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Exploration Time - VLOG

Black and white abstract leaf drawing

I recently set myself a little challenge – to fill a sketchbook using a limited number of materials and monochromatic palette based on black and white.

I wondered how much information I could gather from my environment if I sat still in one place for a time, let my eyes wander and just observe and absorb what was around me.

In this case, it was mainly foliage of various different kinds.

Shapes and lines always captivate me, but it took me a while to get started, and tune into just looking, filtering and become aware of what I was noticing. And so this little sketchbook journey began. Strangely though I made a decision to start from the back page of the sketchbook and work towards the front! Don’t ask me why, I’ve been wondering about that myself, but I feel it’s somehow reduced the expectation of what this exercise should or could be about. Most importantly I didn’t want to approach this exercise with the aim of producing resolved compositions, which is what I’ve been working towards when doing my colourful sketches on paper.

So with expectations firmly tucked away, this exercise was simply about exploring, experimenting and gathering information that may or may not ever be useful in anyway at all. But what it did do was help me practice my ‘looking and responding’, which I can never do enough of!

Each double page was filled within 15 minutes to an hour depending on when I felt ready to move on – no rules or limitations there!


I had a 15 cm x 15 cm gel plate, a small roller, black and white paint (and a toning grey which I only used a couple of times), a mixture of drawing media – charcoal pencils, an aquarelle crayon, a single posca pen, biro and three old brushes, (one small round, and two flat brushes of different sizes). My sketchbook was an inexpensive one with cartridge paper pages (approximately 20 cm x 40 cm landscape) with some of the pages already gessoed.

From here you can watch my video as I talk you through the pages or for a more detailed look, you can read on and check out the photos and notes about what I was thinking as I progressed through the pages. There are 26 sketches in total, so maybe make a cuppa and enjoy!


Sketch 1

In the beginning I found myself looking at the big picture and this first page was about the general vegetated environment. I was also familiarising myself with the mixture of materials I'd decided to use and I began without using the gel plate, instead opting for line drawings to which I then began adding paint in different tones. I felt like I just wanted to capture a sense of place rather than focus on specific lines or shapes.


Sketch 2

What happened on the next page was an opposite reaction to the looking at the big picture! I found myself looking at the surface patterns on a Monstera plant which was tucked away in the corner of my field of vision. The interlocking shapes on the surface of the thick stem, I realised, were in keeping with the leafy shapes that find their way into many of my paintings. I liked the contrast between the skinny looping aerial roots and the chunky stem.


Sketch 3

Back to the big picture again for this page, and observing the way different shapes in the foliage interacted with each other, leaving interesting negative spaces, this page again began with line drawing and a single gel print taken from a fern leaf, which almost disappeared by the time I was ready to move on.


Sketch 4

I used my small round brush to get this page started, keen to explore the different qualities of line I could achieve with the materials I had. I played around with some over-printing of leaves but my paint was a bit thin to achieve the level of contrast I was hoping for. I like the contrast of the black line work on the white page and the negative spaces within the leaf shapes.


Sketch 5

The positive and negative of the black and white started to take over from the linework on this page, though I love the energy and randomness of some of the line work, small areas of structure began to develop with the addition of more regular lines and stripes in pencil within the white shapes and thicker ones in paint here and there. I like the moody feel on this page, brought on no doubt by the balance of dark and light.


Sketch 6

I spotted a lotus flower seed pod that took me away from looking at the immediate vegetation. The textures on the outside to the seed pod and the beautiful organic circular patterns became the focus of my attention for this page. I used the gel plate to make a couple of print impressions. I applied paint to the plate and then drew into the paint with my small brush before pressing the surface of the plate onto the page.


Sketch 7

To begin this page I turned my attention back to the undergrowth and went back to thinking about line work initially and also negative spaces. I overlaid the shapes that evolved with printed impressions from a Frangipani flower. This page felt connected to the previous one, as the enjoyment of observing the seed pod continued. I like the mix of linear shapes, rounded shapes, more recognisable flower shapes and the density of the black against the white spaces.


Sketch 8

I felt a little more drawn to consider patterns for this page and so used my pens and the biro for some more detailed line work and mark making, though I did use the gel plate again for making some leaf prints, some of which were more successful than others. I also spotted a piece of vintage ironwork which I took some basic pencil rubbings from, hence the areas of more complex pattern.


One thing to note maybe at this point is that I had given myself permission to absorb any and all information from my surroundings, and occasionally when my mind tired of trying to process the tangle of foliage, focusing on small immediate details gave me a kind of creative respite, though I was still creating if that makes any sense?!

It can be exhausting to try and keep processing the same big picture but I felt like my brain found it easier to oscillate between ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’ from time to time. The result is a diverse range of perspectives within the same image, which naturally appeals to my love of abstraction.


Sketch 9

Enjoying the leaf prints from the gel plate was the catalyst for this page. Though the shapes of the Frangipani petals felt like they still had more to say! The ribbed lines of various roots were a contrasting addition and I started to play around with adding a third tone in a mid grey to see what effect this had visually on the shapes and my perception of them.


Sketch 10

This page began with direct printing from a robustly ribbed leaf (top left), which created lots of very pleasing verticals which fell into the background eventually. The drooping nature of some of the palm fronds became more important which in turn created a desire for other contrasting leaf shapes and strong lines in charcoal rather than in paint. Though I did use some diluted watercolour on this page along with the grey mixed from my acrylic paints.


Sketch 11

I started this page with printing, though not from the gel plate. I used a piece of waxed paper to which I’d applied a layer of paint with the roller which I used in a couple of ways. Firstly I laid the paper, paint side down,gently on the surface of the page and used a pencil to draw into the back of the paper which left a monotype impression on the page. The paint was too thick to begin with so after making the first print I re-rolled what was left of the paint and tried again another couple of times, which created stronger and more defined impressions. Secondly I drew into the surface of the painted paper and then pressed the paper paint side down onto the page, and rubbed the back to transfer the paint/image onto the page. A sense of a vista began to emerge on this page which I found I was enjoying.


Sketch 12

The background shapes on this page began to get a bit stronger and I found myself thinking more about the  light and dark contrasts in the background shapes rather than what was happening with the line work. This page had a bit of everything – drawing, printing and painting. I began with a line drawing of a the branches of Frangipani tree which eventually got buried, though I used some of the organic lines as a reference to draw loosely into the painted gel plate before printing (bottom right).


Sketch 13

I had a sudden urge to simplify the visual information I was taking in, so began this page just with a series of lines that I found between the tree trunks and branches. I was enjoying just the line work but decided I wanted to see what the spaces looked like blocked in, so it ended up as a visual rhythm of tones. Very different from the other pages so far, but this exercise was becomingly increasingly driven by seeing not only how many differences I could find in my environment but also the diversity of options I could come up with for describing them with my materials.


Sketch 14

Some nice leaf print textures emerged on this page, which began with taking impressions form a fern-like leaf (top right) but printing white over black with the gel plate wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped (centre & top left), I definitely needed thicker white paint! But some interesting configurations of shapes emerged and spaces appeared where I could repeat some of the marks and simplified leaf descriptions.


Sketch 15

Back to capturing single lines and joining and overlapping them to create new and organic feeling shapes on this page. I was thinking about the spacing of the tones as I was filling in the shapes which when I look at this page now, offer a range of new and interesting amalgamated shapes. I like the 'roundy' feeling of this page - something I feel I'd like to experiment with more. My limited selection of tatty brushes didn't allow for 'tidy' painting, but I'll possibly work this sketch up again with better ones!


Sketch 16

The flower of a Spider Lily plant offered some new and interesting lines and shapes both via direct printing and by using the gel plate to capture it. The stamens were particularly lovely and the petals offered more texture than I imagined they would which was a surprise! This page was a good reminder to play with both the positive and the negative.


Sketch 17

I found some spindly coarse grass stems and thought I’d try lying them across the page and simply rolling black paint over the top of them. In the video I talked about placing the stems under the paper, but now I remember I put them on the top of the paper!

I expected quite defined linear results but that’s not really what happened at all! The stems took a bit of squishing to lie flat and stay still, but actually that added to the feeling of movement on this page in the end! Having to re-ink the roller periodically created some areas where the paint was much thicker and some more uniform dark areas appeared which I quite liked. There's a feeling of energy and movement across these pages which feels nice and spontaneous.


Sketch 18

This page started off quite dynamically with left over paint from the roller and trying a different plant to the linear stems and rolling over the top. It didn’t work at all and there’s no definition but what happened instead was the appearance of subtle background shapes going in lots of different directions. I then did some drawing around the actual plant focusing on the little umbrella like leaves. I overlaid this hectic background with 3 diagonal stems from a different plant to try and push some of that energy into the background.


Sketch 19

And for something completely different I went back to line drawing for this page. This time with an Aquarelle crayon. I instantly loved the lines and shapes of this big water lily plant and decided to just leave this page in a simple state. I went over the drawn lines with my small round brush dipped in water just to play with the quality of line.


Sketch 20

I was really enjoying the fluid lines and roundy shapes emerging from drawing the leaves of the lily plant so I kept going, but this time with a charcoal pencil. I allowed the shapes to overlap and follow the contours of the leaves and let them merge into these wavy shapes.


Sketch 21

Continuing with line drawing I picked up my soft charcoal pencil and began looking closely at a small palm with interesting ribbed fronds and at the same time capturing information from the stem and small branches of the plant. Roots, leaf tips and spiny branches. The result is a heavy drawing which is all about lines. The excess charcoal proved useful later on when I took an impression from this drawing on the gel plate....


Sketch 22

Back to big leaf printing on the gelli plate. It’s amazing how some quite thick, almost rubbery leaves give the impression that they will print really well and the delicate ones less so. But as I’ve pottered through the pages of this book I’ve found almost the opposite to be true. I’m sure that has everything to do with my lack of practice at printing with these leaves! But I was keen to work quickly and not get too bogged down in perfecting process and I actually quite like the result of these big bold shapes standing sentinel on the page, they have a kind of graphic quality.


Sketch 23

Whilst I was leaf printing the previous page I needed to clean the plate up a bit so I just added a thin layer of white paint with the roller and stuck it on this page so I could peel the plate clean. I loved that I could see some incidental marks in the resulting print, they were very subtle but unmistakably there, so this page became about doing a kind of riff from what was existing rather than looking to the environment from new lines and shapes. It looks drastically different to previous pages, but I love that even though I could have looked at the print and thought, oh there’s nothing worth looking at here, I did in fact see some tiny details which led me to keep going from there.


Sketch 24

I began this page looking at a Croton leaf, initially intrigued by the coloured patterns on it, but it didn't hold my interest for too long and instead I picked up a new and different leaf to engage with. This sketch began with line drawings but I painted out most of what I started with and isolated areas using the new leaf as a guide to the shapes. I love the result, especially the the horizontal stripe that goes across the bottom of both pages.


Sketch 25

This page also started with a clean up print from the gel plate which had only a few strong vertical and horizontal lines to recommend it, but I liked the way they sat against the mottled texture of the background so I saved them! This was the first print I made using the charcoal drawings as the basis for a gel print. I placed the clean gel plate face down on the charcoal drawing and rubbed the back to ensure good contact with the drawing then peeled the plate carefully of the page. Flipping it over I then added a thin skin of white paint over the top of the charcoal lines and then pressed into the surface of this page. Once the paint was completely dry I peeled the plate off the page to find I had successfully transferred some of the charcoal lines into the paint and onto the page. I loved the result!


Sketch 26

This page was an extension of the process of capturing charcoal impression from the drawings and then ‘copying’ them onto the page via the gel plate and white paint. The results are beautifully subtle and it’s a technique I’ll experiment with a bit more, as I’ve been looking for a way to re-create my line drawings in print. I have several drawings from my ‘Portal’ series that I’d like to work with again. Watch this space!


So that’s it for now, I still have about half the sketchbook to go, but I'm keen to keep filling the remaining pages in a similar way and I'll revisit these explorations at some stage and look at some ways to extend ideas from what I’ve captured so far.

It’s been a fun and liberating exercise to work this way and I’ll just have to wait and see what’s become embedded in my subconscious as I’ve been working away what lands in my next sketch or big painting!

Even though my work is usually all about colour, it's a really useful exercise to revert to black and white here and there, it helps me see shapes and lines more clearly.

Time to ‘gather and respond’ is an essential part of keeping my mind open to the possibilities of new shapes, compositions and processes; it keeps those creative nudges coming and my vocabulary of shapes evolving. And I do enjoy rattling through a sketchbook allowing lots of ideas to spontaneously flow without thinking at all about finished paintings or deadlines!


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