Exercise: Squaring up


Bottle kilns at the pottery works in Stoke on Trent (from a photo by Eric de Mare/English Heritage), 28 x 28cm, acrylic on paper,

Yesterday I watched the BBC’s Great Pottery Throw Down which is set in the Staffordshire Potteries. They showed some historic images of bottle kilns at Middleport Pottery and I came away with two resolves : (1) to paint bottle kilns – they are like still life arrangements planted in the middle of industrial landscapes and decidedly quirky (2) have a go at throwing a pot some time soon.

There were around 2,000 bottle kilns in the Staffordshire Potteries (18th Century to 1960s). They had no set design or layout plan. Each was different – some would be grouped, some would be in lines – some were even built out of the top of rooftops. They are completely fascinating structures, mostly constructed with gorgeous rich, red brick. We are going to Yorkshire for Christmas and I feel a diversion to the potteries coming on. The kilns had a working life of just 30 years so those that remain are a precious historical asset.

stoke-with-railway-squareAs I have no photographs of my own of bottle kilns I’ve worked from one I found on the internet (thank you English Heritage and photographer Eric de Mare who took the photo some time between 1945 and 1980).

This photograph provides a good subject for this exercise because of the railway line perspective and the very precise angles of the walls of the kilns. I flipped the photo so that it leads the eye into the painting (apologies to the photographer!).


Photo and initial drawing

Initially I had some resistance to this exercise. Shouldn’t I be able to draw without the aid of a marked up grid? I changed my thinking as I progressed – this method does take a lot of the pain away from drawing perspective and helps to get angles right. I simplified the detail of the railway track considerably. Even so, the drawing was becoming very complicated and I did not complete it in pencil but decided to continue with paint.



I considered painting using black and white only but rather than copy the photo too literally, I settled on a broader colour palette, including the earthy red which makes me think of unglazed pottery.

What works?

The composition is nice but all the credit goes to the photographer for that. There is a good mix of lines and curves with pleasing negative shapes.

The brick kilns look solid and have form. I’ve sanded them in a restrained way to add a bit of texture and used texture and colour to highlight three of the kilns to draw focus to these.

It was the right decision to simplify the railway line and not include all the nuts and bolts and fixings (these might make good subject matter on their own).

The colour palette is appropriate (if not exciting) – it has the feel of clay pots that I set out to achieve.

It’s a good subject matter and this initial drawing is sparking off lots of ideas for me about how drawings / paintings of the bottle kilns could be taken further and perhaps abstracted by experimenting with scale, colour and layering. I find the concept of a kind of industrial still life exciting.

What doesn’t work so well?

It is not an expressive painting… and perhaps it is a little dull but I feel positive as in my mind this is a first study of a fascinating subject.

The distant perspective has gone a little awry making the railway line look unstable – it is no coincidence that this is the section I did not draw in detail before starting to paint.

What did I gain from this exercise?

Plenty of ideas for future projects and the knowledge that the squaring up technique, while fiddly to set up, can achieve a better outcome. There is of course the risk that the drawing may be less expressive and characterful than if completely freehand. There is definitely a time and place for the technique  and I do now appreciate its value.


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