The limits of your longing

Caroline's Flowers blog

Caroline’s Bouquet (21 cms x 29.7 cms pastel on Rembrandt pastel paper 2017)

Last week I heard and read two contrasting attitudes to growing older.

First was an interview with the late Roger Moore’s publisher, Michael O’Mara, talking about a book that the actor had delivered shortly before his death. It was a “humorous meditation on old age”, O’Mara explained, and he read a passage in which Moore goes into a coffee shop and works himself up into a lather because all he wants is a simple black coffee.

Secondly, on the Quaker educationalist and writer’s Facebook page, Parker J Palmer reproduced a poem by Rilke which “urges us to live life to the fullest, fearing no danger and ‘flaring up like flame’.”

“Go to the limits of your longing,” Rilke writes, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final…Nearby is the country they call life…Give me your hand.”

There’s so much going on in those lines. Essentially, though, the poem urges an engagement, as Palmer says, “to take life-giving risks as opportunity arises”.

For those of us in middle age engaged in creative activity – this is a blog about drawing and painting so I’m afraid all trains will stop at this station – the lessons here are clear. Let’s look again at the Japanese master, Hokusai: both his wives and two of his children predeceased him, he was struck by lightning, suffered a stroke in his 60s which required him to relearn his art, he had scarcely any food when he produced his masterwork Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and five years before his death a studio fire destroyed all his work. Hokusai lived until he was 89. His last words were “If heaven will afford me five more years of life then I’ll manage to become a true artist.”

So what’s it to be? Pushing on to the “limits of your longing”, feeling your life crackling with “beauty and terror”, forever striving to become “a true artist”, or standing in your beige slacks in Cafe Nero ranting about the names of the coffee?

This week’s image celebrates my dear friend and colleague, Caroline Palmer (no relation to Parker J), who, after 25 years as an editor of medieval history and literature books, is having her achievement honoured by some of the academics she’s published over this time. One sent her a lavish bouquet of flowers of irresistable colour combinations and tonal qualities, which she kindly allowed me to babysit over this holiday weekend. As a woman and an editor very much in her prime, no doubt she’ll continue to publish young scholars and established academics for many years to come. I wish her more beauty than terror along the way.

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Into Autumn

sunflowers-2016-blog

Sunflowers (30cms x 40cms pastel 2016)

So that’s probably it for summer: the evenings have acquired a chill edge as soon as the sun drops behind the trees; the gardens and hedges have that exhausted, end-of-the-season look about them.

Last week a neighbour placed a pot containing an extravagant sunflower by her front door, its big bright face a last celebration of summer colours before the winter comes. I was inspired by this to try an abstract pastel drawing of the three sunflowers wilting in a vase in our hallway, something a little more free-form – perhaps in the spirit of Joan Mitchell (woefully under-represented at the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show, I thought).

In the end though, these chaps came out looking more art deco than New York School, perhaps with a memory of 1960s curtain fabric. I’m not sure how successful this was: perhaps acrylic or even watercolour would have been a better choice of medium than pastel, like this from a few years ago:

sunflower

or this one from Kate Osborne. Anyway, I offer it as a reminder of the summer just passed before the season of fallen leaves, quinces and russets.

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Muddled Buddleia

Butterfly Bush blog

Buddleia (A5, watercolour and ink on Hahnemuehle paper, 2016)

I’m not a fan of painting flowers. Even the most skilled watercolourists end up with something that looks like a botanical illustration, I find – often losing that elusive beauty of the flower in nature. I always want to paint them like Stanley Bielen or Lisa Breslow but lack the courage to be that loose. Reducing something as complex as a flower to broad brush strokes must be immensely satisfying, and very effective as we see from Bielen’s pictures. Push it further still and you can end up with a painting that is more or less abstract, as in Debora Stewart’s work.

Alas I wasn’t feeling that brave, or that innovative, on Sunday and ended up with something that was neither realistic nor abstract. However, my ever-supportive partner liked the result – without my prompting her! – so here is my somewhat muddled Buddleia.

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The vase mystery

Vase

Vase (Caran D’ache Neocolor crayons and graphite [?] 2012 A5)

Having spent my formative years being (over-)influenced by Edward Gorey with his ‘certain’ line and tireless cross-hatching, I’ve spent the second half of my life trying to loosen up. Rather like the Anglo-Saxon pot (below), this was another picture that was done hurriedly and freely without any concerns how it might turn out. I was recently asked to do another version of it, and I have no idea how I did it. I thought I’d drawn small squares of colour with water-soluble Caran d’Ache Neocolour crayons, mashed them around a bit with water then drawn over the result with graphite or charcoal pencil. The problem is, I’ve never been able to reproduce exactly this effect. It’s ultimately a rather ordinary still life but I’m very fond of it.