Artist Duncan Cameron creates the sort of sketchbook pages that we’d love our students to create. Exquisite drawings in different media, on different surfaces explore the subject matter from a range of viewpoints. His pages reveal an artist who really investigates and explores his subject matter.
Like many artists, he captures the world around him. Major themes that recur in his work are ecology, marine life, skulls, collecting and more.
Strongly influenced by his love of diving, sea creatures regularly feature in his work. It was whilst at University in Bristol studying sculpture that Cameron learnt to dive. “Marine life has been part of my world”. His love of diving continues and his published book ‘Shipwreck Detective’, full of his drawings, can still be found on Amazon.
Duncan Cameron is also a teacher. Over the years, he has taught GCSE, A Level, Level 2 and Level 3 Vocational art programmes, as well as lecturing at BA (Hons) Degree Level.
He is currently the programme leader for the Integrated Foundation Year (IFY) at Falmouth University on the coast of Cornwall. Fishing is a big part of the Cornish world and its fish market and freshly caught fish is another source of inspiration for Cameron.
His dedication to his teaching is evident in his practice and particularly his attitude to drawing.
“There are no shortcuts. At the end of the day you’ve got to want to do it, put the hours in and you get better at doing it. It’s like playing the violin or riding a skateboard.”
“At the moment I’m in a blue pencil phase. All artists will go through different materials and different experimentation. For several years I was in a brown pencil phase. I do like coloured pencil, it has a softness to it. I get through a lot of Prussian blue pencils.”
You can’t talk about artist Duncan Cameron without mentioning postcards and first day covers. The combination of text and image and aged half-obscured writing and Cameron’s own script, combine to make appealing, layered compositions.
“About 10 years ago I started buying old ‘first day covers’ from auctions. Whole series of drawings have been on those. I love ink and pencil and graphite wash.”
He told me about water-soluble graphite, which was something I’d never used. It comes in a tiny tin, a bit like a shoe polish tin. You wet it and apply it with a brush. Cameron also mixes it with tea or coffee for a sepia-toned wash.
The grainy quality of the soluble graphite can be clearly seen below.
Cameron also makes his own dark brown walnut ink from the walnut shells in his garden. Soaking the skins and then sieving the dark brown liquid through a muslin before boiling it to reduce it, is all part of his recipe. (Hopefully, a blog post on this to follow!)
Many of Cameron’s sketchbook pages that he posts online include detailed annotations.
Cameron’s interest in museums and collections, the act of collecting and why we collect, colonial history, environmentalism and his interest in ecology is also abundantly clear both in his work and in his sheds.
His sheds represent a lifetime of collecting and are true cabinets of curiosity. With a shed for making his sculptures and a shed for his collections, there is always something to catch the eye. He showed me skulls of a buzzard, a pheasant, a tawny owl, a rat and a cat. He talked enthusiastically about cleaning and sterilising skulls that have been left as gifts on his back doorstep and about how he’s exchanged drawings for moles. He’s purchased crayfish from Ikea’s freezer department and knows how to preserve them so they are clean and safe for the classroom environment.
“If you want to draw skulls you’ve got to find skulls, so I’m always looking. Walking tide lines, walking road edges, walking fields. Picking things up.”
He told me that walking around a farmers field in winter when the vegetation has died back is a good place to find rabbit skulls. Farmers shoot rabbits and lots of predators hunt rabbits.
“I wouldn’t buy things online if I didn’t know the provenance. I don’t want to be the agent of the demise of an animal. I’m not interested in that. If you’re interested in things like skull collection or taxidermy or these techniques that are part of museum collections, you might find yourself on the periphery of things like hunting which I’m not into. You have to think ethically and sustainably.”
Many schools have collections of animal skulls, and Cameron’s skull drawings make a wonderful starting point for an art project.
“Sometimes I use mapping pens which are very fine. They are the thin brother of dip pens.”
‘I draw most days. Drawing all the time is like going to the gym. If I’m in a café I’m drawing people. If I’ve got a moment in the evening I’ll join a class. I’ll draw something, you’ve got to keep doing it.”
“I keep journals. I used to keep lots of different sketchbooks. Then at the millennium I thought – this is mad. I’ve got a caving book, a diving book, a sketchbook, a diary, a sketchbook for animals, a different book for sculpture. I’d always have the wrong book with me. It’s got to be something you can carry with you and use. Don’t make life difficult for yourself. I decided to use A5 journals.”
“I had a whole thing during lockdown where I was drawing on covid packaging. Doing lots of things with collage. I was interested in history embedded within drawing by working on collage materials that are specific to that moment.”
Cameron’s love of skulls and understanding of anatomy spills over into his classroom practice. His students draw a life model and then he poses a skeleton in the same position and then students draw over the top. What a great idea! His teacher-examples are below.
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