Thursday 31 May 2012

...mack - scratch - toffee - or "... trouble at Mill..."

...OR...'How helping out with the Hilgay School mural 2011 got me in a flap?...
Mark and Sarah visited my stall at the St Edmunds Christmas craft fair at Downham Market's town Hall. I hand coloured snow scenes onto a couple of my pen & ink Denver Mill cards for them, which they duly collected at the end of the day. 
They lived in Denver beneath the sails of the only working mill in Norfolk, and enquired whether I would draw their home for them - the appropriately named 'Mill Cottage'. 
It sounded good to me - 'Let me know when you're ready ' I replied. 
The call came - as it were - in August. At the site meeting we looked at the cottage from all four winds before agreeing the view. Their pets Mack, Scratch and Toffee were also to appear in the drawing. 
The medium would be pen & ink in full Winsor & Newton Watersurroundcolour! OK this is going to be good, no problem. 
My preferred working size is A3 (approx 17" x 12"). 
'Bigger would be better', they said. OK, A2 - twice up - is good for me. 
They showed me where the finished article would be hung, and no, it wasn't what they were looking for. 
'Not good for us, can you go bigger?' Well y'know, I think I can. I'd recently helped Hilgay School's Year 6 students paint a mural two metres square, so yeah, sure I'm sure I can go bigger... 
'What's the biggest you can go to?' - The biggest size the paper mill has. 
- 2' high by 3' wide - no problem.

Sarah and Mark's Mill Cottage, Denver - pen & ink and watercolour, and blood, sweat and tears

By the time Knots, my local timber shop, cut an over sized ply drawing board for me - the lighter the better - the soon to be all drawing, all sizeing watercolour paper had arrived.
Ready to roll!
I sat opposite Mill Cottage pencil in hand, facing a huge blank surface like some white monolith, Denver Mill itself at my back. Though with storm damaged north and south sails - the higher sail hanging over the lower sail - it was no longer a working windmill... 
The best thing to do with an empty surface is to make a mark on it.  
Once this is done the following strokes are easier to apply, and then before you know it you've imbued the flat paper with a third dimension. You can place things in the foreground, the middle ground and the background. Shapes can be overlapped and perspective can be achieved. 
Of course I wasn't able to do this until I'd scrapped my first attempt - too close to the subject - and pulled back for a broader view on a second blank piece of paper which allowed me to wholly include the apple tree to the left and the plum tree to the right. 
A couple of visits later I'd completed as much pencil drawing as was required at this point. Sarah informed that they had decided against including their two cats Scratch and Toffee, and Mack - their faithful dog in the picture. Normally I was happy to add the kitchen sink, but in this situation I was relieved.
It took me some time to come to grips with the inking stage. Despite being accustomed to going straight into previous (smaller) drawings directly with pen and ink and no pencil, I found myself somewhat intimidated by the size of this drawing - and me with just a little dip pen...
I set the drawing aside until I was ready to go. 
'Mill Cottage' - Denver - Pen & Ink

Some weeks later I brought 'Mill Cottage' out of the depths of my plan chest, took a deep breath, and started drawing the plum tree in ink - 'growing' upwards from the trunk to the highest leaf. Confidence renewed I worked from right to left - though always best to work from left to right to avoid the danger of smudging. 
I don't know how a clumsy guy like me has managed to produce a stack of black ink drawings without spilling more indelible Indian that I have. Still, best not to look an ink horse in the mouth.
I emailed Mark and Sarah a scan of the final inks and explained that the job was more challenging than expected, and apologized for the delay. They said this was not a problem and then said the worst thing - 
"No problem, whenever your ready is good for us". with an open deadline I promptly put the inked drawing back in the plan chest and got on with other work, while procrastinating over how to paint that big old 'Mill Cottage'.  
Some weeks later again, the answer dawned on me - build a better mouse trap, or in my case - buy a bigger brush! 
Working from photo reference again, I began to paint the preliminary colours which would become the foundation for additional layers to be applied, very slowly but surely. 
As I continued painting, the pen & ink drawing gradually emerged from it's black and white beginnings into a light, bright world of summer colour - first the old cottage with it's animated carrstone brick work and 21st century conservatory, followed by the leaves, shrubs and trees, weeping willow and crawling ivy. Finally fallen leaves, and fruit and flowers. 

'Mill Cottage' - First stage colours

Mark and Sarah were very pleased, and during our meeting we all agreed not to put in a significant sky, since there was an awful lot going on anyway. 
So I went back to the studio and put it away again... 
...and took it out again. 
Taking out my bigger brush and pot of cerulean blue, I began to lay down the first pale strokes of the sky. No features, no personality 'let it fade into the background' sky. As discussed. 
Only that's not quite what happened. 
Despite my good intentions, the brush seemed to know where it was going - and it was pretty much going wherever it wanted to go. 
So Mill Cottage had a sky after all. 
Which upon delivery of the finished article, we unanimously agreed was ideal and complemented the cottage and it's garden perfectly! 
As it happened, the Denver Mill was now entirely without sails - the remaining east and west sails had now also been removed. The mill stood there limbless in the rays of the setting sun.
Mark asked me if I would take on another large commission, I initially said probably not, but now that I know what to expect, all I can say is - no problem. 

Hilgay school contacted me the other day and asked if I were available to help the year 6 pupils paint this year's mural. Well, I've got eight students that are raring to go, and looking forward to supersizing their drawings. 
When can I start? 



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