Painting Rarities

Unless you’ve lived in a hole for the last 48 hours, you’ll know that the United States hosted a magnificent and rare spectacle yesterday; the first total eclipse in the region in 99 years.

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The International Space Station whizzing past the sun, just before the Moon takes a bite out of it. Joel Kowsky | NASA | Getty Images

As the earth went eerily still, eerily cold and so rapidly dark, the moon made its debut – obscuring the sun like a giant 8 ball blocking a cosmic snooker pocket. Glasses off, but only for a fleeting moment. The moon gave the sun its diamond ring  – then, glasses back on, and all of a sudden the light returned, like the sheets being pulled from your morning slumber.

People laughed, they gasped, they screamed, and they cried. What is it about this unique and extraordinarily precise phenomena that moves us in such a way? Is it the shock to our circadian rhythm, is it our fear that the sun may not peep out the other side? I witnessed a partial eclipse in the UK in 1999, and was glued to live streams yesterday. From the other side of the world, I was hooked.

A Great Eclipse Painter

A secondary source to my eclipse inspiration came from the works of a painter I’ll admit I stumbled across by chance (thank you, News Feed!). If you haven’t heard of Howard Russell Butler, and you love art and eclipses, you’re missing out.

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Howard Russell Butler, “Solar Eclipse” (1925), oil on canvas 

It’s not simply that he painted beautifully serene and emotive paintings of eclipses and other cosmic scenes, as well as landscapes. His works are beautiful in themselves, but what I find most remarkable as how he managed to plan out and sketch his eclipse paintings in 110 seconds. Once he caught his eclipse, he scribbled furiously, coming up with exceedingly complex values and mathematical symbols for the different hues of the light, the corona and the beads. All this, whilst the picture in front of him vanished.

Find out more about his amazing works

From art to photography to fashion, weirdly ridiculous and indeed mind-numbing flat-Earth theories, eclipses have inspired us for centuries. As an artist, I see great potential in this subject, and plan to take full advantage of its publicity 🙂

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Rare, Watercolours

I had started painting the stunning California Condor some time ago, and then, inspired to paint an eclipse, I found that the two would fit together perfectly.

Just like a total eclipse, the California Condor is a rarity, too, as one of the world’s most endangered birds, an enduring Native American symbol, brought back from near extinction by an expensive and dedicated conservation and breeding project. This magnificent bird is surviving, but by no means thriving.

I’m definitely going to work on another eclipse piece, but I’m waiting for the Muse to strike first! I have a few ideas…

Appreciate the rare things. Love them.

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Why Paintings Fail

A painting is like an investment. Sometimes, your investment pays off, landing you wealth, happiness and a tidy sum for the future, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Whether its down to a bad decision, an unstable market, or perhaps just bad luck, you can’t always predict whether your investment is a ‘sure thing’.

It’s exactly the same with painting. Now, I may know nothing about investments, but I know a fair bit about painting. And what I’ve come to realise is, no matter how much you paint over it, how much you fight with it, sometimes a painting will fail, and you won’t immediately know why. Given the time, energy and money that you’ve put into a painting, from sketching away furiously to scribbling down notes, mixing and discarding colours and sweating at your easel, to finding that the fruits of your labour have failed can be a damn hard feeling to swallow. If a painting is going badly for me, you’ll know about it. Even the dog will know about it.

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My faithful assistant Luna, keeping guard

I have discarded numerous paintings over the years, probably more in the last two years than the previous six combined. Not because I’m becoming a worse painter (far from it, I hope) but because I’m becoming more selective about the paintings that I carry to full term. Many others transform into experiments, giving me the freedom to try out a new style, a new mix or brushstroke when I cannot get a clear idea in watercolour, or as a sketch.

You can learn a lot from paintings that fail; from why that colour mix didn’t work, or why that composition looks so….wrong. It’s all research, warming you up for the next one.

I thought I’d talk about this in more detail, by sharing with you a few of my recent failures, and why I think they went wrong.

(Also, if you’re anything like me, you won’t have kept much of a photo record of the failures!)

Lack of Coherency

Deer

I love the idea behind this one; the intention was to create a big, rich, forested scene with the deer merging into his background, in a similar vein to my Palaeolithic Inspired paintings. The composition is dominant, it works, but I didn’t define the planes and the lines clearly enough before I started, so what should have been a coherent abstract/cubist canvas became a busy, cluttered mess.

No Planning

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I had the vision of painting Malta’s national bird, the Merill, or Blue Rock Thrush, in a paint-by-numbers style – letting each colour sit beside each other with a subtle shift in value to create a flat yet rich painting. Yet I didn’t know what I would do after that. I used to love paint by numbers, but when you have to choose the values and draw all the little shapes, it’s not so easy! At this early stage, I have to admit I loved this painting. Then, I got stuck – I didn’t know how to get my rocks to look like rocks, and I feared that the feathers would lose their effect the more I painted. I think I painted over him now, but I’m not sure. I will try him again one day soon.

Painting Under Pressure

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Never, ever go and paint live without a plan. Granted, the passers by were thrilled watching me paint as I threw colours here, and there, and here again during a Notte Bianca event in Malta’s capital city of Valletta. But I didn’t know where I was going; it was dark, uncomfortable, I was painting out of my comfort zone, trying not to spill paint on a 16th Century floor. If you’re going to paint live at an event, or for charity, or go plein air, make a sketch beforehand, start putting some colours down a few days before. Get the basics in, and know where you’re going before you arrive.

Thanks in no small part to these three pieces, painted between 2015 to just a couple of months ago, I’ve learned to plan my paintings better. In fact, I would say that I paint less now, as I spend a good month or so gathering resources, backtracking on ideas, scribbling notes, snippets for blogs, taking photographs and producing concepts and colour sketches. Planning takes away some of the trepidation of diving in head first, even though often the temptation to just plunge in and start painting is overwhelming. Don’t do it!

So there you have it, three reasons why I think many painting, including my own, fail. What are your thoughts on paintings that you feel didn’t turn out like you expected, or those that ended up being the underlayer to an entirely new piece?

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.

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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.

Betelgeuse and a Bee

We can’t predict the future.

But, in some cases, we can make fairly accurate estimations for situations that are extremely likely to occur, thanks to diligent research and hard science.

Betelgeuse, the red and brightest star in the constellation of Orion in the night sky, may be barely perceptible to the naked eye, but this cosmic orb is actually a super massive, unstable star reaching the end of its life, and ready to explode. It could be tomorrow, it could be a million years from now. But one day, it will happen, just as sure as our own Sun will die. Betelgeuse will grow, and grow, using up the very last stores of its energy, and will explode in a fantastically cataclysmic supernova. It will shine like a second Sun. We may as yet be lucky enough to witness such a spectacle, and we are, thankfully, some 430 light-years out of harm’s way.

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But not every scientific prediction and eventuality can be so epic and so benign to us as the fate of Betelguese. The humble bumblebee, an annoying summer visitor to some, a problem-solving, dancing, geometry-wielding genius to others, has a fate that seems to be hanging in the balance, very much as the stability of the red star in the heavens. Yet the fate of the bumblebee is much closer to home.

Bumblebees have seen a dramatic drop in their population levels, with as much of a third of their US populations having decreased in recent years (http://www.globalresearch.ca/death-and-extinction-of-the-bees/5375684). Bees are not only vital pollinators, allowing countless species of plants and flowers to pollinate and reproduce, but they are also an important part of our own elaborate food chain. From honey in its raw form to soaps, lip balms, syrups and more, bees have been powerful contributors to our desire for sweet tastes, soft skin and juicy lips.

But at what price? Climate change, growing use of harmful pesticides and invasion of foreign species are speeding up the crisis bees face, but ultimately we may be their biggest threat. It’s difficult to predict how soon such a population could crash, whether it is a local crash, or restricted to vulnerable populations or even entire countries. A small, colony-dwelling animal such as a bee is no doubt hard to study, and hard to calculate in terms of accurate numbers and breeding success. With only handfuls of dedicated beekeepers to help with the maths, once again it seems science can only predict what may be around the corner.

I’m not suggesting we throw away that little jar of honey that we love to spoon into our cereal, or to soothe a sore throat after a rough winter, all I am suggesting is that we stop, step back and switch of the lights. Crane your neck up, as high as you can, and see if you can spot Orion among the tango-haze of light pollution. Next time you hear the soft bzzzzzz coming towards your eye, don’t flap your hands to shoo it away. Stay still, stay calm, and take a look.

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?