Beginning the Howden residency

December 02, 2016 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

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I see my residency at Howden Park Centre as a fantastic opportunity for me to take stock of where my work is now and explore some new possibilities for the future.  Looking at the work on the walls gives me a more complete perspective than when it’s dotted around the studio - I can regard it as a body of work rather than as a series of individual pieces. I’m hoping that this will spark a period of experimentation, but I have to trust my subconscious on this as I have no idea right now where it will take me.

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Collaboration is a more certain way to stimulate new ideas so I’m delighted that writer and photographer Steve Smart has agreed to work with me over the next few months.  I did a fair bit of preparation for the residency earlier this year, principally getting to know Calderwood and learning my way around its variety of landscapes, so it was great to share some of my finds with him on a visit last week and fascinating to see the wood from his perspective. We were also really lucky to have a clear, crisp and frosty day for the visit with gorgeous light.

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He will be writing some poems in response to the locations, trees and themes in my work, which he’ll present at the closing event of the Dialogue with trees exhibition – more details here. In the meantime, feast your eyes and your ears on his images and poems on his blog

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Hills and horses

February 28, 2016 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

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It was a perfect sunny winter's day today, just wonderful for going out and getting to know the landscape around Beecraigs a little better.

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First stop was Cairnpapple Hill, so steeped in significance since prehistoric times - not surprising since it has such a fantastic view from all angles, to the Pentlands, the Ochils, across the water to Fife and further out to Berwick Law, the Perthshire and Lomond mountains and even Arran on the best days.

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I'd spotted a row of beeches on satellite photos on the northern boundary of the hill, so went to investigate, finding a sheltered little valley with some small, hardy oaks along with the boundary beeches.

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After a good walk round Cairnpapple I headed towards Witch Craig Wood and the Korean War Memorial, where I've been told I'd find an unusual bit of graffiti. After a little hunting I found not one but two carved horses on trees by side of the road.

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One looks like a knight of some sort with a sword, perhaps some reference to the Hospitallers of Torphichen? The other is clearly a Clydesdale horse, standing proudly in the carving by B.R. in '78. I wonder what their stories are...

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Hidden Beecraigs trees

February 18, 2016 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

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For an artist looking for characterful old trees this doesn't look very promising does it? Clearfelled plantation is in itself a dramatic kind of landscape, but not what I'm hunting for. Gladly we have wonders of the internet like National Library of Scotland's online historical maps and satellite imaging (I've recently discovered that Bing maps are a far better tool than Google) so I had an idea that there might be living remnants of the previous landscape somewhere here at Beecraigs Country Park.

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Surrounded by the plantation trees and densely shaded, I found a few old beeches just clinging on along old boundary ditches.

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They show up on satellite images as bright green shapes against the dark uniformity of the conifers and checking the shape's location against old maps confirms that they are on a pre-existing boundary.

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I tested out my new water soluble graphite sticks while drawing in the rain/sleet - well it is February!

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A second visit on a much sunnier day revealed a wonderful line of wiggly beeches along a south facing bank.

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This cluster was a real surprise - mountain bikers clearly use this extensively as it's all lumps and bumps, being a former quarry area.

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So I found my characters after all, which means I not only have the satisfaction of a successful forage, but so many new trees to get to know through my drawing - expect to meet some of them at Howden Park Centre later this year...

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Tree hunting in West Lothian

February 03, 2016 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

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Having had a illness last year which incapacitated me for about 6 months (which I'm working up to blogging about sometime), I'm so happy to be able to get back to the woods this winter. So I started the year by making some plans to explore new locations through a series of mini-residencies - a sort of self-directed intense period of study, learning about the history of the landscape, making links with locally knowledgeable people and making as many on site drawings as I can.

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Since I have an exhibition at the Howden Park Centre in Livingston scheduled for the end of the year, it seemed natural to start in West Lothian. While the recent storms have been blowing outside, I've been indoors poring over old maps and current satellite images, looking for clues to more ancient landscapes and some likely places to look for old trees. I thought I knew West Lothian pretty well, having worked there on and off for the last 20 years, but Calder Wood is an exciting new discovery for me.

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It's a plateau of ancient woodland bounded by the Murieston Water and the Linhouse Water, which both join the river Almond at Almondell. The river banks are steep and the trees mostly hide the surrounding housing, making it feel much more remote than it actually is.

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These are a few photos of the wonderful trees I found - impressive old beeches, gnarly sycamore, elderly birches, hazel coppice, twisty decaying sweet chestnut.

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I'm starting to learn my way around the woodland now, working out how all the little tracks fit together, where the clusters of old trees are and which are the best candidates for more prolonged sketching.

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Maps are marvellous for getting the structure of a new place into my head, but now I realise I need to start creating my own mental maps - these are the first of many days in Calder Wood...

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Into the woods

March 31, 2015 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

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It's officially Spring, though you wouldn't know it today with the horizontal snow, and the race is on for me to get back into the woods for some decent drawing days before the leaves break through.

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I recently bought some Conté crayons and spent some time in the studio playing with them to see how I might use them in the woods. I was looking for some softness and delicacy to develop in my line drawings done directly from the tree. From a practical angle I was hoping that they would be the perfect combination of lovely smudginess when I need it and stability when I'm transporting the drawings across the fields.

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Paper on board, ready to draw some ancient oaks after a drop of coffee...

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Happily, some of my newest Conté drawings made it out of the woods and into Time around trees last month...

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A selection of these drawings will be heading for the Buy Design Gallery when they're framed and hopefully the wind will calm down enough for me to get a few more productive outdoor days soon.

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National Tree Week 2014

December 05, 2014 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

Since it's National Tree Week this week, I thought I'd join in the celebrations and share some of my favourites...though every week is tree week for me really.

This monumental ancient oak is in the grounds of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, lurking in the car park.

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My rather unimaginative name for this one is 'Newbattle graffiti beech', since that's what's so amazing about it - all those layers and years of carvings.  Here's a drawing of it too.  I think more drawings from it will feature in my work for the Tree Stories project.

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A wooded landscape next, rather than an individual tree - Glen Finglas, a Woodland Trust site in the Trossachs and a very special wood pasture with many pollarded alders.  It's a fair walk but a good track into the trees.

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Historic Scotland's Inchmaholme island has a long and venerable history with its ruined abbey and its Mary Queen of Scots connections, but I got most excited about this twisted old chestnut - fabulously sculptural.

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Another sculptural one, this time a beech on the Novar Estate, near Alness, Easter Ross.  There's a somewhat sinister quality to its deformity that attracted me, and it looked particularly impressive on the bright early spring day this photograph was taken.  I know it as 'Novar fungus beech' and here's a drawing of the same.

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Finally, staying on the theme of the beautifully grotesque, is this beech I found alongside an abandoned road by the Cromarty Firth.  People who are expert in tree management suggested it was possibly pollarded, giving rise to the weird shapes.  It also bears graffiti from the 50s and so much character that it seems to demand a whole series of works, so I'm hoping to revisit it next spring to get started.

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National Tree week is about valuing and celebrating the trees we have now and ensuring that the generations that follow us can do the same.  All the trees I've shown here are quite probably at least 100 years old and some are thought to be as much as 400 years old - let's allow them to age with dignity and nurture the young ones which will eventually replace them.

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A tenacious tree

September 22, 2014 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

This is pure indulgence - whilst looking at these photographs I can relive memories of a drawing trip here in early spring this year.  Ancient oaks, gorgeous light, solitude apart from buzzards and the occasional frog.  I've done a few 360 degree drawings of this tree but looking again now I think it merits a whole series to itself.  Maybe this is what comes next...

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The hazards of drawing outdoors

August 23, 2014 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

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It sounds idyllic – “I’m going out to the woods to draw today” and the truth is that it really is, it’s a very special thing to do.  If I didn’t have those days alone with the trees there would be no art, since the place, the atmosphere, the wildlife, the weather all contribute to the eventual response I make on paper.  The sound of the buzzards above, a deer looking startled as it almost bumps into me, a crow flying out of a hole in an old oak at eye level, a strong breeze making the dead wood creak over my head, the intermittent rustle of a toad hopping through the grass – all these form part of the experience for me.

However, drawing outdoors can have its little excitements and challenges too.  There are the predictable things like rain and wind, cold and midges. And the bugs that insist on walking on my drawing and sometimes refuse to leave, sadly getting squashed as I roll it up.  Nettles can make summer drawing unpleasant. High winds mean dangerous conditions underneath old trees and I’m cautious on those kind of days.

On my last outdoor drawing trip I encountered some very inquisitive cattle which threatened my carefully selected drawing spot.  It seems quite funny to think of a grown woman escaping from cows, but they can do you some serious damage, especially if they have their calves to protect.

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I’d set out to do a full 360 drawing of one of the hugely impressive Dalkeith oaks, which will be on show at ‘Time around trees’ at the Meffan Gallery soon.  I’d come prepared with little tent peg flags to mark my eight viewpoints, a tarp to sit on, my board, and a three and a half metre scroll of my favourite Canson paper.  This was going to take most of the day so I took my time deciding on views, thinking about the movement of the sun through the day and doing the initial sketches.  Four drawings in and I was happy with my progress until I noticed the herd moving towards me. The calves were at the ‘bolshy teenager’ stage of their lives and clearly up for some mischief, so I rolled up the drawing carefully, packed my bag and climbed over the fence. 

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They had a good look round the tree and over at me, then settled in for some leisurely grazing, so I went for a walk and eventually tagged along with a group being given a tour by the woodland manager.  After a pleasant break I returned to my now deserted tree and resumed the big drawing.

An hour or so later they were back to play, but this time moved much faster and more determinedly so I only had time to get the drawing and pencils to safety and had to leave the tarp and board.  

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You’re supposed to put your arms out wide and shout to keep them away but they weren’t having any of that – no amount of arm waving was going to put them off their fun. The youngsters had a great time tossing the tarp around and slobbering all over my board, while their mothers rubbed themselves against the tree and had a good sniff around.  I realised from the other side of the fence that I was witnessing an age old scene of traditional wood pasture, and wondered how many woodsmen had been held up from their work by marauding cattle in the past!

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I ended up hiding behind a holly until they got bored and moved on.  Ok, I know it's hardly Olly Suzi and wild dogs, but my tent peg flags were soggy and trampled and my board and tarp unpleasantly slimy. Still, I was happy that my drawing remained intact and I managed to finish all eight views with the occasional glance over my shoulder to check I was alone.  I took my longest ever drawing back to the studio, cleaned off the bug bodies and trimmed it ready for the Meffan show next month.  I'm hoping to be able to hang it so it kind of envelops you as you view it - so I hope you can come and see it for yourself now you know its story.

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Meeting some tree people

June 15, 2014 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

So what’s so special about trees? And why is it always the old and gnarly ones I go on about?

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It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at my work that I have a deep and enduring interest in trees – the origins of which I’ve talked about in other posts.  Over the last five years or so, my drawings have developed in parallel to my knowledge of and appreciation for trees, their history, ecology and our cultural links with them.

The more I read and understand about them as a subject, the better I feel that creative connection which is essential for me to make good work. There are some key books which have influenced me, but even better than reading is meeting real people sharing their expertise and passion.

So last week I went along to the Ancient Tree Forum's Highland Gathering in Perthshire to meet some proper tree people and hear talks and discussions on things ancient and arboreal.  The morning session in Perth included talks on themes around wood pasture, parkland, tree recording and preservation, Atlantic hazel woods, along with perspectives from England and Scotland.

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Our afternoon was spent literally in the field, meeting some of Scone Palace’s historic and impressive trees.

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Donald Rodger (in the green coat), author of ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland’ introduced us to a massive sitka spruce.

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Ted Green, ATF founder and president, speaking beside the James VI/I sycamore.

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My favourite tree from the field visit was a huge copper beech.  The strange contortions in its trunk are due to the copper beech tree being grafted onto common beech rootstock at an unusually high graft point.

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So what did I learn? Loads more than I can write but here’s a start...

  •  Here in the UK we have ancient trees and landscapes of European and even global significance.
  • They are really rare, very rich habitats which are only just beginning to be understood.
  • Our ancient trees and treescapes have very little protection from destruction or damage – even relatively recent important buildings have much more protection.
  • They are irreplaceable – planting new trees is not enough.  They are complex ecosystems that have evolved over hundreds, quite possibly thousands of years.
  • They are a living link to our past, representing a depth of history which can be hard for us short-lived humans to comprehend – for example the oaks I draw in Dalkeith Country Park are known to be at least 500 years old.
  • Death and decay is a very important part of this ecosystem.  An old tree with bracket fungus growing from it is not necessarily a sick or fragile tree – the fungus is recycling material that the tree no longer needs, making the nutrients available to the tree roots again.
  •  Hollow trees are especially important for the habitats they provide for all kinds of creatures, plants, fungi and lichens.
  • There’s a growing movement of people – campaigners, scientists, ecologists, academics, arborists, historians and artists of course, who are raising awareness and appreciation of this amazing heritage that we have.

There’s more about the Ancient Tree Forum’s work on their website, or try the interactive map to find your own special trees - let me know about your visits.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone...

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Broken oak tree

March 12, 2014 | Comments: 0 | Categories:

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Words probably won't add much here, but just to give a little context, this is an oak on the Dalkeith Country Park Estate, in a large area of ancient wood pasture which was once a deer hunting forest.  The wood continues to be used for cattle grazing but is managed for conservation - this tree has broken in half very dramatically, but the dead wood will not be cleared away or otherwise tidied. Instead it will be allowed to slowly decompose and provide habitat for countless millions of other organisms as it does so.  Not to mention also providing both shocking and endlessly beautiful subject matter for freezing artists in the winter months. 

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