I’m working on an’altered’ hardback sketchbook, which differs from any I’ve done before. One difference is that every page is illustrated, the backs of the pages as well as the fronts. Someone will be able to open the book anywhere and see a double page spread illustration with papercut work.
The other difference is that most of the book will be illustrated and cut – not just the central 12 pages. I stick two pages together between spreads for strength and because I like to papercut thick paper. I intend to make about five sections, each with a different scene. It’ll be like five books in one – and will be a lot of work!
So far I’ve done the first section – a night wood scene with badgers and owls beneath a crescent moon:
Sections to come? Perhaps, deer, foxes, nests… I’m not out of the woods yet!
Imagine it’s all quiet, except for the rustlings of woodmice and voles on the forest floor. Listen. In a shadowy tree top close by, sits a tawny owl hunched in his ruffle of feathers. Soon he’ll call to his mate. Be still and sense the forest; its blend of blue shadow, its lonesome shafts of bone moonlight outlining naked branches in shimmering white. Watch as a badger ventures out, rummaging in the leaf litter for earthworms beneath the tall oaks and beeches. Then a hind appears at the edge of the trees…
I’ve created an altered book inspired printed book, Deer in the Night Wood, because I was curious about whether it would work. There are no words in my book, the paragraph above just sums up the atmosphere of the night forest I had in my mind when I was drawing the inside cover.
The book is made of six sheets of card, including the cover, which is in colour.
My pen and ink illustrations are printed on both sides of the card in mirror image, so the scene is on the front and back of each page. The printer did his best to align them, but it’s very difficult to make the fit exact.
I papercut each sheet separately and folded them in half. Then I trimmed off the edges of each folded sheet – except for the cover – because the pages creep out beyond the edge of the cover and I didn’t adjust the size of them before printing. Finally I sewed the pages together with two stitches along the spine with a strong needle and embroidery thread.
Here is the finished thing, handsewn and slightly smaller than A5 in size:
I had a few of these books printed as gifts for my family. Each book may be printed, but the papercutting is by hand, which is quite a bit of work. I’m wondering whether they would sell? I’m not really sure. What do you think? Perhaps they are just meant as gifts, my gifts.
I’ve had my head down working on projects and not getting out as much as I’d have liked. It’s also been rather wet. Soon, I hope to have one or two new things to show that I’m working on. Meanwhile, I thought I’d put up a few of the altered book commissions that I’ve done this year.
Dragon in the Forest Altered Book
I was contacted and asked to make an altered book inspired by Terry Brooks’ magical kingdom. I haven’t read any Terry Brooks’ books, but I researched a bit and, along with a few guidelines from my customer, came up with the following:
There’s a dragon hiding behind the trees and a ruin of a house.
The Wintry Wood Altered Book
I was asked if I would make another Box of Delights altered book, this time based on the winter scenes in the story. It’s called The Wintry Wood. David Plaice gave me outlined drawings of what he wanted on each of the pages, apart from the last one which he said I could draw as I liked and make it a surprise. Below are three pages from the book…
… and a lovely video made by David Plaice of the book as a whole, with music by Ian Hughes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but The left hand pages of the book were inspired by my 2017 Romanian bear seeking excursions.
Deer in the Forest Altered Book
Finally, I worked on a pocket sized sketchbook and created Deer in the Forest. It wasn’t exactly a commission, until the first copy went missing in the US postal system and I was asked if I’d make it again:
I hope to share some more forest-related artwork soon.
What comes first the tree or the book? The tree of course – there would be no books without trees. However, having just finished an altered book, Beneath the Old Tree, I was inspired to find a really large, old, real tree. So, I decided to pay another visit to Kingley Vale, just north-west of Chichester in West Sussex, which has an ancient yew forest. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Each time I go there, I’m in awe of this wondrous, magical place.
In the forest it was hushed beneath the elephantine old yews. There were other people about – families – but their voices were muffled. Quiet and peaceful, the air was still, the forest floor was dappled by sunlight that streamed through the tangled spiralling branches.
Within this sanctuary are trees with enormous muscular girths and heavy limbs as smooth and hard as ivory; tusks descending to and disappearing into the dusty earth only to re-emerge nearby as offspring trees, creating a shambling, rhythmical cascade away from the main trunk. Each ancient yew stands within a fortress of these spidery, fluid limbs, each a powerful presence, deep, self-contained and stoic with a desire to reach out and touch the earth.
A bullfinch sounded in a hawthorn on the periphery of the grove, its sad note sung as though the bird was lost on the other side.
Some trees bear bark that is dry and peeling, others raw but smooth. As I ducked beneath each weighty limb, I felt the underside, polished by countless hands, rubbed to a shine by shoulders of both humans and deer.
Sitting within the hook of a limb, I felt safe and secure – anyone needing comfort should seek out a low tree to sit in.
Trunks fold into fissures and hollows, bulge with muscular growths. Some trees are whiskered by fresh, verdant shoots, others have openings like doorways or mouths frozen in silent song.
We came across a tree with its sides split, perhaps by lighning. Inside, the heartwood was deep arterial red. I picked up a square shard from the earth, a piece of the yew’s heart, to take home. Most of the trees bear wounds.
Some branches are algal green, elsewhere purplish pink, like the irridescent tip of a pheasant’s feather.
Little grows beneath a yew. They are both warm and inviting and brittle and repelling. A friend believes that here the yews talk to each other. She may be right.
After our amble in the groves, we emerged onto downland covered with chalkland flowers. Bees and butterflies busied around marjoram, birds foot trefoil and thyme-covered anthills in the bright sunshine. A roe deer leapt across the grassland and disappeared into the wooded hillside. Overhead a kite wheelled, it’s wings showing the gaps of its summer moult.
On returning home I wanted to create something in response to being in this forest. I decided to work in a looser, more carefree style and try out media I don’t usually use – chalk pastels and smudged penwork.
Below are some sketchbook drawings inspired by yews:
Perhaps it was fortunate that I missed the Hayward gallery exhibition Among the Trees because of the virus. I took this as an invitation to spend more time with real trees.
Back to my altered book. It’s of an old tree with a mass of roots within which hide a badger family. On deeper pages there is a squrrel, a fox and deer.
Last year a friend told me about The Sketchbook Project. This is a crowdfunded art library in Brooklyn of sketchbooks created by people from around the world. I love looking at other peoples’ sketchbooks, although I find making them myself quite a challenge. However, I was very interested in getting involved and decided to set myself the challenge.
To take part I had to pay a fee and was sent a small 5″ x 7″ sketchbook in a little string and washer envelope. I could do whatever I liked with the sketchbook as long as it didn’t end up being thicker than an inch or have loose bits that would fall off. I like forests – it’s possibly quite obvious if you’ve seen a lot of my art on this site, (at one time it was rivers, which I still feel very drawn to), so I decided to title my book, Forest and see what I could come up with.
I have pretty much finished the book now, so yesterday I ventured out to take some photos of it beside one of those giant beeches in Dead Beech Lane:
I’ve used acrylic paints, scrim – basically mixed media – pen and ink, watercolour pencil and photos. The book is a mixture of different styles, images and writing more than sketches.
I like the poem ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner, so I wrote it out and incorporated a papercut overlay of pen and ink trees. I also wanted to include a fold-out page. I drew a forest scene based on the tropical forest I encountered at Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in Cambodia some years ago, with myself as a tiny figure. On the back I’ve added quotes from a piece of my creative writing about looking for slow lorises in the forest (you can read the piece, Night Eyes, over in my writing pages here).
I did cheat a bit and stick in little drawings I’ve done in the past. Sometimes the white page can be a bit threatening :)
I’ve included my piece of writing, If You Are Lost You May Be Taken, that I wrote about in a previous blog post and finished the book with a mixed media collage of a ‘seed woman’ in the leaflitter.
I need to register my book and then send it to the US. I’ve been told to wait a bit for the library to reopen after lockdown.
On the inside cover of the sketchbook, I attached a small black and white image of myself communing with a pine tree in a Sussex wood. I’d hestitate to pose in the same way again :) (I was inspired a few years ago by Nikki Simpson’s Wild Women of the Woods project. I’m not exactly wild, but, sometimes, I like to think of myself as ‘of the woods’ – or, in this case, ‘of the Forest‘ :)
In a recent blog post I mentioned that I was creating three altered books for the exhibition, Bugs: Beauty and Danger. I wanted the third altered book to be a close up of an ivy-covered tree with moths, bees, wasps and other wildlife. I often draw ivy around trees as it’s ubiquitous in the woods and parks. I thought I’d start looking at it a bit more closely.
There is something dark about ivy and not just because it has dark, green leaves. It actively seeks out shade. It conceals secrets, covers long forgotten tombs, reclaims ruins silently.
Dark places like woodland floors and the feet of trees, crumbling walls and the damp Victorian corners of cottage gardens are its abode. There is something ancient about ivy, it carries a message from the past. It creeps over everything. I think of the cloven-hoofed god Pan. I think of ivy wreaths. I think of death and churchyards, tombs and the hands of ivy linking lovers beyond the grave.
The Ancient Greek goddess of youth, Hebe, was associated with ivy, serving nectar and ambrosia to the Olympian gods and goddesses. There was even a secret festival called Kissotomoi or Ivycutters in the ancient Greek city of Philos. Ivy represented the grapevine and was a symbol of Dionysus, god of wine, festivity, wild pleasure and vegetation.
Ivy has long been a symbol of fidelity and marriage and was made into a wreath and given to newly wedded couples. The Ancient Celts made evergreen plants symbols of hope, rebirth, protection and good fortune and brought them into houses around the winter solstice. Ivy was adopted by early Christians along with holly as symbols of prosperity and charity. Both feature in Christmas carols, ivy representing the female aspect, holly the male.
English ivy, Hedera helix, has two stages with different leaf shapes. The vegetative stage has large, lobed leaves and is found in all sorts of places, climbing up trees and buildings. It is negatively phototrophic, which means it is drawn to shade because this often means there is a structure that it can climb. The reproductive stage of the plant has oval, pointed leaves. From this part of the plant come clusters of greenish-yellow flowers that attract insects including the Pink-barred Sallow, Angle Shades, Green-brindled Crescent, Yellow-line Quaker and Lunar Underwing. Beautiful names, beautiful moths. There is also a mining bee associated with ivy, the Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae. The flowers are followed by blue-black berries enjoyed by blackbirds, thrushes, jays and other birds.
Apparently, hederagenin, a substance found in ivy leaves, has been shown to kill various tumour cells.
I went on a short walk from my house picking ivy leaves wherever I came across them. There seem to be quite a diverse range of leaf shapes:
In my altered book I have included moths, bees, wasps , a bees nest, a speckled wood butterfly and a treecreeper. I love treescreepers, they often join mixed tit flocks at this time of year. They feed on small insects and forage in the bark of trees. I was fascinated to learn on Winterwatch recently that treecreepers roost in bark crevices if there is a tree with suitably soft bark.
Here is my Ivy Tree altered book ready to be sent to Groundwork Gallery for the exhibition:
One can use ivy in basketry work. Anyone in the Lewes area wishing to make ivy woven bags – check out Native Hands workshop in November.
Indeed, insects are declining at an alarming rate, especially bees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies (see this article).
I have become increasingy interested in insects since I saw so many in France a couple of years ago. But, I was interested in them before that, especially butterflies, having done surveys at Castle Hill Nature Reserve and other places over the years. I have also liked seeing insects in the art of artist Irene Hardwicke Olivieri.
My small contribution to the exhibition is three altered books – Insect Meadow, The Butterfly Tree and one featuring a tree covered in ivy and the insects and other wildlife associated with ivy.
Here is Insect Meadow:
I decided to work in colour for the next couple of books because I think it’s more effective. For The Butterfly Tree I was inspired by Monarch butterflies. Some species of Monarch migrate between North America and Central Mexico, where they overwinter. Trees and vegetation become completely covered with orange wings – it’s a sight I would love to see. However, the bioreserve where they overwinter is under threat from illegal logging and the deterioration of the habitat. Recently two reserve workers were murdered for reasons that remain a mystery and there is fear in the region, both for the people and the fate of the butterfly. (See this interesting article.)
I decided to create this altered book a little differently from my others, by leaving the underlying pages as pages of text. I’ve also added butterfly wings that reach beyond the edges of the book, giving the impression that they’re bursting out:
I’ll write about the third altered book in my next blog post.
In my last post I mentioned I was working on an altered book commission based on the children’s book, The Box of Delights by John Masefield. I used to have the book as a child, I remember the paperback cover, but I don’t remember reading it.
I was asked whether I’d create an altered book based on a particular section of the story, when Kay, the boy character, discovers a box and opens it to reveal a magical woodland scene that he is then invited to enter:
..He pressed the tiny, golden rosebud and, at once, from within the box, there came a tiny crying of birds. As he listened he heard the stockdove brooding, the cuckoo tolling, blackbirds, thrushes, the nightingale singing. Then a far-away cock crowed thrice and the Box slowly opened. Inside he saw what he took to be a book, the leaves of which were all chased and worked with multitudinous figures, and the effect that it gave him was that of staring into an opening in a wood. It was lit from within and multitudinous, tiny things were shifting there. Then he saw that the things which were falling were the petals of may-blossom from giant hawthorn trees covered with flowers…..All the forest was full of life: all the birds were singing, insects were humming, dragonflies darting, butterflies wavering and settling… ‘It’s all alive and it’s full of summer. ..’
It’s a lovely passage. I hope I’ve captured the wildlife teeming in the wood and the characters, Kay and Herne the Hunter along with wolves, ducks, foxes and more.
Here is a video of me looking through the book to give a sense of the pages, although it is over-exposed in the winter sunshine:
Here are photos of some inside pages of the book:
I can dream of Spring and early summer as they’re sure to come. Already I notice the blackbirds and great tits busying themselves in the hedgerows, woods and gardens.
It’s autumn and my work desk has been busy – well, I have, sort of.
Among the feathers, nests and skulls I’ve found this year, I’ve been working on a new altered book, another Harry Potter commission. Knowing little about Harry Potter – OK I’ve seen a couple of HP films on long haul flights – it has been a challenge for me. However, I know there’s magic in the books and I like that.
Here is my finished Harry Potter book, featuring some of the characters along with Hogwarts School in the background:
Recently I sat with a friend telling her I was working on a Harry Potter altered book. She sighed and said how she would have liked to have read Harry Potter to her children as the books are full of magic and fantasy. When we were young there were the C.S.Lewis books and books like Lord of the Rings. I also remember Anne of Green Gables, The Little Prince, Tom’s Midnight Garden. There was a little bit of magic in them and we all need an element of mystery and the unreal in our lives sometimes.
There’s much said now about how we need stories and storytelling has made a resurgance in some quarters. As autumn progresses and the darkness descends layer upon layer, I find myself wanting to withdraw and bring in more of the imaginary into my life. More stories, myths, metaphors, images. That’s the thing about darkness, it brings out the imagination.
Below is a picture I did some time ago. I’ve included it to remind myself to welcome in the imagination, something I’ve missed of late.