Category: Landscapes

Sunshine and Smiles

After the downbeat tone of the first post of 2017, I’m a bit shame-faced to be bringing you good news, sunshine and smiles! But, since the country seems to have been thrust back into murky cloud and fog, maybe a bit of brightness will be welcome.

First of all, a finished painting! I found this watercolour commission a bit daunting at first. The subject was the site of a proposal – a romantic pondside setting. There are few things as restful or romantic as sitting by the side of a pond, but they don’t often communicate as well in paint. Ponds don’t have the scale and reflective properties of deep lakes, nor the power and majesty of the sea, nor the animation of a river. In addition, I was I trying to capture the significance of a spot where two good friends had decided to spend their life together…

To begin with, my plan was to try and capture the moment itself – on bended knee etc. But the reference photos and my preliminary sketches persuaded me this wouldn’t work – it was transparent to me that I was drawing a re-enactment. If I remember my own engagement, I’m sure an onlooker would have seen intense emotion and excitement written all over my body language – you can’t recreate that. My initial reference photos also seemed too explanatory, with the sun coming in from behind and creating a very pleasing, but uninteresting photo. I asked for more reference photos and received an apologetic reply with some pictures taken at sunrise, with the sun blinding the camera and obscuring much detail.

But so often, in life as well as art, it is what you can’t see clearly which is captivating, not that which is laid out. From that point, the whole project came alive for me. The real focus of the scene are the benches, where the proposal took place. Despite the fact that they are in the centre of the composition, with a gleaming path leading towards them, I love that fact that they are all but obscured – both in shade and with sunlight streaming in front of them. The title ‘Into the Sun’, extends this metaphor a bit. When you commit to marriage it is quite like walking into the sun – there is so much ahead that you cannot see and yet it’s a beautiful and exciting sensation.

More prosaically, I had forgotten how challenging watercolour can be – it requires such decisive action and yet whatever actions you make are all but impossible to undo. I used masking fluid to protect the benches, bulrushes and tufts of grass on the bank to the left, but removed it too early in the course of the painting. I managed to recover these crisp highlights by scraping out with a blade, but it had me worried for a while! The question of balancing light was also tricky. Since the overall impression is so clearly of light, I was nervous, at first, of painting in the darks. However, perversely, the more depth I added, the lighter the painting became, because the contrast of the glaring sun became more pronounced. The bank in shadow was so much fun, because it responded to layers and layers of subtle colours – infused in, blotted out – to capture the prismatic light over subtle shadow.

I can’t wait to deliver it to its new home.

In other, very unexpected news, I opened an email from the international art competition, Renoartio, at the weekend to find this ‘Bonnie Smile’ at the top of it:

You could probably hear my squeal in neighbouring houses. Only the day before, my husband and I had been looking at the high calibre of entries for the December open art competition, and were doubtfully hoping that I would improve upon my position of 18th place in the November competition. To come top was completely beyond my expectations. You can see what impressive and varied artworks are submitted to Renoartio here, https://www.renoartio.com/past-winners/, and I’m chuffed that ‘Bonnie Smile’ will soon be among them. Of course, it’s a huge confidence boost for me and my art, but I think it also shows that no one can resist a golden retriever smile!

Without Contraries is No Progression

“Without Contraries is No Progression”:

without-contraries-small

Those of you who follow my blog will have seen this commission emerge in bits and pieces over the last few months, and because it’s a composite piece, I myself didn’t get to see the parts really come together until the last moment when the frame was delivered and the whole piece assembled. The brief was simply to paint some views of the Battersea area of London, including St Mary’s church and with a loose focus on the contrasts of architectural styles.

With a little help from William Blake, who was married in the aforementioned church, the concept for the painting came to me very quickly, and was based on the quotation (and now title of the painting): ‘without contraries is no progression’. This comes from his ‘Proverbs of Hell’, part of a larger work called “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. The proverbs betray Blake’s starkly dualistic world view, and his perculiar conception of Hell as the source of energy, as well as evil. To me this idea of energetic, dialectic progression is very bound up with London: with its adversarial parliament at Westminster, with its contrasting cultural influences, and with the contrary aesthetic styles of various periods which are so evident in the patchwork of London architecture.

img_1669So, the contrasting architectural styles was an obvious starting point – from the classical proportions of St Mary’s, to the brutalist 1960s tower blocks, to the cutting simplicity of the modern flats in the watercolour image. But I also wanted to make contrast an artistic theme, so we have contrasting mediums (watercolour, pen and oil) as well as, perhaps less obviously, contrasting emphases. In the first painting I focused on the contrasting textures of the sleek glass apartments against the intricate, worn patina of the brick church. As I had hoped, watercolour leant itself well to this, as I used a loose wet-in-wet technique for most of the painting, and a sharper style for the church. The difficulty was resisting the temptation to meddle – there’s always more detail to add in a landscape, so the trick is knowing when to stop!

 

img_0010The central picture, in pen, was conceived as a focus on form. I hoped that abandoning colour would enable me to bring out the contrast between the classical, harmonious shapes of the church and the repetitive, modular structure of the tower blocks. I think this is apparent, although perhaps the detail was too alluring for me in this piece! As this was the first part of the work I completed, I was initially worried that its vintage look wouldn’t gel with the other two paintings – the idea was after all to capture the contrary nature of modern London! But in the final composition it does provide a clear contrast to the crisp finish of the watercolour and the softness of the oil painting.

img_1675I initially thought of the final painting as suggesting synthesis and ‘progression’, with the different architectural styles somehow brought into dialogue by the shared evening light. I can still see this aspect, but looking at it also makes me think of contrasts in colour, between the cool lights of the shadows and the warm, pinky tinge of the setting sun on the far bank, the trees and the church roof. Pleasingly, these soft hues offer a contrasting palette of colour from the first painting, which has the clean, bright hues that (I hope) evoke the clarity which follows a typical British downpour! Again, the level of detail here was a challenge, particularly given my unfamiliarity with urban landscapes, which are such mazes of shapes and details. Unlike watercolour, which encourages a decisive attitude to painting, oil painting allows a slower, more meditated way of working. On the plus side, this enabled me to get the balance of detail to haze right in painting the far bank – I came back to this area a few times to soften certain areas in terms of colour or line. On the other hand, areas like the trees seemed to invite unlimited levels of working and reworking!

I was really delighted to be able to frame the work myself – it’s always satisfying to determine the entire object that ends up on someone’s wall. A frame can completely change the look of a painting, as I have found now that my prints are being sold by the local Northallerton gallery. The manager is kind enough to show me how each customer chooses to frame their print, and each time the new frame picks out something different in the image. So perhaps it’s a good thing we artists leave this element of artistic choice to the customer at times, but framing a work nevertheless a very enjoyable exercise. The choice of pewter seemed apt – with both industrial and antique associations – and fortunately articulated the one point of chromatic coherence between the three images. Most importantly, my patron seemed delighted with the finished result!

This work feels particularly pertinent to me at the moment, since I seem to be living out Blake’s quotation in my academic journey! Having long yearned for the ideas-based approach of philosophy, I now find that studying academic, analytic philosophy is perhaps more of a contrary to my previous studies than I had hoped! Somehow I will have to find a way to synthesise the world of ideas about art and the world of art itself, but it has to be said that experiencing these contrary modes is nothing if not informative. And information is progress. Right?

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.

signing-of-register

Quick Quick Slow

A quick announcement before we begin – SALE!! A BIG sale of my small cards, plus two special editions:  packs of large cards featuring my recent paintings Pied Beauty and Bonnie Smile. I’m sorry say it, but summer is on its way out, so maybe you know some people receiving exam results or making new starts in the autumn, who might appreciate a card of congratulations, good luck or simple good wishes.

And so from one quick diversion to another – my hen weekend! I promise this is not about sharing drunken stories of being handcuffed to railings. After all, what would an artist do on her hen? Why, art of course! So my maid of honour organised a session of life drawing. Perhaps it is unprofessional that at my first ever life drawing class I was wearing a ‘Bride to Be’ badge and wearing a comic beret, but aside from the jovial context this was a seriously useful artistic exercise and challenge:

image-1-e1471760066972For starters this was an exercise in quick drawing. As I’ve written previously, with my treatment allowing me only limited time for painting, I usually feel like of every brush stroke counts and my work is always directed towards a finished piece to sell or for commission. As such, my art of the past few years has been thorough and slow.

In this life drawing class, however, we were given only 5-10 minutes for each pose and provided with only charcoal as a drawing medium, which lends itself to bold and fluid mark-making. And it was actually really liberating to draw in an absorbed but carefree manner, with nothing riding on the finished product.

image-e1471698871205I also requested a more contorted, seated position (right), which I particularly enjoyed, I suppose because I find anything compact and intricate aesthetically engaging. It was also very good practice to work from life, where there is no camera lens to frame your composition or interpret the foreshortened areas.

I think we worked on six different poses, and my absorption and dedication to the artistic task narrowly saved me from becoming a model myself in some unseemly combination with our nude model, in what I now understand is normally the pièce de résistance of hen life drawing parties. In fact, the enormous concentration of moving focus and beginning a whole new chapter of observation for every new pose meant that by the end, we were all exhausted!

So, that was the first ‘quick’. The second ‘quick’ piece of art I have to share is, perhaps unexpectedly, a finished commission. For some types of commission the time devoted to preparation far outstrips the actual time of execution. In an oil painting of a flower, for example, little drawing is required, the drawing need not be forensically exact, but the centrality of colour and texture means that the application of paint takes hours and hours. By contrast, in a portrait, I find the preparation and drawing is key. If you draw an extra petal or two in a rose, or make one leaf slightly larger than your subject, no one will ever know and it may even be necessary to improve the composition and balance of the piece. In a portrait, the slightest deviation from the model can ruin a likeness.

As such, in a portrait I’m calling ‘Felicitas’ (because of the baby’s expression of unadulterated joy), I spent a long time on preparatory sketches and then equally long experimenting with materials. You may remember that I was considering using toned paper, which has the advantage of allowing the artist to actively draw in highlights, rather than only contributing shadow to the page. However, when working on the tinted paper with pastel pencils, they felt to me frustratingly blunt instruments, and rendered a very course texture which would have been inappropriate for the silk-smooth skin of a baby’s face. (I realise this is probably a reflection on the artist rather than the materials, as I have seen many beautifully smooth and detailed portraits in pastels by artists more expert in that medium). So, I turned to my trusty box of coloured pencils, which do not smudge and seemed to produce the kind of lightness and finesse I was after.

imageWith all this preparation under my belt, I settled down for a final sketch of the right size on the right paper with the right pencils. And, quite quickly, it became clear to me that the portrait was flowing really nicely. The likeness was appearing and I decided to continue with it as the final work – therefore rendering the shading and detail with much more care, depth and precision. I still wanted the finish to be delicate and minimal: babies do not have the hard, structural facial features which can distinguish adult portraits or the intricacy of wrinkles. Instead my focus was the eyes – literally popping with excitement – and capturing the smooth and pillowy contours of the smiling cheeks. I may do one or two final adjustments in the coming week before it is dispatched, but thanks to weeks of preparation a practically completed portrait had materialised in the course of a single day!

 
Now, for the final step of ‘quick, quick, slow’. Worried that my pen and ink work of St Mary’s Battersea was too detailed and traditional in character for my client, I experimented with simplifying the shapes by transferring the image onto acetate, and overlaying this on a modern, cubist design:

image-2-e1471700600225In fact, at this stage it is impossible to say which will end up being most appropriate to the finished work; as you might remember this is part of a trilogy of pictures in watercolour, oil and pen. While the watercolour and pen are nearly finished, I have not been able to begin painting the picture in oils because of the time restraints of treatment. To start an oil painting I need two or three consecutive days to get into the rhythm and put down a coherent underlying layer of painting. Adjustments after this initial stage can be more fragmented, but the start is slow. So, a little patience is necessary until I have a finished oil painting to complete the set and work out which incarnation of the pen and ink will work best.

Quick quick slow – in art some things have to happen in a moment, some things take hours of labour and sometimes just a bit of time is needed to mull over the options and direction of the work. More to come before the wedding I hope, including some more upcoming commissions. In the meantime, be quick: SALE!!