Friday, 22 March 2013

The Picasso Tree

I think I was born with the heart of a Druid. Not that I'll be joining their order any time soon, but that says more about my attitude to the dogma which often defines human congregation (is the stubborn dislike of dogma dogmatic?) Like Druids though, I have always had a deep affinity for trees. As a boy walking past I imagined they'd greet me like an old friend. Oak, Ash, Beech, Sycamore, Elm and Pine were the most accommodating, but each tree had its own personality. Silver Birches were a bit standoffish and more often than not, Weeping Willows were so distracted by their own problems they rarely noticed me. For years I wondered what made the Weeping Willow so sad until as a teenager scouring the radio for Punk, Two Tone, or New Wave, I discovered late night jazz and with it the answer to the Willows' woes; Billie Holiday.

The way we treat them, you'd think it totally insignificant, but trees give us life. Or perhaps more accurately, give us breath, sucking in carbon dioxide and water to make glucose before spitting out the waste, oxygen. Perhaps we should think about that before clearing yet another section of rainforest the size of Wales; humans can only exist by breathing floral excrement.

My first encounter with The Old Forest, Lothlórien, Ents and Saruman's wanton destruction of Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings read more like documentary than fantasy, and it wouldn't surprise me if that was Tolkein's intention. The writing clearly reveals his passion for them, but to satisfy my own curiosity on the matter, a quick internet search confirms just that in author Claudia Riiff Finseth's eloquent essay, 'Tolkein's Trees.'
I suspect if most people thought about it, they would agree the moment you step into a forest, the screaming clamour of modern life disappears and a calm awe descends. Trees, it seems, are universal guardians of our sanity, silently soothing by some inexplicable force akin to motherhood.

This long standing love of the rooted beast was a core inspiration for my picture book, 'The Ballad of Piggotty Wood,' a tongue in cheek, but affectionate look at the fairy tales I enjoyed as a child. Through production of the book I, like many before, came to learn the meaning of the word anthropomorphism. We are so good at reading human faces that using them to illustrate character is the A to B straight line route. The habit persists which, in an admittedly long winded way finally leads to the point of this post.

Weeping Woman. Acrylic on Card
On a September walking break in Luss, Loch Lomond, we took the ferry to Inchcailloch Island, a small nature reserve worth the visit and if luck is onside, you'll see a fallow deer buck in the ancient burial ground (we did) or perhaps a migrant bird in Autumn (we didn't.) While waiting for the ferry to pick us back up I went reference gathering as usual, but didn't need to go far. This tree, an oak which looks so innocuous from the landing jetty, becomes a multi-headed beast when viewed from different angles. The first face I saw in the tree immediately reminded me of Picasso's 1937 painting, Weeping Woman.

Waiting for the Ferry. Acrylic on Card
On moving round to the other side, I was panning with my eye to the camera's viewfinder when this enormous toothy grin appeared in the frame bottom left. Ironic then, in a painting which is part of a series called 'Accidental Tourists,' that nature happily poses for me while the human tourist is oblivious. At this point, I realised there was an opportunity to play with the Cubist ethos of depicting a subject from different angles. Rather than arranging all the elements on a single canvas though, I would produce three separate paintings of the same moment from different viewpoints and display them as a triptych. The centre panel would be a front view flanked by two 'elevations' which best show anthropomorphism in the tree.

A Toast to Pablo. Acrylic on Card
Of the three, 'A Toast to Pablo' is the standard tourist snapshot. Its purpose is to establish the status quo, so a human figure is the focus while the tree barely features. I like the way she is perched on the end of the seat though, and the empty space to her left is inviting, but does nothing to balance the solid structure of the bench to her right. In this context the space represents a threshold to new knowledge, something we average humans often resist. From here most will do as we did; walk stage left up a rough hewn staircase to the island interior without first exploring this scene from all angles. That could say some very interesting things about the way we blindly follow paths made by others. Social conservatism it seems, is humanity's default state. I don't pretend Cubist imagery is easily digested. I'm not even sure I like much of it, but then that's the point; Cubism played its part to shake us from the safe sleepwalk to eternal slumber. History shows this effect is also evident in writing and music, which suggests to me it could somehow be necessary or advantageous.

Thinking about it, without such creative evolutionary bursts, we would live in a world which, with no hint of irony, gives serious credence to the kind of mind numbing elevator music sanctioned by industry moguls who use terms like 'x factor' far too easily. Such a state is comparable to the Salons and Academies of art history, all powerful behemoths who fought tooth and nail to suppress individual expression. In this nightmarish scenario, so much of our most innovative art, writing and music could never have existed. Music like Punk, Two Tone and Billie Holiday's 'Willow Weep for Me', recorded around the time Picasso painted Jacqueline Roque.

I love paintings which make sense from a distance but break down to abstract chaos as you get closer. Atelier Interactive acrylics can be kept wet, but also dry quickly if left to cure, giving you fast texture build up:

There is one discipline missing from this list which most of us would never associate with creative thinking, but it is in fact arguably more so than any other. After first providing a language for the creation of geometrical shapes and methods for the realistic depiction of 3D space on a 2D surface, it has since taken us way beyond such piffling trifles into very real scenarios we could never have imagined. Also among the myriad of amazing things it gave us is the most profound of all images for me, the toppled figure 8 symbol, Infinity. That discipline is, of course, Mathematics.

What has this exercise taught me? I've always been a fan of representational art. My work is hardly a visual revolution despite a penchant for messing with the rules, so on the face of it you'd think there was not much room in my head for abstract modernism. However, in this case the initial spark of inspiration completely relied on a prior knowledge of Picasso's Weeping Woman. That kind of information can lie dormant for years before something triggers a recall and once recalled, often sets off a chain reaction which leads you somewhere new. The problem with getting older and wiser is that you start thinking you've been there, seen it, done it; an auto mode which has more in common with mass production machines than human creativity. I don't much like that side of me and will fight it every step of the way. The lesson then, is simple and twofold. Knowledge is not absolute. Personal taste should never be a barrier.

Now might be the time to start a one man movement. It must be free of dogma, so I will lay down a single guiding principle which can be expanded at any time or completely ignored at will. The principle states that three is a magic number. To qualify, a work of art, writing or music must consist of at least, but not be limited to, three separate view points of the same moment in time, preferably but not necessarily depicting the same subject. The name of this new movement? Cubed-ism³. I'm a Cubedist now. :)

Friday, 15 March 2013

Pastel Port Mods

More mental meanderings. The paper wrapper Sennelier use has always bugged me a little. It seems to attract muck and when you try and wipe it clean, all the printed info on the pastel disappears. I think it might be wax paper or something. Recently though, in fact just now, I realised this could be solved by rolling and sellotaping cut acetate around the pastel. The acetate sheets I have are not paper thin, so they resist the bending. This means it won't wrap so tight that you can't move it up as the pastel wears down. So far at least, it is proving easier to wipe clean and keeps the original wrapper info intact. This in turn lead to a couple of other improvements: Having mashed pigment with the clear medium, I wasn't sure how to store any left overs for future use - roll it in acetate! This easy clean surface now also allows me to add some small pastels to my pastel port to address another niggle. I wanted the initial blocking in process of a painting to be much quicker than has so far been achieved by a palette knife alone. The acetate rolled around each pastel makes it easy to blu-tack a limited palette of 4 crayons to the board for this purpose. The palette of french ultramarine, burnt umber, yellow ochre and white is enough for pretty much any initial covering scenario (picked up from the brilliant Will Kemp but the boxes of 4 are so small you could carry other combos and interchange them easily, since they're only blu-tacked to the board. Inside the box I also placed two strips of blu-tack so the pastels stay where they are when holding the board at vertical angles. Again, the acetate wrap makes this a much cleaner and easier process.
In other news, I've also added a couple of bulldog clips as they seem like very handy wee clamps/holders! Getting modular now. All of which must surely make it official; I'm an oil pastel geek! :)
You might notice from the photo that colours are beginning to share wells or even take over space which should be dedicated to mixing. This is because a) oil pastel colors are solid and non-siccative, so they won't run into each other and b) I'm finding in practice that because the pastel on the painting surface is easily scraped up with a palette knife, I'm doing most of the colour mixing while painting rather than beforehand. By first laying down a basic sky/ground and altering the pressure sensitivity on application, this combination of features make effects like aerial perspective pretty much automatic.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Winter Garden

Winter Garden
This is the fourth painting in an 'en plein air' series testing a cobbled together system which allows me to hold a board containing everything I need to paint in my left hand, and a painting instrument in my right. It should also be light enough to carry in my bag at all times. The rule is simple, if it can't be Blu-Tacked to the support board then it won't come out with me. You can see other posts in this series by going to the bottom of this one and clicking on the label, 'pastel port.' I really don't feel comfortable using the French term 'en plein air.' Not that I have anything against the French language, in fact I find it very beautiful to listen to. Problem is, I don't speak much French and so when people like me use it, I'm always reminded of that classic Faulty Towers punchline, 'pretentious, moi?' So from here to eternity when you read the term, 'outdoor painting,' it means, erm, painting outdoors. No franglais required.
We got an unexpected Spring bonus in the form of a cold snap this week and I couldn't resist the chance to try out the ultimate challenge for the device; painting outdoors in freezing snowy conditions. I knew I'd have to stand for this one and to my surprise found the whole kit stood up remarkably well. I chose a rather strange composition because I liked the shapes it made, simple as that. Various people were photographed as they came past so I could choose which ones suited back in the studio after the rest of the image was finished.
The scene shows a favourite spot in Edinburgh's Royal Botanical Gardens. From here you can see a panorama which includes Calton Hill, Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh Castle along with many church spires.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Trail of the Lonesome Pines

Lonesome Pines
This sketch is the next in a series testing the ease-of-use contraption I made which you can read about here and here. Again in Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens, this time with my back to the Giant Redwoods. It was a cold, crisp morning, very peaceful with hardly a soul around, which perhaps explains why the pines were lonesome. To recap, I added a priming layer of clear medium oil pastel to see if I could speed up the initial blocking in phase. This did work much better, but I still want the first phase to be quicker. Of course it may just be that my natural painting speed needs turning up a notch, but next time I might try quickly blocking some sky and ground before leaving the house! It is only an issue because rather than first drawing the scene, I'm filling the surface with a basic sky/ground before scratching into the base layer to roughly mark the position of everything. I have to say the more I do this outdoor painting lark, the more I admire painters who do it full time. Its not an entirely relaxing process because you're against that king of clocks, the Sun, but I guess the process gets easier with practice. This time I lasted about 1.5 hours before most of the scene fell into shadow so again, I took it home to finish.