Creating an artwork on location while being filmed is no mean feat. Add in a sewing machine, disperse dyes and an iron and the pressure’s on – Andrea Cryer tells Emma Clegg about taking part in Landscape Artist of the Year
Landscape Artist of the Year and its partner series Portrait Artist of the Year are hit shows on Sky Arts, with more than 600,000 people on average watching each episode. Hosted by Joan Bakewell and Stephen Mangan, it’s a fascinating format for artists and non-artists alike. The landscape version of the programme takes eight weatherproof pods, finds a location with a dramatic landscape, and puts an artist in a pod. Each one has four hours to produce a piece of work representing the landscape around them. A stop-motion camera runs behind each artist capturing their every move. They work in conditions ranging from sizzling sunshine to gusty grey storms, with only their respective pods protecting them from the elements. There are also a valiant band of ‘wild cards’, 50 artists who come along to paint the landscape armed with easels, chairs, umbrellas, packed lunches and family cohorts, with the chance of one of them being put through to the next stage.
I was watching the beginning of the third episode of the latest series – set in Inveraray Castle in Argyle, Scotland – as it introduced the artists and showed their submission pieces. I saw an artwork of a building that looked resonantly familiar flash onto the screen. It was a view of Topping & Co. bookshop on The Paragon. Suddenly an impartial evaluation of landscape artists from different parts of the UK turned into a thrilling local celebration – of the view from my office, of a much-loved local bookshop and of an artist from Bradford-on-Avon called Andrea Cryer.
“It was raining, completely grey, shrouded in mist and you couldn’t see a thing,” says Andrea, describing the conditions on the day.
A hard context for any artist working outdoors, but doubly so for Andrea as her technique involves machine embroidery, and so a sewing machine and an iron. “It really didn’t suit my way of working,” Andrea laughs. “It was the same for everybody, but with painting you can put on lots of grey and make it really interesting but with stitch I need a shape. So I do my outline and then I apply my colour – so I don’t start off with colour, I do it the opposite way round. Also when I work normally, I stitch it and then I leave it for a while. So it will be left hanging up. And then I go back and I make notes telling me what I need to change.”
There were also the logistical challenges of the filming. “I had my sewing machine and my iron in a big suitcase. I put it all on to my table and then the camera crew came up and said ‘can you put it all back in the suitcase because we haven’t filmed you doing it.’ They also wanted to show me threading the machine, but I could not get that thread through the eye of the needle. And normally I do it straight away at home. But I’ve never worked outside – I am used to working in private.”
Andrea uses an old Bernina sewing machine as a drawing tool, using freemotion embroidery. “Freemotion embroidery allows the needle to go in any direction. It means that the needle can wobble a little bit when you’re doing a straight line. This is how I get lines that are uneven, which I like.” Andrea tends to work bigger because it’s then easier to manipulate the sewing machine.
“The only problem is that you have to use a hoop. So the size of the hoop limits how much you can stitch at any one time. So if you’re doing a tall building you have to keep moving your hoop down to get the line.”
“I sketch out roughly but not perfectly. Because when you are stitching with the machine you work intuitively. I might put in a little line and decide not to use it, or make a different one. So it’s all about the marks.”
The embroidery is only one aspect of Andrea’s technique, which involves layered stages. She starts with rough pencil marks establishing key lines and positions. Then she applies the ‘drawn lines’ with the machine stitching and applies colour with disperse dyes, which are made up from powder into a liquid. The dye is painted on paper, creating a dye sheet that is then cut to shape and then ironed on. The fabric base is also washed after the application of each colour to take some of the intensity out. The cutting of the dye sheets can be intricate – the Toppings image has fiddly architectural details, which Andrea cut out with a scalpel. “I started with the stitching but I took too long so I didn’t leave myself enough time to add depth to the colour – so I had one layer of colour, whereas normally I’d have maybe three or four.”
Andrea’s work starts with a photograph. “I tend not to do images that would be a straight-on view of a shop or a building. I like to take photos by wandering around Bath with my daughter. Or I drive and she has the camera and she just clicks as we drive. And that’s how we get interesting images. I chose the Toppings image because I thought it was a good composition and a good piece. And also it’s just such a fantastic shop – it’s like a Tardis for books.”
The work Andrea produces includes people portraits and urban landscapes. The sewn thread, with its characteristic trembling lines, is so effective a drawing tool that the lines look as expressive as any marks made with standard artists’ media. Up close you can see the threads – and the random trailing thread ends that are left give a looseness and movement that animate the whole piece.
Andrea, who trained originally as a lawyer, started to create her sewn artworks at Bath Spa University where she did a degree in Creative Art (Fine Art & Textiles), specialising in printmaking and textiles. She had a variety of work in her degree show, but it was the two large portraits that she had created of her mother-in-law, as an adjunct to her main project, that stood out. “Visitors were peering closely at the two canvasses, surprised to discover that they were actually drawn with thread and not pen and ink. The portraits are a treasured reminder of ‘a very lovely lady.’”
A portrait of Mary is mesmeric. Haunting eyes form the basis and the energetic, scribbled thread marks with hooped trails of ends dragging down from the eyebrows and the hair, swirling here and there into small thread clusters, are intense yet fragile. There is a blush of pink on the cheeks and lips and a faded brown dye and hand-stitched thread in the hair, but the overall effect is monochrome.
“With the portraits I tend to stick with monochrome,” says Andrea. “When I introduce colour it is in the background. The whole point is the stitching and the marks that you can make.” Despite this, Andrea uses many shades of grey. Another portrait of artist Chris Ofili has as many as 20 greys in his hair, with a dense collection of hand and machine stitching.
Andrea’s submission piece of Topping & Co. ended up being bought by a collector. She wasn’t selected to go through to the next round of the competition, but she says it was fascinating taking part: “I knew it was a competition, but I went into it because I thought it would be a good thing to do and it would challenge me, and take me out of my comfort zone. It’s also good to bring textile art into focus.”
Andrea has some landscapes planned for 2019, including one of the Royal Crescent, and produces portraits and landscapes to commission. Her ambition is simple: “I want to stick with what I do because it’s different. And I like doing it.”