Making ‘Rivers of oak’

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.

charcoal drawing
Standing wave, charcoal on paper, 65x50cm

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.

Forth Rail Bridge from a skiff
The Forth Road bridge from a St Ayles skiff

As I was making these drawings I wasn’t aware of the way these two forms of fluidity were linking – that came much later when I began to think of titles and realised how much wood echoed water.

The creative process

I thought it might be useful to visually document the development of my ‘Rivers of oak’ series of charcoal drawings. If you’re an artist you may recognise some stages of this process and if you’re an art lover you might like to know more about how the work emerges. It might even help me when I next encounter a little creative block.

ancient oak tree
A section of an ancient oak, part living, part non-living.

I’ve been drawing ancient oaks for a very long time, their sculptural forms are a source of continual inspiration. Here, the burrs created by the epicormic buds are revealed where the bark has fallen away from the non-living wood (a term coined by Ted Green, used instead of dead wood to acknowledge it’s vital role in tree ecology).

black and white photo of old oak tree
Ancient oak forming standing dead wood, a habitat under threat

I sketch as much as I can in the woodland during the winter and early spring, then take a lot of photos. These can reveal unnoticed details and prompt unexpected ideas – they combine with my sketches and visual memory towards the emerging imagery.

guiding words for art
Studio whiteboard

I have an old whiteboard where I write words to guide the body of work. They usually grow out of my learning from previous work and are more of a general direction of travel than a precise brief. It helps me ignore the distracting thoughts and diversions which inevitably happen – the mind monkey is very active at this stage.

sketchbook drawings

Back in the sketchbook, I redraw the trees I’ve seen and doodles begin to take on a life of their own, echoing the imagery I’ve immersed myself in. These form the starting point for the compositions.

charcoal drawing tools
My charcoal drawing tools

My materials fall into two categories; things which make dark marks and things which make light marks. Charcoal and erasers of various kinds, it’s as simple as that.

artist hand mark making
Photo credit Sheila Masson

All the works in this series began with very fast gestural marks with charcoal powder, essentially a finger/hand/arm painting process. Speed and fluidity were very important – I wanted to keep the paper quite clean around the image, so it appeared to be floating rather than anchored to anything visually.

Those first gestures suggest what comes next and there was a gentle period of absorbing, examining and responding to evolve the image. I tried to tread a delicate balance between freshness and finish in these drawings, some areas were carefully worked over but others still show the raw finger marks.

Tansy drawing in charcoal
Cascade in progress

My mood music

I always make a collection of music to work to which fits my feeling for the series – it acts as a trigger to get me into that particular creative mood. You can dip into the playlist I made to work to here»

  

My studio playlists aren’t usually easy listening, I seem to need an intensity of sound to match the art-making process. So maybe not the best background tunes for most people!

Confluence drawing
Confluence, charcoal on paper 110x75cm

Drawing on a larger scale like this one gave me more room to play with the flowing qualities of the charcoal – I made notes in my sketchbook promising myself I’ll increase the scale even further next time.

studio view of charcoal drawings
Reviewing and watching one night, letting the drawings talk to each other

The series grew to number 18 works and I feel there’s more to come still. I was delighted by how dynamic they all were and felt pleased that I’d restrained any urges to overwork. Each has their own personality but they all dance together beautifully.

You can view the full series in my gallery here»

Where to see ‘Rivers of oak’

The whole series was exhibited in my solo show ‘On Tree Time’ in June 2021 and a selection will feature in my next solo show ‘Turning Towards the Light’ at Linlithgow Burgh Halls, opening 4th March 2022.

They will be available to buy from the 4th, so get in touch if you’d like to have one (or some) for your home.

share:

Experiments in charcoal

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.

charcoal made from brambleMy 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.

 

 

 

 

share:

Calder Wood Veterans

Calder twisted limb beech

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

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

Calder collapsed beech, Charcoal on paper

Read more about how to recognise ancient and veteran trees at the Ancient Tree Forum

share:

What kind of charcoal do I use?

dusty-hand

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.

charcoal-table

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:

Dalkeith 718 charcoal

 I think there’s something poetic about depicting wood with its carbonised self.

share: