Street art by Phlegm
I was back in Sheffield last weekend, to get together with my Tree Stories colleagues, to view potential exhibition space and discuss what we’ll be making for the project.
We met at the Workstation, a 1930s built former car showroom and garage which now houses lots of creative businesses. This whole area of the city, known as the Cultural Industries Quarter has a vibrant, creative feel, with a huge variety of street art, artist studios, silversmiths and metal workers and the lovely Showroom cinema.
The Tree Stories website is starting to take shape and we’re keen for people to send in their own Tree Story images. There’s also a new facebook page which will mean we can gather images and stories there too.
The following day, despite the soupy weather and the dimmest of light, I went out to Ecclesall Woods to immerse myself in the stories and atmosphere of this Ancient Woodland site.
Its history goes back many centuries – there are prehistoric carvings, Romano British remains and ancient field boundaries, as well as charcoal pits, trackways and even a Wood Collier’s grave from its more recent industrial past.
There are already quite a few photographs from Ecclesall on the Tree Stories website, so I went in search of some of those known but hoping also to discover some of its history myself. I wandered through the mist towards an area of big beeches which shows up clearly on Google Earth, since these are a favourite place for people to make their mark.
Although the damp and dingy weather made my photographs quite poor (I didn’t have a tripod with me so apologies for the blur!), it did mean that the trees were dark and glossy from the rain, which dramatically highlighted their forms.
Once I’d ‘got my eye in’ I found that almost every large beech I looked at had markings of some sort – many very distorted and indistinct, some letters clearly legible, some obviously old and some very new. I found a strong sense of place here, with recently made dens and graffiti layered over older carvings and even older charcoal pits and chunks of gritstone.
The idea of marking trees as a way of attaching yourself to a special place came to mind – the organically created paths, smoothed stones and modified trees all combined to give a sense of belonging, that this was a territory that generations of people had felt part of.
I came back to the studio with a good store of new material and ideas for the series of drawings I’ll be making for the exhibition – here’s a sketchbook snapshot of some of them...
Many eminent people have marked the recent passing of Oliver Rackham, widely regarded as the country’s foremost academic and writer on the interrelated subjects of trees, woodlands, landscape and history – Professor Ian D Rotherham’s blog and the Woodland Trust do it very well.
For me, Oliver Rackham’s books (and his wonderful illustrations as pictured above) were an eye-opening introduction to a new way of looking at my subject. After reading his work, an interesting tree was no longer just interesting for its form, its texture, its colour: it was something that could be read almost as a historical document. The tree’s physical properties were not just a result of its own nature, but were intimately linked to its environment and the people who interacted with it over its lifetime.
That concept of dialogue between tree, human and place has been crucial to the development of my creative process, and I have Oliver Rackham to thank for that.
For my latest exhibition I will be joined by artists Eoin Cox and Catherine Lilley, who also share my passion for woodlands. The show will feature drawings, paintings, carvings and prints which examine woodland at different scales, from the powerful presence of a veteran tree, to the intimate surfaces of trees and the plants and organisms which inhabit them. All the works are made as a direct response to an aspect of woodland; the dynamic curve of a twisted trunk, the texture and structure of a sheet of bark, the delicate detail in a damp tangle of lichen. Together, they invite us to look with fresh eyes at the trees and woodlands around us.
More information on the venue and opening times here »
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.
Since it's National Tree Week this week, I thought I'd join in the celebrations and share some of my favourites...though every week is tree week for me really.
This monumental ancient oak is in the grounds of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, lurking in the car park.
My rather unimaginative name for this one is 'Newbattle graffiti beech', since that's what's so amazing about it - all those layers and years of carvings. Here's a drawing of it too. I think more drawings from it will feature in my work for the Tree Stories project.
A wooded landscape next, rather than an individual tree - Glen Finglas, a Woodland Trust site in the Trossachs and a very special wood pasture with many pollarded alders. It's a fair walk but a good track into the trees.
Historic Scotland's Inchmaholme island has a long and venerable history with its ruined abbey and its Mary Queen of Scots connections, but I got most excited about this twisted old chestnut - fabulously sculptural.
Another sculptural one, this time a beech on the Novar Estate, near Alness, Easter Ross. There's a somewhat sinister quality to its deformity that attracted me, and it looked particularly impressive on the bright early spring day this photograph was taken. I know it as 'Novar fungus beech' and here's a drawing of the same.
Finally, staying on the theme of the beautifully grotesque, is this beech I found alongside an abandoned road by the Cromarty Firth. People who are expert in tree management suggested it was possibly pollarded, giving rise to the weird shapes. It also bears graffiti from the 50s and so much character that it seems to demand a whole series of works, so I'm hoping to revisit it next spring to get started.
National Tree week is about valuing and celebrating the trees we have now and ensuring that the generations that follow us can do the same. All the trees I've shown here are quite probably at least 100 years old and some are thought to be as much as 400 years old - let's allow them to age with dignity and nurture the young ones which will eventually replace them.Tags:
Have you ever come across interesting tree carvings and graffiti? Have you wondered who made it, when and why? We want your 'Tree Stories' - your photos and your local knowledge.
The 'Tree Stories' project was launched at the end of October with a community workshop, where we walked around Graves Park in Sheffield to find some examples of carvings, then made our own 'stories' with relief prints and salt dough plaques. We were also helped by poet and songwriter Sally Goldsmith to craft our own stories from the perspective of the tree itself.
Academic Ian Rotherham guided our walk in Graves Park and gave us some historical and cultural background for 'marked trees'.
Sally read out some of the stories we had constructed while the prints dried on the wall.
Graves Park has been a popular public beauty spot for very many years and the evidence is written on the trees there.
If you have seen any interesting carvings on trees, please send photos and details of where and when to Christine Handley at firstname.lastname@example.org. These will be shared on the project website - there are a couple of my photos there already but we hope to collect many more, from the Sheffield/North Derbyshire area and further afield too.
So don't be shy - share your tree stories...Tags:
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...
'Dalkeith burred oak 5'
Two of my drawings have been selected for the annual Society of Scottish Artists exhibition, to be held at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. This work, along with 'Dalkeith reaching oak' will be on display in this impressive building on Princes Street from the 5th - 20th December. Artists across Scotland submitted an exciting variety of works which I got a little glimpse of when I was volunteeering at the hand in last week, and many of the paintings, prints, sculptures, installations and things that defy categorisation will be available for sale during the show. There's also a new section called 'Sit in/Take away' where small affordable works 30 x 30cm can be bought and taken home on the day - what a great idea to encourage art lovers to support makers!
These are some of the trees which have inspired the works in my current solo exhibition, 'Time around trees', along with some quotes from authors and scientists whose books have helped me understand and reflect on what I see.
Crichton shattered beech Near Crichton Castle, Midlothian
Here veteran beeches line a little hollow lane beside an Iron Age Fort and a neighbouring field boundary.
When I first found the site on a walk with a friend, one tree stood out in particular for its striking form, following the collapse of one of the main limbs in a recent storm. Its distinctively separate twisting trunks suggest that it may have been ‘bundle planted’, where several saplings are planted together to give the impression of an older tree. Its surface is patterned with scars and marks from graffiti, barbed wire fencing and hole boring insects.
'Which bits of our aesthetic or emotional consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch. What deep-rooted associations do old trees conjure up? Are they some kind of portal to understanding the deep relationship between wildness and time?’
Richard Mabey, Beechcombings
Dalkeith burred oak Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian
These ancient oaks, in their rare wood pasture landscape, evoke for me the difference between a tree’s lifespan and that of a human.
Likely to have been at least 400 years old when it died, this tree continues to provide habitat and sustenance to the organisms of the woodland. The bark has rotted and been returned to the soil, revealing the whorls and contortions of the underlying structure. It could stand for another 200 years, dead but filled with life. As if to emphasise the point, a crow flew suddenly out of one of the holes in the trunk as I was drawing.
‘...the burr is an excrescence of would-be buds rising from somewhere deep inside the tree like a spring... A burr may arise as a reaction to some itch in the tree, a kind of benign wood tumour. What begins as disfigurement ends life as an opulent adornment.’
Roger Deakin, Wildwood
Hopetoun half tree, Hopetoun Estate, West Lothian
Before it was lopped, this beautiful beech by the side of the Bo’ness Road was a marker in the landscape for me on a regular route near home. Then one day it had simply been beheaded – perhaps it was deemed to be unsafe or diseased.
The remaining stump was at once shocking and fascinating, as the removal of the branches had revealed the torso-like sculpture of the trunk. The problems of drawing trees that I was struggling with then had been solved by the chainsaw, and a whole body of work was inspired.
‘...trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife. Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities. If all trees were like the ideal, they would lose most of their significance, all their historic meaning, most of their beauty and most of their value as habitat.’
Oliver Rackham, Woodlands
Newbattle graffiti beech, Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian
In the grounds of this adult education college and former Cistercian abbey, stands this single large beech on the banks of the South Esk. It has accumulated decades’ worth of carvings, initials, dates and symbols on every accessible surface. The oldest decipherable date is 1945, perhaps because there were Italian prisoners of war held in the grounds and the house was used as barracks during the war.
Coins are pressed into the bark along the tree’s massive lower limb. It’s evident that hundreds of human lives have had links with this tree.
‘To walk through an ancient wood is to tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of those who once lived and worked in the medieval and early industrial countryside.’
Ian D. Rotherham, Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts
Novar fungus beech, Novar Estate, Evanton, Easter Ross
I discovered this site on a family holiday and have drawn there in early spring for five consecutive years.
The Novar estate was laid out in the mid 1700s as a deer park and as a symbol of the laird’s status. It has many great old trees, but the beeches there are special for me.
This solitary beech stands in the parkland wearing its convoluted crown covered in lichens, its trunk stacked with bracket fungus which is recycling the heartwood.
‘... at each place where [the tree] has been bent or cut it has grown stronger, swelling into a callous like a human knee or puckering into a bump of scar tissue round the little star-cracked crater of each amputated branch. Every one of these details represents a decision, a little setback for the tree to which it responds with redoubled vigour...’
Roger Deakin, Wildwood
Scone grafted beech, Scone Palace Grounds, Perthshire
I was introduced to this tree on an Ancient Tree Forum site visit in Perthshire.
Clearly planted as an ornamental tree, this beech reflects in its bark the battle going on between the common beech rootstock and the copper beech grafted onto it. The join is unusually high, which accounts for the very visible bulges, bosses and scars, and which immediately attracted me to draw it.
‘A known tree was a solid link with the past, an embodiment of continuity. It could be welcomed as one of the family – or at least the family estate. It could be appropriated as a trophy, a proof of clever husbandry, a symbol of ancient occupation or social standing.’
Richard Mabey, Beechcombings