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Fire and Water

A bonfire of old paintings on the beach

Last weekend I took some old paintings to the sea to burn; a process long-planned but also long-delayed by other matters.

Conditions were perfect, no rain, a light steady wind, the tide advancing steadily but not too fast, a friend to help but not too many people to become curious onlookers.

Paintings that had served their purpose, for me, studies and finished work that had been exhibited.

Storage for several years, of necessity, in a barn gallery with just enough space for winter storms to blow moisture onto them, to nourish small moulds in the boards; I wasn’t upset to hear the news of that, relieved in fact. I was no longer satisfied with the standard of my figurative work at that stage, the ideas were good, the execution wanting. This was the perfect catalyst to taking time to grow my skills, possibly starting over…. or moving on to a new series.

An opportunity also to let go of former preoccupations and ideas, release what was becoming burdensome, in space and mind.

It was satisfying, watching the decomposition into simpler elements, the action of oxygen and heat on fuel.

Later, at high tide, only a few ashes and bits of charred wood washing between rocks on incoming waves.

The wind held up at the right speed to launch the kite and a camera beneath, a bonus view from the birds’ perspective.

Coffee, cake, memories and home to consider new canvasses in the light of experience.

(There is video, to be edited. When it’s ready, I’ll add a link here.)

New Work: Softly, Autumn comes.

This is the working title of my latest painting, also a previous blog post from just over a year ago. The experience and sketch I referred to in that short post inspired this version, supported by further recent observations, sketches, photos and reflection in the same nearby location; the dyke along the banks of the River Forth. This dyke keeps the ancient tidal marsh as fields, for now, the closest thing to polders that I’ve seen here.

“Softly, Autumn comes ” oil on canvas board 22″ x 18″ / 56 x 46 cm

As before, I have used a smaller primed board to test colours, marks and ideas before committing to the main canvas, resulting in a second painting alongside it. It serves as a sort of play area, a “doesn’t matter ” space in which I find it easier to relinquish the attempt to over-control my painting.. steps in development. I don’t mean to imply that I am avoiding improving my technical use of the paint, I’m working on this in small steps as I learn and watch others too; whether you are seeing this in my work is less certain.. what do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Test board “Softly, Autumn comes ” oil on board 7″ x 5″ / 18 x 13cm

This is a special time of year for me, a time of memories and often changes too. This time that has included losing two friends of fairly recent acquaintance but deep connection; the reality of impermanence and uncertainty hits home, stripping away complacency, revealing attachments, reminding me of what is really important.

So now I let this one rest and cure (oils dont really “dry” in the way that, say, watercolours do) and begin to look through my sketchbooks and photos for ideas for the next painting. My focus is on landscapes at present, there is an open exhibition I have in mind to submit work to in the Spring and they need time to harden enough for framing.

Walking to the bus, earlier today, I noticed the contrast between the advance of Autumn, accelerating now as the trees let go their gold-brown-yellow burdens of leaves and days shorten, and the air temperature, which is still very mild. The shorter days leave me with a feeling of greater urgency to seize any opportunities to be outside but also to paint, a conflict I have not yet really resolved.

More soon. Best wishes and thank you for visiting.

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Waves passing…

I had hoped to finish my latest painting, today, but I’m finding it hard to settle. I heard yesterday, by the sea at St Andrews, that a beautiful, kind and compassionate friend of mine had passed away the day before.

We had met on an end of year retreat at the Kagyu Samye Ling centre in Eskdalemuir, a few years ago, and kept in touch since with occasional emails and messages to share moments of natural beauty, short chats, humour. A short acquaintance but a feeling of a deeper connection that has brought waves of emotion passing through me, a real feeling of loss.

So this sketch is the best I feel I can do, today, part of a spacious view not far from home, looking towards the upper parts of Falkirk in the distance.

Sketchbook ink line drawing - view over fields
Sketchbook – looking across fields to Falkirk

Yesterday, I thought of her as I dropped into a flow of moments of clarity and calm, riding the glassy, rising face of a lovely wave at St Andrews. Today, I dedicated to her the experiences of autumnal beauty and birdsong in a walk through nearby woods; moments she would have appreciated sharing.

Making a sketch or two helps, while waves of grief pass through. I find it calming, to draw when emotions are turbulent, a physical and mental focus, it’s helped me regain equanimity before, in other situations.

I remembered an early conversation with my friend, over drawing and painting, which she aspired to do but felt very shy of doing and never shared results of, despite my attempts to encourage her creativity and to create a safe place to share it. The whole issue of people’s feelings of shame, incompetence and suppression of their own (and others’) creativity is a topic I feel deeply and strongly about, something I’ll return to in a future post.

Perhaps, after all, I will mix some colours, put some paint on canvas, step back a lot and see how it works out. I have a few hours of daylight left. Whatever is happening for you, I wish you well.

New Marks…. second steps…

Earlier, in the last of the daylight, new colours mixed and onto the canvas…

As I reflect on the original theme and source of inspiration, as I see how the colours and marks build up… the original idea grows, shifts, evolves. Now I have to know when to let go and just allow the process to happen naturally.

Sorry, too tired for photos; greens, ochres and yellows, in case you’re wondering…

Sleep now.

A safe night to you.

Pumpkin soup – art vs appetite.

In the last week I completed a second still life from some of the splendid seasonal squashes I bought recently. Having to fit my painting around work days, especially at this time of shortening day length, is sometimes frustrating, though necessary for the time being.

One of the challenges of a still life involving food, for me, is that I fully intend to eat it and don’t want to leave it too long “on stage”, however tempting or even necessary this may be from the point of view of the painting process. Once I had cut open the pumpkin, the pressure was on and I managed to complete the essentials within a couple of afternoons, in fading light.

Preparing soup – still life. Oil on canvas board – 30 x 25 cm 2021.

I used virtually the entire pumpkin, this time, roasting then frying the seeds and thinly-pared skin with seasonings to make a chewy but tasty snack, turning half of the flesh into a delicious houmous and the rest into part of a tasty and sustaining soup, with parsnip and served with homemade bread.

The wine was nice too! (Beyerskloof Pinotage 2020).

The remaining squashes are still in a bowl, slowly becoming more interesting as the skins develop varied contrasting colour spots. I feel tempted to make some more, quick, studies of them, even in artificial light, which I can at least do in these dark evenings after work.

Meanwhile, I have ideas for two other, unrelated, paintings based on observed situations from long ago and very recently but they will take a bit longer to develop.

Golden Fields of Arcadia

Oil painting - landscape, bright golden harvest fields, rolled bales, top edge shows distant water and white refinery buildings , impressionistic style.
Oil on canvas board approx 12×16″

I have been looking at these splendid harvest fields for a while, over the last few years I’ve been in this area. This part of the Forth valley has a lot of large arable fields, any old hedges that may have been there are long gone and they are ploughed, planted and sprayed right up to the edges, little or no “headlands” of uncultivated ground left for wildflowers to grow in and provide a modicum of refuge and food for insects. The main crops seem to be various grains – wheat, oats, possibly some barley – and rapeseed or similar oil-seed plants. The fields appear to be intensively cultivated, though hay is grown and gathered into these impressive and slightly surreal-looking cylinders that have been a feature of UK farming for many years now. They ripen into vibrant, vast areas of rich golds of varying hues and textures, depending on the forms of the various crops, with darker lines that emphasise the form of the land, tracks of huge tractors and baling machines, then the harvesting machinery.

In my walks and cycle rides around here, I’ve also been struck by the ambiguous beauty of the Grangemouth refineries (Ineos, I think, is the company that operates them). They are responsible for both providing the necessary fuel, fertilizers and other agrochemicals for our present agriculture, significant local employment and for a lot of hazards and pollution of the local and wider environment. Flares are regularly to be seen, occasionally huge rolling flames and sooty fumes, following, I’m told, emergency pressure relief procedures. I understand that the company is fined on a fairly regular basis for these releases of gas, though I’ve seen and heard no sign of meaningful remedial action. As with many things, the situation has many facets.

Large-scale engineering, ships and industrial buildings have always fascinated me; there is an element of the frustrated engineer in me for sure, I was never able to get to grips with the mathematics. Far from finding them “ugly” in the conventional sense, I often see the moments of beauty and subtlety in them, especially in certain light and weather conditions. A long time ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I remember glimpsing the huge cement works at Chelson Meadows in Plymouth, Devon, on an early morning drive. It appeared as a vast castle, in blocks of pale grey and pink, in the morning misty sunlight. I made several drawings of it, to the puzzlement of several people who asked me “why are you drawing that eyesore?” That works is long-demolished, the ground landscaped, I believe, and perhaps my drawing is now a historical document of sorts, but this is a digression.

On a cycle ride along a path into the woods near Skinflats, I stumbled across an art installation called “Inscriptions in Arcadia”, by Audrey Grant, very nearly and inadvertently stealing part of one of the works … until I saw the sign! The theme of the installation intrigued me and resonated with some of the thoughts that had arisen, back in 2019, when I had looked out over ripening summer fields towards Grangemouth:

“Yellow Gold – ….enriches & touches our desire & emotions, feeds our egos… enables our electronics, lifts our aesthetics.

“Black Gold – in our myopic ignorance we burn this, mostly, the stored solar energy of ancient Earth feeds our industry, ..engines, ..our restless desire for movement & the illusion of a limited, short term freedom, while we poison our air & water & are still blind to its true value as a raw material.

“Green Gold – growing silently in the summer sun, welcoming the rain that we bemoan, refreshing our atmosphere, filtering our dust and detritus, feeding our restless, dissatisfied bodies and minds…”

Sketchbook 31 – 14 July 2019

This painting has emerged from these notes and subsequent observations, pulled together with the idea of an Arcadia, an imagined idyllic land but that is still touched, if not tainted, by destructive and harmful processes. I had not been aware, until a comment on my previous post, of the more classical associations:

Et in Arcadia Ego
Even in a pastoral idyll, there is death.

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/foundations/et-arcadia-ego

…which adds an interesting layer, I think.

This is not a specific view but a combination of local elements from several sketches, photos and observations. When approaching the painting, I wanted to focus on my initial visual experience of the vivid yellows and golds and of the softer reflections and uncertain forms from across the estuary, aware of darker and more contradictory processes behind it all. As with all these paintings, I feel I’m learning and discovering at each step; I’ve certainly enjoyed painting it.

Thank you for reading this far! What’s next? I’m not yet sure, I have unrelated videos to attend to …. however, I hope to start another soon.

Softly, Autumn comes

It’s a day of soft grey overcast and rain, the air still warm and the crops glowing golden with fringes of white-yellow and warmer oranges and greens to give the fields a dynamic colour, contrasting with the lush greens of the still-productive foliage around.

I tried some early blackberries (brambles) today, sweet and tasty, not yet moisture bloated. The spiders who normally guard them had retreated to their silken indoors to avoid the pummelling of raindrops that must be, to them, like medicine balls would be for us (remember them from the old gymnasium equipment, anybody?).

A few weeks ago, I bought a new sketchbook from my old regular art supplies shop in Aberystwyth, Wales, during a holiday visit to family and friends. This one has nice heavy watercolour paper that takes a wash well and invites play with media.

Friday afternoon (yesterday) was the conclusion of a busy but productive week, the schools are back in Scotland now, which left me feeling more energised than usual with a stimulating but slightly uneasy buzz of creative mental activity that at the time felt inspired but that I know from experience does not always translate into useful nor quality productivity. I spent a while in a cafe in central Stirling, watching the end of afternoon activity from a pleasant window seat, trying to capture some of the postures and groupings of people nearby, without staring directly at them, allowing my streaming thoughts to run like over-excited children until they tired and curled up in a quiet heap, somewhere in my mind… no tears, luckily, but a relaxed and reasonably focused state with just a babbling brook of thoughts as a background to my main focus.

A family group, the young boy full of energy and impatience, pushing himself up into a stretch in his chair. Two older adults, central, still. Three young women, pulling up their feet from the pavement and blending conversation, coffee and texting, as if curling inwards to make a small, intimate space of themselves. After my main sketch, I added analytical thumbnails, exploring what I was actually seeing or experiencing… notes for future reference, perhaps.

Inside, what appeared to be older parents and two young men, a contrast of body language and activity was what struck me, the conversation sounded relaxed in tone, but this young man was deeply intent on his phone and whatever remote world it took him to, his (I guess) father looking on. I wondered what the communication between them was like… there was something suggesting intensity and drama about the young man’s postures.

Back home, I added watercolour washes, returning briefly to the sketching frame of mind. Then, enough, time for a shower, food, relaxation.

Outside, the gentle hiss of rain falling and tempting the snails to risk their lives crossing paths and roads. Inside, time to stop and sleep.. Goodnight and I wish you a peaceful sleep.

Easter exercise

We’ve been fortunate, here in central Scotland, to have beautifully clear, cold weather over this Easter break. I’ve been busy with my other projects for most of the time as this is a good opportunity to focus on home-based work, given the continuing travel limits, but have had a couple of glorious days out in nearby hills and on the bike.

I was determined to make at least one proper attempt to do some plein-air work, whether drawing or painting and a cycle trip to the historic and beautiful village of Culross brought that opportunity.

Culross Abbey – pencil, ink & watercolour

I found a pleasant spot by the old church and Abbey ruins, sitting in the sun for a change! The solid wooden door and its shadows caught my eye and I set up my tripod and box and set to it, a dry sketch first then watercolours, taking time to look for a while first. I’m pleased with the result, not just for what’s on paper but for the process I went through, which was really the point of it. I plan to get the oils out again soon but this was a useful re-awakening; Easter always has this feeling of a second New Year for me.

Spring life is emerging again, in many ways.

Plein-in-the-Rain (and a bit on kit).

I had planned to do some more plein-air oil sketching during yesterday’s walk, west of Bannockburn, in an area that looked promising for a lot of points of interest and a day with a fine weather forecast. My body decided that it needed sleep more than an early start, after a very busy week, so by the time I got moving and organised, I knew it would be uncertain whether I had enough time to explore a new route, stop to paint for nearly an hour and still get back to the car before dark. (Want to see what equipment I bring? Click here.)

In the end I managed a quick ink sketch in my little book but the paints and mini-pochade box, plus small tripod, remained in my rucksack as training weights! It was a glorious walk, during which I took practice video clips and lots of photos; here’s one of the highlights, a view north-west over the low-lying clouds through which I’d spent the last two hours walking:

This is a place to which I shall return, both on my own account and I hope with students on a training expedition for their Bronze or Silver Duke of Edinburgh Awards, as we’re operating under new guidelines and criteria now.

By the time I reached the car again, it was dark and I realised that I had made a correct decision to press on, exploring unfamiliar and often indistinct paths through varied forest and woodland; a surprisingly wild feel to this area given the proximity of a small city and busy motorway. I resolved to make the effort to paint, the following day.

Today’s outing was very local, a foray into the woods about a kilometer from home, keeping it short and simple in order to be free of any excuses for prevarication. The weather had turned wet, very much a “dreich” day, not really conducive to outdoor painting or drawing, more a day for wellies, a brisk walk with a wet and happy dog, hot strong coffee, cake and a good book indoors. I’ve lost my wellies, have no dog, nor cake, so postponed the coffee and book and hauled my rucksack and gear on, fetched a big umbrella and trudged off into the squelchy woods.

Despite the grey overcast, the remaining autumnal colours glowed still and I found an inviting spot by the weed-covered pond near the Dunmore Pineapple, a folly built in that shape in the 1700s, apparently as a gift to the wife of the estate owner at that time.

I am still getting used to the handling and arrangements of my outdoor painting equipment, a little more challenging under an umbrella, but managed a small, fairly loose sketch. I was more focused on practicing the logistics of it all than on concern over the quality or accuracy of my painting, other than that I wanted to work pretty freely and concentrate on the main colours and contrasts that caught my attention. I painted for a bit less than an hour, surprised to be visited and dined upon by a few persistent midges and using the resulting itching as a practice in relaxing and focusing my mind on seeing and painting.

I was hoping that the oils would tolerate occasional raindrops better than acrylic, though I hadn’t fully considered the fact that these are water-mixable…. ha ha..! A couple of stray drops of rain added some natural spontaneous “environmental interventions”, just to keep me alert!

This sketch was on canvas board but, in part to save on costs but also to help me feel more able to play and explore without feeling I’m “wasting” good materials, I have a stock of thin salvaged mdf/hardboard which I’m priming with gesso. That will become my preferred oil “sketchpad”. I’m still deciding whether I want to use mainly my home-made squeegee “brushes”, mentioned in an earlier post, or proper ones. Today I used both, slightly too generous “wet on wet” but enough to tempt me back to bristles, at least for more detailed or accurate work in due course.

After about 50 minutes of actual painting, the rain was falling steadily and I was feeling satisfied that I’d done enough and achieved my main objective, I packed it all away under the umbrella and walked home, The coffee, and the biscuits, were lovely!



Equipment list:

If you are wondering what equipment I took out with me, here’s a photo. The stuff to the left of the maps, compass, whistle and torches (I strongly recommend carrying a whistle and a light of some kind on any trip like this, even in summer) is all for painting, drawing and recording, that on the right is for my comfort and safety – this is for going into relatively wild places after all.

The list is as follows: L-R

Paint box with: cloth, paints, palette knife, water bottle, 2 spring clamps, brushes (cut short to about 7″/17cm) , squeegee brushes, spare canvas/board, plastic bag.

Mini pochade box with 1/4″ camera screw mount, canvas 7×5″, palette (thin sheet of metal – ex offset litho plate)

Cloth and water jar with lid.

Folding fisherman’s seat and piece of camping mat.

Small camera tripod with quick release plate (1/4″ screw)

Sketchbook (A6), pigment ink pen, water-brush, selection of Derwent Inktense water-soluble pencils

Camera (Osmo Action), stick, tripod, spare batteries

Maps, compass, whistle, bike lights (good battery life, small ones are cheap and very good emergency lights). Mobile phone – also used to record.

Sanitiser, scarf/mask, cream, spare glasses, flask of hot drink, snacks. In summer, add midge repellent and a head-net (on the West Coast and especially Skye, a midge jacket… seriously! https://bit.ly/3kb83qT )

Warm hat, gloves, spare warm jacket, waterproof jacket and trousers, all on an emergency survival bag.

Climbing sling – useful for tying things to other things, a short length of light rope would be useful instead and cheaper.

Rucksack.

First Aid kit (not shown). Swiss army knife. Walking boots.

Optional extras, depending on conditions, would be a telescopic walking pole and a large umbrella (not in a windy situation!!).