“Nothing Is Arbitrary”

Thesis is done and out of the way. The research was fascinating, the writing just a chore. I wonder about the scores of these reluctantly written texts which are destined never to be read ever again. I wonder if this is the right way of assessing the understanding of essentially visual subjects.

However after a short break to beat the garden into submission I am back to work. A few weeks ago I wrote about the excellent egg tempera course I attended. On the first day Dr Spike Bucklow of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge gave a short introduction to tempera and  particularly its medieval  uses. His initial statement, referring to both the artists, and the paintings, was

“Remember, at this time, nothing is arbitrary”.

Everything about a painting from its pigments to its supports, its media and its content was carefully considered. He spoke about the alchemy of paint and painting, of the community surrounding and involved in the production of paintings and that community’s ability to read the significances of both paint and content, which we have largely lost.
Sometimes the deeper meanings are not in the image but are within the paint itself.

This remained with me as I wrote my thesis and thought about the materiality of the Russian Artists Books I was researching. It remained with me as I learnt more about the simple ingredients, precious pigments and beautiful dyes used to make Persian Miniatures, and as I started thinking about my major project which notionally is set in the 17th Century and concerns plants and medicines and a certain amount of alchemy. There are many parallels between making paint and making medicine ( and making food). Sometimes they use the same ingredients. Sometimes that is not a good idea.

I am also reading Spike’s book “The Alchemy of Paint”, so in these early stages of the project rather than just reach for the nearest tube of paint I have started to make some of my own. Firstly: … Beetroot and Woad. ..


What a very lovely combination. I could also drink it or cover myself with awesome tattoos in preparation for the Last Battle.

“Remember …nothing is arbitrary” :)…..

Leaf of the Day: A Curate’s Egg and Months of Beetroot

My work on the plantain is over for now. It is, maybe, a curate’s egg, but then it is my first botanical painting.
However people feel about this kind of painting, for an artist it is an exercise in close observation and discipline. Discipline in being careful and methodical. It is so easy, after years of painting, to become lazy and slapdash and to rely on some slick tricks. So however frustrating and agonisingly slow this may be, it will be worth while.
My personal taste in painting covers a broad spectrum. I am delighted by both Rothko and Rembrandt, but I had always admired the beauty and the particular quirkiness of botanical paintings, and they are, what they are. If you wanted to write some “art bollocks” about them you could probably intellectualise about the “examination and isolation of the object ” but really they are just honest bits of painting.
What perhaps they do do, is to ask you to look closer at things you may see everyday.
I recently found this old 1997 review “Beetroot Descending a Staircase” of Shirley Sherwood’s collection of botanical art which was then on show in New York. It was written by Ann Raver who writes beautifully about gardening in the New York Times and although more than ten years old, all she says is still relevant.

“DR. SHIRLEY SHERWOOD peered hard at ”Beetroot,” a watercolor by the Australian painter Susannah Blaxill, and moved in on it like some botanist observing a rare vegetable in the field.
”You have to really stick your nose into it,” said Dr. Sherwood, ”Look at every one of these green bits built up with 15 layers of paint,” she added. ”And the same with the red. Then stand back and see how she uses the white of the paper.”
We stood back to look at the Blaxill, A spot of light — really just unpainted paper — glowed from somewhere inside the beet, making the vegetable float in pure white space like an abstract object in a void.
Yet, ”Beetroot” is more beetlike than any beet I have ever seen. Its crinkled red and green leaves, its vermilion stems edged with purple, the sheen on its rounded hairy root are accurate, yes. But there is an intimacy to this beet, a vigor so condensed that it verges on surreal.
The best way to know plants, as any gardener knows, is to try to draw one. You have to look at how the leaf joins the stem or wonder what those hairy things on the rose hip are. Even if you’ve grown the plant for years, you may not have seen these things.

I get bored with discussions of which paintings are art and which are ”just” science. If I turn away from a painting more aware of some essence of a flower or vine, I am more alive. That’s why these paintings should be on view somewhere — in a museum of art or science. Is it art or science? Sometimes, as in nature, it is both.

From, New York Times April 1997 read more here

Here is a detail of that beautiful beetroot, painstaking painted by Susannah Blaxill. Talking about it, at another more recent opening, Shirley Sherwood said
“She really is considered one of the very, very best. It took her months to do this painting, months. She said her family never wanted to eat beetroot ever again.”

I don’t think I should have put the beetroot in the same post as my plantain but she really is such a superb artist.
My three day stint seems lightweight compared with her months, my five layers of paint as nothing to her fifteen ..However I am just learning, so here is the inch by inch progress I am making. By lunchtime I was this far….

By three o’clock I decided enough was enough.. (you see.. lightweight!)
I am glad it’s done. I can’t quite yet say “finished” ..

Water Plantain Final