Art at the edge: Dungeness

Photo of old fishing boat, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

Old boat, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

What draws so many artists to challenging landscapes; those that would be considered by many as bleak, abandoned, unwelcoming, even ugly? For myself, as a painter of abstract landscapes, this kind of subject matter can punctuate the complacency that can occur with more familiar types of scenery, making us notice things with a fresh eye. And, of course, they often present unusual motifs, colours and shapes. On a week’s stay in Rye at the end of October I spent a day at Dungeness, the U.K’s only ‘desert’, a remote headland of wind-blown undulating shingle, poking out into the Channel on the southeast coast of England.

Small experimental mixedmedia artwork on paper, inspired by Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

Small experimental mixedmedia on paper. © Mari French 2018

Black fishermen’s huts, some abandoned and pulled apart by the weather, punctuate the scene. Decaying wooden fishing boats with their distinctive shelving sterns to cope with the haul over shingle banks, not one but two impressive lighthouses, and of course, the hulk of the nuclear power station squatting at the edge of the sea, all under a lowering and suitably ominous sky.

Remnants & power station under a stormy sky, Dungeness. Photograph © Mari French 2018

Fishing industry remnants & power station, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

I’d become aware of Dungeness some time ago mainly through ‘Modern Nature‘, the book by artist, filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman, who made this his home with his partner in ‘Prospect Cottage’ a traditional black wooden house with bright yellow window frames. The driftwood garden he coaxed from shingle, became famous and is still visited all year round.

 

 

The weather had turned earlier that week and the bitter strong easterly, intermittent rain and massive ink-dark weather fronts sweeping the sky made for a challenging sketching spot. I crunched over the shingle, dodging the wind behind the bulks of abandoned fishing boats and settled in the lee of a working fisherman’s hut to attempt some impressions of this place.

 

 

Back in my studio I considered what intrigued me about this ‘edgeland’ and how to respond to it:
thinking about the technology, old and new; the telegraph poles and pylons threading the space; the lighthouses – fingers stabbing into the sky; the nuclear power plant with its slab-sided buildings and slatted towers; the light, the shingle, the scribble of dying vegetation, the black wooden huts standing and fallen, the rusting discarded machinery – old tracks, winches and chains – for hauling boats and catch in the past.

The beauty, the desolation, the blank canvas waiting.

Dungeness, tracks & fishing huts. © Mari French 2018

Dungeness, tracks & fishing huts. © Mari French 2018

on the high moors …

White Cross, NYM

White Cross (or ‘Fat Betty’) near Rosedale, North York Moors. © Mari French 2018

What do artists do when they hit a creative block? How do you refresh your inspiration? There are probably as many answers to these questions as there are artists. I have different methods but sometimes all that works is a complete change of scene…

A few weeks ago I was going through a frustrating period of needing a serious injection of new inspiration (and cooler temperatures!), along with quite a few other artists I know, apparently. I love Norfolk especially the saltmarshes, but felt the need for hills, drama and a different landscape history.

So I booked myself into a cottage high on a hill, above the beautiful village of Rosedale Abbey in the North York Moors. The green fertile farmland and historic villages of NYM are widely known, but I was interested in the bleaker but no less beautiful high plateau of heather moorland soaring above them.

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Rain approaching, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

Although only there for 3 full days I made the most of my time by getting up early and going out sketching and exploring the area until dusk. The weather was bright and warm at first but soon became more changeable with long fronts of dark rainclouds looming overhead, giving me the light and contrast I prefer for sketching.

One of the distinctive features of these moors are the numerous ancient standing stones, medieval crosses and waymarkers dotting the area. The latter two types were placed as guides to travelling pilgrims, church-goers, funerals etc traversing the extensive moorland plateau, particularly in bad weather.

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Standing stone, Dog Howe, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

High moorland near Rosedale

High moorland near Rosedale, North York Moors. © Mari French 2018

It might not be immediately obvious from these photos but this area is high up. Tucked in between these heathery stretches are deep long valleys of farms, rivers and villages.

No wifi or mobile signal for most of the time was bliss. Sometimes sat amongst the heather and scattered rocks, all I could hear was the buzzing of thousands of bees.

Sketching kit, NYM

Sketching among the heather. © Mari French 2018

Spaunton Moor, NYM

Spaunton Moor, above Chimney Bank, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

After the long heatwave early signs of autumn approaching were noticeable in the odd splash of gold in dying bracken, russet in some of the heather that was starting to go over and in the lichen on the rocks.

Also, this is ironstone country, the ore was mined extensively in 19thC Rosedale and the industrial ruins still punctuate the skyline above the valley. The iron ore shows through in the stone scattered about and in patches of dark red where the soil is exposed.

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Iron ore in sandstone rocks, Rosedale, North York Moors. © Mari French 2018

Rainclouds over Dale Head, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

All this richness of sensation, of light, colour and texture, began to give me the palette I wanted: muted purple greys, bruise tints, ochres and burnt siennas, warm stone greys. The layers of the undulating landscape, stone walls, crosses, standing stones and tracks offered lines and marks, enclosures and shapes.

Burnt heather and dry grass, NYM

Burnt heather and dry grass, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

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Cloud shadows, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

Since returning I’ve felt energised by the experience and excited by some of the resulting experimental studies that have been emerging in my studio. I’ll be showing some of these in part two of this post.

Sea lavender & dark skies…

Sea lavender sketch, Thornham saltmarsh

Sea lavender sketch, Thornham saltmarsh. © Mari French 2018

Due to flagging and wilting in the extended heatwave of the past 7 weeks, I’m playing catch up with painting and social media etc. I’m really not good in the temperatures of 34C plus which we’ve had lately.

Anyway, enough grumbling! We had a fantastic lightning storm last night and torrential rain, so I’m feeling a bit more refreshed and don’t need to water the garden for a few days. This post is really to tell you about a sketching trip I had to Thornham salt marsh on the North Norfolk coast a week ago, when it was a bit overcast and threatening rain (though it didnt) and so much more comfortable for walking and sketching. (I did post some of these images on Facebook etc, so they may look a bit familiar to some of you).

Sea lavender and dark skies, Thornham, North Norfolk. © Mari French 2018

Sea lavender and dark skies, Thornham, North Norfolk. © Mari French 2018

I’d driven up to Thornham to catch the swathes of sea lavender that carpet much of the Norfolk marshes this time of year. But I was also astonished by the profusion of wildflowers (despite the drought, or maybe because of it) and butterflies along the paths on top of the sea defences – mallow, wild fennel, corn cockle, wild carrot and something with exquisite clover-like white and blue flowers which I haven’t yet identified (see lower left image). Feel free to enlighten me!

 

I started off with gouache, which I’m enjoying using more frequently recently, combined with other media like pencil and Posca paint pens. But I soon decided to switch to wet-in-wet watercolour as the gouache was drying too fast and causing the brush to drag. I thought wet-in-wet might allow me to evoke the looming skies and shadows on the marsh more effectively. I love the way the creeks reflect the light, especially as the skies darken.

 

Sea lavender, Ragged Marsh.

Sea lavender, Ragged Marsh. © Mari French 2018

I’ve since been getting back into the swing of painting in my studio (only in the mornings for now, too hot after lunch), and I’m having fun putting some of these influences to use on canvas, which I’ll show you in my next post.