An Artist Abroad: Donkey Derby

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.

As I write this, I am also in the midst of packing to travel out to my first location – MOB PRICE, in the north west of Helmand Province. I hope to be introduced to other budding artists and creative folk, in addition to paying a visit to the Gazala Troop members of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) RA. My pencils are sharpened, camera batteries are on charge and my gym kit has just been placed into my daysack. I’m sure that my trip to MOB PRICE will be the topic for next week’s blog, so that’s all I shall say on it for now.

As for this week, well for a start I can’t believe how quickly July has come around and already one member of my team, Sgt Lee Jardine (or ‘Jards’) has  gone on his R&R (rest and recuperation) and is due back to Lashkar Gah in a  few days. The third member of the team, WO2 John Gardiner has just left to go to camp Bastion to start his R&R journey! Where has the time gone? It’s funny how quickly we settle into routine out here, and no surprise that we get to know our team so well, having sat at a desk between them for three months! We’re all here together, all have families back at home whom we miss very much, and they are often the topic of our conversations out here.

The tearaway

When we first arrived out here, we had barely spent more than a few hours working together in the same place at the same time, due to the hectic schedule that was pre-deployment training. However, we very soon fell into our natural pecking order – as observed by our ‘tea’ routine. You should never underestimate how much a simple ‘brew’ can mean to someone; whether it be a morning ‘wake-me-up’, a caffeine ‘pick-me-up’ or a thoughtful ‘cheer-me-up’! At first between the three of us, we would often forget who preferred tea to coffee, who had sugar and who didn’t, and who had more lumps in their coffee than their tea.

By our second month, it had become common practice for one of us to just pick up the mugs in the morning and place a brew on the others’ desks, instinctively knowing whether the day was a tea day, a coffee day or knowing when someone just needed that green tea for a change! The best brews however, were the surprise mocha/latte slushies that would occasionally appear on the desks, especially after a hard gym session, or better still – the brew that would creep up through the sangar hatch at 2100-2300hrs during a duty. You may ask why on earth I am rambling on about tea?! In short, it is the small things that count, and the people that make the places…I have now found myself to be the sole member of the team, sat between two very empty desks! Hurry back ‘Jards’!

The Battleaxe Company team

The Battleaxe Company team

So what have I managed to produce this week? I was pleased with the way the watercolour/acrylic mix worked with the paper and so I have decided to have another go using this technique. This time my subject is a donkey cart laden with children. Three or four regular donkey and children combinations frequent the street in front of the sangar, as they wait to pick up what I can only imagine are sacks of grain from the shop around the corner to my furthest right of arc. They then trot past the sangar to do the rounds before coming back to collect the next load. I often see them during my early morning duties, before the temperatures reach their midday peaks. We are regularly experiencing temperatures well into the high 40s now.

The Competitive One

The competitive one

You can also start to consider what the characters and temperaments are, of both children and donkeys alike! Some kids are quite competitive, as they urge on their steeds to race the other, whilst others seem content to let their donkey take charge as they happily to sit back and enjoy the ride

Lazy days

Lazy days

The Tearaway

The tearaway

 

But too wilful a combination of both donkey and driver will soon see a tearaway! So there is a little bit of context for the subject of this week’s painting. Now on to the work in progress (WIP)…

Masked area

Masked area

 

Technically this piece was painted in the same manner as the old man on the donkey. You can see the first few layers developing in a similar fashion, as I mixed the watercolour and acrylic to create the base layer before sponging over a pure watercolour layer to add the richness of colour. However, this time I have used some masking fluid to define the figures as I paint in the background surrounding them. I often use masking fluid when painting in watercolour, to keep an area free from paint. However, I wasn’t too sure how this would work out – particularly as acrylic is a little ‘plastic-y’ by nature and could form a painted seal over the masking fluid. Bearing this in mind, I decided to have a go and experiment with a thin background layer, ensuring that the edges of the masked layer would remain sharp.

Peel to reveal

Peel to reveal

Here you can see that I have used a rubber to start to peel off the masking fluid once the paint had dried. It looks like I have managed to use the right consistency of paint to be able to get away with this in acrylics! I wouldn’t, however, recommend this as a common or best practice, though it did work on this occasion.

Colour blocks

Colour blocks

With the background near enough complete, I started to work on building up the layers and depth of the figures. Just as in my last blog, I used relatively pale colours of an approximate 1:10 watercolour:white acrylic ratio, and marked out rough areas, such as clothing, saddle cloths, cart and donkey. I tried to keep the base colour similar to the shade of colour I intend to use for the finished piece, as it helps me gauge the overall colour scheme of the painting.

Refining the detail

Refining the detail

I was keen to keep the colours bright and simple and opted not to stray too far from the primary colours. When shading in shadow, I try to avoid using a pure black if possible, and instead mix it from a concoction of blue, red and green. For the coat of the donkey, I have used a blue-black mixture to create the shades of grey. I deliberately kept the detail in the donkey to a minimum, as it is too easy to become bogged down in trying to fill such a small area of paper with so much information!

Laying the ground

Laying the ground

Once I was happy with the trio of children and the donkey I then turned my attention to the ground. Although, to be honest, I am rarely truly happy with any piece of artwork and as I previously did before this next stage – I placed the unfinished painting in a draw for a couple of days! I find that simply by putting it out of sight for a while enables me to regain a bit of perspective, and to stop being so critical when I feel I am starting to overwork a piece.

I can always pick out so many areas to work on, but I think a top tip would be to know when to stop and avoid overworking an area. To check if I am content with progress, I will often place my work at the far corner of a room to observe it, or look at it through a mirror – chances are if it looks wonky in the mirror, then sadly it probably is a bit offset in reality! Sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got and allow the painting to adapt and develop. Here, you can appreciate my changing ideas as to how I wanted to show the dust being picked up by the hooves and wheels of the donkey and cart.

Final painting

Final painting

 

And this is how it turned out in the end! Also, if anyone was wondering, the essay I mentioned in my very first blog has now been completed and handed in. I can’t imagine how many words I have now written through this blog! On that note, I had better stop there as it is getting late and I must be getting my head down ready for my journey tomorrow.

Look at Sophie’s page

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