Frida Kahlo – Columns, Colours and Chronic Pain

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, 1944

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

 

Birds, Birds, Birds!

Dinosaurs in drag.

That’s effectively what birds are. The scaly-legged, scaled-down and more decorative great-great-great-great grandchildren of the dinosaurs. Whether you believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs or not (but you really, really should), it’s hard not to be fascinated by these animals. Whilst some people are terrified of birds to the point of hysterics (see, it;s the dinosaur connection again!), most find them truly mesmerizing.

From the lonesome, lustful traveller to the birdwatcher to the ornithologist, birds hold a special place in our imagination. Whether it is their beautiful song, elaborate plumes, architectural prowess that rivals the best interior designer, or simply the quirky hopping, head-bobbing that they do so wonderfully. It’s really no small wonder that birds have been depicted in art for centuries. They have symbolised everything from purity to wrath, witchcraft and everything in between. As an artist I find that the bird makes for a truly unique and evocative subject, with a versatility that is difficult to recreate with mammals or other subjects. Birds have their own wonderful colour palettes and their own ready-made canvases, ready for us artists to pounce on.

Below, I’d like to share some of my favourite modern and traditional examples of the beauty of the bird in art and why they appeal to me in the way that they do.

Birds, 1914, Franz Marc

Birds in Art Blog

Hardly surprising that Franz Marc is on this list, but this  particular painting is here for a few reasons. This painting to me is not about a particular bird, or a particular species, but it captures the essence of what it is to be a bird: the pointed beak, the flap of the wings, their vocalisations. This painting evokes that startled feeling that you get when a flock of pigeons suddenly springs up into the air from just under your nose.

Illustrations in Ornithology, published in 1599


Whilst wildly inaccurate, these very early illustrations of Birds of Paradise from Papua New Guinea were not the work of over-imaginative artists, but the restrictions of working from dead specimens collected and traded half way around the world. The trade in paradise birds was booming, but the specimens were dried and traded without any legs or wings, so their beautiful plumes could be shown off in even more exquisite detail. But for early illustrators and ornithologists, this proved something of a puzzle. The theory was that these birds lived in heaven – Paradise, so didn’t need wings or feet at all. A truly beautiful story about a remarkable group of birds, and one I think any bird lover should take the time to read about. More beautiful than any designer dress!
Dodo, F. Hart

This 19th Century painting is sad reminder of the unfortunate story of the Dodo, a bird much loved by artists, writers, and much mocked and exaggerated too. This over-sized, flightless Mauritian pigeon has fascinated me from a very young age, ever since reading Dodos are Forever by Dick King Smith. Again, we don’t know how accurate this painting is as there are very few specimens around today, but this stunning piece of art and others like it are sobering reminders of humanity’s impact on the environment, and the vulnerability of specialised and isolated island species.

Modern artists too can’t help but fall in love with birds. Below are a few contemporary examples that I simply love, and yes, there’s one of mine in the list too!

For Me? You Shouldn’t Have!, Kimberly Kelly Santini

This absolutely charming little painting projects the little diva that seems to shine through in even the tiniest of birds. From singing with gusto to flashing their dazzling plumes, the smallest birds are often the boldest, the most brazen, and some of the most beautiful. If you can’t get out to see them in the wild; go to a sanctuary, an aviary, a pet shop, anywhere you can, and just take a look. Whilst searching the length and breadth of this island for guinea pigs a few weeks ago I got lost in the dazzling array of canaries, finches, quails, sparrows….I was astounded at their little variations, the unique qualities of each tiny little bird; perhaps that is how Darwin felt!

Carmines, Emily Lamb

The beauty and simplicity of this painting does all the work it needs to. The rest is up to the imagination of the viewer.

Wall of Birds Project, Ink Dwell Studio



This massive-scale, stunning work comprises  270 species of birds from all over the globe. This unique piece of art includes many extinct and living bird species from the Dromornis to the Kakapo to the Wandering Albatross, and many other species that have a special place in my heart. Another unique aspect of this piece is that every bird is painted life size and in stunning accuracy and detail, for a magical, bird-map view of the world.
Laysan Waltz, by Me!

Albatross Painting for Conservation
The albatross is my love-affair, my chocolate, my drug of choice. The albatross is a bird that is like no other; mating for life, performing perfectly-synchronised and often comical dances, boasting nature’s most magnificent wings. This seabird is a one of a kind, but unfortunately, it is also under threat in many of its key nesting sites, from Midway Island to Macquarie Island,  so it is a bird that we need to pay close attention to. The more I learn, the more I fall in love with them. You can read more about the making of this painting here.  (This painting is available for €500 to the first person asking kindly. A percentage of the sale will go towards The Foundation for Antarctic Research. I urge you to go and support such a worthy cause!)

Is there a particular species that moves you as an artist? Be it a painter, a writer, musician etc, is their a subject that captures your imagination like no other?

A House We Call Home

Sometimes, we feel at home, and sometimes, we don’t.

For humans, home means many things. Home means the place where we were born, or the place where our parents lived. Home is the house that we built with hard labour and machines, or the one we simply opened the door to. Home can be a particular corner of a particular room; somewhere where one can feel familiar, safe, and content.

Shelter is one of our basic needs; like food and water, but very few of us in the world live in just a rudimentary shelter the way some animals do; not even isolated tribes and cultures that still maintain a ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer existence. We create artefacts, paint our front doors, decorate and re-decorate, or, as in Malta, we give our homes unique and often times questionable combinations of the husband and wife’s name.

Maltese House Name
A not so typical house name, including…a pet? Source: http://anecdotesfrommalta.blogspot.com.mt/2009/08/crazy-maltese-house-names-1.html
Ndebele Painted House
The beautiful geometric designs of the houses of Southern African Ndebele.

 

Like the bower bird’s flair for interior design to impress his mate, we too decorate our houses to show off our individuality, our ancestry, and to display our sexual and financial status. We choose unique artefacts that have symbolism only to us; we keep memories of childhood, of past and future. We show off our best and conceal our worst.

And of course, no home is complete without its lodgers!

Springer Spaniel

I wonder if I’ll move from the house I’ve come to call my own for the last year and a half; the one I helped design and finance. The English in me says I will; we’re like Monarch butterflies, journeying over the generations (most often returning to the same place where we were born!), the restless in me says I’d like to travel and try homes in other countries. The artist in me says I must.

House Sketch
Sketch of my childhood home, from memory.

In the final of this three part blog I’ll be pondering on animal houses, and talking about the paintings that inspired these blogs.

What Does Home Mean to You?

“A home without books is a body without soul.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

Oxygen, food, water, sleep, shelter. These are the five basic needs for human survival, and these are the fundamental characteristics of our species, and of many others. It is the way we have adapted and expanded upon these basic needs that has enabled us to evolve and flourish as a species. But over millennia these needs have seen huge changes, and have become some of the defining features of our species. We have turned food into an art form and an indulgence which is becoming a disease, we dedicate whole rooms in our houses and hours upon hours for sleep, doing something that very few other species do; we make beds, we sleep in them, and we mate in them.

Most animals survive with little or no shelter, but humans have taken this need further than perhaps almost any other species. Most animals will seek shelter during a torrential rainstorm; whether it is simply huddling together in a herd, gathering under a tree or, as our great ape cousins do, making a rudimentary umbrella out of broad leaves. But there is a vast difference between needing shelter and desiring a home.

What does home mean? Is home a basic human instinct, to build a shelter to protect oneself from the elements? Is it a den where one can raise offspring in safety away from predators? Is home a means to show off one’s wealth or status? Is home simply a feeling?

And what of about our animal relatives?

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Sketch on canvas for an upcoming painting exploring Home

Why is it that sometimes we feel at home, and sometimes we don’t? What is homesickness, and is the concept of a home changing?

I’ll be exploring these quandaries in a couple of blog posts to follow. I want to look at the definition of home by looking at what the word means to humans across the globe, and also looking at non-human animals, to gleam the origin, the root of this domineering human need. And of course, at the end of this exploration in words, there will be an exploration in paint!

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Sketch on canvas for an upcoming painting exploring Home

Art for Conservation

As a child, and I confess even as an adult, it is the work of people such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall that warm my south, and inspire me to believe that there is good in this world, and we are making positive steps towards change.

In the face of climate change, globalisation, war and overpopulation, animals are under greater threat than ever before. However, in 2017 we are in a better position than ever to protect and conserve them. Conservation has never been easier than it is in the 21st Century: we have social media, email, worldwide broadcasting and many other forms of media to share stories of struggling species, but also to share success stories and to encourage people and communities to work together.

David Attenborough Art Conservation
David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 was an epic explosion of art inspiration and admiration. You too?

For me, art is just an extension of this means to spread the word of conservation and its importance. David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey and Peter Singer (to name just a few) each have their own unique platform, presenting to use conservation not necessarily through heart-wrenching images of suffering or tragic tales of failure, but through provoking in us a sense of awe, wonder and hope.

For just one example, read about Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Programme, a  marvelous initiative helping communities to learn about the environment, and actively participate in it.

For me, art is conservation, Through paintings of rare and unique animal species and presenting them at exhibitions, showcasing them online and turning them into wonderful stationery and household products, wildlife is taking centre stage in a medium previously reserved for landscapes or religion. Beautiful paintings, just like those of Franz Marc, or those that I myself am painting, give us a unique insight into the world, and encourage us to care.

Through the promotion and sales of such paintings, we can also actively participate in conservation projects, through donating a percentage of sales and commissions to worthy conservation projects. It is your choice. This is why I paint, to inspire, to conserve.

Albatross Painting for Conservation

Click here to view the paintings currently up for sale for conservation.

Art Inspired by Nature – this is my passion project

A Journey with a Kakapo

This week, I thought I’d delve into some detail about the painting that took up my easel for the last five months; for me, a marathon of a painting. I’m always fascinated to learn how other artists work, what inspires them, the materials and techniques that they use, so I thought I’d share some of mine.

Starting with the initial watercolour sketch:

Kakapo Watercolour Painting

A lot of you have heard about that kakapo; its unique evolution, its quirky behaviour, mating habits, and of course, the threats currently facing it. There are few paintings of kakapo, and the majority of them are fairly traditional. I wanted to capture a different side to this remarkable bird that is something between an owl and a parrot, both in habit and appearance. Colour was going to be the primary motivation for these piece, using rich, bold hues and blocks of colour to set the scene, much as I did in my previous ‘Solutrean’ paintings.

Oh, and it had to be big.

(I apologise as some photos were taken in natural light so there’s some glare from the wet paint etc)

Kakapo Painting

 

When it comes to transferring a drawing from paper onto canvas, there are several methods I use; whether it’s tracing onto the canvas from an inked drawing, or creating a scaled-up sketch using the grid method. This time, I was feeling confident. No pencil in sight, I grabbed a watery acrylic mix and sketched the basic outline of the bird, some feather details and a few wisps of background.

Kakapo Painting

The underpainting; a thin mix of cadmium yellow light oil paint, and a touch of orange, I knew would be crucial to holding it all together later on.

Kakapo Painting

Next I started from the outside, in, getting in the darks of the background which will help bring the bird forward, and give the feeling that he is trudging through the dark undergrowth. I love that burnt orange. I experimented with a few hints of feathers too.

Kakapo Painting
After a month, I’ve darkened up the darks and increased the tones, but haven’t made much progress on the kakapo himself. It was important to have a solid framework behind it, before I started fussing over the bird too much.

Kakapo Painting

There comes a point in a painting which I call the hurdle; the critical point where perhaps you might have got lost from your initial sketch, and perhaps started throwing paint down in an over-eager anticipation of the finished piece. The photo above is where I reached this critical point. I wasn’t happy with the green; even though it is a fair representation of the light kakapo green, but it somehow, didn’t fit. Lots of standing, staring, taking photographs, and generally, taking a step back from the painting helped me through this tricky transition stage.

Kakapo Painting

You learn a lot about painting whilst you’re painting, and I’ve learned that mistakes can be a good thing. As you can see from the previous photo to this one, the kakapo has transformed. The white line running through the birds centre was originally a dark brown branch, but it was too dead centre, and taking up too much of a focus. But I wasn’t concerned at this stage. I started thinking of the kakapo more in terms of shapes, and bringing it back in harmony with the background.

Kakapo Painting

Almost three months since I started, here is the latest in progress shot. As you can see, that heavy branch in the middle has gone and the kakapo has started to gain some feathering in the tail. Now to work on the branch at his feet, refine the body, and bring in some darks back into the background.

You can have the best plan in the world, but sometimes, paintings just evolve all by themselves. I made sketches, notes, colour maps and had a clear idea in my head, but it turned out a little different. However, I am thrilled with the transformation. The kakapo has a special place in my heart, and now, so does its painting.

Five months in the making and featuring New Zealand’s endangered kakapo, this is much more than just a painting to me. This is what I strive for, why I paint for what I love, and why you should love the natural world too.

A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of this piece and Kakapo Prints will be donated to the Kakapo Recovery.

Forest and Bird, Finished Oils on Canvas, 90 x 60cm and up for sale. Enquiries to cjwaterfield@gmail.com

Finding Harmony in Art Through Nature

The process of formulating a painting is fraut with difficulties.

What may seem to be a very simple relationship between colour, subject and form to an outsider, is often a complex web of decisions that you made, un-made, and didn’t make at all.

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Songs in Miniature, Oils on Board

The above painting is at first glance a fairly straightforward piece, in composition and chromatically. There are only really two tones here, and the piece holds itself together thanks to this quiet harmony.

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A beautiful location, painting in a 16th Century Palace…and I love the shot of this painting, but somehow, the harmony just wasn’t there. (I will paint this piece again one day!)

Nature works in harmony with itself; even though it doesn’t always seem to be the case. Raging savanna fires restore the balance of populations and fertilize the grass, the weak die so that the strong can survive. There is a delicate, complex web that unites all species, all habitats and all natural phenomena.

The harmony of nature is the theme I approach in painting. And New Zealand’s sparky, fat parrot the Kakapo is a perfect example of this. This unfortunate flightless parrot had evolved in perfect harmony with its natural forest habitat that was free of ground based, furry predators. But times change, and we, like the Kakapo, have to evolve with them or find a new harmony.

The purpose of this blog is for me to lay down some ideas for my next painting; figuring out what harmonies I need to figure out before I put paintbrush to canvas. It’s important for a painting to appear unified and effortless, whilst at the same time evoking a sense of a deeper meaning behind it (and I’m not talking the meaning behind a black square, either, I’m talking something real). How do I transform a subject, a topic that moves me, into a canvas that moves others?

Kakapo Watercolour Painting
Watercolour study for the upcoming Big painting!

Instead of looking at the finished painting as the goal, look at the whole process. An evolution in itself.