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.


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.


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.


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


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.

Sea lavender & dark skies…

Sea lavender sketch, Thornham saltmarsh

Sea lavender sketch, Thornham saltmarsh. © Mari French 2018

Due to flagging and wilting in the extended heatwave of the past 7 weeks, I’m playing catch up with painting and social media etc. I’m really not good in the temperatures of 34C plus which we’ve had lately.

Anyway, enough grumbling! We had a fantastic lightning storm last night and torrential rain, so I’m feeling a bit more refreshed and don’t need to water the garden for a few days. This post is really to tell you about a sketching trip I had to Thornham salt marsh on the North Norfolk coast a week ago, when it was a bit overcast and threatening rain (though it didnt) and so much more comfortable for walking and sketching. (I did post some of these images on Facebook etc, so they may look a bit familiar to some of you).

Sea lavender and dark skies, Thornham, North Norfolk. © Mari French 2018

Sea lavender and dark skies, Thornham, North Norfolk. © Mari French 2018

I’d driven up to Thornham to catch the swathes of sea lavender that carpet much of the Norfolk marshes this time of year. But I was also astonished by the profusion of wildflowers (despite the drought, or maybe because of it) and butterflies along the paths on top of the sea defences – mallow, wild fennel, corn cockle, wild carrot and something with exquisite clover-like white and blue flowers which I haven’t yet identified (see lower left image). Feel free to enlighten me!


I started off with gouache, which I’m enjoying using more frequently recently, combined with other media like pencil and Posca paint pens. But I soon decided to switch to wet-in-wet watercolour as the gouache was drying too fast and causing the brush to drag. I thought wet-in-wet might allow me to evoke the looming skies and shadows on the marsh more effectively. I love the way the creeks reflect the light, especially as the skies darken.


Sea lavender, Ragged Marsh.

Sea lavender, Ragged Marsh. © Mari French 2018

I’ve since been getting back into the swing of painting in my studio (only in the mornings for now, too hot after lunch), and I’m having fun putting some of these influences to use on canvas, which I’ll show you in my next post.


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.