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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.