Take A Trip

One of the things I love about doing illustration work is the worlds that open up to me. With a recent request for images to go with the term Arabic, I was taken on a journey to a world far away. One in which, despite the amount of times its in the news, I actually know very little about.

Researching all things Arabic led me to learn about the bird market in Kabul, that the colourful camel trappings are handmade, the different names of traditional clothing, and a whole lot more. There are Buddhist temples in Afghanistan, and a 55 meter Buddha statue. I got to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise know, by getting permission to use their likeness in my images. Beautiful people and beautiful hearts are not confined by borders or religious views. If only the love people have inside them could remain uncorrupted by borders and cultish religious manipulation.

Painterly illustration of a beautiful Arabian woman in a white hijab with roses and lights.

These are just a few of the images resulting from my virtual journey to far away lands. Many will be available from Arcangel Images. Today the Arab world, next the Asian one, with a stop in the Wild West! I have been assured 2022 is going to be an exciting and busy year!

About Storykins And Staffage

In painting Staffage is the human and animal figures added to a landscape scene used for decoration rather than the main subject. Their importance lies in the life they add to an otherwise static scene. Storykins derives from the Dutch storykens meaning Little Stories. These elements can animate the scenery and bring the viewer into the narrative of the scene. They can help provide scale, enhance the composition of a painting giving direction to the eye, or provide an anchor. Often, though they are small and painted without detail, they become the focal point. 

During the 19th century books of staffage were published for artists with hundreds of examples to use for their painting. Often, these same symbols can be identified in multi paintings of a given time period – both by different artists, and the same figurative symbol used over and over again by the same artist. 

Most Old Master landscapes featured staffage in the form of people going about their daily activities, livestock in the fields, or wildlife as a part of the natural environment. A marsh is a busy place teeming with life. To paint it devoid of even an insect, frog, or bird, would be to depict a falsehood that can’t portray the cacophony of sounds and actions present on a summer day.  

Claude Monet – Lane In Normandy (altered)

Does Claude Monet’s Lane In Normandy tell the same story, or have the same interest without the two little boys walking in the lane? (Digitally altered to remove figures above. Original below.)

Claude Monet – Lane In Normandy (original)

What about John Singer Sargent’s Olive Trees, Corfu? Can the painting be considered as successful without the figures as with them? 

John Singer Sargent – Olive Trees Corfu

In my own work, I have found adding human or animals symbols to my landscapes has greatly improved the storytelling quality of the works, and is providing a vehicle for buyers to be able to form more emotional attachments to the works. The challenge is being able to come up with the symbolism necessary for telling the story. In the absence of staffage sample books, it is necessary to create your own inventory of samples that can be added to the painting when necessary. 

I can often be found in the evenings watching a tv show while creating my little sample cards filled with small figure sketches. I try to add only enough information in these sketches to tell the story, and to be able to interpret that figure onto the canvas. Much like a chef has their recipes of sauces, or a musician has their keys and chords, these little drawings are a base that can be used to mix and match to suit the mood and theme of a painting. 

Pen and ink figure thumbnails for staffage.

Whether your decorative elements are human or animal, there is a great benefit to having a ready made supply of samples to reach for at a moments notice when your fancy strikes, or the need arises. 

When Brian Was A Boy – 16×20” – Oil on canvas

When Brian Was A Boy above, is an example of the use of staffage in one of my paintings. Here the figure provides the anchor point of the painting, but also helps tell the story. Where is the person going, or where have they been? What is on their mind? The title suggests maybe they are thinking of away times. Perhaps remembering life on the prairies when he was a boy. The stories that can be played out go so much further, than if the landscape had been painted without life in it. 

Without the figure it becomes a nice landscape painting. The story becomes about the weather and season, and not much else. The viewer can pass by it quickly without much thought. With a figure added to the landscape there is something for the viewer to stop and consider, to linger a little longer over, and hopefully, fall in love with the story of their own invention. 

The Pressure To Perform

I have had a huge artists block that has lasted for over a year, and almost derailed my entire career. I have beat myself up horribly over this fact. The more I stressed about it, the worse it got, until one day I just said “I’m done”.

But I knew in the back of my head that was the furthest from the truth. You see, I’ve always painted or drawn. Yes, I’ve had periods of rest where I wasn’t very active, but that deep seated desire to create has always been there niggling away at me, making me feel incomplete if I wasn’t painting.

The expectations placed on artists today are unreal. There is this huge push to create daily. Daily painters, daily practice, a painting a day, daily posts on social media. The competition to get better, be the best. Look how easy it is to compare your work with the worlds artists. Imagine how much easier it would have been when artists didn’t have access to the worlds best artists instantly there to compare their own work to. How impossible is it to feel competent today?

The chatter, and resulting pressure, is TOO much! Maybe this works for some artists, but for others that kind of pressure is crippling, leaving many wondering if they’ll ever be good enough, or how to find time for all their commitments in life. Job, family, health, friends, and all the other daily, weekly, monthly things that need our time and attention.

For me, before my slump hit, I had an empty nest and a husband working long hours, living in the country in almost isolation – too far away for friends or family to just drop by. I had tons of time to myself and this made it easy to get studio time almost daily. (I took the weekends off.) Then my husband was laid off and transitioned to retirement. We got a new dog. We moved to the city close to friends and family.

Suddenly all those hours of solitude had vanished. If I was in the studio, I felt guilty I wasn’t paying attention to the new dog, the at home husband, cooking, cleaning, or out visiting friends and family. If I was doing all those other things, I was getting frustrated at not finding enough time to be in the studio. I couldn’t seem to find a happy balance.

Today, I’ve decided to give myself a break and quit stressing about it all. I do not have to produce 30 top quality paintings a month. I don’t even have to produce that many a year. I wonder what the storage rooms of some of these daily painters looks like. I know what my painting storage looks like!

Even if I could produce a painting a day, I couldn’t sell that many. What happens is that I end up contributing to the environmental mess the world is in, by landing many of those paintings in the landfill. The realization of the environmental impact of needing to produce like I was a robotic factory, has helped me get over all the anxiety I have had over the past few years.

Wouldn’t a dozen good, sellable paintings a year be better for the world? I know it is certainly more doable for what my life demands right now, and has made it easier for me to relax and enjoy my painting time guilt free.

Despite the message the only way to improve is to paint daily, I think the opposite has been true for me. A slower pace has given my brain time to catch up with all the learning I have done over the past few years. With fewer painting days, my skills have improved. I have more time to think about and plan a painting, rather than rushing in to get it done. Win, win!

We do not have to buy into this all or nothing scenario. If the message you are hearing over and over causes you anxiety, know that you do not have to adopt it. Define your own parameters for your artist’s life and create from a place of contentment.

The Artist And The Ego

A recent rejection was balanced with some glowing reviews of my art. This yin and yang of life lead me to ponder the roll of ego in an artist’s life.

Dave Ames said: “Trash and treasure are two sides of the same coin. Low self-esteem produces one, and public adulation the other.”

I am genuinely surprised by positive reactions to my work, and am so grateful when another person forms a strong enough connection to my work to want to purchase it. I normally don’t take rejection personally and can generally separate myself from my art, even though it is such a personal part of my inner being.

Ego is defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”. Self-esteem is defined as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect”.

When talking to others about my surprise at positive critiques, I was asked how I keep working if I don’t expect others to like my art or if I didn’t think it was good. It’s not that I don’t think my work is good, exactly, but more that I’m unsure of how it measures up in the big scheme of things. When I begin a painting, I don’t start it with the public in mind. I don’t start it thinking about the ultimate sale. It starts from a deeply personal part of me. There is a need to create this story that end results are unimportant. It doesn’t even matter at this stage if it’s any good. It’s all about the story and how it relates to my spirit. At this stage there is no separation from self.

When the painting is finished I will usually, though not always, put it out there for others to see and judge. I am able to separate myself from the work. When praise comes in it is because that person connects to the story of the painting, not because I have superb painting abilities. When criticism comes in it’s because the story wasn’t clear to that one person, or was one they could not identify with. Yes, it could also be from sloppy technical execution of the painting process for which I am responsible, but it is a criticism against the painting not myself as a human being.

My ego isn’t very big, yet I have enough self-esteem to believe I can succeed if I work hard enough. I know my work has value, yet I know there are so many others who are better. When I paint, although I might enjoy the end results and feel I conveyed the emotion of the story well, I know where the flaws are and what can be improved. There may be technical aspects I’m unsure of. Sometimes I will love a painting and others don’t think much of it. The opposite is true as well. I will hate a piece that the public seems to love. That is why it is so important for an artist to go beyond their own walls and expose their work to the criticism

The ego is a double-edged sword in art. An artist at once needs to believe in themselves and the work they are doing in order to promote it, and have the confidence to show it to others, but at the same time they need to separate themselves from the art to avoid total discouragement and quitting in disgust.

On the other end of the stick, is the danger of an artist becoming so full of themselves to the determinant of their own career.  Most stereotypes of artists are built around the big ego. This is the person that thinks they are a genius and every painting a masterpiece to be held up on a pedestal for all the world to see.

If I were to think like that what motivation would there be for me to learn, grow, and improve? The big ego would become stagnant and dull from a lack of growth.  They already believe themselves to be the best they could possibly be.

Instead my ego tells me there are many others better than me, and so lots more for me to learn. There are a lot more things for me to strive to achieve. Yet, the praise gives me the courage to cast a wider net and reach for some of those higher milestones that will propel my career forwards.  

In Defence Of Slowing Down

In October I, once again, started out doing the daily drawing challenge that I have done for many years. But part way through, I lost interest. I continued anyway, but felt a growing sense of frustration. I am not a fast worker. I seem to take twice as long as anyone else to do a sketch, drawing, or painting. I realized that a few years ago when trying to join friends plein air painting. They seemed to delight in getting a painting down in ½ an hour, while I would leave so frustrated with nothing worthwhile on the canvas. But when I got back to the studio and could take my time with a painting, I was so much happier and the resulting painting was more meaningful. It’s like that extra time allowed me to feel the spirit of the place, rather than rushing through like a tourist snapping a few photos and rushing to the next destination.   

In trying to do the daily sketches, I was longing to make more elaborate drawings that would take me a several more hours than I had available to work. The same thing is true for my paintings. I prefer to start a painting and then slowly work through it. I am not interested in fast art. I am not interested in producing art like I was an assembly line worker in some factory. The world does not need anymore 20 minute or daily paintings. Judging by my inventory, and conversations with other artists, our storage bins are overflowing with artwork that never gets seen. 

Shoebill Stork

If any activity is done because of the love and joy you have for doing it, why should it be rushed through? I want to produce slow, considered art.

The other thing I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about is art marketing. I am rejecting all the push to sell artwork through various means. I am one person with a very exhaustible amount of energy. The older I get, and the longer I battle a chronic autoimmune disease, the less energy I have. I want to spend it painting, drawing, and living. I do not want to be tied to a computer trying to sell myself and my artwork. So I will not. 

Some of it will go out to galleries and shows. Some of it will be listed online, and hopefully that will be enough. If it isn’t then I guess my work will become meaningless other than as an activity to bring me joy. I am rejecting the push to produce and market, in favour of a slower, more considered life. 

This Quarantine Life

Life got real weird, real quick and I ran for the bunker. Both figuratively and literally. Inside my home, inside my head, and shut the outside world off mostly. I felt like a train derailed and questioned everything: life, art, the world, and where I was heading. My ability to concentrate took a big hit, so I puttered around doing this and that, and nothing at all. 

I made masks. I learned to make vector graphics. I took photographs, which made me question am I a photographer who paints, or a painter who photographs? (On a side note: I have been criticized in the past for being all over the place artistically. I view it as a highly creative person who, rather than getting a side job to help pay the bills, diversifies her creative outlets. A side hustle if you will, or a day job and the other day job!) Photography came first, and in this time of shut down has still provided a bit of income where art sales have been zero. Ouch! Even more surprisingly, I have had income from doing something which I regarded as totally frivolous and just for fun. Illustrations, which prompted me to take that aspect of my creative self a bit more seriously. 

Digital Illustration of a male peacock.

I hit a wall with painting, and I’m still trying to push through it in little pieces. One of the amazing things to come out of this is with five months of no painting sales, I didn’t have any pressure to paint ‘saleable’ works, so could put on the mad scientist hat and create experimental works and generally go wherever the winds took me on any given day. One day I might work on digital illustrations, one day I might paint. One day I might take photos. One day I might sketch. One day I might throw caution to the wind and combine several of those things as I did with the following pieces. 

I Dreamt Flamingos Lived Here – 11×11” – Mixed Media

This piece resulted from one of those super vivid dreams I had which I just couldn’t forget. I had dreamt that Flamingos came to our old farm (far, far from Florida!). They were so beautiful and tame. I was petting them and feeding them little morsels. But one became way too pushy and kind of ruined the party (and my dream). The piece involves graphite and coloured pencil on mylar mounted on top of a B&W pinhole photograph printed on watercolour paper. 

In a way it represents me coming full circle back to where my art career began in creating photographs combined with paintings. Back then I was doing abstract watercolour paintings and then printing directly on top of that. Or doing digital compositions combining abstract paintings with my photographs. 

This quarantine life has also proven an answer to a question I’ve often asked myself and others, what would you paint if no one was watching? I’m still hunkered down and trying to distance myself from the outside world, but I feel my inspiration and creativity ramping up into a higher gear than they’ve been for months. Who knows……maybe even a plein air excursion will be in the near future! 

Telling Stories

I am often frustrated trying to reach this goal I have in my head for the way I want my paintings and drawings to be. I am searching for a certain something which is hard to pinpoint. I am looking for more story, more expression in the work. 

Last night we attended a house concert with Kev Corbett, who is a folk singer and storyteller. There was a line in one of his songs which made reference to “a bunch of Group Of Seven trees on the shore”. I instantly knew the image his song was trying to paint and how that tied into his story. The expressiveness of Corbett’s songs and stories have a certain quality I want in my paintings. Some of his songs were able to reach down inside me to grab hold of my soul and give it a good shake….wake it up. At one point, I had a well of tears building in my eyes. If a story can do that to me in a living room full of strangers, you know it has real depth….serious expression. 

Frederick Varley Stormy Weather

That’s the quality I want to achieve with my paintings. And while most of my work is considered good, and loved, it’s not meeting that level for me on a consistent basis. I don’t want to just paint a pretty scene of the landscape before me. I want to create a story within in. I want the painting to have something important to say….to be able to reach out and shake the viewers soul. 

Working with the Revelations Of The Beautiful project – creating paintings to go with the poetry of Edwin Henry Burrington – I have challenged myself into thinking more of how to tell a story in paint. As that project winds down (I’m currently waiting for my proof copy of the book), I am left with how to create stories out of the landscape I live in. How can I be a visual story teller, rather than a just a good painter?

Creatures Mingler – 16×20” – Oil on birch panel Sold

“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. Emotion is the starting point, the beginning and the end. Craftsmanship and technique are in the middle.
– Paul Cezanne

How do I create a story when I go to the pond to paint en plein air on a winter afternoon?  How do I improve the expression of the paint, values, colour, and design of a piece of canvas that same way a singer or poet creates a story to stir up your emotions? While it would be easy to look at the easily identifiable works of the Group Of Seven and try to emulate their style, that gets me nowhere on my quest of imparting my own story to the work. I can study it instead for the qualities that make it expressive. I can study all art and try to distill what it is that makes me drawn to it. What is the story and how has it been told? 

If I take my example of popping out to the pond to do a quick plein air sketch, I need to ask myself, why I am here. What makes this place worth wasting paint and canvas on? What is my emotional connection to this scene? But is that enough to give the work a story and expression? Or is it okay that some works are just pretty pictures in practice for the story, kind of like the writer jotting down a phrase or sentence that leads him to his song? 

My search for these answers, and to give my work this elusive something continues….. 

Burrington, Monet, And Me

Arthur Alfred Burrington was an esteemed English painter. Although most known for his watercolours which formed the bulk of his work, he was equally adept at oils. Alfred received his training in London at both the South Kensington School of Art and later at Slade School. He went to Rome and Italy to study the great masters. In France he studied at the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts, under the tutelage of Leon Bonnat. He also studied under Gustave Boulanger and Fernand Cormon. The later taught such famed artists as Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, Vincent van Gogh, and several other highly celebrated artists. 

Burrington spent time at the artist colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany, before finally settling in the French Riviera at Menton. It isn’t known whether Burrington and Monet became acquainted in Brittany or Paris, but it is known that they painted together at Menton. Alfred is the subject of Monet’s ‘Portrait Of An English Painter, Bordighera‘ in 1884. 

Portrait Of An English Painter at Bordighera by Monet

The painting below is believed to be a painting of his father, Edwin Henry Burrington. The Burrington family was well established and highly respected in Bridgwater, Somerset. In 1848 at the age of 27, Edwin published a book of poetry entitled Revelations Of The Beautiful. Edwin was quietly involved in the literary circles, often writing articles in leading London papers, and was on the permanent staff with the London Press as the critic. His book of poems was well reviewed by the press.

A Visit From Grandfather – A Somersetshire Cottage by A Burrington

Edwin Henry Burrington was my husbands great x3 grandfather. Arthur his great x2 uncle. 

I have always likened painting to poetry. The melodic rhythm of the written word and abstract interpretations seem to echo with my thoughts of painting. I equate high realism in art as journalistic reporting. The facts as observed by one person. While impressionist and abstract representational art is more like poetry in its emotive suggestion which allows the reader/viewer to interpret the meaning. 

Many of my landscape and figurative paintings were drawn from inspiration of Burrington’s poetry. A nod to my husbands family history which is so rich in art and poetry.  

Nature Is Revealing – 8×10” – Oil on canvas panel

“The prosers of the busy world are they
Who never kindle mutual faith and feeling,
For such have hearts which waste themselves away,
Yet never know that Nature is revealing
Both love and loveliness by night and day.
The poets of the busy world are lovers,
The truest and the best.

Edwin Burrington

The Complex Simplicity Of Opinions


“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, ‘He feels deeply, he feels tenderly.'”
Vincent van Gogh

The movie “Loving Vincent” is set to open in theatres shortly. This ground-breaking movie is entirely hand painted, and I am eager to see it. Not just for the way it was crafted, but for the story of Vincent. Much of what he wrote over his all too short of life really resonates with me, as I’m sure it does for many other artists.

While I am always striving to improve the technical mastery of my work, my main concern is expression, as I believe it was with van Gogh. I want my work to resonate with other people in the world who also feel deeply and tenderly. In that regard I have reached out to a couple of (so-called) experts over the past year to see how my work is perceived by others and if it is meeting the goals I have for it. 

In one instance I was given the advice to continue to work on simplification to allow the emotion to be more easily expressed. To represent the figure with the slash of a well crafted brush stroke, rather than excessively rendering it. In another the person said: “Consider removing the figures from your work until you can render them so well that they have something strong to say and aren’t props in a painting. ” The point is the figures are just props. As I’ve written before about staffage: figures placed to help guide the eye and tell the story, but not to form the story itself.   

I was recently at the Monet exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery and while studying some of his work a discussion about the figures in his landscapes occurred. His painting ‘Snow Effect Sunset’ was one of my favourites from the exhibition. In it, his rendering of the figures are exactly what the first expert had been pushing me towards. Nothing more than a well placed slash of paint.  What would happen to the painting if the figures were rendered more? Would the focus shift from the light and feeling of cold, to the figures alone? The hint of warmth in the sky would not have the same importance in telling us what a chilly day it is here if our attentions were diverted to more highly rendered figures. 

How do the figures inform the composition of this painting? 

“Oh! I must somehow manage to do a figure in a few strokes.”
Vincent van Gogh 

In the painting ‘Iron Mill In The Hague’ by van Gogh, the eye enters the painting at the start of the canal and follows it down. If not for the figure it would likely continue right out at the bottom right, but the figure says “hey wait a minute, look here”, and helps guide us up to the chimney stacks that tells us about the heavy industry and pollution happening in this seemingly idyllic village. The figure here is rendered in slightly more detail than that of Monet’s painting, but still not what one would consider ‘well rendered’. Was Monet’s version of the figure what van Gogh was striving for in his own work?

In my work, I am aiming for expression. To tell a story which the viewer can feel more so that read. My staffage figures are somewhere between the two artists. Probably closer to van Gogh, but trying to get more like Monet’s without them looking like accidental marks I forget to finish! I want people to see the passion more so than the technical mastery or technique. That’s not to say I don’t want the work to be better technically or for me to have better technique. Far from it. But the problem with trying to reach that goal is the goalposts keep moving! The closer you get, the further out (or higher up) you move the goal.  

The person who told me to leave out the figures had started off saying “The work is viable. It’s painterly, it’s abstract landscape, a good sense of color”, but then finished by saying “your work isn’t compelling – your subject matter isn’t interesting to a general public and the way you render it isn’t either.  You don’t seem to understand the importance of division of space, line and mark making, paint/brush work, edge, shapes, values, color, form, or drawing.”. Confused? Me too. 

Why such completely opposite opinions from the people I sought advice from, and even from one so called expert? A viewer’s background and past history has more to do with their reaction to any given painting than the technical mastery and intentions of the artist. The opinions may even depend on the kind of day that person has had and where they are struggling in their own life.

Therein lies the problem with art and, especially with seeking someone’s advice, there is no one answer. Where one person comes from may be completely at odds with where another person is coming from. Where one artist is aiming for high realism, another’s goal is personal expression. At it’s simplest, it all boils down to “do you like the work….does it move you”. The complexity resides in the why’s and why nots.

So how do you know who you should seek counsel with, and who may be at complete opposition to your artistic intentions and style? The whole process has spurred me to want to write an article about what to look for before seeking someone for art advice, coaching, or critique, and I would like to ask my fellow artists if you have any stories about hiring someone you’d like to share. I am looking for good and bad situations. How have you benefitted by a critique? How has it hurt you? Do you have any tips for making sure you have hired someone that you will get along with and provide YOU with valuable but trustworthy opinions?

Why Paint Figurative Work?

Wherever I want to improve any aspect of my painting abilities, I always turn to the human figure. The figure is useful in improving skills because mistakes are so easily seen. With a landscape a mistake in drawing can easily be accepted and taken as a natural anomaly built into the land. Here are more reasons I turn to the figure when I want to improve my paintings:

  • Figure drawing teaches you to draw better. As well as mistakes being more obvious in the figure, it also teaches you to relate each part to another. 
  • Figure drawing helps teach you to see relationships between shapes and distances.
  • Figure drawing helps you to see and represent gesture and emotion, which are always important to represent in the landscape.
  • The human body is complex. Learning to draw (or paint) it teaches patience and simplification.
Ballet Blanc 9×12” Charcoal on toned paper

Good drawing forms the ‘bones’ on which a strong painting hangs.
– (Chris Bingle)