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
I used to go to Chatsworth lots as a child, for picnics, walks, to play by the river and in the famous weir, to run round the gardens and grottos and to trail around the stuffy house as I thought it then, full of seats you couldn't sit on and things you mustn't touch. I honestly don't remember any paintings or other artworks I saw then, though I must have encountered many marvellous ones.
However I went there on purpose last week, whilst down south for the Tree Stories project, to see there current show of sculpture in the grandest of settings. Here's a small selection of my favourites, but you can find an interactive map here if you are looking for details.
I'm wondering who Pete and Lisa are... one or both of them were at this beech tree recently and left their mark, so fresh that I thought it had been painted at first. It's a perfect example of the capacity of tree carving to provoke our curiousity and an ideal starting point for inspiring other artworks - just what 'Tree Stories', a new project I'm involved in, seeks to capture.
'Tree Stories' will be launched soon, with a Discovery Day event at the end of October to introduce the project to the people of Sheffield and North Derbyshire.
Project leader Christine Handley, myself and poet, song and scriptwriter Sally Goldsmith went out last week to investigate marked trees in Graves Park, Sheffield. We'll be visiting some of them again with people on the Discovery day, then making prints, plaques and poems in response.
An illustration of how letters have stretched over time, with interesting contrasts between crisp new carvings and deformed old ones.
We thought this one read IAN + MARC, with what at first looked like a cross, but on closer inspection seemed to be a butterfly with little antennae. Beautifully mossy inside the carvings.
The project will run until the end of next year, so there will be plenty more tree graffiti related posts. Until the next installment you can find more information on the project page and my first Tree Stories post, and also regular updates on my facebook page.
Here are some images from 'Time around trees' which opened yesterday and runs until Saturday 1st November...
Thanks to the wonderful team at the Meffan Gallery for all their support, expertise and of course the cups of tea - it's a fantastic place to exhibit and a friendly and interesting one to visit, well worth a trip if you've never been.
You can also read a beautifully written first review of the show from blogger Steve Smart here »
something magic happens with a drawing and a work takes a whole new direction, one which was not planned but is very much welcomed. These are the works I think of as the turning points in my progress through drawing - the ones which spark a series, or through which a new working method develops. They act as landmarks showing me where I've come from and suggest routes forward too.
Dalkeith burred oak 1
This is the most recent turning point which I completed earlier this year. Inspired by a dead oak which I found on my very first visit to Dalkeith oaks in 2005, photographed then subsequently 'lost' amongst the hundreds of trees there. I'm usually pretty good at finding my way to the particular tree I'm looking for, but this one eluded me. Thankfully I found it again this spring and I fell in love again with the barkless surface and its contorted burred forms. There are six works in the series so far and more to come I think.
Hopetoun half tree
A major leap forward occurred in 2009, when I was shocked to discover a favourite roadside beech had been beheaded, leaving the torso like trunk starkly exposed. Up to that point I had been wrestling with the problems of what to leave out when drawing trees - the complexity was overwhelming and details seemed to obscure the essence of the thing. When I saw this devastated tree I realised that the chainsaw had revealed what I was searching for and inspired my ongoing torso series in charcoal.
A really old one, done at the end of a drawing course at ECA, around 2005. I decided to try zooming in on the light and texture of the tree's surface and just really enjoyed the mark-making aspect of the drawing. I hadn't picked up a soft pastel in years and it felt like quite a liberating piece of work at the time.
Craigie chestnut 1973
It's titled 1973 because of the date carved into the stump - a massive and somewhat incongruous chestnut by a path in an area of former quarrying. I guessed that the date related to the time it was felled - there's also a partial cut on the stump which might have been made at the same time. It was such an odd sight and so sculptural that I decided to draw it 'in the round', to give the sense of walking around the tree. After making initial sketches I developed a method of working on a scroll of rolled paper on a wide board, and returned with my new kit to make this drawing. This 360 degree approach has continued to develop, the piece below being a more recent example.
The tree lives on incidentally, with young branches sprouting from the base, producing sweet chestnuts every autumn.
Dalkeith oak 718
Crichton shattered beech
I had this image in my head and an urge to draw big, so cut myself a piece of paper 1m x 1.5m and got stuck in. It's really not that practical - it's unframed and tricky to move around but I had a great time making it. I felt as though I had room at last to do the tree justice. One day, when I have plenty of gallery space to fill and ample funds for framing, I shall make more on this scale.
Philpstoun ghost beech
"How dark can I go?" I wondered. Here I began to push the amount of charcoal I could apply to the paper and the ways in which I removed it too. Randomness was encouraged and responded to, the image allowed to emerge. Something ghostly appeared on the paper and I liked it - it had a combination of drama and subtlety which has featured in all my later charcoals.
I think of drawing as my method of discovery and these are some of my landmarks so far, each turning point leading to new and unexpected territories.
drawings of this tree but looking again now I think it merits a whole series to itself. Maybe this is what comes next...- whilst looking at these photographs I can relive memories of a drawing trip here in early spring this year. Ancient oaks, gorgeous light, solitude apart from buzzards and the occasional frog. I've done a few 360 degree
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.
Tree graffiti – we’ve all seen it, some of us have made it and many of us, myself included, have wondered about the stories behind it. So I’m excited to be beginning work on a new Arts Council England funded project for SYBRG managed by HEC Associates in Sheffield called ‘Tree stories’, which will be looking at the whole subject of tree graffiti from a new angle.
Plans for the project include an app to enable people to upload pictures of carvings they find, community workshops, new artworks, stories, poems, music, an exhibition and a book. The aim is to shed some light on this often misunderstood practice and use historic examples to inspire new imaginative works. The project will run from October 2014 till December 2015 and focus mainly, though not exclusively, on the Sheffield and North Derbyshire area. I’m looking forward to working again in what I might call my ancestral home, being a Derbyshire girl myself!
Of course we won’t be encouraging people to carve into any fresh bark, but it will be interesting to explore people’s perspectives on it – is it vandalism or folk art? What effect does it have on the tree itself? Are people angry or intrigued when they find it? I wonder what stories the trees will tell us?
There are more photos and examples of drawings inspired by tree carving in an earlier blog post 'The writing on the tree'.
There will be lots more stories to come once the project gets up and running, in the mean time here's one I didn't make earlier...