Liz Douglas is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media, especially painting, but what I find really interesting about her work is the fact that she incorporates scientific techniques into her process to describe parts of the landscape.
Fen Pools © 2011 Liz Douglas Mixed media on canvas 820mm x 820mm
Liz began turning to science by looking at microscopical geological images when her art school tutor encouraged her to bring other disciplines into her work to enrich and inform her landscape painting. Since then, she has worked with ecologists and biologists on various projects including work which she produced for her‘Mire’ exhibition in 2011, which was the result of 3 years work at Whitlaw Mosses nature reserve near Selkirk. When I look deeply into this painting, I feel a floating sensation, unsure if I am above or under the water, as if I am looking through a glass-bottomed boat. There is a shadowy image just below the centre, which is not unlike a mysterious ghostly figure standing over the pool, or perhaps we are looking down into the depths of the pool at objects lying below. The abstract shapes which float on or near the surface look like they have been inspired by microscopic views of the algae in the pond. The subtle monochromatic colour scheme has a calming and serene effect, broken only by the mysterious dark shapes which are carefully placed within it.
Slow Thaw (2006) © 2012 Liz Douglas Mixed media on canvas 1.5m x 1.5m
Slow Thaw, 2008 above shows three semi-transparent tube-like forms, which lie against a warm, lilac background. The ambiguous shapes may be slightly sinister, but the warm background reassures us against fear, and their transparency gives them a delicate and fragile beauty. For me, this is an example for the sublime – the uncanny attraction which we keep staring at despite an unsettling undertone.
I contacted Liz to find out more about her practice, and she kindly agreed to answer a questionnaire for me, as I find her work very relevant to what I am researching and writing about.
When and why did you begin to use the microscope as a method of studying the landscape? I was encouraged by a tutor in my final Masters of Fine Art painting year to consider looking outside art to inform my landscape work. I began by looking at Geology in relation to a site of special scientific interest that I was working on where microscopic elements existed in the rocks which had a visual quality. I also work with Biologists and Ecologists.I find the collaborative element and the information that I get opens up whole new worlds.
Why do you think artists are collaborating more with scientists – what advantage does a scientific slant bring to a body of work on landscape? The scientists bring another perspective to landscape. They offer particular expertise in their field which allows the artist to explore aspects of the landscape in depth and creates new possibilities for making work. Over the last twenty or so years there has been an increasing concern about the environment and the collaboration between artists and scientists has developed.
What do you enjoy about viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable tool for themes of environment or the natural world? I find it exciting to look through an optical or scanning electron microscope at structures that are invisible to the eye.I like the whole investigative process of being in the landscape -collecting material (with permission) organising, selecting, editing, as well as dialoguing with scientists and others to inform and extend my ideas at the research and development stage. These tools reveal hidden aspects of the natural world and provide possible new visual metaphors.
Do you think that having a parochial view (not meaning to sound negative here, just considering a focus on a small element of a particular landscape or environment) of a particular landscape brings more interest to a work, rather than trying to capture a vast area? I think that working on microscopic material from sites informs the wider landscape. The ‘place’, which is local, is the focus, where universal processes occur –e.g. seasonal change, global climate/geological change etc. It is a microcosm.
Do you think that studying the species of a particular environment can help to capture its ‘spirit of place’? Each habitat has its own unique ecological characteristics. It takes time to work through material from a particular environment at the micro level to find metaphors that add a new element to the work and say something else about the place – e.g. spirit/essence or something new and surprising.
One of the visions of the Romantic artists was to capture the sublime, and often terrifying forces of nature. Do you get a sense of this when you look down the microscope, are you ever unsettled by what you see? It can be quite unsettling looking at the amount of microscopic creatures to be found in e.g. a drop of water and imagining their part in the larger whole. These creatures can be x35,000 what the eye can see. That can be unnerving and amazing at the same time. I constantly tussle with notions of the sublime and underlying invisible elements when making work.
Is there ever a health and safety aspect to what you are doing, for instance, do you ever work with potentially toxic or harmful aspects of nature? I am immensely cautious about the harmful and potentially toxic aspects that exist when working in the natural world. The process of collecting living material is safe, if you know the terrain well, although the people on any particular site of special scientific interest know that I am working there so there is an element of protection. Working with an optical microscope, looking at material in the studio at x80 has no risk attached to it. The preparation of collected material for the Scanning Electron Microscope involves a lengthy process using toxic chemicals. This part of the process has to take place in a laboratory because it is hazardous and appropriate safety procedures are used. I have to work with a technician because I am not a scientist!
Do you use a camera to photograph the microscopic images before rendering them, or do you work straight from the microscope, or from your memory of what you have seen through it? I have a camera attached to my optical microscope which is great because I can download images onto a pc to work further into them. These images are at a high resolution.The S.E.M images of prepared specimens are taken by an internal camera attached to the scanning electron microscope. They reveal a much higher magnification of minute structures. I work mainly from direct observation in the landscape, drawing and photographing and from SEM images, in the development of my visual ideas.
Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information? The scientist is rarely interested in art and finding a way to dialogue with the scientist is not easy. They are the ‘experts’ and the artist is not. It is important to be aware of the history of art when working in the scientific field as it can be a bit overwhelming at times.. I always focus on the intention of making a piece of artwork.