Monthly Archives: April 2017

Birds and coffee

In the garden of the hotel I had taken a photograph of a weaver bird. They are typical African birds and are called weavers because the male weaves a spherical nest and then, when finished, invites the female to inspect it. If she doesn’t like it, she destroys it and the male can start all over again.


The painting was not a great success. No preliminary drawing this time because I thought it’s only a bird. What could go wrong? Still, a good exercise, especially colours. After I finished it (and when is a painting ever finished?) I tried to photograph it, but that was harder than expected. The camera I use is a small Panasonic digital camera and it has a choice of ‘scene modes’: portrait, mountains, sunset, night sky etcetera. For some reason the bird was best photographed as ‘food’. So be it.

The portrait of the girl gave me grief and an earlier version, carefully drafted, came out horrible and looked like Michelle Pfeiffer. Not that Michelle Pfeiffer looks horrible, on the contrary, but there was, obviously, no likeness. Then I decided to simply put paint on my crappy sketch paper and try till I got it right. That was with the first attempt, so another portrait on crappy crumpled paper…
The portrait of the boy went fine, the blue is accidental, but I decided to leave it that way. Serendipity in art?

As always when absorbed in an interest, I read everything to further my knowledge and skill of that subject. From paints to colours to composition, van Gogh, Da Vinci, Neolithic cave drawings and Andy Warhol.

After I read something about the materials that artists use, I thought to have a look at my paint to see if I could learn something from it. It’s a small set of 14 colours for children (age 3 and older). It even came with a small brush that I’ve rarely used. I had bought it in Uzbekistan for a dollar and it is Russian made. It does have however, a small text in English: Recommended for kids and artistic creative works [Ha!]. Ingredients: drinking water [sic], dextrin, sugar, glycerin, organic and non organic pigments [when lost in the woods, you can always eat your paint]. Safe if use at purpose. Warning! Small parts. Best before end. Made in Russia.

Lately, I have most of my breakfasts in the Trianon, a beautiful coffee house in Piazza with high ceilings and a good atmosphere. It’s wonderful sitting there, framing compositions, studying skulls and drinking coffee.

Reading Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. On the cover there was a picture of the author and I thought I’d sketch it.


I was really happy with it because of capturing the essence of the photo in just a few strokes. Looking back on it, there are tiny improvements possible but that takes away from the spontaneity and I’d rather leave it as it is.

Eating at a cheap restaurant I moved outside because the only table inside was close to the smelly toilets. After I was done with the food I turned to my book while I was finishing the beer. When I looked up I saw that three street kids had approached me and were staring at my leftovers. Almost imperceptibly I nodded and the three flew at my table. Two tore the injera apart and scooping up the rich gravy. The third grabbed the three tiny bones. Then they ran with it. The waiter walked on the street and shouted after the kids. It’s shameful, he said to me, shaking his head. It certainly is, I thought.

Back in the hotel I made a sketch of David’s nostrils.


Then I thought to give them some more context. That was the really hard part.

The Ethiopians claim, naturally, that coffee was first discovered in their country. The history of coffee is an intriguing one and entire books are written on the subject. The buzz of coffee was first discovered by goats nibbling on the berries of the coffee tree. According to legend, a ninth century goatherd, Kaldi, noticed the capricious (pun intended) behaviour of his animals after eating the berrries and decided to try some himself. He sensed an unusual excitement as ninth century goat herding was as a rule not very stimulating in itself and so he went to a nearby monastery and presented his findings to a monk. This monk dismissed his discovery and threw the berries in the fire [reminiscent of the record company dismissing the Beatles: guitar bands are on their way out….], but the ensueing delicious smell attracted the other monks and they retrieved the roasted beans from the fire. Voila, a new brew was born! One lump or two lumps? Steamed milk anyone? Macchiato perhaps?

As a small follow up on the discovery, it is interesting to contemplate the effect of the use of coffee on civilisation. It has been argued that the shift from an alchohol dominant culture to a coffee dominant culture could have had a determining effect on the rapid developments during the enlightenment. During much of early European history it is believed that the majority of the population was in an almost constant state of intoxication, and yes, this includes children. I was reading Dickens not long ago and young David Copperfield drank ale at a precious young age.
Coffee first spread through the Islamic world and the beans were left by the Turks after their siege of Vienna. Shortly after that the first coffee houses were openend in that city.

I couldn’t have written this blog without coffee…


Coffee and birds

After my portrait of the Ethiopian priest (in my last post), I tried my luck with an Ethiopian coffee pot, the gabana. This pot is used to pour out the traditional Ethiopian coffee as I have drunk it many times. It’s generally served with some herb and way too much sugar. The herb is said to be good for the stomach.


Most of my try-outs turn out to be better than expected and then I regret having used my crappy sketch paper. I have to become more confident and start using my thick paper for watercolours straight away. In the above case for example, the pot needs to be darker, but I’m afraid that if I paint an extra layer, the paper would buckle and warp too much.


The above watercolour is a Turaco, but it’s hard to see because of the lack of colour that makes this bird so spectacular. So, why no colour? Because it was  my first commission! On the terrace of the  hotel I had met a Danish guy who is working on a website for birding in Ethiopia. When we looked at his photos I said that it would be nice to make a watercolour of one. He said he actually wanted a logo for his website and so he asked me to make a watercolour of a photo he liked. That afternoon I made a draft and put some watercolour in it to see if could do it and when I showed it to him he was very excited. He said he couldn’t believe I had done that in an hours work. I made a few tiny adjustments and then he said it was perfect, even though it was only the draft on the crappy paper! He offered to pay me, but I said I was happy to accept dinner in the restaurant next door.

After the bird I  made a study of a girl, but near the end I realised I had forgotten the background, so I repaired that with GIMP. I am not so sure if that improved the painting at all, so I have uploaded both versions for the reader to judge.

Living in the hotel for quite a while now, I’ve become familiar with quite a few characters that surround the place and I’ve come to fear the greetings that involve meeting these people: I never know what kind of handshake is coming and exactly what to do. Some come in with their hand in a high position and some as if they go for a regular handshake. What follows is a kind of judo: they jerk your hand down and lean over to touch shoulders. Embarrassing is not knowing the number of times: often one time, but one guy said three times is good practice among good friends to which position I was apparently just elevated. Besides these common manoeuvres, there exist a number of cool hip-hop style (what do I know) shakes, sometimes a normal handshake is unexpectedly changed in an overhand shake. Sometimes people merely caress the palm of your hand rather than shake it. And so forth. It is complicated.