Amanda Richardson creates vibrant collages in her Cornwall studio
Large windows flood Amanda Richardson’s studio near Land’s End with light. The airy space in the Cornish countryside is painted white, contrasting with the vividly colourful pieces of her textile collages that adorn the walls. Rolls of fabric are stacked in one corner, while boxes sit on the floor and worktops are piled high with dyed material. The only tools on show are paint brushes in jars, three irons and a pair of spring-loaded scissors.
The studio is in a converted watermill surrounded by two-and-a-half acres of garden. This plant-filled plot has been nurtured by Amanda over the 19 years she has lived there. Today it forms the overarching inspiration for her art. It is a glorious rambling landscape of pathways winding through flower beds, a pond and a traditional orchard. The Penberth river trickles through the garden, its moorland origin and route through golden granite giving the water a deep yellow-brown glow.
Amanda has been working with fabrics for 40 years, first experimenting as a teenager at art school in Penzance. She attributes some of her affinity for textiles to the fact that her artist mother also used fabrics in her work. At the time Amanda was accepted to Goldsmiths, University of London, the fashion among artists was for harsh work, using austere barbed wire and calico. Amanda rejected this to develop her own style. “I have always loved seductively beautiful fabrics and so I looked for a way to use them,” she says. She is also a painter and believes there is a link between the two art forms. Both require her to think in layers.
Now she creates beautiful collages of grasses, flowers, trees and wild landscapes using a combination of fabrics. She dyes many of them herself to get the right shades. “The natural world is what I find most exciting about life,” she says, “Artists should be working with what excites them.”
Her work is strongly influenced by the flora growing around her. Plants and flowers are kept in pots so they can be brought into the studio to be worked from. “My work is about the growing plant and so much information is lost if it is cut,” she says. “I am looking at how it comes out of the ground, the way the leaves connect to the stem, all of the minutiae.”
Selecting and dyeing fabrics
Each new collage starts with a spark of inspiration, influenced by something that captures her eye on a walk or while in her garden. She works out an initial composition in her mind. Then she creates a simple pencil drawing, often just 3in (7.5cm) square, to work out the weight and movement through the composition. “It is worth getting those qualities just right,” she says. “I then scale that up onto the background, the fabric of my piece.” This scaling up is achieved by using a grid and sketching the design onto backing material with a white pencil.
Next she chooses the fabrics. New ones are sourced from a small textile shop in Penzance. “They supply velvets and silks and extraordinary fabrics,” she says. Boxes are also filled with pieces saved from previous projects and these are delved into as she picks out the different surfaces and fibres she wants. Her choice is influenced by the light reflecting qualities and textural elements she feels are required for each collage. Her pieces use a combination of satins, silks, velvets and man-made textiles.
Each new piece of work requires fresh dyeing of new fabrics. She uses two main techniques, depending on the type of fabric. Silks and other natural textiles are coloured using what she terms the boiling cauldron method. This involves dipping the fabric into hot water that has been mixed with dye. Special dyes, known as disperse dyes, are used for man-made fabrics. These are painted onto paper then transferred to the fabric with heat.
Layers of depth
Working on an autumnal poppy and barley project, Amanda first creates the grass background. She applies dye with a paintbrush to a sheet of high-quality drawing paper. “By using brush strokes, I am suggesting the waving movement of the barley,” she explains. “By building the layers at this initial stage, I will have all of this sense of motion and texture built into the piece. That is what I am doing with all of my fabric, building character into it. It gives a sense of depth and complexity and brings life to the piece.”
Once the design is painted, the selected piece of fabric is placed under the inverted paper. Heat is slowly applied to the back of the paper using an iron on a high setting. This forces the image to bond with the fibres of the material below.
There is an important distinction between the results obtained by dyeing as opposed to painting onto fabric. “What is essential to the personality of my art is a light-reflective quality,” says Amanda. “If I were to paint directly, it would sit on top of the fabric and mask these qualities. In this case the dyes have actually entered into the fibres and so all those lovely surface qualities are retained. The colour becomes integral to the fabric rather than superficial.”
The selection and dyeing of the materials is time consuming. It can take as long as a week to achieve all the gradations of tone, colour and pattern needed on all the pieces of fabric she is going to use. It is a part of the process from which she takes great joy. “Because I am coming to it as a painter, it is the most exciting thing I could possibly do,” she says. “I love dyeing fabric, creating the tones and colours and suggestions of patterns. Sometimes I have to give myself a talking to and remind myself there is an end goal here. It is such an adventure seeing how each piece will react to the dyes, and envisaging how the fabrics will work together in the final composition.”
Once the dyed fabric is dry, it is ironed flat. Amanda then takes a roll of glue, which has a type of greaseproof backing paper on one side and adhesive on the other. This is bought in 328ft (100m) rolls, several at a time. It is placed glue-side down on the reverse of each individual piece of fabric being used in the collage and ironed on. Once the backing paper is peeled away, the fabric is ready to be used for the collage. A particular advantage of this technique is the way in which the glue holds the fabric together. Under any other technique, small cut pieces would fray and become almost impossible to use. The glue stiffens the fabric and holds the weave.
Building the collage
The poppies are now created petal by petal, building up the layers piece by piece, before transferring a whole flower to the main collage. There Amanda experiments with the different elements of the piece. “It is the association of plants that interests me, not just something standing on its own but the whole environment, the miniature landscape,” she explains. “When I have put that together, I then have the freedom of planting my flowers in the collage. I naturally think in layers. That is part of what gives a sense of depth. Building layer upon layer slightly fools the eye of the viewer.”
Using the iron on a warm setting, the pieces can be tacked in place so they do not drift in the breeze or move in the event of her cat, Artemis, jumping up. Everything can be peeled back and repositioned if necessary. The flex from the iron used to be a problem if it trailed across the work. This was solved by using an elasticated dog lead to keep it suspended above her.
Other than her hands, Amanda’s key piece of equipment is a pair of spring-loaded scissors. These open automatically after each cut, helping reduce the strain on her hands. She uses these regardless of the size or fineness of the piece she is cutting, never downsizing to a smaller pair. “It is just a matter of precision. If I really concentrate I can shape even the most minute fragments,” she says. She works with great dexterity, picking up and moving the pieces with the tips of the scissors without ever cutting them.
Once she is satisfied everything is in the best place, a warm iron is run over the whole artwork to tack it down. She then damps a piece of cotton fabric, squeezes out the moisture and lays it over the collage. With the iron turned up to its hottest setting, she firmly glides it over the entire surface. This permanently fixes the pieces in place.
The collage is now set, but she can still add pieces of fabric to tweak the composition if she wishes. The process of adding and sealing can be repeated as often as required. How much time is spent on each artwork varies widely, from two weeks to a month or more. It all depends on how many adjustments are needed and the fineness of the detail.
The collage does not have clean edges, with leaves and foliage creeping over the sides. Amanda prefers to leaving her pieces unframed which allows for these organic edges. It also means there is not reflective glass surface between the viewer and the collage. Instead the finished work has a wooden backing.
The act of displaying the collage is central to her art. “For me, the fascinating moment is when I first hang it up, put the lights on it and stand back,” she says. “The key factor is that it shifts and changes throughout the day in different lights and the different angles from which it is viewed. It is not static. I want it to work from 30 feet away or right up close, from either side or dead on. That journey of the eye is a very complex one but that is what is exciting about the work.”
Words: Eleanor Gasgarth Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Amanda's textile art originally appeared in the Sept / Oct 2015 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.