The results of a stay at home Christmas

It was a rather static Christmas break. For the second year in succession no trip over to England. But the result was more studio time.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve regularly posted my experiments with lino-cutting. It’s been generally a fringe activity to the paintings I make, but for now at least the resulting work seems to be the leading factor and taking me towards the next round of paintings. Time will tell, but the prints and collages are offering interesting possibilities to explore.

As ever the themes relate to manipulated landscapes, geometry and the geometry that is found in the landscape itself……..and there is plenty of that in the Dutch landscape.

Fifteen years on…….

Around fifteen years ago I made a series of drawings that were prompted by the increasing awareness of the storm clouds of climate change gathering on the horizon. Alongside this was the feeling that society and our leaders were showing little inclination for action. A human trait you might say, we prefer to sit on the edge of, or swim in, the comfort of our metaphorical swimming pool while the sky turns, grey, purple and black. 

We hide from the confrontation, preferring to seek the security of short-term comforts and pleasures.

My drawings weren’t complex, I’ve always thought that this was the strength of these particular pieces. The isolation of the apparently tranquil pools in the turbulent landscapes around them.  In other pieces figures stare into the pools that are in fact an Arcadian and idealized visions of the world, lifted from the history of art.

I spent Saturday on the streets of Amsterdam, along with 45000 other marchers, calling for greater action on the more and more pressing problems that climate change is bringing.  As I walked, I was thinking of these drawings in particular. I was also reflecting on whether I actually wanted to spend the day in over-crowded trains and walking with thousands on the streets with Covid cases again on the rise?  No, absolutely not. I would have preferred to have been at home, amusing myself in my studio perhaps. And there perhaps lies the problem, we all prefer to do those other things. We all prefer not to have to confront difficult or uncomfortable challenges. We can all do small things to contribute, but perhaps more than anything else we need to get our leaders to act and as a society we need to elect those who are prepared to act.

Today is the day to take my drawings out of the drawer and send them back out into the world, they are as relevant as ever.

Prussian Blue…..it can take over a bit

When I was at art school I made a number of drawings where I masked off with tape a geometric shape on a piece of paper.  I then took pure Prussian Blue pigment and rubbed it into the masked off area.  I pushed the colour in hard and the result was a razor sharp form (once the tape had been removed) with an inner area of the deepest, darkest quality that absorbed light fantastically and had an almost velvety surface.

Every since I have had a bit of a soft spot for Prussian Blue, I’ve used it from time to time, but as a colour it can have a bit of a tendency to take over. It’s intense qualities being on the one hand really attractive to use, but at the same time you find yourself trying to keep it in check.

Today was such an occasion.  When I travel around I often take one of my small drawing books with me.  These are mostly filled with rapidly made watercolour sketches of landscapes I encounter.  These in turn feed into my studio work, recently in an increasingly direct way.

I don’t pretend to be a great watercolour painter. Generally I only use the medium on a very small scale in my notebooks.  Today I found myself on the Dutch north coast on a somber day, with grey clouds racing across a heavy sky.  The paints and notebook came out of my bag.  It set to work on a series of rapid sea horizon sketches. I love making these sorts of images, fluid colours and flows, held in place by the taught horizon line across the double pages of the drawing book. 

Today though was different for one small detail.  Yesterday, my much preferred Ultramarine ran out.  In my small box of paints, just twelve colours, I was forced to dip into the rarely used Prussian Blue.  Cautiously at first I mixed.  The first painting reflected this caution.  In the second the depths of the blue started to become more apparent.  In the third it threatened to get completely out of control and had to be quickly neutralised with some Raw Umber. 

The results are a set of paintings that took perhaps twenty minutes to make, but are surprisingly different to those I have recently made. They are also paintings that I think may well end up being useful once back in the studio.  Today, necessity was the mother of invention and Prussian blue crept back into what I am doing.

Can’t see the trees for the drawings – the start of the school year

All the work was actually done at the end of the previous school year.  In fact, a significant part was put in place during the tail end of the last lockdown that we had in schools here in the Netherlands back in the spring as this previous post documents:

Preparatory tree project work

But once back in school, with whole classes back together, what started as a walk in the countryside and photographic assignment, could take on a more ambitious drawing and painting character.

The idea was relatively simple. I wanted, after months of disruption and children following my lessons on their laptops and iPads at home to do a fairly loose group project that would deliver a result that was significantly bigger than the individual parts.  It was also obliquely connected to the Surrealist’s Exquisite Corpse drawing game where elements of drawing connect vertically without one part actually being made with the intention that it should seamlessly connect.

Our ‘corpses’ weren’t to me figures, but trees. Linked together by a vertical trunk that ran through the drawing.  The pupils had spent time outside looking at trees and photographing them.  We had made small digital collages connecting various sections of diverse trees into an arrangement that hinted at where we were going.

But still, the greatest challenge was to get the pupils (14-15 years old) to loosen up a bit and dare to start on the relatively large-scale drawings I was asking them to make.  To help reach the point where we got quite high contrast drawings there was really only one material to use and that was charcoal.

After a few nervous minutes at the beginning the class soon got into it.  I kept hammering on about daring to draw and being a bit aggressive in their mark-making.  Also, I kept again and again repeating to make sure that they got different scales of mark in the drawings, from the thick and lumpy trunks to the lace-like finest twigs and everything in-between.  We used the photographs made earlier as a reference point to make sure that nobody slipped into the ways of drawing trees that they may have used when they were at primary school.

Charcoal delivers fast results, and it was very quickly clear that the drawings that were being made have qualities that were going to mean that my hopes to make a larger group display of them was likely to be a possibility. 

The speed of the drawing process meant that in subsequent lessons we moved onto similar work, but this time drawn out in paint.  The pupils were working with a freedom that I rarely see, not just from the ‘artists’ of the class, but pretty much right across the room.

The resulting work now hangs in the hall at the main entrance to the school, backlit from the light outside and against a backdrop of real trees.

At last some sun and a little bit of warmth

After what feels like months of continually having to reinvent what I am doing in the classroom, and way too much time staring into the webcam, there was today just a hint of spring in the air.  Reason enough to head of out on the bike before an afternoon of online meetings and prep work for the school days ahead.

The result two of the first en plein air drawings of 2021.  Fingers were still a bit cold, but it is a start……..

By the window, rain in February……digital experiments continued

It’s not been raining the whole time. I have even done a little February drawing outside. But there has also been time to sit by the fire experimenting a little more with the iPad compositions that manipulate and twist the earlier drawing I made whilst looking out the window on a rainy afternoon. I am seeing more and more possibilities

Patience and discovery…

When time is short, particularly studio time, it is difficult to remain patient.  The feeling that every second counts as you try to squeeze creative time in amongst other, mostly work related, activities is a challenge.  This is particularly the case when you are learning new skills, skills that you need before interesting results might roll out.  The question of whether you are investing time that in the end will prove fruitless always nagging at the back of your mind.

 

lino

This is very much the case when it comes to printmaking.  Whilst an art student I spent a little time in the print room learning the basics.  Since then though, well, nothing at all. Earlier in the year I bought myself a small lino press because I suspected that my current  work might offer some possibilities to produce some prints.  I’ve had a few sessions making some initial attempts, with limited success. Today I have been busy again, and for the first time I have looked at the results and thought that there are indeed possibilities to produce some interesting images.  I’m not there yet, but am on the way I feel.  More patience and more experimentation in the weeks ahead, maybe we’ll get there.

Are we all romantics at heart?

The exhibition ‘Romanticism in the North’ at the Groningen Museum in the north of the Netherlands presents an extensive collection of landscape paintings, mostly from the early nineteenth century, and features work by the likes of William Turner, Casper David Friedrich, John Constable and Johan Christian Dahl. It is a succulent collection of paintings that ooze technical quality and present, not unsurprisingly, a romantic view of, predominantly, the landscape. The effect of light and dark on our surroundings is a recurring theme as is the weather and in particular an inclination for the slightly threatening nature the weather can take.

But it is the locations that the paintings show and how they are framed up that catches the eye. There is beauty and drama, and it is all so carefully composed. I find myself almost wanting to be there. These are the sorts of places in the busier and more hectic moments of our day to day existence that we might wish to escape to.

Romanticism in art regularly encouraged a sort of reflective escape, an escape from the present and a look back to the past. A reaction to a period to change perhaps, the hints of a more modern world lay on the horizon.

Now, two hundred years later we can still relate strongly to these images. These are still the sorts of places we like to visit and document for ourselves, although nowadays that is more likely to be using a camera whilst on a day trip out or further afield on a holiday. We still love the landscape and still have a pretty romantic view of it. We like to frame up a photograph of a lighthouse in the breaking waves, a mountain stream or the descending sun that is turning the whole sky a burning shade of orange.  In these paintings human activity is held at arm’s length, we view any figures at a distance, there is little engagement. It all feels a little individualistic.

And yet in the romantic landscape there is an understated side dish, that takes us away from a sense of idealised tranquillity. This more unsettling edge comes in the form of weather at its more extreme. An impending storm gathers on the horizon, a lone figure battles with the wind, mist or darkness descend on the landscape, a ship is dashed on a coastline or a waterfall plunges from a dizzying height. All of these would have brought an edge of danger to the viewer more than two hundred years ago, a danger in these sorts of environment that they were maybe more familiar with than we are today. Yet of course, when viewed by way of a painted image then there is little actual danger involved. It was an experience more comparable perhaps with the way we approach, and love the safer sort of danger, as it is presented to us in an adventure or disaster movie.

 

A tale of two sketchbooks

Artists have always had notebooks, drawing books, sketch books, call them what you will, the place where ideas, impressions and notations are set down. The links below take you to records of my own favourites:

Georges Suerat         Richard Diebenkorn

Many artists value them more highly than the actual finished pieces of work, they form a chronological document of a creative life, record a working process, a document full with potential, waiting to be developed.

I can relate to much of that, I have a collection of hard back books of various sizes that go back to my teenage years. To call them a diary would be wrong and create a different sort of impression, however they are records on my creative life and when I open them up I see notations that carry me back to where I was in by creative activities, but often a whole lot more beside. A particular page may conjure up recollections of people I was with at the time, where the drawing was made and maybe particular circumstances that led me to take a particular approach.

However, during the last eight years or so there has been a development in my sketchbook use. I now have two quite distinctive sets of books. The first is a book of plans, doodles, experiments and thoughts that relate to my main studio practice. They contain notations and instructions to myself that will help carry me towards the type of work that is documented in the ‘My own paintings’ link at the top of the page.

Within these pages I am puzzling out ideas and arrangements, recording plans and trying to find my way in this section of my creative output. This is undoubtedly the most important part of my work as an artist. The pages of these books rarely have a very aesthetic appearance, that’s not the point, they are about recording, experimenting and hopefully avoiding dead ends and the pursuing bad ideas when studio time is precious.

Alongside this I have a second set of books. These are mostly a little smaller, A6 or A5 format. I call them my ‘recreational’ books. For that is what they are. The very first one in this series was made in 2009 during a month-long family trip to Orkney in northern Scotland. I decided it would be interesting to somehow record this family expedition. It felt like a big adventure, my wife and me travelling with our children aged 9 and 11 at the time, on trains, boats and buses, with two small tents in rucksacks on our backs.

The resulting A6 sketchbook became filled with forty or fifty drawings and watercolours of the expansive skies and glistening horizons that we encountered. Since this trip I have continued the practice, whenever we travel the latest book comes with me, also if it is just a day trip. I enjoy the process, and over the years I do seem to have got better at rapidly capturing, mostly the landscapes, that we pass through.

So, I have two seemingly quite distinct set of documents in these compact books on my shelves. I have often found myself wondering about other artists who might have similar split creative outlets. One that springs to mind is perhaps Ellsworth Kelly. On the surface, his elegant and deceptively simple line drawings of plants seem to have little connection with the large scale geometric abstractions. But look a little more carefully and the connections are there, lines and edges, intersections and an economy of information.

Like with Kelly’s work, I am starting to feel increasingly that these two streams of creativity do in some ways show tendencies to converge. Geometry in the landscape has always fascinated me. Where is this geometry ever stronger than in the hard edge of the horizon of the sea on a clear day….a scene that I have often enough recorded in the travel notebooks. And more recently trees as a motif are finding their way repeated into the studio work and I would certainly be inaccurate to say that my experiences of drawing trees in the landscape in my ‘recreational’ books hasn’t in some way been feeding through into what I consider to be the ‘real’ work.