Category: General

What a Difference a Month Makes

Just over a month ago something very important happened. My friends and family might suppose I’m talking about my wedding – I’ll get to that later! In fact, I’m referring to my visit to artist Linda Alexander at the start of September, to learn about her painting techniques and materials. For me, it was enormously exciting just to see so many of her paintings in the flesh. I have admired them for a long time online and indeed our bedroom was decorated to coordinate with our print of her painting ‘Still Life with Figs’. But up close, it is possible to learn so much about an artist’s technique from the texture and layering of paint on the canvas, which is simply not captured by a photograph. I also came away with new things to try in terms of materials: a possible return to using traditional oils with the help of low odour solvents, new ‘supports’ (i.e. canvas/paper/panels etc) to try, including natural coloured linen and gesso board, and finally guidance on different brushes to give me a smoother finish.

I’m afraid I’ve only dipped my toe in the water of these new possibilities, but already I have learnt a great deal. I started by trying out a raw linen canvas board, with a rather rough grain. My subject was a burgundy dahlia from our garden, inspired by my beautiful wedding bouquet.

img_1644This was useful, if frustrating. On the one hand, I love the way that the background can meld back into the more natural colour and grain of the linen, but I found that it made mixing my paints much more difficult: colours that looked correct on my white palette looked totally different on the beige support. After having seen the smooth supports which Linda Alexander uses, I was also much more conscious of the rough grain disrupting my tiny brushstrokes. However, I really enjoyed the subject matter. Capturing the velvety darkness of the burgundy dahlia relies on a combination of matt blacks and cool grey highlights where the light picks up the minute hairs on the petals, as well as the richly pigmented petals themselves. I don’t know whether I will continue with this rendition on this support (unless, of course, anyone expresses an interest in this work, which would be £45 when finished!), but it’s certainly a subject I want to return to.

My next experiment was to return to traditional oil paint for the last component of the London triptych. I have to say, the exchange was not as tangible as I had expected. I found that the creamy consistency I was after was achieved more by altering my methods (how much thinner, how much paint to apply, the quality of the support) than any huge superiority over my water-mixable paints. The opacity was perhaps better, but sadly not worth the disadvantage of the headache-inducing smell of both paint and solvent. Enough technicalities! Here is the near-finished painting:

img_1675This is my first cityscape in oil and in contrast to most of my work in this medium, I wanted to build up texture with the paint in this little scene to give the impression of the complexity of areas like the far bank of the Thames and the beach in the foreground. Sadly, this does really come across in the photo! I also wanted to really contrast the cool and warm colours to evoke those cold winter nights of indigo-blue shadow and pale, peachy sun.

img_1669The trees need more texture and attention, highlighting the warm autumnal colours as they are caught by the sun, but otherwise this painting is largely there, and I will soon be able to assemble it with its companions, including this watercolour, which I also finished recently.

As far as my other experiments in new materials are concerned, I still have gesso board, ‘cotton duck’ canvas and new black sable brushes ready to try, but all in good time! Sometimes you just have to go where inspiration takes you, no matter how inconvenient the timing may be. This was the case for me last weekend after watching a program by James Fox, which you can still catch on iplayer, called ‘Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art?’. This featured, in its opening sequence, an artwork by Martin Creed that had cost the presenter £180. It was simply a crumpled ball of plain A4 paper.

In fact, I didn’t find the original artwork overly impressive, particularly as, when interviewed, the artist didn’t seem to have much of a ‘concept’ behind his piece of conceptual art. Despite the complete irrelevance which aesthetic properties seemed to have in the discussion of this artwork, I was struck by the potential beauty of this crumpled ball. However, as with so many everyday objects, I felt that these aesthetic possibilities were lost when confronted with the object itself, in all its prosaic familiarity. So I decided that by drawing a similarly crumpled ball of paper, but lifted out of its deadening context, I might produce an artwork that would reveal more of the subject’s aesthetic and symbolic potential.

paper-ballThis is a very long way of explaining that I spent two days drawing rubbish! But it was (surprisingly perhaps) engaging and enjoyable work. Capturing the combination of gently undulating planes alongside harsh edges and intricate folds involved an amazing variety of shape and technique, considering the uniformity of the original plain sheet of paper. I also liked the tension between design (I deliberately made my ball as spherical as I could) and the contingent, unplanned folds which the material itself dictated. I don’t know whether anyone else will be as captivated as I was by the faceted and intricate form, let alone find in the image the symbolic possibilities which I enjoy devising – its resemblance of planet earth for example, with its peaks and fissures…. However, I think it’s amusing that in order to create this picture, which is available for only £35 in my online shop, I had to create a paper ball which would have cost me £180 to purchase from Martin Creed!

Of course, if we’re going to talk about the difference a month makes, I couldn’t really fail to mention the most important difference of all, which is that since my last post I have become a very happily married woman, and enjoyed a wonderful wedding day which a year ago would have seemed completely impossible. I generally avoid posting images of anything but my art work, but for those of you who have followed my journey through deterioration, significant disability and the trials of treatment, I thought I would share a photograph (taken by our wonderful wedding photographer, my brother) of a moment which really captures what a difference a few months make.


When life gives you Lyme….

I try not to write about Lyme Disease very often on this blog. After all, you came to this site to read about art, not an infectious disease. However, I haven’t been able to post recently because for two months I have again been too unwell to paint. There has been one or two odd hours where I have picked up a paint brush, but as it takes me an hour or two to really start painting fluently, these short sessions where I’ve really not been feeling up to it have resulted in more frustration than worthwhile results! Below are a few of the projects which have been eluding my artistic grasp and will be discussed in future posts, hopefully once they have been rescued.

imageSo, as Lyme Awareness month (May) is all too soon approaching, I thought I would take this opportunity to post about the disease. I had planned to do a new painting for this year’s Lyme Awareness campaign, entitled ‘When Life gives you Lyme’ – a play on that infuriating phrase, ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. As everyone knows, this mantra exhorts you to make the best of a bad situation and no doubt many people with Lyme have tried to do so, by putting their efforts into campaigning for better awareness, diagnosis and treatment.

image-2-e1459004996956But more often, ‘when life gives you Lyme’ you can do nothing at all. Ironically, my barely-started painting is the perfect metaphor for the impotency which Lyme forces on many of its sufferers. Lyme doesn’t stop you from having great intentions and creative ideas, it just makes you physically incapable of executing any of them. Many people manage to overcome or work round various disabilities, and some go so far as to describe themselves as ‘differently abled’ because their disability doesn’t stop them from living the life they want to live, they just have to be creative about how they go about it. For many, Lyme Disease is not like that. It’s more akin to asking someone to work around having a coma. I can get out of bed in a morning, and by the time I have dressed and had breakfast, the illness has overtaken me and I’m back in bed again. Of course, most of the time I force myself to stay up and not ‘give in’ to the reality of the disease, but for all that I am able to do in that state of pain and overwhelming fatigue, I might as well have gone back to bed. Often, I suspect getting up at all is something of a futile exercise in hope and good intentions.

I have been encouraged, in the past, to simply adjust my expectations of life and then I won’t be constantly disappointed – to focus on what I can do. If my only expectations, however, become a life of either being asleep or as good as asleep, then I feel it’s not really legitimate to call them expectations of life. That’s what most people hope for in death. There seems very little about a life like that which resembles living at all.

It is sometimes easier for doctors or onlookers to interpret Lyme Disease as the fault of the sufferer – that in some way it wasn’t the tick bite that made them ill, but rather perhaps their personality or lifestyle. It’s a comfortable way to avoid the truth of the situation: that in the UK there is devastating disease which is easy to catch from a tick bite, which is hard to test for and, if not caught early, is currently hard to treat. Those wishing to ignore these facts may tell some Lyme sufferers that they weren’t active enough before they got ill, and other sufferers that they got ill because they were too active. I usually fall into the latter camp.

It has been nearly six years now since I was bitten by a tick in Oxford and got the most common form of the EM rash, which is a diagnostic sign of the disease. Yet it was missed by at least two GPs and I did not receive a diagnosis or any treatment for another 4.5 years. I hope it wasn’t already too late by then. I hope I don’t have a lifetime of this ahead of me. I hope I don’t have to see my family bankrupted for treatment which the NHS should be providing. But two years into treatment, the episodes of progress I have seen have been outweighed by the otherwise intransigence of the disease.

There is a reason that Lyme Awareness Month is in May – if it’s warm enough for you to be spending time outside comfortably, then it’s warm enough for ticks to be out too. The immature forms of the tick can be as tiny as full stop, but their bite can be just as detrimental as the bloated adults you most often see on hedgehogs or dogs. And yes, dogs and horses can get Lyme – in fact, vets are generally more educated about the disease that most doctors in the UK. Ticks are carried throughout the UK by squirrels, badgers, foxes, deer, rodents, hedgehogs, dogs or even birds. Have you seen any of these animals near where you live? Well, ticks are probably not far behind. Any long grass or vegetation could harbour them, be it in your garden or a park, or in the countryside. You might not only miss the tick itself, but a tick bite can also be overlooked: not all infected bites results in a characteristic rash and sometimes that rash is concealed by body hair or in a hard-to-reach part of the body.

imageWhat is your defence? The best defence is awareness: please visit Lyme Disease UK to familiarise yourself with the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease and if there is someone you know who is unware of the disease, send them a Lyme Awareness card this May or forward them this blog or a link to the website above. As far as diagnosis and treatment in the UK is concerned, your defence against Lyme is desperately poor, but this can be changed. Please look out for a support the Lyme Awareness Campaign this May. I have sent this T Shirt summarising my experience of Lyme, in lieu of being able to go to the protests myself.

I am also looking for little local shops who might sell my Lyme Awareness Cards during May. Profits will be going to Vis a Vis Symposiums, and the packs on my website will be discounted from now until the end of May. Do you know anywhere that might sell Lyme Awareness Cards? If so, please send me a message.

Rachel Alban Art

What do you do ‘When Life gives you Lyme?’ I try not to lose all hope.

Painting the Modern Garden

As I have been back on treatment for the last two weeks, I’m afraid I have no pictures of my own to post this week. Instead, I thought I would share my recent encounter with some infinitely superior paintings at the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, ‘Painting the Modern Garden’. As it will seem entirely incongruous to promote my own work after discussing the likes of Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir, before I embark, I must just mention that my petite giclée cards – floral or otherwise – are now all back in stock and £1 from every pack of Lyme cards will now go to a Lyme charity called Vis-a-Vis Symposiums. 

One of many potential garden designs!

The relationship between gardens and art is close to my heart. Gardens have always been, for me, places of refuge, rejuvenation and creativity. Indeed, had I not found the gardens at my college to be such a beguiling and conducive atmosphere in which to revise for my exams, I would probably never have been bitten by a tick and succumbed to Lyme Disease. One would think that would be enough to put a person off gardens, but bar my new-found wariness of long grass, the garden is still a haven for me. All this may seem even more perverse considering that over the last two years I have not had a garden, but have been living in a flat. We have done what we can with a small balcony, but now at long last we may be only a few weeks away from having a garden for the very first time and have been furious sketching out designs, ideas and lists of potential plants.

All this made the timing of my visit to the RA very pertinent, and I felt part of the exhibition’s narrative which focuses on ‘modern gardening’ as the more democratic phenomenon which emerged in the nineteenth century as gardens became far more accessible to the middle classes, and even those without a garden through the flourishing of parks and public gardens. Monet, of course, was at the heart of the exhibition and it was a joy to discover the devotion he had towards gardening as an end, and art, in itself. Being familiar, as we all are, with his paintings of waterlilies, and aware of his garden at Giverny, I had envisaged his garden as as an elaborate, living prop which he composed largely with a view to his canvases. However, my impression from this exhibition was that Monet viewed his garden as a work of art in its own right, a work of art that went beyond, between and around his paintings. This seems an absurd statement when the exhibition showcases such a volume of Monet’s work, but on closer inspection it struck me that Monet seemed to pick the subjects from his garden carefully. Some views and subjects reoccur – such as the monumental series on waterlilies – but other views and plants are only painted once or twice, or perhaps there were corners of his garden he never painted. It made me wonder whether there were parts of his garden which Monet knew his paint brush could add a voice to, and parts which he felt were complete works of art in themselves. There are times when I find a particular flower or subject which I consider painting, and conclude that actually I could add nothing to its own artistry, that I would simply be borrowing the art from nature rather than adding anything of my own.

Water Lilies (Nymphéas) 1907 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Seeing so many of Monet’s waterlily paintings together impressed upon me just how much he had be able to ‘give’ to that subject – so many flavours of colour, so many textures and rhythms of brush strokes, contrasting vertical reflections and horizontal lily pads, so much variety in mood and movement. However, I was also struck by how partial these paintings are. As such large canvases with fathomless depths of tones and undertones, they can feel like worlds in themselves. But actually, they must have been a small fragment of the vista Monet looked on from his easel, across his garden at Giverny. To me these pictures came alive in a new way when I tried to imagine the surrounding garden that the reflections and colours implied – was it twilight? were there trees above? was it blazing sun making the water such a deep blue? It also made me realise that, especially in the later paintings, his garden had become more of an inspirational springboard than a subject to be rendered on canvas. Although the extraordinary Agapanthus Triptych is quite the most breathtaking part of the exhibition, I feel that Monet reached his mystical height on this theme with the final painting of the exhibition: ‘Water Lilies’ (after 1918, National Gallery London). The subtle iridescence of this painting makes one feel as though Monet has lept from his springboard of inspiration as high as he can go, and has broken through the pond’s surface into a new, golden, shimmering realm. In many cultures, gardens are liminal spaces – places of intersection between the human and divine. This painting seems to capture that mythical, mystical aspect. (Reproductions do it not the smallest semblance of justice, which is why I’ve included none here but here is a link to the National Gallery, which is its usual home:


‘Chrysanthemums’ – Tissot 1874-6. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

However, the exhibition went far beyond Monet and such a cerebral view of the garden, looking at more human factors such as fashions, plant collecting, engineering and hybridisation. People also feature in many of the paintings, reminding the viewer that though we might like to think of a garden as a little piece of nature, they are very human constructs and designed to be inhabited. Although the exhibition opens with two still lifes – one by Monet and one by Renoir – we are quickly reminded of the crucial difference between the genre of still life (the ubiquitous vase of flowers) and the subject of a garden: the difference between object and environment. To an extent, the garden always seems to overcome its viewer and I found some of the most immersive paintings to be those that acknowledged the garden, not as a view but as an element that one is encompassed by, such as the wonderful painting by James Tissot of a woman surrounded by ‘Chrysanthemums’ or Sorolla’s atmospheric painting of ‘Louis Comfort Tiffany’, embroiled in Hydrangeas. I found this challenging, as I usually take the easier option of focusing on a small detail – a single flower – rather than confronting the entirety of this complex, varied and interwoven environment.

‘Glorieta VII, Aranjuez’ – Rusinol 1919 La Coruna

I learnt a huge amount from this exhibition, not least about several artists who I had never even heard of, but whose paintings I would longing wait to look at from across the crowded rooms. P S Kroyer, Singer Sargent, Tissot and and Rusinol were all such revelations. It is a testament both to gardening and to this exhibition that so many diverse artists, styles and traditions can be brought together by the humble phenomenon of the modern garden. It is well worth a visit – and a long one if you can manage it! We only had an hour after a long day of medical tests and it was too short by more than half! Like any horticultural beauty, this is a transient phenomenon, and you have just over a month to catch it….  The Modern Garden at the RA.

Months in the Wilderness

I don’t usually begin with a discussion of stationery, but a couple of weeks ago I bought a Leuchturm notebook, which I have melodramatically christened (on the front cover) “The Black Book” – Months in the Wilderness. I got it as a new ‘day book’, in which I try to write something each day, when I’m going through periods when I’m not able to do anything more substantial. It sounds very self-indulgent, but the theatrical solemnity has been helping me to grit my teeth for the coming months of treatment. Having experimented with the process for the last two weeks, I think I was right to prepare myself.

With Lyme Disease, if treatment is making you feel better instantly, it’s usually just a sticking plaster – covering up the problem. This treatment is designed to be much deeper and more thorough, and correspondingly more unpleasant! Having forecast all this doom and gloom however, there are glimmers of hope – I do occasionally get whole weeks off from treatment and I hope it won’t be too long before I get breaks of feeling a bit better between the antibiotic nausea and ‘health crises’ which are achieving that improvement. So the prospect of art in the next few months looks patchy and unpredictable, but possible – so I hope you will check back to see if I have managed to squeeze anything past the health hazards!

In the meantime, I wanted to share something really positive. On my last ‘good day’, back in July, I went to see my parents’ MP, Phil Wilson, to talk about my experience with Lyme Disease and my concern about the lack of awareness. I have to admit, at the time, I wasn’t sure that the enormous physical resources it had cost me (due to the wonders of Virgin East Coast I had had to drive there at the last minute – not having driven more than 10 minutes in months!) would have been worth it, but Mr Wilson was receptive and proactive. He wrote this article recently, showing how much he took on board, just from our short conversation. Hurrah for a little progress! The wilderness is in need of prophets!

I can only hope to post again before too long, with art rather than articles to share!