Making Art in the Mountains and Instructions for Making Earth Paints

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The village of Ferreirola in the Alpujarras, Southern Spain

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In the mountains of the Sierra Nevada this summer, staying in the ancient Moorish white villages of the Alpujarras, I learned how to make natural earth paints from ochre found on the roadside.

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The area is rich in iron oxides, giving rise to a range of reds, browns and yellows: IMG_3953

Traditionally the ochre, mixed with lime, was used to colour interior walls, creating a cosy nest-like interior, as in the home of architect Donald Gray an authority on Alpujarran architecture:

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Ochre painted walls in the home of architect Donald Gray
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Ochre painted ceiling beams in the home of architect Donald Gray
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Ochre-covered fireplace at the home of architect Donald Gray

To make watercolour paints from earth pigments:

1. Remove soil from a patch of pigmented earth: IMG_3842 (2) IMG_3845

2. Add soil to water, mix and allow stones to settle: IMG_3754

3. Pour off and collect the water, which contains the pigment and leave this to settle – for 5-10 minutes, I was told, but I found it better to leave the jar undisturbed for an hour or more. The pigment will settle at the bottom:

4. Pour off as much of the water as possible and leave the pigment to dry but not completely. While there is still some moisture left in the pigment, add gum arabic solution as a binder – roughly the same volume of pigment as binder:

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5. Dilute as required or mix with watercolour or gouache.

In the mountains, with no art shops nearby, one becomes resourceful. I made pans for the paints from airdrying clay bought in the local stationery shop, partially fired them in the barbecue, sealed them inside with clear nail varnish before pouring in the paint and left the paints to dry completely so that I had a set of paints to travel with:

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Homemade matchbox earth paint set!
Homemade matchbox earth paint set!

I am still exploring the possibilities of these handmade paints. There is something deeply satisfying in making what you need, transforming simple naturally occurring matter into new materials to work with and make art. The following are some images from my sketchbook this summer, using the earth paints. (The blues and greens are gouache or watercolour):

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Finding Your Writer’s Voice through Storytelling

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These past two years while working on a novel I have been storytelling in the woods and blogging all about it on StoryHug.

It all started with a weekend course at The School of Storytelling, in a hut in the woods . Initially I was simply curious to know how to tell stories out loud. I wanted, if only temporarily, to be freed from the search for the perfect word, so integral and necessary to the pleasure of reading a written-down story – but I also wanted an antidote, to be able to reach for images, characters and their moods and interactions, to dwell more on the events of a story and simply speak it out from somewhere more bodily, more emotional. And like all writers I wanted my words to be heard and engaged with.

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The Mask – a story and art StoryHug Workshop at Grow Mayow Community Garden Project, Sydenham

Children are the perfect audience for such a mission – at every single StoryHug workshop there are always the little faces with glazed-over eyes and distant dreamy expression that let me know that the story emerging from me is moving on and being given a new home, that it is being woven into a unique and private framework of images, feelings, dreams, hopes, thinking and being transformed, owned. The story is our secret bond. For parents too, I think. I have made so many good friends through storytelling!

Vasilissa takes home fire from Baba Yaga's hut  (from the story of Vasilissa the Beautiful)
Vasilissa takes home fire from Baba Yaga’s hut (from the story of Vasilissa the Beautiful) image: Amanthi Harris

Storytelling can lead a writer into new and fabulous territory, like the forests of the wonder tales, rich with unyielding forms of trees, rocks, lakes too wide to travel across alone, paths full of wrong turns and unexpected encounters.

Spontaneous storytelling, where you make up a story with a few offered prompts: a main character, an object, another character (person, animal or magical creature) can reveal new possibilities for plots and provide playful practice for letting go of a plot’s hold on you – an unexpected suggestion from a listener can take you in new directions, teach you to stay open to possibility, to not fear changing a storyline for the overall good of your novel or short story.

Sometimes while working out the telling of a tale, one glimpses answers to private questions. An ancient story can be a mirror, a crystal ball in which to see a secret pain shared, resolved, appeased.

As you practice telling the story, sometimes you find yourself lingering on a certain plot point, an interaction or event that doesn’t seem to make sense, and you puzzle over it, working into the characters, their moods and intentions and you loosen the weave of the story at that specific point of weakness and draw in the yarn of your own experience to expand and strengthen and suddenly you know and you understand. You understand why (from your own perspective) the princess in The Goose Girl agrees to keep her demise a secret or why the two lovers in Jorinda and Joringel cry at the beautiful sunset, you see the strange power and freedom of Baba Yaga flying out over the forest at dawn – and you have new understanding, new comfort, and  – well, isn’t this what it’s all about for writers? – you have new material!

Baba Yaga riding away at dawn in her flying mortar (from Vasilissa the Beautiful)
Baba Yaga riding away at dawn in her flying mortar (from Vasilissa the Beautiful) image: Amanthi Harris

“The process of storytelling itself, through voice, gesture, and goodwill and through the fonts of wisdom it opens, evokes from deep within a healthy state of creative adventure.”

Nancy Mellon ‘Storytelling and The Art of Imagination’

Procrastination… and a little help from Tove Jansson

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Finally Jonna got busy. She built up her great unassailable barricade against work, against the agony of work. … she began shaping exquisite small objects of wood… she walked the shoreline gathering unusual kinds of driftwood, odd shapes that might give her an idea. She arranged it all on her workbench in symmetrical piles, smaller ones, larger ones, and every piece of sea-polished wood had its own special potential to keep her from making pictures.

From Catfishing in Fair Play by Tove Jansson

whittling and desk

Editing a novel too seems to bring out the most intricate distractions: Facebook, blogging, reading articles about… well, everything and then, discovered in my aimless wanderings around the flat, a short story about someone putting off working. But not just any story. Wonderful, thoughtful, deep, playful, exquisitely written….. at least I’m now back at my desk. Thank you Tove Jansson!

 “Your uncle liked making nets [said Jonna]; it was what he knew, it was calming and familiar… He was… at peace, doing work that was his and only his… He didn’t have goals anymore.”

“To hell with goals,” Mari said. “What I’m talking about is desire, about having to.”

“Having to what?”

“I think you know.”

“And then what? Those pictures… They drown and get lost among millions of other pictures. And most of them are completely unnecessary – and what’s more, pretentious.” Jonna added a little more quietly, “I mean other people’s. Most of them.”

The storm came nearer, a huge alien backdrop making its steady way across the water, never before seen in such splendour and maybe never to be repeated.

“Take care of the boat,” Jonna shouted, jumping ashore. She ran up to the cottage.

From Catfishing in Fair Play by Tove Jansson