Replicating the Beauty of Nature

I have been enjoying a wonderful book called Japanese Zen Gardens, by Yoko Kawaguchi. I have also been thinking about creating a miniature Zen garden out of modelling clay, artificial grass and so on. This, the book tells me, is called bonseki – the art of creating miniature landscapes in a container. Nothing validates a silly little craft project like finding out it’s a ‘thing’, and there is even a Japanese name for it.

I had been considering various ideas for a design for my bonseki garden, when I came across this stream crossing on a walk. I stopped and admired it for a while, listening to the stream and the birds. It occurred to me that I would find it difficult to replicate this level of beauty, calm and serenity in my bonseki design. “Damn,” I thought, “nature has pipped me to the post again”.


It seems odd that a human being, with a lifespan of maybe 100 years, may attempt to replicate the wonder of a scene that occurs naturally; that is to say, a scene that has been created though the awesome power of physical laws acting on the vast complexity of the arrangement of energy and matter over billions of years. It is a wondrous thing about humanity that we could even conceive of such a thing.

It is important to remember that wonder, beauty and serenity are in fact something we as humans create for ourselves. The very nature of the concepts requires human perception. Without us, there is no wonder, no beauty, no serenity, and no meaning. As pointless and insignificant as we are as individuals, this is what we bring to the universe – we experience it.

Performance (Purple and Pink)

I have recently completed a painting titled ‘Performance (Purple and Pink)’:

The following is a speeded up (x100) film of the entire painting process:


And here is a film of my thoughts in between painting sessions:

Using a Tablet for Sketching

There has been a trend in the last 10-20 years towards veneration of technology as a style accessory, regardless of its utility. I believe that our technological advance has been hampered by the huge effort being put into marketing technology by trying to make desirable and profitable items rather than genuinely useful and efficient items.

When I bought a tablet, I felt a bit guilty that I was buying into this style-over-content approach to technology. Did I really need this? Didn’t my computer already do all this stuff? I have been very pleased with my experience of tablets, however, and mine has been genuinely useful to me in ways that a laptop or desktop would not quite capture.

One significant function of my tablet that I have used a lot is a sketching program (‘apps’ used to be called ‘programs’). This allows me to draw directly onto the screen with a stylus or my finger, which I can’t do with my computer, and I can carry it around like a sketch pad. It allows me to capture an idea for a painting very quickly, including the use of any colour I need, and then put it away immediately, and either ignore it forever or use it later for a painting, or just to experiment – this is a lot harder to do with a real pad and pens or paints.

Whilst on holiday, I took my tablet with me and I could sketch whenever an idea came to me. Here are some of the results.

Sketch65202640 Sketch65215959 Sketch65221232  Sketch11375729 Sketch80215025 Sketch80212842 Sketch8021324Sketch124101048

Prostrate Figure

20150123_111349I have started a carving of a man partially curled into a ball. Here is a photo of an early stage. The wood is sapele.

I have a little carving of a man rolled into a ball – you may have seen them in shops that sell candles, joss sticks and so on. They are sometimes referred to as The Weeping Buddha/Monk/Warrior. This is my version of that figure (or at least, partially inspired by it).

It is hard going, as the wood is very hard (this is the first time I have used sapele) and I’m struggling to map my 2D sketches into 3D. Also, I have put it on the back burner for a while – I have been working on another carving as a present for a friend for the last 3 days.

More photos to follow (unless I give up!)…

Next stage:


 And the final carving:



I have seen several comments floating about the internet about worrying. They all seem trite, simplistic, unhelpful, and in the long term, detrimental to anyone struggling with what they consider to be excessive worrying. Here is a prime example:

“Worry is a total waste of time. It doesn’t change anything. All it does is steal your joy and keeps you very busy doing nothing.”

Another old favourite is:

“1) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
2) It’s all small stuff.”

I imagine that whoever penned these sayings expects people to read them, say “Of course! If only I’d realised; what a fool I am!” and never worry about anything again.

Worry is not a waste of time. Worry is an essential function of your mind. In the same way that pain serves to alert you* that your body is damaged, worry serves to keep your attention on something your brain knows is important, but has determined that you are not thinking enough about.

Typically, when you are worrying about something, it is something you find unpleasant to think about. Your natural inclination is to avoid thinking about it. If your brain thinks you are not giving a subject sufficient attention, it will remind you of it. By strongly emphasising a topic, your brain is attempting to override the urge to avoid thinking about that topic because it is unpleasant. Your brain is simply trying to make sure that an important topic is not side-lined, which is an essential safety feature of your brain’s operation. Worry is unpleasant because it represents a conflict in your mental processes, and one that is trying to make you think about something you do not want to think about.

It may seem irrational and unhelpful to be thinking about something that is going to happen if you can’t do anything about it now. The key to the success of the human mind is our ability to plan and hypothesise, using predictions about possible scenarios. If your brain wants you to think about something, it is because it thinks it is worth your time to do so. If a topic is important enough, it is worth preparing yourself for a situation relating to that topic in the future, hypothesising potential problems and thus working on potential solutions.

You may find yourself worrying about something you can apparently do nothing about. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, if it is a sufficiently important topic, it is worth trying to resolve the problem (or at least optimise the outcome) even if a solution (or indeed any beneficial action) is not immediately apparent. Secondly, even if you cannot find any beneficial action, there is great psychological benefit in being prepared, especially for a potentially unpleasant event in the future.

The problem with worrying comes when it overpowers your thought processes to the detriment of other essential lines of thought, or physiological processes. The reason for this is that the function of worry – to overpower thoughts to ensure that something important is not overlooked – will tend to get stronger the harder you try to fight it. If you are trying hard enough to suppress a worry, it will have physiological effects – making you nauseous, depriving you of sleep and so on. By pretending that worry is unnecessary and a waste of time, and trying not to “sweat the small stuff” or even the large and significant stuff, you will give more strength to your worries. If your brain thinks you need to be thinking about something, do so. After all, you are a part of it; it is not just a part of you. Try to give your worries sufficient attention; try to think about them rationally. If something is important enough to keep you awake at night (which is rare, but certain things genuinely do need to be addressed before the morning) stay awake and think. If you realise that it can wait until morning, make a decision to leave it until morning – perhaps write a note to yourself so you know you will not forget.

If you listen to what your brain is telling you, eventually it will give you a break.

*Throughout this article I use the term ‘you’ as a kind of shorthand for those types of mental processing that we understand to be ‘conscious thought’. These are what we tend to understand as ‘our thoughts’ and what constitute ourselves. I use this term to distinguish between these thoughts and the wider processing of the brain.

It is worth remembering that ‘conscious’ thought (which is itself on a sliding scale) constitutes only a portion of the activity of the brain, thus ‘I’ am only part of my brain, rather than my brain being a portion of some greater conscious entity. So when I say that your brain is making ‘you’ think about something, I mean that your brain is attempting to bring a topic into the realm of conscious thought, which I understand to be when the thought processes themselves are the subject of thought processes.


I started meditation a year and a half ago and I try to meditate for about 30 minutes at least a few times a week. Meditation (as I see it) is being still, allowing your mind to be at peace, and maintaining focus.

I am not a person who believes in any spiritual or religious nonsense – my background is in science and I consider myself to be a rational person. I do not meditate because I believe it is a mystical or spiritual endeavour. Nevertheless, I have found it directly beneficial to my personal wellbeing.

You will find any number of lists of the health benefits of meditation on the internet. For the most part, I tend to take these with a pinch of salt – I think it is hard to prove a causal link in this case. I find it hard to believe, however, that it can be bad for you. The worst it can be is a waste of time, and you might feel a bit foolish spending time sitting still doing nothing.

The main benefits of meditation that I have noticed are:
1) It allows you to develop the skill of taking control of your mind. When you meditate, you are aware of what your mind is doing. It is as if you observe your thoughts without engaging with them – you practise stopping thinking about things. With this skill you are better equipped to stop problems preying on your mind.
2) It improves your ability to focus.
3) It gives you perspective on your life and any problems you may be having.
4) By allowing your mind to be at peace, it helps you get to sleep, and improves the quality of your sleep.
5) It gives you the chance to be still and forget about your problems for a while.

I recommend the following books on meditation:
The Wooden Bowl, Clark Strand
Teach Yourself to Meditate, Eric Harrison

There is certainly an element to painting and carving that has a meditative quality – focussing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. I find, however, that painting is often emotional and intense, and carving is physically challenging; both can be quite draining, which meditation is not. Also, with each, there is the risk of making a mistake, which is not an issue with meditation.




Footsteps on Beer Beach

Footsteps on Beer Beach - Intermediate Steps

Here is my latest painting – ‘Footsteps on Beer Beach’. The painting is of water-filled indentations in the rock on the beach at Beer, Devon. These looked very like footprints, and made me think of the link between my own footsteps and those made by prehistoric man.

On the right is an animated GIF of intermediate stages of the painting. Please forgive the blurry nature of some of the photos and the colour variation!


Standing Lady

Standing Lady

This is an entirely improvised piece I carved from a small branch of cherry using my penknife (and sand paper).

Unlike with most of my more complicated carvings, I had not made any designs or sketches for this piece; I just felt like carving so I picked a piece of wood and started cutting. The lady herself is only about 8cm tall, so it was very fiddly work. I am very pleased with the finished result.