A Geological Artist

Pebble tower



This article appeared on the Geological Society of London's website during Earth Sciences Week in October 2012. http://blog.geolsoc.org.uk/tag/earth-science-week/

The pictures sent back by the Mars rover Curiosity prompt not only amazement at the technological achievement, but awe as we look out through the lens at a world that we can compare to our own familiar planet. A celestial object, a rock in space, suddenly becomes a place, a landscape, with features so reminiscent of places we know on Earth.

For me as a landscape painter, the word “landscape” is a problem. For centuries, artists have painted views: picturesque valleys or sublime rocky peaks. The genre is so familiar that it's almost invisible as we pass over it looking for something more interesting. So a major challenge is to recover the freshness and impact of seeing the Earth's surface as if for the first time. I try to ignore what I know (or think I know) and see it not as a place, but as a physical object -- the Mars experience in reverse. I'm beginning to realise that to look in this way is, perhaps, what geologists have always done. To focus on the “object” rather than the “view” I usually select vertical faces – mountain or coastal cliffs – as subjects for painting, and eliminate sky from the image.

John Ruskin wanted everyone to learn to draw. Not so that they could make pictures, but so that they could see. Drawing and painting, for him, were tools for investigating nature. He saw them as integral to scientific enquiry -- a very direct way to observe and understand what was going on.

Our human scale conditions how we see things. We notice the beach, not the grains of sand. We see fields, not continents. But the microscope and space exploration have broadened our choice of perspective far beyond the everyday, enabling us to see similarities of form and pattern at hugely different scales. I enjoy these hints of underlying unity in nature, and try to express something of them in my work. Most of my paintings have no indication of scale for that reason.

Similarly, our lifespan limits our perception of processes. We see waves on the shore, but only occasionally in floods and landslides do we perceive the erosion of mountains; even less so the tectonic widening of the Atlantic at a rate of a few centimetres a year. Yet process and movement are no less real for being slow. As Jan Zalasievicz points out in his wonderful book “The Earth After Us”, nothing is permanent. A series of field-trips to the Yorkshire coast in 2011 brought this home to me. I could see exactly the same erosion and deposition processes here, frozen into the Jurassic rocks, as I'd seen happening in the sand channels of Morecambe Bay a few days earlier. The long, long pre-human history of the Earth suddenly felt more real.

I'm trying to express in my work this sense of restless, continual change. I like to experiment with oil, paint and ink, using gravity, tilt and flow rather like the processes that form the landscape itself. I'm a firm believer that we can learn by playing, whatever our age. This is very much in the spirit of Ruskin, who wrote to a friend “...we're making experiments on the glaciers, in the kitchen with jelly and cream and blanc-mange, and I got two quite terrific crevasses opened today...”.

Having recently visited the Columbia icefield in Alberta, I might just try that myself. As well as being analogues to geological processes, such models can also provide lively subjects for observational drawing and are a useful alternative to working on location. Although I do use photographs for reference, I find there needs to be something more in order to make a painting come to life.

Nearer to home, the coasts of England are an endlessly rich source of subjects, and of opportunities for investigating the potential of materials – like making towers of pebbles. I wonder if Curiosity will be building anything out of the Martian rocks?

Phil Entwistle, October 2012

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