Experiments in charcoal

It’s no secret that artists absolutely love getting new art materials, regardless of whether we actually need any or not. In fact need has nothing to do with it. I think this collecting habit is driven by curiosity – what if that new brush is exactly what I’ve been searching for, maybe that new pastel is the perfect green for those mossy bits, perhaps that ink will make exciting splashy marks I’d never imagined possible?

In this spirit of discovery, I jumped at the chance to try some unusual types of charcoal when I came across Wildwood Charcoal showing their experiments on Instagram.

I usually use charcoal from art materials suppliers, mostly made by Coates and Nitram for sticks and Derwent for the powder. I’ve not been too fond of homemade charcoal for drawing before, as it’s been very unpredictable, pale and quite frustrating to draw with. However, I heard from another artist that the passionflower one was great to work with so I ordered a little sample pack and got to work on some arty experiments.

charcoal made from brambleMy exciting little package arrived nestled beautifully in sweet smelling straw, wrapped in carefully labelled paper – nice touch! I set to work testing them in a not very methodical way, just allowed the marks to flow as the charcoals suggested.

Passionflower was indeed a delight, luscious and black. Gorse on the other hand was scratchy and grey, but in an interesting way. Clematis was definitely a favourite for its depth of tone but also its texture – the outer layers being ridged and slightly crumbly, giving pleasantly surprising results. Wisteria had less personality and bramble (pictured above) was pretty brutal – the thorns still jaggy even after carbonising and the stem so hard it seemed almost metallic.

I came to the conclusion that passionflower and clematis would be a great addition to my charcoal ‘palette’, gorse would be worth further exploration and bramble would be excellent if I ever wanted to draw on a stone wall. Each species had its own distinct character which produced a drawing style particular to it. I’d love explore this further, working on more sustained drawings. Of course I’ve also got a list of other plants I’d like to try now – I’ve got a feeling that’s the first of many little Wildwood charcoal packages arriving in my studio.

 

 

 

 

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Oily doodles

When does a drawing become a painting? I think of these as drawings made in oil paint and oil pastel.Project_paint10

Above are Dalkeith oaks, below a beech tree near the Cromarty Firth. All are done in the studio from photographs and sketches.

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The painting experiment continues…

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How do I make my drawings?

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It’s a question I’m often asked. I do workshops and demos for groups but thought a timelapse video of the process might be an interesting way to share a little of what I’ve learned too.

So, the blank white paper is taped to the board, the preparatory sketches made, materials collected and it’s time to begin. First I make large gestures with a charcoally hand to quickly give the drawing structure and movement. Lively lines help to begin to define the big shapes. There’s a magical feeling early on in a drawing when the forms begin to emerge from the dust. I can draw with energy and excitement. “This is going to be a good one!” my internal monologue says. Then, gradually the drawing morphs into the ‘smudgey grey mess’ stage when it seems like it’s all going nowhere… time for a tea-break.

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However, I’ve learned to persevere through this – I know it will happen and I know I just have to keep going, keep walking away, looking through squinted eyes, looking at it upside down, all the usual tricks to help spot what’s not working. A few years ago I read on American artist Stapleton Kearns’ blog that drawing was like herding sheep – you should always be paying attention to the ones straying or lagging behind, rather than the ones way out ahead. So pay attention to the bad bits of the drawing, try to fix the things that are not working and eventually they will all catch up with each other and hopefully resolve into something ok.

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The end result of all that herding turned out to be quite pleasing and I found that I really enjoyed knowing that I could review all the previous stages of the drawing on the time lapse. Being able to rewind time has proved a useful tool – I won’t do it for all my drawings but I’ll definitely do more little films.

Here’s the video of several hours work condensed into 3 minutes…

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Plans vs life

2017 planner gone wrong

Exhibitions take lots of time to plan, many months of work to make, publicity is written way ahead of opening, it’s all on a schedule. My current exhibition was over two years in the planning. Residencies also take time to organise and represent a great opportunity to take new directions. I love planning – I love thinking about the future, imagining what could happen and plotting out what shape that might take.

My studio year planner gives some much-needed structure to an essentially open ended creative process.  But it doesn’t matter where you put the coloured dots or how you block in the days you expect to be productive or when you confidently predict an outcome, because sometimes life chucks stuff in the way of your plans, pushes you off your expected course or gets you stuck in a place you don’t want to be.

It’s easy to regard this as a failure – you didn’t do what you said you would, you didn’t follow through on your intentions. You have nothing to show for your time.

However, if what artists do is make in response to their experience of the world, then we should perhaps view it as an opportunity when unexpected events trip us up, rather than a problem. These new experiences are the raw materials for new work, new ways of thinking and responding. Change can be painful as well as positive though and old familiar ways are hard to let go of.

So that’s where I am right now. I’ve been tripped up. I’m not where I planned to be. Life has chucked some difficult stuff in my way but the good news is that I’m an artist so I can use it. Not really sure how yet but I know that’s what needs to happen next.

This is a form of tree is known as a ‘phoenix tree’ – at some time in its life on the Longshaw moors it has blown down but, because some of its root plate remains in contact with the ground, it has continued to grow from its new horizontal position.  It’s stable and apparently thriving, just in a new phase of life…

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Hidden Beecraigs trees

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For an artist looking for characterful old trees this doesn’t look very promising does it? Clearfelled plantation is in itself a dramatic kind of landscape, but not what I’m hunting for. Gladly we have wonders of the internet like National Library of Scotland’s online historical maps and satellite imaging (I’ve recently discovered that Bing maps are a far better tool than Google) so I had an idea that there might be living remnants of the previous landscape somewhere here at Beecraigs Country Park.

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Surrounded by the plantation trees and densely shaded, I found a few old beeches just clinging on along old boundary ditches.

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They show up on satellite images as bright green shapes against the dark uniformity of the conifers and checking the shape’s location against old maps confirms that they are on a pre-existing boundary.

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I tested out my new water soluble graphite sticks while drawing in the rain/sleet – well it is February!

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A second visit on a much sunnier day revealed a wonderful line of wiggly beeches along a south facing bank.

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This cluster was a real surprise – mountain bikers clearly use this extensively as it’s all lumps and bumps, being a former quarry area.

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So I found my characters after all, which means I not only have the satisfaction of a successful forage, but so many new trees to get to know through my drawing – expect to meet some of them at Howden Park Centre later this year…

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Tree hunting in West Lothian

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Having had a illness last year which incapacitated me for about 6 months (which I’m working up to blogging about sometime), I’m so happy to be able to get back to the woods this winter. So I started the year by making some plans to explore new locations through a series of mini-residencies – a sort of self-directed intense period of study, learning about the history of the landscape, making links with locally knowledgeable people and making as many on site drawings as I can.

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Since I have an exhibition at the Howden Park Centre in Livingston scheduled for the end of the year, it seemed natural to start in West Lothian. While the recent storms have been blowing outside, I’ve been indoors poring over old maps and current satellite images, looking for clues to more ancient landscapes and some likely places to look for old trees. I thought I knew West Lothian pretty well, having worked there on and off for the last 20 years, but Calder Wood is an exciting new discovery for me.

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It’s a plateau of ancient woodland bounded by the Murieston Water and the Linhouse Water, which both join the river Almond at Almondell. The river banks are steep and the trees mostly hide the surrounding housing, making it feel much more remote than it actually is.

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These are a few photos of the wonderful trees I found – impressive old beeches, gnarly sycamore, elderly birches, hazel coppice, twisty decaying sweet chestnut.

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I’m starting to learn my way around the woodland now, working out how all the little tracks fit together, where the clusters of old trees are and which are the best candidates for more prolonged sketching.

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Maps are marvellous for getting the structure of a new place into my head, but now I realise I need to start creating my own mental maps – these are the first of many days in Calder Wood…

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Into the woods

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It’s officially Spring, though you wouldn’t know it today with the horizontal snow, and the race is on for me to get back into the woods for some decent drawing days before the leaves break through.

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I recently bought some Conté crayons and spent some time in the studio playing with them to see how I might use them in the woods. I was looking for some softness and delicacy to develop in my line drawings done directly from the tree. From a practical angle I was hoping that they would be the perfect combination of lovely smudginess when I need it and stability when I’m transporting the drawings across the fields.

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Paper on board, ready to draw some ancient oaks after a drop of coffee…

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Happily, some of my newest Conté drawings made it out of the woods and into Time around trees last month…

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A selection of these drawings will be heading for the Buy Design Gallery when they’re framed and hopefully the wind will calm down enough for me to get a few more productive outdoor days soon.

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New resolution for artwork photos

My first resolution for 2015 – take better photos and keep better records of my work.  Sounds a bit boring but is definitely more do-able than some previous years’ promises, so I’m giving it a go.

I have friends who are photographers and they make amazing images with their cameras.  I’ve come to realise that photography will never be something I’ll excel in, probably because I really only take photographs to create a record or for reference material – the image I want to make and show is a drawn one so I don’t put in the time and effort necessary for great photos.  The technical aspects of photography don’t interest me either, all those f-stops, ISOs, numbers and letters that float in and out of my memory like bubbles which pop as soon as I try to hold them.

However, since it’s essential to have the best possible images of your art for submissions, marketing etc. I’ve always tried to do the best I can within my limited knowledge, but as my drawing has developed over the years it has become clear that my photography is not up to the job.  So I’ve taken some advice from a professional about how to photograph artwork and invested in some proper kit and I thought I’d share my learning process – professional photographers please no sniggering, I know I have a long way to go!

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I already had a good second hand DSLR and tripod but my lighting was not up to standard, so I bought some proper lights and set everything up in the studio today to do some tests…

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The most tricky of my drawings to photograph are the line drawings done in the field – they are usually made on a long scroll of paper and this has presented a challenge when trying to create an even light across the whole work.  I’m pleased with the delicacy and detail I’ve got in today’s test compared to my previous attempt…

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Like someone who doesn’t realise they need new glasses until they get them, the before and after details below really show how much my previous photos were missing…

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Just to be clear, I am definitely no expert and hope to learn a great deal more about photographing my artwork but, in case you are like me and value some clear instructions, here is a summary of the way I’ve set up:

  1. Find or create a light-tight space to take your photos. I got IKEA blackout blinds for the windows and a husband who likes DIY to put them up.  Any light leaking from doorways, through curtains and such could affect your images so eliminate it as far as possible.
  2. Get yourself a good camera within your budget and read the instructions – I have had my camera for 5 years and have only just forced myself to do this!
  3. Get a sturdy tripod for your camera.
  4. Buy or borrow a pair of soft-box studio photography lights.  I got mine from Photogeeks, they have 5 daylight bulbs and individual switches for each bulb so you can adjust the brightness.  One of the components was cracked on delivery but Photogeeks replaced it very quickly with no quibbles. This video helped me to work out how to build the things.
  5. Ideally use a linear polarising filter on your camera lens to reduce glare – this is particularly important if your work has a glossy surface.
  6. Get a ‘grey card’ to enable you to colour correct your photos.
  7. Prop or fix your work against a neutral background, ideally at a 10 degree angle.  I have a drawing board and shelf system I use for making my work which doubled up well for this job – an easel would do the same.
  8. Once the work is in position, place the lights at about 45 degrees to the work on either side and close enough to give an even light.
  9. Now the more technical bit – my camera was set to capture RAW images only, ISO 100, lens length around 50mm, white balance set to match the lighting, aperture F11, automatic shutter speed and auto focus on.
  10. Position the camera and tripod so that you get the work filling most of the shot, tilt the camera to the same angle as the work to avoid distortion.
  11. Take a photo which includes the grey card, then upload to whatever image processing software you use (I have Photoshop elements) and adjust the image to your liking. If you are photographing a number of similar works like I have lots in charcoal, clicking ‘Save new camera RAW defaults’ will mean that these adjustments apply to the next images you open – I’m hoping this will help to give some consistency to my charcoal photos – all greys are not the same.
  12. You can find further guidance on photographing artwork here via the wonderful Making a mark blog.

It’s been a promising start to this year’s first project – I’m a long way from ticking it on the list as ‘done’ but things are starting to look clearer at least.

 

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Words that guide me

Whilst it’s true to say that I spend most of my time as an artist thinking in images, it’s also the case that words have become central to my creative practice. 

I’ve always been a reader and enjoy a wide spectrum of writing, so I naturally sought out the wisdom of books to guide my drawing and feed my ideas.  But the problem is that this wisdom is cocooned in so much paper and my memory just isn’t up to the job of remembering the best bits and knitting them into something coherent that helps me.  I realised that I needed to see all these words and be constantly reminded of them, so I repurposed some old business cards and started copying out quotes.

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Some of the best or most striking have ended up on my studio wall, along with photocopies and little sketches, in a sort of giant mind map that I refer to whenever I come to a pause in my work.  Some of them have sparked a new direction in a particular drawing, some an entire project, while others act as a sort of constant safety net to support me through the doubt and indecision that bubbles up whilst in the middle of making a drawing.  It’s perhaps a bit like having your favourite art school tutor always on hand to both encourage and criticise where needed.

On one of my internet wanderings I discovered that not only does Brian Eno make fantastic music, but in 1975 he created something called ‘Oblique strategies’ with Peter Schmidt.  They put together a set of cards with words and phrases intended to stimulate, change, redirect, challenge the creative process and overcome creative blocks.  Brilliant!

So, building on the ‘wise words on the wall’ concept, I shamelessly copied the concept and wrote my own cards…

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Here are some of them, mixed in with quotes from books like Juliette Aristides’ Lessons in Classical Drawing, and Stapleton Kearns blog, which is packed full of cleverness.  When I’m starting a series of drawings, I’ll choose some cards which seem to be relevant and stick them up on the board so they are there, gently nagging me, while I work.  And not so gently if I drift off the task!

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Their purpose is to point me in a direction if I get a bit lost, rather than specify exactly what I should be doing – that would be far too rigid and bossy.  I can honestly say they’ve worked really well so far.

Perhaps the wisest of wise words that I remember from my very early days at college are “expect to keep about 10% of what you do this year” – that most of what I make will be rubbish, some will be ok and only a very small proportion will be good. It was both a shocking and liberating thing to hear at the age of 18 and has stuck with me, so I was pleased to see it echoed in Austin Kleon‘s newest book ‘Show your work’.  He has lot’s of words to guide you if you are an artist, writer or any other creator and his pictures are spot on too…

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Turning points

The creative process can be marvellous and mysterious, frustrating and demoralising.  Occasionally something magic happens with a drawing and a work takes a whole new direction, one which was not planned but is very much welcomed.  These are the works I think of as the turning points in my progress through drawing – the ones which spark a series, or through which a new working method develops.  They act as landmarks showing me where I’ve come from and suggest routes forward too.

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Dalkeith burred oak 1

This is the most recent turning point which I completed earlier this year.  Inspired by a dead oak which I found on my very first visit to Dalkeith oaks in 2005, photographed then subsequently ‘lost’ amongst the hundreds of trees there.  I’m usually pretty good at finding my way to the particular tree I’m looking for, but this one eluded me.  Thankfully I found it again this spring and I fell in love again with the barkless surface and its contorted burred forms.  There are six works in the series so far and more to come I think.

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Hopetoun half tree

A major leap forward occurred in 2009, when I was shocked to discover a favourite roadside beech had been beheaded, leaving the torso like trunk starkly exposed. Up to that point I had been wrestling with the problems of what to leave out when drawing trees – the complexity was overwhelming and details seemed to obscure the essence of the thing.  When I saw this devastated tree I realised that the chainsaw had revealed what I was searching for and inspired my ongoing torso series in charcoal.

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Tay beech

A really old one, done at the end of a drawing course at ECA, around 2005.  I decided to try zooming in on the light and texture of the tree’s surface and just really enjoyed the mark-making aspect of the drawing.  I hadn’t picked up a soft pastel in years and it felt like quite a liberating piece of work at the time.

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Craigie chestnut 1973

It’s titled 1973 because of the date carved into the stump – a massive and somewhat incongruous chestnut by a path in an area of former quarrying.  I guessed that the date related to the time it was felled – there’s also a partial cut on the stump which might have been made at the same time.  It was such an odd sight and so sculptural that I decided to draw it ‘in the round’, to give the sense of walking around the tree.  After making initial sketches I developed a method of working on a scroll of rolled paper on a wide board, and returned with my new kit to make this drawing.  This 360 degree approach has continued to develop, the piece below being a more recent example.

The tree lives on incidentally, with young branches sprouting from the base, producing sweet chestnuts every autumn.

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Dalkeith oak 718

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Crichton shattered beech

I had this image in my head and an urge to draw big, so cut myself a piece of paper 1m x 1.5m and got stuck in.  It’s really not that practical – it’s unframed and tricky to move around but I had a great time making it.  I felt as though I had room at last to do the tree justice.  One day, when I have plenty of gallery space to fill and ample funds for framing, I shall make more on this scale.

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Philpstoun ghost beech

“How dark can I go?” I wondered.  Here I began to push the amount of charcoal I could apply to the paper and the ways in which I removed it too.  Randomness was encouraged and responded to, the image allowed to emerge.  Something ghostly appeared on the paper and I liked it – it had a combination of drama and subtlety which has featured in all my later charcoals.

I think of drawing as my method of discovery and these are some of my landmarks so far, each turning point leading to new and unexpected territories.

 

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