Lost in space…and back to earth

Cropped detail of mixed media Dungeness artwork

I’m steadily getting used to the new studio. Since my previous post, back in early October, I’ve made myself spend a lot of time in my new big white space, even on the rainy depressing days when I didn’t want to. And I’m steadily developing a new series of mixed media works on paper, inspired by that Dungeness visit a few months ago. So the painting is going pretty well, considering, and that’s helped with my apprehension and sense of being ‘lost’ in the space.

Cropped detail of mixed media Dungeness painting

I also rediscovered a book full of images of artists’ studios and spaces which reminded me that, being a bit of a magpie at home (it’s full of vintage/collectibles), I could spill my collecting over into this place and I’d feel more comfortable and hopefully inspired by being surrounded by stuff I love, whilst at the same time reducing that expanse of white!

There’ve been teething problems naturally – the building, like a lot of the airbase, has been basically neglected since the 1980s when the MOD left. Fortunately I have a very practical, patient and helpful other half, so rainwater leaking in from the glass ‘lantern’ in the roof, draughts, problems with getting the log burner going, are sorted or in hand, thankfully. It’s not easy to heat either, so the padded overalls I bought several years ago are still an essential.

Cropped detail from mixed media Dungeness painting

Meanwhile, I’m loving working on the latest paintings – gouache, ink, acrylic etc on paper and newsprint. As with much of my work there’s an element of serendipity involved in the process, of seeing what happens to that ink when I wet it further, of obscuring and revealing, planned and accidental, layering, veiling with gesso, scribbling and scoring, and so on.

Cropped detail from Dungeness mixed media painting

Several works from this series need to be kept under wraps until early next year, but you can see a few cropped details in this post.

Cropped detail from mixed media Dungeness painting

Work space: new studio syndrome


Dungeness series. Small mixed media on paper.

How perverse the creative mind can be. If we’re lucky, we may get to a stage we’ve worked for, strived and hoped for for some time (with me it’s my ‘new’ larger studio), but then frustratingly we can find it difficult to accept the new (improved) situation without a sometimes lengthy period of mixed emotions: imposter syndrome; guilt (‘I’m not making the most of the new whatever-it-is’); bewilderment (‘where do I go from here?’); ‘I’m supposed to produce great stuff now… what if I can’t?’. And did you notice that word ‘lucky‘ near the start of this paragraph? Of course, there’s an element of luck in everything, but still… giving ourselves some credit is never easy.


Dungeness series. Small mixed media on paper.

I’ve been working in my large new 1930s airbase studio for a few days a week, for the past month and, when not actively engaged in painting (a few examples here in this post), I find myself floundering a bit – the space, the extra storage (where do I put stuff… and then find it again?), the light’s different (it’s often very good, great natural light, but it’s late in the year and I don’t have my daylight tubes in yet, so when daylight fades the lighting is a bit ‘yellow’). I feel like one of those rescue hens which, when first put out into lovely open space, huddle close to their hut for safety, as I seem to have gathered my easel and paints etc around me in the middle of the room, a bit like a wagon train under siege. I’m not looking for sympathy. I know many artists would give their right arm for a space like this. But it’s still disconcerting.

I’ve read that artists can often take quite some time to get used to a new space, and that it can inevitably affect their work. So I was anticipating this stage somewhat before I moved in. And I’m fairly sure a big part of it is my usual S.A.D. syndrome kicking in with the shorter days and the current murky wet and windy weather.

The answer, I know, is to go to the studio as often as possible and get working, and keep working until it becomes second nature – here, working, in this strange new studio, with its different light, different sounds, different surroundings.


Dungeness series. Small mixed media on paper.

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

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