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August 12 2011

David Measures obituary

Artist inspired by the natural world who was the first to paint live butterflies in flight

Paintings of butterflies used to be done entirely from dead specimens. David Measures, who has died aged 73 of complications from leukaemia, was the first artist to paint them flying in their natural habitats. He painted all of the British species, from the common cabbage white to the extremely rare large blue. David was a pioneering original in world terms – not just a superb naturalist, but also an inspired painter who extended the language of art.

David was born in Warwick. His childhood was idyllic. The family lived in the tiny Old Toll Cottage, tucked below Warwick Castle on the banks of the river Avon. As a boy, he spent every spare moment exploring the countryside, rowing and swimming in the river. Nature called to him all his life. He expressed it beautifully: "There is a magnet in me drawn to the subtle sense-aura of wild freedom, the porous exchange apparent in wild places and the richness of variety and subtlety which I miss inside a building."

He had always drawn, and did so outdoors from the age of seven. When the time came to decide whether to pursue his interest in the science of natural history or develop his love of art, he chose the latter. The need to praise was stronger in him than the need to analyse. He studied at colleges in mid-Warwickshire, then Bournemouth, and finally the Slade School of Art in London. Like many of his contemporaries, he was excited by the panache of postwar American artists, and his work became increasingly abstract.

In 1964 he took up a lecturing post at Nottingham College of Art (now Nottingham Trent University) and settled in a 15th-century cottage in the nearby town of Southwell, with his wife, Christine, also an artist, and their daughter, Sally, soon to be followed by their son, Simon. Like the medieval stonemasons who carved the uniquely realistic foliage in Southwell Minster's splendid chapterhouse, David found his inspiration in the lush local countryside.

It was in the late 1960s that his particular interest in butterflies emerged. What drew him to them was his fascination with the effects of colour on the retina, a concern of many op artists at that time. As he began making studies of the iridescence on their wings, he found himself drawn into these creatures' lives, wondering what made them chase each other, what they did in the rain, where they went at night. The intimacy he had felt with nature as a child welled up inside him. He wrote of those rare times when "after a period of watching, your particular butterfly character appears to become reconciled to your presence, seems to allow a trust to exist, whereby both of you take part, each functioning in your own way, freely and co-existent".

It became his life's work to paint these moments, and he developed remarkable skills to capture them. You have to be very quick and agile to paint butterflies in flight, and your equipment must be light: a drawing pad, or sheets of paper clipped to a board, and a tiny box of paints. David learned to do without brushes and water. Amazingly, his delicate, energetic paintings were mostly done with his fingertips and spit; fine details were picked out with his nails. He used a child's multicoloured biro to record his observations of what was going on, because he wasn't creating pictures to hang on walls, but experiencing life as fully as one can. He wrote of the importance of being able to be absolutely still. He told of how one day he was standing in a clump of heather, wrapped up in an overcoat and scarf, when two walkers passed by. "What's that scarecrow doing there?" he heard one ask, as he remained motionless, smiling inside.

Slowly, but surely, his work gained a reputation in the field of natural history (though recognition by the art world still awaits). In 1973 he was featured in the programme David's Meadow, for David Bellamy's BBC TV series Bellamy's Britain. His book Bright Wings of Summer, illustrated with paintings and vivid texts, came out in 1976. He spent every moment he could out in the field, painting and observing all the British species, producing page after page of wonderful coloured studies: butterfly days, each dated and timed from dawn till dusk – a remarkable diary of life in nature. These were later bound in yearbooks, and one was published in 1996 as Butterfly Season: 1984.

David's interest in the natural world widened, and he painted the life of a wood and an old orchard as they changed through the seasons. The fruits of his four-year observation of a hobby falcon – a surprise visitor to Southwell – are to be published by subscription in his memory. He taught regularly at a summer school in Scotland run by his friend John Busby, based around the Bass Rock, and inspired new generations of wildlife artists. Defying a congenital disorder that made him unable to sweat, he began to travel regularly to Spain and Italy, excited by the brilliant southern light and unfamiliar species.

He also began to paint landscapes for their own sake. Experimental as ever, he developed an original technique using small rollers and stencils to create luminous yet rigorous designs that capture permanence and transience. These little, jewel-like paintings open in the mind's eye like butterfly's wings, letting us glimpse patterns of being that outlast death.

This work gained a deeper resonance after David's first bout of leukaemia in 2003. His subsequent paintings of Cressbrook Dale in Derbyshire, where he had been painting regularly since 1993, chart a remarkable re-emergence of the two aspects of his life, art and nature, infused with his sheer joy at being alive. People lucky enough to know him felt uplifted by his exuberance.

He is survived by Christine, Sally and Simon, and four grandchildren.

• David Guy Measures, painter, born 22 November 1937; died 4 August 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 05 2011

Are butterflies the UK's most beautiful endangered species? | Dan Flenley

Half of our butterflies are under threat of extinction, and more than 70% are in decline – capture their beauty and share your pictures of them on our Flickr group

A cautious flap; a gentle flutter. Quivering wings and tentative antennae. Striking black and white; brightest blue and red; creamy yellow, iridescent green. A carnival of colours, a parade of personalities, an intriguing selection of shades and textures: our butterflies are with us again.

Once described as "self-propelled flowers", what butterflies do is no less fascinating than the gowns they wear. They feed, fly and fight, they court and pair. They get up to strange things in mud puddles and show all the investment skill of your average Duncan Bannatyne in finding the right place for their eggs. They even metamorphose.

Most of the UK's butterflies spend the majority of the year as caterpillars or chrysalises. They wait till spring or summer to make the transition to a relatively brief adult life. Some, though, overwinter as hibernating adults before emerging in time for flowers and sunshine. (Among these are well-known species such as the peacock, with its Impressionist blue eye-spots.) Yet others – including the painted lady – migrate here to enjoy the British summer.

To indulge in some butterfly photography this May, a good back garden is no mean place to start. Nectar plants such as perennial wallflower and ragged-robin will attract species including peacocks and large ("cabbage") and small whites. The first brood of the tiny, energetic holly blue is easy to find (the clue is in the name) in more southerly parts of the country, if not so easy to photograph. The main arrival of red admirals should be underway by late May.

Venturing a little further afield, wild, open places with rough, "messy" vegetation are excellent for getting to know butterflies such as small copper, common blue and orange tip.

Wetter areas are home to the silken surfaces of green-veined whites, while some heathlands host the dazzling green hairstreak. Go somewhere scrubby and you might also see a brimstone, a simply exquisite imitation of a strongly-veined leaf.

Head to one of the country's special butterfly places and – if the weather plays along – you will have so much more to take in. Combine the spectacular, shining adonis blue (late May) and chocolate-and-marshmallows grizzled skipper, with big landscapes at Fontmell Down or Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Match the artsy underwing of the pearl-bordered fritillary with the breathtaking views from the Morecambe Bay Limestones, just below the Lake District. Norfolk sites such as Hickling Broad will see probably our most photogenic butterfly – the swallowtail – begin to emerge at the end of the month.

Butterfly Conservation maintains a network of nature reserves specially managed for threatened butterflies and moths, and would be delighted to tell you more about sites in your area.

Good butterfly shots are made that much easier by choosing the right day and time. A hot day with full sun is not ideal, as the subjects will be so busy zipping about that they won't have time to stop for pictures. Choose a warm day with spells of both cloud and sunshine. Butterflies have a late-afternoon slow-down which offers a handy viewing alternative to a 5am start.

Use a long lens – it will benefit both you and the butterfly by allowing you to keep your distance. A less intrusive approach means more shots for the photographer and, importantly, less stress for the star of the show. The reduced depth of focus on the long lens will also help zero the focus in on the butterfly. The higher shutter speed you'll need may, though, make getting enough light difficult.

While the colourful upper-sides of our best-loved species may be instantly familiar, the rest of their bodies hold reward, too. The underwings of the vanessids – the red admiral's family – possess a cryptic magnificence.

The blues have peculiarly furry bodies and rather cute faces. Caterpillars and pupae furnish further realms of opportunity, and the curious world of butterfly eggs poses a fine challenge for fans of the seriously macro.

Half of our butterflies are considered threatened, and over 70% are currently declining. This is all the more disconcerting if we consider that butterflies are not only precious parts in the intricately-wrought fabric of our natural environment, but also valuable indicators of how that whole fabric is doing. We ignore them at no small cost.

How to help? One way is by inspiring others with the beauty of butterflies. Make a point of getting out this month and capturing their radiance on camera.

Share your photos of butterflies on our Flickr group throughout May - we'll feature the best on, and maybe the print edition of the Guardian too

• Dan Flenley is a media volunteer for Butterfly Conservation's Lancashire branch. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 06 2011

Schoolchildren visit the Natural History Museum's butterfly exhibition – in pictures

Children from a school in Hackney are among the first visitors to the Sensational Butterflies exhibition

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