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Bridge numbers. I like bridge numbers. Bridges that cross canals and railways (and motorways for that matter) all have numbers. Names are good, but numbers give you a sense of where you are. On canals they are an essential navigation aid. But bridges over rivers don’t need numbers. The difference between things you go over as opposed to things you go under I guess. Still, I’m counting these bridges over the Tees. Cow Green Dam Wall isn’t technically a bridge, so Birkdale Bridge is no.2. It’s a litle way to no.3.

We left the river below Birkdale Bridge as it plummeted down Cauldron Snout. This cascade is more a series of cataracts over a 180m length – making this the longest waterfall in England. There’s a good clamber down the entire south side over the dolerite pillars of winsill so plenty of places to admire the power of the water as it plummets down a total of 60m. Even on relatively dry days, as the water is regulated at the dam it’s always an impressive sight.

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There used to be a little wooden footbridge across the falls – about halfway down.  This would have given an incredible view of the torrents below. Before the reservoir was built, the river ran round a long sweeping crescent picking up speed so by the time it reached the top of Cauldron Snout it was already wild and raring to go. The wooden bridge disappears from the maps by the 1940s and a track bridge appears about where the dam wall is today. But never both together. The amazing moving bridge. There’s more of these to come further downstream..

At the base of the falls, the river meets with Maise Beck – one of its larger tributaries at this end and corners beneath the cliffs of Falcon Clints. This next section along the shadow of Cronkley Fell is wide and flat. The river here is very wide given how young it still is. It’s very shallow but very fast. From here to the top of the next waterfall, High Force – about 6 miles away – it’s got 100m to fall so it’s on a bit of a sprint while it can. The landscape here is classic glacial pasture. big wide and relatively flat land with steeply rising fells beyond. Thousands of years ago this valley was scoured out by the receding ice flows. Long before that, these carboniferous rocks stretched across to the much older Lake District and formed a border with the still separate Scotland. It’s a very old landscape indeed.

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As the land flattens out, so the farms start to appear. First up on the left is Widdybank Farm. As remote hill farms go, this is particularly remote.Yet along the banks of the river the pasture area is flat and fertile. Great for cattle, but still too exposed and high up to grow anything meaningful.

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There are no bridges for miles, but the river is wide and shallow and during the summer months certainly fordable at any number of points.

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Further along on the north bank are the remains of a pencil mill. Here the sedimentary rocks were ground down and  pressed into moulds to make pencils. The mill opened in the mid 19th Century and produced pencils – know locally as ‘widdies’ until 1890.

The river winds and widens until near the far end of Cronkley Fell we find Cronkley Bridge. Bridge no.3 in my book. This is a simple steel girder span over two intermediate stone pillars with a wooden deck. It’s flat and utilitarian and is probably 1950s. The main feature is its length – about 40m. We won’t see another longer bridge for over 30miles. You would normally build a bridge at its narrowest point. It’s certainly the cheapest way to build one. I imagine, as the river is shallow and with a flat rocky bed, this would be an ideal fording point, but a bridge has been marked here on maps certainly from the mid 1800s.

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I had planned on following the river towards High Force about a mile downstream, but a loose and very vocal dog at one of the farms clearly had other ideas, so that bit is another for a revisit. Cronkley Bridge is on the Pennine Way so it’ll be a bit busier later in the year. Also, from March the wading birds return to nest on these high moors. Today it’s almost silent, but by mid April the air here is filled with the strange whoops and warbles of Curlew and Lapwings, the buzz of snipe and the cackle of grouse – over 3/4 of England’s native Back Grouse live in these barren hills of the North Pennines.

But that’s bridge no.3 done. The next four are all walking distance from where I live so familiar territory for a bit…

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Maybe it’s that new year thing when you start out with good intentions – bold ideas, long-term plans, fresh start or whatever, but I guess every new thing has to start somewhere, at sometime. It seems that the winter months are when I look ahead to the coming year and finally get to start working on new projects. There’s still some gaps in the overall view of the year, but from what’s already there I’m getting a feel for the overarching themes. While last year was more about textures and moments, this year looks like being one of spaces and voids. Strange how things find their own threads.

Last year I really got to know some of the river where I live. I spent large chunks of time watching it, filming it, photographing it, editing the results and creating the major piece of the year – ‘Waterfall‘. I’ll probably do a more in-depth post about that at some point, but for those new to the game, ‘Waterfall’ saw three white-washed field barns wrapped in slow-motion film footage of the three main waterfalls of the River Tees. Each barn became a visual cube of slow moving water in the night sky. It was big and awesome and probably the best thing I’d done in a long long time.

Since that piece I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with the river. I used to go down there almost every day, but the daily photographing and research has probably made me over familiar now and some of its magic is somehow lost. I kind of know how it does all its tricks now.

So I needed to find a way to re-engage with the river. There are new things I need to discover. I need to find another story in it.

Then last week I caught up with Andy Carters ‘270’ project on his Calling All Station YouTube channel. Over the next 52 weeks Andy  is aiming to visit all 270 stations on the London Underground. To make it more interesting he has to pass through the ticket barriers at least once at every station – either coming or going through them, not just passing through on a train. It’s this slowing down of the travel that makes you stop, look, think and examine the familiar. About 40 stations in (starting with the boring bits of the  Jubilee Line) and I’m already hooked. Each station is documented on his blog as he goes along too, creating a comprehensive gazetteer of architectural gems and subterranean secrets beneath the capital.

Inspired by his journey, I’ve decided on mine – to visit and cross* every crossing of the River Tees from source to sea.

Bridges are fascinating things. I’ve had my own experiences in constructing them. Essentially they are practical engineering – a way of traversing in this case water. Yet as purely man made structures in what is on this route, mostly open countryside, they have a very distinctive presence within the landscape to manage.

Today I made a start. The purist in me wanted to start at the source and work progressively downstream. However, it’s still very much winter and as the Tees starts just below the summit of Cross Fell – the highest peak on the Pennines – and very much buried under snow for the next few weeks I’ve decided to scrap that and not be precious about the order in which I visit the bridges.

My first crossing then wasn’t even a bridge. It was also one of the biggest structures on the river – the dam wall at Cow Green Reservoir.

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Between 1969 and 1971, a section of the Upper Tees was flooded to create the 2-mile long Cow Green Reservoir as a part of of a series of interventions to regulate the flow of water down the river for abstraction purposes. The 1/4 mile long concrete reinforced embankment holds back 40,000,000,000 litres of water (count those zeros!) while the entire river flow is regulated by sluices on the southern bank. So technically the River Tees flows beneath it, so the dam wall is a crossing.

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The reservoir sits in a natural basin of pasture land high in the North Pennines. The landscape here is a unique blend of very specific geology and rare botanical habitat. Widdybank Fell which sits along the Durham side of the water is home to the rare Blue Gentian  and the only place in the UK where alpine plants have survived since the last great ice age. The land here is fertile and remains of bronze age summer farms lie beneath the reservoir – themselves an indicator of how climate changes over time. Back then temperatures in these upper fells were around three degrees warmer. It might not sound much but the weather here is now too cold for most wading birds to breed on the reservoir. On a fairly bright day like today it felt relatively mild a few miles downstream, yet up here the shaded bays on the water are still iced over and pockets of snow lie in the heather.

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Today the reservoir sits in the Moorhouse National Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in the UK taking in the highest fells in the Pennine chain and the upper catchments of the River Tees.

The wall is an immense brutal slab of industrial infrastructure. Its scale and construction means it’s never going to blend in (whatever that means) and makes a bold statement within the landscape. Yet, the sparsity and relative bleakness of this part of the dale tolerates its monolithic brutality. The scale of the landscape seems to just swallow it up. As the river rushes quickly away from the wall thinly over bedrock, there is a greyness and roughness, that is almost alien in spirit and the concrete meets the bedrock as an ancient ancestor and the family resemblance is still there.

Within yards of the wall, the river passes beneath Birkdale Footbridge. This is the first of the bridges in County Durham and is still a border crossing between Durham and Cumbria. Built in 1966 – and just predating the dam wall – it’s made from a concrete span sitting on two reinforced stone pillars in the river. Like the dam, it’s a very utilitarian structure and supports a private access road and the Pennine way.

Downstream of the bridge the river disappears down a series of dramatic cataracts between basaltic columns of winsill. At a total of over 200ft, Cauldron Snout is one of the main waterfalls of the River Tees and shows how fast the water develops its wild character from the man-made sluices of the reservoir.

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So this is where my journey this year begins. I’ll back track when it’s warmer to find the source of the river and the only bridge beyond the reservoir, but I’m looking forward to discovering the journey of the water from the sluices as it cuts its way through the landscape towards the sea, and how people have built ways of traversing it.

It’s a long a winding story and I’m looking forward to discovering the stories and narratives of those crossing places. it’s a rich history and along the way I’m going to find Romans and Saxons, and JMW Turner and Lewis Carroll and railways and steel and plutonium. Lots of landscape and lots of engineering. And lots of walking.

 

*ok. so I won’t walk over the railway bridges,or motorway one and will probably give the pipe bridges a miss too

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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

Lumb Mill Viaduct

Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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Success. It’s a great concept, but what do you mean by success? Sure fast cars, big houses and pots of cash can be a fair indicator, but success can exist at all levels – like when your Yorkshire puddings rise evenly or when you put a piece of IKEA furniture together and you don’t have any pieces left over.

But what about art? When would you consider yourself a successful artist, or even how do you measure the success in an artwork? These are the kind of things you have to evaluate for funding reports and consultations. Stuff I don’t like doing and generally try to avoid, mostly because it’s full of questions like this.

Sure, last year’s PaperBridge in the Lake District seemed to be a success. It went up and stayed up. It even went down well with visitors attracting nearly 10 times what I’d anticipated. Pictures of it went around the world and it appeared on TV on four continents. That’s pretty successful isn’t it?

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‘PaperBridge’ in BBC Focus magazine

Well, if being popular with the general public is the measure of success then yes. But as a work of art, how do we measure success for that? Did it do all the things art needs to do? I’m not sure how we work that out. I’m quite sure it didn’t fail though. That’s a different thing.

One recent TV interview asked me about risks involved in putting up a bridge made of paper. In particular they wanted to know how sure I was that the one in China would take a car going over it. The honest answer to that was I wasn’t sure. It had never been done before at that scale so how would anyone know? In fact there was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work. It could so easily have failed and collapsed and trashed a £100k car. Sure we  took lots of precautions and did lots of complicated calculations. We even enrolled a world leading structural engineers to check it all over with the latest hi-tech computer modelling. But at the end of the day they had to admit there were too many unknowns involved in building big structures out of sheets of paper – a material not made for building bridges out of – to sign it off as safe. In short – no one knew for sure it was going to work.

On one level the risk-taking was part of the deal. That element of peril was part of the narrative. If it was easy it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. If it was easy someone else would have done it before, I’m sure.  Actually, as I’d built a bridge before I kind of knew how they behaved and was sure it’d be fine, so I probably over did the risk bit for dramatic effect – but I certainly didn’t tell the client.

What was important was that everyone involved was aware of the risk and was happy to take that risk with me.

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RangeRover on ‘PaperBridgeChina’. Suzhou, November 2015

There’s a real element of risk in all my projects. Someone once said to me – if you have a 100% success rate, you’re not taking enough risks. When you’re pushing at the boundaries of things, that’s where the excitement comes in and if you manage to pull it off then that’s where great things can happen.

In that respect, the opposite to risk and success is mediocrity. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing it safe. Taking the easy road. That’s where things get stuck or become so half baked they start to deteriorate into something much much worse.

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Mediocrity in all its splendour. This ad screen in Newcastle is sturdy, health and safety compliant, practical and meets all the planning regulations. What’s not to like? errr…. (image © James Perry via twitter)

Failure on the other hand isn’t so bad. Every now and then I have a project fail in me. More often then not it’s at such an early stage no one ever knows. I’ve lost track of the number of times projects I’ve been asked to get involved with have failed at the proposal stage. Some don’t even get that far. Mostly these are because the client doesn’t want to take a chance. Play it safe maybe. In which case, they’re just not the people I want to work with. Occasionally a project will get all the way to the final piece and then fail in spectacular style. That’s a different issue. I once had a high profile piece that was supposed to be up for 5 months, however it blew away after 5 days. Still, it went in if only for a short while, and even led to a chapter in a large international publication about just why it failed – the reasons were really interesting. I’m not sure the client saw it that way mind.

And then there’s the times that failures aren’t really failures. ‘Metropolis’ – the fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The first film with a final budget in the millions. It was only ever shown at one cinema before being deemed a flop by the studio. It was subsequently re-edited to a shorter story in an attempt to reclaim the costs.

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photo: Alex Stocker (1896 – 1962) – Ufa-Pavilion, Berlin. 1927

 

Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed. Very little of his orchestral music was performed at all during his lifetime, yet his ‘Unfinished’ symphony is now regarded as one of the greats of its time.

More recently, Anish Kapoor’s ‘Orbit’ became the victim of a playing it safe mentality with the producers and suffered from an incursion of mediocrity that has now extended to installing a helterskelter slide down it. I think time is yet to decide on that piece.

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‘Orbit’ by Anish Kapoor at the Olympic Park, London. 2012

If I’m being brutally honest, I think there are problems with most of my pieces. There’s always something that doesn’t go to plan or work out quite how I wanted it. However, in most cases these are things other people generally don’t notice. Or I make a feature of them. That line between success and failure is so fine. So delicate in fact it’s barely there. Or at least not so you’d notice.

 

post script.

Since writing this bog post (sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea) I’ve just stumbled across this wonderful book on failure by Erik Kessels. He does it so much better than me. Not sure why I bother sometimes…

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I’ve finally lost my marbles.

I’ve thought the same thing a number of times in the past. Every time I do something ambitious or occasionally reckless. But since I’ve still managed to get this far in life afterwards, they were probably false alarms. This time it’s for real. I know that because in a week’s time I start installing an artwork so vast in ts constituent parts that I have no idea even of the scale of it. For a couple of weeks I am creating an artwork based on the 7th Century Lindisfarne Gospels, in the very place they were originally written, using 30,000 jars of liquid colour.

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mock-up of the ‘Carpet’ installation

30,000.

I have no real idea how many that is – I’ve never counted something that big before. I’m clearly delusional.

Still, commit to doing I have and it all starts next week.

So how to capture the effect of the colours of the original illuminated manuscript and explore the impact they must have had back then. If the sheer volume of pieces wasn’t enough, my original idea was to use the exact colours the 7th century monks used – a little bit of dark ages authenticity in a contemporary artwork. I was really interested in how the colours were made, where they came from and why they were used, but it’s ended up with me looking at my own relationship with the different colours…

There’s something about the colour blue I have a problem with. It’s not that I don’t like it – it’s a useful colour after all, but there’s something awkward about it. I know where I am with red. I feel very comfortable using it, and in a strange sideways movement yellow is manageable too. But Blue I find tricky.

It’s got all these cultural connotations with it – sadness, lightness, distance – although even here the cultural stuff is confused – different cultures see blue in very different ways. In fact in most of the world blue doesn’t exist. Some places have very different words for light blue ad dark blue, but not a generic blue. In many others, blue and green are one and the same. So it seems I’m not the only one who has problems with blue…

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Sometimes I’m not sure which weather is worse for me – rain, snow or sunshine. I guess in a very English way I’m easily distracted by the weather, whatever the weather. Lately it’s been doing a lot of this: Living on top of a fell in the North Pennines, I don’t get much of that stuff in the best of years, so it seems silly to waste days like that sat at a desk or beavering away in the studio. Instead I’ve been out wandering as much as I can while the weather holds. taking the opportunity to further explore the landscape on my doorstep.

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It’s usually a colourful time of year out in the North Pennines with the spring flowers coming into bloom and the trees very verdant with their new leaves. A couple of years back I did a piece for a paper making client of mine down in the woods at the bottom of the fields here – near the secret waterfall.

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I think I made a couple of hundred of those paper boxes in all. I remember it took me ages to cut them out and fold them up, and there still didn’t seem to be enough, but the effect worked well. Particularly when the sun peeped out from behind the clouds and I got some dappled light on the ground.

This year, the bluebells have gone crazy. In fact all the spring flowers are far more voluminous than normal. It’s something to do with the colder than average winter and the late spring – a good four weeks later than normal here. I’m not sure the mechanics of increasing the flowers but it’s very noticeable.

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The other week, I ventured up to Widdy Bank Fell, overlooking Cow Green Reservoir in Teesdale in search of some very old plants. Spring Gentians are Alpine plants normally found on the higher slopes of the Alps and the Atlas mountains. Tiny, tiny delicate blue flowers which ony open up in the sunshine. Very beautiful and extremely blue. But also unique here in the UK.

Spring Gentian

Back at the end of the last ice age (well, still this one technically, but let’s not go there for now) Upper Teesdale, like most of the UK was covered in ice, the big glaciers carving out much of the landscape we see today. The climate of upper Teesdale was very much like the upper reaches of the Alps then and alpine plants thrived here. However, as the glaciers melted and the planet warmed up again, those Alpine plants survived on Widdy Bank Fell and are still there today. These spring gentians have been there for well over 20,000 years. These delicate blue flowers are mind-bogglingly ancient. Older even than the landscape. That’s nuts. But cool too.

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But back to the Lindisfarne Gospels.

It had long been presumed that the blue on the manuscripts was made with lapis pigment. There were certainly well established trade routes to Holy Island in the 7th century. At the time the only source for this precious colour was a single mine in Afghanistan. However, the most recent analysis of the colours suggests the blue isn’t mineral but rather organic.

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Detail of a ‘carpet page’ from the Lindisfarne Gospels

There are two primary sources of organic blue pigment. The first was from boiling up the mucus of whelks and steeping them in urine for a number of weeks. The resultant blues eventually gathered tend to be on the purple end of the spectrum although richer dark blue and indigo is possible. It’s certainly possible this was done on Holy Island. There’s no shortage of whelks on the shores.

The other likely source was using woad. It was certainly widely used at the time. There are records of Vikings using it to dye cloth at the time and the Roman records of the Picts painting themselves blue was almost certainly a woad product.

I’ve not been able to find a supplier of whelk-based indigo, but I did manage to get a pure woad watercolour paint to use in my designs on paper.

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woad blue

The other peculiar property of blue is that so much that we see as blue isn’t actually blue. The sky for instance isn’t really blue – it’s just the way light is refracted through the atmosphere.

The iridescent blue of birds and butterflies isn’t real either – again it’s a trick of refraction through clear cells.

It’s this property of blue which has complicated the blue for the installation. Having got a blue liquid that worked well as a mass, when I started testing it outside in the sunlight, strange things started to happen.

up against the light, the liquid is a good vibrant blue…

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however, in bright sunlight against the green grass, instead of just looking darker it starts to look distinctly purple and verging on red.

blue jar going purple

aargh!

The current solution (forgive the pun) is to mix a much diluted colour solution. Individually against the light it appears very light and watery. However, when viewed as a mass it becomes a much richer shade.

blue jars

Yes, I know it’s not the same hue as the woad pigment samples. THe idea of replicating the original colours just wasn’t working on a piece of this scale and within the landscape. It was too earthy and natural-looking, whereas for the piece to have the impact of colour – which is the whole point behind the piece – the colours all needed to be much richer.

I guess from this I’ve learnt a little more about how blue works and I’m beginning to see how it’s functioning both within the piece and the broader landscape. I think within the jars it’s taking on a more ecclesiastical quality which fits well with the piece. I’m beginning also to understand its unique properties in the way it interacts with light.

Somehow I don’t think this’ll be the last piece I play with blue.

but I hope it’s the last time I do something with 30,000 pieces. What was I thinking?!

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