Category: Studies

Facing Failure and Frustration

When I was at my most disabled, I swore to myself that if I were ever to start living normal life again I would be fearless, I would take opportunities and I would enjoy everything ten times more than I had done before. And of course, just like everyone else, when some of the opportunities have returned I have quickly forgotten what a luxury it is to be painting at all, and have only been frustrated by my efforts and intimidated by the prospect of failure! Over the last few weeks I have spent an entire morning on a series of horrific paintings of a lowly sweet and wasted hours on two versions of a very unsuccessful painting of an interior window! I also failed to make it pass pre-selection for an exhibition at the Mall Galleries.

Of course any artist should be prepared for this rocky journey, but I thought I would share these struggles because when an artist shares only the work she is proud of, it can look like it all comes easily. In fact, a lovely facebook page called procraftinate summed up the agonising process of painting perfectly – you start with a wonderful idea, and a captivating image in your minds eye; you begin and for a while it looks promising – your hopes continue to rise; mistakes creep in, you start to lose that original idea, you start to hate the very sight of your painting. This, for me, sums up the first hour of any painting. By the time I’m an hour in, I’m usually at the point where I want to give up. The bulk of the work will be done against an internal chorus, singing, ‘This is terrible, you are awful at this, this is just a colossal waste of time…’ etc etc. Sometimes, usually after a night’s sleep, I come back to a painting and suddenly see its good points. From then on, the final stretch of painting is braving a nerve-wracking chant of ‘don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up!’

So there you go, after a behind the scenes look into the artistic psyche, here are some of the better bubbles that rose to the surface since my last post:

The first in a short series of paintings showing how Lyme Disease changes the meaning of ordinary objects. Here are lemons – a staple of still life painting (though my first ever attempt in oil), but here they are next to a glass because, for me, lemons mean detoxing from the effects of Lyme treatment. While painting the glass of water was an utterly bewildering experience, it ended up being fairly successful, and will only need minor alterations. The main area still to work on is the cut face of the lemon, which lost all its shine as I worked too quickly and too muddily.

I then decided to finish the portrait of little dog called Jet. You might remember the painting looking quite near completion in a previous post. In fact, it took many more hours to finish – much of that time spent over-fussing, and then trying to recover the original freshness. Over time I hope I will become more selective in these final stages of painting, and have the confidence only to work on a few areas which need adjustment, rather than diving back in head first and losing sight of the whole. As I was painting I was desperately worried about losing the character of this little alert face, but fortunately I think I managed to add the detail, particularly around the muzzle, without losing the all the good points in the first layer of paint!

Now follows a collection of new endeavours, which, for want of a better (or even, good) name, I’m calling ‘tiny treasures’.

I was captivated really by these double sided brass frames, which are now being used as a trendy way to display photos or pressed flowers. However, I love the way that these little frames seem to crystallise and suspend what is inside, so my hope is to make tiny paintings to play with the idea of a solid object being impossibly squeezed between two panes of glass. I also want to explore the idea of ‘treasure’ – selecting things which are fragile, sparkling, transient or perfectly formed. My first few have been a blackbird egg, an unfurling fern frond and a rusty key. As you can see, sometimes I use torn edges, like a fragment of life itself, and sometimes I have very carefully cut out the painting so that it really looks like the object is suspended in mid-air.  If these go down well, I have many more ideas to come…

Lastly, after my crisis in confidence a week or so ago, I decided I need to do some art from my own development, and so have started a work where the subject will be split into four fragments and each will be executed with a different medium, as an exercise and exploration of how different media bring out different qualities in the subject. My hope is that, as a whole, the work will be coherent and realistic, but individually the sections will feel painterly and abstract. I hope that leaves you interested! More on that, I hope, next time.

Until then, I will be trying to be less frustrated and fearful about my art, and rediscover the spirit of joy underneath all that self-imposed pressure! Wishing everyone else, too, a fear-less, frustration-less, pressure-less, joy-ful Easter weekend!

The personal, the musical, the pretty and the tricky

This has been a week of working in pencils, both coloured and graphite, in pursuit of the personal, the musical, the pretty and the tricky… Also, just in case you don’t make it through my verbosity to the bottom of the post, there is a print sale going on this weekend – not a wimpy sale, a proper sale, with some prints less than half their usual price. Some have already sold out!

Back to the art. First, I finally plucked up the courage to personalise the welsh love spoon, which I called ‘Roots So Entwined’. I’m sure when you think of occupations wracked with jeopardy, artist is not the one that comes to mind. But when you’ve spent hours creating a picture that you are actually satisfied with, it feels unbelievably risky to alter it and potentially ruin all that hard work. Thankfully, of course, we live in an age where I can protect any work of art I make in digital form, but I still feel protective about my original pieces of paper and canvas. After a warm-up personalising a print (no prizes for guessing who for!), I took the plunge. My hope was to get the letters to look as though they had been carved into the original spoon, not just scribbled onto the picture. I decided on the type of classic copperplate font which you would associate with carving, rather than handwriting.

In practise, altering the original was much harder simply because the porous paper was already saturated with the coloured pencil for the spoon itself. So, in order to get the same depth as the letters on the print, I had to use some fine-liner, as well as pencil. However, it all came good, and is ready for its new owner. As I was doing it, I kept have new ideas about potential backgrounds and personalisation. I think engraving the year of a marriage at the top would sit well around the notch, and the number of years below the hollow heart. I also tried out a pretty background of soft dots, so contrast with the clean lines of the wood. Each dot is cross hatched with layers of different colours, hopefully giving a woven texture and is the exact size of a 5 pence piece – perhaps for an anniversary I could draw an actual 5, 10 or 20p into the background design to symbolise the years of marriage. I could do backgrounds of family tartan, favourite prints or colours. So many ideas!

So much for the personal and the pretty. Having so enjoyed drawing the first lovespoon, I thought I would follow the theme in a musical direction. Inspired by my amazing, opera-singing aunt, I was racing to get this done in time to celebrate a special birthday and just about got there in time! Like ‘Roots So Entwined’, this was a joy to do, I think because I so enjoy contemplating the artistry and craftsmanship of the spoon itself. As I was working on it, I had the line from a hymn going round and round in my head: “craftsman’s art and music’s measure”. I wanted to bring out the fact that this is a crafted object, and so emphasised the areas which show marks left from carving on the inner sides, and the clear scooping shape of the wood which create the impression of lines weaving in front and behind each other.

Unfortunately, making art does not always feel so easy! Sometimes it feels like a battle: an endless series of tiny failures. In the past I would have given up when I started to feel like this about a painting. But generally, now, I try to cajole myself in persevering. And, sometimes, it pays off. When I started this, the next in my series of ‘Microcosms’, I was torn between doing it in colour or sticking with the medium of graphite pencil. Having decided on the latter, it seemed SO much harder to capture the complex textures of the faceted orange segments, the fluffy pith and pimpled peel in pure greyscale than it would have been in colour. My guiding idea was the way that the segments fit so naturally together, hand in glove, side by side. Perhaps the symbolism would lead some to think of a world of fragments, but it seemed to me to speak of ecosystems which fit together like jigsaws: a world of many parts, interlocking but not in friction. Nice idea, but very fiddly to depict. In fact, the part which made me feel the most despairing as I worked on seems to be now the most effective: the revealed inner segments. I’m glad I persisted:

It was only after I had finished this picture of an orange that I came across the #sharetheorange campaign, which has just been launched to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s disease. The motif of peeling an orange powerfully demonstrates how Alzheimer’s physically attacks the brain, actually reducing the weight of an affected brain by about 140g: the size of an orange. It has made me look at my image, with the process of peeling just begun, very differently. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to freeze that process, or even better, to re-peel the orange? It’s not much, but I will put £4 of every orange print sold will go to Alzheimer’s Research UK.

So that’s it: the personal, the musical, the pretty and the tricky. In the coming week I’m hoping to return to oils and take on some longer projects.



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!!


New Plans and Products

In the spirit of this new age of irrepressible optimism, I thought I would frame my recent crash in health as a ‘new plan’ to travel to the States for treatment, rather than ‘ditching the plan of going back to university this year and returning to weeks of no painting and no study’. I think it makes for a better title. It has been a difficult decision to go to the States, because although I can hope for excellent care and treatment, my experience so far teaches me that treatment usually entails feeling much worse before one feels better. Have you heard of the delayed gratification marshmallow test? Well, I feel like my current struggle with Lyme has become an intolerably magnified version of this innocent little game!

However, that’s not to say that the only plans I have to share are health related. As always, I have artistic plans in the woodwork, however long it may take me to put them into practice. With actual painting having been beyond me for a number of weeks now, I have instead been sketching. These drawings fall into two categories, mostly. The first lot are plans for future paintings. Below is a sketch of a tulip painting I have been considering for a while, now conceived as three separate panels rather than a single canvas, and preparatory sketch for my next pet portrait of a beautiful golden retriever.

Rachel Alban
Tulips and Golden Retreiver

At other times, I like to draw figures in the news – they’re not necessarily figures I like, though I prefer drawing people I admire to those that I despise! Somehow, drawing people at the centre of national life (or near enough!) makes me feel more in touch with that dynamic world of well people that I otherwise feel so divorced from. So here is a particularly controversial politician of the moment, in danger of sounding like he might actually have a conviction or two, Jeremy Corbyn (alongside a plan for a striped or ‘painted’ rose):

Rachel Alban Artist

Just in case my readers are concerned about political balance, I can also say that I recently drew Paddy Ashdown as a Lib Dem representative, and Winston Churchill for the Conservatives! Though, having said that, these choices were more determined by their weather-worn expressive facial features, than party affiliation!

imageWith my little dormouse framed and ready to go to its new home, I thought it was time to make him (or her?!) more widely available. In fact, if you order today, you can have this sleepy ball of fluff on your wall, or in your collection of greetings cards with a 20% discount. You should find these reduced prices on the relevant pages, but they won’t last… It might also be worth revisiting my page of originals, as one of them will only be available directly from me, the artist, until the end of August. More details to follow, after my adventures in America – wish me luck!