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.
"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"
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
"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.