This month I have been trying to bring together my “Life is not still” series into a printed booklet. I realised that I have gaps in poetry for April and paintings for May – I puzzled over why, what had stopped me visiting the canal last year? Now I realise as the weather improves I kick into cycling and running mode and for a moment my art takes a back seat as I gorge on the sunshine, lighter days and being outdoors. Like all things, my art also works in seasonal cycles.
As I finish one series, there is always another on the backburner and I’ve been continuing to work with the Canal bridges, sketching on location helps to distil 100s of pieces of data into what interests me about a subject. I’ve taken lots of photo’s but when I view them back in the studio they fail to capture something. Useful as reference to jog the memory, but no substitute for the true observation that drawing directly dictates. I realise drawing the bridges that it’s the patchwork of brickwork, distinctive features and splashes of odd colour that interest me. My partner says all the bridges are the same, but they are not. Even all the stone bridges with the traditional arch shaping will have their own particular characters, a splotch of coloured graffiti, a gas pipe or iron work addition, repairs in mismatched brick, a particular tree or plant life in it’s landscape. Much like I used to do in my beach combing series, I find myself looking at repetitions of the same object (bridges) and finding the unique in the ubiquitous.
In the studio, I continue to play with my press. I am preparing another reduction woodcut print, building on the lessons learned from the last one, I have gesso’d the plate to seal it which prevents the sharpie design printing onto the paper and also means it’s easier to wash the ink without getting water into the ply and distorting the plate. I have tried a new method of registering the reduction. Printing is 90% preparation. It’s methodical and repetitive. This ordered process appeals to me.
I inherited my Dad’s wood workshop a few years ago. Most of the tools are old, rusty and unusable, but he had an old woodworking bench which he made himself, it’s worn but solid and I have converted it into my printing table. As I stood there inking up my woodcut, I felt a sense of continuity, using wood ,some of his tools, and finding my own terms to create with them.
Another winter survived, much as I love Winter’s skeletal forms and muted colours, the dark days play with my mind and spirit and I’m always glad when Spring finally arrives. The last two weeks it’s been light enough to walk or run before breakfast, a quiet time on the canal towpath, I meet mainly other runners or dog walkers. Signs of life this month are in the form of nettles, cleavers and last months lords and ladies, alongside a new arrival of hawthorn and cherry blossom marking the start of warmer and longer days to come.
In my studio I’ve been using a drawing of the cuckoo pint to create a woodcut and try some printmaking skills on my new press; a 4 way colour reduction gave me opportunity to try registering prints, use of extender and transparent layers of colour, chine colle, cutting up the plate and just using the press to get the feel for it. One thing I have learnt is; I have a lot to learn!
The print depicted here is one of ten, all slightly different through additions of chin colle or adjustments in the printing. There is much wrong with it, but I’ve taken lots of lessons onboard through the process of the making which I can carry forward into my next set of prints.
In my “Life is not Still” series, I have been playing on the idea of traditional still life paintings and their use to show status, by elevating the wild plants and weeds of the canal, bringing them indoors, arranging in vases and painting/drawing them, and capturing elements of my home/interior as compositional backdrop. In this print, instead of a vase I used a pasta sauce jar, I particularly like this element, once again elevating the ordinary.
Birdlife and the aptly named Cuckoo Pint have dominated my walks and runs along the canal this month. A buzzard upsetting the jackdaws, robins and coal tits at the hedgerow feeders (not sure who hangs them out). More unusually though, a white duck and a cormorant diving for fish, oddities in the normal flow of things. Perhaps even mother nature has been thrown off kilter by lockdown.
I’ve had a solid week in the studio this month continuing experiments with my bridge series. I’ll say one thing for lockdown, it has been a lesson in how much I can achieve when distractions and to a degree choice are removed; no galleries, supply shops, social commitments or travel to compete for my time. With the money saved in lockdown I’ve finally bitten the bullet and invested in a press which is going to allow me to take projects into print. I’m not prone to pessimism, but travel in 2021 isn’t looking that much more likely than 2020. I like to have things to look forward to, so I’m planning on holiday’s at home and an opportunity to learn some new printmaking skills and perhaps build on those learnt at a woodcut workshop I took back in 2019 (where does time go?).
January is one of the few missing months in my Life is not still series. So, at the beginning of this month I added the following to my to do list; “Collect/paint vase of canal flora for January”…..it hasn’t happened, but I know why and, it’s probably the same reason as last year. January is dormant.
It’s not just lockdown, it’s as if the world itself is lying quietly in wait, resting, preparing for the year ahead. The flora hasn’t moved on from December, the barges are battened down, a dusting of snow last weekend dampened the sound, even the ducks seem to be in hiding although, I have seen the blue flash and red breast of the kingfisher and three brave swans bashing their way through the thick icy waters.
One plant which has attracted my attention is the tropical looking Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium Scolopendrium) which grows on the verges all year around between the woodland and towpath. I’ve made some studies in paint and pencil of the long glossy leaves, with their fluted edges and striking pattern of spores. These studies will be tucked away until next January when I will revisit and work from them.
Meanwhile I’ve been working from some of the Canal bridge photos and data I collected during November’s lockdown (given I can’t travel to collect anymore at the moment!) I’m experimenting with the concertina book format, as if the viewer is walking along the towpath and viewing the bridges from either the east or west depending which end of the book you start. It’s a working maquette, trialling different media and ways to depict the bridge images. All a bit literal and figurative at the moment, but evolving slowly.
Slow. An apt word for January and life under lockdown but, slowing down and extra time, brings opportunity to reflect and, the boundaries of constraint forces creativity.
November, and we find ourselves in another National Lockdown. As we are still allowed outside to exercise I’m trying to see it as an opportunity to start researching another aspect of the canal I’ve been musing on; Bridges.
What is a bridge? A means of connection or transition, a link between two “places”, a structure to go over an obstacle, a relief from repetition. Perhaps it is quite apt to study them as a project to get through Lockdown.
Starting at Lock 7, and the Entrance of the Kennet and Avon Canal (the navigation goes much further into Bristol), I started walking, photographing and making notes. I realised some time ago that I have nick names for my local bridges and mentally they act as markers in mapping where I am, or how far I have to go. I didn’t realise they had official names until I read “The Kennet & Avon Canal, A user’s guide to the waterways between Reading and Bristol” by Niall Allsop (ISBN 0948975288).
In the last year I’ve been making mental notes of their numbers (they each have a number plaque) and how curiously, they sometimes skip numbers (where did bridge 159 go?)
The types of bridge are various; swing bridges, stone bridges, wooden footbridges, ornate iron bridges, aqueducts and tunnels (are these bridges?). Each has it’s own character & shape.
I have a few idea’s of where I could take this series, but for now, I will just walk, collect images of Bridges and let thoughts meld.
No poisonous plants this month, just edible ones and I’ve completed my “start of Autumn” ritual by making pots of blackberry jam. I’ve also started making a mental note of the sloe trees ready for picking in October.
The Reedbeds on the canal are covered with the soft white fluff of Willowherb seeds, interspersed with stinging nettles and brown spiky teasel’s, and the hedgerows are full of brambles, elderberry and rosehips. I haven’t drawn any new plants this month, instead focusing on last Septembers paintings and working from them onto cloth.
Painted Study – abstract of Sept Still life vase
Sept Vase on cloth
I wanted to paint an abstract interpretation of last September’s Still life onto cloth. My approach to image making is always fairly low tech, here I have used thickened procion dyes, sectioning off areas with masking tape or sticky back plastic and, applied the dye using old bank cards, the end of a pencil, kebab sticks or a brush. Further lines and marks and shapes will be added with stitch.
Alongside this I have painted or printed a small bundle of patterned cloth and immersion dyed some solid colours with the leftover dye.
September Cloth bundle
And so the dyes and pots are all washed up, the studio boards cleared, these fabrics will be packed away with the drawings until next September when I will return to move them forwards again. It doesn’t seem a moment since last year when I drew the original drawing…
If you look back at the pencil drawing in my “Abundant July” blog post, you will notice a ? next to the drawing of a seed head. It turned out to be hemlock, a highly poisonous plant if digested. I made a mental note that having a vase of Hemlock on my dining table for a week was probably not the best idea, and further highlighted my ignorance of the plants I was collecting and a need to educate myself, not least so I don’t end up in a bizarre Miss Marple style investigation for why my Partner has ended up hospitalised or worse (excuse my black humour).
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve revisited last August’s vase painting, collages and painted cloth which I had deemed unsuccessful (wrong colours, too painterly) and i’ve added new drawings from Purple Loosestrife, Water mint and a great or hairy willow herb, noticing their particular structures, shapes and colours. I have started to design from them on paper and cloth.
Purple Loosestrife detail
A while ago I did some research into the history of still life painting and discovered that often the arrangements couldn’t have existed. The plants and fruit depicted wouldn’t have grown at the same time of year or the country in which they were painted, they were “fake” arrangements painted from prototype illustrations. I like this idea of a faux or rogue element being in each month’s work. This month I experimented with taking a Purple Loosestrife inspired leaf design and depicting it in the colours of a canal boat I had photographed (orange, cobalt blue, dark and light grey) to see if rogue colours would change the reading. My partner came home and asked why I was painting carrots! It is fascinating how humans “read” imagery – categorising and turning abstract images into representational imagery.
Purple Loosestrife Leaves
I went over to a friends house yesterday and talked her through my recent work. We normally meet monthly and its the first opportunity since March’s lockdown we have had to share work properly . I have so many ideas for this series but I can’t follow them all there are only so many hours in the day and I need to start focusing them down into two or three manageable avenues to start experimenting with. I find it so valuable to talk to someone about my work, it helps me see and verbalise what is working (or not) and why. I now have some clarity.
I popped into to see the re-opening of the Trowbridge Town Hall yesterday as I have my painting “April No-Movement” showing in the exhibition. Not only have they opened, but the place has been transformed since I last went.
There is now a plastic free shop selling dry foods and cleansing products, the Free-range café serving delicious looking cakes, pies and coffees and the artist co-operative shop, and of course upstairs is the new exhibition showcasing local artists work created in lockdown. It is a varied and high quality show with a wealth of visual stimulus and stories reflecting peoples creativity in lockdown. On throughout August.
The towpath flora is so abundant in July I could fill numerous vases with different kinds of wild flowers and grasses. Such a contrast to January, when there was little to choose. I didn’t feel like painting in Acrylic this month, I felt quiet, low on the energy to commit to such a painting and the delicate flowers leant themselves more to watercolor and pencil drawing.
This is the last month of “collecting” to make a years worth of drawings/paintings/photos and written observations of the Kennet & Avon canal. I’ve focused mainly on general impressions, characteristics of canal life and the seasonal changes, but after reading “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens recently, I’ve found my curiosity about the specific plant names, birds and insects increasing. So for the next 12 months I plan to create work from the last years paintings and drawings, removing myself from the source material. I have already started this with my collages, screen printed cloth and collagraphs. Continue my practice of walking and recording, venturing further along stretches of the K&A, and as lockdown eases, hopefully I will also be able to visit more museums and exhibitions – the Crofton Beam engines and Wilton Windmill are on the list.
Alongside all this, I am continuing to read my my way through my bookcase, this week I have been enjoying some American history in “American Quilts the Democratic Art 1780-2007” by Robert Shaw. There were many parallels in this quilting history which resonate with recent news stories, e.g the slave trade, cotton farming and resulting civil war with the recent Black Lives Matter campaign, plus modern day slavery/poor textile/farming employment practices which COVID has highlighted, resulting in the lockdown of multiple factories. Do we humans ever learn? When I picked up the book, I was particularly looking for Album Quilts, thinking about how my monthly floral collections are not dissimilar in practice if not media and these quilts often act as historic documents, through the stories and images they depict, the type of fabrics, prints & colours used or the inscriptions embroidered or inked on.