Cornish sketchbook…

Boat Cove, Pendeen. Mixed media sketch. © Mari French 2018

A few sketches and photographs from a week in St Ives, Cornwall, back in early May. Although a holiday, I also wanted to get some sketching done of the distinctive rugged coast around Penwith and St Ives. Living in Norfolk we are some 7 hours drive (at least) away, so I don’t get down there as often as I’d like.

I started a series of Cornish cove paintings last year on a residency at Brisons Veor, Cape Cornwall, and delivered two subsequent works from the series to the Harbour Gallery Portscatho (see previous post), during my week at St Ives (I found out today that I sold one of them, nice surprise!).

Boat Cove, Pendeen, Cornwall. © Mari French 2018

So, to continue working on the series, I needed to remind myself of that light, those colours and the sheer exhilaration of feeling the waves boom against the rocks below me in the small rocky coves that punctuate this coast.

When the tide is out there is an astonishing variety of geology: rocks, stones, boulders, pebbles, and contortions, layers and strata as well, of course, the pale pale sand reflecting the light. With the tide returning there’s the blinding white foam surging around the rocks at the head of the muscular turquoise waves, filling the coves.

Spring sea, below The Island, St Ives. Mixed media sketch. © Mari French 2018

I usually sketch in watercolours combined with other media, but here I found the rich colours of the wet watercolour paint soon dried to a much duller finish than I wanted. I tried using gouache instead. I’d only brought a limited range with me, so it was a bit of a challenge mixing the colours I wanted, but I liked the creamy blendable nature of the paint and the richness of the results. They team very well with paint pens and other media. I needed a larger palette and a Tupperware box lid fit the bill nicely.

Cornwall sketchbook. © Mari French 2018

This is all a fantastic contrast for an artist who spends much of her other time exploring and painting the salt marsh and reed beds of North Norfolk’s coastline. A contrast which I hope will result in many paintings in the new series.

Boat Cove, Pendeen. Mixed media sketch. © Mari French 2018

Spring in the reed beds …

Reedbeds, Burnham Overy Staithe. © Mari French 2018

Reedbeds, Burnham Overy Staithe. © Mari French 2018

I stepped down the steep bank of the sea defences and out of the cold wind. Now on level with the huge swathe of reeds, the warm sun on my face, I could hear so many different birds belling, fluting and chiming, out of sight among the swaying blonde wands. Overhead, flocks of Brent and Pinkfoot geese clamoured and a pair of red kites circled in the sun.

This was last week on the first day of spring and I was walking along the marshes and creeks at Burnham Overy Staithe on the North Norfolk coast. Blue skies and bright sunshine drew me out sketching for the first time in ages and it was bliss to be out under that huge blue open dome of sky (apart from that cold wind of course).

Sketching reedbeds in spring sunshine. © Mari French 2018

Sketching reedbeds in spring sunshine. © Mari French 2018

There were so many bird species about, including a group of six avocets, the poster birds of the RSPB, with their upturned slender beaks, they danced their delicate crane-like courtship dance on the shining mudflats.

 

It may come as a surprise to some who see my work, but the calls, flight and tracks of coastal birds are often referenced in the guise of abstract meandering marks in my paintings. Along with the movement of the wind in reeds or over water, jet trails in the sky and my own wanderings, this is one of the techniques I employ to evoke a sense of my experience of a place.

Below is one of the resulting small mixed media works I produced in my studio this week, all fired up and inspired by that glorious day sketching the reed beds. I’ll post more soon.

'Reedbeds 1' © Mari French 2018

‘Reedbeds 1’ © Mari French 2018

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.