Charcoal: Messy, dusty, dirty, raw, crunchy, solid, slippery, smooth, velvety, grainy, seductive stuff. It is like soil; it stains, it gets everywhere, I breathe it in, it sits under my finger nails for days, it accentuates the wrinkles in my hands. It can be so dark on the surface of the paper, ground in permanently. Or it can be the lightest line, erased to reveal the white paper again. It feels immediate, indexical, there is no faffing, no mixing of colours, just straight drawing and all the shifting visual linear and tonal decisions that come with it.
Two years ago during a residency at Riu d’Art in Riba-roja d’Ebres, Catalunya, I used charcoal made locally in the nearby forest. I used it for my initial drawings of natural forms, working on brown paper, and then again to plan out a mural onto the wall. To use local charcoal felt good, it felt right, it felt like a greater connection to the place I was making work in, to the people there, the past, and to nature. I still have some of this charcoal left; I brought it home in my bag, and I still use it now. It is unrefined, and the marks I make with it are a bit out of control, the surface is not even, it can crumble easily or stay sharp and pointy.
I work predominantly with graphite and charcoal, although at times I have explored other media, drawing into oil, putty, clay, wood. I enjoy the irregular surfaces of more natural materials, and colours that seem restful. I feel more at ease when working on paper. In the last few months my work has taken a different route. I am eager for change, to challenge myself; I am using acrylic paint, acrylic glazing mediums, and matt gels. The colours I am mixing are influenced by the colours I find around me in nature, or whilst walking at dawn and dusk when colours are faded and the brightness has seeped out. I try to find my own palette, and I keep returning to quiet colours. When I am in supermarkets, or look through shop window displays, the brightness of the colours and the synthetic gaudiness of our modern, plastic world, makes me want to turn away. I find it overwhelming. The change in medium is making me question my new direction. I feel like I am finding out what I do not want to do; that I am finding my way through a series of failures, or paths that I do not want to be taking. This is part of the process of finding a way.
I have a group of four drawings I made a few years ago, that I keep returning to. I used gesso on wood, mixing the gesso from scratch, and painting it over the wooden surface, then drying, sanding, and re-layering. The smoothness of this surface, and the knowledge that I had made the gesso, rather than simply opening a readymade tub, felt authentic, felt more connected. Making my own oil paint, grinding the pigment and mixing it into the oil, felt more meaningful and genuine than simply squeezing colour from a tube. Drawing onto the gesso surface using ink made from oak apples also felt good to use; the shimmering surface as the ink dried, and the lightly textured feel of it in comparison to the smoothness of the gesso surface was a wonderful contrast.
I question why I am using acrylic from a tub, squeezing out this bright plastic stuff onto my palette, and then trying to dull the colours down to something I find less offensive. I wonder if I will be able to achieve a sense of the surface feeling natural. I enjoy the thin layers of zinc white, of covering up a drawing with a veil, to push back the brighter colours underneath. As in nature, I want to look at a surface for a long time, to spend time finding marks and layers, evidence of the history of a build-up of a drawing, evidence of time. Somehow using natural materials seems to sit better with me, as an artist and my ethos as a person, to use less, to be mindful of my footprint.