Friday, 23 October 2009

My approach to colour work is different on many levels to my black and white work. I had tried including some pen marks in my colour work but didn't really like the results (that's not to say I won't try again at some point). I've gravitated towards coloured pencil as a mid way point between the graphical approach of pen and ink and a completely painterly approach. This said I find it quite difficult to rein myself in to just one medium, maybe because of underlying insecurity when it comes to using colour. If so, then perhaps a little insecurity is useful when it comes to the visual arts, as maybe this drives an artist to become more adventurous and to stretch their imagination in an attempt to overcome their own shortcomings. This is certainly the case for me.

One way in which I’m working differently at the moment with my colour work is the way I spread my creative energies. I tend to work intensely at one pen and ink drawing pouring all of my energy into one piece, whereas if I work too intensely at one coloured pencil drawing I find that I over work it and end up spoiling it, losing something of the spontaneity and luminosity of colour necessary for a piece to be successful. This is one of the reasons why photographing my work at various stages has become important (almost an obsession) with me.

Also, working on several pieces at once acts as a catalyst for the more analytical side of my imagination. I feel that I have so much ground to cover in my colour work (composition, chiaroscuro and treatment of detail are all areas that I need to work on) that I need to have more than one piece on the go at once, so I can look back from a distance and see where I have come to, and work out the direction in which I will next go.

My most successful pieces so far, I feel, have been the smaller, more intense pieces which explore the shadows and the intensity of colour that exists in the contrast between the light and dark. For me this has an emotional resonance as well as an artistic one.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Art and Worship

On Saturday and Sunday G took me to Dunham Massey and to Westonbirt in search of some Autumn colour. Comparing the photographs I took this year with last its pretty obvious that this October is much less colourful than 2008. That didn't stop me from filling my SD card with lots of autumnal images however, especially at Westonbirt, where the trees seemed in danger of being outnumbered by dogs and people.

Some people seemed much less respectful of the trees than the dogs though, I saw at least 3 grown men plucking leaves from the beautiful Japanese Maples. Their beauty is fragile enough without us helping them along (helping nature to its grave seems to be a particular human pastime).

Then again, it's the fragility of this autumnal beauty that gives it a deeper resonance, and makes it, like all rare things, all the more precious and poingnant. The last few leaves clinging to the branches are the saddest and the sweetest.

I took a few treasures home with me from Westonbirt and Dunham Massey (all windfalls, of course), including these chestnuts and their pods, which I've been drawing. I love Dunham Massey, I've been there 3 times and always at this time of the year. There's a magical atmosphere particularly in the deer park where the deer seem to have remarkable patience with us interlopers. One fine stag was being very patient on Saturday, lying in the frail late afternoon sunshine surrounding by photographers. They crept towards him, crouched down in the bracken as if they were making an act of supplication. Maybe we haven't progressed so far since the days when cave men recreated the images of deer and bison on the walls of their caves.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Life Becoming Art Becoming Life

They say that life sometimes imitates art. Well that's not surprising, as art and life depend on the same material (physical and imaginative) - physically all materials are atoms compacted, randomly coalescing to create the tangible magical substances we call reality. Only in dreams is that which seems tangible not formed of atoms, and is all that we see or experience not formed of some combination of the chemical, the physical and the downright co-incidental (and lucky for us that co-incidences do happen, otherwise most of this world and everything on it would not be here – so my understanding leads me to believe).

This morning I spent trimming back the shrubs that my mother planted about 9 years ago now in our back garden. She got a little bit carried away back then and now we have a small linear forest of various shrubs lined up against the fence, which they have succeeded in punching holes through over the years with their knotty branches, greedy for space and light.

Once I'd recovered from the exertion of 2 hours pruning, I exchanged secateurs, shears and a fretsaw for paint brushes and pencils. I eased myself in by preparing another couple of sheets of paper for future work, basically stretching then staining previously stretched paper with watercolour. My current infatuation is with Ingres paper, that lovely thick textured paper usually used for pastel painting. A few weeks ago I stretched a few old scraps of Ingres paper I found in my paper hoard behind the bed in the spare room where I do most of my artwork. When I finally got round to working on it I was quite pleased with the results, and the base it gave me to work with a new medium, Derwent's lovely Coloursoft range of coloured pencils. I treated myself to a tin of their full range of 72 pencils as part of the Derwent Prize I was very, very lucky to be awarded back in June. I visited their website, where Derwent very helpfully provide a chart of all of their products lightfast ratings. I printed these off, and am carefully checking the lightfast rating before I use any of the pencils in the set (as I am doing with all the coloured pencils I use). I use only those with a rating of 7 and over, though the note on Derwent's on-line lightfast chart reads; 'values of BW6 and higher are considered to be lightfast'. I am somewhat hung up on the lightfast issue, and need really to investigate this further.

Anyway, last night I began working on another old piece of Ingres paper I had stretched a few weeks ago. It's an offcut and a bit of an awkward shape being very long and thin. I found a photograph of a lovely tree I had printed out, loving the graceful shape of the tree and the contrast of still green foliage and crisp freshly fallen golden leaves on the ground. I mentally cropped this image and sketched out my idea on the long skinny Ingres paper, then began lightly staining the paper with Derwent's Inktense colours (using their lightfast charts again to select only those with the highest ratings). I then laid down a wash of clear water to melt the pencil and waited for this to dry before working a little more with Coloursoft pencils, which have quite a different texture (more waxy and subtle) to the Inktense pencils. This morning I worked with more Inktense pencil, staining the paper again, then I sprinkled some opaque watercolour (Windsor & Newton's Artists range) over the leaves, both golden and green to animate the surface a little more. Then worked further in Coloursoft pencils.

I finished off my work for today by splattering some more opaque watercolour and now, I am waiting for it to dry. The splattering, by the way, is great fun. It's just a matter of mixing up some thick watercolour (or acrylic, though watercolour washes off the fingers more easily) then using a stiff brush (I used a square one) to flick the paint in the areas you want to sparkle.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


I hate it when I waste hours on a piece that goes wrong, I lose interest or faith in it midway through, or maybe my concentration lapses and I end up ruining it beyond the point of no return. It's a relief to get rid of these things, but sometimes it takes courage too. It's difficult to admit that I've made mistakes, and that basically I've wasted energy materials and time (all expensive) on something that is never going to be more than an embarrassment.

Sometimes being hard on myself is a relief. Other times, of course, it causes me grief to be so hard on myself, especially when the thing I've had to admit is not working is something I've invested heavily in.

Until recently once a piece was destroyed or disposed of, it was gone forever, but since the advent of digital photography, and my own habit of recording progress, this decision has had the edge of finality take off it. These days, if I thow something away, or decide to paint over it again, the failure continues to exist, like a digital ghost,on my computer's hardrive.

Here are a few of the failures, dredged up from the digital ether to glimmer for a while, like Victorian cotton wool wraithes at a seance.

As for my most recent failure (I painted over a piece yesterday that I'd been pleased with a couple of days before. Now it turns out that it was the stage of development I'd been pleased with, and not the piece itself at all) I've not posted it here yet, as I'm not certain whether the ghost can be made to work for me in some way. I have to think about it first.

As for the living, I'm working on several pieces now, all at various stages of development, each an experiment, mostly coloured pencil on various kinds of base; stretched Ingres paper, stretched cartridge or watercolour paper, hardboard, mounting board treated with gesso.

More about these later.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Page to screen

Having a digital camera has had an impact on my work in one way or another. For a start, without the accessibility and relative inexpense of a digital camera I wouldn't have access to the material that inspires me. I don't drive and as I live in the middle of an urban conurbation I rely on 'days out' when G can take me to the kind of places that I love to draw and and be in.

When I began to photograph my work a few years ago to post on-line, it began to dawn on me how the tangible developing image I have in front of me is, in many ways, the mother of these hybrid images of electricity and light. I've always been drawn, like a moth, to the incandescent light of a computer screen, in winter especially I love being bathed in its cosy glow, I suppose it's the closest thing to a blazing fireside I have in my convenient 21st century home. The television too is like a blazing fireside (source of comfort and stories) but I don't spend so much time sitting in front of the television, I find that kind of relaxation too frustrating, I've always preferred to be doing something rather than letting life wash over me.

So when I began working visually again with any regularity I was, quite naturally, not the confident, wasteful creature of 20 years ago when I didn't really give that much thought to the cost of paints or paper. I had more confidence in my abilities back then and seldom found decision making the torturous process I do these days. Partly from a practical need to record my pictures for posterity or for my website I began to photograph them. Gradually the insecure me became a compulsive me and I began to photograph my pictures at various stages of their creation. Some only exist in the digital form now, lack of space and disappointment with the finished result having led me to destroy the originals. Others still exist, but not in the form in which they appear in my favourite images. Like an aging face, they are the same but changed, each piece (if it's lucky) has its prime, the moment when the artist (had she the perception, the will power or the courage) should have stopped working.

Knowing when to stop working is the key to a good piece of art. It's one of the many things I still have to learn about my craft.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Autumn Walk

I got my friend G to take me out to the leafy wilds last weekend, the weather was fine and I hoped that there'd be the beginings of a display of autumn colour to photograph for my work. I was a touch disappointed. Apparently, so I've read, this year's weather conditions mean that the trees are shedding their leaves more quickly than usual, which means they'll barely have the chance to change colour before they're fluttering to the ground.

We stood beneath this tree late on Sunday afternoon listening to leaves and seeds dropping all around us. Squirrels darted across the path, timid and forgetful.

I've been working on my own autumn walk this morning. Here's some work in progress.

Monday, 5 October 2009

8th Annual Open Internation Exhibition - UK Coloured Pencil Society

I had a nice morning at the RBSA on Thursday where the UK Coloured Pencil Society are holding their annual exhibition. Although I've visited the Society's website often (and have been astounded at the quality of the work being done in this medium) I've not really seen much coloured pencil work in the flesh before. I have been in love with pencils as actual objects for the past 5 or so years, ever since I bought a box of Signature Watercolour pencils from Heaton Cooper whilst on holiday in the Lake District. My attempts at creating work with them has, however, been somewhat disappointing. My colour work tends to disappoint me, I end up with something, but it's never usually what I would have liked. This, of course, is not such a rare thing (either with literature or the visual arts) and sometimes ending up somewhere completely unsuspected at the end of several hours, days, weeks even of effort can be quite exciting, but my final destinations have tended to be disappointing places.

There was some lovely work on show at the RBSA, experimental work such as Malcom Cudmore's large scale works on board and gesso and a breathtaking portrait by Julie Douglas of the artist's son, I'd never have guessed that this work was in coloured pencil, immaculate and flawless this beautiful large scale portrait seemed had the luminous quality of a watercolour. I loved the immaculate, static sill lives by Peter Woof and the vivid and densly executed coloured pencil paintings by Irina Garmashova-Cawton. Visiters to the exhibition are asked to vote for their favourite piece, and my vote went to Kate Clarke's Old Timer's, One, Two, Free! A virtuoso tryptic portrait of the artist's elderly mother which explores her struggle with Alzheimers Disease. The text that dances and eventually disinstegrates in the sitter's hair perfectly expresses the fragmented thought processes of someone with dementia.

I also loved the beautiful dark and moody coloured pencil paintings by Neil Houghton, immaculately executed in the creamiest and most opaque of pigment, 'Driver of the Great Marquees' is a very fine portrait, and again you would probably not immediately guess that this piece was excecuted in coloured pencil.
Nice touches at the exhibition were copies of the Coloured Pencil Society magazine to browse through, and the opportunity to win works of art by leading exponents of the coloured pencil medium. My favourite was the lushly textural painting by Vera Curnow, founder of the Coloured Pencil Society of America.
It's a shame that there wasn't an illustrated programme to go with this exhibition, I'd have liked a reminder of the work on display here. Instead I'll have to make do with the on-line exhibition here, which features all of the work on display at the gallery.
I had a quick look at the other exhibitions at the RBSA while I was there, on the first floor is A Window On Iran, an exhibition of paintings by three Iranian artists. This is a colouful and striking exhibition with a nice full colour guide and explanatory notes. On the ground floor near the small cafe and reception, are exhibitions of etchings, jewellery, paintings and crafts. I particularly liked Danielle Spelman's ceramics which are colouful and appealingly tactile.

As I said, over the past few years I've really been attracted to the medium of coloured pencil, even if I haven't yet managed to produce anything I'm pleased with. A few years ago I executed a mixed media piece in which coloured pencil played a prominent part, I wasn't too displeased with it until it was rejected from an open exhibition I entered, then I couldn't stand the sight of it!

Something about the photograph I based it on still niggles at me however, and I've begun another piece based on this. I began by laying down large areas of loose flat colour with Inktense pencils, which I freed and fixed with a layer of water. When this had dried, I began working in coloured pencil on top using Derwent Signature (now sadly discontinued) and Caran d' Ache Supracolour and my single Luminance pencil (Bleu De Phtalocyanine) - a free gift with with a magazine from earlier this year. I'd love a set of these pencils, but they're very expensive!

Anyway, here is the piece I made a couple of years ago based on my autumnal photograph.

And here is an early stage of my current work in progress.