Making ‘Rivers of oak’

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.

charcoal drawing
Standing wave, charcoal on paper, 65x50cm

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.

Forth Rail Bridge from a skiff
The Forth Road bridge from a St Ayles skiff

As I was making these drawings I wasn’t aware of the way these two forms of fluidity were linking – that came much later when I began to think of titles and realised how much wood echoed water.

The creative process

I thought it might be useful to visually document the development of my ‘Rivers of oak’ series of charcoal drawings. If you’re an artist you may recognise some stages of this process and if you’re an art lover you might like to know more about how the work emerges. It might even help me when I next encounter a little creative block.

ancient oak tree
A section of an ancient oak, part living, part non-living.

I’ve been drawing ancient oaks for a very long time, their sculptural forms are a source of continual inspiration. Here, the burrs created by the epicormic buds are revealed where the bark has fallen away from the non-living wood (a term coined by Ted Green, used instead of dead wood to acknowledge it’s vital role in tree ecology).

black and white photo of old oak tree
Ancient oak forming standing dead wood, a habitat under threat

I sketch as much as I can in the woodland during the winter and early spring, then take a lot of photos. These can reveal unnoticed details and prompt unexpected ideas – they combine with my sketches and visual memory towards the emerging imagery.

guiding words for art
Studio whiteboard

I have an old whiteboard where I write words to guide the body of work. They usually grow out of my learning from previous work and are more of a general direction of travel than a precise brief. It helps me ignore the distracting thoughts and diversions which inevitably happen – the mind monkey is very active at this stage.

sketchbook drawings

Back in the sketchbook, I redraw the trees I’ve seen and doodles begin to take on a life of their own, echoing the imagery I’ve immersed myself in. These form the starting point for the compositions.

charcoal drawing tools
My charcoal drawing tools

My materials fall into two categories; things which make dark marks and things which make light marks. Charcoal and erasers of various kinds, it’s as simple as that.

artist hand mark making
Photo credit Sheila Masson

All the works in this series began with very fast gestural marks with charcoal powder, essentially a finger/hand/arm painting process. Speed and fluidity were very important – I wanted to keep the paper quite clean around the image, so it appeared to be floating rather than anchored to anything visually.

Those first gestures suggest what comes next and there was a gentle period of absorbing, examining and responding to evolve the image. I tried to tread a delicate balance between freshness and finish in these drawings, some areas were carefully worked over but others still show the raw finger marks.

Tansy drawing in charcoal
Cascade in progress

My mood music

I always make a collection of music to work to which fits my feeling for the series – it acts as a trigger to get me into that particular creative mood. You can dip into the playlist I made to work to here»

  

My studio playlists aren’t usually easy listening, I seem to need an intensity of sound to match the art-making process. So maybe not the best background tunes for most people!

Confluence drawing
Confluence, charcoal on paper 110x75cm

Drawing on a larger scale like this one gave me more room to play with the flowing qualities of the charcoal – I made notes in my sketchbook promising myself I’ll increase the scale even further next time.

studio view of charcoal drawings
Reviewing and watching one night, letting the drawings talk to each other

The series grew to number 18 works and I feel there’s more to come still. I was delighted by how dynamic they all were and felt pleased that I’d restrained any urges to overwork. Each has their own personality but they all dance together beautifully.

You can view the full series in my gallery here»

Where to see ‘Rivers of oak’

The whole series was exhibited in my solo show ‘On Tree Time’ in June 2021 and a selection will feature in my next solo show ‘Turning Towards the Light’ at Linlithgow Burgh Halls, opening 4th March 2022.

They will be available to buy from the 4th, so get in touch if you’d like to have one (or some) for your home.

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Painting light with oils

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.testing oil paints

Colour choices

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.

colour swatches in oil

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.

Reductive painting

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.

removing paint with a clothIt 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.

ancient beech tree in autumn

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.

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What’s inside my studio?

inside Tansy Lee Moirs studioInside the artist’s studio

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.

garden studio in summer

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.

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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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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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Calder Wood Veterans

Calder twisted limb beech

Calder twisted limb beech, Charcoal on paper

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

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.

Calder collapsed beech

Calder collapsed beech, Charcoal on paper

Read more about how to recognise ancient and veteran trees at the Ancient Tree Forum

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Project Paint Part 2

Project_paint06

Following on from Alan McGowan’s workshop and my first attempts at oil painting (see Part 1), I’ve begun to make some experiments with the technique of oil glazing.  This has meant doing my favourite kind of shopping – buying more art materials, and moving stuff around in my studio to set up for painting rather than charcoal drawing.

Project_paint14Project_paint15

I’ve decided to use Windsor & Newton’s Artisan oils which are water mixable but otherwise behave like any other oils, it makes cleaning up easier and less smelly. I’ve also collected various mediums to try out.

Project_paint09

For the initial wipe out underpainting I prepared the canvas with a spare coating of one part PVA mixed with three parts water, having learned the hard way that more PVA does not equal a better surface. The canvas needs to have some resistance to the paint to enable you to wipe it off, but too much or uneven PVA application results in the paint not adhering to the surface at all.

Project_paint16

I used an image I’d already created in charcoal, so I could concentrate on what the materials were doing without worrying about the composition. I mixed Prussian Blue with a little Burnt Umber to give a nice neutral tone, thinned with turps. Making the image by removing the paint came naturally as it’s a very similar process to my charcoal drawing, though the paint does behave differently, giving more options for interesting mark making.

Project_paint07

Project_paint08

After allowing a day or two for the underpainting to dry, I’ve started to add glazes. This is a slow process as each has to dry before the next can be added, so there are a few paintings at various stages. There is no real plan here – I’m just trying out the colours I have in a variety of combinations and trying to find out what works and doesn’t work. The many mistakes are very valuable and the happy accidents are wonderful, but it’s too early to tell yet whether glazing is an approach which will earn a more permanent place in my studio.

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This is an informative book which has kept me company on my painting journey, with a substantial section on glazes. This blog has detailed information about the principles and recipes and here is a demo of the method.

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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?

charcoal-splatcharcoal-sticks-2

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.

time_lapse_closeup

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.

Dalkeith_burred_time_lapse

Dalkeith burred oak 7

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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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!

res-studio-lights

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…

Dalkeith-reaching-oak-2   Dakeith-reaching-oak-2-new

before                                                                         after

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…

res-Dalkeith-crop-2014

before

res-dalkeith-crop-2015

after

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…

res-scone-crop-2014

before

res-scone-crop-2015

after

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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