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Testing Ground

Long time since I last posted here. I have done various bits of work myself and attended two courses at Leicester Print Workshop (one on Mezzotint ad one on Collagraphs), all of which I ought to have blogged about but simply haven’t got around to it. I will try to do better from now on.

Major workload for the past couple of months has been preparing for the Surface Gallery Volunteers show. Those who volunteer at the gallery get an opportunity to show off their own work during an annual exhibition. The range of talents amongst the volunteers is huge and, as 17 of us are showing work, this ought to be a really great show. Many thanks to Colette Griffin and the Exhibitions team for organising it all.

When I found out about the opportunity, I figured I’d show a few of the prints I’ve produced over the past few months. Then the team suggested a theme for the show: Testing Ground (see the website for more on this). I decided to take up this challenge and work out a mode of painting that suited me. I knew that it would have to be abstract painting: I’m really not into anything figurative.

I began with the idea of exploring my own location — here, in Kegworth, in the East Midlands. I looked at where I live using Google maps satellite images and the surrounding area, translated these into abstract shapes and marked out these shapes using acrylic pens then filled in the shapes using acrylic paint. This was interesting but just too forced. I then used torn and cut pictures from magazines collaged onto the paper, drew around them in pen and then painted over and around these — still too ‘realistic’.

The approach that did seem to produce results I could be satisfied with was to layer and build up the torn and cut out shapes into a sort of abstract collage and then work over them with paint so that the colours and shapes painted would work with and against the underlying shapes. I had moved from following the ‘sense of location’ idea into what I hoped was a pure abstract approach. I expected that I needed to work from the idea in the first place but also needed to abandon it.

Testing Ground series #1 Testing Ground series #2

I was really enjoying the challenge of painting abstracts: it really felt as though this was the way I needed to work (in painting, at least).The above are the first two of the paintings that I produced that I thought worth keeping. #1, on the left (I’m not going to try naming the paintings), was a matter of adding colours and shapes over the collaged pieces, building it all up, until the painting seemed to come together. The same approach with #2 didn’t work. I’d tried a looser approach to the painted shapes and it wasn’t cohering. In the end, I painted over a couple of areas with yellow and scraped parts of that back and over other parts of the painting and, with a couple more scraped shapes, it suddenly made sense (well, it did to me: I have no idea what anyone else will make of any of this stuff).

Testing Ground series #3 Testing Ground series #4

I then came under the influence of some real abstract artists, attending the wonderful The Indiscipline of Painting at Warwick Arts Centre Mead Gallery. I was especially taken by the Karin Davie piece, Symptomania no. 7, 2008. I wanted to try and create something similar. I started from the same type of collaged shapes, geometric ones overpainted in red in #3, on the left, and torn, organic shapes overpainted in green in #4. With #3, I then tried overpainting using brush strokes but could not get the same flow of paint that Davie achieves. Maybe it is acrylic vs oil but more likely it is her years of experience and brilliance. I continued adding layers of different coloured swirls but it really did look rubbish. I then returned to my usual approach of painting colours and shapes over the piece until it came together into something I could stop messing with.

The second attempt at this, #4, on the right above, I tried using card to scrape coloured swirls over the underpainting and shapes. This produced a better looking painting but still not one I was happy with. There was no depth to the painting. In the end I loaded a larger piece of card with multiple colours and scraped this over the painting. I liked the effect this made, especially where the card ran over ridges from the collaged shapes. This produced a texture that I thought worth keeping.

In the end, I wasn’t totally happy with these two paintings; maybe because they were so different from what I intended. I nearly left them out of the exhibition but the two guys at the gallery who helped me hang them actually picked these out as their favourites. Que sera.

Testing Ground series #5 Testing Ground series #6

With the next two paintings, I took a more linear, structured approach. #5, on the left above, was an attempt to play with the approach I’d been taking so far. Instead of collaging shapes onto the paper, I drew them on using acrylic ink pens, having first masked out a grid of rectangles (the grid may hark back to my obsession with the Kandinsky circles; see here and here).

I then brushed over these rectangles with acrylic. I loved the way the different colours interact with the ink. I tried to get a range of brush stroking going along with the different colours used, trying to balance them out. I’m pretty happy with the result. One day, I want to go back to this approach and explore some other combinations of inked shapes, colours and brush strokes but, for this series, I wanted to push on to another approach.

This time, with #6 on the right above, I painted the paper in a lime green, to give a clean starting base. Over this I laid a set of masking lines to create set shapes. I then painted swirls of umber and ochre over it all, and peeled back the masking lines. I then applied a different set of masking lines and used card with several colours on it to drag over the painting. It was okay but still not working as well as I wanted it to.

I’d been making some notes about my working practices and thought processes during this project (not as much as I’d intended from the start – what a surprise). Re-reading these brought back the ‘sense of location’ ideas I’d had at the beginning and I started thinking about how landscapes are appropriated and abused, how people will take areas of virgin land because it is clean and new and then mess it up to conform to their own idea of what a nice piece of land should be. That gave me the idea of how to bring the last painting together: I masked out some simple squares over those parts of the painting that still had ‘virgin’ green underpainting and blanked those parts out with white paint. This made the painting work for me.

Anyway, that is it for my works being shown in the exhibition. The idea of the exhibition is that we should continue to work and add to our pieces during the exhibition. I’m not sure whether I’ll do that as I’d marked April down as my poetry writing month. If I do add to my work, it will probably be in the form of collagraphs, but who knows.

I hope you can get to the Surface Gallery to see the show sometime. The Private View is tomorrow night, 6-8pm; all welcome. I’ll take my camera along with me tomorrow night and post about the show afterwards.

iPad squares

I’ve been playing with ArtRage on the iPad, trying to get used to how the different tools work. There are LOTS of them. I tried doing something similar to the Kandinsky squares that I painted in class with Rod (see previous post). I tried a couple of times while on holiday in Scotland the last two weeks (it was soooo wet, I had lots of free time) but wasn’t happy with the results. This time worked better. It is even less like Kandinsky than my previous acrylic efforts and, believe it or not, took much longer, but I enjoyed the process. I wanted a restricted palette but there seemed no way to do this in the ArtRage toolset, so, in my first square, I loaded a limited set of colours and then used the colour picker to select the colour I wanted at any particular time. At the end, I erased those colours from the square and picked unblended colours from the other squares.


I’m going to have to do a lot more playing with the tools and features of those tools in ArtRage before I can produce decent paintings but it should be fun trying them all out.

Two collagraphs

I have been working on a set of collagraphs, recently. When I attended the Leicester Print Workshop ‘Introduction to Print’ evening class (see here for next class), my attempt at a collagraph was rather a disaster.

We worked on mountboard card. Nichola showed us how to make dark lines by scoring into the card (using craft knifes) and how to add texture by removing the top section of the mountboard to expose the slightly fluffy card below (middle grade shading), adding carborundum (heavy shading) or just adding PVA glue (light shading, near white-out).

My attempt was to try and create a shaded version of a photograph of my daughter sitting on a bench in Sherwood Forest. I got the lines pretty much in the right place and some of the shading looked ok but the image overall was, frankly, crap. That’s why I didn’t post about that class. The medium did not lend itself to representation imaging — not at my level of expertise, anyway.

I was determined to learn more about what I could do with collagraphs. I had the excellent book, Collagraphs and Mixed Media Printmaking by Brenda Hartill & Richard Clarke (one of the brilliant Printmaking Handbook series from A & C Black) and wanted to try all the techniques described.

I had bought a stack of offcut mountboard from Ferrers Frames, picked out five that arranged pretty well on an A3 sheet, and thought about what to do. I originally started with the idea of a series based on landscapes from our recent trip to NZ and did pretty much keep to that theme. I also tried several techniques. One plate had most of it lifted out and filled with polyfiller which I sculpted and tried to make into landscape-y shapes. With another, I took a photograph of windswept trees, laid it over the plate and cut through photograph and plate: it was interesting when bits of the photograph fell away as I was cutting so I could not use it as a guide any more. Another plate had bits of corrugated card (from an Amazon delivery — something we have plenty of), ripped paper and cotton threads glued to it. One long one, I cut on the coarse side of the mountboard to retain that texture. A fifth and final piece was simply built from geometric shapes. I added texture to the images using some fine sand since I’d been unable to get any carborundum (it cost more for the shipping than for the grit itself).

I varnished all the plates and they were ready only a day before I was due to go into the workshop (I planned to go in on a Wednesday as the workshop is open late so I would be sure to have enough time to get at least one print looking right).

I inked the plates up, laid them out on a piece of newsprint to which I had transferred the plate locations and printed onto a sheet of proof paper. It was a complete mess. I had not removed anywhere near enough ink and passing it through the rollers squeezed ink all over the paper. I was able to run a second sheet through and get a complete image without any re-inking. But I wasn’t satisfied with the results. I got on with a second print that I’d made — see below — and worked on that through until the early afternoon when I had that one right.

Then, even though I was knackered, I decided to have one last go at the 5-plate print again. I spent more time inking and wiping down this time. And it paid off. The print was much better. Still not brilliant, though. The top left plate was too dark so that the lines did not show — I ought to have wiped the surface down much more but had only put one coat of varnish on because of the thin lines and I think the ink had seeped into the plate. The corrugated card had made a nice shape but the carved polyfiller was a bit naff. The geometric shapes plate was okay but the vertical water flow one did not really work though I liked the texture of the reverse surface. Not a good set of plates but I learned a lot from making them.

collagraph 1: trials

I had made another, completely different, plate on the day before going in to the workshop. I just had in mind the image of a crow standing on a desert floor with a huge sun in the background. I couldn’t find an image of a bird I liked but did find one of a bird flying away from the camera. I created this one differently as well. I painted the mountboard with a couple of coats of acrylic gesso to provide a nicely toothed surface then used a drypoint needle to scratch the sun and outline of the bird into the plate. I liked the rough way the needle scratched into the surface: not making a clean line but a jagged, coarse one. I laid down some sand and glue into the image for more texture.

I managed to get a really good colour mix with this image, printed it and, again, had the ink run. This time from the bird where I again had too much sand embedded so that it was impossible to remove enough ink. I scrubbed the plate clean of ink, re-inked all the areas around the bird and asked Nichola how I might ink the bird to avoid making another mess. We looked at the plate and it seemed, even after all the cleaning that there was a lot of ink left so I ran the plate through. This image printed well but I didn’t like the colours.

I spent a long time on the third inking, trying to get the colours to blend and work together. I also rubbed the bird down quite a lot, even using cotton buds to remove ink from in the sand. I was very nervous wen lifting the paper but it turned out pretty good. All the hard work had paid off. Not perfect, but encouraging.

collagraph 2: flight

Overall, I was very pleased with the day, especially with the bird image. I may just have another go at collagraphs!

Not quite Kandinsky

This has been a long time coming. My last session at Sycamore Road with Rod was an abstract affair. He had a printout from a web page showing a Kandinsky painting:

Kandinsky Farbstudie

I had a crack at it, drawing up the squares first then trying to match the colours Kandinsky used and blended. I used only the three primary colours with black and white. When I was finished, both Rod and I decided that the square that looked best was the one I didn’t copy (bottom row, second from right).


I really want to try this again but using only my own feel for the colour to see what happens. Interesting to see if I can repeat the effect of the ‘good square’ and if I can come up with a composition that works across the whole canvas.

Another thought. With acrylics, I can work the squares in stages. Fill each square with the background colour, let it dry, then start the concentric circles. It won’t allow any serendipitous bleed to and from the background but will be interesting to see how integrated the image remains as the circles add their own dynamism and start playing off against each other.


My new term for this type of image: rockscape. These close-ups of rocks with enhanced colouring and shading makes them look like alien or, at least, abstract landscapes. I’m hooked on doing these; I love them. I spent ages last night working on these five:

rock scapes 1

rock scapes 2

rock scapes 3

rock scapes 4

rock scapes 5

Brightened rock

On the beach at Glenelg. I’ve heightened the colours of the rock to bring them out. Stunning.


I suppose this is less a photograph and more of a created image. The purist side of me tends to squirm when a photograph is pushed this far so as to make the image so much less a likeness of the object. I’ll just have to learn to let my artist side shove the purist out the way.

Abstract-ish poppy field

I’ve not done any painting at home for several weeks. I started a self-portrait in the style of Hopper but got scared of continuing after the drawing and blocking worked out fairly well – stupid, but there it is. Then, yesterday, I was reading an article in Turps Banana about Robert Welch‘s paintings (quick interrupt: I don’t believe this; only the second time I’ve referenced specific articles in that magazine and this one, too, is available in pdf form) when the style of his paintings and the discussion in the article brought to me what I can only describe as a visceral urge to execute a specific painting.

I love the bread from the Breadfirst shop in the Ferrers Centre and drive there once or twice a week to get a loaf (not to mention some of their cakes). On the way is a field which, over the last few weeks, has erupted into a lava flow of red flowers running down the hill. I assume they’re poppies but have never stopped (no immediate place to stop and the A453 gets some fast traffic) to see. I’ve always meant to pull over somewhere nearby and take photographs but have never remembered to take my D90 with me: I’ll typically work from photographs.

Anyway, this urge was to paint that field of poppies. Not in any exact way, but more in the style of Welch. It was not that I could see what the painting would look like, but that I could feel how each part of the painting should be executed:  strong ochre yellow upward strokes to indicate the field, single red twirls of solid paint for the poppies and harsh, jagged strokes of green for the hedge.

And that is what I did. I went straight downstairs to the kitchen, put a canvas (first time I’d used canvas instead of paper but this felt to be a canvas type of painting) on the easel, got the paints out and got to it. I wasn’t sure about having a bit of sky at the top so put some wet blue/white horizontally across the top quarter. I figured I could leave some of it or paint it all out. In the end it looked good with just that small bit at the top I thought. I added the small black dots to show the flowers were poppies without being too precise about getting them in the middle. I wanted the painting to veer more to the abstract and to look so. The rest was exactly as I wanted it to be.

It was a little heavy so I added some thin strokes of bright yellow to lift the ochre and add interest to the hedge. Also smeared bits of red into the hedge: I wanted that to look more ‘lived in’. So, this is it:

hedge & poppy field

Am I happy with it? Yes and no. I’m pleased that I was able to execute pretty much what I had in mind. I like the way the poppies float over the field, almost like butterflies: it wasn’t deliberate but the look is right. The hedge is supposed to look cluttered and messy, which it does, but does it look it in the right way. I keep thinking of ways to change it but then think that those ways would also have their own problems. The field, I think, needed more solid paint, less water mixed into it. And maybe each stroke could have been edged with burnt umber to put some more structure in there;. Actually, maybe overlaid it with some thinner upward strokes in solid colour to give an indiction of depth (the solid being more foregrounded and the washed out receding). I think the wash effect of the sky worked ok. It does give a sense of distance in the upper quarter where the ochre has washed into the blue/white.

So, yes, overall I’m pleased with it. Whether I’ll keep it or paint over it remains to be seen. At least with this blog, I get to keep a record of it.

Liquid abstract

Nearly skipped this photo but noticed the abstract pattern of this patch of water so cropped it out, enhanced it to play on that patterning with this as the result.

Water abstract

I love the tiny squiggles of light at the top.

Will have to look more closely at water pools in the future for the patterns as much as what is in the water.

Painted rocks abstract

Rock wall along edge of Lake Manapouri, made abstract by increasing saturation and vibrancy.

painted rocks abstract

Weird but does show the wonderful range of colours in the rocks.

Abstract therapy

Feeling a bit off today so decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to try fixing the landscape. What I needed was to just splash paint onto a large bit of paper. So that is what I did.

abstract therapy

Felt good. Balance of colours is a bit off but so are the shapes. Will leave this as simple therapy, I think.

Painting: messy collage

I planned on doing an abstract painting based on a collage. I took a photographic magazine and cut diagonal strips out of a sequence of pages then pasted these onto a piece of acrylic paper. This I then covered with clear gesso to provide a surface for painting. Unfortunately the gesso isn’t as clear as I thought it was going to be with the following as the result.

collage painting 01

Those are actually straight lines along the top but the paper was pretty warped on the easel when I took this photo.

I will try covering another collage in gloss or matte gel sometime to see if that works better.

The next idea was to work over the collage in thin swirling lines of paint. For this I took some flow improver, added it into a plastic yoghurt pot (cleaned out and with a notch cut into it for pouring) and then put paint into that. First I used a lot of flow medium and a little rose paint. This poured well but then spread all over the surface. So much for smooth lines.

Next I tried a little flow medium and more paint but it didn’t pour. I added enough flow medium to get it moving but all that came out of the pot was occasional drops of runny ultramarine. Ditto for the cadmium yellow I tried next. I had to push it out of the pot using a brush. Still ended up with splotches and spots.

I gave up and took a palette knife to the painting.

collage painting 02

I left that to dry and was going to toss it but then wondered if I could improve it any by blocking out sections using lines and curves of black paint.

collage painting 03

Hmm. Not really. I think I’d better invest in some liquid acrylic in squirt bottles AND lessons in abstract painting.

Seaweed abstract

The beach at Waipapa Point has a brilliant diversity of seaweed washed up on it. These come in the most beautiful colours and most bizarre shapes I’ve ever seen. Will post a few of these over the next couple of days. First, rust red folds.

seaweed abstract 1

Again, thanks to the New Zealand sunshine, this pic was only cropped, no other image adjustments.