For the last couple of months I’ve had the opportunity to explore the grounds and wider estate at Marchmont House, hunting for trees and foraging for images to feed into the development of my commissioned works.
A wounded beech
I was on the hunt for ghosts. Not the most obvious of days for a ghost hunt – bright spring sunshine, birds singing their little hearts out and all the greenness getting ready to burst. However, I was excited by the possibilities the day’s light held for photography. I like to take reference photos in both clear sunshine and soft overcast light, as the combination helps me understand the tree’s form, along with drawing as the primary tool. Today was a day for sharp contrasts.
The boundary bundle
I do love a boundary beech. They have a kind of pioneer spirit about them – often grown in exposed positions, they need to be strong. Many Scottish ones like this were planted on stone dykes or banks, with their root systems tracking along a line on either side, creating a wooden wall effect.
The Quarry veteran
When I was first commisioned to make charcoal drawings for the Marchmont collection, I was given a map which owner Hugo Burge had annotated with some of his favourite estate trees.
On one of my research trips to the Scottish Borders, Hugo’s map guided me to a cluster of rather mangled beeches at the edge of an old quarry.
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.
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.
New work is emerging – painting light with oils
It’s been an intense few months in my studio, while I’ve been immersed in developing a new way of working in oil paint. New materials require trials and experiments, so I’ve been doing my best impression of a methodical person, testing all the variables of substrates, grounds, paint brands, mediums, mark-making tools and finishes. The time (and money) invested is now paying off and I’ve found combinations which are enabling me to say what I want to in paint. I now know what I like, don’t like and hate with a passion – this will make it so much easier to express myself in new but hopefully still familiar ways.
I’ve bought a lot of new paints and tried a LOT of combinations. Earthy colours and natural pigments like slate or oxides have appealed most to me from these trials. I’ve been particularly excited to discover a ready-made oil paint using charcoal as the pigment, since I realised making my own in any amounts would take more time than I’d like.
I’ve decided to restrict the works to an almost monochrome palette, using colours which suggest ‘beechness’ but don’t attempt to depict it. I plan to use subtle glazes to deepen the colours and enhance their glow.
I approach my charcoal works as if I’m drawing with light, so it made complete sense to work with paint in the same way. Reductive painting simply means removing paint to create lights rather than adding it to create darks – it’s a very tonal technique with a broad range of mark-making possibilities.
It also means I get to paint with my fingers, so I’m still in that particular comfort zone! Guiding me on the studio wall are images of lithographs by Eugène Carrière, a master of ethereal monochrome work and images by early Pictorialist photographers which remind me to keep those tones simple whenever I get too wrapped up in details.
Here’s what my reductive painting technique looks like in action…
and here’s a quick view of the paintings drying between layers…
The arrival of a title
As they’ve been gathering in the studio, the word ‘Grounded’ has linked itself with this new series – in my mind it seems to sum up both the qualities of the trees they are inspired by and my reaction to being in their presence.
These old veterans are relics of a former landscape in an ancient woodland at Kinclaven, Perthshire. Massive, stoic and stunningly beautiful, they’ve given me enough ideas to keep me working through whatever the winter brings.
I’ll be continuing work on my ‘Grounded’ series over the next couple of months, in preparation for my solo show at Linlithgow Burgh Halls next February. If you enjoy seeing snippets of work in progress, I also post video clips on Instagram – come and say hello there.
100 day project completed!
For the last 100 days I’ve been studying light and dark in art, ‘chiaroscuro’ being the arty Italian word for this – loved by the old masters and still well used by contemporary painters, photographers and film makers. 100 is such a satisfying number and I’m surprised and delighted to have been able to keep going till the end – if you’d like to see the complete works first head here, or if you’re interested in the debrief, read on…
It would be hard to choose a favourite day but there were some that stick in my mind as particularly rewarding, either because of the mastery of the original artist, the way my materials behaved, or just the way the image chimed with my mood at the time. Incidentally, my favourite title of a work I copied was Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Two boys fighting over a bladder’ – bold!
Here are a few special ones:
What have I learned?
- A dive into the art historical archives is never a waste of time – as Austin Kleon’s smashing little book ‘Steal Like an Artist’ says, artists build their practice on the work of those before them, none of us are really ‘original’. I feel quite privileged to be able to dip into artworks from the past to feed my future. Thanks for that art ancestors!
- Rembrandt was indeed a master – no surprises there and I’ve always been blown away by his work. Copying it gave me an even deeper understanding of his craftmanship and humanity and was a pure pleasure at all times.
- Caravaggio took it a bit too far for my liking. I realise how ridiculous this sounds and in no way dispute his mastery as a painter and of chiaroscuro in particular, but through copying I learned that the stark contrasts between light and dark in his painting was a bit too clear cut for me, I like a little more mystery, more ambiguity and softer edges.
- Vermeer repeated himself – the copies I made had so many similarities in the lighting and composition which I only really noticed through drawing. I fancifully imagine that his studio had the perfect spot where the light fell in just the right way and he just positioned all his models to take advantage of that, and why not?
- Early photographers, particularly those who aligned themselves with Pictorialism, creating some fantastic compositions. Some of these were amongst my favourites to copy from. I loved the emergent quality in many of them.
- Ken Currie makes such intensely powerful paintings and I really enjoyed copying from them to learn how, though my very limited scale meant that this didn’t work for some.
- Composition is king – the images which had the most impact even at such a small scale were the ones which were from carefully crafted compositions and tonal arrangements. The ones which were less impressive were poorly cropped, at the wrong scale or just unconsidered. I had deliberately limited myself to a 10cm (ish) square which didn’t always suit my choice of source image, but had the advantage of being quite ‘do-able’ every day.
- I should devote more time to cropping and editing my own photos, to provide a rich source of imagery to draw from. In the past I’ve had a bad habit of taking photographs of visually interesting things then ignoring them in the archive, like hoarding good books but not reading them. Reviewing with a particular purpose has been really useful. Must do that more.
- I am totally in love with monotone oil painting – the works I made for this project have really given me a taste for more and on a significantly bigger scale. Summer = oil painting in my studio plan!
Things to take forward
In terms of my own art, above all I’ve learned about what excites me visually and what I want to continue to pursue. Emerging forms, dark ambiguity, subtle gradation, strong composition and tonal arrangement and a monochrome palette are all part of the recipe for future work.
The daily practice was sometimes a struggle for such a lengthy period, but I’m more likely now to embark on another long term project than I thought in January. It’s so good to see other people’s projects and follow their journeys, and sharing online definitely helps to keep up the motivation. If you’re thinking of giving it a go yourself, I’d highly recommend it – here’s the project page to help you on your way.
Reflections on ‘European Wood Pasture’, a UKEconet international conference at Sheffield Hallam University, 4th – 7th September 2018…
Fellow artist Anne Gilchrist and I attended the three day event in Sheffield and presented some of the work we have made in response to Dalkeith Oaks, including drawings, paintings and our book ‘Dead Wood and New Leaves’. We both enjoyed the connections and conversations sparked by our stand, provoking new ideas to feed our creative processes.
As always at UKEconet events, the speakers were varied and informative, giving a wide range of perspectives on the subject. Details of the conference and presenters can be found here.
From Nicklas Jansson’s presentation on a unique and threatened oakwood landscape in Turkey
As an artist I am of course interested in images of trees and woodlands, but I really value the opportunity to learn about the science, history and ecology of these landscapes too – I have a need to understand the cultural and ecological significance of the trees which are aesthestically interesting to me. What is striking is that the researchers I hear and speak to also connect with trees and woods aesthetically and emotionally as I do.
From the presentation by Jeremy Dagley, Head of Conservation at Epping Forest, picturing the late Oliver Rackham with an Epping pollard.
Since it was Anne’s first time in Sheffield we spent one evening exploring Padley Gorge in the Peak District, where gnarly oaks grow through gritstone boulders in a steep valley. It’s not a wood pasture but is a fantastic ancient woodland site with some stunning trees.