And so 2023 begins. This it the third year of my online Journal, and each year has confounded my thoughts as I sat and looked into the possible shape of the coming months. Maybe weaving plans and expectations for the year ahead is not really a wise move! But it’s a natural, human thing to do … to make shapes of the future, and to make stories of our past. Maybe all journals should be written only in retrospect. I confess that I have fewer ideas about what lies ahead in 2023 – fewer than I expected I’d have. The last 3 years have completely shaken up all our plans and expectations. I guess that is the nature of a pandemic – a global event that reshapes the world. All I can do is describe where I am now, where the UK is now, and where the wider world is now … as seen from this small corner of the Scottish highlands.
Personally we (Mike and I) still treat the pandemic as active, along with ‘flu and several other winter infections. So we live a quiet life of ‘shielding’ and wear masks when shopping etc. This is unusual now, as most people try to act as if the pandemic is over. But cases are still fluctuating, and the advice in Scotland has changed to mask wearing in crowded public places – ventilation and social distancing. There is no functioning NHS. Under-funded and overstretched for 13 years it is collapsing around us. Indeed all public services are collapsing: teachers, local government workers, train drivers, social care workers … so many are striking after 13 years of ‘austerity’ which meant pay freezes all round. The tipping point came in the final months of last year, as rocketing inflation has driven more workers to need Food Banks to even eat minimally. The UK government is doing nothing, waiting for ‘public opinion’ to turn against the strikers, and the strikers to be starved back to work. It sounds Dickensian, doesn’t it …. and it feels Dickensian too, living through it!
January …and the journey begins with some new delights.
April always seems such an ‘in-between’ month, suspended between winter and Spring, havering, unsure whether to let go of winter and commit to Spring! And this year it has seemed just as indecisive as ever!
The month began with some dramatic displays of winter weather. Whiteout conditions, blizzards and sub-zero nights were common – too common!
It looked as though another Spring would be blighted, as the early Japanese plum blossom struggles with the snow. Last year much of the garden suffered with blackened buds.
The plants that had overwintered indoors thrived, sheltered from the cold – and our Xmas Cactus gave us a lovely colourful display – at Easter!
And as April drew to a close the Victoria plum was full of blossom. We kept our fingers crossed that no sudden blast of frost would kill the blossom before the fruit buds were established. Maybe a good crop this year?
With the weather still cold, and the arctic winds strong, I spent most time indoors.
Here I was shooting macro, and having fun with what the macro lens can show. This is a small 1 inch slice of a computer motherboard!
I love to shoot glass, all sizes and shapes – it is always a delight and a surprise too. Here a burst of evening sun caught two crystal glass balls ….
…. and here shooting a glass cube on a glass side table, against the reeded glass of the front door. Shooting on glass or through glass there are always interesting effects to find!
And finally the collage of all my uploads to Flickr this month. My uploads reflect only a small selection of what I have been shooting, out and about as well as indoors in my little studios.
So, we look forward to 2022 with hope, but tempered by the sense of Deja Vu – that we have been here before! Last year we were facing the first big Covid variant, called Delta – and wondering if the newly tested vaccines could help us through. This year we are triple vaccinated, and facing the next major Covid variant – called Omicron – and wondering what the variant will throw at us, and how we will cope!
Scotland begins 2022 with the promised ‘tsunami’ of new infections. Omicron is highly transmissible, but seems to be ‘milder’ in that the symptoms can be quite like a bad cold, and it doesn’t seem (so far) to be damaging the respiratory system as badly as Delta does. Omicron has been circulating mainly among younger adults and children, as they are the most socially active, and the least vaccinated groups. It remains to be seen how badly it will affect the older age groups, and how well the vaccines will protect us. Being among the most vulnerable group, we are especially cautious when leaving home!
For us, the ‘Pandemic Reality’ has limited us physically. There are shops and locations we haven’t visited since 2019. The shops and locations we do visit are ones we have become happy with in terms of the protection they offer. They form our new ‘comfort zone’. Wearing masks, physical distancing, limiting number in a shop at any one time, spacing while queueing, paying by card and screens at checkout points. All these are the pandemic ‘normal’. Open air or good ventilation are very important … so grocery deliveries to the gate are safest (we take items up the drive in the car, or by hand ourselves) again masks worn even outside now. Omicron is many times more transmissible than Delta, so we are super-careful!
The year and the day starts with the usual daily pattern of checking for cases in our local area, especially when planning to go out. But the numbers now are so far beyond anything we have encountered before – so we no longer feel that anywhere is ‘safe’ or ‘low risk’. So we feel we are in new and uncharted territory once again – which raises the anxiety level.
So… on to the monthly record of our journey through these partly familiar, partly uncharted waters: January – and the 3rd year of the Covid-19 Pandemic begins, and I have a new lens to play with in my photography! February – and the winter of storms continues. From Arwen to Franklin, we have clocked up 7 storms dangerous enough to be named! March – and a new variant, Omicron BA.2 sweeps through Scotland. The government acts as if the pandemic is over, and number soar locally! April – the most volatile month as winter finally gives way to spring. May – which brings Spring and Laurie to visit from Texas! June – as summer blossoms, we are in recovery mode. July – summer and the world around us gets madder! August – and it gets really hot! September – when the world here cools down! October – where autumn begins, and the summer heat is but a distant memory! November – where winter begins with a personal loss. December, where memories and winter takes hold
My next move was to experiment using the things I was learning about Cezanne’s techniques and palette. Could I take the bare bones of an idea he sketched out, and develop it myself? Taking away the colour, the paint, and just with a hint of outlines from a minimal drawing. There is so much in there, just waiting to be developed. He had an eye for extracting the essentials.
I started by making a pencil drawing of this painted sketch. The motif of the lone tree, the viaduct and the distant mountains that merge into the sky. Using the motif I began with faint pencil lines …..
…. and the minimal Cezanne palette. I did several versions – some thinking of the colours that I am more likely to see locally here in the north of Scotland and then thinking about how to create the sense of volume in the foliage, or the sense of the receding landscape to give depth.
Only then did I look back at the original and see where my decisions and thinking were different. Later I used them in another experiment, blending them with landscape photographs of my own.
Here I blended one version of the tree with a view across the Moray Firth. It was the sense of the receding landscape that made me think of the shots I take looking along the receding coastline here.
Might the foreground tree add something, and make something interesting?
Some of Cezanne’s drawings are so fleeting, so minimal that they are compelling and tantalising. There is a whole world of possibilities that I am just beginning to explore!
One thing that I learned was how Cezanne created harmonies by using the same colours and tones across the ‘canvas’. He built up an image using layers upon layers with slight tonal differences, that create both depth and also a unity that makes the whole visually satisfying. My early experiments are both minimal and very simple! But faced with a blank sheet of paper it soon becomes apparent that you need a clear idea of where you want to go!
So I am off on my own, with the merest hint of a tree or two. A hint of foreground and more distance across the water.
The same outlines, but in reverse. Again trying for a unity across the page – a sense of foliage and sky, of the solidity of the earth …. and using Payne’s Grey (a lovely grey with a hint of blue)on a fine rigger brush to suggest the lines of the trees.
And starting to use more solid trees and tree trunks from my own landscape, but keeping the touches gentle and soft, and as simple as possible.
Ah – that magic word simple. We tend to think of simplifying something as making it easier. But the kind of simplification that Cezanne is a master of is, in fact, a complex and subtle process that is learned and refined over years! How to ‘simplify’ a landscape yet keep the spirit, shape and essence of what you are seeing – and then translate it into a painted image that is not just a version of a photograph. That is no simple task! I came across a handbook that has proved useful in this process of simplifying …..
The header image of this page is my version of this cover image. The book takes a fully realised Cezanne landscape and breaks it down into steps – applying layers of colour across the canvas. Then some details from the image are looked at more closely.
Using the original palette (and even the brushes) it is a useful way to get to grips with his technique, copying and the giving other images the ‘Cezanne treatment’. These exercises are a good way to expand my understanding of his way of working and thinking. But sooner or later I need to choose a palette for myself, and look into the full range of watercolour paints that are available now….
COPYING CEZANNE So – I had discovered the palette of just 3 colours that Cezanne used. I modified it a little to include yellow ochre and burnt umber, and added Payne’s Grey myself. But essentially I had the colours to start copying the master. I only had photographs in books or online to guide me, so the colours might not be exact, but close enough for my purposes. I also discovered the brushes he favoured, both flat and round. I wanted to keep in mind the 3 qualities I admired – minimalism, light, and his use of colour.
Start simply with a round shape. A simple outline in light pencil, with a few gestures about shadows and ground. Look how much of the paper remains, and the shadows are purple! But it is enough to show the viewer that it is an apple.
How few strokes are needed to make the apple real and solid and sitting on a hard surface!
Then I looked out tree sketches that were as close as I could get to what I see locally here – pine, cypress and fir. The page header is one example. I looked for the brush strokes, the colour combinations, and the simplification of the form. I was pretty certain that pine sketch of his was preparatory to an oil painting.
And I used so many sketches to simply learn by copying how the paint was applied, how foliage could be suggested, and how the colours worked together.
As I continued I was curious about the harmonies he achieved across even the simplest and most minimal sketch. There was more going on than I had realised at first!
Next I found another way to learn, another angle to approach the original. I included an extra step, which was to make a copy in pencil first, to begin to get an idea of the tonal qualities and colour values. I often lean toward softer, gentler colours!
Then I decided to take the merest hints of colour, and try getting bolder. It certainly served to illustrate how clumsy my beginner strokes were!
I was beginning to add and vary things within my copies. I wondered how to paint rocks here. Our local stone is granite. I realised that the palette would be quite different. I guessed that blues might dominate … so began to experiment with a landscape far removed from the Aix-en-Provence that Cezanne lived and worked in. My mountains and rocks are quite different!
There is such wonderful complexity of Cezanne’s study of these rocks. I can only stare and admire! But to conclude …. back to my attempts to simply copy and absorb!
The colours are Provencal, the tree is Mediterranean, but the composition and colouring are stunning – so let’s simply enjoy copying!
As I commented in the ‘Hands On’ cover page, after years of creating images through photography, I find I want to be more ‘hands on’ and paint again! I have so many photographs in my graphics store – I want to re-imagine those landscapes and still life studies myself, with real paints, paintbrushes and paper. So my question is ….. can I find the skills to make them into the images I see in my imagination?
And the medium that draws me in is watercolour. Why watercolour? It is a medium that is still greatly undervalued, seen as useful for preliminary sketches, or for weekend amateurs. Yes – the art world is still incredibly snobbish! I suspect that both pastel and watercolour are also looked down on through misogyny – because historically they were seen as ‘women’s media’.
I have come to admire watercolour as the most subtle and luminous of paint media. I’ve spent years with the camera chasing the light, expressing myself with light (both natural and studio). Watercolour begins with pure white paper, so the light is there from the beginning. And watercolours are delicate, bright and luminous, and the light of the paper can shine through them. Everyone seems to agree that watercolours are the most difficult medium to work in …. as once a stroke is made you are committed. You can’t scrape back the paint and start again as you can with acrylics and oils. So there is a tension, a ‘holding your breath’ aspect to the painting. It is all too easy to make a false mark … and that is both scary and compelling!
So the first thing for me to do was to open up the drawers and cupboards in my art room, and find out what I had! When the big relapse happened I was already investigating watercolour painting – but that is so long ago that I’d forgotten – so it was a voyage of discovery, or re-discovery! I knew I had a full-pan set of quality watercolours, some brushes, some paper and some books. So I was ready to roll! But would the paints and paper still be useable ? Would the books be way out of date … after all it was about 20 years that they had been lying unused! I needed a quick refresher course – but I didn’t want to start from the beginning, I had a fairly clear idea of where I wanted to take my painting, what I wanted to achieve. Maybe the best way was to simply jump straight in, and learn what I needed as I went along … it seemed like a good plan, and I was impatient to start!
I picked the small book that I had used as my starting point all those years ago. Ettore Maiotti described how he learned from studying the artists whose work he felt most drawn to. He would learn their techniques.
There were a few basic exercises such as copying a simple apple by Cezanne, some advice on equipment and technique … and I felt ready to start something of my own! I’ve been shooting trees for so long, they are difficult to capture, but they fascinate me. So I started with a tree. A rough sketch of one I’d photographed. I wanted to keep the tree trunk and branches white, and create a dramatic sky behind, weaving gently into the tree itself. I must have made every beginner’s mistake!! * I didn’t mask out the white areas before applying the background washes. * I didn’t realise that my colour choices were all wrong for the effects I wanted. I was using opaque and staining colours when I needed transparent ones to build up luminous and subtle colour effects. * I tried to remove or soften the colours, and ended up scratching lumps out of the paper!
A change of plan was called for – I really needed to go back to basics and learn about pigments, and how to apply them! But I didn’t want to spend months painting flowers, or figure studies. I knew who I wanted to learn from – Paul Cezanne!
Well, I waited until the end of the month to write this. It has been such a tumultuous four weeks. I thought I might have a better grasp of what is going on as the month ends. There is a saying – “a week is a long time in politics” – well a month is even longer, and the landscape of our daily lives has been changing throughout September. The key word for the month is ‘SHORTAGES’ We have been warned of shortages of imported goods from outwith the UK – consumer goods – food we usually import such as fresh fruits, salad crops and vegetables – microchips for cars and electrical goods assembled here. The start of a very long list! We all know that in reality the root cause lies in Brexit, and severing ties with the EU. Next there are the shortages of people, again mainly due to Brexit. Shortages in nurses, health care workers and lorry drivers, to name but a few. Then there are new emerging shortages, in gas supplies, supplies of CO2, and finally as the month draws to an end, petrol. ALL of these could have been predicted, and many could have been addressed and tackled months or even years ago. Brexit was always going to mean an exodus of workers in many key areas where wages are low, from seasonal fruit picking to NHS and care home workers to bar/hotel/restaurant staff. We knew that way back in 2016! Among the less obvious were HGV drivers – on whom we depend for the distribution of just about everything. Since Beeching destroyed the rail infrastructure in the 1960s the ever deteriorating road infrastructure has had to handle ever more and ever bigger haulage vehicles. And September 2021 has laid bare the extent of the problem …. as we all queue at the petrol stations hoping to keep our essential cars (public transport is a thing of the past, along with rail travel) on the road. So we are being educated about the 2017 decision to close our UK gas storage tanks, which used to give us 70% emergency supply. Now we have 2% emergency back-up, compared with 100% and more in France and Germany. And gas is used in electricity generation – so we are looking at power cuts this winter! CO2 we learn is used in abattoirs for slaughtering pigs and chickens. This shortage will mean inhumane slaughtering, and reduced food supplies on supermarket shelves. Oh yes! A trip to the supermarket is now a guessing game … guessing how many items on your shopping list will be available! Supplies might appear if there is a delivery (HGV drivers permitting) – or not, if there have been production problems, importation problems etc. etc. This excuse for a UK government keeps calling on the ‘wartime spirit’ (as they seem to live in the past!) …. well, they are doing a fine job of returning us all to rationing!
And as if all these practical problems were not enough to keep us all concerned, Scotland saw a massive surge in Covid infection rates through August, and in September the rates have finally begun to stabilise and even fall. But whereas the rise was meteoric – the fall is proving to be painfully slow!
In our corner of the country the Covid cases are everywhere. The darker the colour the greater the infections per 100,000. And although we are a largely rural area the infections are reaching us all. In my own small administrative district here we are nearly 500 per 100,00.
So September has had the feeling of being battered from all directions! But happily nature is unaware of our human preoccupations, and this year despite the late Spring and poor rainfall through the growing season, we have had a good crop of plums from our Victoria plum tree!
And in the protected south-facing porch the geraniums I keep in pots have been a glorious display of pink….
And the month has not been barren on the creative front! I have been painting in watercolour and also keeping my cameras busy too. We have not been able to get out into the lovely landscapes and seascapes of Aberdeenshire as much as we would like, but the garden and the still life ‘studio’ have been my inspirations.
Another image shot using the wonderful Yuta Segawa miniature vases I bought a month or two ago … here filled with a few begonia flowers from a planter in the garden. And finally the images that I have uploaded to Flickr this September …
As September gives way to October, and nights draw in, temperatures fall, and the leaves fall too – we are left wondering what more can go wrong with this ‘government of all the imcompetents’ that has been in charge of our lives since 2010. Twelve years of growing disaster. As WB Yeats put it … “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
After working in pencil, then charcoal and Conte crayon the next logical step was to expand the range of colours … and that meant discovering pastels! In all my school years of art lessons I had never been introduced to pastels, and it was such a revelation! Love at first sight .. well touch! In practical terms for me it was still a dry medium, and easier to use while confined to bed, though in fact I did need to work somewhere where I could create a dusty environment. I bought my first box of pastels and I was in colour heaven! I painted everything I could get my hands on – everyday things around me.
What is unique about pastel painting? With pencil, oils and watercolours you start with a white canvas – and either prime the canvas with a background colour, or work from light to dark colours and tones. But with pastel the ideal way is to use a paper with a mid tone, and work towards the lightest and darkest tones using the mid-tone ground as an integral part of the image. Pastel paper is thicker than that used in drawing/sketching – and most crucially it has a rougher surface, so the dry pigments can stick and hold to the surface. And the most difficult thing for many painters is that you can’t mix colours. You need a large range of colours in your pastel box. Mixing colours on the paper usually leads to a muddy result – and pastel painting is all about bright, delightful colours!
Learning from Degas Yes, I soon went looking for a ‘teacher’ whose work I could study and learn from. And Degas was/is an undoubted master of the art of pastel painting. He was also a consummate draughtsman, and drew possibly more than he painted. I rarely like the ‘male gaze’ in art past or present. Feminism taught me a lot that explained my dislike, as it critically dissected the ‘male gaze’. So I was surprised that I enjoyed the Degas female nudes I saw. He managed to draw and paint in a more detached way, with figures looking away from the viewer – and I found myself copying some of his bedroom bathing and toilette studies.
Working from mid-toned papers towards both the light and the dark I found I needed to study the tonal range very carefully. The best way to do that is to see the subject in black-and-white. Today we mainly use a digital photograph, I guess – but back then in pre-digital days, I found a piece of glass and painted the back side black, then I could see the image reflected in the glass. It still works well and probably a whole lot quicker for quick reference! I was still very limited in both energy and mobility, so I used the resources I had to hand. I took photos (often Polaroids) of freeze frames on the TV. I had a video recorder, so I could freeze the tape replay. The quality wasn’t very good, but it gave me a place to start! I was still mainly drawing portraits – heads and shoulders – so painting them seemed like a good way to go. I recorded programmes about painters, so quite a few of my efforts were of painters!
I found it exciting to take different angles and put them together – and really delighted in the way I could show the individual pastel stick marks.
I worked from photos, and experimented with cropping, and also simplifying the backgrounds, as well as trying to catch an outdoor sense of sunshine and shadows.
But I wanted more … could I combine images in such a way that I could both mix the media I was using, and also get a multi-layered effect?
So I began to explore watercolour painting for the first time … to provide a textured paint surface on which to overlay pastel. I needed to use rough watercolour paper, to give some ‘tooth’ for the pastel to cling to. But I was getting excited with my experiments! I started collecting watercolour paints and papers, and some books on the medium too. And then – as so often happens – LIFE intervened. More accurately ME/CFS intervened, and once again I suffered a severe relapse that lasted for a couple of years.
As I began to recover I decided to change direction completely. Mike was getting excited with the ways computing were opening up possibilities in teaching, and in his own writing and lesson design. And I was becoming aware of the possibilities that the internet and email could offer me. Artistic pursuits while completely isolated and bedbound were very, very lonely! Maybe I could learn computing skills enough to connect with the outside world again? Energy was so limited I had to choose … and decided to learn about computers and how to make them work, and to work for me!
The decision I made then led me into a whole new world. It was the late 1990s by now, and I began to learn basic computing skills. I discovered that there were small ‘palmtop’ computers that could allow me to write while lying down. As a complete ‘newbie’ I decided to create a website about my new palmtop computers, the Psion 3 and then the Geofox (which was a little bigger and easier for me to use).
Flying by the seat of my pants I designed a website called FoxPop. And it became a really huge website, with an international ‘Editorial Board’ and took me on an amazing journey!
As part of running the site I developed a lot of graphics skills … some referred back to another life where I lectured Journalism students in the print media – some were new departures, into the realm of Photoshop, and digital cameras. FoxPop ran for 5 years, and those years gave me so much. They brought me into the modern world of computers and early smartphones – and they gave me friends I still have today! But after 5 years, and with the Mike’s ever growing help and participation, it became too much for us to continue. So reluctantly we closed the site.
And so the next part of my creative adventure began to emerge and develop. As I began to gain some more energy and stamina, we began to explore the area we lived in. And there is plenty of beautiful scenery to explore – landscapes, seascapes and castles, gardens and woodland walks. And so began many years of photography! All manner of cameras and lenses have become part of my creative life – elements of which are covered here.
And so I finally I have come full circle, and am returning from the digital world to the ‘real world’ experience! But now I am starting from a very different place than all those years ago. My visual world has been informed by my photographic journeys. From infra-red cameras, to macro lenses, to Lensbaby optics, to post-processing in Photoshop – all my accumualted knowledge has helped me to define how I want to use actual paint and paper to continue widening my creative interaction with the world around me, as well as my inner world!