Two Brides

I have written a bit about the Two Brides before, first focussing on the element of painting a figurative portrait with the aid of photography and latterly to discuss the concept of failure as a creative practitioner.  This time, however, the piece is no longer a work in progress: I have indeed finished my first portrait of persons in nearly seven years.

Two Brides, painting by Tiina Lilja, oil on canvas (2019)

If you are a regular reader of my wee blog or you found yourself here via Instagram, I imagine you to be pretty familiar with Two Brides already.  I sketched out the foundations for this artwork in January 2019 and having moved house and struggled with achieving what I considered a good enough likeness, I worked on it in little bits until I was happy with the costumes, background and, of course, the identifying features of the faces and hands of my two subjects.  This one is a fairly classical composition, drawing heavily on the look of the 1930’s studio photography this piece was directly drawn from.  Inspired loosely by the drawing Three Brides by Jan Toorop, a Dutch-Javanese symbolist, and the zeitgeist of the period between the two world wars, Two Brides was an interesting piece to execute from start to finish.

de-drie-bruiden-jan-toorop-53113-copyright-kroller-muller-museum.jpg
Three Brides by Jan Toorop via Kröller-Müller Museum

I feel any deeper analysis of my own work would be pure hubris, so this is where I will leave you, with my favourite work-in-progress shots of this painting and a promise to get back to you soon with news of new work!

P.S. Oh yes, and here’s a wee bonus: Seems like the Snapchat genderswap-filter does work on paintings too!  I hope you find these as funny as I do…

Voilà. 

T xxx

Lilium Candidum

It has been a while since I added to my Toussaints series, so I am pleased to introduce Lilium Candidum, the latest of these mixed media pieces based on/ up-cycled using early 20th century religious prints I have collected from the South of France.

The print of the Madonna and Child I started with was originally manufactured in Florence, as indicated by a small label still attached to the back of the piece.  Not that it came as a huge surprise – this picture with its heavy lacquer, the grandiose gilded frame and how it was mounted on wood, is a text-book example of mass produced Italian souvenirs.  My guess is that it is also not nearly as old as you might first think it is, dating anywhere between early 1960’s to 1980’s.  So not exactly a masterpiece of the Italian arts, but a perfect candidate for repainting.

Before beginning, though, I had to address some issues within the structure of this piece.  The lightweight wooden frame had a coating of plaster that was cracked in places and missing bits of paint.  Now, I would not take this approach with an antique frame, but the most cost effective way for me to stabilise it was to glue in any large chunks of plaster as well as loose paint and fill the voids with bog-standard wood filler.  Having waited for my repairs to dry I gave these spots a light sanding and touched up missing paint with my oil paints.  I had no desire to replace the missing gilding, but as the frame had been purposely distressed by the manufacturer, my repairs done with non-metallic paints were practically invisible anyway.

Lilium Candidum by Tiina Lilja - work in progress

The theme of this piece came straight out of my latest sketchbook:  I have been obsessing over bygone medical illustration for some time and wanted to combine anatomical motifs with vintage style floral patterns – this picture with its dark background felt like the perfect backdrop to explore these ideas using white paint markers.  By dividing the image into three separate fields using two circles drawn on top one another,  I managed to create a sense of structure within a fairly straightforward composition as well as in painting a distinct decorative backdrop for my two main subjects, Madonna and Child and a line drawing of a human heart.

Lilium Candidum by Tiina Lilja - work in progress

With all of these elements completed in white, I used spray varnish to isolate my drawn layer and used thin washes of oil paint to add colour on top of it.  It took me a bit of going back and forth before I was completely happy with the results, but I was able to achieve a good contrast of white and coloured drawn elements by alternating between white paint markers, varnish and oil paint.  Once the drawing was completed, now a mixture of tinted line work and thicker outlines in pure white, I chose to cover all voids in my background with a simple mint green-to-teal gradient.  This made the painting appear more complete and allowed the tinted lines of the lilies merge in with the gilding of the wooden frame.

Lilium Candidum painting by Tiina Lilja 2019

All and all, a happy little repaint job.  What a shame it took me so long to get it finished after months of gathering dust in the studio!

Named after a white lily, also known as the Lily of the Virgin Mary, Lilium Candidum will be the last one of the Toussaints… for now.  Although, I am off to France for a well-earned summer holiday in a week or two and who knows what I find rummaging through the brocantes and depots-vente by the foot of the Montagne Noire!

 À la prochaine!

Tiina x

If first you don’t succeed…

Having spent some time with my Double Exposure-project and learned a bit of printmaking, I am now back in the atelier, working to finish my portrait of the two brides from the 1930’s.  Although I initially enjoyed working on people and costumes again, one detail kept giving me nightmares: the second bride had a really unpleasant face.  Compared to a pretty successful portrait of the left hand figure, this one seemed both incomplete and overworked at the same time, making the whole painting feel unbalanced.  Now, I am not one to give up lightly, but having tried improving this face several times without significant success there was only one thing for it: paint it over and start again.

So, following a bit of doubt and self-pity, this is exactly what I proceeded to do… and boy I wish I had done it sooner!  Some weeks have passed since I got rid of the old face – when covering up large details with oil paint you must be careful about allowing adequate drying time, and I am now making great progress with this piece.  The new face is just how I wanted it: calm and soft featured, the perfect counterpart to my first figure whose confident form has hardly changed since I began the painting.

Two Brides, work in progress by Tiina Lilja - repainting a face with oil paints

It is never easy to start again, having admitted defeat, even when you are confident about being able to turn things around.  I was terrified the old face was the best I could achieve and that kept me from making any radical changes for a long time.  Ultimately, if everyone was this terrified of failure, there would be not be a Guernica, or Sistine Chapel… no Jimson Weed.  True failure is not about ability or achievement at all – it is what you choose to carry with you when moving on from an adversary event.  In a society where an instant reward is expected to follow the slightest of efforts, it is natural to consider the absolutes of failure or victory as the only acceptable outcomes regarding work, education or personal development.  In reality, there is a huge and productive grey area between the two.

If I would only stick to painting what I know well my work would be pretty dull.  I paint high end goods for a luxury market so the pieces I put forward must be of a good standard, consistently.  This does not mean, however, avoiding challenging myself or aiming to create pieces that are merely good enough rather than good.  The world of fine art can be fickle; trends fly by and what constitutes as good varies from person to person.  The only way I can be confident about my work is to paint to a standard where I am happy with everything, first and foremost.

There is still a bit to go before Two Brides is finished, but I am on the right track again.  Being at peace with the faces, I feel optimistic about cracking on with other important details.  Today I am particularly excited about the pearl embellished head-dress of the first bride and the second ones capped veil – small details that are suddenly very visible without the distraction of that awful face.

‘till next blog,

Tiina x

Double Exposure – drawing new narratives

In these past few weeks I have been continuing my “Double Exposure” project; using white paint markers of varying thicknesses as well as standard black fine-liners in lieu of embroidery.  With this relatively limited palette, I wish to add a second layer on the pages from David Hamilton’s Souvenirs and replicate in drawing what it feels to be distracted by negative information about an author when viewing a piece of art.

The first time I remember being in a situation where learning unsavoury details about an artist stopped me fully enjoying their work was in secondary school.  Like any budding painter, around the age of 13 or 14, I idolised Picasso.  Sure, I thought the Guernica was great, but what I was really obsessed about was his blue period.  Learning about his chauvinism and the questionable treatment of the women in his life, made me both angry and embarrassed.  How his behaviour was tolerated if not fully expected from a successful male painter was beyond me.  I replaced him in my heart with the drinking-with-the-boys Frida Kahlo.  How much did that really change the expectation my teenage-self had about painters is open to interpretation.

With age and a bit of experience I have learned to accept that idolising as well as detesting a stereotype of a person is not productive.  By ignoring the whole production of Picasso, for the sake of argument, because he was a royal self-obsessed arse, would not do you any favours.  On the flip side, sweeping any problem under a rug hardly makes it disappear.  Perhaps we ought to be more mindful about past prejudices and negative attitudes embedded in creative work, have it be visual art, music, drama or literature… and strive to do better in the future?  Besides, by choosing to appreciate artwork only from the “Greatest Hits” shelf of art history leaves you missing out on not just great art, but great stories of artists less know than Picasso or Kahlo.

To return to “Double Exposure”, pretending the sexual abuse allegations against David Hamilton do not affect the way his work is perceived would be an understatement.  This is partly explained by the subject matter itself – what was seen acceptable in the 1970’s is more widely condemned and disapproved today, even when suggestively posed pre-pubescent children are not involved.  What intrigues me is how difficult it is to separate the art from the person who created it.  Like a window that gets dirtier and harder to peer through with the passage of time, it is difficult observe Hamilton’s photography in earnest without the cloud of accusations obstructing the view.  Following this line of reasoning, I begun to draw with a view of obscuring, but not entirely covering the pages of Souvenirs – to physically replicate this effect on paper.

These drawing attached in today’s blog are just a few examples of my progress so far.  With over a hundred photographs to choose from, my biggest challenge will be selecting the most successful pieces and curating them into a coherent work of art.

Until then,

Tiina x

Corpus Christi – thoughts on early medical illustration, dissection and visual art

We all have hobbies, right?  Little bit of arts and crafts perhaps, going to the gym, cookery, those sort of things.  I personally enjoy long walks with my Alsatian Rusty, running… and reading about the many ways the human body has been mutilated in the name of science.  Strictly historically speaking.

Trust me, I am an artist.

All I can say in my defence is that it started with anatomy.  As a painter occupied with the obsolete and the ostentatious, I was preordained to find illustrated atlases of the human body fascinating.  The hyper detailed drawings of internal organs next to skeletons posed like marble statues of ancient Rome; what a delightful combination of the macabre and the medical!  I tried to envisage what it must have been like, in the early days of scientific surgery and the golden age of dissection, to depict a body like this – to maintain a clinical gaze in the most intimate of situations.

The history of dissecting cadavers is a murky one, entangled in the stories of the resurrection men, unscrupulous surgeons, stolen bodies and desecrated graves.  Having lived in Edinburgh, I could not avoid the ghoulish tale of William Burke and William Hare, a pair of friends turned murderers, who found a way to cash in on the lucrative body trade.  They were caught and punished, Burke ending up at the business end of a long rope with a sudden stop.  To add insult to injury, he was then publically dissected and his articulated skeleton was put on displayed at the Anatomy Museum at the University of Edinburgh where it remains to this day, alongside leather wallets made from his skin.  Interestingly, but not entirely surprisingly, Dr. Robert Knox who had paid for the victims suspiciously fresh corpses was vilified, but otherwise free to move on with his life.

Dr. Knox’s involvement in the corpse trade was by no means unusual: for him and his contemporaries, stolen remains were an unsavoury, but a necessary part of studying the human anatomy.  Before the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, bodies available to dissection were scarce, limited to those of executed criminals.  However, through a bizarre loophole in the law, stealing bodies was not illegal as long as the resurrectionist would not take the deceased’s clothing or grave goods.  Being poor highly increased your changes at ending up on the surgeons slab, but the wealthy did not entirely escape this gruesome faith either.  The fear of dissection was so great that graves were topped with heavy stone slabs, anti-robbing “cages” made of thick iron or simply guarded for a fortnight or so following a burial.  Alas, through sheer perseverance and widespread bribing of the officials responsible of safeguarding the sanctity of burials, the practice of bodysnatching continued until the 1832 Anatomy Act.  The new law allowed the unclaimed bodies of the poor or those who had died in public institutions such as poorhouses, asylums or hospitals to be dissected by medical students; a model adopted from France where the staff at the public teaching hospitals were free to study anyone who had perished under their care.

The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures
From the anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures, by William Hunter.

If like me, you enjoy browsing through books on Georgian and early-Victorian era medical illustration, take a minute to contemplate on the contributions of those anonymous dead who are immortalised in these beautifully morbid images.  A corpse of a small child stands next to no chance to have been acquired through any other than unscrupulous means as were the bodies of pregnant women, the simple reason being that visibly pregnant women were not hanged for the sake of public decency.  The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures by the famous anatomist William Hunter is a truly exquisite collaboration between a scientist and an artist, aided by the craftsmen who produced it in print, but there is little doubt that the women cut up and featured as anatomical specimen were anything but stolen from their graves.

As a painter, this is a legacy that I too must acknowledge if I choose to make work inspired by early anatomical illustration.  Choosing to talk about the underside of this age of medical history does not mean I am opposed to dissection of cadavers in any way.   I am simply presenting this argument as it directly inspired me to create the latest piece in my “Toussaints” series called “Corpus Christi”; a small mixed media piece, mere 19×27.5cm in size, consisting of a 1930’s lithograph of Jesus Christ layered with drawn anatomical motives in white ink and varnish.  “Corpus Christi”, literally the body of Christ, felt like the only name to give to a piece combining vintage style medical illustration and religious iconography.

Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja 2019, mixed media on paper

While working on this piece I came across a quote from Richard Barnet’s delightful Sick Rose (or Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration), describing the body disenchanted through the advances in modern medicine, surgery in particular:

“No timeless mysteries, only temporary ignorance, no vital force or soul, only an endless dance of enzymes and substrates.”

(Thames and Hudson, 2014, pg. 22)

As I have previously explained in relation to my usage of Christian imagery, disenchantment is indeed a good word to use when it comes to my personal relationship with God.  I am not a believer and although raised attending church I have no faith.  I hypothesise that once my life comes to an end there are no pearly gates for me; no salvation nor hell.  Simply, nothingness.  Denying the prospect of an afterlife does make me fear death – on the contrary.  Naturally, this world view influences my work.  By choosing to juxtapose the spiritual with the corporal in “Corpus Christi”, I aim to evoke the “vanitas” paintings of the past and the long tradition of “Memento Mori” imagery.  Dust to dust, and so forth.  For me, remembering death is a part of accepting death and making peace with it – seeing death as natural as life itself.


Beyond “Corpus Christi”, I have been drawing a lot lately, continuing my “Double Exposure” project.  (More about that in a bit.)  If you fancy reading more about the history of medical illustration or surgery, I warmly recommend the writings of aforementioned Richard Barnet.  Or check out the “Iconic Corpse”-series by Caitlin Daugherty on youtube if you are simply feeling a bit morbid – the one about Hayden’s head is particularly… well, funny.

Until next time.

Tiina x

P.S.  I could not fit this in anywhere on this blog, but check this out.  I would take anything coming out of Diego Rivera with a pinch of salt, but WOW.

Dude.

No.

Two Brides – on photography and figurative painting

I have a longstanding habit of painting double portraits.  There is something calming about a balanced pair, in both concept and composition.  Spaced out harmoniously on canvas, two individual subjects depicted as a complimentary coupling – if there ever was a trope in painting that gets repeated over and over again, this one is mine.  My latest canvas, Two Brides, is a perfect example of my obsession with twinned subject matter, special only as it features people rather than static objects.

The other reason Two Brides stands out from my previous double portraiture is its basis in photography.  Generally, I would prefer to paint physical objects and still lives.  This is my comfort zone, if you will.  Unlike traditional portraiture with a sitter or an artist’s model, I am free to focus only on the surface of the subject being painted, without the need to acknowledge the feelings and needs of another sentient person.  An object does not move, nor does it complain about the lack of loo breaks.  The benefit of painting from photographs is in their fixed nature.  An image is the perfect model, unmoving and always perfectly composed, but the benefits of photography are far wider:  Simply by possessing the right snap, a painter is transported to a carnival in Venice, depths of the seven seas… even space – all in the comfort of the artist’s studio.  On the flip side, however, why take the effort in painting a photograph when you already have access to an image, in essence, a finished piece of art?

Photorealist movement aside, using photographs as a visual aid when it comes to figurative painting is a highly contested matter.  I know painters who openly look down on others who paint with the aid of photos and I too have reservations on work that relies solely on copying another image without any further curatorial input.  Especially as a student, the prevalence of these types of attitudes kept me from considering photography as a tool, even when it would have aided my research beyond regular drawing or sketching.  The only times I felt painting from a photograph was appropriate, for me, were cases when I had no access to the types of objects I wished to depict.  My Volvo-pieces from 2011-2012 are a great example of this type of work – the cars in question have long rolled into the big car park in the sky and only exist in my memory… as well as selection of snaps in my family album.  It took years and a bit of confidence to admit how I research my paintings does not need to reflect someone else’s view on what good painting should be.

The fact of the matter remains that photography is widely used as an aid when creating visual art, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.  Painting does not exist in a vacuum and should not be confined to early 19th century sketching methods for the sake of purity that never existed in the first place.  From Vermeer and his usage of camera obscura to the angst ridden art student I used to be, photography is a valuable tool that allows us to capture fleeting situations and moods like no other creative medium.  I would personally argue the usage of photographs has made figurative painting more inclusive and easier to approach.  Not every aspiring painter can access live-model classes and galleries packed full of classical plasters waiting to be studied – this being the way you should be learning figuration in the minds of absolute traditionalists.  Photography, in short, offers many their first contact in drawing a likeness and should not be dismissed due to its availability to all demographics.  Copying the works of the old masters is a long established tradition in art education and replicating a photograph in paint can be just as enlightening when it comes to learning colour-matching and composition.

Peter-Doig-Lapeyrose-Wall-010
Lapeyrose Wall by Peter Doig, 2014, (private collection) via the Guardian

Figurative artists who prefer photography over sketching create work just as creative and painterly as those who do not.  I am choosing to illustrate this point further, not with my own work or that of my friends, but by encouraging you to study the works of Peter Doig, a Scottish painter who utilises photography in his creative process.  I visited his retrospect in the National Gallery in Edinburgh more than five times in 2014 and the show had a profound impact in my view of figurative painting and colouration at the time.  I felt tight of breath standing in front of those wall-sized canvasses, bewildered by the wonder of Doigs brushstrokes.  Few would argue his work is anything but engaging, original and impactful simply because his research includes photography alongside drawing.

I hesitated for a moment before choosing to add snaps of my own research material for this particular blog.  Two Brides is directly based on a set of wedding photographs from the early 1930’s.  There is no way around that.  I made a sketch or two from these images, but the final composition was simply crudely photoshopped together to act as my guide when painting.  Combining elements from two photographs into a single double portrait is not difficult by hand, but utilising a bit of tech in this case made the process a lot faster.  Does this make me less creative or worse off as an artist?  In my own mind, the answer is irrelevant as long as the painting I am creating can be viewed as more than a collage of images taken long ago.

All I can say is that I cannot wait for this one to be finished.

Ta, Tiina x

 Niña Verde – portrait of Santa Muerte

The story of my latest painting started out with a book: Santa Muerte – the History, Rituals and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death by Tracey Rollin.  As mentioned on my previous post, I collect lithographs of Catholic saints and I was curious about this “Skinny Lady”: a relative newcomer among the heavenly host.  Not actually venerated nor even approved by the Catholic authorities, Santa Muerte is a female folk saint from Mexico.  She is the personification of death and the protector of those living in the fringes of society.  The followers of her cult believe by embracing death they will better appreciate life.

Santa Muerte is depicted as a skeleton not afraid to flaunt her femininity.  She can wear plain black robes in full grim-reaper style, but more often than not, she is presented in elaborate dresses, long wigs and ornate headpieces.  The different parts of Santa Muerte’s persona are divided by colour and her outfits tend to reflect a particular aspect the owner of her figurine wishes to gain favour from, i.e. red for sex and passion, gold for wealth and so on.  For aesthetic reasons alone, I chose to paint the emerald glad Niña Verde.  According to Tracey Rollin (Santa Muerte, 2017), Niña Verde is the green aspect of Santa Muerte and her most popular function is to deflect and otherwise solve legal problems.  Less concerned about escaping justice than making art, I wanted to play with the dress-up element of this particular folk-saint and chose to depict her in the nicest garment I personally own: my wedding dress.

It has been quite some time since I started and finished a figurative piece without a reference point of a physical object and painting “Niña Verde” from my imagination alone was like using muscles I did not remember I had.  Quite frankly, like the day after taking on running, I cannot quite tell whether I will have the perseverance to keep at it.  For better or for worse, working without a real model for this piece turned out to be helpful.  To return to the sports metaphors, if I may, painting from imagination is like riding a bike; you never really forget how it is done.

Surprisingly, it was the background in this portrait that gave me most trouble.  First altered from dark slate-ish grey to salmon pink, I finally settled with a teal-to-navy gradient that I was happy with.  It is not unusual for me to adjust these types of details when putting a painting together, but changing a background tree times in one small piece has to be a new record.

 Niña Verde – portrait of Santa Muerte by Tiina Lilja

I personally see parallels between this piece and my past Barbie-works.  A female saint of death is just as good of an excuse to paint an over-the-top feminine portrait as a Barbie-doll would be.  Besides, I have plans to give objects a break and return to more traditional portraiture.  In able to do that, I needed to practise my costume painting skills.  The reason I originally started shifting towards object painting was my interest in replicating different materials and textures; painting glass, silicone and aluminium being my favourites.  These new pictures I am currently sketching out on canvas will feature a plethora of different types of textiles and hopefully, some fur too.

But that is a subject of another blog.

Until next time,

Tiina x