'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

Go here to find out more.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Her Favourite Things - a Painting

I suspect most people like things mostly for their associations.
I have a stone that I picked up off a beach.  It is not a stone, it's a whole stretch of stony beach on a misty morning. And it's the people I was staying with, and the memories of the laughs and food we shared, and their children's funny sayings, and the soft Dublin accent and the beer we tried, and the moonlight over Skerries harbour from the pub window and ... everything.  In one stone.

My stone

I was recently commissioned to make a painting of someone's favourite things.
So I went to the house (while she was out - it was commissioned by her partner and it was a secret!) and took photos of all the things that had special meaning for her.

There was a favourite chair with a knitted rug over it, a stone feature wall, and a soft toy and a blue patterned teacup. There was a little table of ceramic birds and a low table with a collection of shells and binoculars. There was a painting, a view from a window, and books, and a sweet violets on a never-used tea-set ...

I decided to paint everything on this table and use it
as an 'anchor' along the base of the composition.
I was nervous of those binoculars! They looked complicated!

A sweet mini-composition.  They are tied together
with the ellipse of the table.

The chair would look plain without the afghan rug

I wondered if I might do the reflection of this cup too.
 I thought these two knights could 'stand guard' either side of the painting.

Big Ted needs to be near the centre because he will draw attention where-ever he is.
I thought this pillow's pattern might look good in the background

This view I felt would be best at the top of the painting

I had no idea how I would use this wall.  

Should this owl go with the other birds or have its own space somewhere?
I loved the green eyes, but had to be careful they didn't stand out too much.

I printed out the images and cut the objects out and arranged them on my piece of paper and rearranged and rearranged again and again until I was happy with the composition. This stage took a long time and at one point I despaired of it ever coming together.
In the end I realised I didn't have to keep to the right sizes.  So I blew some things up much larger than others, as I needed some bold shapes here or there. Some very brightly coloured things I shrunk in size because they would have overwhelmed the composition too much. I tried to link detail and subject sometimes, and other times I spread them around (like the tea-set violets) so the painting wouldn't look too disjointed, with too many disparate bits.  The huge teddy bear had to be in the centre, because it was so bold, looking out at the viewer with his direct gaze.

I had a brain-wave:  I would put the lady's previous husband (sadly deceased) inside one of the knights, and her new partner (who was commissioning me) in the other.  (He was a bit shy about this idea, but I crossed my fingers and did it anyway, hoping he would like it when it was done.)

In the end the drawing looked like this:

The main structure is:  the distant view at top, a piece of wall below, table at the bottom.
Flanking: Two ceramic dragons above, two knights below.
Big bear in the middle.
Everything else in the middle.
Cushion pattern winding around in the background.
Close-up of the binoculars

The blue 'Birthday' teddy
 I felt it best to break up the teddies.
Blue Ted went on the new partner knight's shoulders, because this painting is a birthday gift from him to her.

You can see I have had trouble with the binoculars already.  They had to be right, because the lady is a birder!  The ellipses wouldn't behave themselves.

Nearly time to pick up the brushes!
When I began thinking about the colours, I realised that there weren't very many brights at all.  Most of the things were rather grey or brown.  Only the chair and rug was pink, Birthday Ted was cobalt blue, and there was a soft toy clown with red stripes.  I decided each of the knights needed a pink rose as a sign of his affection.  No roses in the garden but plenty of pink abutilon.  They will do.  Photographed them at different angles and drew them on.  Two was wrong so added a third.  Odd numbers are better.

Off we go with the watercolours:

The lumps on the armour and shield have no shape nor shadows yet ... they are just paper showing through.

Three teddies nearly finished, and the dark knight's armour
is looking much more realistic now.
The violets are just spaces still.
detail of the collections table

No 'Happy Birthday' writing on Blue Ted's shirt yet.
Black won't show well, so I'll do it in white.
 My watercolour paper is thick and strong, A2 sized Bockingford paper. (acid and lignin free, 420 x 594 mm (23.4 x 16.5 ins), 300 gsm)
With side lighting, you can see the paper is quite textured.
This made fine detail a little more challenging to paint.
About to do Ted's eyes.

Shine on eyes = patches of white left.  Left-hand one is darker as it's in the shadow of the nose.

Next: erasing most of the pencil lines.  I go carefully and use a very soft eraser.  I don't want to lift off any pigment, nor scuff up the paper.

Nearly there.  All that's left to do is the twining
cushion pattern and a final check.
Done!  Detail.

Painting complete.
A cornucopia of personal and meaningful items.
My next job is to sign this work.  I will 'enscribe' it on the barometer at the lower right.
Then a light spray of matt fixative and it's done.
This one has taken four weeks, about 40 hours total.

And has given me great pleasure.

Sincere thanks to the couple for whom this was painted, for giving me permission to share these processes and images.


  1. A fabulous idea, and a fabulous execution. I'm sure she'll be thrilled with it.

    A friend of mine commissioned a large tapestry history of her husband for his 70th birthday. She had to order it 3 years in advance,

    1. Thanks Cro. A tapestry - that's a super idea. Lots of work in that!

  2. Fantastic. I love to hear about the process and the thinking that has gone into your work. I'm sure she'll be pleased.

    1. I enjoy sharing Helsie. Thanks!

  3. That is the first time I have seen any of your artwork…it is beautiful, and so much kind thought gone into it. I am sure the recipient will love it. Your " typo" made me laugh…..we call them abutilon here!

    1. Ooops - yes, we call them that too! Thanks Frances, they don't actually have a smell at all :-)

      And thank you for your comment.

  4. Wow, that is a wonderful keepsake, and I love the quality of your work! Playful and yet very professional, and you've managed to include all of those things and not have it looking messy. Very well done indeed! I am in awe of your talent!

    Thank you so much for wondering about me and leaving the message on my blog. We are OK, thank you - I've just become so tied up with fundraising this year, plus the grandbabies, and then OH had a DVT (he's OK, though still on warfarin), and Sid's not doing so well so we've been back and forth to the vet. It's been one thing after another .. but I have two posts written and waiting for photos. I will be back!

    Thank you - you are very sweet to worry about me. :)

    1. Thanks for you comments Jay - I appreciate them.
      I'm glad you're ok. Sorry to hear about OH. Nasty things DVT's. And Sid.
      So you have GRANDIES! Lucky you!

      Once you told me 'to blog is to live' or something like. I say 'I blog therefore I am'. But of course we all know we have to live first, and then blog. Come back to the fold when you have the time and the energy!

    2. Fascinating and unique :)

  5. How utterly fascinating and delightful to watch an artist at work from afar! Thank you for letting us in on the steps in the process and your thoughts along the way. It probably would have taken much less time to complete if you hadn't had us in mind as well.

    1. My pleasure Bob. Actually I usually photograph at least some of the steps, but this post did take a while as I had to revisit my thoughts and hesitations etc. Next time I shall jot a few down!

  6. Wonderful Kate! Your patience is matched only by your artistic talent and the understanding of human beings that underpins this very personal composition. How has the lady reacted to it?

    1. Thank you Yorkshire Garnett.
      She was delighted. It was presented to her on her 70th Birthday and she was so amazed how all her things could have 'appeared' on it without her knowing.
      She thinks there might be families out there who would commission me to do this sort of painting for elderly family members moving into retirement homes and having to get rid of some of their bits and pieces. I like this idea very much. You see, I can incorporate favourite things, views of garden corners, a favourite rose or tree, concrete sheep, even the house itself, deceased hubbies or wives, grandchildren, etc.... all together in one work.

  7. Katherine, what a beautifully executed keepsake' it will bring this lady much joy.

    The idea of capturing the essence of 'home' for those facing the upheaval of having to uproot is a wonderful one and would bring comfort and support at a time when there can be very mixed feelings.

    1. Thank you for your comment Elizabeth. I think so too. Some of my other artwork is a bit esoteric. It was great to create something that was so immediately and simply ~!Enjoyed!~

  8. Hi Kate,
    Marvelous! Thanks for letting me into the creative process of your artwork and enjoy it..

    1. Thank you Ben. I'm beginning to realise that the process is as worthwhile sharing as the work itself. Maybe even more so.

  9. I just wandered in from Jan Blawat's (Cosumne Gal) blog. I'm super impressed with your work. I can seen the evidence of of hours and HOURS of skilled labor on this imaginative and priceless piece. This should bring a lot of joy to the receiver and her family probably for generations. Well done!

    1. Thank you for your words Eileen - and welcome to TLVD! It's always nice to see new faces here.

  10. I am lost in admiration for the whole idea and the execution thereof. Seeing all the steps in the same way that we've seen cherry steps (for example) is fascinating too for me because it's such another world from the way I think or thought even when I was designing pottery.

    Not only that but the start of the post with your stone has made me realise that most of the 'things' that I keep I keep for exactly that reason: it's what they represent rather than what they are per se.

    1. Geeb - and the nice thing (extra) about that stone is that James says he was the one that found it and gave it to me (I forgot that), so it has lovely (and probably slightly different) memories for HIM too! As well as a new significance for me. He was only 9 then. Aren't keepsakes wonderful!?

  11. Speechless! Well done, that is wonderful, all the more so by seeing how you arrived at the finished picture!


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