Over the past few years I have become progressively convinced that my design abilities were going stale, and so the input I most needed was to shake up my active visual decision-making. The printmaking classes I started last year have been enormously helpful in that regard, and I recently increased them from one day to two per week. But all the preparation drawing for the printmaking is done at home, usually using stuff from my files - and so it had to be a drawing class at West Dean.
I did not want life drawing, or beginners drawing, and noted Innovative drawing as appropriate. Of course, I did not pay sufficient analytical attention to the second half of the title of the workshop: Innovative drawing: mapping a personal journey. Well, my life has been absolutely jam-packed with journeys, literal and emotional - but I chose a recent journey (that can be seen at the bottom of this previous post) along a boardwalk with no endpoint at Dungeness, a place full of contradictory atmospheres and attractions both visual and emotional.
I did lots of research about shingle in general, shingle at Dungeness, the buildings at Dungeness, the endangered species living in the shingle which the boardwalk protects from the heavy-footed humans, ... looked up maps, ... and prepared a notebook and several printouts. Well, it was too much. I felt that any map I would come up with would simply be a copy of what was already in my notes. I was stumped.
But I had come away to concentrate on drawing, so that's what I did. All the time I had been doing my research the back of my mind had been beavering away at possibilities for representing shingle. It did not pop anything into the front of my mind until my hand got going with my soft pastels.
I love working with soft pastels: I find their feel voluptuous, and liberating. I can let myself go when using them. I have never been to any classes, but fell into using them as powder on my fingers, and for that reason my favourite pastels are those made by Unison in Northumbria. They are the softest and crumble easily. The pigment is dense, and I have found that once scanned it retains that purity of colour even when reproduced on cotton for my quilts.
So, for the two and a bit days of the workshop I concentrated largely on the elements which attracted me most: the shingle, the dead stems of the sea cabbage, the geological and biological information about the shingle, and the boardwalk.
The shingle manifest itself in pastel and pen, in layers on coloured paper.
The stems of the crambe maritima (sea cabbage) had made a great impression on me - a robust plant - a survivor in this alien environment, but their skeletal winter stems were brittle and fragile.
Simply drawing them straight was not going to be enough. This is where sheer luck came in.
Because my husband was away from home at the same time, I decided to get a new small suitcase for myself. At the last minute when leaving the house I thought I'd better take some stitching with me in case of boredom in the evening, and opened a supplementary compartment to put the work in. It was stuffed with paper which I just pushed into the bag with all my art materials for the weekend.
Well - that paper has turned out to be just glorious stuff! I scrunched it, then spread it out flat, then covered it with pale pastel, and then drew with an extremely fine pen along some of the folds. For me it captured how I felt about those skeletal stems.
I was so delighted with the marks on the paper that I utilised that method to reproduce all the notes which had fascinated me: I wrote on more pastel-covered scrunched paper. I used two colours: what is commercially known as sepia in a pen, and black, in the finest pen I could find. I wrote out my notes about the kind of shingle formation found at Dungeness, and also on a separate sheet I wrote the names of endangered local bees and beetles.
But despite all the fun I had doing this, it was hardly what was expected of me in that workshop. I did make a couple of half-hearted attempts at collages, but it all looked dreadful. And as I say, my heart was not in it. I embraced failure on that part because I had succeeded in other ways. I realise now that there is no longer the need for a weekend away because I can go back to making a mess in my own home, and leave it there for as long as I like.
I thought that the drawings would come to nought, but as so often happens, the back of my mind was still powering away, and yesterday I started on the design in progress at the top of this post. It looks like all my other stuff, but I guess that's just what I do.
I think that I might just possibly have finally learned that I have the greatest difficulty in squeezing my work work into any kind of deliberate theme or form. I can do it for picking up a new technique, or exploring some creative area outside my work, but although I could happily, using my skills from my previous career commission innovative maps from other artists - I must admit to myself that I, myself, am not interested in making one.
It was not completely a waste of time going to West Dean for the weekend, but it had been such a seductive idea for so long that that blinded me to its actual value to me and my work.