Saturday 28 February 2015

Pineapple Update

So I walked away from the cabbage for a few days to rearrange my thoughts. They were becoming a little chaotic and maddened. It has been difficult trying to be bold and yet contained at the same time with this cabbage leaf. I feel like guttering - a steady stream of rain is fine, but the cabbage is thunderous and difficult to manage at the best of times. It's that combination of fine, detailed leaf work with the crazy, loose black which is throwing me. Anyway - sensing that I was close to doing something silly I put the cabbage to one side. He is now making friends with a half-finished Cos painting. I will go back to the Cabbage in a few days time.

Pineapple - work in progress (Ananas comosus)

Thankfully, the Pineapple has really grounded me and helped me to focus. Trying to capture the intense range of colours in this subject is really difficult work, and that is distancing me from the more emotional aspect of painting. The pineapple is much more meditative, analytical and traditional.

On another note, it's been a spectacular week here in the countryside. Everything is now bursting into life. There are bees everywhere, busily drinking nectar from the almond blossom and birds singing in the Poplar tree woods. There are Egrets sprinkled across the recently ploughed or flooded fields and tractors a plenty. There's a lot of ploughing going on and it's great to watch. I had forgotten how completely in love I am with the processes of arable farming, and now my love has been made all the more insatiable because I can see everything about a metre away from me. I have never had this luxury before being a town girl. What is also rather nice about the farming here is that all the fields are teeny tiny, so you get to see the diversity of cropping.

My little Sanctuary 27th February 2015
The most exciting this to happen last week was seeing the Almond blossom come out near Terri's house on the way to the Sanctuary. This week it was seeing the first leaves of the broadbeans in a nearby field. Apparently they have a broad bean festival here in Belicena in April, so I suppose this is what they might be used for as early croppers. I reckon we have a potato field, as it's pretty trenched up, but nothing has appeared yet. We have a garlic field which is well under way as that was planted up in October. Everything else is just being dug. 

Sierra Nevada 27th February 2015

So I thought I'd load up these little videos taken from my walk today. The farmers have just planted this new Poplar field and, as we are expecting to hit temperatures of 25 degrees this weekend, they are giving them a good drink. The watering here is all done by old irrigation channels with sluice gates - all very Romanesque - it's like travelling back in time. Anyway - I think it went a bit wrong today as they accidentally flooded the road and stranded the goats! There's a lot of water coming off of the mountain with all the snow melt and I guess it just got a bit out of hand, like me and my cabbage leaf...

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Kew's Heritage Trees by Masumi Yamanaka

A new exhibition has opened at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens and, as if often the case, it is well worth a visit. The show is open until August 9th 2015, so you have a bit of time to see it. I myself will be trying to time my visit with the crocus bloom. Anyway, this eagerly anticipated exhibition (I have been watching Masumi for months building up this fantastic collection of work - it's taken her an age) consists of a stunning display of 40 paintings all painted by Masumi of Kew's Heritage Trees. In each heavily detailed piece, visitors will get to marvel at her incredible brush work as she demonstrates the inspiring beauty hidden in Kew's rare and iconic champion trees.

The great news is that to accompany the exhibition, Kew has published a book called 'Treasured Trees', which has been written jointly by Masumi Yamanaka, Christina Harrison and Martyn Rix. Beautifully reproducing all of Masumi’s unique paintings from the exhibition, this book is well worth a look.  
Alongisde Masumi Yamanaka's part of the show, the gallery will also be showcasing two other exhibitions - The Joy of Spring, which displays paintings of spring flowers and Flowering Bulbs and Tubers, which features a series of beautiful works by a selection of artists from the Dutch Society of Botanical Artists.

A little update

I managed to take a day off on Sunday for a mini-weekend. We all went to a very nice place near a lake (Bar Miradoe de Ardalesfor lunch and stuffed ourselves stupid. Then we all came home with headaches from too much booze. Totally worth it of course - the food was amazing. 

A rather large cabbage leaf growing in my studio... (A work in progress)
I then spent Monday and Tuesday expanding my friendship with this freaky leaf. Monday I worked on the lighter leaf undulations on the left side. I was bored with the black and needed to do something a little more obsessive in nature. I am generally feeling obsessive this week, and for the first time in ages, I am not taking it out on my food or my finger nails. Tuesday I went back to the dark side.

A 'Cannon Ball Cabbage' leaf (Brassicaceae) - work in progress
Close up on the cabbage leaf (Brassicaceae) - a work in progress

The good news is that I am pretty pleased with how this leaf is developing. I feel it looks otherworldly and that is just how I wanted it to look. I wanted to see if I could do a 'Sci-fi Leaf' after I experimented with my Dr. Who Beans. I feel that this is going to be my new 'collection' of work. All ethnobotany has taken a back seat in the Inky Leaves Studio as I hover between astral planes. 

Dr. Who Beans (Phaseolus sp.)

Today I am moving onto the pineapple to take a break from this monstrosity. I entered a spot of bother with this black background as there is a bit of tonal variation in it and I still don't know how to depict it. It gets lighter on the left you see and added to this, I did want my black background to look like a black ground if that makes sense?! I want it look like an empty 'void'. I find a lot of the older paintings with black backgrounds look fuller rather than emptier. I want emptiness. Not sure if that's what I am going to achieve, so it's time to dream and ponder as I tackle the pineapple. I definitely need to think the lighter bits through. I am currently grappling with the idea of cross hatching like Rembrandt, but I can't tell if this will work until I have completed the leaf. 
Rembrandt, The Shell, Etching

Friday 20 February 2015

50 Shades of Black

Forget the 50 shades of grey - no grey here, just 50 shades of black. Today we go black. It is the point of no return. I might destroy what is actually turning out to be a rather good painting through this process, but it has to be done. The leaf disappears into the darkness and so the darkness needs to be put in. End of.

So this morning I tiptoed into the studio (my legs hurt after too much gardening yesterday) and started painting the lightest bits. It felt a bit contradictory doing this, but I already had a gut feeling that I might be turning to the dark side later on in the day and I knew that once I had turned, I wouldn't be able to do the light tones in those same 10 hours - my eyes change. I also often find that lighter bits are easier to do at the beginning of the day - there is something about the optimism of mornings.

After lunch I had a lovely walk in the countryside. It's been very warm here in Granada over the past couple of days (nights are blooming freezing though) and everything is bursting with life. The Almond blossom has just come out, the Broad Beans are sprouting in the fields and there is a stunning bank of Speedwell in full bloom. It's gorgeous, so I took my time.  

Cabbage leaf on black (a work in progress). The right side of the leaf will disappear by the way - they'll be no white on that side by the time I am finished...

When I eventually returned home I got into the painting straight away. Over the past week I have been mulling over which shade of black to use for his particular piece. I originally wanted to do a more cerise-violet black to complement the green, then a bluey black to create a sense of depth. In the end I went with green - quelle surprise!  I haven't used any black pigment in this painting - it's all just a case of mixing up the colours that I am already using in the leaf. French Ultramarine, New Gamboge, Permanent Magenta, Phtalo Blue, Permanent Rose, Hookers Green, Permanent Sap Green are all in there somewhere. I rarely use ready mixed greens, but as this piece needs so much of the stuff, and because I want to keep a sense of consistency, I went for these two. Needless to say, this green-black still isn't green black... it changes from blue, to violet to green as my mood changes. This is one of the joys to be had when mixing your own blacks - you can achieve such an amazing range of hues.

Anyway - hot tip for you guys! If you want to use up your watercolour paints at a rate of knots, and are feeling particularly flush, then I can recommend this endeavour wholeheartedly! Likewise, if you want to mess up your watercolour half pans with loads of dirty colours, I can also recommend turning to the dark side. My watercolour set looks utterly trashed. This is mainly my fault because I am trying to use very, very little water - even less than when painting on vellum - to try to prevent my paper from cockling. So far it is working, but it means I am creating a right mess on the pallet as I am never washing my brush. I am also being overly stingy on paints (can you blame me when so much is going on the paper?!). I hate putting paint in the water, it just seems such a waste, not to mention the fact that it muddies the water incredibly quickly. 

Tuesday 17 February 2015

A Black Hole of Ibuprofen

Progress after a couple more days... it's pretty slow going as usual!

As a rare treat I took the weekend off and pretty much slept through it like a cat. I think I managed to grab a wapping total of 3 hours sleep on Friday night after playing catch up on the Rory McEwen programme with a tummy full of tagine. Then I managed to overdose myself on Ibuprofen on Sunday morning. I now pretty much feel like my body has been taken to the absolute brink of disgust what with the heavy metals and paint I consumed in the previous few months added to this latest experience. In Spain Ibuprofen comes in the form of 600mg pills - so I took two of those and then another two. That's quite a lot in 8 hours. Felt comfortably numb for a while it has to be said! Yes... I  know, I should have read the packet.

So the advancement of this particular star ship has been a little slow, but then it is in a black hole. Light isn't the only thing to be warped, days can be lost - even a whole weekend.

Friday 13 February 2015

Darth Vader meets Obi One Kenobi

So today is the big day! In Search of Rory McEwen airs tonight on BBC4. I actually keep forgetting! Luckily, I frequently get these helpful little reminders on Twitter and by my mother, who, whilst beaming with pride, keeps popping her head into my studio and graciously reminding me. We are having a dinner party at our house tonight so she is busy cooking a Lamb Tagine and organising things. The house smells divine - little wafts of cinnamon and turmeric are seeping under the kitchen door and are slowly filling the house. 

Anyway, luckily for me, I seem to have been given permission to skulk off to the house next door where I will be able to stream live. Fingers crossed this permission is still in place by 8.30pm my time! There is a little snippet of the programme here

This will eventually become a very large pineapple (Ananus comosus

Since loosing my mojo and regaining it over the past five days I haven't that much to report on. It's fair to say that this week has flown by. I have been busy thinking about our summer show that we are holding in Granada - more of that to follow - and participated in a lengthy meeting about it on Tuesday. I have to say I have really enjoyed getting involved in a little bit of curatorial work again. I find it gives all the work one does in the studio a bit of context.
Close up on the Pineapple - a work in progress

On Monday I started painting a pineapple (Ananus comosus). He is called Obi One* and is awesome. I am taking great pleasure in trying to capture all the colours and textures. It is very detailed work though and I having to use a dry brush to keep the control. With all of this concentration, Obi One has become my 'I need to get lost in something detached from me' piece. If you are interested, Dianne Sutherland has written a beautiful and informative blog post about her Pineapples here

Close up on the Pineapple - a work in progress

Then there is the other piece - the piece with no name. I started this nasty piece of work on Wednesday and I tell you something - it's pretty evil. A while ago I decided that I wanted to start painting on black, because I felt 'black' and I wanted to move away from paper. As a number of you know, I hoped to do this in oils, but after experimenting with gouache and acrylic I decided that I couldn't achieve the translucency that one gets with watercolour and decided to scrap the idea all together. That's part of the reason of why I lost my mojo. I suppose I should have tried the oil paint, but it is quite a hefty financial investment when one isn't completely sure.

Cabbage leaf - a work in progress

Anyway, when I woke up on Wednesday morning I thought 'sod it' and started drawing out Mr. Creepy downstairs. Mum was gutted that I had decided to put Obi One to one side, but I was feeling pretty restless and it was not a good day to be doing dry brush. No - today is a DARK day. This cabbage leaf is my 'I need to get lost in something within myself' piece. I intend to do the background in dry brush to stop the paper cockling. Who know's what it will look like. I have absolutely NO IDEA, but the process is very cathartic and I finally feel like I am doing what I wanted to be doing - pushing the boundaries.

Cabbage leaf - a work in progress

*Obi One was originally called Piers (see previous blog post) but I have decided to break with tradition of alliterative names - this does happen from time to time!

Sunday 8 February 2015

Getting your mojo back

Well it's been a pretty odd week this week. I came back from England feeling rather ungrounded and displaced. It took me roughly five days to get back to planet Earth. It's a funny life this one split between countries. My mother described it well - it is like time travel. I felt like I travelled back in time last week. I just picked up where I left off. It was comforting, but at the same time a bit disturbing. I was notified of this pretty early on in the week when, over my first curry in months, one of my old house mates from Brick Lane said that he had his probation interview tomorrow and shouldn't stay out too late. I almost choked on my Balti upon hearing this and exclaimed that it was ridiculous to still be on probation after all this time, emphasising the fact that six months is the norm. Dimitris then flashed one of his gorgeous smiles and said very softly that his was a six month probation. I was gob smacked. It's only been six months?! Blimey. 

So yes - a rather silly little week of getting my feet back on terra España and working out what to work on next. I was hoping to start my next project and was all ready to go when I received a few emails which threw me off balance. Just a couple of rejections really - that's all, but when one is feeling as delicate as I was at that time it is enough to completely through you of centre. 

So how does one deal with criticism and rejection? Well it's hard isn't it? No one wants to hear that they've not made the mark and likewise, no one really enjoys dishing out an overly critical review. In the last few weeks I have hit a few walls. Rejections from galleries, pessimistic emails and pieces not making the grade. It's hard work not loosing heart, but you simply must not. A few nights ago I wallowed. I sat by the fire, got teary, got stupid. I felt hollow, like the wind had completely gone out of my sails. I began to question what on earth I was trying to achieve and felt trapped. I took a big leap quitting Kew and I felt like I was now getting stuck. Since the jump I have discovered that there are many roads on the other side of the crevice, but now I don't know which one to take. Desperate to get going I am trying each one out for size, but they all feel a little blocked. It's like they have a toll charge and I don't have the right change to get past. In the end I remedied my brooding with several beers at the 'skinny-bar'. I almost went to the 'old man's bar', but ended up the the skinny one instead. Better tapas, hotter fire.

The next day I felt just as retched. I felt like that French cat Henri. I had wild spirals of snow spinning out of control outside my studio window. Feeling rather perturbed I angrily put on a boiler suit, went to by bedroom, shut the door and started using my new medium. I did a small test piece - it felt good to start something new, but I secretly knew I wasn't in the mood. As it steadily grew white outside my window, it became black in my room. Needless to say what I wanted to achieve did not work. I abandoned the board on my bedroom shelf. Rejected it's stayed there all week collecting flecks of dust.

Yesterday I relocated again... this time to the kitchen. I opened the fridge, grabbed a cabbage and sat with it. What a grounding experience this was. I am not sure what it is about cabbages. I guess there is a humble nature about them - they remind me of where the beauty is - in the most simplest of things.

After making friends with the cabbage, I put him back in the fridge and grabbed another item and made friends with that. He's called Obi-Wan and he's my next project.

So how does one deal with loosing one's gusto? Through perseverance, watching fires and raiding one's fridge...

Tuesday 3 February 2015


The importance of keeping hours...

Back in 2013 I was in the fortunate position to be able to study the show case above in a lot of depth. Does anyone remember it? I know some of you will. It was a show case in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens and it contained a record all of Rory McEwen's hours. I remember starting work early some mornings so I could just be with with them all. In this exhibition, I actually found the showcases to be more interesting than the paintings on the wall. From these note cards you could tell so much. You could see that Rory had several paintings on the go at once, you could see that he painted INCREDIBLY quickly and you could see that he probably didn't cook his meals (or had lunch at a very regular time). You could see how long his lunches were and if he was an early riser. 

He tended to start at 9.30am and regularly took lunch at 1.15. Sometimes there was a tea break at 3ish, but more often than not the day gets disjointed. It's a pleasure to study these times, as his painting 'programme' looks rather like mine, and most probably like yours - there are days of procrastination, days where appointments got in the way and those days when you can see it's going incredibly well and its worth having a late night. What a detailed legacy to leave behind.

I love anything that records time. I am a big diarist (you can probably tell from this blog) and keep four diaries and one year planner (which I have just proudly made up and put on my studio wall). I am obsessed with time and the fact that there is never enough of the stuff. It really is the most precious commodity. 

Inspired by this display case I decided that year to start documenting my painting hours in the same way and it began with Caroline the Coffee Plant. Sadly I didn't keep these pieces of paper as it was all written randomly on odd post-it-notes and paper scraps, but I managed to work out that I spent exactly 160 hours on the plant. This was good for me as it allowed me to gauge how long the bigger pieces take to do whilst also taking breaks and navel gazing into consideration. Something I didn't really 'time' before.

Rory McEwen's time diary

Now I write my hours very proudly in one of those dairies - just the hour slots and I am so glad that I do as it informs me. I now know how long a painting really does take and this is incredibly useful when quoting for commissions and pricing ones work. I used this technique with the Plane Tree - that's why I knew it would take roughly 160 hours to complete and that wasn't counting the time I spent on sourcing the tree and all the communication between myself and the client, which of course is also important to consider if you are on a tight schedule. Sadly my hour slots aren't as incredible as Rory's - I don't have pretty little butterflies dotted about the place - just sets of numbers - but from them one can tell that I am on a Spanish lunch time, that I go for a walk everyday and that I drink a lot of tea!

A page from my time dairy

The police, a Picasso, some poisoning and two planes

So I am eventually getting back to normal. Yesterday was a rather yucky day spent at the desk... Something we all have to do from time to time, even farmers. So with my accounts in order, my website updated, emails sent out (almost all of them I know I have a few replies still outstanding) I am now ready to write a blog post.

I don't really have a particular theme in mind for this one as lots of little things have happened over the past week, so I apologise in advance for the jolty nature of this post. First thing is first:

The Police, a Picasso and Two Planes

Alas, after weeks of painting the London Plane made it to the UK intact and is now in the hands of its new owner. After some serious wrapping and packing we all checked in at the Monarch Airways desk in Malaga airport. There wasn't much of a queue; we had arrived in good time after an epic menú del día and were feeling rather full and probably overly confident.  After showing our passports and depositing a couple of bags, it was time to check in my portfolio. Looking slightly astonished, the lady studied it and in Spanish asked what on earth was inside. I was about to say 'hojas de papel' but mum went straight in for the kill with 'una pintura'. Andrew and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes, tensed our lips and took in a deep breath. The conversation went on... 'de cristal?!', 'No. No hay cristal, papel solo'... 'Si, un pintura de la acuarela'... blah de blah de blah. My mind was now fixed on customs and me trying to make myself look as much as an art student as possible. I changed my pose, put my hands in my pockets and made sure she saw my Dr. Martin boots. The thought of unwrapping all of that wrapping for customs filled me with dread.

The lady printed my boarding pass and told us to wait at the desk until the police arrived to escort us and the folio to an x-ray machine. Slightly alarmed, we stood diligently and waited... and waited... and waited. After what seemed like an age, but was probably just a few minutes, a policeman arrived and took us through the vaults of Malaga Airport. It was like being in Gringotts, only there were no goblins and the locks were all electronic. I actually found this bit of entire experience deeply interesting. 

Woman Flower (1946), Pablo Picasso, Oil on Canvas 146 x 89cm

The Plane tree was scanned and again we waited. After about half an hour another chap came in and asked: '¿Dónde está el Picasso?'!! Relieved to have located a customs officer with a sense of humour we all point at the offending folio and watched as it is carried off and delicately placed on the plane. A few hours later it arrived in Gatwick in one piece - even the Ophelia print (which didn't have any protective board) was intact. I had a mini-meltdown when it didn't appear on the luggage belt in arrivals, but luckily Andrew noticed that there was a special conveyor belt for odd-shaped bags and that's where it was. So my deepest thanks goes to Monarch Airways and the airport staff at Malaga and Gatwick for their care, understanding and brilliant sense of humour. 

Paint Poisoning

On a more serious note, I think I have been poisoning myself with paint. Not felt right in years and now I am painting full time I have noticed the symptoms worsen (only to get better when not painting). Racing heart, vertigo, delirium, out of breath, palpitations, shivers and confusion. Not entirely sure which paint has caused it but my Daler Rowney's are probably 30 years old and full of toxins. I have been trying to stop sucking my brush for the past 2 years, but I think there are times when I do it unconsciously. At one point I'd raise my arm to my mouth, remember not to 'open', and then literally I would wipe the bristles on my lips instead. The result of this has been that I have had chappy lips for the past 2 years. So I have solved that one too. 

So moral of this story - DO NOT EAT YOUR PAINT. Really - don't.

Botanical Illustration at The Linnean Society of London

On Thursday 29th the Linn. Soc. held a special one day conference  which brought together a number of scientists and botanical artists to discuss the inter-disciplinary relationships between monography, floristics, conservation, biogeography and botanical illustration. The meeting also celebrated the career of the infamous Rosemary Wise on her 50th year as a working botanical artist. All of the talks were really interesting. I especially liked hearing from Lucy Smith about her work with Bill Baker at Kew and I really enjoyed catching up with friends and old colleagues. 

John Wood from Oxford Botanics talks about illustration, posters & scientific communication in Bolivia

Bill Baker talks about his work with Lucy Smith on the Palms of New Guinea

Lucy Smith talking about her work and how she goes about executing one of those gorgeous plates

And lastly... The wonderful Niki Simpson has a new website, which is pretty cool. She has also set up a new Facebook page too, so if you are interested in following her work then check it out.