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Small Wonders

The lino printing project I am currently working on is a small one.

After spending the last two years producing large prints for the walls at Chalk Gallery in Lewes, I have recently returned to working on a more intimate scale, similar to that with which I began my work as a lino printer and first became absorbed with this addictive process.

The subject matter I am studying at present also lends itself to attention on a smaller scale, with a quiet and gentle focus; Snails, and garden insects, small creatures going about their daily business, easily overlooked but so important in the part they play in the larger story of biodiversity.

The idea came to me while I was walking alongside the local riverbank one morning after the rain.

I live in a beautiful part of the countryside and find inspiration easily in the natural landscape around me. Unlike many of the other local artists who I am friends with however, I find myself drawn to the detail. While they paint outside in all weathers, recording the undulating hills of the South Downs, the swathes of grassland or vast seascapes I tend to find myself gazing at a single blade of grass. My countryside walks are never long ones and I have usually found something to draw or photograph within a few yards.

On this particular morning it was the brilliantly coloured baby snails which caught my attention, straggling across the path (I rescued a few) and winding themselves up cow parsley stems. The contrasting pale yellow and deep brown stripes on their shells is an excellent design; eye-catching, high in contrast and almost hypnotic. Perfect for printmaking. It wasn’t long before I was crouching among the wet grass with my mobile phone and some curious looks from passers by. The idea to create some small works, celebrating small wonders, was fully formed

The project is currently in its very early stages with two potential linoprints begun this week. Carving designs on this scale presents some challenges of it’s own. The temptation would be to use smaller and smaller tools in order to capture finer and finer detail. However for me it is always the “maker’s mark” which appeals in linocuts, so apart from a few very fine marks, the main image has been carved with my favourite pfiel tool number 9. Carving with this approach means simplification is necessary, and conscious choices have to be made about what is truly important to the image and helpful in the design.

Re-creating a small subject on a small scale is satisfying in it’s symmetry. The final pieces in this project will be small, and will need small frames, and a quiet space to be enjoyed. They would be lost on a feature wall. I like the thought that one day in the future, when someone pauses on a staircase, or a landing, to look into the frame, they will be greeted with a special and intimate moment, rather as I was that morning on the riverbank with the snails and the rain. It will feel meaningful.

Maybe art doesn’t always have to make large statements. Sometimes it can make connections instead.

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Garden Birds

This Spring I have been working on a set of prints about the birds which visit our garden. It started with the blackbird who regularly demands my attention with its chirpy presence as it bobs from branch to branch. I think it is a bird which must be loved by many a printmaker for the inky blackness of its feathers and the cocky silhouette it creates against the sky. From this starting point I was soon drawn to record more of the feathered visitors to our garden. Maybe it is the fact that we are hoping to move house this year that made me want to capture a memory of my favourite birds whom I have grown to love over the last eleven years.

The wood pigeon attracted me next. I was fascinated by the softly graduated tones in his colouring and puzzled over how to separate these out in the reduction process. A reduction print involves taking away sections of lino after each colour is printed and means that you have to work in reverse, building up each colour in order. I enjoy the artistic challenge in reducing a subject down to just two or three colours while still being true to its nature. The wood pigeon received a disc of colour to his belly where in nature there would be a much more subtle blush. It is a stylisation we are familiar with in representations of robins and I felt it would work.

This pair kept me absorbed for some time and I enjoyed their company while ruminating on a second pair which would form a quartet of birds. I chose a robin because of the jolly colour separation, and a sparrow for the beauty in the pattern on their wings. Sadly I had to reject the blue tit on the grounds that there were just too many different colours to work with and it would break the pattern of the two-colour reduction print which marked the set. I’m sure there will be a future place for the blue tit. It is still a very welcome visitor to the garden, and we are hoping a family might take up residence in the nesting box we set up this year.

A background setting was chosen for each bird using plants from the garden or familiar to me through my studies. The accent colour of the plant would be the same accent colour as that of the bird due to the use of only two colours, so that dictated my selection. The blackbird had to have a golden beak so the yellow/red apples of the crabapple tree where it often feeds were an obvious choice. The soft pinks of the wood pigeon suggested roses, and although there are none in flower at this time of year, the blooms of the camellia are very similar in shape and became the floral background in which the pigeon is resting. Tiny spring blossoms for the robin in a red which appears pink when used in small amounts, and the soft grey of pussy willow buds for the sparrow completed the series.

I am pleased to have completed my four garden friends and know that I can now take them with me wherever I go. I can enjoy them from the comfort of my own walls when not sharing the space of the garden with them.

It also pleases me how succinctly they sit within their framework of branches. Observing nature, and particularly birds, teaches me about the art of living harmoniously with ones environment. Whether through camouflage or nest-building, wildlife has a way of finding connections and being at peace. I hope when our family finally moves house we will nestle into place as comfortably as these birds. I think I shall take a leaf out of their wise books and seek out a place to feel at home and in harmony.

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Staying Warm

With the recent rise in energy bills in the UK, and increasing concern over the need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, the topic of staying warm is a keen one on our minds. The need to stay warm in the midst of a British winter is important and often impacts on our daily lives and routines. Do we find ourselves going out less? spending less time in our gardens? keeping windows and curtains closed and wearing odd assortments of clothing which keep the heat close to our skin? Yes, all of these. Apart from the very hardy among us, we have been doing these things all of our lives to some extent, growing up with the experience that getting through winter is an annual challenge we must meet. And for some, this will be more the case now than ever.

I decided early on that cold mornings in the garden studio this winter were not going to do my sense of well-being any good. Despite electric heater, fingerless gloves and fleece, the cold still gets into your bones out there somehow. I planned instead to bring as much of my lino printing practice as I could to the kitchen table. This would ultimately change my relationship with my subject matter. The kitchen environment lends itself to the subject of still life more than anything; pots, pans, cylindrical forms and the paraphernalia of human life. Cezanne would feel at home. I was not quite ready however to leave my favourite subject of the garden, with it’s flora and wildlife behind, so I brought the outdoors with me and created a still life of gentle eucalyptus stems and pussy willow branches.

It is the quiet, silvery colours of these plants that drew me in initially, as well as the structural repetition of their stem pattern. The buds or leaves are positioned at rhythmic intervals along the vertical branch creating a harmonious and pleasing visual effect. Placing them in a vase was necessary to create the uplift in the composition but the vase is not included in my final prints. For me it is all still all about the plants. The subject matter is maybe in one way “Still life” but without the traditional elements included. Also, more in the manner of botanical illustration, each plant is depicted on its own; confronting its own identity, rather than exploring a relationship with another.

Despite the eucalyptus and willow being alone in their frames, I link the two prints via the design process as much as possible so that they form a pair which can be hung together. Colours are duplicated and the same background elements are used in each, introducing a pop of yellow which activates the cool tones in the plants. The “weave” effect of the pattern is something I have used before in my prints, and to me it suggest a nurturing domestic environment. These plants are definitely indoors, and not in their natural environment, but hopefully in a happy and familial space.

An aside to any lino cutters who read this blog; I would not recommend creating this pattern when using Japanese Vinyl – it was tough work cutting across the ridges of lino as I created the design and I was fearing developing a repetitive strain injury by the end of it! Maybe next time I will create the background pattern separately using a nice rubbery piece of Esdee Softcut instead!

Once carved, the final stage of producing the prints took place back in the garden studio where I have a workbench crisscrossed with registration marks and a specialist drying rack. I had to brave the cold for a little in the end.

It has been a few weeks now with the inks slowly drying out there in the January air, but having checked on them today I can see that “Eucalyptus Stems” and “Willow Branches” will be dry enough for signing and framing next week.

If they appeal to you, keep an eye on my website shop where they will appear shortly. There are only 5 copies of each. I hope they bring warmth to the future homes where they hang.

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In My Garden

The subject matter and imagery of gardens are often present in my artwork and lino carving.  My relationship with gardening started when I was little, following my dad around the flower beds and learning the difference between the weeds which I could help to remove, and the flowers which he was cultivating and I was not to pull up!  My Dad had a scientist’s approach to gardening and tended to enjoy the outdoor environment through a lens of calm observation rather than judgement.  Even when engaged in the process of weeding the flower beds, he still had an equal level of respect for, and interest in the weeds themselves; showing me how they spread their seeds in so many different and inventive ways; some flicking them into the air when fully dried, others acting like salt shakers in the wind.  And we both found pleasure in discovering a particularly big specimen that we knew the pet guinea pigs would find delicious.

As I began to pursue my interest in art more seriously and became a young art student through the A level and Art Foundation courses, I can remember making sculptures based upon seed forms, being inspired by natural structures, pressing flowers, and sewing dried leaves to naturally dyed cloth…  I also remember a favourite birthday present being seed trays and packets of seeds with which to cultivate my own area of garden in a back corner.  I believe some of the dahlias are still there.

I sometimes feel I have learnt as many life lessons through gardening as I have through art.  For instance, when I acquired a garden of my own as an adult, I set about enthusiastically trying to create a traditional cottage garden to compliment our flint-walled cottage, only to find that these small walled gardens are a perfect host to slugs and not a single delphinium survived.  Open warfare on these slippery creatures was never going to work, but to my surprise other plants sprung up and seemed indestructible in the face of the mollusc army. I learned to interfere less and watch more, as wild buttercups, Japanese anemone and a vast trumpet vine flourished without any need for tending, watering or protection.  The right plants in the right place is certainly a motto that can be useful elsewhere in life.  The creation of something beautiful does not need to be, and maybe even should not be, a struggle.

I have recently begun reading more widely around the subject of gardening.  “Wilding” by Isabella Tree has given me an insight into the complex connections between plants, trees, wildlife and the microorganisms which live soil. I learned to do less and less invasive work in the garden as a result; to allow old branches to rot naturally and beetles, woodlice and fungi to do their important work undisturbed.  “The Garden Jungle” by Dave Goulson taught me the importance of flowering weeds, letting the grass grow long and selecting plants which support bees and other pollinators. I can now spot and avoid a modern hybrid which would have previously fooled me with its good looks, but is actually useless to the insect population.

Learning, observing and going a little more with the flow has given me a relationship with gardening that is peaceful and rewarding, plus a garden that hums with life, takes very little looking after and which delights me regularly with a new surprise – a self-seeded poppy, or a new family of blackbirds.  I don’t have go far to be gifted with new subject matter for a drawing or a print.  If I take the time to stop and look, I have everything I need right there in this garden.

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Researching a New Project

Sometimes the best laid plans do not lead to quite the results you were expecting…

After spending the winter focussing on the naked branches of the “Winter Hedgerow” series I had been looking forward to getting my teeth into something colourful and celebratory again.  I planned and booked a series of visits to some of the most beautiful gardens of Sussex, anticipating their re-openning and eager to indulge myself in some horticultural delights.  The sun burst forth in April and I thoroughly enjoyed walking, sketching photographing the early blooming plant life.  My camera soon filled with images of blossoming cherry, and my sketchbook with narcissi and primroses.  But what was the subject that, after all this, began to truly obsess me this month?  Well… dandelions.

Maybe it was my recent education in how important these plants are to support the early pollinators who venture out at the beginning of Spring when there is little other pollen available.  Or perhaps it is due to the intensity of the colour which after a long grey lockdown seemed like food for the eyes.  I suddenly felt that these under-dogs needed to be celebrated next, to be elevated to the status of “art”, and given a second chance at being loved and admired by the general population (for whom they are mostly deemed to be “weeds”).

Plants which could prove good companions in the series arose quickly to mind; flowering ivy, who’s structure and silhouette I love, and is also a vital habitat for wildlife with its thick foliage, and blackberry brambles, which horrify many a gardener, but provide nutrient-rich food for birds (as well as many of the local children) each autumn.

A new series of sketches and photography and research developed quite in reverse to the elegantly maintained gardens I had been visiting.  What a surprise! 

But then again, maybe not… Is it simply a matter of looking at the same subject from another angle?  As my Dad once told me; “A weed is no different to a plant… It is just a plant in the wrong place”.