23rd Time Lucky

Here’s something that is bringing me joy this week: a brand new combine harvester sketchbook!

This one is the 23rd of its kind.

I bought my first sketchbook relatively late, back in August 2010 when I began studying painting at the Edinburgh College of Art.  I had always drawn, but in a very goal oriented manner; sketching or any type of visual record keeping felt pointless if not simply antiquated.  The head of first year students strongly disagreed, however.  He wasted no time pointing out to us, a nervous herd of freshly baked art students huddled in one of the imposing Edwardian painting studios, how we were all missing one of the most important tools of our future trade: a sketchbook.  “An artist should carry one at all times”, he proclaimed.  Many people rushed to the college shop to buy one that afternoon, including yours truly.  From their large selection of different types of sketchbooks, notebooks and pocket-journals, I picked a simple A4 sketchbook, portrait format, with 80 natural white pages bound in black cloth, and I have never looked back.

If you do the quick math, the average time I have spent with each book since that August long ago is around four months.  In reality I have devoted anything from three weeks to almost a year to a single sketchbook, depending on the type of project I am working on.  At times I draw solely to work out a composition or to try out a new idea, but more often than not, the pages of my books are filled with idle doodles and random notes.  Sketching is something that has taught me the value of drawing for leisure and shaped my identity as a painter.  Like a mother, I am proud of these volumes and I guard them jealously.  They are more important to me than any piece I have painted which is why I am far more uncomfortable about sharing them with the world beyond a few carefully chosen and decisively cropped highlights I post online every now and then.

Throughout the years I have tried out a few different brands, always returning to Seawhite of Brighton for their durability and great value for money.  This company made the Edinburgh College of Art-stamped sketchbooks sold at my university art shop and thus ended up being my go-to-sketchbook manufacturer.  I am not being compensated to advertise them to you – I wish I was, but I am not.  It is simply what I prefer.  On the flip side, the only brand I avoid is Canson, not because I would not like the quality of their wears, but because their A4 format is slightly stumpier than the one I am used to and I like my sketchbooks to be uniform in size.

Each book I have has a unique cover, drawn with white acrylic markers, those white gel pens or Tippex.  Well, each but the very first, that one I rushed to buy in the beginning of my fine arts course.  That particular sketchbook was stolen from my studio in ECA, which is why I started customising the covers in the first place – to make it easier to spot if someone was trying to walk away with my book.  After all, every student was encouraged to have a sketchbook and most of them were exactly alike.  All my covers carry a monogram and most are graced by a wee toy owl…, because why not.  The rest depends on my mood on the day I crack on a new book and the stuff I happen to be working on.  For example, one of my past book covers features a flying Volvo simply because I was painting portraits of my dad’s cars at the time.  The 23rd cover is in turn purely decorative and, at least in my opinion, one of my better ones.  Covered in stylised flowers in full bloom, it has the perfect motif for a spring sketchbook.

Tiina x

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

Silence is Golden

Bonne année à tous!

This piece I am about to introduce was finished in late-2018 and it is the latest artwork in my La Toussaints-series.  Named “Silence is Golden” as a nod towards the images origin, this mixed media piece is an adaptation of a lithograph bought from my local brocante– where these types of pictures come a dime a dozen.

My lithograph was a copy of an engraving “The Silence” (ca. 1675-1693) by Nicolas de Poilly, who in turn was paraphrasing “The Sleep of the Child” by Charles Le Brun.  It is a cosy domestic scene featuring the holy family: Joseph, Mary and a plump baby Jesus, with John the Baptist.  Mary, who is seated at the centre of the composition, is holding her sleeping child while gently scolding the young John the Baptist for attempting to wake the Christ up from his slumber.  The inscription at the bottom of the print reads “Sileat omnis terra a facie eius”, (loosely following Habakkuk 2:20) and can be translated as “Be silent, O all the earth tremble before him.” (Image and Incarnation: The Early Modern Doctrine of the Pictorial Image, edited by Walter Melion & Lee Palmer Wandel, 2015)  My copy of the print likely dates to the turn of the 20th century if not a little earlier.  Despite of past restoration attempts in or around the 1930’s, it was in poor condition: damaged by the sun and insufficient framing.

My fascination of Catholic art goes hand in hand with my art education.  Like any keen student of art history, I quickly became familiar with the lore and symbolism of different saints, due to the nature of historic art that survives in Europe.  I was brought up in the fold of the Church of Finland, as an evangelic Lutheran, but I have no personal faith.  As a young atheist and a budding painter, I could not relate to religious art, but I admired the grandiosity of it.  I can appreciate the likes of Morgan Beatus (a stupendously illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelations, circa 940-45), in awe of human imagination stemming from Christian piety and not feel the slightest sense of guilt or doubt about my own religious identity.  In that light, collecting fiercely Catholic lithographs and incorporating them in my own visual art feels only natural.

My style of creating new art out of the old is all about layering; adding elements with a distinctly different hand from the original artist and creating interest through contrast.  I am a lover of the decorative arts and these mixed media pieces allow me to explore the more maximalist side of my practise.  In “Silence is Golden” I chose to simplify the design of the original composition by removing the background altogether and replacing it with a straightforward pattern mirroring the colours of the print.  A separate geometric element inlayed with a selection of coloured washes in oil paint serves a decorative purpose as well as a vehicle to highlight the relationships between the prints subjects, beginning from the line of sight of the Virgin Mary.  Where my painted additions are substantial to the way this print will be viewed in the future, I don’t see myself as the sole author of this piece, rather than a curator of it.

Changing fashions have left these previously beloved images of devotion crumbling in their mouldy frames, sold for the price of live-love-laugh stickers.  Worn by the passage of time, unloved or simply forgotten, they remind me of my grandmother with her framed embroidery of a guardian angel, perhaps this is why I find them so irresistible.  By adding my own mark into a copy of a print or a painting I stand alongside the artists that created these images, on a direct line from the likes of de Poilly and Le Brun.  It is a very comforting thought.

Silence is golden by Tiina Lilja 2018, mixed media on paper

All the while I am actually recycling art.

For that, I feel downright saintly.

Tiina x

Double Exposure – transfers and embroidery

Double Exposure is research project looking into the depiction of vulnerable women and girls in visual art.

Start from the beginning  here.


So far my research into the imagery of “Souvenirs” has taken me two ways.  I began this project by applying simple embroidery straight onto the severed pages of the book, over and around the models in these images, obscuring some parts of the photographs and highlighting others.  Having worked in this repetitive manner, getting to know my subject matter, I was ready to start manipulating the imagery in other ways.  To allow more complicated embroidery, I needed to transfer my chosen images, by now cropped and circular for visual uniformity, onto fabric.  This was a fairly straight forward process aided by iron-on transfers.  I sew, hardly for work, but to a decent standard.  A good knowledge in manipulating different textiles certainly helped when planning this move.

I am a painter first, and an artist second.  This did not cement as my only professional identity until my time in the Edinburgh College of Art, however.  I do not feel I was outright discouraged from exploring other methods of expression, but presenting a coherent body of work was a key part of our academic criteria and something you were encouraged to work towards.  It took time and more confidence than I would have ever expected to allow myself to lower my brushes for this one.  Hence why “Double Exposure” is such a personal project for me.  The re-introduction of textile based art for the first time since my teenage years has been an exciting re-discovery.

I have already touched on how embroidery continues to be viewed as a feminine medium.  Textile art altogether has often been dismissed as a hobbyist’s technique, more at home in the WI Fayre than a reputable Art Gallery.  I have only two words for those of such narrow minds: Louise Bourgeois.  Especially due to the weight of its historic reputation, embroidery and textiles can be weaponised to the artists’ means.  I needed to counteract the upsetting subject matter of Double Exposure with something calming and sensory.  To fight crude with quaint, if you will.  Thread and a needle are the perfect tool for this job.

I find the soothing tactile-ness of this work almost therapeutic.  I feel every piece is taking shape almost on muscle memory alone, stitch after stitch.  Building this body of work feels both important and inspiring – this is a good place to be, mentally as well as professionally.

Happy holidays – see you all after Christmas.

Tiina x

Double Exposure

Almost two years ago now I was given a book of photography from the 70’s called Souvenirs.

My dad of all people had found it in the loft where he grew up, clearing away his dead mothers things alongside his siblings.  The mood was sombre and not very much was kept, but he did save this book for me.  Not as a reminder of my beloved mummu, but as something a visual artist could surely use.  “It is one of those artist things, you know… ehem… artistic stuff.” he said.  I thanked him and took this book, curious of its contents.  Upon first inspection it seemed to have a few female nudes, some overly sentimental images of the countryside, birds flying high in the sky and sandy beaches somewhere warm… the usual stuff.

Souvenirs book

I must confess, dear reader, that I was underwhelmed.

On the closer look, the book stand out from your standard kitsch and sentimental garbage.  The women in these images seemed unfeasibly young; lean and barely pubescent, depicted in various sexually suggestive poses and scenarios.  Some compositions were mimicking classical art (the reason my dad thought the book might be useful for a painter) where as others had a snap shot like feel to them, appearing sinister and almost voyeuristic.

I was not aware of it at the time but the esteemed photographer whose work I was studying with growing distain had just taken his own life following accusations of sexual abuse and rape from women he photographed, some as young as 13 when the abuse was alleged to have happened.  What I saw was enough for me to bury this book at the bottom of my wardrobe in disgust.  It took me some time to put a name in the face, but once I was aware who had taken these seedy snaps, I was further convinced this was not something I would like to look up to for inspiration regarding aesthetics, photography or anything.

The name of this photographic artist is of no importance, although I am sure many of you know who I am talking about.  We spend way too much time focussed on (alleged) perpetrators in our society and not nearly enough time emphasising with the victims.  Following the #metoo campaign and other high profile sexual misconduct cases recently, an idea was brewing.  I was just getting back to work after a long medical leave following a stint of working with other projects and  I needed something to sink my teeth into.

And this is how I found myself reaching for the book that had been sitting at the bottom of my wardrobe for nearly two years.

To put it simply, I felt like engaging, politically.  To hang my colours to the mast, if you will.  My usual studio work is not overtly politically motivated – I see myself as a collector or a curator of visual information more than anything else, but Souvenirs and the way this book made me feel, had just made tipped me in the realm of feminist art.

I chose the medium of embroidery as it seemed suitably quaint and harmless – like some of the imagery found in the book; a bevy of swans or a sleepy village.  Not a context one would expect to find a vagina of a child.  Referring to a wider use of female nudity in visual art, historically a woman’s body on canvas is an invitation to look and a testament of the painters skill; an object.  It remains so in my work – I paint portrait of objects and this includes a large collection of auto portraits and portraits of other women, subjected to the same clinical gaze as a vase of flowers might.  Double Exposure is different.  I want it to invite you in and encourage you, dear reader, to question the motives of the artist, my motives, in creating this work.

My journey crafting this body of work is only beginning, but I know I must take care with it.  I need to get this one right.

The time is up.

La Toussaints

Bonjour – and happy All Saints Day!

Nearly anyway as I am just a few days late with the ghouls and tales from the crypt… but who does’t need a bit of Hallowed Night in their lives everyday, all day?!

To commemorate the end of Spooktobre – here’s what I am currently working on:

Anyway, Happy Halloween, belatedly.

Tiina x