Sketchbook, pigment ink pen with water-soluble Inktense pencil washes:
I’ve felt dissatisfied with my art recently, stuck, able to see where I’d like to be but not able to make the moves that actually take me there, or getting bogged down in the details or technicalities and losing the experience that caught me in the first place.
Last week, in a weather imposed break from work – heavy snow led to them shutting down for 3 days – I took a walk through the lovely woods nearby, returning along what remains of the Antonine Wall, trees growing where once were Romans.
A young but twisted birch tree caught my eye, the snow and light giving it a quality of appearance as if drawn. The wind was cold and another blizzard squall beginning. I looked at it, held by the colours and quality of it, took a photo and moved on.
It stayed in my mind, on the way back home.
I thought I’d done enough sketching, a few minutes before, hands cold enough to feel I could use that as an excuse.
Looking back at the photographs, I tried a couple of small sketches. Something was niggling my mind, just before bed, I did another study, pen dipped in ink, scratching the paper, watercolour quickly applied. .. A result I felt happy with, to sleep upon.
Now, this evening, again a little late, before bed, a study of myself in the big mirrors. Drawing pen, quick, then watercolour with a very limited palette. Allowing rather than trying to put into practice what I’d learned from the tree. .
First new step, maybe..
Monday was a contrast to the weekend. After a splendid couple of days in the mountains, camping in a wild place and achieving my objectives of ascending Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin, I had a day at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh to visit the “Ages of Wonder” exhibition of Scottish art.
I had carried a small box of watercolours, some of the pans I’ve had since I was in my late teens, before the age of home computers, when the only mobile phones were on Star Trek! My plan had been to use them on the mountain but the combination of strong, cold wind and freezing air with the exhilaration and desire for movement meant that I only made a couple of quick pencil sketches from the summit. It was only on the walk out, later on, that I was struck in the sunset by the glowing quality of the land and, more subtly, sky and attempted to capture something of this with the paints; partially successful.
Relaxing in cafes and in the gallery, I felt the urge to sketch and, later found the superb Greyfriars Art Shop, in Dundas Street, where I found both a type of palette that I’d seen in a demonstration recently and decided to try some new colours from tubes rather than pans, to allow me to use the paint in greater density than is easy with pans. The same demonstration left me feeling re-inspired to explore watercolours again, for their qualities and also the relative ease of use in the typically awkward situations I end up painting in, even at home; it’s why I do not use oils, despite several people urging me to do so, it’s just not practical in my present situation.
It’s reminded me that I really enjoy sketching, both with pencil and pen, and like what can be achieved with watercolours, even if I have so far largely failed to get the kind of results I would really like.
Here are some of them. I may write more in due course about the exhibition and my impressions of some of the works, but I have an early start in the morning and need to sleep soon… and there is a heap of dull but necessary paperwork to be sorted…. I hope for a stormy weekend in which to deal with it and leave me feeling I can play more freely… self-created inefficiency for which I alone am responsible.
I hope you like the sketches.
Yesterday I made a sketching journey along the Forth and Clyde canal from the Falkirk Wheel on the west side of the city to the Kelpies and Helix Park on the east side. I had seen a similar, though much shorter, documented journey that I made in one of my sketchbooks in 2015 on a workshop day with Art North Wales at the Trigonos Centre in Nantlle. It’s an approach I don’t use much, though I do a lot of sketching overall, and when I do I find it very useful in forming a narrative link between the studies and finishing with an enhanced sense of having made a journey, not just a random set of sketches; perhaps I feel a greater sense of completion, though they are not in themselves ‘finished’ pictures.
I drew with a pen, the UniPin pigment pens from Mitsubishi Pencil Co, which I like for its combination of strength of line, lack of ‘bleed’ through the paper, waterproof nature that allows me to paint a wash over shortly afterwards. I tried a different, more compact, set of watercolours, in a well-designed metal case that doubles as a water bottle and pot. It’s a gift from a friend whose father worked for Windsor & Newton for many years and I don’t think they make anything as good any more. With a piece of old cotton cloth and a water-brush, I was ready.
I travelled by bike, by far the most pleasant way to move around on such a trip, no parking issues, always the chance to stop whenever something catches my eye and the clean, fresh air, sociability of it and the opportunity for exercise at the same time. The paths along the canal are very good and a tribute to the bodies who refurbished and reopened the canals after the shameful abandonment of them from the 1960s. It’s such pleasant cycling that I feel almost in the Netherlands.
The access to the canal is not far from where I live at present, from there it was a quick ride to reach the upper canal, the Union, that links to Edinburgh, where it emerges into the top of the Falkirk Wheel. As I’d started a little later than intended, I made this a coffee and lunch stop and found a spot for my first study.
There are usually lots of people at the visitor centre, cafe and watching the Wheel as it turns with its cargoes of boats of all sizes, bringing them between the upper and lower canals, an elegant solution to avoid what used to be many more locks.
Further along, near Lock 16, I spotted an intriguing boat that I thought at first was a Thames Barge but turned out to be a sailing Dutch barge, with large leeboards on each side (they can be lowered to provide a side-mounted ‘keel’ as the boat is flat-bottomed). Het Leven, from Westzaan. She is a long work in progress for him but a worthwhile, if considerable, project. After talking about the details of rig and how she handles at sea, I set off.
Past the old Rosebank distillery, which, unaware, I pass most days on the way to work and which apparently used to produce a fine whisky. It seems there may be plans to restore the distillery, which would be a good addition to Falkirk. Later, swans grazing by the path while a man on his phone was watched patiently by his dog; he was still there in the same position (definitely alive!) when I passed again later.
A threat of rain began to hang in the air and I pedalled on more quickly to the end of the trail, by the Kelpies, where I celebrated with cake and coffee.
Notes from the sketchbook:
“There is something about these magnificent sculptures that is more than their form or scale alone, I feel drawn here by a sense of living presence.
Yet it is really created by us, the people who are transforming a place not just by our [own] presence, activity and artefacts but by the meanings we make in our own minds, the relationships we perceive and form from our senses and emotions. It’s more than just the literal history and allusions to the important role the great draught horses played in the growth and prosperity of Falkirk and [the Central Belt]; the horse has a deeper, more emotional, meaning for us, even in this age of distracted mechanisation… most people have become separated from … close experience of the energy and power of horses and other domesticated animals who serve, endure and die for our own well-being.”
Against a background of bigger issues, I made some time for sketching this afternoon:
I’ve been reinspired, during a wonderful week in Scotland (with rare internet access, a bonus) and walking up hills I hadn’t yet climbed. Creag Meaghaidh was one, my only previous attempt one winter (1992) when the cornices were huge and precarious and a gale force blizzard confirmed a wise decision to abandon the attempt. This time the climb was easy, with great views and dramatic clouds:
Landscape and sky… light and dark, edges and haze and a sense of space and layered forms into an unknown distance…
I feel ideas growing …