An Artist Abroad: Drawing for the coffee table art book

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

Well I guess this is it – I’ve committed to a blog and need to write one of these each week, so here goes attempt number two…

I have been in Afghanistan now for a little over two months. I deployed only with my mechanical pencil thinking I would be far too busy to draw. However, my friends (who know me far too well) had sent ahead a couple of birthday parcels with some A5 sketch pads, a selection of pencils, chalk and charcoal to get me started.

Then like music to my ears the Brigade Commander announced his intent to create an OP HERRICK 18 coffee table art book, which would harbour a collection of works from serving soldiers across Task Force Helmand. To complement this, there were free Operational Art packs available – what a treat! I didn’t need to be told twice, this was the green light to go.

The artists' kit, or, operational art pack (camera and pistol not included!)

The artists’ kit, or, operational art pack (camera and pistol not included!)

The Operational Art packs are the brain child of the Army Arts Society who gathered donations and volunteers to put together a fine selection of paints, brushes, pencils, sketch pads and even included a book and colour wheel.  I couldn’t wait to test out the watercolours!

Now, what to draw?

With my handover complete from my predecessor, and sitting firmly at the helm, I quickly settled into my routine. It wasn’t long before I experienced my first sangar duty – two hours spent armed and in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) observing outside the wire to protect the Main Operating Base (MOB).  I thought nothing of it as I clambered into my body armour (trying not to get my hair tangled up in the velcro). I grabbed my rifle and reported to the guardroom 15 mins early (so as to avoid any extra duties!) After the brief at the guardroom, I wandered over in the midday heat to my sangar expecting a rather lengthy ‘stag’ – if distant memories of Sandhurst served me rightly.

Two brightly coloured Afghan girls

Two brightly coloured Afghan girls

To my surprise I hadn’t realised quite how close we were to the local population – my eyes lit up as I watched motorcyclists whizz by with one, sometimes two passengers …even three …but then five!  Children of all ages appeared from multiple doorways across the street wearing brightly coloured clothing, attracted by the sounds of the ice lolly seller as he played the distinctive tune of Happy Birthday.

It was wonderful to see such bustling life outside of the wire. But then I quickly remembered where I was, as I slid the creaky black metal shutters a little closer together.  A few days later I accompanied a friend on duty and started to sketch from life as he covered our arcs. However, my sketching had to be so quick – next time I thought, I’ll bring my camera.

Lightening sketches of children

Lightening sketches of children

Again I joined a friend in the sangar, this time armed with my camera, a Nikon D300 with a 400mm zoom lens. Perfect for shooting through the bars. Intrigued by combinations of people on motorbikes, bikes, trucks and carts, I attempted to capture a few such combinations – how an entire family (with groceries) manages to balance on a single motorcycle is far beyond my comprehension.

Four on a bike

Four on a bike

My first painting

Keen to test the watercolours I sketched a simple figure of an Afghan motorcyclist from my pictures taken earlier that day. I wanted to create a broad brush, bright and colourful quick painting. So in conclusion for this week’s entry – here it is.

Afghan motorcyclist - watercolour

Afghan motorcyclist – watercolour

I am currently working on the same model as a pencil study – you’ll have to wait until next week for the finished piece!

Look at Sophie’s page

Find out more about Army Arts Society

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