Friday 27 July 2012

Pages from a wildlife sketchbook

Watching badgers one evening in the Cotswold hills

while sheep graze

and geese rise from the water meadows in the valley below.

All sketches on the blog are featured in 'Ride the Wings of Morning' and are (c) Sophie Neville. Please contact me if you need to use them on

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Otters and more otters ~

Bee the otter by Sophie Neville

One of the most notable things about our otters is that their sense of touch is of primary importance. It may be that they are adapted to feeling whilst looking around for signs of danger but I am always struck by the fact that they will feel without looking. On the whole primates, including human beings, look at what they are touching. But otters are otters and have a different way of life. This is a line drawing I executed of our Asian short-clawed otter Bee.  I knew her for over twelve years. She was a beautiful creature who brought joy to many.

Jims the otter by Sophie Neville

This line drawing of Jims, Bee's companion, was drawn from a photograph taken whilst he was swimming under water, his back legs tucked underneath him. I'm not too keen on drawing from photographs but needs must. He was very much a boy with an ever inquisitive personality and in this instance was in his element.

The BBC Natural History Unit made a wonderful drama documentary with our otters, entitled 'The Day in the Life of the Otter' which was repeated many times.  Hannah Gordon starred in the feature taking Bee's voice, Denis Lawson played Jims. The aim of the piece was to try and express animals' motivation and thought patterns without becoming anthropomorphic. However when Spike Milligan arrived to play the voice of our dog Jake these good intentions dissolved and laughter took over. My mother was given the small part of a furious hen, one of our ex-battery hens, who in the drama had her eggs stolen by the two otters. They were rather fond of cracking open and eating any eggs they could find. In real life this involved raiding our kitchen. They were cautious and a bit frightened of the hens, natural behaviour which is quite funny to watch with or without Spike Milligan. I have written about this and other stories in Funnily Enough.

The highlight of the film is a sequence in which the male and female otters meet in the water. This was beautifully shot, in slow motion. I could only draw their companionship, capturing the fact they even when together they hunt for food by touch whilst keeping an eye out for danger of any kind. One would not imagine that they have many preditors in Britian. It was only when I was keeping an eye on a pair of very young otters that we were hand-rearing that I realised they really were cautious about birds - not hens but birds of prey. No doubt eagles and owls, buzzards and kites will be a threat to young otters. This must be why they look up whilst turning stones under water.

Bee and Jims the tame short-clawed Asian otters by Sophie Neville

Our otters are rather frightened of deep water - where in the wild preditors do lurk. European otters will not swim under a road bridge. They like to get out and walk along the bank. If they can't do this they will cross the road, which has lead to numerous casualties, usually young male otters looking for new territory. We have been supporting projects to build ledges under road bridges for otters to use, so that needless fatalities can be avoided.

All sketches on the blog are featured in 'Ride the Wings of Morning' and are (c) Sophie Neville. Please contact me if you need to use them on

Friday 20 July 2012

The Otter Sketchbook

Sketch of an otter by Sophie Neville

Bee the otter testing the water ~ a sketch investigated by Jims

Drawing otters is tricky, firstly because they don't stay still for a moment and secondly because our tame otters are so affectionate and inquisitive that they continually want to see what you are doing. The paw prints on the sketch above are not made with paint but with mud from a wet creature who would have made the paper all soggy, given half a chance.

Sketch of an otter by Sophie Neville

Our otter Jims was these easiest to draw since he was less energetic than the others. After numerous attempts with a pencil I found it best to sketch in a broad pen when I was with the otters. I'd then go inside and draw with thick ink using a glass tube onto cartridge paper to capture a likeness of character.

Sketch of an otter by Sophie Neville

This sketch shows thier small partially webbed hands and their tiny ears and thick, rudder-like tail. I forgot the whiskers, which are very important to otters. Like other mammals they need them to estimate their body width so that they do not get stuck going down holes in the river bank.

Mum kept telling me to make the eyes larger and more appealing but it didn't work. They have small eyes. I always know when someone has drawn or sculpted an otter they have not observed well as they get the confirmation wrong. They are often given the legs of a dog - but the are mustelids and have an altogether more primitive structure.

One trick of composition is to make sure that one eye is in the centre of the page. This applies to any portrait. But rules are to be broken. I just keep drawing, keep sketching and painting,

keep observing the animals

despite being interrupted or sidetracked until I have one picture that works - then I print it and sign it, mount it and hang it on the wall.

An otter on a rock by Sophie Neville

You can read more about living with otters on ~

 All sketches on the blog are featured in 'Ride the Wings of Morning' and are (c) Sophie Neville. Please contact me if you need to use them on