On looking through some of the extracts from the journals of John F B Miles recently, I came upon this outline for a ‘Water Project’ that John had handwritten in 1981 and photocopied for his art students at South Devon Technical College in Torquay, England.

The Water Project

One day last September I got trapped by heavy rain halfway between the college and the ‘South Street Glass Works’. The rain was torrential, and having no coat I pressed myself against the alcove of a wall.

I watched the enormous raindrops crashing against the pavement. Each one sent up a little ‘coronet’ pattern as it landed. The explosive reaction varying according to precisely the nature of what surface each drop was hitting, i.e. pavement, shallow water, moving liquid surface or static vibrating tight membranous veil of liquid. After a while the incessant bombardment seemed to enter my mind.

There are moments like this when something forces itself on you in an unexpected manner. So sudden is the phenomenon that one is disorientated and plunged into confusion. Often the shock element changes your perception. It breaks down stereotyped responses to ‘reality’ and suddenly you see with an intensity of vision and perception, which must have before been lying dormant. Often the revelation concerns a familiar occurrence. It is not just that which is on the other side of Venus or Jupiter, that is ‘new’ and magical, but rather it is what lies under your foot, or what your eyes see suddenly on opening, after sleep has dominated. For a moment the ‘familiar’ room seems impregnated with all the mysteries of the Universe. Re-evaluation of the nature of everyday reality can be as apocalyptic as Paul’s experience on the Road to Tarsus.

Extract from my journal (May 12th 1975)

The act of painting is, for me, like the tide coming in over a beach.
Very slowly with occasional surges, the canvas becomes covered with an atmospheric veil of liquid intensity.
Shapes move within this tidal flow, some getting lodged in a particular place, as a covering of other forms leaves them peering through translucent layers.

Several months after the above date (with Jungian Synchronicity) a lady said she had a book for me that would be of interest. She did not say it might be of interest to me, she simply asserted that it would be. This lady was a follower of Rudolph Steiner, and the book was written by another follower of Steiner, the author being Theodore Schwenk, and the book “Sensitive Chaos”.


In the foreword of this book it states:

“Man’s relationship with water has changed completely during the last few centuries.
Men gradually lost the knowledge and experience of the spiritual nature of water, until at last they came to treat it merely as a substance and a means of transmitting energy. At the beginning of the technical age a few people in their inspired consciousness were still able to feel that the elements were filled with spiritual beings. People like Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Novalis and Hegel were still able to approach the true nature of water. Leonardo, who may be considered the first man to make systematic experiments with water, in the modern sense of the word, still perceived the wonders of this element and its relationship with the developing forms of living creatures.”

In hydrodynamics, air, as well as water is regarded as fluid, and vortices and associated spiral rhythms are present in each. Indeed, certain archetypal forms of movement may be found in all flowing media, regardless of their chemical composition. The spiral permeates nature from the ‘Crab Nebula’ of the macrocosm to the cochlea in the inner ear down to the sub-atomic particles of the microcosm.

Movement vortices in water are of the same pattern as wood grain in trees, and as bone construction in animal and man.
Life stems from the sea, and human blood bears a remarkable physical and chemical relationship with salt water.
In recent years, and with the aid of very sophisticated scientific equipment, a tidal force has even been measured in a cup of tea. So when we consider that our bodies are nearly one hundred percent liquid, the implications are fascinating.

In 1963 Jaques Cousteau said:

“Ever since the magical moment when my eyes opened under the sea I have been unable to see, think or live as I had done before. That was twenty-six years ago. So many things happened all at once that even now I cannot sort them all out. My body floated weightlessly through space, the water took possession of my skin, the clear outlines of marine creatures had something almost provocative, and economy of movement acquired moral significance. Gravity - I saw it in a flash - was the original sin, committed by the first living beings that left the sea. Redemption would only come when we returned to the ocean as already the sea mammals have done.”

Consider every aspect of water as potential subject matter for this project.

Scale can play a big part (or a small one!). From Ocean to droplet - Distance will turn the Ocean into a droplet; a microscope will turn the droplet into an Ocean! In the biology laboratory at college there is a powerful microscope with facilities for photographing down it. I arranged last year for an art student to use this facility. It can be used again.
Temperature change will affect metamorphosis - Ice crystals, snow flakes, icicles, steam, fog.
Remember that the rhythms and effect of the liquid presence, in whatever form, are just as much potential subject matter as the water itself, e.g. Sand patterns after the tide has receded: Dampness drying out unevenly: Figures swimming underwater, diffused and distorted in colour and form: Objects or landscape through rain: Windows with condensation and water droplets.
Do not feel that if you have seen one beach, you’ve seen the lot! Indeed one beach could provide a lifetime’s study with every second, shaking nature’s kaleidoscope and giving something unique to be observed.
Tor Abbey Sands provides a plethora of imagery for this project. Incredible sand patterns echo the earlier rhythms of the waters above, like a cosmic ‘photograph’ being etched in, with the sand as the photographic paper!
At every state of the tide, day and night, visually fascinating manifestations can be seen. All sorts of things are written in the sands by unknown hands. The wind whips across the surface of the water, the patterns of surface texture changing as the breeze plays its tunes and makes visual music.

The promenade and sea wall curve around between the semi-spiral road bridge and Princess Pier. From the railings overlooking the water, the waves of the main tidal flow can be seen, interacting with those bouncing and deflecting off the wall in a counter direction.

Remember that observation need not be confined to outdoor phenomena. Showers and baths, etc. Dripping taps provide interest, especially if ‘strobe’ lighting is used at the right speed frequency, for this can make the drip appear to be suspended in mid-air or even travel upwards into the tap! Stroboscopic lighting is used in the laboratory situation to ‘freeze’ wave patterns in vibrating strings.

Certain ideas for the project may not come directly from visual observation but may arrive from pondering concepts or listening to music. Debussy’s “La Cathedrale Engloutie”, or cascading piano music like Schuman’s Piano Concerto, which usually reminds me of driving rain, could provide momentum. Or “Tangerine Dream”.

Sometimes you can isolate one single aspect of water behaviour and make an intensive development study from it. I remember in Mevagissey one year spending a month on a series of hard edged paintings based entirely on what happened when a bright blue, open, clinker-built boat with a bright red stripe on it, was reflected in the water. If you look at reflections in water you might also become fascinated by their movement and constant subtle changes.

Imagination. Creativity. Perseverance. Originality. Application. Selectivity.
Record all ideas in a notebook.
Development of ideas into appropriate media.
Drawing. Painting. Photography. Printmaking. Graphics. Jewellery. Textiles. Ceramics. Sculpture. 3-D. Sleep.

Sculpture can embrace the idea of ‘vortices’ etc. The material could be dry but could evoke liquid rhythms. Alternatively some of the dynamic qualities of water could be expressed in a direct way, a liquid way. Pouring plaster or dropping sealed bags of plaster to set in the dynamic way in which it has fallen. A mass of water in mid-air is also exciting, just as it has left the bucket. Beautiful droplet forms could be cast from balloons, and miniaturisation of dewdrops on cobwebs and grass could be brilliant possibilities for jewellery.

One of the finest sculptures I have ever seen was entitled ‘Cloud Canyons’. It was by David Medalla - a Philippino sculptor - and consisted of a tower-like structure up which water was pumped. The spectator was invited to put in a cup full of soap powder at the base. The result was incredible. Amorphous masses of froth rose in a spiralling flow and gently oozed and grew and changed with intoxicatingly lyrical splendour.

John F.B. Miles. 30th Nov. 1981.