Lady in waiting

What is better suited to this fantastical art style potpourri than a cringy play on words? A lady-in-waiting was the aristocratic version of a lady’s personal assistant. The lady in my painting is waiting, the poem is about waiting, you see where this is going:

A windswept emptiness
Fills my restless body,
Prodding corners of my mind 
For leftovers of peace. 

Nights come early and grow short 
Days are scattered,
Fallen leaves under a barren tree
Waiting for rhythm. 

Waiting casts its spell
Parting patient from impatient. 
Waiting matters more than
What, whom, or why. 

Patience turns children old
And vulgar into virtuous. 
Impatience demands sacrifice
And gives it to the wind. 

Art making-of

The cover image is another painting I’ve put a lot of effort into (~3 days work). The positive with these longer works is that having plenty of time for my mind to wander while painting, I keep changing the idea; alone working on something for more than a day almost guarantees the way I feel about it will change. I call it exploratory painting: first I want to identify what it is I want to paint, then I can think about structuring my study to gain necessary skills.

This way of working shows clearly in this piece in more than just the mistakes, impulse decisions, and leftovers from previous versions: the head of the lady I’ve left in a simplified style resembling Japanese art, mostly because attempts to put detail on that scale got me nowhere. I aimed for a reasonably accurate anatomical construction, I tried to paint the body with some volume, and after all that work I mostly covered it up in an attempt at mythical, entrapping garment design. To add the third piece to this concoction, I constructed the setting with a fairly accurate representation of a reddish sky, a distant darkened landscape, and a foreground affected by the supernatural, rendered with a decent amount of solidity, but perhaps questionable colour matching with the background – I was aiming for supernatural after all.

The joy of waiting

I can thank the Bob Ross shows for title inspiration here.

I am an impatient person. It’s a double-edged sword: it pushes me to do a lot, try new things, cut corners if I have to, but it also works against me: poorly thought out decisions, less than polished work, and just a waste of energy at times. Striving to make some better quality paintings requires patience, dedicating enough time to work on them to achieve decent results. And investing that time apparently pays off, although I’ve previously argued it probably wouldn’t. I think the value in finding this patience is the time it opens up to thought, as mentioned above. The idea evolves, even if the execution is only going to be as good as my ability at this time.

And that’s how I am beginning to find the joy of waiting. Active waiting (in this case meticulously applying paint) seems to be the way forward.

Lady New Year

A thousand times she's threaded
Needle eye on frayed yarn of time.
Now she toasts a flute to sun's
Ludic chase of cousin moon. 

Popes, heads, and states have
Charted her passing in clay,
On hide and beyond the ether
In sand and flame and flow. 

She cares little and hopes
People would once seek
Her company and clink
Not celebrate her passing, blink.

Happy New Year, everyone! I got the idea for this painting only on the 30th of December and it turned out to be more difficult and ambitious than I expected.

I am not a fan of making resolutions, but here is one which seems appropriate to the subject: in 2022 I want to make more of these (distantly) Mucha inspired works.

Alphonse Mucha was a painter, illustrator, and designer (and much more), perhaps best known for his famous Art Nouveau posters he produced at the end of the 19th century in Paris, which helped launch his fruitful career. He is one of the artists I discovered in 2021 and who has impressed me the most with his ability to combine realism with fantastical beauty.

A comparative study on choosing a painting medium

The ‘triptych’ I’ve used as the cover image presents the three works I’ve made around the idea of ‘Madness’. Besides covering my experience as a beginner artist working with these mediums and discussing the results, I also want to share my thoughts on the meaning and composition of this work. I have touched previously in my article on ‘The Value of Art‘ on the frustration artists feel not having their work understood and appreciated. I want to address this simply by explaining my own art. It seems sensible that the person best equipped to provide such commentary is the author themselves. My feeling is contemporary artists are inclined towards ignoring the issue of explaining, or altogether refuse to comment when asked to. Conversely, all art deserves a bit of attention, and commentary should not be reserved for museum masterpieces having their descriptions written by art historians. It is all about making art accessible.

Before doing any painting, I spent a lot of time working on drawing the linework for a template. I don’t have such great ability with portraits, and I wanted the model to be consistent so I could explore colours and effects. The idea behind the composition is simple. Madness is our mind turned against us, disconnected from ourselves, blown out of proportion and alien. That is why the body is seen from the back, disconnected from the massive head looking down onto it.

‘Madness’ – Ink wash on watercolour paper

For the first version I painted using ink: an ink wash. I am thankful for my art class teacher having taught this. I used black writing ink, which I found worked just fine, and I quite liked the hues developed by the ink separating as it ran in and on the paper. If you want to see more on this, here is a Youtube video of me playing with markers and paper chromatography. Working in black and white was a good way to explore giving the face and body features through the use of light and shadow. I then used this as a further model to develop the series. My scientist training was showing itself off in the experiment design. I left the background white to ensure I had contrast.

‘Madness’ – oil pastels on watercolour paper

I then moved on to using oil pastels (which I had never used before) to explore some colours. I wanted plenty of strong contrasts and intense colours to support the theme of the work. If you want to do some quick exploration on colours, this is the medium, out of the ones I have worked with, that I would recommend. It is so easy, and so bold, and I only used some beginner grade materials. The yellow body gets lost in the sea of orange, which contrasts with the light blue of the upper background, again indicating separation. The peachy, fleshy tone of the head, perhaps not miles away in colour from the body, stands out on the bright blue background. I chose the bright green/brown combination for the eyes, both because mixing these pastels is not easy unless you have a broad space on your support and I didn’t have many colours, and because I wanted to bring the added touch of uncanny to the face of madness.

‘Madness’ – oil paint on paper primed with acrylic gesso

Finally, I moved to using oil paints. Using this medium I was able to return to working on the more intricate construction of shading (failures all mine, not the medium’s), as I had done using the ink wash, and continued exploring colours. A striking, gaudy mix of colours was what I was after. Right now while writing this, I like it. I feel it’s better than the oil pastel version. My opinion varies. Working in oil, I had the option of adding brush marks for texture in the background. The circular ones around the body are an experiment abandoned. I liked them, then changed my mind, but didn’t do anything about it. Boredom installed. They build on the idea of separating self from madness, but not really going places. I found building the face in this dark, intense colour really hard, made more challenging by the sheen of the oils under uneven artificial lighting. I started by applying a coat of the base colour, then added white or black, and did most of the mixing on the painting. Perhaps, this is what caused the trouble; I worked the other way round to how I had done for the ink wash, when I built the colour gradually using mostly heavily diluted ink. I added the extra detail of making the pupils the same yellow as the background under the face to indicate the emptiness of madness: it lies, distorts, appears massive and believable, but there is no substance to it. It is a mask.

What have I learnt? If there is an idea you want to put out, it might be worth exploring different mediums, especially if you are a beginner like me. If you also get easily bored, like I do, it can be a difficult experiment. The only downside I find to using oils, as far as the artwork is concerned, is how long they take to dry. They mostly don’t and you have to work around that. That is why I have separately explored acrylics. I will write about that in the future. I think the ink or the oils could be used to produce finished works even by unskilled hands like mine. The oil pastels however are just too rough for that, they might be limited to making sketches.

And yes, I am aware none of the faces have eyelashes. For the tonal work, I have no excuse really. I could have drawn them in, but assumed they wouldn’t show up in the photo anyway. Lesson learnt. With pastels, I guess I could have scratched them in there, if I had used a coloured paper. With oils, same, or I could have waited for the eyes to dry, and then painted them over. And if you think it’s weird I did all this, just to then cut corners on the details, read my article on “Analysing the ‘It’s good enough‘ mentality” for clarification.

The Value of Art

What determines the market value of a piece of artwork? I believe there is no escaping the principle of matching supply to demand that economy uses to set price. When it comes to art, supply can vary greatly. On one end of the spectrum we find unique, handmade masterpieces. On the other end come mass-produced reproductions, which have never been graced by the hands of the artist, or more recently, digital art, which although in principle available in infinite supply, is the object of the ongoing NFT bubble.

Demand and the underlying desirability of a piece are more difficult to quantify. Let’s start with quality. Quality refers to the skill and attention that the artist invested in making the artwork, and if applicable, the physical materials. I think it is instructive at this point to consider the scenario of the artist selling the newly-made piece first hand. They might be relying on the profits for their livelihood and therefore consider the returns per time spent (alas, bills must be paid) and any other expenses (materials, hardware, software). It is a rather common image, up to the point of becoming a stereotype, we see when thinking of the ‘starving artist’. And some artists promote this themselves. Not to say they do not perhaps have it hard, but being furious with the buyer who is trying to minimise expenditure (I am thinking of commission work for areas of art beyond ‘fine’: illustration, advertising) is not all that productive. Bob ‘the builder’ who needs a logo for his business will not care how much time and effort it takes to make the vector art, no matter how much the artist tries to drive the point home. And the public probably doesn’t know. They might however be willing to listen. My point is, artists explaining their efforts in an understandable way cannot hurt them. And it will at least win them the sympathy of the public.

And this brings me to the next point: how the public judges quality. The buyer looking for something ‘that will look nice on the living room wall’ will not appreciate the accuracy in the still life, the subtle and fine rendering of light and shadow or the quality in the composition. There is one caveat I find curious. In the 21st century, when almost everyone has a rather advanced camera in their pocket, people are still largely attracted to photorealistic and therefore highly accurate work. I think this is for two reasons: by having something to compare to in real life, they can judge the artwork without artistic training and by imagining the tedious work the artist puts in, they develop appreciation for the work. I am not a trained artist. But personally I feel the most exquisite rendering of a real life scene can be terribly boring. And a rough work made by an amateur can be very exciting if the subject is picked well.

On this point, I understand the frustration of the artist community: it is not only financial, but fundamental. Art is about more than the paint on the canvas or the bronze in the statue. Selling something that does not mean much to you, or conversely, not selling what means the world to you can leave you feeling desperate and betrayed. And then the anger gets vented on the public.. Everyone deserves to have their work appreciated, subject and proportional to their ability and putting in the effort. It is therefore essential for artists to find an audience that appreciates their work and is willing to spend the right amount for it.

But what about the public then? Do they only need wall decoration and business promotion? Art can be traded, but it can also be cherished. For the present article, I think it doesn’t matter. But in order not to give the public a bad image, I will discuss briefly. I was brought up in an artless environment, a culture which denigrated artists and their work. Conditioned, but also naturally resulting from the hardship of life. As far as necessities go, art is lower on the list, below food, housing, and money. Not surprising that the situation of people, regardless of where they live, not having enough money, looking at the ‘starving artist’, who has even less than they do, and not understanding what art is about leads to art being demonised.

The world works by people trading and forming interdependence relationships. Someone needs art, someone makes art. To go full circle, let’s go back to the issue of supply. Another way of looking at supply is through the question of originality. I feel this is important because, as mentioned, people deserve their efforts appreciated, and by tagging each work with the right name we are making this possible. Can overestimating the value of art (or anything else for that matter) be detrimental? I surely believe so, and that is why I think the NFT bubble is ridiculous, as is overpriced art in general. To summarise, an NFT (‘non-fungible token’) is a digital construct meant to identify the ‘original’ of a digital piece of art that is otherwise infinitely reproducible. My metaphor for explaining this is as follows: the NFT owner has a photo of the moment the artist ‘signed’ the work, and who the owner of the photo is, is recorded on a public database. The photo is the one with provenance, not the artwork. Here’s two examples of what I mean by overpriced (but not to say lacking value): digital art on Foundation App and physical works by Mark Rothko. I am sure some of the digital work being sold took great skill and effort to make. I am not a fan. I have seen the Seagram Murals in person. I am not a fan. The problem with such works, which have their immense price derived from status or pure financial drive, is that they drag art away from the general public and into the sphere of a minute fraction of the population. People can appreciate art without owning it, but a ridiculous price tag puts people off and creates a mental barrier: ‘Art is for the rich’. A practical one may exist as well: if the physical work of art is not in the public domain yet, the owner can choose to make it essentially inaccessible.

I think people need to make their own judgment when it comes to the value of art in general, and of particular works. I just hope this article will make them broaden their list of considerations.