Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cynara cardunculus 1:1
carbon and graphite on paper 2008
Cynara cardunculus (cross section) 1:1
carbon and graphite on paper 2008

Light and Shade -Two Drawings

Light and shade is to drawing what chaos and order are to life. Together they describe form. Carbon and graphite together produce a dappled and grainy effect, as the form of the plant appears to be fused with light. A cross section, in the second drawing, shows the central core. The shadow throws balance into the equation, making a dance of light and dark across the two drawings.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Mystery
When all is silent within and without and all I can hear is the soft scraping of a sharpened pencil upon a smooth paper its a time when there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be and nothing else that I would rather be doing.
Its a mysterious sensation that comes when I work. When I ponder upon it thereafter, I remember that the state of focus and concentration which created a painting seemed to take my awareness out of time. This sensation fades when a work is complete, and a kind of forgetfulness comes to me as I turn my attention away from the work and back to daily life. The work is finished, and the painting has taken on a life of it's own.
In painting, technique is the partner to something more profound, which is the heart and sense of the painter and the moment working through them. When I look back on my work, I generally wonder to myself did I do that?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Tulipa 'Queen of Night'
watercolour and graphite on paper

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Early Days

At the beginning of 1980, when I first realised that Flower Painting was what I wanted to do, I set about learning how to perfect a set of techniques and methods. Initially, I went repeatedly to the local florist (where I lived in East London) and there I purchased some Dutch Irises. I then bought the same cultivar of blue iris every few days for 6 months. I painted these little jewels every day, again and again, tearing up the failures out of frustration, and trying over and over to achieve the soft watercolour washes. I was seeking the creation of light and texture on petals and fronds. I was seeking to create a method of painting that allowed the watercolour to act in such a way that it mirrored nature. I was at pains not to draw with the brush, wanting to make watercolour paintings that extend Durer's tradition of natural beauty in natural light.

It was a testing time and one of great difficulty, because I was never sure if I could do it. At that time, there were few books on how to do this kind of work. I found How to Draw Plants by Keith West, which I read from cover to cover. This helped me enormously, but there was nothing available about how to achieve the soft watercolour effects in the way that I wanted it done.

Rory McEwen died in 1982, but not before he had achieved three major shows at the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street. Thus firmly planting flower painting in the mainstream of art. I visited all of these exhibitions, studying his compositions carefully, making copious notes. In 1981 I remember vividly that as I walked around the Redfern show the frequency of so many McEwen's together in one space touched my heart. The standard of the work was superior to almost everything else I had seen from the genre. However, his methods of tiny brush strokes on vellum were not my way. I went home and I tried again.

After trial and error and working each day with the unknown, eventually a methodology began to come together. I gradually began to make larger and more complete paintings of plants. After about three years of intense painting I had gathered a body of work together and began to think about an exhibition. In those days artists went door to door around the London galleries and showed their work to dealers. There was no correct protocol of submissions, the attitude was much more laissez faire, which was partly due to the fact that there were considerably less people practicing as artists at that time. Again and again I was turned down, told that the work was lovely but there was no market for it.
One day I was due to see a dealer in Walton Street, and being so disheartened by my failures I simply could not face it when I arrived. I walked on by, past the gallery, further up the road. I stopped outside the Oliver Swann Gallery, looked in the window, and for some unknown reason I walked in. There I saw the owner was on the telephone, and again I turned to walk out. But he had seen me, and waved. I remember being so fed-up that I thought 'Oh no, I'll have to speak to him now'. But this turned out to be the luckiest moment of sweet chance in the whole of my career, because he loved the work and offered me a show for the following year. I went home on cloud nine. The exhibition was a sell out and I have never looked back.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Paeonia 'Sir Edward Elgar'
120cm x 140cm
Private collection

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Opening of the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art Kew April 2008

diary entry

The Preview Shows of the inaugural exhibition of the new gallery were hosted by Dr Shirley Sherwood and her husband James Sherwood, and, key members of the Kew Staff. The Artists Preview, which followed the Press Day, was a special event for the Botanical Artists from around the globe. We were given the opportunity to meet one another on what was a cordial and very happy occasion, which was much appreciated by all who attended. The Press Preview had brought a shower of publicity through the media. This was the subject of a great deal of interested debate amongst the artists, who had suddenly found their work being discussed within a mainstream art and news context.....this was something quite new for most of us. The broadsheets, as well as TV and radio, gave glowing recommendations about the work on show as well as numerous and favourable reviews of the Gallery itself. My work was reviewed by the mainstream art critic Richard Cork on R3's Night Waves program. I was delighted to hear Iris 'Superstition' described as having 'The wow factor and a life of its own'. Botanical Art's assimilation into the present mainstream is largely due to Dr Sherwood's championing of botanical painting projects as an absolute art form. The new gallery is a fabulous showcase for this kind of work, having been designed and specifically built to house it. On approaching the Gallery one is impressed by the beautiful simplicity of the glass exterior and the minimal orderliness of the lobby. The building itself is Tardis-like, and the gallery interior cannot be seen from the outside. Once through the inner doorway, the exhibition space opens out to a vast central room, which is bordered by several smaller galleries. The far end is successfully and seamlessly, linked to the Victorian Marianne North Gallery. The interior is designed to adjust to light and humidity. Thus accommodating the works on paper, which are highly sensitive to external conditions.The work on show was an exciting, intriguing, and intelligent, juxtaposition of the new work from the Dr Sherwood Collection and that from the Kew Archive. Theme hanging, in this context, works very well. I was fortunate enough to have the Iris 'Superstition' hung opposite the entrance doors and so it's formal qualities and large format were the unexpected that met each person who entered the space. The size of the picture at well over 5ft, worked against all preconceptions of the small traditional botanical watercolour. The show offers an opportunity to see many works that are well known and by well known artists. These are often only seen in books. As well as this, many new pieces that have not before been shown in this country are included.The main Preview Party came after the Artists Day and was a very well attended event. Dr Sherwood gave a very moving speech about her work, and thereafter we were all honoured by the presence of Sir David Attenborough, who talked eloquently and sensitively on the subject of Botanical Art and its future.This inaugural show is on until October this year, and the entry is included in the Kew ticket. Over 25% of those who visit Kew are now going to the Gallery, which received over 4,000 visitors in its first week. Its a wonderful exhibition......don't miss it!

Links to some of the reviews:

The Guardianhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/17/artsnews.gardens

The Spectator



Thursday, January 17, 2008

World of Colour

One summer's day, when I was 24, I was cycling along a country lane near my parent’s house. The sun shone in a cloudless blue sky and the shade was dappling, as I rode along beneath tall deciduous trees. There was a point when the sun shone across my pathway in such a way that it temporarily caused me to lose sight of my surroundings. Everything went white. Disoriented, I stopped pedalling and the momentum of the bicycle took me along. During that small space of time everything within my experience seemed to slow down and stop. The moment seemed to linger, and then I pulled on the brakes. I found myself facing a bright green leaf from an over hanging tree, and the light shone through its surface to create a limey brilliance. This was the first time I ever really saw the colour green - actually really saw the colour green. I understood it as a vibration, a frequency, and I was absorbed. I stared and stared, until eventually the sun moved and the light and colour gave way to a textured surface of glaucous and deeper greens and reddish tints, all enmeshed within the structure of the leaf.

It was at this point in my life that I embarked upon a journey to understand colour. Since this small but significant event, it has been flowers; leaves; fruits; and roots; that have taught me all I know about the way colour relates through a scale of light and dark; saturated and neutral; warm and cool. When anyone ever asks me how do I learn about colour? I suggest looking at the world of plants. As part of their gifting, they offer us the world of colour.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Theory of Colour

At Art College I learnt about the the scientific theory of colour as well as the intellectual and emotional properties of colour for artists. Firstly, this involved attending workshops in a darkened lecture theatre where coloured lights were projected onto a large white film screen in order to explain the principles of how yellow, cyan, and magenta, combine to produce white light. Thereafter, the difference between the coloured light theories and the methods of mixing coloured pigments for the purpose of painting, was explained in practice.

There followed many experiments with coloured paint, as expounded in the Bauhaus teachings of the Johannes Itten. These were given and followed step by step, as the sequence of colour mixing and colour interpretation began to build a complete picture of infinite possibilities. But I was still lacking in the inspiration and the will to use this knowledge in a way that is creative. I was given theoretical knowledge, and was at a loss as to how to use it. It was 4 years after I left art college before I really began to understand colour in a way that was meaningful to me. This came in a way that was most unexpected, from looking at the world of plants.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Lilium regale
acrylic on paper 2007
detail: bulb and root system

beside the work, to show scale

detail: the lilium flowers

Lilium Regale
watercolour on paper May to November 2007
Intent I am very aware that it has been a key process for botanical artists of the 20th century to understand the history of botanical art. Through this they recognised what is possible and what was and is needed to move the genre into the 21st century. Two examples that come to mind are the innovative work by Rory McEwen and Susannah Blaxhill that are contemporary in feel, not only because of their description form, but because of their innovative capacity for composition. Would it be enough for the major artists working in this area to simply repeat what has been done before by previous generations? Definitely not, because by recognising what has not yet been done, they have been able to set about achieving something new. In this way botanical art is now establishing itself as a very acceptable branch of contemporary art. I had been looking at old herbals and 18th century illustrations of white lilies, one of my favourite plants. These large flowering bulbs hold a great fascination for me. When I painted the Lilium regale for the RHS Lindley Library, I tentatively offered an accompanying sketch of the bulb in situ, which Brent Elliot was delighted with. Since then, I had been pondering upon the possibility of painting this same species of lily in life size mode, which would show the whole plant, with the bulb included. This would mean an image that would amount to nearly two metres high. With the advantage of owning some very large sheets of 600gms acid free watercolour paper, I knew it would be possible to achieve this. Since completing the life size iris with root tuber for Dr Sherwood, I knew that a lily would also be possible. The old masters were limited by the paper size that was available to them, and to include the whole of the plant in situ was simply not possible for P.J. Redout√© in his monograph Les Liliace√©s. Most of the flowering stem of a tall lily was placed on one side of the page. The stem was then cut and the remaining stem and root were arranged around this image. It was also common for the Bauer brothers to concentrate the size of the stem, foreshortening it to fit onto the page. And so for generations this went on in the same fashion, and this became the norm for creating a work where the whole of a tall plant was portrayed on the same piece of paper that was no where near as large as the plant itself. As far as I could see no one had yet painted a whole tall flowering lily without cutting the plant in half. I became focused on this, in the same way that I was when I set about painting Dr Sherwood’s Iris, and so I began to plan the work. The Plant The Lilium regale bulb was a mature bulb that had been successfully growing for several years in a large pot. In the autumn of 2006, I transplanted it carefully into a single long lily pot, using free draining material (compost, leaf mould, and grit), which I knew would be easier than garden soil to wash away from the bulb and roots once it was excavated. It was over-wintered outside, against a south facing wall, and with a stake as support, it was placed under glass in March 2007. This was to encourage an early flowering, which came in June, a couple of weeks earlier than was usual when grown outside. When the plant began to form an abundant head of buds, it became an inspiration. It was obviously going to flower well, which was doubtless due to the copious amounts of liquid comfrey it had received during the previous summer very hot summer of 2006. Method Quite a few comments have been made over the years about my methods of painting white flowers. For a watercolour ‘purist’ the use of white paint in the creation of the appearance of white petals is an anathema, and this is a philosophy I have generally subscribed to because of its effectiveness. This is historically quite a recent attitude, having been created by the late Victorians. The renaissance artists, such as Giacomo Ligozzi, painted plants in watercolour and regularly added white body colour (an early form of chalky and opaque gouache) to describe white petals or white hairs on stems. Sometimes the white was mixed with the watercolour to make opaque paint and all of the paler highlights in the painting were achieved this way, rather than with thin washes of watercolour that allowed the white of the paper to shine through and thereby do the work of white paint. For this technique, off-white paper was often successfully used to compliment the bright white of the painted highlights. One criticism that has been made regarding the purist method of omitting white paint is that it is easier because it avoids the technical complication of using white paint with watercolour. One of the difficulties for anyone who today wishes to use white paint is that pure white watercolour tends to have very little brilliance (being off white in colour), and, bright white gouache is too opaque to add to watercolour, even though it is perfectly safe to mix the two. Considering these complexities, I decided to use white paint to create white petals and white textures just as Ligozzi would have done. This was partly because some of my critics had suggested that I had adopted the purist method to avoid the use of white paint. So, instead of gouache or watercolour, I chose artists acrylic for the whole painting, deciding to employ the traditional techniques associated with the renaissance method with this medium.
This involves layering on thin washes that first soak into the paper. The opacity of the colour then builds up in stages. In terms of conservation, artist’s acrylic holds its colour well, and the best quality whites have proved to hold their brilliance. Paper and acrylic are compatible, and the paper remains stable when the paint has dried. The Process During the second week of June 2007, I set up my studio to paint the lily. The large piece of paper was rested on an equally large drawing board, and then placed onto my easel, adjacent to the lily. I made a pencil sketch of the composition, and calculated the depth of the bulb and where I needed to place the image. It just happened that the paper was the perfect size for the plant. The lily blooms last well when they are not forced, and the cool weather of this year’s summer was an advantage in helping them to last just that little bit longer. I chose a fairly symmetrical view of the plant as a whole, with one bloom dipping slightly to the right, and placing the plant in the centre of the paper. I then made one fast sketch on acrylic on an off cut of the same paper, and set off. No artificial light was used; the studio window is a constant cool north light, perfect for white flowers. One of the principle challenges of painting in a large scale is the tricky issue of perspective. One’s eye level is best left in one place, just as in a painting of a building, although it is necessary to move the plant closer to ones eye level to actually paint the lowest part or the bulb in detail. So, one needs to compensate by titling the plant to allow the perspective to follow through. In addition to this configuration, it can never be known exactly how high or low a painting will be hung in a museum or gallery, as all differ so much in scale. So, to minimise any sense of lack of proportion in the whole of the plant, a perspective that sees the plant at a distance away, say two meters is desirable. It is still possible for the painter to move forward to the plant to see the details of its structure when painting it. If the plant sits in the picture plane as if it is a meter away from the observer, the whole composition will hold together well.