Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Pictures of pictures

Hmm, my first attempt at adding photos, not come out the way I'd planned at all.
Anyway, if you read them from the bottom up, you'll get my first ever cloud painting; above this is the 2nd, and then the 6th one I did that day, using fingernails, paper towels and sheer frustration.
The two at the top (which should have been at the bottom) are from my third week of trying, when the sky was actually blue - at least at the start of our session.
The journey continues...
Meanwhile I've also learned how to print pics off my phone using Bluetooth and Boots in-store technology, so I've been working on my 'sketch book' all evening, annotating blurry images of my various ceramic experiments. Only two weeks left in this term and I'll miss the last day - off to New Zealand to visit family over Christmas etc.
I've been too busy, stressed or ill to keep up my weekly reporting, but I'm still loving the course. The printmaking is less enjoyable than the textiles session which it replaced (we've covered screen printing over 2 weeks), but tomorrow I can return to the textiles room and play with whichever technique I'd like to take further (felt-moulding and silk paper sculpture appeal). The tutor promised me oils for my next cloud paintings, and I've been enjoying a book on Turner from the college library, but I may see if I can capture the colours of yesterday's sunrise with oil pastels first.
Ceramics is currently most exciting, with a book on smoke-firing full of the most beautiful images and descriptions of how the results were achieved. I'm still working on making a glaze from raw ingredients too - eggshells, seashells, flints, all ground up and mixed with powdered clay into a slurry, then sieved - at which point I understood how hard it is to grind flint, even after it's been fired. More elbow grease required yet. Hope to post some pics of pots eventually.
I might manage another post before we leave, but if not Season's Greetings to all my Dear Readers, and I'll be back with more in the New Year.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Slippy Vessels

I wish I managed to write this blog straight after classes rather than wait until the last possible moment (ie the night before the next week's classes). Ah well, that's the joy of the writer's deadline. At least I'm still writing every week, and it's being read by a few friends here and there.
I had an excellent reason for not writing it last weekend: I went straight off from the end of class on Friday to stay on a narrowboat for the weekend. I can even justify it as part of my research for the vessel theme - perhaps. I did take a few photos of a derelict rowing boat on the canal bank, framed by birch trees, tying in nicely with the 'wreck' I'm working on for ceramics AND the tree shapes for my painting. One day I'll be able to add photos to the blog. Promise.
So in painting we were all continuing the objects we'd chosen the week before, and having spent much of Tuesday morning studying my previous efforts while sitting nude for a class of teenagers in the same room, I knew what I wanted to try next. I'd brought in a New Scientist article on fractals in weather-forecasting which had some interesting illustrations to inspire me. The tutor was talking of layering the paint/charcoal mix and allowing it to dry in-between, so I smeared a layer of white emulsion all over two sheets of A1 (using my favourite tool, the paper towel) and allowed them to dry during the coffee break - communal coffee-and-ginger-cake - then set up a donkey in the lobby and experimented with wet and dry charcoal and emulsion mixes on top. One painting had looked quite promising until I ruined it by adding too much, but I learnt something new. The second gave me the cloud layers I'd been aiming for, and a way of suggesting the light coming through. So not a finished product, but getting closer. A fellow-student took snaps of them all with her phone and emailed them to me. I'm now thinking I'll have to buy another sketch book purely for my clouds project.
The afternoon was spent in the print room with our textiles tutor learning the basics of silk-screen printing in pairs. We used wool and string as a resist, and later torn strips of paper, and initially one colour. Our pair used too much of the ink mix and made a mighty fine mess, adding further colours with gay abandon and ending up with a sludgy brown-grey on the last sheets - we also played around with the soggy string and wool, dropping it onto the prints to make worm-marks. That triggered further thoughts for me on the 'Ancient Can of Worms' theme which is still lurking in the background. There's a poem on its way, and probably a sculpture, but it's taking a lot of processing and isn't there yet.
In ceramics I took a two-pronged approach to our Vessels project. One was to scale up my little 'family vessel' maquette, discovering what I couldn't do with larger pieces in the process, and making four little figures to inhabit the broken boat which resembled chess pieces. The other was to finish mixing the casting slip and start playing around with materials to see what happened. The stiff hessian I had did exactly what I was hoping it would - held up in a tubular shape. I have to see how it fired before I know if I can aim for a final piece with it. The paper doily was useless and fell apart as soon as the slip soaked into it. The netting was interesting, some of it plain and some knitted up into a square, likewise the knitted material sample. At the last minute I fetched some fluffy wool that I had in the back of my notebook, and draped it into a loose pile when 'slippy', thinking that it may serve as 'worms' if I go for the can of worms idea. The garlic press squiggles were fine for a small maquette but might not scale up.
There should be a firing this week so I'll see how my various thumb-pots and glaze ingredients have fired. There's still the planned raku-firing of my large coiled pot to attempt too... not enough time. I suspect I'll have to return to ceramics when we get to choose next year.
Finishing off with life drawing as usual, and we had a female model for the first time. We've met before and spent some time chatting and exchanging news of other jobs. She's lovely to draw - 'just draw lots of curves,' she told us 'and you can't go wrong.' Our initial task was to use sharply defined black and white, deciding where on the body to draw 'contour lines' of tone and filling in all the darker bits black. I definitely haven't got the hang of tone yet. The last drawing of the day was the technique I've seen used to great effect with students I've sat for - to cover the whole sheet with charcoal and to rub out the lighted areas of the model with a putty rubber. It's a very messy business. And I'm not magically better at producing accurate or interesting pictures even when no pencil is involved.
Still resisting drawing practice, though I did a little on the boat. It's much easier to read a book about drawing than it is to actually do it. But the ideas are swarming around and slowly finding their way out into the world, either in 3D or in poems, so I'm not complaining at all.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Exciting Adventures

What an exciting week. Painting clouds, making casting slip, a six-course gourmet lunch...
On Thursday morning we were given our sheets of 20 drawings of objects from the week before, and had to choose one to make into a painting. I'd been thinking about this during the week and decided to do the stool floating in mid-air with clouds as the background. When it came to actually painting though, the clouds took over. They needed the whole sheet of paper, and somehow they wanted a couple of silver birches at the bottom, not a stool plastered over the top. I wasn't satisfied with my first attempt and went straight onto another, this time using a lighter background and darker clouds, and wet compressed charcoal for the trees - the first had been black paint applied with a stick.
At break time the tutor suggested I went outdoors to paint, responding to the sky as it was instead of an image of some clouds captured last week. Also I could apply the paint faster with screwed-up paper towels... I ended up out in the lobby where I had a clear view of both the rapidly-moving clouds and the original birch trees. I spent a blissful hour producing four further paintings, trying different approaches each time and making a glorious mess, singing to myself and feeling absolutely great. The tutor came up at the end of the session. 'Are you happy with these?' he asked. No. No, not happy with the results at all, I feel like I'm only beginning, that I could paint clouds for weeks and still not get them - but the process is fabulous!
At lunchtime one of our number was observed eating in the restaurant area of the students canteen, so we quizzed him when he'd finished. 'Oh, the duck was great,' he replied. 'Three courses for four quid.' A group of us marched over and booked a table for the next day, which we discovered was for a six-course gourmet lunch. Six quid, with extra discount because we were students. We pledged to eat nothing all morning, and headed off to textiles.
Of course we'd all forgotten we were meant to bring in a photocopied image for the printing technique we were to learn, apart from one chap who'd brought in a whole folder of photographs, so he was mobbed in the Learning Centre as we tried to second-guess what we were supposed to do with them, and find a working photocopier. There was only one in the whole college so we trooped over en masse and copied assorted images of trees and buildings.
And so onto Transfer Printing, where we drew or painted onto the photocopies with Dysperse dyes, learnt about overlaying images and painting plain backgrounds, operated the big hot press and printed onto a variety of materials - man-made fibres take the image better than natural ones, and the photocopies themselves can also transfer a pale image... worth noting. Might try this at home, folks.
In Friday's ceramics class we were meant to be starting our project, those of us who'd finished our first coiled pot at least. People are at various different stages depending on whether they'd missed any weeks, and how fast they work. Sketchbooks were an issue, the course leader hadn't provided any and it was finally established that we had to buy our own - I already had done, after the first week when I was so fired up about vessels, and I've been adding to it weekly. Gold star for me.
I enquired about slips and soaking materials in it then firing away the material, as he'd mentioned the week before. Been thinking about the possibilities all week. I also took in some other materials to fire for glazes - seashells and flints, to add to my powdered fired eggshells. I spent most of the session mixing a casting slip with a big noisy mixer, and we all saw what a difference occurred when the de-flocculation fluid was added (it removes fixotropy, in case you wondered). In-between adding small lumps of white stoneware clay to the mix I played around with coiling another small raku pot. I wanted to try cutting holes into it, after making one with coiled holes at home. Strangely, when I came to applying the knife, it was savage - gouging out holes and slits from the inside of my poor little pot. It was definitely called 'Attacked from Within', and has been joined by a few maqettes made at home last night called 'Inside, Outside', 'Ancient Can of Worms', and 'Family Vessel'. This is touching some deep wounds.
And so on to lunch. Ah, what can I say? Such fun - none of us being used to eating out posh, too much delicious food to handle, good banter over the table, desserts in plastic take-away dishes because we were already late for the next session - we'll be back for more! Six of us crept into the life class late, giggling and feeling like naughty kids who'd just had an adventure.
Our normal tutor was missing for Life Drawing, and so was the model, so we had to draw the supervising tutor and each other, applying techniques we'd already learned, plus working with tone. I don't know how to do tone. But I'm learning. My proportions are already improving. More more more - keep at it. The journey is just beginning.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Reading plus Doing equals Learning?

Back after half term, and we started with a rather disappointing session in the Learning Centre. The staff dude who was taking us didn't seem to have much of a clue as to what we were studying or why we had to be there - the big screen presentation was geared towards finding info on Great Artists for essay-writing, which we don't have to do, and all the mouse moves and clicks were way too fast for most of us tech-shy Oldies. A whole suite of computer terminals was reserved for us upstairs and the (by now two) staff dudes were run off their feet trying to log us into the system - largely unsuccessfully I'm afraid. Some managed to get into Moodle but fell at the last hurdle - yet another password needed to access the Textiles notes we've been trying to reach since week one...
Fortunately for me, I am Known to the staff (as having unsuccessfully attempted this exercise every week) and eventually I was logged in (illegally - ssh don't tell anyone) on a staff dude's log-in and FINALLY managed to print off several pages of class notes on batik, felt making, soldering and silk paper making, to the envy of my classmates who noticed. Most of them gave up and wandered off for a coffee break.
As if to make up for this, our painting tutor gave us a nice easy task for the rest of the morning - not. One large sheet of paper (A1 I think), a variety of drawing implements, and the instructions to go off and draw 20 things in the next hour. Quick mental calculation - 3 minutes per item? That can't be right!
After exhausting the easier items in the classroom and some distant trees, I went out into the corridor, where a huddle of my fellow students were observing a caretaker's floor brush. I joined them. Further on there were people drawing a snack machine, the lift doors and assorted bins and notices. I had a go at the stairwell, sadly. In desperation, I found myself outside taking a rubbing of two grids with interesting patterns... still only fourteen things drawn and I was exhausted, nearly in tears with frustration and about to give up. But back in the classroom (I'm not a quitter) and finally doing a reasonably accurate rendition of a stool, I found I'd managed my 20 things, unlike many of my artistically-able friends, and could go off to lunch with a clear conscience. My grid-rubbing was even singled out for praise.
In textiles that afternoon we were given the password - again - and settled down to some applique work. I have to say applique has come a long way since I was given a book on it in the early 70s. Now you can paint onto 'bondaweb' and iron it onto various fabric squares, giving a coloured background that glues items to itself with further ironing (don't forget the parchment paper on top though, or you'll be cleaning the iron for the rest of the session). Then you can sew random patterns into the result with machine embroidery - or even take a needle and coloured embroidery thread and do it the slow way. That's what I did. I used to love embroidering before I had children. After of course I never had the time...
Ceramics on Friday mornings is always a good session. We were finishing off our large coiled pots - mine ended up with some curly decoration round an ovoid lip, others cut amazing patterns into theirs and one lad drew manga cartoons round the belly. I also had a go at burnishing with the back of a spoon, over the parts that were dry-enough-but-not-too-dry (is that 'cheese-hard' or 'leather-hard'? I forget). I was warned that those parts now won't take a glaze. The tutor gave me the results of my eggshell-firing - a white powdery residue which I pestled ready to mix with slip to make a glaze - and suggested bringing in some flint next time. I showed him my thumb-pots made at home and talked about my fascination with holes, suggesting fragility in strength, and he told me that lace can be immersed in slip and fired... I've been thinking about this in relation to my project all week.
The life model was a bit late in the afternoon so we started off drawing our tutor - clothed, I'm afraid - using charcoal. When the model arrived we did three drawings, but what we were supposed to concentrate on I've already forgotten - some shading came into the third one I think, trying to add tone to make him look 3D. I do remember that my proportions were out, and I wrote on the drawings where I'd gone wrong. There was a particular technique we were using, I'm sure. One of my dear poetical friends said 'Ah, that's what we call spagghetti-brain. Menopausal. It's quite normal.'
OK. Glad I'm normal, for once.
And we had homework this week. Draw more items. Get sketchbooks up to date. Done. I've also borrowed two books on drawing, and two art magazines. It's always easier to read about something than to actually do it, and I can kid myself it's 'necessary research'. Well, it is.

Friday, 23 October 2009


We walked in on Thursday morning to find a bicycle set up with a backdrop of velvet curtains and sidelit by a pair of spotlights. Yikes! We have to paint that?
Yes. With ink, water, brush and stick, and white conteh. Working with tone again.
I sat and thought about it. Decided to focus on the velvet, how the light fell, where the folds were. Then I used a stick to roughly sketch a bike on top. Some bits worked ok, some bits didn't, so I started another. And a third. At the end of the session I was reasonably satisfied that I'd captured something and learned something. My paintings were praised by the tutor and a couple of the students. Wow.
Onto textiles and two techniques to cover in this class - silk paper and soldering. Soldering? Really? Yes, we get to fuse man-made fabric using a soldering iron. I was in the silk paper group first and really enjoyed the process, full of ideas as to how I could use it for my vessel project - embed words cut out of newspapers, mold it to a shape... We all felt rushed when we swapped tables, there was grumbling in the ranks about not enough time or resources (2 soldering irons and 2 sewing machines between us), but I mastered my wobbly moments when sat in front of the sewing machine making everything go wrong - old traumas from Secondary school days which have prevented me from sewing anything at all except by hand ever since.
Friday was the wonderful relaxation of ceramics again, further pot coiling, we had to make them big, with in and out bits, and when they've been biscuit-fired we'll have to smash them (in a controlled manner), decorate them, fire them again then glue them back together. Interesting. I've been playing with the clay I brought home, making a range of thumb-pots and engaging with my daughter across the kitchen table. She made a volcano model to take into school with bicarb of soda and vinegar...
And a new technique in life drawing, focusing on the curves, drawing a series of ovals from big to small, to end up with something like a Michelin man. I wasn't too good at that bit, but overall I think I'm improving at judging angles and relative sizes.
It all feels good. And I'm gutted that we have no classes this week or next, Inset days followed by half term. I was just starting to get the hang of things.

Monday, 12 October 2009

New Friends

Week three, and we're getting to know each other.
We're a very mixed bunch, ranging in age from 16 to retired, and in ability from very good to - well, me. We're from all different regions of the UK, assorted backgrounds and educational experience, but what we do seem to have in common is a desire to be friendly and supportive to each other. Excellent. I was delighted to discover that our latest recruit lives in my town so we can share travel costs. He's only been here a week - moving was one of the reasons he joined late - so I'm really interested to hear his impressions as a newcomer. So far so good.
Our painting tutor obviously decided that the cardboard coffee cup was not challenging enough last week, so we walked in on Thursday morning to find a large and complicated willow sculpture as our latest inspiration - we had to respond with tone. Aagh! But it's full of lines! We had a range of media to play with, all monochrome - pencils, willow and compressed charcoal, white chalk, conte and emulsion, and I suppose I learned something from my mistakes. It was a relief to head upstairs for the textiles in the afternoon though.
Felting techniques with a range of brightly-coloured dyed fleeces placed onto net and rolled in bubble-wrap. Great stuff. My first attempt was a coracle design with black and Jacobs wool on a white layered with green background. By the time it had shrunk and distorted it wasn't exactly recognisable, but it was another attempt to interpret 'vessel' to go in the sketchbook. I just had time to make a random colourful piece on black muslin before hometime.
The next morning it was straight back into coiling our pots in the ceramics session. Mine had gone too hard during the week and I was shown how to re-wet it, carefully, oops no it's broken... then I was shown how to rescue a broken pot, and by the end of the session I was being praised for having a good shape and thinness. The pot, not me. One of the ladies unveiled a shoe she'd fashioned from the clay we could take home, fittingly transported in a shoe box, and we all admired her skill. I thought of my clumsy and crumbling attempts at coracle maquettes and determined to try again. Eggshells, now - there's a thought. Vessels. Hmm. What happens to ground-up eggshell in a kiln? Can it be mixed with clay? I asked the tutor. 'Bring some in,' he said, 'and we'll try it.' I suspect he already knows and isn't telling, I have to experiment with it myself.
Friday afternoon and poor Alan, our model, was allowed to sit for our lifedrawing attempts this time. First a full-length figure to re-cap last week's measuring work, then a portrait study. I could see that I'd already improved. I had two legs and feet I was reasonably pleased with this time. My portrait was going OK, I thought (it looked like someone, if not Alan) until the tutor came round and showed me where the points of reference should have been. I have great trouble with the 3D-effect technique, drawing boxes for the jawline and forehead, planes and angles. In my practice this week I've been attempting to draw eggshells and a seashell, as well as another effort with the acorn and seedpods. I've no idea where to put shading to make it look 3D.
Lots to learn. Still enjoying the process, that's what matters. I have to say I like the textiles and ceramics work more at the moment though.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


I've been doing homework. Some of it easy, the stuff that comes naturally to me, and some of it not.
The easy stuff consists in reading art magazines from the LRC - this week back copies of a-n magazine and Ceramic Review. Also starting a 'sketchbook' and sticking photocopies of interesting things in it, along with thoughts and ideas and quotes and poetry. Sketches? Well ok, a couple.
The harder stuff was drawing practice and clay modeling. I don't draw. I don't even doodle, and haven't since I was a teenager. That's why I'm doing this course, really. I want to learn how to draw. Which means I have to actually DO IT rather than just read about it and watch other people...
Last Thursday's painting class was two hours of drawing/painting a disposable cardboard coffee cup. After my first attempt (a page of A1) in which I spent a lot of time putting in the background to my cup, badly, the tutor suggested simply drawing lots of coffee cups on the next page. Eventually I got something that seemed to have a resemblance to an empty cup. Then I was allowed to do another large 'painting' one.
The afternoon textiles session was postponed as that tutor was busy elsewhere - a shame as I'd been really looking forward to felting - so instead we had an introduction to print-making, monoprints on scraps of paper, paper towels, pieces of newsprint etc. We could use the morning's coffee cups as inspiration if we wanted, or simply scribble or draw whatever we wanted on the back of our paper and see what of the ink it picked up. I've watched the process many times but never tried it myself before now. My results weren't amazing. I suspect it takes a lot of time and practice.
Friday morning was ceramics again, back to coiling our pots, plus an old video of Ladi Kwali (name? Nigerian potter) which was most inspiring. We were given an 'assignment sheet' for the term with 3 options, but some of us had already decided to work out our own assignment. I showed the tutor my sketch-book-in-progress and explained the sort of idea I was reaching towards (I don't think he'd ever seen so much poetry in a sketch-book) and he was pleased - with my enthusiasm at least. So my modeling-in-clay homework has been a couple of attempts (maquettes) at making a coracle shape in clay. It's really not easy. Not for a total beginner, anyway.
And on Friday afternoon our life drawing session was with the other tutor, who had firm ideas as to how we should proceed. With careful measurement and plumb lines. It took ages - two drawings only in the whole session. I managed to get a foot and half a leg I was mildly pleased with, but the rest was way out. Now I know why half the participants apologise to me when I'm sitting as a model. I was surprised at how long legs are, and how big feet are, but pleased at least that I'd made some sort of progress.
We are supposed to practice drawing people, all the time, but I've decided to stick with easier objects for now. A small rounded bowl. Two mobile phones. A half-bottle of brandy, from various angles. And today, a couple of acorns, some curly oak galls and ripe seed pods filled with orange balls.
I'm nowhere near up to GCSE standard yet.