Studio updates and articles


Audubon’s Birds of America Exhibition

29 September 2023

I wanted to see this exhibition because these bird illustrations are world famous but I was completely unprepared for the controversy that surrounds Audubon.

The exhibition of Audubon’s Birds of America is based on an incomplete volume of the prints owned by The National Museum of Scotland. In addition to the prints there are letters, books, manuscripts, projections, films and artefacts – all of which come together to present a fascinating insight into this artist.

John James Audubon (1785- 1851) was an American self taught artist who wanted to make a name for himself. He decided to paint every bird in America. His unique selling point was that every bird was depicted life size.

He was highly critical of his contemporaries who used taxidermy specimens for their artwork. Instead he captured all of the birds that he painted. He kept some alive for a few days before they died or were killed. Others he killed immediately and then arranged them in poses using wire to hold out wings or to suspend them by their necks or feet. By contorting them like this he was able to paint them in a way that was not conventionally scientific and therefore appeared to be more appealing.

He was unsuccessful in finding financial backing to fulfill his project in America so he travelled to Scotland where he was met with enthusiasm and secured financial support from important investors.

This enabled him to employ the engravers William Lizars and Robert Havell to engrave his paintings onto large copper plates. Once printed, colour was applied by expert colourists.

Unlike the original paintings the prints were reproducible and he set up a subscription scheme whereby collectors could gradually collect all of the prints.

I visited the exhibition with Karen Parker of intersilient. The exhibition gave us so much to discuss.

We both wished the original paintings still existed, but I guess we’re not alone, it would be interesting to compare them to the very accomplished engravings.

We were not convinced his work was any better than his contemporaries.

Some parts of the pictures seemed very accomplished whilst other parts were less impressive, for example the dripping blood from prey animals seemed very stylized.

Several birds that were presented as different species were in fact later identified to be the same species but juveniles.

A bird that he named The Bird of Washington, appears to be a large species of eagle. No one else has ever seen this bird and that has now been revealed beyond reasonable doubt to be completely fabricated by him. We found that extraordinary.

Audubon claimed to be pro conservation but shot birds in vast numbers including the once plentiful passenger pigeons which are now extinct.

The curators of this exhibition did not shy away from presenting all the known facts about Audubon. It is difficult to separate the man from the work.

Audubon was involved in the slave trade, falsified scientific data, invented species, discredited his contemporaries and did not credit his collaborators.

As this has all come to light many societies associated with his name are today dissociating themselves from him.

I can understand that. Because of all the negative associations it is the sort of thing you can imagine that institutions may not be willing to exhibit. But I am glad that I saw this exhibition – a real insight. Catch it if you can.

This touring exhibition from National Museum of Scotland finishes at Compton Verney on 1st October.

 

 

Birds, Beasts and Explorers

15 September 2023

Quentin Blake: Birds, Beasts and Explorers

Exhibition at Compton Verney, Warwickshire 27th May – 1st October

 

I visited this exhibition with Karen Parker from intersilient and we had a lot of fun and conversation over the 70 plus illustrations that were included in this exhibition.

 

Quentin Blake’s distinctive style is instantly recognisable – he has collaborated with many writers including Roald Dahl as well as illustrating and writing his own books.

His work is quirky and fun but I was particularly struck by a series of monochrome works exploring various modes of travel that had been created specifically for an exhibition called ‘The Only Way to Travel’ at Hastings Contemporary Gallery in East Sussex in 2017.

Pen, ink and watercolour on paper, these drawings showed travelers moving through vast, shadowy landscapes. Some of them were extremely poignant as they referenced the perilous journeys of migrants crossing the sea in small, crowded boats.

 

There is also a short film in which he explains his process and it is a fascinating insight into how he goes about his work. It was so good we watched it twice!

The exhibition is at Compton Verney until Sunday October 1st 2023.

Anthotypes

21 August 2023

I’ve been experimenting making anthotypes since I first discovered the process during lockdown. It is an old photographic process that uses photosensitive material from plants to create an image and was invented in 1842 by Mary Somerville, a Scottish scientist and polymath.

An emulsion is made from any part of a plant – berries, petals and /or leaves ground up and mixed with a little water and alcohol such as vodka .

The emulsion is then painted onto watercolour paper and left to dry in a dark room.

Objects or positive images are placed on top and left outside in the sun for days, weeks or months depending on the intensity of the sun and the photosensitivity of the particular plant used.

 

 

This is an image I made using an emulsion of silver birch tree leaves and a diagram of a human heart. Silver birch produces salicylic acid which is said to help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

If you want to have a go you can find step by step instructions from this wonderful website

https://www.alternativephotography.com/anthotypes-anthotype-process/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sketchbooks

4 August 2023

I got out of the habit of using a sketchbook. I just started put things down on random pieces of paper instead which I discarded after I’d used the idea. Which meant I had nothing to look back on, no record of what had (or hadn’t) worked.

 

It was recently when I was looking through some old sketchbooks that I realised that they are so much more than just a random number of images and words.

 

For example, I found this one which I made after I found one of my neighbours ducks dead one morning. In fact the whole sketchbook is more than a collection of sketches – it’s a train of thought, a record of what I was thinking about and why: a kind of diary.

 

A sketchbook is a great way to document observations from around you as well as ideas from your mind – and quite often a combination of both – which is what makes your art particular to you.

 

I have noticed recurrent themes and it’s interesting to see how some have developed and how I am still struggling to visualize others. It’s a reminder of what an ongoing process that being an artist is.

 

Sketchbooks allow you to experiment without fear of failure, both with ideas and with materials. There is no need to pressure yourself – no one else need ever see your sketches, thoughts and ideas unless you choose to show them. They are a place to play, to work things out and mine are often loose, a bit crazy and messy.

 

So I am excited to have decided to start using a sketchbook again, it’s good to have a healthy habit!

Watch the Birdy

24 May 2023

I’ve been doing some research on birds and birdsong as I have some ideas for new work but I need to find out more.

A friend introduced me to the Merlin Bird ID App and has been developed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Once downloaded you can use it to identify birds from a photograph or from a recording of the birdsong you can hear.

Merlin was created by bird experts for everyone. Merlin is global—look up any bird at any location. Keep track of your sightings—linked to eBird, a global database of more than 1 billion bird observations! Powered by Visipedia, Merlin Sound ID and Photo ID uses deep learning to identify birds in photos and sounds

It’s really accurate as I tested it against a friend of mine who is a life long bird spotter and can identify birds by their song and everything matched!

What I think is really clever is that it can identify many species of birds at the same time by the sound of their song. The recordings are available to listen to and it also tells you where the recording was made. Here’s a list of the birds that I heard on my walk in the woods this morning.

There are many other features to explore. For example you can download your data to their database which helps the Cornell lab to build a picture of which birds are living in which areas.

I am slightly obsessed by it.

Which is why I am telling everyone about it. Why not download it, see what you think and let me know

The Japanese Art of Kintsugi

24 October 2022

I have made a series of cyanotype artworks about the fractured habitats that birds and animals have to try and adapt to in order to survive – habitats that have been destroyed (wholly or partially) by mankind.

 

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold coloured glue/clay/lacquer. The point is to highlight the breaks, not disguise them, in order to embrace the flawed or imperfect. It is built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections one can create something even stronger and beautiful. Sometimes in the process of repairing something that is broken one can create something that is more beautiful and resilient.

 

I am using gold metal leaf in these artworks in order to highlight the broken habitats that so many birds and animals have to live in – the gold is a message of hope – that there is still time for this destruction to be reversed and in some cases made even better than it was before.


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