America, these butterflies originate from tropical climes in the Americas and Asia, where the lofty heights of the rainforest canopy is their natural habitat. The farm is invaluable to conserving butterflies, where 15,000 caterpillars are looked after at a time and many released back into the wild. The owners, who live in the UK, are also owners of Stratford Butterfly Farm in Stratford- Upon-Avon.

Aside from the rainforest oasis, visitors can experience an interactive zone where they can watch the lifecyle of a butterfly and get a rare close up view of their wings. Visitors can learn about their behaviour, such as courtship, feeding and egg laying as well as how they differ to moths.

Butterflies are ectothermic (cold blooded) and constantly seek the warmth of the sun, so the best place to find these dainty winged insects were the pools of sunlight on the paths around the glasshouse. Seeing the butterflies dance around the trees and alight nearby never fails to bring a smile to all the . The food table was another area guaranteed to host several butterflies, and often the best place to have a better view of their beautiful wings.

With so many  unusual and non native species, there is a handy guide which helps identify the different species. 

This white, yellow and black beauty is a Tree Nymph, native to the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, India, Sri Lanka and other areas of Southeast Asia. Their delicate flight patterns and black and white coloration distinguish them from others. Tree Nymphs usually live high in the forest canopy but descend to ground level for nectar and mating. According to Garden Guides, these butterflies can thrive in altitudes up to 5,000ft and below to 2,000ft. Many tree nymphs secrete a chemical substance known as ‘danadoine,’ which is a deterrent to predators and makes them unpalatable.

Their wings reminded me of stained glass, which seemed to glow with the sun’s rays through the windows.

Although we are unlikely to see exotic butterflies like the Tree Nymph in our temperate climate, many native butterfly species are endangered and need our protection.  

I regularly contribute a painting to the Environment Trust’s Secret Art Sale to promote wildlife conservation in the UK. Last year, the theme was ‘wildlife corridors,’ its definition recorded in my blog:

These corridors, aptly named ‘natures highways and byways’ by the RSPB, are integral to the maintenance of ecological processes, including allowing for the movement of animals and the continuation of wildlife populations.

These corridors, formed out of hedges, flora and fauna, are indispensable not only for butterflies, but also for hedgehogs, frogs, toads, newts, bees, dragonflies, creepy crawlies, moths, bats, birds, badgers and foxes. Wildlife, such as insects and butterflies, are crucial to the general health of the ecosystem and maintaining the natural balance and their decline in numbers usually reflect a decline in the health of the environment and are often indicators of pollution etc.

Insects like Butterflies are necessary to pollinate flowers,  and are especially attracted to certain plants and flowers such as lavender in order to thrive. The RHS have compiled a guide on how to attract native species, including planting brightly coloured buddleias.

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Butterfly Conservation society, with Conservation Day being held on 10 March before Mother’s Day. To celebrate this landmark year, the charity are holding conservation events around the UK to give you the opportunity to get involved in the effort to protect over 100 endangered species.

Sir David Attenborough, President of Butterfly Conservation, has urged everyone to take action to help reverse the decline of our butterflies; sadly their habitats have shrunk significantly over the years due to climate change, pesticide use and other factors. You don’t need to have specialist knowledge to become a butterfly conservator or naturalist, you can simply help plant a meadow or develop your own garden into a butterfly and wildlife haven. Whichever you choose, it will be an invaluable contribution to our environment and to ensure future generations can continue to enjoy the diverse species in our gardens and wild areas.

Here is one of our native beauties which I immortalised in oil paint in 2017: a perfectly formed Peacock butterfly and a regular visitor to our garden:

Happy conserving!

Architectural Digest Design Show – 22-25 March, New York

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” Frank Gehry

I’m delighted to be returning to my architectural and design roots by participating in the Architectural Digest Design Show in New York, on 22-25 March 2018.

Around 40,000 design professionals, creative entrepreneurs and connoiseurs are expected to descend upon Piers 92 and 94 on 55th Street, Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan. 400 luxury designers, brands, and several artists (!) will gather for the 17th year of North America’s premier design festival. There will be talks and workshops to tantalise your design tastebuds, including culinary classes; the forthcoming program of trade seminars will be available at the end of February.

My oil paintings and drawings will be on display with Art UpClose and Artifact in booth 519. Other artists exhibiting include seascape painter Margot Nimoroski and award winning British sculptor, David Harber .

I have often emphasised in my blog posts on the importance of a personal connection to interior design and art. Chosen carefully and sensitively, furniture and design accessories are arguably elevated to the status of art when placed in an interior setting. Indeed their very design, often unique and sometimes bespoke, reflects a particular artistic vision and narrative of the designer. As I pointed out in my previous blog, ‘Home is where the Art is:’

“Without art, design is merely function. Both art and design are means of communication, and both can elicit an emotional response.”

You can be certain to find inspiration from the many furniture makers, artisans, lighting designers, and accessory brands that will be exhibiting at the Design Show. Whether it’s choosing a bespoke table by Attitude Furnishings, ‘baby-soft’ alpaca throws by Alicia Adams, secure iron fences and gates by Compass Iron Security, handmade wooden chairs and tables by Erickson Woodworking, wall art and wall décor by Mitchell Black, lighting by Rayon Roskar, custom flooring by Sunshine Hardwood Floors, or geometric leather rugs by Avo Studio, each lends a statement to your room, whether subtle or obvious.

When combined with paintings and sculpture in an interior setting, furnishings create a visual tapestry of the owner’s personality, interwoven with meaningful elements.

Their intentional design adopts a new meaning and purpose: As Coco Chanel aptly put it, ‘an interior is the natural projection of the soul.’

I love visiting New York, here is a rather iconic building whose name derives from the nickname for the city: ‘Empire State.’ Designed by architect William F. Lamb and completed in 1931 at 1,454 ft high, its 102 floors overlook the vast network and labyrinth of roads and buildings below.

Art that surrounds you, that you can touch, feel and live in, as well as admire from a distance; this is immersive art at its best and most satisfying.

Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci & Raphael about 1500 – High Renaissance art at The National Gallery

‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ Michelangelo

Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Three names that, after 500 years, need little introduction to a modern audience. These paragons of the Italian Renaissance are generally credited as figureheads of High Renaissance art, imbuing their works with a psychological astuteness and dynamism, which visually embodied the prevalent resurgent interest in classical ideals after a period of cultural stagnation.

The National Gallery’s recent exhibition, ‘Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael about 1500’ aimed to explore an artistic dialogue that was initially friendly and respectful, but became at times contentious, due to the competitive nature of commissions available in Rome. The exhibition gathered together eight works by the three artists, showcasing how they learnt from, and sometimes ‘borrowed,’ from one another.

Acutely aware of one another’s presence in the social arena, each artist sought to be distinctive in his vision and execution:

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), often described as the ultimate Renaissance Man, achieved mastery in many fields of study, combining both science and art in his craftsmanship. His initial desire was to work as an inventor of military weapons for the Duke of Milan, but was instead commissioned as the official painter for the court and subsequent wealthy patrons. He amassed hundreds of drawings of his ideas, leaving him with little time to paint. As a consequence, we have been left with a few examples of his paintings, most notably ‘The Virgin of the Rocks,’ depicting the Immaculate Conception, and Mona Lisa.

‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ (about 1491) by Leonardo da Vinci:

Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1475–1564) was by his own admission, a sculptor first; he expressed the human figure in marble, reimagining its form in all its powerful and physical dynamism. All his projects were vast and ambitious, placing the human body as central to emotional expression.

Raffaello Santi, or Raphael (1483–1520) embodied the classical ideals of harmony and beauty in both his paintings and even temperament. He drew his own study of Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo and was initially influenced by Leonardo, yet imbued the face of the Madonna with his own preference for serenity and clarity and was a far more prodigious painter than Leonardo.

The Ansidei Madonna (1505), by Raphael:

The focus of the exhibition was Michelangelo’s ‘The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John,’ also known as the ‘Taddei Tondo’ (1504-5), on loan from the Royal Academy and the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in the UK.

The psychological immediacy of the sculpture opposed the otherworldly virtues of Leonardo’s painting ‘The Virgin of the Rocks.’ Whereas revelation and relational humanity seems to be Michelangelo’s concern, Leonardo’s appears to be divine worship and reverence, aspiring to the ideals of beauty, similar to the harmonious aspirations of Raphael.

As Matthias Wivel, the National Gallery’s Curator of 16th-century Italian Paintings says: “The ‘Taddei Tondo’ provides a key to understanding Michelangelo’s evolution as an artist, following but also rejecting Leonardo’s example, as well as for the young Raphael’s development of a more expressive, dynamic style in synthesis with what he was simultaneously learning from Leonardo.”

The paintings and drawings on display in total, were: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) and The Entombment. Leonardo was represented by The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (‘The Virgin of the Rocks’) and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’). There were three works by Raphael on display – The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas of Bari (‘The Ansidei Madonna’), Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and The Madonna of the Pinks (‘La Madonna dei Garofani’).’

This is my sepia pencil study of Michelangelo’s marble depiction of the Christ Child, Jesus; his face, almost cherub-like, emanates innocence and purity.

Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were men of their time, yet their vision transcended their history and influenced generations of painters, sculptors and art collectors to come.

Once in a Blue Moon – The Super Blue Blood Moon, January 31, 2018

‘When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him?
Psalm 8: 3-5

January 31st 2018 is set to host a rare sight; that of the Super Blue Blood Moon.

For the first time since 1866, there will be a confluence of three astronomical phenomena: A Supermoon, a Blue Moon and a Blood Moon.

A Blue Moon is the second full moon in a full month calendar, however the moon does not, unfortunately, appear blue. The tantalisingly fleeting nature of a Blue Moon has given rise to the phrase ‘Once in a Blue Moon.’ However it is not as rare as is popularly believed  as it tends to appear once every 2 1/2 years, the last one appearing in July 2015. We will also be treated to another glimpse of it on March 31st, 2018.

The term ‘Supermoon’ is a relatively recent word coined by astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979 and sometimes referred to with some chagrin by astronomers (as astrology is not regarded as a scientific field), who officially describe the phenomena as perigean full moons or perigean new moons (perigee means ‘near Earth’). These ‘larger-than-life’ full moons seem to have been a relatively ubiquitous sight of late, with three sightings in 2017 and one already in January. The moon’s elliptical orbit around the earth means its distance from our planet varies at different points, referred to as the apogee and perigee. Apogee is when the moon is around 30,000 miles or 50,000km farther from the earth than the perigee (also known as ‘proxigee’), when the moon is at its closest proximity to the earth. It is at the perigee point that the moon appears 30% larger and 14% brighter than a typical full moon.

A Blood Moon, or total lunar eclipse, appears when the earth lines up with the sun and its shadow cast on the moon appears red due to the earth’s atmosphere. The UK won’t experience the lunar eclipse as it begins at 10:51am GMT, so unfortunately we will not see the red/orange hue. The full effect of the Blood Moon will only be visible on Earth’s night side and to those in western North America, across the Pacific to eastern Asia. The Super Blue Moon however will make its rare appearance to a UK audience and will be a remarkable sight. Weather permitting, we should have a good view of it at dusk when the moon is lower on the horizon, or at midnight when the moon is at its highest point in the sky. According to Dr Gregory Brown, from the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the best time to view the Super Blue Moon will be at 12.40am on Thursday 1st February.

This oil painting sketch is an attempt at capturing the evanescent and confounding aspects of nature and humanity’s attempts to explain phenomena that are at times inherently unexplainable. I have tried to combine various elements of our current understanding of the moon and in doing so to bring it, hypothetically, down to earth. Here the moon has landed on a distant shore of earth, casting its illuminated light onto the sand with waves lapping around it. The moon’s gravity pulls at our planet and determines the tides but its transformation into a supermoon has real intensified physical effects  on high and low tides. This is a simple study of a not so distant future painting and series of space inspired artwork..


A documentary by BBC One at 9pm on 31st January will delve in more detail into the monthly lifecycle of the moon as it waxes and wanes.

Weather permitting, it will be hard to miss such a rare spectacle by our only natural satellite, particularly when the night is alight by a giant spotlight (apologies for the unintentional rhyming). So don’t forget to look up and enjoy the view, it promises to be a wonder to behold to those who, like myself, are captivated and inspired by nature and the workings of a divine hand. The next spectacular series of Supermoons will return in 2019!