Wednesday, 29 September 2010

I can't imagine life without trees

For me, for the most part, as long as I can periodically escape to some of my favourite spots outdoors and get some fresh air and stretch my legs, I can cope with whatever life throws at me. In tricky times, or with tedious things I have to endure, like dental work or waiting in unsavoury places for overdue buses, I imagine walking through some of my favourite tracts of woodland. It's something I look forward to intensely when I know I have a trip planned. The mental images and memories of being in places such as the ones shown here, pop into my mind many times a day and I long to be there.

Please click on any of the photographs for a better view, they look rather dark here on the page.

Even on the treadmill at the gym, I position myself on one of the machines near a window where I can see a short run of screening pine trees they've planted to separate the tennis courts from the playing fields and picture myself walking through them into more dense deciduous woodland beyond. I just cannot conceive of life without trees and being amongst them. I'm totally comfortable in their company and more at peace than anywhere else.

Early in the walk, a well made path runs level along the lake shore, rising steeply away from it shortly.

If I were given the option to wish myself away to anywhere, it would almost certainly be to one of my favourite woodland walks. Ideally, on a crisp, still, autumnal day with clear blue skies, fabulous views and glorious autumnal colours - even better if the woodland is deciduous or mixed and has a good smattering of beech trees. This particular day it was grey and damp, so the colours are not at their best, but I'd rather be there in rain than most other places on a nice day.

There is a habit in more recent times in managed woodland, to leave some of the trees that have either fallen naturally, or been cleared for management, to rot naturally in the woodland as they would without intervention. This then becomes a habitat to a wide range of plants and insects, adding to the health and biodiversity of the woodland.

I just love the intense array of natural sculpture nature provides us with along the way, partly from human intervention as above, to the natural abstract of the materials of the forest, as below.

The weather doesn't often play the game, but the venue is much more reliable. I don't even mind less than perfect weather, sometimes it even has its advantages, well known spots tend to be much quieter, which is always a bonus.

I don't mind walking in dampness - loving the English Lake District makes this somewhat a necessity - gentle rain certainly won't stop us from setting off - but driving rain and wind do tend to just spoil things. To quote Billy Connolly, as I have many times; "there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing." If you attire yourself accordingly, it doesn't have to stop you enjoying the outdoors.

One of the few advantages of being that bit more mature, is that you can plan your holidays outside of school holidays when it's generally much more quiet and often the only people you pass are other mature types taking un-seasonable breaks and local dog-walkers.

Being a lover of and regular visitor to the Lake District, weather does tend to be a factor close to your heart, but we've had atrocious weather in summer and lovely weather in spring and autumn, even winter, so the time of year actually seems to matter little - you get what you get.

We've just returned from a 4 day break there, it was supposed to have been the start of our 2 week annual holiday, but a whole batch of assorted circumstances meant we had to downgrade it to a short break instead this time. And after a recent health scare and resulting hospital treatment, I was a little below par and my walking a tad less robust, but it actually made my time amongst the trees even more precious, valued and needed. It did me a world of good - woodland rarely fails to restore me.

There are a couple of sweet chestnut trees along this particular path and at this time of year they're just falling off and opening on the ground. They're fabulous to look at, nestled amongst fallen leaves, but decidedly hostile for handling. Last year I made the mistake of putting some in a bag to use as photo props, but having strapped it to my camera bag was like a pin cushion when I got back to the car - those interlocking randomly angled spines are incredibly effective defensive weapons.

The photographs on this page were all taken on one walk on Monday along the western shore of Windermere - the largest lake in the English Lake District. The eastern shore is the main holiday area and the best know to most people, but we love the other side - it's densely wooded and much quieter. This particular estate is owned and managed by the National Trust.

This particular favourite walk, of just under 3 miles, starts flat along the side of the lake and rises and undulates through mixed and established woodland slightly off the lake, dropping back to the lake after about a mile and a third or so - it's rather more steep in places than the photographs would have you believe.

We have a habit of getting to the point where the path meets a small beach with lots of large rocks, where we perch awhile, watch the boats, feeds some ducks, take some refreshments and then return, whence we came, for lunch back at the car park.

I just love being amongst this sort of mixed and elderly woodland and it's especially gorgeous in autumn where the mix of beech and oak amongst a whole selection of different spruce and pines makes it an interesting and varied scene.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

I'd really rather just be making pretty things

As I was uploading some newly prepared photographs to my web site earlier, I noticed that the image file list had passed 2500 files. That's just the photograph directory for my listed products for sale, which currently counts at just over 422 items.

Granted, not all of those are items actually still for sale, a significant proportion of those (probably about 30%) are now sold and remain on the site in the 'sold' category to serve as a gallery of past work and potentially items that can be re-made to order if required. But it set me to thinking about the body of work - and investment of time - this represents.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

When I photograph an item to sell, I need 5 photographs to list on Etsy and so aim to produce more finished images than this, so that I can choose the best, in terms of image and photographic quality (sharpness, exposure, depth of field, colour etc.), angles and an all round impression of the product available. My own site will allow me to add as many photographs as I want, so I set off with the aim of taking something like 20 photographs of an item and post processing and finishing around 8 or so of them and then choosing the best of those to use.

I like to show pieces on a variety of background colours, as well as different angles. After all, buyers will potentially wear them against a varied range of skin tones and hair colouring and adjacent to an infinitely variable selection of fabrics.

It is my habit to produce at least 2 finished versions of each selected image - one each for Etsy and my own shop (required at different sizes) and usually one image per piece of jewellery that becomes a photo business card - where I like the views enough and they're the right proportions for the artwork. I sometimes produce additional variants to use elsewhere or for print publications too.

Photographs of suitable proportions, that look like they'll print nicely, are made into artwork for my photo business cards, which I print and laminate myself so that I can keep adding current designs to those in use.

I often take many 'similars' - views from the same angle, for example, but with focus placed in a different spot within the image to create different visual effects or highlight particular details of the design. I often bracket the exposure to see which looks best once on the computer - especially important with reflective silver pieces - as is a lot of trial and error in creating decent and controlled reflections.

Polished silver is especially problematic, if it reflects the light too much, it burns out to white, devoid of detail and if you get something reflected, it might not be something you'd want the world to see, so trial and error in creating appropriate reflections is sometimes the only way. Various pieces of black paper were held adjacent with this image to put detail and form into the polished surfaces.

So I tend to end up with a whole collection of images of a given piece, which I know in advance will be seriously whittled down to the quantity I hope to finally publish.

Sometimes I like to deliberately use a shallow depth of field, with a low perspective to give emphasis to a particular feature or just add drama.

So I was curious to calculate how much work this represents. If I allowed 15 minutes per finished published image as a rough guestimate, this gave rise to a total of 625 hours of work for my 2500 published images - which is nearly 16 full time 40 hour working weeks. So if I were to settle down now and start on the task, I'd maybe be finished in time to celebrate New Years Eve. This also serves to illustrate the vital need for a habitual and reliable data back up strategy - a few minutes a day could save you a whole world of hurt in the future - but it's an oversight that you only tend to make the once - often a very hard lesson learned.

Add to this the further time necessary to measure each piece and keep a record of this information and then write this into a meaningful search engine friendly description with marketing value and then the further time to actually bring it all together on a web page (and possibly several, that may require different formats), with links to associated products and ensure that is is spelled correctly and error free, you can see just how much of an investment it time it all represents.

And of course, all of this time has to be accounted for in terms of both your working weekly schedule (as does accounting, cleaning, stock control, tool maintenance, materials purchasing etc. etc.) and how you price finished pieces. It might take you an hour to make something, but if it takes another hour to photograph it, edit the images, write the description, research details on the materials used, measure it and present it on your sales venue of choice, that time also needs to be taken into consideration. If it's a design that you can repeat often and make plenty of, obviously that investment may be spread over several sales, but for one-off pieces, it can potentially be as much time as you spent on making it, so all of this needs to be considered within your pricing structure.

I've said many times that the quality of work (irrespective of the craft items themselves, this is in addition to that work) shown by artisan sellers undertaking this task is of a very high standard indeed. We each need to be accomplished photographers, copy writers, marketing and promotional gurus and also be fully informed on matters such as postal and shipping methods and often our own tax accountants too.

We also need to be accomplished at gift presentation once sold. I address environmental concerns by making most of my own packaging materials, often up-cycling materials I already have to hand. In this case, I've sewn these fabric keepsake pouches from what were quality home furnishing fabric samples from when I had a sewing shop. I make the ribbon rosebuds too - my tutorial for them is in the blog.

Many high street retailers with web sites can't even come close to the detail and quality of presentation many individual and independent artisan and craft sellers manage - often on top of full time employment- where such retailers will employ a whole army of suitably qualified and dedicated personnel to do the myriad of tasks we all need to master individually.

So kudos to the accomplished and talented members of hand made community, that could teach high profile retailers a thing or two!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

My work this week

I'm just working on a series of photographs of a dipper we watched in a river for a while last weekend, to post, but as I seemed to spend most of yesterday working on product photographs in order to create listings, I thought I'd do a quick post on my work of the last few days, as it gives me chance to give a little more background about how a design came about or evolved from something different.

I had an enquiry to re-make a pair of earrings in my sold portfolio, but it transpired, through conversation, that the customer didn't actually have pierced ears, so I sourced some matching screw earwires to allow her to wear them straight out of the parcel, as she normally adapted them herself for wear.

The design featured some gorgeous glossy golden coloured honey opal briolettes which were heavily wrapped in fully oxidised copper, polished to the lovely burnished black of gunmetal, really setting off the colour of the opals.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

The original earrings on round hoop earwires. I made another pair while I was working.

I'd forgotten how gorgeous the honey opal briolettes are, so whilst I had them out and had got my eye back in for the wrapping technique, I re-made some of the original design with round loop earwires and also a different style, also with darkly oxidised copper. These featured two chunky hoops of copper, wire-wrapped at the top to form a hanging loop and a more simply wrapped briolette hanging below.

I think that I might make another pair, but selectively polish back the copper on the wrapped sections and leave the plain areas dark, to give a two-tone finish, as I've already done on some designs. Alternatively, I could just use different metals for a mixed metal finish.

This necklace features large beads of stabilised chalk turquoise - a composite manufactured bead from the chalks associated with turquoise mining, but formed into a new stone when mixed with a resin and dyed - presumably the matrix is added in much the same way that I would do it making faux turquoise in polymer clay, as I have in the past.

Turquoise always lends itself to being worked with copper, the colours just always work so well together - and of course, the actual colour of turquoise originates from the copper minerals in the source materials where it forms.

The necklace started life as a bracelet - by the time I'd spiral wrapped and connected (with my own hand-sawn jump rings) enough of the chunky beads to get to a bracelet length, it became evident that it wouldn't work that well as a bracelet, the beads were just too large, making sizing it appropriately for a bracelet to be an impossibiity without compromising the design - 6 beads made it too skimpy for most people, which would then necessitate the addition of several extra rings on the clasp - but then spoling the visual balance of the design. But with 7 beads, it would be rather too generous for most people.

So I left it on my bench for a few days whilst I thought about it, thinking that maybe a different feature clasp would be the answer, but decided that the scale was perhaps more appropriate for a necklace. As soon as I started looking at a chunky chain to add to it, I knew this was a better solution, it works very much better as a necklace than it did as a bracelet. I antiqued the copper and polished the chain back to co-ordinate with the greeny brown colour of the matrix in the 'turquoise' to get the finished look.

The last piece I photographed yesterday was a pair of earrings with long feature earwires. A customer had asked me for something along these lines, so I had a tinker with some new shapes for longer earwires that in themselves would be a strong feature of the earring design. I liked this shape and just added a simple but chunky dangle to the bottom.

In this case, they're black spider web jasper beads hung on a chunkier than usual headpin, hammered into a flat paddle pin which has been shaped and polished and then double wrapped above the stone for a little extra weight and balance, then antiqued to bring out the warm tones of the copper and enhance the wrapped texture. I liked the simplicity of this arrangement, so I plan on adding more to my portfolio with different stones.

Some pieces need time to develop - and then you go back to your first idea anyway!

I finished another piece this week too - one I think I posted some time ago when I made the initial central component. This knotted piece of Sterling silver sat in my WIP box for a long while, so that I could think of how to use it/finish it off best. I was working on the principle that as a design didn't immediately come to mind, my sub-conscious would sort it out on its own in due course if left to work in peace.

I hate forcing designs, I never feel that they are fully satisfactory if you have to labour them to make them work. Most pieces come together pretty rapidly, but the occasional one just doesn't fall in place immediately and this was one such element.

In the end, turning it over in my fingers one day while I finished my breakfast coffee, I decided that I was simply trying to over-complicate it. So a simple approach might be better in this instance. So in the end, all I've done is attach it to some chain by using two sizes of graduating jump rings, to bridge the gap between the weight and width of the end of the knotted section and the finer chain, even though it's quite a chunky belcher (rollo) chain.

But that in turn left me with another dilemma - the additional weight of the chain has now made it too heavy to sell without being hallmarked.

Oh dear, it looks like I'll just have to keep it for myself then!


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