Tuesday, 14 October 2014

I scared myself

Has anyone ever had this? Has anyone ever actually been frightened by their own botanical illustration? I have been frightened in that I didn't want to make a mistake before. Where I was so precious about a piece I lost my nerve and had to walk away. I got a bit scared by my grapes, because for the first time I actually felt like I was painting something that looked acceptable... and I scare myself when I mix a colour first time, 'whoa! How did I do that?!'. But this fear is something far more sinister. I probably shouldn't be writing this, as it'll make you all think twice about my work in the future, but I have noticed that my painting has taken a bit of a creepy turn and this Hosta, well he is giving me the heebie-jeebies. I am not sure why my painting has gone a bit dark - I paint plants because they are beautiful - but for some reason a darkness is coming through. The Coffee and Monstera could be interpreted as lush, but I secretly there was something dark going on when I painted them. Then there's Ophelia, well she is OK - she's voluptuous and sexy, but she's still got that 'edge'. And Harry? Well he's just plain sinister. 

I am probably alone in this... It could just be that a part of me recognises an aspect of my persona that I have unintentionally transmitted onto paper. If this is the case, then I am probably the only one experiencing this strong reaction, but I thought I'd document it anyway in case other artists have had the same response to their own artwork and also to see if it really is just me or if anyone else sees the Hosta as bit unsettling. I might go and ask Aunty Terri next door... she what she thinks, but I'd be honoured to hear your own experiences and thoughts on the subject.

For me personally, the Hosta was supposed to represent 'the glory'. The spade like leaves that dig for it, the flower spike that rises like a flag on conquered ground. You get my drift... It was supposed to be about things like that, but in the end, it feels like I dug up a monster. Those spades feel like flat hands reaching out with their fingers together and that spike...  it's like a dagger or a spear. Instead of 'drawing' the Six of Swords, I have 'drawn' Eight. Instead of the Fool, I got the Devil.

It's a funny thing how we view our own work and how our mood changes the way we paint, but also how the painting technique might not actually change, just our perceptions of what it produces do. I think I am going to have to put this one to one side for a bit as I don't it's possible to paint when you loose your nerve. Painting is a risky venture. Every brush stroke is a risk. You bare your soul with every mark you make. Your thoughts, feelings and perceptions cannot be hidden once they are on a piece of paper. That is what is so magical about the process of drawing. It is so very revealing, it teaches you so much about how you see the world and how you feel about your place in it.


  1. Interesting! It's certainly very beautiful and striking. I hope it doesn't put you off finishing it, Jess! I haven't had that experience myself... I wonder what that's all about.

    1. Thanks Shevaun, I will most certainly finish it before the end of the month as I have deadlines and I need to take it to the UK for scanning... Glad you find it striking though. It is an odd experience, but in a way it doesn't surprise me. If anything I am just annoyed that I have had to walk away from it because I let myself get a little too deep. It annoys me as one can loose their rhythm, but as Martin says, I suppose a pair of fresh eyes is always a good thing and that is something I welcome!

  2. Interesting post Jess. Not something I've experienced...I'm usually too worried about deadlines ...but if that's how you paint now then that's how you paint and part of your approach. You were right to stop. Now you are painting full time again, you may find you need to swap to work other paintings for a while and then come back with a clearer head....certainly Rory McEwen seemed to do that. Also make sure you take breaks and do some exercise everyday

    1. Thanks Martin. Interesting that you've not had that experience as your paintings are created using quite an intense, dry brush technique. But I suppose you must take more breaks than me. I reckon it is probably all about the stuff going on in my head with the move and 'rebirth'. Must be struggling a bit and it came out through my arm. Apparently, my mum has had it happen to her a bit with her own work and that makes me feel a bit better - daughter like mother. But you are right, I must remember to have more exercise. I am getting out of the house today, so that'll be good.

  3. The changing emotions are fine Jess but don't let them become a factor of stress. I agree with Martin over the breaks and the value of a fresh mind and body. That does not mean your attitude to the task in hand needs to change each time that you approach it. Remember the days of intensity over revision in that exam prep - the balance between little & often / maintaining concentration / a receptive mind.
    As you return to this full time role perhaps a pause to write down your plan ahead, ( including timings) for the next week or two, over a coffee or Sangria.
    I have always maintained that the breaks are an important place to start, wether it be a day out, coffee break or 5 minutes stride jumps on the terrace !!
    As a non artist, I do not see any dark side to Harry - far from it, the presentation looks majestic with the encouraging and regal spread of the convoluted spades supporting the crisp perpendicular spike, ready to unfold 'that glory' of your original inspiration.

    1. Thanks Chris for your kind message and encouragement. It is good to hear from you! I have been making sure I take regular breaks and I have been doing quite a bit of planning and writing. It appears I want to do more of that at the moment... It's coming quite naturally and I bizarrely find it's more of an effort to paint. I feel a bit 'dreamy' if you get my drift. Anyway, I have taken on board the breaks and am making sure that I actually get out of the house and sit in the sun or pootle off on my bicycle somewhere. I have also moved my painting room to my bedroom as there is more natural light in this space at the moment and a nice view.

      I am going to start your Ginkgo, well a Ginkgo anyway... lets see how it goes.

  4. As you transit into life as a full time professional artist you have the choice to lay down the foundations of positive and beneficial patterns that will serve you well throughout your painting career, enabling you to manage your mental, emotional, and physical energy as you work each day.

    The thoughtful and very common sense recommendations given by both Martin and Chris are ones I too endorse. However, if you are to work as a full time professional, working many hours each and every day as a Botanical Painter, more subtle ways of energy management will be useful to you.

    The pressure to achieve is the main harbinger of stress to the artist, and stress causes erratic breathing patterns. Physical strain from long hours spent at precision work is particularly common in Botanical Artists. Physical stress is connected to shallow breathing and eventual holding of the breath. I noticed this when I first began teaching students at Kew, when the struggle to complete drawings of rapidly decomposing plant matter was leading them to stressed breathing, of which they were unaware.

    So breathe deeply as you work, taking long slow intakes of breath deep into the lungs and releasing the breath in a slightly freer way, as if to let go of the air and feelings within. Always keep your studio well ventilated too.

    I interpret the ‘scary’ nature of the beans and your description of Harry as 'dark', as actually being the beginning of an idea emerging. Ideas often come in strange ways, not necessarily in controlled and ordered parcels. As a concept, the darker side of nature and its more sinister overtones, this is really interesting, and touches something we all perceive in nature, but we prefer to focus on a chocolate box idea of beauty. That which is truthful is also a form of beauty, and so your idea actually questions what beauty really is.

    Back to the breathing issue: long hours of focused painting work are enabled by regular and deep breathing. When the painter feels balanced, the long hours of work don’t seem that way, they seem more as a flow that is outside time looking at the subject matter that is inside time.

    1. Coral, what a well thought out comment. God love you! I have read this comment about 7 times and have decided to copy it and save it as a word document. I hope you don't mind. There is so much wisdom in your prose. Since you have said what you have said about the breath I have been really concentrating on it and have noticed that the breathing gest worse in the afternoon. Probably a result of feeling like the day is running out I didn't achieve what I wanted to. This is definitely something very interesting and a huge realisation for me. Since spotting this I am making an effort to relax more and be mindful and this is really helping. Thank you.

      On another note - the darker side of nature. I think you've hit the nail on the head. I think that this is what I find so frightening. I have always been intrigued by this aspect of life, but in recent years I have avoided philosophising about it. Something about being in London removed me from nature in its most simple state. The darkness there was more humanoid and just part of everyday life in the city. One just expected it. Furthermore, not spending enough time on my own and the constant distraction of the city probably exacerbated my denial. I was quite frequently feeding the void with useless, short lived pleasures.

      Since moving to Spain I see the ying-yang of nature very starkly. The shadows here are so very dark and the light bits, so very light. The strong sun just intensifies the contrast. There are these great swathes of countryside with nothing but raw nature in them. No people, no cars, no noise – it is quite unnerving. These areas are so very open and yet also closed - I feel like a trespasser when I am in them. They always seem to be in patches, as the fields are quite small here, and they are frequently boarded by mountains; great big mountains. There is a space at the back of my house which is like this. There are Poplar trees and fields of corn. The trees talk to each other in the breeze everyday and it is all you can hear. No birds, no flies, no dogs, no people, nothing. It’s a magical place and it reminds me of England at spring time. Dappled shade covers the floor and you get these bright, narrow shafts of sun light coming in from the cracks above. It really is quite sublime, and yet it is also a tad edgy. It’s like there is always something that isn't quite right. I notice the intensity of the shadows and light and feel that it is actually quite shocking and then there’s the whiteness and straightness of the tree trunks… they look almost supernatural, and then I realise that all the trees are all in militant rows… now that is just not natural, it looks all messed up. Finally there’s the silence - that doesn't seem right either. I feel like I am in a Margaret Atwood book or in Chernobyl, but then maybe I am just out of the metropolis and not yet used to it.

      And then there’s corn... It rises up either side of the very narrow road so high, that you can't be seen. The plants are all dying as it is the end of the growing season. Their dried out leaves scrape against each other with the slightest air current because they are so crisp and spent. There are many fields around my house like this at the moment, all planted in rows. Their pointed leaves and withered stems look almost skeletal. Mummified, they remind me of exhausted troops coming back from months of endless fighting and are now just standing there, waiting for their last day. It’s like they know its coming.

      I think Rory slightly touched on this aspect of life with his decaying leaves. A moment in time, a moment in space. And I ask myself just what is that moment exactly? I am still asking myself in secret. I thought I could ignore the trail, but as I paint on a piece of Rory McEwen’s vellum I am reminded how fragile everything actually is. I feel like I am poking my finger through a very thin veil and am touching something, but I can’t see it for what it is.

    2. Hi Jess, I’m so interested to read this response from your artistic self. Always feel free to archive any written words we exchange ( I shall paste my last comment into my blog and add to it some more methods of sustaining balance whilst working as an artist).

      As a young painter I was very influenced by Rory, but always sensed his later works were imbued with such a deep sadness. With the greatest respect for his master works, I sought to free myself from the legacy of this sadness.

      Death and decay in the plant world may be understood and interpreted in so many fashions from the purely physical to the emotional, mental, and spiritual. Rory did something very unusual by initiating the current tide of fascination for decay amongst today’s Botanical Artists.

      Microcosmically, this is something regular in life; universally it is something profound. For some death is an end, whereas for others death is another beginning - I wonder what was it for Rory in the real context of his life?

      So the Ying and the Yang you mention, we all feel it intuitively within ourselves, and we know that it is in fact an invitation, a map, a pathway that leads to something both simple and profound that is found in the core of the moment.