Friday, January 24, 2020

The Message in the Title

The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfred Blunt 
First Edition 1950

Travelling light when on location, I use my phone for emails.

Recently, I looked back over some old files and consequently decided to turn-off the predictive text on my mobile. 

This is because I noticed typos where the predictive text had changed a word or a letter in the title of a book that I had recommended to my students. As well as this, some titles of my own work had been altered to strange and unrelated words.

The Art of Botanical Illustration, the title of a book that I had recommended to my students, had been altered by the predictive text into The Art of Botanical Painting, which actually is the title of another book that I had also recommended. 

A couple of years ago, an erudite writer on botanical art had drawn my attention to the title of The Art of Botanical Illustration, in the context of an email I had written to her. I wondered why this was so. Now I completely understand why. 

The failure was of course all mine, for writing too fast, and not paying enough attention to what the predictive text had altered.

My overdue recognition of this error has encouraged me to ponder further on how I have relied on predictive text far too often. I should have always taken a few more seconds of time to spell check. 

Lesson learnt. I am sorry for the confusion. No more predictive text.


Sunday, January 05, 2020

Little Holiday 2020

This blog is now on holiday for the first half of 2020, whilst I continue my work and occasional travels. There will be an occasional short post about my travelling experience.

Most of the previous blog posts are in draft mode during this time, the ones currently still available to read here are those that other reputable sites have linked to.

If you would like to read any further previous posts you are welcome to apply to my studio via the contact pages on either of my websites.

The Artist, the Footprint, and Climate Change

Artist and Traveller are only two of the various and closely connected titles with which I have identified as an aspect of my career. I refer to these as an interlock, which I sometimes term a filigree of places, plants and landscapes, which have both thrilled and encouraged my exploratory spirit and my innate romantic nature. Artist and Traveller sounds glamorous doesn't it? Well actually the association of art with travel is something that I have rethought and redefined to myself, simply out of necessity.

My botanic website has the unusual addition of a time line page, which I have entitled Chronos. This is a gradual accumulation of small written icons of my development as both artist and traveller. It involves a lot of airline travel in earlier years.

As a four year old, my maternal grandparents accompanied me on my first visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on the Easter Bank Holiday of 1960. In so doing, they ignited a spark of creative imagination that has burned as a beacon throughout my life. My first experience of the Palm House containing hot house plants with huge leaves, and a fantasy tall tower known as a Pagoda, were features we passed on our first circular walk in the gardens before arriving at a small plain building that is now adjacent to the Shirley Sherwood Gallery. This unassuming gallery house was and still is, the Marianne North Gallery.

This building was inviting to me as a four year old because it seemed from the outside to be akin to the open verandas of the south coast hotels where my family would meet to have tea and stare out to sea. However, when the doors to this building at Kew were opened, a revelation of flora and landscape in psychedelic measures flew out from all corners. What made my head reel and my feet feel as if they were floating above the tiled floor, were the omnipresent paintings contained therein.

This post is not actually about the unique and exceptional national treasure whom we know as Marianne North, rather it is to highlight that what she could and did do was achieved at a time when the issues of climate change and planetary damage through global warming were not on the political agenda.

Much of her work shows the purity of landscape and the untouched elements of plant life before the many aspects of  destruction and change occurred in later generations. Much of Marianne's work can show us what we have lost.

Marianne, as an artist explorer, paved the way for many lone women travellers to follow in her footsteps and paint the world's plants. However, what we now carry as a thorny knowledge as well as the subtext of a message - or as many now view it, the ever growing elephant filling the room - is that global warming and climate change is seriously exacerbated by the ubiquitous use of the car and the aeroplane, which many artists use to get from A to B.

2002 was the last time that I travelled on a long haul flight. 2017 was the last time I took a short two hour flight. Since then, I have changed my mode of transport to boat and train and bus and low emission car. I have further developed more of my of my work in the UK, specifically focusing around the plants I have grown myself in our home garden. I shall travel again by plane, but when I see it as a necessity and only because I feel I have balanced this with years of conscious restraint.

This has not compromised my career, and I have not used this as means to gain points. It is only now that I have begun to talk about what is possible, because I have been practicing for some time. Its a personal choice, and I don't prescribe to others. It's simply that I could not justify working on projects that depended on the use of continuous short and long haul flights around the globe. I am concerned with common sense, and the people who look at my work expect this kind of glamour-free approach from me.

If I had not experimented in this way, I would probably not have engaged in the whole issue of Phenology and would not have seen how it extended and expanded my botanic work when I began to keep data on the reaction of my cultivated hybrid peonies to both subtle and extreme differences in climate from year to year in the UK.

In earlier years, many unexpected and positive results came from teaching literally hundreds of people globally how to paint flowers at both Kew and in the Master Classes for Dr Sherwood, from 1997 to 2002. My teaching facilitated the coming together of many new artists from around the globe. The teaching was something that artists took back with them, to help establish a system of working knowledge in their own countries.

But I am by no means the only artist concerned, as there is a building wave of artists exploring an engagement with their own indigenous flora that is unique and specialised. They recognise that as artists, they are the honourable custodians of their indigenous and unique botanical environment.

The overwhelmingly fabulous success of the Worldwide Botanical Art Day in 2018 is evidence of this culture of creative independence. Paintings and Illustrations of indigenous plants became an expression of artistic self reliance by artists globally co-creating a spectacular event of sharing. It was nothing short of a revelation, as each country's artists observed and virtually marvelled at what each other had produced.

This was an extraordinarily balancing act of self sustaining creativity. They got it absolutely right. These artists recognise that there is no need to increase their carbon footprint by travelling to the places that are far and away, because they have so much of value and importance in their own country.

Thank you to everyone who reads this blog and has asked me where I am going to be travelling to this summer. This year, I shall be quietly working away in the UK and will ponder during the long evenings on other favoured places, as I dream of possibilities.


Monday, November 25, 2019


Real Gesso 
What is it, and is it still used?

I have stored in my archive a series of boards which have been surface coated in Real Gesso, in the 13th century medieval tradition. These particular boards were completed ten years ago in the same studio that I now work in. These were then placed into a cabinet to mature. This allows the surfaces to balance themselves over time, and to breathe and become gently acclimatised to the imbalance of temperature that naturally occurs in the variable environs of the painter's studio. 
Recent pieces I have used were gessoed more than ten years ago.  If kept well they will last indefinitely. If you are a collector who is being told that you are purchasing a painting on real gesso, it can be guaranteed to last seven hundred years and rising. If you are purchasing an artwork labelled as being on 'gesso' or 'gessoed paper' or 'gesso on canvas', do take care to make an inquiry and ask the artist  to verify that this is not actually acrylic primer, known as acrylic gesso primer, but that it is real chalk gesso.
Real gesso is an ancient mixture used as a ground and primer for artworks. Its purpose is to prepare a surface of wood or board. These prepared surfaces are used as a support for painting, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, acrylic, and other dry drawing and mixed media. 

Traditionally real gesso is not placed on to canvas. Canvas is too unstable and the gesso will eventually crack. Gesso requires stability. Acrylic gesso primer is a popular choice amongst artists who work on canvas. Manufacturers are responsible in what their materials. are made from. It tends to be artists who want to twist the truth of of what they are really doing. who don't label their works well enough.

To the many young artists and collectors who have asked me how not to be fooled by artists who use acrylic gesso primer - which is fundamentally acrylic with fillers - labelled simply as 'gesso primer', I can only say that it might be necessary to ask the artist to tell you the truth about the materials they are using. Real gesso is a great skill often passed down from  master to student, and it is a lifetime commitment. Real Gesso is composed of chalk and rabbit skin glue. Once made it must be applied immediately, and cannot be stored. Artworks using this original method, now tend to be labelled as on 'real chalk gesso'. This is now done to protect the art and the future of the skill, and to separate it from so called 'gesso primer', and the artists who just say, for example, 'oil on gesso' - which confuses a lot of collectors. If I ever use an acrylic gesso primer, I will follow the manufacturers labelling and describe the art work as it is.

In 1975, I was taught the technique of making Real Gesso by two of my Painting tutors at the Chelsea Art College of Arts (London University), whilst studying for a Fine Art degree. This gesso is a far cry from the contemporary acrylic ground that is available as a ready-made compound, which is known as Acrylic Gesso or Gesso Primer. 

Traditional gesso needs to be made and immediately applied in layers whilst it is still fresh. This demands trained skill and intuitive timing to produce the best quality of surface. It is an ancient recipe used in a protective and controlled environment.
The chalk it is made from sets to a rock like opaque substance. When dry, it may be sanded or polished or retained as an absorbent surface. As the Real Gesso surface varies in smoothness and reflective capacity, according to the balance of ingredients in the original proportional recipe. The intricacy of the recipe and the method of application, varies from artist to artist. Often, it remains a secret until it is passed on when the artist has matured and is experienced in their craft. It may take many years for the artist to synchronise with that right person, to whom the recipe will be given and who invariably arrives in the life of the artist at the right time, or not at all. The recipe of my particular real gesso is still protected by me, and has now been passed on to a young male European painter who understands its value. This particular recipe now remains protected for the future. 
Thank you to the many artists who have asked to buy the gesso recipe from me. It is not for sale. The new young artist to whom my particular inheritance is passed on, has all the documentation in his possession now. I have the knowledge that the recipes will continue by someone worthy and talented, who paints directly from observation, from life. He is currently still a student with a lifetime ahead of him to work with this precious material, acquired through his commitment both to techniques and working directly from life.
For regular recipes of real gesso, charcoal paint, tempera, and oil paint, you can easily find similar techniques and recipes online. I have not tried any of these myself, so its at your own risk.

Since launching my Drawings Website in 2015, my work has greatly influenced the contemporary use of gessoed surfaces. I would like to stress here, that its my aim to actively protect the best of the real gesso recipes used in artworks, and in so doing preserve the method and genuine work of the ancient artists who originated the techniques in respect of the service they gave to artists of the future. Other living artists and artisans do the same. The original artisans and artists were (in my understanding) ego-free in their devotion and I sometimes wonder what they would make of the present outbreak of rampant competetiveness and ego mania that characterises many painters. Artists who describe themselves as having devotion are often a long way away from the reality of what devotion is, because devotion is always without ego and it is always related to truth.


Monday, September 02, 2019

Train Journeys with an Artwork

Further to my previous post on travel, and as many have requested to see more photographs of me - which is not so easy as I am fundamentally a shy person underneath of it all, not glamorous and quite plain. So here is a selfie of me travelling on an empty early morning Thameslink train, earlier this summer. I am delivering a painting before the morning rush hour. This is something I have done by train since my early student days. I always travel on an early train to avoid taking-up space during busier travelling hours. Last week, I attempted to calculate how many of my smaller artworks I may have delivered this way. It is probably more than 500, and when I also attempted to calculate the reduction this has made in my carbon footprint since 1972, I was really amazed by how much air pollution I have avoided creating by not driving. Occasionally, if I haven't had enough sleep, the train rocks me into a light slumber before the noisy rattling of the empty carriages or the unexpected opening of train doors at a station on the route, will suddenly wake me. There have been hundreds of lovely people met on these solitary journeys.These are people who often have their own remarkable story to tell about their reasons for travelling so early in the morning. I have travelled on trains throughout the world, and the most extraordinary views from the windows were in China in 1988, and Switzerland in 2006. The most efficient system I have encountered was the beautifully organised rail network in the Netherlands. In over ten years of travelling there from 1992 onwards, I never ever encountered a late or a cancelled departure. I have one lifelong desire for a certain train journey, which remains unfulfilled. This is to travel with a landscape sketch book on the Orient Express train. Its a wistful romantic dream, and I sometimes imagine what this might be like when I am travelling on the early morning stop-train through the suburbs of greater London.