Tag: drawing

Whistle-stop tour

After neglecting my blog for far too long, this entry will have to be a brief run-down of my work over the last few months. In December I was still preoccupied with my series ‘In Medias Res’, in which I paint sections of longer objects – be they flower spires, ears of wheat, tree-trunks or, appropriately, icicles – almost as chapters of a larger story (from the latin, ‘in the middle of things’). The delphinium was the second in the series, and I struggled to capture the papery delicacy of the petals. However, in the end I was really pleased with the powerful colour balanced, which is so outside my usual, subtle palette. As I painted, it was the richer purples which felt most vivid, but actually on reflection it is the paler, lavender hues which sing most against the golden ground.

The icicles painting was initially conceived as another ‘Medias Res’, and was a joy to paint. The optical effects of undulating ice felt extraordinarily abstract and yet surprisingly realistic at the same time. There are times as an artist when you genuinely see something which you would not have noticed as a mere observer, and this was the case with the bubbles suspended at the centre of the larger icicles. Not only are these a beautiful visual detail, they seem to suggest the freezing of time, as well as water.

My other seasonal work was the microcosm of a brussel sprout. I had been mulling over this ever since I saw James Acaster’s book tour, in which he describes a series of cabbage-based pranks. As with so many of my pictures, what began as a purely visual idea began to take on surprising meanings as I planned the work. From the outside, a sprout looks like a ball of layers, but I became transfixed by the fact that, cut in half, the inside reveals a tree-like structure, with the branches radiating out to support the surface. And so round and round in my head while I drew this microcosm went the carol: ‘The Tree of Life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit and always green’. Though the symbolism made complete sense to me, I thought it would seem mad to anyone else, and so I was delighted that it was snapped up by a herbalist, who saw in the image the power of nature to heal and regenerate.


At the start of the new year, I worked to complete my collection of Tiny Treasures, with the exciting prospect of them going on display at Blossom Street Gallery, in York. My additions were two insects, both edged in gold, and a silver fish cut into ‘two pieces of silver’. With these three I wanted to emphasise the precious, jewel-like quality of these miniatures, with the gold outlines inspired by religious icons. On a practical level, the gold backgrounds made it possible to paint in the fine outline details of hairs and delicate legs, which would have been impossible to cut out. As with my other Tiny Treasures, I loved working in such concentrated detail on these, though it was terrifying when I came to the point of cutting in two the silver fish! It was wonderful to recently see pictures of the collection displayed beautifully by the Blossom Street Gallery in glass cabinets, which perfectly echo the glass and metal frames.

However, the biggest milestone since the new year has been finishing a series of five small canine portraits. It was a wonderful to capture each of these different personalities. Some people might think that portraying a pet is somewhat sentimental, that one retriever looks very much like another. But I hope this collection of characterful boys argues otherwise! To finish the set involved a day of revisiting each portrait to add little details, particularly the hairs around the muzzles, but it’s a stressful task, as you don’t want to overwork and lose any of the virtues of the existing painting. Now dry, this collection should soon be with their owner and for the first time in over a year, I have no canine commissions in hand! So, if anyone has been waiting to commission a pet portrait – now is your chance (it is, after all, the year of the dog).

Bringing us up to the present. While all outside is white, my current work-in-progress is all about black. It is another poem-painting, in the same format as ‘Pied Beauty’, which I painted two years ago. This painting is inspired by a different poet: the start of ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas. This radio-poem-drama begins at night in a small town, as the listener witnesses the dreams of its residents. The evocative opening description involves a number of types of black: ‘bible-black’, ‘sloe-black’, ‘crow-black’, and the black ‘fishing-boat-bobbing sea’. I want to capture the visual connections between these vivid metaphors. I began too hastily with ‘crow-black’, which will need to be revisited. However, progress on the sloes has been very rewarding. Much like the icicles, the patches of turquoise, deep navy, pale lavender and ochre seem to make very little visual sense, and yet they gradually knit together under the brush to create these mini black and blue plums. The shadows are particularly interesting, with light being reflected from one sloe onto another.

So, over the coming weeks I will be working away on this, and on a new Medias Res of apricot foxgloves.

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!

Without Contraries is No Progression

“Without Contraries is No Progression”:


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?