Friday, 24 January 2014

Vegetables in an Arab Spring

Often when I look at my artwork, I can vividly recall that moment in time when it was being created- where I was, conversations that I was listening too and even the emotions that I was feeling as I laid brush to paper.

Three years ago, I was in Cairo. The weather was stormy and uncertain, unusual for that that time of year. The dark clouds mirrored an uneasy feeling in the city. There was trouble in Tunisia and rumours abounded, but it all seemed so far away and so unlikely. I was more interested in getting on with my botanical art assignment for the SBA. I had just bought some purple carrots (Daucus carota)  from one of the street stalls and was looking forward to starting my sketches. 

Believe it or not, once upon a time, all carrots were purple. Although they originate from Afghanistan, purple carrots have been in Egypt for thousands of years and are even depicted on tomb walls. 

The first sign of trouble was the internet being turned off, and then the telephones.  Then the protests started. We lived in an affluent area in Cairo and we were surprised to find a small crowd on the street outside. At each building, the crowd would call up “inzil, inzil, inzil” (meaning “Come down”), and they would smile and clap and cheer as people joined them on the streets. It was all very good natured and polite. There were children and people waving flags. I went back to my painting.

Within a few hours, all hell had broken loose. Shopping centres were plundered and set on fire, the police were gone and the prisoners had all been set loose. The images that were being shown on TV were both shocking and bewildering. Cairo was in chaos. We went to bed, unsure of what would happen the next day.

The next day we woke up to the sound of army helicopters in the sky and tanks on the streets. Black smoke from fire filled the air. The mosque began to call all the men to come and defend the neighbourhood. Suddenly the streets were filled with men carrying machetes, shotguns, swords, batons, baseball bats … whatever weapon they could find. The Army began to send text messages to us all, telling people not to panic. Everyone was terrified. A curfew was set in place and people were told to close their curtains and not to venture out.  I stayed at home and painted vegetables.

Written on the side of the page- "We all have a voice"

It was a surreal and frightening few weeks. People were terrified of what might happen but with their worries came a great sense of community. People looked out for each other, shared food, swapped stories. The young men guarded the streets from attack.  Neighbours called into each other and brought dishes of hot food. There was fear, but there was enormous optimism too. 

Three years on, I find myself looking at these vegetable studies and my finished carrot painting,  and all these emotions and memories come flooding back. So much has happened since. I hope Egypt finds the peace and stability that it deserves. My Revolutionary Carrots will be submitted to the SBA this year.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Nature Trails 2014 - A Natural Sketchbook Exchange

 Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

A few months ago, a small group of artist friends got together and decided to organise a sketchbook exchange. The idea was simple- we would each buy the same sketchbook, draw or paint in it, and then post it on to the next person. Each sketchbook would travel from artist to artist until at last it returns to it’s owner, filled with sketches and drawings. The criteria was simply that the sketches were to be based on nature.

We decided to use Stillman and Birn zeta sketchbook , undoubtedly the best sketchbook on the market. The paper is really good quality- heavy enough to withstand washes (270gsm) and wonderfully smooth and white.  The pages lie flat so that you can do double spreads with ease- there’s nothing worse than trying to draw whilst trying to keep an uncooperative sketchbook open!  The project almost fell at the first hurdle when we discovered that the sketchbooks were sold out! Luckily Stillman and Birn came to the rescue and on hearing of our plight, flew a special delivery of sketchbooks to their UK supplier.  

"Draw everywhere and all the time. An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached.
Irwin Greenberg

My sketchbook arrived, sleek, clean and full of promise. I had so many other things to do at the time, but those beautiful white pages kept tempting me. Ever since this project was conceived, I have had the phrase “Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow” in my head and I really wanted to include that somewhere in my sketchbook.
I decided that I’d also like to do something on the cover of my book in gold leaf. I lost several hours looking at vintage book covers online… so inspiring! I really loved these ones, although they were perhaps a little too ambitious for me.

Beautiful vintage book covers.

In the end, I decided to do a simple golden acorn on the cover.

For the title page I took a previous sketch of an acorn and leaf and modified it.

A sketch from last September

An envelope from Egypt, printed to look like papyrus fitted perfectly as an endpaper. I’ll be writing my address onto that too, just in case the book goes astray. Fingers crossed, none of the sketchbooks will be lost!
The double spread was a bit daunting, perhaps because that first sketch will set the tone for the book. I decided to let nature be my muse and headed out on a beautiful crisp winter morning to a nearby woods. I wasn’t quite sure what I would find, but once you start to look, you begin to notice all the subtle colours of winter, and the tiny signs of new life that are appearing all around.

"If one really loves nature, one can find beauty everywhere. "
Vincent van Gogh

 I’m going to try and use this project to learn more about the natural world around me. I’m delighted to say that the paper also lived up to my expectations … it didn’t buckle and took the paint very well.

Beech tree buds are quite beautiful up close 

But most of all, I’m feeling very excited to be involved with such a creative and supportive group of people. Their enthusiasm and encouragement is contagious!  It’s wonderful to start the year on such a positive note. Great things lie ahead.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Making it Work

How wonderful it is to return once more to the routine of my studio after the break! 

Iris foetidissima seeds on vellum... almost there!
 Alas, my Iris foetidissima seed heads didn’t  fare too well in my absence. The lovely orange seeds have lost much their plump juiciness, the crispy husks have darkened, and the leaves are really only fit for the compost heap. Fortunately I took a few photographs at the start of my set up, and so the painting continues using both the sad looking iris and the photographs. However I am pleased with how the painting is progressing.

ALWAYS take a photograph at the beginning of a painting!

Photographs are undeniably a great resource and so useful as a back up, but they can never be a substitute for the real thing. I much prefer to work from life. You can see and understand so much more from your subject when it’s sitting in front of you.

Using Artistic Licence to Make it Work

Very often you will find that the only way to paint a plant is to use a several different specimens of your chosen plant and combine them.  One plant might have a fantastic flower, but no buds, another might have some really super leaves but no flowers. Or, as in the case with my Iris seed heads, the seeds are still there (just about) but the foliage is completely beyond rescue! Photographs are useful, but they won't help you in this. It's much better to have a selection of plants in front of you and to use a little bit of  artistic licence to create the perfect specimen.

Ceiba speciosa, Silk floss tree 2010
The Ceiba speciosa painting above was one where I had to use a lot of artistic licence to make it work. It’s a beautiful flowering tree that grows everywhere in Egypt. Unfortunately as soon as it flowers, it begins to lose it’s leaves, and I really wanted to show both the leaves and the flowers in this painting. 

A Ceiba flower in Egypt and some dying leaves
 At the time that I was painting this, Egypt was having a mini heatwave, and everything that I picked was wilting within a few hours. It was a nightmare! I managed to find a tree that had both it’s leaves and it’s flowers, and every day I set out early to get fresh cuttings. I started by drawing out the main stem, noting where the leaves and flowers should be, and then it was just a matter of trying to find a similar plant part each day to match up. 

Flower by flower, leaf by leaf, I completed this painting. Photographs would not have done because this perfect specimen only existed in my head.

So back to my iris… I am almost finished (at last!!) The photographic references have helped me with the berries, but I am going to have to seek out some fresher foliage this weekend and try to select leaves that will add elegance and interest to the composition. Sometimes you have to take a few liberties to make it work!

"Even in front of nature one must compose." Edgar Degas

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Plans, promises and paintings 2014

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." Albert Einstein

Normally I’m not one for making New Year Resolutions as they usually involve the half-hearted renouncement of chocolate and mince pies, and earnest vows to become fitter. Usually these good intentions are forgotten by the end of January . 
So this year, I have decided instead to make a List of Plans and Promises relating to my artwork which I hope will be easier to keep!

       SBA Membership- Top of my wish list is to become a full member of the Society of Botanical Artists  
  I’m already half way there but it’s been a long hard journey. First step was to complete 27 months of course work, which earned me a Diploma with distinction. Then, last year I had to have six paintings accepted into the annual exhibition to become an Associate member. Now I face the final challenge of having five more paintings accepted into the SBA annual exhibition at Westminster.  I’ve one more to paint and then it’s fingers crossed. If I don’t get accepted, then I’ll be doing five more next year!

A lovely gift to keep me busy throughout the year.
·      Vellum- I am really enjoying painting on vellum. It imbues such a softness to watercolours and is quite thrilling to work on. My very kind parents gifted me with a lovely fat parcel from Wiliam Cowley with a selection of vellums to play with. Although the kelmscott is considered the crème de la crème  for botanical artists, I really like the look of the natural calfskin with it’s honey colour and natural flaws. Yes, working on different vellums is definitely on the list!

A sketchbook page from last spring- I'm looking forward to doing more studies like this in 2014
    Sketchbook – I am really excited about a project which I hope will kick off in the next few weeks… a Sketchbook Exchange which involves some very talented and inspiring friends. We have all ordered our dinky little sketchbooks from Stillman and Birn and the plan is to paint and post these sketchbooks to each other throughout the year. I am looking forward to trying out new ideas and getting creative! 

The Gilder's Tools
    Gold-  Ah, the glitter of gold always catches my eye! I love illuminated manuscripts and old books, and inspired by my recent trip to the Chester Beatty Library, have decided that this year I am going to try to combine contemporary botanicals with gold and silver leaf, perhaps on vellum. Fortunately my mother is a gilder and so I have a very handy supply of materials (and an enthusiastic mum) on hand.

Off it goes!
       Travel-  This year already is promising to be a great one for travelling. One of my paintings is soon off to Spain for a very exciting exhibition (more later!) and hopefully I will be going to visit it there.  Then there is the SBA exhibition in London in May. Shortly after that I’ll be heading back to Egypt for the summer where I plan to do lots of painting.

Nothing beats painting by the pool!

·        RHS work- Last year my work was deemed "of an acceptable standard" by the RHS, and so I hope to start work on a series of paintings of dates (Phoenix dactylifera) this summer. I love the light in Egypt and am spoilt for choice with all the beautiful date trees that grow there.

Painting dates in Egypt,2013

·        Tie up loose ends- I think every artist has a few unfinished pieces in their studio and I’m no exception. I started this barn owl last year as a present for my brother. It’s almost done, so I’ve no excuse!
Ben's barn owl, 2013

          Explore composition- I was really inspired by Thorntons’ The Temple of Flora and loved how the artists painted backgrounds to complement the portrait of the plant. Each painting told the story of the plant- the where, when and how it grows in it’s habitat. It’s definitely something that I feel could be explored more thoroughly. One of the sites that I have have bookmarked is KatherineTyrrell’s Making A Mark Resource page on Composition. There is a lot there to read and take in, but it’s worth reading carefully.
Perhaps a painting of spring bulbs could have a wintry background such as this? 2013

·        And finally, I want to keep blogging, at least until the end of the year. It’s been very helpful to me to verbalise my thoughts and plans. I usually have far too many ideas and don’t always write them down, so this is a great way to get myself organised. Let’s hope that I’ve more willpower than I do with chocolate!
 Happy New Year everybody!!

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.”       -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe