Over the past year-and-a-half, many of us discovered new places in our local areas to exercise, unwind or to paint and draw. Louise Balaam, who currently has a solo exhibition at Cadogan Contemporary, tells us about one such place that's close to her home, studio and heart . . .
"Some time ago a friend suggested a new location to draw, the North Kent Marshes. Not far from where I live in Kent, and yet I was hardly aware of it. It’s now become one of my favourite drawing places. I’ve been returning there for several years now, and never fail to be captivated.
I also travel long distances (when I can) to amazing places which are very special to me, but there’s a particular quality of observation involved in getting to know a more local place that isn’t far from my studio, and where I can go at a moment’s notice if the sky is looking promising.
The marshes are vast open wet pastures and mudflats. It’s a predominantly flat landscape, with huge skies, and no roads. I’ve always found it very inspiring to draw and paint those wide, open landscapes, with their vast skies and exhilarating sense of space. There’s a strange mixture of wild countryside, with sheep grazing and dykes reflecting the sky, and a semi-industrial landscape. I like using the linear outlines of pylons or cranes to contrast with the more organic shapes of the landscape, sometimes using pencil or pen to give a finer, more graphic line against the softer areas of colour.
Huge flocks of migrating birds, as well as marsh harriers, curlews, lapwings and avocets are found here, and traces of them often make their way into my drawings or paintings, helping to articulate and animate the visual space as they wheel and soar on the air currents. The saltwater creeks and freshwater dykes are home to a huge variety of plant life, full of reeds that rustle in the wind. The beautiful russet colour of the reed heads and the dull pale ochre of the dry grass create a warm tone against the cooler colours of the sky.
There are rich layers of history here. The marshes are bordered by the Thames estuary, for thousands of years a route linking the south of England with the rest of the world. The Beaker people of the Bronze Age came this way, as did waves of Romans, Saxons, and Normans. I find this sense of layers of history adds hugely to my enjoyment and appreciation of this special place, and I believe this somehow, in some intangible way, makes its way into my work.
On the horizon is the Thames Gateway port on the Essex side. You can see the quay cranes (the largest in the world), up or down depending on how many huge container ships they are unloading. I’ll often draw the vertical shapes of the cranes, punctuating the horizon and linking the land with the sky. As the light fades the orange lights on the cranes create a powerful visual impact against the soft violet sky. The sunsets seem to be particularly dramatic here, something I’m always drawn to and can’t resist painting. There’s so much scope for outrageous colours - turquoise, salmon pink, orange and purple - and I love using gestural strokes to capture the drama of the dark, looming clouds.
Everywhere there are unexpected juxtapositions. One of my favourite walks takes you from St Mary’s Church, past the site of a Benedictine nunnery, across the railway line, under some pylons and towards the ruins of a Napoleonic fort. The flat land is bisected by the straight lines of dykes, and the sky by power lines, cutting across the space. I love these juxtapositions of man-made and natural elements, and use them often as I draw.
I have several favourite spots to draw, where I’ll use several sketchbooks at a time, allowing the watercolour paint to dry while I move on to the next drawing. This means I often create a series of drawings from the same spot, responding quickly as the light and the clouds change. I don’t paint plein air but I find it essential to draw before I paint in the studio, gathering information and absorbing the spirit of the place. For me, the special character of this in-between place lies in its contradictions. There is a strong sense of isolation and remoteness, described by Dickens and Joseph Conrad, yet Charing Cross is only thirty miles away. The evidence of the past coexists with the bleak beauty of the cranes, power stations and pylons, and with the teeming wildlife, creating a very rich visual environment.
Walking from the village of Cliffe to the Saxon Shore Way, you can see St Helens’s church above the flat marshes, dating from the 12th century. While I don’t tend to draw buildings specifically, for me this is an example of the rich history of this place which gives it a special atmosphere and resonance.
I particularly love drawing on the marshes in the late afternoon, as dusk falls, when the light seems to have a special quality. The towering clouds in the west, as the sun goes down, are reflected in the many dykes which criss-cross the land - something I’m always attracted to, as the water brings the light and colour of the sky down to the ground. Turning inland the moon may be rising over the church. I’ll sit on the grass with my drawing materials around me (sketchbooks, watercolour box, pencils, charcoal, and water-soluble sticks). Having so much sky means that the mood of the landscape changes not just day to day, but hour to hour, as I scribble in my sketchbook, trying to keep up. My drawings, like my paintings, are spontaneous and gestural, aiming (through speed) at somehow capturing something of the feeling of the place and my emotional response to it.
Like many wildlife havens there seem to be constant threats, from a projected airport on an island in the estuary to housing developments and a new Thames crossing. For the moment though, this fragile and special place survives."