The hazards of drawing outdoors

dalkeith-looking-coos

It sounds idyllic €“ €œI€™m going out to the woods to draw today€ and the truth is that it really is, it€™s a very special thing to do.  If I didn€™t have those days alone with the trees there would be no art, since the place, the atmosphere, the wildlife, the weather all contribute to the eventual response I make on paper.  The sound of the buzzards above, a deer looking startled as it almost bumps into me, a crow flying out of a hole in an old oak at eye level, a strong breeze making the dead wood creak over my head, the intermittent rustle of a toad hopping through the grass €“ all these form part of the experience for me.

However, drawing outdoors can have its little excitements and challenges too.  There are the predictable things like rain and wind, cold and midges. And the bugs that insist on walking on my drawing and sometimes refuse to leave, sadly getting squashed as I roll it up.  Nettles can make summer drawing unpleasant. High winds mean dangerous conditions underneath old trees and I€™m cautious on those kind of days.

On my last outdoor drawing trip I encountered some very inquisitive cattle which threatened my carefully selected drawing spot.  It seems quite funny to think of a grown woman escaping from cows, but they can do you some serious damage, especially if they have their calves to protect.

dalkeith-718    dalkeith-bug-view

I€™d set out to do a full 360 drawing of one of the hugely impressive Dalkeith oaks, which will be on show at €˜Time around trees€™ at the Meffan Gallery soon.  I€™d come prepared with little tent peg flags to mark my eight viewpoints, a tarp to sit on, my board, and a three and a half metre scroll of my favourite Canson paper.  This was going to take most of the day so I took my time deciding on views, thinking about the movement of the sun through the day and doing the initial sketches.  Four drawings in and I was happy with my progress until I noticed the herd moving towards me. The calves were at the €˜bolshy teenager€™ stage of their lives and clearly up for some mischief, so I rolled up the drawing carefully, packed my bag and climbed over the fence. 

flag-marker    dalkeith-nosey-coo

They had a good look round the tree and over at me, then settled in for some leisurely grazing, so I went for a walk and eventually tagged along with a group being given a tour by the woodland manager.  After a pleasant break I returned to my now deserted tree and resumed the big drawing.

An hour or so later they were back to play, but this time moved much faster and more determinedly so I only had time to get the drawing and pencils to safety and had to leave the tarp and board.  

dalkeith-herd

You€™re supposed to put your arms out wide and shout to keep them away but they weren€™t having any of that €“ no amount of arm waving was going to put them off their fun. The youngsters had a great time tossing the tarp around and slobbering all over my board, while their mothers rubbed themselves against the tree and had a good sniff around.  I realised from the other side of the fence that I was witnessing an age old scene of traditional wood pasture, and wondered how many woodsmen had been held up from their work by marauding cattle in the past!

dalkeith-two-coos

I ended up hiding behind a holly until they got bored and moved on.  Ok, I know it’s hardly Olly Suzi and wild dogs, but my tent peg flags were soggy and trampled and my board and tarp unpleasantly slimy. Still, I was happy that my drawing remained intact and I managed to finish all eight views with the occasional glance over my shoulder to check I was alone.  I took my longest ever drawing back to the studio, cleaned off the bug bodies and trimmed it ready for the Meffan show next month.  I’m hoping to be able to hang it so it kind of envelops you as you view it – so I hope you can come and see it for yourself now you know its story.

dalkeith-scroll

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Adventures in photopolymer printmaking

In November last year I did a weekend course in photopolymer etching at Edinburgh Printmakers and now I’m properly hooked!

inking-up

I’ve been back regularly to practise, putting my new knowledge to the test and diligently checking the notes every time I move through the process.  I’ve loved the whole atmosphere of the place – it manages to be both highly professional and very friendly, with a sort of background hum of intense but enjoyable creative activity.  The other printmakers I’ve met are generous with their knowledge whilst being humble about the challenges of being a printmaker.  I’ve also really enjoyed the physicality of the processes in the efficiently designed workshop – reminds me of my days at Manchester Polytechnic in the ceramic studio or the metal workshop, the smell of wet and dry, oiled machinery and funny coloured chemicals.

I know it’s early days in my learning, but I set myself the goal of having some prints to show in my next exhibition, ‘Figured wood’, in April, so I’ve been working like a mad thing to find what works for my images – you’ll need to visit the exhibition to see whether I’ve succeeded, but here’s a few process pictures to get you started…

bart

‘Bart’ the historic printing press

printing

Lined up and ready to print

prints-drying

Proofs fresh off the press!

See here for more information about this printmaking technique and that course I attended.

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A long time in the planning

meffan-model-1

It may be only a 50th of the actual size but this is the best planning tool I’ve used yet!

Having two solo shows booked for 2014, I thought I really needed to make myself a plan to guide my work and preparations.  However, the two dimensional methods I’d used before just weren’t up to the job, particularly for the Meffan Gallery show which has a flexible panel system for hanging work.  So, it may have been my three-dimensional design training or perhaps my childhood love of doll’s houses that prompted me to find some foamboard offcuts, some dressmaking pins and a calculator to translate a 2D floor plan into a proper 3D model.  I can’t lie – it was fun and I did spend longer than strictly necessary viewing it from all angles at eye level. Even made a wee person too.

Once I’d printed images of the potential works to scale it was a doddle to hang and rehang, play one piece off against another and generally visualise the exhibition as a whole. It was also obvious where the gaps might be and where I should focus my efforts with new work – it’s so easy to get carried away with exciting new experiments but I also have to make sure I have work to put on these walls.

meffan-model-2

There’s no substitute for seeing the actual exhibition space if it’s possible, so I spent an afternoon at Dawyck Botanic Garden, measuring the gallery and meeting the lovely staff.  They’d just finished hanging the current show, Remarkable Trees, which is on until the end of March.  My show ‘Figured wood’ follows it, opening on the 5th April.

dawyk-6

Now I have two little scale models to reassure me when I think I don’t have enough work, don’t know what I’m going to do, think it’ll all go wrong – those creative insecurities don’t ever go away but some practical planning really helps me to ignore them!

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The gallery as temporary home

As I was putting away the last of my works from ‘Wood nude tree limb’ last night, it struck me that mounting your own exhibition has a lot in common with camping.  Don’t take me too literally on this – there were no barbeques or long walks to the toilet during our show, it’s just that the ‘temporaryness’ felt the same.

wall-layout 

With both it seems that what you need to do is find a space that you like, that you feel comfortable in, then you fill it with your things, spending ages arranging and rearranging till it feels just right. Then of course you invite people to come and enjoy it with you.

show-setup

I realise this isn’t the way everyone does camping but I like to have my camp in reasonable order so I know where to find the lighter or the teabags or the midge spray in a hurry.  And I think most campers would be fairly careful in choosing their site before they pitch their tent – as the saying goes, “Pitch in haste, regret at leisure up to your ankles in water in a force 9 gale”.  These were good choices thankfully, at Blinkbonny Wood East Lothian and Big Sands, Gairloch.

the-best-pitch

camp-setup

I used to be a puppeteer many moons ago and performing in a small touring company demands many similar skills and tasks too – meticulous planning and packing balanced by a willingness to embrace the unforseen, gamely problem solving when the sets won’t fit through the doorway for instance (despite being assured by the venue that they would!).  There’s a huge amount of effort that goes into setting up a touring show in a new venue, making sure that everything is where it should be onstage and that the audience sees what you intend them to see.  Perhaps this is where my attention to the little details such as labels being straight stems from.

There’s also the short periods of intense activity contrasting with the long periods of sitting around not doing much and possibly getting a bit bored.  All that transporting, building, lifting, fixing, cleaning, fiddling about, then it’s done and we can all have a glass of wine.

me-wine

I like to sit in the gallery during the period of the show because I enjoy meeting people and talking about the work.  Their feedback and comments help me reflect on my work – it’s a rather lonely business making art so it’s always interesting to me to hear other viewers thoughts.  When it’s quiet in the gallery it’s nice just to contemplate, to look at it critically from a greater distance than usual and in a different context or light.  I tend to generate lots of ideas for new work during these times and other artists I’ve spoken to agree that can be worth mounting a show for this reason alone.

Then the show has to come down and what has felt very much like home reverts back to being just a big empty echoey space.  The newly filled holes in the wall are like the yellowed patch of grass where the footprint of the tent has been – the stage is cleared, the pitch is clean.  One last check around to make sure there’s nothing left behind and it’s all in good order for the next traveller, then we’re off.

empty-gallery

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Dalkeith drawing day

It won’t be long till the leaves are out and the nettles are up, so I’m taking every opportunity to get out drawing at the moment.

Here’s some images from last week’s trip to Dalkeith Country Park:

sketchbook coffee

A few warm up sketches and some hot coffee to get started.

ready-to-draw

Settling on a spot to draw is hard when there are so many amazing trees to choose from, but I try to be strict with myself and just get drawing – they’re all good subjects.

field-kit  drawing-in-progress

I make my drawings on a scroll of paper so that I can work on a decent sized piece but still transport it easily.  It does mean that I can’t see the whole drawing at once while I’m working, so there’s a kind of ‘consequences’ type of reveal when I’ve finished drawing from each angle.

finished-field-drawing

The finished drawing about to come off the board – I blow away any bugs so they don’t get rolled into it too.

rolled-drawings

Going through them in the studio, reviewing old and new, noting what to work on next.

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What kind of charcoal do I use?

dusty-hand

I’ve been developing my charcoal drawing techniques for around four years now – it’s such a versatile material there’s still much more to discover.  Many of my favourite drawings from my early days at art school are charcoal ones.  I have fond memories of the first time I was encouraged to tape a piece to a stick and draw BIG!!  I thought my tutor was mad at first but it turns out to have been a valuable lesson and I often draw with a stick now.  People I teach now think I’m mad I suppose.

My discovery of charcoal powder was quite a revelation – I’d tried to make my own, having some success with homemade bonfire remains, but I now use Cretacolor powder which has an even particle size and consistent tone.  It’s perfect for large drawings, behaves almost like paint in that it can be moved around on the paper, can be combined with binders and water for liquid effects and best of all, I can apply it with my hands, thus getting messy which makes me happy.

charcoal-table

I also use regular willow charcoal of various sizes.  I’ve tried hard to like compressed charcoal since it allows a really deep black to be achieved, but I cannot get on with it, it’s somehow far too waxy and stubborn.  I’m currently experimenting with charcoal soaked in or mixed with linseed oil – it seems to give a lovely blackness which adheres to the paper quite well.  Because of this I’ve been able to use it out in the field without the usual worries about smudging.  Here’s one I made earlier:

Dalkeith 718 charcoal

 I think there’s something poetic about depicting wood with its carbonised self.

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Studio views

My studio is essentially a private place, but I’m curious about other people’s spaces so thought I ought to share mine…

studio-view2

I’ve had my studio for four years now, so I’ve had plenty of time to organise it to my liking.  It’s set up for working on paper with charcoal, pastel and inks, which is why there’s no paint on the floor.  What you can’t see here is the layer of charcoal dust clinging to everything – sometimes I have to hoover my drawing board!

studio-view3

This wall is a sort of vertical shelf where I stick up ideas in progress, things that look scruffy but may in fact be useful to my thought processes.

studio-view

Being on the 8th floor has its benefits (unless the lift’s broken) and I love my view out across the Firth of Forth.  The Edinburgh velodrome below is an entertaining distraction during the racing season. 

If you fancy seeing Art’s Complex for yourself there are regular Open Studio events which I participate in.  If you are interested in my work in particular please contact me to arrange a studio visit – I may even dust!

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First look at a new location

ardullie old road

In my previous post ‘How do I find my trees?’ I set out the process by which I find my drawing locations.  Of course I’m not that methodical really and it can be a combination of things that lead me to a new spot, or sometimes just pure chance.

My newest discovery came about as a result of a suggestion from Roger at Troutquest, Evanton in Easter Ross.  We were holidaying in the cottage he rents for his fishing holiday business and he suggested that the Old Evanton Road to Dingwall had some good old trees.  Out came the maps and after a wee drive came the discovery of this wonderful old road, strangely green and lined with trees of great character – beeches, oaks, hawthorn and others I couldn’t identify without their leaves.

map memo   ardullie memo

Since I only had an hour or so here, I recorded all I could in preparation for returning later in the year.  I use my Samsung Galaxy Note for this – it’s a bit big for a phone but the up side is that it has a large screen, a stylus and nifty apps like SMemo which are ideal for combining photos, hand written notes etc.  I can also draw on it; Sketchbook Pro is a great app which I use in the studio, but I far prefer the feel of the friction between pen and paper when drawing. 

 

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How do I find my trees?

The countryside is full of trees, so are the cities for that matter.  So how do I decide which ones to draw?  It’s a question I’m often asked when talking to people about my work, so here’s an insight into my decision making.

I think there are a number factors which have influenced my selection process:

  • I love looking at maps – OS maps, historical maps, schematic maps, any kind.  I’ve always enjoyed this as an activity not just a means to an end.  I love the challenge of interpreting this 2 dimensional information to create an understanding of the 3 dimensional landscape.  My Geography A level hasn’t gone to waste!
  • Google earth and other online aerial imaging has made it possible to do extensive research of potential sites without using any petrol or getting cold and wet.
  • The joy of discovery is important to my emotional connection with the tree – if it’s taken some effort to find it, access it and draw it, it’s somehow more intense as an image.  If it’s signposted from the road, with a path beside it and toilets nearby it’s just no fun.  It’s probably no coincidence that I love hunting for edible fungi and am very loathe to give up until I’ve found some on every trip.
  • I’m really happy being outside, in the woods, in the wind, on my own
  • When studying at art college, life drawing was the most challenging and rewarding task for me and I seem to be fascinated by trees that echo human forms.
  • Youth, perfection and prettiness doesn’t appeal – I find character, age and damage much more interesting.  I think it tells us far more about ourselves.

I’m currently in a ‘research and exploration’ phase in my artwork so have up to date examples of this part of the process which I’ll put in a second post, but it usually follows a similar path:

  • I’ll begin my poring over the maps, zooming around on Google earth and searching for areas of deciduous woodland, parkland or hedgerow. 
  • The Ancient Tree Hunt’s interactive map is an invaluable resource which brings together many layers of information in one easily browseable form.  What a fantastic example of passionate volunteers making a real difference.
  • The National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced maps are another way to check back through time to see how the land use has changed and identify potentially old trees.
  • Gathering local knowledge is very important and I’ve met some lovely people this way – I always have maps around at my exhibitions and open studios events and ask people if they have any recommendations for me.  So many people love trees and are happy to share their knowledge.
  • Then comes the driving and walking bit – ideally I get to sit in the passenger seat and scout for sites, occasionally yelling “oooh stop!” then jumping out with my camera while my husband waits patiently.  Walking is much more relaxing and reaches the parts that other transport can’t.
  • Once a good site has been identified, I’ll plan a proper field trip and spend a good deal of time exploring the area and getting to know its trees.  Then the real work begins…

 crichton shadow

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A blank sheet

blank sheetsAs the Art’s Complex Summer Show comes to an end, so the work begins to get ready for my second solo show coming up in October.  Entitled ‘Damaged woods’, the exhibition will explore the way trees respond to damage and disease and how their forms record it in three dimensions.  All the research and field studies were done in the early spring and now it’s time to face the blank sheets and start drawing!

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