For me, looking at leaves is a deeply spiritual experience. I don't get the same feeling from flowers, fruits, stems or seeds - only leaves. They represent life at their very core. Without chlorophyll the world would be a very different place. Back in 2012 I took my house mate to Kew for a day out. Whilst inside one of the glasshouses I noticed how the light was shining through the leaves of a fern, revealing all of the complex minuscule veins and a myriad of greens. It was breathtaking, and in true fashion, just like when you see anything amazing, I wanted to share the experience. I grabbed Oxana's arm and pointed the dazzling effect out. Surprisingly, it didn't appear to have quite the same effect on her. She just looked at it then looked at me, then looked at it again and said 'I now see your world and how you see things, which is so very different to me - how fascinating...'. I wasn't disappointed with her response, more curious - it was not at all what I was expecting and I did ponder on it for a while.. In fact I still am. Perhaps we all do see things so differently, both physically and metaphorically.
|Open this image in a new tab on large... how very different these two leaves are despite being on the same plant. That leaf on the left is incredible, it's like Lycra. Nightmare to get this type of green right in a painting mind.. tricky to mix the bright greens and make them look acceptable on paper. Martin Allen once told me to photograph with a white background as it really helps when it comes to painting from a photograph, but I rarely do this out in the field. I find bringing the plants indoors can alter their spirit too and this subsequently gets transcribed into the finished piece. Sometimes, however, the white background rule does seriously help - a little tip.|
When I look at a leaf I don't. I realise I am talking in riddles, but I look at it through something else first. 'I feel it'. I feel it, but not through touching, but through my eyes and breath. I sit next to it for a while and I breath it in. My eyes trace the ripples across the surface, riding the undulations and feels the 'pulse'. I dive in. Its almost like merging with the leaf - I become the leaf. I feel it's sap pulsating. I feel its exhaustion or happiness. I telepathically talk to it, rather like a shaman. I pin point any issues, I feel its pain or joy. I do this to the entire plant as well. I found the pineapple rather easy to do this with, but other things can be harder and more closed. This is always reflected in the finished piece. Sally and Caroline where very open, the Corona de Espinas lettuce was not. Also note I can't seem to do this with flowers as well as with leaves. Their sheer brilliance, gaudiness and deceptional designs flumux me.
So yes, first thing is first - I 'feel' the leaf. I try to do this on either in full blown sun or in the dead of night. I have collection of night-time dialogues which I haven't begun to explore yet as it is a totally different world. One day I will - I am edging closer to crossing that bridge. I rarely venture out on a cloudy day - discourse becomes slow and foggy and paintings become flat without highlights (above). Rain brings out a different effect again, but it's difficult to record as there is often 'interference on the wire'.
|I love these beets. I wanted to paint them on the day I found them, but am still finding it too difficult to get that lurid green right. I struggled with Caroline and have been ever since. I am currently using a new mix, but it still isn't right (broad beans). Looking through leaves is important as you get to understand their structure better. I can only compare this to the anatomical studies artists have to do of human bones and muscles before they can take the proper leap to portraiture.|
So yes... I am borderline bonkers but that's just the way it is. I could never teach this stuff, it just happens. Just like I couldn't get Oxana to really dive into those fern fronds. If I painted them though and then showed her, she might have got it. Something about transcribing something into paint helps bridge the gap between worlds.
So my dialogue with the artichokes started in October 2014. Every morning since then they seem to have 'dragged me into conversation' as I've walked past them. I noticed yesterday that I said to my mother 'the fields are becoming boring'... What I meant by this is that the fields have stopped talking in the struggle of the heat, but also the crops that the farmers are now growing (mostly corn now) are really 'unchatty'. I have a sneaky suspicion that the corn is genetically modified - there is something eerie about them. Even the neighbours have commented on their shocking rate of growth and no body likes them. Come August my walk will be entirely in their shadow. Despite the drought though, the artichokes still lure me in. The poplar trees and the artichokes are the only ones that do. They always seem so pleased to see me.
I build up to a painting. I don't just pick something and do it straight away... unless of course it is the pineapple, which I did do straight away because he told me to. I watched the artichokes shrivel and die in the winter and come back up this spring. I never knew they are perennial, which in a way is essential knowledge before embarking on a painting. Life cycles are important as they tell you about the energy in the plant and therefore inform you about its spirit. Being perennial, these are robust plants and their leaves and flowers reflect this. One day I skipped over the ditch to have a closer look. It was a very bright day and I was gobsmaked by the way the light bounced off of the leaves, revealing these dark intense gulleys across its surface. The greens looked different close up, everything was more intense. I made some sketches and took some photographs and picked couple of leaves to take back.
|Sometimes I end up stitching images together... I almost did this with the artichoke as the leaf wouldn't fit into one photograph, but if I had painted the entire leaf I would have lost some of the detail, so I didn't stitch on this occasion.|
Photographs are an important part in my work. They are a back up plan for when the leaves die, but more importantly, they effect the way I plan a composition and help me to look even closer at the surface of the leaf. Furthermore, they refine all the spiritual information I gather into something tangible. Although my paintings are not portraying the artichoke's life over time in the form of a lifeline or diagram, time is an important element. Time is distilled into one image and for me the photograph helps me do that.
Here are a couple of images to demonstrate a point. This is still the Artichoke on that very same day, but how different it looks. To me it looks 'weak' and these sections of leaf do not reflect the true nature of the plant in my view. I don't like the skinny midrib, the asymmetrical growth form and the shadows that are being cast from it's upper leaves. This photograph will not do!
Another image below - a better one... No manipulation no fake lighting. Just the sun.
I spent a good while planning out my composition. Probably half a day. I hate doing this. I feel I struggle because I lack training. Mum waltzed into my studio when I was planning this one and told me to stick to the golden ratio. I thought 'what the heck is that in a painting?!' I know it as a number pattern from my science days, but I can't see it graphically. I just don't know about these things. In response to mums suggestion, I spent time researching the ratio and drew it in so that the midrib fell into the pattern, but it looked wrong and I didn't like it. Therefore I did it again my way. I am sure Leonardo de Vinci was correct in his thinking, but in this particular case it wasn't working. Compositionally, I do tend to just dive in and hope for the best.
I wanted to capture a lot of detail in this piece. When I saw the leaf in the field I felt like a little person and wondered what it would be like to walk across the surface of this huge leaf. I wanted my painting to reflect this day dream, so I super sized it with the help of the digital photographs and made a line drawing. Sometimes I enlarge sketches on a photocopier , but this time I didn't. Magnifying the image meant I lost some of the leaf edges, but I didn't care. I rather like the horrifyingly intense feeling of trapping this angry, pulsating leaf into a frame.
Then I got to work... dark bits in first, then the lightest, then the mid-range tones. Weaving around the paper. I always put purple or pink in my greens and choose my blues carefully. It's Daler Rowney cobalt blue in this one... not keen on the ultramarine. Phthalo on the tints. Greys are purple, blue and yellow mixed together. It's a limited palette of 6 colours, mainly 3. I am using large brushes. I tried using thin ones, but they keep drying out in the Spanish heat.
Right - dead leg from sitting at the desk too long, so will round this post up. Might take my camera and make a video for the next post. I hope you don't all feel that I am completely insane and that this helps you to understand how I see leaves. If you have trouble illustrating them, I recommend sitting with a leaf for at least half an hour before picking up a pencil or brush and attempting to make any form if representation on paper. Look at it under different lighting conditions if possible. Shine a light through it, over it, and across it at different angles. Cast shadows and remove them. Smell it, touch it, dream about it. Watch how it moves in the wind. Watch how the greens change colour depending on the type of light source and if you have a lens, microscope or jewellers loope, look at it through one of those and make friends. Its a good start, but I am no expert and we are all learning. Remember that, its important.