Facts and wonder

A Garden in a Grid (A4 collaged painted papers 2014)

What do you do if you feel you’re following the wrong path through life but haven’t the courage or the financial security to retrace your steps to the point where you took the false turning?

If you’re an author or an artist or a musician, how do you react if your writing, paintings or compositions don’t live up to what you see or hear in your mind?

Suppose you were to declare a passion for someone, but that person couldn’t – however much they cared for you – return your feelings to the same extent?

The novelist, Sebastian Barry, asked in The Temporary Gentleman, “Does wonder have any dominion over facts, in the end?” In the context of the novel, these words have a specific meaning. Removed from their context they provide an interesting way to view pedicaments such as the ones described above.

If we take ‘wonder’ to be our ideal – that one-man show at the Gagosian in New York, proud of every piece hanging on those expensive walls, our partner of choice at our side during the private view followed by a quiet dinner for two at Pearl‘s after the event (“Sorry, Larry, we’ve got something lined up for later…”) – what determines the distance between that and the facts of our existence? Is it just talent? Luck, opportunity, chance? Setting aside self-help platitudes, can believing in a desired outcome influence the facts as they stand this morning?

Of all the painters I admire, Cy Twombly is perhaps the one that divides opinion the most. I find much of his work both exciting and moving, yet others see him as a charlatan who fools the gullible into believing they’re looking at something profound. Yet whatever we think, Twombly had faith in his own vision and how it developed over the years; also, influential dealers and collectors – some of whom, you’ll be surprised to hear, are only in it for the money – were prepared to gamble their reputations on a large canvas with two smears of yellow oil paint and a badly-written quote from the Aeneid scrawled across it. Like his work or not, Cy lived the ‘wonder’.

Perhaps the important factor is belief. Had we believed sufficiently in ourselves at that decisive moment we might not have taken an ill-judged turning at the crossroads; perhaps the gap between the music we hear in our heads and the notes on the stave is down to our belief in the piece; perhaps our potential lover turns us down because in our heart of hearts we know that we are unable to provide what he or she needs? Twombly’s teachers, fellow artists and, crucially, he himself believed in what he was doing; he sold those controversial paintings, married the beautiful Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and lived in elegant style in Rome for the rest of his days.

There may always be a distance between the facts and the wonder, between what is and what could be. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps that’s what drives us on. If we feel we’re on the wrong road the answer may not be to go back, but to find a way forward to where we need to be given where we are now rather than where we were ten years ago. After all, there’s no choice about that: we cannot go back.

I can’t provide answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post. I’m also aware that this is not the most fully realised piece I’ve posted: I’m still working through it. However I’m fairly certain that belief has a great deal to do with those questions.

What do you think?

A note on the image: As those of you who follow my Instagram feed will already know, the image is made up of pieces cut from a couple of unsuccessful flower paintings and repurposed. I’m grateful to Jacob for the title.

A note on Sebastian Barry: Barry is a beautiful writer, as this will demonstrate: “We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.” However, his stories and his plot turns can be desperately sad and I advise caution when reading his novels in public. Last week I found myself on a plane bound for Frankfurt surrounded by international businesspeople. I was approaching the end of The Temporary Gentlemen when something unexpectedly tragic happened to one of the characters. Fighting back my emotions, I became aware of someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a Lufthansa stewardess. “Käse oder Salami?” she asked, a sandwich in each hand.

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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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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Valentine’s Day

valentines-day-blog

Valentine’s Day (A4 ink and watercolour 2017)

She held the hand-painted card, turning it over like an artefact from a past age  – which, speaking metaphorically, it now was. Looking up finally, she said, “There’s something I need to tell you…”

Valentine’s Day can go either way.

If you’re fortunate enough to be celebrating with someone, may I wish you the happiest of days. This post is dedicated to those whose love is perhaps less than conventional: imagine the reaction of this fish’s family when he told them of his new love…

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Frankfurt in October

Autumn leaf 1509 blog

Autumn Leaf (A4 ink and watercolour 2014)

Every year in October I travel to Frankfurt for the book fair. It’s an inspiring time to be in Germany. The days are often warm, as if the summer can’t bear to let go, but the trees are already starting to turn red, gold and brown.

How often have I picked up a particularly beautiful leaf and put it somewhere – intending to draw or paint it later – then forgetten about it, finding a brown and shrivelled thing weeks later. This time of year is transience made visible, when everything changes from day to day, nature drawing down the shutters for winter.

The book fair is an international expression of creativity. The world’s publishers set out their stalls in five or six halls, some with three floors per hall. Those of us who are mainly English-speaking can only feel humbled walking through, say, the Norwegian or Dutch sections, seeing books by writers largely unknown outside of their own languages. There is so much that we can never know.

On the theme of creativity, this morning I read an interview with the conductor, Simon Rattle, in the Sueddeutscher Zeitung magazine. He described how, when conducting, the music is felt in every part of the body. He mentioned a conversation between Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn. “How are you, Andre?” asked Bernstein. “OK,” Previn replied, “But I have terrible backache.” “Really?” Bernstein gasped, “I had no idea you were so successful!”

 

I must remember…

cobnuts-blog

I Must Remember (24cms x 20cms ink and watercolour 2016)

When I was younger no-one talked of seasonal affective disorder: a cynic would say that giving something a name enables someone to sell you something to alleviate it. Whether it is real or just a way to pharmaceuticalise that feeling that winter may never end, it is the case that many of us endure winter rather than enjoy it.

Where I live, with its typical northern European sea climate, the peaks and troughs of the seasons are somewhat levelled, but when I was growing up in the north of England and later, living in the south of Germany, the seasons were more clear cut.

And winter brings its own rewards. What could be better than a crisp morning with the frost on the grass and a thin mist hanging in the trees; or that peculiar silence when you wake to discover that it has snowed overnight; or even a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon with a log fire and a DVD of The Big Country or that book you’ve been meaning to read?

I saw these cobnuts and thought their papery husks would lend themselves to the looser approach to still life painting that I’m trying to develop. The words, taken from The Thrush by Edward Thomas:

I must remember

What died in April

And consider what will be born

Of a fair November

actually refer to memory, language and perception, but could easily be a call to mindfulness, to living in the moment, to appreciating the seasons as they arrive with their gains and losses. After all, what else is there to do?

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Toad

Toad blog

Toad (10cms x 10cms ink and watercolour 2016)

I know many of you have been busily producing daily watercolours for World Watercolour Month, a wonderful initiative by the tireless Charlie O’Shields.

So far – 19 days in – I’ve managed the buddleia that I posted last week and this watercolour of a toad (I have been away quite a bit). I’ve been given a book of wildlife studies by the Cornish artist, Kurt Jackson, whose work in a variety of media is never less than interesting and often inspiring. I used some of his loose linework and spattering techniques in this image of a chap I’d disturbed while pulling up weeds in our garden.

Did you know that the common toad can live for up to 40 years? A particularly large one once made his home under my Mother’s garden shed, occasionally ambling out and frightening her when she was gardening. ‘Toad’ was also the title of an endless drum solo that took up an entire side of a vinyl album by Cream, but the less said about that particular toad the better…

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