Meaning in material

I have been away on holiday to a place that I have never visited before – Spain. We stayed at a Cortijo in the hills in Andalucia about 80 kms inland from the coast. It was hot – (hotter than I had expected) although a cooling breeze generally appeared in the late afternoon. The sky was a uniform blue the whole time we were there and it was very, very dry.

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We spent our time visiting towns to see the sights: Granada and Cordoba, and spending time in the hills near to where we were staying. I took my sketchbook, but for the first few days I couldn’t write or draw in it – I needed time to absorb and think about this new landscape.

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However, an encounter with a new environment is not a blind happenstance and the experience is affected by expectations and presumptions. Of course I had seen photos of the landscape on the internet and I had a good idea about what to expect.  As E.H. Gombrich writes in Art and Illusion, ‘The innocent eye is a myth…… All perceiving relates to expectations and therefore to comparisons’. In this instance, the comparisons I made were to two long, hot summers spent in the countryside in Provence when I was in my late teens. The heat and the dryness were remembered from that time and also the smell. The landscape smelt dry – of dust, cooking and garlic, mimosa, olive trees and heat – can heat smell?

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The landscape, although new to me, had a familiarity, but nevertheless it took a bit of time to settle in and to begin to really pay attention. I drew where my eyes were drawn. I was always looking up: to the tops of the hills where jagged rocky tops were pale grey in the sun but much darker in the shadows, and to ranks of olive groves that dotted the chalky slopes; serried ranks of rounded globes that merged into a solid greeness with the contours of the hills: chalk, terracotta and green – dry, dusty, colour bleached out by the sun.

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I took my normal, minimalist drawing kit with me: a sketchbook, a black pen, a pencil, a graphite stick, a tiny box of watercolours and a couple of those brushes with a water reservoir. But these materials were wrong. They were too fluid and the colours swirled and ran into each other. This is a dry land. I needed dry materials: pastel or chalk. I wish I had picked up some of the terracotta earth to smear across the page with my finger like the cave dwellers in the Cueva de la Pileta who had drawn on the cave walls in terracotta, ochre and charcoal thousands of years ago. 

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Watercolour is for Norfolk –  a place of water and of flux and change, not for the arid dustiness of Andalucia. The materiality of even a drawing is important as it can evoke ideas of time, place and geography beyond those of the purely visual elements of shape, form and colour. Materials have meaning and consequently I’m not really happy with these watercolour drawings. Wrong materials for the place. It is certainly something to think about the next time I go away and I will have to consider my drawing kit more carefully.

 

5 thoughts on “Meaning in material

  1. viv32

    Thanks for sharing that Debbie – I’m going to Havana in couple of weeks and shall deffo bear that in mind as I would have taken similar kit. x

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    Reply
  2. olganorris

    The colour of the paper – or the ground on which the sketch is made can also contribute. The colour of the air makes so much difference to what we see, how we see it, and how we sense it otherwise too. I worked for some time in Jakarta, and found the air there was so green or grey green – the humidity made me feel as if I was breathing water. Anything on white paper just looked wrong – and too dry!

    Reply
    1. debbielyddon Post author

      Hi Olga, of course you are right and in this instance white was the right colour background. The air was clear and sparkling – no pollution up in the mountains I presume. In Norfolk I often add a light grey wash as the air is grey/blue. I just wish I had had a textured watercolour paper with me in Spain, some dry brushing on that would have made all the difference!

      Reply
  3. bluebrightly

    What you say totally makes sense – that one needs to wait for a landscape to sink in, and that certain materials are much better suited to particular places. Great post!

    Reply

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