Calder twisted limb beech, Charcoal on paper
My most recent charcoal works form the beginnings of what I think may be a much larger series. 'Veterans' encompasses trees which may not necessarily be very old for their species but have some of the characteristics of ancient trees, perhaps due to damage, past management or a challenging environment. Rot holes, water filled hollows, fungal growth, broken branches or damaged limbs all give these trees an aesthetic appeal I can't resist drawing, as well as creating a rich range of habitats which sustain multiple other lives.
Calder bundled beech, Charcoal on paper
For me, it's these veteran qualities which make these particular trees stand out: their visual richness demands attention. I've returned to these six trees numerous times over the last 3 years since my first visit to the wood. The tree drawn below had one large surviving limb when I first encountered it, which had broken by last autumn, seemingly under its own weight. It must have happened shortly before my visit as the leaves were still fairly fresh, and I couldn't help feeling like I was witnessing a death. It now stands like a slowly decaying monument to itself.
Calder collapsed beech, Charcoal on paper
Read more about how to recognise ancient and veteran trees at the Ancient Tree ForumTags:
Following on from Alan McGowan’s workshop and my first attempts at oil painting (see Part 1), I’ve begun to make some experiments with the technique of oil glazing. This has meant doing my favourite kind of shopping – buying more art materials, and moving stuff around in my studio to set up for painting rather than charcoal drawing.
I’ve decided to use Windsor & Newton’s Artisan oils which are water mixable but otherwise behave like any other oils, it makes cleaning up easier and less smelly. I’ve also collected various mediums to try out.
For the initial wipe out underpainting I prepared the canvas with a spare coating of one part PVA mixed with three parts water, having learned the hard way that more PVA does not equal a better surface. The canvas needs to have some resistance to the paint to enable you to wipe it off, but too much or uneven PVA application results in the paint not adhering to the surface at all.
I used an image I’d already created in charcoal, so I could concentrate on what the materials were doing without worrying about the composition. I mixed Prussian Blue with a little Burnt Umber to give a nice neutral tone, thinned with turps. Making the image by removing the paint came naturally as it’s a very similar process to my charcoal drawing, though the paint does behave differently, giving more options for interesting mark making.
After allowing a day or two for the underpainting to dry, I’ve started to add glazes. This is a slow process as each has to dry before the next can be added, so there are a few paintings at various stages. There is no real plan here – I’m just trying out the colours I have in a variety of combinations and trying to find out what works and doesn’t work. The many mistakes are very valuable and the happy accidents are wonderful, but it’s too early to tell yet whether glazing is an approach which will earn a more permanent place in my studio.
This is an informative book which has kept me company on my painting journey, with a substantial section on glazes. This blog has detailed information about the principles and recipes and here is a demo of the method.
When does a drawing become a painting? I think of these as drawings made in oil paint and oil pastel.
Above are Dalkeith oaks, below a beech tree near the Cromarty Firth. All are done in the studio from photographs and sketches.
The painting experiment continues...
Reflections on 'European Wood Pasture', a UKEconet international conference at Sheffield Hallam University, 4th - 7th September 2018...
Fellow artist Anne Gilchrist and I attended the three day event in Sheffield and presented some of the work we have made in response to Dalkeith Oaks, including drawings, paintings and our book ‘Dead Wood and New Leaves’. We both enjoyed the connections and conversations sparked by our stand, provoking new ideas to feed our creative processes.
As always at UKEconet events, the speakers were varied and informative, giving a wide range of perspectives on the subject. Details of the conference and presenters can be found here.
From Nicklas Jansson’s presentation on a unique and threatened oakwood landscape in Turkey
As an artist I am of course interested in images of trees and woodlands, but I really value the opportunity to learn about the science, history and ecology of these landscapes too – I have a need to understand the cultural and ecological significance of the trees which are aesthestically interesting to me. What is striking is that the researchers I hear and speak to also connect with trees and woods aesthetically and emotionally as I do.
From the presentation by Jeremy Dagley, Head of Conservation at Epping Forest, picturing the late Oliver Rackham with an Epping pollard.
Since it was Anne’s first time in Sheffield we spent one evening exploring Padley Gorge in the Peak District, where gnarly oaks grow through gritstone boulders in a steep valley. It’s not a wood pasture but is a fantastic ancient woodland site with some stunning trees.
Fellow artist Anne Gilchrist and I worked together for the first time during the Grown Together exhibition at St Margaret’s House, though we have long shared a fascination with Dalkeith Old Oaks and have both made work there for many years.
The site sits within Dalkeith Country Park in Midlothian and is bounded by the North and South Esk rivers. The oakwood is grazed by cattle and managed as park woodland by Buccleuch Estates.
During the spring of 2018 we walked, talked and drew our way around the oaks, discovering shared favourites and introducing each other to their unique perspectives. At that time, the contrast between the copious dead and decaying wood and the vibrant green of the emerging new leaves was striking - two points on the complex cycle of woodland life.
We decided to collaborate on a collection of ‘things’ to present at the European Wood Pastures: Past, Present & Future conference, 5-7 September 2018 Sheffield, run by UKEconet which I worked with on ‘Tree Stories’.
Along with original artworks we’ll be presenting this new book, which brings together a selection of our art, photographs and writing made in response to the oakwood. Though we produce quite different work, we share a great deal in the way our art has developed as a kind of conversation with the trees. In the process of making this book and on our walks through the woodland, Anne has taught me to look down as well as gaze up, to notice the small and fleeting wonders of the habitat as well as the monumental aged oaks.
The book is available to preview and order here »
It’s a question I’m often asked. I do workshops and demos for groups but thought a timelapse video of the process might be an interesting way to share a little of what I’ve learned too.
So, the blank white paper is taped to the board, the preparatory sketches made, materials collected and it’s time to begin. First I make large gestures with a charcoally hand to quickly give the drawing structure and movement. Lively lines help to begin to define the big shapes. There’s a magical feeling early on in a drawing when the forms begin to emerge from the dust. I can draw with energy and excitement. “This is going to be a good one!” my internal monologue says. Then, gradually the drawing morphs into the ‘smudgey grey mess’ stage when it seems like it’s all going nowhere... time for a tea-break.
However, I’ve learned to persevere through this – I know it will happen and I know I just have to keep going, keep walking away, looking through squinted eyes, looking at it upside down, all the usual tricks to help spot what’s not working. A few years ago I read on American artist Stapleton Kearns’ blog that drawing was like herding sheep – you should always be paying attention to the ones straying or lagging behind, rather than the ones way out ahead. So pay attention to the bad bits of the drawing, try to fix the things that are not working and eventually they will all catch up with each other and hopefully resolve into something ok.
Dalkeith burred oak 7
The end result of all that herding turned out to be quite pleasing and I found that I really enjoyed knowing that I could review all the previous stages of the drawing on the time lapse. Being able to rewind time has proved a useful tool – I won’t do it for all my drawings but I’ll definitely do more little films.
Here's the video of several hours work condensed into 3 minutes...
Paint is an unfamiliar material to me, though I’ve tried periodically to make friends with it, we’ve never really been pals. For some reason this makes me want to keep trying though. I adore drawing and charcoal is by far my favourite medium, but paint can do things that dry media can’t and oil paint in particular has an affinity with charcoal and shares its malleable qualities.
In the studio with Alan, making a painting using the ‘wipe out’ technique
So I decided to seek some expert tuition and booked a place on Alan McGowan’s ‘Drawing in oils’ two day workshop in Edinburgh. He is a resident artist of my former studio building St Margaret’s House and I love the strong draughtsmanship, energy and movement evident in his figurative oils. He is also an excellent and experienced tutor. The aim of the weekend was to show how oils can be used for drawing the figure and how to move from drawing to painting, so it seemed like the perfect course for me to begin with.
We worked solidly over the two days, producing a lot of drawings/paintings and gaining both knowledge of our materials and an insight into Alan’s approach. He shared some of the works and artists that inspired him and showed us many different surfaces and ways of combining materials. For the final session I chose the wipe out method to spend more time exploring, since it seemed to me to be a painty parallel to my charcoal technique.
Once back in the studio I carried on playing, this time using tree images I’m familiar with. I came away from the course feeling like I had a whole new toolbox to play with, though very much aware of how much I have to learn – colour is still like a foreign language to me but at least now I have a few basics to begin with. It will be a long time before the will be any oil paintings of sufficient standard to exhibit as a great deal of rubbish needs be generated first, but I’m excited that ‘Project Paint’ has properly begun.