Ever since I was a little girl the aesthetics of the universe had a Sisyphean hold on me. I owned many big books and encyclopedias about astronomy, where I was amazed by the way galaxies whirled and how bright and colourful nebulae always were. I looked at the planets on our solar system and learned their Roman names. Saturn’s rings, in particular, reminded me of a princess wearing her crown. And Jupiter – the king of all gods, isn’t he? – always looked pissed off to me.
I had lost that connection with astronomy as I grew up and nature – earth’s nature – took more of a hold on me. But by a personal Darwinian evolution I went from religiously watching David Attenborough documentaries to watching Professor Brian Cox. Attenborough’s natural heir. He re-kindled my infantile passion and sense of wonder at the great beyond. His Wonders series are a masterpiece in themselves. And when I feel that mixture of awe and curiosity the only way I can subdue that wonderful itch is to paint.
You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.
The painting left a lasting impression on the depths of my mind, one that I’d perhaps quite forgotten, the same way a haunting piano solo never fails to move me as I remember and sway to its decadent rhythms. The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo is more than just a painting about pain, and more than just a woman in pain painting about pain. It is about what painting does to us all.
Frida Kahlo is the kind of painter that a lot of female artists, myself included, aspire to be. That hard-headed, self-reliant, independent, driven woman that approaches her art as she does every aspect of her life; from her politics to her philosophy, fashion and eventually, a painting on canvas. And yes, she can have a man if she wants, but she doesn’t need one (or maybe she does).
The Broken Column is a painting of insight, but also of outward influence. This painting is a deeply intimate portrayal of her struggle; a bus accident in her childhood left her for a time, bedridden, and forever unable to bear children. Frida’s life was sadly cut short at the age of 47, after she endured years of chronic pain, operations, miscarriage, amputation and ultimately, alcohol and medication dependence, not to mention her tumultuous relationship with muralist Diego Rivera. Whilst The Broken Column is undoubtedly a personal piece; we can feel the artist’s shattered insides and feel like we should put our hands to the canvas to put support the crumbling column, it is also a painting of external forces. The artist is in control of the paint colour she chooses, the depth and texture of the canvas, even the way she holds the brush, but ultimately, the painting is out of her control. We are all driven by external forces that dictate what we do, what we say, and much as we try to avoid these external chess moves, we are all dictated by them.
We all have our own Broken Column, a piece of us that may be a little more fragile than we let on, a deep rooted fear that prevents us from taking a leap off the edge, whether figuratively or literally. Many of us have an unseen column, a disability we haven’t shared, a poem we haven’t shared or a story we never dared tell. “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Frida Kahlo
A brilliant piece of advice I came across recently is that you need to learn about your own art history, not just that of the Great Masters and contemporary artists, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
I often work within specific themes or phases, but most recently these have been troubling me somewhat, and I’m trying to take a few steps back before I find the next big theme or style, but I can feel it stirring! So, now is as good a time as ever to talk about where my art came from.
It was in 2008 – 2009 when I first painted on canvas, and whilst early attempts were nothing to write home about it terms of technique, I love them for their rawness, their touches of surrealism and their honesty. I was painting what I felt like, with pretty much a disregard for rules.
This painting, Synesthesia, explores the difficult and complex ties between our senses, and I believe was inspired by either a poem I wrote, or a conversation I had with a friend. Just as senses become blurred and intertwined, so is the specific memory of this piece. In execution it’s fairly poor, but I’d love to explore this theme again taking on what I’ve gathered over the last 8 years.
Moving on then, and it’s easy to see from experiments in surrealism where my next source of inspiration came from. Around this time I was fascinated by Palaeolithic cave art, and understanding where art and techniques came from as well as the significance of nature and animals in art. The piece above shows greater confidence with colour, handling of the paint and composition. In fact this was my first piece to sell at an exhibition.
I even started using natural materials such as shells, sand, stones and feathers on my paintings (though unfortunately not much photo evidence survives).
I’d say it took me four years to get properly into my stride; then there was this:
This piece put in to practice the influence that the cave painters and Franz Marc had somehow blended together in my brain. A combination of bold colour and line with simple structural elements to create a sense of the animal, the subject of the piece. Inspired by Lascaux’s Panel of the Chinese Horse and Red Cow, this is where art truly began its astonishing journey, and I guess in a way where mine started too.
Then became softer, more brushy and using colour to evoke mood…and this was all in the same year!
Then the works became even more textured, but with more colour control.
In 2014, I turned to painting people, and decided to highlight some of the endangered peoples and cultures all over the world, and once again the painting style changed drastically, becoming freer, and adapting to the different needs of the subject.
In 2015, things became a little weirder. A series of events, preoccupations and responsibilities took over for a while, and I think that reflects in my art. There were less concrete themes and styles, less experimenting and perhaps a little bit more fantastic indulging.
As for 2016, for now I’m going to leave this chapter in my little art history unpublished. It’s too early to tell…
The theories surrounding the myths of Palaeolithic art have been born, cast aside and challenged ever since the first caves were discovered back in the late 1800’s. Whilst we will never truly know why our ancestors painted certain species within the depths of Europe’s Ice Age caves, it seems that our ancestors were great admirers of the natural world, and quite possibly were simply painting the world as they saw around them.
On first glance, the panel of horses at Chauvet in France are no more or less unremarkable than any other painted panel from the same epoch, but on closer inspection, this panel is something special. Depicting dynamic movement instead of static figures, use of perspective and shading for a powerful visual effect. The four horses that dominate the panel teeter on top of one another like a circus act; belittling the plane of perspective that they seem to sit on.
The composition of these horses and their stylised eyes and manes draws great comparison to the lost work of German Expressionst Franz Marc.
The ‘Tower of Blue Horses’ is one of Marc’s finest paintings, depicting a subject he greatly admired and worked hard to capture; the horses. Fascinated by the masculine and feminine qualities of this majestic animal, Marc no doubt shared his war years in close companionship with the horses who toiled, fought and died alongside him.
Looking closely at Marc’s ‘Tower’ and the Chauvet panel, it is striking just how similar these two compositions are. (Chauvet was not discovered until 1994, Marc died in battle in 1916). Both pieces are arranged in a tier – with four horses almost precariously balanced on top of each other and gazing downwards and left. Marc has rejected traditional shading and realism to depict an almost mythical, spiritual horse that exudes power and grace. The bodies of both the lower horses seem to solidfy the rest of the scene, yet the figures are also distinctly separate.
Marc’s depiction and style of subject was not unique, as the horses of Chauvet were not unique either. However, perhaps both artists were seeking the same goal; a visual, spiritual representation of admiration.
The ‘Tower of Blue Horses’ has unfortunately been missing since 1945, so, like the horses of Chauvet, the secrets of these stunning pieces may never be fully understood.
Another question one feels compelled to ask is, what is it about the horse that seems to capture the human imagination? From 40,000 year old homo sapiens to enamoured young girls to Classical Greek and Renaissance artists, the horse has long fascinated us. A beast of burden, a mounted arm, a racing champion; the horse has had many uses throughout the centuries, but what use was the Paleolithic horses? Was it hunted, or feared, or respected?
Marc himself said of the horse : “Only today can art be metaphysical, and it will continue to be so. Art will free itself from the needs and desires of men. We will no longer paint a forest or a horse as we please or as they seem to us, but as they really are.” And this essence seems reflecting in the horses of Chauvet, Lascaux and Peche-Merle, amongst others. The horses here are not painted as sources of food, or fear, but painted as respected, almost god-like beings. (Note that the horses seem to dwarf the fearsome rhinos beneath them.)
This sensitive, powerful animal has captured the artist’s imagination for centuries, and for me, Marc’s honest and touching rendition of this subject in bold, vivid colours and smooth lines is the perfect correlation between Palaeolthic and Modern art.
We’re all (hopefully) familiar with the colour wheel; we’ve been taught how to use it, and how not to use it, and learned what colours compliment, and which don’t work so well. Whilst I am a huge fan of bright, bold primary colours and using vivid yet limited colour palettes, I get the feeling that black and white are underestimated.
The Impressionists were against using white in their paintings. A ‘white’ object, when painted, is never truly white; it in fact reflects all of the colours, light and shadows around it. Shadows are never truly ‘black’; but try trying to paint a rich deep, darker-than-grey shade without black, and it’s never quite rich enough.
Ignoring these supposed rules, black and white have endless possibilities. You can throw together as many bold and crazy colours as you like; but add black and whites to them, and suddenly the whole composition will become coherent.
Below are some examples I’ve chosen that emphasis this rich harmony of black, white and colour, in various unique ways:
I’m used to seeking inspiration for my art from grand, sweeping landscapes and details scenes, but with a new series of works in the pipeline, I’m going to change the way I look at things, focusing on the details and analysing anatomy and the senses with a new purpose.
Because when we stop to think about it, what is it that really makes a species unique? Not its base anatomy surely; most vertebrates are made up of a head, body, limbs, an obvious front end and back end. Most have eyes and other sensory organs, most have a mouth. But the way that each species has evolved has provided a pretty stunning collection of differences, ones that are often overlooked. Perhaps we overlook the elephant’s incredible sound-detector feet because we are distracted by the iconic trunk and ivory pricetags.
Photo by Matt Nelson
These new paintings will focus on the small and seemingly insignificant, almost abstract qualities, but each with its own unique story to tell.
Recently, I’ve varied in style quite a bit; I’ve painted some pretty abstracted works, a couple of portraits and peoples of varying ethnicities and generally limited the amount of animals featuring in my paintings.
So why is it one always feels so drawn back to that one particular style? Their one unique little niche in the art world that just keeps hanging around.
For me, it is my ‘Solutrean’ style paintings, named for the first painting created in that style: The Solutrean Expression. What started off as modern interpretation of the Lascaux cave‘s Panel of the Red Cow and Chinese Horse has developed into a bold and I hope original style that is able to express so many of my desires: conservation, protection and admiration of the natural world.
The Solutrean Expression – the signature piece.
This style, I feel, best incorporates the true values of nature; those unique aspects of those unique creatures, their movements, their unusual anatomy, or simply those unfortunate ones who are no longer on this planet.
Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) – The poor Tazzy Tiger, wrongly accused of killing sheep throughout New Zealand, and all too soon exterminated. The last Thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. (This painting is for sale. Enquiries may come to firstname.lastname@example.org)
The ‘Solutrean’ style can offer total colour freedom or can work for a limited palette, and so everytime the results are surprising, and the majority of the times a pleasant surprise. A rich blend of colour to me evokes vast emotions, both negative and positive in one fell swoop, and once you get to know each one’s unique story, this emotion is only heightened.
Symbiosis – The intricate relationship between one of Africa’s largest and most dangerous mammals, the Buffalo, and the humble oxpecker, dedicated to cleaning the ticks and parasites off these majestic beasts. (This painting is for sale. Enquiries may come to email@example.com)
Now tell me about your own style of art and what it means to you!