Ben Woodhams – 2014

Ben Woodhams amongst gannets on the Bass rock

Ben Woodhams amongst gannets on the Bass rock

Late last year I was lucky enough to be awarded the SWLA’s Seabird Drawing Course Award for July 2014. I had first heard of the award when trawling through the SWLA website one autumn day, and I thought I might as well give it a go and apply, as I had nothing to lose. Actually the first thing I did was fire off a quick email to check whether I was eligible – I wasn’t sure whether I was too old, or whether the bursary could be awarded to non-UK residents (I live in Denmark).
Once I had received a positive reply confirming that I was indeed eligible, I set about making a short application and getting together a few examples of my work. Actually it wasn’t hard at all articulating what I could get out of the course – I was desperate to spend time with other artists and see how they worked. I live on Bornholm, an island in the Baltic, where there are very few people who seem to share my twin passions of birds and art. There was also the fact that the tutors were all incredibly accomplished artists whose work I admired and respected. woodhams-2014-0004Lastly, the opportunity to see really big colonies of seabirds (something we don’t really get over here) represented a significant added bonus.
I was over the moon when I find out that I had received the bursary. Without it I really wouldn’t have been able to make the journey all the way to Scotland as it would have represented too much of a ‘self-indulgence’ which my purse strings just wouldn’t have allowed. The bursary made it possible and meant that I could relax and enjoy myself and get as much out of the course as possible.
As the course approached, Mark Boyd who is the administrator for the course, sent out a few emails to the participants, suggesting some key items that we should bring, and reminding us that it would be a ‘false economy’ to skimp on art materials – advice that I would be really grateful for once the course begun. All my tickets were booked, and I even managed to get a really good deal on one of the ‘pods’ at the Aberlady campsite – this also proved to be a great choice as I was considering roughing it in a tent at one stage.
I arrived in Aberlady a day or two early, and by the time I met the other course participants on the Saturday evening in the Ducks pub, I had reached a fever pitch of excitement. It soon became apparent that many if not most of the other people had been on the course before, some several times, and straight away I became aware of the warm, friendly and supportive atmosphere. There was an intriguing mixture of people and abilities, from comparative novices to professional artists, and it became clear quite early on that this was not an ‘art course’ in the typical ‘this is how you make olive green’ sense. Rather, the course was an opportunity for a wide range of people to work together – to discuss and compare and feed off each other – all under the watchful eyes of the tutors.
The next six days then, were spent visiting various seabird colonies in the environs of Aberlady – principally the local estuary, Dunbar, St Abbs Head and Bass Rock.woodhams-2014-0002 We would meet in the morning at the hotel, pick up our lunch packs, and drive together to one of the localities. The day would be spent looking, drawing and painting, and then we would head back to the hotel for dinner. After dinner we would have a very informal session where we would lay our day’s work out for each other to look at. The four tutors were all extremely approachable and provided support, encouragement and advice in very different ways, which was really a breath of fresh air. I really believe that their particular blend of experience, artistic expertise and teaching style meant that there really was something for everyone. As Mark said at one point, just because one teacher tells you one thing and another tells you something else doesn’t mean that of them is wrong! A particular highlight was looking through Darren’s portfolio on the last day. Some of the other participants also got to see John Busby’s studio while I was on Bass Rock. I would have liked to have seen more of Greg and John T’s work. The other course participants were no less inspirational and encouraging, and a real eye-opener for me was seeing how they worked and discussing their work with them.
A quick word on the places we visited. On the first day I couldn’t understand why everyone was getting so worried about the weather, and whether or not we would get to visit Bass Rock. Surely it couldn’t be that good? It was, and then some. I will never forget my two days on the Bass – deafening noise, an unholy stench, a stinging wind, and gannets as far as the eye could see – truly an other-worldly place. St Abbs head was almost its equal, an incredible collection of cliffs and rocks that, after a day or two of drawing, you couldn’t help taking home with you.woodhams-2014-0003
We were lucky-ish with the weather, and whenever it did rain, it really did help to see other people huddled under their umbrellas, desperately trying to record what they were seeing. Back home a spot of rain usually sent me scurrying for cover, and if there is one lesson that I have learned from this course, it is that the best, most exciting work is often that produced when you are being most challenged by the environment. Would I recommend this course to anyone? Yes, a thousand times. Did the bursary make a difference – yes, it really did. So much so, that I’m thinking maybe it’s not that self-indulgent to make the trip again in a few years’ time…woodhams-2014-0005