An artist abroad: Back into the swing of things

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.

How quickly time is still flying by, I have now been back at work for just over two weeks and my handover will be here in another two. Now fully re-charged and re-energised I will endeavour not to succumb to what is most commonly known as the R&R blues – a condition that affects 99.9 per cent of personnel returning from the joys of a restful R&R to the high tempo and routine of OP HERRICK. Determined not to allow this to creep in, I hit the ground running and I felt as if I had never left. It was actually a pleasure to see the familiar faces that I have been working alongside for the past five months and listening to their experiences on R&R with reinvigorated spirits and renewed enthusiasm… although this rapidly faded into the general routine hubbub of the working headquarters.

Bold and bright painting

My $3 Afghan engagement ring

My $3 Afghan engagement ring

Time certainly wasn’t going to drag during my first week back as my Battery Commander (BC) was due on his R&R and therefore I would have to cover some of his tasks and staff work. With a comprehensive set of handover notes – all rigidly hyperlinked and absolutely foolproof.  My  BC has now returned and I managed to accomplish the tasks I was set and await the next drafting for various pieces of staff work to include; the Relief in Place (RiP) , handover and normalisation FRAGOs  (Fragmentation Orders) , a Post Operational Report, and a Mission Exploitation presentation. All of these are essential to ensure that our handover to the next brigade is professional and informative to provide a seamless transition from one to the other. The Post Operational Report and Mission Exploitation are key documents to enable all the lessons learnt from our tour to be collated and discussed to improve our capability and deployment for the future.

But enough about staff work…

This blog’s painting is referenced from a photograph of two Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) women on the ranges conducting pistol training. I wanted to create a bold and bright painting by laying a brilliant orange background in contrast with the blue of the AUP uniform and the dark blue/ coal shades of their head scarves. These women are in training at the Lashkar Gah Training Centre (LTC) which is the centre of excellence for police training in Helmand Province – where over 2,000 Afghan Nationals are trained each year  to become policemen and women. Their skill and courage is highly commendable, and their will is strong as they persist to be able to provide their own security – an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem, as is the running theme of OP HERRICK 18.

Paint was drying far too quickly

Painting outside with photo reference

Painting outside with photo reference

The painting starts life out the back of my tent but with temperatures still reaching 37 degrees Celsius during the day, I couldn’t spend much longer than 20 minutes outside – particularly as the paint was drying far too quickly! Here you can see I managed to get a quick wash of colour on the background before I turned into the shade. I am struggling to find the time to paint as my shift doesn’t allow time during the day, and at night; now sharing a tent often means the lights are out by the time I get back off shift. However, a fellow artist in the headquarters – the Brigade Movements Warrant Officer (BMWO) has regularly booked out one of the small conference rooms in the evening after 2100hrs, and so after hours we both sit down for an hour to paint. Although this does compete heavily with my gym time!

Tented accommodation

Tented accommodation

Times of change are noticeably prevalent as I am one of two OP HERRICK 18 females remaining in our tent, whilst the others have all moved to the transit as they start their handovers with their replacements now occupying their former bed spaces. The ratio of red rats (7 Bde )  to green triangles (1 Mech Bde ) is rapidly increasing as they filter through their RSOI and start to find their way around the headquarters. I admire their enthusiasm, for some this is their first tour and for others they are seasoned veterans already. But I don’t envy them, nine months is a long time, and I’m glad my six are coming to an end now.

Selecting artwork for the coffee table book

AUP women WIP

AUP women WIP

AUP women WIP

AUP women WIP

 

In addition to routine staff work I am in the process of selecting all the artworks from across Helmand; from paintings, pencil drawings, photographs and poems, for the production of the OP HERRICK 18 Operational Art coffee table book.  A number of professional artists have deployed with various members of the Brigade during Op HERRICK 18 including; Graeme Lothian, Matt Cook, Hugh Beattie and Michael Alford to name a few.  I have had a fantastic response from the soldiers of the Brigade and certainly have my work cut out with over 500 submissions to filter through. They will all be presented to the Brigade commander and his panel in the coming week. Throughout this sorting process, I have also managed to design a poster to be distributed amongst the Brigade and soldiers are already signing up for their memento. Copies of the book will also be available to the general public – so look out for information on the British Army social media pages if you want one!

Op HERRICK 18 Art Book Poster

Op HERRICK 18 Art Book Poster

With only three weeks remaining I am incredibly excited already about the prospect of going home and enjoying my post operational tour leave! I also have a new job to look forward to on my return …more details on that in my next blog. And to finish this blog, here is the finished painting of the AUP women.

AUP women finished painting

AUP women finished painting

Look at Sophie’s page

Find out more about Army Arts Society

An Artist Abroad: Home Sweet Home

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.

I am drafting this blog late at night sitting in a dark tent, with six other bodies sleeping, using the glare of the laptop to light up the keys as I type!  I have been quiet on the blogging front for a couple of weeks due to the move of the Headquarters and I have also been enjoying a break back at home on my R&R (rest and recuperation).  However, now I am fully back in the swing of things it seems that was all a distant memory.

Harry

Harry

In this blog I shall attempt to describe the past few weeks of events from the Headquarters move, to the journey home, and then a brief insight into what I got up to on R&R.  Running throughout the script I shall post pictures of the work in progress (WIP) of a pencil drawing that I completed whilst on R&R – the model is my future mother-in-law’s favourite horse, Harry.  If none of this is of interest you then please don’t read on, for the rest there is a lot to report so do bear with me!

The Move

This blog starts in the hot and dusty climes of Lashkar Gah where I have spent the last four and a half months working in the Headquarters.  The Headquarters has been based in Lashkar Gah since May 2006 and has co-ordinated UK operations across Helmand Province for over seven years.  I was a part of what can possibly be described as the most complex headquarters move on operations ever undertaken by the British Army.

We were down to minimal manning, with the other half of the Fires cell having already established the Bastion set-up.  I had come on shift at 0400hrs to enable to night shift to get away on their early morning flight, as I held the fort with one detachment commander (DC) for the Change of Command (CHOC) and the close down of the TFH headquarters in Lashkar Gah.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

It was a long morning and it seemed like an absolute age that we were waiting for the CHOC.  With only a skeleton staffing, large screens on the walls showed locals going about their daily routine, as muted pictures of BFPS flickered in the background  – time passed very slowly.  My R&R wasn’t too far around the corner either, but we were all itching to get on and join the rest of the team in Bastion.

When the time came for the CHOC, it was a very surreal and memorable moment.  The DCOS (Deputy Chief of Staff) entered the JOC at around 1015hrs on 9th August 2013 to establish communications with the Bastion headquarters.  Any current operational issues were swiftly dealt with and at precisely 1020hrs the DCOS spoke over the net (radio) to Bastion headquarters and clearly stated that the command of Taskforce Helmand had now been assumed by the Headquarters in Bastion.  As those words fell from his mouth, it was quite an unbelievable experience as I witnessed history in the making.

Although words can barely describe that feeling, it was as if I were watching an old war film where the news of war was being broken over the radio.  This marked the end of an era, as we swiftly switched off laptops that had been diligently manned 24 hours every day for the last seven years.  We switched them off, pulled out the cables and packed them in boxes.  Cables were ripped off the walls where makeshift black nasty (tape) and cable ties had affixed them, and radios were disconnected to be placed away.  Within minutes the Lashkar Gah headquarters ceased to exist and the remaining staff headed back to their rooms to finish packing for their onward journey to Bastion.

Waiting at the LKG HLS

Waiting at the LKG HLS

As we waited at the helicopter landing site (HLS), we chatted about the prospects of what lay ahead, but most importantly – what our respective R&R plans were and for some even end of tour plans! It wasn’t long before we were given notice that the helicopters had left Bastion on their way to collect us, and we swiftly put on our PPE (personal protective equipment) before being led out to the HLS.

I video recorded the two chalks (groups) of staff with my digital Olympus camera crouching alongside the compound walls as the two Chinooks flew in to transport us.  It is said there are two types of people who look towards the Chinook as dust and stones are thrown towards us… one of them is a photographer!  As we lifted up in a cloud of dust, I strained my neck peering through the scratched window, as I looked down at the wall of the HLS, symbolically painted with all the crests of other Brigade Headquarters that went before us, as I watched them fade in the distance.

Wall of former Brigade emblems

Wall of former Brigade emblems

New Digs

With so much nostalgia being left behind, there was nothing for it but to embrace the change and look forward to the new set-up in Bastion.  In no time at all, we found ourselves hot, tired and sweaty being orientated around our new accommodation and listening in to the security and welfare briefs.  We were then walked immediately to our new offices where we took up our respective seats and started work, as if we had never been moved.  The orientation and layout was different, and although we had access to all the same programmes, information and systems as before, we had more modern versions which took us all a while to navigate!

The tempo of operations was still relatively quiet and after lunch I managed to shower and change and feel a little more human.  Our new accommodation is a small camp within Bastion, protected by its own HESCO wall and rows of razor wire…’home sweet home’! I must admit, I have never been to prison but if this is anything to go by I’d rather not! We are bound by various rules and regulations to ensure that whilst there are still troops ‘roughing it’ out in the FOBs, we do not succumb to ‘Bastionitus’ – a fond term used to describe the condition of complacency and comfort.  Not that a 12-hour shift enables me much time for comfort; nor did I have time to fully settle in as I began to write my handover notes for my R&R cover.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

Within a couple of days of the move, I had to re-pack my bags to get ready to go home.  The days, hours and minutes prior to R&R can be excruciatingly long at times, knowing I would be with my fiancé, family and friends in a matter of days and wishing away hours so that I would be closer to being home.  Four and a half months is an incredibly long time to be away from home, and phone calls and internet can only maintain morale for so long.  It was a great morale boost to find out that 24 hours ahead of my scheduled departure date, I had been ‘Space A’d’ that is, that our whole flight was fortunate enough to travel on spaces available on an earlier flight.  I handed over my role and headed back to our Bastion echelon group to start the process in going home.

We handed in our operational equipment and stored our weapons in the armoury.  I felt somewhat naked without my pistol attached firmly to my side and was constantly aware that I may have forgotten it somewhere! My OSPREY was also considerably lighter to travel back with.  After our mandatory briefs, we collected our passports and mobile phones and headed on the bus for our first check-in.  Here we labelled our baggage, checked in and loaded our hold baggage.  The remainder of that day I sat in the ops room and caught up with some Bastion friends.  The second check-in wasn’t until the late afternoon, and having handed in our weapons we now had to be escorted everywhere.  Thus it started – the long journey home, waiting for flights whilst fighting tiredness, impatience and excitement to see my fiancé, family and friends.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

The journey home

We travelled out of Bastion to Cyprus on a Tristar, which isn’t too dissimilar in style internally to a budget airline.  We were on our way home at last! I sat next to a female Lieutenant Colonel with whom I chatted to about her role in Afghanistan, and what we were both particularly looking forward to back at home; including lush green grass and rain.  As we were busy chatting away about chickens, horses and ducks, the flight crew invited us to sit in the cockpit (perhaps because we were the only two to still be awake at that time of morning.) It was a brilliant experience as we were shown the controls, listened on the headsets and admired the views over Egypt (some fires could still be seen smouldering in the Capital).

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

We admired the sun rise and it wasn’t long before we spotted the Cypriot shores among the haze of the sea mist.  We belted up for landing and with our headsets on we experienced a very smooth landing in Cyprus.  We disembarked for an hour to refuel and stayed in the very familiar departure lounge of RAF Akrotiri.  I rang my fiancé (at about 0400hrs UK time, just 3 hours after he had eventually gone to bed after a long day harvesting…) to let him know that my flight was on time, only to ring him again ten minutes later to announce that I would be arriving an hour earlier than expected!

Home sweet home

Finally the green, yellow and brown patchwork of the fields of Britain came into view and shortly afterwards we were waiting for our baggage at the carousel.  Black bags, gorilla boxes and camouflaged bags of all shapes and sizes were spat out and rapidly collected.  When I walked through the doors of the arrivals lounge I joined the crowd of soldiers waiting to be collected.

It was wonderful to be met at Brize by my fiancé as I walked over to the car park, placed down my baggage and hurried over to give him a huge hug!  I was still wearing my cheap temporary brass/copper engagement ring that I had bought at the local shop, when he suggested I take it off as he revealed from his pocket my engagement ring in its box.  The ring is an heirloom, his late grandmother’s engagement ring, whom unfortunately I never had the opportunity nor pleasure to meet.

The engagement ring

The engagement ring

 

I desperately tried not to fall asleep in the car on the way home but I didn’t survive contact.  Having spent a few hours reacquainting myself with the M25 I was relieved to finally complete the journey and arrive home.  Thankfully I didn’t make my usual faux pas of ‘talking’ to the dog first rather than my fiancé (principally because the dog did not accompany him to the airport!).  Lola (the lab) and Boots (the cocker) were both excited to see me, and Lola couldn’t contain herself but kept bouncing and jumping up! She didn’t leave my side for the rest of that day, nor for a few after.  It was so good to be home, but I must admit I was exhausted, jet lagged and a little disorientated – all I wanted to do was crash out on my bed.

Boots and Lola at work and at play

Boots and Lola at work and at play

It is a very surreal experience to find that within the space of 48 hrs you have been working at a high tempo, living by strict routine for four months and occupying your thoughts with little other than work matters; to waking up in your own bed and wondering what you have to do that day.  It is almost as if I were living two different lives, and whilst the body adapts quickly, the mind takes a little longer.  For the first few days I didn’t do an awful lot really, the dogs enjoyed some long walks and I didn’t even mind if it were raining! I enjoyed doing some training with them, as they are both working gun dogs (in progress), and it was a nice change for them after having spent many a day accompanying My fiancé  in the tractor and listening to his rendition of the Kings of Leon!

Lola at work in the tractor

Lola at work in the tractor

‘Wedmin’

One night neither of us was sleeping particularly well, I was still jet lagged and My fiancé  was worrying about the weather, so we ended up talking at 3am about wedding plans.  It was so nice to be able to talk face to face and get inspired and excited about our wedding together.  We were engaged a few days after Christmas, after which I had been thrust back in to pre-deployment training and then deployed.  The first couple of days of my R&R were relatively quiet as I rang round friends to catch up, arranging to meet up with some and inviting others over.  My fiancé was busy with the harvest during the sunny days and thankfully we had a couple of rainy days to spend time together.  This was the perfect opportunity to crack the wedding guest list!! You wouldn’t have thought that either being in the military or part of the farming fraternity would incur so many friends and family – not that we could do an awful lot about the latter. After a rather hefty cull we fashioned a list of 150.

My Mum came to stay the first weekend, and I managed to book an appointment to try on some wedding dresses, one of my sisters and future mother-in-law joined us.  It was a very emotional experience for my poor Mum, who in less than a minute of me trying on my first dress was in tears! I tried on about six dresses which were all gorgeous and surprisingly even the ‘meringues’ were flattering, however, I am still intent in making it myself (with a little help and guidance).  The following day, Mum and I had a look at some fabrics, and she helped me make a skirt from the silk I bought from Afghanistan.

Skirt template

Skirt template

Daily routine

It didn’t take me long to get back into the routine at home; early rises, dogs, horses, chickens and lambs to be fed, along with runner beans, tomatoes and cucumbers to be picked.  It wasn’t long before My fiancé roped me into helping shift a few bales and dropping off his various work colleagues back to their farm machinery! It wasn’t all work and no play, as my friends stopped by for tea, lunch and dinner and I frequented a few pubs too! However, my alcohol tolerance had significantly reduced from its level prior to deployment.  Nevertheless a glass of chilled white wine at dinner was a welcome pleasure.

Mid-week I had the pleasure of Hannah and Dan (from Ditto), and Graeme Lothian and his partner for company at dinner.  I prepared home-made quiche, salad and new potatoes – something I had missed whilst out in Afghanistan.  We had a pleasant evening and Graeme surprised me by giving me a copy of his book ‘ An Artist in London with a signed message to say ‘thank you’.

My fiancé  and me

My fiancé and me

The following evening My fiancé and I attended a dinner dance where I managed to catch up with a few more friends.  That bank holiday weekend was a local agricultural show.  My Dad came to visit and joined My fiancé , the dogs and I for the day.  Unfortunately this indicated that only too quickly was my R&R coming to an end.  That afternoon we left the showground and I said goodbye to Dad.  I packed the remnants of my kit, grabbed a quick dinner, changed into my uniform and jumped in the car ready to go back to Brize Norton.  Even the dogs knew I was off as they recognised me wearing the uniform and saw the bags being moved to the car, wearing that worried and forlorn expression that only dogs can.

Dad and me

Dad and me

Time to go…

I said goodbye to my fiancé at the airport car park, knowing that I would be home again in just a matter of weeks.  In some ways you strangely look forward to getting back to Afghanistan, if only to see everyone again.  Once resigned to the fact that I was going back, there is nothing to do but look forward to it and enjoy it, for that way time goes faster at least.  With less than six weeks to go on my return, the worst was over and there will be plenty to keep me busy! I shall save my first week back at work for my next blog, by now I am sure you are as exhausted of reading this as I was when I got home!

Final portrait of Harry

Final portrait of Harry

Look at Sophie’s page

An Artist Abroad: Life in the JOC

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.

Since my trip to Main Operating Base (MOB) Price my feet have barely touched the ground – well, in the metaphorical sense at least.  They have, in fact, been firmly rooted to the ground underneath my desk, for near on 12 hours a day…

On return to the Headquarters in Lashkar Gar, I have found myself sitting at a new desk, but with a new team. My old team is now back from R&R which means that I am next! However, due to the ongoing requirement to reduce our footprint in Afghanistan, I have been gradually handing over my role to WO2 Gardiner, who is now singlehandedly running that particular target development desk.  I now sit centrally in the Joint Operations Centre (JOC).  So let me tell you a little bit about the JOC.

Reality is often not as exciting

It sits within the main TFH headquarters, in a small room in the very far corner of the floor plan. The door is always closed, and a little red light outside indicates when visitors ought to keep clear! The JOC is a hubbub of activity as it is the nucleus of all current operational activity and is run by a Battle Captain, to include a team of between 15-20 people at any one time. ‘Deskheads’ are rank ranged from sergeant through to captain and comprise a variety of cap badges, services, reservists, and sometimes other nationalities. During an operation, communications, requests for fires, and air space de-confliction are all decided upon here. At the height of activity, ops officers run in and out to brief their superiors, in addition to superiors coming in to watch a situation develop and issue their directions.

All mine

All mine

Maybe over here?

Maybe over here?

However, reality is often not as exciting as that, and more often than not the days are quiet (which we are thankful for, as no lives are at risk) but also long. Three daily briefs break up the monotony, and with the mealtimes to look forward to, the days do soon pass. However, there is change afoot, with MFO boxes littering the headquarters, large rolls of parcel tape and black nasty on desktops, and large bags of shredded pink paper waiting to be burned – signs that we are moving! It is strange to think that despite many significant events – Wimbledon, the Lions victory, The Ashes and of course the royal birth (congratulations!), we too are a small part of history as we will be the last headquarters and staff to be based here during this campaign.

My nightshift counterparts

A little bit higher

A little bit higher

It is for these very reasons that the Operational Art book I have mentioned is being produced – to record Helmand Province from those soldiers who have set foot on it, lived in it, and worked alongside the local people here. Perhaps one day, others will get to experience the beauty of this country in a less turbulent era. In addition to my day job, I have now been given more direction to oversee the production and editorial of the art book. So far I have had healthy numbers of entries and there is certainly some talent out here – particularly from my night shift counterparts who, after browsing through my ‘how to draw caricatures’ book, have produced some convincing portraits!

This week I have been working on painting a watercolour of a military working dog (MWD). At first I thought of doing something a bit different, aiming to capture the idea of movement and the character of the dogs at work. Although digital art is somewhat of a taboo subject amongst some, I decided to set myself a few five minute challenges, of seeing what I could produce using a Serif XD6 photo editing programme with the photographs taken during my visit to Price as reference. Did you guess what breeds they were?!

Work In Progress

Using a more traditional method, here is a very brief explanation of the WIP for this week’s painting ‘The Release’.

Starting lines

Starting lines

Having spent some hours observing each of the military working dogs at work, I was keen to paint something that would show their eagerness to work and their enthusiasm for the job – if ever a dog can display this! I was particularly drawn to Senna, a German Shepherd bitch with a signature bob tail which she had lost long before she joined the army. Her purpose is force protection. I was inspired by her movement at covering the ground so quickly and so effortlessly, with her eyes unblinkingly fixed on her target.

Building the HESCO

Building the HESCO

I again used masking fluid to mask out the figures of the dog and handler before overlaying a wash and starting to build up a suggestion of shadow in the distant HESCO wall. This piece is painted on A3 sized paper, and even with the small squirrel brushes, the brush strokes are too wide for real detail. Nevertheless, the focus of this piece is the movement of the dog.

White motion

White motion

The hound takes shape

The hound takes shape

The finished piece

Here the masking fluid has been removed, and a pale blue sky has been added along with the suggestion of the dog’s shadow. Then I started to concentrate on the dog with simple, bold brush strokes to indicate the dark mask of her face and ears, and a bit of depth in her chest and legs. Detail was then added for the harness, and I painted in the impression of the handler. To finish the painting, I decided to create more definition between the subject and the background and so painted a very light white wash over the background to make the subjects stand out that little bit more. And here is the finished piece!

The Release

The Release

For my next project, I shall have a go at caricatures and you’ll have to wait and see how I get on! Any volunteers to be my first (victim) sitter?

Look at Sophie’s page

An Artist Abroad: Price is nice

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.

The day following my last blog, I found myself sitting at the Lashkar Gah HLS (helicopter Landing Site) in the midday sun waiting for a Chinook to arrive to transport me to the Main Operating Base (MOB) Price.

The journey begins

The journey begins

There were no delays and we soon landed in Price where I was pleased to see by one of my Battery’s troop commanders! I was then greeted by my host before following him to sign in to the camp and to find my accommodation. I was placed in the ‘VIP suite’ which was by far nowhere near as glamorous as it might sound! It was a section of a tent opposite the cookhouse, which consisted of a few scattered cot beds and strewn water bottles along with the remnants of hanging shelves, a paracord washing line and makeshift clothing rails. Nevertheless I made myself quite comfortable and was thankful for the air conditioning. After a quick shower and donning a fresh uniform I made my way to the Nahr-e Saraj (NES) headquarters to meet the rest of the team.

My luxury accommodation left behind

My luxury accommodation left behind

The operational art coffee table book

The operational art coffee table book

Here I was introduced to the Drum Sergeant Major, Y Coy of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who had produced a few watercolour paintings with his operational art pack. Although you’ll have to wait for the OP HERRICK art book to be published before you can see those! I had also brought the last HERRICK’s published art book ‘Artists in Afghanistan’ with me to show and inspire people and had a very positive response – so much so that by the following morning I had a few more submissions to make their way into the book! However, it wasn’t long before lunch and we soon made our way over to the cookhouse. The walls of the cookhouse tent were clad with faded photographs and a collection of posters of painted hand prints from the children of serving soldiers stuck to the crinkled sides of the tent clinging on with ‘black nasty’ (duct tape).

Messages from home

Messages from home

I then spent the afternoon walking around MOB Price talking to soldiers and trying to encourage any hidden artists to emerge and get involved in the project. I also spotted a few murals painted on weathered walls around the MOB, each with a story to tell from bygone times.

Mural on a former medical clinic

Mural on a former medical clinic

Gazala Troop charity challenge

Gazala Troop charity challenge

The MOB also encompasses the old walls from Russian occupation in addition to the original Afghan compound walls towards the centre of the MOB. I also managed to climb up the ‘Freedom Tower’ at the heart of the MOB to observe the views.After dinner I visited Gazala troop, 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) RA where morale was high and I was persuaded to join in on their charity challenge – rowing, running and cycling the distance from Afghanistan to Albemarle Barracks, Newcastle 5,738km in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund. Their Justgiving site can be found at http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/gazalaherrick18. After catching up with troop I returned to my tent to pack my kit ready for an onward flight back home (well, Lashkar Gah) in the morning.

Dogs at work

I was only scheduled to stay in MOB Price for a 24 hr period but due to a busy flight schedule, with other, higher priority personnel and operational necessity I ended up extending my stay for a further 48 hrs. Thankfully I had taken advice and packed enough kit for a few days in preparation for such an eventuality! My first scheduled flight was too busy and so I returned from the HLS back to the ops room and re-booked a flight for the following morning.

Earlier that morning I had bumped into the military working dog (MWD) section who had invited me over to see their dogs at work that afternoon if I was available – which I now was. With my own re-homed yellow Labrador bitch (Lola) and my fiancé’s liver brown cocker spaniel bitch (Boots), I was pleased to be able to spend time talking about the training and experiences of the handlers and dogs alike. I am also very much looking forward to seeing Lola and Boots on R&R and taking them for some long walks in the green countryside. I shall save talking about them until I get home – only three weeks to go now!

MWD – ‘Is it dinner time?’

MWD – ‘Is it dinner time?’

Here are a couple of photographs of the MWD team and their dogs:

MWD – Time out

MWD – Time out

MWD – ‘Am I there yet?’

MWD – ‘Am I there yet?’

MWD – ‘let me at ‘em’!’

MWD – ‘let me at ‘em’!’

The remainder of the day consisted of a gym session followed by a slushy, before hand washing some of my kit prior to re-packing for my second attempt at an outward trip in the morning. That next morning, as I sat next to the Lashkar Gah Command Sergeant Major and one of the soldiers from the military working dog section waiting for our helicopter to arrive, it was announced that due to operational reasons only one helicopter would be arriving. R&R personnel were a priority and I knew, as a list of names was read out, that I wouldn’t be on that flight. Nevertheless we went back for some lunch and waited…and waited…

Waiting …

Waiting …

Then an announcement came over the tannoy system for all those soldiers who didn’t fly that morning to report to their Buzzard Ops (who manage flight requests and allocations). It turned out that a US Marine Corps flight would be coming in that evening to fly to Bastion, where I would then fly to Lashkar Gah the day after. Eventually I made it back to Lashkar Gah after numerous hours spent waiting at one flight line or another. Despite the delays, flying around Helmand is a quite civilised affair rather than the ‘go, go, go’ of training and the US HLS is well established with air conditioning and wifi! No sooner had I landed, showered and changed, I was sat back at my desk back to the routine.

Waiting in style at the US Marine Corps HLS

Waiting in style at the US Marine Corps HLS

The long and short of it was a successful trip to MOB Price where I met lots of interesting people and even managed to encourage some of them to submit their work. Alas, I haven’t managed to produce a piece of my own art this week … I have just started a 12 hour shift rotation. However, I shall still post a piece of art – and here’s one I prepared earlier! This was a picture drawn for a very good friend of mine, Hannah – a fellow member of my platoon at Sandhurst who is deployed out here with me in the headquarters of Taskforce Helmand!

Here’s one I made earlier

Here’s one I made earlier

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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.

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An Artist Abroad: A visit from Graeme

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.

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…

The original (edited) photograph reference

The original (edited) photograph reference

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.

The base layer

The base layer

Day 2

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.

Mottled background

Mottled background

Day 3

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.

Marking out the forms

Marking out the forms

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 and I

Me and Graeme.

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!

Adding depth

Adding depth

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…

Day 5

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!

Building up the layers

Building up the layers

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.

Dust haze

Dust haze

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!

Final painting

Final painting

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An Artist Abroad: Morale in a box!

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.

Now where did I leave you…?  Ah yes … the old man and the donkey!

I am still managing to produce a piece of artwork for the week, but it does need a daily input and with what has turned out to be a busy week, I have suffered a few late nights – but it was worth it! In setting myself the challenge of one piece a week, the time seems to be flying by, as I struggle to find enough hours in a day to accomplish all that I want to!

I am now 40 per cent through my tour (not that I’m counting) and therefore have around another 17 pieces of art to produce! That sounds pretty exhausting, come to think of it.

Local Afghan Silk and Lace

Local Afghan Silk and Lace

Not to mention that I am also trying to plan my wedding and have decided in a flurry of excitement that I want to design my own dress! (For those of you who know me, this won’t be a surprise). To add to that, I have already bought some Kandahar-sourced silk from my Afghanistani  friend ‘H’ – the tailor in the local ‘antiques’ shop on camp. It may not be designer but it will certainly have a history and a story to tell. I doubt I shall post any sketches and designs on here, just in case my fiancé is tempted to peek! (And before you ask which Regiment he’s in – he’s not, he’s a farmer.) But I digress, back to the art…

Work in progress

This week’s subject has been completed over a period of about three days/nights work (1-2 hours max) and making up more time where I can. Whether it may be an early night, a quiet Sunday morning, or as per today’s instance – sitting out a sandstorm after a session in the gym!  Details of the work in progress over this week, as written day by day, started a little like this:

Cross-hatching technique

Cross-hatching technique

 

Day 1

I love to use cross hatching, a simple and effective way to get large amounts of lead on the paper and work towards building up a framework. I can cross over again and again to darken areas, or add closer and smaller lines for more detail.  As you can see here, I have tackled the background first with an erratic mix of hatched blocks. You can also start to see the areas that I have identified for marking out further by drawing in the lines closer together. Every line is drawn with purpose and I don’t really like shading large areas of background as I find the lead will undoubtedly smudge at some point. I also use a scrap piece of paper underneath my hand when I draw to reduce the amount of smudging. As it’s getting late I shall finish there for the evening and start again sometime tomorrow.

The Old Man begins to take shape

The Old Man begins to take shape

Day 2

Today I am squeezing in a 30 min break after the gym as a heavy sandstorm has just blown over camp. I have now completed the background and started to work on the old man – trying to depict his wrinkled clothing and texture. On my way back in to work I drop by the post room to see if my parcel has arrived – our post had already been collected by the department so I hurried back to the office in hope…nothing…another day perhaps?

Donkey follows suit

Donkey follows suit

 

I continue to work on the man this evening, sitting on my bed as the dust laden rain has just started to tap on my roof again. I start to work in the shadows on the donkey’s saddle bag and begin to shade in the donkey, despite hoping to get an early night as I am on duty again twice this week!

Day 3

I was back on the sangar this morning from 0700 hrs and I can thoroughly recommend that two hours of constant standing, with the occasional squat and calf raise, is a very effective weight loss method! I wonder why that is never recommended in any of the ‘Woman’s Health’ and ‘Men’s Fitness’ magazines that are littered around the Ops room? Aside from the odd pigeon seeking shade for company, and the sounds of others calling in their radio checks over the system, the hours pass slowly and quietly. However, with the ever-rising summer temperatures, more and more locals are active earlier in the morning, so I had plenty of activity to watch, and must come up again soon to sketch. No progress today on the drawing I’m afraid as work turned out to be pretty busy.

Morale in a box!

Morale in a box!

 

Day 4

Finally my parcel has arrived! It contains home baked brownies, pastels, watercolour pencils, gummed tape, masking fluid and some biscuits! It is amazing how much morale a small shoebox can contain – thank you. You really do appreciate the simple things in life out here, and nothing can beat a bit of home baking! The brownies were surprisingly well packaged and well preserved, still soft in the centre and crispy on top – absolutely divine! On the other hand the pastels were rather less contained and managed to scurry around whilst in transit as is evident by the tinted letter!

The finished piece

The finished piece

Oh, I almost forgot – here is the finished piece that I completed earlier today. Look forward to this same duo in colour – my target for next week.

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