I imagine that most of you who read my blog have met me at an event and talked to me a little about why I do what I do and why I use what I use. This blog post will give you a little more insight, and if you have ended up here without having met me, hello and welcome and it may all be new news to you.....
The materials I use are central to my practice, gorgeous pigments that have woven through our human story over time: From before the beginning of recorded history, up to the present there are colour traces of our interactions, cultural exchange and trade. The starting point for all my work is research, research into which pigments played a role in a place at a particular time, and how interactions between people of that place can be traced through the presence of the same pigments in other places.
I choose pigments from three sources. For indigo I will only use fair traded indigo and I source them from India and South America. For some earth pigments there are occasions where I have sourced them from the earth itself, in Scotland with the help of a geologist, and in South Central France from my brother’s garden and around there. This requires a great deal of patience and processing. The third supply is from the shops: Generally I use Cornellissen’s because of the high quality pigment they stock and the expertise of their staff, and occassionally I use Sennelier. I combine these with oil painting media of only the very best quality, from Robersons, Hardings and occasionally a siccative or two from Jacksons.
So that’s how I get hold of them, but how do I decide which pigments to use? Well any collection is based on research into how pigment played out in a particular history or geography (and descriptions of this are at the base of all the gallery pages on this website), so for example the Bristol Presentiments Series used only pigments that were listed as having been imported through Bristol Docks in the first half of 1770. I researched this using the Bristol Library archives where they hold the Bristol Presentiment papers. These were papers published in 1770 as a kind of Yellow Pages, listing who had imported what and distributed publicaly so that people knew what they could buy from which merchant. And the period or events I choose to investigate are those that have a resonance with the Now.
And then there is the material quality of the pigment itself, how it combines with the different media, it’s chemistry, compatibility and incompatibility, opaqueness and translucency, colour fastness or fugitivity, evenness or otherwise of the coat of paint it will provide. Pigments do not all behave in the same way. You might for example use carbon black in ink with very speedy drying times, try it in oil and you must add a siccative or you will wait months for it to dry; Try a different carbon black, (there are a large number,) and it might give you a trnslucent splotchy surface where once you had an opaque even one. This is the alchemy, the place where however much you read about pigments and their qualities, however many colour encyclopedia you have swallowed there is no replacement for play, experimentation and experience. This is the place of joy and sorrows.
So I make my own paints, not just because it is a good grounding way to start my studio session each day, but because I use only the finest ingredients, I know how to make them so they will do what I want them to do, and because their provenance and history is so central to my practice, that opening that jar and handling the best quality of pigment is central to what I do.
This relationship with materials is the craft of what I do, and it has meant that I have been headhunted by Cramer and Bell for the Bergman and Mar “Makers and Craftsmen” Project in London. I will be showing and auctioned along side a range of other people who make art, furniture, ceramics, textiles with the same kind of relationship to authentic quality materials. If you are interested in visiting the curated show house please let me know and I’ll invite you along to the events when they are planned.
So May has been trundling along and we have the end of the month not far round the corner, and I have a few applications in process. One of which I had almost completed after hours of input only to see it dissappear with the wrong press of a button on the computer! I spent Monday afternoon with a migraine and today I have re-written the application but more sesibley to documnets rather than direct inputting into the screen. I have done this all before I should not be making these basic mistakes...so as well as the applications I have events coming up. I will have work on show in the Curious Duke Gallery throughout June, you are welcome to go and vists. Delivering my work to the gallery is one of my jobs next week. I addition I am slowly installing the display that will be on my walls for the Open Studios in the last weekend of June and the first in July. Please email for details. And slowly progressing in my studio are two bodies of work: The work from the Corby Glen Project using carbon blacks
And the work in the “Making Decisions in the Dark" series. Making Decisions in the Dark has arisen from the reflective process that making the Corby Glen work has prompted. So I made the proposal and did the initial ground work for Corby Glen two years ago. A two years that has represented a ground swell in support for my work and a measure of financial success. My work has developed in the subsequent years with the developments I have had in confidence, and and willingness to take more risks and take things further. the political landscape has changed too and put a little shot of urgency in there. In realising the contraints I put into the Corby Glen Proposal, by completing a bosy of that work now, I have been prompted to make a counterbalancing freer body of work along side of it. Work that is far more seductive in the making as it puts me in to a flow state. Such a flow state that I was only forced to stop when I ran out of space to dry work and canvas surfaces to out work on. And I wonder if the migraine I have been having is because where I really need to be is back in there reentering the flow.
“Making Decisions in the Dark” 2019, hand mixed oil on canvas, 100x100cm
In the last few weeks I have been in a position to collect and select pigments from geographically specific areas. I have been sent carbon black from a wood fired chimney in Corby Glenn. I have collected Ochre from the hillsides near Loch Tay and I have been given industrial carbon from Middlesborough. At the back of all my work is the way in which pigments playout in human history, how they hold the sotires of our interactions. The material trace left by human interaction in the form of colour.
I am currently working on a series of paintings for the Corby Glenn Project, and the pigments that seem to me to be most associated with that place are the carbon blacks made with wood. The building I will be exhibiting in was built by a 17th century wood importer. The family at the centre of the village arrived to build a Catholic church, and were carpenters, and still are, though also farmers. there is still a wooden mill in Corby Glen though now at the outskirts rather than the centre of the village. Wood is at the heart of Corby Glenn. And with the help of Graham, who requested and sent me soot from the local chimney sweep I have the basis for creating carbon black
Care has to be taken and I use EU regulation fine particle masks and cover the pestle and mortar with plastic sheet to make sure the dust doesn’t spread. Once it is made into paint it is safe . I did smell like a bonfire though!
The other pigemnt source I raided was the earth in Scotland. I visted my geologist partner in crime and we sourced ochres from the lanscape near to her lovely holliday house. She spotted the sources and we collected together. The process for preparing the pigment is more complicated and requires the removal of plant matter and silicates, so includes sieving, washing precipitating and filtering. I got some advice from my lovely friend Bina Shah who has a practice based on using natural pigments and is an old hand at cleaning them up... she explained to me about how to get the sand out. there’s a little animation on my instagram you can watch if you like by pressing the button below
And then there is a more biographical pigment... the Needham branch of my family were Sheffield cutlers and as a result involved in the steel industry. My parents came to see me on the way to visit my Uncle from the other side, and were chatting about his collection of carbon rods which he had bought when the steel works in Middlesborough closed down, so I asked if I could have a few. And they brought some back with them, so I have a very different grade of hard carbon from that, coated in copper, so will be able to make both another carbon black and verdigris.
I don’t usually process my own pigments in this way, I usually buy them from Cornellisen’s , or I buy fair traded indigo. However there is something very satisfying in this process for work which has a geographical specificity. Knowing that the materials which are traceable to the source actually come from a source which is local.
So what is it like on standing on your stand at an art fair? The work was made, the labels printed, the no-show van disaster averted and there I was five minutes before the doors open finding someone to check I had fully zipped the back of my dress...what’s it like?
The party music was on and the people started to arrive, loads of people, The Other Art Fair team had done a spectacular job of publicity and the place was buzzy and busy with art-interested people. The artists on the stands around me were all friendly, some people I had met before and some new faces, and that is one other thing about the Other Art Fair the artist community is lovely. I had had essential help from another artist friend Rachel Dein, in getting my stand ready and keeping myself together, a special thank you goes to her.
So there I was and people were queuing up the street and coming through the doors to an event I was part of. I was excited and nervous.
And then a magical thing started to happen. In the bustle, a person would slow down, stop, take time and look. A stillness fell on them, a focus entered their eyes, sometimes a blush would creep up from their neck into their cheeks, and in that moment I knew it was all right. I had done what I meant to do.
Eendraght, Hand mixed oil on canvas, 120x200cm work in progress
By the end of the second half of the 18th century a further level of use of force came into play as the rates of press ganging privateer crews into the crews of admiralty ships became more common with the build up of navy forces. Merchant ships on the transatlantic routes were involved in slavery, the crew might be press ganged, the ship captured by privateers or pirates, and the relationships between private traders and the state were complex and intertwined. The period of the Anglo-Dutch wars was broken by periods of trade and an uneasy peace, while the practice of capturing ships under licence did not entirely go away.
Echoes of the Privateers,
hand mixed oil on wood, with coppered edges
work in progress
So I am starting the year making work that creates spaces echoing with those particular stories of trade, of privateering, the slave trade and the kinds of violence associated with shifts in power and what happens when trade wars become real wars. When competing desires for money and power are left raw and unconstrained so only the most violent, most forceful will win, and power is in flux, and without accountable agreement.
These initial works are in indigo, but there will be others using red and yellow ochres, smalt and madder.
This is in preparation for the fairs that I will be doing in London in spring, The Other Art Fair which will be at the Truman Brewery in March and Roy’s People Art Fair which will be at Oxo Tower Wharf in April. Look out closer to the time for ticket links to both.
When the Fog Comes Down
hand mixed oil on wood with coppered edges
work in progress
All the works shown on this post are incomplete, and this is illustrative of the way that I work on collections. Hand mixing oils and using organic pigments requires long drying times, and layering and varnishing processes need dry lower layers. My studio is currently pretty full of work at various stages, surfaces being prepared, works on the go, finished, almost finished and only just started. While making a collection I like to work in this way so that there is a real relationship between the pieces, they flow into each other, influencing each other and enriching one another. At the point of writing I am waiting for the commissioned giant to be picked up and shipped out which will create more space in a couple of days time, allowing me to grow the collection some more.
Over this summer Rebecca Wilson, chief Curator of Saatchiart negotiated a commission for me. The process started with a selection of images to show to a client who was building a boutique cruise ship and was looking for original paintings and some printed pieces for the ship. I provided a series of images from my Bristol Presentiments 1770 series, most of which Rebecca had seen at The Other Art Fair Bristol.
And then I waited. Rebecca let me know when the pitch had been made, and that they loved my work, that was positive. And I was asked to quote for a very large painting 275x110cm and some prints of another, and speculatively for one other spot, even more positive, the works that were the basis for the commission had been selected. So I sent off a quote detailing that I usually did not do prints of painted works, but for this time only I would licence one piece for prints. And then I waited some more.
We were to be told in September. This would give me ust enough time to work in my usual way. I paint in oils in a rather traditional way hand mixing my own paints and they take along time to dry, especially with organic rather than mineral pigments . The piece selected for the large work of course used indigo, an organic pigment.
September passed. I started researching media that I could use that would speed up my drying processes. I even experimented a bit with acrylic. But truth be told acrylic just isn’t my best friend! So I made some experimental work with new additions to the oil, found out how they affected colour, texture, liquidity and of course drying times. I was in email contact with Rebecca, but although things were looking good there was no confirmation yet.
So I had found ways of speeding drying times using oils (it involves the addition of a variety of mineral based oil painting media in sufficient quantity to aid drying without impacting on colour or reducing flexibility too much).
Then I had to work out about getting the surface made. so I had already been in touch with the lovely people at artist surface to let them know about the project, and to get a quote from them for the surface in the first place. However they needed notice too. So I stayed in touch with them, dropping them an email from time to time to keep them in the loop, because once the confirmation was in, I would need them to be as speedy in making it as possible. ... And I was tempted to order the surface in advance, but this was going to be hundreds of pounds, not money I could spend speculatively...not until things were signed on the dotted line...not until the deposit was in...
In the mean time I had been adding to my Cobalt Collection over the summer , and I had noticed the incredible speed with which the cobalt based paints were drying, which set a spark but this was also one of the hottest summers ever, what if it was all because of the heat....
October came along and it was The Other Art Fair London, and so a chance to catch up with Rebecca Wilson again in person. She told me they had confirmed, but we were waiting on the deposit, so nearly there...great news. Just after the fair and before New York I got confirmation to go ahead, and happily by then I knew the new concoctions were working, they were dry and they looked good, and they still operated in ways that I wanted them to. I ordered the surface from Artists Surfaces, they were fantastic and got it too me in record time, and then it arrived....
I was beyond excited, I love working really big and it was huge, that summer I had had a studio built in the garden so that I could work really big again, and here it was the vast, perfectly smooth beautiful thing.....so big I had to get my husband to help me move it to the studio.... Then came the process of painting it, referring back to photos, but obviously not copying them, the new work is still a new work, the piece that the client chose an inspirational stepping off point, not something to replicate exactly. I used the same pigments but had to use the faster drying media, and in the process kept in touch with Rebecca, there was some forwards and backwards, working and reworking....
Then on a visit to the Pitt Rivers museum I found a map of the route of the Beagle, this boat was going to be sailing to the Galapagos too, I wanted to incorporate it
So I added it in another layer of the ochre, but was a bit too heavy, so I pulled it back, its still there but softly, in a little echo.
So here it is, in it’s final form after the go ahead from Rebecca it has been varnished, and wrapped and is waiting for the bespoke crate to arrive, that I’m having made by my lovely local Crouch End carpenters. Then it will be off to Saatchiart to sort out the framing before it arrives in Rotterdam to be installed in the ship. It’s been quite a journey, and it is off on it’s own journey now, carrying with it South American Indigo from the Andes, and European ochres to echo the perpetual journey forwards and backwards that it will make. And that really is something I find very satisfying, given that the starting point of the original piece used to inspire it were the imported pigments though Bristol docks in 1770: imported from Rotterdam, the Carribbean and The Americas.
So this Autumn I went full tilt at promoting my work and getting it out there. I made the possibly crazy decision to do 3 fairs in 2 coutries in 1 month. I started off with The Other Art Fair London. At this fantastic show I met a great range of professional contacts including Artist agents, I have a formal meeting with them next week, and the curator of an amazing museum project which is still in development (more about this next year). I also had the opportunity to net-work with some fabulous artists, and sold the largest work on my stand, my star piece which had so much love through the show I could have sold it several times over! Unusually for a fair I sold it through the fair director rather than face to face, so thank you Ryan for facilitating that.
The next fair I did was in Oxo Tower Wharf, and standing around in that South London setting in April had been the inspiration for the starting point of the Cobalt Collection. So as I stood in the cold in April, something was tickling the back of my mind about the South London Potters in Southwark (which I had arrived through) and Vauxhall which was near to where I would be leaving from. I had had this connection between the Thames and Cobalt floating in the back of my mind for ages. The colours of the Thames are reflected in the range of blues and greens and turquoises that can be found, the changeability and at the same time permanence of the river are similar to the chemical nature of cobalt, but there was something else, I was sure of it. So after the show I started to research into the history of the South London potters and this is what I found. They were originally a group of refugees from religious persecution in the low countries and France. They had been obliged to live outside the city, as only people born in the city could live in the city at the time, and they had brought with them the techniques for glazing pottery that included amongst other colours the prized cobalt blue of Deltware. They were the originators of blue and white pottery in England. Before that English pottery was brown or green. These potteries were also at the foundations of some of the most famous potteries for example Royal Doulton started out here.
So here I was this Autumn with the Cobalt Collection that had started as a germ of a thought the last time I did this same fair in this same place, with cobalt blue skies outside as well as in and a beautiful golden sunshine falling across my work. A week later I was in New York!
So to get to New York I had sent my work ahead to my gorgeous friend Rachel’s house, which while not in New York city is in New York state, I knew it had arrived safe and sound as she’d sent me the pictures, and despite two hiccoughs in customs leaving the UK and then entering the USA with the help of UPS they had arrived before I even set off.
The pieces I took to America were the ones which explored cobalts bigger story, the research I did into the collection at the British Museum. I had looked into the archives and found how cobalt pigmented objects had left in their physicality these traces of human interconnectedness since the iron age, how they had been traded in the form of glass, by Phoenicians across the meditteranean, how they had spread through the Islamic world into the Iberian peninsular and how even in the iron age cobalt blue glass had made its way to the shore of England. The work in the US referenced the names of places this evidence came from. traces of classical silk route trade and more. And one of the things tht really happens when you spend three weekends in close proximity explaining what you do to so many thousands of people, is that you get a bit clearer about why you do it yourself. Which in itself is a little gift to the artist.
Back at home in between all these fairs the commission that Rebecca Wilson of saatchiart and I had been talking about since Bristol came through. So in between this I was making a very large painting that will be gracing the wall of a boutique cruise ship that runs its route between the Galapagos and Europe carrying passengers in luxury. The making of the piece is probably for the next post, when I may even have photos of it in place. I have used Andean Indigo and European ochres to make it.
. Tomorrow I fly to New York for the Other Art Fair Brroklyn. My work already arrived already . You can find me at Stand 133 near the Saatchi Lounge. Really exciting!
I will be launching a new collection of work at the Other Art Fair in London and New York and Roy’s People Art Fair, London this Autumn. This Cobalt Collection started with research into the South London potters and the development of British Delft Ware. This involved the use of cobalt blue in the form of smalt on white porcelain, a style and technique which originated in China. Prior to its introduction British made ceramics were largely coloured using green copper glaze or slip ware which was earth tones. The “new “ 16th century technology was a result of the expertise coming into Holland from China through the Dutch East India Company. Then that expertise coming into Britain as the result of Dutch and French refugees bringin the expertise with them and then settling in what was then the outskirts of London. At the time “foreigners” , and that meant anyone born outside of London were not allowed to settle in the City of London, so the potteries grew up in Southwark, Vauxhall, and other neighbouring areas close to the City and the Thames, and the refugees and migrants brought the expertise and coloured glazes with them.
After a lovely conversation with a potter and British Museum Educator in my friends garden it grew into research into cobalt pigments all together and the colour traces they have left as evidence of trade which goes as far back as the late Bronze Age in the form of glass beads, probably Mediterranean, found in a UK burial pit which may have been as a result of the trade in Cornish tin or copper with the Iberian Peninsular and then in turn with Phoenician traders there or alternatively possibly from French Mediterranean bronze age blue glass makers.
British Museum Collection selected evidence of Production and Trade in Cobalt pigmented objects: glass and ceramics for more information and a sneak preview of some of the collection please follow this link to the gallery page Cobalt Collection, from the Vauxhall Potters to the British Museum
I have produced a series of works which using cobalt painting pigments (and to a limited degree smalt which I have used in acrylic rather than my usual oil as it is fugitive in oil), and red earth pigments in reference to my London ceramics starting point, the titles come from places where cobalt blue pigments were made and found as detailed in the British Museum collection. So there is physical colourful evidence of trade from thousands of years ago, the stories of those people engaged in that trade can only be imagined. But evidence there is of sharing ideas and technologies across boundaries of culture, language and geography. A human exchange of material goods and ideas. A selection will be at the Other Art Fair in London, a further selection in New York and a final selection in Roy’s People Art Fair on the South Bank near where those refugee potters worked.
Each abstract piece is invitation to fall in get a little lost and remember.
If you would like tickets to the Other Art Fair, London please click on the link below and use the code NEEDHAMCOMP for your free ticket
Saxony and London Clay
hand mixed oil on canvas