Jumping over shadows

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Abstract (55 cms x 48 cms acrylics 2017)

Without wanting to revive the debate about whether one needs to be taught or not, taking part in a workshop that inspires certainly works for me.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie Sollohub‘s still life course at the Seawhite Studios in the south of England. If you look at Katie’s website – or indeed Emily Ball’s, who runs Seawhite – you’ll notice that slavish realism is not their thing – the course was certain to be interesting.

In fact it was an intriguing mixture of formal exercises with the encouragement to go where those exercises led you. For example, we began by mixing a dark colour followed by a light, and juxtaposing them while experimenting with different edges to each block, which led to the abstract above.

For a still life course I came away with relatively few paintings of apples, jugs and flowers. Instead, it was suggested that I could use elements of the still life arrangement to create something more abstract. The picture below, therefore, includes a single small vase, while the wavy line and circles are the pattern on a batik cloth, the windmill shapes stylised versions of a fleshy plant, the magenta cross another motif from a piece of fabric.

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Abstract still life 1 (55 cms x 46 cms acrylics 2017)

I found another exercise – concentrating on negative spaces side-by-side with outlines of objects – led to the sort of straightforward composition that I was hoping to avoid. Katie’s answer was to simply paint over it, using the blue underpainting, as it now was, as an element in the new composition (below). Once again, I took parts of the set up to create a somewhat abstracted still life, rather than painting exactly what I saw on the table.

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Abstract still life 2 (50 cms x 40 cms acrylic 2017)

To say all this was exhilarating, refreshing and provocative is an understatement. I had hoped to have limiting beliefs challenged and they were: what I thought of as still life painting was deconstructed and reassembled into something fresh (for me) and alive.

The Germans have a saying about jumping over your own shadow, meaning to try something new, take a risk, dare greatly. That was certainly what I did last week, and I suspect its effect will be long-lasting.

 

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Darkness, Darkness

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Darkness Darkness (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2016)

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow
Take my head and let me sleep
In the coolness of your shadow
In the silence of your deep

Darkness, darkness, be my blanket
Cover me with the endless night
Take away, take away the pain of knowing
Fill the emptiness of right now

A song written by Jesse Colin Young for the Youngbloods and recorded by numerous others. The illustration was inspired by Chris Ware’s comic strip diaries,  as seen in Danny Gregory’s intriguing book An Illustrated Life.

There seems to be a great deal of darkness in the world at the moment. We mustn’t let it defeat us.

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The naked and the nude

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Life Drawing (A3 charcoal 2016)

In his seminal book, Ways of Seeing, the great – and now late – John Berger attempted a new way of looking at art. His low budget television series of the same name (which can be found in its entirety on YouTube) had one eye on Sir Kenneth Clark’s much better funded Civilisation when it turned its attention to the matter of having no clothes on.

‘To be naked is to be oneself,’ said Berger, ‘To be naked is to be without disguise…To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude…Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.’

The nude is a commodity, often commissioned by men, which Berger captured succinctly when he said, ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.’

Today, if we want to look at naked people we no longer have to surround them with cherubs or call them after one of the seven deadly sins. Perhaps in response to this, painters have changed their view of the body: Lucian Freud made a career out of painting naked people that turned a harsh light on to the flesh, removing eroticism from the equation almost completely.

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Life Drawing (A3 pencil on newsprint 2016)

Where does that leave life drawing? It’s partially an exercise in seeing and the coordination between hand and eye. The living life model in front of you could just as well be a vase of flowers or an arrangement of apples and oranges then? Not really. There is something different about drawing the living figure, as I discovered when I first started attending classes. It was difficult, for a start: the arm exists in relation to the shoulder, in relation to the hip on which the hand rests, in relation to the backdrop, in relation to the negative space formed by the shoulder/elbow/hip triangle. There is more though: you may have a relationship to a vase of flowers, but I believe you must have a relationship to the fellow human standing naked, not nude, before you.

In The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Peter Steinhart addresses the matter of looking at life models in this way: ‘You would quickly feel a human connection, a kind of compassion with them. You might also begin to feel that there is an immense dignity, energy, beauty in them. And somewhere along the line you might realise that you are more or less abandoned to your gaze, that there is something fundamentally human in your curiosity.’

I came across these two life drawings recently while searching for something else. You produce a lot of drawings in a term’s worth of classes, and many end up in the recycling. These two remained in the folder, however, largely because they conveyed something of the humanity of the model. Both were obviously quick poses, but both, I think, captured the dignity, the energy and perhaps even the beauty of the sitter.

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The year of painting dangerously

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Still Life (30 cms x 22 cms acrylic and coloured pencil 2016)

I’m preparing, mentally at least, for something I’ve wanted to do for some time – a three-day still life workshop with Katie Sollohub at the Seawhite Studios. For years I’ve looked wistfully at their website and Facebook pages, at students smeared in charcoal and paint having a wonderful time and breaking through their limiting beliefs.

I clutch on to a number of limiting beliefs: that I can’t paint, that I can’t do anything on a scale larger than A3, that I don’t know how to use certain media. Some of these, I hope, will be challenged and possibily even dispelled at the end of this month. It’ll be wonderful to work with an artist like Katie Sollohub whose style is loose and free and very different to my own. I’m also hoping to work with multi-media artist Doug Selway soon, again exploring aspects of painting that I would find difficult to confront on my own.

Why all this sudden activity? Well, you can only tell yourself stories for so long before they become real. As we learned from the poem I posted last week, one must ‘keep changing, you just get more who you really are‘. I am, I hope, someone who can paint without inhibitions, without the limits I seem to want to impose upon myself. It was time to paint ‘dangerously’.

The picture above – although small in scale – is a product of such abandon. I’d made a mess of something and had lots of unused acrylic paint left over. Without first drawing or sketching out a composition, without even setting up a still life group, I used up the spare paint and just made it up as I went along. The result is no masterpiece but neither is it completely worthless (and it was fun to do because there were no expectations and no borders to fear).

Watch this space…

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‘Keep looking, stay curious…’

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St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall (15 x 20 cms coloured pencil on textured paper 2016)

The poem Hokusai Says by Roger Keyes can be found on the web site of almost every mindfulness practitioner. It encapsulates much that is core to mindfulness but it also speaks, I think, to those of us involved in creative things.

“Keep looking, stay curious” is almost the key to everything in life but certainly true if you aspire to any form of creativity. “Get stuck, accept it…keep doing what you love” – it’s all there, isn’t it?

Here are a few excerpts which relate most pertinently to inspiration and creativity (it’s easy to find the entire poem on the web, as I mentioned, including a video where it is read by the excellent Mark Williams, complete with unnecessary music and images of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind, etc):

 Hokusai says Look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says Look Forward to getting old.

He says keep changing, you just get more who you really are.

He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself as long as it’s interesting.

He says keep doing what you love.

 …

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.

It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.

It doesn’t matter if you sit at home and stare at the ants on your verandah

or the shadows of the trees and grasses in your garden.

It matters that you care.

It matters that you feel.

It matters that you notice.

It matters that life lives through you.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.

Let life live through you.

More than anything else I could find, this drawing of St Michael’s Mount seems to fit with the sentiments of this poem. A rather mystical place just off the southern coast of Cornwall, it comes into its own when the sun starts to set and the incoming tide cuts it off from the mainland. It’s a place I’ve tried to capture many times, and this small drawing seems to convey a little of its mystery.

This post is dedicated to a dear friend who has done something brave for the sake of furthering her art: ‘Don’t be afraid…let life take you by the hand.’

 

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In praise of celeriac soup

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Celeriac (42 cms x 59 cms pastel and ink on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Last week I bought a celeriac. Supermarket celeriacs are washed, topped and tailed and shrink-wrapped in enough plastic to kill a dolphin. I bought mine from a greengrocer: it was a knobbly, earth-encrusted thing with rather unpleasant roots dangling like dead tentacles. Ideal for drawing, in fact.

I find myself buying things to draw which I either don’t know what to do with after the event or don’t have the time to make into jam or chutney. Happily, I always know what to do with a celeriac. It can be made into a very tasty remoulade which really needs to be eaten almost immediately as it absorbs the mayonnaise and becomes a claggy mess. Or it can be made into a wonderful soup – ideal for this time of year – as in this recipe from Thomasina Miers.

Finely chop an onion and sweat it in butter on a low heat for a few minutes, along with a bay leaf, fresh thyme leaves and a pinch of salt. Peel and chop a large potato and the celeriac into chunks, stir into the buttery onions and add one litre of good quality – home made preferably – vegetable stock, bring to the boil and then turn down to a simmer.

Allow the vegetables to cook in the stock for about 45 minutes until tender and then blitz with a hand blender until smooth. Season to taste.

Add 100g of crème fraiche, the juice of half a lemon and about a tablespoon of Dijon or wholegrain mustard. Stir to combine and add water if you prefer a looser consistency. The soup should be served with a few more fresh thyme leaves scattered on top and grilled cheese toasts on the side (smoked cheddar cheese is especially tasty).

You can’t say you don’t learn things on this blog.

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New Year’s Eve

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The Grim Reaper returns home (A5 ink 2016)

I’ve already written about the celebrity cull which happened this year, but that 1-2 punch of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds just after Christmas seemed like the Grim Reaper’s parting flourish – something he’d been planning all along to show just what he could do if he put his mind to it.

Let’s hope that 2017 brings us all some peace and a return to kindness after a year of division and polarisation. Those of you with a faith of some kind will no doubt be calling on that for support while the rest of us, perhaps, ‘open our hearts to the whole universe and find it is loving’. Let’s hope so.

The above drawing owes something to the great Austrian artist, Paul Flora. To open 2017 on a note of wistful beauty, here is a piece of music written specially for this occasion.

A happy and peaceful New Year to you all.

 

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