IT’S MAY DAY and I’m in Penwith, Cornwall. Bluebells and wild leek in the hedgerows. At the Newlyn School of Art where I’ve arrived for a four-day art course, tutor and artist Kate Walters has placed on the table a vase of honeysuckle, lilies and tulips from her Penzance garden. It’s been a long, hard winter she says – and a slow, cool spring. And it’s May Day, Freya’s day traditionally, a Celtic festival, and you’re in a Celtic landscape.
There’s immediately an attractive whiff of esoterics with our oil paint. It’s not a course that is billed as spiritual at all, and yet how can you approach this landscape without a nod to our ancestors and the sacred?
These four days will be about many things, she promises: walking in the Cornish landscape with sketch books – deep looking. The call of the wild – wild spaces and the spirit of place. Something happens when we go into wild places, Kate Walters explains – you can feel freer, bolder. It’s to do with the opening up of the self – and that may be reflected in your painting, your marks, the brushstrokes.
The Ed, blissed out and blown around (left) – Sketching on Zennor Hill (right)
At this point a ripple of excitement travels through the group. This is – immediately, you can feel it – going to be a different sort of art course; Kate Walters is a different sort of tutor. She’s done it before, of course, famously in her sellout Iona and Shetland sketchbooks: weeks of camping and monoprinting in the wilds of the Outer Hebrides fine-tuned her senses to the spirit of place. She hopes we may all meet that spirit of the landscape she found so inspirational.
Two days’ walking, sketching; two days’ studio work, printing.
And, Kate Walters says, we’ll be largely walking in silence.
The Ed at Zennor Quoit (left) – Line to Zennor Quoit (right)
I can’t honestly imagine a landscape that gives itself more to sketching and printing. Standing stones, tumuli, heather and gorse. Wide skies, wild seas. And that shining white light.
That first day we cover a lot – the mythical, beautiful stone circle at Boscawen-Un; the mysterious ancient healing spring and well of St Euny (magically surrounded by bluebells and lime ferns); Sancreed; the Iron Age settlement at Carn Euny near Brane – all in the far west of southern Cornwall, deep in rural Penwith. It is atmospheric, romantic. I thought I knew Cornwall well, but I hadn’t been to any of these places.
Oak gall ink and pastel sketch of Zennor Quoit
‘Magic…’ she says
Our Ed, still being blown away on Zennor Hill
To all these spots we walk, as Kate Walters has asked, in single file – one snake-like creature. And in silence, which proves to be a revelation. I am surprised how moving I find it. Kate has said that like indigenous peoples we will leave fewer traces, disturb the natural surroundings less, but it is more than that, it’s a silent meditation, no gabbing. We’ve done enough of that on the bus, all excited about a four-day creative adventure. In fact, I’ve always felt I wouldn’t do well in a Buddhist Vipassana meditation retreat, but this I can manage: the atmosphere is more charged, more purposeful. More sacred, I want to say. I certainly notice more – the fields, the twisting hawthorn trees, strange rock formations. Birdsong. Landscape. Skyscape – and clouds. The wildness, megaliths, tombs, dolmens, standing stones. It is all part of a Kernow imaginarium, a little part of the British isles that never feels remotely English. Kernow, as the Cornish call Cornwall – another country.
Looking towards Patrick Heron’s house from Zennor Hill
The wildness, megaliths, tombs, dolmens, standing stones. It is all part of a Kernow imaginarium, a little part of the British isles that never feels remotely English. Kernow – another country
By the next morning, the mood is higher; we’ve gone home, processed the first day. And we have also gelled as a group. Kate Walters has decided to bet all her money on one spot for this second day: Zennor. Even the curious name conjures a certain wildness, an unfamiliarity. Modern British artist Patrick Heron lived here in a house perched on the sloping moors. He planted a flamboyant garden full of azaleas and rhododendrons which spilled over through his imagination into his paintings. D. H. Lawrence resided at the local Tinners Arms. Barbara Hepworth would roam across the moorland, looking, responding. The infamous occultist and dark magician Aleister Crowley lived high on Zennor Hill. His cottage still exists, now derelict.
The derelict cottage where occultist and painter Aleister Crowley once lived
Could a landscape get any more nuanced than that?
In fact, our bus arrives at Zennor on the twisting B3306, practically parks in the drive of Patrick Heron’s large house, Eagles Nest, as the footpath uphill is opposite his drive. A rabble moment breaks out. Does the family still own it? Can we see into the garden? Oh, can we go in! No! Over the road, says Kate Walters. Fine artist – fine marshal.
To my left is the derelict house which was once lived in by that darkest magician Aleister Crowley. Should I go in? I can’t go in! I might not come out!
Directly opposite the house is the country our imaginations are about to enter. The Aborigines have a phrase for connecting with landscape – speaking with country: that sense of our ancestors in the landscape. It’s something I can’t quite put my rational finger on as we gaze uphill to where we will spend the day, but it’s settling in my heart: of gorse and heather, paths, cattle trails, old mine shafts – a whole history in a landscape. And what we’ve come for – Zennor Quoit on top of the snake-infested gorse and heather moorland, and opposite, on Zennor Hill, a granite and crystal hill, an extraordinary rock formation as majestic as it is quirky, full of natural stone chambers and hints of cosmological design.
Snake formation. One line.
View from Zennor Hill
Though the course is not billed as spiritual, I feel that without this sensitivity to place – to wild place – it would, frankly, be just another course among courses. And personally I love it. It raises the day to nuance, to meaning. We will all go back to our day jobs and our everyday lives at the end of the week. Let us grasp something beyond.
Patrick Heron behind us, Aleister Crowley in front – we aim for the Quoit, mindful of snakes and ironically imitating one in our single file. Here it is, the pull of the landscape, the imagination roving, thousands of years to contend with. It’s a walk, it’s a pilgrimage, it’s a painting course. For four days it’s beginning to feel like a family.
I fumble with my sketch book. The landscape is too large. My drawing talent – too small.
The Quoit itself is spectacular, a huge stone tomb with an enormous quixotic capstone. As our group settles to sketching, another silence falls – and a stillness. It’s romantic, there’s a vast mackerel sky, the views across to the ocean are amazing. At a distance, near Zennor Hill, I see the spooky, derelict cottage where Crowley once lived. I sweep my eyes across the mediaeval field system of the ancient Penwith Heritage Coast. I hear a cuckoo. We’ve crossed the drovers’ path to get here and will use it to get to the rocks on Zennor Hill. It feels remote. Maybe we are the only ones ever to discover it. In fact, that’s it, no one’s ever been here before, certainly no one’s ever drawn it.
Forgive me, the landscape is carrying me away.
Zennor Quoit (left) – The perfect white line of the Drover’s path, Zennor, finished print (right)
The sketches we make of the stones at the tomb are eclectic, personal, creative. I sketch in pencil, shadow in charcoal, fill in with darkly-purply oak-gall ink. Then highlight the organic shapes in lolly-orange pastel. The dark empty spaces of the chamber of the Quoit call me to something shadowy, deep, historical. The tug of my ancestors. Later, someone will movingly tell how this ancient tomb somehow reminded her of her dead father. Art and gathering the material for it exposes us all – if we let it (and shouldn’t we?).
Later someone will movingly tell how this ancient tomb somehow reminded them of their dead father. Art and gathering the material for it exposes us all – if we let it (and shouldn’t we?)
Sketching among megaliths, Zennor Hill
We walk the drovers’ path towards Zennor Hill, a fantastic view of the ocean and Heron’s house behind us. At the stones we all split up. Kate Walters tells us to explore, settle, find your own view. And now I am sitting on the granite rocks at Zennor Hill. They’re warm from the sun, despite a formidable wind blowing around me, but I feel transfixed by the Quoit in the distance with its lopsided capstone, and perhaps because we are beginning to think in lines, space and geometric form, I carve up the field and imagine I see a line between me and the standing stone. My imagination builds a relationship. A ley line for the soul. Around me: lizards, behemoth caterpillars. A hornet. Close by, the cuckoo again. To my left is the derelict house which was once lived in by that darkest magician, Aleister Crowley. Should I go in? I can’t go in! I might not come out! The magician’s house and all … But looking over the wild and haunting views I can see the attraction. A view for magic, that’s for sure.
Student sketch work begins the process to print
Student work from the walks
I had wished to come on this landscape course because I knew at some point my imagination would be on fire. I am – basically – a writer. But painting too is in my heart, as is all creative expression. I am entranced by mark-making which always takes on a magical quality. But even so, I wasn’t expecting a sort of paralysis to descend with this wild beauty. That silence that Kate Walters has fostered – essential.
Even so, I fumble with my sketchbook. The landscape is too large. My drawing talent – too small.
Draw how you’re feeling, Kate Walters has said. Seek the treasures within.
Some painters paint with chance. It can all be a big gamble
The alchemical process, sketch to print (left) – First prints (right)
I rub my hand over the granite and crystal boulders – their slabs of warmth – and imagine Barbara Hepworth setting off on them. I love Hepworth and although I have not associated her with this place, it is almost certain she walked and found inspiration here. These oh-so zoomorphic forms, the voids, the chambers, the circular erosions. Do I love Hepworth’s work because it reminds me of my ancestors? So now I see her in the smooth water holes in the rock, the gaps in the granite slabs. In the sullen empty spaces.
What is this, the imagination in action?
Barbara Hepworth merges with the aspiration of Aleister Crawley. I suddenly feel pinprick-small in the face of thousands of years of organic inspiration: the Iron Age, megaliths, shamans and artists. But then in an instant – I am as wide as the view, as warm as the rock, as high as the sky. Paint that, my heart says. That’s the truth. There’s beauty. Paint the cuckoo that serenades the rocks and you on them. Paint the invisible quoit-line that pulls at your soul. Paint that fairytale-fear of the magician’s house.
We return in the bus, mildly sunburned and slightly exhausted (but a good exhaustion, as someone says) over one of the most beautiful roads in Cornwall.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the studio tomorrow.
Newlyn Studio at the Art School
And so – Wednesday and Thursday. The studio. A neat Victorian school on a hill. Walls with high, old-fashioned windows. Desks with copious material laid out – rollers, brushes, paper, paints, oak-gall ink, sketchbooks, pastels, watercolour sticks, handmade gampi paper, Bible paper, watercolour paper … Newlyn School of Art is jolly generous. It vaguely resembles a scene in Masterbake.
The landscape behind us.
I love Newlyn Art School. The teachers are all real, living, breathing artists, smeared in oil paint as they dip in and out of studios dotted around the town and come to the school. They are imbued with the energy, generosity and wisdom of their artistic practice. And four days feels like four weeks or four minutes. Creativity has no timetable. We are all working at our pace on different scenes, with differing methods – some of us are sketching through tissue paper onto painted gampi, a simple and hugely effective form of monoprinting, producing details of piles of rocks and swirling trees. Some choose the printer, replicating their original sketch with oil paint (and a tiny bit of cooking oil, if you want a hot tip) onto plastic card, and then pressing it though the printer onto dampened watercolour paper, once, twice, forming a ghost-print.
We are far away from landscape now, deep in that mysterious process, the artist’s way.
Remember what you felt as you walked and sat at Zennor, Kate Walters reminds us: these special out-of-the-way places have their own integrity. Watch the quality of your mark-making. Stretch yourself. Don’t forget the child part of yourself that wants to play. And let it be alive. It is a living process – the more materials you have the more you it will generate. See where it wants to go.
The ecstasy of landscape and the agony of translation.
On Zennor Hill, finished print
One of our group has done a sketch of the drovers’ path at Zennor. It waits to become a print – it’s beautiful, the path a red line like a shamanic marker – archetypal almost, certainly resonant of walkers, waymakers, shepherds. From this sketch she will work again in oils, onto plastic card, then take the monoprint. I’m writing this in detail because simply this is artists’ practice, this is where the magic happens – or not. Our minds split between the process of transference: from sketch to oil to monoprint. How to do it? The line – drovers’ path – is inked in oil paint on a plastic card – it will go into the press and transfer onto wet watercolour paper. We are not in the wilds of Zennor anymore, we are minds trying to figure it out. The sketch – the red line snakes perfectly along the paper, we are back in snake formation, one creature. On the plastic card which will be printed it’s less obvious and there is more room for mis-translation … So how will it take in the press? Take it off, someone finally suggests. Scrape it, then go back into it once it has been pressed.
Do I love Hepworth because it reminds me of my ancestors? So now I see her in the smoothe water holes in the rock, the gaps in the granite slabs. In the sullen empty spaces.
The Wishing Tree, student work (left) – Back in the studio, considering our works (right)
Because that’s the thing. This mysterious unknowing, we can’t see the result, this chance, this is a guessing game. Printing, not like painting. Chance – Kate Walters has already said: some painters paint with chance. It can all be a big gamble.
The end-print is a revelation, and the artist doesn’t even touch it – the drovers’ path across Zennor has become a white serpent in a mass of yellow, up towards the rocks. Pure. It’s fabulous.
Student work, Dolmen
My own day is less successful, or at least technically less successful because, as I’ve said, while I love painting, I am not a skilled draughtsman. But I intuit landscape, I absorb shape – organic form – those rocks, if you like, reside within me. I get off on walking. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this course. And to render them I have fallen in love with the simple technique of roller-printing paint under tracing paper (over perspex) – I can control the organic shapes I make, mix and layer the colours, it suits my flamboyant, abstract style. The soft flat-white Japanese gampi paper is perfect too for this, and I try with varying levels of success to capture a sense of those organic forms, that mysterious folkish atmosphere. Megaliths, quoits, capstones and dolmens. Tors, tunnels, chambers. In bright pigments. By this time Kate Walters has abandoned silence and asserted her own studio practice of painting to music. It’s wonderfully invigorating. We are enveloped by Bach, Mendelssohn, Debussy. Then the Fugees, Georgie Fame.
Cuckoo at Zennor, finished print
I get more bold with the music. The several printing processes we try are giving themselves to slight abstraction. In the end I decide to print basic rock-shape formations – essence of megaliths, quoits – and then paint into them how I feel, how I felt on those rocks. And so I tune out of my fears and tune into my feelings, and paint abstractly – Cuckoo at Zennor. Then – Quoit Line. Bright marks around more stable forms, a dance of optimism on those organic shapes. And then – Heron, Hepworth and Crowley. A mad dance in paint, evolving my soul as I work with memory and feeling.
I don’t claim anything for any of these images, apart from that the whole mysterious process of painting itself strikes me as being as mysterious as the landscape that inspired it. I’m an outlier, not a pro, not even a clever technical hobbyist. And yet … There is a certain satisfaction about them, the colours, the weave and the spontaneous way I’ve danced around the original printed shapes. It ain’t high art – but it’s my art.
Kate Walters walks around the class, stops by my side, looks over what are now multiple papers of mark-making, brush work, pigment, paint, colour. Smiles.
I say, ‘Where does it all come from?’
She nods, smiles again. ‘Magic …’ she says, walks away, cool as a still-life cucumber.
For more about the next Newlyn School of Art Landscape and Monoprinting Course: https://www.newlynartschool.co.uk/courses/monoprinting-with-landscape
For more about Kate Walter’s painting: https://www.katewalters.co.uk/
JULY 2023 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK