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!
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...
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...
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...
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- Get a sturdy tripod for your camera.
- 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.
- Ideally use a linear polarising filter on your camera lens to reduce glare - this is particularly important if your work has a glossy surface.
- Get a 'grey card' to enable you to colour correct your photos.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Last week I thought I might be going blind.
If that sounds a bit melodramatic, I had read that my symptoms could have been those of a retinal detachment - a ring of flashing lights on the edge of my vision and severe ‘floaters’ obscuring whatever I looked at.
To begin with I put it down to a migraine but when it continued for a few days I got properly worried and went to get my eyes checked by an expert. The wonderful David Crystal did every up to the minute test possible (including an OCT scan, new one for me) and reassured me that I had most likely had a ‘Posterior vitreous detachment’, which sounds drastic but is actually very common, with about 25% of people experiencing at some time, usually later in life. I hadn’t heard of it though, so thought it might be worth sharing here. I was so relieved that my retina was intact that I bought and ate quite a few chocolate biscuits in celebration before going back to the studio.
Strangely, this ocular adventure coincided with the arrival of a daylight bulb for my studio lamp, which I’ve been meaning to get for ages but only just got round to. When I fitted the bulb, the sudden clarity with which I saw the drawing in progress on my board reminded me of a time way back in my childhood when my sight was restored after many months. I had congenital cataracts and still remember vividly the moment when I first tried glasses after the cataracts were removed when I was 7 years old. I hadn’t realised how much I’d been missing, then there was all this amazing detail, colour and contrast. I was beyond excited and stared intently at my hands, studying every little pore and crease.
As a visual artist, I am predictably dependant on my eyesight – I imagine it would be very difficult to do what I do without it. But it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t be doing this at all, that I would not have this enduring obsession with seeing, had it not been for the eye problems I had as a child and the resulting gradual loss of sight and its sudden return following surgery. However, there are visually impaired artists like Keith Salmon who give me hope that, even if my sight were to deteriorate, I could carry on making visual images.
Scone grafted beech 4
With the aid of the daylight bulb, the drawing got finished despite the floaters and will be on show at Perth Museum and Art Gallery in the new year.
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.
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...
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!
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...
Wood nude tree limb view
A confession: I have done no drawing for two whole weeks. I really miss it.
However, I have been thinking a lot about framing and presentation, which is a necessity right now with a show coming up. So I thought I'd share a little of the thought and preparation that goes into putting my work on the wall. I've learned a lot since I started exhibiting, some from generous artist colleagues and most from trial and a fair amount of error.
Why do frames matter?
A frame does a number of jobs - it protects the work, especially important for my fairly fragile charcoal drawings, it provides a safe method of transporting and displaying the work and, if you've chosen a good one, will make the work look great. It is of course a choice whether to frame or not and I often like to show my large drawings unframed if possible. I really enjoy seeing other artist's work unframed, I feel somehow closer to the act of making to be able to see it without glass. But I also can't help feeling disappointed when otherwise interesting art works are displayed in unsuitable or just plain bad frames. Perhaps this is the designer in me getting frustrated with careless presentation, but all the feedback I have had from exhibiting has made me realise that presentation really matters.
My framing choices
When I mounted my first solo show I did lots of research into framing techniques and quickly realised that ready made frames would not suit my work - there needs to be a decent gap between the glass and the surface of the work for dry media, which means a deep frame and careful handling is needed. I also felt that quality was very important - there's no point putting your heart and soul into a drawing only to plonk it thoughlessly into a flimsy Ikea frame. I love Ikea for other things incidentally, just not for my frames!
I also realised that I was not destined to be a DIY framer - this was a job best left to the experts. After trying a few local firms I was lucky enough to find a small but meticulous framing company and have developed a great relationship over the years. Trust is very important in this exchange, since many months work is handed over to them and much effort and expense is involved. Edinburgh based Linda Park is primarily a painter, but is also very busy with her framing clients. She has a painter's eye for what will complement the works and takes great care in handling it.
I've discovered that there are complex and subtle choices to be made. Which of the twenty-four shades of white would I like for the mountboard? How many millimetres depth do I desire for the frame? Which delicate shade of grey for the hand finishing? How do I want to balance each side of the border? See - no wonder I've not done any drawing.
So I have a drawer of paint charts and test pieces which I spend a lot of time squinting at, trying to imagine what it would look like and try to keep some consistency with my choices so that the overall effect in an exhibition is harmonious.
Preparing for an exhibition
Here are my most recent works just collected from the framer. She's done a beautiful job as usual and I'm pleased with the new choice of colour for the pale hand painted ones - I think this works well with the predominantly white background of the work. I now have to get them ready for hanging in the Meffan Gallery, which means mirror plating them. I also sign, date and title them on the back and add my contact details.
I worked out that it is much easier to pre-paint the mirror plates white, then attach them, rather than paint them after they've been hung. No more going round with a tiny paintbrush before a private view, more time to do your hair or sample the wine or whatever. I position the mirror plates exactly halfway down the sides of the frame which makes for quicker and more consistent hanging, and for ease of transport I reverse them so they don't damage other works.
There are thirty four works in the next show, 'Time around trees', so it took me a while to prepare, wrap and label them all, but I know that the better my preparation is, the more time I'll have during the hanging to get things just as I want them. And that's the fun part.
'Time around trees' opens at the Meffan Gallery, Forfar on Saturday 4th October and runs until Saturday 1st November.
In November last year I did a weekend course in photopolymer etching at Edinburgh Printmakers and now I'm properly hooked!
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' the historic printing press
Lined up and ready to print
Proofs fresh off the press!
See here for more information about this printmaking technique and that course I attended.
Which to frame, what kind of frame, how many to hang, which to hang where? so many decisions...and then so much maths once you've decided. They never taught me this at art college!
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.
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.
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!
Like most artists I know I'd prefer to be behind the camera than in front of it - I'd rather let the work speak for itself, but there are times when a decent photo of the artst in their studio is required. So I was lucky to have the chance last weekend of getting some professional images made by Mark K Jackson, a local partrait and documentary photographer currently working on a project to photograph artists and makers in St Margaret's House. I confess to being totally bamboozled by the technical aspects of photography: thankfully Mark knows his subject well and has some impressive kit too. I dutifully donned my dusty drawing shirt, held my drawing materials still and tried really hard not to blink. Some of the resulting images will probably sneak onto the internet fairly soon!
A very different (and more comfortable) kind of publicity opportunity presented itself recently, in the form of Wolfstar Pictures and their 'Art Drone'. As part of our Open Week/Open Studios event my fellow tenants set out to make a short film giving a taste of the creativity in the building. I was so pleased to have my studio chosen to feature in their fantastic film - see for yourself here »
It's been a weird day in studio 6.20 today - my charcoal coated creative sanctuary was invaded by shopping trolleys, power tools and flying techno drones.
I have to be honest and say that there's been no drawing done there for over a month now, other than doodles over photographs of empty gallery spaces and graph paper plans of exhibition layouts. I've really missed getting into my 'grey zone', immersing myself in the pure joy of line, tone, proportion and light. However, I have set myself the goal of curating a sizeable group show with an adventurous concept and that won't organise itself now will it. So, with twenty other artists taking part and only four days to build it in the gallery, I've been putting all my time and effort into preparations and publicity for Make yourself @ home.
I began today by transferring most of the useful and interesting things from the shed to my car, then into a shopping trolley to take them up in the lift to my studio, which meant that the trolley was cluttering up my space. A happy hour or so was spent wielding my power tools, making shelves and brackets and other fixings for the show - very satisfying also because everything was made from materials collected and retrieved over the years or 'buckshee' as the Scots say.
Then Costas and the film crew from Wolfstar Pictures came in to have a look around and see if it was suitable for the wee film they are making to promote our Open Week at St Margaret's House. We had a good chat, they said a lot of technical things I couldn't understand to each other, then we agreed how I should set it up for the filming. Here's a quick snippet introducing their idea, which involves an 'Artdrone' snooping round the studios after hours - slightly creepy but in a good way I think! Other studios are being filmed over the next few days, then we shall see the secret life of St Margaret's House.
Want to know what an Art drone is? Have a look here »
My workspace is divided up into zones - this isn't as organised as it sounds, it's just evolved that way over the years, though I may have been unwittingly influenced by kitchen design here. I've also spent many a happy and productive hour in various sheds and workshops and probably developed an appreciation of things being in their place as a result.
- Think space
- Make space
- Materials storage space
- Work in progress space
- Finished work storage space
- Admin and reference space
The space I would love to have but can't fit in would be a 'sit in a comfy chair and relax' space - I have to go down to the 3rd floor of Art's Complex for that, but that's too far away from my drawing board!
My drawing board could be considered a family heirloom now, having been made by my dad as a 16th birthday present. It's on its second mdf top and the metal frame has had a few coats of paint. The chair was a Barnardo's bargain. You'll see my mind-map on the wall where I've collected some of the images and ideas that guide my work - I'll write more on this in a future post as I'm a big fan of mind-maps, if you're curious have a look at Tony Buzan's site.
There's usually a laptop here too and some oatcake crumbs.
This view shows my main workspace, complete with dusty hand towel.
My talented husband made this shelf and fitted it to the hopelessly soft plasterboard walls - this enables me to have three boards alongside each other, plus I have my giant plywood board for large drawings which I can slide along the floor. I use foam pipe lagging to cushion the top edge of the boards.
Materials storage space
Most of my drawing materials are stored in these metal drawers which help to keep the charcoal dust off.
They are stuffed full of things which I use all the time, things which I thought would be useful one day, but turned out not to be, and things which I couldn't help but buy when in the art shop but didn't really need at all - I can easily walk past a shoe shop but am powerless to resist the pull of an art store. I buy a lot online these days mainly from Great Art and Jacksons Art.
A peek inside artist's studios facebook page has all the studio pictures you could possibly wish for. It's really interesting to see the variety of workspaces artists carve out for themselves and how different they all are, a bit like different species of birds building their own individual style of nest. I love my nest.