Friday 15 July 2011

Revisiting the bones of the earth through the sea.

(oil on canvas)

Seascapes - with their ever changing colours, and the interplay of sea and sky - have been a source of inspiration for my painting over the past few months.  

(oil on canvas)

After my return from a week away at the English North Sea village of Robin Hood’s Bay a few weeks ago, I was expecting the experience of that seascape to drive my work further in that direction.  Instead, I’ve returned to a series which I began last year, but abandoned when I wasn’t satisfied with the way it was evolving.  This series was inspired by a trip to pretty much the diagonally-opposite end of England: inland Dartmoor.  
I've long been attracted to Dartmoor both for it's impressive landscape and for its stories and legends.  The idea of the landscape shaping the stories which grow out of it is one I find endlessly fascinating. 
This return to a previous - and stuck - series came as a surprise.  There is a mysterious element to the creative process.  Certainly creative developments happen as we paint and as we think about our painting; but others happen when we aren’t and don’t.  This sub-conscious level of ferment is interesting because it doesn’t follow rules of logic and intent, and it can’t be forced.  Why is it that after a trip to the coast, where I was confronted with the perpetual rhythm and noise and awareness of the sea, did I instantly go back to a series which grew from a landscape profoundly still and solid?  Perhaps it’s that we experience things in part by contrast: I was forced to think more about my experience of the inland heart of Dartmoor in light of its foil; the sea.  

(Robin Hood's Bay)

The Dartmoor landscape appeals to something very deep in me.  On my walks around that region, every time I sat on the granite outcrops, I was strongly aware of the presence of the land.  The clouds tumbled overhead, sometimes as dark and heavy as boulders, sometimes as thin and white as winter breath, while the land itself was still.  Profoundly so.  I was aware of a deep, waiting stillness.  But there was also the awareness of the long, slow violence of nature: the exposed rocky tors where wind and rain and sleet and snow had forever been lashing against the hills, exposing and shaping the granite masses.  An interplay on the edges, at the boarders, between the elements of that landscape. 



Returning to this Dartmoor series, I have a clearer idea of how to assimilate the two predominant themes I’d been exploring: that of the overwhelming landscape of that region; and that of the magic of storytelling.  The trouble I was having was incorporating the latter.   
In some of my collages, I include writing: the first lines of stories usually.  With my abstract paintings, I don't want to illustrate or tell a story directly, but I want - in this Dartmoor series - to play with the idea of “story” and of the expressing that through visual symbols.  

 (oil and cold wax on wood: work in progress)

(oil and cold wax on wood: work in progress)

I’ve tried to suggest this with symbols and marks similar to the earliest markings made by humans:  ochre markings on a cave wall; scratches on stone; the rhythm of mark making - the physical act which is similar in many ways to the force of nature marking the landscape.  

Rebecca Crowell is an artist whom I admire both for her beautiful work, and for her openness and generosity in discussing her creative process.  She posted a blog as I was preparing this one, on a very related topic: gestural marks on paintings.  She often includes scratched or applied lines, which sometimes look almost like writing, in her paintings.  
She mentions the recent death of American artist Cy Twombly and his forays into exploration of mark and gesture in non-representational painting, and I must say that I also found myself pondering this topic in light of his death.  
Cy Twombly was a man who stubbornly followed his own artistic vision with integrity.  Apparently he spent decades living practically as a recluse in Italy, spending most of his time reading.  He would have bursts of creativity in which he would paint obsessively.  The fact that he was such a voracious reader makes sense in light of the gestural marks which he worked with throughout his career.  I won’t say any more about the man, as I’m afraid that’s about all I’ve heard.  I will be on the lookout for a good biography now though.
Marks, lines, symbols.  Looking at the many writing systems which exist, or have existed, as a mine of human gestural symbols, is instructive for me.  Artists develop their own visual vocabulary, and this often includes symbols and markings.  
And, just as the elements of art (line, shape, space, value, colour, texture, and form) can be explored in-and-of themselves, so can the elements of writing.  In rather the same way as a song needn’t have words to be sung (if that makes any sort of sense).  It’s exciting - as a viewer - to sense the human hand, arm, body, mind, behind the creation of specific marks.  
This is a relatively recent development for me, one which I’ve just in the past year begun to think about and experiment with. Thinking about Cy Twombly and his work has urged me to write a post about it.
This has all been written before and far more succinctly than here.  Sometimes it can help to put ideas down in writing.  Sometimes it kills them, pinning them down like butterflies.  
And at times, the elements of the written word can be the idea itself.  I’m not sure where it will lead, but I’m enjoying the process.     


  1. What an interesting post, and such expressive paintings - the first two almost shimmer with their own inner light.
    I've always found ancient mark making so fascinating, in caves or carved into rocks, and especially how the earliest symbols from far opposites of continents show such similarities - like a kind of primal consciousness or connectedness. Your Dartmoor paintings appeal to me very much for these reasons and also for the lovely colours and textures in the paint that remind me of those lichened crags and tors...
    Carrie... :)

  2. What a beautiful and thought-provoking post, with a title that wraps it all together wonderfully well. I am thoroughly enjoying your exploration of the ways that image and story may be mixed, and I look forward to seeing how this shapes up in more of your gorgeous work.

    And this: "I've long been attracted to Dartmoor both for it's impressive landscape and for its stories and legends. The idea of the landscape shaping the stories which grow out of it is one I find endlessly fascinating."

    Oh, yes!

  3. Lynn, those paintings are beautiful! And your description of Dartmoor is wonderful.

    I've read a little about Cy Twombly here and there since his death but I have to say I wasn't familiar with his work, I'm only just discovering it.

    The idea of incorporating elements of writing into your work is fascinating. How fantastic to be an artist as well as a reader and writer and to be able to combine those passions. I am more than a little envious! I look forward to seeing more of your work in progress.

  4. If I wasn't so self-involved at this moment (vacation) I would be leaving a deeper, more aware comment. But I know what I like and I do like/love your new oil and cold wax on wood works-in-progress ... lovely texture ... cool connection to early symbols ... you've got it going on Lynn. Keep at it.

    And maybe we can even do an exchange someday? I have done portrait commissions before, and I can easily imagine that you are a beautiful inside and out person ... that it would be great to paint you. No worries on this being a rush thang ... I will no doubt bug you about it at some later date. :O)

    What's your snail mail address? Would you be willing to send me an email posting that? Don't worry about sparing my feelings on that:

    Your new-er blogpal,

  5. Thank you, Carrie. I remember years ago, looking at certain design elements in Mayan art, and seeing the same patterns as appear on ancient Greek art and having that wonderful awareness of just what you mention here. There is somehow something both exciting and comforting in that.

    Donna, thank you. It is an interesting exploration. And I find that working on a hard surface (rather than the bouncy surface of stretched canvas) encourages me in different directions to any spontaneous mark-making I've done with my other paintings.

    Thank you, Claire. I was only familiar with a bit of Cy Twombly's work before - and that just through photos in books and so on. But there's a new gallery here in Munich that has a large collection of his paintings (The Brandhorst) and there is one room in particular that has a group of paintings which I find particularly striking. I keep meaning to go back, but somehow it just never happens!

    Jan, thank you for your comment! I do like the idea of an exchange - though at the moment I'm feeling myself spread a bit thin as I try to get things up and running here. Perhaps down the road a bit, when things here simmer down somewhat. Hope you're enjoying your vacation.

  6. What a wonderful post-- I will have to come back and read it again- very thoughtful and I love your works in progress- and I too admire line and gesture in Rebecca's paintings and Cy Twombly of course.. I just wish I could do more of it in my own paintings.

  7. Thank you, Donna. I'm really enjoying playing with these ideas. I find you have a beautiful use of marks in your works. I also love the choice of images you use: nest and crow and naked tree...all very similar in their feel to certain gestural lines and markings.

  8. I'm with Layers, this is definitely a post to come back to! I adore the colours and textures in your paintings, and it's so wonderful to be able to actually see your inspiration. Stunning work my friend!

  9. Hello Lynn,I like your blog title.....a lot goes on beneath the surface! Your paintings have a luminous and enigmatic quality,very pleasing.
    It's interesting what you say about land,for me this energy moves on a level beyond words,but no doubt for writers it operates through words.

    Best wishes,

  10. Thank you, Roisin. I always find it fascinating to see what inspires artists. So glad you liked the work!

    Thanks for your comment, Ruby.
    It got me thinking about how a writer and a visual artist express their experience of certain things - such as the land - differently. Do they feel it differently, or in the same way and only express it in different forms. For me, who does both, the deep-level experience is the same, and then later, when I'm trying to work it out/express it, it takes different directions depending on whether I'm in my writer's hat or painter's hat - and lately I've been enjoying wearing both at the same time. Something I'm going to think about a bit more, as I tend to make these decisions on a more intuitive level.

  11. Hi Lynn,

    Beautiful post. Loved Dartmoor snaps and your ongoing work and process. Also thanks for sharing Rebecca Crowell's blog. She looks amazingly active artist.
    Best Wishes for your works in progress. :)

  12. Thanks, Debu.
    I'm glad you followed the link to Rebecca's blog. Her work is fabulous and her posts always insightful.

  13. Thank you for sharing these thoughts about what inspires your artwork. The luminosity of your paintings is amazing. I love Dartmoor, too - I spent magic holidays there and remember not only the rough charme of the landscape, but also the wild horses, menhirs (standing stones) and... it's bilberries! Delicious wild blueberries we feasted on.
    I lived in Munich before moving to England 10 years ago - sometimes I feel a bit homesick!

  14. Thanks for your comment, Sue. There is something magical about Dartmoor which keeps me coming back to it - in person (though not as often as I'd like) and in my thoughts and painting.

    Munich is a lovely place to live. I have two young boys, and it's such a child friendly city with great proximity to lakes and the foothills of the mountains.

    Still - I often feel the pull of some of England's landscapes...

  15. I was showing my husband your Robin hoods bay post, now we have been there. I saw your reference to Alan Lee, who I did not realise was with Brian Froud, illustrator of my "Faeries" book.
    I enjoyed this post for many different reasons. It is interesting to hear what inspires your work.

  16. Thanks for visiting, Milly. Hope you had a good time at Robin Hood's Bay. It's a place I would certainly recommend a visit to.

    Yes! Alan Lee and Brian Froud are two amazing artists bringing the fabulous to life.

  17. beautiful, beautiful work Lynn! So nice to see your work here and read about your inspiration :)

  18. Thank you, Stephanie. I also love to read about what inspires other artists, and it's fun to share ones own inspiration.

  19. Great stuff. I love the words and I love the images too.
    Dartmoor is one of the most inspiring places I've ever known. I'm blessed to live here. After 20 years in Scotland, I didn't think I'd ever live in England again - I hadn't been to Dartmoor. Now, here with Rima, I've discovered a paradise of rock and earth and tumbling water. I love it. The land is mysterious and unfathomable as land should be...

  20. Thanks for your comment, Tom. There is something about Dartmoor that has quite captivated me - you are so fortunate to be living there, and in such a wonderful, creative community! I'm hoping to be able to explore Dartmoor again before too, too long, though I'm sure that my week-long forays are nothing like actually living in that land.