5.1 – contextual research

We’re asked to paint very detailed depiction of plants or weeds in the garden or nearby environment, using oil, watercolour or acrylic, and an A5-A3 mid-tone surface

To inspire me for this exercise I first looked at the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, Mimei Thomson and Richard Wentworth.
Their paintings are rich in highly detailed and realistic depictions of hedgerows, brambles and wild plants.  They’re also decoratively and romantically done.  John Everett Millais’ drowning Ophelia is surrounded by a very detailed and complex background of thick undergrowth.  I think the way to make sense of depicting such complex vegetation, without spending weeks or months on a painting, would be to look for broad areas of light and dark tone, and gradually add some suggestive detail.  The way Millais has made a focal point of the tall leaves in the left foreground pulls the viewer’s eye to Ophelia’s face.  Composition is important to get your message across; rather than slavishly copying a scene, elements can be added and subtracted and moved, deleted or invented to suit what the artist wants to say.  Its interesting to learn that the many flowers in the painting mostly have symbolic significance, and were depicted with painstaking botanical detail (Terry Riggs, 1998, at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-ophelia-n01506. Would roses, daisies, pansies and poppies ever be found flowering together in the wild? – the Pre-Raphelites were, in the end, like the Dutch still-life masters, more interested in allusion and symbolism and perhaps decoration, than realism.

Mimei Thompson
Thompson’s paintings are mostly quite small, and her subjects are often painted in a simple context, on a pale background.
Two things spring to mind on looking at her work; firstly, what an imaginative eye she has, her weeds look like alien creatures; and I then notice the name of an exhibition of hers – Lunar Asparagus – which seems to sum up these paintings of weeds, which hover between a realistic and an litother-worldly interpretation.  Secondly, I notice the brush strokes are highly evident, and this apparently is a result of her process, which she describes as follows:
“The paintings go through a liquid stage, where the whole surface is covered in a fluid mix of paint and Liquin medium on a smooth, non-absorbent surface, and that gets moved around and worked into while it’s all still liquid. The whole thing might be wiped or brushed off a few times before it settles down. I then go back into this, when it’s dry, and add detail, shadows and highlights, or sometimes make larger changes, over the weeks that follow. It’s really a combination of planning and leaving space for chance and improvisation. I find control and looseness, and other opposites, really useful to work with” (Decidedly Alien: the Paintings of Mimei Thompson, Wayne Burrows, 2014 at http://www.thedoublenegative.co.uk/2014/08/decidedly-alien-the-paintings-of-mimei-thompson/)

Then I realise it is these very dominant brush strokes are one of the ingredients that give the depiction of her (mundane and overlooked) weeds such a strange feel.  
Her work is highly detailed, but with imagination the everyday becomes fantastic.  In this sense it isnt unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, and I think I can also see a connection between the way she paints individual flowers and plants, and the painting of individual plants and flowers in Ophelia.

I like the idea of a combination of control and looseness in painting, and will keep this in mind when i make my paintings of plants.  I’ll be using water based media, so using techniques like blots, decalcomania, texture with salt, spattering, will help lay in loose tonal textured areas, and on to that I could add details of plants with an opaque water baesd medium, pens and pencils.
Richard Wentworth

Wentworth juxtaposes ready-made objects and materials that aren’t normally seen together, arranging them in a way that makes us look with fresh eyes – something Wentworth calls “observational intelligence” (http://www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-with-richard-wentworth/)
This observational intelligence is the foundation of much of his work: the street is where he mainly finds inspiration: “the street is a site of total gorgeousness. Just look outside: it’s momentous.” Richard Wentworth, Interview by Lorna Barnett, The Guardian, 2013 at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jun/11/richard-wentworth-sculptor-portrait-artist?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other. I think what he’s saying here is that opportunities for finding rich subject matter are all around us when we venture outside, if we can look with fresh eyes, or work hard at nurturing our observational intelligence.
He makes, or finds, lateral connections: “Wentworth is continually distracted by quirky details, visual anomalies in the urban fabric: a crushed box with a wineglass symbol indicating this-way-up; …a gap in the double yellow lines on the road where someone clearly drove while the wet paint was still wet” Article by Mark Hudson, The Telegraph, 2015 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/11401173/Richard-Wentworth-interview.html. This ability to see everyday details in a fresh way is easier for someone living in a foreign culture.  I see strange and remarkable things on my walks that neighbours wouldn’t notice, and would see as perfectly ordinary.  To me, these are the very things that describe the differences between my world and theirs (an armchair abandoned in the forest; an unwanted loo dropped by the side of the road).
Wentworth’s book Making Do and Getting By (Published by Koenig Books, London in association with Peter Freeman, Inc., New York and Lisson Gallery) contains a series of photographs by the artist celebrating the ingenuity of people in relation to the functionality of everyday objects.  He finds discrepancies, chance pairings of objects and materials, improvisations and human resourcefulness.  His subjects are “often rendered functional in an altogether new and unexpected way. A car door serves to mend a wire fence. Wooden crates, wedged into a doorway, exert the function of a door. ” http://www.gupmagazine.com/articles/making-do-and-getting-by. (in my environment – a piece of shalwar fabric torn and caught on a thistle, a wood-burner rigged up in a rickety bus-shelter, a tractor hopper used to cart the wife to market, a goat riding pillion on a motorbike) – these things are amusing because they say something about the resourcefulness of hard-up people unfettered by too much strict adherance to rules.
Looking at Richard Wentworth’s work, and reading his interviews, has given me fresh ideas about the way in which i might depict my environment.
All web sites accessed 6/7/2017

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