Dungeness: sun, angels & black tar

 

Dungeness sketchbook spread. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness sketchbook spread. © Mari French 2019.

Been slipping behind with posting this year, it’s been so busy, what with moving into a new studio which has been more time-consuming and tiring than I could have imagined (more of which in the next post), preparing for a solo exhibition and several other shows I’m taking part in. However, I’ve been wanting to tell you about my sketching trip to Dungeness back in August, so here goes.

I’ve been determined to return to this otherworldly stretch of shingle, old black fishing huts and strange structures ever since I spent a brief few hours there last October. So I arranged to spend 4 nights in nearby Littlestone and travelled the few miles into Dungeness each day to get as much sketching done as possible, with the intention of prompting a new series of work.

Dungeness boat and tracks. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness, old boat and tracks. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness, for those unfamiliar with it (the UK version by the way), is a wedge of coast sticking out into the English Channel between Dover and Eastbourne on the South East coast of England. ‘Denge’ meaning ‘dangerous’ and ‘Ness’ nose or promontory. Over a long time longshore drift has piled up acres of shingle into a landscape of dunes and levels. It’s always been a fishing area but now many of the old black-tarred huts with their rusting iron winches are decaying or gone. There’s enough of them left though, along with evidence of old MOD structures, set up between the wars, and the more recent bulk of the Nuclear power station, plus the two distinctive lighthouses, to make this a fascinating place for artists and photographers. Wooden hulks of derelict and still operative fishing boats also litter this stretch of coastline.

Bright sunshine and a strong coastal wind made for tricky sketching conditions, but I pushed myself to fill as much of my sketchbook as possible, also playing around with collaging and sketching in it back at my selfcatering place in the evenings. I went through the usual (for me) dilemma of having a fairly short time in an inspiring place, yet trying to cram in as much work as I could. I was exhausted after several fraught and tiring weeks of moving studio etc, yet I resisted taking it easy. I had to remind myself that all the time I’m there I’m taking in colours, texture, shape, sounds etc, subconsciously, even if I’m not completing as much of the sketchbook as I wanted to. I know from previous experience it will come out in the work I eventually produce, if I allow it. But it seems I have to go through this palaver each time!

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Dungeness impressions, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Anyway, as you can see from this post, I did get a fair bit done, and am pretty pleased and excited by most of the results. I tried to avoid painting my usual loose, but obvious watercolour  ‘scenes’ this time. I think I succeeded a bit. I’d taken pre-stained tissue and other collage materials to help the process and to get quickly away from ‘white page’ syndrome. This was great fun when sat on shingle in the teeth of a blustery wind – hanging onto my hat with one hand and my collage bits with the other! It’s a nature reserve, and many wildflowers were growing among the shingle, the last thing I wanted to do was litter it with bits of paper!

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Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

A few notes from my sketchbook:

So much light here. Sun is hot and wind has backed off…

Today I can see why this stretch of coast is said to have the most sunlight in the UK. The sky is a huge dome, the heat shimmers from the shingle and the tall wooden ‘angel’ structure ripples in the distance.* …

I lost the plot a bit with the wind today, it didnt work as intended, but it’ll remind me of the day! And I may be able to adapt it …

Just wandered round Derek Jarman’s garden** at Prospect Cottage. It feels like a church, very touching and, with the wind whistling in the overhead wires, beautiful but sad. ‘Busy olde foole, unruly sun’…

Dungeness Open Studios: series of small huts selling the art and linocuts of artist Paddy Hamilton. Bought one of the ‘Beach Angel’ linoprints, which shows what looks like an angel on the shingle with a trumpet, but on closer inspection turns out to be a shrimp fisherman hoisting his shovel and his great long shrimp net behind him …

If I had a few more days I’d probably get the balance of exploration, input and response about right. Wish I could stay longer …

*This very tall wooden cross structure was erected when the power station was built and was found to be blocking the view of the church which vessels used to line up their sights and navigate safely on this stretch of coast. Reminds me of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. A overseeing guardian.

**Derek Jarman, film-maker, artist, writer, gardener made his home here when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. He filled his shingle garden with indigenous wild plants and made sculptures from old found wooden and rusting salvaged items. The first and last verses of John Dunne’s poem ‘The sun rising’ is picked out in wooden letters covering the whole of one wall of his black-tarred traditional cottage with its yellow framed windows. The cottage and garden are now a very popular attraction in Dungeness. Jarman died in 1994 and is buried in nearby Old Romney.

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revisiting reed beds …

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Coastal reed beds, sunlight. © Mari French 2019

I need some new inspiration. I’ve loved exploring my impressions of Dungeness (see my last three posts), but in all fairness I probably need more than that one day of exploring and sketching back in October. I’m not abandoning the subject, but I do feel I’m retreading old ground now. I need to go back to visit and sketch, but for various reasons I can’t for a while. Three largish canvases stalled, so time for a change of direction. I believe artists need to be able to study a subject in some depth before creating meaningful expressive abstract interpretations.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to practice markmaking in my studio with acrylics, ink and other mixed media and enjoying messing about in my workbook. I can feel coastal reedbeds and sunlight coming through again and the urge to go walking and sketching in my usual stomping ground on the North Norfolk coast between Thornham and Burnham Overy Staithe.

Experimental painting with ink and acrylics © Mari French 2019
Workbook markmaking practice.

Reed beds, early Spring. © Mari French 2019

Another effective way of moving through a stalled phase for some artists can be to change techniques/medium for a while. So I’ve purchased some sheets of Mylar (as used for stencils) to try out. Obviously I need to play around with them for a while to discover their potential. So far I think oil paints with oil bars/pastels might give the most satisfying results, but oh the drying time! More about this in another 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.