artist research / Onya McCausland

Onya Wilder McCausland was born in Cornwall and studied painting at Falmouth University. Coincidentally, she was also tutored by Virginia when she studied at Falmouth. 

I was introduced to McCausland in a tutorial after showing Virginia my natural dye trials. This was a really exciting discovery for me. Finding a contemporary artist in my field to aspire to has engaged me even more with the collecting of materials from places to make pigments. The process of making is of equal importance to the actual finished work. The way that McCausland’s work is so minimal but still harnesses stories and history is something I strive for in my own work. 

Onya McCausland’s work comes from the earth. On her travels she explores mines and collects rocks such as iron oxide, black earth and chalk. She transforms these raw materials into pigments. Handfuls of the material are put into water. The detritus sinks to the bottom and colour is suspended in the water which is poured off and left to settle. Then the clear water is poured off, leaving pigment in the bottom. This is dried, then ground with a mortar and pestle. Finally, McCausland puts the material through a sieve to remove any remaining debris. The result is pure earth pigment.

There is an magic element of alchemy to McCausland's process. A chemistry that stems from her curiosities with colour. After the pigment is made, it is then transformed into stunning reflections on earth, place, colour and the individual histories of landscapes.

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For me, I like to think that the paintings McCausland makes with her natural pigments act as prompts for restoring awareness of our experience of places as human beings. The context of the works establish contemporary, yet historical, connections between landscape and painting. Through McCausland's locating and extracting of pigments from the natural landscape, she maps out a timeline with her seemingly simple, albeit beautifully soothing works of art.

 Attachment, 2014  Coal black pigment on ply panel and aluminium panel.  Pigment source: Bideford, Devon, England

Attachment, 2014

Coal black pigment on ply panel and aluminium panel.

Pigment source: Bideford, Devon, England

In many of her works, McCausland works not with the traditional format of painting, but with shapes. The shapes act as canvas - they are not constrained by a square or rectangular frame. Precisely next to the pigment shape she has constructed, directly onto the wall she paints an almost translucent wash of that same pigment, which appears as a shadow. A duality. Shadow and substance as one. Again, due to my fascination with the diptych form as an alternative way of seeing the world through art, McCausland's work makes interesting connections with my own.

To make each of these works I have taken pieces from landscapes and turned them into pigment, starting with a journey to the site I am interested in, then dig or climb underground. Manual processes of washing and grinding change the material into paint. It is this physical transition and transformation that interests me as much as the act of painting itself. My paintings are just fragments, they are just as connected with the landscape they originate in as they are to the wall of the gallery space, they are fragments that belong with other fragments; of journeys in my car to places, collecting materials, the lengthy processes of turning the materials into usable pigment, and then paint, writing and films recording these processes. The paintings are a mark along this trajectory. In this way the monochrome painting is simultaneously a fragment of landscape
— McCausland

In interviews I have watched and read on McCausland's practice, she speaks of ‘an integral order’ that is part of her process. When buying commercial materials in the modern art world, it is impossible to buy true ‘earth’ colours. Like my own goal to achieve a natural and 'true' practice using materials purely sourced from the earth, McCausland reject the industrial processes that go towards the fabrication of paint bought in tubes.

There is more than meets the eye to the simple, monochrome shapes and marks made by McCausland; a layered history, a trace of experience and a painstaking but carefully conducted process. The works extend and expand an appreciation of the way pigment has been used since it was first discovered and utilised in prehistoric cave-paintings some 40,000 years ago.

These substances, when they stand alone, have no real meaning other than that they originate from the earth beneath our feet. They are taken and shaped by McCausland's hand. They are transformed again, into an artwork, and acquire meaning. A singular material's trajectory becomes imbued with history.