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Orientating Towards the Analogue
This month has been slow for me, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been lively. After returning, ill, from a silent meditation retreat over new year, I needed to take a serious look at elements of my life and to some extent empty out its contents. I am feeling increasingly that the world of Instagram is not a world I want to live in, and I’ve been orientating myself towards slower, more sensory engagements: swimming, reading long books and other people’s substack essays, watching long movies (I’ve just been to see Tár - a daytime screening that feels like a fantastically indulgent use of time on a freelance day), sometimes I’ve been spending time just lying flat on the floor with my arms over my head. I have been taking myself out of my flat into new spaces: a new library full of hush and buzz. Late last year I started making adjustments to really soak in the sensual experience of wherever I find myself, and orientate myself towards anything that might delight my senses. For instance, I find that when I pay attention at any given moment to the soles of my feet (whether they are deep in socks and boots, dangling off a stool, or floating in a swimming pool), that suddenly everything relaxes and becomes more enlivened at the same time. I’ve been wearing my headphones less, and instead just letting the sounds of wherever I am wash over me. I’ve been learning how to feel less fear in my life (or understand better what my fears are and how they move around) and extracting myself from the internet has been immensely helpful in that regard.
I’d like to think more about what this transfer of my attention from digital to analogue - from restricted and scopic to fully embodied - might mean within my creative practice: to move from living in just my eyeballs - creating work via a limited fixture of eyes, brain and hands - towards an aliveness in my creative practice as my whole self.
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I have been working on a commission that requires me to create an original artwork in a completely analogue mode, on paper, with nothing digital involved whatsoever. I can’t share images of the finished version in its entirety because it’s supposed to be kept secret for now, but I want to share with you some of the impressions I had while creating it. I’m writing this newsletter before, during and after making the piece, and in doing so I’m intending to write - and notice - as I go, and share with you my reflections.
First, here are the materials I’ve set up to experiment with:
Black ink - one of my favourite things to work with. I use old, tatty, dry brushes and sponges (NEVER a soft or small brush - I’m looking for expressive marks, inaccuracy, washes and blotches)
And here, gouache: these are some colours straight out of the tube, from left to right:
Orange Lake Deep;
Permanent Yellow Deep;
Mostly Windsor & Newton apart from the turquoise, which is Schmincke. These are squeezed out into a set of Frisk ceramic stacking paint mixing trays. I’ve done this because gouache is re-usable if it dries out (just add water), but if it dries inside the tube, there’s no squeezing it out! So I’m storing my paint in these trays and re-wetting them when needed.
Here are some of my experiments:
Each time I started by wetting the 300gsm watercolour paper with a sponge, and then using dry brushes to pull the gouache across it, using expressive strokes. My hands became cold and wet every time I squeezed out the sponge, with bits of gouache drying and tightening on the skin of my palms and fingers.
I would then tip and rotate the paper so that the different areas of colour bled into, and over, each other. I took some of the pieces around the living room with me, dancing with them - I often listen to a specific playlist when I make my work, which includes things like Jenny Hval, The Knife, Torres, Cate Le Bon, Radiohead… (I’ll write about this and share it some time). This creates a ritual of getting into a creative zone where my body feels really powerful and electrified and everything becomes focused.
Sometimes I would go back in with the dry brush and more gouache, and make wavy shapes across the wet page. This one seemed to start radiating heat.
I started using ink in the same way, which is interesting because it bleeds more with the wet surface, and has a glossy texture when dry, creating a contrast with the gouache. This opera pink is so bright over the black and blue! It almost looks like hair on leather.
Sometimes the paper became very wet and the drips would run over (this dripped off the page and onto my desk where it was drying!) There’s something important about letting the work expand and take over my space while I’m making it.
Some pieces took on the feeling of stormy sky or galaxies or deep ponds. This piece still has pools of wet liquid sitting on the surface - this will dry in an unpredictable way and leave sediment behind, just like a river, lake or puddle.
I absolutely love the texture and grain of the pigment as it separates: it looks like smoky, dusty explosions on a nebular scale.
This is a corner of the final piece, which I’m going to add text onto: it feels as though the different textures are alive and dancing with each other.
It only took me an entire watercolour pad to reach something I was happy with! Of course, it all came together on the last sheet.
As an illustrator, I feel pulled between the efficiency, control and convenience of digital image-making, and the surprising, organic and messy practice of analogue work, as I’m sure a lot of illustrators do. However, one insight that seems to hit me on the head like a hammer, repeatedly (because I always seem to forget or ignore it), is that I make my best work when there is an analogue element; when there is an organic aspect of the work that I have allowed to evolve in a way that is more experimental than anything possible with digital work. There are so many details within the images I created on the journey of making this piece that make my eyes bulge and almost make me feel hungry for colour and texture. And, even though it may seem ridiculous to generate so many superfluous pages before arriving at one final piece, these won’t be wasted: I’ll scan them into the computer and use them in any digital illustrations that I need to make over the next year, drawing on their organic forms and depth to create new worlds.