On the brink of everything

Mangosteens blog

Mangosteens (A4 acrylic 2017)

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d eagerly await Facebook posts from a 78 year old Quaker educationalist I would have been, er – sceptical. However, I now do just that: I’ve yet to read a dull or uninspired post from Parker J. Palmer.

Last week he took us back to a piece he wrote for the On Being website in 2015 called On the Brink of Everything: An Early Morning Meditation. In it, he references another article on the site in which a mother writes about seeing the world through her toddler’s eyes, greeting everything with a sense of wonder and discovery. You don’t have to be a child to do that, PJP demonstrates:

It’s winter in Wisconsin, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. The horizon behind the bare trees was aglow with a crimson sunrise that, seen through the tracery of ice, turned the pane into stained glass. For several minutes I took in that scene as if I were admiring a great cathedral through a rose window.

Could anyone other than Mr Palmer write so eloquently about having an early-morning pee? I wondered.

The article ends like this. ‘I’m old enough to know that the world can delight me, so my expectation is not of the world but of myself: Delight in the gift of life and be grateful.’ Isn’t that superb? ‘My expectation is not of the world but of myself‘ – how often do we wait for something to happen, for things to improve, for someone to do something that will enable us to feel better about something else? And how often are we disappointed when the planets don’t align? Discovering one’s own delight in the world is a gift beyond riches, what the mindfulness gurus call ‘beginner’s mind’, I believe.

In the comments on PJP’s Facebook page someone quoted some lines from a Mary Oliver poem (not a writer I usually enjoy): ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’

The painting above grew out of a simple delight, finding a fruit I’d never seen before during a day out with a friend in Borough Market, London. It  was meant to be much bigger. It was going to have a table’s edge, a scrubbed out wall behind it. For weeks, on and off, I painted and re-painted, drew a cup and a vase and a cylinder and painted over them all. I was so pleased with the three mangosteens and how loosely I’d rendered them I was determined to finish the painting and not abandon it. Posting it as a work in progress on Instagram and sharing it on Facebook, the painter Karolina Gacke advised me that all it needed was some shadow on the tabletop and it was done.

Less is more…

 

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Drenched in orange blossom water

zen-fruits-blog

It was this that captured me (24 cms x 32 cms mixed media on Hanhemuehle Britannia paper 2017)

Writer and artist Deborah Brasket generously compared my painting of Andalusian cherries from last summer to Mu Ch’i Fa-Ch’ang’s Zen painting, Six Persimmons. This inspired me to bring some of the lessons I learned at the recent Seawhite Studios still life course to bear on the subject that I find most meditative to paint: fruit.

This arrangement of Mediterranean fruits started life as a series of painted stripes, little of which is now evident. Building up the layers of colour over this underpainting was immensely pleasurable: teasing rounded shapes out of a linear background, adding and removing colour, pushing it around with my fingertips, using charcoal to produce a delicate shading and finally adding collaged phrases.

The phrases are from a London-based Palestinian chef’s received memories of the produce of her homeland. “Large, plump, tangy and bitter”, “so wild and fresh” and “drenched in orange blossom water” are so evocative of eastern Mediterranean food.

I was reminded of some weeks I spent on the island of Crete as a young man – so cut off from the rest of the world that I had no idea the Falklands War had started until I was told by an old man in a bar; a short visit to Lebanon nearly twenty years ago – such a beautiful, troubled, disorienting, sensuous, wonderful country; more recently, an idyllic holiday in Sicily where my former partner and I lived among lemon groves and avocado trees and a creature of some kind scuttled across our roof at about 10 each evening. In all these places the fruit seemed so much plumper, brighter and tastier than that we could find at home.

Separated by eight centuries and several levels of skill from Mu Ch’i, I nevertheless hope that this painting conveys something of the same Zen calm and brings some sweet Mediterranean sunlight into your February day.

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One morning (with strawberries)

One Morning blog

One Morning (A4 mixed media 2016)

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition comes in for a fair bit of stick. It rarely gets reviewed in the weekend broadsheets and if anyone pays it any notice at all, it’s to give it a hard time. Seen until recently as rather conservative and dominated by older, male artists, the RA invites anyone to enter works for the Summer Exhibition: this year 12,000 submissions were received but only 700 works by non-Academicians were accepted.

The 2015 exhibition was stylishly curated by Michael Craig-Martin, whose own work I find rather sterile despite photographer Richard Guest’s shedding welcome light on it earlier this year. This year’s was left to the care of Richard Wilson and, if not as ground-breaking as it was under Craig-Martin, there’s still plenty to admire.

Among the less showy numbers was a small painting by Karolina Gacke, an artist whose name is new to me. Despite the presence of bigger names – including a particularly wobbly print by Tracey Emin of a woman doing something or other on a hotel bed and some vibrant prints by Jim Dine – I kept wandering back to this still life by Ms Gacke, looking at it hard and long for some time.

It’s been an uninspiring couple of weeks, I have to admit, but long after I left the Royal Academy Karolina Gacke’s lovely painting remained with me. Over the weekend I had a go at her spacious, loose style. Although my painting is more contrived, I present it here as a tribute to someone who, for me, stole the show at the Royal Academy this year.

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Listening to Felix Scheinberger

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Cherries I (Grazalema) (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2016)

In painting terms, it didn’t go as smoothly as planned on our Andalusian holiday. Although I have Felix Scheinberger’s book on watercolour to hand where he warns specifically against it, I was too focussed on the ‘finished’ picture instead of what he eloquently calls enjoying the 100 small steps on the way.

Then one day the owner of the cottage where we were staying (near Grazalema) left us a plate of fresh cherries. Their various shades of red – from deepest blood to an almost yellowy orange – begged to be painted, not in any mimsy, nineteenth century Sunday afternoon sort of way, but boldly and loosely, enjoying some of the 100 small steps.

So here are two, painted in the shade of an Andalusian summer’s day, noting once again that it just needs some small inspiration – a gift of cherries – and hearing what the masters have to say.

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Cherries II (Grazalema) (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2016)

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Breakfast in America

Fried Egg blog

Fried egg on sourdough toast with an espresso (A4, pastel, 2015)

There are two excellent bed and breakfasts near our office in Rochester, NY, and I’m in the Mount Vernon. Hidden behind trees, this tranquil villa feels like something from a quieter, more elegant age.

Open your blinds carefully on a winter morning and there’s every chance you’ll see a bright red northern cardinal on one of the many bird feeders in the garden. Like many American B&Bs, the breakfasts here are a delight: fresh fruit, good coffee, and perfectly-cooked eggs on home-made bread.

I drew this before I left for the US but probably with those Mount Vernon breakfasts in mind. I’d had a go at this a couple of times – in watercolour and acrylic – but only soft pastel (Sennelier Extra Soft and Unison here) seemed to capture the essential egginess of that fried egg. I love drawing food. And eating it.