Recently I was asked to write a guest blog for Polpier & Penpol, a luxury guest house overlooking Mevagissey harbour. They asked me to write about the South West Coast Path, which is visible from the windows of the accommodation, as it crosses the harbour before snaking along wooded cliffs and away. Hopefully it will inspire some of you to get your walking boots on, whistle for your dog, and set off on your own walking adventure!
Seven years ago, on a chilly autumn morning, I found myself catching my breath while looking down on the harbour at Mevagissey. Sniffing around my feet was my companion, a six-stone Rhodesian ridgeback dog called Jess. She and I had set off on foot from Minehead in Somerset 26 days earlier. In just under four weeks we’d hiked 361 miles, but we still had a long way to go. Ahead of us stretched another 270 miles to reach our destination, the end of the epic South West Coast Path.
The SWCP is one of the longest national trails in Britain, making its way across vast beaches and along exposed cliffs, through forests and over moors. With every mile there is the chance to see an array of wildlife, seals and dolphins, choughs and lizards, not to mention the many species of wild flowers. But for me the best thing is that the whole path is dog-friendly. It’s quite something to be able to set off with your four-legged chum on a ramble that could potentially go on for months. And that is exactly what Jess and I did.
Walking side by side for seven weeks brought us together in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. We shared the same struggles, we slept together, ate (enormous quantities of food) together and limped in sync at the end of the day. We revelled when the sun came out and shrunk into ourselves when it rained, squeezed together under my umbrella. I looked out for her and she made me feel safe. On more than one occasion, as a lone woman, miles from anywhere, I was grateful to have Jess nearby. Her calm demeanour helped to dampen my overactive imagination, particularly my worries about the threat of werewolves whenever we encountered fog.
At the end of a gruelling day Jess was the perfect drinking buddy, in that she didn’t drink, so cost me very little. However her presence, curled up in front of a crackling fire, or begging for pork scratchings from a fellow punter, was a great way to start a conversation. I lost count of the number of times I heard “your dog’s gorgeous, what is she?” I loved being able to tell people that ridgebacks were originally bred to hunt lions. Something about the dichotomy between her fearsome heritage and laid-back demeanour made people smile.
At the start of the trip I had worried over whether Jess would be allowed in the pubs along the way, but we were never turned away, in fact Jess was often shown to the cosiest spot, invariably in front of a fire. At those moments I was happy to tag along as her sidekick and reap the rewards of the best seat in the house.
We made the most of every mode of transport whilst on the coast path, from the steam train that raced alongside the River Dart, to buses and ferries and even a cliff railway at Babbacombe. Jess took each new vehicle in her stride and was soon leaping aboard ferries and jumping on and off buses like an 18 year old backpacker.
For all her poise, Jess did show her hunter’s instincts every now and then. One memorable time she ran full pelt towards the cliff edge after a herd of moth-eaten wild goats near Crackington Haven. Fortunately my panicked shout of “STAY!” stopped her in her tracks as the goats scarpered over a ridge. Another time, while walking through fields near Exmouth, she caught a young rabbit. Appalled, I screeched for her to “DROP IT!” and it bolted down the nearest hole, apparently unscathed. One afternoon, while I was sketching the fishing boats on the shingle shore at Budleigh Salterton, I heard an ominous crack and turned to see Jess treading on a crab. Luckily a nearby fisherman noticed the plight of the crustacean and pulled Jess off it before popping it back into a large blue bin.
Seven years on, I look back at walking the South West Coast Path with Jess as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. She is nine years old now and starting to go grey around her muzzle, and our walks are no longer measured in miles but minutes. Recently we’ve acquired a new addition to our pack, a miniature dachshund called Peanut who, despite her diminutive size, has boundless energy. While I’m looking forward to rediscovering the South West Coast Path with Pea, seeing it afresh through her eyes, I’ll never forget my 630-mile walk with Jess.
I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC Four last week called ‘The Forger Who Fooled The Nazis’. It told the unbelievable story of a Dutch artist called Han van Meegeren, who managed to fool the artistic establishment into authenticating a series of ‘missing’ Vermeer paintings that he had forged. For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the programme was when they showed his technique. This involved mixing Bakelite with oil paint to replicate the tough veneer of a very old painting, sourcing lapis lazuli and even baking the finished canvas in an oven.
The actual paintings were hideous, with none of the lightness of touch and subtlety of a true Vermeer, but he still managed to fool those in the know. After making millions selling the fakes to institutions and galleries, van Meegeren was eventually unmasked and served just one year in prison. After his death he became a folk hero in the Netherlands, celebrated for his audacious crime.
I’ve been recording my own process recently (no Bakelite involved) using time-lapse videos. Here are a series of images and a video, showing the different stages of one of my paintings. Once I’ve drawn out the image onto the canvas with a soft pencil I put a very thin wash of acrylic paint over the surface to fix the pencil and knock back the white gesso. Next, I block in the underpainting with acrylic paint. Using acrylic for the initial blocking-in means I don’t have to wait for it to dry over days, as I would if I used only oil paint.
And so to the best bit: adding all the details, tweaking the colours and refining the overall composition in oil. It sounds straightforward, and it is, sometimes, but more often than not a missing piece of the puzzle throws the whole process. It could be the composition, the colours, the tones, even my mood. For every painting that goes like clockwork there are three that end up facing the wall!
At least - unlike Van Meegeren - I don’t have the added worry of having to pop my finished canvases into a hot oven before persuading important-looking men with beards that my painting is a missing masterpiece by a 17th century Dutch artist.
I have a cooked lobster in my freezer that I use for reference when I’m doing a painting that has a lobster in it. Over the years he (or she) has starred in quite a few of my works, most recently a rock pool painting where he is intimidating a blenny. I love lobsters, I love eating them but mostly I love drawing them. They are an artist's dream: the claws, the beady eyes, the sweep of the antennae (with which they smell and feel their surroundings). When I’m painting a lobster I relish putting in the spots and spikes that cover the shell. Drawing a lobster is a challenge because of the intricate face (is that the right way to describe a lobster's visage?). There are all sorts of appendages and mouth parts as well as the antennae that force you to really look and study how it all works.
Every now and then, when I am rooting about in my freezer looking for something for supper I’ll come across the lobster, wrapped up tight in cling film, and get him out to draw. Each time he gets more whiffy, but he is holding up well and I’m sure he has a few more paintings in him yet.
Those of you that have read my blog over the years will know that September is my absolute favourite time of year. The first day of the month feels like a new beginning to me, a fresh start. One of my sisters explained that it was that back to school feeling that is so ingrained in us of all that brings on the thoughts of endless possibilities. I’m not so sure, I only remember feeling dread at the start of new term. Anyway, for whatever reason I am fired up and feeling really inspired as the leaves start to change colour and the nights draw in.
One of my latest paintings is a real departure from my usual coastal themes. Not only is the subject matter different but I’ve painted it in oils rather than my usual acrylic. Peanut and the Bull is an idea I’ve had for over a year. The bull is called Foggy and he is a familiar face on my morning dog walks. Although he is huge he has a calm, placid personality and I’ve grown very fond of him. I loved the idea of him and Peanut (my miniature sausage dog) looking at each other. I must say I am thrilled with how it has turned out and now I’m thinking of doing a series of the two of them.
Happy Spring everyone. I’m sorry for my long absence. I’ve been moving house, albeit only a few feet into my garden! It’s very odd to be able to look over my old house with its new occupants. I now have a brand new studio with a view over tree tops. When I open the door in the morning I’m hit by the smell of linseed oil and white spirit, an aroma that takes me back to my college years.
I’ve decided to return to my first love, oil paint. I grew up using oils but it’s been a long time since I’ve had to wash my brushes at the end of the day with copious amounts of soap and turps. That smell. It reminds me of my grandmother's studio, a proper studio, with rags and pots of brushes and drying paintings stacked against the wall. There is something magical about oil paint, all the history, the buttery feel of it, the shine on the canvas. I feel as if I’ve come home.
In other news, I’m having a show with my two sisters, Sophie and Bess, at the end of the month. It’s very exciting to be showing next to two such talented gals. The show is at The Mulberry Tree Gallery in Swanage, our home town. No doubt the weekend of the private view will include long walks, swims and the odd pint with old friends.
One more thing, I’ve spent the last year or so revising my first book A Brush with the Coast, I’ve made it into a smaller format, so easier to pop in a rucksack, and added more images and text. I'm absolutely thrilled with it. Hopefully it will be available to buy within the next month.
Happy summer to you all! What a fantastic few weeks it’s been. I must admit it’s difficult to work in the studio when it is so lovely outside but my husband and I (and the dogs of course) have been going for a swim most evenings. It’s such a great way to end the day and it cools off the dogs.
I have in fact been working really hard and as you will see there are lots of new things on my website. I have also finished four new paintings for The Mulberry Tree Gallery in Swanage, and I am currently working on another four for Fowey River Gallery.
I sold out of my book A Brush With The Coast a while ago, and now A Brush With Anglesey has also sold out. I’ve been wondering for a while if I should reprint A Brush With The Coast and after lots of emails and enquiries from Waterstones – as well as galleries – I have decided to do it. Now I’ve made the decision I am very excited about it. I am taking the opportunity to add more images and tweak the writing. Also I’m going to make it smaller (the same as the Anglesey book) so it’s easier to handle. It won’t be ready until Christmas but I’m sure it will be worth the wait!
I hope you all like the new work.
Happy end of April to you all. I must apologise for my lack of blogs recently but I do have a good excuse: just before Christmas I added one more dog to my collection in the form of a tiny, brown dachshund. Shortly after her arrival I gave up trying to work and instead spent the next two months immersed in puppyhood. I have since returned to my studio and Peanut, for that is her name, has slotted into my routine and sleeps most of the afternoon, either on the table next to my easel or at my feet.
Now that things have settled down I am thrilled to say that I will shortly have some brand new work available on my website. There will be originals, a new series of limited edition prints and perhaps an exclusive collection of cards. I do have one or two other ideas in mind but I will leave these as a surprise. As soon as everything is ready I will let you know via email (if you’ve signed up for my mailing list). As you can appreciate all this is taking time, and I hope you will bare with me for another month or so.
I’m off to Italy in May with two of my sisters, and I have a feeling it will be very inspiring. I’ll take my sketchbook and watercolours and hopefully get some sun-soaked paintings on the website.
If you are interested in what I am up to it’s worth following me on Instagram (sashamayharding) all my new work gets an airing there as well as lots of photos of my dogs!
Warm wishes, Sash
Happy Christmas everyone! With a week to go I am preparing to stop work and plunge into the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately, the painting I'm working on is proving difficult to leave; it is at a tricky stage and is not quite right, but I don’t know what I need to do to resolve it. I know I should turn it to the wall and forget about it for a while, but instead I keep picking at it like a scab! Is it the colours? The composition? The tones? I DON’T KNOW.
Sometimes painting is like a puzzle and one elusive thing will pull it all together, but sometimes it is a lost cause and best painted over. I am at the stage where I am not sure if I should battle on or admit defeat. Psychologically I need it to work, because it is the first of 35 paintings for an exhibition in the summer; the first painting often sets the tone for the whole show and (I like to think) if I can get one cracker under my belt the rest will follow without too much of a struggle. One more day and then I will leave it until after Christmas (maybe three days of overeating and drinking will trigger some sort of inspiration)...
I went to Truro last week to buy a few canvases, and while I was in my local art shop the owner (who I'd never met) approached me and asked if I could do her a favour. Intrigued, I replied of course and she asked me if I would judge a children's painting competion! I jumped at the chance, and there and then she led me upstairs to a room with a table festooned with children's paintings of local places.
It took me right back to my youth when I would jump at the chance to enter any painting competition. I even came runner up in a Blue Peter competition to paint a dinosaur, and my grandmother took me up to London to see it being hung in the Natural History Museum.
I chose my first second and third, not so much for the talent but for the boldness and quirkyness. And the lesson I took from this experience was to remember what first fired me up about painting. When I was young I was passionate and very serious about my art. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of that pure thrill of painting, especially when there are deadlines or too much pressure. Seeing those paintings so full of life and so unselfconscious in their use of colour and wonky perspective made my day.
So, another Christmas is over and a New Year has arrived. I love the way every new year feels like a fresh start, like anything is possible.
I am fully in exhibition mode right now and – as is often the way – I have been struggling to get off the starting blocks. Things are starting to gel together now though, and I'm really pleased with the paintings I've done so far. My mantra is definitely quality over quantity so I'm taking my time and lavishing all my attention on each piece. It helps that the weather is so awful - I'd rather be in my cosy studio watching the rain than out in it.
The manuscript for the book is coming on well and I have reached Exmouth - today I will be writing about my favourite stretch of the whole path which was Exmouth to Seaton. I try to write for an hour or two every day but it can feel a bit like being back at school and doing homework, so sometimes I need to force myself to do it. A glass of wine or two certainly helps!
Here are a few details from my recent paintings...