Monday 23 September 2019

Head in the clouds on Lundy.

Having your head in the clouds, as I frequently do, is its own reward but there are also rewards in sharing the addiction. I was recently invited by Gavin Prettor-Pinney, creator of The Cloud Appreciation Society (CAS), co-founder of The Idler magazine, and, most importantly, author of the indispensable The Cloud Spotter's Guide (2006) and  The Wave Watchers Companion (2010), to give a talk on the cloud in art during the CAS's annual Sky Gathering, which took place this year on the island of Lundy a small but inhabited land in the Bristol Channel.

Lundy island west coast looking south

Gavin Pretor-PinneyCreditCredit: photo credit Nadav Kander for The New York Times

I was one of twelve speakers and performers from around the world presenting to an audience of about 80 people all members of the Cloud Appreciation Society who had descended on Lundy from the four quarters of the globe to learn about clouds both scientifically and culturally, watch them live, draw, sing about, write and even make them.

We gathered at a hotel in central London and took a coach trip to the Lundy ferry at Ilfracombe via Stone Henge, the famous picturesque gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire and Barnstable all of which were new to me.
Stourhead lake and Greek temple, aquarelle pencil.
Passing Stonehenge in a traffic jam, graphite.
Barnstable bridge, tide ebbing, aquarelle pencil.
The ferry, a classic 1950s design called the Oldenburg, was only one year older than me so doing pretty well despite being a heavily polluting diesel ship.

Leaving Ilfracombe on the Oldenburg: photo credit Phil Nobel for Reuters.
The Oldenburg, built in Germany in 1958.

Before I went to Lundy I tried to imagine what it was like:

Imaginary Lundy, aquarelle pencil
Apart from the weather this wasn't a bad impression of the west coast. Here's what I actually saw, the weather a little calmer than expected.

The Old Lighthouse, watercolour and oil pastel
And here are a few more watercolours which try to capture something of the amazing and complex cirrus skies and contrails we saw and the stratocumulus formations above the mainland of North Devon. With all that high altitude sunshine I managed to get my first sunburn in years.

My talk on the sky in art was one of the first in the programme, which included a presentation on the future of weather forecasting by Met Office meteorologist and TV weather presenter Helen Roberts and one on the poetry of clouds by Richard Hamblyn the best selling author of 'The Invention of Clouds' assisted in the poetry readings by the amazing folk singer Lisa Knapp. 

Gavin and his sizeable team had organised a satellite webcast of the talks from St Helen's church, a massive structure for the size of the population but perfect for the audience of 80 or so people. 

Despite the best efforts of the techies a simple switching on of the kettle in preparation for a break time cuppa managed to knock out all the electrics and the internet broadcast for a while. The contingencies of island life. Here's my talk, session 3 on the Sky Gathering website. I have to warn you that I had a bad throat infection and had almost totally lost my voice by the time we reached Lundy so it was a minor miracle that I was able to be heard at all by the audience or on the webcast. You can watch all 12 talks here:

After my talk I ran a couple of well attended sketching workshops where I showed a group of CAS members some techniques for quickly observing the sky and sea as it changed before our very eyes.

Lionel demonstrating sketching in aquarelle pencils
I had brought with me about 200 coloured aquarelle pencils, 20 water reservoir brushes and 20 hard back sketch pads to give to members who took up the sketching challenge. After each workshop I encouraged everyone to continue appreciating clouds through sketching and show the results in the church on the last day alongside my Lundy watercolour paintings and the results of other workshops.

Reuters journalist Mari Saito flew in specially form Tokyo to document the events for a special report on the gathering for the Reuters website:  

Her interview with me took place whilst I was painting a tricky watercolour of Cirrus and Strato cumulus over Lundy's restored medieval Marisco Castle. It was fascinating to get a young, globe trotting journalist's views on climate change and on the possible future for people and the earth's ecosystems. Her photographer Phil Noble from Manchester took some very nice photos:

Lundy's Marisco Castle: photocredit Phil Noble for Reuters

Phil must have taken his photo after I completed the watercolour below of the same view because the cirrostratus in my painting has moved further south and the sun has moved to the west judging by the shadows on the castle.

You can see how difficult it is for photographers to capture the sense of intense light that's possible with watercolours. The distant cumulus over Dorset in Phil's image has a similar reddish purple hue that I've captured in the watercolour but even though it looks a bit garish in the painting it is truer to my experience of being there. For me painting is generally much closer to perceptions of colour, light and movement than photography and I believe this to be a fundamental difference due to the machine made aspect of photography. Even so, some paintings can look more like photos than paintings but often these look static like a frozen moment in time. The value of drawing and painting for me is that convey, as John Berger said, the act of seeing the understanding that comes from following and being with the subject over a period of time. Literally the drawing shows us not only appearances but perceptions and priorities.

In this example the painting contains physical substances, such as earth from the ground on which I was sitting, making connections with the physical world, including the weather (how quickly the paint dries), that photography rarely can. Although I have taken thousands of photographs over many decades, developing my own negatives and positives in black and white and colour before the age of digital photography, my photographs of landscape always disappoint in comparison to paintings and drawings. They often lack depth something that cannot be said of Berndnaut Smilde's beautifully composed indoor photographs.

I shared a room with Berndnaut, who travels the world 'making' clouds, and gained a real insight into his ideas, methods and artistic journey.

He carries various battery packs, water vapour and cloud seeding machines to mainly indoor locations such as this church as well as museums, art galleries, castles and palaces. He made a cloud in St Helens church and one in a mine tunnel with the help of Sky Gathering guests. The clouds only last a few seconds but the work behind the published artwork is the carefully planning of light an composition. The only thing he's not fully in control of is what shape the cloud becomes. Magical images for a modern climate conscious audience.

After a fascinating and very busy three days on Lundy it was time to leave and as the ferry approached the landing stage I quickly grabbed one last chance to paint. 

With a couple of extra weeks I might have been able to create some stunning landscapes of Lundy especially of the sea cliffs along the north west coast. It's a small but dramatic landscape set in wide sea with distant coastlines of Wales and England. Lundy has a slow pace of life with few artificial noise distractions so you can really hear the sounds of weather, birdlife and sheep. Come to think of it it's a bit like the North Pennines where I live but with the added attraction of the sea and cliffs. There are even a few wind blasted trees below the village in a protected gulley. 

Finally we boarded the ship and bid farewell to Lundy under high altitude skies criss-crossed with the a dense contrail network of international travel. 

These patterns are beautiful in one respect but a frightening reminder of the impact we are having on the planet. 21 years ago, as part of my Masters in Fine Art I made a series of contrail drawings and paintings as iconic images of the contemporary contrail sky and my experiences of air travel. I think these are just as relevant today if not more so and whenever I fly I try to get a window seat to draw the experience which may not be so readily available in a post-fossil fuel world.

Global Sky, oil, 1999-2019

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Paper clouds

Paper cloud displayed in window at Bowlees Visitor Centre Gallery, Upper Teesdale

Paper clouds and other sculptures and how to make them

Here are a couple of videos on two of the many steps in the process of making paper clouds and other sculptures from dead moorland grasses collected in the late winter early spring. 

After collecting out in the moors, a couple of months of partial rotting in a plastic bag and cutting to short lengths the grass is cooked in a solution of sodium bi-carbonate for several hours which stinks the studio out. This starts to break  apart and digest the cellulose fibres.

After mashing the cooked grass with a pestle and mortar the broken down cellulose is washed and then bathed in dilute bleach to lighten the colour before a final rinse in cold water. 

The pulp is then ready to store in airtight containers until needed for pouring into a paper cloud on a paper making screen or onto silk screen printing mesh. The paper is left on the screen to either air dry for a day or so, or to fast dry with a current of warm air passing over it for an hour or more. Faster drying will make the paper cockle and bend more dramatically.

Once dry, if the paper hasn't released itself from the screen, a small curved knife blade is very gently run under the delicate edges until it lifts off. 

Some of these paper clouds are very fragile at the edges but the thinness of the paper in these parts helps create a brighter silver lining when back lit. This scattering effect is enhanced when the cellulose fibres are finer which depends on the amount of cooking, mashing and bleaching and on the types of grass used.

Paper pulp can be used to make almost any 3-D object out of a skin of paper such as this model of a 25 micron wide birch pollen grain exhibited at Baltic 39 in Newcastle upon Tyne and at Brantwood, Coniston in 2015.

Birch pollen paper sculpture, Baltic 39, Newcastle upon Tyne

Birch pollen paper sculpture and paper cloud, Brantwood, Coniston

Art from the Ocean

Here's my final composition (I think) for the 'Tropos 3' collage-painting. I've added a few little cumulus clouds on the right and I've developed what was a weak area in the sea on the right using a sword liner, a water spray-mister and a shaper tool. The risk in art is to go too far and loose the magic by over doing things, such as adding too much detail or complexity where simpler might be more effective through suggestion. It's probably too early for me to judge whether this is an improvement or not but if you don't follow your hunches with paintings they can miss their expressive potential. I think we have to follow creative instinct: if after a few weeks the painting is saying "more to be done" then it has to be changed somehow. It could be small changes or it might have to be a radical rethink, but things evolve over time and its hard to know if the current state of the work is just intermediate, but for now this is as far as I can go.

Tropos3, acrylic and laser print on canvas.
In fact it's probably time to start several more pieces and to up the scale in order to think about the idea in different ways and get a clearer perspective on the work and what its potential is as art. I'm in discussion wit the scientists at Leipzig University about doing something much more ambitious with their TROPOS atmospheric data followed by an exhibition and a catalogue with essays. I'm hoping the Alfred Wegener Institute will be interested in supporting it and also searching for possible art-science funding from the European Union before the UK crashes out of it.

Meanwhile the oceans keep warming and absorbing acidifying CO2 and the algae and plankton populations, that affect the colour of the surface waters, continue to change, as does the weather that allows illuminating sunlight through. These paintings don't illustrate climate change science, but if they are any good as art they will help some people to contemplate the beauty of the sea and its hidden life beneath the surface as a phenomenon of great human value. I for one have always looked out on the sea with awe and wonder, seeing it as an environment of a completely different order to terrestrial landscapes in the impermanence of it and in its vitality as living thing. Human beings have always been fascinated with the sea as both dangerous alien environment but also as possible route to far away and unknown places. The memory of my particular encounter with the sea on the RV Polarstern from Bremerhaven to Cape Town will continue to feed my imagination.

Here are a few sketches and photos from the 2016 cruise. More to come in future posts when I get time!

Drawing made on Nov 14, 2016, English Channel

Super moon sketched from the monkey island at 6 in the morning as we left the English Channel for the Atlantic ocean. Chinese ink and aquarelle pencil on paper.

'Super' moon painted on board ship based on sketches and memory, acrylic on canvas.
The painting was donated to the ship to mark a successful cruise in a ceremony on the bridge with Captain Wunderlich of Polarstern when we arrived safely in Cape Town, Dec 12th 2016. 

Me sketching the above drawing. Photo credit E. Shestakova

Drawing made on Nov 23, 2016, off east Africa

Nov 20 Sunrise 1 Canary Isles.

Nov 20 Sunrise 2 Canary Isles

The Atlantic

Sunset from the port side of bridge

Equator midday port side, so much light, aquarelle pencil

 View from the bridge top sunset

Prof. Peter Lemke discusses his idea about the ships' wake

Lionel Playford explains the idea behind the expedition mural to a group of scientists helping to create the 10m long painting

Here is what we created! Possibly the longest painting ever made at sea.

Finished mural laid out fore the first time in the wet room. 1.5m x 10m acrylic and collage on linen.