year one part two: the best laid plans...

I started February with an abstract ink design for fun, derived from the swede and hellebore colours and patterning. (Some peas seem to have crept in, too.) I used my Axel Venn Harmonies book and also a book of V&A textile designs from the fifties. I had just discovered Schminke's acrylic inks so was keen to try them out. Unfortunately I’d forgotten that the Rotring pen I had chosen was water-soluble, so it all started to blend – excitingly at first, then just badly. I started again. (I’ve always found with etching that this is a good move because you can then sail through avoiding all the pitfalls. The less I “worry” the material, the better, although I do know artists who do this to brilliant effect). My second attempt was less fussy and I stopped in time, which seems to be an art in itself.

hellebore and pea design

hellebore and pea design

I spent Saturday visiting the British Museum to see the German Romantic Drawings and Prints exhibition and then going on to the Society of Wood Engravers at Bankside. I took my sketch book and a couple of Pitt pens and did some drawings on the train. I found these pens very fluid to work with and when I got home I added some stronger lines. I can see that spontaneous drawings in ink (which I cannot erase) bring out a different me. At the moment I overwork them because I have to alter perspective, tone etc. but I am trying to express more with fewer marks. Ink really emphasises the power of white space and minimal marks, reading them as light. (This is the sort of thing I'm now learning, which to the experienced artist must seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious. As an etcher, I just reached for the burnisher).

At the exhibition it was the etchings that impressed me. Firstly Kolbe’s extraordinary plant studies and rather contemporary style.Then outside the exhibition, a collection of works by Hercules Segers (Dutch c.1589 – 1638). “He was the most inspired, experimental and original landscapist of his period. He is mainly known for his innovative etchings, mostly of landscapes, which were often printed on coloured paper or cloth, and with coloured ink, and hand-coloured and often hand-cropped to different sizes. He seems to have invented the "sugar-lift" technique, which was rediscovered in England over a century later by Alexander Cozens”.

The following Saturday I had a quick look at “Driven to Draw” at the RA. This was a one room exhibition of 20th century drawings from the RA collection, mostly bequests from families, including some quite spontaneous and personal studies. The main theme was the different uses of drawing – Training (meticulous and difficult), Process – (belonging to wider projects), Drawings as an end in themselves – (using the medium deliberately to best express a particular mood) and Study – (working through the full implications of a composition, often concentrating on a particular aspect). Some were reassuringly far from perfect, but showed the different uses and importance of drawings for the working artist.

The awful weather this month has made me weary and unproductive. Watercolour tutor Bridget Woods had set up her February workshop week for just this reason and I had signed up again. I decided to do something big and planned a couple of large paintings from the willowherb leaves I had photographed in the autumn. The colours were barely believable shades of magenta, orange and turquoise and I wanted to use them to practise vibrant mixes and granulation. I would do them bit by bit and try to understand how the layers and colour separations worked.


gorgeous granulation exercises

I went to the Workshop via Amberley Wild Brooks, still there after my first plant-hunting expeditions 40 years ago, and did a quick wash and ink sketch, putting the colour down first.


amberley wild brooks

On the course, I worked earnestly on my project and learned the hard way. I started with the orange leaves and found that manipulating wet on wet, adding new colours and then drier granulating pigments was just about all I could manage. The resulting leaves, even with the darker background, were flat and disappointing. By the time I got going on the turquoise version, I had gained a bit more dexterity and was able to take out some lighter areas as I worked, which improved the look. I discovered fast that practice improves watercolour skills, not reading books. It’s very easy to imagine that if you understand the principle, you will be able to do something. Not so! My plans (above) seem rather ambitious now in comparison with my struggles just to get paint on... I am still hampered by my clumsiness. I remembered reading sections from Nolde's notebooks, describing how he prepared for a watercolour painting; a dozen or so exact mixes of paint, all sitting ready in the right quantities, then fast and fluent application. I bumbled along, dropping my brush, wiping my sleeve in the mix and watching with a sinking feeling as "cauliflowers" materialised and grew. I didn't finish either piece when I got home. I wasn't overjoyed with the results but did feel that I'd learned something. The whole experience reminded me of the artist's answer to the customer's question "How long did that take you?" "A lifetime."


orange autumn willowherb (unfinished)


turquoise autumn willowherb (unfinished)

For a break outdoors I went down in the late afternoons to sketch the shore and the dark tamarisk hedge which bordered it. I kept to the idea of doing an initial wash in just a few colours with some texture (candle wax) and then added a bit of ink, trying to hint rather than describe. I’m starting to enjoy these short sketches and like using ink. It has the same ability as the etched line to transform a doubtful drawing into something more interesting.


the tamarisk hedge

I had worked hard throughout the month but knew I was thrashing about a bit, following my inclinations and experimenting. Any rational plans for starting with drawing and working up to painting were getting pushed aside. There were just too many exciting opportunities. I know I was also lured by crazy colour. So many years spent with the UK landscape palette (50 shades of rain) had left me craving magenta and passion orange.

Next month: Goodbye to my old friend the etching press...