Collaborative landscape project with the Alaskan artist Bill Brody. For me it’s about human traces, residue and wrack. I’m also hooking up with with photographer Steve Mansfield Devine and his Modern Megaliths project.
Some people have names that are perfect descriptors of their lives – William Whitelaw, Bob Diamond, Dan Quayle.
John Cage is the exact opposite. He opened the doors and the windows so the rest of us could hear properly. His work was properly, rigorously conceptual at a time when that word really meant something. The trouble is that the descriptions of conceptual work nearly always sound much sillier than the work itself. His 4′33″ sounded daft when I read about it, but was completely magical when I performed it for myself a couple of days ago.
“When I hear what we call music it seems to me that someone is talking. Talking about his feelings, his ideas, his relationships. But when I hear this traffic here on 6th. Avenue I don’t have the feeling that someone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound.
… People expect listening to be more than listening … Sometimes they speak of the meaning of sounds. .. They think that for something to be just a sound is to be useless. Wheras I love sounds, just as they are. I have no need for them to be anything more. I don’t want them to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend it’s a bucket, or that it’s president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.”
For me it’s important to make space for silences, especially after working so hard for a show. Thinking about John Cage also reminded me that paint is just paint and I love it for that, it doesn’t have to pretend to be a bucket or the president. Maybe it’s time to get the sticky stick out again.
Working with just one brush and two colours forces me to simplify. Working from memory and limited sketches forces me to keep my intentions clearly in mind. I think it also may have the potential to turn a weakness into a strength. I hope it will make me more concise. I have a tendency to work fast and instinctively which on a bad day, can often overwhelm an idea. I think the best ideas are very timid, and I often lunge at them and scare them away. Brushes force me to be premeditative.
Working on this painting at the end of a long day printmaking reminded me of someting that my friend Rodger Worth said about direct painting – “It’s like tuning in an analogue radio. You move to either side of where you want to be until you find the right place.” Leaving out the sharp lines of drawing is liberating as well as scary. Brushes work in a similar way to our eyes, in flowing fields of light and colour. Perhaps for me painting is closer to looking but drawing is closer to thinking. I couldn’t imagine a day without drawing so also made a couple of A3 size lithographs, drawing directly on the aluminium plate.
Was a good day, in the end. Here’s the sketchbook plan for today :
Now back at 9 Torrin to dry out the tents, sleeping bags and humans. This has been the most physically difficult bit of the trip.
Quiraing is such a compelling place – I felt most vulnerable and exposed here. The walking is harder and you feel unstable and unsafe. Bill described it as more precarious, like it could all come tumbling down on you at any minute. Glad he told me that now we are safe back in 9 Torrin – at the time I asked him about the big rocks that had clearly fallen onto the trail. ‘What happens if one lets go now?’ He replied ‘It wouldn’t hurt for long’. In his journal he wrote ‘Quiraing is fantastic, a blasted, precarious jumble of unlikely spires set amidst impossibly green sheep pastures on steep, STEEP slopes.’
Where the Cuillins are resistant, embedded plugs of hard granite this place felt altogether more fractured, tortured and twisted. Hard shards of bare rock with slopes covered by scree and big rocks loosened by frost and rain. Everything is toppling over, humans just don’t stay around long enough to see it happening. We were working higher up too, so the wind felt colder and more gusty. This meant I paid too little attention to proper kit and wet feet, stayed still for too long and then wasted the best part of the day trying to warm up in my sleeping bag. Bill sorted me out with a dry pair of woollen socks and a hot water bottle made of his drinking flask. I felt so ashamed, a proper city boy who had gone on holiday by mistake. Bill has been working outside for twenty years and he just keeps working through the weather. He has evolved a very impressive working method that can set up and sustain the beginning of an exhibitable painting just about anywhere.
I am just beginning to get the idea of making an outdoors workspace. Bill lent me his wonderful Thermarest seat so I didn’t get backache. This led directly to my best day in a strange field of broken rocks, by the cave of bones. I’m so excited by using oils outside where the stimuli are so direct and compelling. Bill has a handful of pieces that are not far off from being exhibitable. For me there will need to be some thinking back in the studio, I’m still reeling from the strength of this place.
I’ve never had a life or career strategy apart from getting in over my head just to find out what happened next. This time what happened next is a really important working partnership with Bill and some fully felt records of a proper journey. The real work starts when I carry back the energy, the subtle alloy of certainty and uncertainty, back into the studio.
Just back at 9 Torrin for the evening after six days working above Lock Coruisk. The most amazing camping, between sea Loch Nan Leachd and freshwater Loch Coruisk. Off early tomorrow for another week working in Quiraing NE Skye.
The weather was magically kind, looks like Hurricane Bill had finally got bored and left us with some high pressure weather. Loch Coruisk is really special. So much to look at, impossible to know where to start. From where we camped we could see 40 seperate mapped features that people had taken the trouble to name. Visually intense. Waterfall sounds. Strange crows that live in the cliffs above. That wonderful electric smell of kelp. Weather that totally dominates your mood and the practical dispositions of your world.
Hard red-grey granite, sometimes sharp sometimes sinuous and scored by glaciers. Clouds that grasp and beckon like fingers. Old, old rocks, marked by fire and ice, the two extreme forces that shape landscape. As Bill said, most mountain ranges that are old are also worn down. These definitely are not, despite being some of the oldest rocks on the surface of our world.
Bill cracked right on, I went rather quiet for a day or two. It was also a challenge to work with oils in the open but I slowly learned to make a workspace on a rock and to start settling my dancing eyes. But it was so exciting to just be carried by the visual torrent that was unfolding right in front of me. Really exciting to be handling colour in such variable light. My little glass palette turned into an anvil where I was hammering out the grey-reds that make up these extraordinary rocks and the blue greys that mark the weather. And the greens – I used shed loads of prussian blue and lemon yellow. Good enough for Turner (he did a really balletic watercolour of Loch Coruisk) and definitely good enough for me.
Waiting for the boat back we met two climbers Adrian and Charles, who nonchalantly mentioned they had ‘walked’ a traverse of several peaks, including the Monroe Sgurr Nan Eag and Sgurr A’Choire Bhig. Looked like a lot more than a walk to me, more like tightrope walking (without the rope). It’s amazing how respect and admiration for this landscape can bring total strangers together so quickly. They gave Bill some Avon Skin so Soft – because his Alaskan insect repellent called Deet was being totally ignored by the Skye Midge. Here’s my answer to them inglorious varmints : dress flamboyantly and rub myself with Tiger Balm :
This midge really impressed Bill, even though mosquitos once took two pints of blood from a drunk passed out on the banks of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.
When we got back we visited Elgol school, to show them our work and to find out what it is like to live in a place as beautiful as this all year round. We showed our work, and were both totally bowled over by the fresh curiosity of the kids. I gave thenm some blank pages from my leperello sketchbook and they promised to do some work in it. We ended up doing a long drawing together, lovely vigourous and colourful marks. The sort of effortlessness that adults really have to work on. I wish my primary school had been as nice as that.
A really frustrating day spent sorting out a puncture on the bike when I should have been packing. Cheered up by getting back to a really interesting mail from Bill Brody about foregrounds. He said :
“The far view of any scene is often pretty easy to determine, and being far away does not change much when I move around a bit. The foreground is what changes a lot based on exactly where I stand to paint, so I send a lot of time finding just the right foreground spot for a painting. I look for physical accommodation as well as just the right mix of detail right at my feet. This concern for the foreground meshes with the goal of painting what it is like to be there, immersed in a place. ”
He sent me a shot of his new painting of Coal Creek. He’s just finished being artist in residence there :
”The location is maybe 100 yards to the west from the Murie Cabin, also known as the East Fork cabin. I painted standing less than 2 feet from the edge of the East Fork of the Toklat River terminus of Coal Creek looking south toward the glacier headwaters. This cabin is where you are housed during a Denali Artist in Residency. It was built during the construction of the Park road in 1928, I believe, and used by Adolph Murie starting in the late 1930′s to study the Toklat wolf pack, by now the most studied wolf pack in the world. He examined the dynamics of predator/prey relationships and his study determined that wolves were essential to the healthy ecology of the region and were not the cause of the decline in the Dall Sheep population. Visit http://www.wolfsongalaska.org/wolf_denali_murie.html for some background information on Murie and his studies. Coal Creek runs past the cabin. Coal is found up the creek. There are wolves nearby. Bears visit the cabin at times. The window shutters are studded with big nails with the sharp ends protruding outward a couple of inches to discourage entry. I have seen photographs of bears peering in the windows taken from within by an artist friend Kes Woodward and his wife, Missy.”
We talk about being ‘grounded’ when somebody is at peace with the place they are in. I’m really looking forward to working with Bill, somebody how has a wider vision than most about the kinds of places where you can work. It’s encouraged me to limit my kit to just oils and charcoal, to abandon the idea of doing “preparatory studies” and whatnot, to just go and be and do.
It all started as a collaboration with Bill Brody who works in Fairbanks, Alaska.
We work 4197 miles apart, but share a commitment to putting ourselves on the spot, both feeling you have to be in and of the landscape before you can really see what it looks like. Well, we picked a spot – 57°12’47.92″N 6° 0’39.82″W to be precise. Starting at Torrin, on the Isle of Skye, we are both about to spend 3 weeks together drawing, walking, painting, camping, talking. Three weeks in the shadows of the Cuillins, some of the oldest surface rocks on the planet. On Skye which, like Alaska, watches the sun set over a great ocean.
It’s only five days before I leave for Orkney on the first leg, where I will be working for a week on my own drawing and painting around Scapa Flow and possibly the outer islands if I can get a lift on a boat.
Packed ? Hardly. Ready ? Mostly. Nervous ? Highly. Excited ? Entirely.Bill Brody is also feeling anxious to get started, but he has to get halfway round the world first with everything he might need to work for three weeks in the open air on an island he’s never visited before. But the best work always comes from the strongest commitment. My main strategy is to keep it simple, so I’m only taking two media : charcoal and oils. This stuff has to be light enough to carry around with us but suitable to exhibit once we get it back. We have hopes for a show in Alaska and in London.
More list of packing and pics of last minute preparations to follow.
Another good day with the very wonderful friday group – drawing in Mersea IslandI was drawn to the most changing part of this old landscape, trying to record the clouds as they poured through the sky above. Paradoxical and impossible really, with charcoal – how can a linear media keep up with a subject that no only constantly changes but also has no meaningful edges ? In the end the students said the clouds ‘looked like boulders’ – which is one of those comments you really need to think about. So in the end I started looking at the crumbling cliffs – layers of beautiful red and yellow earth with a thin crust of life clinging on the top. I found an interesting artist blog, by Vivien Blackburn, which is collecting cloud and weather studies. So it’s not just me then .. which is a relief.
Looks like Bill Brody has started something with his blog about foveal vision.It’s really got me thinking because it’s counter-intuitive. Most of what we call looking actually takes place after we have looked.
The brain joins together all of those quick glances, those foveal spot-scans into a composite idea of what is there. Forget rectangular frames and bits of paper – our field of view is broadly circular. Forget trying to make a drawing from a single look or photograph. Also, because foveal sounds like a soya based meat substitute I’m going to call foveal looking spot vision and peripheral looking edge vision.
The edge is much more interesting than the spot.
I dropped this whole confusing thing into a studio session at Colchester yesterday and the students came up with some really interesting work ! Teaching is truly amazing when you see ideas get up on their own legs because they’ve been invited in by a group of students. I asked them to do a life drawing where they only look with the edge of their eyes. The model moved across their field of view but their spot vision stayed in the same place. The drawings were wonderful. I only realised how difficult it was when I tried to do one of my own - I noted two spots on an easel a metre and a half from the model and marked them on the paper, then kept my spot vision only on them to both look and draw. It’s virtually impossible ! I had to keep wrestling my spot vision away from the model and even more difficult away from the drawing of the model when I looked at the paper. Also it was impossible to respect the rectangle of paper or board, which is why I started drawing on the floor.
It’s quite good for teachers to be occasionally subjected to their own daft ideas.
I like the idea of a third kind of looking. I like the idea of thinking with the edges of our minds and finding treasure. So much more interesting than counting out the coins we already have.
Peripheries have always drawn me so it’s inevitable I should start drawing them too. I’m sure that’s why I went to Alaska, why Bill and I are going to the Western Isles, and why I want to go to Orkney. Peripheries don’t have to be far away either, I am always moved by the subtle tipping point where my own human made world crumbles and rots back into it’s earthy source. There is also something so poignant about those myriad unhomely places in the corners of the city where we pass by but cannot rest. Places on the edge of human comfort.As a kid I got in to trouble for writing “This is the outside world. Enter at your own risk” on our side gate. Our back fence had hole in it so I could see the ‘allotments’ – little cultivated strips left over from the war where people grew their own food because the submarines stopped us importing it. Somebody out there kept pigs and we had a pig swill bucket outside the kitchen. One day big diggers and lorries turned up and built a strange square concrete place with no windows and a big fence. I found out later it was a Regional Seat of Government, where the selected few would sit out the nuclear winter. Scared the crap out of me even before I knew what it was. That must be where my thing about concrete started. Making this blog is really helping me at the moment because my studio is full of building materials and I’m not getting any time to work in a sustained way. Scanning in bits from the sketchbook and thinking is a way of keeping in touch.
Bill Brody said something really interesting about making a landscape painting. He described two kinds of looking : with the edges of our eyes (peripheral vision), and with the centre of our gaze, which is called foveal vision.
I had to look that up too. But it’s self evident to anybody who spends time looking or drawing. The centre of your gaze is sharp and log-jammed with detail while the edges are only interested in big differences of form or light or movement. Centre vision evolved for hunting, edge vision is for detecting predators. I like to use both when I am drawing, screwing up my eyes so my centre vision goes fuzzy. My friend Nigel said something wonderful about assessing a painting when you go into the studio in the morning .. “You sneak up on it and look at it out of the corner of your eye”. Bill Brody was talking about how painting lets you direct the viewer’s gaze by modulating descriptive detail, colour and tonality. This connects with the Italian word caminare, walking. You can be walked through a picture by colour cues – brown = foreground, through green to blue = distance. Can do this with tonality as well.
To me this is exactly what the drawn gesture is, it’s a visual invitation to pay attention. I have the most trouble with the opposite though, with flat areas of tone. They often end up as just that, flat, laying over and obscuring the bones of the drawing. I REALLY want to get back into the studio .. I just need to get all the builders stuff out first (
Shared Horizons is a new project that I’m developing with a really interesting artist called Bill Brody. We met when I was in Alaska working on the Cook Inlet panorama. He has a completely committed way of working on the landscape. I originally saw his landscape painting in Anchorage Museum, we later met at Stephan Fine Arts where I also saw his printmaking.
We are going to work together on the Isle of Skye this autumn, painting and printmaking and hope to show in Alaska and the UK.
The plan is to start exchanging work now, in preparation for the intensive time on Skye in four months time. We are exchanging ideas and work in progress, and for me that has to start with my sketchbooks :
These are from my trip to Omaha beach in Normandy, I’ve also just finished two panoramic paintings. One of Pointe d’Hoc in Normandy
At last. Just had the first full day working on the big painting since getting back from Alaska.
Been doing lots of paper based studies, enjoying my familiar space and all my stuff where I expect to find it. The number three studio familiar is exactly where you’d expect to find him, this laptop keyboard is the warmest place so obviously that is where he wants to sit
I’ve been thinking about body white, I had the strong feeling that the plein air study was too lightless to work with inside lighting. I’m building the final version around body white with a dash of Raw Sienna, which I’m working into and over the drawing in washes and occasional gobs of impasto. I’m also trying to darken without blackening, which is interestingly difficult to do.
I’m going to do entirely without carbon black, except the charcoal I draw with, which smudges beautifully into the body white. Might use some Mars Black but mostly will be making broken shades using Cobalt Green/Indian Red and Cerulean Blue/Cad. Orange. Because I’m grinding pigments into water with acrylic binder there is a really interesting bloom where the heavier pigments (Indian Red and Cerulean Blue) clump up and separate out in loose washes. I’m hoping that with layers they will build up to Alaskan type shadows, which are sharp, high and deep. This is because the sun was so high and when the sky was clear my eyes stopped right down, which makes the shadows really intense.
Some bits of freelance stuff tomorrow but mostly it’s another day watching paint drying. How cool is that !
Last day working properly before we head off to NY. I’m speechless, which is no bad thing. Here’s todays cloud and wind studies :
I’m going to be visiting these sketchbooks for a long time to come. Also have started getting glimpses of the painting in my peripheral vision, can’t wait to get back to the studio and begin. Also roughing out ideas for some prints to send over to Bill Brody, would really like to set up a joint showing opportunity with him both here and in the UK.
I should have read the slogan on my own website. After a really committed day painting yesterday I felt really uneasy about the work once I brought it in from the bright light to the interior space where it will be shown. The painting was active and strongly marked but the tonalities and colours were flat and muddy.
I went to bed knowing that but not admitting it, woke up in the wee hours (broad daylight of course) with Messrs E & B Jeebie tapping on my shoulder. Then I realised where the road ahead lay. I’ve been doing a plein air study, not a finished piece of work. I only got here less than two weeks ago, so how else could it be ? Once I thought about using studio time I felt a lot better, and will also be able to work in parallel on the printmaking I want to show to Bill Brody. It suddenly all felt a lot better. I could honour the plein air study for what it is – the record of how overwhelming this place is.
Sometimes this city boy can stray too far from his comfort zone.
So back to the DNA of my working methods. I put away the painting and had another intensive day of drawing. I love burnt sticks. Doing studies of the sky elements that shape this landscape. Trying to look at the landscape upside down where the sky is more visually ‘solid’ than the land.
That’s better, everything really does start with drawing.
Yesterday was a day off at Lake Hood seaplane base, where I could have done with my friend Steve and a hat and a veil like the one Catherine Hepburn wore in the African Queen. Everything was flying, including the Alaska state bird – which is a supersize-me mosquito. I didn’t get a photo of any mosquitos but here’s two float planes. The first one, Steve tells me, is the classic Alaska bush plane, a deHavilland Beaver and the other is a fairly rare rotary engined Cessna. I was talking to Nancy tonight, who lived in Sitka and worked as a health nurse in S E Alaska. Her job was to visit remote places, often in planes like that, she recognised the plane immediately. Rotary engines sound amazing - brash, throaty and strident - like a Ducati once it gets in the zone.
There was me thinking Olivia deHavilland was a 1940′s movie star. Here’s tonights progress report :
Was working on the sky today – a really active, full day trying to paint out the ideas I had about a fluid landscape. Trying to use the motile properties of paint to describe the fluid energy of this place. It was cold – the wind dumps out of the mountains, through Bear Pass and onto the hillside where I’m working. The task turned into how to paint a cold wind. I had to wear my new mountain bike fingerless gloves and my kayaking thermals.
There’s more tweaks to be done tomorrow, but the basic build is there. Tomorrow and Wednesday will mostly be working on the tonal balances of the sky because I’m working outside and this will be shown indoors. This landscape has literally blown me away, I feel as if I’ve had to find new marks for this work. Two weeks is just a sliver of time to be here.
This site answers the question: "What is it that you do?"
Watch the film Such Stuff a requiem for all that redundant media and all those forgotten messages