Sunday, 3 July 2016

Giants in Thimbles V - Flowers of the Soul

I am happy to say that the first third of the collection is now complete. I spent a long time signing, dating and cataloguing them all. The signing process was a bit tricky this time around as the boarders of these leaves and the empty (or claustrophobic) white space round each leaf is incredibly important to the overall piece and I found that my signature kept interfering with each arrangement. I had been contemplating a signature change of late, as most people seem to know me as 'Inky Leaves' rather than 'Jess Shepherd' these days, but in the end I decided to stick to the old signature. I tried everything from logo transfers and monograms to pictures and name changes and none of them worked with the leaves. They just drew too much attention to themselves. So here I am, I remain to be 'Jess Shepherd' but in the form of a teeny-tiny signature.

Botanical painting of a yellow leaf
Close up on the latest leaf, a Catalpa bignonioides. Watercolour on paper. 76 x 56cm

So with the signatures done I then spent a good few hours transferring both long and short stories about each leaf on the back. Each story included the catalogue number, the pseudonym, their Latin name and geographical locations at point of collection. Occasionally I have written where I painted it or how I was feeling when I found the leaf. Two of the pieces are denoted as siblings (Vincent and Victoria), two are about love (Judas and India) and of course four paintings came from the same tree (India, Indiana, Indie and Indo). Speaking of which, here's part of the mummified leaf of 'Indo' - leaf 100820151542 (above).

I feel that these brief accounts on the reverse of each painting are really important to do as not only do they give each item provenance, but they also reflect my own personality as a story teller and writer. I also rather like the fact that they are hidden and will probably not be found until well after I am dead, rather like the writings and lost paintings found on the backs of Marianne North's paintings in Kew during the most recent restoration project. 

Hidden Marianne North painting
Painting discovered on the back of painting 366 during the restoration of the Marianne North Gallery

I am not sure if you remember, but I decided to start writing on the backs of paintings soon after I wrote my first 'Giants in Thimbles' post about the collection because I wanted the pieces to have a temporal aspect to them as well as a visual. At the time I wasn't sure what I was accessing and why I wanted to do this. I have been always aware of how important the element of time is in botanical art, but back then I guess I also felt that the vastness of time was fitting for a collection such as this which questions scale and life so intimately, and, as time has ticked on (excuse the pun), I now feel much clearer on what it is I am trying to add to the pieces. I suppose it is a sense of nostalgia.

Collection of botanical paintings on leaves
Writing the stories in the UK before framing. 

As I continue ask myself the fundamental question of 'what is it that moves me?’, I start to think about the memory and nostalgia in the context of the sublime - the flowers that make up the flowerbed of our souls and the terror of a time lost. C. S. Lewis refers to this feeling as 'Sehnsucht' - a German world that describes something that is intensely missing. Retrospection is huge - it can rattle through us all of the time to the point that the constant yearning for a time long lost can take over rational perception. One grapples with it - lost time is always there. We are, after all, the product of our memories, but you can't hold them in your arms. Nostalgia, like the memory, is vast and it is infinite in that there is no boundary to it - it is a dreamscape. One cannot simply join all the memories up back to a single point in time like the Big Bang because memories get fuzzy and punctuated the further back you go. There is no beginning or end, mere snippets that hint at a boundary.

Memory interests me on a number of levels because not only is it huge but it also, like a Gothic novel, can be deeply disturbing. The constant searching for a time long lost can bring on great sadness as well as horror and a sense of dread. Our horror over lost time is most likely linked to an awareness over our own mortality. Looking at it under the microscope and focusing on it threatens our sense of self preservation. Thinking however is different, in thinking we rebell against the tyranny of time and a hedge against the terror of our finitude (Arendt, 1981). With this I recognise that there is a difference between gentle reflection and nostalgia. However, memory will always have a magical quality to it. It allows us to time travel whenever we want to and it fundamentally, like language, makes us 'us'. It gives us our consciousness. If you can picture your memories, then you can imagine your future. However if you can't remember anything at all, then the future must simply just turn into a blank space, rather like the past. 

Catalpa bignoinoides leaf, 76 x 56cm, watercolour on Saunders Waterford HP

“The future enters into us” (Rilke)

"The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. " (Woolfe)

Clockwise from bottom left: John Randall Turney 1834 – 1905 (great, great, great grandfather), Nancy Lord b1825, (great, great, great, great, grandmother),  Arthur Fincham Turney 1874 – 1969 (great, great grandfather), Frank Nicholson (great, great grandfather), Grace Crowther (great, great, great grandmother), Jessie Pretoria Nicholson 1900 – 1978 (great grandmother), Frank Nicholson (great, great grandfather), Dora Shaw (great, great grandmother),  Frank Turney 1903 – 1988 (great grandfather), middle: Harriett Fincham 1840 – 1919 (great, great, great grandmother)

When I was young I used to work for the Weald of Sussex Lacemakers making lace. It happened quite by accident. I used to watch them do their demos at the museum and eventually they asked if I would like a go. I took to it like a duck to water and in a matter of a few weeks one of the lacemakers called Janet bought me the entire kit for my birthday. I felt so lucky. My mother then commissioned the local woodturner to make some personalised bobbins for me. These were indeed magical times.  I was drawn to the complexity of the lace as well as it's delicate nature. Things become as delicate as a memory with time, items fade and break. I feel our fascination with the intricate and fragile comes from us acknowledging our own fragility. There is a level of appreciation that comes from the intricacy of lace too. It is as if these complicated items condense time because they take so long to make. Intricately handmade items are reservoirs of time and despite being heavy and dense with time, they, like us, are defenseless to decay.

Greg Dunn's drawing of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is important for memory 
and navigation and coincidentally looks a bit like lace.

As a painter I am steadly becoming interested in how the 'vision' of nostalgia manifests in our minds as 'imaginary perception' or 'virtual perception'. For example, I am fascinated when people say that after seeing one of my big leaves they are instantly transported to the dens of their childhood where they can see the leaves up close. Often they deliver this very rational response after an irrational gasp. With time I have come to realise that this gasp is markedly a response to the memory rather than a simple reaction to a painting. The gasp is nearly always a deep rooted, primal gasp - its shrouded in shock, horror and pain - like a pinprick. Its an interesting reaction of horror and surprise and I wonder if it is the emotional response to an unexpected opening in the vastness of time. Unsuspecting, the observer wasn't ready for time travel, caught unawares they are harshly reminded of their mortalty and perceive it as a threat. Nostalgia, the type that can creep up on you, reminders that come out of the dark without you calling on them, are always perilous.

Greg Dunn's fantastic drawing of a cell in the retina. Twitter: @GDunnArt

After hearing about the 'den memories' of my clients I started to think about what one 'sees' when one remembers. I was surprised that the leaves, all supersized, took them right back so acutely. After much analysis I have come to realise that when I remember an occurrence or scene that happened long in the past, I,  like my clients, can only focus on the 'objects' and not the landscape. That object, so fully charged with sentiment, totally takes over like a landscape. Textures become magnified in their experience. As I sit and recall one of my biggest memories, which is of a place where many events occurred, I can't see 'the place'. The 'place' is instead represented by a myriad of tiny objects that reveal themselves in the form of a well organised kalaidoscope - one which refuses to be captured and contained but is organised nonetheless, and everything is blown up out of proportion. For example, I try to remember an area where I used to play - I try to remember the trees, the leaves, the map of the land, but all I can see is an old water butt in that area and pictorially the only thing that is in focus is the dried, green moss growing on it. There is a bigger landscape around me but it is blurred and out of focus. This seems odd to me as I have no real sentimental attachment to this waterbutt, but the moss does draw me in.

"Memory, that guardian of time, guards the instant alone. It preserves nothing, absolutely nothing, of our complicated and artificial sense of duration." (Bachelard)

I wonder if the blurring of the landscape is a result of my myopia (I couldn't really see as a child but this wasn't picked up on until I was 14 years old) and so attempting to test this further I think of another den, only the leafy floor with all of its crevices is in focus, or the bit of graffiti in one of the old metal huts. The rest is a blur, obscured by filtration. The fish pond - only the rough texture of the concrete container and the intense heat are memorable, not the fish. Behind the electricity building - only the flaking paint of a red telephone box and the smell of baking chalk is well defined. Only the flakes where my hand touches are in focus, or the textures governed by heat and smell, and I wonder if that is the answer. Is what one can only perceptively focus on in a state of nostalgia are the things that touched another sensory gland - be it sound, smell or touch - along with the eye and not just the eye alone? I am unable to focus on the wood as a whole, only the bark of an individual tree which I probably touched.

"Touch fills our memory with a detailed key as to how we're shaped, a mirror would mean nothing without touch. We are forever taking the measure of ourselves in unconscious ways. Touch teaches us that life has depth and contour; it makes our sense of the world. Without that intricate feel for life there would be no artist, whose cunning is to make sensory and emotional maps" (Ackerman, 1992).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields

As you are aware, our brains are able to interpret two-dimensional drawings as representing a three-dimensional objects. To do this, our perceptual system uses a series of educated guesses to fill in the gaps. Apparently, our brains use the same guessing process to reconstruct the past. Like with a puzzle, we piece together our memories, based on both what we actually remember and what seems most likely given our knowledge of the world. Just as we make educated guesses in perception, our minds’ best educated guesses help 'fill in the gaps' of memory, reconstructing the most plausible picture of what happened in our past. One of the things that interests me is something called ‘boundary extension’ – a remarkable phenomenon where our visual memories consistently recall seeing a more wide-angle image of a scene than what was actually present. This is due to our brain filling in the gaps and its role is to help us engage with the world that around us and beyond what we see. Rather predictably, boundary extension is reduced when we are emotionally roused or anxious, which resonates well with the cut-off edges in my botanical dystopia. So could boundary extension be another reason why the scenery is often blurred and why things like leaves and moss appear so crisp? Is this why in our memory, scale frequently reveals itself in a confused and chaotic state comparable to being in a chapter of Alice in Wonderland? 

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.” (Bachelard)

Botanical Art by Jess Shepherd
As a work in progress on the easel: Large Catalpa leaf, 76 x 56cm,
watercolour on Saunders Waterford HP in the UK pop-up studio

With my Alice in Wonderland leaves, I am also beginning to observe how the temporal quality of botanical art can be intensified with changes in scale. The manifestations of time in this branch of work are numerous (inclusion of life cycles, time to complete a piece etc.) so it is always there, lurking in the paint. Equipped with this understanding about the connection with scale and time I am reminded of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity and the discovery of 'spacetime' - a four dimensional description of our world that incorporates basic Euclidean geometry with time. It is beginning to feel as though the perceptive power of our memories is more closely linked to the four dimensional parable and I wonder if this is why our memories can also be so terrifying and subliminal - because they don't fit into our Euclidean 'interpretation' of the world. Is it that our memories not only remind us of our mortality and a time lost, but that it also connects us to the seemingly impossible, forcing us to question what is real and what is not? If we sit and think about it, consciousness has to be at least four dimensional, if not more, and maybe this is how art helps us to transcend our 'being'. I remember touching on this briefly before, but it is only now where I am starting to understand this from a more formulaic standpoint. 

"Time is a reality confined to the instant and suspended between two voids. Although time will no doubt be reborn, it must first die. It cannot transport its being from one instant to another in order to forge duration." (T. S. Eliot)

Whatever the case may be, I am happy to say that ten pieces of a rather large, muddled, botanical dystopian puzzle are now being put in their cages in a little shop in the backwaters of leafy Surrey.


Ackerman, D., (1992), 'A Natural History of the Senses', Vintage Books

Arendt, H., (1981), 'The Life of the Mind', Harcourt Publishing Ltd.
Bachelard, G., (2013), 'Intuition of the Instant', Northwesten University Press
Brady, T., (2008), 'Blurring the Boundary Between Perception and Memory', Scientific American
Carrol, L., (2007), 'Through the Looking Glass', Penguin Classics
Lewis, C. S., (1966), Surprised by Joy, Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich
Eliot., T. S., (1935), 'Burnt Norton, Collected Poems', 
Intraub & Richardson, (1989), Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory&Cognition, 15:179-187
Papova, M., (2016), 'Intuition of the Instant: French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Our Paradoxical 
Experience of Time', Brain Pickings
Papova, M., (2015), 'Virginia Woolf on the Past and How to Live More Fully in the Present', Brain Pickings
Papova, M., (2015), 'Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time', Brain Pickings
Rilke, M., (2011), 'Letters to a Young Poet', CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Smith, P., (2015), 'M-Train', Knolf Publishing Group
States of Mind (2016), 'Tracing the Edge of Consciousness', Wellcome Collection Exhibition Booklet
Swaminathan, N., (2007), 'Can you believe your shifty eyes?', Scientific American
Wittmann, M., (2016), 'Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time', MIT Press
Woolfe, V., (1985), 'Moments of Being', Harcourt Publishers Ltd.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Giants in Thimbles IV - Infinity

Poplar leaf, 76 x 56cm, Daler Rowney paint on Saunders Waterford

As I work away, my focus swings like a pendulum and I am back thinking about the Leafscape collection as opposed to the individual pieces. Just under a month ago, I displayed every thing in the Spanish studio and examined my changes in scale and tried to work out if I needed to fill in any obvious holes in the limited time I have left. It wasn't an easy task and consequently my brain started over firing. Visualising differences in scale is hard work. With a blown brain, unable to deal with that sort of problem solving, I ended up carrying out financial calculations on exhibition costs, which blew my brain a little bit more. What was my expensive hobby is now my expensive career! I went to bed over tired and anxious. The next morning I just got back on with it, as one does - ‘grinding away at the leaves’* and prepared some drawings for my next pieces for my spell in the pop-up gallery in the UK this summer.

Poplar wood
Poplar wood, Belicena, Spain. Photograph taken through the lens of my sunglasses

Before I left Spain I went on a short walk. I hadn't been taking walks regularly for a few days; walks were becoming infrequent as I focused on my work, but this is never a good idea. I need to walk. It was a windy day and all the Poplar woods are talking. These woods never fail to stop me in my tracks. The week before they appeared as an amazing wall of solid black which hung underneath the canopy like a curtain. I had my sunglasses on which altered everything. I am glad they did though as I would never have noticed that band of sold black and the way it drew you in like the edge of a cliff. Plants really do seem to create silencing black holes of vastness when growing together like this. At the time I remembered how Bachelard once said in his Poetics of Space, that forests "accumulate infinity within their own boundaries". This was clearly evident on that very day.

Darkness of the woods

On last week's walk, the sun was obscured by clouds and it was very windy, so the trees took on a different guise. There was no silencing black hole. I wondered, had the infinity within escaped? I crept into one of the woods and watched the mumuration of leaves and as I did I let my eyes go out of focus on the silhouettes along the woodland edge where it was lightest. The leaves quivered in rhythmic movements like water, but as I let my eyes blur even more, they then took on the appearance of an untuned television screen. Every movement was completely random; like gluons (nice bit of quantum physics for you there) the whole wood had no order. The realisation that I was standing in chaos was just as terrifying as it was liberating.

Poplar seeds in the sun, Belicena, Spain

After this walk we experienced a lot of bad weather and I didn't venture out of the house for several days until then, the day before I left for England, the sun returned. I sat in the garden and looked up at the clouds and I saw millions of little, white specks floating in the air like sun snow. Little feathery Poplar seeds were flying everywhere like fairies. They collected around the sun giving it a halo as the light reflected from them. They stretched for as far as the eye could see and I was left wondering where their reach stopped - the atmosphere's edge, 10 miles up, or beyond? Like little galaxies they are all on the move, white dots moving around space. They somehow made the sky look bigger, yet also smaller - they transformed it into a claustrophobic space, but they also gave the sky depth, deeper than a sky scraper would. There was something synergistic and heavy about the combination of random movement and space. I imagined the journey of one speck and felt nauseous. It was too much to deal with. 

Disappointingly Youtube has reduced the resolution on this so you can't quite see how far these tiny dots go into the sky...

The words “sky” and “heaven” have numerous meanings and connotations, ranging from places and states to beliefs and feelings. Heaven once referred to both God and the material roof over the world, but now, through art, magic and science it has become to signify either the one or the other separately. Yet if we trace it all backwards to the point where the dichotomy began, the sky returns to being a more wondrous willful place.

 “… deluded by self-love and the illusions of his senses, man long thought of himself as the center around which the heavenly bodies moved, and his vain pride has been punished by the terrors they inspired in him. At last, several centuries of endeavor have removed from his eyes the veil that obscured the system of the universe. He now sees himself living on an almost imperceptible planet within a solar system, the boundless extent of which is itself merely a faint point in the vastness of space” (Laplace)

A solar spectrum. The absorption lines represent the principal atomic components of the sun's atmosphere: magnesium in the green, sodium in the yellow-orange, hydrogen in the red.

The distinctions we make today between symbolism and reality, between religion and science, were once blended together. It was not really until the Renaissance when ideas of our own freedom of thought became more common, which then paved the way towards big changes in our philosophical approaches and political thought. Now, in the modern world, astrology, spiritualism, religion and science provide us with utterly contradictory pictures of the sky, yet to some degree we accept them all. 

Primitive man must have looked at the sky above with such wonder, possibly more than the wonder we have today depending on ones beliefs, as today the surrounding sky that still influences our lives no longer seems so perplexing. Through our systems of measurement we have reduced our universe to a series mathematical formulae. We know what makes it, what lies beyond it and how big it is. Thinking about this has encouraged me to just accept things the way they are, to leave wonderment whole.

A field of stars. Seen through a prism, each star is registered by its spectrum (red at left, blue at right), which indicates temperature at the surface of the star; the visible lines correspond to the various types of atom found in the star's atmosphere.

As my little venture into the sublime continues I am also becoming aware that I am taking part in a paradoxical journey, since I am attempting to measure the immeasurable in order to understand my artwork and how to replicate its effect. I am beginning to realise that art does not bestow the fomulae that make art 'art'. After looking deeply into my use of light, space, sound and size I now feel myself hurtling towards the consensus that the sublime is just very simply - a taking to the limits - to the point at which fixities begin to fragment into infinity. Equipped with this knowledge I am currently experimenting with different approaches to try and portray vastness to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror that my leafscapes only softly allude to with their encroaching mounted edges.  I am now, in my spare time, creating pockets of infinity using the disorder around me (see below).

"My wish is that we might progressively lose confidence in what we believe and the things we consider stable and secure, in order to remind ourselves of the infinite number of things still waiting to be discovered." (A. Tapies)

Latest project: Infinity Phytocosmiramas ©

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us” (astronomer Maria Mitchell)

Obscurity appears to be the key here. To make a thing incomprehensible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. Once we are made aware of the extent of any danger or how something came about, a great deal of apprehension and wonder vanishes and thus the sense of awe is lost. The sublime is the impossibility of knowledge. It is when we are brought into a state of submission which consequently disorientates our purpose. 

"Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other" (Burke). 

Cyanotypes by Lia Holliran Source: Brain Pickings

The word 'astonishment' comes from the Latin 'estar' - to stand, and 'stupeo' - to be stunned or stiffened (think Harry Potter charms here) and thus temporarily disorientated. Lately, I have become quite obsessed in my pursuit for the irrational gasp (aka temporary disorientation). I am happy to say that several times this week I have managed to generate a few with some of my very new botanical work (above) which seems to be mimicking both birth and death in one fell swoop. The gasps are nearly always a deep rooted and primal, shrouded in shock, horror and suspension. I am left wondering if these gasps are an emotional response to an unexpected opening in the vastness of time? I find that people assume that I just paint pretty flowers and so they aren't expecting to be confronted by a something as disturbing as Phytocosmirama!! I have to say I am very happy with this latest work of mine - it is going where I want to be going. The RHS is ever-so-slightly becoming a distant sign post as I march onwards (possibly past it) into new territory, one without bounds. 

I have started to think about using mirrors too, although at the moment I am not sure how to do this in an original way as I found out this week that another artist, Yayoi Kusama has already created an entire collection of work based on the use of mirrors to create pockets of infinity (below). Her work most certainly touches on creating the level disorientation I am in pursuit of. It is amazing what one can do with a 'box'. So, with my mind buzzing with ideas I am now toying with the idea of buying Alan Lightman's latest book ' Yearning for Immortality' and I might just bite the bullet today in an attempt to uncover what is really going on here as I continue to search for the edge. 
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996)

Populus nigra botanical illustration in watercolour
Black Poplar leaf (Populus nigra), 76 x 57cm, Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper

Anyway - latest leaf for you... I am calling this one 'Jaws' because he has a 'fin' and is quite a menacing chap. 

* One of Rory's old sayings  - see Martin J Allen's blog


Burke, E., (1756), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Buchard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press
Pecker, J-C., (1963), The Sky, Robert Delpire, Paris (translated version)

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Giants in thimbles III - The Romantic Shadow

It’s been a month since I last posted and presented my personal enquiry into the sublime to you all. Since then, I have been inundated with your thoughts and responses which have all been very helpful, thank you. It is really magical to have you on this journey with me.  As many of you may know, I have just finished a painting titled ‘041120151204’. The piece did become an obsession and consequently it has a crazed, heavy, fanatical look about it. As it sits alone on my drawing board, a bit of a monster, it naturally creates a dent in the space around it. Heavy with more than just paint, it sits there like a black hole drawing everything in. I have no idea how this happened or how it is doing this. I feel quite surprised that I seem to have created something that has so much magnitude and illusionary prowess. It certainly was not planned and I can only put it down to something heavy being transmitted through me. A technicolour shadow, this piece will most certainly have to be hung on its own – it just dwarfs everything around it, including me. I know these leaves are big, but this one is the first one that manages to shrink its audience. Mission accomplished.

Watercolour of Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
'041120151204' (Vitis vinifera) leaf, watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper, 76 x 56cm

The thing about his piece is it appears to concentrate time like no other previous leaf and time is intimidating. If we take it that the ripples of veins and colour represent the leaf’s passage through life, and the intricate blobs of paint representing my own marks through time, this leaf has loads of both and their combination seems to be synergistic.  The leaf is like a lump of igneous rock that has been left to cool slowly. It is weighty. The pain of pushing this beast out in time was mentally hard – gruelling in fact. It reminded me of when a fair ground ride is going too fast. One could feel the tickle in the gums below the front bottom teeth and that whoosing feeling which is just as horrible as it is good. I like this giddy effect and I know I am not alone.

Botanical illustration of Vitis vinifera by Inky Leaves
Botanical illustration of Vitis vinifera (grape vine) leaf

I am interested in how a painting draws someone in – is it to do with escapism (through wonder) and if so, are even the most realist of works a form of escapism?  As I have mentioned before, I have come to realise that when you paint something you end up having to confront all of reality, and eventually one ends up asking themselves what reality actually is. As Bachellard said in his Poetics of Space, “everything takes form, even infinity. We seek to determine being and, in so doing, transcend all situations to give a situation of all situations”. Perception fascinates me. What is it that we actually perceive and what is it that we can't or choose not to. How do our different filtering systems operate and can we see beyond the mere physical? What makes something physical and can real things alter?

Botanical painting of Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf
Close up on the botanical watercolour of a Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress

Recently I watched the film Don’t Look Now for the first time and was so blown away by it I ended up watching it again a few days later. It’s a modern Gothic thriller – but not in the ordinary sense in that it isn't super scary. Its primary focus is on the psychology of grief and how that in life nothing is quite what it seems. The plot is heavily preoccupied with misinterpretation and mistaken identity and the film is renowned for its innovative editing style. It often employs flashbacks and flashforwards and some scenes are intercut or merged to alter the viewer's perception of what is really happening. It also adopts an impressionist approach to its imagery, foretelling events with the use of familiar objects, patterns and colours. All in all it is very cleverly put together.

The film drew me in instantly, but it really got my vote when one tense scene towards the end featured only one half of Julie Christie's face. She looked like one of my leaves - the concealment of her features made you incredibly aware of edges, boundaries and the limitations of our perception. The similarity between the two was further exacerbated by the fact that I was at the time experiencing the same types of giddy emotions I feel when I look at one of my leaves because of the very nature of the narrative. The film is a tragedy, but there is also something beyond the simple moralistic story line of a tragedy in its most basic sense because there is something numinous going on – something uncontrollable and therefore in mind - sublime. One of the main characters is so busy focusing on the rational sense of his tragedy that he blinds himself to the irrational world of the sublime around him. There is also another character in the plot, but they function in the complete opposite way in that they cannot perceive our own 'reality', but have the gift of an irrational 'second sight'. This film epitomises everything I am trying to do with paint and when they showed half of Julie’s face I admit a smile materialised across my face. Somehow we have arrived at the same point, a phenomenon that I find happens more often than we realise. 

Botanical art up close
Close up on the botanical watercolour of a Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress

So maybe my work fits more closely with the Gothic - a movement that is primarily focused on decay, death, terror and chaos? Something that puts irrationality and passion over rationality and reason? The Gothic narrative, despite unsettling, still brings about feelings of pleasure, but it's method is to address the horrific, hidden emotions that individuals can harbour and provide them with an outlet. The strong imagery of terror and horror in Gothic stories reveals truths to us through fear. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote "that the idea of a protagonist having to struggle with a terrible, surreal force is a metaphor for an individual's struggle with repressed emotions and thoughts. Personifying the repressed idea or feeling gives strength to it and shows how one, if caught unaware, is overcome with forbidden desire. These desires are mysterious, and mystery breeds attraction, and with attraction one is seduced.” What interests me is that if we think about it in these terms, the Gothic movement never really ended as it lurks as a hidden movement in all of us all of the time, and more importantly - it draws us in. It is seductive.

Botanical illustration up close
Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress

There is also a difference between terror and horror that needs clarification at this point as I am not interested in the ‘horrific’. The difference between the two is that terror supposedly expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other – horror – contracts them.  Horror is not a source of the sublime, but terror is. In short, terror opens the mind to the apprehension of the sublime, while the abhorrence involved in horror closes it. Therefore I remain to be interested terror and not horror. I want people to be expanded by my work and not disgusted. They are not car crashes on the sides of roads.

Vine leaf in watercolour
Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf - work in progress on the last hurdle

The Gothic novel started the Romantic Movement, a movement which can be broadly viewed as an attempt to find emotional certainty from nature rather than from God. It is the imagination which serves the Romantics. It is their method of transcending the limitations of the human condition, giving them the licence to morph objects into a more profound form of reality. This movement is characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as the glorification of nature. Unsurprisingly, such a concept resonates with me very strongly. I sit in my studio for hours trying to capture and exaggerate intense emotions such as apprehension, terror and awe into an aesthetic experience using nature. 

Leaf in watercolour
Touching up the Judas tree leaf this week

So, is my work as a painter concerned with the Romantic or Gothic? Well, like in all art, it depends on the observer's point of view. I personally resonate more with the Gothic subliminal side. My imagination rarely provides me with answers, it just leaves me in an unresolvable paradox of emotional ambiguity - things just get more complex and confusing. Romantic art on the other hand always seems to me to strive to reconcile discordant contradictions imaginatively by creating a sense of order. Such moralistic organisation is very apparent in the form of a tragedy (cross reference previous post) for example. With this in mind, perhaps there is a little bit of both of these elements at work as I always thought. I am not qualified to describe my work as 'sublime', but I do feel that there is something bewildering about the final product. Maybe it is related to the vast expenditure of labour needed to execute each piece or the vastness in scale, the dash of imagination and the overall complexity? Or is it just good old fashioned mother nature providing a feeling of wonderment? Most likely.

Storm in the Mountains by Albert Bierstadt (c.1870)

So in the mix of painting like a mad woman, I am now reading about ‘Sturm und Drang’. I have also done a bit of reading around Japanese culture and looked back at all the things that have influenced me to date, including a print out of John Waterhouse’s tragic paintings of ‘The Lady of Shallot’ and ‘Ophelia’ which I have had pinned by my bed since I was about 18 years old. I am looking into ‘ars moriendi’ (The art of dying) and ‘mementos mori’ (remember that you must die) and studying the wondrous landscapes of Albert Bierstadt. I have also been completely mesmerised by the lighting techniques of Henri-Georges Clouzot in his film L’enfer (2.45 minutes in) after a friend suggested that I take a look:

I sit and remember the work I have made before. The giant plant cells hung in the school’s dark room as an installation which ended up being so terrifying that several people dropped their wine glass and shrieked during the private view (this was not intentional). It seems I have always been fascinated with light. Even though I prefer the dark, we all need a drop of light in order to contextualise it. Dusk is my favourite time of day – I like how the colours of plants change and become more luminescent. Blue transforms into something else entirely under these conditions. 

Today is aptly 'La Día Gótico' in Granada,  and everyone dresses up for the event. I have been writing this post all month ready for my 'end of month posting' unaware that such a day existed in Granada.  It wasn't until I saw several people in wigs, corsets, leather and lace in the supermarket today when I cottoned on. I felt rather misplaced in my pink flowery dress and beret. A romantic in a gothic world.

Bachellard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press

Hume, R. D. (1969), Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel, PMLA, 84:2, 282-90

Coleridge, S. T., (1817), Biographia Literaria, II, 12.

New Monthly Magazine, Vol. VII (1826).

Sedgwick, E. K., (1986), The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Giants in Thimbles II - The Sublime and the Tragic

The Id

As my collection for the London show at Abbott and Holder grows so does the initial idea. I guess this is what happens. In order to make good art you have to evolve with it. Art is not static, not even when it is 'finished' is it static. Fashion is fickle as is the outlook of the populous, consequently trends will inevitably alter the influence of something painted even centuries ago. Since I wrote my first blog post (please read, its long, but this document builds on this preliminary piece) on what I am working towards for my solo show, a lot has already changed. The biggest alteration is in my awareness - I am now less concerned with curating a collection as a whole and have become more aware on how I want each individual piece to look like. As I compete each painting I check to see if it is finished in the way I want it. Many of the leaves are satisfactory, and it is during this reviewing stage where I have become acutely aware that I am not striving for realism - or hyperrealism - but a more painterly product. I have never painted to replicate something. This is why I don't really call myself an 'illustrator'. I find as my life line stretches deeper into the continuum, the word 'botanical' is even dropped and I am left with the simple term of 'painter'. Not entirely sure what is happening there, but something is certainly evolving. 

Botanical illustration of leaves by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
Leaves in a row,  from left to right: Vitis vinifera (Grape), Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus (Artichoke), Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) all 76 x 56 cm

If I concentrate on the timescale of painted evolution, I feel it began after I saw Isik Gunner's work in the flesh. I love Isik's work, she is one of my favourite artists, but after seeing it I made a promise to myself that I do not want to paint in that way. I have a knowledge that I will never be able to paint like her - I just can't get that purity of colour; that shine, that level of execution. It used to bother me when I saw the work of a good artist. It was never a question of jealousy, but more of frustration - anger thrown at myself for not being able to create such optical illusions on paper. However, a penny dropped in 2013 and I realised I had something else to offer. We all have something to offer.

Botanical illustrations of leaves
Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) and Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus (Artichoke) all 76 x 56 cm

Ever since then, I paint with this lodged in my mind and the result of this is that for my London exhibition each individual leaf will be my painted impression of a leaf. This means that not only will each leaf not be hyper-real, but there might be tweaks to the overall composition and structure. I started doing this when I painted the Gooseberries and Blackberries last summer (below) and it is a technique I am keen to continue. I have been trying to add drama to my subjects by using different methods of lighting since 2013, which has to some extent has worked, but now I am expanding on this. The Gooseberry was half real, half imagined, as were the Blackberries. I like this. I like using a dash of imagination. When I started the big leaves, I wasn't using so much imagination, but as I dive ever deeper into them I find myself opening a door. Now I am working on the Gunnera Leaf, I find this door has opened very wide and this is absolutely fascinating. I had forgotten how to paint like this.

by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
Close up on my botanical paintings of a sprig of Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) 76 x 56 cm
For a limited edition (only 5) print shop here

So I really am now in the land of my dreams where I get to climb giant grapes and oranges. My vision has changed, even when I am taking a break from the easel. For example yesterday I found the webbed shadow left by the wisteria on the pergola striking and mesmerizing. I would never have noticed it before, but it stared right at me and invited me in. I almost threw myself at the floor with the belief that the net shadow would catch my fall. Of course I didn't as I am not insane, but the feeling of a solid shadow fascinated me and I sat on the step staring at it for ages. The meandering lines mimicking the criss-crossing of leaf veins. Leaves are like nets, they catch the sun.

Blackberries by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
Close up on my botanical painting of a raceme of blackberries (Rubus ulmifolius) 76 x 56 cm
For a limited edition (only 5) print shop here 

As the painting for 'Leafscape' ensues, I have come to realise that what I am actually doing is trying to walk along the line between the sublime and the tragic. A die hard romantic, such concepts have beguiled me all my life, I just never realised it before. I am not trained in art or philosophy, I do not understand these things, but as I read, listen and watch I am beginning to learn. To capture the sublime is to try to represent the quality of greatness - a greatness that is beyond logic, measurement, or imitation. The last word is important - this demonstrates why I say that I am not trying to be super real. My art is not and never will be super real. 

Botanical watercolour of a Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) leaf 76 x 56 cm

Edmund Burke was the first philosopher to seriously expand on what the sublime really is. He argued that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. For example, beauty can be accentuated by alterations of light and intense light or darkness is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. In such circumstances, the imagination will be moved and beauty takes on a different guise. The sublime, with its many 'unknowns' can stir a sense of awe and horror, but despite these feelings the viewer will feel pleasure because they know that the perception is an illusion. This concept of the sublime contrasts the classical notion described by Plato of the aesthetic quality of beauty as a pleasurable experience.

Catalpa by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
Botanical painting of the Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) leaf now finished 76 x 56 cm

There have been many times where I have announced how frightened I have become in reaction to my work in the flesh. Naturally, my paintings do not pose an immediate threat - they are just drawings of plants, however there is still something sinister lurking in the shadows. To me, it has always felt like something uncontrollable. I find it puzzling that this gets put into my work, as I don't feel that leaves and plants are uncontrollable. I do not live in fear of them, but I do live in fear of myself and my own life force and maybe that is what is being unconsciously transmitted. I am also painfully aware of the dark parts of life as well as the lighter areas. What I find fascinating about the sublime are its physiological effects, in particular the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction. Burke described the sensation attributed to the sublime as a negative pain, which he called delight, which is distinct from positive pleasure. Delight is taken to result from the removal of pain (caused by confronting the sublime object) and is supposedly more intense than positive pleasure. I suppose such delight is akin to the way we might feel if we were to shed a heavy load or put a pair of sunglasses on.

Small watercolour painting of a leaf
Small watercolour painting of Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree) leaf (A5 size)

Kant, also made an attempt to record his thoughts on the sublime in 1764 in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. He held that the sublime was of three kinds: the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying and noted that beauty "is connected with the form of the object", having "boundaries", while the sublime "is to be found in a formless object", represented by a "boundlessness".  

Vitis vinifera (grape vine) leaf
Botanical watercolour of the Vitis vinifera (grape vine) leaf very nearly finished 76 x 56 cm

As I touched on in a previous post, I have become interested in the ways science could be used to describe the aesthetic experience. Maybe I feel that equipped with such calculus I might be able to create a magnum opus! So I look towards previous research to try to fix my particular confusion which currently lies with the difference between a tragedy and the sublime and if it is possible to instil both of these feelings at once. The experience of the sublime is similar to the tragic (I touched on tragedy in my previous blog post as I explored the botanical dystopia). Akin a tragedy, the sublime invokes a feeling of attraction, but apparently the sublime is illogical and the tradgedy logical. The sublime deals with what is “absolutely large” - its magnitude cannot be estimated by means of mathematical concepts. The sublime does not conform to any objective principles or forms and rarely occurs outside of nature.  In the sublime, we are made to feel displeasure from our imagination’s inadequacy whilst also pleasure from the limits of the imagination because it is in agreement with rational ideas and the laws of reason.  A tragedy is different because it is more logical and moral in its approach. A tragedy delivers pleasure by allowing the audience to participate in catharsis because it sits within our rational world. There is nothing cathartic about the sublime. 

Letter writing
This week I have also been rather busy writing letters the traditional way - with rulers and posh pens!

It’s difficult to find articles that compare and contrast the sublime and the tragic, but in his article Schopenhauer and the Sublime Pleasure of Tragedy, Dylan Trigg manages it. Trigg defines the sublime as “the inability of the mind or the senses to grasp an object in its entirety”. Trigg explains that individuals must believe that their own will is in no immediate danger for them to experience a feeling of sublimity. However, because tragedy encourages an individual to have a strong emotional response to the tragic effect, Trigg states that the sublime must be excluded from a tragic work. The sublime must be a kind of “distant proximity”. Because a specific purpose underlies the creation of a tragic work, the lack of purpose associated with the sublime creates an even larger separation between the two concepts. The distance necessary for an individual to experience the sublime directly contrasts with the close proximity of the audience needed to experience a tragic work. To further separate the two concepts, Kant states that because an individual must make an aesthetic judgement when estimating a magnitude, the sublime cannot be found in products of art because their form and magnitude are determined by human purpose.

I am not sure if my work contradicts Kant and Trigg and lies more within Burke's parameter of the sublime. There is a tragedy - the leaves are caged by our will and yet they are still not really tamed. There are parts to them that instil fear (I appreciate that you need to see them in the flesh to understand this). Even though what has been produced is by my touch and therefore 'controlled', there is still something that isn't logical. I am going to have to think about this one for a bit, but if you have any thoughts I'd love to hear them.  

Spainsh fields
Looking for specimens in the Spanish fields for my RHS slot 

Further Reading:

Brawley, C., (2014). Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, e.g., pp. 71–92 (Ch. 3, "'Further Up and Further In': Apocalypse and the New Narnia in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle") and passim, Vol. 46, Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Palumbo, D.E. & Sullivan III, C.W.), Jefferson, NC, USA: McFarland

Budd, M., (2003), The Aesthetic Appreciation of NatureOxfordOxford UniversityPress.

Burke, E., (1756), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Collingwood, R.G., (1945), The Idea of Nature, Oxford Press

de Bolla, P., (1989), The Discourse of the Sublime, Basil Blackwell.

Dessoir, M., (1970), Aesthetics and theory of art. Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, Trans. Stephen A. Emery,  Wayne State University Press.

Fudge, R. S., (2001), ‘Imagination and the Science-Based Aesthetic Appreciation of Unscenic Nature’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 59, No. 3, pp. 275–285.

Kant, I., (2003), Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, Trans. John T. Goldthwait, University of California Press.

Otto, R., (1923), The Idea of the Holy, Trans. John W. Harvey, Oxford University Press,  [Das Heilige, 1917])

Schopenhauer, A., (1958), "The world as will and representation", transl. by E.F.J. Payne,  Colorado : The Falcon’s Wing

Trigg, D., ( 2004), Schopenhauer and the Sublime Pleasure of Tragedy, Philosophy and Literature, Volume 28, Number 1,  pp. 165-179 |