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 approach watercolour painting for a second time, after a long break, why have I chosen Cezanne as my guide and teacher? Well, his watercolours are mainly either landscape or still life – the two areas I am interested in. Yes – but it’s more than that. He painted hundreds of watercolours, but rarely displayed any. Maybe he thought they were inconsequential (in his day watercolour was seen as a second-rate medium) – maybe he used them to think about a subject – maybe they were a personal passion, and private. I can’t say. But to me they are more ‘alive’, more vibrant than his finished oil works. To me they express his soul in a way that moves me, and I want to learn from them. But I need to dig deeper into why they draw me, and leave me breathless in admiration. If I look at the photographic work I do, there may be some clues. The camera lens can do so much. A macro lens can show details that escape the naked eye. A landscape lens can record the scene before me accurately. Specialist lenses like the Lensbaby can distort the image in surprising ways. I enjoy all of those capabilities, but I don’t want to reproduce them in paint! But some of the qualities and effects I seek through the lens do resonate when I look at a Cezanne watercolour:
Minimalism He can take a landscape and extract the essence of the scene. With delicate strokes he can suggest an entire landscape with a minimum of paint.
Light The paper is rarely if ever covered in paint. The white of the paper shines through, and allows the subject room to ‘breathe’…. to suggest rather than reproduce the subject in detail.
Use of colour The closer you look, the more you realise that the colour choices he makes are quite amazing. And the variations in tint and brightness make the subject vibrate and sing!
These are just three of the things that draw me to study Cezanne. I want to discover how he can paint a watermelon, an onion, a knife or a carafe and be both a suggestion – an impression – and also jump off the page as so alive I feel I could reach out and touch it!
So some research was called for! I needed to find out how he created the watercolours, and then start to study them carefully!
Luckily I came across some information about the palette he used. It comprised just 3 colours – lemon yellow, cobalt blue, rose madder (genuine). To save having to mix them each time – I added yellow ochre and burnt umber.
And I made up a small box of the same colours. OK I added one of my own favourites – Payne’s grey for darker lines. The plan was (and still is) to work on copying Cezanne using his palette.
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”