Thursday, 27 February 2014

Folly at Midwinter

A long time ago it seems now, we went on a winter's walk, looking for a seashell house in some woods not far away.

On the way we passed a small house, freshly and mysteriously made from branches. Only a little further on from there, we came to an old stone bath built into a stream.

Even looking at it in the fleeting-light, frost-in-shadows December woods, this bath is inviting. All it needs is a little cleaning with a rake, doors to trap the water inside, and a nice sunny day in green summer to warm the water. How lovely it would be to bathe in the four-in-the-morning sun, with the woods all empty.

Over the stream, past a tower of mushrooms and moss, and just beyond a huge stone wall, stands the shell house, a low bench, and in the ground between them, a small, perfectly round, reflecting pool.

The outer part of the house is made of moss-covered stone, but at the doorway shells start to spill out from within. And inside, every bit of space is covered in shells of different kinds, arranged into faces and patterns and crests.

On mid-winter days of heavy skies and weak light, it is too dark to photograph the interior of the house without a flash. But that only adds to the sunken-treasure feel of the place.

Crows sit in the branches and talk in wooden voices, and the trees run with accumulations of misty rain. Sometimes a dog passes, followed by a lone, raincoatted person. In winter the sun scrapes and drags itself across the sky just above the horizon. The air is still or whips through the branches overhead. And that is the shell house.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Bird in a Block

The other week I made a very small foray into the world of wood engraving. Above is a little test block with a simple and spontaneous design. The actual printed image is about the size of a large postage stamp. Below you can see the block itself, with my hand for scale.

Wood engraving uses hardwoods such as boxwood and lemonwood, which take some getting used to, as the hardness which makes them wonderfully durable for printing also makes them a little difficult to carve. However, with a bit of practice it becomes easier to make satisfying marks and smooth lines.

This is also a type of printmaking that tends to be very tiny, because of the difficulty of obtaining larger pieces of suitable wood. It has mostly been used for book illustration in the past because it offers the possibility of printing large editions.

I have a few ideas brewing in the back of my mind for this new technique, but first a few more test blocks are in order I think.

Monday, 3 February 2014

East Coast, West Coast

A busy month in wild gales and under grey skies.
And with the new year I have been trying to extend myself a little. A part of that has meant crossing the country once a week to study mezzotint in Glasgow.

The train traces the coast as it moves southward, over sunken fields and swollen rivers, past drowned trees and ruined castles. But my favourite part of the journey happens after we have left the sea and travelled past the swans and hawks and herons that haunt the banks of the River Tay. Then we enter Perth on an elevated track, seeming to fly above the city streets and past the second storey windows of the buildings there.  

In Glasgow I wander the streets and look into the museums and shops. I like to eat lunch in the park if it's not too wet out.

Last week I sheltered from a downpour in the splendid 19th-century botanic gardens.

A girl read a book on a bench. Small children tottered toward tropical green. The domes lent form to the air creating the  impression of a place that was somehow airier and higher than the rainy city skies.

I thought I would spend some time making tonal drawings of the curves and shadows of the plants which would translate into a good practice mezzotint plate, but I was only just choosing where to sit when I was told the gardens would be closing (early because it is winter).

Though, with such beautiful buildings, even exiting the greenhouses was a pleasure.

 In the drizzle outside, I looked with delight at the vegetable tangle that pressed up against the windows of the other glass houses. Since I didn't make it inside to see for myself, I have been able to maintain the impression that those houses are impassable, overrun with specimens grown by botanists who themselves have been dead for more than one hundred years.

And then it was not long before it was time to walk back across the city in the rainy dusk to spend the evening in the print studio, preparing a copperplate and looking at some mezzotints made by other people who have used the studio. I particularly enjoyed looking at New Zealand artist Alexandra Milsom's wonderful prints.

These Glasgow days end with a quick trip though the dark and mostly empty streets to the train station in time for the last train, which takes me back eastward and northward through the night. Even though the travel and bustling about of these days only make busy weeks busier, after the museums, the gardens, the print studio, plenty of reading in the train, and then talking over tea before sleep, these days are followed by dreams that are rich and colourful.