Confinement & cul-de-sacs…

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”A time of gifts’ © Mari French 2020

I’ve never left my blog unwritten for such a long time before. It’s good to be back. In the past few months of the Covid crisis, I just haven’t been able to summon up the will or the words to write about my art. As for the art itself, like many artists in these strange times, I’ve been floundering around a little lost for a while. With 3 exhibitions cancelled/moved online, Open Studios also cancelled, galleries closed etc, it’s hardly surprising I suppose. It’s not that I haven’t been painting, and I’ve made myself go to the studio to do something a few times a week at least, it’s just that each spurt of creative activity – sketching, collage, painting – has seemed to fizzle out after a short time. Cul-de-sacs I’ve started to call them.

However, each little cul-de-sac has produced some interesting results, so perhaps they hold some promise for a future way forward; like one of those narrow hidden footpaths you can often use for access to the area beyond the cul-de-sac, the one cars can’t take.

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Ploughed fields & tree belt, near Anmer. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2020

With anything more than a long walk forbidden here in the UK, in the last few months, coastal visits weren’t an option (I live 20 minutes drive from the beautiful North Norfolk coastline, where the reedbeds and saltmarshes are a great source of inspiration), I’ve been out sketching the local fields and farmland – something I haven’t really done since moving to Norfolk 10 years ago.

I loved the way the early spring sunshine caught the ploughed fields, exaggerating the russet and ochres of the sand and chalk soil. And the hares were out in force chasing each other in large groups. I haven’t taken these any further though, hopefully at some future point…

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Ploughed field, Anmer Road, with flint. © Mari French 2020

Meanwhile, at the airbase, outside my studio, is a large cherry tree which was covered in deep pink blossom back in March. It was only when a glorious deep pink started to appear in a series of small experimental works on paper, that I realised how the blossom had entered my subconscious. These works look great on some lovely small white cradled wooden panels I’ve bought. I really enjoyed these but as I said, it wasn’t long before I started to flounder. I keep going back to them, so they’re going to get picked up again at some point.

Later in spring, mostly confined to my garden (I know, I’m lucky compared to many) and with almost a month of warm sunshine, my glorious tulips, ‘La belle époque’, just had to be sketched. Then in the studio, I set about abstracting them, in both mixed media and collage, which I enjoyed, before (yes you guessed it) I once again hit a cul-de-sac. Still, I’m excited by the potential of these small works so who knows.

Below is the mixed media collage I produced as part of this abstract tulip work  (all the papers using in it were created by myself, including the calligraphy). Which reminds me I haven’t posted the experimental collage I was developing back in February before the virus hit, so I’ll add them to the next post (it won’t take as long as this one post did I promise!).

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‘Palimpsest’, mixed media collage © Mari French 2020

On the surface …


Reed beds abstract. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 1. © Mari French 2019

I’ve begun experimenting with Mylar sheets (a kind of acetate film) to further explore my impressions of reedbeds on the North Norfolk coast. Spring is a lovely time for this subject, although I love them year round, and the recent sunny weather has had me reaching for my sketchbook and heading to Burnham Overy Staithe and Thornham once again.

Reacting to these location impressions back in the studio, I’ve found I prefer DuraLar sheets to Mylar, being specifically aimed at artists, and suitable for a wider range of media including acrylics. I’ve actually been using oils on them, unusual for me as I normally paint in acrylics/mixed media. But, though it takes longer to dry, oil paint glides onto the surface beautifully and editing out and inscribing marks into it is a joy. The sheets can also be overlaid on each other, creating veils of imagery, and other material can be sandwiched between.

The images in this post are a few early examples of my DuraLar experiments and are all approx A4 in size.

Reed beds abstract 2. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 2. © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 2. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019Reed beds abstract 3. Mixed media on DuraLar © Mari French 2019

Reed beds abstract 3. © Mari French 2019

all in the detail…

Reedbed sketch (detail) 1 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 1 © Mari French 2017

Funny how the mind works isnt it? Just browsing through my current sketchbook wondering where to get my next inspiration from and of course it’s all there in front of me (which is the point of my sketches after all, apart from the enjoyment of exploring a place and training myself to ‘see’).

Reedbed sketch (detail) 2 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 2 © Mari French 2017

But although I paint abstract landscapes, I don’t find it easy to abstract from my own sketches, so I’ve come to the conclusion – why not photograph some of the details/colour combinations in my sketchbooks that most interest me and crop them down, in effect abstracting them further? Removing them from their literal context while keeping the colours and marks formed intuitively from studying the subject (in this case reedbeds). Thus creating fragments of inspiration and signposts from my own work, at one remove from my original interpretation, to lead me to my next abstract landscape.

Reedbed sketch (detail) 3 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 3 © Mari French 2017

Blindingly obvious I suppose to some, but sometimes I tend to miss the obvious (am I the only one?). Perhaps getting too bogged down in the well-known ‘must produce work for exhibition/sale’ scenario and forgetting the vital process of mining one’s own sketchbooks and workbooks for my own subconscious insights into a subject.

I prefer not to work directly from my sketches to develop paintings as I find myself getting bogged down in trying to replicate (even subconsciously) the freedom of marks and effects that give life to the sketch, inevitably resulting in (for me) a stilted overworked final piece.

Reedbed sketch (detail) 4 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 4 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 5 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 5 © Mari French 2017

Many of my sketches use watercolour, sometimes ink, wet-in-wet, a technique I love for the glorious random accidental effects that can occur, often suggesting landscape forms. Looking at the cropped details of sketches in this post, I can see how the wands of the reeds, white spaces of the paper showing here and there and feathery ‘bleeds’ of paint/ink now take on a more prominent abstract element in the composition. And that gorgeous granulation! Also interesting is how small details can suggest the larger landscape. (I must apologise here for one or two rather blurry photos).

Reedbed sketch (detail) 6 © Mari French 2017Reedbed sketch (detail) 6 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 6 © Mari French 2017

I don’t expect to replicate these effects, especially on a large scale, but, I’m reasoning, if I print out cropped abstract sections from my reedbed sketches I will be effectively removing the recognisable parts of the image, leaving myself with inspirational pieces of colour, light and atmosphere with which to influence my subsequent series of work; suggestions rather than templates.

Reedbed sketch (detail) 7 © Mari French 2017

Reedbed sketch (detail) 7 © Mari French 2017

I’m sure many artists will do this already, but I’m excited to fall upon this idea as a way of working to abstraction from my own sketchbook. I’d love to hear techniques you use to create looser/abstract pieces from your sketches, if you want to share them please do in the comments below.