I was recently asked by Dylan Jones, a fellow artist, why I paint rope. It’s a very good question, (and one to which I didn’t entirely have a ready answer) so I gave it consideration.
Ropes and bindings have been with us since prehistory. The ice man carried twisted hide strips, and string held his backpack together. The first ‘modern’ ropes appeared about 4000BC, made by the Egyptians. The materials of their manufacture have charted our own progress, from gathered reeds to cultivated hemp, and now to polypropylene in the Anthropocene.
On a personal note, I spent my formative years on a cargo ship (until school became a pressing issue at age six), and frequently spent school holidays at sea with my father after that. The release of the last hawser was the final part of the ritual of seeing my father off to sea, often for six months or more.
I have a maritime qualification myself, and have worked as skipper of a dive boat. I grew up knowing the uses and importance of rope, it is such a ubiquitous item aboard a vessel. I was drilled in knot tying and usage from an early age too, so it is something that has always been a part of my life. As a diver, it is not benign – rope underwater is a thing to avoid. It saves lives, and it also takes them.
Following a career as a designer and illustrator, the first large scale painting I did (in 1995) has a coil of rope on the deck. I found it challenging then, and it is a challenge that I’ve enjoyed ever since. It has become a motif that has run through almost all of my work.
It forms such a useful compositional element. In marine art it communicates much about atmospheric conditions, and understanding the principle of a catenary is vital in depicting it.
Outside of that genre, it conveys direction, tension, can bind or support. Knots possess an entire lexicon of symbolism on their own.
The rogues yarn is the coloured strand laid up in ropes. Originally used to mark naval rope, it was a deterrent to theft. Rope of naval manufacture was generally considered to be superior, thus making it a desirable object to smuggle from dockyards and sell to merchant ships. Latterly it has been used to identify the type of rope, and its place of manufacture. The colour, and number of strands laid up in a rope will also identify its country of origin. Depending on a rope’s manufacture and use, it can hang loosely, or have a very firm structure. By putting a turn in it, it can be made to support relatively weighty objects, something I have made use of in the most recent series. Foreshortened rope is another fascinating challenge, as all the elements have form, as well as the whole.
I have used it as symbolic of a timeline, and as a means of conveying measurements and quantity through the nautical convention of using a line knotted at regular intervals to determine speed (a log-line) which was tied to a log dropped over a ship’s stern.
It has become a piece of personal symbolism, and provides an ongoing challenge that I never tire of. One day I might measure the number of metres I’ve painted. As a piece of trivia, it usually advances at a rate of 20cm an hour.