Cosmic Thoughts – Awe

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.

who is listening
Who’s Listening? Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Expression

No matter what medium you use to paint cosmic scenes – be it oils or watercolours in my case – they are full of inimitable expressiveness. Van Gogh painted his mythical night sky, Starry Night, using oils so thick it made the painting feel tactile. It’s as if Van Gogh was inviting you to touch that bright moon in a way you can’t in life. In watercolours, I find, the night sky feels more fluid. As if you can swim in the unreachable depths of space. As if the night sky is a free-flowing seascape. I don’t know what to choose, so I keep alternating between the two. Happily, may I add.

Swan Nebula Galaxy Watercolour Painting
Swan Nebula, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Calm

Nothing is more calming than painting the night sky. A scene which is deceptively static yet full of unfathomable concerts of movement, death, rebirth and evolution. I was never one for meditating. Never followed the fad of yoga or Zen. Sometimes I feel guilty. But then I paint the night sky and I see those fads in a new perspective: they’re bullshit. All those stars, those long-dead supernovas of radiant colour, all the immeasurable galaxies, an ecosystem beyond imaging, a symphony of exo-planets possibly filled with life – all those thoughts inevitably go through your mind as you paint, and really, there is no greater joy.

Barn Owl Watercolour Painting
Waiting For Wings To Take On The City, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

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?

img_2611
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!

img_2614
Sketch on canvas for an upcoming painting exploring Home