Saturday, July 04, 2015

A world forgotten...

When I was a kid, my mother and I were surrounded by quite a wonderful collection of oddballs. Only a few of them were horrible hippie/feminists bent on world domination (sadly, these had a rather disproportionate influence). Quite a lot of them, it being Victoria, were highly educated older English people of the first half of the 20th century, who themselves were influenced by William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement and were great lovers of history and art. I was educated in large part by my mere proximity to these intelligent and cultured people, who showered me constantly with books. (Books that are today, I see from Amazon and Ebay, quite valuable collectors objects themselves...Oh well...)

A few days ago, I tried out my new calligraphy pen and to my surprise could still cut a halfway decent letter. I noted on FB that I was surprised both that I could do this, and that I had somehow forgotten that I could. Not only had I all but forgotten that I knew how to do this, but I had obviously completely forgotten where I picked up the skill.

Last night, in my digging around the innernets for stuff about medieval manuscripts, I discovered a heretofore forgotten book that has been made available in its entirety online by the good offices of the Kelly Library at the University of Toronto. As I flicked delightedly through, I realised instantly that I recognised every page of it. This was one of the books that I had been given by my mother's older friends as a child, and it all came flooding back to me.

Once I showed an interest, they also gave me materials, and I now remember hours and hours sitting at the dining room table on hot afternoons just like this one, poring carefully over the illustrations and meticulously copying the letters and forms.

Writing Illuminating and Lettering, by William Johnston, who is known today in the circles as the "father" of modern calligraphy, who almost single-handedly revived the art, and contributed enormously to the early 20th century revival of interest in all things medieval that was to strongly influence Tolkien. The book was first published in 1906, and I'm fairly certain that I had one of the early editions. 

It was a strange experience flipping through the pages electronically, and seeing again the images that had been completely dug into my synapses before I was ten. It transported me back to a time when I was very certain about who I was, and who God was,  before my teenage apostasy and the near-ruination of my life, the derailment from which I am only now recovering.

It's a strange thing to realise that you were more right about the universe, more authentically yourself and more in line with the genuine ordering of All Things, when you were ten than when you were 35.  And equally strange to start going back to those original mental conditions in middle age. But it's a strange world we've created, and it confuses the young. 

The other day I was chatting with Fr. Cassian on the steps of the Basilica after Mass, and we fell to lamenting the terrible effects of the anti-culture on young people. I said that I felt terribly sorry for them, and that I mostly wrote with a mind to helping them avoid the great fallacies and Fantasies of our time. He said, "Oh yes! I remember being young, and it was awful." We both agreed that it was much better over as soon as possible, so one could return to the sensible and straightforward things we first learned. 


Practice, practice, practice...
I had, of course, forgotten the sublime pleasure of spending hours practicing calligraphy. I'm working on developing a style to use with my Saint Paintings, that is turning out to be a combination of half uncials and mid-Gothic.  I'm finding the "d"s quite tricky. 

Of course, as with everything else in our times, if you want to learn something, there's a YouTube video to help:

Art and Fear
I told a new friend here in Norcia about the plans for the Saint Paintings and said I was feeling rather intimidated by the whole thing. The notion of actually making a living as a painter is ... well... it seems a little fantastic. She gave me an excellent suggestion, saying that I should think of it as "doing crafts". It's a perfect solution. I know how to "do crafts"! We all do, right? We did it in kindergarten. It's easy and fun. 

Sometimes you just have to learn how to trick your brain. 

I'm revisiting a book one of you all sent me a few years ago called Art and Fear, a little slim volume that addresses that stuff your brain does to you when you want to make art but are so afraid of failure you don't try. It's been translated int an astonishing array of languages and has had 12 printings, so it seems it's not just me.

Technical stuff...

I'm also having quite a wonderful time mucking about with a new medium. I'd taken a little weekend workshop in illuminating when I was about 11, and I remember for many years practising with Windsor and Newton drawing inks. The instructor said that the best medium available in modern art suppliers, the one that most closely approximated what the medieval scribes used (and wasn't too expensive) was gouache, but I never tried it at the time. 

But when I started this project, I saw that the local stationer's here in town had a good supply of gouache tubes, and that it wasn't very expensive, so a few weeks ago, I dug them out of the art cupboard, and I'm finding that they're fantastic. Exactly suited to this project. Easy to use, opaque colour that you can use like oil paints or dilute and use more like watercolours. When they dry on the palette you can reconstitute them with a drop of water, and they dry in minutes so there's no long waits between painting sessions. You can paint over mistakes quite easily, and do exactly the same techniques of colour mixing as with oils. 

For glazes and washes they're not so good, because once you dilute it too much, all you really get is the chalky medium and very little pigment, which turns out just sort of a ghostly, chalky pallor. I've figured out how to deal with this, however, and will finish the main parts in gouache, do a coating of fissativo to set the gouache, and then use pure watercolour as a light glaze over top to deepen the colours.

The dull matte finish of gouache doesn't really appeal to me much, having been trained to paint with oils, and because they stay "active" more or less forever, you normally have to put gouache paintings under glass; a single drop of water on them can ruin the painting even years after it's finished. I don't want to bother with framing under glass, and don't think the ceramic tiles would do well in such contraptions anyway. But I've solved both of these problems with the simple application of an acrylic varnish that brings out the beautiful jewel-like colours that it had when wet, and gives it a nice low-gloss finish and protects them. 

But in general, these little drawbacks are nothing compared to the ease of gouache as a medium, and it's affordability. A 20 ml tube of artists' gouache goes for 4 to 10 Euros, compared to comparable oils that can be as high as 50 E a tube, and sometimes more.

Here's a nice American chap who has taught himself to paint and did most of his landscape work in gouache...

And here's someone else who mainly does gouache and watercolour, plein-air, which I've not yet worked up the nerve to try.

You can see that the medium's very "dry" appearance lends itself brilliantly to the style of the 19th century realists. It's very Sargent-y.


Also, I wonder if someone couldn't perhaps see their way to making me one of these.

Or this one would do, 

These, apparently, are miniatures, but I could do with one full size. 




Anonymous said...

The saint picture is beautiful! (St. Benedict I'm guessing?) Is it yours?

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Heavens no! It's the one I'm copying though. From a late 15th century manuscript.