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 by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
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.

by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
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.

Blackberries by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
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.

Catalpa by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
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 |


  1. I am speechless Jess re: this new work and ideas. You are making me think big time. I think you are incredible.

    1. Really pleased to hear that this had triggered something in your mind Deborah. Very kind of you to say I am 'incredible' (she says with a Spanish accent)... I am just happy to enthuse. It means a lot to me to receive feedback and to understand that you are listening and being influenced. You might not agree with me, and that to me isn't important - the most important thing is that we do take the time to reflect. Hope you had a lovely Easter break.

  2. Your posts are always fascinating Jessica and the works you've posted here take my breath - just stunning!! You are definitely on the right path, wherever that may lead. :) I relate to many of your comments... Each drawing I make tends to take on a life of its own; very personal interpretations of the world are revealed of their own accord in these close observations/meditations. No need to compare or feel inadequate... I prefer the term artist to illustrator for similar reasons. Perhaps the relationship between tragedy and the sublime is best expressed in the Japanese terms Wabi sabi and Mono no aware...?

    1. Thanks Hedera - I am delighted that you like my latest work and how it is developing. I am going to look into those Japanese things right now! Great - this is what I am was hoping for. I knew someone clever would be able to point me in the right direction. Thanks! Keep up the drawing!