Category Archives: experimenting

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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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.

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.

More playing

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When I make things I often do so obsessively, repeating things over and again until I have what I want. I’m sure this is a throwback from doing hours of flute practice in order to be able to play notes and to get techniques perfect. I’ve been making more samples that have been coloured solely with materials that I have collected from the ground: sea-coal, clay and chalk. I’ve tried grinding the ‘pigments’ to different sizes, experimented with heavy, light, loosely woven and tight textured cloth and fiddled around with different percentages of linseed oil and beeswax to make the binder. I now have enough samples that I’m happy with to enable me to start on the fun bit ….. the construction and putting together to see what is possible.

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I started simply by folding one sample over another or placing eyelets on top of one another or wrapping a piece round an edge. Just to see what would happen. I tried many combinations.

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I love the blend of coarsely ground chalk and the creamy waxiness of the binder …….

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and here there was an especially thick layer of wax that cracked on a fold. It’s very fragile, but is food for thought.

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This was the last sample I made, and to use everything up I threw all the last bits of grindings into the wax pot. The result is surprisingly good.

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These eyelets have been rusted with sea water before having a coating of the wax mixture and a trace of sea-coal.

I’m finally happy with the arrangement of each piece so now I need to sew them together. But I’m wondering! These samples are small  ….. I wonder how they would look big?

Experimenting

As an artist who uses cloth I am very interested in how it is used in the landscape that I am trying to evoke. I take great inspiration from sails and tarpaulins that can be found everywhere here on the coast and recently I have been researching traditional ways of preserving and waterproofing them.

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Nowadays, sails are made from highly technical synthetic materials that won’t shrink, rot or stretch out of shape when battered by the wind and weather. But before these fabrics were in common use, sails were made of canvas and linen – fabrics that will degenerate quickly if they are not treated with a preservative. I often use canvas and linen in my work and so it is appropriate to look at traditional ways of preserving these types of cloth.

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There are several traditional ways that sailors and fishermen would preserve sails, ropes and nets. Tanning or barking is a process of boiling sailcloth in a solution of cutch, an extract of the plant Acacia Catechu that is very high in natural tannins. This process turns the sail a reddish/brown and gives protection from the elements, but the sail remains absorbent and becomes heavy in wet weather.

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I find the process of ‘dressing’ sails with linseed oil, wax and ochre more intriguing. The mixture is spread on both sides of the sail and penetrates the cloth to create a barrier that protects it from the wet. Despite the fear that the linseed oil coated cloth would spontaneously combust (!), I have made some samples and hung them up in a well ventilated room to dry.

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Since using chalk that I had collected, hand ground and turned into distemper in a recent piece of work, I have been keen to use other natural materials collected from the environment. I thought that I could easily replace ochre in the dressing mixture with another material and for the past couple of weeks I have been looking for a substitute on my walks along the beach. Red clay from Cley beach and sea-coal from the East Hills in Wells have proved to be worthy alternatives.

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When I first made these samples I was disappointed. I thought they looked like dirty scraps of cloth with no aesthetic appeal. However, I looked at them again a couple of days ago and the drying process has greatly improved their appearance and touch and I think there could be some potential.

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Now the linseed oil is less sticky and smelly, the yellow/brown oil, wax, and coarsely ground red clay turns the cloth a wonderful, translucent terracotta and similarly coarse-ground sea-coal gives texture. I’ve also mixed some of my previously ground chalk with oil and wax and the mixture gives a dense, creamy coating that gently cracks when manipulated.

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These are my first experimental samples. They need a lot of refining and I should spend longer processing the clay and sea-coal and trying out different proportions of oil and wax.  But I have ideas …… I’ll keep you updated!

Chalk

Chalk is the bedrock of the physical landscape of East Anglia and it forms a ‘chalk belt’ that runs from the Chilterns to the North Norfolk coast. It has shaped the economic and cultural development of this region and forms some of its most beautiful and spectacular landscapes.

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Hunstanton chalk samples

Although chalk is not as apparent in Norfolk as in other areas of Britain such as the South Downs, at Seven Sisters and the White Cliffs of Dover, it embraces the North Norfolk coast with chalk cliffs to the West at Hunstanton and to the East at West Runton. There are chalk pits and quarries all over the county, including just up the road from here in Wells, and sub-terranean Norwich is riddled with tunnels where chalk was formerly mined.

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West Runton chalk samples

I am using chalk in my next piece of work and decided to collect the material from two different sites that mark the outer boundaries of my ‘place’: Hunstanton, where there are red and white cliffs, and the beach at West Runton where a vein of chalk emerges on the beach and at the bottom of the cliffs. The chalk I find at both sites has broken off from the cliffs, probably from wave action and the force of the tides, and lies scattered across the beach. Huge great lumps, too big to pick up and take home, lie at the top of both beaches under the cliffs, but smaller pieces have been distributed across the sand by the sea. I collect lumps about the size of my fist and smaller pebbles from both places. My intention is to grind them down to a powder and combine the resulting white pigment with a binder to stiffen and colour cloth.

Immediately I can see that the chalk collected from each site is different. The pieces of Hunstanton chalk are rounded and they don’t mark my skin or clothes as I pick them up. They are hard, dry and cold.

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The West Runton chalk, on the other hand, is soft and buttery and the greasy surface of each piece has attracted a light covering of sand. It is damp and soft and marks everything it touches. By the time I get home my hands, clothes, bags and the car are covered with a film of white dust.

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Before I even try to break it up I know that the properties of each sample is very different; the West Runton chalk will definitely be easier to process than the fragments from Hunstanton. I don goggles and a dust mask and whack a small piece of Hunstanton chalk with a hammer. Nothing happens. I try again, and again it doesn’t break. I get a bigger, heavier hammer. This time it cracks in two, but I can sense that using this material will be a battle. I try the West Runton chalk. One firm tap with a hammer and it breaks into four or five small pieces. It is so soft and breaks very easily. I continue tapping and soon I have a coarse powder.

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I take a hard Hunstanton lump and start to grind the softer particles with it. It works well as a pestle and the powder gradually becomes finer. I take more of the softer lumps and continue crushing and grinding until I have quite a large heap. Fine powder rises up with the grinding action and I can feel it drying the skin on my hands and face – I’m glad of the dust mask.

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The ground West Runton chalk is the colour of double cream. I suppose it has been yellowed by sand and I wonder whether covering it with water would purify it. I place it in a large bowl of water and wait. Bubbles rise to the surface as air is expelled from between each grain and after a few minutes the chalk has fallen to the bottom and the water has cleared.

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I put my hands into the chalky soup and can feel hard lumps. I can squish them between my fingers and they disintegrate. I keep squishing, but there are too many to get a fine powder this way.

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I pour off the clear water and realise that, of course, all the large sand and chalk particles  are still combined. I place the creamy, chalk mixture on a tray and leave to dry. Soon I’ll be able to mix it with a binder and make a form of coarse gesso to form the foundation of my next piece of work.

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Sand and salt bags

I’ve had some little pieces drying in the beach hut and they are now done. These are experiments. I don’t know yet if they will be developed into something else but they have several properties that are quite promising.

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The pieces have been filled with a mixture of sand and salt and soaked in the sea until wet through and then left. They have taken between three and four weeks to dry out fully.

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The smaller pieces were inspired by heaving lines – a lightweight line with a weight at the end, made to be thrown between a ship and the shore, or from one ship to another, and used to pull a heavier line across. The weight in them is really pleasing. I often feel that 3-D textile work lacks heft so I am really pleased with their heaviness.

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The longer piece was made simply to see how much sand/salt could be stuffed into a small work before it became too heavy…… it’s not too heavy to hang! Again I really like the feeling of gravity – you can see the weight of the sand/salt pulling the cloth down towards the ground.

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Food for thought …..