Category Archives: documenting

Making connections

I have a small plinth that has been sitting in a corner of my studio for nearly a year now. It has on it a collection of objects which I have been changing around and adding to regularly over the year. It started with a collection of objects that I gathered on a trip to Iceland, and at the time I felt sure that a piece of work would come from it but although I love the collection, a separate piece has simply not happened.

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I realise now that of course the collection is the work. An array of objects that document my way of interacting with, responding to, and documenting my experience of the natural environment: walking, gathering, keeping, noticing, drawing, making. The plinth is a like sketchbook of objects: a gathering that consists of words, drawings, materials and things. I have found myself adding to and taking away from it over the year in a continuous process of relating one thing to another and I now recognise that the work is not only about linking one object to another but is also concerned with connecting new landscapes to familiar ones.

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Handmade sketchbook dipped in bitumen with ink and graphite drawings of the Norfolk coast, a small linen bag coated with bitumen and paint to keep the sketchbook in.

I have written before that I believe an encounter with a new environment cannot, in this age of browsing the internet, be completely fresh, but that it is affected by expectations and presumptions. A new place, in this case Iceland, is touched by similarities and associations to known places (the Norfolk coast) in a never-ending, and possibly unconscious, triangulation of place, experience and memory.

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Top: Wood from a Norfolk beach painted with bitumen, rope from a Norfolk beach, knotted and painted with bitumen. Bottom: String from an Icelandic beach dipped in bitumen and coiled, string from an Icelandic beach made into a knot and dipped in bitumen, a linen and bitumen bag to hold them.

I’m trying not to analyse too deeply what I choose to keep, but amongst things relating to both the Icelandic and the North Norfolk coasts I have: collected objects, both in their original form and altered; drawings, in a handmade sketchbook and on scraps of paper; made objects that have been painted with bitumen.

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View from my studio, silverpoint drawing on gesso.

The unifying factor for all of these objects has evolved and is now their blackness or whiteness: either the scoured purity of bird keel bones, soft eider down and oily sheep’s wool or the dark, stickiness of bitumen that preserves all objects from the effects of the weather and the damp, salty air.

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Keel bones of birds found on both Icelandic and North Norfolk beaches.

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From the left: Eider down, white sheep’s wool, black sheep’s wool collected in Iceland, held in waxed linen containers with found threads.

What are the influences? Perhaps Icelandic black beaches of volcanic stones or dark bituminous preservative? Maybe beaches of white Norfolk flint or chalk cliffs that give themselves up to be made into fine gesso to draw onto? I think all are there in my memory, connecting backwards and forwards and backwards again to tell a story of places, experiences and materials.

This work isn’t finished and I expect it to keep evolving and to get larger as I continue to have new ideas and to make new things.

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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.

 

Light, texture, sound, movement

9am

Blue sky with a gossamer layer of misty cloud

Warm sunshine

Light movements in the air

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I’m sitting outside the studio in the sunshine. For the first time, in what seems to be weeks, the biting Easterly wind has blown itself out and it feels warm. The water is glassy with only the faintest sign of the slowly ebbing tide. The blue sky is reflected in the shallow water and combined with the sand/mud just visible below the surface, it is a dappled green/sludge/blue colour. Above me the sky is blue, but over on the horizon the colour washes away to be almost white. The pines on the East Hills are a hazy green and looking East, almost into the sun, the landscape becomes monochrome as the mud banks and marsh are silhouetted by the brightness behind.

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There is no noise coming from the working fisherman’s huts (at low tide there is less activity), but just on the pontoon to my right a couple of men are painting a boat and I can hear their companionable chatter. Most of the sounds I can hear are of birds, but looking out there is no movement – the birds are hunkering down on the marsh. Calling but not seen.

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I sit and look and wait. Immediately opposite 2 black-headed gulls start squabbling with a third gull who flies in, taunting them with food. They rise up and try to wrest it away before flying away down the channel still squawking. A tiny money spider falls onto my sketchbook and I trace its path down the page until it falls off. Two black cormorants fly fast and low over the marsh –  determined dark arrows that know where they are going.

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I hear an oystercatcher and look up, but scanning the muddy bank opposite I fail to see it. A few minutes later it appears and starts to preen itself at the waters edge – it’s reflection clear in the water. It restarts its monotonous peeping and others, feeding on the mud, take up its call. It’s a hectic conversation that sounds like a warning – keep away from my patch!

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I can also hear the contented chattering of Brent geese feeding on the marsh. Most of the visiting winter geese have left by now but there are still a few left that seem happy to over summer here. A small group of them lifts off with a burble and a flap of wing. They fly west to join the main flock, their white bottoms shining out in the sun. More geese rise up, chattering as they go, and split into groups as they hurry off to different feeding grounds.

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I get a watercolour pad and paint and start to draw. As always I start literally but after a time I loosen up and focus on two areas: the patch of mud just opposite and a flash of light that is an area of sand away on the marsh. As time goes on the light and the colours intensify. I use more dark and start to splash paint around, not trying to  represent what I see and hear exactly, but to use my imagination to capture light, texture, sound and movement.

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Notes from my sketchbook

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Blue sky – sunshine

NE wind – strong. It makes the otherwise warm temperature feel rather cold, especially walking out to the beach into the wind.

Oystercatchers – windroar – cold ears.

Sitting on the south side of the dune overlooking the marsh surrounded by intermittent wind/grass susurration. Facing the sun and sheltered by the dune from the wind it almost feels hot.

Small twittering birds.

Haze on the far horizon.

By my side, nestling in the marram grass are minute white shells.

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Cley/Clay

Cley Beach, February 27: Unseasonably warm weather – the car thermometer tells me it is 16 degrees C.

Clear blue sky, clear blue sea.

A pale blue sea haar obscures the horizon so that sea and sky become one.

Gentle NW wind with a slight nip.

Lazy waves

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It is only about an hour after high tide, so I have to walk along the top of the shingle ridge. Just below, recent big tides have dragged the stones down the beach in huge arching wave patterns to reveal the sand beneath. The incoming waves fill the pebble curves as they break, and it is obvious how their dragging action has shifted the stones to draw sweeping arcs right along the beach. In places, higher, dark shadowed ridges run parallel to the pebbles. Here, the sea has worn away the loose top surface to reveal the clay bed underneath.

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The name, Cley-next-the-Sea is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word Claeg or Clay, and today the clay is truly next to the sea. I am surprised to see thick veins of white clay running through the usual red and looking closer I see that the red clay is also tipped with grey.

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I have no camera or sketchbook with me to record this but sitting on the shingle ridge with the sun on my back I imagine a cloth, rubbed with a slick wet mixture of soft clay: a deep dark terracotta red merging into softer yellow/white – textured, red and luscious. Walking back to the car across the dyke I decide to drive back to the beach and collect some of the clay with which to colour a piece of work. I pick up just enough red clay and white clay to colour one cloth. I don’t take any of the grey clay and now that I’m at home I’m beginning to regret it.

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This morning in the studio I draw some lightening quick sketches, ideas for a possible clay-ed cloth. I wonder what it will be…..?

Sea sponges

The beach – Cley-next-the-Sea – this morning.

Nearly high tide – strong waves.

Cloudy sky with the suspicion of sun.

Wind coming from the west and is on my back.

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Ironically I was thinking about what I might write about next here on the blog. I am working on something at the moment but I’m not quite ready to reveal all yet! (but I do put work in progress photos on Instagram if you are interested). As I walk on this shingle beach I always keep a weather eye out for an interesting pebble, so my eyes were, naturally, looking just in front of my feet. Almost immediately I spotted a softly yellowed ball of sponge, and then another and another. Looking up I saw more and more of the yellow sponges scattered right along the high water line.

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They are the empty egg cases of the Common Whelk (Buccinum Undatum) and are routinely found all round the British coast. Their common name is Seawash Balls and in the past sailors would have used them as sponges for washing.

Whelks gather together to spawn and they lay their eggs in small lens-shaped pouches which are glued together in a spherical mass. Although each pouch contains about 1000 eggs only one or two eggs hatch as the unhatched eggs are used to feed the first hatchlings. Once the eggs have hatched (or been eaten) the empty mass floats away and is washed up on the beach.

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I pick a ball up. It is heavy. Normally when I find these sponges they are white and papery dry and so light that they dance up and down the beach, blown by the wind. This Seawash Ball is waterlogged – not dripping but dense with water. It looks fresher and less desiccated than ones I have seen before and I wonder if the power of the recent big tides could have dislodged a whole mass of eggs from their laying grounds and deposited them here on the beach?

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Walking on along the high water line I find more objects washed ashore by the unusually  big tides. Wood …..

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(I would have brought this bit home but it was too big and too heavy) and several rusty things ….

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This bit did come back with me.

I wasn’t expecting to find something to write about this morning but you just never know what you may encounter. There is always something new to be noticed and experienced – that’s what I love about this place.

Dusk

A grey day of dull flat light.

Late afternoon.

A walk along the footpath by the pines at the back of the beach.

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The rustle of dry branches and the steady, hushed tramp of boots on a slightly sticky surface is accompanied by the gentle chattering of pink-footed geese as they fly overhead to their night-time roost.

It is peaceful in the almost quiet stillness.

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Behind me, on the horizon, is a thin clearing of clouds. The dropping sun appears below, a scant semi-circle of glowing light that is diffused softly through the surrounding sky.

I walk on. And look round. Brighter now. In the clear sky is a line of brilliant orange, a streak of golden colour in a grey world.

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I walk on. Tall reeds and spiky blackthorn to my right. I glance round and look through the lacework vegetation turned black by the brilliant light beyond.

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I walk on. And look round again. The heavy sun sits poised between cloud and horizon. A burning sphere waiting to drop.

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I walk on. Moments later the light dissolves. I turn yet again. The sun has gone down below the horizon leaving a final blush of colour.

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I walk on. The light flatter, and greyer than before.