It sounds idyllic – “I’m going out to the woods to draw today” and the truth is that it really is, it’s a very special thing to do. If I didn’t have those days alone with the trees there would be no art, since the place, the atmosphere, the wildlife, the weather all contribute to the eventual response I make on paper. The sound of the buzzards above, a deer looking startled as it almost bumps into me, a crow flying out of a hole in an old oak at eye level, a strong breeze making the dead wood creak over my head, the intermittent rustle of a toad hopping through the grass – all these form part of the experience for me.
However, drawing outdoors can have its little excitements and challenges too. There are the predictable things like rain and wind, cold and midges. And the bugs that insist on walking on my drawing and sometimes refuse to leave, sadly getting squashed as I roll it up. Nettles can make summer drawing unpleasant. High winds mean dangerous conditions underneath old trees and I’m cautious on those kind of days.
On my last outdoor drawing trip I encountered some very inquisitive cattle which threatened my carefully selected drawing spot. It seems quite funny to think of a grown woman escaping from cows, but they can do you some serious damage, especially if they have their calves to protect.
I’d set out to do a full 360 drawing of one of the hugely impressive Dalkeith oaks, which will be on show at ‘Time around trees’ at the Meffan Gallery soon. I’d come prepared with little tent peg flags to mark my eight viewpoints, a tarp to sit on, my board, and a three and a half metre scroll of my favourite Canson paper. This was going to take most of the day so I took my time deciding on views, thinking about the movement of the sun through the day and doing the initial sketches. Four drawings in and I was happy with my progress until I noticed the herd moving towards me. The calves were at the ‘bolshy teenager’ stage of their lives and clearly up for some mischief, so I rolled up the drawing carefully, packed my bag and climbed over the fence.
They had a good look round the tree and over at me, then settled in for some leisurely grazing, so I went for a walk and eventually tagged along with a group being given a tour by the woodland manager. After a pleasant break I returned to my now deserted tree and resumed the big drawing.
An hour or so later they were back to play, but this time moved much faster and more determinedly so I only had time to get the drawing and pencils to safety and had to leave the tarp and board.
You’re supposed to put your arms out wide and shout to keep them away but they weren’t having any of that – no amount of arm waving was going to put them off their fun. The youngsters had a great time tossing the tarp around and slobbering all over my board, while their mothers rubbed themselves against the tree and had a good sniff around. I realised from the other side of the fence that I was witnessing an age old scene of traditional wood pasture, and wondered how many woodsmen had been held up from their work by marauding cattle in the past!
I ended up hiding behind a holly until they got bored and moved on. Ok, I know it's hardly Olly Suzi and wild dogs, but my tent peg flags were soggy and trampled and my board and tarp unpleasantly slimy. Still, I was happy that my drawing remained intact and I managed to finish all eight views with the occasional glance over my shoulder to check I was alone. I took my longest ever drawing back to the studio, cleaned off the bug bodies and trimmed it ready for the Meffan show next month. I'm hoping to be able to hang it so it kind of envelops you as you view it - so I hope you can come and see it for yourself now you know its story.
Fresh off the board
The studio is very dusty, which means I am very happy because I've been busy over the summer drawing for my next show. "Time around trees" opens at the Meffan Gallery on Saturday 4th October and runs until the 1st November.
The space at the Forfar gallery is a great size and very flexible so I'll be showing a fair bit of new work - I've taken to exhibition planning in 3 dimensions to help me decide what should go in.
Here's a few images of the new work to hopefully tempt you to visit in person!
So what’s so special about trees? And why is it always the old and gnarly ones I go on about?
It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at my work that I have a deep and enduring interest in trees – the origins of which I’ve talked about in other posts. Over the last five years or so, my drawings have developed in parallel to my knowledge of and appreciation for trees, their history, ecology and our cultural links with them.
The more I read and understand about them as a subject, the better I feel that creative connection which is essential for me to make good work. There are some key books which have influenced me, but even better than reading is meeting real people sharing their expertise and passion.
So last week I went along to the Ancient Tree Forum's Highland Gathering in Perthshire to meet some proper tree people and hear talks and discussions on things ancient and arboreal. The morning session in Perth included talks on themes around wood pasture, parkland, tree recording and preservation, Atlantic hazel woods, along with perspectives from England and Scotland.
Our afternoon was spent literally in the field, meeting some of Scone Palace’s historic and impressive trees.
Donald Rodger (in the green coat), author of ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland’ introduced us to a massive sitka spruce.
Ted Green, ATF founder and president, speaking beside the James VI/I sycamore.
My favourite tree from the field visit was a huge copper beech. The strange contortions in its trunk are due to the copper beech tree being grafted onto common beech rootstock at an unusually high graft point.
So what did I learn? Loads more than I can write but here’s a start...
- Here in the UK we have ancient trees and landscapes of European and even global significance.
- They are really rare, very rich habitats which are only just beginning to be understood.
- Our ancient trees and treescapes have very little protection from destruction or damage – even relatively recent important buildings have much more protection.
- They are irreplaceable – planting new trees is not enough. They are complex ecosystems that have evolved over hundreds, quite possibly thousands of years.
- They are a living link to our past, representing a depth of history which can be hard for us short-lived humans to comprehend – for example the oaks I draw in Dalkeith Country Park are known to be at least 500 years old.
- Death and decay is a very important part of this ecosystem. An old tree with bracket fungus growing from it is not necessarily a sick or fragile tree – the fungus is recycling material that the tree no longer needs, making the nutrients available to the tree roots again.
- Hollow trees are especially important for the habitats they provide for all kinds of creatures, plants, fungi and lichens.
- There’s a growing movement of people – campaigners, scientists, ecologists, academics, arborists, historians and artists of course, who are raising awareness and appreciation of this amazing heritage that we have.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone...Tags:
My current exhibition is at Dawyck Botanic Gardens until 3rd August. I'm so pleased to be showing here - it's a perfect setting for my work and a beautiful place to visit. Here's a wee first look at it...
Words probably won't add much here, but just to give a little context, this is an oak on the Dalkeith Country Park Estate, in a large area of ancient wood pasture which was once a deer hunting forest. The wood continues to be used for cattle grazing but is managed for conservation - this tree has broken in half very dramatically, but the dead wood will not be cleared away or otherwise tidied. Instead it will be allowed to slowly decompose and provide habitat for countless millions of other organisms as it does so. Not to mention also providing both shocking and endlessly beautiful subject matter for freezing artists in the winter months.Tags:
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.
Solo exhibition featuring charcoal, pastel and line drawings inspired by trees and influenced by the figure.
Opening event Saturday 5th April, 11am - 1pm at Dawyck Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre.
The exhibition runs from 5th April - 3rd August 2014.
More information about all my exhibitions can be found here»
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 »