Making Gesso for a Painting.

Southern England rests on a massive marine drift of calcium carbonate formed during the Cretaceous period between 60 and 100 million years ago. A mantle plume in the pacific ocean formed continental ridges and submarine plateaus that caused the land we are on now to become submerged under a rising sea – triggering a massive displacement of water. This sea swimming with microscopic cocoliths became tides of marine debris that slowly settled in tidal ridges from east to west – an accumulating compost heap of tiny skeletons. Skeletons that humans have been nibbling away at for millennia.
Downhill from Archway into the London basin, towards the Thames Estuary through the Blackwall Tunnel – south of the river the chalk ridge emerges under the London clay and greensands at Woolwich Arsenal where I follow the ridge east towards the ‘bell pits’ of Abbey Wood, Crayford, Dartford, Stone, Greenhithe, & Swanscombe.

My journey stretches along a finger of land that is composed of millions of years of marine dust in a deposit that intermittently stretches around the globe. Multi-national industrial mineral mining companies now redistribute the commodified dust back around the globe in a massive global displacement project – re-shaping landforms.

The South coast marks the edge of the land defining the identity of the landscape from a distance, a physical and visual dominance historically protecting the country at the narrowest part of the channel with imposing white walls – the marine dust is embedded into the cultural identity of the coastline of the UK.

I collect chalk from all the sites I visit along the North Downs of Surry and Kent, along the ridge following the Thames Estuary, south east towards the Medway. I use a combination of Ordinance Survey maps, Google earth, eyesight and guess work to get to them. Typically they are fenced off with a range of brightly coloured signs in more or less threatening language: KEEP OUT, NO ACCESS, PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO GRAZING, NO SWIMMING, DANGEROUS SITE, TRESSPASSERS WILL BE PROSECTUTED, PRIVATE LAND.

The white rock cliffs of the older redundant chalk quarries – usually those that are furthest from the Estuary are visible evidence of how a single land formation has been exploited, re-formed, exposed, carved, shaped – re-defining the exterior world – re-shaping perspectives forming new foregrounds, middle and backgrounds, defining, molding, separating, re-organising matter, landforms and creating new landscape. Many have been, and many still are used as landfill making a confusing mixture of carving and modelling, erasing and filling.

There is an aura of danger about quarries, warnings and fear impressed into the psyche from a young age. The atmosphere is often charged with invisible electricity and visible barriers of gates and fences and signs that lead out of ‘permitted’ space and into elicit space – an emotional trigger for the imagination. Quarries are playgrounds for the imagination, dangerous places, exciting places away from authority, away from home and witnesses. Hidden places of exploration, emotional expansion, experimentation and creativity.

The quarries along the fringes the chalk drift that that I follow around the London perimeter (M25) are evidence of shifting material and cultural practices, material and cultural demands, material technologies and material applications over time – The location of a quarry more or less limits its size and production capacity – larger quarries tend to be the more recent ones – the last chalk pits closed here in the 1980s.  These were the ones close enough to the Estuary to allow fluid movement around the country and around the globe. Bluewater (named, not after an established place or in acknowledgement of the centuries old workings, the site – its history or geology but after a short lived branding name: ‘Bluecircle’ cement, now sold off and part of the Lafarge company, so largely irrelevant) Bluewater shopping center – itself defined by branding – sits in a corner of a vast quarry, so massive you can’t see from one end to the other.  In between this and other tidy ‘regeneration’ sites, commercial buildings and new housing developments lay scraps and fragments of land bordering Roman roads, sandwiched between old chalk cliff quarries and estuary marshlands small scale messy industries survive mostly recycling scrap metal and sorting household waste.

This mixture of scales and emphasis between industrialised commercialism and local communities suggests a landscape in transition. Where the relationship between  ‘re-development’ and ‘local community’ seems a bit out of sync and awkward: Continuing the ‘economic’ cycle of the redundant quarry seems to be (still) in the experimental stage – In Strood, a housing estate built inside a quarry seems to perfectly exemplify a multitude of contradictions. A perimeter fence, with brightly coloured signs 5 meters from front doors prevents the residents from getting ‘into’ the quarry they live in. so they live surrounded by inaccessible fenced off dangerous wasteland or is it protected nature reserve – These particular signs reads ‘Keep Out Ecological Area’, begging the question is the quarry a ‘haven’ or a hazard?

The pieces of chalk I find on my journey are usually smallish lumps broken free from the exposed quarry walls and strewn about on the ground. But some lumps are very big, almost too heavy to carry, but I always try to take one big piece.

Opted quarry is theatrical – literally shaped like an amphitheatre as many old quarries are, and overlooking the M25 – The quarry has carved deeply into the hill,  (now more that 200 m above sea level) facing south and slightly towards the west – protected with parts heavily cloaked in green growth with off whitish patches coming through the green – the white turning dirty yellow in places. I have to climb uphill to get to the back of the quarry because over time the excavated space has begun to be refilled or ‘backfilled’ with other miscellaneous industrial waste. I find lots of red and yellow bricks, ceramic tiles, breezeblock fragments, glass and concrete. Areas of the quarry have been smoothed over, and covered with what appears to be a fresh layer of chalk dust, molding and modeling the land, back, as if it was all an error to be corrected.

I have worked with chalk before, but usually with material collected directly from a working quarry that has been industrially processed into pre-ground pigment.  But this time I am grinding the rocks that I have collected from each site to make my own chalk pigment – one pigment for each site.

I have to break up the rocks I’ve collected first. The really heavy pieces from Halling, Oxted and Ebbsfleet I can’t bring myself to break yet, so I decide to keep them whole for now until I think of something to do with them. For each site (I start with Oxted) I gather the smaller pieces together and lay them on sheets of polythene on the floor, then with a single fist sized piece in my left hand and a wooden mallet in my right hand I test to feel the rocks breaking point. The surface of the chalk is so soft to the touch, it doesn’t have any hard or sharp edges, until it breaks after several firm hits, a crack splits open the rock with such brittleness –exactly not like the way it feels. All of a sudden the rock is sharp, and hard, and inert and rock like – not soft and rounded like before. I am so surprised by this shift in the materials identity. I get a knife and begin to scrape away at the surface, fine dust shreds easily off the rock, like shavings from the lead of a pencil or grating a carrot, it also reminds me a bit of filing my nails but much more satisfying, dust shaves easily away and piles up on the floor where I am working and fills the air. I can see the form of the chalk, the way it has broken off from a larger block, and its edges have gradually smoothed  – my scraping – which I’m really getting into now, is exposing fine very faint pale yellow veins, traces of iron maybe? I manage to create a completely flat surface on one side of the rock and wonder why I have never done this before. I take another piece of chalk the size of my fist – or a small Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and recall his discreet portable carving processes – I begin again to carve away. I get two perfectly flat plains to meet, like the side of a box, it’s so easy to use this material, its perfectly smooth and soft and yet solid and hard and I already know how it brittle it is. The fragment in my hand from the quarry is now half carved, like the quarry.

There’s heap of dust on the floor in front of me and fine layer all around, the heavier dust particles fall nearby, while lighter particles catch the air currents and drift away.
I return to my crushing (saving my two carved pieces) remembering that I am making gesso. I now easily sense the materials resistance and can gauge its breaking point, I bash away, with my mallet, crashing down on hundreds of millions of years of forming.

I place the pulverised powdered chalk into a container of water and press the larger particles between my fingers trying to break them up further, they don’t dissolve like I thought they would, so I use a pestle to try and squash them against the sides of the bucket. I do this for a long time. Finally I transfer the water and chalk into a glass container and stir the mixture up. It occurs to me that this might be the first time these microscopic impacted particles of sea dust have drifted free, floating around for the first time in 100 million years or so. The water swirls around the glass container the milky chalk stuff suspended but slowly sinking, drifting back downwards, settling – like it did all those years before.  I stir it up a bit more and watch. After a while the water begins to clear. The larger pieces have grouped to the centre of the round container – the first to fall to the bottom creating a heap in the centre. The smaller particles have drifted to the far edges and form a very fine layer on top. I put my hand into the water and clouds of dust rise up again, I feel the harder pieces that I didn’t grind very well between my fingers. I drain off the water and lay it out to dry.

Working with chalk is strange, the feeling of chalkiness gets in on you – it softens the skin but dries it out, it coats and smoothers – drawing out moisture. The dry softness reaches into my head, I get a dull ach between my temples, I have a mask but I’m still drawing in fine particles – penetrating through the epidermis. Everything is finely cloaked in chalky muffle.

I’m making a gesso for a painting. Gesso is the Italian word for gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate), but chalk, (calcium carbonate) is also used and is the main in gredient in the ground (as you would imagine), it is mixed, in a special way with a binder, in this case glue size. Traditional gesso is made in two grades, a coarse thick gesso grosso, which is almost microcrystalline in structure and gesso sottile. Traditionally the heavier courser ground would be laid down first with the finer gesso making up the final layers on the panel’s surface.

I decide to follow this method, because the chalk has organised into two different grades, one course, one fine. I start with the course grade, its lumpy and unwieldy, I have to move it over the surface quickly before it dries out too much to get an even coat. Then I apply the finer grades, these sink in and fill the spaces, but the surface is still un-even. Layer after layer of chalk is laid down onto the panel each layer settling into the one beneath before it completely dries.

Slowly the surface builds, still uneven but getting smoother. After 10 or 15 layers of chalk one on top of the other, the panel is left to dry for a few days. Then the material is finely sanded, first with the side of a blade shaving off dust, just like off the block. Dust fills the air, gets into the pores of my skin, my eyes, eyelashes and hair. Chalk has been is used as a filler for a long time, it’s in the buildings all around us filling up holes. Recent technologies process it fine enough to coat the thinnest printing paper. The finest dust particles finding spaces to fill.
The painting of, from and made with ‘Oxted’ chalk is finished now and I start to crush the rocks for the next one.