As a botanical artist I feel it is important that we think about what we are doing with our art. It is lovely to be able to sit back and paint a flower just as it is like an Edwardian Lady, and that is absolutely fine, but I feel very passionate about trying to develop on this hobbiest approach to our work to give it some gravitas. I know I am not alone - there are many botanical artists who think very deeply about the meaning of their work and its evolution and this is superb as it benefits not only the art form, but all of us - from painter to observer.
|Making pictures with soundwaves|
Not long ago I was asked by someone how I would paint our Lord, Jesus Christ. Firstly, I thought - this is a very good question as I am now completely stumped. Unusually for me I couldn't find an answer and was left speechless. At the time I was with several other people and I could feel their eyes and hearts desperately trying to pull an answer out of me. I felt the weight of responsibility crushing down on my shoulders. With the knowledge that I could not just stand there in silence I was becoming aware that whatever answer came out of my mouth it had to delivered in an honest, heart felt and nourishing way. After what seemed like a lifetime of silence (but was probably only 30 seconds) I realised that the reason I couldn't answer was because there was no answer (this is a difficult concept again for me to realise as, like my father would say, I have an answer for EVERYTHING).
I found myself merging a thousand catholic-based images of him dressed in linen robes or nailed on a cross with his wispy hair and sorrowful eyes. Then I was seeing him as white light and thought - yes a circle of white I would do that, but then I found myself revisiting all this stuff I have been considering about space, white and black, light and shadow, and realised that white wouldn't do. In the end, around a table where you could hear a pin drop, I found myself saying "I cannot depict him. I thought that it would be possible to draw him as a circle of white light, but that wouldn't work, because he can be there in the darkness. With this in mind I would have to describe him in sound - like a constant hum". To me, like the souls of all living things, he belongs to that part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's the subtle hum of life that is observed only through dedicated listening.
"I heard myself close my eyes, then open them"
Loys Masson, Icare ou le voyageur
Sound in botanical art
Since that chilly autumnal evening in Chichester I have not stopped thinking about this conundrum and how I ended up, quite unexpectedly, communicating something this profound! I came to realise that at the time I must have felt that did not have the skill to make such an image that could capture something so broad and satisfy so many needs, but I know that some artists can. I realise everyone has a different take on spiritual matters and so I am not going to go into that, but what I am interested in is if pictures can communicate sound or something beyond the image. For example, when you see a Monet, can you hear a sound? Obviously, not a real sound, but one in your 'being'. It could be a single frequency, or it could be a cacophony but something internal. What do you feel in sensory terms and is what you feel beyond touch, smell and taste? I am particularly interested in this from a botanical art point of view as for me, when a botanical painting is executed incredibly well, I can, on a spiritual level, 'hear' it. The plants sing, there is movement, there is time beyond our sense of it. For example, I am sure many of us would agree that Rory's pictures sing, you might not have noticed it, but there's a frequency there, it is beyond the audible.
|Van Gogh Sunflowers - National Portrait Gallery|
"Her secret was
Listening to flowers
Wear out their colour"
Noel Bureau, Les mains tendues
In science, we attempt to explain the universe objectively, that is, without a viewer, and therefore in my mind, science fails to explain art or the unique effects artists can synthesise from it. As a scientist, this has always fascinated me because in this day and age this is fundamentally where the pseudo-dichotomy between the two hemispheres begins. During my training I always found science too impersonal and felt that this unnatural treatment of observation was, and will remain to be, its greatest stumbling blocks. However, like in all things there are exceptions to this, for example, Quantum physics is one branch of the sciences where great discoveries are being made. I feel that this is because it focuses on the power of our observation - it is personal. Other pure sciences are more clinical in their approach. In every truly creative idea or discovery it should be noted that there is usually some form of fundamental discontinuity. For great art or science to happen, the methods in which the projection of images and sounds enter an observer need to involve more than basic logic or synergy.
So as botanical illustrators/artists, sitting all over the place on the spectrum of 'science art', from the representationalists right through the stylists, it is important for us to consider our imaginations and how they can always form something that is beyond reason to transport our audiences. We need to remember that our existence and our reactions to it cannot be explained in simple quantitative terms - something I think many of us forget as we try to capture 'form' (see previous blog post where I discuss 'emotion' in botanical art). I believe that it is in understanding this phenomenon that will make our art, in all of its forms, great.
"You can hear the prattle of the flowers on the screen"
Rene-Guy Cadou, Helene ou le regne vegetal.
"I live in the tranquillity of flowers, summer is growing"