If you have ever heard of Nottinghamshire, then there is no doubt that you have heard of Sherwood Forest. Home to the legend of Robin Hood, the woodland area is a National Nature Reserve, site of special scientific interest and a protected area of conservation. The ancient woodland is so important to the national heritage, there’s one tree, the major oak (rumoured home of Robin Hood himself), that has been painstakingly preserved with scaffold, stilts, fences and concrete.
Any kid from the local area can recall countless childhood trips into the forest, using sticks as swords, climbing trees and wearing green felt caps bought from the near-by gift shop…and I am no different. In fact, I didn't even need to be outdoors to be dressed in the full paraphernalia.
I was recently commissioned by Inspire Youth Arts to created eight artworks based around the local flora and fauna of Sherwood forest. Each piece would then be further enhanced by an additional Augmented Reality layer when viewed through a smart device. With additional funding secured from the Miner to Major project, the process began with a series of co-creation workshops with young people from the Mansfield and Nottinghamshire area. In collaboration with local sculpture Phil Neal, the workshops saw the young people create sculptures of a particular flora or fauna, local to the Sherwood forest area, from various recycled materials. Carefully constructed from corks, bottle tops and wood, these sculptures included artistic interpretations of an ox-eye daisy, a dandelion, foxgloves, a porcini mushroom and a tansy.
What interested me in this initial stage was the concept of these models transversing multiple artistic planes, from the original physical sculptures, to digital renditions and back to a physical realm through the form of the commissioned prints.
With help from Nottingham Universities Mixed Reality Lab, each of the sculptures created by the young people, was painstakingly photographed and scanned to transform them into digital 3D models through the technique of photogrammetry.
With the models created and scanned it was time to turn my attention to the creation of the artworks themselves. Here began the real research and development process for me at the studio.
The Process: (warning: it gets a bit techie from here).
When deciding what medium the work would take, I was drawn to my trusty pen plotter. Taking inspiration from the illustrated flora reference books, lining the shelves of the studio, I aimed to create a collection of etching-inspired pieces - holding the young collaborators work at the heart of each piece.
With the digital scans of the sculptures rendered as textured 3D models, I needed to a way to transform these .obj files (a 3D object file that exists in a digital space) to a .svg file (a 2D scalable vector graph that consists of lines readable by the pen plotter).
I managed to quickly import the .objs shared from The Mixed Reality Lab into Blender and, export them to a .svg utilising a freestyle plugin. I opened these in Adobe Illustrator for a quick edit and into Inkscape in order to plot it using my Axidraw A3. What came out was a mass of thick black lines that in some way resembled the original Ox-Eye Daisy sculpture. It was certainly not what I had in mind, but it was definitely progress.
Back in blender it was time to refine the models. As a mesh, each object consisted of a closely nit and complex construct, which when rendered out as a .svg was resulting in a dense, time consuming and unrefined plot on the pen plotter. It was clear each model needed simplifying without loosing the form and recognition. This was achieved using a mixture of the decimate geometry, merge by distance, and smooth vertices functions Blender offers to refine and clean up your mesh, along with a lot of trial error. A reoccurring and refined procedure began to emerge.
Alongside this, I trialled different pens in the pen plotter and settled on the Muji gel ink ballpoint pen cap type 0.38 in black. I like its delicacy and texture across the paper and lighter overall aesthetic. They are also slightly kinder on the environment, as you can buy re-fills.
Gradually over time a collection of prints emerged. Some worked better than others, and as I tweaked settings, scales, positions and angles an aesthetically coherent set began to develop.
But were the etchings enough of a composition on the page by themselves?
I bought watercolours and trialled them. I didn’t like them.
I love working in monochrome and sometimes struggle with adding colour into my compositions, My work often involves geometric shapes, harsh but balanced lines, basic patterns, grids and digital textures. Over time I have accumulated an asset bank which, exists (in the real world) as a magnetic board in my studio. I found myself referring to these compositions, taking influence from the different elements. I was drawn to gold pigment and how this complimented, and lifted, the black of the ink from the pen. I experimented with spray paints, inks and pens and was pleased to achieve the same clean, crisp, aesthetic using a gold pigment pen in the pen plotter.
I tried various compositions, added too much gold and then scaled it back down again. Tried block gold (utilising the hatch fill extension in Inkscape), which worked well with some compositions and then not with others. Gradually I found my eight.
Next came the digital overlay of the augmented reality experience. For this, I have been using the cross platform app, Artivive.
I went back to those victorian illustrated flora books once again. I loved the ink etchings that accompanied some of the detailed illustrations, the way the text identifies the illustration, and the latin names, which, mean little to most people and yet is so crucial to the specific identification of each plant and species. All of these found their way into the AR compositions. Further frames, bursts and shapes help give the AR layer movement and dynamic.
The final pieces are printed on Khadi cotton rag, handmade, torn edge papers A3 320 gsm- (my favourite paper ever and yet really hard to come by.
The final piece will be available to view on tour at various library galleries around Nottinghamshire From Summer 2021.
With Thanks to:
Inspire Youth Arts
Miner to Major
Mixed Reality Lab Adrian Hazzard
The project co-collaborated with over 40 young people from;
Newark Emmaus Trust
Yeoman Park School
St Giles School
A group of home educated young people at The Old Library