The difficulty of simplicity, feat. collage

I recently wrote this post, explaining my struggle to reduce my landscape paintings to a level of abstraction I crave, and documented a little experiment I did in trying a different approach.

Well, this post is the sequel.  Same drill, different medium.  This time I’m using torn paper, or collage.

As with my previous foray using the humble but oh so beautiful pebble, I felt a little daft.  Actually, I now know this is because this sort of experimentation doesn’t bear fruit in an afternoon, in between “proper” painting and tea time.   I have a fabulous artist friend who explained that in art college, this sort of exploration would be done over a period of weeks, small scale, large scale, using various mediums to come up with various interpretations.

Whilst I wonder if art college and I would have ever got along (due to my impatience), my friend has a valid point, and one that I apply to my art practice in general, but somehow forgot during this process. I can see me revisiting this work again to explore the approach further.

So!  I have a soft furnishings catalogue that my husband thinks is over priced and is outraged you have to pay for it.  You know the one.  Well, that came in handy for this.  I was drawn to the sofas and soft furnishings section…it was the shapes of the sofas and the folds of blankets and quilts that drew me, as they already reminded me of landscapes just being there on the page without me having to rip them up!

Annoyingly, I didn’t take photographs of my collage layout, though I did stick a pretty bit of quilt in my sketchbook.  I found collage, and particularly the images I picked really worked.  Before I’d even sketched them, they already reminded me of the hills to the north of the vale I live in.  I actually enjoyed this.



Though from my notes I think I found the cutting out not such fun.  I should’ve got my son to do it, he’ll cut anything, the edges of the tablecloth, his pyjamas….

Here are the results:

Exploring abstract landscapes by Vicki Hutchins

This last one, I just wanted total freedom:

I think I like it


The main problem is this: it’s not inspiration I’m lacking.  It’s the ability to refine that inspiration to it’s barest element.  To deftly capture what my landscapes mean to me.  I’m not sure these experiments have helped with that.  What they have helped with though is helping me think about:

  • simplifying colour palettes
  • simpler form
  • doing postcard size studies more often.
  • understanding the exploration process and the benefits of doing this over a long period of time, scale etc

Easel snapshot

I’m going through an intense time of discovery and exploration with my art work at the moment.  It’s all I talk about (see here ).

As an emerging artist, I know I can sort of get away with swapping styles, playing around with different mediums and generally finding my way.  I suppose what I’m worried about is that I read an article that mentioned when you start selling your art work, you should really have a recognisable style.

I already sell my art work.  People like it and buy it. But I don’t want to appear scatter gun in my approach,  yet I need to go through this exploration.  And actually, I’m sure that being the sort of person I am, I’ll always want to try something new.

This is how my easel looked today.  Three canvases in varying states of abstraction and finish, painted in oils with the same palette. One of them I know I love, the other two the jury is out.

Not pretty enough for Instagram, but real life, peoples.  


Then I have four postcard size acrylics on water colour paper.  Again, they all share the same colour palette, but they vary in composition, and they were the result of an exploration I did (post coming soon on that).  I love pretty much all of them, and I loved doing them.

And neither of these sets of paintings are like my other work.

This perception I have, of “considered” exploration, is beginning to weigh me down a bit. I just don’t want to put my stake in the ground regarding style, and I’m not sure that I ever will.

My husband (I should listen to him more), said perhaps I should set myself an exploration project for the next three months.  Rather than trying everything in the hope that I find my “thing”, just focus on something and stick with it for a pre-determined length of time.  I do like this idea.  But what if I find it leads me down rabbit holes and a totally different direction again?  What if I never fully explore what I set out to?

Why am I struggling with this!  Arghghg!


Sunset on the Somerset Levels

Somerset Levels sketch in gouache & pastel by Vicki Hutchins

I had one of those perfect days recently, where you’ve only been out for the day but feel like you’ve had a holiday.

On the journey home across the Somerset Levels, there was the most amazing sunset.  I did my best to capture it in my sketchbook from the back of the car, scenery whizzing by.

What I couldn’t capture were the flocks of egrets majestically and slowly flapping their huge wings across the sky.  There were geese, swans, buzzards, sparrow hawks.  Even deer.  They must have had soggy feet.

The Levels are a haven for wildlife, and are an integral part of the Somerset countryside.  They do flood, as they have done for hundreds of years.  This flat huge expanse is hemmed in by the Mendip Hills to the north, and the Blackdowns and Quantocks to the south. The mist of early morning and dusk lingers longer here.   It’s a place of myth, legend, and times past.  It is beautiful.

The next morning, the memory of that place still imbibed me, so in pyjamas (when all the best painting happens), I quickly got down a sketch in gouache and pastel (see above).

Somerset Levels sketch - detail
Close up – love the texture of pastel and layers of gouache, yummy!

I do love this sketch, however it’s rather high key, whereas in reality, it was actual much darker, particularly the land.  It’s not often I paint the same painting more than once, but on this occasion I did a quick oil sketch on a piece of board I had that I though would be a good format.  It’s different, but I like it.

Somerset Levels oil sketchl by Vicki Hutchins

It’s cooler than I intended, but captures the light more accurately I think.

I don’t think I’m going to work this up into a final piece though.  Sometimes I like to make art just to journal my daily life.  I never was any good at keeping a diary, but I love keeping a visual reminder so that,although for the most part, and like most people, my life is ordinary – there are these little vistas of the extraordinary.

The road to Broadway

imageNo, not that Broadway.

Broadway is a beautiful village on the other side of the Blackdown Hills from where I live.  I especially love the drive there – very rural and unspoiled with fabulous views.

The trouble is, I spend a lot of time trying to look at the view and getting car sick instead!  I like to drive as slowly as possible so I can take it all in, to try and imprint the essence of what I see. Often I’ll pull over to take photographs.

The flaw in this method of information gathering is of course being a total nuisance to other road users. Actually, what would really work for me is a tractor….I’d be able to see over the hedgerows as well as drive slow.

The difficulty of simplicity, feat. the pebble

It is irritating to me that in some situations (usually of course, ones that don’t directly involve or affect me), I can immediately get to the nub of the thing, to distill whatever it is quite clearly in my own mind and to anyone else who’ll listen.

It’s an uncanny trait most of us possess, actually; to be able to know exactly  what we’d do if we were in your/their situation.  Getting out of our own way to have clarity for ourselves however, is something else entirely.

Abstraction and simplification with my art work is a constant rumination lately – I long to take what inspires and motivates me, and reduce it to it’s barest form…and then reconstruct in a way that is more personal to me, hinting at reality but full of feeling.

My current creative process

When I first started painting, I focused very much on painting from life.  This worked well with simple forms (like an apple), but when I took myself off plein air painting, I found I was often overwhelmed with what was in front of me, enslaved by the detail, even if I started out loose.

Out of this I developed a process of painting in the afternoons after my lunchtime walks, and I’d paint from my memory of that walk.  I’d take photos with my phone, so not large or great quality, and I use these back at home to establish composition and value, but that’s the extent of their use.  I found my paintings to be more colourful, looser expressions of my local landscape.

Though I’m mostly happy with this process – a process I now realise lots of other artists use, to avoid become overwhelmed and tight with detail – sometimes it’s still not loose enough for me.

Exploring approaches

So, I began to think what other ways are there that I could abstract my landscape work.  What other materials or objects could I use to construct a composition?  I came up with three (mainly because I had them round the house):

  • beach pebbles
  • collage from magazine cuttings
  • my photographs

I know this last one seems pointless  (given what I wrote earlier in the post), but I have a ton, and if I could learn better how to use them in an abstracted way, it might bring surprises.

In this post I’m exploring my idea with the humble but beautiful pebble

I gathered a pile of pebbles (usually they gather dust in my bathroom), some rough garden twine, and a view finder,  oh and a white envelope I had to hand as my “canvas” and started arranging them.  This is the best (yes really) of what I came up with:


The idea was, well, a few things.  One, I was trying to use the definite shapes of the pebbles to suggest something that might pass for a landscape, and that those shapes add interest, particularly to the foreground, two, squinting helps, as always, three, see how I used the twine to make a path! and four , it amused me that I was using something from the landscape to create a landscape.

I did in fact construct several compositions, but they’re really not noteworthy.  And…this is also the stage at which I began to feel a little bit foolish.  I wondered if this was a little too contrived.  After all, this wasn’t purely about enjoying a process as such – it was exploring a new way of getting to a slightly familiar place.  Or, perhaps I wasn’t really open to this concept as I thought.

I did see the exploration through though.  You can see in my sketchbook I have thumbnails of the different compositions I tried.  I thought actually the size of the pebbles too small, so I grouped them into larger shapes, outlined in blue pen, then re-drew them below.



You can see from those large shapes there is something vaguely landscape emerging from the thumbnails.  I couldn’t resist doing a couple of colour thumbnails at the bottom.    From my notes I seem quite pleased with how things are turning out!  Though I do question whether the approach felt authentic for me.

The thing about this process is that it isn’t, and I suppose can’t ever be, random and therefore abstract.  I arranged the pebbles and twine.  I had landscape in my head.  Perhaps it was always going to turn out like that.  So I’m undecided about the value of this approach, to me anyway.  I also think I need to be clearer in my mind the difference between abstract and simplicity, as I’ve realised I use both words interchangeably and they’re not the same thing at all!

The next part of the process was to do a few small size colour studies of the same composition.  Why I brought colour into it I don’t know – this was about simplifying landscape compositions.  At this point though, I was having a ton of fun…



I used acrylics for this (not my usual medium).  I used the same colours on each painting, aaaanndddd – I used not only a smaller brush to make lively marks, but it was a filbert!  And I usually use a one size flat throughout, so that was a little experimentation I really loved.

And at the end of it?

The main headline from this little experiment is – where’s the inspiration?  Arranging beach pebbles on the back of an envelope doesn’t inspire me as much as taking a walk then painting what I feel when I get home.  Only I can’t quite manage to paint what I feel.  Which is where this whole thing began.

I’m tempted to by pass the collage exploration and go straight to photographs, as I’ve learned from this that I prefer to feel an emotional connection with a place to paint….and yet, having said that….I really loved doing these little colour studies, and to me they are full of feeling and emotion.  Do I need to stand back?  Get out of my own way?  After all, feelings come from within don’t they?

Not too cool for school

For a while now I’ve really felt like I’m going round in circles with my landscape painting (I may have said this already, in which case I’m turning into my mother).

I wonder if my lack of formal art education and limited experience (I’ve only been painting for around 2 years) is really beginning to show when it comes to moving through blocks and getting to the next level in my work.

One of my problems is I still feel very much in the exploratory stage of landscape painting – I don’t want to put my stake in the ground just yet and fix on a style.  I know I’m not a realist painter.  Detail overwhelms me and I quickly lose interest, so painting every hair on a cat isn’t ever going to happen.  On the other hand I also struggle to really distill the essence of a landscape, to simplify it so it just hints at what it might actually be.

So I’m somewhere in the middle – painterly, impressionistic, expressive, veering in and out of these styles to varying degrees depending on how I feel about what I’m painting that day.

The other thing that’s tripping me up lately is colour.  I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true.  It’s not often I use local colour in my work, but I had sort of forgotten that what I used to do was start with a more localised colour palette, and then add some bling to it.  I’ve been in this phase lately of starting with the bling and getting in all sorts of muddles.

The other thing I’m always looking to improve on is composition.  My landscapes tend to be large scenes in the distance, with a lot of sky.  For the most part that’s what I like, but I also feel a need to explore life through my brushes from a smaller vista, closer up.

So, it’s back to basics for me:

Lake at Longrum
Blocking in and the first pass
These are my first rocks ever!


I still don’t know what I’m doing


Just after Christmas, I read a great book by Ian Roberts called Creative Authenticity.  I highly recommend it if you’re an arty farty type.

Reading it gave me such a sense of affirmation and renewed belief that my approach to creating work and my processes were authentic, to me at least.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that, being self taught, I actually congratulated myself on how far I’d come.  Well, you know how smugness pride comes before a fall and all that…

Fast forward to now.  Creating anything I’m satisfied with is a memory long gone it seems.  Actually, that’s not true – I love painting my abstracts, choosing the colours, the emotion, the mark making, tuning in to myself so that I can produce some un-named feeling that I didn’t realise existed till I saw it on the canvas.

The reason for this abrupt desertion of creativity, I’m sure  (it better bloody well be) is I simply haven’t been able to get out and about in the wet weather to get my landscape fix.  Also, I think I’ve got sloppy and I’m getting in a muddle with my colour schemes.  Which is funny as I’m quite pleased with the last two landscape paintings I’ve done, but feel I got there by luck rather than skill.

So, the only thing I know to do in this situation is spend some time with my books, and go over what it is I think I’ve forgotten.  Also, it’s been a long time since I used my pastels to paint, and I found in the past that pastel painting really helped with my oils. Plus – we’ve had sun for two days on the trot….which means this soggy boggy damp island can dry out a bit and we pale types can top up our vitamin D!

Untitled, 6 x 6, oil on paper