I had my first visit to the Buy Design Gallery today and what a wonderful place for anyone who appreciates wood, art, original design and fine craftsmanship. It's in some gorgeous borders countryside, next to the Harestanes Visitor Centre, near Jedburgh. Owner Eoin Cox is a man who's been making a difference in the world as well as making beautiful furniture - check out his website to see his work. He and his team also run woodworking courses at the gallery, encouraging you to have a go yourself too.
I dropped off some drawings and pastels today and I'm really excited to be working with the gallery - I think I'll be getting to know the A68 a bit better from now on!
I've been developing my charcoal drawing techniques for around four years now - it's such a versatile material there's still much more to discover. Many of my favourite drawings from my early days at art school are charcoal ones. I have fond memories of the first time I was encouraged to tape a piece to a stick and draw BIG!! I thought my tutor was mad at first but it turns out to have been a valuable lesson and I often draw with a stick now. People I teach now think I'm mad I suppose.
My discovery of charcoal powder was quite a revelation - I'd tried to make my own, having some success with homemade bonfire remains, but I now use Cretacolor powder which has an even particle size and consistent tone. It's perfect for large drawings, behaves almost like paint in that it can be moved around on the paper, can be combined with binders and water for liquid effects and best of all, I can apply it with my hands, thus getting messy which makes me happy.
I also use regular willow charcoal of various sizes. I've tried hard to like compressed charcoal since it allows a really deep black to be achieved, but I cannot get on with it, it's somehow far too waxy and stubborn. I'm currently experimenting with charcoal soaked in or mixed with linseed oil - it seems to give a lovely blackness which adheres to the paper quite well. Because of this I've been able to use it out in the field without the usual worries about smudging. Here's one I made earlier:
I think there's something poetic about depicting wood with its carbonised self.
My studio is essentially a private place, but I'm curious about other people's spaces so thought I ought to share mine...
I've had my studio for four years now, so I've had plenty of time to organise it to my liking. It's set up for working on paper with charcoal, pastel and inks, which is why there's no paint on the floor. What you can't see here is the layer of charcoal dust clinging to everything - sometimes I have to hoover my drawing board!
This wall is a sort of vertical shelf where I stick up ideas in progress, things that look scruffy but may in fact be useful to my thought processes.
Being on the 8th floor has its benefits (unless the lift's broken) and I love my view out across the Firth of Forth. The Edinburgh velodrome below is an entertaining distraction during the racing season.
If you fancy seeing Art's Complex for yourself there are regular Open Studio events which I participate in. If you are interested in my work in particular please contact me to arrange a studio visit - I may even dust!
I'm very excited to be attending a conference in May entitled 'Shadows and ghosts: Lost woods in the landscape'.
Hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, it aims to "to review and develop ideas around ancient trees, ancient woods, wood pasture and the ideas of shadows, ghosts and retired veterans" and I'm hoping it will deepen my knowledge and understanding of the old trees I draw. I'm also really looking forward to meeting some new people who share my interest - perhaps even develop some ideas for new projects over a refreshing Sheffield pint!
In my previous post 'How do I find my trees?' I set out the process by which I find my drawing locations. Of course I'm not that methodical really and it can be a combination of things that lead me to a new spot, or sometimes just pure chance.
My newest discovery came about as a result of a suggestion from Roger at Troutquest, Evanton in Easter Ross. We were holidaying in the cottage he rents for his fishing holiday business and he suggested that the Old Evanton Road to Dingwall had some good old trees. Out came the maps and after a wee drive came the discovery of this wonderful old road, strangely green and lined with trees of great character - beeches, oaks, hawthorn and others I couldn't identify without their leaves.
Since I only had an hour or so here, I recorded all I could in preparation for returning later in the year. I use my Samsung Galaxy Note for this - it's a bit big for a phone but the up side is that it has a large screen, a stylus and nifty apps like SMemo which are ideal for combining photos, hand written notes etc. I can also draw on it; Sketchbook Pro is a great app which I use in the studio, but I far prefer the feel of the friction between pen and paper when drawing.
The countryside is full of trees, so are the cities for that matter. So how do I decide which ones to draw? It's a question I'm often asked when talking to people about my work, so here's an insight into my decision making.
I think there are a number factors which have influenced my selection process:
- I love looking at maps - OS maps, historical maps, schematic maps, any kind. I've always enjoyed this as an activity not just a means to an end. I love the challenge of interpreting this 2 dimensional information to create an understanding of the 3 dimensional landscape. My Geography A level hasn't gone to waste!
- Google earth and other online aerial imaging has made it possible to do extensive research of potential sites without using any petrol or getting cold and wet.
- The joy of discovery is important to my emotional connection with the tree - if it's taken some effort to find it, access it and draw it, it's somehow more intense as an image. If it's signposted from the road, with a path beside it and toilets nearby it's just no fun. It's probably no coincidence that I love hunting for edible fungi and am very loathe to give up until I've found some on every trip.
- I'm really happy being outside, in the woods, in the wind, on my own
- When studying at art college, life drawing was the most challenging and rewarding task for me and I seem to be fascinated by trees that echo human forms.
- Youth, perfection and prettiness doesn't appeal - I find character, age and damage much more interesting. I think it tells us far more about ourselves.
I'm currently in a 'research and exploration' phase in my artwork so have up to date examples of this part of the process which I'll put in a second post, but it usually follows a similar path:
- I'll begin my poring over the maps, zooming around on Google earth and searching for areas of deciduous woodland, parkland or hedgerow.
- The Ancient Tree Hunt's interactive map is an invaluable resource which brings together many layers of information in one easily browseable form. What a fantastic example of passionate volunteers making a real difference.
- The National Library of Scotland's georeferenced maps are another way to check back through time to see how the land use has changed and identify potentially old trees.
- Gathering local knowledge is very important and I've met some lovely people this way - I always have maps around at my exhibitions and open studios events and ask people if they have any recommendations for me. So many people love trees and are happy to share their knowledge.
- Then comes the driving and walking bit - ideally I get to sit in the passenger seat and scout for sites, occasionally yelling "oooh stop!" then jumping out with my camera while my husband waits patiently. Walking is much more relaxing and reaches the parts that other transport can't.
- Once a good site has been identified, I'll plan a proper field trip and spend a good deal of time exploring the area and getting to know its trees. Then the real work begins...
It's five years since I first found this tree and I've drawn and photographed it every year since. Its fascinating twisted form was so interesting to draw, though so complex I struggled to make sense of it. It's on an old bank in a designed landscape laid out in the late 18th century, the area currently being used as a deer park - you can see how the roots on the right have had their bark removed by hungry grazers.
This year it has moved into it's final phase of life - the winds have brought it down, the owners are removing most of its bulk and the stump that remains is rotting rapidly. However, if allowed to remain it will continue to support life, including lichens, fungi, invertebrates and birds. It's always a shock to see a large tree shattered and prone; like finding a dead animal there's something very sad about the sight, but at the same time fascinating. It's also a natural process which I don't believe we should sentimentalise - I prefer to use it as an opportunity to make art which reflects on life and death as simple fact.
Like lots of artists I know, I can’t resist buying new materials to try out and really enjoy choosing and handling them. So it’s inevitable that I end up with far too much stuff and have to make some decisions about what I really need to take with me when I’m drawing outside, bearing in mind I’ll have to carry it all myself.
Experience had taught me that less is definitely best and that restricting my choice of materials makes my trips more productive. I’ve also learned what works best in the wonderful Scottish weather and developed my own ways to cope with wind, rain, mud and occasional sunshine.
I recently had the luxury of staying in a cottage in the middle of a deer park so I was able to take more than usual - I could select a few things as the fancy took me and then stomp off over the field to draw, knowing I could nip back for something else if I changed my mind. In other locations I need to plan more carefully as it’s a longer walk to the trees.
My basic kit consists of:
- A4 hardback sketchbook – a Daler Rowney one with nice creamy paper
- Small lightweight drawing board – an upcycled bit of kitchen unit
- Scrolls of paper for 360° drawings, various sizes
- Elastic bands for holding paper in place – clips always get lost
- My homemade pencil roll (of which I’m quite proud!) containing a selection of Faber-Castel Pitt drawing pens, Sharpies, brushes and pencils
- Viewfinder – though I don’t draw ‘views’ as such it really helps me focus when faced with too much choice
- Leatherman – love my multipurpose tool, always useful and you never know when you might need to hack off your own arm to get free of some crushing branch, thus saving your life. You may laugh but I draw on windy days!
- Emergency whistle – see above
- Buffs – those tubey things that can be scarves, hats or hairbands, essential for the Scottish outdoors
- OS map of the area and compass – this is so that I can orient myself in the landscape to understand it and mark particular trees or features
- Phone – not just a phone of course now, also a camera with gps, a compass, a sketchbook, a map referencer, really an electronic version of a Leatherman I suppose
- A small tarp to sit on when drawing, make into a windbreak or cover things up in the rain
- Camera – I have a Canon EOS 30D which I confess is beyond me technically – I’m just not methodical enough to take great photos but it does an excellent job with my limited knowledge, producing all my reference images
- Small flask of coffee and some flapjack to keep my spirits up
- Some business cards – you never know who you might meet in the middle of nowhere!
Oaks at Dalkeith Country Park
I'm always hunting for new locations with special old trees.
They don't have to be recognised as ancient to be interesting to me, but areas which are known to have ancient or semi-ancient woodland or boundariy trees are often where I find the most variety and history.
Organisations such as the Ancient Tree Forum and the Woodland Trust are doing a fantastic job recording British woodland and campaigning to ensure it's protection. The National Library of Scotland has all its old maps available online so it's possible to see how long particular locations have been wooded for.
Find my locations on a map here.
In three days time I'll be back in this field, layered up with fleecy clothes, sketchbook in hand and feeling at one with the world.
The Novar estate near Evanton has been a family holiday destination for a few years now and it happens to have some fantastic old trees. This is a really special row of veteran beeches on a bank in the deer park, which I drawn many times. I've no idea how old they are but they have a magnetic quality that keeps me going back, however cold it is.
I only get one visit a year, so I'm busy packing my drawing and camera kit so I can make the most of the precious time. Early spring is my favourite time for field drawing as the trees are stll leafless but there's a feeling of potential and newness in the air.Tags: