A Self-Taught Foundation Year

In the UK before starting an undergraduate course in art, students undertake a ‘Foundation Year’. From my research, it seems the idea of a Foundation Year is to:

– explore different media – gaining skills and knowledge across a broad range of art disciplines

– develop the habits of a regular creative practice

– identify your personal artistic interests

I thought it would be interesting to take stock of what my self-taught year has covered, the sources I’ve been learning from and some of the conclusions I’ve reached.


– Books – I followed ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ by Betty Edwards cover to cover. In fact this was pretty much the starting point for my entire year. I wrote quite a bit about it at the time : New Lines. From October to December, I pretty much just drew with pencil – no other media. I just wanted to spend time looking and drawing.

– Practice – Weekly life-drawing at open-groups. Not a class, but 2 to 4 hours of drawing time consistently every week. I’ve discovered I really like to keep my approach evolving, by every 2-3 weeks changing medium. I’ve worked through regular pencils, charcoal, thick marker pens, coloured illustration pens, chalk pastels, oil pastels, conté, regular paper, brown paper, smooth illustration paper, black paper, cereal boxes(!), watercolour paint and wire!

You can find more blog posts about my drawing practice here: My Drawing

– Shows – I saw an excellent show about Rodin’s drawings – I wrote quite extensively about this at the time: Rodin – Drawing & Cut-outs. I also visited the Picasso Museum in Malága and found it hugely helpful to see how he constructed a face from a few sparse marks.

– Conclusions – I like to keep changing things up. I’ve learnt to breathe and relax and enjoy just drawing – not really worrying too much about what something looks like. This feels like a major gift in life! I love keeping an out-and-about sketch book. I’m obsessed by the contour lines between the sky and the buildings. I also really enjoy drawing certain things from memory – significant moments and of course, drawing from art shows and galleries.


– Books – I’ve used a couple of technical books about Watercolour painting and Acrylic painting. They’ve helped with learning about paper, paint, brushes and other basics, but they haven’t been anything like the level of transformative and illuminating that I found the Betty Edwards drawing book to be. ‘Interaction of Colour’ by Joseph Albers however, is a whole other matter. I am part way through working through his exercises in colour, as he taught at the Bauhaus School and Black Mountain College . These aren’t painting exercises per se, instead working with paper collage to scientifically investigate colour. But this has very much influenced my painting and art.

– Practice – Watercolour painting, outside in Valencia and Andalucía. Acrylic paintings – from sketches made out-and-about in Valencia; and from life drawings.

I’ve posted quite a few blogs about my painting, including:

-> Colour Experiments

-> Cabanyal Canvas

-> Building Paintings

-> I see the Sea

-> And in my April Newsletter

– Conclusions – I love bright, strong, vibrant colour. I like building up layers of colour. I’m fascinated by how colour can recede and advance – as Albers would say, colour’s relativity. I enjoy working on unconventional surfaces, such as corrugated cardboard and most recently ceramic tiles. I like working on surfaces that aren’t perfect white rectangles. I prefer surfaces that have been disrupted, that have some some story, or life, or action that has happened to them before an image is constructed on them.

– Other Influences – Earlier in the year, an incredible show of Patrick Heron’s work, which I wrote about ( -> How Patrick Heron blew my mind ). I also found it really exciting at the Picasso Museum in Malaga to see how Picasso worked upon all manner of unconventional surfaces. I wasn’t really aware of that before. I think my favourite was a loose line painting on an old wooden door. I really had the feeling that Picasso saw the world as entirely at his disposal to make art with. That he didn’t delineate between ‘art materials’ and not. That in a way he was material blind, but with his eyes open to everything, thinking freely and following his instincts.

More recently, also De Chirico. I haven’t yet seen any De Chirico work in the flesh, but I’ve looked at quite a bit of his work for inspiration. Particularly with how to deal with large expanses of negative space and create a sense of depth and perspective. Also on a similar topic, some reading about Velázquez and his hazy but considered treatment of space (-> Getting to know Diego)


In my first week in Valencia, I walked past a workshop with large glass windows, two old printing presses and a poster advertising a printing workshop. For the last 9 months, on Fridays from 5-8pm you could find me there learning how to print! The workshop is taught by the wonderful Eva in La Seis Cuatro and has given me an incredible introduction to the world of printing. I’ve learnt various different ways to do dry-point etching, acid-based etching and aquatints – and a hell of a lot of very technical spanish!

I’ve fallen in love with the beauty of printing by hand. Firstly it takes an incredible amount of time and effort – preparing metal plates, sanding away imperfections, de-oxidising, removing grease, filing bevel-edges and that’s before you even make a mark on the plate. Then it’s on to whatever technique you are using to make marks on the plate. Particularly satisfying is letting a metal plate slide and submerge into a bath of coppery blue acid. The finished plates themselves are beautiful and it’s painful to think if I was ever producing a limited edition, strictly speaking you should the break plate after printing, to guarantee the finiteness of the edition. Right now all my work is ‘artist’s proofs’, so I’ve yet to destroy a plate.

Lastly there’s the magic of the printing process itself – preparing thick heavy oil-based inks, inking up the plate, buffing it to a level of ink of your choice and finally cranking it through the press. Every print is unique with natural variation that emerges from the inking process, nature of the paper and the pressure of the press. The suspense and surprise every time you peel back the cover of the press, to reveal your print is thrilling.

Some of my printing I’ve written about:

-> Printing Suspense (dry point)

-> Through the Venetian Window (dry point, 2 plates)

->Adventures in Aguafuerte

->My Seated Lady (aguafuerte, sandpaper)

– Conclusions – I love it! I hugely enjoy taking my own drawings and working with them in another medium. I feel like I have gained a huge amount of technical knowledge. I’m excited to see where I can take things next year, now I have a general grounding in how printing works.


One of the biggest luxuries of this year has been time away from a fixed routine. For the previous 10 years of my life, I mostly spent a minimum of 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, in an office environment, pursuing pretty defined goals. I was lucky in that I had reached a point in my career where I had a lot of autonomy and could approach my goals with a certain amount of creative flair. But they were still goals and someone else’s goals – and not the same as doing something simply because it intrigues you, with no particular objective in mind!

In my unstructured routine, I’ve had time to experiment, play, react, respond – being in the moment and present, thinking independently. For example my 52 egg boxes – I saw this huge stack of egg boxes and I simply couldn’t walk past them. I took them back to the studio and spent hours arranging them in different formations, taking photos as the shapes unfolded. I started with a single stack about half a metre high, and slowly unstacked the boxes into ever increasing squares. I was fascinated by the shadows across the lumps and bumps. I had utterly unexpected thoughts about status, power, equality, distribution, feudalism and communism.  I could never have reached these thoughts and this work with a step-by-step, logical plan. And for me that’s the importance of play.

The more I’ve experienced this way of thinking and being, the more I’ve become aware of it’s complete obliteration in adult life for most people in society today. I find it very painful when adults tell me they ‘aren’t creative’, or ‘can’t draw’. I deeply believe that we are ALL creative. So I have started a group here in Valencia, called the Art Play Group. My aim is provide some time and space for  adults to explore, play, be creative or silly through a loosely guided creative activity. So far we have played with contour drawing,  wire and plasticine to make experimental sculptures, mark-making to music and drawing at huge scale with marker pens on sticks, amongst other things.

I love creating an inclusive atmosphere and focusing on process and play, rather than outcomes. I make it deliberately down-to-earth, friendly and fun. I avoid meaningless art mumbo-jumbo, but I do draw connections to artists and approaches afterwards. I send a follow-up email with something tangential or related, vaguely setting whatever we have done in some kind of context. I choose not to do this at the start of a session, as I don’t want this to intimidate or overly direct people’s experience of the activity. I have learned so much from running this group, it’s been amazingly fun and a brilliant way to meet some very interesting people.

– Influences – Phyllida Barlow, an utterly fascinating interview with her on the amazing Talk Art podcast. I managed to write 5 sides of notes in an hour! It was hugely reassuring to hear her talking about her experiments with everyday materials. How she plays with them, and sees what they suggest to her,  a process approach to sculpture.

Also Sol Lewitt, I saw a creation of one of his wall drawings in El Centro Botin last summer. I loved the piece, and this year have read quite a bit about his work, including some of his essays.


Last but not least, various kind artists with far more experience than me, have generously shared their time with me. These conversations have really influenced my practice and I’m hugely grateful for this support.

TC McCormack – ‘Don’t think about making works’ .. or something along those lines. It’s something that I’ve had in my head and has helped me relax and just see where things can go. A conversation that gave me strength as I set off in a new direction.

Sara Arthur-Paratley – a sculptor and performance artist and my first studio buddy! I’ve only recently come to realise what a gift it has been to walk past her work on a daily basis.  To see her sculptural process unfold in realtime – to see her bring foam mattresses from the street, mix plaster of paris, stitch fabric and mould forms. And then to walk past those forms, seeing them from all different angles over an extended period of time. To have tit-bits of conversation about them in passing, and then to see them come alive and dance in her performance.

Emma Shapiro – I met Emma via a lifedrawing group in January 2019. I was conscious that I was in need of somebody to have an ongoing conversation with, about my work. About how it was developing, for practical knowledge and suggestions and to learn from someone who has had a formal art education. I was lucky enought to meet Emma, an incredible artist and wonderful person at just the right moment.

Since January we have met on a weekly basis, for 1 to 2 hours and this time has been invaluable to me. It has accelerated, deepened and enlightened my practice.  It has given me confidence, momentum and inspiration. It has been a joy to meet each week and we’ve had many fascinating conversations. This has been a vital, deeply influential and treasured part of my ‘Self-Taught Foundation Year’. Thank you – from the bottom of my heart.

The one disadvantage of not studying in a formal setting, is the lack of peer group. Therefore I have made it my mission to connect with many other artists and creative people based here in Valencia.

I’ve been thrilled to visit the home of  Sandi Goodwin, also a self-taught artist the studio of Celia Kettle  and to collaborate with the brillant Jonathan Parkin, for a very special, musical Art Play Group session. I’ve also welcomed lots of talented people to my studio space – artists, writers, musicians, photographers, ceramicists and more! Including the wonderful Erin Hooker, Angus Whitty, James Crocket, Ellie Maguire, El Ladron de Ojos and Julie Karpodini , amongst others. And last but not least it has been wonderful to be welcomed into Colonia Roma, a group of female, practicing artists who meet on a regular basis, here in Valencia.

Overall Thoughts

I feel like my year of self-directed study has been more successful than I possibly could have imagined. I will be showing a selection of my works in October here in Valencia. I’m hugely excited to see my work in a public place, but I’m even more thrilled to have established the habits of a regular art practice. I already have plans for work I want to develop in the coming academic year. Onwards and upwards, keeping on making!