Colour from the Landscape – Making paint

I’m busy at the moment jumping from one thing to another and I have several ‘makings’, new ideas and experiments going on at the same time. One of the most exciting is that I have been making watercolour paint.

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Grinding West Runton chalk with a muller

I enjoy the fluidity of watercolour and last summer I made several drawings using pigments I had collected from the landscape mixed with water. Of course when it dried most of the grainy pigment just brushed off, and ever since I have wanted to have a go at making ‘proper’ paint in order to make drawings of the landscape from the materials of the landscape.

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Grinding Hunstanton chalk – this chalk is whiter than the yellowed West Runton chalk

I finally collected together the right equipment (including the very handsome muller at the top of the page), ground up my pigments and had a paint making session. I have gathered five different materials from beaches along the North Norfolk coast. They are: chalk from Hunstanton, chalk from West Runton, yellow ochre from West Runton, Red clay from Cley, and sea-coal from Wells.

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Hunstanton chalk and gum arabic/honey binding solution waiting to be ground with the muller

I have used gum arabic and honey as the binders for the pigment. Gum arabic is sap from the acacia tree and you buy it in large, hard, brittle crystals that have to be ground down to a powder and then dissolved in water. Honey is also added to the gum Arabic to make the solution fluid and easy to work. Honey is a humectant: it helps to pull in water so that the dried pan of colour gets wet and is able to release colour more easily onto the brush.

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Red clay ground to a buttery consistency

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My little paintbox of colours from beaches on the North Norfolk coast.

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From left to right the colours are:

Hunstanton chalk white, West Runton chalk white, West Runton yellow ochre, Cley red,

Wells sea-coal black

I’m remarkably pleased with these paints. I have managed to grind the earths down to a surprisingly fine texture and I’ll show you the resulting paintings next time!

If you would like to have a go at making watercolour paint I’m doing a workshop at the Contemporary Textile Fair at the Landmark Arts centre, Teddington, TW11 9NN where we will be grinding and mixing pigments to make different types of paint. Hopefully there will be time to paint with it as well.

 

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Walking without seeing

It’s freezing in Wells at the moment, but a sunny morning has enticed me out of the house for a brisk walk. The tide is up and the easterly wind is bitter. As I head, north, up the beach bank I pull the hood of my coat up to try and get a bit more protection. It is one of those deep hoods that have a furry edge and it comes right down to almost cover my eyes. My vision is severely restricted with it up but today I can’t do without it.

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As I walk my hood forces me to look down at the ground. If I try to peep up the furry bit goes into my eyes. I try pulling it back but it slips forward immediately. I resign myself to looking at the ground.

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The ground is not very interesting – black tarmac with puddles, but with my sense of sight essentially disabled the other senses kick in. It’s very cold. I feel my right side getting colder and even with a long coat the side of my leg starts to ache. My fingers are freezing in their gloves and I slip them out of the woolly fingers so I can form a fist and get a bit more warmth from my palm. I step briskly out hoping to heat up with the exercise.

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The wind blowing over me is the loudest, most continuous sound I can hear, but underneath this other sounds appear. A car on the other side of the bank, and in the far distance the dredger is at the never-ending task of keeping the channel clear. Occasionally a seagull flies over – squawking.

A low, pitched moan comes to my attention. It is coming from the air so must be either a plane or a helicopter – the moan gets louder and I hum its pitch. Middle C I think. I don’t have perfect pitch but I can often accurately pitch a note if it is in my vocal range. This note is four notes higher than my lowest sung note – the G below middle C (I have quite a low voice and always sing alto in the choir). I pull back my hood and peer out to try and fix it with my eyes but I can’t see it. Throbbing blades get louder  – so it’s a helicopter – and as it gets nearer and passes overhead the pitch drops down a third to A ands as it moves away it drops still lower – the doppler effect in action.

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Eyes down I hurry on. I’m not really looking at what is happening around me but I pull back my hood at the end of the bank and look around. Over in the east, towards Blakeney, the low lying land is completely concealed by grey cloud and the sun has gone in. Rain, or possibly snow is coming towards me. I take a quick look to see if there are any seals about (there aren’t) and put my hood up and hurry back to try and beat the cloud burst. The wind strengthens and the snow hits. Driving onto me from the east it is now hitting my left side. My coat is soon covered – white. It’s freezing and all I can think about is the cold and getting back home quickly. I pass a few other people and we grin and comment on the cold.

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And then, as quickly as it started it’s over. I’m wet and cold and by the time I get back to the quay the clouds have passed and the sun is threatening to come out again. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen much on this walk but I have felt and heard quite a lot and that highlights the fact that deadening one sense brings the other, equally important,  senses to the fore.

Drawing music

In a couple of weeks time I’m doing a 2 day workshop at Art Van Go – Drawing to Music. I can’t ignore music and if I have it playing whilst I’m working I can’t help but respond to its rhythm and atmosphere. My body wants to move and before I know it my foot starts tapping …. I might even sing!

This morning I got out paper and paint, put on some music and let myself go, responding solely to what I could hear and what was appearing on the page in front of me. I did four large pages of drawing, each with three or four small sketches on each. I did them very quickly. I wonder if you can tell which bits of music were fast / slow / reflective / melodic/ rhythmic?

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Its a great way to free up – nothing matters, you can’t do it wrong as it’s totally subjective and it’s fun! Do join me at Art Van Go on 6 and 7 February if you’d like a go as well.

Little Boxes – Wells-next-the-Sea

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I’ve been waiting for sunny, bright day to photograph some work I made over the Christmas break.  The work is a response to the ‘Little Boxes’ that contained found objects collected at Brisons Veor in Cornwall. These ‘Little Boxes’ hold objects that I found on the beach in Wells over the past few weeks. They aim to evoke one interpretation of that place.

Wells beach is relatively clean, and surprisingly very little rubbish and plastic detritus washes up there. I think there are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, the North Norfolk coast is caught in the elbow of the Wash and is away from the main shipping lanes, consequently less rubbish is created, and secondly, the shallow water creeps in and out slowly over the sands and the waste doesn’t get dumped in quite the same way that rubbish from a big, deep, rolling sea would. You have to look very hard on Wells beach for the usual odds and ends of discarded rope and plastic so unlike the Cornish collection, the Norfolk collection consists of only natural objects. These have been unaltered to highlight their natural beauty.

Each object has been chosen because of it’s texture or shape or some other unusual aspect and the bright sunlight has brought out all their surface qualities.

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Chalk with piddock holes

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Black oyster shell

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Crab claw

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Sea-worn wood

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Crab shell with barnacles

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White oyster shell

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Flint pebble

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Flint with tube worm casts

In Cornwall I made the boxes and then filled them. In this case I collected the objects and then made the boxes to fit the objects. There was no particular reason for this – it just happened that way. The boxes are waxed cotton duck, with a rigid board base and held together with a twist of wire.

 

 

 

 

Brisons Veor – Little Boxes

Before Mary Morris and I went down to Cornwall we set ourselves a small project. It was an activity we knew would be achievable during our time there and, if you follow me on Instagram, you will have seen the posts I put up each day that documented it. The working title of the project is Little Boxes.

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14 Little Boxes on the windowsill at Brisons Veor. The front row was filled by Mary Morris and the back row by me. The headland in the distance, through the murk, is Land’s End.

A couple of weeks before we left for the residency we spent a very convivial afternoon in Mary’s studio, each making seven small, square ceramic containers  – one for every day of the week at Brisons Veor. The idea was simple: to find, each day, one small object to put into a box that either had a significance or represented an idea from the exploration and experience of that day.

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I’ve mentioned before that I often set myself rules, and the rule for this exercise was that the object I picked up had to be within arm’s reach when I stopped to write or draw in my sketchbook. However, I quickly realised that this particular rule created a problem, as many of the ‘things’ were too big to fit into the Little Box. But a problem can turn into an opportunity and in this case I was forced to alter the object in some way in order to fit it in. Deciding ‘what, how and why’, created something that, I think, is more interesting and has more significance than the original unaltered object would have had.

This is what I made:

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Day 1: A ball of string

Dead Monbretia leaves are found all along this coastline at this time of the year. The bulbs are invasive and have colonised large swathes of the cliffs. I picked a handful of dead leaves by the coastguard hut at Cape Cornwall and made 5 metres of string from it. When wound up it made a surprisingly small ball.

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Day 2: A spool of seaweed

A piece of Tangle or Oarweed picked up from the beach at Priest’s Cove. Each frond of seaweed is quite thick, but I cut it into thin strips and wound it around its stem.

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Day 3: A spool of found rope

I sat on the beach at Sennen Cove writing about seaweed, however, there was a shockingly large amount of plastic caught up amongst it. This is sea-worn plastic with two pieces of polypropylene rope that have been unravelled, knotted together and wound around it. Notice the tiny shell that has grown around the rope.

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Day 4: A spool of seaweed

Sea-thong or thong weed and a bit of worn rubber bicycle tyre collected from where I sat on the beach at Porth Leddon.

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Day 5: A twist of rope

More discarded rope bound with linen thread. I especially like the melted bit at one end. This would have been done originally to stop the rope from unravelling. From Porth Leddon.

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Day 6: A book

Another visit to Priest’s Cove. This time I was sitting just above the beach by a row of fisherman’s huts. This piece of rusty metal had broken off from the corrugated roof of one of the huts. It has been bent round to support one of the prints that I spent a couple of afternoons making. The little cut up pile is about 2x1x1 cm.

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Day 7: Cornish slate

The last Little Box contains an object that I haven’t altered. It is a piece of slate collected from a little man-made concavity in the cliff just outside the house at Brisons Veor. It could have originally been a small quarry.  Looking at the boxes on the last day I realised that I wanted the collection to have something in it that spoke of that particular place – something that was the essence of it. This piece of slate comes from the very cliff that the house we stayed in is built into.

We both enjoyed this project. It was easy and quick to do, but nevertheless the process of collecting and making has, for both of us, sparked ideas that may well turn into something more significant. Next time I’ll tell you about one of my ideas …..

Brisons Veor – Seaweed

From my sketchbook:

‘Priest’s Cove – they say every seventh wave is a big one. I count – it’s not true in this case. There are big and small waves, but they are random. Two big ones together and then a series of small ones. Every now and then a piece of seaweed gets washed ashore and dumped on the concrete slipway – kelp I think.’

‘Sennen Cove – seaweed fronds have caught on the iron girders supporting the ramp to the lifeboat station and hang flapping in the wind. They are all different colours: red, green, brown, yellow, grey.  Dried and waved. Gentle quivers of frond on frond and louder smacks as the wind blows it up against the metal.’

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Using material that is collected directly from the landscape is a very important part of my practice. It creates a direct connection between the environment itself, my experience of the environment and the work. It is the medium through which I try to evoke the sensuous qualities of a landscape in a multi-sensorial way.

I saw one seaweed in particular all along this part of the coast in Cornwall. It is called Oarweed or Tangle – Laminaria digitata, it is a type of kelpIt can be found attached to rocks at the lowest tidal level and is often washed ashore. It has smooth, thick, cylindrical, flexible stalks which expand into leathery, oar-shaped blades that divide again into many finger-like fronds.

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From my sketchbook:

‘Looking out just beyond the breaking waves at Priest’s Cove I can see the seaweed’s dark fronds swaying just below the surface of the water. A graceful, undulating dance that moves in time with the continuous play of the waves.’

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Seaweed is a material that embodies the coast. I gather a large armful of wet, slippery stalks and fronds to take back to the studio. It smells faintly of the sea – not unpleasant, and it weeps a wet, sticky residue – rather unpleasant.

I know that when seaweed dries it becomes hard and leathery. I also know that it can be re-hydrated once dry. This characteristic has been put to good use as a traditional way of forecasting the weather. If the seaweed is wet and slippery rain is due and if it is dry and brittle, the weather will be fine. It has the possibility of being a versatile material that changes with the humidity of the atmosphere. It could have great potential for me.

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I cut some fronds and sew them tightly together. It’s a messy business as this seaweed is glutinous and sticky. I leave it hanging over the banister and it takes about 2 days to completely dry. It shrinks. It curls. It’s wonderful. I try again with another piece. This time I cut the fronds to the same size and press them under a heavy book when I’ve finished stitching. This piece takes about 3 days to dry. It is also wonderful.

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These small samples are brittle and have cracked on the journey back from Cornwall, but I know that if I wet them they will become supple again. I have a couple of bags of kelp drying in the garage. I will definitely be making something out of this unconventional material.

Brisons Veor – Drawing

Notes from my sketchbook:

Black rocks

Lichen splattered at the top

Deep, dark cracks

Waves on the rocks – coming in fast

Rocks jagged at the top

Others smooth

Seams of quartz run diagonally down

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‘After all the rain yesterday it is dry. I get up early and walk round the hump of the peninsula to Porth Ledden, a little cove to the north of Cape Cornwall. The tide is out but coming in fast. A strong, cold northerly wind – biting. Down a slippery, pebble-sloped jetty onto the beach. Rounded boulders and huge, towering black rock stacks. Sharp and smooth together. Dark crevices and lit, rounded surfaces. A beach of contrasts.’

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I drew directly into my sketchbook on the beach, but one of the aims of the week was to try and produce drawings, in the studio, away from the comfort of the sketchbook. This is something I find very hard to do and I find myself reluctant to try because I find it so difficult. I suppose there is no pressure to ‘get it right’ in a sketchbook, it is purely a personal record – marks to document something I have noticed. A stand alone drawing, on the other hand, has to work in its own right; it has to convey a sense of what the artist saw, heard and felt at the time. It is there to be looked at!

My other difficulty here is, are they drawings or paintings? I never know what to call these works. When does a drawing shift to being a painting? Is it just the media used or is it the intention? I think it is the intention. A drawing is an enquiry. It is a pulling out of information from the mind and the imagination and it is a method of thinking  – a literal drawing out. A painting, for me is what is done when the thinking has happened. It is about paint on paper and mark making and an instinctive response to what is happening  in front of you.

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These are works on paper  – drawings – that have jumped out of the sketchbook onto a single sheet of watercolour paper. My aim now is to make them jump again, this time onto a canvas ….. to become paintings. I think some of them may well go quite a lot bigger!

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The drawings are on A3 watercolour paper and I re-sized the paper of some of the drawings before starting to alter the proportions. I used watercolour, acrylic, wax resist, and ink.