In Medias Res

‘In the middle of things’. This phrase is well known to literature students, for when an author dives into the middle of the action, rather than starting at the beginning of the story. Apart from being the title of my latest series of paintings, this phrase also neatly sums up the last few months. I have been lucky enough to have my work on display in two exhibitions for the first time – one Microcosm in London as part of the DRAW exhibition at the Menier Gallery, and then a much larger collection of my work at a local exhibition in Hurworth Village Hall. I was particularly pleased to be able to display my tiny treasures en masse for the first time.

Painting took a knock during August and September, as my health again went downhill. But thanks to a new consultant (a specialist in epi-genetics and chronic illness) I am slowly making improvements again. My first mission, once I was back with brush in hand, was to finish a wedding portrait, commissioned as an anniversary present.

Since then I have taken a break from commissions in order to experiment a bit. My new series, ‘In Medias Res’, was borne out of the my recent experience of seeing the Rothko room at the Tate Modern. I loved the impact his enormous canvases made through simple shapes and careful control of colour. I wondered if I could take a similarly simple concept of design – in my case just a column/vertical line – but marry this with realism. So each painting in this series is essentially a textural, coloured ground, bisected by a column of contrasting colour. In the first two paintings, this column comprises a spire of flowers. As each painting only captures a small section of each column, almost like a chapter from a longer novel, I decided that the series should be called ‘In Medias Res’.

In practice, calibrating the contrasting colours has been the most challenging aspect, involving colour theory which I can’t go into in detail. However, the basic principle is that if colours are of exactly equal tone, the eye struggles to perceive the image as clearly and so the colours seem more vibrant. In the foxtail lily, these colour contrasts are partly within the  flowers themselves, as the peach is contrasted with cobalt blue shadows. In grey scale, the flowers suddenly look flat, because the contours have been achieved with colour rather than tone.

My next project in this series is a spire of delphinium flowers, but I also have a birch tree, lavender flower, floxglove and stalk of barley ready to go! Another series for which I’m brimming with ideas is my set of microcosms. I was delighted that Microcosm #3: ‘A World of Many Parts’ was accepted by the Society for Graphic Fine Art for their annual London exhibition. For my next microcosm I am torn between a brussel sprout (yes, a brussel sprout), and the iris of an eye! In the meantime, I have been continuing my work in pencil with a floral commission. I was captivated by delicate shadows on this simple Japanese anemone, which I have called ‘Halo’, having spent hours on that intricate ring of stamens!

I will soon be making a return to my canine portraits, as well as working on some paintings inspired by poetry. However, painting is now very much in the middle of many other things, including research, tutoring and script-reading. I just hope my health holds up amidst so many exciting and interesting projects. In the meantime I have started to create a calendar of my work from the past year, which you can see on my rkalbanart facebook page. If you would be interested one for £10, please leave a comment below, as I will only be ordering a small number. As I’m sure you are also ‘in medias res’, I will leave it there!

Learning Lessons

Another couple of months slip by and I hardly know what I’ve done with them! Of course, our wonderful/terrible cavapom puppy still dominates, and is soon to make her debut in my artwork as the 5th in my series of Microcosms…

Fitting art around a puppy and, recently, deteriorating health, has been a struggle, but here and there I’m been about to break through it all and paint! To get back into oils I painted a beautiful Lurcher called Emrys. You might image one dog portrait is very much like another, but although some features like noses and eyes become familiar, painting this dog required an entirely unfamiliar palette, new facial shapes and proportions, and even different brushwork, to capture the smooth contours of short fur. I painted his face much more in sections, as you can see here, before blending them together. Those soft, soulful eyes were a delight to capture, and quietly watched me as I completed the rest!

Emboldened by my success with Emrys, I turned to completing a challenging painting of water and lemons, as part of my series on Life with Lyme. I struggled most with the lemons. Yellow is a notoriously difficult colour to work with, especially in shadow. Blue in shadow is dark blue; red in shadow is dark red; yellow in shadow lurches in greens and muddy browns. In truth, I made this painting a lot worse before I made it better! After a morning overthinking the yellows, mixing and muddying them, I stepped right back and looked at my reference photo at only thumbnail-size, to discover that what I was lacking was simply pure yellow itself. For the last couple of hours I finished this painting largely by taking a large brush (well, large for me!) and using lemon and cadmium yellow almost straight from the tube. A bit of wasted time perhaps, but another lesson learned!

In August I enjoyed returning to the more conceptual world of my microcosm series. After watching James Fox’s excellent series on Japanese art and culture, I became captivated by the concept of ‘Ma’ or negative space. This is the idea that the space between things is as aesthetically powerful as the things themselves. In music this would be the effect of rests between notes, in writing the things left unsaid, and in art the spaces between objects. Since May I had been musing on the globe alliums in the central bed of our tiny garden. This whole bed is designed around the sphere motif – from yew balls at the corners, to our lollypop privet, to our alliums and verbena bonariensis. The wonderful thing about the alliums is the space captured between the outer skin of flowers which forms the spherical shape. These tiny stars are held on spoke-like stems emanating from the centre. Microcosm is entirely the right word. As one friend pointed out, each flower is like a mini cosmos of stars, but you could look at this stunning structure at a microscopic level too, as a model of the atom itself – largely empty space with electrons orbiting a central nucleus.

So much for the ideas. The execution was fun but fiddly, with each tiny star requiring exact marks to capture the detail of tiny petals, stamen and stigma with clarity. After that it was a question of balancing light and dark so as to convey both the overall shape of the sphere and the recession towards the centre. I was delighted that it was snapped up before I had even completed it, and can’t wait to frame it and hand it over for display in the owner’s first house!

Lastly, I have been expanding my range of tiny treasures with seasonal fruit. We no longer think of strawberries or raspberries as seasonal treasures, thanks to their year-round availability in supermarkets. But, for the first time, this year my husband and I grew our own. With only one raspberry bush and three strawberry plants, each fruit was indeed precious and we generally ate them individually and without accompaniment, to really savour them. We even taste-tested the three varieties of strawberry plants we bought, and were amazed by the variation in flavour. However, the strawberry was an unexpected challenge, and took three goes before I achieved this version. The raspberry was more compliant, and soon my collection of tiny treasures will be available online, so do keep an eye out during September!

Usually I round off with a taster of things to come, but instead I wanted to end with some good news. First, a large selection of my work will be appearing in my first joint exhibition at the end of September, in Hurworth Village Hall, alongside other local photographers and artists. Second, after my disappointment with the rejection of my art from an exhibition a few months ago, I can now celebrate the acceptance of my third microcosm, ‘A World of Many Parts’ into the annual exhibition of the Society for Graphic Fine Art, which will be showing at the Menier Gallery from 2nd to 14th October. I can’t wait to see it on a London gallery wall. If you are in the area, please drop by!

Pre-Puppy Paintings!

I have been remiss. It is over two months since I last wrote a blog post and in that time things have gone up, down and then in an entirely new directions… During the ups, I have been able to do the paintings I’ll share below. But May also saw some serious downs: physical but leading also to psychological. During this time I decided to come off treatment for a trial period and, along with my husband, to get a puppy….  As such this post will necessarily be brief! With an adorable, cheeky and willful 14 week-old puppy to look after, periods of peace and quiet are at a premium! Though my health has actually improved since our lives were turned upside-down by this tiny terror, I have yet to work out how to combine painting with a puppy. I suspect reliable potty training is the first step, though this is eluding us at present….

Usually I have a number of painting projects in the air, waiting for their moment. The moment for this canine portrait came, sadly, when this 15-year-old golden retriever died at the end of April. Had health allowed I would have put paintbrush to canvas-paper straight away. That was my response when our golden retriever passed away nearly a decade ago, and I still felt the urge to bring a lost personality to life in paint, perhaps as a way of keeping memories alive in the face of absence. In the second layer I’ll need to work on getting more contrast in the shadows, which are trickier because old Hamish’s fur was white with his venerable age! However, I was pleased with the goofy retriever smile and enjoyed capturing the wet of his long tongue.

At the end of May I enjoyed a whole week of painting, where I was able to pursue some of my own interests, rather than focusing only on commissions. Last year, I met a professional artist who told me it was crucial to keep this side of my art going, and I did feel refreshed after of week of my own projects. I started with a magnolia flower, which I had originally intended to be a tiny treasure, but as I worked on it I felt the bloom had a statuesque presence which made me feel more like I was working on a portrait than a still life. The petals have a pink flush and porous, dimpled texture that did feel like skin to paint. So I decided the original should stand on its own, not as a tiny treasure, and to intensify the focus I painted the background a dramatic black. This was a very tense 20 minutes, as I knew any slip with the black paint could ruin hours of hard work! However, here she is: “A Portrait of a Lady”.

Next, I spent a morning finishing a tiny treasure of two mussel shells – inside and out. I could happily return to this subject. The interior iridescence and the outer patina are mesmerizing, if baffling, to paint. Sometimes my paintings are driven by ideas, but here it was the pure form that got me.

Lastly, I was chuffed to finish this painting of pink garlic in a black bowl. This painting could easily also be purely about form and colour, but in fact it is part of a developing series where I paint everyday objects which have changed their significance for me as a result of having Lyme Disease. In the past I looked a garlic purely as a culinary ingredient, but it is also a powerful antimicrobial agent, which I now often take in the form of allicin and part of my medicinal armoury against Lyme. I have called it ‘Active Ingredient’.

The challenge now is to get back to the easel for some post-puppy painting, while not neglecting my tiny terror! If and when I manage this feat, I have a vintage wedding portrait to do, pet portraits to continue and tiny treasures inspired by the fruits of the season. In the meantime, here’s to the sunshine!

 

 

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!