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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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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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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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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The year of painting dangerously

still-life-blog

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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In praise of celeriac soup

celeriac-blog

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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Found

found-blog

Found objects

When London’s Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741, mothers leaving their babies in its care were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’. Some of the mothers were so poor that the tokens consisted of simple buttons with an unusual coloured thread or pennies engraved or defaced in some way to make them distinguishable from others.

The Foundling Hospital continued its work until 1954 and is now a children’s charity and museum. Last summer, the artist Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition called Found, which invited sixty artists to contribute tokens of their own responding to both the word itself and the spirit of the museum.

Ms Parker is a remarkable woman – and artist – in her own right. Her best-known piece is probably Cold Dark Matter, a wooden garden shed that has been reconstructed at the moment when it explodes, but she rarely does the same thing twice. So she has produced drawings using her own blood, others using ink made from destroyed pornographic films confiscated by HM Customs, and a gold tooth filling melted and stretched through the eye of a needle. She took a macrophotograph of the seat of Sigmund Freud’s leather chair and called it Marks made by Freud, Subconsciously. She has also photographed an Arab man who makes crowns of thorns for Christian tourists in Bethlehem and exhibited the words crossed out of manuscripts by Charlotte Bronte as rather beautiful semi-abstracts.

I’m travelling this week and have nothing finished to share with you so instead I’ll show you three ‘found’ objects of my own. The first is a pencil I discovered in my Mother’s house, one of the ones I would have been given half a century ago by my aunt who owned a petrol station. With one of these and an order pad I would draw quietly in a corner while the grown-ups talked. There’s also a photograph from around the same time – possibly taken at my grandfather’s wedding to his second wife – where we all look like characters from some historical drama. It’s sobering to discover that photographs from my childhood look as if they’re from another era. And finally an odd, poignant note that I found in my Mother’s bedside table. With her dementia there’s now little point in asking her to elaborate on the sad story that lies behind these few scribbled words.

I’m sure many of you have objects like this that have returned to you in some way. On their own they may have little resonance, but put them together and they start to build up a fragmented picture of a forgotten time. Be careful, though, there are shadows in the corner of the room, ghosts in the recesses of your memory…

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