First use of oil bars. Not the easiest to use. I'll have blue under my fingernails for weeks.
Winged Lily and Babushka
Here are two lime wood blanks I have marked up with designs, awaiting a time when I can start sawing...
...and here they are after a long and exhausting process of sawing/drilling/chiselling etc. The one on the left was very challenging because of its shape - some areas were hard to get to with hand tools, so I had to resort to drilling. The one on the right was difficult because it is thick wood (10cm+) so hard work to saw, and slightly too big for my vice to hold, so it was tricky to secure for sawing. Now all I have to do is carve them, sand and polish!
Here are the two finished pieces:
'Winged Lily Figure', 20cm, lime
'Babushka', 16cm, lime
Limpets and Barnacles
My first completed painting for several months. This has been sitting on my easel for about four months, waiting for me to finish it. I have been rather side-tracked lately, doing various jobs about the house in preparation for the arrival of my third child early next year.
Nice to finally finish it, as the longer I leave a painting, the harder it is to get back into it, and every time I see it, it stares back at me accusingly.
The text reads: 'If you have hatred in your eyes, you will see it wherever you look'
What I meant by this is that people often project their own hostility and prejudices onto others. This can be self-fulfilling; if we show hostility towards others because we believe they are hostile towards us, they will become hostile towards us. It is a self-fulfilling cycle of hostility, born of an unfounded negative attitude. I think this is an important lesson, and something we should be watchful for in ourselves.
I have been interested in the ancient Egyptian culture for many years, and have wanted to create a replica of a papyrus fragment for some time.
I wrote the phrase in 1999, made my first attempt to translate it into ancient Egyptian around 2000, reworked the translation again in 2011 and drew the design for the papyrus, then finally created the finished 'papyrus' in 2015. I am very glad to have finally finished this project, and I am quite pleased with the result (although I'm sure any genuine Egyptologist would find no end of mistakes in my attempt at translation).
My latest carving (21cm tall, lime). I am very pleased with this one. It is the first time I have used a new set of chisels (rather than predominantly using knives) and I am glad that I was able to be as subtle with the chisels as with the knives.
I don't pretend to be an expert on female anatomy, but I know a nice curve when I see one. That is what I was aiming for with this piece - beautiful curves from every angle.
Performance of the Vision on Earth
Performance of the Vision on Earth
76x101cm, Mar 2015
In Black Elk Speaks, (being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux, as told through John G Neihardt) Black Elk explains how his power derives from visions he experienced on several occasions throughout his life. He says that in order to use his power, he has to ‘perform’ these visions on Earth for the people to see. He also says that when he has performed a vision, that power is in some way used up and he loses it.
Whilst I do not believe in the supernatural, or the literal power of visions, I see a parallel between this idea and my painting. When I have an idea for an abstract painting, it exists only as potential. There is great ‘power’ in this potential – something that could lead to any number of new images, new ‘visions’, new worlds. This power only has any meaning, however, once the idea is ‘performed’ – once I have used it to create a painting. Once I have done this, the new creation – the painting – exists for all to see, but the potential – that great power, is lost to me, and cannot be reused. Every painting feels like a part of me that I have given away.
Replicating the Beauty of Nature
I have been enjoying a wonderful book called Japanese Zen Gardens, by Yoko Kawaguchi. I have also been thinking about creating a miniature Zen garden out of modelling clay, artificial grass and so on. This, the book tells me, is called bonseki – the art of creating miniature landscapes in a container. Nothing validates a silly little craft project like finding out it’s a ‘thing’, and there is even a Japanese name for it.
I had been considering various ideas for a design for my bonseki garden, when I came across this stream crossing on a walk. I stopped and admired it for a while, listening to the stream and the birds. It occurred to me that I would find it difficult to replicate this level of beauty, calm and serenity in my bonseki design. “Damn,” I thought, “nature has pipped me to the post again”.
It seems odd that a human being, with a lifespan of maybe 100 years, may attempt to replicate the wonder of a scene that occurs naturally; that is to say, a scene that has been created though the awesome power of physical laws acting on the vast complexity of the arrangement of energy and matter over billions of years. It is a wondrous thing about humanity that we could even conceive of such a thing.
It is important to remember that wonder, beauty and serenity are in fact something we as humans create for ourselves. The very nature of the concepts requires human perception. Without us, there is no wonder, no beauty, no serenity, and no meaning. As pointless and insignificant as we are as individuals, this is what we bring to the universe – we experience it.
Here is my finished 'bonseki' garden (it is 16x11cm):
Performance (Purple and Pink)
I have recently completed a painting titled 'Performance (Purple and Pink)':
The following is a speeded up (x100) film of the entire painting process:
And here is a film of my thoughts in between painting sessions:
Using a Tablet for Sketching
There has been a trend in the last 10-20 years towards veneration of technology as a style accessory, regardless of its utility. I believe that our technological advance has been hampered by the huge effort being put into marketing technology by trying to make desirable and profitable items rather than genuinely useful and efficient items.
When I bought a tablet, I felt a bit guilty that I was buying into this style-over-content approach to technology. Did I really need this? Didn’t my computer already do all this stuff? I have been very pleased with my experience of tablets, however, and mine has been genuinely useful to me in ways that a laptop or desktop would not quite capture.
One significant function of my tablet that I have used a lot is a sketching program (‘apps’ used to be called ‘programs’). This allows me to draw directly onto the screen with a stylus or my finger, which I can’t do with my computer, and I can carry it around like a sketch pad. It allows me to capture an idea for a painting very quickly, including the use of any colour I need, and then put it away immediately, and either ignore it forever or use it later for a painting, or just to experiment – this is a lot harder to do with a real pad and pens or paints.
Whilst on holiday, I took my tablet with me and I could sketch whenever an idea came to me. Here are some of the results.
I have started a carving of a man partially curled into a ball. Here is a photo of an early stage. The wood is sapele.
I have a little carving of a man rolled into a ball - you may have seen them in shops that sell candles, joss sticks and so on. They are sometimes referred to as The Weeping Buddha/Monk/Warrior. This is my version of that figure (or at least, partially inspired by it).
It is hard going, as the wood is very hard (this is the first time I have used sapele) and I'm struggling to map my 2D sketches into 3D. Also, I have put it on the back burner for a while - I have been working on another carving as a present for a friend for the last 3 days.
More photos to follow (unless I give up!)...
And the final carving:
I have seen several comments floating about the internet about worrying. They all seem trite, simplistic, unhelpful, and in the long term, detrimental to anyone struggling with what they consider to be excessive worrying. Here is a prime example:
“Worry is a total waste of time. It doesn’t change anything. All it does is steal your joy and keeps you very busy doing nothing.”
Another old favourite is:
“1) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
2) It’s all small stuff.”
I imagine that whoever penned these sayings expects people to read them, say “Of course! If only I’d realised; what a fool I am!” and never worry about anything again.
Worry is not a waste of time. Worry is an essential function of your mind. In the same way that pain serves to alert you* that your body is damaged, worry serves to keep your attention on something your brain knows is important, but has determined that you are not thinking enough about.
Typically, when you are worrying about something, it is something you find unpleasant to think about. Your natural inclination is to avoid thinking about it. If your brain thinks you are not giving a subject sufficient attention, it will remind you of it. By strongly emphasising a topic, your brain is attempting to override the urge to avoid thinking about that topic because it is unpleasant. Your brain is simply trying to make sure that an important topic is not side-lined, which is an essential safety feature of your brain’s operation. Worry is unpleasant because it represents a conflict in your mental processes, and one that is trying to make you think about something you do not want to think about.
It may seem irrational and unhelpful to be thinking about something that is going to happen if you can’t do anything about it now. The key to the success of the human mind is our ability to plan and hypothesise, using predictions about possible scenarios. If your brain wants you to think about something, it is because it thinks it is worth your time to do so. If a topic is important enough, it is worth preparing yourself for a situation relating to that topic in the future, hypothesising potential problems and thus working on potential solutions.
You may find yourself worrying about something you can apparently do nothing about. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, if it is a sufficiently important topic, it is worth trying to resolve the problem (or at least optimise the outcome) even if a solution (or indeed any beneficial action) is not immediately apparent. Secondly, even if you cannot find any beneficial action, there is great psychological benefit in being prepared, especially for a potentially unpleasant event in the future.
The problem with worrying comes when it overpowers your thought processes to the detriment of other essential lines of thought, or physiological processes. The reason for this is that the function of worry – to overpower thoughts to ensure that something important is not overlooked – will tend to get stronger the harder you try to fight it. If you are trying hard enough to suppress a worry, it will have physiological effects – making you nauseous, depriving you of sleep and so on. By pretending that worry is unnecessary and a waste of time, and trying not to “sweat the small stuff” or even the large and significant stuff, you will give more strength to your worries. If your brain thinks you need to be thinking about something, do so. After all, you are a part of it; it is not just a part of you. Try to give your worries sufficient attention; try to think about them rationally. If something is important enough to keep you awake at night (which is rare, but certain things genuinely do need to be addressed before the morning) stay awake and think. If you realise that it can wait until morning, make a decision to leave it until morning – perhaps write a note to yourself so you know you will not forget.
If you listen to what your brain is telling you, eventually it will give you a break.
*Throughout this article I use the term ‘you’ as a kind of shorthand for those types of mental processing that we understand to be ‘conscious thought’. These are what we tend to understand as ‘our thoughts’ and what constitute ourselves. I use this term to distinguish between these thoughts and the wider processing of the brain.
It is worth remembering that ‘conscious’ thought (which is itself on a sliding scale) constitutes only a portion of the activity of the brain, thus ‘I’ am only part of my brain, rather than my brain being a portion of some greater conscious entity. So when I say that your brain is making ‘you’ think about something, I mean that your brain is attempting to bring a topic into the realm of conscious thought, which I understand to be when the thought processes themselves are the subject of thought processes.
I started meditation a year and a half ago and I try to meditate for about 30 minutes at least a few times a week. Meditation (as I see it) is being still, allowing your mind to be at peace, and maintaining focus.
I am not a person who believes in any spiritual or religious nonsense - my background is in science and I consider myself to be a rational person. I do not meditate because I believe it is a mystical or spiritual endeavour. Nevertheless, I have found it directly beneficial to my personal wellbeing.
You will find any number of lists of the health benefits of meditation on the internet. For the most part, I tend to take these with a pinch of salt - I think it is hard to prove a causal link in this case. I find it hard to believe, however, that it can be bad for you. The worst it can be is a waste of time, and you might feel a bit foolish spending time sitting still doing nothing.
The main benefits of meditation that I have noticed are:
1) It allows you to develop the skill of taking control of your mind. When you meditate, you are aware of what your mind is doing. It is as if you observe your thoughts without engaging with them - you practise stopping thinking about things. With this skill you are better equipped to stop problems preying on your mind.
2) It improves your ability to focus.
3) It gives you perspective on your life and any problems you may be having.
4) By allowing your mind to be at peace, it helps you get to sleep, and improves the quality of your sleep.
5) It gives you the chance to be still and forget about your problems for a while.
I recommend the following books on meditation:
The Wooden Bowl, Clark Strand
Teach Yourself to Meditate, Eric Harrison
There is certainly an element to painting and carving that has a meditative quality - focussing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. I find, however, that painting is often emotional and intense, and carving is physically challenging; both can be quite draining, which meditation is not. Also, with each, there is the risk of making a mistake, which is not an issue with meditation.
Footsteps on Beer Beach
Here is my latest painting - 'Footsteps on Beer Beach'. The painting is of water-filled indentations in the rock on the beach at Beer, Devon. These looked very like footprints, and made me think of the link between my own footsteps and those made by prehistoric man.
On the right is an animated GIF of intermediate stages of the painting. Please forgive the blurry nature of some of the photos and the colour variation!
This is an entirely improvised piece I carved from a small branch of cherry using my penknife (and sand paper).
Unlike with most of my more complicated carvings, I had not made any designs or sketches for this piece; I just felt like carving so I picked a piece of wood and started cutting.
The lady herself is only about 8cm tall, so it was very fiddly work. I am very pleased with the finished result.
Modest Beginnings and Finished Products
Here are some photos of work in progress: a carving after the saw work, and a painting after the first session.
...and here are the finished versions of the carving and painting. The first is a little meditating chap (in beech wood), and the second is a space painting entitled 'Formation' - my first in over 2 years.
Back to the Studio
Today was the first time I have gone into my studio to paint for over 2 years.
I had stopped for two reasons. Firstly, looking after my second son full time when he was very young left me little time to paint. Secondly, I found it hard to be motivated to paint when the destiny of the majority of my paintings was to be covered in bubble-wrap and put into a storage room. Although I enjoy the process of painting, I need to know that the paintings are going to be seen otherwise they are pointless. My drive to paint is now attempting to overcome this inertia.
I have now titled and signed the last painting I completed - 'A Slow Expansion' - in 2012. I have pinned 10 photographs of ideas for paintings to the walls of the studio, and I have blacked up 4 canvases in preparation for new paintings. This might not sound like much, but it is a beginning - a commitment to starting again.
The Significance of Circles
Whereas ancient art from the rest of the world is mostly representational, featuring animals and people, up until the Roman conquest, the majority of British art is abstract - centring around geometric patterns, circles, dots and lines.
In ancient British rock art the "cup and ring" (circles surrounding a central dot) formations dominate. There is a proven link between these and the stone circles that are scattered across the land during the Neolithic and early bronze age, whether or not these two types of circle are intended to represent the same thing.
Although the meaning of the patterns of ancient British rock art remains a mystery, there is obviously something significant to us about circles. They are appealing to us, simple yet mysterious, mystical yet mathematical, and indicative of human presence; conjuring up images of settlements and community.
I enjoy continuing this heritage of British abstract art that extends into prehistory by embracing the usage of circles, lines and dots.
Programming as a Creative Process
Before I was an artist, I was a computer programmer.
As well as being a scientific, mathematic and precise occupation, programming can be intensely creative. As computers worm their way more and more deeply into our lives, so the potential for a computer program expands. The ability to write a computer program is a blank canvas - anything you can imagine that a computer can do - anything it can display on a screen, play through its speakers, or control via an external device, is possible by writing a program. The only limits are the ability of the programmer, both in terms of technical know-how and intellectual insight, and the time and effort required to develop the program (which can be considerable).
The reality of a job as a programmer, however, is typically a long way from this ideal of vast creative potential. Far from being free to be the god of one's own personal universe, a programmer is a slave to the market, and what they are working on can be both hugely frustrating and mind-numbingly boring.
I have recently taken up programming again as a hobby - initially to write a tool for developing my website. I soon remembered how frustrating and tedious, yet exhilarating and rewarding it can be. Having finished my web development tool, I was keen to continue, and I decided to resurrect the beginnings of a 3D graphics program I had been working on years before. Here was a way to make a window into my own world and allow me the creative freedom that I remember glimpses of from my days as a professional programmer. Alas, however, progress is slow and hard-won, as it must be for the solo programmer (and an out-of practice one at that), and it is just one more activity fighting for its share of my time.
Carving 'Spiral Embrace'
Here is a description of my entire carving process for what was a very ambitious piece for me: 'Spiral Embrace' - a wedding anniversary present for my wife. I had started on the designs about 5 months before I began carving, so I had a lot of time to think about it. It took about 14 hours of carving work spread out over a month. The fact that it had to be done in secret was an additional challenge!
1. The vast majority of my carvings start out as sketches around a general idea. The initial idea for this piece was of two figures entwined round each other in a spiral, but forming a single form, with one supporting the other at the base.
2. From the rough sketches, I draw an accurate design from the front and the side. I sometimes make notes as it can be hard to map these 2D images onto a 3D block of wood, especially with a continuously curved shape like a spiral.
3. For complicated carvings, I sometimes do a smaller version to start with, using a soft wood like pine. This allows me to test out how I imagined the 3D piece. I was unsure whether to have this piece divide into two or stay connected. Dividing the piece didn't really work with the maquette, so I decided against it for the final piece.
4. I cut away large sections of wood from the initial block before I start using knives or chisels. This can be tiring work as it is done by hand and the wood is hard.
5. I trace the 2D designs onto the sides of the wood. I often have to do this several times as I cut away portions of the design.
6. Here all of the saw-work is complete, and I have redrawn the design onto the wood by eye.
7. Now I have started to use carving knives to take away larger chunks of wood. This is where I have to work hard to visualise the sculpture in order to bridge the gap between the 2D designs and the 3D shape. I get very nervous at this point, and it is the hardest part of the carving for me. This is where having a small version of the carving to refer to comes in very useful.
8. I have now formed a nice continuous spiral with the figures, and the only large portion of wood that has yet to be removed is a central core.
9. Here the core has been removed through lots of careful carving from all available angles. I remember that it is very rewarding to reach this point in a carving. The two figures are now distinct and I am starting to get excited about how it will look when finished.
10. I have now finished carving and have completed the first few rounds of sanding. You can see how the piece will look, but the finish is still rough.
11. The final piece after fine sanding. All that is left to do is apply a couple of coats of finishing wax and polish.
I have buried a number of small golden canisters around the country, at locations important to me for one reason or another. Contained in each canister is a small rolled-up piece of paper with a message on it; something I consider to be important information or a valuable lesson I have learnt. Each is something I would like to leave behind me after I'm gone - a message to the future in a way.
My intention is that this 'buried treasure' will remain hidden for many years. In the unlikely event of any of these canisters being discovered within my lifetime, I would be very interested to know, so please contact me, and (if possible), rebury the canister in its original location.
Baddies at the Bus-Stop
"Baddies at the Bus-Stop" is a book I have written, aimed at children around 4 years old. It is a 16 page picture book with a rhyming text.
I have included a low-resolution version of the book here - I hope you enjoy it: Baddies at the Bus-Stop
I was inspired to write the book by watching and listening to my son (who was four at the time) playing, and it was designed to appeal to him and his friends. He was very pleased with the result, and read it to anyone who would listen, joining in with the loud bits. He took it into school and it was read to his class. I was later asked to come into school to draw super-heroes with them as a result!