How do I, as an artist, select “the longest threads” to represent the whole, complex tapestry of a piece of the natural world? Perhaps the only way I have found is to draw from life and learn, learn and learn some more of how nature is organised,Read More
The tang of mint, the fragility of a lily - botanical drawing teaches about so many aspects of plants. Yet it is interesting to measure that as I have evolved as an artist, those earlier drawings have led me on to learning so much more about trees, rocks, environments, places. Seeing two exhibitions of my botanical metalpoint drawings up now in Berkeley and Oakland at the same time is both a celebration and a realisation of how the world can teach us artists so much more, all the time.Read More
Haddon Hall, in the Derbyshire Peak District National Park, is a celebration of oaks. Its construction, contents, history and present day lands are hallmarked by oaks. It was thus an extraordinary place in which to be able to draw in metalpoint and prepare an exhibition for September 2019 about oaks and their future. Linking my passions for art and the environment are “Oak Matters”.Read More
If every artist is as lucky as I am to have a wonderfully supportive and generous spouse, life is doubly magical.... some thoughts from a hospital room, sitting beside my husbandRead More
An artist residency in a beautiful place such as the medieval village of Noyers sur Serein in Burgundy, France, leads to reflections on how one perceives time. All around in the village are beautiful buildings that date from the 15th century, houses that are still occupied, loved and cared for.
The lovely church, whose bells sonorously mark the passage of the hours, is visibly marked by the six centuries that it has known.
The cobbled streets are a reminder of other ways of transport, inducing strolls along the streets rather than a hurried drive though by car. The village is delineated by its arched entrances and the towers that guarded its confines in more bellicose times of yore, after 1419 when the Dukes of Burgundy held sway, sometimes by force.
In other words, time in some ways has been held in abeyance. There is the sense that visitors and inhabitants alike can slip backwards through the centuries to earlier, slower times. One's perception of historical time is constantly reinforced, with reminders that man has lived in this village for an extremely long time. Even the peaceful cattle grazing in fields on the village edge reinforce the sense of timelessness.
Because the village is small, the sense of unity and harmony is reinforced. Flowers everywhere and walled gardens attached to most houses enhance the desire simply to slow down, delight in the beauty and forget the outside, fast-tempo world. When I was there last week, the Noyers Music Festival, a delight in itself, brought young musicians in for master classes and music floated out of open windows throughout the village as residents opened their homes to the students to practice and lodge. Again, time slowed in delight.
Meanwhile, as an artist, I was busy drawing, hard at work on my venture of trying to marry metalpoint to aspects of Burgundy's monastic and wine-producing history. As every artist knows, as soon as you start trying to create a piece of art, time and its perception become merely an abstraction. You lose all sense of time. The only tempo that I find is imposed on me, as the hours slip by unperceived, is the need to stop to rest my eyes and have a cup of tea and something to eat, to refuel.
The days melted away almost imperceptibly for me. It was a strange sensation, in truth. Whilst drawing, I had absolutely no sense of the passage of the hours. Yet as soon as I stepped outside La Porte Peinte, I was constantly reminded of the other dimensions of time, with so much history visible that marked the passage of centuries. And yet that passage of time is almost frozen in a medieval village that has so carefully preserved its heritage.
So many ways to measure time, all during a magical time creating metalpoint drawings.It seems to me that occasionally, we all need to remember that time need not be marked by the relentless technology of today that corrals us into a frenzied way of life. We risk ending up divorced from aspects of life that bring us peace and joy as they link us to nature and our collective heritage.
Silverpoint, or metalpoint when one refers to all the metals potentially used to make marks, seems to be a drawing medium which elicits instant interest in everyone to whom one talks about it. It always surprises me how its mysterious attraction remains intact.
I was recently reminded of this attraction when I mentioned to a Spanish friend that I draw in silver, and also gold, copper, etc. What had been interest in what I said became intense attention as I was carefully quizzed about just was this drawing medium.
Telling the story of how the monks started using lead for their lines in handwritten manuscripts and outlines for illumination from possibly the 8th century onwards, as demonstrated by the Lindesfarne Gospels, brings home the antiquity of this medium. The fact that, later, all the great artists whose names everyone knows - Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Lorenzo di Credi, Albrecht Durer - all used metalpoint, especially silverpoint, elicits even more interest.
Graphite's appearance helping to decrease the popularity and use of drawing in metal is another surprise. Most people have never even thought about the origins and history of the "lead pencils" they use so often.
The virtual disappearance of metalpoint after Rembrandt's few silverpoint drawingsand Judith Leyster's botanical studies in silver are the next chapter in the story I find myself frequently telling about this medium.
When Cennino Cennini's manuscript of the Il Libro dell' Arte was re-found in the early 19th century in an Italian archive, and people learned once more about silverpoint from Cennini talking of this medium and how to prepare all the materials to draw in metalpoint, there was a renewal of the medium.
Now, in the early 21st century, after spluttering interest during the 20th century, there seems to be another renaissance in metalpoint, despite its relentless aspects of narrow value range, impossibility to erase marks and slow development of the work. With increased interest in drawing media in general, it is natural that metalpoint be one of the voices in the drawing chorus. There is a wonderful diversity in the work being done, from classical approaches to very experimental work. Realistic (helped by the very fine lines which characterise drawing with a metal stylus) approaches are complemented by strictly abstract work, but share the shimmering, discreetly elegant characteristics of these drawings.
Metalpoint's allure, a medium that to me seems very much of our contemporary often sleek and understated approach to art and design, comes from its lustrous appearance and also, as I keep finding, its mystery of origins and history. I must admit, I thoroughly enjoy telling people about this drawing medium, and I suspect that my hundred or so fellow metalpoint artists also relish their role of ambassador for this special way of drawing.
Some while ago, I read a comment by a British watercolourist, Tony Foster, who had been painting on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. (He managed to paint six-foot wide pieces on location, quite a feat in of itself!) What he said was, "My thesis is that despite a world overloaded with imagery, certain places still retain the power to inspire awe and wonder. All of my work is based on the philosophy that our planet is a gloriously beautiful but fragile place, and that as an artist, it is my role to deliver a testament to the fact that wild and pristine places still exist."
He is right. Art is one way to remind people that we are still able to visit places that transcend our normal humdrum lives, with beauty and grandeur that humble and inspire us. But the subtext of such reminders is that we need to be vigilant, thoughtful custodians of such places.
This past weekend, when I was out along the Georgia coast, drawing, I felt myself to be in such a place of inspiration. There is something about a natural environment that has not been much changed nor manipulated by man: it has another feel, another rhythm. More primal, perhaps, but infinitely more powerful, subtle, complex and yet, very fragile. As you settle down in such a place to try and create art plein air, the magic of the place begins to seep in - the lay of the land, the movement of water, the breezes, the sounds, the play of light. It is hard to access how these influences show up on the art one is creating - perhaps only others can see them. Nonetheless, there is an alchemy, an inspiration that keeps one going.
Even when the art one is creating is on a small scale, unlike Tony Foster's, the dialogue between place and artist is very much there. Perhaps one is working almost instinctively, but the influences and inspiration of the place seep into what one is doing.
This metalpoint drawing, Marsh wrack, is about the wonderful, but seemingly chaotic patterns left by the dead Spartina grass swept up onto the high water mark by spring tides and left there to decay and re fertilise the salt water marshes. Having spent time drawing a tenaciously majestic dead red cedar tree in Prismacolor, it was interesting to focus in on the marsh wrack lying in rafts along the shore at high water mark.
Both these drawings were, in essence, about the cycle of life in such natural, wild places. The dead cedar was decaying, slowly and inexorably, host to lichen and insects, just as the marsh wrack was home to innumerable small crabs and insects who helped break down the grass stems.
These places of inspiration owe at least some of their power, perhaps, to the implicit reminders that, untrammelled by man's intervention, nature continues its exquisitely balanced and logical cycles of birth, growth, decay. We are straying into a world that should, and can when allowed to, continue to evolve and exist in amazing, elegant sophistication.
As artists, we are privileged to get glimpses of these wonders.
It is always fascinating to discover the wellspring of artists' sources and inspiration. John Constable once remarked, "My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up."
It is somewhat amazing to realise that he described his art as "limited and abstracted". If you look at a wide array of his paintings in oil and watercolour and his drawings, on a site such as John Constable.org , the overwhelming impression is his close, detailed attention to the flat, wide world of East Anglia and even beyond to the sea when he was staying at Brighton. His studies, when working en plein air, are wonderful in their atmospheric evocation and detailed information.
Suffolk, where he was born and mostly lived, is open to the blustery winds off the North Sea, with clouds banks shadowing the wide fields, tree-lined lanes and stretches of water (such as the Water Meadows near Salisbury). Constable never forgot his rural surroundings, but he certainly did not show them to be limited. Abstracted, maybe, but not in the sense we tend to use "abstraction" today.
I find that it is indeed rewarding to go for a walk in our quiet neighbourhood along the riverside and by the marshes. Here too, there are always sources of ideas for drawings and paintings, and even though I know the area very well, the changes of season and light make everything fresh each time. And whilst it may be something that no one else notices, I find myself getting all excited about different things and views.
Along our sandy lane is an endless fascination for me: the remains of a cedar tree, clearly once a mighty seer, but now sinews and lace that become a myriad abstractions.
I keep drawing different portions of it in silverpoint . At left is one version of my "art – in the lane" abstraction, "Cedar Remains". Below is a smaller drawing I have done from the same cedar skeleton of "Cedar Lace", also in silverpoint which I am donating to the Newhall Art Collection, at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, England, for their fund-raising auction in February-March. It should be up on their website in February.
Constable was indeed wise when he went seeking his art "under every hedge and in every lane". We have all benefited ever since.