How to do an art trail with children!

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Every two years, artists across Dorset open up their studios to the general public.  It’s a rare opportunity to meet the person behind the painting/sculpture/print and find out why and how they create their art! Dorset’s open studio event is the UK’s largest, and it’s completely free!

I always looked forward to doing the DAW art trail with my two daughters.  It was our May Half Term Adventure!  They are independent young women now, but both remember setting out on fun day trips with a picnic and the Dorset Art Weeks brochure. We would select a particular area (always choosing a different one each time) and then plan out who we would visit.  We particularly liked visiting any artists “out in the sticks”, because this often meant the added bonus of walking through a lovely cottage garden. The messier the studio, the better – in our eyes this was the domain of a true artist!! Smelly old dog snoozing in the corner, the smell of linseed oil … – marvelous!

Some places are easier to visit with children than others.  I was lucky that, on the whole, my daughters enjoyed visiting all the studios and looking at the artists’ work.  However, on days when they were less keen, or when the studio wasn’t as “excitingly bohemian” as they would have liked, I used to make up various challenges.  At any rate, we always gave ourselves an imaginary £200 (I would have to increase that figure to £500, if we were still playing that game!) and everyone made a list of what they would spend it on – this involved writing the title of the art work, the name of the artist, and why they chose it.  There were also other “categories” to keep everyone on their toes e.g. “favourite studio”, “friendliest artist”, and so on!  My youngest daughter invariably chose any studio as her favourite if the artist provided any sort of refreshment!!! My eldest daughter used to relish writing a comment in the artists’ visitor’s books.

I am now an artist myself – a printmaker. When I was visiting those open studios with my children, I never imaged that one day it would be my turn! I cannot provide a studio out “in the sticks”, nor do I have a pretty cottage garden to walk through! I do have a dog (who likes people), but she’s not particularly smelly.  I am definitely friendly though!  I relish being able to explain what I do, and to any parent visiting with their children I say: “Good for you!” Children don’t have to be artistic themselves to be able to look at something and decide if they like it or not – there are no rules to appreciating art. This is something they can learn very early on, by doing an art trail!!  Come and visit me at Venue 281 this year in sunny Wimborne.  If you can’t get hold of a brochure, you can visit the website and plan your May Half Term trips out from there: http://www.dorsetartweeks.co.uk.

 

 

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Bamboo

Like many things in China, there is a great deal of symbolism attached to this humble plant.  Even before I went to China, I chose to have bamboo in my Dorset garden – being careful to choose a clump forming variety and avoid the ones that spread all over the place! In Beijing I noticed that bamboo was resolutely holding its own against the onslaught of urban development. It wasn’t going to be defeated!

And this is precisely what the Chinese love about bamboo: its resilience and strength, yet also its flexibility; it can bend but it will not break!  Looking back over China’s history, until recently the people have had to endure many centuries of war, poverty and hardship. No wonder then that this plant is prized so much.  To the Chinese it represents many desirable character traits: moral integrity, resistance, and loyalty.  It’s tall, straight stem symbolises honour and an upright character, which is simple and straightforward. Its deep roots stand for resoluteness and resilience.  The hollow interior of the stem also has symbolic significance, because there is wisdom in emptiness – the hollowness reminds us to empty our minds of prejudice and fear, and it encourages us to be modest.

So I knew quite early on after my return from China at the end of September 2015 that I wanted to create a collagraph print of bamboo, but first I decided to paint it using my traditional Chinese black ink and Chinese brushes I bought whilst in Beijing – my thanks goes to Maggie at the Hutong School for providing me with a shopping list in Chinese that I dutifully handed over in the art shop!  Maggie taught us some basics of Chinese painting in one of the many extra-curricular activities organised by the school …

When I got home to Dorset, I followed bamboo painting tutorials on Youtube: I learnt how to do the bone stroke for the stem, and how to hold the brush vertically to get the pointed end on the leaves.

I wanted to retain the unique characteristics of the Chinese brush painting in my final print, so I traced my own brush paintings directly onto the long strips of mount board that would become my printing plates. I drew some apartment buildings using two-point perspective – something I am not terribly familiar with, but it’s amazing what you can teach yourself when you need to!  I built up the blocks with collaged strips of textured paper, PVA glue for a white background, knife scoring to give definition and clear lines, tearing away to provide the darker tones ….

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5 finished collagraph blocks, coated with shellac varnish.

Here is the final print!

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Urban Sprawl

So there you have it!  The story behind the creation of one of my more complicated collagraph prints.

 

 

 

 

 

The art of happiness

“The art of happiness” is the first print I attempted after my adventure in Beijing.  I came home at the end of September with so many photos, and no idea how I would find inspiration to start printing! The whole experience was sensory overload from day 1, so my head was almost too full of ideas to begin with.  However, after several weeks things settled down.  My “ideas book” has been scribbled in, and now the printmaking journey begins. The text below serves as an explanation about the inspiration behind the print.

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About “the art of happiness”!

This is a hand-inked collagraph print.  It was created using a collage block made from various materials, such as textured wallpaper and rice!  I used a knife to score lines into the block. I also painted on PVA glue to create the highlights and ripped away top layers of the mount board to create the darker tones.  Then the block was sealed with shellac varnish, which protects the block and its materials from repeated inking without blocking up all the necessary cracks and textures.

The inking technique for this print is known as “intaglio”, because ink is worked by hand into the cracks and crevices of the block using an abrasive cloth called “scrim”.  Then all the surplus ink on the surface is wiped and polished away.  The ink left in the cracks and crevices is what prints onto the paper.

The print was created using specialist lightfast linseed oil-based inks on Somerset 300gsm paper, which has high cotton content and is acid free.  Using this type of paper for collagraph printing ensures the paper really moulds itself onto the block and doesn’t tear easily when put through the press over bulky materials.  Rice was quite “bumpy” on the block, and I wasn’t sure how it would react through the press.  Some of the rice grains burst, but most stayed intact! I was pleased to see that the paper is nicely embossed by the rice grains.

One of the most enjoyable parts of my time studying Mandarin in Beijing was the lunchtime meals with my classmates after 4 hours of conversation and character classes!  We all sat together in our favourite restaurant near the school with our bowls of rice and chopsticks and various other dishes – all different nationalities, different ages, and different cultures.  Yet we all laughed about the same things.  I decided to use the bowl of rice and chopsticks as a starting point for my first new print after China, because it reminded me of very happy moments with new friends.

In addition to my own personal response to a simple bowl of rice “The art of happiness” has several other layers of symbolism.  I used the opportunity to play around with Chinese puns; the word happiness in Mandarin is fú. The character is:  福.I have used the character for happiness as the pattern on the tablecloth.  Fú is also the word for a width of cloth (幅) so this felt even more appropriate.  I then discovered that fú is also a measure word (classifier) for pictures/prints!  So this is how the title “the art of happiness” was conceived, referring not only to the pun but also to the fact that happiness really is just about being with nice people and eating food together!!!

The other symbolism in the print refers to the historical context of rice, which has been eaten for centuries in exactly the same way in China as it is eaten today, and will continue to be thus for centuries into the future …. This is one aspect of Chinese culture and society that provides continuity and stability when the modern world engulfs almost everything else!  The two vessels floating in the background are particular vessels I saw whilst in China; the pouring jug on the left was photographed in the museum of the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an.  Shang dynasty if I recall – but don’t quote me on that! The second was a huge iron cauldron I photographed at the Forbidden Palace, Beijing.  I was struck by their shape and outline.  In modern design these curves are often replaced by angular forms due to mass production.  In my print, both these vessels are enveloped by the “auspicious clouds” pattern, which in ancient China was used for embroidery and weaving and was also seen on coins, charms, and wallpaper. When clouds are repeated in a pattern it is considered a symbol of never-ending fortune. There are various “auspicious clouds” patterns in existence, based on the same symbolism – presumably changing to suit different eras/fashions.

There’s a parrot in my garden!

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One of my monoprints, still drying!

My latest monoprint series is entitled “There’s a parrot in my garden”. This is in part inspired by a true event a few years back, which I had forgotten about until I recently became interested in these exotic birds; we live in a sleepy Dorset market town, and for several weeks there was a flock of about 20 or 30 green parakeets making their home in the trees on the allotments directly opposite our house. A BBC news report from July 2004 states that the number of wild parrots living in England is rising at 30% each year, the birds often making their home in city suburbs. Our particular Dorset flock has since moved on, but it seems other areas of the country are still seeing plenty of parakeets living in the wild.

According to Jasper Copping in “The Telegraph” on 20th April 2014, nobody knows the truth about how these parakeets first appeared wild in the UK – could they have escaped from the set of Humphrey Bogart’s film “The African Queen”? Could they have bred from a single pair of parakeets released in Carnaby Street in the 1960s by rock star Jimi Hendrix? Were they liberated from a private collection during the Great Storm of 1987?

Copping highlights the ongoing “problem” of un-native parakeets and the impact this is having on our native bird population. It seems these birds are spreading across South East England and are threatening the numbers of our native wildlife – a similar situation to the impact of grey squirrels on the population of reds. According to recent research by the Imperial College London, the Zoological Society of London and the Natural History Museum which monitored the feeding habits of garden birds in the presence of parakeets, the parakeets aren’t aggressive in any way towards the smaller native birds, but their “gregarious” and noisy behaviour seem to make the smaller garden birds wary of feeding in their presence.

This phenomenon has, by and large, completely escaped my notice – apart from an interesting couple of weeks living opposite an allotment sounding more like a tropical rainforest – because these birds seem to congregate in city parks and gardens, rather than rural market towns! At the time of the cited newspaper reports, Britain had experienced some very mild winters. This climate probably assisted the birds’ survival in the wild, and the availability of food from humans in urban areas. We have had a few harsh winters in recent years, so I wonder how the parakeet population is faring nowadays.

I have just joined the mailing list on www.wildparakeetsuk.co.uk. This is Hazel Jackson’s PhD research programme, based at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. Hazel is aiming to reconstruct the genetic origin of these wild birds and identify patterns, as well as creating an up-to-date picture of where these birds can be found around the UK. She is asking for people to send in any parakeet feathers, so she can DNA samples using newly-developed laboratory techniques.

Why am I suddenly so interested in exotic birds, parrots in particular? Initially, it has to be said, I was drawn to the shape of the beak, having previously felt inspired to build a collagraph plate of an eagle. I portrayed my eagle in profile with the beak slightly open and I was pleased that I managed to capture the savage beauty of this magnificent bird in print through the use of collaged materials like PVA glue and carborundum grit! This led me to consider creating collagraph prints of other birds with hooked bills …..

Of course, browsing photographs of Scarlet Macaws on the internet, I was immediately struck by the colour of their plumage. Vivid colours always attract me! However, I think the parrot is also symbolic for me. Returning to the series of monoprints I mentioned at the very beginning, the title is a metaphor for an underlying “wanderlust” that is re-surfacing; after two decades of being the mother who provides a stable home, I now dream of escaping to exotic worlds! Not necessarily to the Amazonian Rainforest to see the parrots, but just travelling to another country with a completely different culture. I am looking for an experience that is as vivid as the Macaw’s plumage! The metaphorical “parrot in my garden” is just the appearance of something exotic and different in my world:

–          Learning Mandarin, since September 2013

–          Travelling to Beijing, China, in August 2015

I am enjoying my visual experimentation of the parrot motif in my monoprints and I want to expand the theme and incorporate an exciting new (for me anyway!) printmaking technique – cyanotype.

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Another monoprint in the same series, building up the plate with new layers of ink over previous layers!

Proofing a parrot!

Let me introduce you to “Paisley”:

paisley snip 1Paisley is collagraph print of a scarlet Macaw, the largest of the parrot species and native to forest canopies in Southern Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Trinidad.  Macaws are now listed as endangered, due to the destruction of the rainforest and the sale of Macaws as pets. Parrots fascinate me; not only are they monogamous, spending their whole life with only one mate, but the male and female birds both share the responsibility of looking after their young.  This includes spending equal time sitting on the eggs before they hatch.  Parrots are very social birds and live in large flocks.  Communication is so important to them that they have the ability to mimic other birdsong, even the human voice. If this isn’t enough, their plumage is stunning.  The Scarlet Macaw has vivid red, blue and yellow on the outer wing.  This isn’t visible on “Paisley”, because you are looking at his underbelly with his wings outstretched.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on parrots; this is just my first attempt at capturing the bird in print.  There are some limitations with collagraphs, some of these only becoming apparent AFTER I had made the block!  Sometimes it really is best to try something, find out what doesn’t work – the hard way! Then go back and correct the problem, and hopefully see an improvement.  Only then do you really learn and improve.  This is what happened with the “Paisley” board.  I made the plate and tried inking it up, very much influenced by the photograph of the bird which inspired me in the first place.  The collagraph technique requires a darker colour to be applied in the first instance, to show up all the textures.  The initial inking is referred to as “intaglio”, because the ink is worked into all the crevices and cracks on the plate and then polished off clean.  It’s quite a physical workout!  The choice is to either just use one colour over the whole plate, or work different colours into different areas (referred to as à la poupée). The trouble with the second option is that lighter colours are liable to become tarnished by other neighbouring colours – it’s not easy to keep them separate.  Also if you  use lighter colours e.g. red or yellow for the intaglio inking, the textures don’t really show up sufficiently.

proofing parrotFor the first proof I decided to use prussian blue for the intaglio inking, polish it off really well and add some red by doing a roll-up over the raised surfaces, with a bit of à la poupée (e.g. the lighter blue for the area around the feet – I thought 2 blues together wouldn’t cause a muddy mess!).  On the top of the wing, when rolling over the red over the blue, I could see that the red would lose it’s purity when put through the press because it would pick up the blue from the intaglio inking underneath.    Hmmmmmm!

original paisley proofThis is  the first proof.  The background was added spontaneously with rollers, to give a feeling of movement.  I was right about the red ink on the wings, and on the body.  But on the other hand, I like the textured effect on the body!  This is when I start to think more in terms of the benefits of collagraph, rather than about the limitations of the process for the image I have in mind.  I decide to make alterations to the plate:  add more textured surfaces to the wings and the tail.

paisley board 1  This is the plate with alterations. The white areas need to be coated with shellac varnish, to protect them during the inking process.paisley tail

 

 

Materials used on the plate: PVA glue, textured wallpapers, tissue paper, PVA mixed with polyfilla (to create the “ridged” effect in the outstretched wings).  I also used a knife to score movement lines around the wings, and to outline the beak and head.

By this stage I had completely forgotten about the original photograph.  I called my parrot “Paisley” – inspired by the swirly patterns now showing up on his wings, head and belly.  He has taken on a character all his own – quite cheeky!  When I inked him again (2nd proofing!) I continued to use the prussian blue for the intaglio – spurred on by great feedback from fellow printmakers on the Collagraph World Wide Facebook group (thanks!!) and with more raised textural surfaces I was able to roll over the red a bit more easily.  I had to clean and re-ink the roller for each wing, to keep the colour unadulterated by the blue.  My daughter Natasha said I should make the background more grey, so the vivid red stands out.  The result is at the top of this post.  He’s still a work in progress, but I am fairly happy with him – he has character, he looks like he’s flying, I managed to incorporate several different materials onto the plate, and he looks like a parrot – if a little more groovy!

恭喜发财 – Gōngxǐ fācái

Happy Chinese New Year – Let the year of the sheep/goat begin!  Apparently this could be a year full of opportunities for me (my Chinese zodiac animal is snake), and I need to strike while the iron is hot! Be bold, and “go for it” is my mantra …

For those of you who don’t already know, I have been learning Mandarin Chinese for over a year now and I will be spending a month in China on an intensive language course in September 2015.  I have just booked my place on the course, so I just have to sort out my flights and visa.  This will be a trip of a lifetime, and I know that my experiences will inspire my printmaking – as soon as I return at the end of September, I will be starting to produce work ready for Dorset Art Weeks 2016.

Printmaking was infact invented in China, just after the invention of paper, circa AD 105. The first prints were stone rubbings and the first known Chinese woodcut print was a famous buddhist scroll, which contained both text and image.  This dates back to AD 868.  Printmaking didn’t start in Europe until after the introduction of paper mills in the 15th Century.

It was the Chinese New Year Party on Sunday at the Bournemouth Chinese School.  This is where I go every week for my Mandarin lessons!  It is a school serving the Chinese community where children who were born in the UK,  but speak mainly Chinese with their parents at home, have the opportunity to learn how to read and write the language.  However, anyone who is interested in learning Chinese is also welcome to attend the classes.  At the New Year Party on Sunday, I watched some girls dressed in traditional costume perform a beautiful Chinese parasol dance, and Haibin (one of the volunteer helpers) played the guitar and sang a traditional song. Afterwards there was a very delicious buffet – all home-cooked food brought in by the parents.

Apparently the tradition of celebrating New Year in China comes from a story about a monster called “Nian”. This monster would sleep for most of the year, but it would wake up on the evening of the last day of the Lunar year, just in time for the arrival of Spring.  This was a terrifying night for the people living in the ancient villages of China, because the Nian would go on the rampage devouring everything in its path – it was particularly fond of eating children. People tried to stop the monster, but they were no match for it.  I am a bit hazy now about who came up with the idea, but somebody (a wise old man?) showed the villagers how to scare away the monster by painting the doors red and using loud noises – playing drums and cymbals, lighting firecrackers on the ends of bamboo poles,  and performing a scary dance dressed up as a lion.  These tactics worked, so the villagers repeated it the following year – and each subsequent year, at which point it became a traditional celebration because the Nian could no longer terrorise the villagers.

In preparation for my trip to China, I have been learning how to ask for and understand directions!  The photos below demonstrate the best way to learn; my flashcards are positioned above my printing press so I can look at them every day …. So I am learning while I print!  As you can see, I am still editioning the “gossip” prints.

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Gossip editions!

This week I have been busy!  I have proofed the 6 new collagraph plates and I am glad to say they only needed a few “tweeks”.  On Wednesday and Thursday I started to edition them.  In the past I haven’t been interested in doing editions, so after one or two prints from one plate I would be thinking about making a new plate … This was when printmaking was my hobby.  Now I need to think like a businesswoman and do larger editions for each plate.  The cardboard collagraph plates can only stand up to a certain amount of being squeezed under a metal roller before the prints become foggy.  I am hoping to get 30 prints from each of the 6 new “Gossip” plates.  However, I was wiping the plates clean after Wednesday’s session on the press and one of them nearly came apart where I had scored a bit too deeply with the knife!  A bit of UHU just about saved it, so I don’t know whether it will withstand hand-inking, wiping with scrim, and going through the press thirty times!! Typically, it was my favourite one.  I now have 24 prints stuck around my dining room/studio – the first stage of editioning …  I find it hard to focus for too many hours; I know other printmakers may print 30 in a day!  In my defence, I have a dog nagging me to take her for a walk at around 3pm.  Oh, and my youngest daughter has been home all week feeling unwell and also needing attention.  Too many distractions!  Hopefully next week I can edition more “Gossip” prints.  Focus, Focus!!

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