I am not going to say I was influenced directly by the work of John Hedley but when I visited a gallery in Wales and I was quite taken by his work. He painted abstract paintings on slices of tree. Normally I struggle to understand abstract but I didn’t even try to understand. I was immediately drawn to the beautiful patterns he created on the wood. He used bright colours highlighted with gold. I imagine that he has simply followed the patterns on wood. I immediately connected with his work. It reminded me of one of those times when my dad told me about the biology of trees – the spaces between the rings tells us if the tree had experienced times of drought and conversely times of plenty. The concentric rings of the tree tells us how old it actually is.
I love trees. Nature is very beautiful. I think that is why I wanted to paint on wood. I didn’t want to create similar work to John Hedley as it would not serve the purpose of the assignment. His work was a reminder to me of my feelings towards nature.
As a little girl I thought that the big trees were like wise old men. They were big because they had lived a very long time and their bark had grown crinkled with age. The branches were his arms reaching out to cuddle and his leaves were like an umbrella to protect us from the rain.
I researched bark painting and found that although bark painting has reached the far corners of the globe it originated in Australia. Native Australians would paint sacred designs on bark. Sometimes the elements of a story would be evident but often the markings were symbolic. Dotted wavy lines would signify a dream-like story of a path of a creator spirit. There seemed also to by a hierarchy of native Australian artists who created such spiritual paintings and the ‘apprentice’ artist who was only allowed to paint stories. The interpretation of such paintings is difficult for non-indigenous cultures to understand. I think an interesting feature of this wonderful Australian art is that the painting is divided by a series of blocks to depict different scenes in a story, with the all segments telling the entire story.
Geometric designs are representational symbols. The meaning of these symbols would depend on context and on who painted the painting.
The same symbol would therefore have different meanings. For example, a circle might represent a water hole, a campsite, a mat, a campfire, a nut, an egg, a hole left by maggots, etc., depending on context. Sign language is also like that with the same symbol used in many different ways and can be interpreted through the context.
Nahua Indians of Guerrero, Mexico also painted traditional designs onto bark. They would prime the bark by boiling it then beating it with a stone so the fibers would fuse together. They would begin painting by applying a coat of ochre then adding their design of bright village scenes, wildlife and nature.
I didn’t want my painting to tell a story as such. I wanted my painting to show my collection of flowers. Having broken my ribs I was very restricted in movement and was looking for answers that would allow me to embrace my limitations. I sourced A5 panels of tree bark from the internet. Rather than split the painting into sections, I chose to use panels to represent aspects of my collection that together would be one composition.
In Part 1 my tutor suggested that I throw the rule book away and stop trying to control the paint and try to understand it. I hope that I will be able to show how I have done this.
I found that bark had to be primed with a light coat of gesso or acrylic paint. I chose acrylic paint as a ground and gouache because I liked how you could push the paint on the acrylic surface. I had originally toyed with painting teddy bears or sweets but rejected this in favour of nature. Besides the texture of the bark was not right for the subject and when I researched I found that both teddies and sweets had been painted by so many artists. I wanted my paintings to be different to that of others.
Flowers seemed to be a natural choice for the bark. I coated the bark with beige titanium as a ground for the paint. I then selected a number of flowers (some I am told are weeds) that had interesting qualities. The poppy had delicate leaves, the fuchsia had soft matt petals and the flower with the unusual green and black calyx was shiny and rubbery with a beautiful soft purple flower. Some had lots of layers of petals and others had few petals. I felt I had a good range of shapes and colours.
I looked to a number of different artist who painted flowers and objects from nature. Although I loved Vija Celmins work with nature I couldn’t see her style influencing my bark paintings. However, I feel that I echoed her approach to art. She talked about how her subject photographs made the un-accessible more accessible. She also spoke about how she would handle found objects in an almost meditative way. When I approach my work on fossils and rocks I do so in a mindful meditation giving thought to formation and history. Andy Goldsworthy enjoys working with natural objects. He tries to understand and discover nature by exploring it with his senses. “I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.” 1
In this assignment I had to photograph my subject because I could not paint outdoors. I wanted my collection to be a diverse range of shapes and colours as well as texture.
We were asked to use a strong light on the subject. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this. Photographs are 2 dimensional and lighting on a photograph limits the notion of 3 dimensions. Therefore, the light did not seem appropriate. In painting 1 we looked at using the background to make shape and tone. I used this approach for much of my work. I had to play with the backgrounds in order to create shape and tone in the flowers. The ability to move the paint about to create the desired effect led me to use acrylic on the ground and gouache to paint the flowers. When I painted the flowers I still found it very difficult to show light using gouache. I tried painting the flowers white then over painting them. Gouache went a bit cloudy so I had to use acrylic paint for this part. I think it worked fairly well. The acrylic made the colours stronger and brighter and so I was able to under-paint the areas I wanted to show light.
The undulations on the bark may have been problematic but I was conscious of not getting bogged down in detail and concentration on tone and colour. The background colours are varied. Again I tried to make my focus colour and not detail. Using the painterly qualities of gouache on acrylic I could push and drag the paint to create new colour and tone. Gouache dries fairly rapidly so the painting had to be quick. Fast was fun… It felt playful – I wanted to reflect that in my work.
In this is painting I used the wood itself as a background with only a light coat of beige titanium on the bark. I painted the shape of the plant using white acrylic.
I used the background to create the shape of the petals. I like the line and composition of this painting. It is soft and gentle and makes me feel relaxed and calm. I think it is the pale grey, blue and lilac tones mixed with the pastel green leaves that are calming to the eye.
I tried painting on scrunched up cling-film, then transferring it onto a pale blue ground. I liked the ground but I added brush-marks on top using opaque colours to add the illusion of light.
The white flowers were ‘painted’ on white acrylic patch. I use the term ‘painted’ loosely here. I squeezed the paint straight from the tube then moved it about using a knife. When dry I added yellow/green anthers to the flowers. The buds were painted first of all with white acrylic then green and finally a smaller white/cream dot on top. I needed to do it this way in order to build up colour and tone.
I am told this plant is in fact a weed. That is a pity because they are growing rather well in my garden. I went through the same process of layering the paint in this painting. I am pleased that the flower (weed) is the focus and the leaves are muted and soft…almost out of focus. I felt that the leaves were similar to those in Paul Cezanne’s painting ‘Flowers and Pears’ in that detail is subtle with patches of tone indicating light. Cezanne made use of the negative space in order to create shape. I was conscious of doing this in my painting.
This is my least favourite because the dark background is too dark. The only positive is that the background created the shape of the flowers. Perhaps I should have added more flowers and reworked the ground.
I think if I had spent more time working the ground with lighter green and yellow that it might have looked more pleasing to the eye. I think I didn’t make the flowers big enough to command the ‘canvas’. The saving grace is the hints of other plants in the background.
I like this painting because it reminds me of Renoirs ‘Roses’and the flowers in his vase of flowers. They are almost out of focus but tone gives them shape. The flowers in the background almost melt into the blue ground. Only the sepals give this painting fine detail.
When I decided to paint poppies as part of my collection I looked at how Georgia O’Keefe painted poppies. I particularly liked how she painted ‘Oriental Poppies’ with orange and yellow translucent petals.
I tried various ways to create the light on the petals. In the end I under-painted areas on the petals with white acrylic on the areas where light made the petals seem almost transparent. I think it worked. I built up the colour several times not because the quality of the paint but because I wanted to make a marked difference between light and dark areas of the petals. I think the rough bark added character to this painting and created shadow of its own. I think I got quite adventurous with the colour. I wanted to use a complementary colour against the orange petals to make flowers appear bold and more vibrant. I am pleased with the result.
When I painted this I wanted to create a background that looked almost like a galaxy behind the flowers. I had been looking at Vija Celmin’s work on the ‘Night Sky’ and liked the notion that the plant was a tiny part of the infinate universe…part of the ‘big picture’ if you like. I think it is as Vija Celmins says the accessible flower making the inaccessible night sky more accessible.
This is the last piece of my collection. It is a relatively simple piece. The buds in the foreground show the light from the sun whilst the buds in the background lose that detail. It creates a bit of distance in the painting. I used a lot of blue to create the shadow and the ‘out of focus’ leaves. I used a dry brush technique for the background. The light would appear to be coming from the white area in the back of the painting. In fact the light was coming from above.
The overall effect of the bark paintings is that they appear to have a lot of texture and colour. The texture creates light in the raised areas and shadow in the dark areas.
Analysing my work
How does it make me feel?
When I looked at my finished collection I tried to look at it as if looking at it for the first time. It was difficult for me to be impartial as I immediately connect with the painting. The connection is personal. Too often I look at my work and categorise it by subject or colours I like. In this painting I have handled the bark, touched the flowers and felt the texture. I see the world with wonder and the flowers fill me with that feeling of wonder. How many different plats are out there? Millions…all different, unique and each plant part of a collection that man cannot comprehend. That feeling I guess is personal but I hope that observers can make that connection.
Do you like the work?
I like the work because there is a quality about the brushstrokes that makes it interesting. The surface is so textured that fine work was never going to happen. The backgrounds are painted rapidly to create a movement and atmosphere. Together with the background and ground the painting is expressive.
What does it remind you of?
The paintings hark back to my youth when I spent a lot of time working in the garden with my parents…not really knowing the names of the flowers but feeling the tight little buds and soft petals and appreciating the beauty in each. My parents loved flowers so I guess that the painting reminds me of good times.
Part of the composition annoys me. I don’t like the centre piece. It feels ‘forced’ and ‘hash’ by comparison to the other pieces that make up the composition. The painting of the poppies shows consideration to foreground, middle ground and background with buds out of focus in the middle / background and detail in the foreground. The first, second, fourth, sixth, seventh eighth and nineth also demonstrate this quality. I am tempted to rework the fourth piece to make it more in line with the others. The individual paintings do enhance the meaning of the painting. I wanted to painting to reflect the diverse range of beautiful flowers and textures.
The background of the paintings is abstract whereas the flowers are impressionist in style. An impression was necessary because the texture made it impossible to paint tiny detail. The abstract background was to create the illusion of depth so it needed to be significantly less detailed than the flower.
There is a mixed pallet with some use of complementary
colour. For example the oranges of the poppy against the blue background make the colours appear brighter. The soft pinks of the rosebuds set against soft green leaves works to create a warm feeling.
The subject is made important by painting the flowers onto bark. The undulations on the surface of the bark reflects the ravages of time endured by the tree. The soft petals reflect the newness of growth that contrasts with the age of the bark. It is an example of old and young working in harmony. That contrast would be lost on any other ground.
The piece doesn’t have a name. If I had to name it anything I might call it ‘Eternal youth’. The sentiment would be that nature is as old as time and is always reproducing. No matter what it never gets old.