Completing 100 days of chiaroscuro

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…

Some highlights

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:

oil study of a tree
An oil study from one of my photographs
After Ken Currie’s ‘Interregnum’
After a photograph of Rodin by Edward Steichen
After Rembrandt’s ‘Bearded old man’
a photograph of some flames
My edited photo of flames from my firepit

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.

Read how the project started here, view the full gallery here or check out my weekly project updates on Instagram.

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European Wood Pastures

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hills and horse

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It was a perfect sunny winter’s day today, just wonderful for going out and getting to know the landscape around Beecraigs a little better.

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First stop was Cairnpapple Hill, so steeped in significance since prehistoric times – not surprising since it has such a fantastic view from all angles, to the Pentlands, the Ochils, across the water to Fife and further out to Berwick Law, the Perthshire and Lomond mountains and even Arran on the best days.

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I’d spotted a row of beeches on satellite photos on the northern boundary of the hill, so went to investigate, finding a sheltered little valley with some small, hardy oaks along with the boundary beeches.

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After a good walk round Cairnpapple I headed towards Witch Craig Wood and the Korean War Memorial, where I’ve been told I’d find an unusual bit of graffiti. After a little hunting I found not one but two carved horses on trees by side of the road.

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One looks like a knight of some sort with a sword, perhaps some reference to the Hospitallers of Torphichen? The other is clearly a Clydesdale horse, standing proudly in the carving by B.R. in ’78. I wonder what their stories are…

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A tree being looked at

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  “To draw is to look, examining the structure

of appearances – a drawing of a tree shows not

a tree, but a tree being looked at.”

  John Berger

My approach to drawing is all about looking intently at my subject: the starting point for all my artwork is a meeting with a tree and a dialogue with it through mark-making.  So when I was invited to take part in this year’s Kelburn Garden Party it seemed like a great opportunity to start that dialogue with some of their amazing trees.

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For the duration of the festival I plan to be working around the estate and Glen, creating a collection of drawings on the theme of ‘A tree being looked at’. If you’re at the Garden Party over the weekend, you can find me in the afternoons under the Weeping Larch in the area known as ‘The Gardens’ where I’ll also be doing short drawing workshops.

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If you feel like a wander through the Neverending Glen, you can also discover and use the viewfinders I’ve placed along the way. These have quotes on them which relate to my ‘tree being looked at’ theme, and all are from books, artists and writers who have been inspiring and eye-opening for me and my work which I really wanted to share. I’ve hung the viewfinders so that they can be handled and used to frame your own views of the natural world – it’s all about looking!

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Here are the quotes and their sources, with links…

“To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree is an act of reverence not only toward the tree, but also to our human connection to it. It gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness.”

Alan Lee from Drawing Projects, Mick Maslen & Jack Southern

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“We see our world through the kind of questions we are able to ask about it, and by asking ‘more interesting questions’, we will discover more interesting ways of seeing it.”

Drawing Projects, Mick Maslen & Jack Southern

 

“One must always draw. Draw with the eyes when one cannot draw with a pencil.”

Balthus

 

“Woods have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape”

“To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost.”

Wildwood, Roger Deakin

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“I have learnt that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start to draw an ordinary thing, I realise how extraordinary it is.”

The Zen of Seeing: Seeing drawing as meditation, Frederick Franck

 

“Which bits of our aesthetic or emotional consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch?”

“What deep-rooted associations do old trees conjure up? Are they some kind of portal to understanding the deep relationship between wildness and time?

Beechcombings, Richard Mabey

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“It is motionless yet it oozes energy.”

Henry Moore at the British Museum, Henry Moore

 

“To walk through an ancient wood is to tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of those who once lived and worked in the medieval and early industrial countryside.

Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts, Ian D. Rotherham

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“…trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife.  Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities.”

Woodlands, Oliver Rackham

 

“I found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down.”

Sighing for Retirement’, John Clare

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“Our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number.”

The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd

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I’ll be posting more news and photos from the weekend on my facebook page whenever I can get a signal, so you can follow my progress there.

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The influence of Oliver Rackham

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Many eminent people have marked the recent passing of Oliver Rackham, widely regarded as the country’s foremost academic and writer on the interrelated subjects of trees, woodlands, landscape and history €“ Professor Ian D Rotherham’s blog and the Woodland Trust do it very well.

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For me, Oliver Rackham’s books (and his wonderful illustrations as pictured above) were an eye-opening introduction to a new way of looking at my subject. After reading his work, an interesting tree was no longer just interesting for its form, its texture, its colour:  it was something that could be read almost as a historical document. The tree’s physical properties were not just a result of its own nature, but were intimately linked to its environment and the people who interacted with it over its lifetime. 

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That concept of dialogue between tree, human and place has been crucial to the development of my creative process, and I have Oliver Rackham to thank for that.

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Time around trees inspiration

These are some of the trees which have inspired the works in my current solo exhibition, ‘Time around trees’, along with some quotes from authors and scientists whose books have helped me understand and reflect on what I see.

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Crichton shattered beech Near Crichton Castle, Midlothian

Here veteran beeches line a little hollow lane beside an Iron Age Fort and a neighbouring field boundary.

When I first found the site on a walk with a friend, one tree stood out in particular for its striking form, following the collapse of one of the main limbs in a recent storm.  Its distinctively separate twisting trunks suggest that it may have been €˜bundle planted€™, where several saplings are planted together to give the impression of an older tree.  Its surface is patterned with scars and marks from graffiti, barbed wire fencing and hole boring insects.

‘Which bits of our aesthetic or emotional consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch. What deep-rooted associations do old trees conjure up?  Are they some kind of portal to understanding the deep relationship between wildness and time?€™

Richard Mabey, Beechcombings

 

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Dalkeith burred oak Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian

These ancient oaks, in their rare wood pasture landscape, evoke for me the difference between a tree€™s lifespan and that of a human. 

Likely to have been at least 400 years old when it died, this tree continues to provide habitat and sustenance to the organisms of the woodland.  The bark has rotted and been returned to the soil, revealing the whorls and contortions of the underlying structure. It could stand for another 200 years, dead but filled with life.  As if to emphasise the point, a crow flew suddenly out of one of the holes in the trunk as I was drawing.

€˜…the burr is an excrescence of would-be buds rising from somewhere deep inside the tree like a spring… A burr may arise as a reaction to some itch in the tree, a kind of benign wood tumour.  What begins as disfigurement ends life as an opulent adornment.€™

Roger Deakin, Wildwood

 

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Hopetoun half tree, Hopetoun Estate, West Lothian

Before it was lopped, this beautiful beech by the side of the Bo€™ness Road was a marker in the landscape for me on a regular route near home.  Then one day it had simply been beheaded €“ perhaps it was deemed to be unsafe or diseased. 

The remaining stump was at once shocking and fascinating, as the removal of the branches had revealed the torso-like sculpture of the trunk.  The problems of drawing trees that I was struggling with then had been solved by the chainsaw, and a whole body of work was inspired.

€˜…trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife.  Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities. If all trees were like the ideal, they would lose most of their significance, all their historic meaning, most of their beauty and most of their value as habitat.€™

Oliver Rackham, Woodlands

 

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Newbattle graffiti beech, Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian

In the grounds of this adult education college and former Cistercian abbey, stands this single large beech on the banks of the South Esk. It has accumulated decades€™ worth of carvings, initials, dates and symbols on every accessible surface. The oldest decipherable date is 1945, perhaps because there were Italian prisoners of war held in the grounds and the house was used as barracks during the war. 

Coins are pressed into the bark along the tree€™s massive lower limb.  It€™s evident that hundreds of human lives have had links with this tree.

€˜To walk through an ancient wood is to tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of those who once lived and worked in the medieval and early industrial countryside.€™

Ian D. Rotherham, Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts

 

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Novar fungus beech, Novar Estate, Evanton, Easter Ross

I discovered this site on a family holiday and have drawn there in early spring for five consecutive years.

The Novar estate was laid out in the mid 1700s as a deer park and as a symbol of the laird€™s status. It has many great old trees, but the beeches there are special for me.

This solitary beech stands in the parkland wearing its convoluted crown covered in lichens, its trunk stacked with bracket fungus which is recycling the heartwood.

€˜… at each place where [the tree] has been bent or cut it has grown stronger, swelling into a callous like a human knee or puckering into a bump of scar tissue round the little star-cracked crater of each amputated branch.  Every one of these details represents a decision, a little setback for the tree to which it responds with redoubled vigour…€™

Roger Deakin, Wildwood

 

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Scone grafted beech, Scone Palace Grounds, Perthshire

I was introduced to this tree on an Ancient Tree Forum site visit in Perthshire.

Clearly planted as an ornamental tree, this beech reflects in its bark the battle going on between the common beech rootstock and the copper beech grafted onto it.  The join is unusually high, which accounts for the very visible bulges, bosses and scars, and which immediately attracted me to draw it.

€˜A known tree was a solid link with the past, an embodiment of continuity.  It could be welcomed as one of the family €“ or at least the family estate.  It could be appropriated as a trophy, a proof of clever husbandry, a symbol of ancient occupation or social standing.€™

Richard Mabey, Beechcombings

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A Derbyshire day out

I used to go to Chatsworth lots as a child, for picnics, walks, to play by the river and in the famous weir, to run round the gardens and grottos and to trail around the stuffy house as I thought it then, full of seats you couldn’t sit on and things you mustn’t touch. I honestly don’t remember any paintings or other artworks I saw then, though I must have encountered many marvellous ones.

However I went there on purpose last week, whilst down south for the Tree Stories project, to see there current show of sculpture in the grandest of settings.  Here’s a small selection of my favourites, but you can find an interactive map here if you are looking for details.

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A tenacious tree

This is pure indulgence – whilst looking at these photographs I can relive memories of a drawing trip here in early spring this year.  Ancient oaks, gorgeous light, solitude apart from buzzards and the occasional frog.  I’ve done a few 360 degree drawings of this tree but looking again now I think it merits a whole series to itself.  Maybe this is what comes next…

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The writing on the tree

Newbattle Abbey College has a long and interesting history and some of my very favourite trees.  

It€™s been a regular haunt for me since I moved to Scotland in 1994 and I returned today in search of some tree graffiti to get the ideas flowing around €˜Tree Stories€™, a project in the pipeline which I hope to be involved in later this year.  It€™s being developed by Professor Ian D Rotherham at Sheffield Hallam University and aims to get the public engaged in a national hunt for marked and worked trees, recording them in photographs and trying to find out a bit more about their history. 

This idea was immediately appealing to me, as I€™ve been collecting images of carved and marked trees and incorporating these into my recent work.

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Newbattle graffiti beech, charcoal on paper (plus detail)

It raises some interesting questions for me about where the line is drawn between vandalism and culture, damage and heritage.   I€™d like to find out more about how carving a living tree affects it €“ does it lead to stress, disease or weakness, or is the tree able to repair or isolate the damage?  How much of the bark€™s surface can be carved before it starts to cause serious problems for the tree?

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This particular beech seems to have taken on a local significance as the place to €˜make your mark€™.  The oldest carving I could identify was dated 1955, but most were from the 1970s and 80s, with some much more recent.

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It€™s both shocking and impressive to see the whole surface of the tree marked like this €“ as if a large crowd had gathered by the river and started yelling their names.

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I’ve never noticed this on my previous visits, but there are coins pressed into wounds in the bark like some sort of spontaneous offering.  I’ve read about ‘money trees’ before but never seen one up close.

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There are more ‘Tree Stories’ to come from this one I think!

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