Studio Diaries
Winter 2023

A reflective glance back at the work made of the last few months.

Working on intimate, small format oil paintings have allowed me to explore details I had previously overlooked or underappreciated in my impressions of subjects.  Struggling to work on a sole piece without getting frustrated, this scale facilitates me to have many ideas to explore and pivot to at once. I have spent considerable time working on smaller cat portraits, with the character and form I explore in these applied to a larger piece called ‘Gathering’.

The scale reduction has further aided my fascination in finding out what expression can be achieved when I manipulate and stretch the possibilities of the mediums I am using. Enchanting things have emerged from the layers added or sacrificed in the making. This really invigorates me when painting due to the playfulness of pushing the boundaries of my materials, discovering new ways to create impressions of light and atmosphere. It also demands that I am less precious over the marks I have formed prior, a process of letting go in trust that further layers and exploration may invite new realms of potential within the image. I find this is a key aspect of ‘magic realism’ for me – finding ways to express the everyday minutiae of the interior and natural world which reflects the remarkability I perceive in it. I wish to really dramatize the specific parts of simple things I find extraordinarily captivating.

I experienced this spell-bounding feeling when confronted by swans during night walks by the Thames and Serpentine. I can’t quite put the magnetism of this into words, but I was thrilled to portray it when I got back to my canvases. Perhaps, it’s the amazement that something so graceful exists just a stone’s throw from London busy thoroughfares. It may have been the darkness from which the pure white entities emerged and the busied headspace the sight of them freed me from. The specific vision of the ghost-like gliders was enthralling, with an ambivalence to the rush which surrounds them, stage lit by the glaring neon lights of Winter Wonderland or the light polluting towers in visible proximity. Within the artificiality, nature still has a beguiling presence, almost haunting knowing the way we consistently drive it further out of our cities. When reading ‘Leonora Carrington - Surreal Spaces,’ it struck me that during her years spent as an art student in London, she would seek out the “world of our dream and imagination,” in paintings which shocked her in their appeal such as Max Ernst’s ‘Two Children are Threatened by a  Nightingale’ from Read’s 1936 exhibition; this show was an attempt to introduce surrealism into the London art scene. The surrealism which excited her in this was also discovered in visits to the city’s zoo to escape the isolating experience of being a debutante.

Max Ernst ‘Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale‘ 1924

I connected with the interest and solace Leonora found in the presence of nature, going to the zoo daily out of the compulsion in being drawn back to its atmosphere. She says, “I knew the animals better than I knew the girls of my own age,” feeling less out of place here than in the circles found in the tents of Buckingham, between the teacups, social mores, sexism, and horses. The zoo clearly became a site of escapism. In much the same way I felt a need to continue seeking out the swans in various locations due to their cosmic potential. A glorious mixture of fact and fantasy can be imagined in these spaces, as a whimsical sense of distance found in animals highlights our differences to the natural world and the limits of understanding those animals that we share the world with. The animals she experienced at the zoo sparked her surrealist fiction ‘The Debutant’ in which she teaches a hyena French, and in turn it teaches her its own language.

Listening to Andrew Cranston’s ‘Talk Art’ interview also insighted this cosmic shock found in the everyday experiences as an artist who draws upon animal subjects within his visual lexicon. Discussing the use of animal subjects in his artwork, he notes the strange presence they have. After seeing his exhibition in Wakefield, the cats, fish, and dogs in his paintings stood out to me as entities which added to the whimsicality of off-beat, dreamlike atmospheres created in the painter’s quiet interiors and warping landscapes. The subtle imaginative realm unfolding in ‘Eleven Cats’ recreates the experience of pets within their familiar domestic setting, yet their characters are only enhanced by the artist’s expression, painted from his limited human perspective. This highlights our inability to really know the inner workings of animal’s minds which restricts us to projecting personalities onto them to feel the comfort in their closeness. The cats add a sense of instability in a room which is already rendered to have a shaky foundation in a sense of reality.

Andrew Cranston ‘Little Boy’ 2020

This interspace in knowledge between humans and those animals we share our intimate spaces with was a cornerstone in my thought process when creating ‘Gathering’. I wanted to highlight this duality of physical proximity and of detachment. I wished to exhibit cats in a more naturalistic way, but still facilitating magic realism. In the rebel spirit of Carrington who believed in equality for all forms of life, I believe they don’t need to be appropriated by gendering or imbuing with imagery to carry a strong presence within an artwork. They are in themselves a fascinating subject who deserve to build their own histories not associated with these human ones or reifying them. Artists such as Leonor Fini felt more “linked to nature,” as a painter who held the value in the subversions of gender found animality “in favour of a world where there is little or no sex distinction.” Animal souls present to us the hidden aspects of human nature, the wild instincts that are domesticated. Cats are interesting in that there is a fine line between the domestication they adopt as sharers of our spaces in conjunction with the independent spirit they maintain, as well as an apparent ambivalence to human social conventions.

‘Gathering’ finished Dec 30 2023

In both Carrington’s and Cranston’s paintings there is a theatrical staging which is brilliant. I attempt to cull imagery from drama and weave this into interpretations of everyday to heighten the sense of tension between actual and fantasy. As an artist obsessed with the slippery atmosphere of the night, Cranston’s moody evening scenes are pronounced through the imaginative possibilities of a more elusive part of the day when we are closer to dreaming than reality. I suffuse this shiftiness linked to the night through the shadowy layering of my own painting. As I sought to attend to applying a dubious darkness to my piece, I found a challenge came up in creating shadows for the cats who were already floating on a deeply dark colour field. Not wishing to deepen the surface in which they occupied, I eventually found I could lighten the negative space around their shadows. Despite enjoying their phantom like presence, I knew that I wanted to ground them within the space through their shadows, so finding a way to cast an impression of this was a crucial breakthrough in the making process. I felt adding shadows did not reduce the fantastical presence they demanded, as the expression of their form in unreliable dripping marks already had imbued them with bodies which contradict their existence.

Now, unfortunately I am not as gallant in my self-expression as the likes of Fini, who has a wonderful range of photographs of her cross-dressing as brilliantly fabulous animal spirits. I am sometimes known to sport a feline flick on the eyes! However, I find my paintings a place to explore this fascination and awe of my fellow animals in natural vignettes, obsessively rendering cats, and now swans. I wish to build portraits of lucidity and make impressions that stage the subjects in a way that demonstrates the intrinsic magic they inhabit spaces with. Thick strokes of white paint representing the fluffy bloom of feathers cascading through the work’s surface contrast from the otherwise flat, lucid burnt umber plane, from which the heavy-bodied, long-necked birds emerge. Luminaries of the lake - amongst other birds, ducks, and geese, they are often the stars of the show. Their snow-flake white, tintless hues mean they demand attention, standing out against their environment. They refuse to blend in to the backdrop, even during the night, each phantom entity is contrasting against the ink black pools and sky.

Leonor Fini wearing a ball costume and the famous mask of a Snowy Owl (ca. 1949)

I hope that I achieve the same drama I found in Cranston’s domestic scenes; something alluring about the ambience is that it is uncanny and whimsical. Theatrics are a great way to disconnect somewhat, approaching a tipping point between reality and fantasy. There is comfort found in a brief snapshot of a natural vista or the presence of our feline friends within our home-making spaces. In the same way animals remind us of our basic instincts, there is something condoling about the proximity of theatrics to real life which provides a refreshing lens on human absurdity and impermanence that epitomises the idea of a show. Our ongoing sense of closeness to animals reminds us of our fundamental need for companionship and connection. These brief snapshots refuse conclusion, thriving in ambiguity and puzzle, that embodies the uncertainty and instability of the contemporary world.

Oil painting completed Dec 17 2023

When I attended a Marina Abramovic talk in November at the Royal Geography society, her declaration of ‘the body being the home’ stuck with me, as she commented on how she maintained this sense of place and familiarity as someone who travelled much. When you view your body as an embodiment of a physical home, you are connecting it to the same sense of safety and comfortability associated with this counterpart. Thus, this would give you the sense of strength found in the ease of home wherever you may have to go. I think that birds are great embodiments of this. Swans, as inhabitants of an impermanent water-based home, demonstrate an ease and grace in wherever they rest on bodies of water; they are a species that can adapt and relocate quickly if forced to migrate. There is something empowering about valuing the body as a home, the ability to connect with our physical selves, and nurture this connection in acknowledgement of the consistency of this vessel in an unpredictable world. Going forward, I can envisage a continuation of this idea in a return to paintings of the human form.

Even within this madness, sometimes I experience a sense of fairy-tale, such as a gathering of swans that seem to be beamed from another dreamlike dimension. Often, you know what you’re looking at, but you can’t find the words to describe it.