Tuesday, 27 September 2011

From Sheep's Skull to 'a Personal Practice'

The second year of the CLFA is underway and despite the support of fellow course members and the tutors we are 'on our own'. The challenge is to map out a project that will allow us to develop a personal practice and will culminate in our first show in July next year. So where to start?

One of the things that Chris Hough said at the start of the first year was that they wanted us to try and sustain some thematic links between the various aspects of our course. I took this a little more seriously than others especially after a session on sketchbook development (which should have been three but I missed two!). We were asked to take images from our sketch books and try to develop and extend them. I chose a rather mundane sketch I had done of a sheep's skull:
 Then through photocopying it in different sizes and collaging them I came up with a rather pleasing page int he sketchbook:
There were other versions and it became (as a good sketch book should) a source of ideas for the next stages. So, I took the image into my printmaking and started to think of other ways to develop the theme. I did more sketches of the same skull and then started to photograph it:
I then started to import those images into Brushes on my iPad and used them as the basis for a series of abstract explorations of colour and shape.
What I was interested in was the way they started to look like landscapes and indeed Welsh landscapes: the place where the skull came from in the first place.

Just as I was starting to think I had run the course of the idea I went to visit the Henry Moore museum at Perry Green and in one of his workshops I discovered his enormous elephant skull which he had spent two years drawing and etching.
 Of course, anyone who knows anything about Henry Moore knows about the Elephant's Skull drawings, but it came as an encouragement to me. Especially when I started to read what he had said about it:

“By bringing the skull very close to me and drawing various details I found so many contrasts of form and shape that I could begin to see in it great deserts and rocky landscapes, big caves in the sides of hills, great pieces of architecture, columns and dungeons and so this series of etchings is really a mixture of observation and imagination.”

So I seemed to have some motivation to pursue this rather mundane and I suspect rather well worn path: at least for the time being. Over the summer I took it one stage further and tired to take one of my iPad explorations and turn it into a painting. It is not really finished and is still a little flat: but it suggests that there is some promise here and I shall stick with it.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Overview of Year One CLFA: Final research and drawing

The last four sessions of the course were led by Tony Hull and gave me the best consistent experience of the whole course culminating in the first piece of completed work that I was genuinely pleased with and pointed the way forward for this second year.
Tony wanted us to understand the process of an evolving piece of work based on research. We began, slightly oddly, with some detailed charcoal drawing of the sort that Tony had challenged us with at the beginning of the course. Draw that cube! Should be easy, but of course so much more difficult than you would think to capture the subtleties of perspective which naturally disrupt ones belief in the parallel line! 
Then in the afternoon we were to build up our drawing with a series of related cubes exploring the effect of cutting holes in blocks. The end result looked like this:
No particularly inspiring, but another step on the way to careful observed drawing, the demands of perspective and reminding me of the fluidity of charcoal and its residual reminders of the line not taken!
The next session took us off to the Natural History Museum for some close observation of crystals.
Very much enjoyed the day and learn a lot from Tony’s insistence that what we are trying to do with the sketches is an expression of what we are seeing rather than a complete drawing. He urged us not to 'overstrive for the artful'. My initial sketches were quite pleasing, but really didn’t tell me much about what was interesting or striking about a shape, a texture and line. My drawings after lunch were freer and more expressive and as a result eventually gave me more to work with.
The next session (rather bizarrely) was a one off printmaking class with Brian. This seemed to break with the research objectives. Somewhat to his surprise, we were to use our sketches from the NHM as a basis of some prints. I don’t think I was alone in finding the session rather dispiriting: after the enthusiasm and the precision of what we had done in the museum, this all seemed too vague. I felt I went back to square one with my print making: no control and no real inspiration. I produced a couple of of pretty scruffy prints that seemed to lead nowhere.
Then the final session and something of a breakthrough. Back with Tony and a stronger sense of the original purpose. He told us to take the drawing of the cubes and rub it down. (Tony is a great one for rubbing down the charcola drawings and starting again on the patina of the old).  This was to be the basis of our final piece of work. Then we were to tear up one of our prints from last session and locate one or two fragments on the drawing. This fragment was to be the starting point for a piece of exploratory drawing: extending and pushing the visual ideas we had collected in the museum.  It seemed like a long shot. All of us were bemused and there were a lot of false starts, but for some reason, it suddenly made sense to me and I took off on what I think was the most successful piece of art of the whole course. I was engaged in mark making and shape finding: one thing lead to another and piece took off across the page. The fragment added counter point. I had begun with several pieces, but in the end it was a couple of small fragments that worked best. Less, as is so often the case, is more.
 I had the drawing done in under two hours. It seemed to flow in a way that nothing else on the course had. It had traces of my original crystal study and of my skull work. It was very satisfying. I am not at all sure that the cubes add anything much to the picture except there is a certain contrast between the random organic shape and the ordered structure of the cubes, but I am not sure.

With some time to spare and a heavy coating of charcoal, someone suggested that I should try making a print off it. The result was almost more interesting than the original and again suggested another perhaps more organic approach to printmaking.
It was a very satisfying end to the first year and left me with some hope for the second year and the challenge of 'developing my personal practice'.

Sketchbook and Galleries course

In the summer term I did an extra course with Lucinda Oestreicher in which she took us around a series of galleries in the East End. She was also encouraging us to use our sketchbooks both as record of what we had seen and as a way of getting us to look closely. As ever my American trips meant I only did three out of five, but those I did do were very simulating. She is a genuinely good teacher: opening your eyes and pushing you a bit.

I was really pleased to have this intro into the art world: there are literally hundreds of small galleries featuring the work of one or two artists. As well as being aesthetically challenging it also started me thinking about the business of art.  About artists developing their work and their intellectual positioning in a coherent fashion so that it holds together in an exhibition and attracts the interest of collectors.

I also started to use my sketch book in a more creative way, even though my poor drawing and recording skills made for some pretty uninspiring pages. The point however, is that I do have some sort of a record of works that interested me. I have started to take a sketchbook to galleries now and try always to represent at least a few bits of work and even the ideas that they generate. Obvious, I know, but all part of the slow evolution of a personal practice. Painful and slow, but progress nevertheless.
 Some of the galleries we visited include

Herald St                                      The Approach

Carter Presents                             Wilkinson

Vilma Gold                                     Arch 402 

Overview of Year One CLFA: Print Making

If sculpture and multi media were not doing it for me, then print making was a much more positive experience. By the end of these sessions I was feeling that I would certainly like to engage with printmaking as part of my ongoing practice.
It did not start well as I was going to miss two sessions of printmaking with Brian so I was always going to be behind the curve. To compensate I booked in an extra two day course with Sharon Finmark.
Brian introduced me to monotype printing in a slightly haphazard fashion. I got the idea but had very little idea of how to control anything much. I found the random nature of the result pleasing but was wrestling with the materials and the process. It was not an auspicious start not least because it quickly became clear that you needed to be careful and orderly : neither qualities that I have in abundance especially around art. I started with some sketches I had done in Istanbul and ended up with a passably interesting print:

The main effect was created by drawing onto the back of the paper when on the ink. Adding the colour was messy but not altogether a mess.
Then, the crash course continued (all in one session) and I went onto lino prints. Decided to return to my skull theme and cut out a reasonable replica of one of my skull sketches. Learn quickly to start with small marks and then move to larger marks. Again the results were more encouraging than I first expected and I regretted not having the time to develop them further.

Then I went to Sharon Finmark where I continued work on monotype printing, but with the added ingredient of a proper press. Again early work was random and only partially satisfying.


Starting to see ways to use textures and layers. But the sessions only really took off for me when I decided to focus on my skull: i.e. started to realize something specific using all the fluidity and surprise of the medium.

I was pleased with the first efforts on the skull theme, but got even more interested when I framed in on small sections of the print.

 Suddenly it felt like an expressive piece drawn from the source and enriched by the medium. I don’t want to lose sight of that aspect of my print making: making big prints and then identify fragments and limited frames. (NOTE: in fact this quality only really emerged when I started to photograph what I was doing and I realized that this interplay between photographic reproduction and the actual art work could be a very interesting way to push my work away from the first endeavors). 

The second big skull print was also more successful than I had expected: making good use of the press.

Overview of Year One CLFA: Sculpture

I was looking forward to sculpture because I really had no idea how I would react to it as a form. I have certainly been enjoying finding out more about sculptors and looking at sculpture. The RA did a survey of  British sculpture that was very helpful in providing a chronological context and there were some seminal pieces that really struck a chord: perhaps the Epstein Adam being the most striking (with its pronounced genitalia confronting the ornate statue of Queen Victoria). But there was also fine representations of Hepworth, Moore, Tony Cragg and Damian Hirst.

We were asked to make a clay head: I was to try and represent Adrian. The first hour of working clay was hugely satisfying. Tactile and visceral just as I had always imagined. I finished the session thinking that this was really what I wanted to do. But almost any form of sculpture is so much more than that initial tactile shaping and although I was pleased to learn about mould making and casting, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the process and felt less and less engaged as I got further away from that early enthusiastic clay work. Not surprisingly I did it all in a rush, missed a session and when finally revealed, my head snapped off at the neck. I felt it was telling me something!

Then we were asked to produce a piece of our own choosing. Again I missed a crucial session and so was left pretty much t my own devices. I would have liked to have been able to explore metalwork and welding. But instead I decided to follow my skull theme. In Wales I found a decayed sheep’s skull and created a slate box to present it. I wanted to drill out a pattern or holes to both echo the skull and allow for light rays to enter the box. I added in a  bed of natural wool and a smooth stone. The end result was pleasing and felt like a sculptural statement, but in the end was under-worked and not really thought through.  

My exposure to sculpture suffered from the usual lack of time and commitment which was always going to be the case once I had decided to plod despite the USA adventure. But even allowing for that I emerged pretty confident that it would not be a media that I would be developing.

Overview of CLFA: Multi media and Photoshop

Much of the second half of the course felt more like a traditional foundation course. We were trying out a range of media and techniques. All were interesting and I was pleased to have had the opportunity to try them, but not all of them encouraged me to incorporate them into my practice. I was also missing sessions and had virtually no time to extend anything I was doing in my own time and I suspect this diminished the quality of my engagement.

We had four sessions on a multi media project which was to be done in groups. The teaching was excellent with Lucinda leading the way with determination and sensitivity and pushing us into ways of expressing ourselves that did not come easy. However, despite seeing the benefits of group work , I did not feel that any of us were really happy getting to grips with these media AND operating within in group dynamic. We were asked to explore Lincolns Inn Fields as a stimulus  to create a multi media installation.
I was, as usual, disappointed by my work: finding it hard to gather useful imagery in the sketchbook walk and then getting distracted by my interest in the disused phone box. I was pleased to have spent the time constructing my phone box with its mixture of prostitute cards and legal imagery, but in the end was rather embarrassed by its crude ideology and frankly rather tacky realization. It did not fit in with the group project which after a fair amount of crossed wires turned into a rather successful presentation since we allowed our audience to interact and rearrange the shapes we had set out. But overall it taught me more about what I did not want to do than what I might develop.

We had a whirlwind introduction to Photoshop, which was helpful in that it confirmed that my iPad work on Brushes was as far as I wanted to go with digital art. PS is a monster as I have always known and I can see no reasons to master it. It would take up too much time and divert me from the tactile and physical mark making and colour exploration that I want to put at the centre of my practice.

Friday, 2 September 2011

A long time coming

I look back at the last post on this blog, which was November last year. Almost ten months of silence. Well there is a reason. In early November, just as I was starting slow down just a little giving me time to reflect on my course and my art, I found myself with a new and very demanding job. I was asked to lead the team that was to launch the US version of Teachers TV called Teaching Channel. I was to do the job from the UK but had to make monthly trips of a week or more to the US, mostly San Francisco. It was hugely stimulating and totally absorbing. But of course it was going to make it hard to sustain my engagement with the City Lit Fine Art Course having to miss sessions on regular basis. However, I did hang in there with the support of my classmates and Chris Hough and get through to the end. I plan to a series of posts to cover the rest of the course but in the meantime here is where you go to see the fruits of my and my wonderful team's labours as of Sept 2011. Your can check it out here
There is lots of wonderful things about the Tch site many of which had little to do with me and everything to do with the design team at Method and the tech team at Substantial as well as Candy Meyers, Marie White and Demian Entrekin among others. the other aspect which makes me proud is the outstanding quality of the programmes which were put together in record time and guided by John Richmond supported by Erin Crysdale. I am stepping back now but continue to follow the fortunes of a wonderful project.