In the political and social chaos that infected this autumn, I found myself seeking some focus. With many competing ideas, distractions and the temptations of doom-scrolling, I needed a little help to work out where to direct my energy.
Do we really have all the time in the world?
Charlie Gilkey’s ‘Start Finishing’ and Oliver Burkeman’s ‘Four Thousand Weeks’ take different approaches to the same problem – how to do what’s important to you in the time you have. These two books gave me some unexpected answers. They taught me that I, like so many of us, am just one person trying to do far more than is possible. Since you might be trying to do this too, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from them.
It’s been said that I draw in a very sculptural way – perhaps not so surprising when I tell you I studied 3D design and spent the first half of my creative career making 3D things. I’ve always had an affinity with form, which translates into my drawings whether I want it to or not.
This week in my ‘drawing movement project’ I paid homage to my sculptor heroes Rodin, Michelangelo and the ancient Greeks, all part of a lineage of artists who made stone appear to move.
My mission this month has been to refresh my studio practice with some intensive drawing, examining movement and gesture, refilling my visual memory in preparation for new work. I’m your classic easily distracted arty type so I recognised that I needed a defined challenge to stay focused. I gave myself boundaries then just tried to fill the sketchbooks and stay with it, enjoying the meditative process of drawing.
After working from the life model for a while, I turned to my extensive archive of photos and video from my years of tree-hunting. While there are 1000s of images to get lost in, I had just a few individual trees in mind which lend themselves to this project.
After a long break away from the drawing board, I decided to spend the month of August exploring movement as a way to spark some new work for later this year. My intention was to examine movement in the figure, in wood, water and other elements, in order to feed that fluidity into new tree inspired pieces.
Many people have commented that my work reminds them of dancers, or human or animal figures, so I felt it was a good time to explore this more deeply and in a more intentional way. When I’m drawing trees I’m always looking for movement, even though the trees move too slowly for me to see I know they are always in motion.
A framework for studies in movement
To give this idea some structure, I created a studio project for myself with quite definite boundaries. I know from my experience of sustaining a studio practice that this is a helpful way to get back into the flow of making after a break.
Where do the ideas come from? How do the images form themselves?
It’s not until after I’ve finished a body of work that I can get enough distance to see where it might have come from, what it relates to and where it sits amongst all my work. While I’m making it, it’s mostly a response to a creative urge rather than following a plan.
Rivers of oak series
Looking back now I see that my ‘Rivers of oak’ series came from the coalescence of two visual elements – the bare, weather-eroded sapwood of long dead ancient oaks and the turbulent patterns of the sea where I row. Both are things I’ve looked at intently.
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.
There’s often an air of mystery about our studio spaces – are they tidy, chaotic, paint splattered, spilling over with curiosities or clinically organised and austere? How much does the space reflect the work, or the personality of the artist themselves?
For me, my studio is like a physical expression of what goes on inside my head. There are areas of accumulation and hoarding, far too many unrealised ideas, areas which are super efficient and lots of objects in transition. Most importantly, it’s a multi-functional work space where I feel totally comfortable and at home.
My studio is literally at home now too. After renting a wonderful space (8 storeys up looking across the Firth of Forth) at Edinburgh Palette’s St. Margaret’s House for 9 years, I made the move to a purpose built garden studio in 2017. I miss the community but definitely NOT the commute!
A new artist friend Alison McNeill came to visit me this week, looking for some ideas for her own garden studio project (have a look at her beautiful work on her new website here). Her excitement at seeing how I’ve used my space and her questions about all the fixtures and fittings made me realise just how much work has gone into setting up the space to suit my needs, so I’m going to make more effort to share some of my learning in future blog posts.
A look around my studio space
While I get round to doing that, you might want to have a little nosey at the studio as it was last week, when my pal and creative collaborator Steve Smart came to do some filming. By the magic of his 360° camera, you can now zoom around and in and out of the space – pretty clever stuff eh? (If you make the image full screen you can zoom in)
If you don’t want to wait for more blog posts (it may take a while), you can read about my former space at St Margaret’s House here. I’ve also written about some old but still very much in use storage solutions here too.
If you’re considering some of my art for your home and would like to see it in person, you can contact me to arrange a studio visit.
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.
Read how the project started here, view the full gallery here or check out my weekly project updates on Instagram.
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.
My 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.
My most recent charcoal works form the beginnings of what I think may be a much larger series. ‘Veterans’ encompasses trees which may not necessarily be very old for their species but have some of the characteristics of ancient trees, perhaps due to damage, past management or a challenging environment. Rot holes, water filled hollows, fungal growth, broken branches or damaged limbs all give these trees an aesthetic appeal I can’t resist drawing, as well as creating a rich range of habitats which sustain multiple other lives.
Calder bundled beech, Charcoal on paper
For me, it’s these veteran qualities which make these particular trees stand out: their visual richness demands attention. I’ve returned to these six trees numerous times over the last 3 years since my first visit to the wood. The tree drawn below had one large surviving limb when I first encountered it, which had broken by last autumn, seemingly under its own weight. It must have happened shortly before my visit as the leaves were still fairly fresh, and I couldn’t help feeling like I was witnessing a death. It now stands like a slowly decaying monument to itself.