Painting the past

From the Kenbally kitchen  34 x 43cm Watercolour by Lillias August ©

From the Kenbally kitchen 34 x 43cm

I was recently asked to paint a still life using objects from a family farm where there was to be a reunion of descendants from around the world. This cracked old turnip masher and well thumbed cookbook are the only items remaining from the centuries-old kitchen at Kenbally, Co Antrim.  With the McNeill family scattered across the globe the picture provides an evocative image of a common past.

I have undertaken quite a few commissions when I have the freedom to translate them in my own way!  They all have the same aim – to capture objects that mean something to someone. The potency of these personal everyday objects adds another dimension to what seems like a standard still life painting.  I was particularly keen to make the background blend with the objects but not be too insipid or too dominant  (weathered but not intrusive).

Simple subject matter but ….

 

Seven hooks on sacking  -  20 x 34cm

Seven hooks on sacking  20 x 34 cm

This painting is in the RI annual exhibition at the Mall galleries, London (2-19 April 2014).  It may have been a simple subject but it was a bit of an adventure to paint!  I was taken by lots of things – the restricted palette, the contrast of the curves against the square ‘cross hatching’ of the sacking, the ‘life history’ of the hooks …. but then I had to get down to painting it. The sacking was a challenge. I can’t stand fiddling. I like to put down whole ‘areas’. In the end, rather than paint from light to dark and add millions of dots at the end (and vaguely in the right place),  I put in the time at the start by generally mapping out and then masking the threads.  All I then had to do was a sweeping dark wash over it all, remove the mask, let the tiny ‘dark’ squares set well over a few days and then do general gentle washes of colour over the top in the comfort that the impression of sacking was there and I could build around that.  Simple or not so simple?

Vegetables, trowels and earth

Leek and trowel  -  32 x 25cm

The RI has a theme at its annual exhibition this year (Mall galleries, London, 2 – 19 April) which members can use if they want.  ‘Gardens and gardening’ lends itself to my love of old tools, rust, dirt and general ordinariness. Kind friends have donated winter vegetables and well-loved tools to sit alongside ours.  Today I hope to be starting on a tower of root vegetables – a vertical ‘row’ will be a welcome break from horizontal ones.

Three carrots and a couple of sprouts  -  18 x 32cm

Artists’ Christmas tree decorations

The Cathedral at Bury St Edmunds had a Christmas tree festival this year. The proceeds from the entrance fee were divided between the Cathedral and the Charities that decorated the trees.  I asked loads of artists if they could make a small triangular decoration so that I could decorate a tree in aid of the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution (AGBI) and they came up trumps.  Thank you!

AGBI Christmas tree festival, Bury St Edmunds 4

More than meets the eye

Abbey flints  -  21 x 45cm

Abbey flints    watercolour   21 x 45cm

Flints are part and parcel of the East Anglian landscape – we see them in the fields, in the walls of buildings and as part of the decorative flushwork on churches – even the ones with holes in them became part of the local folklore and were hung up to ward off bad spirits.

These five look ordinary enough but there is more to them than meets the eye. Back in the 12th century they were picked up from the fields by women and children (gleaned) and taken to the building site of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds.  There they were used as infill on the West front of this, the largest abbey in medieval Europe.

The Abbey is now a ruin.. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the outer facing stones were taken by the townsfolk and used in their houses – column sections and other stones can still be seen in walls and cellars. The original flint infill still remains and houses have been built in part of them.  Over time, like autumn leaves in slow motion, flints like these drop off the sides.

This painting will be in the exhibition ‘Contemporary East Anglian Artists’ at Gainsborough’s House, 46 Gainsborough street, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2EU (tel 01787 372958)  from 21st October 2013 – 4th January 2014

A timeless quotation

Seven hooks on sacking  -  20 x 34cm

Here’s a great quote sent to me by a friend – it’s by Daniel Sutton who was an 18th century clinical scientist and innoculator. It could easily apply to still life paintings of everyday objects but in terms of research he wrote,

“Despise not trifles, though they small appear.  Sands rise to mountains, moments make the year and trifles life.  Your time to trifles give or you may die before you learn to live.”

Why still life, why that approach?

A dozen rusty nails  23 x 44cm  Watercolour by Lillias August ©

A dozen rusty nails    23 x 44cm

Being involved with two exhibitions that will include still life paintings has made me think about why I’ve become immersed in them recently. In early paintings objects were used as coded messages and symbols. They conveyed something more than their everyday purpose.  I started concentrating on individual objects when working as a project artist during the building of a Cathedral tower.  I could see both the symbolic and the actual significance of the individual components in the general scheme of things. However small and unimportant they appeared, their inclusion was an essential part of the grander scheme.

My direct approach in looking straight at an object or repeated objects is almost a way of forcing attention towards these things. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also influenced by the landscape painting that I have done of East Anglia, where you are constantly aware of the flat landscape, the horizon line, rows of trees etc.  Everything is laid out in front of you and there is no avoiding what’s there.  Our flat landscape is not considered beautiful or picturesque but I have always been captivated by it!  I look at still life the same way – straight on, unavoidable, simple, strong, honest ……. captivating.

Humble objects are evocative – they show history, human endeavor and the visual beauty of aging and use. Still life will always be alive because there is ‘more to it than meets the eye’ – it is intimate yet worldly, simple yet powerful, quiet yet evocative.

Seven paint bladders  19 x 33cm  Watercolour by Lillias August ©

Seven paint bladders  19 x 33cm

 

Drawing and painting at Gainsborough House

Drawing paint bladders at Gainsborough House                  Paint bladders - watercolour sketch

                                                                                

I’ve been drawing and painting some of the paint bladders that were found at Gainsborough House, Sudbury, in 1966 (the largest group ever found together).  Made from pigs bladders, they were used to store paint before tubes were invented (c1840).

Why am I doing this? I’m exhibiting at Gainsborough House in an exhibition, ‘Contemporary East Anglian Artists’ (26 October – 14 December 2013).   I thought that objects in the museum may excite my obsession with small, unassuming everyday objects (see Gallery/Still Life).  I was shown lots of other things from the Gainsborough House collection but these really grabbed me.   Their simplicity and history were evocative, both symbolically and aesthetically.  There is a hidden grandeur in everyday  things – although unassuming,  they can play an important part in our everyday lives and the signs of age and use add beauty and character.

I often paint things in rows, both in still life and in landscape. I think it has something to do with the East Anglian landscape with its unavoidable flat horizons and rows of trees – it’s never an intentional use of repetition but it seems to keep appearing in things that I paint!

Gainsborough’s House doesn’t know very much about the paint bladders at the moment but are looking to work with the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge to discover much  more about them.

Paint bladders, pencil drawing 3