Tag Archives: process

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!

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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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