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. 

Pre Planning The Perfect Painting

Once I finally settle down on an idea for a painting, I get impatient and want to see the end result before I’ve even started. In my attempt to slow down and be more deliberate about my paintings, I am attempting to preplan them, by manipulating the reference photo to strengthen the design, and test colours.

One of the problems with trying to get mountain reference photos for paintings is that our Canadian forest is heavy. Unless one can get a special vantage point higher up or further away, which is usually not easily achieved (especially the further away one if you are right in the mountains), finding an interesting composition is difficult.

Take the following photo as an example. I wanted to paint the lakeshore and canoes. In the original you couldn’t see the distant slope and mountains. It was just a solid block of trees. I suppose one could make an interesting painting from that if you made the subject about the trees themselves, and found some sort of rhythm to them.

Altered reference photo

I’m not so keen on evergreens and think the overall photo would be quite boring as a painting. Previously I probably wouldn’t have attempted it and ended up with a dud to throw away. Now, I’m trying to work out the potential problems before I even get to the canvas.

I want to reduce the number of canoes, open up the forest and create a path to guide the eye through the painting, and give some colour to the sky. So I attempted to illustrate these ideas digitally on top of the reference photo, playing with both the design and colours. It’s just a rough roadmap to help me visualize what I want.

Digitally altered reference to plan painting

Now to see if this pre-planning results in a successful painting. What changes would you have made if you were painting this?

Baby Wolf

Baby Wolf – 6×6″ – Oil on panel

This was a commission from my grandson. We were visiting a local wildlife park when he casually asked “Grandma how much do you sell your paintings for?”. So I told him it depended on the size and asked why he wanted to know. He wanted to know if he could afford to pay me to paint him the baby wolf we had seen.

He was 7 at the time. I told him if he did all his school work, didn’t fight with his mom, and generally behaved himself for the next month (this was during Covid home schooling), I would do it for a dollar. Pretty soon he’s digging through his pockets counting his money.

And just like that I got hoodwinked into creating 4 commissioned paintings for $5. Painting isn’t about the money, but the joy and love. Both mine and the recipients.

Expressing My Love Of Nature

The sea, sky, and all living creatures are transient. It is only the land that endures. It is the land that sustains us.  I am creating nature based images to provide an escape from the everyday and foster a connection with the importance of the land to mans well-being.

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

Rather than provide a mirror to what is easily seen, I am trying to represent ordinary scenes in an expressive way to capture a fleeting mood or impression. Not to explicitly say what I feel, but to allow the viewers imagination to interpret the work, and form a connection to a fleeting thought or emotion they may have felt once before. I want them to sense the importance of the land, and how man needs nature to survive; not just physically but emotionally as well.

“I don’t paint the landscape. I paint the spirit disguised as a landscape.”

I am trying to represent the poetry within a place which the viewer can connect with through the human spirit, more so than the intellect.  It is a form of visual storytelling to communicate with them where words fail. You can speak the words to someone and have them understand, but through a poem or painting you can speak in a language people can feel in the depths of their soul. Because I want to speak on a more emotional, intimate level, my paintings are in a smaller format to foster a closer, quieter conversation. I don’t have a loud personality, so why should my paintings be any different? 

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. 

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 Ebb And Flow Of Learning

I seek mastery of paint and canvas, and this seeking involves a lifelong road of learning and striving to be “better”. With better being a subjective quality only applicable to me. The outside world plays no roll in my own critique of my skills and the quality of my work. The path of learning is an internal route guided strictly by my own desire and love of creating. It is a bumpy trail at times though. 

I have discovered this path is not a smooth flat trail, or even a steady climb, but one filled with valleys, plateaus, and peaks. Learning a new skill or trying to reach a higher level of achievement can seem impossible at the start. You take in what you think you need to know but it seems your skills take a nosedive. Frustration and discouragement is an easy enemy that does in many a student with dreams of an art career. It is the drive of determination, and a certain degree of detachment to results that wins in the end.

Look at learning, or skill building, as a child learning to walk. The toddler does not start off running a marathon but with baby steps and tumbles.  Giving yourself permission to fail, over and over again if necessary, will help avoid the discouragement that can lead to giving up.

The Hours Of Day Are Numbered – 8×10” – Oil on canvas panel

My own experiences have taught me when I strive to learn a new technique my paintings spend a period of time being suitable only for the fire (the valley). Thoughts like “what am I doing”, “I’m a hack”, “I should get a real job”, are easily heard. I keep a fire extinguisher nearby and tell those voices to go bother someone else and push on. Soon my work returns to where it was before, and a kind of resolve happens (the plateau). “This is my style”, “This is how I’m meant to paint”, “I’m not a master, but my work is good enough”.

It is here where I must remind myself of the path of the toddler learning to walk. While being able to walk is great, it isn’t good enough. I want to run the marathon. I want to take my painting to the level of a master. Then one day out of the blue, when I’m least expecting it, something happens on the canvas, and those skills that seemed so elusive magically appear (the peak). And the process starts all over again trying to reach the next highest peak. It is a journey with no limit….no end. 

“The more intensely we feel about an idea or a goal, the more assuredly the idea, buried deep in our subconscious, will direct us along the path to its fulfillment.” Earl Nightingale

Is It Selfishness Or Creativity?

Does saying no to requests for your time and attention make you a selfish person?

There is an excellent article written in Medium by Kevin Ashton, which talks about how creative people value their time.  Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Hungarian-American psychology professor, devoted 30 years to research on how creative people live and work. While researching for his book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” Mihaly wrote to 275 famous creators asking them to be interviewed for the book. A telling sign in the habits of creative people was that 1/3 said no to being interviewed, and another 1/3 simply did not reply at all. 

The reasons for saying no ranged, but they all shared a central focus…….their time was too valuable to give up freely. Ashton writes: 

Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations.” 

In our society No is seen as a negative word or action. We are not taught to say no, but to say yes. We are told to be helpful to each other, to be considerate, to be selfless, while No makes people think the opposite. To those that say no to helping a friend, or donating work, giving back, or sharing our time, we are labelled as selfish, egotistical, rude, unfriendly, uncaring, and more.

For the artist balancing the need for creative time with the demands from others creates a real tension. Made worse is the fact most artists are very generous and compassionate by nature. Most artists want to foster a better world, so saying no goes against the very nature of most. 

Morning Dip – 8×10” – Acrylic on panel

The problem increases for artists with little to no outside help, as all tasks of managing our career fall on us and we must balance our creative time with our management time. There is a lot to do outside the studio. Submissions to make (just weeding through all the opportunities requires a good deal of time), shows to attend, bookwork, enquiries to answer, etc. 

Not so long ago I said yes to everything. In 2008 I had been heavily involved in the fibre arts for several years. I’d spent a few intense years working with a college fibre arts restructuring program. I was helping to write one of the programs levels and was volunteering my time to organize workshops for their annual festival. I was teaching. I was writing for publications. I was researching textile history. I was doing so much for everyone else with the end result of very little time left to actually create. In short I burned out.

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club”
– Jack London

In July 2008 I taught my last class. I hung up my fibre tools, took my camera and ran away, so to speak. Along the way I learned to say no and I learned that if I wanted a career based on my creativity I had to protect my time like it was the crown jewels. I had to learn to say no. It wasn’t an easy task.

I said yes a lot early on, especially as I transitioned my career away from the fibre arts into the visual arts. I donated work (shame on me!). I applied for every reasonable show opportunity, and then drove all around the province attending openings and events, I spent a lot of time online visiting other artists blogs and sites socializing. As my career progressed I gave interviews, I wrote, I answered questions, I tried to give back by helping others. I was starting to feel a familiar tension creeping in, as I spent my days creating and long nights trying to do everything else. No started getting easier.

Ashton writes: “No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.”

Today I say No a lot. I say no to teaching. I say no to a lot of opportunities. I say no to many interviews and publicity. I say  no to going to openings. I say no to volunteering. I gave up socializing online. Sure I feel guilty. The worst is saying No to helping kids learn. Yes I worry about being seen as a snob, or being selfish, uncaring or any of the other derogatory perceptions from saying no, but I have also realized that its not my problem if that’s how others choose to view me. I intend to continue having a successful arts career. That’s the price I have to pay for it.

Without creation and the time that requires, I have no career and I have no income. I have a lot I want to accomplish in my career. I want to learn and grow as an artist. I want my work to improve and evolve. The one thing all my goals require is time; and the clock ticks faster with every passing year so I have grown selfish of my time. 

“Sometimes you’ve got to let everything go – purge yourself. If you are unhappy with anything… whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you’ll find that when you’re free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.”
– Tina Turner