Saturday, 30 April 2016

Giants in thimbles III - The technicoloured shadow


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

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

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

Botanical illustration of Vitis vinifera (grape) leaf
Botanical illustration of Vitis vinifera (grape vine) leaf

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leaf in watercolour
Touching up the Judas tree leaf this week

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

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

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




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

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

Biblography:

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

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


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

New Monthly Magazine, Vol. VII (1826).

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




Sunday, 27 March 2016

Giants in Thimbles II - The sublime and the tragic


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Sunday, 20 March 2016

Giants in Thimbles I - introduction

Building  a collection

I got a head start, I managed to squeeze out three and a half paintings before the end of 2015, but for Inky Leaves the countdown has now begun. I have to plan it out and be disciplined if we are to have enough work for two shows. Collections are important - to me they have to achieve something beyond what the art works communicate as individual pieces. In a collection, all the paintings should further the space they occupy to form an extended space where all the narratives join together to tell a bigger story. 

Stories within stories within stories, the success that was
The Colours of Reality exhibition at Kew Gardens, 2013
In my night dreams, plants feature prominently and when they do they dwarf me; they are always big - bigger than they should be in real life. As a child I was obsessed with scale, but I was more captivated by the miniature world. I collected dolls house furniture even though I had no house to put them in. I liked Polly in my Pocket and dreamt about Borrowers and Fairies. I guess when a child, one fears the gigantic and inside a miniature world one might feel more or less in control. “In a miniature world we stand outside looking in, but the gigantic envelops us. We know bigness only partially. We move through the landscape, it doesn't move through us” (Stewart, 1992). Bachelard further expands on this concept noting that the "miniature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness; it allows us to be world concious at slight risk" (Bachelard, 1994).

What fascinates me as a botanical artist is the paradox we generate when we choose to manipulate our sense of scale when painting something that is natural. This is because scale is a cultural phenomenon (objects are related to our own bodies and experiences). In nature there is no 'sense' of scale, scale does not exist. When seeing a piece of botanical art where the magnification has been altered on a plant portrait, the viewer is often shamefully made aware that whatever has been changed has so in order to fulfil their needs. That thing of beauty has been messed around with, and has become unnatural. This mostly manifests in scientific journals, where small items, such as a pistil, are portrayed at a magnified scale and large items, such as palm leaves, at a smaller scale. However, more often we are now experiencing something rather different, where parts of plants that do not require magnification for our eyes, are being enlarged regardless. We are shifting towards the land of the giant peach and the enormous pip. How very Lewis Carroll.

Rory's giant Tulip petal in the Colours of Reality exhibition
at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens
For me, enlarged plants that do not require enlargement generate a whole other spectrum of feelings. In order for me to fully understand these I often revisit my dreams, where I climb grapes like I would Everest and peel back leaves the size of theatre curtains. Here I am afraid, but I am equally filled with a fantastic sense of wonder and freedom. The veil of responsibility is lifted, for I am small and insignificant and no one can see me in this forest of the colossal. There is no sense of shame either, for that is a condition attached to a sense of responsibility and as established, that burden for me has been taken away. Unlike a scientific plate, there is a comical side to this sort of absurd enlargement - it's fun and playful. Feeling small and full of wonder, onlookers are brought back to their childhoods where the vastness of imagination takes over. Reality is left behind. Such a release is something many of us long for. The land of giant balls of pollen and mushrooms for stools are part of a magical place we secretly yearn for or have long forgotten.

"¡¡Cuidado Veneno Peligroso!!" 
(Artichoke - Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) (76 x 56cm). 
Found on one of my walks after they had sprayed the fields.
J R Shepherd 2015
Further examining the role of the monumental kumquat or the colossal conker we are also reminded that size can indicate power. By playing on our own sense of scale, artists can make the insignificant, significant. This is something that really speaks to me as a botanical artist trying to give plants a voice. Artist Mona Caron takes this theme of immensity to the extreme, by portraying the most insignificant of plants - weeds - as massive murals. Mona's use of space is two fold, as the idea behind the mural is not just to make these specimens huge, but to also embed their portraits in the very streets where they are ignored, confronting our impression of reality. 

Dandelion by Mona Canon

Taking Root by Mona Canon

He lay down behind the blade of grass
To enlarge the sky

(Bureau, 1950)

I am aware that I haven’t really touched on what it is to paint miniatures in my own art. I feel I lack experience in this domain and have chosen not to write about it at length, but I feel that to paint something much, much smaller than it really is generates an equally captivating sense of wonder. They are, after all, like treasure. Only I feel that a sense of responsibility would still remain for the viewer, because of ones own sense of little and large and what that means culturally. We own the little - the big need to look after the small. This is often true in real terms, such as communities looking after the individuals of that community, but we cannot use this standard all of the time otherwise it becomes absurd. For example, such a notion is probably is what has led us into the environmental mess we now find ourselves in – maybe we feel that because the landscape is bigger than us that it is the responsibility of the landscape to look after us?

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard discusses the importance of the miniature world to botanists in particular. "Botanists delight in the miniature of being exemplified by a flower, and they even ingenuously use words that correspond to thing of ordinary size to describe the intimacy of flower" (Bachelard, 1994). For example, "It wears a typically northern costume with four little stamens that are like little yellow brushes" (Herbs, 1851). What one can discover under a lens is a whole new world. To have a magnifying glass is to enter the world of the miniature - it is youth recaptured. We once again begin to play with the fantastical, whilst also seeing things for the very first time like a new born. Magnifying glasses give us an enlarging gaze that turns miniatures into giants, seeing the intimate detail of something very small suddenly increases the objects presence relative to ourselves. 


"Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness"
(Bachelard, 1994)

"Scale is established by means of a set of correspondents to the familiar, and a significance of space and scale refers to a significance in time" (Stewart, 1992). As botanical artists, we need to consider all the states of being in order to depict an authentic reality. Whenever I think about space I always look to Rory McEwen and his compositions. To me, the way he left so much negative space managed to distort time and brought me closer to the vastness of the infinite. His paintings captured a moment in time, but that time was infinite. Such an impossibility remains to be deeply moving – he managed to encapsulate that thing we secretly long for - transcendence whilst still existing.  


Lots of space around an onion, The colours of Reality exhibition in 2013
at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew
By exaggerating the space around his specimens and expanding their intimate space, Rory managed to bestow his leaves and flowers with poetic space. The consequence of this graceful extension effects the actual subject matter, giving them a elevated state of importance and being. They claim their space like royalty and the space that is around them is concentrated inside of them, they become dense - papery leaves become heavy. Some viewers experience Rory's work as immensely uplifting and 'light', and if one looks at the moment of time portrayed as a vacuum of stillness, it is. However, personally I feel that this is only the first layer of Rory's onion because infinity is not weightless. Space is heavy and by condensing that space into his leaves, Rory personifies the subject matter - the leaves carry the weight of life on their skeletons. Through witnessing the poetic space we enter a moment of heavy, exaggerated intimacy. 


"Darth", cabbage leaf, (76 x 56cm), drawn during black dog
J R Shepherd 2015
A while ago I experimented with the colour black in order to replicate Rory's magic trick on white. I suppose I was secretly asking myself, is black more vast than white? In honesty, I lost my way a little as this was new territory. The composition was not suitable to achieve the effect I desired, but it was most certainly close. The piece was never finished, but I was reminded about it after reading Coral Guest's blog post on black called 'Space like Black Velvet' where she reveals how black can represent both background and space. "When the subject suspended in the black is affected tonally by that black, the black is more apparent as space" (Guest, 2015). I guess the same is true of white - its about space touching a subject. As a life grows into its space it claims its soul and becomes.

If I ever finish the giant cabbage leaf, the right edge of it will disappear into the background completely so there is no line. The idea is to make the background invisibly powerful, to the point that it makes the leaf look scary, which in itself is an absurdity - there is nothing scary about a cabbage leaf.  The reason the leaf gets the flack it is the leaf that the viewer looks at and not the space, even though the whole thing is one and seamlessly joined. I feel that people often forget space - how to see it and use it. There is a philosophical element to space too, all environments alter their subjects physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally and of course, we are forgetting the elephant in the room here (couldn't resist the scale pun), that the big, scary cabbage leaf, although big, is still not as big as the space around it. 

Giants in Thimbles

So, with all of this in mind I am brought back to look at my current work and ask myself some questions, such as why am I painting these leaves so big that they don’t fit into the ‘box’ they've been put in and where are their edges?

Catalpa Leaf (76 x 56cm), found on the lawn behind our house in Granada whilst I was raking. 
J R Shepherd 2015
To cut a long story short, I consider the edges to be very important in this collection (and in everything I see). They are the interface between this world and the next, the beginning and the end. In this assortment I have made it so that the edges of my mounts can’t contain. Rory McEwen did this a little bit with his decaying leaves, but in Rory’s work, as the subject disappeared to the edge the picture, it began to softly vanish, playing on themes of transcendence and fantasy.

My works do not do this. There are no ghosts, it is just that the paper is inadequate for the subject. The subject will not be contained, it is too magnific. After all, who are we to think we can contain the giant that is mother nature? 

Personally I feel that Rory's compositions also generate an air of apprehension over our measures of space, time and decay. The viewer finds themselves having to let go, or grapple with holding on. His edge is a natural ragged cliff edge, but mine is a man made boundary. Both works are a reminder that we cannot control, but my work is getting bigger and is travelling towards you, Rory's is getting smaller and further away. His leaves don't appear to threaten in the same way as mine. His leaves are shifting into invisibleness, mine too, but not through a visible death, my collection is experiencing a deathless death. The death of life being able to roam freely. 


"¡¡Cuidado Veneno Peligroso!!" 
(Artichoke - Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) (76 x 56cm). 
Found on one of my walks after they had sprayed the fields.
J R Shepherd 2015
My collection is slowly evolving to tell a story about a dystopian ecology that is trapped and morphed by us. Manipulation at its most extreme. A trapped world that cannot grow. As I look around my studio at all the leaves hanging off rafters and walls they look like birds in cages. Trapped they are restricted by the pressures of a materialistic world and cannot reach beyond. Rory's touched way beyond. He turned botanical reality into a fantasy, but mine can't reach that utopia, they are chained on the parameter of the paper. To me, they are the living evidence of the struggle that is life, conforming to an unmarked standard. They override their man-made niches, unable to conform to our world. Giants in thimbles, their desires and needs out-do supply. They are over-reaching, but again who are we to judge? They are only too big according to our own measures and sense of scale. They are boxed up because these leaves live in our reality and our own measures of it.

Disappearing Catalpa Leaf (76 x 56cm) found on Brick Lane in the last days of my relationship with Henry.
J R Shepherd 2015
This is a tragedy and like all tragedy's there is something moving and beautiful.  The beauty I see in any tragedy is the way it poetically describes the flaws of humanity whilst at the same highlighting our positive nature of wanting to nurture and knowing right from wrong. How we react to this tragedy is something that will never be held or measured, and we will never fully grasp nature in its boundlessness. We cannot contain its beauty, for if we try to, that beauty disappears because the context of the extraction has been lost. 


The Day Dreaming Leaf

"Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone" (Bachelard, 1994). Plants are immense and can create silencing black holes of vastness when growing together. Maybe this is where my night dreams of 'forests of the colossal' manifest from? The feelings one channels when present inside both a dream and a forest occupy the same sense of vastness. Bachelard said that forests "accumulate infinity within their own boundaries". With this, one revisits the concepts surrounding edges and boundaries and my recent blog posts on leafscapes and mapping. These giant leaves are so magnified that they reveal a whole new landscape of a miniature world within their boundary. They are vast pictures of the miniature. "These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased" (Bosco, 1952). Edges define the dimensions of being. What is beyond the edge of the paper, what was there and what was not included in the composition no one but the artist will know. We have to imagine what was there, entering the vast space in the mind that has no boundaries. 

Seizing the Hourglass

Now it is time to briefly touch on 'time' as space and sum up 2016s work. I'll be quick. These leaves will be barcoded by time, not only in the way they look in the moment of portrayal, but in other ways. There will be numbers involved and these will conform to a pattern. It's up to my followers to work out the pattern if they choose to. Each piece will also contain a story written on the back. This is a new form of expression, which I hope to continue on all non-commissioned pieces. 

Close up on Darth
In the end, what I hope to make is a collection that documents both natural and cultural measures of time and space in a captivating, disconcerting and beautiful way. With hope, the Botanical Kingdom will be looked at differently and bridges will be built crossing the gap between 'us' and 'them'.



Stewart, S., (1991), On Longing, Duke University Press Books
Buchard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press

Herbs, (1851), Dictionnarie de botanique chrétienne inside Nouvelle Encyclopédie théologique 
Bureau, N., (1950), Le mains tendues, Ed. de la Girafe
Bosco, H., (1952), Antonin, Gallimard, Paris
Guest, C., (2015), 'Space like Black Velvet'