New coastline, fresh eye…

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Salthouse coastline. Acrylic paint/ink and mixed media on paper. © Mari French 2021

Now that my body of artwork for the Babylon Arts exhibition in Ely in May is complete I can start experimenting again and thinking of new work. As you may know from reading my posts I’m fascinated by the huge and ever-changing East Anglian coastline and a recent visit to a different part of the coast from my usual sketching ground (in a bid to find a quieter spot) had me playing around with ink and ideas in the studio this past week and I want to see where this takes me…

Shingle beach at Salthouse, North Norfolk © Mari French 2021

The weather has been almost unrelentingly stormy, grey and wet recently, apart from one gloriously sunny and mild day spent at Salthouse, on the North Norfolk coast, where the land starts to rise before the cliffs at Cromer. Back in the studio I began to channel this experience, in collage/mixed media, in my workbook, which also turned out a bit stormy!

Salthouse coastline. Workbook collage/mixed media spread © Mari French 2021

The studio has also been pretty cold so I’m pleased to have produced several initial experimental works in acrylic/ink on paper and board, although I have to say I didn’t think they were working at the time. In my mind’s eye I had envisaged something much more abstract and with brighter colours, so was frustrated to find I’d spent several hours messing around with quite monochrome colours in acrylic inks and paint, with loosely representative results.

Abstract coastal painting in mixed media by Mari French 2021.
Salthouse coastline. Acrylic paint/ink and mixed media on paper. © Mari French 2021

Does this ever happen to you? Non-abstract artists may wonder what on earth I mean – surely I could use exactly what colours I wanted and applied them exactly as I intended? You’d think so wouldn’t you?

Well it appears my subconscious often has it’s own agenda. I’m an ‘intuitive’ artist so rely quite a bit on what emerges without my thinking too hard about it. Having experienced a place, probably sketched and photographed it too, I prefer to experiment (play!) with various media and see how my mind interprets it. And I love working like this – it can be very rewarding and surprising. It can often enable me to distill a subject down to the elements that excite me, without obsessing over fiddly detail or accuracy.

Salthouse, experimental abstracts. Acrylic paint/ink and mixed media on paper. © Mari French 2021

However, on this day I left the studio in a tired and frustrated mood, feeling a failure, and at home grumbled at length to my always sympathetic other half, whose usual wise advice was ‘have a break from it’. He was right, the next day, looking at the photos I’d taken of the work, I was surprised – I could see quite a bit in the artworks that work for me. My subconscious had known what it was doing, even if I didn’t have faith in it at the time.

Salthouse coastline. Acrylic paint/ink and mixed media on paper. © Mari French 2021

Sometimes we have to put a distance between ourselves and our new work until we can see it with a fresh eye. I still want to experiment with stronger colours and a more abstract feel with this coastal work, but I realise I may need to let it develop in its own time. At the moment I particularly love the subdued soft greys and soft pink ochres of the two works below even though they are nothing like I had in mind for the subject originally. As usual… watch this space!

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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.