Friday 26th March 2021
I picked up my order for graphite putty from Jackson’s warehouse in Gloucester on Friday and waited until low tide, late afternoon, before trying it out. It was cold and windy at Garden Cliff at Westbury on Severn, where I did battle with sheets of A1 cartridge paper. The paper was pinned down, one sheet at a time, using heavy rocks and branches found on the ‘beach’. I say beach because it is a cliff comprising of Triassic rock formations, but isn’t a beach that one would paddle or swim from – the River Severn is far too dangerous for that.
The first rubbing drawings were very energetic. I bent down towards the paper on the ground, donned my surgical gloves and grabbed the ball of black putty. I sensed with my right hand, feeling the surface under the paper, then followed with the graphite in my left hand. I worked fast and furiously, partly because the wind was making me feel quite tense, but also because I was crouching in an uncomfortable position and it wasn’t great for my back. I felt my way into the forms with one hand, then pressed and stroked the pigment onto the paper with the other. When the graphite ball hit ridges it deposited copious amounts of shiny metallic pigment onto the ridges, and dropped small clumps of precious graphite loose onto the paper. It was a bit like learning Taiko drumming, making the hands perform opposing actions and behaviours, but somehow (sometimes), falling into a rhythm that works. The material itself feels like handling very buttery pastry.
The rhythm in these ancient rocks was provided by the patterns formed nearly 3 million years ago. Clusters of round balls of deep red clay, like bubbles, fractured by deep straight lines where geological strata slipped and slid around. Soft and crumbly, as opposed to being hard and flinty, the stone formations are variously a pale to mid grey and a ferrous red, like an ochre. They are prone to fall apart in one’s hand, not unlike the ball of graphite putty. As I rubbed it was like seeing the Alps or the Rockies emerging from the clouds when gazing out of a plane window. The marks also remind me of the patterns seen in the mud of the Severn, from the river bed, when the tide has gone out and the sun has temporarily solidified the silt in the heat.
Anyway, I made three rubbings then retreated to my warm un-windy house and spread them out in my studio. I loved them. They were all different and the best, in my mind, was the one that was most crumpled and battered by the elements on the surface and the sharp stones trapped below the paper, jutting up into the fibrous surface, but not tearing it. That is where the peaks shone the brightest.
I had taken time selecting the areas to rub, seeking out level areas and stony part, as well as straight line fractures. I took photos of the sites and more of the different stages of rubbing. This stage of using new mediums has to be like a lab, everything noted, recorded, and considered. The weather, the dampness of the air, the wind levels, the moisture on the ground and the selected paper used. I had gone for A1 because I love drawing large and also doubted this squidgy mark-making substance wouldn’t perform at its best in a small sketchbook. I was right.
Back in the studio I left them to relax overnight and returned in the morning to study them in daylight. Then I began to rely on my memory of examining these rocks in recent weeks – looking carefully at meeting places and junctions, where smooth flat areas met crumbly steps, or bubbly round forms were fractured by gashes in the stone, like crevasses. I drew into and onto the framework that the rubbing provided and soon I was immersed in pulling this drawing out of the paper, into something that spoke of that place.
This is where I got to, and I think I’m going to be doing more in the future. (I already have but that’s another blogpost). My life is now doubly reliant on tides – the high tides that bring the Severn Bore and enable the dredger in my film ‘Bed “D’’ to operate, and the bore surfers to surf. And the low tides that reveal the most wonderful patterns formed so long ago, only for them to return to their role as riverbed when the ocean washes in.
I live a tidal life.