Limits to growth

I had intended to stay away from politics in this blog, but it has been hard to avoid here lately, with the Euro elections dominating the news. I even engaged in some political activism – stuck some posters on my windows and handed out leaflets in the town centre.

This morning two articles from the Guardian struck home – George Monbiot on the impossibility of perpetual growth and a report about the Governor of the Bank of England’s statement about the need for moral constraints of capitalism.

These are things which seem so simple and obvious – perpetual growth is impossible and undesirable. Suppose it were possible, suppose we lived in an infinitely replenishing universe where everyone could have more and more stuff, would we persist in wanting more and more stuff? Would we be getting infinitely better off?

I think not. My idea of a good life is to have just enough stuff to be comfortable and secure and thereby free to do the things that I value. More stuff than that is a burden and a hindrance – it gets in the way, it needs maintaining and protecting. NB, security is connected to that other buzzword, sustainability. As we don’t live in a world of infinite growth, sustainability matters, both in the natural environment and in our social relations. Living within your means is an old-fashioned idea but a powerful one.

But somehow we have set up our society so that more is not just better, but it is essential to keep the machine running. We have to produce more stuff, not because we (in the west at least) need more stuff, but because we need to create jobs. ‘Create jobs’ – what a weird concept – the job didn’t exist before, it didn’t need to be done, but it has been created to keep someone busy, to justify paying them so that they can earn money and spend it on more stuff, thereby creating more jobs… (isn’t there a joke about moving a hole in the ground from here to there and back again?). (And if you haven’t actually got the money, don’t worry – borrow it. Keep the currency flowing so that wheels of the financial markets can keep turning faster and faster and we can call it growth.)

If we are in the fortunate position of producing excess, why don’t we save it for the future? Why don’t we share out the work instead of chasing the idea of full-time jobs for everyone? Work less, use less, have more leisure to do more, to be more – more what? More thoughtful, more creative, more musical, more sociable, more active, more observant, more patient, more caring…

Here’s a little doodle from a while ago. Growth tends to be drawn as an upward curve, but it seems to me more like we are running down a steep hill, trying desperately to stay upright. I prefer the other image of growth.



This is not a coherent argument I’m afraid,* more a stream of consciousness, but I’d better stop now. Got to get some work done…


*If you want the coherent arguments, check out the Monbiot link above.


Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts


May Morning

After two sticky days of high humidity and torrential evening thunderstorms, the air feels fresher this morning and all that rain seems to have been immediately transformed into green lushness.




The hedgerow shelves are stacked with whites: the miniature bouquets of cow parsley are a greener white than the sweet-scented suds of haw blossom. Looking up, even the belated ash is coming into leaf.

And though the sun has been up for hours, a lamb is fast asleep beside the gate.




Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Friday was a good day

Friday was a good day. I was expecting to get responses about two things I applied to recently, and though I have plenty of experience of rationalising disappointment (‘What a relief – I didn’t really want it anyway – it probably would be a poisoned chalice’, etc. etc.), to avoid spending all day checking my email for possible rejections, I gave myself a day off from proofreading and went to the print studio.

drying prints
the day’s prints on the drying rack

Whenever I go there it feels a bit like going back in time, partly because the technologies are so old, and also because until last summer I hadn’t done any printmaking since my first year at art school (a long time ago). In the first term we had to choose whether to spend our Fridays printmaking or lettercutting in the stone yard. I chose printmaking, and I still have vivid memories of the many-windowed printroom with its massive presses and its fume cupboard over the acid bath, the black towel hanging on its hook in the corner.

It was (and still is) a light and orderly place, separate from the busy sculpture studios where anything went – clay, plaster, steel, paper, junk…. In the printroom we were initiated into a practice, shown some of the long-established tricks of the printmaker’s craft: filing the edges of the plate so that it would roll smoothly through the press without damaging the paper or the blankets, dabbing the ground on to the heated plate, using a feather to brush away the bubbles that formed on the plates while the acid did its work, lifting the dampened printing paper with little folds of card to keep it clean of finger marks. Everything had an air of long and careful use. And the thrill of turning the huge wheel of the press to roll the paper through and then lifting it off the plate to see how the image looked was addictive. The process has a slow rhythm to it, requiring focus and consistency, everything done in the right order, contributing to a sense of ritual, almost monastic, a timeless space dedicated to one activity.

The print studio I go to now is not so venerable, relatively recently set up in a newish building in the midst of an industrial estate, behind a tyre shop, above a signage company. But once you are in it the same kind of atmosphere prevails, the smell of turps and printing ink, the bundles of inky scrim used for inking up, and the presses waiting.

So, on Friday, I had two plates nearly ready to be etched and printed – I had been resisting the temptation all week (‘must get some work done first’). One is the largest plate I’ve worked on since art school and the other is a first attempt at a soft ground etching.

Last week, Bill, the experienced printmaker who runs the studio, demonstrated how to put on the soft ground, a waxy layer which protects the plate from the acid (or in this case, ferric nitrate). You can impress textures into the ground, or draw into it through tracing paper and the wax is pulled off when you take off the tracing paper. I had attempted the latter, tracing a quick life drawing. Where the ground comes away, the acid will bite the plate. It is the grooves and erosions created by the acid that hold the ink when you wipe it off the rest of the plate. Hard ground is like soft ground but harder (surprise, surprise), so you draw directly into it with sharp metal scribing tools, creating crisp, fine lines. I had already stopped out the backs of the plates (to prevent the ferric from eating them away) and, after a few dabs more stop-out on the edges, they went into the tray of brown ferric solution (no feathers this time as this etching reaction makes a solid rather than a gas – the plates have to go in facing down to let it drop off instead of face up to let the gas escape). Fifteen minutes or so – it looks ok, the exposed copper has gone a bit grey – clean off the ground and the stop-out and it’s ready to make a print…

It turned out the soft ground had only come off where I had pressed my hardest in the tracing so the print is pretty faint and minimal, but it’s a start. I may try an aquatint to add tone, or redraw it as I’ve still got the tracing to work from. The hard ground worked quite well though, so I’m looking forward to making an edition of sleeping whippets soon. (I have not yet worked out how you decide how many to print.)

Oh, and when I got home and checked my email, I had a ‘yes’ from one thing (a painting selected for a regional open exhibition, which is pleasing) and a ‘no’ from the other – which of course I really didn’t want to do anyway…

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Lucian Freud and animals

Looking again through my books on Lucian Freud, I think perhaps he liked animals more than humans. They seem to be treated with more respect and gentleness in his paintings (and in person – see the images of Freud with a fox or a horse or a falcon).

pencil drawing from Freud's Double Portrait
pencil drawing from Freud’s Double Portrait

Reading about his life, his lack of concern for social norms, his absolute commitment to what mattered to him, it seems Freud was a feral creature himself. Like a wild thing, whose days revolve around those few imperatives, eat, endure, procreate, in an eternal present, Freud pursued his basic needs, food, women, and most of all, painting, every day, without much thought of consequences or the future, it seems. So one wonders whether he saw these dogs and horses as kindred spirits, more comprehensible than the people he studied so assiduously.

Or perhaps it is not the painter’s own attitude that makes the difference. Perhaps he just paints what he sees, and what looks like a special respect for his animal subjects is only a recognition of their absolute self-containment, their lack of concern for his penetrating eye. There they sleep or stand, utterly indifferent to his observation and his easel.*

His human models, on the other hand, however familiar they become, surely cannot help but be aware of their situation, of their relationship to the artist, and be self-conscious in the simplest sense, knowing that they are seen, and will be seen by others, as part of his great body of work, his oeuvre.

Perhaps then, the difference that Freud’s paintings show us is not in his view of his subjects, but in theirs and ours. If there is any sense of an improper invasion, that is only possible because we humans have a special sensitivity to the gaze and judgement of others. The paintings affect us, the viewer, because we can empathise at once with the model and the painter, and feel that we are being seen and seeing intimately, maybe too intimately for comfort.

Freud painted himself too, of course, and in his unflinching self-portraits, I think we can see him as one of his own animals – unconcerned with questions of intimacy, getting on with what he does, paradoxically unself-conscious while concentrating all his attention on this object which is himself.



*Of course I cannot know this, but it seems to me that at least the dogs I know have no sense of embarrassment or privacy (which is why it is always faintly absurd when their people try to stop them from ‘being rude’ in their greetings and nosing inspections of each other).

‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’ (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations II, p. 223)


Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts


Last year, members of our art group were asked to contribute to an exhibition which was to provide a backdrop and conversation pieces for a film about people’s reactions to art. I used this as an excuse to spend some time looking hard at paintings by Lucian Freud.

I’m not sure what the responses were to the exhibition as I have not seen the resulting film, but I thought I’d recreate my small section of it here, as the drawings I made will otherwise languish in my plan chest, now that the exhibition is long past.


Six words:

Originality – self-expression – inspiration – homage – imitation – plagiarism

What’s the difference? Does it matter?


Four drawings:

Two are my charcoal copies of Lucian Freud paintings,

one is a copy of my own painting (original painted from life)

and one is drawn from life.

Which is which? Does it matter?



Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Wise Words on Drawing – Lynton Lamb

I just posted this in a comment on drawingowu and then decided I should repeat it here because it is so good. Not my words for a change, but a quotation from Preparation for Painting by Lynton Lamb, 1953:

 ‘It is inadvisable to lay down rules about drawing methods. They can be successfully broken, or most unsuccessfully observed. A drawing is an intimate piece of evidence of the mind’s working….However consciously we may acquire this skill, in execution we are probably as unconscious of it as we are of the modulation of our lips when we are whistling….Drawings are lines put round an idea…An artist’s achievement is sometimes greater than his [sic] intention; it is sometimes not his intention at all, but a by-product of it….he cannot avoid the deviations of human judgement. Between question and answer lies an incalculable area of search. So there is in all good drawing an element of discovery, a twist away from the expected, an aspect of truth that looks like distortion….This effort for accuracy is essential to all drawing irrespective of what one wishes to be accurate about….accuracy is not “detail” rather than “freedom”, or representation rather than invention. It is concentration rather than wool-gathering: saying what one means rather than not meaning what one says: it is trying to draw rather than not really trying at all.’

Thoughts after hearing Under Milk Wood

When I was young, a friend once told me she used to write poems, but she stopped when she heard Jackson Browne, because he had already said what she wanted to say, and better than she could. I hope she got over it, but I know what she meant, having just enjoyed a new performance of Under Milk Wood, all that melancholy and humour and sheer joy of words. What is there left to say for those of us less gifted? But it also makes you proud to be (even a little bit) Welsh.

What claim do I have to Welshness though, born and bred in Yorkshire? Well, my mother’s family (farmers and miners) came out of West Wales and she and my father grew up in the Valleys, in Pontypool and Bargoed, before they left for London and then the north. And she let us know that Wales was a better place, where dull mornings gave way to beautiful afternoons, instead of the other way round. Where people spoke properly and cared for learning, unlike those uncouth, ungrammatical Yorkshire folk I was picking up bad habits from. And some among my schoolmates let me know too, that I was not one of them – ‘you talk too posh’ (though when I left, southerners might equally say, ‘you’re obviously from Yorkshire’).

Every summer we would go to Wales, to the Lleyn peninsula – driving all day across country, towing our little white and blue caravan from east to west, over the sheepy, lark-singing moors and down again, to the sea. We passed the holiday camp – nearly there! – coming to Pwllheli – through the marina, where the rigging rings against the masts, to Gimlet Rock. The dark, hard-faceted boulders piled along the breakwater were perfect for small explorers, clambering in plastic shoes, smeared with black tar washed up by the sea.

We would visit my mother’s old school friend, ‘Auntie’ Ilid, in her big house under the hill, and drive with picnics – eating sun-warmed tomatoes like apples by the dunes – to the sea – to Hell’s Mouth, Whistling Sands, Aberdaron – or inland towards the mountains, past Criccieth, to Ffestiniog, Betws-y-Coed, or Beddgelert, to be reminded of the Mabinogion and its sad story of a loyal hound.

So now, when the Six Nations play, I remember those great teams of the seventies, watching in black and white with my father, who would join in the anthems with a light and wavering tenor, and I cheer for Wales and feel, for a time, like Shakespeare’s Hal, ‘I am Welsh you know.’

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

From sketch to print

Since last summer, when I can, I have been going to West Cumbria Print Studio (luckily for me only 10 minutes away!)  to make some etchings based on life drawings etc. from my sketchbooks. The drawings are all very quick ones done without time to think, so part of  the challenge is to keep that spontaneity in the prints. As you can tell from the mirroring, I am too lazy to reverse the drawings – I just copy them on to the plate.


Photo0943  Photo0978



Photo1503  Photo1516



383163_526191520760932_490968319_n  watts_fliss2



198847_539165472796870_783482672_n  Photo1517


Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts