Respect for the pixel

 

While working on the studies featured in my recent post Digital painting I developed, for the first time, a strong attraction towards pixels! Up to then I’d always considered them blemishes to be blended over, or even when I’d descend down there to work amongst them, as building blocks which are meant to disappear within the whole when seen from afar. But with those studies and the others I’ve included here I started to value the distinctive ‘zing’ they could give, and on another level just as much .. their truth to the medium! They are the ‘atoms’ of digital work, and it seems right to make use of their distinctiveness where appropriate rather than always trying to mimic the appearance of those more traditional forms of painting or drawing that have come before.

 

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2017

Small Artefacts No.1

David Neat, digital studies, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Jelly Bears

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2017

Small Artefacts No.4

 

How pixels help to achieve abstraction

Abstraction in art is the departure from the representative dominance of forms and images so that, in its purest form, we can start to appreciate them just for themselves rather than judging them by their qualities of ‘likeness’ or association with familiars in the real world. Abstraction should not be measured according to how less ‘real’ something looks, but rather how more ‘real’ the physical stuff of the work becomes. Music is an example of an art form where this disassociation can be achieved quite comfortably .. but we never think of music as ‘not real’? It is its own real. There will always .. always! .. be association of some kind, especially in visual art, so the purest abstraction possible is not where association does not or cannot occur, rather where it is not needed for a satisfying experience, where it can be put aside. Abstraction can’t be an ‘either is or isn’t’, or a ‘black or white’, or an ‘on or off’ thing .. there are an infinite number of shades in between!

The pixel is fitting, both as medium and symbol, if we are thinking in terms of a departure from visible reality .. whether we’re aiming for the disembodied or disassociated, or towards the material ‘stuff’ which some early abstractionists referred to as more concrete. Pixels themselves don’t possess an inherent size .. the size we see them depends on how we view them! They are outside the realms of size or scale. Do they even have an inherent existence? Where are they when the lights are out?

When they become more visible they break the illusion of representation, they start referring more to medium and surface than anything else they might be representing. As one slowly zooms in to an image the pixels lose their connection to the whole, they become things in their own right.

A single pixel is like a tiny Malevich! Kasimir Malevich was the Russian painter who first proposed that a square canvas painted either black or white could be a valid work of art .. an artistic statement in its own right. Pixels are only one step up in complexity from simple black or white. 

 

David Neat, digital studies using PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Swamp Terrain for Toy Soldiers No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

SkyCluster No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Swamp Terrain for Toy Soldiers No.3

 

What the word ‘pixel’ conjures

The word is light and bright, mainly because of its centre composed of the vowels ‘i’ and ‘e’ with an ‘x’ in between for extra ‘xing’! There is also a sharpness, suggesting it could puncture the skin but not in a serious way, because nearby associative words are ‘pick’ or ‘prick’. It has some likenesses with the word ‘crystal’, which may be significant considering the morphological similarity of the two ( ‘morphology’ is the study of the form of things and the why). But the closest relationship .. and the reason why the word conjures the quaintly magical or ethereal .. is with ‘pixie’, which most people think of as a childlike and very small fantasy being. Despite its connection to ancient folklore ‘pixel’ is also quite a modern-sounding word, akin to a detergent brand name.

The word ‘pixel’ derives from ‘picture element’ describing the smallest controllable element in a digital image. In computing, an image composed of pixels is known as a bitmapped image or a raster image. The number of pixels per inch ‘ppi’ denotes the resolution of the image and determines the size it will be rendered by default on the computer screen ( note that this may have little to do with the ‘dpi’ dots per inch print capability of a printer). An individual pixel can only be either square or rectangular, and it can only have a single ‘colour’ with no shading. The number of colours an individual pixel can become depends on its ‘bpp’ bits per pixel on a scale from 1 (pixel is either on or off, image is monochrome) to 24 (giving over 16million colour possibilities).

 

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Bathroom Glass No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Mirkwood No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Bathroom Glass No.2

 

So pixels are not always square?

No not always, under certain circumstances they change. I found this out when I wanted to resize my ‘pixel studies’ which were of course by nature small (i.e. many of them around 240 x 180 pixels) to my usual preferred image size 1280 x 960. I should have guessed that it wouldn’t be a straightforward ‘resize’ click in PaintShop Pro or Photoshop, but seeing the unexpected results was a better learning experience. For example here is the enlargement I wanted of a very small portion using, in the end, PaintShop Pro’s option Pixel Resize. It stands to reason, in retrospect, that the enlargement size (in this case to 600 x 450) would have to be divisible by the original size (20 x 15) for the pixels to remain as they were.

Enlargement of image using PaintShop Pro 'Pixel Resize' option, David Neat 2018

Below on the other hand is the same 20 x 15 portion which I’ve first enlarged to 23 x 17 .. so not divisible .. just to make the point (of course I then had to enlarge the result again using ‘Pixel Resize’ just so that it would appear here at the same size but I checked that it hadn’t altered the effect).

Indivisible enlargement using PaintShop Pro 'Pixel Resize' showing pixel distortion

Now there are 4 variations .. large squares, small squares, flat and upright rectangles! The pixels had to do something to compensate for the indivisible enlargement, but why they chose this way I’ve little idea! The results are much more dynamic though!

Just out of interest here is the same image portion enlarged using two of the more standard ‘smoothing’ options i.e. the ones I didn’t want .. the first Bicubic and the next Bilinear.

 

Enlargement using PaintShop Pro 'Bicubic' option, David Neat 2018

 

Enlargement using PaintShop Pro 'Bilinear' option, David Neat 2018

 

An interesting ‘meander’ can be followed from the word. The word-form itself is known as a portmanteau where two separate words are compressed or ‘packed away’ as one. Lewis Carroll is credited for coining the first use of the word in this way, in his book Through the Looking-Glass and it is something he practiced constantly. The word pixelation refers to the usually unwanted effect of pixels becoming too visible or creating distortions, but it is often confused with pixilation which is actually something separate, namely a form of jerky stop-motion animation where the number of frames describing a movement is purposely reduced. Here the source is not ‘pixel’ at all but ‘pixie’ as it’s meant to convey a sense of ‘possession by spirits’. In that respect ‘pixilation’ whatever the spelling is quite apt to describe the sometimes alarming transformations of newsreader’s faces when there are faults in digital TV transmission .. the images do sometimes look ‘possessed’. But there can also be moments when they appear agreeably evocative or even beautiful! The unwanted visible distortions which occur in digital images are known as artifacts (in this case usually using the American spelling).

Here are two examples of the many images to be found online labelled glitch art ..

example of 'glitch art'

Example of 'glitch art'

The significance of the word ‘artefact’

It was a coincidence that I should start acknowledging visible pixels while working on studies inspired by my Thames Foreshore searching .. but then came this significant word link! The word artefact has surfaced more than once in my pastimes over the years. Anyone serious about identifying their ‘historical’ finds on the Thames Foreshore will know the Portable Antiquities Scheme website, which catalogues finds of particular archaeological relevance. Most of these are referred to as ‘artefacts’, the archaeological definition being ‘an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest’. One of my teenager ‘phases’ was studying things under the microscope, although now I wouldn’t be able to call it ‘studying’ more like just obsessively looking at. But I owe much of my artistic output to these hours spent! In microscopy the word ‘artefact’ refers to anything seen that is not supposed to be there but which occurs as a result of human intervention, such as a foreign particle or a distortion arising from slide preparation. The broader scientific definition is ‘something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure’. I remember wondering as a child whether this could also be applied .. to ghosts! But now I have been gifted the third meaning, which doesn’t appear so much in the standard dictionaries because the American spelling is commonly used. Like I’ve mentioned, this  refers to ‘anomalies during visual representation of digital graphics or imagery’ according to Wikipedia. It obviously originates from the broader scientific term, but I very much like the implication that these anomalies could also be appreciated as meaningful objects in their own right!

I’ve put more of these digital studies under Digital work 2017-18 in the Gallery section above, and I hope to add more as I complete them.

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Digital abstracts

 

Digital abstract, 001, iPad finger painting, 2017

001, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 002, iPad finger painting, 2017

                                                                002, 2017

                                                                

Digital abstract, 003, iPad finger painting, 2017

003, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 004, iPad finger painting, 2007

004, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 007, iPad finger painting, 2017

007, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 012, iPad finger painting, 2017

012, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 017, iPad finger painting, 2017

017, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 022, iPad finger painting, 2017

022, 2017

 

Background

I created these painting studies recently using PaintShop Pro and the Procreate painting software for iPad. The forms developed from a combination of two related sources .. impressions received while searching the Thames foreshore, and my collection of used painting palettes.

I feel I might be making some progress in getting more comfortable with working digitally, making the digital manipulation of images actually work for me .. to give me what my mind’s eye wanted .. rather than generating enticing variations which, however interesting, move in other unforeseen and unprepared directions! In traditional image making .. I mean physical painting or drawing, applying real substances onto a physical surface .. there are many limitations in comparison. With continual practise one can extend the range gradually but also become comfortable in working within these limitations, even turning them to advantage. The way one works within limitations defines one’s self .. one’s hand-print, one’s style, one’s visual aesthetic .. with consistency it almost guarantees that what one is doing will be different from another’s. Paradoxically, the infinite range provided by digital image making has led, it seems to me, to a lot of people’s work looking very much the same!

As for the Thames foreshore, I think I’ve written elsewhere that much of the experience is about tuning in to the special ‘otherness’ amongst all the sameness, or looking for the natural or man-made signs of ‘life’ amongst  the stones. But the interesting thing is that while doing that I think I’ve acquired a heightened sympathy for it ALL .. the whole range of same, similar, other or distinctive .. because nothing is identical, and everything however simple has a character of its own! In particular, there are the flints with their strong contrasts of dark and light, and their lifeform-like suggestiveness. I have a theory that it was stones such as these, the very same ones around at the dawn of humankind, which assisted the first inklings of the idea that we could both imitate other things and create shapes of our own.  

The other aspect of my Thames foreshore experience which seems to be soaking into my work more and more is .. trusting the ready-made, accepting the found object or, in other words, having faith in serendipity .. and this leads in to my second source of inspiration. For some years now I’ve been collecting up the painting palettes used in my courses, letting them dry and scanning them before soaking and scraping them clean. Have you ever stood in front of a ‘non-representational’ painting and been almost literally struck by an overwhelming feeling of ‘rightness’, a feeling .. that the balance is so sensibly poised between harmony and conflict, that the colours are so carefully considered, or that it can suggest a number of ideas but doesn’t need to be any of them? The thing is, on a number of occasions I’ve been hit by a very similar feeling while looking at a used painting palette! Is it possible that a few minutes worth of unfocused paint mixing can inspire the same feelings as weeks of painstaking work? Why not? Isn’t a painting palette a perfect example of form and colour for it’s own sake .. because it can’t be anything else? Isn’t it on the one hand pure and untainted by thought and on the other an honest embodiment of natural forces? When a painter composes an evocative abstraction, i.e. one which elicits agreement on an emotional rather than an intellectual level, aren’t they just painstakingly recreating in their own terms those same instances of rhythm and interruption, sameness and otherness, the individual and the whole, determinism and randomness .. the same that occur in a littered street, a stony foreshore or a painting palette?

While working on these studies I have become very interested again in the questions surrounding abstraction and in particular its relationship with music. This relationship is not about painting that strives to be ‘like’ music, to imitate it, certainly not painting that seeks to evoke musical or auditory sensations. It’s painting that attempts to parallel the way music is experienced.

Why is this so terribly hard? The urge to create paintings that could be experienced like music was introduced into the Fine Art forum about 100 years ago, but that means it’s still a fairly recent notion in the timespan of cultural history. Many recently past or contemporary artists may have evidenced how it could be achieved but that remains only one side of the deal that needs to be struck between creators and public perceptions. It may just be impossible; it may even go against the way we perceive things?

For me the fundamental is ‘Can we appreciate something without feeling the need to recognize what it is, where it comes from or what is meant by it?’ Yes, that’s possible with music! Of course if music appeals to us we become curious about where it comes from, and we may begin to formulate other questions, but those and other thoughts hardly affect its appeal while listening to it .. and I’m sure that most people would agree that the question ‘what is meant by it’ is unlikely to be in their minds while enjoying it? It does its job without the need for meaning! To put it another way, music can work on us without the need to reference anything other than itself.

Why can’t we do that with painting? For the moment I’m fairly convinced that we can’t .. but I don’t know why yet. Is it simply because vision is our primary means of reading, interpreting or in other words ‘making sense’ of our world, so we just can’t let go of that basic directive when it comes to processing anything visual? Or is it linked to the very different way we receive the two i.e. music can only ever be one note at a time, as it were, whereas a painting is commonly taken in all at once, then re-examined in detail? So the brain has to process the input in a different way? In a sense, music is never there, it can’t be ‘frozen’, our perception of it is a combination of the memory of what has been and the anticipation of what is to come. Maybe it’s just this disembodiment which is the key to understanding why music can work on us so ‘abstractly’ whereas painting cannot?  

     

Guide to Thames Foreshore locations

I’ve started to hunt on the Thames Foreshore again, the first chance I’ve had since the beginning of the year. But before I get too wrapped up in the promising present, I wanted to put some of the work I did in January to rest. I say ‘work’ because I worked hard to justify the time I was spending and to put my obsession to good use. The only solution for self-indulgence is to share it! So I developed the idea that I could create my own artificed version of my Thames Foreshore experience .. a collection of small cast and painted forms which could pile together like a diverse, colourful and symbolic shingle, and which could be .. perhaps quite literally .. sold by the ounce! For the moment I’m calling this rather prosaically my Thames Foreshore Collection.

So in the folder Thames Foreshore above, which I added last year but has remained practically empty, I’ve added my project log. I had also got somewhat sidetracked into feeling that an organised account of each foreshore location I visited would be worthwhile. So I’ve also put the beginnings of those there. As always this was as much for myself as anyone else, because I needed first of all to decipher and pinpoint where the access points actually were from the outdated guidance; to remind myself of notable hazards; to remind myself of any aspects of local history which could be relevant to what might be found below, and lastly to record the things I’d not only found but experienced there.

I’ve started each location write-up by marking the precise access point on Google maps, together with photos of the steps and immediate foreshore terrain. After a short listing of any ‘Hazards’ there’s a summary of local history where I’ve included sections of a very detailed Ordnance Survey map from the 1860s as an indication of the past life of the area. For example, here is the Google map entry showing the location of Horn Stairs in Rotherhithe; followed by a section from the 1860s OS map detailing the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard as was, in the Deptford/Surrey Quays area, and a photo of the entry gate to the steps at Greenwich Power Station.

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, location of Horn Stairs (Google Maps), Thames Foreshore, Surrey Docks

Thames Forshore, Upper Watergate upstream 3, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

David Neat, Thames foreshore access at Greenwich Power Station

Where I’ve found interesting images to illustrate the history I’ve included them, such as this rendition of the royal Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, formerly on the site which became the Royal Naval College, now University of Greenwich.

Palace of Placentia Greenwich in 1560

Then for each location there are the ‘Opportunities’ afforded, and I’ve started to illustrate some of these with the things I’ve been able to find so far. I’ve put up what I can for the moment, but there’s a lot more waiting to be added.

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, early 18th century clay pipe

Such as .. a portion of 18th century clay pipe found at Enderby’s Wharf on the Greenwich Peninsula, and the shingle bank underneath Morden Wharf nearby.

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, shingle at Morden Wharf

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, frost on shingle Greenwich beach December 2016

Winter frost on the beach at Greenwich and an unusually large piece of pottery dug out of the mud there.

David Neat, large potsherd, Thames foreshore Greenwich, unidentified pottery sherd on-site record as found

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, large piece of coral (ship's ballast), Thames Foreshore, Rotherhithe

Coral, weathered bricks and flints, and buried ship timbers at Rotherhithe; lastly the remains of a present-day offering to the river at Surrey Quays.

brick and flint forms, Thames Foreshore, Rotherhithe

David Neat, buried ship's timber, Thames Foreshore, Rotherhithe

David Neat, river offering, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

 

Advice for anyone interested in beachcombing or mudlarking the Thames Foreshore

I’m working through my obsession partly by writing about it .. and probably making it far, far worse! But at least I’ve completed this very practical guide and deposited it as the first entry in a new folder Thames Foreshore in the main menu strip. The guide even includes an illustrated list of the different kinds of mud, which in its seriousness may be amusing to some! But I’ve chosen not to preview that particular part as an excerpt here, rather this other part.

What might you find?

As I said, different spots may offer up more than others if you’re just looking for historical human artefacts but if, like me, you’re just as keen to see interestingly shaped stones, driftwood or unexpected flotsam .. just about any point on the Thames Foreshore will do! Most locations have either patches or whole banks of shingle, some interspersed with areas of sand, others with areas of mud. Regarding those ‘stones’, I had, as it were, questioned their authenticity earlier. What I meant was that much of what first appear as nicely weathered, rounded pebbles are fragments of brick or roof tile, or natural chalk which was ‘shipped in’ and laid down as more comfortable beds for the barges. There are pebbles, mainly flint, which were naturally deposited by successive glacial actions up to the last Ice Age around 21,000 years ago .. but many of those, especially the larger and more weirdly shaped nodules, could have just as likely been shipped in along with the chalk.

Pipe bowls, Thames Foreshore, Wapping

For most visitors the fragments of clay tobacco pipe are the most memorable novelties, and a trademark of the Thames foreshore. Pieces of pipe-stem are easy to pick up in certain areas, complete bowls less so .. but spend enough time on the first type of mud featured earlier and you may even extract a perfectly preserved bowl with a few inches of stem! There are so many fragments, not just because for more than 300 years they were sold filled and routinely chucked when smoked, but also because the hundreds of pipe-makers working along the foreshore would likely ditch their kiln leftovers or rejects into the Thames. Even today most will be found close to where the numerous ferries used to transport workers either across or along the Thames, because although the Thames currents will move many things around over the course of time the mud will also tend to accept, envelope and preserve many things where they fell. Because of that it’s not unheard of to find complete ones, which could sometimes be more than a forearm in length!

Clay pipe bowls can be dated with some certainty according to their shape, size and decoration, and with even more accuracy if they feature a maker’s-mark on the ‘heel’, the protrusion under the bowl. The top pipe bowl above dates from 1640-60 while the one below is a fairly typical decorated one from 1780-1820.

Pieter Claesz 'Clay Pipes and a Brazier' 1636

Tobacco Pipes and a Brazier 1636  (Hermitage) by the Dutch still-life painter Pieter Claesz showing a very similar form to the older pipe bowl above.

Two other common items that can do with a little background are the oyster shells and the animal bones. Oysters have been native to the Thames Estuary since the beginnings of time apparently, and it was only relatively recently that they ceased to be a major food source especially for the poor. So the abundance of their discarded shells along the London Thames is more than accounted for by that fact, whether or not the river itself supports them or how much they’ve been specially farmed here in the past. The same applies to the animal bones .. the city’s unusable leftovers tipped into the Thames for hundreds of years. As far as I know the common ingredients are sheep, cow, goat, pig and poultry, perhaps with a portion of horse and even a smattering of boar, especially in the Greenwich area where the Tudor royal palace used to be.

Animal bones against the river wall, Thames Foreshore, Wapping

It’s tempting to think this .. that the concentration of bones in the Greenwich area relates either to 200 years of Tudor/Stuart feasting or to the 19th century Foreign Cattle Market at neighbouring Deptford .. but I’m not so sure. I suspect it has more to do with the river bends and the way these influence where the tidal currents deposit different things. Greenwich has a high concentration because it’s at the centre of a ‘concave’ and the same applies to Wapping where the above photo was taken. On a recent visit to part of Rotherhithe on the opposite side, i.e. on the ‘convex’, I noticed there were surprisingly few.

After the stones, the bones and the oyster shells, the next most noticeable without really trying are the fragments of pottery .. or ‘potsherds’ as they’re often referred to, mainly because it’s the kosher archaeological term. One doesn’t go down to the Thames foreshore seeking a complete pot .. you’ll have to go to either a museum or an antiquities dealer for those .. although apparently there have been rare occasions! But I don’t think it’s widely known how significantly old these fragments can be .. surprisingly many can date back to the Roman occupation or even earlier! The problem with most of them especially if water-worn .. is proving that .. if only to oneself. So it’s always more satisfying to find a fragment which has an unmistakable shape, a definitive pattern, an identifiable colour or glaze. There are a surprising number of 17th-18th century fragments, most commonly cream-coloured slipware or white/blue Delftware which are easily recognisable after one’s seen the first .. even more so the pieces of 16th-17th century Bartmann or ‘Bellarmine’ bottle/jugs.

Fragment of 'Bellarmine', Thames Foreshore, Rotherhithe

Above is part of the trademark bearded face from an 18th century German Bartmann jug and below a small piece of 18th century English slipware.

Small piece of 18thC English slipware, Thames Foreshore, Greenwich Peninsula

Then there is the limitless count of things which, on the one hand, anyone can come across by incredible chance or ‘fate’ at any time and in any place without trying, but which on the other hand one’s much more likely to come across by putting in some time and effort. I mean the coins dropped throughout the millennia back to even before there were pockets; the tokens, some just as old, which were used in place of money; the religious badges or emblems which pilgrims could buy; the many and various tools, including weapons, used on or around the Thames foreshore .. the list is, as I say, unlimited. Except perhaps in one respect .. purposefully buried treasure! .. because who in their right mind would choose to do so in a place where they could be so easily seen doing it and who, with any knowledge of the Thames, would choose such a fluid and changeable location?

How can you improve your chances?

As I’ve suggested, if you’re happy to remain fairly casual about whether you find anything or not then all you need to do is look downwards and let fate decide the rest. If you’re more ‘engaged’, to the point of feeling that you really ‘deserve’ to find something .. that state of mind will certainly help! But added to that, a little preparatory knowledge is bound to help even more.

In the first place you should go a little before low tide, to experience the location at its fullest. Most are varied beaches, as I’ve said, likely to include areas of dry shingle higher up; mixture patches of stones/sand/mud lower down; and lastly wetter, usually older mud nearest the waterline .. you should check out all of them! You may observe while doing so that certain materials or fragments have tended to rest together along the same ‘tide-mark’. Often, though not always, if you find interesting things along one of these, following the same level along the beach or the ‘mark’ if it’s visible will reveal more. Mudlarkers refer to these as find lines but they might be looking for different ones because they’ve learnt the value of scraping under the surface. Often a darker tone of debris, perhaps even including darker sand or silt, may indicate an earlier ‘historical’ seam. But don’t take the word ‘seam’ too literally because these aren’t arranged as clearly and logically as strata in a cliff face.

Another one of the mudlarkers’ favourite phrases is getting your eye in’ or as I think of it, being tuned to the tell-tale signs of ‘otherness’. Much simplified, if you’re after the usual things I’d recommend you tune your eye to pick up circles and parallel lines for a start. Proper circles, or parts of them and especially ‘rings’, are not native to this environment so they can denote pipe-bowls facing upwards, ends of bottles, bases or rims of pots .. and coins! Neither are regular parallel lines ‘natural’ here .. they’re one of the chief indications of the man-made .. and here they may denote most forms of decoration or simply ‘something straight’.

Of course, colour difference can often be the strongest indication generally and it’s a happy coincidence that the raw umber colour of Thames mud is perfectly balanced to contrast equally with pale pipe-clay and warm terracotta. But up against the shingle the competition of colours is fiercer so here especially one is much more dependant on form.

Scanning for 'circles', Thames Foreshore Deptford

As an illustration of this, the photo above is what I was lucky enough to notice on a recent visit to my local stretch of Deptford foreshore, and below is what it turned out to be. This was a popular form of pipe for a while in the mid 19th century but they’re not a common Thames find and they weren’t a great deal longer than what’s been left here. These male heads were often of dragoons or Turks, presumably because of the convenient headgear shapes.

Mid 19th Century male head pipe, Thames Foreshore Deptford

For me it always ‘marks the day’ when I find a particular type of item I haven’t found before, like when I found my first ‘wig curler’ which was only the smallest of fragments rather than a complete one, but that hardly mattered.

I’d estimate that even when one knows the beach and its ‘hot spots’; however experienced one might be at searching and however well-tuned the eye happens to be that day .. the chances of seeing even what’s lying in one’s path can’t be more than 50%. This is because unless you’re standing still you have to swing your gaze to-and-fro while moving, so there’s always an equal chance that something is on the ‘fro’ while you’re on the ‘to’! But I really think that’s as it should be .. it means that other people get a ‘look in’ after you, including yourself at another time.

The next illustrates the importance of having an eye for parallel lines, for which I’m using photos courtesy of Lara Maiklem (@london.mudlark). What she first spotted was this .. the hint of a stoneware colour, but otherwise the only marks distinguishing it from its surroundings were a few incised lines.

14th century Dutch toy whistle, Thames Foreshore, @london.mudlark

Only a small part of it was visible and it turned out to be part of a 14th century toy whistle from the Netherlands. She was able to identify it so precisely after posting it on her Facebook site because it received a response from someone who had seen a near- identical one in a Dutch collection, shown in the b/w photo.

lon-mudlark_whistle

Lastly, if you’re looking for success .. you just have to put the time in! Often, after checking first when at least some of the beach is even accessible, I’ll be down there 2 hours before low tide and stay around until 2 hours after. It may be annoying at times but I’m thankful for the limit the tide imposes .. otherwise I’d be spending far too much time down there for my own good!

Thames foreshore

I felt I needed to explain why I haven’t been posting for a while and to, hopefully, start recompensing. I’ve been unable to write partly because I’ve been trying to get to grips with a rather overwhelming obsession with the Thames foreshore. Before I moved to Deptford in 2008 and discovered that we were within a stone’s throw of the access stairs known as Upper Watergate I had always loved the Thames whenever I saw it .. as most Londoners do .. but had never considered getting that close to it. That started to change on realizing how very ‘interesting’ everything down there could be at low tide! We quickly became so accustomed to spending time there so when in 2009 the photographer Brittany App wanted to take some shots of us in our favourite environment there was little question about the choice.

David Neat and Astrid Baerndal photographed by Brittany App

St George's Stairs, Thames foreshore 2017

What made our local ‘beach’ so appealing was the wealth of options! We could go down there with a camera or a collector’s bag, most often both .. either way we knew we would almost always come back with something of value. We could go down there to think, mentholated by the unbelievable peacefulness of the place .. but equally we could benefit from the opposite when we didn’t want to think, when we needed to take our minds ‘off’. We could go to experience a semi-natural habitat shielded from the human bustle above, hearing only wind and water, sharing it for the moment with flocks of seagulls, families of swans, solitary herons, cormorants or the occasional fox .. or we could go for reminders of our own human past amongst the decaying jetties, fragmenting ironwork or even more ancient timbers. Often we would go there just to be amused .. it’s strange how regularly the foreshore offers up images or objects in seemingly deliberate opposition!

Heron at Deptford, Thames foreshore 2016

Plastic duck, Thames foreshore 2017

The foreshore collective constantly plays tricks! Objects often appear to be what they’re not .. little scraps of red-brown rubber will often sit amongst the pottery sherds; white cable stained with age will poke up amongst the pipe fragments; smoothly rounded ‘pebbles’ of brick most often outnumber the naturals they’re imitating. Even the knowledgeable can be fooled by the chalk i.e. knowing that this part of England lies on a massive chalk foundation .. but this chalk hasn’t risen from underneath the London Clay, it’s what remains of the chalk that was shipped in and laid down as more stable beds for the barges. The presence of most things to be found on the foreshore, and the reasons behind their abundance in certain places or their absence in others, can often be illuminated by a little historical detection. But there are unsolved mysteries too .. for example, why so many of the oyster shells have holes in their centres (apparently this is not jewellery) or where the strange green stones found around the Rotherhithe shoreline come from.

When I put it in these words .. no wonder I’ve become obsessed!

But this present obsession is much stronger than before because for the last few weeks I’ve started to think seriously about how I can use it, or in better words .. what I can make out of it! So I started by interrogating what the attraction was down there, what thoughts it was generating .. what was the sculptor in me thinking rather than purely the person? I wasn’t just scanning for historical fragments but seeking out aesthetic ‘favourites’ from the multitude of shapes on offer, regardless of what material they were or their social significance.

Pipe bowl, Thames foreshore 2016

Whiting Stairs, Thames foreshore 2017

So I’ve thought a bit more about that act of searching .. of scanning. The brain conditions the eye to pick out the ‘otherwise’, that which doesn’t belong .. but only in terms of visual distinction, of colour and form. In other ways that whole idea of ‘belonging’ or not is debatable .. because for me as the finder all these things are ‘meant’ to be there and according to the intricate gameplay of the foreshore one thing can be as ‘natural’ there as another. It would be similar saying that the snake in the grass doesn’t ‘belong’ there

photo courtesy of marleypeifer.com

Above courtesy of marleypiefer.com

But certainly one’s looking for visual ‘otherness’ .. a contained colour or tone difference; a noticeable pause in the surrounding visual activity; anything to do with repetition especially if it’s regular i.e. evenly spaced parallel lines or divisions; smoother geometry i.e. better circles or squares than nature usually needs. Often one gets only the last-departing hints of these differences because the Thames has already had many years of ‘taking them back’. Whatever they looked like when they were newly artificial, the river invests them in camouflage, almost as if once accepting them into its folds it takes part in their concealment.

old padlock, Thames foreshore Greenwich 2017

In other places, especially higher up the beaches, there’s so much ‘otherness’ in the melee that significant others can often hide in plain sight. The fragment of pot which one can just about make out within the scrap metal frame turned out to be Tudor!

Deptford junk, Thames foreshore 2009

So I’m sure that searching the Thames foreshore has greatly enhanced my appreciation of the full formal spectrum as I like to call it ( though I have to find a better term). I mean the range of likely form types, including their usual colours and surface patterns, from mineral through organic animal/vegetable to artificial man-made. As a boy hunting for fossils I became familiar with part of it .. the lower and oldest part of the spectrum from mineral shapes and pattern coincidences to true signs of life. Physical forces may have shaped stones or given them surface patterns that look uncannily ‘designed’ but usually one gets to be able to distinguish these from the more conclusively deliberate and organised trace-forms left behind by living creatures. These have a different formal style .. almost always involving some form of equal repetition and very often showing some form of symmetry. If the fossil is more than an impression, rather a cast of the original lifeform transmuted in mineral, then there is also local colour to differentiate it from stone.

After that this formal spectrum would continue through lifeforms themselves .. especially in this context their surviving parts i.e. bones, horns, teeth, shells, driftwood, seed pods etc. Then it’s onto the artificial .. starting with stones which have been shaped as tools; including animal bones which have been modified or decorated; through to early pottery and metalwork .. and onwards! What would be at the end of this spectrum then? One might immediately think of the number of smartphones that end up on the foreshore .. but no, they’re just tools, they don’t deserve such a significant place, and in any case the spectrum is not strictly chronological. Here, and I’m just suggesting for the moment, one should place the symbolic .. forms which have no practical, everyday function other than to represent something greater! This final portion would embrace both ancient and modern .. fertility figures, talismans, religious symbols, offerings to the Thames ( of which there are many present day ones ) .. pieces of fine art, if any.

So far I’ve just been describing, and at the same time organizing, the basis inspiration for what I now want to create out of the experience so far. I have plans and I could say more, but I’d prefer to let this evolve more naturally, less deliberately. What I am compelling myself to do is to create a separate Thames foreshore section in the above main menu strip. To start it off I’m writing a more practical guide based on various places I’ve visited so far, for anyone interested in doing the same.