The Art of Gardening

“As the light burns more persistently, and rain showers reflect the ever-changing landscape below, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time just staring about. Knowing I could never capture the fleeting delights in front of me, I try and store them in my mind and notebook for future reference..  raindrops on prickly stems of briar rose shimmer impossibly ruby then sapphire in the spring light.” [ed.  Oh dear, it looks like I began this piece months ago but wilful inattention to public relations triumphed for the pursuit of practical application to craft.]

Sadly I didn’t get to the Royal Academy Show, so this isn’t going to be a critical commentary on that event. Monet was the show’s most obvious choice of pin-up, but there were millions of potential understudies; fortunately my favourite French painters of real life, Caillebotte, who after a fleeting 6-year art career retired to his garden in his early thirties in 1879, made the final cast.

Ask most living artists with an interest in landscape, and you will find they will admit to an almost addictive compulsion to get their hands on the sod – especially at this time of year. And yet I believe gardening is a natural companion to painting – not simply because of the appeal of a subtly ever-changing visual dialogue we have with our tamed wildernesses, or as a living canvas on which to express ourselves. Gardening presents a most tangible opportunity for us to interact with our environment.

Just how we approach the tasks in hand is also an indicator of our relationship with our work – do we tend our patch by guiding and coaxing, removing discordant elements patiently, teasing out roots with our hands? Or do we smash out roots, leaving fragments to re-emerge below the surface? Do we try to dominate and control, bring in alien elements to disrupt the space? Do we use chemical or organic agents to improve productivity, or tolerate the rhythm dictated to us by our materials? How we wrangle with the tougher elements in this verdant composition speaks volumes about our present attitude and attention span.

At the moment I give myself an hour most mornings for this meditation before heading into the studio. It is helping me look, at myself, and the interfering thought processes that distract me from my day.  It helps me both clear my head, and to limber up my hands – although it is a fine line I tread between developing strength in my wrists and stiffening them. As Cennini preached in his Craftsman’s Handbook, you should be ‘saving and sparing your hand, preserving it from such strains as heaving stone, crowbar, and many other things which are bad for your hand, from giving them a chance weary it.’

Easier said than done…


garden scene with chicken feeder wm
No Spring Chicken

The Art of Stalking

This isn’t a piece about the genre of stalking art, like Sophie Calle’s Venetian Suite –last month a friend took me deer stalking with dog and gun. He thought the experience might be useful to my work, assist in my understanding our relationship with Nature. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the gun, but knew something about herd management from my time living near Ashton Court in Bristol: those with least talent are dispatched, as they are destined to merely disrupt the herd and be sorely injured in the competition for dominance in the hierarchy … of course you might question any parallel with the art world on that score alone.

I Bone

Covering my face and head, and guided down-wind to begin our quest, we headed down into an ancient local valley. Winter light warmed the afternoon, illuminating the old woodland, the silver lichen glowed, and the canopy shimmered. Creeping up and down the gully, past the scars of the recent storm, uprooted trees, jet-washed rocks, freshly hewn water-courses in the overhanging banks, I kept close in the footsteps of my experienced guide, mimicking his movements. In silence we looked for tracks and to the Pointer, her nose to the ground or scenting the air; we took pause, crouched low, then would sit and wait for maybe quarter of an hour or so, waiting for signs of movement.


After a few hours of this slow, intense yet meditative perambulation, we gave up on the hunt. There was no bloodshed, no finale, and no ‘product’. My guide wasn’t sure how useful the experience had been, but I began to get a sense of its relevance: “Making art is born of necessity and it’s an ongoing process—responding to the world and continuously moving forward, occasionally hitting on something then plodding ahead,” Katy Grannan – photographer/curator of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco (Andrea Denhoed, The New Yorker 11/08/15)

We track our thoughts and ideas, waiting a while for a path to our quarry. Those moments when we allow a soft gaze into our creative process can be most fruitful. Sometimes our goal is revealed, other times it is absent, just passed, or overlooked, and we have to return again to our expedition. The challenge is to do this without expectation, but full of anticipation, and sensitive to our own mood, energy and environment. To assume the outcome of our enterprise and find ourselves wanting denies us the joy of the chase, can stifle the organic development of our work, and leads us to overlook the clues to our success.




early 19th cent. (earlier (mid 17th cent.) as hibernation): from Latin hibernare, from hiberna ‘winter quarters’, from hibernus  ‘wintry’.

1  (Of an animal or plant) spend the winter in a dormant state

1.1 (Of a person) remain inactive or indoors for an extended period

Many of the animals and plants have lost their rest time this year, while I have been pulled inside, further motivated by the strong weather in these parts.

In the city we forget about seasons, barely break the momentum of our summer stride, neon lights sustaining our wilful avoidance of the planet’s rotation. Our energy levels and motivations dip, and we often forget to ask why, berating ourselves for a loss of performance, productivity, and drive. In the countryside, no such illusion persists. We are as subject to light and cold as the next creature. The vulnerability of ageing, injury, and loss, sit more clearly somehow. The cycle of life shows more vivid.

So on those days I haven’t been working on my studio space, and my extremities complain against the cold at each furtive attempt at plein air practice, I found myself prone to hibernate. Trying to structure my days with research and method, reading up on this land, on Carravaggio (Helen Langdon), and Ruskin (Elements of Drawing); drawing; returning to some rudimentary exercises; completing some ‘artists admin’ i.e. sharpening my pencils, cleaning my paint tubes, or stretching paper.

interior with chair 28 01 16 wmJust in time, before ‘the fear’ firmly gripped me again, I remembered the words of a good friend: ‘When you can’t paint outside because of bad weather, just go back to those little interior paintings of yours’.

The more I painted, the happier I felt, and with the growing enjoyment of working with oil again, the pleasure intensified. What a relief…

‘I have a predilection for painting that lends joyousness to a wall ‘ (Renoir)

Northern Soul at Christmas

christmas rose copy
Christmas Rose

I’m pleased to say I’ve got my drawing hand back in since I’ve been up here. So many interesting lines to navigate, from determined hawthorns and oaks bracing against the wind, to wild mushrooms, curious livestock and dramatic rocky outcrops.

fir cones
Fir Cones

So when I was commissioned for a few more designs for Christmas cards earlier in the winter, my usual humbug mentality about the season was dispelled. This client is an avid gardener and likes unique botanical compositions. I seek out an appropriate specimen, and then set it on a board, rearranging it until some pleasing rhythm is revealed.

Then I can employ one of my favourite mediums, the classic dip pen and black ink, usually on a heavy watercolour paper. This detailed work is an almost meditative experience, and I love the excitement of feeling the right course of the line first time. Obviously it isn’t always plain sailing and sometimes your attention will drift, or the intensity of the practice has you chewing your left hand off. Still, the discipline is something I still relish, and I’m glad that the output is well received.

By now I expected to be trudging through snow, charcoal and ink in hand with armfuls of chilly scenes to share. And yet, there is the small matter of climate change that now makes such expectations unreasonable. Thank you for following my Northern Progress these past months; I will have some more wintry offerings in the New Year. In the meantime I do hope that you too are fortunate enough to enjoy a Merry Christmas..


In Search of My Northern Soul ..7

Watercolours. I’ve avoided them since I fell in love with oil painting in my early teens. I didn’t like the planning involved, the lack of plastic physicality. The notion of the ‘insipid watercolour’ an easy and casual insult that inferred bland amateur ability and sensibilities. The territory of the suburban painter.


towards jedburgh from swinnie watercolour copy
Along the Drover Trail, Jedburgh

To master watercolour takes time, good training, and preferably both. I have never managed to invest in either. But it is good to face your demons. So I invested in a very small sennellier watercolour tin; thinking at the very least it would do for colour references when conditions didn’t allow me to complete a full oil sketch.


Surprisingly,  I have pulled out a few nice atmospheric pieces over the last few months. The soft winter light lends itself well to the medium.


northumberland coast watercolour copy
Tide Pool at Cheswick Beach

In search of my Northern Soul.. 6

I am not Ronny Barker

When I started on this project I had thought to begin in the land of my forefathers, with a look at recent social history, and create a visual record of the locality. Then after a month I would move on, again seeking common themes and constructing my narrative.

When I began to look into the wealth of social and economic history of this area I realised what a preposterous notion that was. It was the artistic equivalent of backpacking through Asia on a gap year; the work of a visual tourist.

Certainly this approach has appeal for some, and a seductive momentum of its own. Many creative projects have been arbitrarily curated in this time-limited fashion ‘a painting a day’, ‘around the world in 80 paintings’,  ‘a month in madrid’. Yet that isn’t my purpose. I want to get to know the character of my home country, its geology and geography, its biology and ecology, the sites and the society.

I firmly believe that as an outsider, generalised statements about communities lacks credibility. An artist offers you their own perspective on the world, and that comes with the bias of a different upbringing, history and heritage. The integrity of the work comes from acknowledging that unique subjective observation of the environment in which you work. So my focus has shifted to be what engages me about this country, not what I expected to find.


In Search of My Northern Soul.. 5

Inspired by my trip to the Netherlands with a wealth of visual information in my head, I was determined to get back out into the open air.

I have a bit of anxiety when it comes to winter plein air painting. Notorious amongst my friends for the numerous layers I need to take camping in the summer, I prepared as best I could: two pairs of glove liners, latex outers, wrist warmers, fingerless additions to the top of the three underlayers. For the feet, Two pairs of winter socks and one thin pair of silver socks recommended by the Raynaulds Society. My circulation is terrible!

I struck out for a sheltered spot in a copse of beech and fir. Starting fully 2015-11-20 10.40.26gloved I realised I had forgotten my palette knife (clearly I need to brush up on packing my school bag properly), which most definitely hampered my operating speed. I had to take off my gloves to work with a smaller brush, and within 10 minutes they were red raw. It may have been a bright day, but it was 4 degrees out there and the wind had a cunning instinct for seeking out its prey.

Beaten, I wove my way through the red-flagged shooting parties and resolved to try as do some other plein air painters like Tom Coates, finish the work in the studio, or in my case, the barn. I don’t usually adopt this practice because the change of pace alters the character of the work: you are not directly responding to the natural lighting conditions so you lose some dynamism. What is positively different is the dialogue with the material has the upper hand; this certainly shouldn’t be avoided – the balance and counterbalance of subject and process is the essential rhythm of a painters workflow.

So, another hour under cover and this was the result. Perhaps this approach has potential…

waterloo monument wm
The winning side, Ancrum

In search of My Northern Soul 4 – Meeting the Masters


Forewarned by friends with local knowledge, I suspected that my small painting boards wouldn’t be sufficient to capture the wide open skies, and extensive horizons that would surround me in this part of the world.

As the weather began to close in around my plein air practice, it was time to turn my attention to the Northern European tradition of landscape painting. You learn little from the colour reproductions of fine art books, other than composition. To really understand the dynamics of a work’s construction you have to see it directly.

So, I headed over to Amsterdam, first to the renovated Rijksmuseum primarily for Ruisdael and Cuyp – two painters referenced by Graham Crowley at ASC through Zeitgeist Arts educational development programme (a great resource for those unable to fund further formal education).


Sandy track in the dunes (detail) - Ruisdael c.1650-55
Sandy track in the dunes (detail) – Ruisdael c.1650-55

I was particularly struck by the treatment of clouds, how the bold use of white mixed into the blew threw the surrounding clouds into a modern-feeling relief .. in the 17th century!



Another insight visit was completed by surveying the 19th century Dutch Realist School landscapes. This detail of a work by Maris retains the influence of classical Dutch landscape, with added fluidity of brush stroke.


Wooden Bridge across a Canal at Rijswifk, Jacob Maris1878


Needless to say, I also sat in admiration of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, with the faultless colour harmonies, and pointillist treatment of the light falling on her face. And, well, all those Rembrandts… Who say’s we can’t learn anything from history?

2015-11-11 14.23.07


In Search of My Northern Soul 3

below carters
Below Carter Bar
carters barr north
North from Carter Bar

When I embarked on this journey  plein air painting was a starting point for my visual research, and one I felt I knew well.

Even with the freedom to roam, as there is here in Scotland, thanks to the Right of Trespass legislation, some views elude you simply because there isn’t an appropriate perch to rest your pochade on. Ken Bromley (other online art supplies shops are available!) stocks a nice screw mount shoe that fixes to the bottom of the box. Unfortunately I was without a tripod – my old Velbon had lost some crucial pieces, and the twist lock mechanisms on the leg extensions often gave you that sinking feeling.

Data ferreting around the internet I discovered that other plein air painters fortunately have some strong views on tripods. Thomas Jefferson Kitts was the adviser I opted for, and although I couldn’t afford a carbon fibre option,  I did get hold of a Manfrotto 190 – the newer XPROL version. It has been a liberation for my choice of viewpoint; my only problem now is the choice itself (20 paintings so far, and still searching).

In Search of My Northern Soul 2

Minimising the impact on the environment is as much part of my practice as it is for me as an individual. I try where possible to avoid the use of petrochemicals and synthetics, and sourcing organic /mineral-based materials locally.

2015-10-14 09.32.48
Homegrown in the Borders

When I found myself in need of the soft flow of natural carbon on cotton, and discovered I had only compressed charcoal in my armoury, I decided to make my own. It made sense to me to establish a more material connection with the landscape around me!

After cutting some branches from a willow in the garden of the house where I am staying, I bound them with wire and put the bundles in a tin, bound that with wire, punctured a hole in the top and dropped it into the embers of the fire. Once the thin plume of steam expired, it was evidently cooked…

In search of my Northern soul

in border territory
In border territory

As a contemporary artist you are rarely immune to the impact of current events. The challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to reflect those events in your work, and make comment on them.

A perennial interest that had guided my work over the last five years has been the interaction between place and identity. My paintings concerned themes of human relationships and environment. The quiet polemic undertone of some of these pieces was comprehensible in some, yet many I felt were dangerously close to becoming visual wallpaper. I realised that I did not feel a sufficient connection to, and understanding of, the changes affecting the places and peoples of my home country, to make work that felt meaningful.

Art is, for me, both the expression of the artist’s experiences  (as van Gogh put it, ‘Nature viewed through a temperament’), and the genuine attempt to communicate them. Drawing is the way I engage with my external world and make sense of it.  Once I stopped drawing every day, I realised it was time for change. 


No Taking Over
No Taking Over

So I decided to embark on a personal project that connected me more closely with my homeland and my heritage, and use the state of the nation as a productive force in my work. With enough paints and boards packed up in my car to last 3 months, I still don’t quite know how long this will take. But I just couldn’t wait for the spring to begin this adventure.

My hope is to find out how the spirit and dignity of this land has been shaped by social and economic change, past and present. I may be powerless to change the world, but I would like to think I can ask my own difficult questions of it along the way.



Website Competition Result

The winners are…..

First Prize: Heron Jones

Second Prize: Samantha Bainbridge

Thank you all for taking part. More competitions will be announced soon!

Imogen x

Paint Discoveries

Many months ago a photographer friend, Jamie Dunn asked if I might be interested in some old paint and brushes, which had belonged to his grandmother. They dated from the 1930s onwards and are objects of desire in themselves. Tiny little travel tubes of Winsor and Newton, ideal for plein air painting. Some had dried, and some were tight shut. But after some coaxing most offered up their contents.

Vintage paints

I was particularly interested in the Raw Sienna, as I once heard genuine supplies of clay could no longer be had for love or money. Sadly it didn’t look like not a usable tube – immersing the tube in unrefined linseed had the desired effect of softening the rich colour to a paste, but scraping the tube brought some lead deposit out in a darkening grit that contaminated the paint. Lesson learnt!

1930's Vs 2010's Yellow Ochre
1930’s Vs 2010’s Yellow Ochre



I moved on to the Yellow Ochre, which had been perfectly sealed. You see a stark comparison between the older colour – a lighter yellow and the Old Holland modern equivalent. The texture is fine but fluffy, whereas the new paint is buttery. I sometimes indulge in it to make up a little Paynes Gray, but there’s barely a few beans of the stuff.

In the haul along with a sharp Chrome Yellow, Windsor Violet and Lamp Black, I have a few half tubes of Alizarin Crimson to play with. For me, the jewel in the crown was a half tube of Genuine Vermillion. I covet it so much I usually hide it away and I haven’t actually used it since the self-portrait, Sacrifice, was completed at the start of this year. I have to accept I’ve hidden it far too well this time ☹

New Website Competition

To celebrate the launch of the new look website and to say thank you to all people that have supported me and my work so far i’m offering the chance to win a limited edition print of ‘Broken Flight‘.

40 x 30 cm oil on board, 2014
40 x 30 cm oil on board, 2014

The prize is 1/20 limited edition prints of this popular piece shown at the ‘Discerning Eye‘ exhibition 2014 . This is open to all. Anyone sharing (retweeting) and liking (favouriting) the competition posts or tweets from now until 12:00 (GMT) on Friday 24th July is in with a chance. The winner will be chosen at random (expect video evidence).

STOP PRESS: I’ve added a surprise runners-up prize. Prizes will be draw and sent on 27th July.

Facebook & Twitter

Massive thanks for your support.



Prize winning at Clifton Arts Club Open!

Soap with selectors
My winning piece ‘Soap’ with the selectors

I’ve had an eventful week with the Clifton Arts Club. It was curious to be a bystander at the selection panel, and as a handler presenting each piece would try to predict how each would fare before the Academicians.  With so many submissions it was an exhausting day for all concerned!  Fortunately I managed to be out of earshot when most of my own pieces were being examined, but it was quite nerve-racking nonetheless, especially when I saw ‘Soap’ in the “Prize Pen”.

Award winning works! :)
To the left of Ian Prices work


It was nice to see @IanPriceArt win the main event. We met last year at the Discerning Eye when both of us were delighted to have sold a work each at the preview. We subsequently discovered we were both living around Bristol, and had friends in common too – a small world indeed.


Vaults_2015-07-10 14.46.10
Behind the exhibition the vaults go back into the distance.



The hanging was a mix of technical challenges, which I’m familiar with, but I was paired with the practical and amiable ex-lighthouse keeper #BarryHawkins ( who does beautiful little oils, so the time passed quickly. Spent a fair bit of time gazing into the stunning surroundings.


Vaults_2015-07-10 16.25.07
The old vault doors






There was a great buzz at the Private View, and I was so grateful for the kind comments from members and supportive friends.  Fortunately I was only obliged to succumb to the spotlight briefly; as a species, painters prefer to be the observer, not the observed..

My work is on display until 25th July 2015 at Clifton Arts Club 107th Open, Colston Hall Vaults, Bristol. BS1 5AR.