Caroline Ross

Caroline Ross

I make art from materials that are ancient and do not cost the earth. Eschewing modern plastics, and foraging much of what I use, I illustrate books, such as Paul Kingsnorth\’s \’The Wake\’ and Dark Mountain 12 \’Sanctum\’ using oak gall ink, ochres, and natural inks. I also make larger scale paintings and drawings in a variety of media and settings, as well as teaching drawing, and immersive workshops on how to make these inks, brushes, quills, bark cases and much more. For me the preparation of the materials is as important as the finished piece itself, and is a from of devotional practice. This is a polarising and unpopular idea for the contemporary art world, but one that sits well in my life and practice: making buckskins, parchment, paints and pens from scratch, and then creating art from these, and sharing this with others, has become what I do, after many years keeping my visual art entirely private.

I live on the River Thames and find much of what I need nearby. I simmer oak galls with rusty nails from the boatyard to make ink. To make paints I crack an egg, whip the whites and wait for the liquid to settle underneath: mixed with the ground earths it makes glair, a wonderful paint, famously used in illuminated manuscripts. I boiled up buckskin offcuts to make glue for distemper paint. Early Britons and people everywhere in the world had this in common- their art didn\’t harm the earth. I won’t be using costly gold leaf or Afghan lapis lazuli just now, but green earths from the Lake District, yellow sinopia from Oxfordshire, red ochre from the Forest of Dean. Quills and brushes are made from feathers my neighbourhood waterfowl shed each Summer. This is not an elaborate re-enactment. I am somehow finding a way that I can make my marks with good heart in the wider context of a beleaguered earth, which I do not wish to harm further.

We think of art as environmentally neutral at worst, but most art materials are made to be disposable. It has only been this way since coal and oil based chemicals brought a whole new era of colour to the world of paint, and subsequently brought plastic materials to the artist. Before then, materials came from the earth and when no longer needed, returned to it. Paintings and sculptures persisted because of the correct and skilful use of these materials, in ways that made sure the art lasted. Ironically, more recently created art made from modern plastics, found materials and screens, are a curatorial nightmare. The materials may never fully biodegrade, but the art they constitute breaks down very quickly. Handled well, wood, gesso, oils, eggs and simple pigments have lasted over 500 years. Ochres painted onto well chosen cave walls have already lasted 50,000 years. My next project will use ochre on cave walls, but somehow to make this anew, keep it alive.

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Posted on

December 1, 2017

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