Owen Williams explains his affinity for woodcock and tells Janet Menzies why he’s started painting on vellum – and prefers to venture out at dusk
Owen Williams’ work is inspired by watching wildlife at a time that belongs to nature, rather than humans. He explains his affinity for to Janet Menzies, and why he has started painting on vellum.
Without much regard for whether the word exists or not, Owen Williams describes himself as a “crepusculophile”. A quick check online shows that it doesn’t. Asked to define the term, he says: “I have always loved the dusk. Really that was what inspired my first sporting painting, when I was 15 or 16 years old. I had read Peter Scott’s Eye of the Wind and that made me want to seek the excitement of being outdoors, to experience for myself those sounds of the wind and the geese. I made myself a decoy out of polystyrene tiles and painted it in teal colours and set off without much optimism to see if I could decoy a duck. It was a January evening. There was still snow laying in the lee of the rushes. It was getting darker and colder, and then this teal drake landed next to my decoy. The tingle I felt – it had actually happened. I wanted to flush the bird and shoot it fairly, so I walked to the edge of the water with my single-barrel shotgun and it got up and flew… I hadn’t taken the safety catch off. I was livid with myself. But I walked down off the moor and I thought that was such an amazing experience and I had to get it on paper. That was my first crepuscular moment.”
Ever since, Williams’ work has been infused with the emotions generated by watching wildlife as it inhabits a time of day that belongs to nature rather than humans – the crepuscular. A wild boar trots across a snowy ride, lit more by moonlight than daylight. A stag holding hinds pauses for a moment as the shadows lengthen below a Scottish ben. And woodcock in the dusk, just fleeting shadows glimpsed against a paler sky. “My favourite pastime is watching woodcock flight out to feed on a cold winter’s evening,” he says. “In 2007, I started a project to ring woodcock. In France, Yves Ferrand had pioneered a technique to catch and ring woodcock, so I began working with the GWCT to establish woodcock ringing as an activity across the UK. Now we have the Woodcock Network of more than 30 enthusiasts all over the country, ringing about 1,500 woodcock each year.
“I introduced geolocating trackers so you can follow the birds on their massive migrations. Olwyn was a favourite. She went off to Russia and raised a brood and I was watching her return journey, hoping to see her back in Wales again – but she went to Hull instead. Then the next year she went to Lincolnshire. Seeing all this happening gives you great respect for these extraordinary birds as individuals. I give talks on woodcock and I detect that people are changing their shooting attitudes as they gain an insight into the birds. It is exciting because I want to communicate about sustainable and ethical shooting.
REAL ROUGH SHOOTING
“I pick-up on snipe shoots. That’s real rough shooting, and it is amazing. You see wildlife that otherwise you would never come across. I grew up living in the moment of being in landscape and in wilderness, and the frisson you only get with hunting in that environment. I think even on commercial shoots there is a mood of people feeling culturally it is not cool any more to be shooting large numbers of driven birds.”
Williams funds some of the Woodcock Network’s research through selling his bronze woodcock sculptures. Purchasers can get involved in the tagging of a woodcock and then follow its movements online. “Each bronze comes with its own reference number and accompanying book. If I manage to recapture their woodcock and download the migration data I send a supplementary page.”
Recently, Williams has begun painting on vellum. He explains: “I found a reproduction of the Book of Kells in a second-hand bookshop and was enthralled by the quality of the illuminating, so decided to incorporate it in my work. Vellum is still available from just one company, William Cowley Ltd, who still produce the vellum used in Hansard. Learning how to use gold leaf on the illumination was a big learning curve but it came out well in the end. The watercolour is a difficult medium as vellum is so much less absorbent but I found I could add gouache and I am pleased with the way it came out. I chose woodcock and hare as my first two subjects as they have a mythic quality about them. I have always felt the communication between the hunter and his quarry, and I want to reflect that in my work.”
Williams is a member of Redspot artists group, currently putting together an exhibition at All Hallows-on-the-Wall, City of London, in aid of XLP, a charity working with inner-city youths (www.xlp.org.uk).
For more on Williams’ work and projects, go to: www.owens-portfolio.com