Verdi portrait

The other day my daughter mentioned the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, and I was reminded of a fantastic portrait of him painted by Giovanni Boldini. When I was at art school I had a poster of this image on my wall, so the splendid gentleman with his top hat and jaunty scarf would greet me often in the course of my day. The poster is long gone, but just a mention of the name Verdi instantly brings this handsome portrait back to me.

Did you know that in the World Beard and Moustache Championships there is a category of beard called the “Verdi”? Of course there is. There are quite a few people around the world who take facial hair very seriously!

world beard champs

These guys have all been competitors in the World Beard and Moustache Championships over the years. A good number of them come from Germany and Switzerland, where beard cultivation is a well developed art form.

Over the centuries, beards and moustaches have gone in and out of fashion. Depending on the look you choose, the effect can vary enormously. A big white beard for example, as worn by Socrates and Santa Claus, is reassuring and conveys wisdom and kindness.

Painting by American artist Norman Rockwell.

 

A carefully manicured goatee, worn by Charles Dickens, gave him an air of distinction and individuality. Apparently he was also fond of fancy waistcoats and gold jewellery. Very dapper!

Dickens

Shakespeare is thought to have been bearded too. There is some doubt as to what he really looked like, but this painting makes him look very cultured and intelligent:

Shakespeare

His neatly trimmed beard comes to a point, and brings to mind another Elizabethan gentleman, Sir Walter Raleigh. In those days a beard was a sign of manliness, but in the next century (the 17th) it became fashionable for men to be clean-shaven with long, curly hair (often wigs).

17th century man

Fashions come and go (thank goodness) and not everyone follows the herd. In the 1960s it was in protest against social constraints and repressive government policies that young people grew their hair and beards long and called themselves “Hippies.” In the ’70s and ’80s beards became unfashionable again, as money and success were seen as what society should be striving for once more. For some men it came down to a choice between their beard and their job, as certain occupations (police, health care professionals, Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) forbade facial hair.

Thankfully, today there is much more freedom in that department, and the beard is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

beard comp poster

There are clubs and associations around the world celebrating a rich variety of facial decoration. Celebrities from George Clooney to Graham Norton are sporting beards these days, and for those who have been standing out in the crowd for the last few decades it comes as a bit of a shock.

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Children’s author Philip Ardagh stands two metres tall and has always worn a prodigious beard to match his size 16 feet. Now that beards are all the rage, he may have to up his game! Maybe a little moustache wax will do the trick…

David Lindo

Unlike many countries around the world, the UK doesn’t have an official national bird. Broadcaster and bird enthusiast David Lindo, otherwise known as the Urban Birder, has launched a campaign to get people voting for the bird they think should represent Britain. He’s written a great article about choosing a national bird HERE.

The choice of bird has been whittled down to ten candidates: the mute swan, kingfisher, robin, blue tit, puffin, red kite, wren, blackbird, barn owl and hen harrier. If you want to hear what each of these birds sounds like, click HERE for a BBC Radio 4 recording of them all. You might be surprised by some of them!

Harry Potter fans might well choose the barn owl as our national bird! Photo ©Peter Trimming

Harry Potter fans might well choose the barn owl as our national bird!
Photo ©Peter Trimming

When you’re ready to vote, you can visit the official Vote for Britain’s National Bird website. So which of these lovely birds do you think deserves the title? They are all very different, ranging from the tiny blue tit to the imposing swan. Each one is beautiful in its own way, and while some are very familiar, like the robin and blackbird, others are rare and special, like the red kite and the kingfisher.

The red kite is a bird of prey that has recently been reintroduced in England and Scotland. The photo above was taken in Wales by Tim Felce.

The red kite is a bird of prey that has recently been reintroduced in England and Scotland.   The photo above was taken in Wales. Photo ©Tim Felce.

Some of them are birds of prey, like the owl and hen harrier, which hunt small animals or other birds. Kingfishers, of course, eat fish. Other smaller birds eat only berries and seeds, so they are vegetarian and peaceful creatures. Should this be a consideration as we choose a bird to represent our nation?

Kingfishers are very striking, but there are seven different sub-species around the world in a wide range of colours. This is the common kingfisher which we see in the UK. Photo ©Andreas Trepte

Kingfishers are very striking, and there are seven different sub-species around the world in a wide range of colours. This is the common kingfisher which we see in the UK.
Photo ©Andreas Trepte

Setting the issue of character aside, should we choose the bird that is most widely seen across the UK, or one that is distinctive and rare? Until now, the robin has held a special place in people’s hearts, and has been our unofficial national bird. Will the public make this official?

The Victorians loved to put robins on Christmas cards. In the 1960s they were voted Britain's unofficial national bird. Photo ©Francis C. Franklin

The Victorians loved to put robins on Christmas cards. In the 1960s the robin was voted Britain’s unofficial national bird. Photo ©Francis C. Franklin

 

I haven’t decided which one I’ll vote for yet. If I were choosing on the basis of looks, I would go for the sweet little blue tit, or the handsome kingfisher.

The blue tit is not only pretty, it also eats aphids and other insect pests that destroy our plants.

The blue tit is not only pretty, it also eats aphids and other insect pests that destroy our plants. Photo ©Maximilian Dorsch

As you may have noticed from some of my books, I am also a big fan of the puffin. (I seem to write quite a lot about birds, including penguins and flamingos, but neither of those is very British!)

This little bird has a special place in my heart! Photo ©Richard Bartz

This little bird has a special place in my heart!
Photo ©Richard Bartz

I hope you’ll find the time to help vote for our official National Bird. You have until May 7th to decide.

Lewis the puffin, illustrated by Gabby Grant.

Lewis the puffin, illustrated by Gabby Grant.

 

The very first Bobbly Bunny, born on Christmas Eve 2014.

The very first Bobbly Bunny, born on Christmas Eve 2014.

Over Christmas we went to visit some friends who have a 5-year-old daughter. I decided to make her a little present from some bobbly socks that were perfect for sewing. As you can see from the picture, two socks were all I needed to make a cute toy rabbit, and she loved it! When my own daughter was that age, she used to be fascinated by miniature things, so I gave the first Bobbly Bunny a little yellow backpack full of interesting items. I put in a shiny toy trumpet (a Christmas decoration) and some sheet music, a small notebook and a set of mini crayons. These tiny items were such a hit that I later sent a few more, including a map of the London Underground, a photo album (with pictures of bunnies) and an even smaller toy bunny that would fit inside the backpack.

This bunny has a blue felt satchel for her music lessons.

This bunny has a blue felt satchel for her music lessons.

After that first success, I thought it would be fun to make more Bobbly Bunnies, and give them cute little bags full of goodies. I rushed off to buy more bobbly socks, and looked for just the right sort of fabric to make the bags.

Inside her satchel, this bunny has a trumpet, some sheet music and a pink notebook.

Inside her satchel, this bunny has a trumpet, some sheet music and a pink notebook.

It’s fun to think up all sorts of accessories for the bunnies. Some of them play musical instruments. Others carry toys and books, maps, diaries, photo albums and more! I’m wondering whether perhaps I should make each bunny a birth certificate, too…

This bunny has a flowery backpack with a French horn, sheet music and a yellow notebook.

This bunny has a flowery backpack with a French horn, sheet music and a yellow notebook.

At Hillhead Library in the West End of Glasgow there is a craft fair that’s held once a month as part of The Makers Markets. It’s a great place to find unique hand-made gifts of all sorts, and at the next fair (Saturday the 28th of March, 11:00am to 4:00pm) I’ll have a table laden with my Bobbly Bunnies! bunny trio There are baby- and toddler-safe bunnies (with soft, stitched faces) and little boy blue bunnies. There are button-eyed bunnies for older kids (4+) and all sorts of bags and accessories that can be mixed-and-matched.

Just a few of the Bobbly Bunnies waiting to meet you!

Just a few of the Bobbly Bunnies waiting to meet you!

If you can’t get to the Hillhead Library to meet the Bobbly Bunnies on 28 March, just visit my Contact page and let me know if you’d like one made-to-order for someone special. Hope to see you soon! BandW bunny logo

Tiger English

March 2015 seemed ages away when I was working with the Scottish Book Trust and a group of fun, creative ladies in Fife to produce a picture book on the theme of healthy eating. But now it is nearly upon us! Being Early Years Writer-in-Residence 2013 was a brilliant experience, and I am delighted to announce that our finished book is now in print!

Tiger English back

Eilidh Muldoon has done a lovely job with her charming and comical illustrations. I’m sure they will be a huge hit with their target audience, ie. every toddler in Scotland! The Scottish Book Trust will be distributing our book free to thousands of children as part of their Bookbug scheme. It’s a fantastic initiative which encourages a love of reading from an early age, and facilitates the sharing of books between parents and their children.

This was my first collaborative writing project, and I really enjoyed working with the lovely ladies at Home-Start Levenmouth and the great group of mums who helped me formulate the story. If you want to read more about the whole process, we put together a blog about it called The Methil Makars. You can see some of the fun things we did to explore our healthy eating theme, like making food art and visiting the Buckhaven Community Garden.

I am very grateful to everyone at the Scottish Book Trust who helped bring this book to “fruition”! The Early Years team are a great bunch of people and it was a genuine pleasure to work with them. I’m looking forward to seeing them again (and meeting the illustrator Eilidh Muldoon for the first time) at our Book Launch in a few weeks. And if you have a toddler at home, watch out for your copy of Never Bite a Tiger on the Nose!

Kohinoor watercolours

For her 18th birthday this year, my daughter received a Koh-i-noor watercolour set of a very clever design. It has four round discs, each with six colours and a depression in the middle for mixing. The discs screw together, one on top of the other, so that the whole set is about the size of a can of tuna when closed.

The gift was a surprise from her Dad, who got it in London on the advice of an artist friend. When she opened it I think I was even more thrilled than she was, because it was just like a paint set I had at her age! Mine was green rather than black, but otherwise it was exactly the same. I loved that set and used it for years, and until now I had never seen another one like it.

In senior school I loved working with watercolours, and the art teacher was happy to let me get on with painting what I wanted to with my own stackable watercolour set. I had a special Chinese paintbrush too, dark red with soft bristles that came to a perfect point.

Chinese brushes

These Chinese brushes are designed for calligraphy, and the bristles are made from weasel tails or goat hair. The top brush in this photo has soft goat hair, and the bottom one is a mixture of goat and the coarser weasel hair. I think my brush was a mixture too, though it was a long time ago and the brush is long lost. When I was 17 I used a photograph from the National Geographic magazine to paint this Inuit child:

Eskimo

The rich colours of my special paint set made it possible to get those warm skin tones and deep black of the shadows. My Chinese brush with its fine point allowed me to capture the loose hair on the child’s forehead.

There is nothing like working with real paint on real paper. But more and more these days, artists are turning to computers to produce very similar results that can be shared electronically and reproduced countless times. Many children’s books that were once illustrated the “old fashioned” way with pen and ink or other traditional media are now being brought to life digitally instead.

A good example of this trend is the work of my friend and illustrator Margaret Chamberlain. She has been illustrating children’s books for over 20 years, and when she first illustrated one of my books (Pink! in 2008) it was a departure for her into a new technique and simpler style. Her earlier books had always been done with richly detailed ink and watercolour artwork. An excellent example of this is The Enchanted Flute by Angela McAllister:

©Margaret Chamberlain 1990

©Margaret Chamberlain 1990

The central character of this story is an impossibly demanding monarch, Queen Pernickity, who wants only the very best of everything. You can see from the illustration above that Margaret has created texture and lots of detail with a fine ink outline and rich colour using watercolours.

The Enchanted Flute has recently been released as an iBook, and on her website Download Children’s Books you can watch a short video demonstration of Margaret drawing Queen Pernickity using a computer and a programme called ArtRage. As she points out, it takes much less time working on computer, and it’s easy to correct mistakes. The finished effect is very similar to real paint on paper, and it can be sent directly to publishers and printers to produce a finished book.

So is there any future for real paint and paper?

Another recent invention, the WaterColorBot, has reversed this relationship between art and computers. Instead of computer art replacing paint and paper, this machine translates art drawn on a computer into “real” art through a mechanised process similar to an Etch-a-Sketch:

©Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories 2013

©Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories 2013

The paintbrush moves around an x and y axis (two metal rods) powered by pulleys and wire cables. In this way a drawing made on a computer can be reproduced multiple times, and the WaterColorBot becomes a type of printer. The idea began with a 12-year-old girl called Sylvia who wanted to make a robot for a science fair. She has her own website, Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show, where she demonstrates fun creative projects. When she took her idea of a painting robot to the people at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories they were happy to help out!

My daughter is still keen to experiment with real ink and watercolours, and has done a few sketches with her new paint set:

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

Even though technology seems to have made real paint and paper somewhat obsolete, I’m quite tempted to buy myself a little Koh-i-noor paint set too…

©Lynne Rickards 2002

©Lynne Rickards 2002

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