Monday, November 5, 2012

Painting Bebbanburg

A few weeks ago I started thinking about Bebbanburg. I began drawing maps of what I thought the fort might have looked like in Hild's time. But all I had was a mechanical pencil (not even mine; left behind by a friend), a Sharpie past its best, and two highlighters (turquoise and florescent orange). The results were less than appealing:

plan of Bebbanburg (this, like much the following, based on info from a nifty booklet published by the Bamburgh Research Project)
It looks like a hairy foot next to a piece of yarn. (If you really want to you can click on the image--on all of them--to enlarge it though I'm not sure I'd recommend it.)

So I started thinking about what I needed to make pretty pictures. The problem: I haven't made art since I was a pre-teen. Decades ago. But my birthday was coming up so I got someone to give me a cheap kids' all-purpose art set (ages 6 and up! 120 pieces! including no-stab plastic scissors!) and added a set of 24 chalk pastels, an enormous pad of newsprint, a small spiral-bound sketch book, and one charcoal pencil.

Despite the 120 pieces, it turns out that all I want to use are the paints (12 colours!) and the pastels. They're deliciously messy and imprecise, just like my current notions of Bebbanburg:
12 watercolours, 24 square chalk pastels, 1 pencil: all you need--plus a foam thing to smear the pastels about
Here, for your delectation and delight (uh huh), are my two very first efforts, both ah, impressionistic views of Bebbanburg. Let's all hope I improve because, yes, I will be tormenting you with this stuff periodically.

The first is paint, dabbed on with a sponge (the paint brush that came with the set was rubbish so I threw it away). I was going to eat lunch then play with my new purchases but I got halfway through my bowl of stew and couldn't resist. I swapped my spoon to my left hand, dipped a sponge in my water glass, flipped open the box and the sketch pad and just...began:
Bebbanburg from the south
I'm guessing it's hard to tell what I was aiming for, so I'll explain. Bebbanburg was built (as Bamburgh Castle is now) on an outcrop of volcanic rock towering ninety feet above the farmland (on the left of this picture) and sea (on the right). At high tide that narrow strip of beach would have disappeared, and the sea lapped at the rock. The fort was on the top, ringed by a box pallisade, a kind of double wooden fence. This picture was, for me, an attempt to get a sense of the fort's sheer isolation from and dominating position over the surroundings. It was almost impregnable.

But then I itched to see inside, so after a couple of beers I tried again, this time with the pastels:
bird's eye view of Bebbanburg from the north
I couldn't convey the height of the rock and the strength of the fortifications. And those dark smears on the right are meant to be shadow thrown by the rock. Ah, well. When it came to filling in details inside the pallisade, my visual brain failed. I know what should be there--rocky outcrops towards the south, and metal workshops (armourers, goldsmiths), a byre, a couple of towers--but I just went blank. Here's the bit of detail I did manage:
detail of pastel sketch of Bebbanburg
I imagine this is how it feels for non-writers who think, Ha, I'm going to write a story now! And then haven't the faintest idea how to begin. I thought I'd just able to, y'know, do it, without thinking. Wrong. Visual artists, my hat's off to you. (Also, sorry for making you flinch and possibly spoiling your lunch.)

So then I went back to dabbling in the paints with the sponge, this time trying to figure out how the rock with the fort on top might look from Lindisfarne:
Bebbanburg from Lindisfarne
I'd already used my two blues for the sea and, as I don't know how to mix them yet, I was sadly puzzled as to what to do for the sky. Clearly I have a long way to go as an artist. But, eh, I'm having enormous fun and making a fabulous mess...
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