something magic happens with a drawing and a work takes a whole new direction, one which was not planned but is very much welcomed. These are the works I think of as the turning points in my progress through drawing - the ones which spark a series, or through which a new working method develops. They act as landmarks showing me where I've come from and suggest routes forward too.
Dalkeith burred oak 1
This is the most recent turning point which I completed earlier this year. Inspired by a dead oak which I found on my very first visit to Dalkeith oaks in 2005, photographed then subsequently 'lost' amongst the hundreds of trees there. I'm usually pretty good at finding my way to the particular tree I'm looking for, but this one eluded me. Thankfully I found it again this spring and I fell in love again with the barkless surface and its contorted burred forms. There are six works in the series so far and more to come I think.
Hopetoun half tree
A major leap forward occurred in 2009, when I was shocked to discover a favourite roadside beech had been beheaded, leaving the torso like trunk starkly exposed. Up to that point I had been wrestling with the problems of what to leave out when drawing trees - the complexity was overwhelming and details seemed to obscure the essence of the thing. When I saw this devastated tree I realised that the chainsaw had revealed what I was searching for and inspired my ongoing torso series in charcoal.
A really old one, done at the end of a drawing course at ECA, around 2005. I decided to try zooming in on the light and texture of the tree's surface and just really enjoyed the mark-making aspect of the drawing. I hadn't picked up a soft pastel in years and it felt like quite a liberating piece of work at the time.
Craigie chestnut 1973
It's titled 1973 because of the date carved into the stump - a massive and somewhat incongruous chestnut by a path in an area of former quarrying. I guessed that the date related to the time it was felled - there's also a partial cut on the stump which might have been made at the same time. It was such an odd sight and so sculptural that I decided to draw it 'in the round', to give the sense of walking around the tree. After making initial sketches I developed a method of working on a scroll of rolled paper on a wide board, and returned with my new kit to make this drawing. This 360 degree approach has continued to develop, the piece below being a more recent example.
The tree lives on incidentally, with young branches sprouting from the base, producing sweet chestnuts every autumn.
Dalkeith oak 718
Crichton shattered beech
I had this image in my head and an urge to draw big, so cut myself a piece of paper 1m x 1.5m and got stuck in. It's really not that practical - it's unframed and tricky to move around but I had a great time making it. I felt as though I had room at last to do the tree justice. One day, when I have plenty of gallery space to fill and ample funds for framing, I shall make more on this scale.
Philpstoun ghost beech
"How dark can I go?" I wondered. Here I began to push the amount of charcoal I could apply to the paper and the ways in which I removed it too. Randomness was encouraged and responded to, the image allowed to emerge. Something ghostly appeared on the paper and I liked it - it had a combination of drama and subtlety which has featured in all my later charcoals.
I think of drawing as my method of discovery and these are some of my landmarks so far, each turning point leading to new and unexpected territories.
drawings of this tree but looking again now I think it merits a whole series to itself. Maybe this is what comes next...- 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
Wood nude tree limb view
A confession: I have done no drawing for two whole weeks. I really miss it.
However, I have been thinking a lot about framing and presentation, which is a necessity right now with a show coming up. So I thought I'd share a little of the thought and preparation that goes into putting my work on the wall. I've learned a lot since I started exhibiting, some from generous artist colleagues and most from trial and a fair amount of error.
Why do frames matter?
A frame does a number of jobs - it protects the work, especially important for my fairly fragile charcoal drawings, it provides a safe method of transporting and displaying the work and, if you've chosen a good one, will make the work look great. It is of course a choice whether to frame or not and I often like to show my large drawings unframed if possible. I really enjoy seeing other artist's work unframed, I feel somehow closer to the act of making to be able to see it without glass. But I also can't help feeling disappointed when otherwise interesting art works are displayed in unsuitable or just plain bad frames. Perhaps this is the designer in me getting frustrated with careless presentation, but all the feedback I have had from exhibiting has made me realise that presentation really matters.
My framing choices
When I mounted my first solo show I did lots of research into framing techniques and quickly realised that ready made frames would not suit my work - there needs to be a decent gap between the glass and the surface of the work for dry media, which means a deep frame and careful handling is needed. I also felt that quality was very important - there's no point putting your heart and soul into a drawing only to plonk it thoughlessly into a flimsy Ikea frame. I love Ikea for other things incidentally, just not for my frames!
I also realised that I was not destined to be a DIY framer - this was a job best left to the experts. After trying a few local firms I was lucky enough to find a small but meticulous framing company and have developed a great relationship over the years. Trust is very important in this exchange, since many months work is handed over to them and much effort and expense is involved. Edinburgh based Linda Park is primarily a painter, but is also very busy with her framing clients. She has a painter's eye for what will complement the works and takes great care in handling it.
I've discovered that there are complex and subtle choices to be made. Which of the twenty-four shades of white would I like for the mountboard? How many millimetres depth do I desire for the frame? Which delicate shade of grey for the hand finishing? How do I want to balance each side of the border? See - no wonder I've not done any drawing.
So I have a drawer of paint charts and test pieces which I spend a lot of time squinting at, trying to imagine what it would look like and try to keep some consistency with my choices so that the overall effect in an exhibition is harmonious.
Preparing for an exhibition
Here are my most recent works just collected from the framer. She's done a beautiful job as usual and I'm pleased with the new choice of colour for the pale hand painted ones - I think this works well with the predominantly white background of the work. I now have to get them ready for hanging in the Meffan Gallery, which means mirror plating them. I also sign, date and title them on the back and add my contact details.
I worked out that it is much easier to pre-paint the mirror plates white, then attach them, rather than paint them after they've been hung. No more going round with a tiny paintbrush before a private view, more time to do your hair or sample the wine or whatever. I position the mirror plates exactly halfway down the sides of the frame which makes for quicker and more consistent hanging, and for ease of transport I reverse them so they don't damage other works.
There are thirty four works in the next show, 'Time around trees', so it took me a while to prepare, wrap and label them all, but I know that the better my preparation is, the more time I'll have during the hanging to get things just as I want them. And that's the fun part.
'Time around trees' opens at the Meffan Gallery, Forfar on Saturday 4th October and runs until Saturday 1st November.
Tree graffiti – we’ve all seen it, some of us have made it and many of us, myself included, have wondered about the stories behind it. So I’m excited to be beginning work on a new Arts Council England funded project for SYBRG managed by HEC Associates in Sheffield called ‘Tree stories’, which will be looking at the whole subject of tree graffiti from a new angle.
Plans for the project include an app to enable people to upload pictures of carvings they find, community workshops, new artworks, stories, poems, music, an exhibition and a book. The aim is to shed some light on this often misunderstood practice and use historic examples to inspire new imaginative works. The project will run from October 2014 till December 2015 and focus mainly, though not exclusively, on the Sheffield and North Derbyshire area. I’m looking forward to working again in what I might call my ancestral home, being a Derbyshire girl myself!
Of course we won’t be encouraging people to carve into any fresh bark, but it will be interesting to explore people’s perspectives on it – is it vandalism or folk art? What effect does it have on the tree itself? Are people angry or intrigued when they find it? I wonder what stories the trees will tell us?
There are more photos and examples of drawings inspired by tree carving in an earlier blog post 'The writing on the tree'.
There will be lots more stories to come once the project gets up and running, in the mean time here's one I didn't make earlier...
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Fresh off the board
The studio is very dusty, which means I am very happy because I've been busy over the summer drawing for my next show. "Time around trees" opens at the Meffan Gallery on Saturday 4th October and runs until the 1st November.
The space at the Forfar gallery is a great size and very flexible so I'll be showing a fair bit of new work - I've taken to exhibition planning in 3 dimensions to help me decide what should go in.
Here's a few images of the new work to hopefully tempt you to visit in person!
So what’s so special about trees? And why is it always the old and gnarly ones I go on about?
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.
Our afternoon was spent literally in the field, meeting some of Scone Palace’s historic and impressive trees.
Donald Rodger (in the green coat), author of ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland’ introduced us to a massive sitka spruce.
Ted Green, ATF founder and president, speaking beside the James VI/I sycamore.
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.
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.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone...Tags:
My current exhibition is at Dawyck Botanic Gardens until 3rd August. I'm so pleased to be showing here - it's a perfect setting for my work and a beautiful place to visit. Here's a wee first look at it...
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.Tags:
In November last year I did a weekend course in photopolymer etching at Edinburgh Printmakers and now I'm properly hooked!
I've been back regularly to practise, putting my new knowledge to the test and diligently checking the notes every time I move through the process. I've loved the whole atmosphere of the place - it manages to be both highly professional and very friendly, with a sort of background hum of intense but enjoyable creative activity. The other printmakers I've met are generous with their knowledge whilst being humble about the challenges of being a printmaker. I've also really enjoyed the physicality of the processes in the efficiently designed workshop - reminds me of my days at Manchester Polytechnic in the ceramic studio or the metal workshop, the smell of wet and dry, oiled machinery and funny coloured chemicals.
I know it's early days in my learning, but I set myself the goal of having some prints to show in my next exhibition, 'Figured wood', in April, so I've been working like a mad thing to find what works for my images - you'll need to visit the exhibition to see whether I've succeeded, but here's a few process pictures to get you started...
'Bart' the historic printing press
Lined up and ready to print
Proofs fresh off the press!
See here for more information about this printmaking technique and that course I attended.