time and sketchbook time

At the moment I’m juggling lots of different projects; one has been years (really!) in the making, another much quicker, straightforward and some more ‘surprise’ projects. They all have different requirements of my time, and in each week there may be a telephone call to a manufacturer to discuss things with, an email exchange between a client and myself to clarify details of a brief, or a call to a stylist / marketing team to plan a scheme for the future with, and the usual trade show sales team call! This all takes time, and different skills to manage.

A different skill altogether is to maintain a practice that, at the heart of it, seeks to challenge, engage and inspire the creative self that was the reason I set off in this direction at the start, twenty years ago. The sketchbook is the place I go back to, the safe place I can explore those ideas in, old and new, that keeps the journey going, the continuum that is my creative practice. Ideas do evolve over time, and the sketchbooks are testaments to the ongoing inquiry that may lend itself to something commercial in due course, but is not the reason I do the drawing in the first place.

In my role of design lecturer I regularly explain the uses of a sketchbook, the hows and whys a designer may approach the mental and physical task of working in a sketchbook. Retro-filling the pages that have post-its in saying ‘research’ needing to be completed the day before a hand-in lacks rigour and purpose, a scrap-book mentality is not necessarily the best use of printer credits unless you really do look and reflect on the relationship between your work and someone else’s. Dare I say it, I enjoy the task of working on a new white page, and see the potential, not the fear. I don’t often share pages of my sketchbooks, but here’s one page from this week in the studio, having gathered new ‘material’ at the weekend, furthering my ideas for my Grasslines print series…

I say let’s celebrate the sketchbook, the real one with paper pages that doesn’t require likes, favourites of retweets to be justified, the one you do for you. Why / how do you use your sketchbook?

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yellows

I’ve always enjoyed working with colour; choosing combinations, mixing inks and matching colour. I am interested in how we relate colour to brands, how colour suggests quality, market levels, football teams, trends, and this week in particular political parties. Sometimes people say they do not really like colour – but what they often really mean is that they don’t like strong and vibrant colours, but in my mind bright colours are no more important than the whites on white; equally powerful if used well, just not so extrovert.

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I like seeing the way an inky grey sky makes fields of corn glow golden, and how the crepuscular blue sings out before the night sky takes over. Relationships that colours have can bring connotations, evoke distant memories and create moods. I remember a bag of hand-me-down clothes was excitedly torn open by my twin sister and I, hoping for fabulous new items to wear – in the eighties, when what was actually presented was everything brown and purple – from the previous decade. So disappointing!

Getting the right colour isn’t about a broad brush of red, it’s about seeing the nuances. You’ve only got to see a sale-rail to see the buyer got the shade of mustard a bit too green, or the pink too candy, and not blush. Any colour can vary hugely, our personal perception of colour not only is affected by the technicalities of sight, but also our own relationships with colour, built on past experiences. It took me a while to wear navy, having had to endure it for school for several years.

A friend described my ‘black’ screen prints for the Barbican, and I had to explain it was actually dark grey – it makes a considerable difference to the final result, but if both examples are not shown side by side most people would be none the wiser that the designer made a conscious decision to make a grey look not quite a black.

So here’s some yellow, photographed in Norfolk a few weeks ago. Enjoy, what ever it means to you!

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drawing grass lines

I’ve written many times over the years on this blog about the themes that underpin my work, the approaches I take to develop new work, and the things that inspire me. Here I look again at the process of evolving ideas and visual language, to introduce my latest series of prints.

As I develop ideas, often in series of works on paper before any design solutions are considered, I explore the visual language of the subject through drawings, photography and printmaking. The aesthetic nature of the new work evolves and is tested in relation to compositions and rhythms. My knowledge of pattern design, in particular in relation to textiles, feeds this investigation. The motifs, the linking forms, the negative and positive shapes and the quality of line can suggest relationships with historical styles, international influence and contemporary trends. As a designer I use this knowledge to sometimes avoid, and sometimes align to this language, communicating a context far beyond the printed paper I create.

On a cycling and camping tour around Denmark back in 2004 we came across a small book shelf in the campsite shelter containing a range of books. I can’t read Danish. We picked out a few, judging them purely on the graphic design of the spine, and I found a science book of beautiful diagrams of plant structures. I have a photograph somewhere, but the impression those diagrams made on me does not require me to see that page again. I remember the look of those diagrams, and they have fed in to this collection many years from then.

Mid C20th pattern is also something I am interested in, and for this new body of work, particularly the development of stylised florals and diagrammatic interpretation of plants. Lucienne Day was particularly expert at creating designs in that manner, with simple black lines, herself inspired by Miro, Kandinsky and Klee. This is why it’s important to be aware of what has gone before. Not to imitate the past, but to take courage from previous developments in drawing, stylising and pattern making, so we don’t recreate the past, but so we push forward with our own journeys, liberated by not inventing the wheel. I was amused to discover the current exhibition at the brilliant Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester is Lucienne Day: A sense of Growth – it seemed uncanny!

My photograph collection, both in print and digital form, contains many pictures of reeds; Danish reeds, Norfolk reeds, anywhere else reeds. I also have many records of grasses, and have always been attracted to the structure of such plants. These are often the unloved weeds that may be irrelevant and overlooked by many, but I come back from walks with handfuls of lines, some with seed heads, some without, but always lines of grass, as if nature had fun drawing them. Different stems, leaves and weights of line, and some suggesting very distinct natural habitats. I’ve always been more interested in line quality than texture, and my work over the last two decades demonstrates that very clearly.

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So that was a long-winded way of saying that this new series of works has been a long time coming, but makes perfect sense to me. I didn’t set out to create drawings of grasses, in fact I started screen printing flowers, but this evolved as part of the create process that is play. Colour came and went too, so as not to detract from the lines. There are some similarities with my threads printed editions and I have had the prints next to each other today – I think they make an interesting dialogue. This is the journey of idea development, by mixing drawing, thinking, printing, reflecting, contextualising, and doing it all again. By the way, this bit of the creative process is one that is very difficult to teach design students, more so with less and less studio time, and a full to bursting curriculum, but knowing your own creative process is halfway to success in my world. Take risks (it’s not rocket science we say) and work at playing.

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I digress. These few prints are only the start of this series, I already have new work evolving, but other projects are jostling for my time in the studio, so for now, I introduce you to Grasslines… and now you know a bit about how they came to be.

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gardening spirit

As this is the start of National Gardening Week it seems appropriate that I reflect on how important gardening is to me. Growing up in a gardening family, with a self-sufficient attitude to growing vegetables I suppose it was inevitable that one day I’d have a garden of my own to tend. For years I’d visit mum and be walked around the garden having updates on the state of things, nodding but never knowing the names of things, but seeing the pleasure the process of gardening gives to her. Now I understand.

Here in Birmingham we have an allotment to grow the vegetables and fruit in, and we grow flowers in our garden. We have spent over a decade digging and harvesting plot 8; learning to respect weeds for their various ways of making their presence known – I still want to try weaving couch grass. The feeling of success when we pick the first strawberries of the year, or fill the rucksack with runner beans that can be filling the freezer for wintertime is certainly worth the hours of graft. Last weekend I picked over a kilo of purple sprouting, and we commented that the harvest would probably cost well over £10 in the shops, as organic produce – but with no plastic wrapping or air miles included. Of course our food tastes so much better too! Gardening spells out the seasons as we check for frosts, or pick the first fruits, and enjoy the harvest and flowers of each changing month. The beds of wallflowers make me so happy this time each year, signalling the excitement of the growing year getting underway.

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It was at the allotment plot that I first developed my pattern collection ‘Plot to Plate‘, launched in 2012. I had been drawing the allotment beds on the site, as well as National Trust kitchen gardens for a while, and a language of graphic pattern made from lino cuts evolved, firstly as limited edition prints, and secondly as motifs to explore repeat pattern with (for example: Plot to Plate VVV textile design – final image with the Auricula). The title design is slightly different in the fact that it was hand drawn, and is an over-sized dog tooth check featuring tools of growing, cooking and eating, such as garden rakes, spades, whisks, wooden spoons and cutlery as a visual narrative up the tea towel, celebrating the journey from plot to plate – available in Brassica green or Brassica purple. plottoplate_ttowels_katefarley150

This collection has evolved to incorporate more formal pattern compositions such as Parterre (below) and Hanbury, inspired by National Trust’s Hanbury Hall and Gardens in Worcestershire, featured on hand screen printed cushions and wallpaper, where I make links between pattern design for textiles and formal garden design.

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These days my design practice has moved away from the inspiration of the formal gardens but I continue to dig. Our potatoes are in the ground for this year and the greenhouse is working some magic. Gardening provides me with not only creative inspiration but also head-space – a highly valuable asset in today’s world. As a designer and an academic, juggling a young family too, things can be frantic and I’m often running for trains. Faced with two hours of hard clay to dig I’m actually very happy. I can focus on the job in hand while chatting to the friendly robins, making myself physically tired, seeing the result of the work, and at the same time having time to think and mull over some of the other stuff of life. There’s also the sense of community with other allotmenteers; we share the same weather and battles but also share the excess harvests. Every time we get to the point of questioning ourselves about the allotment and if we have time, I remember all that it does for me, how my hard work there actually keeps me well; gives me a sense of well-being I can’t imagine getting from anything else. I shall keep digging, and knowing, for so many reasons, why I do!  Happy National Gardening Week!

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whites in paint

Having enjoyed putting the red palette together I have made a more neutral one using the white end of the Farrow & Ball paint chart and a number of ‘finds’ I have in the studio, reminding me of happy times away from the city. The subtlety of the shades and hues of white are beautiful. The textures of the grasses and feathers work really well with the paint and paper qualities too.

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seeing red

My world is pretty colourful; on a daily basis I’m in contact with colourful textures, materials and surfaces from fashion, interior and architectural contexts. Not only do I work with hard and soft surfaces in my design practice, I also teach undergraduates to work with colour in relation to textile design. It’s important to see beyond the broad definition of colour by name and to think about the context of colour; the surface qualities in that colour, the effect the material has on colour, such as gloss, matt and opaque for example.

Last week I managed to update some colour charts in my studio resources and it made me think about how we tend to have particular favourites when it comes to colour. I certainly have a comfort zone in sections of the colour charts and other areas I’d have to be persuaded to go near. Commissions often include discussions with clients about the intended colours of products, and I enjoy the challenges of pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone – within reason! I have a different palette I’m happy to wear compared with what I’d live with, and I certainly dress in colour relating to the mood. I remember many years ago dressing in very colourful clothes only to receive a rejection for something that mattered. I felt gutted I’d dressed for the wrong outcome!

Here are some REDs… I love the border colours between red and orange.

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a fine line

Once again, and not a surprise, a trip back to my homeland of Norfolk this Christmas resulted in me taking many photos of the beautiful horizon lines, across fields, marshes, the broads and beach.  Stunning light resulted in ever-changing colours that really showed the landscape off at its best.

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