art projects and exercises, art ideas to try

Dartmoor weekendI’ve just come home from a glorious weekend in Dartmoor; blue skies, fresh grass, the English countryside at its best. Great for an afternoon relaxing with a book, but not so good for me looking for new inspiration for paintings.

It can feel wonderfully restorative being in such beautiful natural surroundings but a pictorial representation would appear too perfect. Like the sickly image on the box of Devon fudge or photographs of sunsets that look as though they are taken with a filter, such images leave me with sense of smug perfection. The greens appear too clean, the sky too blue, the shapes and contours so round and lush. I’m more inspired by bleak landscapes, Autumn skies, the sharp bracken of winter twigs…

Dorset Heath by Alice Sheridan

Dorset Heath by Alice Sheridan

So I’m stuck with a conundrum:

How do I take what is around me and turn it into a new source of inspiration?

This is an eternal struggle of the artist. We all look at the same world but through our own eyes. It is the filtering process of each artist that takes what we all see and reinterprets it on a unique and personal way. In a class all drawing the same still life, you will still end up with as many different versions as there are students. So we all need to find a way to work out our own interpretation.

Remote a Place to Ponder by Charlie O'Sullivan

Remote a Place to Ponder by Charlie O’Sullivan

I’ve long appreciated the work of Devon artist Charlie O’Sullivan . She finds her way through landscape using a narrative often using stories or conversations as starting points. However the paintings are still about our place in the world and her figures are fairly set within their landscape surrounds.

So with a summer ahead of me, I have a new challenge; to use what I have available to create what I want. (Without knowing what I want at the beginning of the process!)

My art training always taught me to draw from life. Draw what you see not what you think you can see is the first lesson at art school. And it serves you well – don’t make assumptions about what is in front of you. Learning to trust your eyes and listen to the commands they give you means that sometimes you have to over-power your literal brain.

So I will have to over-power the part of my brain that tells me that summer countryside is boring! I will have to find something that intrigues me enough to make a drawing about it.

At this stage I have no idea what it will be;

  • the contrast between sun and shadow
  • simply a collection of colours (I quite like the idea of collecting colours…)
  • resolving everything to black and white marks as a distinct retaliation to the colours all around

It’s so easy to get distracted while you are drawing and put in far more information than you need. Often it can be beneficial to draw the same thing twice: once to gather your information and then again to focus on what you really want to distill from the subject. Last week I wrote a post about Matisse who was the master of keeping things simplified so as I draw I try keep one thing in mind:

What inspired me to do this drawing?



This project is 98% logistics and 2% creativity

said artist Joshua Sofaer on Radio 4 this morning.

He was talking about his current project ‘The Rubbish Collection’ which is one entire month’s worth of the museum’s rubbish laid out to demonstrate its inherent beauty. It is estimated to be over 28 tonnes of material.

The first phase is just documenting; scientific equipment, oil from the deep fat fryers, cardboard from the gift shop, edible food waste… even the sewage is being measured and will return as inert earth in phase two which “invites the materials back”….

Artistic intent and merit aside, it was the comment above that caught my attention. Admittedly 28 tonnes of rubbish is a big logistical nightmare – it makes my weekly recycling and debate over what goes to the dump look like chicken feed. But there is no doubt that a great deal of art is about the logistics.

Possibly not viewing it, although you still have to be aware of what exhibitions are on, see if you can schedule them into your busy diary, queue, jostle for viewing position.. you get my point.

Actually making any form of art is also much about logistics.

This isn’t something we often think about. We have a vague idea that art is instrinsic genius; that it just ‘happens’. The reality is that without the correct logistic support you are limited in what you can make. You need working space, brushes, paper, cleaning rags, canvas and stretchers, panels to be cut and primed, purchasing of materials online to source sensible prices, visits to specialist suppliers and then finished works to be presented; mounted, framed, hung. The list is endless. If I kept a list of how long all this takes it would possibly be quite depressing!

Realising that the actual creation is only part of creating is liberating too.

If I expect 100% of my working time to be creatively productive I am only going to be disappointed. Often we tell ourselves that we just need to ‘get on with it’. But you also need to create a framework for yourself to begin:

Set up your own logistics; sort out your materials, consider if you need to buy anything, how can you work within the space you have? Do you really need more kit or just have a better system of working?

Don’t be frustrated if every moment you spend towards creative output isn’t actually productive.

Make allowances and build in some time for the ‘artistic housework’.

98 logistics 2 creativity

The display will be on show at The Science Museum in London between 25 July and 14 September and you can read more about the exhibition on their website.

The full interview is available as part of this Radio 4 replay (until 2 July 2015)

PS. “One thing I’ve learnt is don’t give your children lunch” on a school trip – there are a lot of sandwiches and apples with just one bite. Maybe that will help your fridge logistics!

I know everyone has been raving about the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition which is currently showing at Tate Modern but I have to admit I wasn’t that tempted. Matisse isn’t one of my favourite artits; although I love the simplicity of many of his drawings, his colours are too bright for me and some of his motifs a little too primary.

Matisse The Snail

So shoot me. Everyone is entitled to their own view and instinctively I just don’t get excited by a lot of his work. Maybe I had just heard the story of ‘The Snail’ too many times and it had lost impact… “Look,” said my mum when I was ill one day, “when Matisse made this he was 83 years old and confined to his bed!” I’m not sure what her point was; I didn’t have  assistants who would work under my direction!

But as is often the case this was almost the end of the story and the exhibition tells the story from the start…

In the early thirties Matisse had been working on designs for the Ballet Russe and planned a mural using painted pieces of paper which he could move around. Using large pieces of paper which had been painted by a decorator enabled him to cover large areas of the composition quickly and meant he could adjust his decisions without repainting simply by moving the coloured shapes.

Traditionally, different options for a still life have been planned with a series of sketches to test out alternative viewpoints and arrangements but as Matisse was starting to become unwell he found this tiring and transferred his paper technique as he worked on ideas for his 1940 Still life with Shell. Basic shapes were used to represent the forms and the edge of the table was a piece of string that he could adjust and pin in place.

While he was finding the benefit in this new way of working, Matisse still considered it a means to an end. Indeed he seems to have regarded it as a sort of shameful secret, almost as if he was cheating on the proper way of doing things. He wrote about it to his dealer explaining how he was working but implored “it is not necessary to say anything about this”.

It was with an artist’s book entitled Jazz that the cut-outs made the transition from process to works of art in their own right. The book features images inspired by the circus and theatre and Matisse liked the improvisational nature of the way he was adding many parts to create the images. However when the book was printed in 1947 he was disappointed, saying that printing “removes their sensitivity”.

in the original maquette you can see how the coloured areas are 'built'

In the original maquette you can see how the coloured areas are ‘built’ with layers

The book cover in its printed form

The book cover in its printed form

And he was right. The exhibition shows the orignal maquettes with the printed form below. In the original works you can see minor graduations in the way the paint is applied to the paper, the overlaps and layers that build to create the final shape. In the printed version these have been ‘cleaned up’ to give a much flatter surface. The originals have altered and aged over time as some paper and colours change and perhaps this sense of age adds to their intrugue but they hold more interest for me – being able to see the history of ssembling gives us an insight you don’t get in the flatter printed form. You can see the same thing here in the 1951 cover maquette for the book Matisse: His Art and his Public.

From 1946 onwards Matisse continued to explore and expand. He experimented on a grand scale, covering the walls of his studio. He wasn’t looking for a finish and often decisions were deferred for months as the separate elements were re-pinned, moved, separated, re-joined and swapped around. Many pieces weren’t ‘mounted’ until after his death and at this stage his studio was like a garden as paper fluttered and moved on the walls.

There is a video in the exhibition that shows him cutting with huge dressmaking scissors and at one point he hesitates to consider the form he is creating – the positive and the negative shape. Two alternatives from a single sheet. The tools had changed from brush to scissors but he was still working out his process.

In the catalogue you can see nine alternative states of Blue Nude IV. This was the first of the series to be started and the last to be completed. The process developed and the other works have shapes cut more decisively from single pieces of paper as he became more confident in his approach.

Nine states of Blue Nude IV showing the developing composition


In a letter to a friend dated 22 February 1948 Matisse wrote “The walls of my bedroom are covered with cut-outs. I do not yet know what I shall do with these new cut-outs,” he wonders. And then states; “The result is of more importance than it would seem”

The exhibition shows final works, many of which were transferred to canvases and even split up and framed after Matisse had completed work on them. The process he developed, that had such impact, started off as a means to an end, one that he himself didn’t recognise as special at first. Being able to see evidence of the altering decisions through the pin marks shows us that even great masters with finely tuned skills don’t jump straight to a finished result. That’s good to be reminded of!

You have until 7 September 2014 if you’d like to go and see for yourself.

As I was preparing for the recent Open House event I knew that one of the things people enjoy about it is the chance to find out more about the way an artist approaches their work. I always have sketchbooks on show, this time I also wanted to show people how a print is made so they could get an understanding of the work that goes into the different stages.

I had my own plates and prints taken at different stages on show but I wanted to push people even more…

Some of the prints I have made have been done using a drypoint technique, where you use a sharp tool to scratch directly into a surface. The resulting furrowed line creates a burr which holds the ink. It is relatively quicker than etching, much more direct and gives a softer almost furry line. You can’t print that many copies as gradually, under the pressure of the press, the burr breaks away.

So it was perfect technique to let people have a go. I laid some plastic plates out, some tools and invited people to have a try. I had no idea what people would do, I just wanted to give them the chance to pick up a tool and see what it felt like.

Vistors to Alice Sheridan open studio having a go at drypointAdmittedly I may have had an ulterior motive and within the first few visitors these comments started…

“I don’t know what to do!”

You got it… it may look simple; this art business, but even just starting can be harder than you imagine. Blank paper syndrome!

“It’s harder than I thought – it won’t go the way I want!”

Slightly unfair this; everyone trying something for the first time has to work through the unfamiliarity of the technique. Often we expect things to be so straightforward and art can be swiftly dismissed as “just a few lines on a canvas”. Learning to master and develop any new technique is one of the challenges of art that gives som many people enjoyment – always something more to learn.

“But I’m not creative, I haven’t done art since school”

When I heard this I really encouraged them just to have a go; just make a mark, draw with their eyes closed, it didn’t have to be a masterpiece. No one would be judging and the idea was that all the marks would build up so their own contribution would be indistinguishable. Losing their fear of being judged or, in this case, even being able to see the end result immediately, gave people more freedom to have a go and just try it out

Most people were slightly nervous but you could also feel a slight excitement at trying something new. Some people lost themselves for a few minutes as they became lost in a complex doodle.

And almost everyone at some point smiled and pronounced “Oh that was fun!”

Two days later I printed up the plates and sent the resulting images out to everyone on my mailing list. I printed just two copies of each plate: one for myself and one up for grabs for the first to reply. Just moments later we had two happy ‘winners’.

wiping the inked up plate

wiping the inked up plate

me printing the plates

me running the inked plates through the press in the studio, and yes, it is hard work turning that wheel!

So here are the plates – not what I would have predicted. I was expecting an almost black mass of overlapping lines and drawings but everyone was extremely polite and mainly tried to ‘fit in’ around what was already there. It has a sort of grafitti effect and you can clearly see the variation in natural shapes and styles you would expect of so many different hands.

Plate 1

Plate 1

Plate 2

Plate 2

I loved giving people the chance to do this. It was great to see people rise to the challenge and get involved. And exciting to create a work with such variety of input and no idea of what the outcome would be.

Perhaps I’ll try something similar again!

Wow! What a weekend. Thanks to all who came to visit us at Artists at Home this weekend – it was a record number of visitors. Whether this was due to the weather (not too hot, not too wet!) or the fact that I had Louise Richards showing her wonderful enamel jewellery with me, I don’t know.

I had some returning vistors who were pleased to find that I was exhibiting again which was lovely to hear. But what was most thrilling was the buzz of excitement when people found something they enjoyed, and like so much they wanted to keep it.

When I tell people that I open my home as part of this event they often exclaim that they couldn’t possibly do this. “What happens if someone walks in and straight back out again? How upsetting!” But it isn’t upsetting at all – the only way to choose  art you want to live with is instinctively. You know quickly whether you are drawn to something or not. If people decide the way I see things isn’t for them, then that’s fine.

Whether you can afford to take it home with you is the next stage in the process but the first part is almost a numbers game. The more you look at art, the more you will learn to listen to your instinctive reaction. I’ve never spent money on artwork and regretted buying it. Looking at a piece of work that someone has made, that gives me pleasure each time I pass it on my walls is one of my biggest treats in life.

I hope this weekend some others may have found that same thrill and started or added to their own collection.


The last time I showed at Artists at Home my work was mainly landscape paintings. I had started to incorporate printed line and collage and was keen to try printmaking techniques to explore the mix between a controlled and gestural mark in a medium which can be very technical.

I’ve had a great couple of years! There is so much to discover and each new process demands to be investigated. There is a mix on show this year; carborundum, collograph and intaglio processes of etched metal and drypoint. I have been a bit like a child in a sweet shop: a glut of choices and sometimes I haven’t known which to choose next

Looking around the work I have on show many may think this doesn’t look much like landscape. But all these pieces are my landscape. I live in an urban environment and looking at my surroundings and judging them with new eyes is what I need to do to challenge myself. Even a journey on the Underground can spark new work . If you can spot it from my sketchbook bonus point for you. (I’ll come back and show you the sequence sometime…) Where we find ourselves and what our selective mind chooses to see is a way we have to control how we interpret our situation. Working it out is where the fun is.

Counter intuitively I don’t want to use printmaking to reproduce a replica image so I try to find ways to make an image unique. Not the most efficient solution always, but this has hopefully resulted in an interesting mix of work.

If you are in West London, come and visit. I’m at Studio 24 in Chiswick full details at Artists at Home

Now it’s all framed and hung I’m excited to start welcoming visitors… let tomorrow begin!

Etching with chine collée; each plate is a unique variation

Etching with chine collée; each plate is a unique variation

I studied Foundation Course at Kingston in 1992 followed by a BA in Graphic Design at Nottingham Trent University where my work was selected for exhibition at the Business Design Centre.

Working as designer for London agencies didn’t seem so important once I had children, but the times I have stopped creating visual work have caused me problems! It is an essential part of what I am. Finding a way to fit this in and develop is essential – I know what I’d like to create next, but we’ll have to wait and see…

So today I have been sorting through work and framing up selected prints. The past few years has been a time of many experiments as I work my way through the print studio like a child in a sweet shop! I have generated a lot of work on paper with all the techniques, tests and trials. Much of the time I wan’t sure what I was doing or what result I would get. For me this is part of the excitement. Like watching a photograph appear in developing fluid, watching an artwork emerge as you create it is surely the biggest thrill.

Having the freedom to create and explore without a fear of what the end result will be is so important. Not only does it allow you to get going in the first place, but the unexpected results often give you something you couldn’t even have imagined when you began.

But there is a next part which I think is even more important. I found this quote:

mistakes to keep

Now I’m not sure of the full context, but I don’t think he’s advocating a full scale throw-away of all your work! At least I don’t think so. I think he’s talking about the fact that the very mistakes that you hadn’t anticipated can be the things that make a piece of work. Whether it’s the energy in a brush mark, an unplanned drip of ink, the way the paint dries and cracks; all these can add to your work. We should welcome them in and most of all learn to recognise mistakes to keep.

Sometimes the mistakes may even become a key feature of your own personal style. It’s all about building your own visual vocabulary and making sure you hang to what you like in the editing process. Editing? That’s for writers though, not artists! Ok, you can’t hit delete in a word processing program on a canvas or a metal plate, but a mental editing or review is a good habit to get into. Over time you learn more about the way you work and how you’d like to develop your ideas.

Some of my ‘mistakes’ have led me towards a more creative approach in my work. There’s no doubt this is riskier. A freer approach by its very nature means things don’t always go as planned. But learning to overcome that fear of the uncontrolled elements of making art is the only way to take steps forward. Some of them may lead you to great things!

I’d love to know what you think about this. Add your comment below and let me know how you deal with your creative mistakes.



This weekend I went along to the Untitled Artists Fair at Chelsea old townhall.  It’s always inspiring to see work that other people are creating and it usually sparks new ideas of your own. One of the first displays that caught my attention was Urte Balcaite’s work.

Urte Balchaite2

I’m often drawn to work that inspires me because it has some cross-over with my own. Or is somehow the complete opposite to the way I normally work myself. My approach to printmaking can be somewhat chaotic and experimental. I love the excitement of the process. Urte’s work is small, finely detailed and so controlled and precise it demands close attention.

Her Animal Condition series of etchings are only 16 x 12cm but they display a skillful control of the etching process and the whole series is wellbalanced and varied in composition. I loved the contrast between the snowy fox and the townscape. But look closer and within each you will find a tiny animal hidden in the scene…

Urte Balcaite

Intriguing and unusual they need to be seen to be appreciated. What I’ll take back to my own work I’m not sure yet, but that discovery made my afternoon.

Almost a decade ago I was a frustrated artist. At home with two small children I just never had the time to pursue what I wanted, and I couldn’t see anyway I could make it possible. It was simply beyond the realm of my possibilities; no time for life drawing classes or location drawing for inspiration.

I had never even heard of Prunella Clough, but I found myself absorbed in her sketchbooks in her first retrospective at the Tate gallery in 2007. It is a rare and treasured insight into an artist’s world to see their sketchbooks and development of ideas. What was unusual about her way of working was that she didn’t do location drawings either. Instead she wrote; descriptions of colours and sounds, using words to build a picture and tell a story of the details of the scene before her. In combination with photographs and tourist postcards, these descriptions of colour and atmosphere were her starting points once she returned to her studio.

Looking back, I can find no record of her family life. In my mind this was her way of dealing with time restrictions, but her personal life was discreetly private. Perhaps she just hated sitting in the cold.

I remember a distinct sense of release in recognising that there was no one ‘right’ way to gather your ideas, or visual reference.

It didn’t matter if I didn’t have time to sit and do drawings in the field. Any way that I could think of could be a starting point. No one else needed to know or approve my process. That was something I could work out however suited me best.

Prunella Clough, ‘Cooling Tower II’ 1958

Cooling Tower II 1958