Category Archives: Drawings

Sketch studies in different media

A Creative Retreat: Part Two

Room to Grow

My intention is to use my time on Bryher (see part one) as a space to make work.  That’s fine, but I discover that when it comes to it, I am left wondering, is that what I really want to do?  I unpack my boxes of materials, open my sketch books, but when I start going through the motions, the old routines, I feel strangely numb, the actions robotic.  What is causing this impotence?  I am in a stunning location but I feel powerless to render so much beauty with any sense of justification.   Is a fear of failure causing this inertia?  Is my own judgement getting in the way of my creative intentions?  What am I actually trying to do?

An aerial view of an island?  Or the hull of a boat being prepared for painting at a boatyard at Porthloo, St Mary's?

An aerial view of an island? Or the hull of a boat being prepared for painting at a boatyard in Porthloo, St Mary’s?

While I was pondering my condition this quote popped up out of the blue. “I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”  Philip Guston.

But I recognise some of these inhibiting factors from past experience, so I revert to my default mode and concentrate on getting a feel for this place, its people, its history, its topography, before I even attempt to tackle what is in front of me head-on: more a quest to decode the sign language this landscape presents to me.

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a long, thin dog walking in a large pebble labyrinth just above the beach.

But first, in order to break through this temporary creative blockage and chase away this Bryher-sized mountain of expectations, I need to ground myself and establish my bearings by walking the landscape and scrutinising the cartography.   The first couple of days here on Bryher I have felt strangely unsettled.  My North / South internal orientation has flipped and it takes a while to re-adjust to the magnetic North within my own body.

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As you can see from this image above (taken from one of the guide books kindly left for visitors in my cottage), the Scilly Isles looked very different 5,000 years ago when sea levels were lower.

from my 'Isles of Scilly Guidebook' (Friendly Guides, 2011)

from my ‘Isles of Scilly Guidebook’ (Friendly Guides, 2011)

Compare that with a current map of the Scillies and I begin to imagine how prehistoric Scillonians might have lived their lives.  For instance, areas of land dedicated to the dead, such as the northern section of Bryher, would have once served a larger community and is echoed by the Northern slopes of Tresco, now separated from Bryher only by a narrow channel of water (see above map).

The duality of opposites:  my desire creates a battle between the opposite twins of hope (intention) and despair (fear).

In terms of creative inspiration, in the past, I have found that exploring opposites is fertile ground for me: light / shadow; above / below; beauty / imperfection (arguably the same); staccato / slow movement; colour / absence of colour; composition / chaos; stasis / flow, etc. etc., and this retreat is no exception.

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I wasn’t looking for opposites, certainly not expecting to find them, but the more I walk around Bryher, exploring its nooks and crannies and feeling its voices echoing back at me through the ages, I begin to feel a distinct pattern emerging.  A notion that this is an island story of two halves.  Take its extremes of weather: it faces the full brunt of winter storms thrown at it from the Atlantic, yet a peaceful idyll when the seas are calm and the sun blazes down on deserted, bleached beaches.  This sense of calm in a time of peace also belies the amount of ships that have floundered off these treacherously rocky shores, thwarted by rows of jagged teeth that emerge from the waters along its western coastline, aptly nicknamed the Wreckers.  This is a place that can bite back and gobble you up if you are not careful.

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looking towards twin peaks of Samson island

Even this seemingly benign island is divided by its topography.  The gentle southern slopes of Bryher are sheltered, verdant and inhabited.  Flowering succulents grow in profusion like weeds in the hedgerows and the air is scented with herbage.  (Similar conditions to the famous Abbey Gardens on Tresco, just across the small channel that separates these two islands).  You would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a garden paradise which time had forgotten.

By contrast, the northern plateau of Bryher feels like a shadow land: a desolate and eerie place where the terrifying might of the waves gouge out huge, black gaping holes in the coastline and the thin layer of vegetation hugs the ground to escape the desiccating winds.

I begin to realise why this northern place, inhospitable to man as a place to live, the exceptional concentration of cairns here indicating it was probably much more suited as a place to bury the dead, even though in the Bronze Age this would have been good agricultural land due to the mini heat wave conditions at the time.  It was also used for defensive purposes with names such as Badplace Hill, and House of the Head (a chilling reminder of the Iron Age Celts and their cult of head worship) which can be reached only by going over The Gulf.

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Shipman Head Down, underfoot a thin, springy carpet of vegetation, eroded into crevices and cracks on its north-western slopes

Entering into this place that overlooks Hell Bay, is like going over a threshold.  There is even a demarkation line where the vegetation clearly changes from small, neatly mown fields to untamed scrubland with a spider’s web network of paths strung over it.  I didn’t meet another soul on my visit here, even on a warm Spring day, when the wind was moderate, and the sea slight.  I was constantly worried about the dogs disappearing over the edge of the cliffs and was pleased to leave this plateau and its ghosts behind me.

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But it didn’t leave me.  I was left pondering about this landscape.  On top of Shipman Down Head, lying amongst the many cairns, I come across a long row of granite standing stones.  Was it a stone row or ceremonial way, a defensive boundary, or a tribal boundary?  Who Knows?  It echoes the row of stones I found on the beach at Green Bay in the south, which were the remains of prehistoric field walls, now submerged by the tide twice a day.

This discovery threw up another contrast, this time extremes of tones: the stone row standing starkly ‘white’ amidst the darker vegetation, contrasting with the submerged field boundary, its seaweed covered boulders marching into the sea, broodingly ‘dark’ against the blonde, sandy beach.

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Having explored as much of the island as I can, going from granite outcrops, entrance graves, cairns, beaches, hilltops, sand banks, even a Hangman Island and back, I am beginning to get a feel for the place and add my sketch books, pencils and pen to the collection of dog bags and old stick of lip slave in my pockets before I set off on my daily roamings.   And just draw.  Anything.

No drawing takes more than a few seconds to do.  I have to work quickly especially when rain drops fall onto my paper wanting to make their own contribution to my presence.

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A boulder on the beach, a line of rocks in the sea, a tree blown into shape by the wind, and in the process, I realise that my drawing is a way of looking, a way of seeing the landscape around me.  A way into a process.  What could be more elemental than that?  Each mark made with the pencil or pen comes from an unconscious place, unfettered by judgement or notions of precision.  A simple interpretation of what is in front of me rendered by a line, a scratchy mark, a dash, a smudge.  A shaded patch here or a line going off at a tangent there.  I am beginning to be ‘left completely alone‘.

And tried a few simple mono prints based on my drawings.

Back home, I may not have achieved what I had set out to do but I have returned buzzing with new ideas, consumed by the names of that shadow land: The Gulf, Hell Bay, House of the Head.  Entering that dark place via a Threshold (my word): A Gateway between this and the Otherworld, between normal consciousness and a spiritualised consciousness.

Combined with insights that emerged from my recent pilgrimage, these are the things that fire my imagination, the places that I want to inhabit, re-visit, to explore what they mean to me in my own deep places, and it is to these very places where I shall be heading with my next body of work.  Where the visible and the invisible meet in me and find an outlet in my practice.   And in that free-flow, reach that still point in my heart, the meeting point between heaven and earth: the only really meaningful meeting of opposites.

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This retreat has served to remind me that my desire to create can only be achieved once I have let go of any expected outcome.  Where hope and despair dissolve into simple, clear vision.  Something, obviously, I need to keep reminding myself.  And it is in this process where, if I’m very lucky, ‘I’, the judgemental part of ‘me’, will leave.

To visit other ideas about ‘room’, this weeks photo challenge, see here.

 

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Filed under Drawings, Paths of Enlightenment, Studio Practice, The Artist as Pilgrim, Walks

Signs and Sigels

Signs and Sigels is the title for the ‘Notebook‘ (part 1) I am currently working on, inspired by my St. Michael’s Way walk back in July, The Adventure Starts HereI have submitted it for The Newlyn / Exchange Collective Exhibition by artist volunteers at the Newlyn Gallery, even though it is still a work ‘in progress’.  It will be accompanied by Part 2 which will take a similar format, and explore my visit to St Michael’s Mount.

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Frontal piece for Artists’ Notebook: Signs & Sigels, a mixed media work in progress, 7.5cm x 7.5cm, 2013.  Notice the sun symbol on this waymarker representing a path of enlightenment (?)

I believe that we are gifted with insight by the accumulated ‘wisdom’ of the universe.  Messages from ‘angels’, departed loved ones or a shamanic guide / teacher is how some people like to understand it.  No matter how you view it, the results are just as pertinent for the individual.  Tapping into this rich seam of knowledge that our Celtic ancestors would have been very familiar with is something that needs a little practice.  You need both a belief in this system and the patience to notice the signs.  Our ancestors would have called on the wisdom of their fathers for such insights, possibly gathered together in a stone circle, or looked to the heavens for answers.  Living closer to the rhythms of nature and the cycle of the seasons than we do today, this would have come quite naturally.  It might have taken the form of some sophisticated mathematical calculations based on the constellations, or the simple sighting of a fox, the call of an eagle, seeing a particular shape in a cloud formation or witnessing a plant flowering out of season would have all meant something profound and meaningful and would have been regarded as a ‘sign’ or portent of things to come.  It forms the basis of our deep superstitions today.   How many people still count magpie sightings?  One for sorrow, two for joy……etc.

my 'life-line' journey

my ‘life-line’ journey

I do most of my joined-up thinking when I am walking and the landscape serves as an abundant source of clues for the answers to many of life’s quandaries, both big and small.  I don’t consciously go out looking for signs, but I know when I get one.  For instance, I was puzzling over something the other day and just happened to be walking past a Buddleia bush that was alive with Red Admiral butterflies feasting on the flowers.  This was a powerful message for me as the Red Admiral is particularly associated with the soul of a departed loved one and seeing them gave me great comfort.  This Notebook is about the signs that I was gifted with on that particular walk, that hot Summer’s day back in July.

a foggy start

a foggy start

Sigel is an old English word meaning ‘the sun’.  In the old Viking language of the Runes it is Sowelu and the ancient runic symbol that represents the Sun: a signifier of wholeness and the life force derived from the energy of the sun.  Drawing this rune marks a ‘time for regeneration down to the cellular level’,  (Ralph Blum) and a quest for wholeness for the ‘Spiritual Warrior’.  I like to think of it as another variant for the word ‘signal’, and its graphic similarity to a bolt of lightning is not lost on my senses, (tho’ I’m not so keen on its former Nazi connotations).  I like to think of it more as a reference to ‘seeing the light’, as in finding the answer.

sketchy 'sigel' graphics

sketchy ‘sigel’ graphics

The sign for sigel is also a graphic representation of two chevrons pointing in opposite directions but joined together in the middle.  Chevrons are a potent symbol, (see previous post, Solitude), and I have included them in my Notebook.  In this symbol, they point both backwards and forwards: forwards to the next part that I am currently working on, but also drawing on what I have already learned from my walk along this path thus far.

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end-trails (reverse page of sewn chevrons)

Do visit the Picture Room at Newlyn Gallery if you are in the area, and anyone is welcome to take a look at my Notebook if you ask the assistant on the desk to open the case where it is displayed.  The exhibition of artist volunteers work runs from 5th to 19th October, (with the PV on Friday, 4th, 7pm), with the Newlyn Festival works in the main gallery.

one of the page spreads on display in the Picture Room, Newlyn Gallery.

one of the page spreads on display in The Picture Room, Newlyn Gallery.

(P.S.  On a note about style, the WordPress writing challenge today is about adverbs.  As a style of writing, I do tend to try and avoid them where possible preferring to use a better verb to describe an action.   (adverbs)

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A Digital Scrap-Book

Kitchen as laboratory. Cooking up rabbit skin for sizing paper.

Kitchen as laboratory. Cooking up rabbit skin crystals for sizing paper.

Sorting out all my pictures has got me thinking about my sketchbooks pages, and sketchbooks in general.  In the past, I have used  sketchbooks as a convenient way for experimenting with ideas in an unfettered, non-judgmental way, only selectively showing what I felt ready to make public.

Now more than two years down the line and beginning to get into my stride, I decided to cast a quizzical eye over my blog.   The illustrated notes roam across my areas of interest, and in themselves form a kind of sensory meander across a personal landscape.

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(Sand) prints of prints. One of my ‘areas of interest’.

It differs from a paper sketchbook mainly in that it allows you, anyone, to join in my personal road-map and offers a glimpse into some of the thought processes and techniques I use.   I still have to make judgements about what to show but it has a much broader range.   Much to my surprise, I have enjoyed sharing what is normally a very private activity.

kitchen table operations

kitchen table operations

Digital books are a great addition to our reading experience but I don’t own an e-reader as I know I would miss the feel of the physical object in my hands.   I love paper sketchbooks for the same reason.  There is something really satisfying about working with a variety of materials in a book you have adopted for the purpose.   It could be anything: an old ledger, redundant bible (God knows there’s enough of them), leather-bound books, hand-made books, post-it notes.  I’ve used breakfast order slips left-over from our B&B days, and even contemplated using my father’s old appointment diaries but not sure this would feel like sacrilege or a loving tribute to his memory?  (Perhaps a bit of both.  More suited as part of a family history project, maybe).

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Looks can be deceiving. Even though this looks like it has been ‘digitalised’, it is in fact a painting.

My favourite sketchbooks are the ring-bound, square-shaped  books with hard covers because they expand a little between pages if you want to add stuff, as I do all the time, and you can fold the cover right over underneath so it doesn’t get in the way, handy if you are working outside.

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The logo for this blog is a detail taken from this sketchbook page.  (I have changed the theme since this was posted!)

My virtual sketchbook, on the other hand, is more like a photographic journal.   In it, I document the textures, habits and patterns of my life as a way of reconnecting with and making sense of the world I inhabit.  It also allows me to pick up on recurring themes and make observations about my progress.  It has become the medium in which I have taken my work further into the digital realm.

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A ‘post-it note’ drawing which has been layered with a digital print on acetate.

I use my sketchbook pages, therefore, as a repository of visual ideas that acts not only as a mental laboratory but also as a useful memory bank that I can return to, as and when required.   It allows me to make synaptic leaps in time, place and space and make connections and re-evaluations between curiosity and coincidental happenings.

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Grid butterfly of photomicrographs of thin sections of rock.

Some of the ideas are very sketchy and embryonic, others more fully formed, multi-layered, or collaged with imagery from previous posts.  Collectively, the blog forms a kind of annotated comic book of disparate objects that are tangentially linked, and that when printed out, weirdly goes backwards to the present.

Virtual or actual, I think both have their place in my practice.   I have come to view the virtual journal as an exciting extension of the physical sketchbook.  The thought of creating a limited-edition artist’s book (or e-book?) is a distinct possibility for the future.  Maybe.

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Oh no. It’s not still raining!  (Recent sketchbook pen drawing.)

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Note to Self

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As my working space has shrunk to a small kitchen table, I have cut my (table) cloth accordingly.  Thus, the humble post-it note has become my scaled-down sketchbook for the time-being.  These images all began with pencil drawings arranged on a grid of post-it notes.  Layers have been added to build up images with overlays and digital media.  The inspiration comes from the recent landslips on the beach at Praa Sands.

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The Crustaceans

Crustaceans. Noun: any mainly aquatic arthropod usually having a segmented body and chitinous exoskeleton. syn: crustacean.  (Just hold that thought for a moment).

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IMG_7667IMG_7665IMG_7662Waiting for the BT Man to come and connect me to the grid one typically drizzly winter’s afternoon recently, I opened my sketch book and began drawing the whippets, my feet propped on a footstool allowing me to rest the book in my lap at the perfect angle for drawing.

My subjects, unusually fidgety because they were missing their afternoon walk, forced me to make very rapid drawings, sometimes only managing to establish a few shaky marks before they shifted positions.

A couple of hours later and no-show from BT Man, I had nearly filled an entire sketch book with these scribbles.

So what has all this got to do with Crustaceans, I hear you cry?  Well, lets start with prawns.  You see, since my daughter started calling the whippets ‘prawns’ on account of their prawn-shaped bodies, my X (the father of my children) – in his very own cryptic way – has come up with a new collective noun for a group of whippets……you guessed it: The Crustaceans.

I have asked him, since he is especially good at drawing caricatures, please could he illustrate for me what this new breed of aquiline creatures might actually look like?  He didn’t seem too phased by the challenge so watch this space!

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Lula’s Anemones

IMG_7663IMG_7655For Lula, In Memoriam

Anemone – meaning woodland flower. Narcissus – Greek God who fell in love with his own image.

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Towards the end of November last year, I received the news we had all been dreading but sadly expecting.  My beautiful sister-in-law, Lula – who had just reached her 60th Birthday (but didn’t look a day over 40 – the effect of not having children, perhaps?), died of a devastating brain tumour.

Apart from her heart-broken husband, Michael, Lula’s other most enduring passion in life was her love of gardening. I can see her now, quoting the latin names of plants with her impish grin, enthusing about the merits of this one or t’other.  I swear she didn’t always get it right but none of us was ever in a position of being able to correct her.

IMG_7654The church at Bruton in Somerset was packed for her funeral service.  It was decked out with an abundant display of greenery from the very forest out of which Lula, with the help of Michael of course, had fashioned her latest creation.  It was her wish to give the mourners a flower as they left the church.  I brought mine home and decided to dedicate a painting of them to the memory of dear Lula.  This is the start of that project and I shall be thinking of her throughout the process.

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Colour is Reasoning

Sketch for ‘Yellow Dot Cloth‘, pencil on paper

Yellow Dot Cloth, oil on card, 20cm x 18cm

The Post-impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) wrote in a diary, ‘Drawing is sensation. Colour is reasoning‘.    For an artist who made drawings in his diaries I assume this is a reference to his working method where he quickly recorded his sensations in front of nature.  Colour, on the other hand, was only ever used in his studio, away from nature.   For me, his drawings are so richly described with marks, stabs and dabs, it is like looking at one of his paintings.  This is unlike Philip Hughes, for instance, who makes careful pencil drawings in the landscape and later ‘fills’ the drawn areas with flat colour when he gets back to his studio.

For Yellow Dot Cloth, with a gentle nod to Bonnard, I have made a painting with only my drawing done elsewhere as a reference, and is the one I have chosen to enter for Badcocks Christmas Post Card exhibition this year.

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