Sunday, 12 June 2016

Giants in Thimbles IV - Infinity

Poplar leaf, 76 x 56cm, Daler Rowney paint on Saunders Waterford

As I work away, my focus swings like a pendulum and I am back thinking about the Leafscape collection as opposed to the individual pieces. Just under a month ago, I displayed every thing in the Spanish studio and examined my changes in scale and tried to work out if I needed to fill in any obvious holes in the limited time I have left. It wasn't an easy task and consequently my brain started over firing. Visualising differences in scale is hard work. With a blown brain, unable to deal with that sort of problem solving, I ended up carrying out financial calculations on exhibition costs, which blew my brain a little bit more. What was my expensive hobby is now my expensive career! I went to bed over tired and anxious. The next morning I just got back on with it, as one does - ‘grinding away at the leaves’* and prepared some drawings for my next pieces for my spell in the pop-up gallery in the UK this summer.

Poplar wood
Poplar wood, Belicena, Spain. Photograph taken through the lens of my sunglasses

Before I left Spain I went on a short walk. I hadn't been taking walks regularly for a few days; walks were becoming infrequent as I focused on my work, but this is never a good idea. I need to walk. It was a windy day and all the Poplar woods are talking. These woods never fail to stop me in my tracks. The week before they appeared as an amazing wall of solid black which hung underneath the canopy like a curtain. I had my sunglasses on which altered everything. I am glad they did though as I would never have noticed that band of sold black and the way it drew you in like the edge of a cliff. Plants really do seem to create silencing black holes of vastness when growing together like this. At the time I remembered how Bachelard once said in his Poetics of Space, that forests "accumulate infinity within their own boundaries". This was clearly evident on that very day.

Darkness of the woods

On last week's walk, the sun was obscured by clouds and it was very windy, so the trees took on a different guise. There was no silencing black hole. I wondered, had the infinity within escaped? I crept into one of the woods and watched the mumuration of leaves and as I did I let my eyes go out of focus on the silhouettes along the woodland edge where it was lightest. The leaves quivered in rhythmic movements like water, but as I let my eyes blur even more, they then took on the appearance of an untuned television screen. Every movement was completely random; like gluons (nice bit of quantum physics for you there) the whole wood had no order. The realisation that I was standing in chaos was just as terrifying as it was liberating.

Poplar seeds in the sun, Belicena, Spain

After this walk we experienced a lot of bad weather and I didn't venture out of the house for several days until then, the day before I left for England, the sun returned. I sat in the garden and looked up at the clouds and I saw millions of little, white specks floating in the air like sun snow. Little feathery Poplar seeds were flying everywhere like fairies. They collected around the sun giving it a halo as the light reflected from them. They stretched for as far as the eye could see and I was left wondering where their reach stopped - the atmosphere's edge, 10 miles up, or beyond? Like little galaxies they are all on the move, white dots moving around space. They somehow made the sky look bigger, yet also smaller - they transformed it into a claustrophobic space, but they also gave the sky depth, deeper than a sky scraper would. There was something synergistic and heavy about the combination of random movement and space. I imagined the journey of one speck and felt nauseous. It was too much to deal with. 

Disappointingly Youtube has reduced the resolution on this so you can't quite see how far these tiny dots go into the sky...

The words “sky” and “heaven” have numerous meanings and connotations, ranging from places and states to beliefs and feelings. Heaven once referred to both God and the material roof over the world, but now, through art, magic and science it has become to signify either the one or the other separately. Yet if we trace it all backwards to the point where the dichotomy began, the sky returns to being a more wondrous willful place.

 “… deluded by self-love and the illusions of his senses, man long thought of himself as the center around which the heavenly bodies moved, and his vain pride has been punished by the terrors they inspired in him. At last, several centuries of endeavor have removed from his eyes the veil that obscured the system of the universe. He now sees himself living on an almost imperceptible planet within a solar system, the boundless extent of which is itself merely a faint point in the vastness of space” (Laplace)

A solar spectrum. The absorption lines represent the principal atomic components of the sun's atmosphere: magnesium in the green, sodium in the yellow-orange, hydrogen in the red.

The distinctions we make today between symbolism and reality, between religion and science, were once blended together. It was not really until the Renaissance when ideas of our own freedom of thought became more common, which then paved the way towards big changes in our philosophical approaches and political thought. Now, in the modern world, astrology, spiritualism, religion and science provide us with utterly contradictory pictures of the sky, yet to some degree we accept them all. 

Primitive man must have looked at the sky above with such wonder, possibly more than the wonder we have today depending on ones beliefs, as today the surrounding sky that still influences our lives no longer seems so perplexing. Through our systems of measurement we have reduced our universe to a series mathematical formulae. We know what makes it, what lies beyond it and how big it is. Thinking about this has encouraged me to just accept things the way they are, to leave wonderment whole.

A field of stars. Seen through a prism, each star is registered by its spectrum (red at left, blue at right), which indicates temperature at the surface of the star; the visible lines correspond to the various types of atom found in the star's atmosphere.

As my little venture into the sublime continues I am also becoming aware that I am taking part in a paradoxical journey, since I am attempting to measure the immeasurable in order to understand my artwork and how to replicate its effect. I am beginning to realise that art does not bestow the fomulae that make art 'art'. After looking deeply into my use of light, space, sound and size I now feel myself hurtling towards the consensus that the sublime is just very simply - a taking to the limits - to the point at which fixities begin to fragment into infinity. Equipped with this knowledge I am currently experimenting with different approaches to try and portray vastness to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror that my leafscapes only softly allude to with their encroaching mounted edges.  I am now, in my spare time, creating pockets of infinity using the disorder around me (see below).

Latest project: Infinity Phytocosmiramas ©

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us” (astronomer Maria Mitchell)

Obscurity appears to be the key here. To make a thing incomprehensible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. Once we are made aware of the extent of any danger or how something came about, a great deal of apprehension and wonder vanishes and thus the sense of awe is lost. The sublime is the impossibility of knowledge. It is when we are brought into a state of submission which consequently disorientates our purpose. 

"Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other" (Burke). 

Cyanotypes by Lia Holliran Source: Brain Pickings

The word 'astonishment' comes from the Latin 'estar' - to stand, and 'stupeo' - to be stunned or stiffened (think Harry Potter charms here) and thus temporarily disorientated. Lately, I have become quite obsessed in my pursuit for the irrational gasp (aka temporary disorientation). I am happy to say that several times this week I have managed to generate a few with some of my very new botanical work (above) which seems to be mimicking both birth and death in one fell swoop. The gasps are nearly always a deep rooted and primal, shrouded in shock, horror and suspension. I am left wondering if these gasps are an emotional response to an unexpected opening in the vastness of time? I find that people assume that I just paint pretty flowers and so they aren't expecting to be confronted by a something as disturbing as Phytocosmirama!! I have to say I am very happy with this latest work of mine - it is going where I want to be going. The RHS is ever-so-slightly becoming a distant sign post as I march onwards (possibly past it) into new territory, one without bounds. 

I have started to think about using mirrors too, although at the moment I am not sure how to do this in an original way as I found out this week that another artist, Yayoi Kusama has already created an entire collection of work based on the use of mirrors to create pockets of infinity (below). Her work most certainly touches on creating the level disorientation I am in pursuit of. It is amazing what one can do with a 'box'. So, with my mind buzzing with ideas I am now toying with the idea of buying Alan Lightman's latest book ' Yearning for Immortality' and I might just bite the bullet today in an attempt to uncover what is really going on here as I continue to search for the edge. 
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996)

Anyway - latest leaf for you... I am calling this one 'Jaws' because he has a 'fin' and is quite a menacing chap. 

botanical painting of a Poplar leaf (Populus nigra)
Black Poplar leaf (Populus nigra), 76 x 57cm, Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper

* One of Rory's old sayings  - see Martin J Allen's blog


Burke, E., (1756), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Buchard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press
Pecker, J-C., (1963), The Sky, Robert Delpire, Paris (translated version)

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Nikolaus von Jacquin's Plants of the Americas

A new, sumptuous limited edition set of Austrian born Nikolaus von Jacquin's 'Selectarum stirpium Americanarum historia' or 'Plants of the Americas' has just been released by The Folio Society (available here). 

This historically important book includes 264 illustrations showcasing work by some of the finest botanical artists of the 18th century. This edition has been made using Kew's own copy of the rare 1780 edition of the book and is the first time that such a reproduction has been made and translated from Latin into English. The limited edition set has been printed on Veltique paper (similar to the original) and comes inside a specially designed presentation box. Only 750 copies have been produced.

A botanical plate of Chrysophyllum cainito
Chrysophyllum cainito

A botanical painting of Dolichos urens
Dolichos urens

If you want to see the original it is possible to see Kew's copy in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

Kew artist Masumi Yamanaka marks tsunami anniversary

Back in March, botanical artist Masumi Yamanaka presented her stunning new painting of Japan's 'Mircle Pine' to the Japanese ambassador to the UK in commemoration of the 5th anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Japan on 11th March 2011. 

Since the 2011 tsunami, this particular pine tree has become an important cultural symbol after it was the only tree left standing from the original 70,000 trees around the town of Rikuzentakata which had been planted 170 years ago as a natural defense against tsanamis. 

The current news is that you will be able to view this beautiful painting this autumn at the Embassy of Japan in London which is also hosting part of the Flora Japonica art exhibition.

Paul Little, RBG, Kew

Masumi's original painting of the Miracle Pine will eventually find its way to a memorial museum in Rikuzentakata where it will be permanently on exhibition.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Inky Leaves on the BBC's coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show

Hopefully, with a bit of luck, Inky Leaves should be making a small appearance on the BBC's coverage of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show at 19.30 this evening (Saturday 28th May) on BBC2, although it's not certain.

Carol Klein asking me some questions about the Brighter Blooms display

After spending a couple of days painting the flowers, the BBC found me painting. I did make a teeny appearance in the background of Carol Klein's piece on Tulipomania on Tuesday afternoon when I was painting on the Bloms Bulbs stand (28 30 minutes in). However, for Saturday's programme I am hiding amongst the Zantedeschia's which had been beautifully arranged by Brighter Blooms.

BBC crew shot...
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Chelsea and recommend it as an adventure in painting to all botanical artists. The traders and growers are very helpful and were happy to have me painting and asking lots of questions. It is the perfect place to find speciality growers for projects. I learnt a lot during my time there, not only about horticulture but also about botanical art and the painting process. I was left feeling a little stunned at how fast tulip flowers open and had to find a way of capturing them quickly. I also learnt how important it is to have shadows - I really missed them when hiding in the Grand Pavilion which filtered so much of the light.

During my time there I took an A3 fat pad of the new Botanical Ultra Smooth paper which was kindly gifted to me for the event by Burts. I really enjoyed painting on this paper and prefer it to all other choices for this type of sketchbook work. I will be publishing a review of the paper soon.

Now I am back in my UK studio I am busy cracking on with my large leaves for the upcoming exhibition 'Leafscape' at the Abbott and Holder Gallery in London. Please email me for details

Big thanks to Burts, the RHS, Brighter Blooms, Bloms Bulbs, the BBC, Alex Prendergast (aka Punk Botanist) and Jamie Denyer for making the day possible and to Carol Klein for guiding me through the process.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Inky Leaves at Chelsea Flower Show

In search of the latest cultivars, I will be visiting the Chelsea Flower Show on two days this year. With a rucksack packed with paints and brushes, I will attempt to capture the beauty of my favourite flowers in paint. On May 24th I will be working with Bloms Bulbs painting their stunning tulip collection and on May 26th, I will be taking a more adventurous route, facing the crowds and painting at random stands where possible. I am very much looking forward to trying out this spontaneous way of working for the first time. 

Also on show are a number of botanical artists with their own stands: Bryan Poole (botanical etcher), Linda Alexander (oil paints), Susan Entwistle (pointillist).

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Giants in thimbles III - The technicoloured shadow

The Romantic Shadow

It’s been a month since I last posted and presented my personal enquiry into the sublime to you all. Since then, I have been inundated with your thoughts and responses which have all been very helpful, thank you. It is really magical to have you on this journey with me.  As many of you may know, I have just finished a painting titled ‘041120151204’. The piece did become an obsession and consequently it has a crazed, heavy, fanatical look about it. As it sits alone on my drawing board, a bit of a monster, it naturally creates a dent in the space around it. Heavy with more than just paint, it sits there like a black hole drawing everything in. I have no idea how this happened or how it is doing this. I feel quite surprised that I seem to have created something that has so much magnitude and illusionary prowess. It certainly was not planned and I can only put it down to something heavy being transmitted through me. A technicolour shadow, this piece will most certainly have to be hung on its own – it just dwarfs everything around it, including me. I know these leaves are big, but this one is the first one that manages to shrink its audience. Mission accomplished.

Watercolour of Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf
'041120151204' (Vitis vinifera) leaf, watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper, 76 x 56cm

The thing about his piece is it appears to concentrate time like no other previous leaf and time is intimidating. If we take it that the ripples of veins and colour represent the leaf’s passage through life, and the intricate blobs of paint representing my own marks through time, this leaf has loads of both and their combination seems to be synergistic.  The leaf is like a lump of igneous rock that has been left to cool slowly. It is weighty. The pain of pushing this beast out in time was mentally hard – gruelling in fact. It reminded me of when a fair ground ride is going too fast. One could feel the tickle in the gums below the front bottom teeth and that whoosing feeling which is just as horrible as it is good. I like this giddy effect and I know I am not alone.

Botanical illustration of Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf
Botanical illustration of Vitis vinifera (grape vine) leaf

I am interested in how a painting draws someone in – is it to do with escapism (through wonder) and if so, are even the most realist of works a form of escapism?  As I have mentioned before, I have come to realise that when you paint something you end up having to confront all of reality, and eventually one ends up asking themselves what reality actually is. As Bachellard said in his Poetics of Space, “everything takes form, even infinity. We seek to determine being and, in so doing, transcend all situations to give a situation of all situations”. Perception fascinates me. What is it that we actually perceive and what is it that we can't or choose not to. How do our different filtering systems operate and can we see beyond the mere physical? What makes something physical and can real things alter?

Botanical painting of Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf
Close up on the botanical watercolour of a Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress

Recently I watched the film Don’t Look Now for the first time and was so blown away by it I ended up watching it again a few days later. It’s a modern Gothic thriller – but not in the ordinary sense in that it isn't super scary. Its primary focus is on the psychology of grief and how that in life nothing is quite what it seems. The plot is heavily preoccupied with misinterpretation and mistaken identity and the film is renowned for its innovative editing style. It often employs flashbacks and flashforwards and some scenes are intercut or merged to alter the viewer's perception of what is really happening. It also adopts an impressionist approach to its imagery, foretelling events with the use of familiar objects, patterns and colours. All in all it is very cleverly put together.

The film drew me in instantly, but it really got my vote when one tense scene towards the end featured only one half of Julie Christie's face. She looked like one of my leaves - the concealment of her features made you incredibly aware of edges, boundaries and the limitations of our perception. The similarity between the two was further exacerbated by the fact that I was at the time experiencing the same types of giddy emotions I feel when I look at one of my leaves because of the very nature of the narrative. The film is a tragedy, but there is also something beyond the simple moralistic story line of a tragedy in its most basic sense because there is something numinous going on – something uncontrollable and therefore in mind - sublime. One of the main characters is so busy focusing on the rational sense of his tragedy that he blinds himself to the irrational world of the sublime around him. There is also another character in the plot, but they function in the complete opposite way in that they cannot perceive our own 'reality', but have the gift of an irrational 'second sight'. This film epitomises everything I am trying to do with paint and when they showed half of Julie’s face I admit a smile materialised across my face. Somehow we have arrived at the same point, a phenomenon that I find happens more often than we realise. 

Botanical art up close
Close up on the botanical watercolour of a Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress

So maybe my work fits more closely with the Gothic - a movement that is primarily focused on decay, death, terror and chaos? Something that puts irrationality and passion over rationality and reason? The Gothic narrative, despite unsettling, still brings about feelings of pleasure, but it's method is to address the horrific, hidden emotions that individuals can harbour and provide them with an outlet. The strong imagery of terror and horror in Gothic stories reveals truths to us through fear. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote "that the idea of a protagonist having to struggle with a terrible, surreal force is a metaphor for an individual's struggle with repressed emotions and thoughts. Personifying the repressed idea or feeling gives strength to it and shows how one, if caught unaware, is overcome with forbidden desire. These desires are mysterious, and mystery breeds attraction, and with attraction one is seduced.” What interests me is that if we think about it in these terms, the Gothic movement never really ended as it lurks as a hidden movement in all of us all of the time, and more importantly - it draws us in. It is seductive.

Botanical illustration up close
Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress

There is also a difference between terror and horror that needs clarification at this point as I am not interested in the ‘horrific’. The difference between the two is that terror supposedly expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other – horror – contracts them.  Horror is not a source of the sublime, but terror is. In short, terror opens the mind to the apprehension of the sublime, while the abhorrence involved in horror closes it. Therefore I remain to be interested terror and not horror. I want people to be expanded by my work and not disgusted. They are not car crashes on the sides of roads.

Vine leaf in watercolour
Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress on the last hurdle

The Gothic novel started the Romantic Movement, a movement which can be broadly viewed as an attempt to find emotional certainty from nature rather than from God. It is the imagination which serves the Romantics. It is their method of transcending the limitations of the human condition, giving them the licence to morph objects into a more profound form of reality. This movement is characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as the glorification of nature. Unsurprisingly, such a concept resonates with me very strongly. I sit in my studio for hours trying to capture and exaggerate intense emotions such as apprehension, terror and awe into an aesthetic experience using nature. 

Leaf in watercolour
Touching up the Judas tree leaf this week

So, is my work as a painter concerned with the Romantic or Gothic? Well, like in all art, it depends on the observer's point of view. I personally resonate more with the Gothic subliminal side. My imagination rarely provides me with answers, it just leaves me in an unresolvable paradox of emotional ambiguity - things just get more complex and confusing. Romantic art on the other hand always seems to me to strive to reconcile discordant contradictions imaginatively by creating a sense of order. Such moralistic organisation is very apparent in the form of a tragedy (cross reference previous post) for example. With this in mind, perhaps there is a little bit of both of these elements at work as I always thought. I am not qualified to describe my work as 'sublime', but I do feel that there is something bewildering about the final product. Maybe it is related to the vast expenditure of labour needed to execute each piece or the vastness in scale, the dash of imagination and the overall complexity? Or is it just good old fashioned mother nature providing a feeling of wonderment? Most likely.

Storm in the Mountains by Albert Bierstadt (c.1870)

So in the mix of painting like a mad woman, I am now reading about ‘Sturm und Drang’. I have also done a bit of reading around Japanese culture and looked back at all the things that have influenced me to date, including a print out of John Waterhouse’s tragic paintings of ‘The Lady of Shallot’ and ‘Ophelia’ which I have had pinned by my bed since I was about 18 years old. I am looking into ‘ars moriendi’ (The art of dying) and ‘mementos mori’ (remember that you must die) and studying the wondrous landscapes of Albert Bierstadt. I have also been completely mesmerised by the lighting techniques of Henri-Georges Clouzot in his film L’enfer (2.45 minutes in) after a friend suggested that I take a look:

I sit and remember the work I have made before. The giant plant cells hung in the school’s dark room as an installation which ended up being so terrifying that several people dropped their wine glass and shrieked during the private view (this was not intentional). It seems I have always been fascinated with light. Even though I prefer the dark, we all need a drop of light in order to contextualise it. Dusk is my favourite time of day – I like how the colours of plants change and become more luminescent. Blue transforms into something else entirely under these conditions. 

Today is aptly 'La Día Gótico' in Granada,  and everyone dresses up for the event. I have been writing this post all month ready for my 'end of month posting' unaware that such a day existed in Granada.  It wasn't until I saw several people in wigs, corsets, leather and lace in the supermarket today when I cottoned on. I felt rather misplaced in my pink flowery dress and beret. A romantic in a gothic world.

Bachellard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press

Hume, R. D. (1969), Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel, PMLA, 84:2, 282-90

Coleridge, S. T., (1817), Biographia Literaria, II, 12.

New Monthly Magazine, Vol. VII (1826).

Sedgwick, E. K., (1986), The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Giants in Thimbles II - The sublime and the tragic

The Id

As my collection for the London show at Abbott and Holder grows so does the initial idea. I guess this is what happens. In order to make good art you have to evolve with it. Art is not static, not even when it is 'finished' is it static. Fashion is fickle as is the outlook of the populous, consequently trends will inevitably alter the influence of something painted even centuries ago. Since I wrote my first blog post (please read, its long, but this document builds on this preliminary piece) on what I am working towards for my solo show, a lot has already changed. The biggest alteration is in my awareness - I am now less concerned with curating a collection as a whole and have become more aware on how I want each individual piece to look like. As I compete each painting I check to see if it is finished in the way I want it. Many of the leaves are satisfactory, and it is during this reviewing stage where I have become acutely aware that I am not striving for realism - or hyperrealism - but a more painterly product. I have never painted to replicate something. This is why I don't really call myself an 'illustrator'. I find as my life line stretches deeper into the continuum, the word 'botanical' is even dropped and I am left with the simple term of 'painter'. Not entirely sure what is happening there, but something is certainly evolving. 

Botanical illustration of leaves
Leaves in a row,  from left to right: Vitis vinifera (Grape), Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus (Artichoke), Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) all 76 x 56 cm

If I concentrate on the timescale of painted evolution, I feel it began after I saw Isik Gunner's work in the flesh. I love Isik's work, she is one of my favourite artists, but after seeing it I made a promise to myself that I do not want to paint in that way. I have a knowledge that I will never be able to paint like her - I just can't get that purity of colour; that shine, that level of execution. It used to bother me when I saw the work of a good artist. It was never a question of jealousy, but more of frustration - anger thrown at myself for not being able to create such optical illusions on paper. However, a penny dropped in 2013 and I realised I had something else to offer. We all have something to offer.

Botanical illustrations of leaves
Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) and Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus (Artichoke) all 76 x 56 cm

Ever since then, I paint with this lodged in my mind and the result of this is that for my London exhibition each individual leaf will be my painted impression of a leaf. This means that not only will each leaf not be hyper-real, but there might be tweaks to the overall composition and structure. I started doing this when I painted the Gooseberries and Blackberries last summer (below) and it is a technique I am keen to continue. I have been trying to add drama to my subjects by using different methods of lighting since 2013, which has to some extent has worked, but now I am expanding on this. The Gooseberry was half real, half imagined, as were the Blackberries. I like this. I like using a dash of imagination. When I started the big leaves, I wasn't using so much imagination, but as I dive ever deeper into them I find myself opening a door. Now I am working on the Gunnera Leaf, I find this door has opened very wide and this is absolutely fascinating. I had forgotten how to paint like this.

Close up on my botanical paintings of a sprig of Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) 76 x 56 cm
For a limited edition (only 5) print shop here

So I really am now in the land of my dreams where I get to climb giant grapes and oranges. My vision has changed, even when I am taking a break from the easel. For example yesterday I found the webbed shadow left by the wisteria on the pergola striking and mesmerizing. I would never have noticed it before, but it stared right at me and invited me in. I almost threw myself at the floor with the belief that the net shadow would catch my fall. Of course I didn't as I am not insane, but the feeling of a solid shadow fascinated me and I sat on the step staring at it for ages. The meandering lines mimicking the criss-crossing of leaf veins. Leaves are like nets, they catch the sun.

Close up on my botanical painting of a raceme of blackberries (Rubus ulmifolius) 76 x 56 cm
For a limited edition (only 5) print shop here 

As the painting for 'Leafscape' ensues, I have come to realise that what I am actually doing is trying to walk along the line between the sublime and the tragic. A die hard romantic, such concepts have beguiled me all my life, I just never realised it before. I am not trained in art or philosophy, I do not understand these things, but as I read, listen and watch I am beginning to learn. To capture the sublime is to try to represent the quality of greatness - a greatness that is beyond logic, measurement, or imitation. The last word is important - this demonstrates why I say that I am not trying to be super real. My art is not and never will be super real. 

Botanical watercolour of a Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) leaf 76 x 56 cm

Edmund Burke was the first philosopher to seriously expand on what the sublime really is. He argued that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. For example, beauty can be accentuated by alterations of light and intense light or darkness is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. In such circumstances, the imagination will be moved and beauty takes on a different guise. The sublime, with its many 'unknowns' can stir a sense of awe and horror, but despite these feelings the viewer will feel pleasure because they know that the perception is an illusion. This concept of the sublime contrasts the classical notion described by Plato of the aesthetic quality of beauty as a pleasurable experience.

Botanical painting of the Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) leaf now finished 76 x 56 cm

There have been many times where I have announced how frightened I have become in reaction to my work in the flesh. Naturally, my paintings do not pose an immediate threat - they are just drawings of plants, however there is still something sinister lurking in the shadows. To me, it has always felt like something uncontrollable. I find it puzzling that this gets put into my work, as I don't feel that leaves and plants are uncontrollable. I do not live in fear of them, but I do live in fear of myself and my own life force and maybe that is what is being unconsciously transmitted. I am also painfully aware of the dark parts of life as well as the lighter areas. What I find fascinating about the sublime are its physiological effects, in particular the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction. Burke described the sensation attributed to the sublime as a negative pain, which he called delight, which is distinct from positive pleasure. Delight is taken to result from the removal of pain (caused by confronting the sublime object) and is supposedly more intense than positive pleasure. I suppose such delight is akin to the way we might feel if we were to shed a heavy load or put a pair of sunglasses on.

Small watercolour painting of a leaf
Small watercolour painting of Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) leaf (A5 size)

Kant, also made an attempt to record his thoughts on the sublime in 1764 in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. He held that the sublime was of three kinds: the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying and noted that beauty "is connected with the form of the object", having "boundaries", while the sublime "is to be found in a formless object", represented by a "boundlessness".  

Vitis vinifera (grape vine) leaf
Botanical watercolour of the Vitis vinifera (grape vine) leaf very nearly finished 76 x 56 cm

As I touched on in a previous post, I have become interested in the ways science could be used to describe the aesthetic experience. Maybe I feel that equipped with such calculus I might be able to create a magnum opus! So I look towards previous research to try to fix my particular confusion which currently lies with the difference between a tragedy and the sublime and if it is possible to instil both of these feelings at once. The experience of the sublime is similar to the tragic (I touched on tragedy in my previous blog post as I explored the botanical dystopia). Akin a tragedy, the sublime invokes a feeling of attraction, but apparently the sublime is illogical and the tradgedy logical. The sublime deals with what is “absolutely large” - its magnitude cannot be estimated by means of mathematical concepts. The sublime does not conform to any objective principles or forms and rarely occurs outside of nature.  In the sublime, we are made to feel displeasure from our imagination’s inadequacy whilst also pleasure from the limits of the imagination because it is in agreement with rational ideas and the laws of reason.  A tragedy is different because it is more logical and moral in its approach. A tragedy delivers pleasure by allowing the audience to participate in catharsis because it sits within our rational world. There is nothing cathartic about the sublime. 

Letter writing
This week I have also been rather busy writing letters the traditional way - with rulers and posh pens!

It’s difficult to find articles that compare and contrast the sublime and the tragic, but in his article Schopenhauer and the Sublime Pleasure of Tragedy, Dylan Trigg manages it. Trigg defines the sublime as “the inability of the mind or the senses to grasp an object in its entirety”. Trigg explains that individuals must believe that their own will is in no immediate danger for them to experience a feeling of sublimity. However, because tragedy encourages an individual to have a strong emotional response to the tragic effect, Trigg states that the sublime must be excluded from a tragic work. The sublime must be a kind of “distant proximity”. Because a specific purpose underlies the creation of a tragic work, the lack of purpose associated with the sublime creates an even larger separation between the two concepts. The distance necessary for an individual to experience the sublime directly contrasts with the close proximity of the audience needed to experience a tragic work. To further separate the two concepts, Kant states that because an individual must make an aesthetic judgement when estimating a magnitude, the sublime cannot be found in products of art because their form and magnitude are determined by human purpose.

I am not sure if my work contradicts Kant and Trigg and lies more within Burke's parameter of the sublime. There is a tragedy - the leaves are caged by our will and yet they are still not really tamed. There are parts to them that instil fear (I appreciate that you need to see them in the flesh to understand this). Even though what has been produced is by my touch and therefore 'controlled', there is still something that isn't logical. I am going to have to think about this one for a bit, but if you have any thoughts I'd love to hear them.  

Spainsh fields
Looking for specimens in the Spanish fields for my RHS slot 

Further Reading:

Brawley, C., (2014). Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, e.g., pp. 71–92 (Ch. 3, "'Further Up and Further In': Apocalypse and the New Narnia in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle") and passim, Vol. 46, Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Palumbo, D.E. & Sullivan III, C.W.), Jefferson, NC, USA: McFarland

Budd, M., (2003), The Aesthetic Appreciation of NatureOxfordOxford UniversityPress.

Burke, E., (1756), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Collingwood, R.G., (1945), The Idea of Nature, Oxford Press

de Bolla, P., (1989), The Discourse of the Sublime, Basil Blackwell.

Dessoir, M., (1970), Aesthetics and theory of art. Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, Trans. Stephen A. Emery,  Wayne State University Press.

Fudge, R. S., (2001), ‘Imagination and the Science-Based Aesthetic Appreciation of Unscenic Nature’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 59, No. 3, pp. 275–285.

Kant, I., (2003), Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, Trans. John T. Goldthwait, University of California Press.

Otto, R., (1923), The Idea of the Holy, Trans. John W. Harvey, Oxford University Press,  [Das Heilige, 1917])

Schopenhauer, A., (1958), "The world as will and representation", transl. by E.F.J. Payne,  Colorado : The Falcon’s Wing

Trigg, D., ( 2004), Schopenhauer and the Sublime Pleasure of Tragedy, Philosophy and Literature, Volume 28, Number 1,  pp. 165-179 |