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  • Writer's pictureKaren Ruffles

Scenes of Whitby

My first job of the year has been something a little different. Well, very different. The borough council have planned a new wayfinding scheme for town visitors and wanted some images from a local artist to decorate the boards and encourage engagement. They picked me for the job and this summer, 10 panels with my work on will be going up around town. Because of the nature of the project (and their budget) these pieces had to be worked very differently so I thought it would be interesting to talk about them in more depth and discuss the significance of some of the imagery. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

Regular followers will recognise this scene - a similar image was used for the cover of Tales in Sombre Tones. The drawings had to represent four zones, one of which was the abbey. Now the abbey is visible from right across the bay - and for several miles out of town as it happens, but because of its position up on the headland, not from street level as you approach from town. The logical way to visually direct people was of course to use the famous 199 steps leading up there and because it would have been rude not to, I included the barghest again as a reference to local legends. This being an illustration for wayfinding purposes, I conveniently relocated the abbey to the top of the steps (it's actually a bit further back) so we could have a nice strong silhouette easily identifiable as the romantic ruin itself.

The second zone was the harbour. This was the one that made me think to make all four landscapes night scenes - when illuminated, the town is beautiful at night and the harbour in particular is so much more striking when presented as pale stone against a black sea and sky. When reduced to such simple shapes and exaggerated tones, it becomes slightly unreal. Since the whole project was now essentially my leaving gaps in the darkness, that invited a ghost ship or two in. I used a photo I'd taken years ago of tall ships Pickle (who I immediately fell in love with) and Atyla as a visual guide but left them pale, like negatives, to represent our maritime past and also reference the gorgeous bone galleons made by prisoners of war, that grace our museum.

The third location was the West Cliff area. I opted for the Pavilion Theatre as seen from the beach and included a tiny version of the Captain Cook statue having itself a nice evening stroll on the sands (I'm a fan of such classic horror as Man Size in Marble). This is probably the most stylised image - with a budget of around 15% of what a standard drawing at this scale would need, I had to pick and choose which bits I included and let the stark black and white do the rest. The choice to present the images in this way had other influences besides the wonderfully practical one of filling a lot of space quickly. Whitby is famed for its jet (hence jet black), fossilized wood that polishes up beautifully and was very popular for mourning jewellery in the 1800s. It also has a thriving goth scene and so the effect represents the towns contemporary culture too.

This one I think is my personal favourite - the shelter and lily pond in Pannett Park. The pond is home to a population of nursemaid toads who sing in the surrounding shrubbery on summer nights. Because I wanted to include something animate in each image, to lift the images and for the benefit of any poor soul stranded long enough to be looking that closely, there is a little toad sat in the lower right hand corner. I am hoping to revisit this at some point when I have more time and create a new piece in my usual style. You may be wondering at this point at my working in this way - I actually almost didn't, I considered turning it down but a creative experiment outside your usual field does an artist good occasionally, if only to establish you're never doing that again :)

In addition to the four larger panels, a fifth illustration was discussed to go on the top of the fingerposts (those 'this way to the such and such' type). One of the options was an ammonite so I suggested a snakestone as I'll always get a bit of a story in there if I possibly can. The legend goes that St Hilda, abbess of Whitby Abbey, turned snakes to stone and enterprising artists of the time would carve stone heads onto ammonites. At the time of writing I've just sent these drawings off to the company that are putting the project together and I'm curious to see how it all turns out. It's possible the images will be further edited and simplified - the larger ones especially as they are to go at the foot of information boards and so need to be clearly visible and identifiable at a distance. That may seem like an odd place to put art but it means that the actual directions and other tourist info is sensibly at eye level. There's also the technical element of different printing techniques to consider so I'm leaving that bit to the experts.

The boards should be installed around June time so I'll make sure I get pictures of these in the wild to share with you. I've no plans to reproduce the work commercially myself on a large scale as it doesn't fit my current ranges but if anyone wants prints as a curiosity, shout up. My next project incidentally also uses local street scenes in a series of new monster drawings so stay tuned for news of that in the coming weeks!

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