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
https://www.cheryltaves.com/blog/2018/11/5/following-the-flow

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

on the high moors 2: emerging images…

White Cross (mixed media on board) © Mari French 2018White Cross (mixed media on board) © Mari French 2018

White Cross (mixed media on board) © Mari French 2018

Well, the recent trip to the high moors above Rosedale in the North York Moors I wrote about in my last post paid off inspiration-wise I’m pleased to report. If you haven’t seen that post you can read it here.

I’ve been on a bit of a roll since getting back in the studio – a new palette reflecting the stone, iron ore, soft purples and ochres of the late summer/early autumn moorland landscape of North Yorkshire. First came these small studies on paper, after checking through my photos and sketches:

Moors above Rosedale, North York Moors. (study) © Mari French 2018

Moors above Rosedale (study) © Mari French 2018

 

Then a few explorations in a more abstract graphic style of the distinctive medieval ‘wheelhead’ White Cross or ‘Fat Betty’ that sits up on the moorland at the crossroads of 3 parishes:

 

Eventually I allowed my subconscious to take over and without referring to any of these resources trusted to memory and instinct (the way I love to work!). I wanted a soft palette of green-greys, bruise-greys, and blue-greys with also a soft brick tone to reflect the outcrops of iron ore in the area. I often mixed these directly on the support itself. I tried 40x40cm canvas but found in this instance I was more happy working on watercolour board at a similar size.

Anyway, these works below (and top of this post) are what emerged. I’m very excited by them and enjoyed creating them so much. They’ve already aroused interest in two galleries. I’m pleased to report I’m taking these first three of this new series to a gallery in Sevenoaks, Kent at the end of September. Now looking forward to what else emerges in this series!

High moorland (mixed media on board) © Mari French 2018

High moorland (mixed media on board) © Mari French 2018

Land of iron (mixed media on board) © Mari French 2018

Land of iron (mixed media on board) © Mari French 2018

 

on the high moors …

White Cross, NYM

White Cross (or ‘Fat Betty’) near Rosedale, North York Moors. © Mari French 2018

What do artists do when they hit a creative block? How do you refresh your inspiration? There are probably as many answers to these questions as there are artists. I have different methods but sometimes all that works is a complete change of scene…

A few weeks ago I was going through a frustrating period of needing a serious injection of new inspiration (and cooler temperatures!), along with quite a few other artists I know, apparently. I love Norfolk especially the saltmarshes, but felt the need for hills, drama and a different landscape history.

So I booked myself into a cottage high on a hill, above the beautiful village of Rosedale Abbey in the North York Moors. The green fertile farmland and historic villages of NYM are widely known, but I was interested in the bleaker but no less beautiful high plateau of heather moorland soaring above them.

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Rain approaching, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

Although only there for 3 full days I made the most of my time by getting up early and going out sketching and exploring the area until dusk. The weather was bright and warm at first but soon became more changeable with long fronts of dark rainclouds looming overhead, giving me the light and contrast I prefer for sketching.

One of the distinctive features of these moors are the numerous ancient standing stones, medieval crosses and waymarkers dotting the area. The latter two types were placed as guides to travelling pilgrims, church-goers, funerals etc traversing the extensive moorland plateau, particularly in bad weather.

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Standing stone, Dog Howe, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

High moorland near Rosedale

High moorland near Rosedale, North York Moors. © Mari French 2018

It might not be immediately obvious from these photos but this area is high up. Tucked in between these heathery stretches are deep long valleys of farms, rivers and villages.

No wifi or mobile signal for most of the time was bliss. Sometimes sat amongst the heather and scattered rocks, all I could hear was the buzzing of thousands of bees.

Sketching kit, NYM

Sketching among the heather. © Mari French 2018

Spaunton Moor, NYM

Spaunton Moor, above Chimney Bank, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

After the long heatwave early signs of autumn approaching were noticeable in the odd splash of gold in dying bracken, russet in some of the heather that was starting to go over and in the lichen on the rocks.

Also, this is ironstone country, the ore was mined extensively in 19thC Rosedale and the industrial ruins still punctuate the skyline above the valley. The iron ore shows through in the stone scattered about and in patches of dark red where the soil is exposed.

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Iron ore in sandstone rocks, Rosedale, North York Moors. © Mari French 2018

Rainclouds over Dale Head, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

All this richness of sensation, of light, colour and texture, began to give me the palette I wanted: muted purple greys, bruise tints, ochres and burnt siennas, warm stone greys. The layers of the undulating landscape, stone walls, crosses, standing stones and tracks offered lines and marks, enclosures and shapes.

Burnt heather and dry grass, NYM

Burnt heather and dry grass, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

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Cloud shadows, North York Moors. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

Since returning I’ve felt energised by the experience and excited by some of the resulting experimental studies that have been emerging in my studio. I’ll be showing some of these in part two of this post.