For about 6 years I have been painting, amongst other things, long still life paintings. Each time I think ‘enough of this’ another one pops into my head. It all started with a present for my niece who wanted a painting to go in a particular place where only ‘long and thin’ would do. She is very sporty so it became ‘Six balls and a shuttlecock’.
So I’ve tried to think what made me want to continue with this format. Often it’s only in retrospect that these things seem to come to you. Even before the painting above, I had seemed to veer towards ‘a line’ and have written about it in previous blogs. I live in East Anglia where the land is, more often than not, flat with a visible clear horizon. The majority of my landscapes emphasised this including some of the first paintings that I showed at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI).
Something being laid out in front of you, straight on, seemed to force you to inspect it – almost like a specimen with everything laid bare. Another influence could have been my time as Project Artist during the building of the St Edmundsbury Cathedral Millennium Tower, where I studied all the various, often unseen components that had been essential in helping the building to stand up – like little square slate cubes hidden like dowels between the penultimate and ultimate stone. It appealed to my love of the obvious and often overlooked. So here are a few of the long still life paintings done since 2014.
I’ve had time to think back at work that I have done in the past and is still around my studio.
I knew when I painted these subjects that they weren’t ‘easy’ but obviously something compelled me to paint them. It is only in retrospect that the reasons start suggesting themselves to me and often, it seems to be a kind of internal protest that I need to get out (a lot of the paintings that I have on my wall are slightly uneasy to look at so I must be drawn to that kind of thing).
Burnt out watercolour 52 x 54cm
So the first that came to mind was a painting that I did of a burnt out car. I came across it down our country lane. It was quite provocative – something that symbolised urban troubles turning up in the depths of the quiet countryside. But, apart from that, it was really quite beautiful with the textures and colours of burnt paint. It does’t look like a country lane but that’s because I altered the background!
The next one I reflected on was a painting of a skip that I saw on holiday. There we were on a beautiful Mediterranean island, driving down bumpy tracks in the middle of nowhere when we came across this skip overflowing with rubbish. Why would I paint such a thing? And now it sits in a drawer…. protesting silently to our throw away culture.
Skip watercolour 44 x 52cm
More recently I have painted decommissioned guns and also knives handed in during a knife amnesty. I wrote about them here. Again I could hardly understand my compulsion to paint them but, again, I think that it was a kind of way of forcing facts to be faced (similarly, I suppose that my recent paintings of ordinary objects laid out in rows are, like most paintings, inviting you to take a close look at something you may pass by or choose to ignore).
I suppose some may think that my recent painting of old mobile phones, ‘Lost connection’, is a bit unusual. I wrote about it here. It’s hanging in the Sunday Time Watercolour Competition exhibition at the moment so at least it was appreciated and is getting a second outing after the annual RI exhibition!
This is my third post during lockdown and although things have eased, I am still feeling the effects. One of them has been my relationship with Instagram. I felt I should try and understand it a bit better. I was fairly new to it and, once lockdown happened, I was determined to get to grips with it. I know that I have made mistakes and I will proabbaly never feel that comfortable with it (privacy etc.) but it was worth a go. So I started off by posting one painting a day from a series of paintings that I had done for an exhibition 10 years ago called the ‘A-Z of still life’.
It was good to revisit the work and it felt like an anniversary (I had given some of the proceeds to the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution as I was the RI’s AGBI steward that year). After the A-Z series, a friend suggested that I posted paintings for the numbers 1-10 which suited me because I like doing still life paintings of rows of objects. Each day I did a number – forinstance, on the day allocated to ‘7’, I would post all my still life paintings that included 7 objects.
‘Tied up in knots’, 29 x 91cm (7 pieces of string) – winner of the ‘Baohong Artists’ Watercolour Prize for a member of the RI’ 2020 – see here
It was at this point that I noticed the start of the #artistsupportpledge initiative on Instagram, whereby artists could post their work at a price of £200 or under and, once they had reached £1000 of sales, they would pledge to buy the work of another artist. This is a thoughtful and expanding initiative, built on trust and generosity during a time when artists are being badly effected through the shutting of exhibitions and galleries. I started by selling prints from the A-Z series and I was soon able to buy my first work. As luck would have it, I went on to Instagram at the same time as Claire Sparkes RIhad put a painting up for sale and I was delighted to be able to snap it up. I have always admired her work and this is a little gem.
Feather and stone, 14.5 x 17cm by Claire Sparkes RI
Reproduction prints have their place (the ones that I did are good quality, small editions and can be seenhere ) and it’s nice to offer things that are affordable when perhaps the originals are out of reach but it started me thinking about doing very small paintings that could fit into the ‘under £200 category’ especially as I had started doing a few little paintings towards a Lockdown A-Z. Since then I have been painting little pictures of little objects. They have sold well on Instagram and have led to several commissions (do get in touch if you are interested in one). The sales have meant that I have been able to support more artists by buying their work and I have gained some great pictures. Lucky me! It’s been fun and interesting but I know that I still have not mastered Instagram or the magical ways that other people seem to use it – it is not second nature….. larger paintings are calling to me from my ‘waiting’ list!
My last post was the first during lockdown – this is the second. The first, ‘Working in isolation’, saw me painting small landscapes while I adjusted to all the news. I have since moved on….
Those of you who know my work will know that I like working in series. I have recently painted a series of nests (see some at Adrian Hill Fine Art). I usually do them to scale and have been wanting to do a big one for a while and looking up longingly at the inaccessible rooks’ nests next door…..
A few weeks ago a nest fell down into my garden from a eucalyptus tree. The rooks are unaware that a bendy eucalyptus is not the best place to build. The usual result is a load of scattered twigs to tidy up but this time a complete nest landed upside down as if to say ‘here I am, paint me’. There was a suprise when we turned it over – there in the middle of all the twigs was a smaller nest made of moss and leaves. So the twigs that we see from below are not the nest itself but an outer platform nest made. It was a struggle, but my husband managed to string it up for me to paint and you can see the result below.
Rook’s nest 54 x 73cm
I have also wanted to ‘scale up’ and add a larger painting to my series of unmade beds (see previous posts). Unlike the nests, I haven’t done my bed series to scale (!) but I’ve been hanging on to a lot of material – drawings and photos – to start a larger painting. Watch this space……
Having said all that, I’m starting to do tiny paintings in between to make up a Lockdown A-Z of small, simple, everyday household objects (this follows an A-Z of still life that I did 10 years ago). So I don’t know which way I’m going but its definitely not medium sized! .
An afterthought ……. Nests and beds – what is it about them? Comfort, security, warmth, peace, love. Coincidently, all things that appear to be needed at the moment.
Given the above, I shall be busy. But this strange new world has made me review priorities and I am not going to rush.
Many of us work in isolation as artists. Perhaps, in that sense, things may be physically no different now than they were before Covid 19 when we were working on our own in our studios. However, the impact on our state of mind and on those we love will affect the way we work now that we are truly in isolation and facing such a devastating worldwide situation. All of us will be reacting to it in different ways.
We are lucky to have this occupation, but it is one that will suffer. Artists cannot sell their work, galleries are shut, income will dry up and there is a great deal of fear and worry to stifle our inspiration as we put our families first. But we are needed – for giving ourselves, and hopefully others, pleasure and distraction. Getting our stuff out on social media, either as individuals or as part of our communities, will hopefully keep spirits up and keep us together and comforted.
I, for one, initially thought of doing little things to get me back into the swing while my mind was taking the whole thing on board, worrying about the family, the community, the country. Even though still life remains at the forefront of my practice, I’ve started doing small landscapes. I’ve been reminded how much I love the flat horizon of the East Anglian landscapes.
So landscape will be my starting point and will keep me busy for now. But this strange new world has made me review my priorities (something I hope the world will do once things have settled). Things are ever changing……. I wish you all well.
‘Lost connection’ is one of 6 paintings that I will be showing at the RI annual show at the Mall Galleries this year (see dates below and a link to all the paintings in the show). It shows a row of old disused mobile phones against a damask-patterned background. “Oh, I used to have one like that!” I hear visitors say…….. but I hope their looking goes further than that…..
Mobile phones have become everything to us – they are our mini computers, holding all our essential data and we are lost without them. We may think that we are communicating and keeping up with things but are we actually distant and detached? Are we forgetting to stop and look at the more beautiful things around us……… ?
‘What is this life so full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’ – lines from a poem written in the early 1900s, well before the mobile phone was invented!
Below is another painting of mine that is in the exhibition and here are the dates – The RI at the Mall Galleries 2 – 17 April 10am to 5pm – closes 1pm on final day and closed all day on Easter Sunday, 12 April.
To view the exhibition on line (where you can also purchase work) please click here.
People often ask about my process – how do I go about a painting – and because I do still life paintings that are ‘realistic’, the assumption seems to be that I am painting in detail but I don’t feel as if I am.
I got asked at the RI Private View last year if I used an 000 brush (tiny) which I found shocking as I hardly ever use anything under a size 6 and often use quite large brushes. But that comment was thankfully counteracted by a fellow artist coming up and saying, “Do you know Lillias, I always thought that your work was highly detailed, but I’ve just been up to your nest painting and it’s not is it !”
So why do those two comments stand out to me? Well, I paint with ‘the whole’ in mind. I never feel as if I home in on details. In other words, the details you think you see have evolved from initial broad washes and slowly building up the object by continually standing back to take the whole thing in and making decisions so that things hang together all along the way. But all that freedom in building up the painting can only be acted on following careful thought and planning (where are the lights, where should the eye be drawn to, juxtapositions etc.) and those decisions evolve along the way.
Once I have got initial things set out in my mind and on paper, I feel I have the freedom and confidence to get going. Even at the end when I seem to have got that ‘detailed’ look through building up tone etc., I may emphasise a section with a wash of colour or do a wash over the whole lot to tone it down and subdue the details – all so it works together.
So I never work ‘from the off’ in detail – I never move along a painting completing one section before moving on to another – it just slowly develops and the art is to stop when it can be seen as a whole in the way I want which is never obsessively finicky and photographic.
So next time you see a painting of mine please look at it as a whole and then take a closer look if you want.
In this year’s RI show three of my long still life paintings of nests, mallets and shells will be hanging together. I’ve written about the nests in a previous blog, Nesting. The other two seem to be polar opposites – while the mallets, below, are dense and heavy, the shells, above, are delicate and light. The mallets are bashed and heavily marked, while the shells are pristine and intricately patterned. The mallets dominate their picture and are restricted within a box-shaped shelf. The shells are on an open shelf. Painting two rather opposite subjects wasn’t an intentional thing – it just turned out that way – but it’s interesting looking at it retrospectively. It shows how objects seem to determine the way you place and approach them even if they are all in a line! Perhaps they will play against each other in the show. It’ll be interesting to see.
The RI show at the Mall Galleries, London, is open from 3 – 18 April (10am – 5pm) and all the paintings can be seen by clicking on this linkand scrolling down. I am delighted that my painting, Archive, is on the front cover of the catalogue – it is being auctioned to raise money for the restoration of the RI Archive, recently housed at the V & A museum. It also features on the back cover of the new RI book, Then and Now, being launched at the show and including a foreword by HRH The Price of Wales, a history of the RI since its inception in 1831 and features on all its current members. It’s a long- awaited publication with over 170 beautifully illustrated pages.
I did a small painting earlier this year called ‘Nest egg’, see below, which sold at the RI’s annual exhibition. I had been planning a larger painting of a row of nests at the same time but it had taken some time to collect them after the nesting season was over (thanks to friends, walks etc). Having sat looking at them for ages, I eventually got going a couple of weeks ago. I’m not completely sure which birds they belong to (see note below) – I was just inspired by their varying forms and quirks and the feelings they can evoke.
Nest egg 31 x 41cm
For those who may be interested, from the left, I am reliably told that no.3 is a long tailed tit’s and no. 6 is a blackbird’s. No.5 came out of a tit box. Nos.1 and 4 are a mystery – all that’s left is the twiggy scaffolding that was probably lined with softer things. No.2 is also a mystery – it is just a tiny remnant of something mainly made from feathers intertwined with a few little twigs – any ideas?
Empty nests won 2 awards in the RI 2019 exhibition, Mall Galleries, London – the Megan Fitzoliver Brush Award and the Escoda Barcelona Award