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What I did at big (art) school - a year in review



It’s spring 1982, and I’d just expressed a desire to enrol onto an Arts foundation course to my parents. My father, a scientist at a local hospital Pathology lab was visibly horrified and quickly rattled off a long list of reasons why I should put such a whimsical suggestion to bed, and quickly! My mother, a strong artistic mentor throughout my childhood (as was her father), gave the sympathetic glance across the dinner table that only a mother could give. The subject matter abruptly changed and that was that.


Fast-forward to 2020 and with a stroke of a pen my 36 year long career in the ‘proper job’ (my father’s words, not mine) world of Information Technology came to a close. Although this was a very different logic-laden world from that of the arts, I did have some creative satisfaction as my reams of pages of computer code magically transformed into working IT systems on the green-screen mainframe terminals of a well-known aerospace company across the UK and beyond.


As I walked out of the office for the last time, I was at last free to properly re-engage with the semi-dormant artistic right-hemisphere of my brain, and give the poor burnt-out logical left hemisphere a much needed rest. Since, 2008 I had been exploring various printmaking techniques including letterpress, linocut and etching in my free time with the help of courses delivered by the SpikePrint printmaking studio at the Bristol Harbourside.


My master-plan was now all laid out in front of me. With a new year-long course in etching already booked at SpikePrint, I was going to apply a laser-sharp focus to that subject and that alone on my route to unbounded printmaking success and greatness.


However, as the famous saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and printmakers don’t always go quite as expected. The only way I can explain what happened next is to draw an analogy to a popular classroom chromatography experiment, where a drop of fountain pen ink hits a sheet of damp blotting paper sheet and then reveals its constituent colours. In this case, the drop of fountain pen ink represented my artistic aspirations and the damp blotting paper, the world of art in front of me. As I entered my new post-IT world, the drop of ink hit the paper and a world of new additional creative opportunity and choice was clear to see in glorious technicolour.


Since my A Level art days, my work has often been inspired by botanical themes and it was therefore no surprise that I was firstly drawn toward getting out into the richly botanical surroundings of the Bristol University Botanic Garden to study and sketch under the expert guidance of local Bristol artist Sheena Vallely. A course in botanical painting followed which provided a very valuable refresher in the use of watercolours, although I was not entirely drawn to the strong need for scientific pinpoint accuracy demanded by this discipline.


Watercolour study of blossom and leaves of Bramley apple tree


All of this was going on whilst my etching course at SpikePrint with the hugely experienced printmaker Martyn Grimmer was in full-swing (despite the best efforts of Covid-19 to disrupt things). This course, alongside the others was starting to push against my self-imposed limited scope of work and was encouraging me instead to gain the confidence to just play and experiment and not fear failure or unexpected outcomes, but instead to embrace the gift of happy-accidents.



A happy accident - etching of dryopteris fern leaf onto aluminium


Whilst experimenting with etching deep textures onto aluminium sheet with copper sulphate following my lessons with Martin, I found myself starting to explore beyond two dimensions, and after discovering the work of botanically-inspired artists like Rob Kesseler and Angela Valamanesh, a long-held appreciation of ceramic art stepped out of the shadows and enrolment at a course at a very conveniently local pottery school became inevitable.


During study at the above courses plus my own experiments with an old 1920’s Box Brownie camera and the photographic cyanotype process, it soon dawned on me that I had managed to sleepwalk into my own personal foundation year. For me, the best part of this activity was the opportunity to take these artistic ingredients, add them to the big Kenwood Chef bowl of Art and hit the blend button and see what comes out. What if I add watercolour washes to that etching of a Fatsia japonica plant (as the famous botanical illustrators of the Victorian era did)? What if I took that linocut of a wading bird I used in a book project and pressed it into a slab of clay instead? What if I created a cyanotype print onto a clay surface instead of a paper one? What if I engraved illustrations of magnified plant pollen grains onto glass and projected it onto a wall using a lit candle in a darkened room?



Linocut of a wading bird pressed into clay with acrylic paint added and then lightly sanded


Magnified pollen grains etched onto glass


I have discovered that walking through the artistic house of fun and opening doors to new rooms whilst being obviously an exciting pastime, can also be easily overwhelming so still requires a degree of control and focus if artistic development and growth is not to be put at risk by the over-dilution of ideas and focus, and this is the new challenge that now faces me going forward.


So, despite not following-up on my wish to enrol on an arts foundation course way back in 1982, the past year has certainly indicated the value that such a course can deliver. While I’m sure my artistic late mother would now be jumping with joy at my latest endeavours, I’m not quite sure what my late father would be making of it, but I’m sure he will be happy that my printmaking activity has at least taught me how copper sulphate solution reacts with aluminium and what happens to copper in ferric chloride, and of course how to do it all safely!


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