Sunday, 25 January 2015


It has been a long time since I have the freedom to paint anything other than a commission. I used the living models near the table to do a little watercolour sketch.

Watercolour and pencil on paper, 2015. 

Saturday, 17 January 2015


Fighting fish, or betta splendens, are my favourite kind of fish. In their common form they are ubiquitous, and unfortunately subject to much abuse due to the mythology they thrive in tiny bowls, without filtration or a heater with seldom water changes. Such a life is more akin to raising a child entirely in a closet. Though they might live a sort of a life such an existence could never be called happy or remotely kind. 

The betta orginates from the Mekong basin, which spreads through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Historically children would go out into the rice paddies to net wild bettas which they would then pit against each other in small dishes. The battle was not generally a fight a death. Rather, it was the fish’s will to fight that was tested. The most determined to never say die was prized and nursed back to full strength until he was ready to do battle again. 

Wild caught betta. For sale here.

During the 19th century gambling on these contests became rife and the King of Thailand started his own private collection of the fish. In 1840, he gifted Dr. Theodor Cantor several of his prized males. Dr. Cantor gave them the scientific name Macropodus Pugnax which was later changed to Betta Splendens by Mr. Tate Regan in 1909 after it was discovered another fish already bore the previous name. Splendens is Latin, which translates to ‘beautiful’. The origin of ‘Betta’ is less certain – the predominate thought it is that is a reference to the Bettah tribe who were famed for their war-like nature.   

Siamese Fighting Fish kept in Traditional Thai jars, 1937. Credit.
Westerners were more interested in the pretty than the betta's fighting prowess. A startling array of shades and finnage have resulted from selective breeding. 

I have mothered my current male betta for half a year now - Mr Merrick, who may be properly termed an ‘elephant ear half moon plakat lavender butterfly’ - mouthful. Elephants or 'dumbos' are a recent rage in the betta world, a term that refers to bettas with elongated pectoral fins that make them look like ears. Merrick flaps around his tank and high speed and it is adorable.

Much better looking than his namesake
I recently began a new project after my neighbours gifted me an aquarium they no longer have use for. I decided to attempt a female sorority tank, as they are known. Female bettas, unlike their brothers, do not generally fight to the death like their male counterparts. Nevertheless, they are known for their pugnacious personalities that lead to some attempts to establish communities to end in disaster. As with all creatures, bettas display a range of personalities. Some girls are shy retiring sorts whilst others are plain nasty and can only really be housed alone due to the injuries they inflict on their tank mates when their tempers fray. 

There is no democracy amongst bettakind. Females establish strict hierarchies. Power is fought for with biting, wrestling, charging and chasing until the weaker yields. The Queen rules with an iron fist, tolerating nothing but submission from her underlings. Another female takes second position and demands the same from those she has bested, and every female up to the weakest has similar expectations of the fish beneath her. 

I did not think Merrick would be able to see the new tank from his position, as they are over a metre apart. I was mistaken as he spends a great deal of time along the far wall watching the pretty new ladies, and has just started constructing a fine bubble nest for the first time. 

Take note gentlemen readers: premium flirting technique being displayed here. I know I'd be impressed if I was built a house made of bubbles.

These are my new girl fish-children who seem to be settling after a few days of squabbling. 

Livia, the tri-colour crowntail

The undisputed Empress of the aquarium who if crossed, nips, chases and pushes until she gets her way. The breeder described her as a ‘Queen’ which I think his the polite way of saying ‘a complete witch’. Thankfully the other two females seemed to have been immediately submissive and quickly learnt that getting out of her way when she throws a tantrum is a bright idea. She is my cranky little parrot. 

Blanchefleur, the cellophane veil tail 

Cellophanes, as their name suggests, lack pigment – though they are not albino (the albino betta has been achieved on a few occasions in betta history though no reliable line established, in part to the blindness albinos tend to suffer which means they struggle to find the female in their tank to breed with). All bettas have some sort of iridescent shade overlaying their base colour. When the light shines on her, Blanchefleur gleams blue and pink. So far her most prominent trait is her obsession with food. She will even snatch worms from directly in front of Livia’s face (the daring!).

Connemara, the green and white marble veil tail 

Hoping the magical food goddess will drop more lunch from the sky with Blanche (even though they have been fed twice already).
Marble bettas have a habit of changing colour – sometimes within the space of a few days. One such dramatic transformation can be seen here

Marbles have their origins in the Indiana State Prison, in a number of peanut butter jars kept by prisoner Orville Gulley. Orville was possessed by the idea of creating black butterfly bettas. To his disappointment he produced what he thought was an ugly batch of speckled babies he mailed off to a fish seller to be rid of. They, and other betta breeders, were enthused by this interesting gene, though Orville never came to appreciate the marble or the significance of his discovery which is responsible for establishing many new colour variants being produced in recent times. Connemara has turned from black to green. I am curious to see what she might become next. 

I plan to add my fourth female shortly when the breeder’s stock matures enough. If a younger female is placed in, she may well be killed (fish for the faint hearted bettas are not). That introduction will be tricky, as a new order will need to be established.

I daresay I will have a meticulously aquascaped four foot long aquarium with an example of every colour I can get my hands on soon enough.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015


Mary Cassatt, 'Waiting', ca. 1879, Aquatint and soft-ground,
21.7 x 14.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum.

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