Painting and piecing artefacts

Screen Illuminated by Sunset, gouache on paper by Alan James McLeodAlan James McLeod took a long and winding route to reach the abstract works he’s becoming known for. “I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1990, in applied design, then became a freelance textile designer, producing hand painted fabric and wallpaper designs for companies such as Warner Fabrics, Habitat & John Lewis.”

Following “a long hiatus” during which he set art and design aside, Alan chose to return with a more fine art approach at the beginning of 2014, “but the design background is always there.”

An Echo of the Story by Alan James McLeod

An Echo of the Story by Alan James McLeod

The delicious textural look to Alan’s artwork is created by handpainting papers he then collages. The result is an intriguing resemblance to unearthed artefacts or enticingly  weatherbeaten ephemera.

“At college I used to paint on top of oil pastels, then scrape through to create designs,” he explains of his technique. “This developed to layering the paint colours on top of each other, using clear wax instead of the oil pastels. Lots of scraping and washing, leaving out in the rain, anything to reveal what’s underneath.”

He developed his unique style through a balance of “not worrying about the outcome”, embracing “happy accidents to push my work in different directions” and endeavouring to produce individual pieces “that reminded me of something, and that have some sort of resonance or depth. Papers that are too ‘surface’, can be useful in my work as well though, as they can be overworked or gilded to bring them to a level of usefulness.”

Being away from the art world for around seven years was useful in its own way, as it showed Alan how intrinsic art had become to him. “I was missing a big part of my life, and after work I would head upstairs to our spare room and start sifting through old textile designs, found papers and postcards.”

Before long, Alan started making little collages. “This was purely for enjoyment’s sake. It wasn’t until 2012 that I decided to try a couple of them in a gallery.”

He describes moving house a catalyst for taking his work to a new level. “At the same time as I was taking my art more seriously, my surroundings were unfamiliar, and not giving me the inspiration that directed my work. This is when a more cerebral approach took over, with my imagination coming in to play.”

Alan felt that collage work using found papers, was already a crowded area. “Many artists have mastered college, one of my favourites being Kurt Schwitter.”

To ensure an originality in his own work, Alan decided to focus on creating his own unique painted papers as the medium for his collages.

Unknown Origin by Alan James McLeod

Unknown Origin by Alan James McLeod

I’m impressed by the beauty of the light Alan captures in his work, and ask how he learnt to represent it so effectively. “Sometimes we need to be shown the light,” he says. “I hope in my work that I’m revealing a little of what may have been hidden.”

The process of developing and completing a work of art can be lengthy and ponderous.
“Often a piece of work will ‘hang around’ for quite some time before finding another paper to marry up with it,” Alan says. “At the onset, I have no preconceived idea of any finished work. The process is just in the doing. I’m thinking about ancient weathered walls, tribal textiles, or a place of cultural interest which has only the decorative architectural features left, with all the precious artefacts removed. Towards completion of the work, I’m striving for depth, hidden meaning, or just something beautifully decorative.”

Never Wanting to be Found by Alan James McLeod

Never Wanting to be Found by Alan James McLeod

Daydreaming is a vital part of Alan’s creative process. “I did a bit of travelling when I was younger, not so much now, so the use of a good imagination helps. Places like Italy and Malta, left an impression on me. The faded colours, layers of history living side by side…”

Alan begins the creation of his painted papers with no fixed plan or vision. “It’s solely about the drive to create an effect or texture that I feel I can use in a finished work,” he says. “How the papers end up influences the direction the piece is going in, be it a more planetary look, abstract landscape, or thinking of imagined shrines, artefacts or architecture. Very rarely is a piece completed using only one paper. I use a combination of techniques, including edge to edge joining for the composition, and collage for the decorative elements.”

Lost Poem by Alan James McLeod

Lost Poem by Alan James McLeod

In his bio on the Lime Tree Gallery website, where he frequently exhibits, Alan states his goal of documenting “emotional responses to music and memory, celestial bodies and changes in the seasons.”

He elaborates: “Abstract work can evoke memories of not just places, but feelings and experiences. I add shapes to the compositions to add focus, hoping the viewer finds enough space within the work to add their own interpretation. Anthropomorphising what is seen happens often, but the attaching of memories and the personalising of the piece is the joy of producing the work.”

Find more of Alan’s artwork on Instagram.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Combing the world with Karen Stamper

Karen Stamper sketch book1The art of Karen Stamper is the kind to stop you in your tracks, pause and lean in. Seen from a distance, it’s a beautiful mass of colours and suggestions, but a closer view offers up a wealth of textures and hints, thanks to Karen’s love of collecting found objects and putting them to excellent, satisfying use.

My grandma was a traveller and a collector,” she explains. “I would spend many hours of my childhood looking through her tins of trinkets, postcards with exotic stamps, tapestries and dolls from foreign lands.” She adds with a grin: “I was always more fascinated by the foreign newspaper wrapping a doll than by the doll itself.”

Against the Tide by Karen Stamper

Against the Tide by Karen Stamper

Early forays into art were largely an avoidance exercise. “My Sunday night homework time would involve drawing and collaging, always to avoid the more tedious subjects,” she says. “It wasn’t long before my parents noticed this and encouraged me to keep a sketchbook, enter competitions and paint bright murals on walls around the garden.”

This encouragement fuelled Karen’s interest and gave her a strong foundation in creative explorations.

While on a collage travel scholarship in Paris, Karen first fully recognised the true potential of colours. “I discovered turquoise shutters, red chequered tablecloths and curling iron balconies: shapes and colours so frivolous to me growing up in the worn, tough, solid fishing town of Hull,” she says. “It was in Paris that I saw Matisse’s cut-outs for the first time; it wasn’t just the scale of his work but the colours, pin holes, crease lines and torn edges that fired my imagination. I continued to travel and work overseas for 10 years, always with a sketchbook.”

Karen Stamper sketch book

A childhood “growing up on the east coast of Yorkshire as a happy beachcomber,” seeded Karen with a deeply rooted love of shorelines. “I was, and still am, attracted to the faded painted wood, scraps of gaudy plastic, brightly coloured fishing floats and nets: all sun dried, sand blasted, salted and weathered,” she says. “My dad’s passion was sailing, and each Friday we would pack up and spend the weekend on the coast. I was free to wander, explore and collect only returning at mealtimes. This freedom set my path.”

Summer Mercy Island by Karen Stamper

Summer Mercy Island by Karen Stamper

It’s a path she remains true to today. “Old boats, harbours, the sun-salty smell of tarpaulin and diesel, and the sound of halyards tapping on a mast, are all comforting childhood memories. They have stayed with me and I still naturally gravitate towards the harbour in any coastal town.”

In over ten years of travelling and working overseas, Karen gradually developed a blend of collage, painting and sketching that is very much her own. Throughout her nomadic decade, she was “constantly sketching and collecting a rich resource of tickets, labels, packaging, stamps, paper bags and scraps of lettering – each one telling its own story – scraps of city life ready to become the first layers of a collage.”

Karen settled in New Zealand  for a couple of years, where she worked as a freelance illustrator for magazines and book covers, including her hoard of collected treasures in her designs.

Spend Some Time  by Karen Stamper

Spend Some Time by Karen Stamper

“Working in collage, combining the found papers with layers of brightly painted tissue to create a vibrant integrated surface, reflects my life and travels: a patchwork of places and people bonded together; some fading, some peeling, some permanent; all full of joyful colour and happy memories,” she says. “My aim has been to remind the viewer of warmer climates of intense colours, hazy zapping heat and sun scorched walls. More recently I have focused on the urban shoreline in the UK. I am drawn to the rusting, paint peeling structures which lend themselves well to cut and ripped paper.”

Far from being arbitrary, the materials that make their way into Karen’s work are carefully selected. “I usually start with found papers on the theme that I am working on,” she says . “For example, in a French scene there could be stamps, envelopes, letters, posters, shopping lists, house sale papers, teabag labels, napkins, matchboxes and chocolate bar wrappers, all in French, of course. Stranger materials have included a Spanish fan, dried hessian tea bags, and spaghetti.”

Karen Stamper sketch book2

In building up the images, Karen starts with colours and shapes from her sketches and photographs. “I usually zoom in on scenes so the view is flattened and abstracted, and then add text in different fonts, sheet music, patterns and then layers of painted tissues and washes of acrylic paint,” she says.

At this point, memories or themes relating to a place start to emerge,  “and so the compositions starts to evolve. I am happy with bold abstract areas next to real or recognisable imagery. Viewers need a little clue into the ‘scene’ but then I would like them to make their own story.”

To Karen, “life is a collection of experiences – I need to collect, layer and absorb the places I visit – the colours and the countries are embedded in my artwork and in me.”

Moored by Karen Stamper

Moored by Karen Stamper

Karen says that she feels most grounded when working in her studio in Cambridge, “totally focused, creating a piece of work that sings. The visual energy of composition, colour and surface of my work feed my soul. From beach comber to city comber – I’m always seeking, gathering, arranging, sorting, storing, enriching and sticking.” 

You can see more of Karen’s work at Byard Art Gallery, CambridgeThe Darryl Nantais Gallery in Linton, CambridgeshireThe John Russell Gallery in Ipswich and at The Cambridge Art Fair on 1st-2nd October, as well as on her gorgeous website,

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on Give me a shout at judy(at)