Archaeology

Archaeology: Anglo-Saxon Pots (A4 charcoal and watercolour 2015)

Drawing in a museum can be enormously rewarding, if only because you have access to a range of still life objects so very different to those cups and vases you have at home (unless you’re a member of the Getty family).

It’s also interesting to compare the reactions of other museum visitors in different countries.  In the US – New York at least – people will come right up to you and stare at your drawing, sometimes even offering advice and comment. In Europe, they’re more likely to ignore you, at the most letting it be known through complex body language that you’re somewhat in the way.

In England, dear land of perpetual embarrassment where it is customary to apologise for things you haven’t done, your fellow visitors will stand ostentatiously to one side, staring hard at the object, letting you know that in no way are they looking at your drawing because from this angle it would be nigh on impossible to see it. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t. Not because it isn’t any good, you understand, but because it’s none of their business. You carry on drawing – I’ll stand over here. Sorry.

These pots – don’t you love a grid? – are developed from some Anglo-Saxon objects in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. I was able to draw them, unhurried and unmolested, over a number of visits and then assemble them in this minimal yet graphic style.

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Just serotonin?

Silver white light (42 cms x 59 cms charcoal and pastel on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Recently, during a difficult period, I took enormous comfort in drawing. In Peter Steinhart’s book, The Undressed Art, I found the following passage:

Artists frequently compare the way they feel when they’re drawing to the sense of heightened awareness reported by practitioners of meditation….Jim Smyth, who has taught drawing for twenty years, says, “I believe the drawing process produces serotonin and endorphins in certain individuals. I see people who are not aware of their arthritis pain when they’re drawing. When they stop drawing, it comes back. Smyth once let someone monitor his brain-wave activity while he drew. “When I was drawing I would get alpha waves,” he said.

Alpha waves are electrical impulses in the brain that are associated with calm and focussed attention, Steinhart reminds us. Similar studies of meditation practitioners have revealed increased alpha, theta (these are associated with imagination and creativity) and beta waves (highly focussed attention).

Smyth believes the chemically induced sensation of pleasure is what keeps many people drawing. “There must be some physical reward for some people,” he says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”

Well, it might have been a need for serotonin that urged me to draw when I was feeling low – certainly lack of it can result in depression and insomnia – but I like to feel it’s more than just a neurotransmitter ‘fix’. Isn’t any creative act – whether making lines on paper or following notes on a musical stave – a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control (however much it might sometimes feel that the line is controlling you!). The end result, a unique piece made by your own hand, is a bonus: something to remind you of that time when you had your hand on the wheel.

The above drawing is one of the ones I completed during this time. Based on a rough sketch of the excellent model in the life drawing class I attend, I drew the figure in charcoal and dissolved some of the edges into the pastel background. I’m trying to get away from enclosing everything in a black line and this approach, I think, worked well. The addition of white pastel produces – I hope – a mystical feel, as if the figure is conducting some sort of energy. And not just serotonin!

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Excuse my liberosis

Vellichor (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2017)

If you haven’t come across the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, do click on the link and discover Altschmerz, Adronitis and Ellipsism for yourself. Invented, curated and presented by designer and voiceover artist, John Koenig, the Dictionary is surely something that we’ve all been waiting for.

The idea of making up words that sound completely plausible for feelings that we can’t quite describe is pure genius. Some are simply defined while others are the subjects of beautifully-made short films.

Take wytai, for example, expressed as:

n. a feature of modern society that suddenly strikes you as absurd and grotesque—from zoos and milk-drinking to organ transplants, life insurance, and fiction—part of the faint background noise of absurdity that reverberates from the moment our ancestors first crawled out of the slime but could not for the life of them remember what they got up to do.

The word ‘wytai’ is an acronym for ‘when you think about it’. The film accompanying zenosyne suggests that we should rethink the idea that youth is wasted on the young and that their emotions ‘make perfect sense once you adjust for inflation’. Now isn’t that almost certainly true?

Inevitably, I felt the need to try and interpret some of these in pictures, so here is vellichor (the strange wistfulness of used bookstores) drawn in a picture-book style, and onism (the frustration of being stuck in just one body that inhabits only one place at a time) that I thought required an edgier approach.

Onism (A5 ink and watercolour 2017)

I could get lost in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows for hours. I would like to thank Esther Cook for telling me about it: without it how would I have discovered that the unsettling feeling I’ve had for about a year is probably nodus tollens – let’s hope they soon find a cure.

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Dreaming

Darling (A4 mixed media and collage 2017)

I dread people telling me their dreams. I never quite know how to react: of course they’re surreal and strange, they’re dreams – not reality.

So let me tell you about one of mine…

I hardly ever remember my dreams unless I wake up in mid flow laughing or in a state of utter terror. A couple of nights ago I was putting the finishing touches to the picture above when I realised that its subject could in fact be a ghost or a corpse. With that thought I went to bed, read a few pages of Stacy Schiff’s book on the Salem witches and awoke a few hours later, disoriented by the following dream which I’ve tried to convey in the chopped-up way that I remembered it:

Where would the path have led us if we’d followed it to the very end?

You, holding my hand as the sun rises over the tree tops, the start of a new day that I sensed we wouldn’t see through to its conclusion.

Paper, a pencil, just a few lines before the effort became too great.

A book face down on the floor. A telephone ringing somewhere deep inside the house. And the corners of the room are still dark as soot from smoking candles.

What was the point of all those words, I wonder, if so many of them weren’t true? Your hair spread over the pillow, notes of blue and grey amongst the brown.

We’d always assumed I’d be the first to leave.

Birds sing like it’s any other day. A door slams. A car drives down the hill.

I was pleased to wake at that point. Even now I’m not sure what was part of the dream and what rushed in to fill the gaps when I awoke.

Later, in the morning sunlight the picture seemed less sinister: a pale-skinned woman thinking of past loves, travels and her childhood, nothing more unsettling than that.

A last, lighter word on dreams. A 12 year old British comedian called Grace the Child won an award for the following joke at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015: “People say to me, you’re young, live your dream! But I don’t want to be naked in an examination I haven’t revised for…”

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All these broken pieces

You can only take what you can carry (A4 collaged painted paper 2017)

I am fascinated by, and have enormous respect for, the art of collage. It seems to me that you need to develop a different sort of ‘eye’ than that used in drawing or painting, an ability – perhaps – to have a better sense of the end result when you start than is often the case with a drawing.

This one came together fairly fluently once I’d decided on the sort of shapes I wanted to use. Cut from one of the less successful paintings I competed on my recent Seawhite Studios course – a rather traditional still life with some interesting colour combinations and brushwork but otherwise a bit dull – the arrangement seemed to suggest itself from the painted marks within each shape.

I like to listen to music when I draw or paint, usually modern classical music of a certain type – Morton Feldman, Gavin Bryars, Valentin Silvestrov, John Luther Adams – or ambient jazz such as Eberhard Weber or Jon Hassell. Just lately I’ve tried having pop music in the background, which is where this piece’s evocative title comes from.

I have another – “All these broken pieces fit together to make a perfect picture of us” – which I’m looking forward to using when the image suggests. Well, it’s better than Untitled Collage # 4, isn’t it?

I’m very grateful to Jean Messner for nominating me for a Blogger Recognition Award. I’m always very touched by these awards from other bloggers as they suggest that what one is doing resonates with someone enough for them to want to tell others. Jean’s own blog is an inspiring piece of work that not only describes her own artistic journey but also turns a spotlight onto artists she admires. I’ve listed some favourite blogs fairly recently, so let me direct you there and to the list on the right hand side of this post. Thank you, Jean, your nomination is much appreciated.

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Drenched in orange blossom water

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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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The pilgrim soul

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The Pilgrim Soul (32 cms x 24 cms mixed media 2017)

Here’s a picture which started life as an exercise in combining paint and collage. Taking its cue from the line about ‘the pilgrim soul’, the suggestion of landscape and a path through it was used to imply movement, an emotional journey from one place to another. It isn’t by any means a finished picture, but more a work in progress. I might even, as I learned to do in my Seawhite Studios workshop, paint over the whole thing and start again!

Inspired by a number of fellow bloggers’ art journals,  Claudia McGill’s enigmatic postcards and Cy Twombly’s almost white paintings with words scrawled on them in his unique handwriting, I took lines from a number of different poems in an anthology and reassembled them as follows:

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,/ Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,/ Yet knows its boughs more silent than before

One man loved the pilgrim soul in you

 

Rosy lips of such ecstasy

 

Words at once both true and kind

I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain

Remember, in the eyes gazing at you

Quickened so with grief,

Slow and sweet was the time between us

There could be a whole short story in the inscription, written inside the book (below). Note the date and wonder what happened to these two, and why her gift ended up among the reduced stock of an online book dealer. Let’s at least hope that the time between them was slow – and sweet.

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Poems by Edna St Vincent Millay, W.B. Yeats, C.P. Cavafy, Yehuda Amichai and Robert Graves.

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