Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Spirit of the Artist and the Flower, the Making of the Painting, and the Balance of Common Sense



Paeonia lactiflora 'Armandine Mechin'
1:1 carbon on chalk gesso 2014
Coral Guest
private collection



When a Botanical Artist transits into a life as a full time professional painter they stand on the edge of what they hope will be a long and productive career. At this point each one of us has the choice to lay down a foundation of positive and beneficial working patterns that will serve us well throughout our time of painting fowers, enabling us to manage our energy as we work each day.


In the studio I begin the day with breathing exercises that are yogic in nature - namely pranayama and kryia. I began practicing kriya in 1991, and have used these exercises to bring physical, emotional, and mental balance at the start of the working day. These kinds of practical exercises are used in most yoga schools. I have a common sense approach to the work.


My easel stands upright in my studio, the materials are laid out. I bless and dedicate my tools and materials because they are loved and I feel it is a privilege to have them. I begin work standing at the easel, walking forward toward the work and then away to see it from a distance. The plant subject sits to my left on its own table. I work from observation, in natural light, sometimes stopping to stretch. The studio is well ventilated.


In 1978, at the age of 22, and in receipt of a travel prize from the Fine Art department of Chelsea College of Art and Design, I travelled to Japan to study Calligraphy in a Temple, in Yamanashi Prefecture.  Here I began to learn the ritual of managing my energy by managing my breathing process.


Energised and consistent breathing allows the artist to fuse power into their work. It also enables and facilitates the balanced physical, emotional, and mental wellness that a painter needs to work many hours each day, for a whole life time. The ability to connect with the breath creates a rhythm where energy is generated.  The in-breath can be used to reset and accumulate intent. The out-breath, when synchronised with a brush stroke, energises the art work and allows focus to be maintained and concentration to be applied to the process of painting. 


Stress is a very real factor for the Botanical Artist. In my classes at Kew and those for Dr Sherwood, I saw that many students held their breath when working.  Stress is part of the equation for a Botanical Artist because they deal with live plant matter that is necessarily transient. This pressure is greatly alleviated when an artist works from photographs. However, the pressure of spending many hours each day painting in great detail with small brushes, and working to a deadline for an exhibition, is always there. Over the years this stress and pressure can build, and so finding ways to keep working and not accumulate the negative effects of pressure is something I have always considered to be essential for long term artistic productivity. 


Choices, choices, is it better to begin the day at the easel with a strong sweet coffee and a bacon sandwich, or would a bowl of porridge with super fruits and a herbal tea work better for you? One thing is certain, what you eat will affect your work. Excessive sweet foods and very salty foods are more likely to cause a lapse in focus that comes about through body chemistry. Intense concentration and effort during painting time forces the body to burn up minerals, in particular magnesium. Fasting is always best done on rest days rather than work days, as fasting when working leads to depletion of those minerals that the body does not easily store.  The right foods, when taken little and often, will always outperform the extremes of fasting or over indulgence and this lays the good foundation for the following day’s work. It’s only common sense.


Working each day in the studio with a happy body brings a gentle and vibrant state of mind that will always bear fruit in the work. It may sound a little boring, but it works. A quiet mind engenders quiet regular breathing and this in turn generates a stress free mind and body system. Long hours of focused painting work are enabled by regular and deep breathing. When the painter feels balanced the long hours don’t actually seem that way, they seem more as a flow that is outside time looking at the subject matter that is inside time. Long hours of work  can have a peaceful effect, like standing on the shore of an ocean watching the waves come and go.