Thursday, 3 May 2018

Book: Painting the Novel with Ashley Hanson

It's   6 weeks  since the excellent  course at Creek Creative  'Painting the Novel'  with  Ashley Hanson  but with  the upheaval involved with  preparing for decoration and refurbishment of our bedroom , I haven't had the  energy to give  the attention to  writing it deserves. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor for the last 3 weeks hasn't helped  but  nearly there, the bed arrives later today! 

The novel I  chose to work from was 'Remarkable Creatures'  by Tracy Chevalier, based on the discovery of fossils by Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpott in the cliffs of Lyme Regis. The title describes not only the fossilised animals they found but the women themselves, scientists way ahead of their time.   While rooted in fact , what made it special was it  was written in the first person  and described how Mary in particular felt about what she found  and her ways of looking.
' Pattern stands out when everything else is a jumble' I recognise from my botanical survey days, when you notice something is different.  

There are several quotes about lightning (  Mary was struck by lightning as a child)  and about eyes and teeth - those embedded in the rocks and 'having the eye' , finding differences and pattern.
"It was so obvious in the cliff with its forest of teeth and saucer eye"

"I opened my eyes and it feels like they haven't been shut since'"
'"That is why I am a hunter; to feel that bolt of lightning and that difference, every day"
"You can't be inside their eye, you have to look your own way. Two people can look over the same rocks and see different things" 

For my research, besides the drawings I did at the Natural History Museum of the actual specimens that Mary Anning collected, I found photos online  of the  cliffs  at Lyme Regis  and combined  images of the creatures and the rocks in Photoshop  changing the opacity of the layers  so that the fossils  were' hidden' in the cliff surfaces and used tracing paper overlays.

Thinking about how I might interpret the rocks in a painting I did a few collages as I had found this. such a useful process for simplification/ abstraction in ' Contemporary Painting Studio' 

We were asked to bring two same-size canvases to work on ( this giving the option to secure two canvases together in a book-format) . I prepared 2 pairs  (  canvas  sizes  60 x 45  and 40 x 30)  with newspaper  collage on one of each pair , painted with a neutral grey.  

On the morning of the first day Ashley gave a long but interesting introduction to the portrayal of the 'novel' in painting  starting with interpretations  of  the bible, Shakespeare (Chagall) Don Quixote ( Daumier ) , fairy tales ( Paula Rego) and particularly Anselm Kiefer's work exploring German mythology and the holocaust  in the poems of Paul Celan . 

Ashley then showed us in some detail his  own series of works based on The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. .His blogposts  showing photos of work as it evolves are fascinating (many of  these are based on grids and maps of Manhattan)and it was great to see the final pieces in the flesh and appreciate the textures and layers 

There were 12 of us in the class, some local, some had travelled some distance  and we were based in the 'Performance Space' at Creek Creative -  well lit but cold despite heaters being full on, I dashed home at lunchtime to  put on some thermals!  Suitably warmed up I was ready to make a start! 

Using a palette knife and acrylic paint mixed with gloss gel for transparency I enjoyed painting the 'teeth' and used  a credit card for the rock structures. I obliterated the 'saucer eye' early on as it was in the wrong place

I then turned to the second canvas to work with another idea from my research - a plesiosaur paddle combined with the colours of a geological map of Lyme Regis. 

I'd got this far when it was my turn to have Ashley look at my work. He was very insightful, picking up on the ideas I wanted to represent and the quality  and variety of my mark making. Having 2 canvases  gives options for a variety of combinations  - we tried them all and the one below  was the  one with  most potential but after much discussion we both agreed that the 'plesiosaur' canvas wasn't working. 

There was just time to start obliterating !  This was the  state of progress at the end of day 1 . Working on 2 canvases at once reminded me of ' Reading a Paint surface' class  where you start responding to the paintings themselves. 

Day 2 :  I spent most of the morning working on the 'teeth' canvas, turning it  round and looking at it from different angles, painting slowly  to add the textures and layer of rock but leaving my initial marks intact. 

The second canvas  still wasn't working  and discussions  with Ashley focused on some examples from his introduction based on calligraphic paintings from China and Japan : sections from poems that were related but  carried out in a different style /scale   and the work of Liu Dan focusing on the details in rocks.  He suggested I work using a different style of brush marks as a contrast to the use of palette knife/ credit card 

 Returning to my drawings  and photos from the NHM  and thinking about the section of the book where Mary is buried in  a landslip ,  I painted over the canvas with a dark blue grey ( representing the blue lias rocks)  and  painted the 'croc' in white and yellow ochre glazes.
"The landslip had caused a churning up of rocks caught in an ooze of blue-grey clay. My eyes flicked over the stones and came to rest on a familiar shape ; a ring of overlapping bony scales the size of my fist. A croc's eye , it was like it was staring straight at me" 

The finished  pair of paintings 

While my larger paintings were drying or I was deciding  what to  do next, I worked on the smaller pair of canvases. I'd  sketched out  some ideas based on a   photo of Lyme Regis which combined close up of rocks with a more distant  view, offering the opportunity to work on each canvas in a different way : palette knife on RH, looser brushmarks on LH . I carried over some of the marks from one  canvas to the other so that they worked together and physically joined the 2 canvases together with metal plates. It creates a different feel to just working on one canvas. 

We finished clearing up mid afternoon on the second day to  have an extended  critique session. Each painting was placed on a white wall in turn  for review and comment  , the artist explaining briefly the book they'd chosen and  what themes they'd explored. During the 2 days it was fascinating to see how radically some paintings had changed (particularly 'Riddle of the Sands ' by Penny Watts which was huge , every time I looked it was different). Hazel's book was Moby Dick  and  we'd met up a few  weeks before to discuss our ideas. It was interesting to see how her work developed ( and how she used the side of the canvas as well as the surface) .  

While I'm still not sure whether either set of canvases  work as finished paintings, I enjoyed using a restrictive palette and exploring different strategies and mark-making with constructive guidance from Ashley.  My favourite sections  were  those painted first and last over the 2 days , I like the immediacy and distinctive marks of the brush ( above) and palette knife ( below). 'Freedom in Painting' indeed!  I've already booked for 'Black and White' in September. 


Sandy said...

I like these! And they resonate with me because I recently read that book as well.

Living to work - working to live said...

I really like these. Fabulous colours and fascinating technique.