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

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

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.