I’ve long been fascinated by the patterns that trees create – how they repeat, with variations. Leaves that all follow the same basic shape, manage to create depth and texture on trees with variations in colour, size and the angles from which they are viewed. So much complexity, and yet the overall effect is so pleasing.
I also really like collage. I love cutting and sticking and layering. So I’m combining these two interests to explore the leafy side of trees. I want to understand how leaves can be so similar, yet different. Sometimes when I look at trees, the repeated patterns created by the leaves jump out at me. How it is that we see the patterns in the chaos?
So these are the first of what I think will be a lot of experiments with leaves, their shapes, their patterns and effects.
My theme for 2021 is going to be trees. I’ve long loved trees. I spent my childhood in the branches of a giant Plane tree in our suburban garden in Pietermaritzburg. I was proud of my climbing abilities and loved that I could hide in the highest branches with a view of the suburb. That tree was a great comfort to me, a place I could escape to when the world felt overwhelming. Up there with my arms around a sturdy branch and my face against the bark was my happy place.
I’m less agile now, but I still find solace in admiring trees from below. This month I enjoyed the rare treat of admiring trees from high-up again when I visited the Treetop Walk at the Serralves Park in Porto. This was an opportunity for lots of photos of trees that will serve as inspiration. I’ve also managed to get pics while walking around Guimarães (strictly for exercise of course – we’re in a hard lockdown here).
My art materials are severely limited, but I do have some water-soluble oil pastels that I am experimenting with. I know, that sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I’d never encountered such things before. They were a Christmas gift. They go on like waxy crayons, but turn into nice creamy colour with a bit of water added. They are messy, giving lots of opportunity for mistakes, which I like. I particularly like the effects I got for the sky in the image below. I’m looking forward to doing more like this.
This is the first winter I’ve spent in Europe and I’m excited by naked winter trees. In Johannesburg, the autumn leaves were still clinging to the branches when the spring growth started, and I never got to see trees in all their naked glory. Here every last leaf drops by January and there is a good month or two to admire their structure in detail. There are also many new trees to learn about, so plenty of new inspiration.
So here are more of the lovely, colourful women who kept me company during the lockdown. I learned that just about any colour combination can be used to depict faces. And that layering many colours makes for interesting tones and textures.
I was, of course, unprepared, and faced lockdown with nothing in the way of art supplies but a (thankfully quite empty) sketch book and a lovely new giant pack of fineliners. That lack of choice was quite useful since I didn’t have to think too much about what I was going to do.
Lockdown was not a time for great inspiration, so knowing that I was just going to draw women’s faces made it easy to get started, even on those days when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed.
Old but happy
I learned that faces depend on the right degree of contrast in the right place. Here are some of my favourite, but the kindly face on the right needs more contrast around the hairline.
I also learned that there are great liberties to be taken with depicting faces. That as long as the eyes, nose, mouth combination is there, one can change the features, and their spacing and size and shape. Faces allow great freedom, they develop on the page in a most satisfying way.
Since lockdown has been over (at least here in Portugal), I’ve had less time for drawing. Which is a pity really. It was a wonderful space, all that time to just work on faces.
I spent most of the lockdown this year drawing faces. (I worked as well, but you know how many hours there were.) I’m pretty pleased with what I learned in the process and I’ll make another post with some of the faces I’m most satisfied with, but in between, these staring faces kept appearing. Pretty much every time I sat down to draw without thinking much, and just started sketching, the faces that emerged had this rather fixed stare – not panicked, not horrified, just stunned into silence.
I guess they sum up my reaction rather well. Surprised. Amazed. Dumbfounded. Disbelieving. And, eventually, patient. Even curious.
Some looked a bit more anxious. I guess that anxiety was a big part of it too. I am (still) a (very large) continent away from my family.
These were all drawn from my imagination, but the same look crept into pictures that were based on other sources too. Somehow, that same sense of surprise and disbelief showed through.
But then, looking back through my sketches, I found that this same look appeared before COVID. These two pictures I drew in February and November last year.
Back in February, the face on the left appeared in response to a surprising, weird and quite hard to believe family situation. I called it Watching because I felt so helpless. All I could do was watch what was unfolding.
Even that was preceded by the face on the right, which I drew back in November last year. Did I somehow know what was coming in 2020?
My latest exploration is of drawing faces using coloured fineliner pens. In part this is due to the limitations of living in a small apartment, but it’s been interesting to have limits. To limit myself further, I’ve been focusing on women’s faces.
I’ve long been interested in portraits and working to express some of the complexity of people through portraits, but here the experiment is more about learning the medium. I’m after repetition, practice, and learning. These sketches are a record of my learning. I try to draw one or two of these a week, and I have a growing pile.
I’m enjoying playing with different colour palettes and the process of building up the features with layers of ink. I’m not totally happy with the outcome yet, but there are some effects in each of these that I like.
These are drawn from pictures, and so depend also on the skill of the photographers involved. Interesting lighting angles make for interesting shapes.
I’ve also drawn a few faces from my imagination. The first I call Watching, and it reflects my sense of having to watch deeply sad events unfold with no way to intervene. The second, I call Dismay, and its the feeling I get when I realise that I’ve just agreed (again) to something I don’t want to do.
When I arrived in Portugal in March 2019 I brought with me a small supply of blank postcards. I had the idea that I would paint or draw what I noticed each week and send them home to my mum as a more interesting variant on the usual tourist postcards.
It was a fun project, not least because it meant that I spent my days looking for something that caught my interest and I spent a bit of each Sunday making the pictures. So here they are, with what inspired me.
My first postcard was drawn on the plane, in the air as I left home. Economy class tray-tables are not ideal supports for drawing, but I don’t sleep on flights and I had a lot of time to occupy.
My second postcard was the view from my new apartment in Guimarães. I was enchanted by the ornate glass domes that provide light in dark stairwells and the different textures of the roofs.
My third postcard came as a result of a visit to the local art museum which houses a great collection of African masks. I left Africa to see African art? I rather liked this particular one, because it wasn’t scary. He looked so happy.
Here’s a happy chap
The next week I took a trip up the nearby Penha “mountain” in the teleférico. (I grew up hiking in the Drakensburg. I have standards for what can be called a mountain.) At the top I found giant boulders scattered about. Which inspired the fourth postcard below.
Portugal is famous for the beautiful tiles that decorate the buildings here. So much more interesting than bland, flat paint. I spent hours in the tiny streets of Guimarães, Porto and Aveiro admiring the designs. So postcard five was a little homage.
Finally (when my six postcards were coming to an end) I took a walk in the city park early one morning to find the small pond filled with frogs all croaking together.
I duly sent all six postcards off to my mum. So far, only one got to her. Whether this is a result of the postal service in Portugal or (more likely) in South Africa, we’ll never know. But I like to think that they will make their way there eventually or make someone smile wherever they end up.
Since closing down Better, I have finally found time to go back to my Faces series. To see the start of the series, click here for Face 1, Face 2, Face 3 and Face 4. This series explores men’s faces using colour to sculpt the contours and reflect emotion.
This painting turned out looking vulnerable, some combination perhaps of the exaggeratedly large eyes, the relaxed mouth or the neutral expression. The young man is quietly self-possessed, but open; not defensive.
This painting combines my favourite colours – yellow, pink and gold (not so visible in the photo) – grounded with sienna shades.
Face No.5: Vulnerable is painted in acrylic paint on a 50cm x 50cm stretched canvas and finished in gloss acrylic canvas. It is not framed.
I have started this year with reorganising my studio. It’s a major revamp – with new shelves and new pinning boards along one wall. I’m also taking the opportunity to sort and clear out all my stacks of old pictures, doodles, sketched ideas and junk.
As a result the studio is a bit messy right now. Any art I make is squeezed between piles of stuff waiting to be moved or sorted. So it’s mostly small stuff. This 25cm x 25cm canvas was just able to fit in the space I cleared last week.
I’ve been thinking about energy a lot, what with trying to recover from an exhausting 2017 and paying close attention to what energises me and what depletes me.
Somehow energy is represented in my brain as these round bubbles with different textures. Some are spiky and bright, others swirling and sparkly. This “fabric of life” painting shows some of these energy representations, against a background of woven fabric.
Fabric of Life is painted in acrylics on a gallery wrapped canvas. The painting goes around the sides of the canvas as shown above. It is finished with gloss acrylic varnish.
Here are my 31 Inktober pics all hung up for the exhibition. I spent a rather hot hour yesterday doing this, in the company of other wonderful artists quietly working on their walls. A sense of calm chaos. The exhibition is on the 7th floor of a rather empty office block. Lots of walls and views!
I got a chance to look around at some of the other work on display. There is some really good stuff. Only about half of it was up when I was there, so I am looking forward to seeing lots more tonight. That said, mine are the most colourful. Clearly not too many people have worked out that ink comes in many colours.
The exhibition opens tonight (Thursday, 9th November) at 6pm at 96 Jorrissen Street in Braamfontein. There is some parking in the building, but the Joburg Theatre’s parking is just a block away too. Do come along and say hi. If you can’t make tonight the exhibition will be up until Sunday, see details on my previous post.