surface matters

There are oodles of roadworks around at the minute – many re-patching the shattered pot-holes whose fillings crumble every winter…. The sign SURFACE DRESSING propped up on a local pavement made me smile and think of my own work – I couldn’t help doodling on the photo. Put at its simplest, my job is concerned with making decorative surfaces. In the last thirty days or so I’ve covered a lot of ground in matters of the how, what, where and why of applied pattern.

Hot on the heels of the launch of my book Hand Painted Textiles at the Fashion and Textile Museum (a wonderful evening, and thank you to Dennis for hosting and to all who came along to listen) came a decorative collage workshop – one of a regular series I run there. Preparing for these courses entails making individual boxes of paper scrips and scraps – cuttings, envelopes, tickets, postage stamps, wrappers and the like – a practice I began during the covid restrictions when each student had to have their own pure and personal kit including scalpels, cutting mats, scissors and glue, and there was absolutely no sharing or careless touching permitted. These days we can again use common resources, so my big pile of old magazines, wallpapers, cardboard and other sweepings also come along for the general rummage.

I usually paint some scumbled and marbled grounds for the students too, which make for nice backgrounds and colours for compositions. This course had ten busy participants, all snipping and sticking, folding and fabricating. Here’s some students’ work from earlier workshops incorporating pieces of the painted textured papers.

Next up were lampshades! Jules Haines has a business saving surplus home decorating fabrics and products from landfill. She also curates new collections made by individual artisan designers. She’s a great one for connections: thus she proposed a workshop morning to be led by me, inviting her ten new designers to paint lampshades donated by one supplier, using paint from another and for the decorated results to be silent-auctioned to raise money for a charity run by a third! Ambitious, but it worked beautifully, and we all met in a location in Sussex for a congenial morning’s painting; details of the auction are here .

However, as the lampshade surface was an unknown to me I needed to get busy beforehand painting trials – we certainly wanted the participants to be able to do their best on the day. It wasn’t an easy task, the cloth being somewhat resistant to my efforts, and I tried all sorts of techniques. In the end we painted the shades with a covering of No-Flow to make a manageable surface. I painted one for the auction too, see birdies below.

In between the lampshade experiments in my studio and another fabric-painting day there were several family and friends’ birthdays to consider. I rarely get commissions for actual paintings, but this year was an exception and I found myself wondering how to tackle a particularly wayward flop of tulips for one birthday, something blueish for a Chelsea supporter for another (those two celebrated on the same day!) and a rather late and therefore digital message for yet another. A gouache painting on paper, a folded paper card and an I-pad drawing, in that order.

The last was developed into several other colour iterations for two more March birthdays, and a second Chelsea-supporting grandson received a little blue foldy book thing in celebration of being 14. Another friend had a photo of my table with a pow-wow of painted bow-wows wishing her well! That’s the lot on birthdays for the mo!

The following week there was another full house at the fabric-painting one-day workshop at the museum and we had a whirlwind of a time making all manner of decorative discoveries: quite a lot can be achieved in just a few hours. Some participants come with a plan, some without, but everyone was happy to experiment with different techniques and colours. Here’s a leaf I painted on calico in a demo about stencils. Keep an eye on my events page for further courses and workshops.

On the first day of March we were busy with something very new and exciting, which I touched on in my last blog – photographing the hand block printed fabrics made in collaboration with Pukka Print. Two meters of each colourway had arrived from India the day before – 15 pieces in all, and we set about their portraits in a spacious but very chilly studio.

Here are Jools (Pukka) et moi standing in front of a group – one piece of each design; there are five patterns and three main colour stories in all – more about the launch later.

From wooden blocks on sturdy cotton to inks on silk – I was off next to West Dean to teach a long weekend of painting on that exciting and unpredictable surface, where the colours can so easily run hither and thither causing beautiful chaos. We spent time looking at different sorts of scarf designs and at various hand-painting methods. Then we practised techniques by painting small samples of colour blends, patterns and designs, learning about how to keep the colours more or less how and where we wanted them. And everyone went home happy with two colourful finished (almost) scarves – a silk square and a long silk chiffon.

Using salts on the wet surface gives this rather nice mottled effect when finished;

painting over a starch resist applied with a toothbrush can make an interesting texture:

Here I’m enjoying building up surfaces as I go, painting back in to give texture and dimension.

This was a small class so we had the opportunity to get to know each other and spend careful time experimenting. One of the great plusses of a workshop is having the opportunity to be with others sharing and exchanging ideas, and on a three-day residential course there’s time and space to let things develop at their own pace.

And then on from silks to clay, from Chichester to Oxford, and to a project which started way back in June 2019, with an enquiry from a primary school as to whether I’d be interested in suggesting a design scheme for the improvement of the school’s exterior walls using tiles. I was!

My design was accepted and I presented the plan to a whole school assembly – an exciting occasion. Calculations were made, research into resources for making and decorating the tiles began: each of the 400 children was to make and paint a tile which would fit into an overall design uniting the walls and reflecting the notion of community, every individual being connected and contributing to the whole. We called the project ‘Side by Side’. This is a diagram of the yellow side.

Everything stalled through covid, but In late 2021 the project was re-launched, and during 2022 we made progress with design details, templates, specifications, colours and processes. A few weeks ago I was beginning to wonder how things were going when the Art co-ordinator emailed to say that every child in the school had made a tile, and almost all were now painted, and what’s more would I come and paint one too? Amazing! So I went along and joined a small group of local residents including the vicar and his wife, and we sat at tiny tables and each painted and glazed a tile ready for firing. Here’s mine, and two painted by the children too. The true colours will be revealed when they come out of the kiln..

There’s still a lot to happen – the next steps include the firing, which in itself is a huge undertaking; and then the individual tiles need to be assembled as the scheme requires, and THEN the great in situ installation. We hope this will happen towards the end of the summer, but there isn’t yet a final date.

With the launch of the block prints during London Design Week at Chelsea Harbour came an invitation to join a panel discussion – we had an interesting topic, ‘Art into Design’, with the conversation deftly led by journalist Elfreda Pownall. The relationship between the disciplines is so interesting, and it was a pleasure to share ideas with Tabby Riley, a fabulously ingenious scenic set painter.

My first slide illustrated an intrinsic difference between the life of a work of art, in this case the tapestry Slit Red-Green by Gunta Stolzl, and that of a textile design commercially printed on fabric in repeat – our Bauhaus, famously derived from the tapestry. The former is rightly seen as a focus, unique and original, the latter is designed to be printed ad infinitum and experienced as an environment. Only a vandal would take a pair of scissors to the work of art, but a length of fabric, however distinguished, can merrily be cut up and sewn into… a pair of child’s dungarees and survive!

Introducing the new Sarah Campbell Designs for Pukka Print collection at Tissus d’Helene in the Design Centre at Chelsea Harbour was so very exciting, the highlight of the week. Happily the fabrics met with a lot of welcoming interest. Unlike many block prints currently in the market, these patterns are subtly constructed and the shapes interdependent; without the use of outlines the colours can really sing together on the cloth too. It’s been a real pleasure to work in a medium I’ve not explored before, and to push a little at the necessary boundaries of a more-or-less 8 inch wooden block. Both the printers and I had quite a lot of learning to do. This printing – every inch by hand, is a slow and very skilful process and the price reflects the value. I’m very proud of the result, and of what Jools and I have achieved together. You can see all the fabrics here in our collection lookbook.

I’ve just about come back down to earth after such a momentous month and can reduce speed a little, as the title advises. So now for the washing up – the kitchen made cheerful with my new teatowels

but hey, stop press! – here’s the newly published book, The Mighty Goddess, by Sally Pomme Clayton and illustrated by niece Sophie Herxheimer.

Thanks are due to Jools Cornell, James Balston, Adam Crudgington, Juana Lubian, Tiffany Ponsonby, and Becky Metcalfe for making a lot of possibles become actuals… photographs of the lampshade workshop by Mimi VP Photography.

11 thoughts on “surface matters

  1. The gouache painting sucks you headlong into summer. Sorry to miss the Fashion and Textile Museum evening. eddie

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