Surfacing…

Blakey Ridge, North York Moors, sketchbook, 2019. © Mari French

I recently spent a week in Rosedale, a beautiful valley in the North York Moors National Park. Although it was intended mainly as a relaxing break (and it was) I also wanted to revisit and spend time sketching the high moorland plateau that inspired me so much back in August last year (see my earlier post ).

 

On the last visit I’d been attracted to the dramatic ruins of the old ironstone mine workings above Rosedale, resulting in several abstract interpretations that were accepted for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 2019 at the Mall Galleries, London, four of which are now on show at Bils and Rye, a contemporary gallery in Kirkbymoorside, near Pickering, North Yorkshire.

Abstract landscape sketch of moorland under rain, in ink and charcoal.

Rain over Farndale Moor, North York Moors. Sketchbook © Mari French 2019

However, this time I was drawn to the variety of surface texture, linear marks, colour and play of light on the upland plateau itself. Whereas the flowering heather covered the moors in a glorious purple last august, this time the colours were quieter, with striking rectangular patches of burnt heather suggesting possibilities for abstraction. With the stone outcrops, yellow lichen, patches of sienna-coloured soil and the dry vegetation, lit by sun or deep in shadow, I was confronted with an extensive patchwork of textures. Now I need to think how I want to treat these surface impressions back in the studio and where I’m taking them.

Moorland surfaces, Castlerigg, North York Moors. Sketchbook © Mari French 2019

They’ve given me inspiration and a theme for a batch of new canvases that I need to produce for several exhibitions this year, in particular ‘Surface’ exhibition at Gallery East, Woodbridge, Suffolk, in September which will feature contemporary female artists from East Anglia and beyond.

Disengaging the mind …

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

For months now I’ve been feeling stalled; lacking a new source of inspiration in my work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually one to hang around waiting for inspiration to strike, I like to get into the studio and work because who knows what might happen? Some of my most reluctant studio days have produced surprising and exciting work.

But usually I’m fired up about one subject or another – coastal reedbeds on the North Norfolk coast, Dungeness’ strange landscape, Cornwall’s dramatic coastline, Venice, North York Moors – and this informs and energises my work. These work series are usually a result of time spent in those landscapes, studying and exploring and I think this is where my problem stemmed from. For various reasons I’ve not been able to travel and explore as much as I’d like in the last 6 months.

So I’d slipped into an unhappy and relatively unproductive period of no particular direction, going through the angst that many artists experience: What am I doing? Where am I going? Am I producing anything worthwhile? This is despite the fact that I was still painting and experimenting, and that I’d had works accepted into well-respected exhibitions, but when did sense ever come into this?!

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

This week, still pondering subjects that might work in a series, I was in the studio, despite the sunshine tempting me to stay in the garden, and something made me look back at a bookmarked link to Canadian artist Cheryl Taves’ blog. I greatly admire Taves’ work and am grateful for the art advice posts that she publishes on her blog and her engaging honesty about her own experiences and problems.

“In the early stages of creating it is not a good time to engage our thinking minds…there will be plenty of time for that later. But, what we do want while we are creating is to be as limitless as possible…allowing ourselves to play, experiment and discover…” Cheryl Taves

Reading Taves’ post again, it dawned on me that a subject is not actually necessary for the way I work, how had I forgotten this? For years I used to start a painting with no particular subject in mind, playing around with the materials in an intuitive manner until something started to present itself to me. And although I’ll probably always react to new experience of landscape with new work, I realised that situation is not actually necessary for me to work.

I’d got myself tied in knots trying to straightjacket myself into responding to new subjects (and trying to demonstrate that response in the results) when I have a wealth of subconscious experience and material to rely on intuitively. What I need to do is to relearn how to ‘stay open’ to ‘allow myself to play, experiment and discover’ as Taves wisely advises. It seems obvious to me now, I can allow myself to put the question of subject matter to one side if I want to. To paint for the joy of it. I’ve been here before in the past, but I needed to be reminded. It’s not always easy advice to follow, but how it rewards us when we do. As another author said ‘trust the process’.

The other interesting aspect of this is that, as I rediscovered again today in the studio, once I give up the demands of subject matter, not only is there a joyful freedom again for me in working, but the resulting work still offers glimpses of certain motifs and experiences that I recognise. I can allow them to come through instead of forcing them into existence. I’m trying not to pigeonhole the result into a particular recognisable subject, that would be a self-defeating. But it offers an interesting dimension to the process.

It feels akin to channelling or being a conduit for the artwork. But we are channelling what we have, through years of work and observation, already stored in our minds and in our body memory. I knew this, but I’d forgotten, I needed to be reminded. Now I’m fired up again.

The following excerpt from Cheryl Taves’ blog (link at the bottom of the page) is worth following and reading in full as she also gives a list of useful guidelines …

Following The Flow
… Making art, whether it be through painting, writing, dance….any form of creative expression, requires a certain freedom and willingness to stay open, to engage what comes and trust the process. Following the flow.

In the early stages of creating it is not a good time to engage our thinking minds…there will be plenty of time for that later. But, what we do want while we are creating is to be as limitless as possible…allowing ourselves to play, experiment and discover. The only real requirement is to show up and be willing to follow.

I know this and yet I continually need to reinstate this into my painting practice because I easily slip back into fearful, analytical thinking much too soon…

Cheryl Taves 2015
https://www.cheryltaves.com/blog/2018/11/5/following-the-flow

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

On the surface …


Reed beds abstract. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 1. © Mari French 2019

I’ve begun experimenting with Mylar sheets (a kind of acetate film) to further explore my impressions of reedbeds on the North Norfolk coast. Spring is a lovely time for this subject, although I love them year round, and the recent sunny weather has had me reaching for my sketchbook and heading to Burnham Overy Staithe and Thornham once again.

Reacting to these location impressions back in the studio, I’ve found I prefer DuraLar sheets to Mylar, being specifically aimed at artists, and suitable for a wider range of media including acrylics. I’ve actually been using oils on them, unusual for me as I normally paint in acrylics/mixed media. But, though it takes longer to dry, oil paint glides onto the surface beautifully and editing out and inscribing marks into it is a joy. The sheets can also be overlaid on each other, creating veils of imagery, and other material can be sandwiched between.

The images in this post are a few early examples of my DuraLar experiments and are all approx A4 in size.

Reed beds abstract 2. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 2. © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 2. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019Reed beds abstract 3. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 3. © Mari French 2019