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

balancing act …

'Zawn' finished painting. © Mari French 2018.

‘Zawn’ finished painting. © Mari French 2018.

I’ve just sent off three new canvases in my Cornish Coves theme to The Harbour Gallery Portscatho in Cornwall as mentioned in a previous post. The one above is titled ‘Zawn’, which was the name given to deep and narrow sea-inlets in cliffs, often  exploited by tin and copper miners of the past. I thought you might be interested in seeing how the work developed.

The photo below shows the early stages of ‘Zawn’. I had no definite image in my mind at the start of this painting, other than the Cornish coastline theme. However, I think, having painted light and sea into the other canvases, I wanted to do something a little different here, to capture the power and looming presence of the rocks and cliffs of the wild Penwith coast.

'Zawn', 1st stage. 50x60cm, acrylic on canvas. © Mari French © 2018

‘Zawn’, 1st stage. © Mari French © 2018

At the beginning, I gave free rein to my paintstrokes, scumbling and scratching into the paint. I used a dryish brush in places to give the sparkle of light on rock and sand. The resulting image suggested to me a cave in a dark cliff and having come across several of these around Penwith, I decided to develop the work in that direction.

Inevitably some of the luscious marks and gestural passages at the start of a work eventually get painted over, often a hard decision to take; but without the confidence to do this editing, I find a finished artwork will have a static, tentative feel to it. (Of course another tricky, but important part of the process is leaving areas alone!). It’s a question of balance of freedom and control.

Below shows ‘Zawn’ almost finished. I decided I wasn’t happy with the pointy shapes in the background behind the large boulder on the right, so did some further work on them and tied the image together by suggesting a large rock instead, plus some line work (see top photo of this post).

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‘Zawn’ almost finished. © Mari French 2018

Hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into the creation of one of my semi-abstract landscapes. I find photographing some of the stages as I paint an invaluable record and self-teaching aid.

 

rust & stone…

Rusted artefact 1, mixedmedia on paper. © Mari French 2017

Rusted artefact 1, mixedmedia on paper. © Mari French 2017

I recently hit one of those annoying self-doubting phases all artists seem to experience occasionally, just wondering where I was going with my art, and what if anything is inspiring me now. I kept nagging myself that, since I returned from my two week art residency at Brisons Veor, Cape Cornwall in the spring, I hadn’t really explored all the rich inspiration I’d found, apart from the four canvases inspired by the rocky coastal coves that I’d produced for the mixed exhibition at Artichoke Gallery, East Sussex (till 23 September 2017.

To be fair on myself, part of the reason is that I was busy finishing/framing existing work and getting it out there to galleries – existing and new, and fulfilling various art commitments such as the Norfolk Open Studios. It’s been a pretty busy year for me so far for exhibiting. Something I really can’t complain about as it’s a big and exciting part of the job, or it should be!

But, of course, like most artists I’m happiest when I’m creating. So I decided to just play for a few days – experiment with different media, collage, etc. – and try to take the pressure off myself. And, as often happens (thankfully!), something started to click (and yes, you’ll have noticed I’ve been in this situation before!)…

Rusted artefact 2, mixedmedia on paper. © Mari French 2017.

Rusted artefact 2, mixedmedia on paper. © Mari French 2017.

Lo and behold, after messing about for a few days, I became strangely drawn to a lovely gold ochre gouache colour coupled with dark blue ink and collage. The limited palette and strong shapes reminded me of something.

 

I realised that the work I was creating was not only influenced after all, by the Cornish sea coves around Penwith, but more specifically was subconsciously referencing the old rusting fishing industry artefacts I kept coming across scattered around and embedded in rocks and boulders – winches, chains, mooring rings etc. Objects that are in the process of decaying back into the elements they were formed from. Of course the large circle might also be seen as referencing (albeit subconsciously) the Men an Tol, the Bronze Age hole stone near Morven, to the north west of Penwith. Circles figure a lot in my recent work!

So this is the latest theme I’m exploring. The works shown here are medium-sized (approx 40x30cm) on paper. If you’ve enjoyed this post and you’re interested in reading more of my art progress, thoughts and adventures, why not sign up for an email notification when I post to my blog.