leaves, and how on earth to do them! You cannot possibly paint them all, but it has to somehow look as if you have. I am lucky to have the staggeringly brilliant illustrator Virginia Lee as a neighbour and friend, and I must say I would be very happy to be able to paint trees just half as well as she can! I have looked at many different artists' trees, the great Russian turn of the century illustrator Ivan Bilibin for example, who managed to achieve incredible leaved trees with just flat areas of colour, drawing no doubt on his experience as a stage set designer. For these trees I ended up taking inspiration from Samuel Palmer's Early Morning (1825), and for reminding me of Samuel Palmer's wonderful bucolic work I have my dear friend the wonderful artist of paint and felt and melancholic toys Gretel Parker to thank!
THIS BLUE PENCIL that has been sharpened regularly during my hard working spring, sprung once from the branches of a tree, as I was reminded here when my knife met a little knot in the wood. Here in the village we had weekend Mayday celebrations: a fair where I and others sold wares; morrises and maypoles were danced and daffodils yellowed all the shop windows. A little drizzle came in its English way to the fair too. And the maypole ribbons in my brain are still spinning. All the colours of things I have to get done are merging in a mad spiral of panic. Inside my head there are little girls and boys spinning in their beginning-of-summer costumes and their giggles have tumbled out onto my drawing board.
Littl'uns amongst trees has been a theme of recently completed commissions.. and I thought I would show you a couple.
First of all a little watercolour a bit like a gentle nursery rhyme. In it Rue and Noah, two little yellow-haired boys-of-the-woods run through the trees hand in hand. The painting was commissioned by their mum Helen for their dad Jim on his birthday. And a lovely family they are too. The words either side of the illustration are Rue's. He has been singing his own version of a couple of nursery rhymes that don't quite match but which his ma thought would be lovely in the picture.
So there they run. In pencil and watercolour.... Here for you are some of the pencil drawing stages and the painted thing in its completion. I had photos of the boys to work from, but as is usual for me with commissions like this, I like to try to make portrait-ish sorts of images, but they are translated into my world somehow, rather than being slavish copies.
A light spring breeze has blown over this. It is gentler in tone and more playful than my work often can be. Less heavy. I don't know why.
This next painting was to be the biggest watercolour I had ever painted, and so I had to order in paper specially, from the excellent Paper People in Devon.
A lady called Margaret had once bought a print from me in Scotland and wanted to celebrate the first birthday of her baby daughter Anja by placing her inside my painting. She asked for something almost filling an A1 sheet of paper, a horse chestnut tree, in which baby Anja was to sleep, curled inside a conker shell, and gathered all around she asked for woodland animals and fairy folk.
Now I must add a note here about 'fairies'.. though I fear it should take a longer paragraph than I have time to write just now. Many folk assume that my work is fairy-ish. But it isn't. You'll not find a gossamer wing, no matter how hard you look, in any of my paintings! Old wise folk, gnarled gnomes, riddles and stories of strange-goings-on are much more my cup of tea. I find there is far too much pink and glitter, too much superficial fairy (or indeed faery) fancy about these days. You must understand I do feel my work is rooted in an old magic, in stories of oddness, the wild creatures and disappearances, the other realms in the fairytales. But so much nowadays isn't that, and consequently I deliberately avoid wings and all their insubstantial fluff. Perhaps it is a dislike for the flimsy fakery I feel in the depiction of many fairies. I feel they need to be wilder, earthier and more unnerving. And this is pretty much the sort of thing I told Margaret when she asked for fairies. I said well I'll paint woodland folk, I'll paint little men with knobbly noses and funny little hats. That sort of thing. Just not fairies. You see to me these strange little people are indeed people.. the odd ones, the marginal ones, the ones who are not noticed or noticed for the wrong reasons. They are my fairies.
I hope that makes sense? Margaret understood and let me set to work depicting a gathering of these little folk.
It took yonks longer than I had planned... weeks and weeks. And I found it overwhelming at times. I sent Margaret a very rough sketch, as she asked for one, but usually I do much of my workings out in the final piece, it seems to suit me better. Gradually the painting took shape. Little folk appeared in corners and branches offering baby sleeping Anja conkers as gifts. And amongst the roots and branches sat fox and badger and squirrel, owl and mouse and hedgehog.
Anja is watched over from above by sun and moon and a kind yellow bird. It is an honour to make an artwork for one so young. I hope Anja grows up with fond memories of the strange little people who brought her horse chestnuts on her first birthday. I hope she remembers them and is kind to them.
Anja in the Horse Chestnut - print available here
(do click on the images to enlarge and see them all in detail)
This large creation was posted off just in time for baby Anja's Mayday first birthday and I have the astonishingly talented illustrator David Wyatt to thank for the use of his large scanner! Without which I wouldn't be able to show you this in such good quality. David's rather brilliant at doing trees too, and goblins :)
And to complete the forest tale, I bring you photographs from a trip I took a few weeks back with friends Miriam and Damien and their own dear babes in the woods... to Wistman's Wood, the most incredible mossy wonderland of trees I have ever seen. Truly I understood then where all the tales of being pisky-led had come from.
You approach the little forest from across moorland, eventually half noticing in the distance a grey patch of shrubbery... can you see it? Far off where those two hills meet....
That is Wistman's Wood believe it or not. It looks like nothing more than a clump of dry gorse or low shrubs until you get close and step inside. When you do, your whole world turns green.
Green hairy moss covers everything: the granite boulders and tree trunks gnarled as a fairytale. It isn't big these days Wistman's Wood. Centuries ago it covered miles of moorland.
And it was easy to become lost inside.
Now this enchanting copse of stunted and gnarled ancient English oak trees is small enough that you can see beyond it to the moor and river, giving an eerie sense of I'm not sure what.
There are many legends and tales about this Wood. It is an unusual and enigmatic place. I am told that a particular moss grows only here and two other places in Europe. You can read in depth folklore about the wood here. Of particular interest to me is the supposed origin of the name. Wistman's Wood is derived they say from Wisht-Man's Wood, this refers to the Devonshire word Wisht meaning pixie-led or haunted. Others relate it to wissen, the Saxon / German to know. "From the same etymon comes also wise: ‘sapient; judging rightly; having much knowledge' Thus Wissman’s or Wistman’s Wood signifies Silva Sapientium, ‘the wood of wisemen.’"
Whatever it means it was a wonderful place to experience. The trees themselves look like wise men. I shall return there when the weather warms with my pencil and sketchbook on a quiet day, and perhaps I shall come back to show what I drew...
That's the wood, and so to the babe...
I have just enjoyed a happy weekend with my brother Jan and his lovely Maria who came to visit me here in Dartmoor and enjoy the May celebrations. With them came a kicking seven month old bump, my first niece or nephew who will make its little self known in July, and begin wandering in the mossy forest of this world ♥