nature: holiday inspiration for the sketchbook

This holiday time has provided an opportunity to go to new places, see new things and return to the sketchbook just for fun. A week at Ilkley Moor enabled lots of time for walking and seeking out inspiration from the natural world, with distinct differences to the landscape I’m used to day to day. Up hill and down dale saw me amongst mosses and lichens, pebbles and boulders, grouse, larch trees, heathers and bogs … and even a fragment of pottery.

Rucksack pockets were filled with samples of treasure ready to investigate later. The process of drawing enables me to get to know an object, and by making several studies of each item I enjoy developing a stylised representation. I hope never to tire of the getting-to-know-you drawing process I have practised for thirty years.

By looking closely and seeing through drawing I can work out the essential elements of surface, form and texture to record, but also I love to play with the appearance of elevation and structure of three dimensional objects, such as the pebbles, to explore their new form as they appear on the page, as flat motifs.

The textures and colours of the items I gathered provide macro evidence of the vast landscape I walked through and connected with. As this was springtime there were pockets of fresh green bursting through winter foliage, demonstrating the natural cycle awakes again. The geology of Yorkshire provided variety in coloured greys and texture under hand and foot as we bouldered, scrambled and hiked, notable in contrast to the soft wet bogs and spongy moss beds amongst the heather.

Without going all John Ruskin about it, the natural world really is amazing, and full of inspiration for anyone inclined to notice. Anyway, back to the rather flatter fields of Norfolk …

pattern processing

I’m often juggling lots of tasks in my head, but when my mind is busy I can find focus and space to think within and around the process of drawing. The time occupied by my hand drawing gives my head some freedom to work things through. Distraction, mindfulness, process-led, thinking time…

Drawing also creates time to explore rhythms that are playing out more formally in other sketchbooks for other projects. I find it interesting that certain motifs appear in the margins of my notebooks time and time again, made while my mind is occupied. Often those shapes are geometric, but sometimes the circle dominates, at other times, squares. Regularly they link to designs I’m working on and resolving somewhere else, subconsciously seeking solutions.

I enjoy the simplicity of paper and pencil in a world where so much of my time is spent in front of a screen. The physical process of drawing; the feel of the friction between graphite and paper, the sounds created by the rhythmic gestures, are vital to the experience. Satisfaction comes from a page of evolving rhythm and more pattern potential. We know there is seduction in the multiple; the repetition of tins on a supermarket shelf, for example.

drawing on the landscape

I’m sure I’ve written about it before, but I’m often intrigued how an idea can rattle about in my head for years, exist as drawings or collages, but not quite feel right… then manifest in a way that makes those years of waiting make sense. I’ve recently created a sequence of three drawings that appear to have done just that.

Drawing is a key creative process for me. I don’t always find as much time as I’d like but I draw to capture the beauty of a flower, or the shape of a field, and often have no planned use for the image; the drawing exists for itself. Over the years I can see drawings are linked by a longer-term inquiry, and these single elements collectively define the aesthetic of my practice.

I’ve been working on some new landscape-inspired drawings, bringing together some colour mixing and the monochrome marks, rhythms and textures relating to the Norfolk landscape. I began with a journey through the drawers of my plan chest to pull together a dictionary of visual language to guide me, and following a cycle ride in the landscape I took pencil in hand, and began to draw. Painting features very little in my practice, really only for colour-mixing but this time it felt right to capture the colour in gouache and apply directly with brushes on to the paper, layered up with the graphite of the drawing.

These drawings are part of the ongoing journey, but I do think it’s important to stop and notice when something feels right, like a good fitting piece of jigsaw in the puzzle.

Academic acknowledgement: thoughts

I’ve already shared the news via my other social media channels, but I’m delighted to announce here too I have been confirmed Associate Professor in Design at Norwich University of the Arts. This makes me extremely proud and at the same time reflective about the career I’ve had so far.

At eighteen years old I had very little idea what I wanted to do as a job or career, and considered widely contrasting options of occupational therapy, sports psychology, the army, teaching … something creative …. having grown out of the idea of being a bagpipe player, aged 4, and archeologist, aged 8. There are skills involved in roles across some of these that are required in my current post in academia but equally some a disastrous fit, at least to the me I am now.

Going through art school and university, even the post grad. masters course, I was petrified of the ‘real world’ of work, despite having Saturday and holiday jobs from a young age. I can clearly remember the months I earned nothing as a freelance designer, the humiliation of the job centre line and housing benefit application process, the years of no holidays unless they were working holidays to get free board, and watching peers become adults in an adult world, as I tried to work out what I wanted to do while keeping expenses low and resourcefulness high. The turning point was my first role as Print and Photomedia technician at Central Saint Martins, London, where I met people like me, dividing their weeks with practice and educational roles – this could be my real world too!

Today I can look back over a twenty-plus year academic career and so much makes sense; the joy of hindsight. Since school I have taught at play schemes, Sure Start projects, NHS trust projects, community projects, adult education workshops, school outreach, FE & HE courses. Every project taught me something that informs the educator I am today, and clarified my preferred environment for teaching and learning. For over twenty five years I’ve led a creative practice that has evolved substantially from the one I led in my studio / bedroom in south London, making books at a tiny desk, using the bathroom as a darkroom in the middle of the night, and the print room at CSM when the students had left. Artwork on the London underground network, designs on a huge hospital roof, in an airport, selling products to Japan and America … Projects happen but it’s easy to forget they were all unimaginable to the eighteen year old self. At art school I learned the value of drawing, of playing with the design process, of dedication to make something the best it could be and commitment to colour mixing. Those tutors shaped my rigorous approach to my practice today. Incidentally, my minimalist aesthetic was defined lazy by one visiting tutor I had the displeasure to be taught by – he missed the point I remember thinking, I knew he had got me wrong.

As an academic I’ve learned to continue to learn, continually … One instance: I was thrown in to the deep end to deliver design history lectures to undergraduates many years ago, with no GCSE in basic history, and only faint memories of my own design history education for support – that was a particularly low point. Hundreds of hours investment, much reading and learning, and a fair amount adrenaline got me through those early years. Some students have told me since then, that those lectures were among their highlights, and I feel pleased – retrospectively I can’t help feel grateful to my then boss for not giving me the get-out option. This skill and knowledge is now something I hugely enjoy and benefit from. I love to share my passion for design history – who would have thought? Not the eighteen year old me!

In running my design practice in parallel with my academic career I am busy. It would be easier if I was content to focus on one rather than juggling my headspace and waking hours. I’m not alone in wondering why I maintain both, but it is simple – they need each other, and I need each of them. My teaching is filled with current industry experience, my design practice feeds the lectures, workshops and tutorials I deliver. The design experience feeds my research and my practice validates my teaching. My own creative struggles and insecurities support my understanding and empathy for the students I teach and nurture to be brave soles, out in the real world, like I had to be and continue to be. I love to learn, and if I can share what I learn and understand, I can help others to enjoy the design industry too.

I’ve stood at trade shows, on my stand for 12-hour days, promoting my new collections while checking my uni emails on my phone, to make sure things are running okay in my absence. I’ve spoken to industry partners interested in my work, while at the same time my head is working out how I can link the students to the opportunities they may hold too. I’ve formed relationships with wonderful industry friends who now form a network of support for the graduates I’ve taught. The important thing to learn is that we are all in this, learning together, helping others and together making the world a better place to be. The response to me achieving this recognition has been overwhelming. Colleagues past and present, students and graduates, manufacturers and past collaborators, and so many more people have got in touch – reminding me of many precious moments along the way.

I’m grateful to have this recognition from the university. The contribution I’ve made to both the design industry and academia is acknowledged as valuable to others, and united in potential – and that’s a good starting point for the next twenty years!

postcard project, 20 years on

Twenty years ago, in January 2001 two friends established a creative challenge as a way of sharing their days, while living in different British cities, through daily production of artwork. The idea of mail art had already been of interest to them both, and this project formalised the process of sending pieces of artwork through the postal system. It was highly likely that the outcomes would also find themselves featuring in an artists’ book in some shape or form, as so many of our individual creative ideas did at that time.

Rules: Every day in the month of February 2001 we (Kate Farley and Imi Maufe) would make a postcard inspired by the sky that particular day. In fact two identical postcards were made each day by each friend – in case one got lost in the post. The size of each card was agreed to be 11cm square, and it would need to be in the postal system that day.

postcards in Sky Blue Pink, from February 2001, by Kate Farley

February 2001. SKY BLUE PINK

Each day, between Bristol and London, and sometimes Norwich, these postcards crossed the country representing the experiences of lives being lived under the skies of winter. Postcards were made using a combination of image and text, suggesting downpours or sunshine, colours and times of the day. The artwork includes a mix of drawing, paint, printing, photography including a pinhole camera photograph, and collage. Each participant’s creative journey and personal style shines through.

Alongside references to the sky and weather there are details of exhibitions, bicycle rides, parties, shopping, college and work. At one point cards were delivered by hand as they shared a weekend in Bristol. Only one postcard was lost in the system – a post-it note breaks the news.

postcards in Sky Blue Pink, from February 2001, by Imi Maufe

MARCH: TO AND FRO

Having enjoyed the task of finding a few creative minutes, however busy we were each day, to keep the project on track it was decided to try another month on a different theme. To & fro represents the journeys of the month of March 2001, keeping to the same rules apart from the theme, and the interpretation of what a journey could be was up to the individual. Postcards recalling more cycling, mapping around buildings, postcodes passed through, my birthday, journeys by bus, emotional journeys, creative processes and even a Spanish holiday gets a mention. The artwork is varied throughout the month, and between the two participants as with the previous month.

postcards in To and Fro, from March 2001, by Kate Farley

I was working part time as Print and Photomedia Technician at Central Saint Martins in London, alongside design and making artists books, hence the access to the darkroom to make the photogram. I taught pin-hole photography and the view from the 4th floor window at Back Hill across Clerkenwell features. I had bought my Turkish Green Brompton (folding bike) and it gets a mention a few times. Imi was studying in Bristol, and continues her interest in journeys in her practice today.

postcards in To and Fro, from March 2001, by Imi Maufe

In April there was an exciting day when the postcards were gathered and shared. The next stage of the project was to design and construct the book showcasing the original collection of postcards between two friends in order for us to create editions. The book structure needed to show each of the postcards sent on the same day, and reveal the front and back of each. As there were two of each postcard the pages of the book could be designed by sticking each pair of cards on a single page and fold the sheet to indicate the back and front of each card – and also allowing the book to be made and editioned by printing single-sided. My grandma used to say the term Sky Blue Pink and so the phrase became our book title for the weather, and To and Fro was an obvious choice for March.

There was a stressful afternoon of hunting around Bristol-based printers to carry out the colour copying and bind the book. One chap managed to shuffle the pages out of order almost by simply looking at them – we couldn’t entrust the postcards to him – but eventually we found someone who understand the peculiarities of the project and how the two editions needed to be constructed. Wire-binding held the two sets of postcards in individual books, united by the wide and folded cover, nestling the books in to one. They were in editions of 10, published under the IKUS press, formed for this purpose.

both editions: Sky Blue Pink & To and Fro, published 2001

We exhibited these books at artists book fairs, launching them at the International Contemporary Artists Book Fair in Yorkshire and received a really positive response. We sold the majority of the first edition of the books in the first year, including to significant collections such as the British Library, and produced a second limited edition soon after.

This was a time before social media, and today, thinking back over the design process of the book, it’s worth remembering we didn’t have access to scanners and computers, so it really was a rather handmade effort, but I think the outcome is better for it and I can’t believe we are looking at these, twenty years on. Having made those postcards and revisited them again now, it has surprised me how much I remember from those specific days I lived, that I could easily have forgotten entirely if it was not for the act of making time to be creative.

I also take from this, the value of making time to be creative, and to be aware of the world around me. I was busy rushing about but always in my mind I had to notice something and work out how to create the two postcards to visually communicate that day. Maybe I should start this up again, although Covid lockdown makes my life considerably less interesting!

You can find out more about Imi’s practice here: http://www.imimaufe.com

passion for passi flora pattern

Many years ago my flatmate was given a passion flower plant and when the flowers came we were both in awe of their splendid form; a thing of beauty in our otherwise less than beautiful flat in Camberwell, south London. I made drawings of the flowers and sometime later developed some patterns from it, screen printing it as repeating designs and placement prints. I created the motifs by deconstructing the elements that constitute the flower head.

More years passed and sometime around 2012 I revisited those screen printed patterns, this time interpreting them as lino cuts as part of my Plot to Plate series of editioned lino prints. Last year I planted two passion flower plants in our new garden and last week we had the first bloom. It took me right back to that first flower in the flat in Camberwell, and was reminded of the pattern again.

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Whenever I look back at old work I’m likely to want to make changes, and this is the case here too, but each design also holds a moment, defines a time, and sometimes that makes it what it is. I’d not imagined I’d connect that flower to my practice almost twenty years later…

This pattern remains available as a set of patterned Plot to Plate greetings cards.

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New drawings for sale

I have made some pencil drawings from my recent trees project (previously featured on the blog) available to buy – there are currently eight still available.

They measure approximately 28 x 19cm, on heavy weight paper, £55 each, with 30% going to Cancer Research UK.

Do take a look over on instagram where they are all listed, & message me if you are interested in reserving one. Feel free to spread the news – I don’t often sell my original drawings ….

Here’s drawing 1, 2, & 3 …

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drawing evolution – perspective and mapping

Several weeks ago I started, with no other intention other than to pass the time, making drawings of the trees across the fields I could see as we waited our turn at the farm shop. This was simply about making time for me to clear my head of all the other stuff and pressures of this new routine we find ourselves in. Drawing is such a key part of what makes me tick, whether it’s for rest or work.

Week 2 came so I took my sketchbook and made new drawings that naturally evolved from the first week’s observations. In the second week I also took scissors to capture the shapes as paper cutouts in contrast to the lines I had focussed on in pencil. Each week I’ve made these drawings and over time I’ve noticed the growth of leaves, making it harder to focus on the tree structures, but I’ve also moved the drawing on as a familiarity of my subject is developing. I wrote a blog post on those first weeks here.

I’ve spent the last quarter century drawing landscapes with trees and remember a significant moment as a student of design, when I discovered the water colours by Crome and Cotman in the gallery in Leeds – particularly strange given they were from the Norwich School and I’d left Norwich to study in Yorkshire, but maybe that was the initial pull. I studied the way they divided the landscape with brushed areas of paint and they helped me to see that I too could explore ways to stylise the way I saw the landscape.

The drawings included in this post are all from week 5. I’ve added hints of fields containing the trees and those lines of containment are the edges holding the paths of trees. I’ve used the horizons from both a vertical and horizontal viewpoint and continued to stylise the tree forms throughout the five weeks. It’s getting harder as the trees flesh out their forms and we lost the details of the branches. I’m also suggesting depth of field with the scale of the trees near and far although I’m pulling the composition down to stretch out and extend the foreshortened landscape.

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Throughout my career I’ve toyed with ways to map the perspective of landscape and use diagrammatic language, perspective and distorted elevations to represent viewpoints of 3D in 2D. The intention of the arcs was to suggest the sweeping viewpoint but in fact I think it hints at hillsides, and that really isn’t the case here in Norfolk. An undulating landscape maybe, but certainly not rolling hills – still, we can’t get it all right!

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this drawing exercise so far and look forward to week 6 and what the drawings will discover next time. I’m also, rather naturally I suppose thinking about pattern evolution and how these may become design work. I have lots of ideas to mull over and be excited by … but there’s no rush.

Having posted some of the drawings on instagram over the weeks I’ve received lovely comments and messages from people enjoying the drawings and I’m so grateful for the votes of confidence in what I am doing, I really appreciate that. Many thanks, I hope you continue to enjoy the drawing! ….

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drawing to see, drawing to notice.

Drawing has always been a great leveller for me and now is no exception. I make drawings to capture something I like the look of even if I haven’t got a clue how it might be useful at that time. Picked grasses, a homegrown tulip or a fragment of fabric all provide challenges that relax me but also creatively inspire my lifetime of looking to draw – it’s not a coincidence there’s a play on words with drawing in my blog name.

Having some time spare while sat in the car at the local farm shop car park three weeks ago I took a good look around me at the view and with the luxury of time I took out my sketchbook and drew a line. This was a landscape already familiar, but in drawing a subject it is with a closer examination that one can see more.

Firstly I noticed the skyline meeting with the trees in the distance but as I drew that line it was being interrupted by the nearer trees cutting over the fluidity of the horizon. The trees contained strong shapes but not as the summer masses they will hold in full leaf in due course. The branches were clearly defined, but the added haze of smaller branches suggested the fuller form.

I made reasonably quick sketches of the same view several times, each time starting with a different area as a focus. Sometimes it was the gap between two trees, or a distant field and as I became more familiar with the shapes in front of me I engaged with details of branches to define the structures of the trees. I focused on three clusters of trees that provided different visual qualities but were united by the view.

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The process of drawing and re-drawing the same thing is something I love to do – just as Monet would have painted the same cathedral or hay stacks. Where Monet was fascinated with the changing light and what that did to the colour and shadows, for me it is a process of understanding and familiarising in order to stylise and to interpret, usually in line and shape. As I get to know my subject I can edit in and out the information to simplify what I am seeing in working out how to record it.

This blog post shows the same landscape being drawn on three different trips to the farm and I think you can see the familiarity allows for more freedom of the information I saw and captured. In week 2 I also took to scissors to cut out the shapes in pieces of white paper, asking myself to identify the positive and negative shapes within the landscape – see the image below. I cut out the same trio of trees several times and they work well layered, as the interpretations of the same subject matter is similar but evolves too.

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This notion of repetition in order to get to know something is a really key part of my practice as a pattern designer and I’ve evolved this relationship in my drawing over the years. As far back as art school I drew and printed in series of works on paper, with the evolution of seeing in order to pare back being the really important part of my process. I teach drawing as a ‘getting to know you’ strategy too. I suggest a student does not spend the first hour asking the really personal questions of the subject sat in front of them, but to make small talk, get to know the subject superficially first of all, then you can be more up close and personal over time. I think I’ve written about this somewhere on the blog before.

I’m really pleased that within a very short time of drawing I have looked, learned and recorded the view, and once again taken away my way of seeing that landscape overlooked by so many of us in our day to day routines. I’ve returned to this task and now have about twenty drawings from three consecutive visits. The trees are hinting at holding more green but the summer fullness is a while away for now. The buzzard circles and the tractor gets to work, I shall be back again, see below for the drawings in week 3.

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international pattern collaboration

It all began in an email with the subject line, ‘Hello from Tokyo’ I received in November 2017, letting me know how much my tea towels for David Mellor were admired in a Japanese design company. The email went on to ask if we could discuss a potential collaboration for a capsule fashion collection featuring a print designed by me. Firstly I was excited to think my patterns had made their way to Japan, but secondly, that sounded a great idea, tell me more! A few email exchanges later, and we agreed to meet the next time the company director of Stamps Inc. was in London so I could show him my portfolio to discuss the idea for the new pattern they would like to commission for their fashion collection.

The meeting with Shu and his colleague Yoko in a central London hotel was exciting; I showed my work and it was met with positive discussion. I was also reintroduced to the tea towels that had made it to Japan all the way from my studio, via a David Mellor Design shop! We sat at a large table and I showed them my portfolio, spreading the many sheets out covering the whole surface. Having shown all the other work and following some discussion in Japanese between colleagues, the director chose the very first page he had seen – the cover page! The choice was not what I was expecting but we shared and developed ideas for me to sample: colours, time-lines and garments. We then took some photographs to record the start of the project together, for when we would be able to share our story – and even asked the hotel doorman to take a pictures of the three of us with a London bus behind us.

The selected design was a graphite pattern of pencil scribbles of varying tones and rhythms, later to become the title of the collection: Scribble. There are lots of variables such as scale, rhythm, tone and  overall order in the pattern we had to make decisions before I set about creating the final artwork. I emailed across some small sketches to explain the repeat process for production to check we were understanding each other as we had to ensure we understood the terminology that each of us used in our different languages.

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I shared several images of new drawings to provide the variations / considerations over email before committing to the final design. The final fabrics were to be screen printed so I planned to draw out the whole design in full repeat by hand (approximately 60 x 90cm), scan it in and transfer it to Japan for screen print production. I started the large final drawing twice as I wasn’t happy with the first one. Initially the marks I drew appeared tense, but I also had to work out how to create the different qualities with the pencils across a vast piece of paper, and how not to smudge the areas I had drawn. I drew the design at 80% scale to make scanning it in possible, meaning I had to take in to account the slight increase in the size of the marks in the final result. I also had to ensure the top of the design matched the bottom, as the edges were to act as a cut-through for the screen printing process of repeating the pattern, fitting like a jigsaw, top to bottom. The design was edge to edge, left to right, fitting the width of the fabric so there was no horizontal pattern-repeat.

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The final artwork took almost ten hours to draw, and I did that mainly over two long evenings. I had it scanned in at a very high resolution, adapted the size of artwork to 100% and sent the digital file to Japan – with my fingers crossed that the printer could work their magic, including colour separating the graphite tones for the two screens each colourway would require!

There was a wholesale launch in Tokyo so I sent some of my original drawing samples over to feature as framed artwork in the exhibition and I was sent photographs of the lengths of fabric on show. Very exciting! Orders were placed and there was a good response. A further email request came from Japan, to meet again in London to see the fabric. Another exciting moment – also scary – what if I didn’t like the results!? In the stylish interior of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel lounge there was no need to worry. Great care had been taken to translate my drawing to screen printed cotton lawn fabric, in two colours – referencing the two colours of my David Mellor patterns Chelsea, in grey, and Pride in blue. The fabric felt beautiful and the printing fabulous. It was a special meeting.

I was able to see the marketing material including my name alongside Japanese text I couldn’t decipher, describing our meeting and the collaboration. I have had to be patient while the wholesale launch orders were being produced before we can promote the project I’ve had to keep under wraps for well over a year … until now!

It has been an absolute pleasure working with Shu and Yoko, learning about the company and their pride in who they work with including the products they develop. It has been a highly successful collaboration from my perspective in that we have discussed all the aspects of the process and trusted each other to do the best for it, each learning about the other and having good communication throughout. We have shared news of the differing seasons and national events over the course of the project, and they’ve watched via instagram as I’ve moved homes and jobs. I’ve loved having this connection with people in another corner of our world, created as a result of some tea towels I designed over five years ago!

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