Collecting the Looking

A visit to the west coast of Scotland over 30 years ago has shaped and informed my thinking and practice in multiple ways. Someone that I used to see there every year came up to me once, and said “I see you are painting the same view”, but the point is that I wasn’t. I might be looking in the same place but every time there is something different to see. And I don’t paint the view, but the weather, and the sky changing, the colour, the wind, even sometimes the rain, and always the battle with those elements.

And, as I have visited the same place so often, I have found that I can look at it in different ways, so there is the bigger picture and the micro, the sea and the sky and the rocks and the beach, or the crack in the rocks, a stone on the beach, a piece of seaweed, the waves coming in over a period of time, the journey of walking around the village. It is as if the more I look the more I see, and I have built a personal language from what I have seen there, from the textures of rocks and stones, paths and tracks, colour of the sea and sky, and clouds reflected in a puddle. The greens made bright in the rain, and the western facing horizon made technicolour at sunset, or disappearing in the rain.

How does this translate to a life lived mainly in London? Well, the period in Scotland is usually pretty intense, and I bring back a lot of drawings and paintings that I use as reference for new prints. I make printing plates there, out in the landscape, and then have to process and print those, and respond to them, and make new ones. I fill numerous sketchbooks, and use the drawings from these to start off new work- not copying but using the drawings as ‘jumping off’ points. And I enjoy the juxtaposition of elements from London and Scotland, and the fact that you cannot always tell which is which. The looking is the same in both places, and it helps me find my place, wherever I am.

When my daughter was small I learned to draw in the gaps in the day, whilst sitting on a train, or on a car journey, I even balanced a sketchbook on top of her pushchair and drew as we walked around South London. I understood then that it was possible to make art out of almost nothing, and that it is about the making, and what I bring to the making that is important.

As an artist, I make sense of the world around me by looking at it. I am lucky- it is a gift to find interest in almost anything, to look at something, use it and look at it again, and again. The smallest things can reward a lot of looking, and my work now often references previous work, or even includes it, as in the Re-pool series of prints. I have fun with drawing, with using different materials, mixing things up, setting myself a challenge- to fill a sketchbook in a day, or by drawing only from the top of the page for example. I like responding quickly- to be forced to make quick decisions. I like drawing in the dark, when it is hard to see detail and one is forced to simplify and reduce to almost abstraction.

I am a figurative artist, but I want to pare back the looking so that the meaning and the essence of the looking are distilled into a ‘new landscape’. 

Printmaking is a major part of my practice, but it is not making prints that is important to me, rather using process to make new discoveries. And the possibilities of combination of techniques, mark making and difference feed my work. I work instinctively, and am always ready to make changes, or to start again- the work constantly evolves as I aim to capture a combination of memory, place and abstract composition. Techniques from print come back into drawing and painting and vice versa- I am always trying to blur the boundaries between them. I am uninterested in making ‘prints’ but use process as a means to an end. I often make single images, rejecting the idea of an edition. I work instinctively, respond to accident and chance, often working directly on the press to resolve an image. I work on the prints like paintings, embracing change. 

Themes in the work? I have always been interested in the  liminal, the line between sea and sky, land and sea, sky and land. I love the edge where a wave comes into the beach, the puddle dries up on a road, the tarmac repair is a different colour to the original. I am interested in contrasting textures, large and small, man-made and natural. I like to record surface through rubbings and drawing. I am a collector of things seen. I record topography. Colour becomes heightened by repetition and reinvented by continued looking.

I am interested in interior and exterior spaces, in man-made interventions in the landscape- lights shining through a curtain in the dark, car lights on a motorway, lines of a fence across a hill, gantries across the motorway. 

Michelle Avison 

Michelle Avison studied painting at the Slade School of Art in the late 1980’s, going on later to study Printmaking MA at Wimbledon School of Art. Michelle established SLAUGHTERHAUS Print Studio with her husband, artist Alex Le Fevre in 2010. She has work in public and private collections in the UK. She is an experienced artist educator and is also currently Head of Printmaking and Bookbinding at Morley College, London.