My lovely client in Northern Ireland asked for a Holy Family a bit windswept and shocked by the whole experience of the Nativity! In my understanding this very Catholic feast, celebrated on 31st December, makes important reference to the family of the Holy Trinity and the reciprocal bonds of divine love, so I decided rather to go for slightly careworn and perhaps anticipating pain. In the end I worked without reference to any prototype icon, as I find most of them horribly sentimental and inappropriate to the cosmic grandeur of the underlying meanings. So I have drawn Jesus not as a baby but as Christ Emmanuel with arms outstretched in a crucifixion/embracing pose. The three intersecting haloes extending into the borders are also intentionally symbolic.
My Nativity icon for this year is a miniature on vellum, only six inches square. It will be framed and is for sale, should the spirit move anyone to own it! I have arranged the design as a quincunx, four circles around one, a geometrical arrangement with many resonances in Christian symbolism. I broke out a new precious pigment from Attila at Master Pigments for the dark blue used in this design, a rare mineral called vivianite, also known as blue ochre. It is very finely ground and a easier to apply than lapis lauzuli. Unlike lapis, it mixes with white without being overwhelmed. Also from Master Pigments were the vermilion, purple earth, and my favourite green volksonkoite - another rare mineral, this one from Russia. The florid decorative treatment is inspired by a margin I spied on the Abbey Bible, an Italian manuscript of the mid-1200s owned by the Getty Museum. By the way, the Getty is really wonderful at making digital images of its collection available on the internet for private study.
Have a blessed Advent and a joyful Christmas all!
This painting was finished and sent for reproduction way back in May or June, but I have had to be very patient about putting it on my boasting page, not wanting to blow the client's cover before they sent out their Christmas cards. Carpenters' Company is one of the ancient trade Guilds of the City of London, though nowadays I think their activity is confined more to charitable sponsorship and promotion rather than actual woodworking. Their guild Hall is a little too grand for woodshavings. Their brief was to include the Company arms and motto, the oak and pine leaves of their crest, something to do with carpentry and some seasonal motifs. I didn't have much notion what the medieval man at work in his woodshed might look like, but I took my inspiration from an amazing Spanish cathedral ceiling painting which immortalises the carpenters who built it. There they are in their stripey aprons and hose, hard at it with axes, chisels, saws and hammers. Working to the theme of 'Make Ready the Stable', a stray line I recollected from a Christmas carol, I wove them in with the heraldic elements, adding in a star and robin in my usual cod-medieval style (more than a nod to the Luttrell Psalter in this case). Delighted with the colour reproduction job the printers have done - colour conversion is never straightforward. The original painting, only about eight inches square, is framed and hanging somewhere in Carpenters' Hall for the rest of time.
These two miniatures on vellum are going off to my UK gallery this week, the first in an intended series featuring the unseen and unsung - and horribly endangered - amphibians of Europe. I think of them as our native dragons in miniature. and I hope a toad has never looked so glamorous. I don't know if they genuinely qualify as miniatures (4 x 7.5cm), as art societies make strict rules for such these things and I can't be bothered to look them up. The enigmatic title is an obscure reference to an obscure Japanese silk dyeing technique which has fascinated me for many years. It was revived and transmogrified by the great artist Itchiku Kubota, a Japanese 'living treasure' in his life time: I saw an exhibition of the first half of his incredible great work, 'Symphony of Light', in Paris in 1990. His completed oeuvre now lives in Japan, and is high on my bucket list (the way things are going with that travel fund, I shall have to stow away). My floral background is a tiny homage to his extraordinary kimonos, though the motifs I've used are entirely medieval European.
This is the first painting to have left my desk for a long time, thanks to a big relocation (foreign country, foreign language, dilapidated house to renovate) which was accompanied by a surprise cancer diagnosis, with all the ensuing strains of seeking and undergoing treatment. It is so time-consuming to be ill! What better way to celebrate my ongoing recovery than with the completion of this unusual commission: the third Miracle at Cana icon I have painted for the same client, but this one a gift for his very special godson's forthcoming marriage. My client had very particular wishes for the overall design and colours, and has personalised the icon with the names of the bride and groom, and a blessing from John's gospel, all in Greek script. I had all the pleasure of wheeling out my best lapis lazuli and ordering a beautifully routed and cradled solid wood board from an artisan in Serbia.
Some new bird-in-letter pieces for the new season. They will be sold individually, which is just as well because I see if I switch them around they will spell 'SOB', which was not what I intended...
Recently a family member asked me to provide some artwork for the cover of a forthcoming book, which besides being my first opportunity at a project of this kind presented some interesting technical problems. Gold areas in a design are notoriously difficult to reproduce in print. Every scratch and blemish is magnified in a scan, it comes out looking dull and brown, or gives off unwanted reflections. I decided it would be a waste to include any gold in the design at all. Not that lack cheapens the piece as an icon in any way. In the past, icon painters by no means always used gold in their designs. In times of scarcity or of war, for fresco schemes, for clients with shallower pockets, or sometimes simply for artistic reasons, many icons were painted with coloured backgrounds.
Putting aside its symbolical properties, burnished gold acts as neutral in a painting (strangely enough) and also, as a background, makes a motif 'tell up' incredibly well. Also, let's be honest, that amount of bling tends to distract from a multitude of shortcomings in a painting. Icon painters can tend to get very hung up on the quality of their gilding and devote less time to improving the actual painting!
In the end I substituted a painted ground of red for the the medallion of Christ. I added the symbols of the four gospellers afterwards, to complete the piece as an icon, and used brilliant white for the background. White is used in icons to convey the brilliance of uncreated light (think of Christ's robes in icons of the Transfiguration). I would have made life a great deal easier for myself if I had not glazed the red with transparent quinacridone pigment to warm its tone - forgetting that quinacridone is horribly staining and travels everywhere, especially onto pure white backgrounds! The quinacridones are a new addition to the artist's palette, developed by the car industry I am told, and useful as a substitute for carmine and alizarin, which are of suspect lightfastness. It's just too darn messy, though; I think I shall have to retire it from my arsenal.
An icon of Christ the Teacher in combination with the Hindu and Buddhist lotus symbol were specifically requested by the author to tie in with the theme of the book, which is a work of comparative theology. I designed the roundel of Christ to appear within the 'O' of the book title, with the eastern lotus symbol and frieze beneath, though no doubt the publisher will rehash my design to his own taste. I believe the book goes to print quite shortly: publisher James Clarke & Co Ltd. The actual icon will be framed (unusual for me, but for purposes of reproduction the board was a lightweight one), and appear for sale on my website in due course.
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.