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.


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