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

Weekend Etching in Frome

Printmaking is like sex – it’s not solely about reproduction.

It had been ten years since my last etching when I entered Frome Printmakers to begin a Hard Ground Etching course run by Steve Clarkson, the current chair of their studio-collective and a true printmaking wizard.  The man is an expert not just in traditional printmaking, but  he exceeds in digital image creation and knows more about obsolete photography techniques than any other living person on this earth… so, yes, I was incredibly intimidated.

Not for long though – as luck would have it, Steve turned out to be a wonderful teacher and a really nice guy.

Despite of knowing how to make etchings in previous life, I needed a bit of handholding to start with:  Preparing a copper plate for an etching is by no means difficult, but you do need to know what you are doing.  In the end, we prepared two plates with hard ground wax; the first one which I covered in drawings of the human leg bones and another featuring a single molar tooth.  Both were submerged in a mild acid solution to etch my drawing permanently into the copper.

artist studio - waiting for my prints to dry

Ironically, it turned out much more fiendish to decide what type of prints I would like to make using these plates.  Picking out a colour was tricky enough, but I quickly learned choosing the right paper and an appropriate print-to-paper ratio was equally important – perhaps even more impactful than colour alone. 

And please allow me to toot my own horn a bit here: my imagery, inspired by anatomical illustrations of a bygone age, worked silly well as etchings!  Like establishing a missing link between my painted work and the all that drawing confined on the pages of my sketchbooks, re-learning printmaking has done wonders to my confidence as a visual artist.  It is a pity it took me ten years to get back on it.

I chose to print my plates on large sheets of handmade paper speckled with dark brown seeds.  This was the paper stock that worked best with the line-work, giving me high saturation of ink each time, but it also chimed in with my concept of drawing something that would look at home on weathered pages of an old encyclopaedia.  Printing on a unique paper like this added another layer of texture to my small edition of etchings, but it also meant small imperfections would be less noticeable if not complimentary on the final images.

That, my friends, is not a bad thing at all when you are still getting comfortable with print-works.

What remains now, is the gargantuan task of choosing the right frames to display these bad boys…  So if you know a good framers shop around Wells, give me a shout!  My new prints deserve nothing short of the best, LOL.

‘till next time!

Tx

Radar Artist Fair

Back in the game, so to speak; I’ll be exhibiting at the Radar Artist Fair in the Old Spitalfields Market coming May!

 

Radar Artist Fair is an Artist Led platform to Amplify the Next Wave of Artistic Talents and Connect a Global Audience.  The Real affordable Artist Fair that’s affordable for Artists.   Artists taking back Control!

What’s not to like.

I have some great new pieces ready to go and others that will receive nifty new mounts just for the occasion.  So if you happen to be in London on the second weekend of May (10-12.5.19), come and say hi!

 

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.

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