Abstraction and reality in Upper Teesdale

Just before Christmas I wrote about a visit to Upper Teesdale to collect desmids (see “Hunting for desmids in Upper Teesdale”) and mentioned that I was working towards a painting.   That painting is now finished and is reproduced below.   The style of this painting is quite to the other pictures I’ve been working on recently, drawing on ideas I explored during the final year of my Fine Art degree.   I was interested, during this period, in exploring the boundaries between figurative and abstract art and found algae to be an ideal resource for this investigation.   To me, they are living organisms with defined parameters yet they are beyond the boundaries of most people’s sense of reality.   “Most people” included my tutors and this led to some challenging discussions about just how far I could alter the shapes and colours I was using.   They felt that I was too rigid and unwilling to push my artistic experiments too far. In many ways they were right but there were also times when I felt that they were asking me to do the phycological equivalent of drawing a cow with five legs.

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Upper Teesdale. 2015. 86 x 91 cm. Acrylic on canvas,

The picture shows five different desmids that I collected from Upper Teesdale in December.   To me, these organisms are as much a characteristic of the area as the more famous gentians (see “Blue skies and blue flowers in Upper Teesdale”) and to present them in an context that evokes abstract art emphasises the lack of familiarity that most of the visitors to this area has to these organisms.

The lower picture shows a close-up of some of the desmids in the picture, to show how the painting was built up as a series of washes of very dilute acrylic paint over a white ground, with the details of the desmid blocked out in stages using masking fluid. The result is a “negative” image of each of the desmids. The final stage of the painting was to use a syringe to add translucent trails of paint thinned with acrylic gloss medium to give a translucent effect that imparts some visual energy into the finished picture.

You can see more work on this general theme at http://www.martynkelly.co.uk/other_paintings.html.

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Upper Teesdale. Detail.

 

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Hunting for desmids in Upper Teesdale

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Cronkley Fell from near Widdybank Farm, December 2014

We had Upper Teesdale to ourselves on Saturday morning, most fellow-walkers having been deterred, perhaps, by the strong westerly winds.   They missed some spectacular lighting as the weak December sun briefly broke through the clouds to light the Pennine fells.   The open fire in the bar of the Langdon Beck Hotel, and the bowl of hot soup, were very welcome when we finally completed our regular 13 kilometre loop.

As ever, my eyes are forever adjusting between the grand panoramic landscapes of Upper Teesdale, and the small scale botanical wonders all around us. Today, my primary interest was the desmids that inhabit the blanket bog and I diverted off the boardwalks that mark the Pennine Way’s course along the Tees to squeeze the brown water from handfuls of Sphagnum moss into my sampling tubes. The peaty-brown water that I collect usually contains a diverse assemblage of desmids, which I’m collecting to form the basis of a new painting.

I wrote about the desmids from Upper Teesdale last year (see “More from Upper Teesdale”) but since then I have upgraded the camera on my microscope and also purchased focus stacking software (see “Now … with added depth of field …”) that makes a repeat visit worthwhile.   Many of the desmids I found were the same as those in my sample from March last year, though there were a couple of strangers and the long moon-shaped cells of Closterium striolatum did not fit neatly into a single field of view.   However, a quick scan of the slide revealed half a dozen abundant species and a few that were represented by just occasional specimens as well as plenty of diatoms, other green algae and protozoans.

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Squeezing Sphagnum to collect desmids in Upper Teesdale, December 2014.   The photo doesn’t really capture the reality of the 30 km/hour winds and associated wind-chill.

When I look at desmids, I’m way out of my comfort zone, but there is something about their symmetrical, often intricate outlines that is beguiling and makes me want to continue scanning the slide in search of more.   This particular sampling trip is the first step of the research for a new painting and, like diatoms, the desmids have a beauty that transcends the limits of objective science. That’s my agenda for this painting: to use the microscopic life of Upper Teesdale’s boggy pools as the counterpoint to the rugged, panoramic beauty of the landscape itself.   I could use pictures of desmids from the books I have on my shelves, but I like my pictures to have a direct link with a particular place and time. It is veracity that, perhaps, few will appreciate, but without this the end-product would just be a collection of abstract shapes.

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Upper Teesdale desmids. a. Netrium oblongum; b. Micrasterias oscitans (var. mucronata); c Eurastrum didelta; d. Desmidium cf. aptogonum; e. Cosmarium ralfsii.; f. Micrasterias truncata.   Scale bar: 50 micrometres (1/20th of a millimetre).