Yesterday I was at the studio boiling up some oak bark that I want to bark tan some cloth with later in the week and didn’t have much else to do. So I made a little sketchbook, positioned myself in the window and waited to see what occurred.

Frankly, not much happened! It was a particularly still, grey winter day. The tide was out, there was nothing on the water and even the birds seemed to have hunkered down and didn’t seem to want to move. But with a little patience I began to notice things. A play of light, the slight movement of the water, and the birds were actually doing more than I first thought.

Mud banks are rimmed with green algae that seems startlingly bright in the flat light

I was drawing with a biro and a very soft pencil but was jumping up occasionally to go and put a wash of colour across the page. I was aiming for the washed out, watery colours that go with the soft wintery light at this time of year.

Water and sky are the same colour with an intricate pattern of land in-between

This is what I wrote at the front of the sketch book.


Flat winter light.

Today the marsh looks dark. Shapes silhouetted against a pale sky. Brown, dark green, sandy ochre.

The tide is out and the water ripples gently. Flickers that reflect shadows rather than light.

Birds are feeding on the mud banks. At the moment I can see a small flock of Brent geese (white bottoms and a white necklace round their necks). An oyster catcher, a curlew that has just swept with its hollow call , a couple of low flying seagulls and a wagtail who bobs on the grass in front of me.

The East Hills are misted – there is no detail to their outline.

Everything is still with little wind.

I can hear geese burbling in the distance. Brent geese have a contented chatter. Two pink footed geese fly over. Their call is more of a spasmodic burble. Seagulls cry. They are a constant presence. There is the rumble of a plane above the low clouds.

Two redshanks skim the water. Their outstretched wings form a black and white arrow.

Small activities and movements in a seemingly motionless world.

It’s good to take time to sit and watch what’s going on. Even on an unpromising day there is something to see and hear. However, after an hour my nose was dripping and my fingers were getting too cold to hold the pen. I’d filled the sketchbook so I packed up and went home for a cup of tea.

Ebb tide

Some brief musings on the ebb tide…

The beach is recreated each time the water flows out and what wasn’t there before becomes.

Draining water sculpts the sand into beach rivers.

Wave movements are recreated on the wet surface of the beach. A brief memory of where they were.

Sand that has been pushed in by the force of the water is pulled back again to reveal different contours.

The incoming tide brings things in, and the ebbing tide reveals them.

Buried things are uncovered and can be found.

Wrack line; tide line; strand line – remains are left high and dry.

This has happened twice a day since the earth began and will continue to happen for ever more. It’s good to have this certainty.

Bark tanning (part 2)

Cutch dyed cloth with gesso underpainting

Last time I told how a visit to the Grimsay Boat Haven in the Outer Hebrides inspired me to start looking at the traditional way of preserving and protecting cloth sails using bark tanning and cutch. Today I’m going to tell you about what I have done so far.

Cutch dyed cloth with watercolour overpainting

After my Uist holiday the first thing I did when I got home was to get hold of some cutch and start experimenting. This was easier said than done. Chandleries don’t stock it anymore as no one makes their own sails out of canvas now; modern fabrics are more durable and waterproof. Even classic boat suppliers don’t supply it. Luckily George Weil came up trumps and can supply cutch in powder form – I got started. 

I’m not a dyer. Any dyeing experience I have had was from years ago and largely forgotten. Many of you will have had much more practise at it than me, however, it’s amazing how much you can learn by actually doing it and then getting some books and learning some more. Hands on experience counts.

Cutch dyed cloth with under and over painting

Starting by simply throwing cloth into a pot of dye stuff in the same spirit as the Hebridean boatbuilders, I soon found myself trying other things out: mordanting and post mordanting with alum, copper sulphate and iron water, under painting, over painting and iron wire eyelets (of course).

Cutch gives the most wonderful intense red/brown colour. Mordanting with alum brightens it even more. Splashes of acrylic paint painted onto the cloth before throwing in the dye pot references the incidental, coloured marks seen on the Grimsay sails. Over painting the cutch dyed cloths with watercolour adds yet more subtle colour reminiscent of incidental day to day wear.

Cutch dyed cloth with acrylic underpainting

Although these cutch samples have decorative marks and stitches, I am still referencing the methods and techniques seen on the Grimsay sails and other traditional boat sails: eyelets, seams, and various methods of fixing and fastening. I want these small samples to look as if they were made from fragments of old sail.

I am very happy with these samples, but being directly inspired by the Grimsay sails they are somewhat removed from my normal source of inspiration here on the North Norfolk coast. I have searched for references to bark tanning in the boat yards here in Wells, and although I have information about boat building, up to now I have found no concrete evidence about what treatments sails were given. It is more than likely that cutch would have been available in the chandleries around here, but this is just supposition at the moment. I have no actual proof – more research is needed. 

Cutch dyed cloth with PVA resist and watercolour over painting

However, what I have found out about are the materials other communities have traditionally used to treat their sails. All around the world fishermen and sailors of the past have used tannin rich plants and barks to preserve and protect their sails and ropes. In the South Pacific mangrove tree bark was used, and in Newfoundland sailors and fishermen harvested and boiled their ropes and sails in birch bark. Any tannin rich tree bark does the same job as cutch.

Oak bark tanned cloth with acrylic under painting

Unlike the Outer Hebrides where there are barely any trees from which to gather bark (hence the need, I suppose, for buying in cutch), here on the Norfolk coast we have an abundance of trees. I quickly found that there are many varieties of trees in my local surroundings to source bark for tanning cloth: oak, birch and pine, chestnut and alder.  It is important to me that my bark tanned cloth comes from local trees as it gives the work a direct connection to the place. 

After a walk in the pinewoods along the back of the beach to see what was available I decided to start with oak. It is rich in tannin (my son tells me that when working with oak his hands are stained black with the tannin from the wood) and there are many old oaks amongst the pine trees in the woods. A lot of the oaks have dead branches scattered around the base of their trunks and it is an easy matter to peel some of the bark from these fallen branches – no living trees were harmed in this bark tanning experiment.

Oak bark tanned cloth dipped in iron water

The inner skin of the oak bark is a rich brown colour and a gives a hint of the possible colour of the cloth. It has an earthy, mushroomy smell.  I started boiling it in the kitchen on top of the oven to make a sort of oak bark tea. Almost immediately my husband banned me from the house and sent me down to the studio with a little camping stove – I don’t mind the smell, but he thinks it’s rank!

The colour from oak bark is much softer than that of cutch. It’s a soft yellow/brown. Repeated dipping and boiling in the dye pot produces a deeper, richer colour. These are my preferred samples but the reason is mainly because of the connection it gives me to this place.

Oak bark dyed cloth

At the moment I am sampling. Trying things out and seeing what might have relevance. Ideas are brewing as I’m making things and I have a little buzz of excitement as something new begins to take me down a different route. 

Bark tanning (part 1)

This afternoon I am at the studio writing this whilst a pot of oak bark simmers on my little camping stove. I’ve started some new explorations and I thought I’d tell you about where I’ve got to so far. In this post I’ll tell you about why and in the next one I’ll tell you what.

In the summer we spent 2 weeks on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a wonderful place for walking and wildlife spotting and we had a fabulous time there. North Uist is a low-lying island with low hills, peat bogs, lochs and breath-taking beaches.

It is one of a string of islands: Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, that are now connected by causeways but that were connected only by fords in the past. The local industries are crofting, fishing and tourism. There is as much water there as land.

Whilst there, we went to Grimsay, another small island just off Benbecula, and the Grimsay Boat Haven. The small museum shelters five boats built on the island by the Stewart family. As well as the boats themselves there are oral histories, photographs and other information explaining the boatbuilding and fishing industries.

Before the causeways were built boats were an essential on the Uists for getting around as well as for fishing, and most fishing and crofting families would have owned a Grimsay boat. The main fishing grounds are around the Monach Isles to the west side of the islands, but there are no harbours to the west, only windswept sandy beaches that take the full force of the Atlantic winds. All the harbours are on the sheltered, but rocky east side. The boats needed to be quick and small to get through the fords between the Uists and Benbecula and seaworthy enough to manage the open seas on the other side.

I loved the boats, and with a son who is a trained boatbuilder I am doubly interested. But it was the old sails that caught my interest as they were dyed with cutch (Cartadh in Gaelic) to preserve them from the effects of the weather. Cutch comes from the heartwood of the Acacia Catechu tree which grows in East Asia, India and other parts of Asia. It would have been supplied as a dye extract in boat chandleries in either powder or liquid form. It is a natural preservative that contains tannin. By tanning sails with cutch it prevents them from taking on too much water, protected them from mildew and rotting and gives them the red/brown colour seen on many traditional sailing boats.

The information board in the Boat Haven gave me some information.

‘Cartadh/Cutch was used to preserve sails and ropes. A fire was lit below a big tub of water. The cutch extract was placed in the hot water, stirred up and then a bundle of rope was added and left for 20 minutes. The rope was then hung on a piece of corrugated tin and left to drip back into the tub for another 20 minutes. It was the same procedure with the sails.’

Calum ‘Cubby’ Mackinnon, Cnoc Cuidhein formerly Jura

The sails on display were mostly made and repaired at home by the fishermen or by their wives. Stitching canvas is hard work and they would have used a sail makers needle and sailmakers palm, a leather pad that was worn in the palm of the hand to help push the needle through the canvas.

Of course, I spent quite a time inspecting the stitching and the eyelets! But the thing that caught my eye was the way in which the colour had faded from the canvas, or conversely, the canvas had taken up colour from elsewhere. The sails appeared to be unevenly tanned, although that could have been the effect of the water and the weather.

You may remember that I have made many pieces of work derived from the technique of ‘dressing’ sails with linseed oil and wax to waterproof and preserve them, and I have had the idea of bark tanning in my mind for quite a while now. The encounter at the Grimsay Boat Haven re-sparked my interest and has set me off down a new line of enquiry.

Next time I’ll show you some of my cutch experiments and further bark tanning exploits.

Flood warning

Yesterday evening I received a flood alert from the Environment Agency warning that flooding was possible in Wells due to a big tide and other environmental conditions. So, this morning I’ve come down to the studio early to check that everything is ok. I didn’t bother to put up the flood gates last night, even though the flood alert was upgraded to a flood warning, because the Environment Agency advice was for a peak of 3.91m. I don’t normally worry unless is reaches over 4.1m.

Today there’s a northerly wind and in certain circumstances a strong north wind can push the tide further in than normal (hence the flood warning), so it is worth just coming out to make sure everything is alright. At the moment, the north wind is calm, about 10 knots, there are a few clouds in the sky and sun, and it’s quite chilly. Autumn has definitely arrived.

It’s about 40 minutes before high tide and the water is rushing in (the sea moves in or out the most an hour before and after high or low tide). The surface of the water is disturbed rather than wavy. Small eddies ripple at the back end of boats and buoys as the flow of water is broken. Just in front of me small whirlpools erupt as the water passes a jutting brick wall and a piece of bladderwrack gets caught in a current and whirls round. Foam on the surface of the water marks the pace of the incoming tide, and it’s moving fast.

20 minutes before high tide and the water hasn’t reached the top of the quay wall just outside the studio. It may just top it – but I doubt it. Luckily the studio is raised about 1m above the lip of the wall so it would have to be a huge surge to inundate it. The last time that happened was in 2013 and there is a mark on the wall to show where the tide reached on that day. It is about 1.75m above where the water is today. 

Further along the quay the flood gate has been rolled across the road as a precaution, and water has topped the quay covering the carpark with a slow seep rather than a rush.

Here, there is a continuous splashing, slapping, and gurgling as water hits the wall. It is a benign sound and if I close my eyes, it is soothing rather than threatening. 

There is no worry here today and as it is now past the peak of the tide, I make my way home for a cup of tea. 


Recently I put up an Instagram post of this piece of work, and somebody asked, ‘What do you do with these Saltbags?’. I thought it was a very good question and I answered, ‘I suppose that like any artwork they will sit there posing questions and making one think.’

 I thought I would try to explain my thoughts behind these two little works more fully.

Two Saltbags,  Linen, wire, chalk, yellow ochre, salt, 14 x 9 x 4.5 cm 

First, I am not trying to realistically represent the landscape that inspires me, but instead try to find ways of evoking it using other forms, shapes or materials. The form I have used here comes from the traditional shape of the sandbag weight at the end of a heaving line – a lightweight rope that can be easily thrown between boats, or from boat to quay, onto which a heavier rope can be attached. It is small enough to fit into the hand to throw but heavy enough to have some heft behind it so that the lightweight rope attached to it will travel the distance required.

Usually, the weight would have been filled with sand, but I have changed the filling and used chalk and salt in one bag, and an ochreous clay and salt in the other. I collected the chalk and clay locally and the materials form a direct connection to the environment. The salt comes from the supermarket, but of course there is a direct corelation between salt, the sea, and this landscape.

Salt is a material I have used in my work quite a bit and is a material I use to explore changes in the environment and the passing of time. I use salt mainly by soaking stitched works in a salt solution that I have made up myself (actual seawater is only 3½% salt and not salty enough for the processes I use), and as the water evaporates both the stitched work and the salt changes character.

This process is cyclical, and it takes time. When salt is mixed with water it dissolves. As the water slowly evaporates in the air the salt’s crystalline structure is revealed. If the salt crystals get wet or are left in a damp environment, they return to their original form. It can take up to 2 months for the saltwater to evaporate depending on the outside temperature and the amount of water in the salt bath.

The other quality I exploit is salt’s corrosiveness. If you’ve ever been to the coast, you will know how the salt air and water gets into everything and then the rot sets in. I often sew iron rings into my work and within days they start to rust as the saltwater attacks the metal; the first signs of change in the piece. 

As the work dries out completely the salt crystals become stable and remarkably solid and strong, but with the faintest hint of moisture the salt crystals start to degenerate, and with this breaking down the metal and cloth also start to disintegrate. In a damp environment the work starts to fragment and break up and after a period of time, falls apart.

It is the common state for all things to tend from order to disorder – to break down and collapse. Another word, used in physics, for disorder or decay is entropy. Entropy explains why, left to the mercy of the elements, ice melts, glass shatters and salt dissolves.

Professor Brian Cox explains in the television programme Wonders of the Universe that in the wind a sandcastle will always be blown from order into disorder (low entropy to high entropy) and never the other way round (a pile of sand is never blown into the order of a sandcastle). He also explains that this is why time passes from the past to the future. Watch it here – it is a complicated subject and he explains it much better than me!

As Brian Cox says,

‘as each moment passes, things change, and once these changes have happened, they are never undone. Permanent change is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. We all age as the years pass by — people are born, they live, and they die. I suppose it’s part of the joy and tragedy of our lives, but out there in the universe, those grand and epic cycles appear eternal and unchanging. But that’s an illusion. See, in the life of the universe, just as in our lives, everything is irreversibly changing.’

So, when you look at these two little salt filled bags, I am presenting you with ideas of life, change, decay, and the time that has passed for all of that to happen.


After a frantic few months I now have a few weeks of holiday and relaxation!

This morning we went out on the boat and I was dropped off at the beach with my sketchbook for an hour or so of sitting, looking and drawing.

One of my activities when I can’t settle to anything is to make small, 16 page sketchbooks, so I grabbed one of these along with a fineliner and a soft pencil before going out.

I never know what will catch my eye, but this is what interested me today.

In page order:

Windy, N.W. – flag on the lifeboat station at full stretch

Sunny – 1/8 cloud cover

A chill in the air

Enough wind for it to be challenging in Pickle (the boat) – difficult launch off the East Hills against the wind.

Sea – petrol blue

Sky – cerulean

1 hour before high tide and the water is coming in slowly.

Marsh flies

Lazy ripples onshore

Points of Sail

Tacking out toward the bar

Reefed, but still moving fast

The wind frets the surface of the water

Larger ripples from waves

Smaller textures from wind

Clouds are building on the horizon


Hornwrack and hand

Shadow drawings

Onshore wind

Sail down

Motor on

After high tide the wind has dropped and now the sun feels hot.

Another thought

Here’s just another observation that I’ve had since my previous post ‘Don’t Think, just do’.

I was looking back to when I was a child. One Christmas I got my perfect presents. A whole tin of Caran d’Ache crayons and a sopranino recorder. Those presents would probably still hold true today as my likes and interests haven’t changed at all.

I would take my recorder up to my bedroom and play it for hours, always playing what was written as music notation. Playing music has for me has (nearly) always been a recreation of someone else’s creation. As a classically trained instrumentalist it is the interpretation of music that is key, not the composition of new music.

I would also take the crayons up to my bedroom and sit at my desk and draw, again for hours, but there was a difference, as in drawing I was creating something new. I would make an energetic scribble and turn it into something …. or perhaps even just colour it in. Or draw fantastic patterns of stars and moons, flowers and plants and people. 

In my work now, I am trying to tap into that creativity and imagination that I seemed to have in abundance as a child. The freedom to make something up, to invent and to be spontaneous. The thinking all goes on at some point in time, but it is that impulsive, innovative moment that is key.

These are details of drawings done in the moment. Letting the paint talk and my imagination run riot.

Don’t think, just do

I was looking through my old sketchbooks last week (something I don’t do enough of) as I was looking for one that I did sometime ago. 

This sketchbook is the result of a task I periodically set myself which is to fill a whole A4 book in an hour. In this one I was thinking about the changing lines of the landscape as the weather, tides and other phenomena act upon it.

At the front of the book I have written a quote by the artist Terry Frost that I found in an old Arnolfini Gallery Catalogue from 1965. He wrote:

‘When I am painting I am not concerned with theory however much thinking I have done before I started to paint. When I am really painting – no! I cannot describe that, for all I know is that as soon as I realise I have been painting I have stopped. I am only concerned with what I am to do next. Thought for me is before and after but not at the time ….

….When I make a painting it is with paint on flat surface and belongs to itself. It has nothing to do with imitation or representation, though my ideas may be, and usually are, started by an experience of nature or rather the experience of human wandering, observing, questioning, worrying, trying to see the truth, trying to penetrate the mystery of life’.

I had forgotten all about this quote and was struck by how much my own practice now follows these exact lines.

My work now is nearly all started by the memory of an experience or a happening. The thinking has already happened by the time I start working and I am guided by the marks I make on paper or cloth, one mark leading to another; one colour leading to another and so on. 

The drawings here are taken from an hour of drawing, about 48 drawings, one page following on from the other. This is an excellent exercise as with a time limit like this I can’t prevaricate, my mantra has to be don’t think, just do.

Night Walking

Moon Light, Linen, wire, 42 x 65 cm

Much of my work originates from thoughts and memories that are a consequence of experiencing place and paying attentionThese three works – Marsh Light, Moon Light and Bend in the Creek, were inspired by a walk along the quay and out towards the marshes in the dark. I love walking at night, and I’m always surprised how well my eyes adapt to the shadowy light. 

Marsh Light, Linen, wire, 45 x 63 cm

This walk took place earlier in the year just before the spring equinox. There was a huge, bright, full moon that lit everything up as if it were daytime. The moon light was so strong that it obliterated all but the brightest stars in the sky and left shadows on the ground in front of me.

These are the words I wrote when I got home.

An evening walk, early spring.

Down at the water

quayside shops give out a bright fluorescent glow.

Along the beach bank I expect a darkening,

But instead, the full moon emits a light

so bright it could be day and not night.

Looking up to the cloudless sky the stars have faded in the moonlit brilliance.

Looking down there are shadows on the ground.

Bend in the Creek, Linen, wire, 42 x 66 cm

The three works are the outcome of an outer sensing and an inner seeing. They will be on show at NR23, an exhibition that celebrates the creativity of artists living in the NR23 postcode in and around my home town of Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

NR23 is on at The Handa Gallery, The Maltings, Staithe Street, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk NR23 1AU.  Friday  24 June – Sunday 10 July 2022. 10am – 4pm daily. Free entry.