They arrived unexpectedly, a procession of strange tree forms with wispy branches reaching out to anyone who’ll listen.
‘Spirits’ is a new body of work which has taken me by surprise. It has grown out of my recent study of movement and gesture but morphed into something quite different. For a long time I’ve studiously avoided drawing branchy details but these works demanded them to counter the powerful gestures of their decapitated trunks.
They began as trees but have become something (or someone) beyond that category of creature, so I’ve named their characters accordingly.
Where do the ideas come from? How do the images form themselves?
It’s not until after I’ve finished a body of work that I can get enough distance to see where it might have come from, what it relates to and where it sits amongst all my work. While I’m making it, it’s mostly a response to a creative urge rather than following a plan.
Rivers of oak series
Looking back now I see that my ‘Rivers of oak’ series came from the coalescence of two visual elements – the bare, weather-eroded sapwood of long dead ancient oaks and the turbulent patterns of the sea where I row. Both are things I’ve looked at intently.
It’s no secret that artists absolutely love getting new art materials, regardless of whether we actually need any or not. In fact need has nothing to do with it. I think this collecting habit is driven by curiosity – what if that new brush is exactly what I’ve been searching for, maybe that new pastel is the perfect green for those mossy bits, perhaps that ink will make exciting splashy marks I’d never imagined possible?
In this spirit of discovery, I jumped at the chance to try some unusual types of charcoal when I came across Wildwood Charcoal showing their experiments on Instagram.
I usually use charcoal from art materials suppliers, mostly made by Coates and Nitram for sticks and Derwent for the powder. I’ve not been too fond of homemade charcoal for drawing before, as it’s been very unpredictable, pale and quite frustrating to draw with. However, I heard from another artist that the passionflower one was great to work with so I ordered a little sample pack and got to work on some arty experiments.
My exciting little package arrived nestled beautifully in sweet smelling straw, wrapped in carefully labelled paper – nice touch! I set to work testing them in a not very methodical way, just allowed the marks to flow as the charcoals suggested.
Passionflower was indeed a delight, luscious and black. Gorse on the other hand was scratchy and grey, but in an interesting way. Clematis was definitely a favourite for its depth of tone but also its texture – the outer layers being ridged and slightly crumbly, giving pleasantly surprising results. Wisteria had less personality and bramble (pictured above) was pretty brutal – the thorns still jaggy even after carbonising and the stem so hard it seemed almost metallic.
I came to the conclusion that passionflower and clematis would be a great addition to my charcoal ‘palette’, gorse would be worth further exploration and bramble would be excellent if I ever wanted to draw on a stone wall. Each species had its own distinct character which produced a drawing style particular to it. I’d love explore this further, working on more sustained drawings. Of course I’ve also got a list of other plants I’d like to try now – I’ve got a feeling that’s the first of many little Wildwood charcoal packages arriving in my studio.
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.
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.