Friday, 31 August 2018

Becoming Blue: The Uncoming

'He smelt of bergamot, paper and oil paint. He smelt of galleries, of picture frames and floorboards. Fragrances just followed him, it was part of who he was. From the jasmine flowers in Onslow Gardens to the slightly sickly Hyacinths in Abbott and Holder. There was always a scent to the story.

'She dwells frequently upon the beauty and the melancholy of nature', Virginia Woolf

'I feel like a caterpillar. I am still not quite right. Something must have happened to me. Something did happen to me, but I can't understand why I can't seem to compute what that was. Was it Leafscape? Was it finally coming to terms with my break up with Henry? Was it my failed move, my failed funding applications or the PhDs? Or maybe it was just Mr. Bergamot, paper and oil paint?  I don't know. All I know is there are bad days and some ok days. I am full of hope, but I can't manifest. Instead, I am compositing in my cocoon of hope. Disintegrating at a snail's pace, but it is still too fast for me. I am not even half butterfly or caterpillar, just nothing really, a fertile sludge. This is the hardest bit. The structures I have built around me are no longer working. It would be true to say that I found this Spring hard going, but to be honest it's been hard going since February 2017. It's me that's being hard. I can't work out what is bothering me. I feel like a deep sea diver who's lungs can't quite take the pressure of exploring the depths of this iceberg. So I try to just doggy paddle around the circumference, but it isn't really working. I am now coming to the realisation that in order to grow wings I am going to have to take some risks, both in my art, my writing and in my personal life. This isn't going to be easy'. - Diary entry, May 2018

Jess Shepherd
J R Shepherd. Photograph by Alex Stanhope ©

At the end of May 2018 I was close to giving up. I hadn't felt like that in a while. Nothing was diluting. Everything was still sore and acute and the people I had trusted so deeply suddenly became unfaithful. When I went to bed at night sometimes I could hear voices, or banging doors and occasionally I would open my eyes and I would still be dreaming. I guess this is what can be called a hallucination. I knew it wasn't good. One night I sat and watched a tree growing out from my abdomen. All its roots wrapped around my torso and it grow up and up. I liked how it grew, but I didn't like how it was feeding off of me and that was when I screamed.

"Maybe happiness is this: not feeling like you should be elsewhere, doing something else, being someone else."  Isaac Asimov

As I watch the wind batter the winding Wisteria outside my window on a hot summer's afternoon, I continue to unpack myself like a suitcase. Further and further I go... unraveling, spiraling outwards centrifugally, dissipating, dissolving, or as my Antipodean friend called it: 'uncoming'. I am not sure if this is good. Surely spiritual paths should be about 'becoming'... spiraling inwardly, centripetally, becoming stronger and more integrated? Not fragmented and thin? I reassure myself that you need to unwind in order to wind back up properly. That I am just a cluttered drawer of clothes that needs refolding and that this year I am just in that unpacking stage.

Botanical Art Hydrangea
Hydrangea work in progress

It isn't easy being a painter.  I think it does have the potential to drive anyone insane. The way to get through the solitary quest is to spend time with other people, but I find that challenging. I begin feeling so inadequate and alienated. I often feel more alienated when I am with other people than when I am alone, so it doesn't really solve the problem. To escape my solitude I keep fantasising about a future yet to unfold.

"I am very interested in art, but I am instinctively more interested in truth [...] 
The more I work, the more I see differently"- Alberto Giacometti

As I sit here contemplating for what really feels like an eternity, I start to consider my art and where it is going again. My own personal life feels too intimate to sort out right now - too sore, too complex. The art though, where the art goes my heart goes and the rest tends to follow so I concentrate on that. However, that is where the problem is. I can't even focus on that, because of fear.  Fear of consequences.

"[…] but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers? Such a wild passion for a flower was never heard of there." 
Novalis, from "Henry von Ofterdingen"

Blue Hydrangea painting
Hydrangea work in progress

As a curator I create environments to deliver an experience. As a painter, it is within the parameters of a canvas. as a publisher it is inside a book as a sound artist it is within the grooves of a spinning disc. I like to create environments, I always have, but suddenly I can't through fear. Not the fear of failure, which is something I am too familiar with, but the fear of false accusation. In a world where things get recontextualized all of the time and a sentence you might utter can easily be extracted and reconfigured, I am left wondering why say anything at all? I haven't blogged in months because I am struggling with that concept because as you know my prose are deeply personal. I suppose I don't need to publish them, but I always took the stance that it was good to publish them for one day they might help someone. I publish them as if to leave breadcrumbs so that someone might better understand me and themselves. This blog is a map.

'In some ways I feel like my best version of my own practices is though art marking [...] its a way to create a container for the exploration of awareness and how to 'use' awareness both as an artist and as an audience to get a little unstuck or a little more confused, whichever is better.'
- Thalia Field.

Finally, after months of trying to work it out, I now know why this fear of recontextualisation and misinterpretation has left me unable to work. It is actually quite basic. It is because my paintings always have a meaning, but in this world, especially in the distracted modern day of fleeting moments, the meaning is often lost. Usually, it is enough for a painting to just mean something to me, I don't need everyone else to understand it, but as I metamorphose at a rate of knots, meanings are changing too quickly even on a personal level. There are no strata in my psychology. I am just foam. Popping bubbles that grow and disappear in an instant as I dissolve.

Artist J R Shepherd
J R Shepherd. Photograph by Alex Stanhope ©

Lost meaning

I feel my identity is disappearing. Jess sort of disappeared last year. I don't know where she went. Jess is decomposing, changing, re-packing. Maybe she will come back one day. In the meantime, I have to try to get all of this onto paper in the form of paint without her, because unlike photographs or digital images, paintings are real. Paintings come from the soul. Paintings are Horcruxes, mirrors, heterotopias.

Blue hydrangea painting
Hydrangea to scale... still unfinished.
Since I gave up a settled life in England I haven't felt safe and only now I find myself asking 'why not?' We live in a time when being yourself is about the scariest thing you can endeavor. I feel our fear in the 21st Century is mostly about a lurking dread of abstraction and our slight paranoia of being misunderstood or represented.  

Inky Leaves is a painted experience through the eyes of the world's flora. The leaves, flowers, petals... they are my muse. After a long time grappling in the dark and going around in circles I have taken a step out of the shadow. It's early days and I am full of bubbles, experiencing great change. Change of the most difficult kind. Change in beliefs. Change in assumption. Change in my sense of reality and my place in it.

Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
In the Poplar woods of Granada. Photograph by Alex Stanhope ©

"We hope that our armored professional personalities will prevent us from having our hearts broken in work, but if you are sincere about your work, it should break your heart. You should get to the thresholds where you do not know how to proceed. You do not know how to get from here to there. What does that do? It puts you into a proper relationship with reality. Why? Because you have to ask for help" David Whyte

As with Leafscape I am still obsessed with spaces and scale. I find painters usually are. To have a scale is to have space. With Leafscape the leaves became the terrain. Today, where things aren't wholly real and fact is fiction and fiction is fact, I am reminded of boundaries and context. How what is made when you have a boundary is, in fact, a space, a territory or landscape. Michel Foucault, in “Of Other Spaces,” claims that “our own era…seems to be that of space. We are,” he suggests, “in the age of the simultaneous, of juxtaposition, the near and the far, the side by side, and the scattered.”

"One way you know you're approaching core territory is that your experiences become indescribable. Let yourself stand in an inner confrontation with the unknown within you -- and what, in truth, can never be explained." Eric Francis

Botanical painter J R Shepherd
In the Poplar woods of Granada . Photography by Alex Stanhope ©
I have always felt that my paintings are not striving for realism and have often said this. In fact, I think it was one of the first things I said when I started 'Giants in Thimbles', that I was never striving for the realism or a uni-faceted sense of reality as we know it. How could I when I spend most of my days in a dream? I paint my experience using the flower as my muse. I project my experience and observations of the world onto my flowers. Which in other terms - all the flowers and leaves I have ever painted are in fact self-portraits. I would guess that this is why I am often frightened by my own work because they are like looking into a mirror and to be present means you have a responsibility and such a notion is actually quite frightening. 

'The only place where things are actually real is at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. That whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown, both inside you and outside you. John O’Donohue, a mutual friend of both of us, used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world. Letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out.' - David Whyte.

In the Poplar woods of Granada. Photography by Alex Stanhope ©

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Becoming Blue IV: Consolida - FORGIVENESS

Things are taking time, but I am making progress. I have invested in a car. It's a leap of faith that I have been putting off for ages but in the end I decided to commit. He's black with a very large boot and blackout windows. I have named him Diego after Valaquez. He has the same initials as Darth Vadar. In fact, he probably looks a more like him if Darth was ever reincarnated as a car, but I went with a painter's name in the end. So here we are, another step towards the travelling part of Blue.

Flower art
Consolida (2018)

As I start to learn to drive again I find myself having to re-acquaint myself with many other old skills whilst learning new ones including how to use sound recording software. These are the frustrating stages I have to get my head around before I can really start to grapple with Blue. It's frustrating as there is nothing tangible to show for the time put into learning (yet). However, I am enjoying the process of becoming broad.

So I continue to feel very much as I am starting from the beginning again. Up until the end of May I was still in a very lonely, dark place. I am not sure what it was. A dark realisation most likely. Nature can be dark. It also can also be miraculous. I am trying to concentrate on that. However one cannot have one without the other, we all cast shadows, and as a painter I feel drawn to explore the dark shades of what I have been feeling for the past 15 months. Rabbit holes are dark places. Wonderous, but, like my car, dark.

'To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt.'
- David Whyte

Blue Rose
Blue Rose, Columbia Road Market, 2018, Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper. No Charcoal.

In my search for something cathartic and mystical, I have been looking at the work of religious painters and the paintings of El Greco. I have also noticed in my sketch work and daydreams things are starting to become out of focus and the proximity of the flowers keeps changing. Sometimes I am a fairy enveloped in the petals, sometimes I am just hovering above like a ghost-seeing it all laid out in front of me. Pinned to a board as if to be dissected.

As I carry on exploring this enclave*, I am noticing that what I am starting to tackle is most likely the notion of flower painting, which is actually quite different to anything I have ever done before. For me, flower painting still falls under the umbrella of botanical art, but it is moving further away from the scientific end of the spectrum and closer towards the more artistic end, the more emotionally descriptive and mystical.

Consolida botanical painting
Consolida, Covent Garden Flower Market, London 2018botanical painting by J R Shepherd (2018) Work in Progress.
Watercolour and Charcoal (powder and pencil) on paper.

In my last post, I touched on the distance of blue and how for me it describes the eternal longing or desire for things. This is why for me, blue has always been a romantic colour and the colour that sparked the Romantic movement in 'Blue Blume'. I nodded briefly to the Romantic Movement when working on Leafscape when I looked into the elements that go to make up Gothic horror. These themes still to beguile me. But what makes blue 'blue'? I find it is a colour who's meaning can readily changed by its context, by neighbouring colours and by lighting. You can make blue happy just by upping the brightness or its intensity. You can make it sad by lowering the saturation and its clarity.

My Consolida is my consolation and consolidation as I learn to forgive and re-build myself. 
- J R Shepherd

Lately, black backgrounds have begun to lure me in just like they did four years ago when I first arrived in Spain. At the time I didn't know why I wanted to paint dark backgrounds, I just played around in the dark not even considering it. Now, however, it is May 2018 and I am sitting in my very English room wondering why I am drawn to paint black backgrounds again and then finally the penny drops. It is from being in Spain. I have been influenced. Spain's stark contrasts continue inthrall to me. The shadows on the white walls and under the canopies of popular trees. Its the darkness we see in Ribera paintings and of course those of Goya. Ribera is my favourite Spanish painter. It's difficult to writtle them down, there are so many and if El Greco was Spanish I'd probably choose him. However, the intensity of a Ribera painting is what I find so entrancing. The perfection of his painted fingernails, the red robes and the endless blackness around. I want to paint like this. I want to paint with intensity. So now I am changing tactics in my attempt to combine the elements of Mannerism with the Romantic.

St. Paul the Hermit, Guiseppe Ribera (1635 - 1640), Oil on canvas, 118 x 98 cm.
Paul of Thebes is known as the first Christian hermit, living alone in the desert from the age of 16 years

The incredibly dramatic illumination we see in these dark Baroque paintings is called, Tenebrism (Tenebroso in Italian) which can be translated into English as very dramatic illumination. Chiaroscuro is another kind of play on lighting in painting, but I feel it isn't the same. Tenebrism seems to be to be more dramatic and the tenebrist artist’s tend to use more darkness in the light-dark contrast while the chiaroscuro artist’s use more light. Famous tenebrist artists are Rembrandt, Gerrit van Honthorst, Francisco Ribalta, Jusepe de Ribera and Georges de La Tour. Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women artists of the Baroque, was an outstanding exponent of tenebrism. 

Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)

Tenebrism came into popularity around 17th century in Italy and some parts of Spain. Chiaroscuro on the other hand was already famous from works created in the Renaissance era (around 14th century). Although the artist Caravaggio is generally credited with the invention of the tenebristic style, this technique was used much earlier by other artists, such as Albrecht Dürer, Tintoretto, and El Greco. There were probably lots of other painters too who have just faded into their murky black backgrounds since their time as forgotten ghosts. This sadly happens all too often, even now. 

Cornflower paper collage
Mary Delany (1700-1788) - Centaurea cyanus, formerly
in an album (Vol.II, 79), 1779 - collage of coloured papers,
with bodycolour and watercolour.

What I am doing is nothing new. Barbara Regina Dietzsch is very well known for her botanical paintings on black backgrounds, as is Mary Delany for her botanical collages and then there are all the Dutch Masters. More recently artists Coral Guest and Rosie Sanders have both produced works with dark backgrounds/space. Currently, my paintings are not painted using black per se, but with a mix of Winsor Blue (Red shade) and Perylene Maroon, working to keep it all to the blue end of the spectrum. I want the whole pieces to be blue.

Barbara Regina Dietzsch 'Delphinium with a Butterfly), Gouache

For the first darker piece I chose to paint a Consolida, which is also known as Larkspur. I heard one of the gardener's talking about them when I went to Great Dixter last June (just before I dispatched 300 INKQs containing 'The Kiss: Onslow Gardens') and so it seemed like a good flower to paint. It was the next flower on my extraordinarily long list. Furthermore, I feel my visit to Dixter really was quite pivotal in many ways. In helping me to close the painful doors of the past and encouraging me to venture onwards. I had to travel through Brighton station, (where only 11 months earlier, the Cheshire cat had bid me farewell) so that I could get to Rye. Without Dixter, I wouldn't be planning my first long-haul expedition to the Antipodes. Funny how things flow.

'To forgive is to put oneself in the larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seems to hurt us.'  - David Whyte

Morning Glory Blue Flower
Maud Purdy's 'Heavenly Blue Morning Glory' (1932) Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Consolidae, and their close cousins Delphinium, are stately spikes of eye-catching blossoms in astounding shades of blue. The name Delphinium is derived from the Greek word 'δελφίνιον' (delphis), meaning dolphin, for the nectary's resemblance to the bottlenose of a dolphin. The world Larkspur originates from 1570s, from lark (n.) and spur (n.) to describe the resemblance of the calyx and petals to the bird's long, straight hind claw. Delphinium are native to the Northern Hemisphere and historically, were used by Native Americans and European settlers to make blue dye, and across the pond, it was the primary source for ink. 'The juice of the flowers, particularly D. consolida, mixed with alum, gives a blue ink' (Figuier, 1867).

Early stages of the Consolida painting working with charcoal and watercolour

The background of this painting was painted using charcoal powder in the mix with watercolour paints. I guess it is the gum arabic in the paint which acts as a binding agent, stopping the charcoal from falling off. The bonus of combining charcoal powder in the paint is that it removes shine and brush marks, so you are left with a very velvety surface that absorbs light like Vanta Black. With the Consolida, I have tried to 'bring' the background into the plant to create black space by using a charcoal pencil on the flowers themselves. I like the effect, but I am not completely sold, so I am still experimenting. The second painting, 'Blue Rose', has been executed only in watercolour. For this painting I decided to do something that botanical painters don't usually do and paint a flower that is not natural. A Rose that has been deliberately altered by mankind using synthetic dyes as representative of our unwavering quest for perfection and the darkness this obsession can bring.

'To cast no shadow on others is to vacate the physical consequences of our appearance in the world.' 
- David Whyte

There are many sides to blue. Love and loss come hand in hand. Joy and pain. The breaking down of things, and the building up. My Consolida is my consolation and consolidation as I learn to forgive and re-build myself. To forgive is an act of love and compassion. It is a skill of generosity and of understanding and truly necessary if one is to live a full life. Consolidated, I now more able to step out of my enclave and beyond.

*The word enclave is French and first appeared in the mid-15th century as a derivative of the verb enclaver (1283), from the colloquial Latin inclavare (to close with a key). A parcel of land surrounded by land owned by a different owner, and that could not be reached for its exploitation in a practical and sufficient manner without crossing the surrounding land.

In the meaning of flowers, Delphium is about enjoying the lighter side of life, even when troubles get you down and expanding your options and attracting new opportunities. 

Blue Rose
Blue Rose as a work in progress. Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper.


Karen Wiese, (2013), Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, p. 52

RHS A-Z encyclopedia of garden plants. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley. 2008. p. 1136. 

Jabbour, F., and S. S. Renner, (2011), Consolida and Aconitella are an annual clade of Delphinium (Ranunculaceae) that diversified in the Mediterranean basin and the Irano-Turanian region. Taxon 60(4): 1029-1040.

Figuier, L. (1867). The Vegetable World, Being a History of Plants. Harvard University. pg 396.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018


Hello everyone! I hope you are well and having a superb summer. It's been a while since I have updated you on Blue Flower and the work I am doing with INKQ so I thought I'd check in.


I am well and have been incredibly busy. This summer, while I was documenting blue flowers in the UK, saw the arrival of our second issue of INKQ. A collaborative sci-art project, INK Quarterly is a new quarterly publication curated by me. It is early days for the project, yet I am delighted to say that Issue One was very well received; Galleries Magazine called it "spellbinding" and it has already sold out. There still some copies of the second edition, which features the stunning camera work of Anna Laurent whose photographic botanical studies move beyond the decorative to fascinate and inspire. Her concise but insightful piece on the life and work of Anna Atkins serves as an interesting counterpoint in the development of botanical photography. Equally, Ashleaf's bronze leaf sculptures take us beyond the usual depictions of living flora.

sciart and botanical art

The overall theme of Blue is carried through this issue of INKQ by Niki Simpson, who gives us a seasonally apt study of bluebells and Jenny Balfour-Paul who ponders the history and uses of Indigo. The wait is finally over to see my latest finished artwork. Not to be reproduced in any other format, my painting titled 'The Kiss; Onslow Gardens' reveals itself as a whole page spread (23.4 x 33.1 inches) which is good enough to frame.


Beautifully packaged and presented and printed on recycled, lightweight paper reminiscent of newsprint, I feel that the fragility and near transparency of the pages resonate well with the content of INK. Limited to 300 copies and available by subscription only. If you have already subscribed, your copy will be landing on your doormat imminently and if you haven't, you can subscribe here and be captivated.

Botanical Artist

In other news, I have started a new podcast channel called Inky Leaves Podcasting which is also available on Spotify and Stitcher. Akin to INKQ, my hope is to explore and share the work of other artists whilst documenting my progression into the colour Blue. My intention is to bring the sounds of the world to your ears as I travel the world's terrain looking for blue flowers. The podcasts act as an audio sketchbook before I embark on making my final soundtracks for Blue Flower in a few years time.

Sound is important in my work because it informs. A noise means something is happening. Let's say you look outside your window and you can see a forest. Over the year, your eyes can record subtle changes in the forest, such as changes in the season, but what makes the forest come alive is its sound, not its scenery. Sound lets you know that the forest is alive and sudden noises such as a tree falling down, tells you of an event. Sound is movement and real.

Blue Larkspur
Larkspur, work in progress. Watercolour on paper, 56 x 76 cm

This summer I must have visited a record number of gardens and wild spaces in my search for Blue Flowers. The highlight was visiting Scotland where I was able to record one of the best years for blue Meconopsis blooms. I am still formulating the final compositions for these pieces; experimenting with new media, from oil paints to charcoal, in my attempt to capture the mysterious, dream-like quality of some of our blue flowers.

As ever, it is fabulous to have you on this adventure with me. The world can sometimes feel like a lonely, scary place but by working together and telling each other stories I feel that we make it better. With that, I will leave you with a short video posted on Instagram last June by Ashleaf as she opened her copy of INKQ for the first time... The subscription is a flat rate and includes the cost of postage to anywhere in the world because we are here, floating in space, together. To receive four editions of your limited edition newspaper while stocks last subscribe here.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Becoming Blue II: Agapanthus - LOVE

'Love, at first sight, is always spoken in the past tense. The scene is perfectly adapted to this temporal phenomenon: distinct, abrupt, framed, it is already a memory... This scene has all the magnificence of an accident: I cannot get over having had this good fortune, to meet what matches my desire'.
- Barthes, A Lover's Discourse Fragments

Botanical art of blue flowers - Inky Leaves
Up close on The Kiss: Onslow Gardens. 2018
I wake up. It's February 11th, I am in Spain and feel flat. After a cup of tea, I stick my head into my wardrobe to see what I can wear. I have a lunch invitation so my usual 'hermit' wools will not do. The smell of an old fragrance comes out from between the folds of fabric. How I dislike delving into this heap of cotton and viscose. My hand traces the patterns of embroidered flowers, buttons and ribbons. My most prized dresses wait patiently for my return. Reds, yellows, greens and whites. Each garment holds at least one memory. I can feel my throat becoming tight, it's all too much. I am not that girl anymore. As I begin to grieve for a version of myself I grab the nearest black polo-neck, belt, and jeans and shut the door tightly, thanking myself in the process that I left most of last summer's bundle of clothes in the bottom of an English wardrobe. The famous yellow gypsy skirt being the most memory-filled weave of them all. I symbolically ripped a hole it as I hopped over the railings of Onslow Gardens on that fateful night. After the event I felt that I couldn't dispose of the yellow skirt and decided to deal with it another day, stuffing it into a bag at the bottom of my British wardrobe.

Botanical art by Jess Shepherd - agapanthus
The Kiss: Onslow Gardens, J R Shepherd, Botanical watercolour painting, 1.5m x 1m, 2018. SOLD

I guess I am still broken. I suppose we all are to some extent. I miss him. It's taking every ounce of my energy to focus on what I am trying to do, to regroup. Like a car backfiring I have good days and bad days. I stop-start. It's been 12 months since I fell under love's spell and it hasn't faded. It's still as bold and blue as it was the day it encircled me. In my desperate attempt to get these emotions out I have been slowly chipping away at a large painting (above) which has mostly been painted from my imagination. These are the Agapanthus flowers my friend Natasha gave me in Vida's Plimsoll blue flat on Edgeware Road (see the previous post 'Introduction') last August.

'Lost in the warmth
Of the blue heat haze...
Kiss me again
Kiss me
Kiss me again
And again
Greedy lips
Speedwell eyes
Blue Skies...
In beauty's summer
Blue jeans
Around ankles...'

- Derek Jarman, Delphinium Days

As usual, I have played around with the flower heads and the light sources to accentuate the blue petals. I wanted to generate a dark half and a light half and, most importantly have two heads. For me, it was essential to have two heads butting or kissing. Your choice - love seems to produce either effect quite sufficiently! It also had to be a big painting; a painted elegy.

'A good elegy is always a conversation between grief and celebration. The grief of the loss of the person and the celebration that you were here at all to share the planet with them'. - David Whyte

Botanical art by Jess Shepherd
The Kiss: Onslow Gardens, J R Shepherd, Botanical painting, 2018. SOLD
'The Kiss: Onslow Gardens' describes an event that took place, a moment of passion, a moment of lust. A lapse in judgment. It is both about love and the lack of it. It is the chaos of kissing, the budding of ideas, of hope and the awkward separateness of two people who don't really know each other. Two stems - two people. One is upright and proud, that's the gentleman, the other is falling, that's me, falling in love or falling into darkness, into grief.

'Some things are meant to be
Take my hand, Take my whole life too
For I can't help falling in love with you
For I can't help falling in love with you'.

- Elvis Presley, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, and George David Weiss.

This painting is supposed to be claustrophobic, rude and conflicting. The bottom buds are seeking different paths, growing in opposite directions. There is harmony but it is hidden under the spell of the moment. In the spirit of an augmented 4th, buds emerge from the darkness of a Medusa head. The flowers are the same, and yet they are not. Like my leaves, they are trapped in a space too small for them. They are holding one another whilst at the same time crushing one another. Respect has gone out of the window. It's beautiful but also grotesque. The buds in the foreground begin to look otherworldly, alien and mutant. Nothing is quite what it seems.

'And we have this physical experience in loss of falling toward something. It’s like falling in love except it’s falling into grief. And you’re falling towards the foundation that they held for you in your life that you didn’t realize they were holding. And you fall and fall and fall. But then there comes a time when you finally actually start to touch the ground that they were holding for you. And it’s from that ground that you step off into your new life.' - David Whyte.

In English, the word "love," which is derived from Germanic forms of the Sanskrit lubh (desire), is a broad term, which often leads to problems in its true meaning. I find that such issues can be resolved if we consider the Greek terms, eros, philia, and agape in our attempt to categorise love. The term eros (Greek erasthai) is used to refer to that part of love which constitutes a passionate, intense desire for something; it is often referred to as a sexual desire, hence the modern notion of "erotic". In Plato's writings, however, eros is also held to be a common desire that we have in our search for transcendental beauty - the particular beauty of an individual which reminds us of the true beauty that exists in our world.

Detail of the Blue Agapanthus botanical painting
Close up on the Blue Agapanthus flower. J R Shepherd 2018. SOLD
In contrast to eros, philia entails a fondness and appreciation of another without the passion. For the Greeks, the term philia incorporated not just friendship, but also loyalties to family, the political community, and a job/skill. Lastly, agape refers to the brotherly love for all humanity and our planet. Agape arguably draws on elements from both eros and philia in that it seeks a perfect kind of love that is at once a fondness, a transcending of the particular, and a passion without the necessity of reciprocity.

'The deeper blue becomes, the more urgently it summons man towards the infinite, the more it arouses in him a longing for purity and ultimately, for the supersensual'. - Kandinsky

Goethe believed that blue was a darkness weakened by light. Scientists believe that it is the light that got lost. For me, it is the colour of our desire. It is there to be lost, to be both far and yet near and to be both light and dark at the same time, like the sky, the sea or the bottom of a swimming pool. When I think of blue I think of Georgia O'Keefe signing her letters 'from the faraway nearby' and still wonder if she was describing a place, or a state of being.

Detail of the Blue Agapanthus botanical illustration
Close up on the Blue Agapanthus painting. Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper.. 

As humans, I find we live day by day trying to eradicate the paradox of desire from our lives either through consummation or with denial and suppression. It seems we cannot simply watch and listen to the feeling of our desires bubbling inside of us without response. To touch them without grasping.

Western society has lead us to believe that desire is a problem to be solved. We want to close the gap between us and the object of our desire. We don't like the longing and so we don't like the gap. Sadly, we have not been taught how to deal with the distance involved in desire. We don't understand that we can enjoy it in the same way we can enjoy a vista without having to parachute into it... If we could live with our longing in the same way that we take in the beauty of a landscape or the texture of a musical composition I feel we could own that experience much more fully and be more able to deal with loss. As you move, the vanishing point moves - you will never arrive in that place you saw from far away, just as you will never have that person. 'Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away' Solnit (2005).

'Blue comes to us through silence and mystery and much argument. The word we use for blueness was not in every language and arrived late. In ancient Greek the word for black may have been used for blue.' - Rebecca Solnit

Its now mid-April and my vanishing points have moved. My studio is metamorphosing into a papery version of Francis Bacon's as I continue to work on Blue. I think I might have bitten off more than I could chew with this one. It is no easy task. But then I think how long it took to find the leaves and then I realise planning is everything and good ideas take a long time to come. Picasso shut himself in a barn for 9 months and did 800 drawings before he came up with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. I am about eight months in and I am no Picasso, but despite this, things are starting to resolve. To make things complicated, in the months between I got places to study for a PhD at both Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Arts and tried moving back to the UK. I did this more out of fear than anything. A safety net in case it all goes wrong and to find a way of being pushed because I felt tired of pushing myself. I know I am not alone in this. There is a huge responsibility that comes with freedom and sometimes it is just easier or less scary to give it to someone else to sort out. To let someone or something else build the structures in your life and control you.

Agapanthus work in progress
Agapanthus botanical painting as a work in progress. 1.5m x 1m. Watercolour on paper. 2018. 

Maybe this is a sign of maturity and my coming to terms with the nuances of melancholy and the complexity of longing. Sometimes we can only have something fully by not grasping. I didn't lose the object of my desire, it's just he is far away and with that, I wonder if we ever really lose anything at all? If we can remember something or someone and carry the picture and sounds of them in our hearts and minds, then really these things are very close, and even in times when you think you have lost or forgotten them, after decades they return to you in the form of a dream and you reminded again, that the object of your desire, the love, was not lost, it was just far away, distant and beyond sight. Such is blue. It cannot be grasped but it lingers. It is not the light that got lost, but the light we forget. The light inside.

'Blue Bottle buzzing
Lazy days
The sky blue butterfly
Sways on the cornflower
Lost in the warmth
Of the blue heat haze
Singing the blues
Quiet and slowly
Blue of my heart
Blue of my dreams
Slow blue love
Of delphinium days'

- Derek Jarman, Delphinium Days

As I edit my second chapter on blue I begin to realise that for me love and grief are two edges of the same sword and go hand in hand. You just can't have one without the other so I had to touch on it. 

'Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.' - David Whyte

The unfolding petals in 'The Kiss: Onslow Gardens' documents a very short segment of time, just a few hours on a warm summer's night - June 28th 2017 - but it took months to paint. It is a painting of lust, but also of loss. For the first stages, I couldn't even see what I was doing with all the tears pouring down my face. My face was as wet as the paper. The first washes were applied back in October 2017. It is now April 2018 and I have only just put in the finishing touches. Despite everything, the 28th June 2017 is still very fresh. It wrangles out of the usual confines of time and space and transcends like the colour blue.  As I apply the last brush strokes I reflect on how one cannot construct a life without being vulnerable and with that, I decide to be a bountiful inhabitant of loss, for it is the only way to love. 

This painting will be featured in the next edition of INK Quarterly as an A1 spread. To receive your four limited editions of INK over 2018 you can subscribe here

Close up on the Agapanthus, Jess Shepherd
The Medusa head of love


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painting about love and lust
The end of a chapter. The Kiss being wrapped for transport to England - April 2018