Ever since I found this strange tree in Aberdeenshire last summer, I’ve been longing to get back to Aden Country Park to spend more time documenting it.
It’s striking twists and contortions are vegetatively mysterious, visually exciting and emotionally disturbing – a perfect combination to captivate this tree artist.
When I heard that last winter’s Storm Arwen had devastated the park’s forestry, I felt a sense of panic that I’d missed my chance. It was clearly a very old tree with the usual signs of decay – had it been toppled by the wind or broken by the successive storms? It was with great relief that I learned from local Landscape Officer Calum Davidson that it had survived where thousands hadn’t, so I made a plan for a drawing trip this spring.
Back to the beginning in art making
Why was I so desperate to travel 3 hours north just for one tree? It does seem a bit impulsive but this singular organism has lodged itself in my imagination and I have a strong feeling that I need to make art about it. That means going back to the beginning of my process, connecting with the tree through drawing, asking it questions, tracing its surfaces and listening to its stories.
I’m just back from a perfect few days with this tree, with some first impressions, sketches, photos and videos (and a song thrush as accompaniment). Calum gave me a warm welcome to the park with a coffee and a wide ranging discussion about our cultural and historical connections with trees in the landscape. He also told me this one was locally known as the Witch’s tree and thought to be a site of hangings. We agreed that the tree was unlikely to be old enough to have been mature at the time of the Scottish witch hunts, but the link was a grim reminder of the hundreds of such trees across the country which were used as a means of execution.
The unmistakable strangeness of this tree will stay with me and I can already feel new ideas bubbling just under the surface of consciousness. See (and listen) for yourself…
What a joy is was last week to be back in a big room talking to people in person about my exhibition and journey towards it as an artist. There were some thought-provoking questions at the Burgh halls event, like ‘How do you feel about the effects of recent storms on trees?’ and ‘Have you ever refused to sell a work to someone you didn’t like?’ (that was a first!)
However, while it’s lovely to do that again, I’ve realised over the last 2 years that online events and platforms can have an important role in making art and events more accessible. I’ve attended lots of talks, conferences and other really interesting online events which would have been impossible for me to get to physically, so I want to offer that to anyone interested in my work too.
Join me in my studio where I’ll introduce the themes behind my oil paintings and drawings exploring the complexity, vitality and sculptural presence of ancient trees. Hear how I have developed my ideas, gain an insight into the creative process and find out more about the materials and techniques I use.
I’ll be hosting it on Zoom and love to make these things interactive where possible, so you’ll have chance to pose your questions and I’ll do my best to answer.
Also available online is an opportunity to browse round the gallery space virtually and listen to the occasional interjection/explanation from me. It’s been made with a 360 degree camera and I’ve had good feedback about this – it seems to be easy to navigate around so if you’re too far away to see the work in person its a good way to see the exhibition.
You can find all the details about my current exhibition, including a full catalogue here »
Just before I left my salaried job to go full time as an artist in July 2020, I had one of those pivotal moments in the studio when you know something needs to change.
When the system breaks down
I was selecting and packing work to send to an exhibition at An Talla Solais in Ullapool. I needed about 6 pieces and had an idea in my mind which ones they should be, but I was struggling to find one charcoal in particular. I had the images I needed in my digital catalogue folder but just couldn’t find the actual artwork. Frustrated, I searched my studio for an hour or more, had some cups of tea while trying to remember it, looked in the house, sat and wondered and felt very annoyed at my own inefficiency. Eventually it dawned on me that I had actually sold it and it now lived in Manchester!
This made me see I was going to need a better system if I had any hope of keeping track of my work – after 10 years of making, my cobbled together process of documenting work was no longer up to the job. I realised that I would need a much more reliable and professional system to support my art making, ideally one which saved me time spent on the tedious admin tasks we have to do to sustain our practice.
I’d heard about Artwork Archive on this podcast and had thought ‘urghh I hate databases’ but this incident prompted me to take up the free trial option and I immediately saw it was what I needed to run my studio professionally.
Since then, this cloud based inventory system has made a huge positive difference to the admin and business side of my work as an artist, so I wanted to share something about my experience in case it can help you too. I’d like to make it clear that I’m not receiving any payment or other incentive for writing this – I can genuinely say it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made so I’m happy just to share my learning.
However, if you decide you’d like to use it yourself and subscribe using this link you will get $10 credit for your subscription and I will also get $10 for mine. We both win!
3 ways Artwork Archive has transformed my art business
It’s really easy to use
Artwork Archive is a system which has been designed specifically for visual thinkers, to manage visual information, so I find it to be laid out very intuitively. I can quickly enter new works, exhibitions and collectors and it’s easy to find the information I need.
It makes fiddly things simple
Using it speeds up processes that used to take up a lot of my time like tracking work, making labels, organising consignments, preparing invoices, tracking payments. These were all tasks I hated – now they are straightforward.
It works from anywhere with internet access
I love the fact that it’s cloud based (though you can download your data as back-up) and I don’t have to be at my desk to have my information to hand. It also has many features which facilitate sharing artwork images and documents. This has helped me interact professionally with galleries, my collectors and contacts, plus I can keep on top of the money side of things too.
How I used Artwork Archive for my exhibition
‘Turning Towards the Light’ is showing in Linlithgow Burgh Halls, a public gallery in Central Scotland. This beautiful historic building doesn’t have a dedicated member of staff in the gallery and their small Arts team have many commitments, so Artwork Archive’s features have really helped to maximise our resources.
Here’s how I’ve used it:
Making a new body of work
Documenting individual works in progress
Getting a quick overview of the whole body of work
Keeping track of what stage artworks are at
Documenting all aspects of finished works, including size, mediums, price
Preparing for exhibition
Curating the show as a whole and selecting which works will be included
Collaborating with the venue curator remotely via shared collections and documents
Making a detailed list for my framer to ensure my framing needs were clear
Creating a full consignment note for 40 works in less than 5 minutes!
Making clear labels for use on packaging while work is transported
Creating and printing artwork labels for the gallery wall, including QR codes linking directly to my inventory entry
In summary, for this exhibition alone the system has saved me hours of desk work and helped me to present my work professionally and consistently
Will it work for you?
If you’re anything like me you’ll think carefully before investing in business systems – it’s so much easier to buy art materials.
You can find plenty of information about all the features and functions on the Artwork Archive blog (where I was recently Featured Artist) and more detailed demonstrations on YouTube.
It took me a while to take action but now I have it, I really wish I’d started using it earlier in my career. I don’t generally get excited about databases but for me it’s like having a super efficient assistant!
On the way home from my Derbyshire drawing trip I visited Little Moreton Hall, a Tudor timber building near Congleton in Cheshire, managed by the National Trust.
If you like old buildings and enjoy the sensation of stepping back in time to past ways of living, you’ll be blown away by this place – I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Made of oak
Standing for 500 years and seemingly moving slowly for most of them, the building is so wobbly and warped it’s hard to believe it could still be surviving. The quality of craftsmanship from the people who built it is everywhere to see, but the most striking thing is the sheer quantity of oak.
It’s easy to imagine how quickly a wooded landscape could be stripped of trees when you look at the vast quantity of oak in a building like this. Many of the timbers, planks and panels are made from very large trees. They are so beautiful, strong and glowingly rich in figuration. My dad was a woodturner and furniture maker and I’m sure he would have marvelled at the quality of the timber. Much as I admired the wood myself, I couldn’t help but feel sad that we have failed to make this kind of timber production sustainable, resulting in only a very few precious old trees being preserved.
Many of my favourite oaks are probably 500+ years old but they are rare survivors. They’ve been conserved by historic accident rather than design and we are only just beginning to understand the complexity of the ecosystems they support. I’d like to think that at some point we could have buildings this beautiful made from sustainable timber as well as a richly tree’d landscape too.
Following six months hard graft in the studio preparing for my exhibition, it felt like the best reward to spend a week in my homeland, discovering some new trees.
So, I packed my drawing kit and headed for Derbyshire, excited to be feeding my imagination once again, turning the creative cycle back to the beginning of the process.
Meeting the Chatsworth oaks
I grew up in Matlock and as a child used to visit the Chatsworth estate often with my grandparents. I have warm memories of lolling about the grounds with a picnic, paddling in the river and getting towed reluctantly through the big house. I had no inkling at the time that one day I’d be back with a drawing board to study the trees there.
The whole estate is vast, but close to the house are the remains of a centuries old deer park, the slopes cloaked in old oaks and still stocked with red and fallow deer. This was the area I focused on exploring for the week and I went there every day to draw and photograph these stunning trees. I also made detailed location notes and learned my way around that area of the park, tracking my walks and plotting photos using the Outdoor Active app.
I made quite a few of my ‘Woodland’ drawings, though they should more accurately be called ‘Wood Pasture’ drawings in this instance, since the trees are open grown in pasture covered ground, rather than a closed canopy wood. They have specific characteristics as a result and support an extremely high number of other organisms.
What really struck me was the sheer scale of some of these trees – perhaps a more benign climate than that of Scotland has led them to grow so big, perhaps they are extremely old, it’s hard to tell.
I’ve come home with a rich resource of new material to inspire future work. It might take a few months to percolate through my subconscious but it’s definitely fired up my imagination again – I’m creatively refreshed.
The exhibition runs until Sunday 26th June and I’ll be doing an artist talk there on Thursday 21st April, 6.30 – 7.30pm. Tickets are free and booking is essential, by phone 01506 272820 or email email@example.com
The Burgh Halls are are free to visit and open every day (with a few exceptions for event bookings). Find full venue details here»
I’m delighted to announce my next solo exhibition ‘Turning Towards the Light’, a collection of oil paintings and drawings exploring the complexity, vitality and sculptural presence of ancient trees.
As humans we are both fascinated by darkness and compelled to turn towards the light. This exhibition brings together three bodies of work which combine light, shade and movement to draw attention to our relationship to trees.
Like most plants, trees employ phototropism, meaning they grow towards the light to maximise available energy. Although they turn far too slowly for human detection, they are constantly moving in response to their environment; twisting, reaching and flowing towards the sun. The work presented here is about that sense of movement, as if we were able to observe tree-time sped up to match our own.
The exhibition will be at the historic Linlithgow Burgh Halls, running from Friday 4th March to Sunday 26th June. Entry is free and there’s no need to book.
Buoyed by the energy of the turning of the year, I’ve decided it’s about time I read more. I have loads of books and an endless appetite for learning, so this shouldn’t be difficult…
I miss reading
I used to read avidly. Reading non-fiction was a favourite way to relax and expand my mind at the same time. Anything about the natural world, science, history, neurology, psychology, philosophy and art of course. Then something changed – as I’ve got older I’ve got less able to focus late at night which used to be my usual reading time. This shift in my cognitive capacity has meant that reading deeply interesting books has slipped quietly out of my life, to be replaced by podcasts, audio books and other less taxing media in the evening. I now do my best thinking in the morning – great for productivity but not so good for my reading habit.
Read like an artist
My art-making needs challenging ideas and new knowledge to sustain it, which has been more difficult to find in these isolated times, so I’ve scoured my shelves and piles of books for 12 which I think will really feed my practice this year. Some I have already read and would love to revisit, some are new to me, some are going to be easy to absorb and others will be intense and challenging.
I know myself well enough not to promise I’ll get through one a month but I’m aiming to have at least sifted some new ideas and learning from every one by the end of this year. I’ll skim some and dive deep into others, I’ll keep my sketchbook handy for noting down any quotations which strike a chord and doodling ideas they provoke.
I’m beginning with one which wasn’t on the original pile but, as it was a Christmas present it’s shouting the loudest. I first read Frederick Franck’s ‘The Zen of Seeing’ when I was an art student and it made a deep impression on me then, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it now, particularly as I’m about to start teaching my ‘Permission to Draw’ course very soon.
I’m going to make it as easy as I can to get back into my reading by leaving the book next to the sofa, we’ll see how that goes.
You can read more about what inspires my art in these blog posts.
This December I’ve been away tree-hunting – I was so ready for a road trip!
These journeys are like mini residencies for me – they are intense periods of research, exploration and new developments. They’re an essential part of my process, connecting me back to the old trees and their stories, eventually stimulating whole bodies of work.
Drawing on location in Langholm
My original plan was to stay in Aberdeenshire as there are some great tree drawing locations I wanted to return to there. Sadly the whole region’s woodlands were devastated by Storm Arwen and my accommodation and drawing locations were closed to the public. It will take decades to recover from and I really feel for the tree people there.
I found a last minute place to stay near Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway, a great cottage with a courtyard I could use as a studio space.
According to the Ancient Tree Inventory the area had some potential new sites to investigate with the kind of ancient trees which inspire my work. This is a fantastic resource and citizen science project – you can find out about trees in your area and how to add your own finds here. It’s of immense value for protecting our special trees.
Finding Aldery Sike
I’d identified some sites to explore, one being just down the road. A small burn was marked on the map as Aldery Sike, so that’s become my name for the location.
I found a large collection of ancient alders there which appear to be a remnant of ancient wood pasture, now surrounded by heavily sheep-grazed land and grouse moors. These trees are a living link with a past way of life and show evidence of extensive coppicing and pollarding. Wonderfully grotesque forms result from this traditional kind of management and the sheer exuberant inventiveness of the trees was captivating to draw.
They grow on a steep hillside which was streaming with water – I had no idea a bog could be quite so sloping! Alder loves wet ground, so they seemed very happy there. It was a magical thing to find such old trees with streams of water flowing around and through them – I had a feeling of reverence and wonder listening to it trickle past as I drew them.
Now I know what special trees live there I’m planning to go back to Aldery Sike next autumn for a more focused drawing trip. Next time I’ll be taking a more extensive drawing kit (only had my sketchbook that day) and hopefully some more waterproof boots.
Here’s a little video to give you a flavour of this special place
In preparation for my drawing workshops I spend some time thinking carefully about which materials to introduce my students to, which will work best for their level of learning, which will be exciting and fun to use, which will suit the location and tone of the day. I also like to make people feel like they have their own individual materials for the duration of the workshop, so I use small metal tins for the fragile stuff and bag it all up so everyone has the same selection.
Students also love to know what all the materials are, especially if there’s something they’re really taken by and want to buy for themselves afterwards.
So, here’s a list of what I offer on my Woodland Drawing workshops…
In the tin:
willow charcoal stick
graphite stick (watersoluble ones work brilliantly in the rain!)
conté crayon in white, sanguine (red) and sepia (brown)
kneadable eraser (also known as putty rubber)
Also in the bag:
charcoal pencil (combines well with charcoal stick)
pierre noir pencil (combines well with conté crayon but is lovely on its own too)
a wooden viewfinder
My favourite paper for drawing is Canson C a grain cartridge – it has different degrees of texture on each side and excellent holding capacity for dusty media like charcoal and conté. I also bring artist’s fixative to prevent student’s drawing from smudging. Hairspray will do the job cheaply while you’re practicing but it yellows over time, so if you want to keep your work, proper fixative is best.
Any good local art shop is likely to stock most of these materials or, if you prefer to shop online for them then Jackson’s have an excellent range and speedy delivery.
It’s nearly the end of November now and getting a bit chilly for outdoor workshops but I’ll be running more in the spring – if you fancy joining me, subscribe to my Studio Newsletter to get information on what I’ll be offering next year.