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.
It's not often I find myself in the vanguard of business innovation, so I was really pleased to hear a discussion about the popularity and success of buying art over the web on BBC Radio 4 this morning. I started selling paintings from my website back in 2009 - I think this little crucifix (now somewhere on Orkney) was one of the first commissions I received by internet. I have always been surprised and delighted that people are prepared to buy something so personal as an artwork 'sight unseen'; though the ability to email a high resolution photographic scan is really helpful, and I haven't yet had a buyer ask to return a painting. And my experience is mirrored higher up the feeding chain - apparently on line sales of art have been increasing across the board, even in the four and five figure bracket, and with giants such as Sothebys and Christies.
This is a wonderful thing for artists because, provided one can get to grips with the intricacies of on line marketing, it opens the world up for sales and liberates us from selling solely through brick-and-mortar galleries. People are always shocked to hear that an art gallery generally takes 50% of the sale price of a piece, plus VAT on top of that. In London that fee would often be 60% or 70%. Rent and rates on high street premises, glossy brochures and travelling to art fairs and functions all costs a great deal of money even before the gallery's staff costs are paid. It is very hard for a gallery owner to make a living. Unfortunately it is even harder for an artist. To make more than five pence an hour painting an original, an artist's work must command a very good price indeed, involving years spent slowly building a 'name' and nudging up ones prices. A gallery's commission is only the start of the expenses involved in selling. The artist bears the cost of professional framing - if you have ever had a print framed, you will know how expensive that can be. A gallery takes work 'on consignment' - that is to say, the artist is paid nothing for it until it sells, if at all. Often an artist has to pay an up-front annual fee for wall space before the gallery will actively market the work. As a result, many galleries are stocked largely with prints or cheerful-looking canvasses with rorschach blobs and splashes.
So dear reader, if you are buying art for your home and want something really original and unique I urge you to become a patron of the arts. Hunt down the artist's website and approach them directly. No prices displayed? It costs nothing to ask!
I am also currently working on the restoration of a big St George icon (dragon and princess this time) a project which I took on in a fit of rash enthusiasm and which I don't mind admitting is giving me a packet of trouble. Fortunately (as I am not a conservator) it is worth nothing either artistically or monetarily: it has sentimental value to the owner, who found it in a junk yard sale, because it reminds him of his Serbian heritage. It is a curious item: it seems to have been cast in resin from the riza on some old icon, complete with nail heads and tack holes. A riza (sometimes oklad, Russian) or revetment is an embossed metal cover made to protect a precious icon from candle smoke and the kisses of the faithful. The embossing echoes the painted design underneath and only the hands and faces of the saint peep out from the cover. I found some examples on line - one a 19th century version in plaster, and another which is copyright. This copy had been sprayed gold and paper prints of faces and hands pasted on the top. A few damp years in a garage, and they had peeled off completely. I am trying to replace them with something a little worthier than paper cut-outs, using gesso on balsa wood and a great deal of ingenuity. St George has also had a respray, silver this time at the client's request, and now he looks like the King of Bling. I can recommend Plasticote Brilliant Metallic spray paints, they really are remarkably convincing.
Courtauld Institute standards it is not, but I hope to turn it into something the client wants to hang in his home. Look back in a while for the faces. And before anyone else asks - no, I do not do restorations.
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.