Thursday, 28 April 2011

Too Cute!

A few weeks ago, one of my favourite painters, Nicki Ault, posted on her blog, two stages of a painting of the view from her studio window. 

Something she said about adding the snowflakes in the second stage, made me think about how we want our artwork to be perceived.

“I do have a bit of a fear that they make the painting a bit cute."

Why was Nicki afraid of the painting being ‘cute’? It’s a term that is used pretty widely in the world of art and design, particularly in relation to greeting card design. In that case it’s usually a compliment so why is ‘cute’ something we try to avoid in the world of Fine Art?

I looked up some dictionary definitions and wasn’t too surprised to find that the word isn’t even included in some of my older English dictionaries. I think it’s only through the internet that the word has become part of our UK vocabulary, though my mother did use it in its original, now outdated sense, meaning ‘shrewd’ ‘ingenious’ or ‘clever’.

Definitions I found included:

  • attractive
  • pretty
  • charming
  • delightfully pretty or dainty

All quite positive meanings  - so why are we afraid of our work being dubbed ‘cute’?

I think one of the definitions I found, hints at the answer:

‘obviously contrived to charm’

This, for me, at least, suggests something less ‘worthy’, something shallow or insincere, maybe with overtones of deception, manipulation, not something that came from the heart!

To me this is fine for a greeting card, which is likely to be ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ but not for a piece of art that we hope will stand the test of time, the sort of work that, as in Van Gogh’s case, may not be appreciated until many years later!

Nothing wrong with 'cute' 

‘Cute’ is a word that is often quite appropriately applied to small children and baby animals. But then the cute child grows up – and rightly so! – and their ‘cuteness’ fades away. Again, this may be a clue as to why ‘cute’ is not something that a fine artist like Nicki would take as a compliment. It’s a bit like comparing a catchy pop song that is top of the hit parade one week then fades to obscurity, with the lasting work of classical composers or even the work of the real ‘greats’, like John Lennon and others.

There’s nothing wrong with ‘cute’ in the right context but I can understand why Nicki wanted to avoid it in her snow painting.

How to avoid it? I don’t have an answer except that every artist probably has to sense for themselves the whereabouts of the fine line that separates the ‘cute’ from the ‘non-cute’!

The dictionary gives ‘homely’ and ‘ugly’ as the opposites to ‘cute’. I think this is rather limiting. A work of art can avoid being cute without being ugly, though I do think that there is plenty of room for ‘ugly’ in fine art.

I think Nicki clearly avoided allowing the snowflakes to make her painting ‘cute’. What do you think?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Race of the Roses

There I was, wondering which of my climbing roses would be first to bloom this year - it's usually the 'Dreaming Spires' and it's looking promising, covered in buds and almost ready to open -

But the 'Albertine', the one that usually flowers for my birthday in June, is a close contender this year -

But it was only while I was taking these photos that I noticed that the 'Alchemist' has quietly pipped both of them at the post!

Nobody seems to have told it that it's still only April!


Sunday, 24 April 2011

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Is Your Art Original?

I’m sure we all like to think that our art is entirely original.

The idea of copying someone else’s work or ‘borrowing’ their ideas is something that has probably been instilled in us as not only wrong, but particularly despicable, since our schooldays because it is cheating!

When I first started designing greeting cards for sale, I began in my usual ‘pen and wash’ style – and then I discovered Quentin Blake! Worse still, I read that many had tried to copy Quentin Blake's style but that nobody had ever really succeeded.  And here I was doing something very much like an inferior version of the great man’s style! How awful! I became terribly self-conscious as I struggled to make my little drawings ‘not like Quentin Blake’  - and that’s one of the reasons I switched to other styles.

But really I needn’t have worried so much. Unless one sets out to make careful copies, I think one’s own individual style will inevitably, always show through. As Robert Henri says:

Do not worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to.’

On the other hand, I think it’s equally inevitable that we will be influenced by seeing the work of other artists, usually unconsciously. I know that I pick up ideas and influences ‘by osmosis’ and I think that’s perfectly legitimate. It’s the way that ideas are developed, that trends emerge and move us forward, both individually and collectively. It’s extremely rare that anything we do is likely to be 100% new, even though we may like to think our work is totally original. Down through the ages, we’ve tended to build on what’s gone before and give it our personal ‘twist’; it's perhaps the difference between being ‘unique’ and being ‘original’.

Sometimes we see another artist’s work and think, ‘I’d like to create something like that.’ Is this copying? It could be; but more often it just a prompt to try something new, a ‘giving ourselves’ permission’ to do something bold and different now that we’ve seen that something similar works for another artist.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Picasso describes the real ‘copying’ we need to watch out for:

Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.’

Have you ever suspected that you were beginning to ‘copy’ yourself? Have you ever produced a painting that has been much admired, or a design that has sold well, and decided to do more of the same? I have!

I think the ‘sterility’ that Picasso is referring to is that, once we find a winning formula and stick to it, our progress grinds to a halt. We no longer explore uncharted territory but stick to the safe ground that we know.

Maybe we need to do this kind of ‘production line’ painting sometimes to earn our living but I think we know, in our heart of hearts, that we have within us a  pressing need to grow and develop and that ‘copying ourselves’ is no part of that process!

Monday, 18 April 2011

Welcome, New Followers - and Artybuzz!

Two things – first of all a very BIG WELCOME to all new followers and an equally BIG THANK YOU to all of you who take the trouble to leave your comments. All comments are very much appreciated as long as they are respectful. So don’t be shy, have your say – even if you disagree with what I've written!

Brecon Beacons

Secondly, the unexpectedly positive comments on my series of tree paintings last month has encouraged me to think again about making my pastel paintings available as prints. Some years ago I printed and sold prints myself, using my A3 printer. But then I discovered that the colour faded quite quickly and stopped. Now I have a better printer but it doesn’t print A3, which is about the size of the originals.

So I have signed up with Artybuzz, a UK print-on-demand website, and uploaded a few of my images there. There is a maximum file size and most of the scans of my pastel paintings are too big and will need some work on re-sizing. But I’m a bit concerned about whether the site is actually still active! I asked a question about the re-sizing through the contact form as I was puzzled as to how they could produce large prints from such small files. But I didn’t receive any reply. So I looked them up on facebook and twitter and found there had been no activity since last summer, which set the alarm bells ringing!

Does anyone reading this use Artybuzz? And if so, do you know whether it is still functioning – and whether anyone makes sales through the site? Another thing that has puzzled me is that I can’t find anything on the website about ‘payment’!!! But if the site is no longer operational, that doesn’t really matter!

Click here to see what I've uploaded so far!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Vote for Ethel!

Please help 94 yr old Ethel to win the competition by voting for her!

(She doesn't have much family or many contacts and that may well disadvantage her)

Her painting is great too!


A Wasted Life?

However hard I try, I am not the tidiest person in the world; I have also known people who are far untidier than I am.

Nowadays my untidiness doesn’t much bother me but, at one time, it did! When I was in my twenties and thirties we lived in a very nice little modern house, in a row of identical houses, all inhabited by young parents. Quite often we would baby-sit for one another - and at that time it bothered me a great deal! I would come home from an evening in a house that was identical to my own, feeling quite depressed that somehow I could never achieve the kind of tidiness that my neighbours did.

Looking back I can see that my life was somewhat different from the others in that I had so many ‘hobbies’ that invariably required more storage than the tiny house provided so there always seemed to be ‘clutter’ around!

Our next house was a Victorian one and it seemed to provide a solution. Older houses seem to ‘absorb’  my kind of untidiness; in fact I don’t worry about it any more as long as I can find what I need!

But recently I was looking for the ‘Terms and Conditions’ of my Home Emergency Service provider before making a phonecall to change to a different provider. It wasn’t where I thought it was and I ended up turning out my overstuffed filing cabinet, removing the oldest papers to make room for new ones. I was soon drowning under a sea of paper as I sorted things into piles for recycling, for shredding etc - when a tiny scrap of paper floated out from somewhere with something scribbled on it -

‘a tidy house is a sign of a wasted life’

It set me wondering, what is a ‘wasted life’? 

I’m not sure that we can ever say for certain that anything is truly wasted but it does seem to me that not doing our utmost to reach our full potential is a waste of our lives.

It was hearing a sermon, some years ago, on the parable of the ‘talents’ that brought this home to me forcefully and led to me taking a first step back into painting, after a gap of several years, by volunteering to help with the scenery for the church drama group’s upcoming production, Dick Whittington. 

Maybe Dick Whittington, in boldly setting out to seek his fortune in London, was, in a way, trying to reach his full potential. He did, after all, end up as Lord Mayor of  London!

So what is it that can hold us back from being all that we have it in us to be?

  • ‘Parental expectations’ is one of the culprits that springs immediately to my mind. My two oldest sisters, both became primary school teachers and I always assumed that was their choice. But the younger of the two, when she was approaching retirement age, confided in me that she had never wanted to teach, but that our parents had expected her to follow in her older sibling’s footsteps. What she really wanted to do was open an Art and Craft shop and we began to make plans to do this together as soon as she retired. But she died suddenly within a couple of months so she never got around to doing what she would have been happiest doing. A cautionary tale! I’ve known others who realise, late in life, that they are still working to ‘repay’ their parents for all they’ve done for them by following the career of their parents' choosing and not their own.
  • Fear of failing.
  • Unwillingness to ‘rock the boat’ because we have grown comfortable as we are.
  • Social and peer pressure to maintain the status quo, to be the sort of person we’ve always been and never venture outside the box we’ve created for ourselves.
  • The fear that if we go our own way, strike out on our own path, we’ll be seen as selfish, by ourselves as well as by others.
  • The need to ‘keep up appearances’  and this is where ‘tidiness’ may come in!

    Do you feel that you're working towards reaching you full potential? If not, maybe this is the moment to begin - better late than never!

    'It's never too late to be what you might have been,'
      George Eliot


    Monday, 11 April 2011

    Summer came early!

    Bailey Park, Abergavenny, April 8th

    Yes, I know we English are known for our partiality to discussing the weather, but the past few weeks really have been extraordinary!

    Most of  March was sunny and warm - sitting-outside-in-shirtsleeves weather! - and the driest month for 50 years, apparently. When the month ended with a few days of wind and rain, I thought it was 'going out like a lion' and that we'd revert to our normal, less than wonderful, British weather. 

    But no, we've been enjoying almost wall-to-wall sunshine and daytime temperatures that should belong at the end of May, even though it seems such a short time ago that we were comparing the depth of our snow on Twitter! It looks as if it's on the change now, though and maybe that was our summer?

    Bailey Park, Abergavenny, 8th April
    Most of the daffodils are long gone and dead-headed and these tulips in the park won't last much longer so I 'snapped' them on my way back from shopping on Friday.

    So now I think I've posted images of the park that I cross to go shopping in all seasons.

    Bailey Park, Abergavenny, 8th April

    But here's the big shock!

    I opened my back door to the garden a couple of mornings ago and, just outside, I found this!

    Iceland Poppy, early April, 2011

    The back of the seed packet says that it should start flowering in June, but this is one from last year that survived the record low winter temperatures - although you can see that the pot was less hardy! - so maybe that, as well as the remarkable weather, is why it is flowering so early?

    Meanwhile, I've sown some Icelandic Poppy seeds, hoping that I might be lucky and get some pink ones. But the seeds are tiny and have germinated in clumps so I'm afraid a great many of them will have to be discarded. That's something I don't feel very comfortable doing - I have a book called, 'Plants are like People' and I tend to agree!  

    I've also spotted buds on several of my roses and I have the feeling that I shall soon be working on photographic images for my greeting cards etc rather than drawings and paintings. Last summer was like that and the poppies were an especially fruitful source of designs. The one above featured on coffee mugs and even Keds shoes as well as greeting cards - as you can see here.

    Saturday, 9 April 2011

    The Unstoppable Artist!

    Please forgive a little bit of 'grandma-bragging' but I couldn't resist sharing this link to my daughter's blog post about my one and only granddaughter:

    My six grandsons also draw but not quite with the zest and confidence of 4 yr old Biriani - I just hope she can somehow hang on to it as she grows up! 

    Not long ago, a letter came from Sweden, containing a small slip of paper, an artistic offering from Biriani (real name 'Hafsah').

    I didn't need my daughter's accompanying note of explanation to recognise that this was a 'story' and its illustration - maybe she'll succeed where her grandmother has (so far!) failed?

    Thursday, 7 April 2011

    Color is not just a “Flash in the Pan,” it adds Life!

    This month's guest post is by artist and writer, Carol Anfinsen, whose colorful paintings are sure to brighten the darkest day!

    You can see more of Carol's Art, Blogs, Books at
    http://Blogz.Org and

    People say that my paintings are bright and colorful. Of course, they're right. I guess I see the world that way.

    Take people; I like to assume the best in them, even when they prove me wrong. Some people may call that gullible, others naive. I admit I've been "taken" a few times in my life and "smartened up" in the process.

    The way I see it, the world has enough negative dark vibes vying for my attention. I'll let someone else deal with that. I prefer not to ignore the pessimism and the evil, but to see through it, around it, or over it. I choose to create the world I want, and to believe in the basic goodness of people.

    When I look at nature, I see God's creation in all its fullness. I see colors that blow your mind, and insects and creatures that are so beautifully patterned and bright, there's no way you could create any better. I see beauty that swells my heart to the point of breaking the feeling is so intense. If that makes me a "cock-eyed optimist" so be it.

    Yes, I paint with bright colors and with warmth and passion because that's how I see my world. I also like to experiment with color to find out how blending certain colors together may increase the "light" intensity. I like to layer colors, or glaze colors in such a way that the glow comes from the inside out.  And sometimes I make terrible mistakes. In the beginning, I made some nasty mud pies.

    I worry that my paintings are too bright, that they "shout out" a bit too much. My orange hibiscus painting is a perfect example. Just when I thought my painting was complete, I'd think of another splash of color I wanted here or there.  The painting almost wrote its own title: "Flash dance."

    What can I say?  I'm a Leo.  I love sunshine and bright colors, especially yellows and reds, and I'm crazy about sunflowers.  Come to think of it, sunflowers look like miniature lions, only instead of hair their mane is ruffled petals.

    I remember the first time I saw field after field of sunflowers one summer in North Dakota.  I was traveling from Minnesota to Mount Rushmore with my family when an incredible wave of sunshine brightened our day.

    From a distance, individual flowers trickled together to form a raging flood of liquid yellow rolling across the landscape like spilled paint.  Up close, sturdy stalks rooted like sentinels guarded the perimeter. Their broad green leaves seemed clustered for protection. No wonder the sunflower has become the most popular flower to paint in history.

    I could have painted black-eyed Susans.  They're yellow.  They resemble a lion, except without the variation, texture and color of the sunflower's delectable center.  But there's my personal problem of perception.  Black-eyed Susan’s remind me of Mexican sombreros in miniature.

    I could have painted daisies; but memories of desecrating my mother's flower patch by picking petals and reciting "he loves me, he loves me not" took all the fun out of it. And that brought me back to those sunflower fields. Hey, I'm a Leo. Hear me roar!

    More of Carol’s bright and colorful paintings are displayed on her blog @ and on her online gallery @