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.
This week had the potential to be quite exciting as friends of mine from home – Hannah and Dan, who run a lovely print shop in Sevenoaks called ‘Ditto’, said that a customer and artist friend of theirs was coming out to visit Afghanistan as part of the coffee table art book project. I was incredibly excited and Hannah gave me his email so I could get in touch before he came out. The artist was Graeme Lothian (whom I wasn’t terribly familiar with at the time – my apologies Graeme!) But I very quickly ‘googled’ him (as you do nowadays) to take a peek at his work, and was totally in awe of his wonderfully complex and captivating paintings. I couldn’t wait to meet him!
As for myself, this week I said that I’d have a go at a mixed media piece with acrylic and watercolour. Let’s see how I got on…
Here you can see the original photograph of the man on the donkey- although it has been cropped and enhanced a tad. I love the somewhat pink and pale terracotta colouring of the wall, but decided to draw focus on the man and donkey and created a very light background in order to accentuate the contrast between the dark brown of the donkey and his master. To start with, I salvaged a piece of board from the water pallets which are used to separate the layers of bottled water within the stack out here!
I then roughly cut this down to A3 size (with a little help from some Engineer friends) and used this to mount the paper. I used the brown gummed tape from my parcel to seal the edges around the board – the paper isn’t completely flat, but it shouldn’t bobble as much as it would with a watercolour. The paper is also a particularly tough type and is more commonly used for rip-proof mapping! I then started off by painting a couple of layers of white acrylic, and slowly introduced a bit of colour as can be seen here.
I started to build up the background using a small flat brush and applying a slightly thicker layer of paint just to add a little bit of texture. I am only using a white acrylic paint, with colour being added by mixing it with my watercolours – it must however be the right consistency; too much water and the paint just washes over the base like a glaze. I wanted to keep to the pale background, so I choose to paint a mottled pink base by mixing just watercolours – brown and red. I then used a sponge to apply this in patches, before doing the same with some blue. Once this layer had dried I watered down the acrylic and sponged a light layer of white over the whole lot. To keep a subtle differentiation between the ground and the wall, I used long horizontal brush strokes to lay the ground.
I then started to block in large areas of colour on the man and donkey with an acrylic mix. It didn’t really matter how specific a colour they were so long as they were pale, as future layers would be painted over it anyway.
After this, I proceeded to build up the texture of the creases in the man’s jacket and indicate some light facial features. He then stayed looking like this for a day or two as by now Graeme had completed his RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration) which is mandatory training for all personnel in Afghanistan, thus enabling him to deploy further afield and beyond the wire.
Day 4 – Graeme Lothian’s visit
After a fairly busy day at work, I received a phone call from the liaison officer to say that Graeme had left camp Bastion and was on his way to Lashkar Gah, and would let me know when Graeme was available (after, of course, doing the rounds with various commanders). Later that evening, just before dinner, I answered another phone call to say that Graeme had 20 minutes to spare now, and would I like to come over to the Brigade Commander’s decking area to meet him. I hurried out of my office, past the smoking area, and round to the splendid seating area behind the Brigade Commander’s office – decorated with locally purchased fake flowers, swept but dusty carpets and engineer-crafted decking.
Graeme gave me a few hints and tips that he uses whilst painting, which was invaluable, and it was very humble of him to be generous enough to share his talent with others – thank you Graeme! It was only a short visit, as I then had to head back to work for a little while longer before dinner. After dinner, I was hoping to do some more painting after my 1915hrs brief, as I had finished all that I needed to for the day. However, as I walked past the EFI (Expeditionary Forces Institute – the deployed version of the NAAFI) I saw Graeme sitting with some familiar faces from TFH Headquarters and couldn’t help but join them for a quick ‘brew’ (the hazelnut lattes are a particular favourite!)
A few hidden artists had started to emerge from the woodwork and it was an absolute pleasure to be able to talk with Graeme and other fellow soldiers on their preferred mediums, the techniques they enjoy, problems they have, and experience the passion they exude for their works. Truly inspiring, and a wonderfully interesting bunch of soldiers. A coffee morning next weekend is already lined up with pencils and paper to hand!
But as they say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’! I only managed a quick 2-min splash of watercolour to start creating some mid-tones and depth to the donkey and the man’s trousers. I shall have to make some real progress tomorrow…
Another standard day in the ‘office’ for me, although today is a gym rest day and so I treated myself to an hour of painting instead. I started to work on the saddlebag by using watercolours only to mark out a few areas of shading and some creases. After allowing this to dry fully, I started to work in some white acrylic. I found this to be an interesting way of using paints, as the acrylic actually lifts off the watercolour beneath it, but also mixes with it, creating softer shading. It won’t be long until I finish this one now!
Later on that evening I saw Graeme again as I unlocked my room door and peered through the gratings below to see him unravelling one of his canvas works. You see, the accommodation in this corner of camp is something of a luxury as we live in what can only be described as an organised shanty town of ISO containers! I shall try and post a picture of this in my next blog. Visitors regularly use the transit accommodation below on the ground floor, and Graeme was staying in the room below me. I popped down to see how he enjoyed his day and he very kindly gave me two of his best fine detail paintbrushes – made out of squirrel hair. It wasn’t long before I had set up my paints to use my new brush in creating a haze of dust surrounding the donkey’s feet.
Another bit of exciting news is that the Brigade Commander has caught wind of my antics and is very keen for me to see more of Afghanistan than from my one Sanger. He is wholeheartedly supporting me to travel to some other locations within Helmand, in order to encourage other artists to come out of the shadows and submit their poems, blogs, photography and artwork, all to be published in the Operational coffee table art book! I shall also be accompanied by the Brigade photographer, Corporal Si Longworth, to capture some of these moments! On that note, I had better stop this entry and start planning as the deadline is in August!
Find out more about Army Arts Society