Getting Back Into It And February Distractions (Iceland) – (Jan/Feb 2019)

I always think that when a new year rolls around again I’ll be prepared, ready to go, it happens at the same time each year, it shouldn’t take me by surprise, yet I’m rarely ready or motivated – I blame it on Christmas over-indulgence, it makes me sluggish – anyone else? So 2019 got off to a slowish start, I gave my office/studio space a bit of a clear-out and a move around, I had planned on doing it between Christmas and the New Year but I was too busy indulging my inner sloth. In the back of my head I was also distracted, I was aware that Rob was turning 40 mid-February and the plan had been to go away, but as we hit January we still had nothing booked - eek!

A sad little character!

A sad little character!

That isn’t to say I haven’t been doing any illustration. My plan is to create a range of five characters for my next portfolio/site update, and one of them came to life in January, you may have seen her pop up on instagram a few times already. She doesn’t have a name yet but the more I draw her the more she seems to come to life. Weirdly I’ve also dropped my watercolour inks (for now at least) in favour of coloured pencils. I’ve never enjoyed using coloured pencils, but one morning, in an effort to throw my brain a curve ball, mix it up, I tried to ‘scribble’ with a coloured pencil instead of sketching super carefully over and over again with a mechanical pencil, and something seemed to work – I think – so for now I’m rolling with it. I still need to pull together a few more images, but I got distracted…

Flying into Iceland along the western coastline

Flying into Iceland along the western coastline

… we finally did book a holiday – to Iceland! It was fantastic. Being a bit last minute, and not having done any research on what to do or where to go, we decided to go with the pricier option, and let Scott Dunn organise it all for us. This did make it expensive, but it was lovely not to have to worry about the logistics of booking planes, hotels, activities, transfers etc, it was all there in an itinerary. Not that we had to follow the itinerary once we had caught our plane as we had our own private guide to drive us around, take us where we needed to be, when we needed to be there (this next bit is going to be quite long, so if you have no interest in Iceland you should probably stop reading here – illustration based content will resume in the near future – Also, I apologise if any of the locations I’ve mentioned are wrong as I didn’t take note at the time, or if any names are misspelled or missing diacritical marks/accents, my keyboard seemed to refuse to put them over certain letters) .

Our room at Hilton Canopy Hotel

Our room at Hilton Canopy Hotel

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and were driven to Hilton Canopy Hotel in Reykjavik, which was our home for two nights. We had a couple of hours to ourselves in which we were supposed to explore Reykjavik as we were being picked up at 9pm to go searching for Northern Lights. We didn’t actually get far, we decided to catch the last ten minutes of happy hour in the hotel bar, then went to see if they had any space in the adjoining restaurant to save us the problem of aimlessly wandering in a new place, not being able to decide where to go. After a relaxed (and delicious dinner) we layered up for the evening. Sadly we only saw a hint of the lights, but it was still quite the adventure, driving around various snowy ‘summer’ roads, trying to find nice dark spots in the countryside in case the lights appeared again, and hoping not to get stuck in snow drifts that make the roads impassable.

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Ice pushed up on to the shoreline of the lake

Ice pushed up on to the shoreline of the lake

On day two we were driven to a variety of spots on the bottom western peninsula of the island. We visited Kleifarvatn Lake, Krysuvík (geothermal fields and hot springs), and Selatanger beach (completely tourist free), before grabbing lunch from a supermarket in Grindavík and heading to the cliffs on the southern edge of the Reykjanes Peninsula – stunning views.

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We spent the afternoon at The Retreat at The Blue Lagoon. I know the Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap, I know it is a silly amount of money, and you know what I really don’t like pools and spas and stuff like that… yet I loved it! We didn’t actually go in to the more public Blue Lagoon, we stayed in The Retreat. We had intended to go and have a look, but four hours flew by and we just didn’t get around to it. We had our own room, which is yours to shower and change in and then leave your stuff in for the whole four hours. We floated around in the little pools, we took part in The Ritual, which is a three stage face and body mask experience. We were given iced tea during this, while we were waiting for our silica masks to dry, I was pretty dehydrated so took it gladly, but it definitely had a liquorice/aniseed flavour so Rob gave it a miss. After we had finished The Ritual we still wanted a drink so got directions to the bar. On our way we saw people in a pool outside with drinks and decided we wanted to make our way out there. Luckily the door outside was next to the bar, so we were given our complimentary drinks in plastic glasses so we could take them out with us. There is nothing like drinking a mimosa outdoors in a hot pool. We had to pay for our second drink (but you wear a wristband that is scanned if you make any purchases and then you pay as you leave), but there is a little wooden door in the corner of the pool with a menu next to it, and someone inside comes and opens it to take your order – so we had to do that.

Feeling a little fuzzy after the second drink we decided to leave the hot water and head inside. First we visited the fire room, there is a lit fire in the middle and it is surrounded by seats and day beds for lounging, but that was a little too warm, so we headed to the swinging nest seats made for two. We thought we would go for another dip before getting changed but we were so relaxed we stayed in the nests until we had to leave. Four hours flew by, we even missed a couple of the rooms. It is without a doubt an expensive afternoon, and had we booked all our own activities and seen the price, we never would have gone, but I’m so glad we did, and if we visit Iceland again, I would save my pennies and make a return visit. It wasn’t too busy, just a handful of other couples were milling around (maybe we just timed it right), the staff were all really friendly, the atmosphere was so calming, lots of big glass windows so you could see the warm blue pools outside, but also lots of dark earthy tones and subdued lighting mirroring the volcanic landscape in the surrounding area, it was just a lovely way to spend an afternoon and a lovely way for Rob to spend his 40th.

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Day three saw us jumping back in the car and heading a bit further east. We stopped at Lögberg to see the site of the first Icelandic Parliament, there were quite a few tourists, but it still looked really pretty in the snow and we had a nice little walk over the bridges and along the river.

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Our next couple of stops were very much on the tourist route, but you couldn’t not join them. We stopped at the geothermal geyser at Selfoss, where like an idiot, I thought I’d pressed record on my phone as it erupted, only to find out later that it hadn’t worked.

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Our next tourist hotspot was Gullfoss – a big ol’ waterfall. It was pretty impressive, but not as impressive as the wind that we – and what appeared to be all the tourists in Iceland – had to battle with in order to reach the viewing platform, I’ve never been so grateful for my short sturdy legs, it was pretty hilarious.

A new furry friend

A new furry friend

For lunch we were booked in at Friðheimer Tomato farm in Reykholt. We were given a short talk on how they farm tomatoes in Iceland, as well as a trying a couple of varieties of tomatoes and a delicious drink made from green tomatoes, lime, honey, ginger and sparkling water (it sounds a bit odd but it was cooling and refreshing, which isn’t a bad thing when you are having lunch in a greenhouse while dressed in your winter layers!). Our package included the tomato soup with bread, we were welcome to add something else from the main menu if we wanted but the soup was more than enough, it was the best tomato soup I’ve ever eaten. We also had a pudding – apple pie, (although I’m not sure you can call it a pie as it didn’t have a top, it was more of a pot of pie filling, it was a mix of chopped apples and green tomatoes with sugar and cinnamon). If you had asked me beforehand, I would have screwed my nose up at green tomatoes, but it turns out they are quite versatile. The farm also breeds horses, so we stopped to say hi to them as we left.

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We ended the day by stopping off at one more waterfall, Urriðafoss. Smaller than the first waterfall, but no less beautiful, especially covered in snow and ice (the colours in my photos really don’t do it justice). The other added bonus is that it is far less popular with tourists, so it gave Rob the opportunity to take his time taking photos. The sun was starting to go down so there was also some beautiful light.

The view outside of Hotel Ranga

The view outside of Hotel Ranga

We then continued on to our second hotel, Hotel Rangá. More rustic than our first hotel, but just as lovely and friendly. We were really impressed by the owner, Thor, who takes the time every evening to introduce himself to his guests by visiting each table in the restaurant, it was a nice personal touch – he was also around during breakfast service making sure that everyone was happy and things were running smoothly. The idea with Hotel Rangá is that you are staying in a more rural area, so should the Aurora Borealis appear the staff can call your room to wake you up and let you know. Sadly they it didn’t appear during our stay but that is just the way it is, these things can’t be predicted.

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We started our final full day by visiting Seljalandsfoss - another busy waterfall, although as we were there fairly early, it wasn’t too bad. Usually, during the summer at least, this waterfall is popular because you can walk behind it, but during our trip not only was it very icy, but there was also a risk of thawing, so no one was allowed too close in case they either slipped and fell, or had giant clumps of thawing ice fall on them.

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Our second stop was a lighthouse at Dyrhólaey, and boy was that a windy pit stop, our guide had to hold the car doors for us when we returned to the car – I’m not even sure how he got his door open without any help and then climb inside without trapping a limb. Again it was pretty busy, there were great views (if you could open your eyes for long enough), I didn’t dare take my phone out to take a photo, I just knew that it would blow over the side of the cliff if I did. We then made another stop just down the hill from the lighthouse where we could enjoy the views without getting blown away.

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From Dyrhólaey we took a short drive round to Reynisfjara Beach, it has a wonderful big cave in the side of mountain Reynisfjall at one end, which has a fantastic basalt columned wall, unfortunately it is also super popular with tourists, so it was impossible to get a photo due to people sitting on it etc. People seemed less interested in the basalt sea stacks (Reynisdrangar) – which were awesome – and the rest of the near empty beach. While we were there we also had some fantastic changing light and cloud, we actually waited on one spot for quite a long time so Rob could take a picture of a rainbow… then we gave up, and as soon as he picked up his camera and turned away it appeared! It was okay – he caught it before it disappeared again!

For lunch, we drove around the corner from the beach to Iceland’s southernmost village, Vík. We stopped at the big restaurant/shop/cafe building, purpose built for the influx of tourists. Commercial but incredibly convenient, we had a wonderful soup which, if we had wanted more, was bottomless. I also bought a hand knitted Icelandic jumper, I checked the price with our guide (I wanted to make sure it wasn’t over-priced seems as we were in a tourist shop) he said price was middle of the range, so I knew I wasn’t being ripped off. He then helped me choose one, making sure it was a good fit. It was an expensive purchase – it probably worked out at around £120/ £130 – but it is knitted entirely by hand and the label attached even told me the name of the knitter (which I thought was nice), I absolutely adore it (I pop it on whenever I’m feeling chilly), and for all those reasons I think it was well worth the price.

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Post lunch and shop we were taken a little further along the road from Vík to another black sand beach, I’m not sure of the name, but I think it was somewhere near Kálfafell. This one was completely empty, it was amazing, we couldn’t actually see the sea but parked up by a huge cliff face filled with birds. We could see a main road in the distance but it was almost like being on another planet. We then did a bit of off-road driving to get us back to the main road.

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As we started heading back in the direction of our hotel we stopped at another busy waterfall, Skógafoss. This one has steps up the side so you can walk up to the top, but after a few days stomping around in my Sorel Caribous, my dodgy knee wasn’t up to it. So after a quick stop and few photos our guide drove us to a track just off the main road, almost directly opposite Skógafoss which leads down to another vast, completely empty beach (it was quite a fun, fast drive down to the water), I don’t think it is signposted and the only other people that tend to go down there are the super jeeps that give tourists a thrilling ride along the sand (we just saw the one jeep, just leaving as we turned on to the track). It was such a beautiful empty space.

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Our very last stop of the day was to a little waterfall back by Seljalandsfoss (just a short walk along a path). Our guide thought it would be nice to break the two waterfalls up, and also leave this one until the end of the day so there were less people around, as to see it, you have to walk a little way along the river bed through a cave entrance. When I say walking along the riverbed, what I mean is stepping on to large stones and boulders, they aren’t actual stepping stones, they are a bit uneven and some of them are loose, so for a short person with short arms and legs it was a bit challenging as I couldn’t reach the wall to balance myself as I stepped. In the end I gave up and just walked the last metre or so through the shallow water – it turns out one boot is slightly leaky! It was really fun though, and cool to see water falling into a cave-like space instead of being out in the open. On the way back out, Rob gave me his camera tripod to use as a walking pole – that made things much easier!

I’m already itching to go back to Iceland, I found it magical. We didn’t see much of Reykjavik because we were only there at night, but it felt quite small and quaint yet bustling, so we would love to explore it some more. We completely fell in love with how once out of the city, so much of the land feels raw and untouched, and the ever changing winter light was stunning. Sure there are a lot of tourists (including us) going to all the same spots, but it feels like the bits we have ticked off were just the tip of the iceberg. We would like to return at a slightly different time of year – not the height of summer, as we have heard that it gets horrendously busy – but it would be great to see the land during a different season, without as much ice and snow.

We will have to start saving now, as the only other thing to keep in mind when visiting Iceland is that it is expensive. If you budget by thinking how much you would expect to pay for something in the UK and then roughly double it, you’ll probably get some idea of how much you can expect to spend, it is however worth every single penny.

The rest of February has seen me hit pause on the character development while I spend some time trying to get used to using my ipad Pro and Procreate. I’ve tried a couple of times before but it has never felt quite right, so I’ve set myself a bit of a challenging project which will hopefully push me through the awkward stage. I’m not planning on giving up my traditional mediums – I think I will always love them first – but I think it is important to keep digital skills fresh, it is another great tool/medium. I’ve also finally updated to the latest Photoshop (from CS5) so I think I need to work on a few tutorials, just to make myself familiar with the updates and changes… give it a couple of weeks, I’ll be craving the feel of paper, pencil and paintbrush again! :)

Mid-Year Update 2018

So much for regular blog posts! I have no idea where the first half of the year went, but I certainly didn't spend it updating this blog! I don't want to send anyone to sleep with almost seven months worth of details so I'll just hit you up with a couple of highlights! Firstly, the site has had a bit of a work update, there are now new sketchbook collages to see, as well as a new section featuring an ongoing project where I illustrate heads. 

Secondly, one of the projects I've worked on this year is writing and illustrating my own story, "Miriam Makes A Difference".

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This was actually a birthday gift for Lewis, my friend's son. It was inspired by a day out we had together at Longleat, where we saw a variety of Mantis. Miriam is a Praying Mantis and the story revolves around her saving herself and fellow buggy creatures from a horde of hungry bats (to keep it simple we politely ignore Miriam's eating habits). 

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I gave myself four weeks to complete the project, from coming up with the story, right through to tying all the painted pages together with ribbon...but it took me eight, (sorry Lewis!), even though I rushed a fair bit and kind of cheated. I say 'cheated' as I took full advantage of the qualities of a Praying Mantis when illustrating. Usually if I wanted to illustrate something sequential I would be thinking about flow, points of view, scale... but the thing about the Praying Mantis is that they spend lots of time being very, very still, so I kept her in exactly the same spot, at exactly the same size on many of the pages - even when she does move it is only one arm! So while I played on the static nature of my main character, I tried to make up for the lack of movement by changing small details, so sometimes Miriam might have an umbrella, or sunglasses, or a hat, and on each page, each little buggy friend has moved to a different spot and is doing something different. I think it is a project that could definitely be developed and improved upon, but the most important thing is that Lewis liked it and didn't mind that it was late! 

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Finally, I recently spent a week Gishing! (Gishing - not fishing). Gish is the Great International Scavenger Hunt that takes place for one week each year. It is hosted by actor Misha Collins (who some people might know from Supernatural) and has been running since 2011. I've only recently started watching Supernatural, so needless to say I've only just started snooping on the instagram accounts of actors, and I've only just discovered Gish. I was a bit apprehensive at first (so much so that instead of signing up, I first bought a t-shirt and then donated a Gisholarship, so someone else who couldn't afford it, could take part), seeing pictures of past items, such as "VIDEO. Find someone you love and butter them up; literally, cover them in butter and then give them a big hug." made me nervous. However, I had a week before registration closed to decide and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I liked the idea of doing good, raising money for charity (via registration fee and t-shirt sales), having fun and breaking away from my usual routine. So I registered and set about, via the Gish app, finding a team to play with. I ended up joining team Smelly Friends (A F.R.I.E.N.D.S reference - we don't actually stink), thanks to a lovely friendly invite from our Captain Natasha. There were 15 of us spread throughout the UK, Ireland, the U.S and Australia. It has been such great fun being able to chat with complete strangers, of varying ages, from around the world, all working towards the same goal! The hunt involves a list of over 200 items that teams can attempt, some teams know each other physically so can take part in challenges that need several team members to complete, but we each chose items that could be done either alone or with the help of family members. Each item is worth points, the team with the most points wins ( it was a trip to New Zealand this year), although we were a 'just for fun' team, so aren't holding out any hopes of winning - some teams really appear to be, 'life-on-hold-in-it-to-win-it!' Naturally I veered away from the challenges that involved causing myself too much embarrassment (maybe next year) and opted for the creative challenges, so I thought I'd share some here. 

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Item 31: You are never too old to...
So this is the most 'outgoing' I get, plastering myself in make-up in a childlike manner, but only because it also gave me a good excuse to build a fort. Unexpectedly, this may have been my favourite item to complete - I was really fond of my simple little fort. 

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Item 155: Using only the contents of your spice cabinet, create a portrait of one (or all) of the Spice Girls
I knew I wanted this item as soon as I saw it, then once I had assigned myself to it I wondered what the hell I had let myself in for! I enjoyed this because, although it wasn't easy, using the spices turned out to be less challenging than I had thought - as long as you resist the urge to blow tiny particles out of the way and sneezing. My magic tools turned out to be a mini skewer with a paddle on one end, and a teaspoon, but you only ever put the tiniest amount of spice on the spoon at one time, no matter how impatient you are getting, if a tiny bit falls in the wrong place you can nudge it, or cover it with a different spice, if loads of spice falls in the wrong place you may as well grab the hoover and start again! I'm not the most patient person in the world so I was pretty impressed with the focus I had doing this, I also really liked how her hair turned out. 

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Item 118: You know Winnie the Pooh. But have you met his cousin Vinnie da Pooh? Show us a page from the book about Pooh Bear’s mob-boss cousin.
This was another item that I knew I wanted to complete. In hindsight, having seen submissions from other teams I realise I could have saved myself a lot of time by doing one large image and a single line of text... but when have I ever made things easy for myself? (The answer is never - if there is a longer and harder way of doing something I'll inadvertently do it). Naturally, I decided to not only create two illustrations but to also start writing a whole story - I guess it is just what I do! I really enjoyed trying to capture the style of the original, non-Disney, Winnie the Pooh. I suppose it isn't too far away from what I do with outlines and watercolour, but I really had to concentrate on the detail in the line work, and keeping the colour delicate and not too heavy.  

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Item 162: A painting of Castiel alive in the time of dinosaurs. (You may do this with traditional media or digitally).
I didn't have a full week of Gish as I was off on my holibobs, so decided to take this item on, on my last full day at home. It went okay. I was annoyed that I couldn't get a good likeness of Cas, but I didn't have time to sit and worry about it, or try and keep redrawing it if I wanted to get it completed by the end of the day - I just had to get it done. For anyone familiar with Supernatural, Cas is telling the dinosaurs what he learned from the pizza man... and they seem to be pretty interested! It was the first time I had approached drawing characters by firelight, again I'm not sure why I decided to make it harder for myself, but by the time I came to paint it and actually started considering colour use, the sketch was all done and ready to go, so I just rolled with it. I'm quite pleased, I think I've managed to get a fairly good contrast between the light and the shadow, and although there is room for improvement, it isn't bad considering I knocked an A3 illustration - concept to finish - out in a day.

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Item 201: It's recently been discovered that there's a lake on Mars. Show us a summer alien "Beach Day" at the lake, complete with picnicking, fishing, and swimming aliens. (You may create this as a photo, a drawing, or a digital painting).
So in my infinite wisdom I decided that I could maybe squeeze in one more final item the night before my holiday... although the fact that I chose to do it digitally suggests that I wasn't that confident in completing it before leaving and would maybe have to take it with me. It was nowhere near completed by the end of the night so I ended up continuing with it in the car while driving up to the Peak District (obviously I wasn't the one doing driving, I mean I can multitask okay but I can't actually drive, so I certainly wasn't multitasking on this occasion). I then finished it off that evening while sitting with my family and drinking wine. Again, it was a bit of a rush, I did have another day to do it before the Gish deadline, but I wanted to spend that time with my family, so I only gave myself that night to complete it. Originally I wanted to create my own aliens, but knowing that I was on quite a tight deadline I decided that not having to think up entirely new characters would probably be easier (maybe I did learn something from the previous items about not doing the hardest-most-time-consuming-thing after all). 

So that's pretty much everything for now. Hopefully I'll be quicker at posting next time, and with a bit of luck it will also be a bit shorter!