Saturday, 13 September 2014

Painting poems, and what happens when it goes wrong


SOMETIMES my paintings take new and unplanned directions, either because I am deliberately trying to break my own rules, or because the project calls for me to step beyond them, as in this case.


These watercolours were done as part of a collaborative project between myself and my good friend, the Scotland-based poet Em Strang. Her poems are wonderful - wild and gentle, quiet and frightening, and I was delighted with the prospect of making images to go with them. 


But here's the thing - illustrating poetry is really hard! A poem, when it really works and has power, makes its images in your imaginal realm, where they can flit and morph as such images should, just beyond the reach of gravity and the crushing weight of collapsing the wave function. Knowing this, it was very hard not to step on the toes of the poem, and to illustrate but still leave space for the unsaid.


Thus I painted outside of my usual edged style, losing myself to the chance happenings in the watercolour, trying to find the hook in each poem that caught my heart.


I ended up with strange images, some of which I really like, and some of which I'm less sure about, but all of which feel very outside my comfort zone.


Having talked it over with Em, we both agreed that these images weren't quite what the poems were asking for, though neither of us know quite what are.


I shall try again one of these days, perhaps, to track down that elusive animal in these beautiful poems, and record its pawprint in paint.


Meanwhile, I continue my learning of what it is to really illustrate words, making companion images that work alongside the poem or story, but do not duplicate it or reveal a mystery that needs to stay hidden.


For now, I have put these little paintings up for sale, along with a few other original paintings and drawings in my shop.


I'd love to hear your thoughts about these images, and about your experiences - both success and failure - of illustrating poetry.


And do sniff out the wonderful work of Em Strang, as well as on her blog, she has a few pieces of writing and poetry at the Dark Mountain site and in the books. In October she will also be running a weekend writing workshop in Cumbria with Susan Richardson ~ Writing Root & Claw.



21 comments:

Eva said...

These might be among the best you have ever made -- from what I've seen -- leaving a trodden path is the best thing that can happen to an artist. Love these pictures! No idea about the poems... What does the poet say?

Shelley Noble said...

Fantastically honest and useful post, Rima. I think it's great that you allowed us into this part of your process. The softer, looser, more watery style is no less expert in your experienced hands.

Maybe for poetry, even further abstracted/dream-like gestural representations of the concepts would hit the mark more directly.

The story I had in mind to ask you to illustrate years ago would call for a more literal/detailed and finished style. More like your line art folktale works with some color added.

My favorite of these is the Maukin hare and the Seal King, both the softest and most simple feeling to me.

Thank you for showing this.

valerie greeley said...

I love the seal with the boat, you have done so well. It is so hard to step out of your comfort zone. I too have recently illustrated a poem, not only in a new medium but with imagery of war and hunting. I think this is how we grow as artists. We bare our souls when we put our work in the public arena, not the easiest of tasks.

Tess Giles Marshall said...

These are very interesting and yes definitely a departure from your usual style. As much as you struggled to fit painting to poem, I'm struggling to articulate the differences. At first glance they appear to have perhaps less mystery than your usual style, but on second look, they have great depth and a kind of mute magic.
It must be very strange painting from a very defined inspiration point of someone else's creativity.

Ms. said...

I find these most magical, brilliant in the soft use of water color and just so wonderful each in themselves, if I were a moneyed old maid I'd be grabbing a bunch of them my dear Rima. Well, I'll look at the poets work too but aside from these superb mini-masterpieces. I think they would make a wonderful set of note cards as well.

Susannah MacNeil said...

These are just lovely, Rima. I would like to curl up next to that fox.

Eva Gamsbøl said...

I love everything you make. It is wonderful to me.

Anonymous said...

Your honesty and courage is the hallmark of brilliant artists! I love the way you are pushing your boundaries in spite of having your own voice and comfortable zone. I love your application of the medium.. how the blotches of colours infuse and weave fluidly and breathing. I share your view that some of these images work and some don't. The ones that do work I find have a poetic quality.. in the sense it was like a poem .. there was space for my imagination to conjure up meanings and also evoked emotions and dreams. I think to illustrate a poem is not to illustrate it at all, but re-write or recreate the emotions that poem provoked... not an easy thing to do! I love the painting of the figure with trees almost weaved around it.. the splashes of blue and the ochre.. that is a very evokative image.. beautifully executed even though not completed.. I think the other images of some of the animals was direct and was an illustration and that is why for me it did not work.
Not all of Picasso's works are masterpieces! ... this is not meant as a criticism but just a hopefuly healthy interaction which is a very generous gesture from a very generous and wonderful artis. you are inspiring Rima..

Anita said...

These are amazing. I keep looking at them and see more tiny muted details. I do love your trees...and everything else in these paintings. They certainly do not look out of your comfort zone. I'm sure the poet who asked you to illustrate must be in love with the style of your work or she wouldn't have asked you to do this project.

Valerianna said...

I'm captivated by the Seal King image... these are wonderfully yours, and wonderfully different at once. I like that, but I know how it can take a long time to see them after painting them. For me sometimes years! I agree with Shelly's comment that possibly something even more abstracted just suggesting the subject might work for the poems. In a way, like poetry itself giving us less anchored stories and misty paths to follow. But who's to know. I think its a huge challenge to try to "illustrate" poems. I would imagine it would be easier to paint a number of images that have a small clue as to subject and then see if the poet might pair them with her work. A challenging project and growing experience, for sure! Good luck.

susansorrellhill said...

Your musings remind me so much of what I have been struggling with as an artist these days, Rima, and I am grateful for your honesty this morning here in print. We creators are so critical of our creations. It is hard to step back and appreciate the image as a thing separate from ourselves, our feelings, our expectations and aspirations...

Your paintings are quite beautiful in and of themselves and yet they fall short--in your estimation--of expressing the essence of something the poem's words have evoked. I understand that all too well. Like you, I love the timeless, archetypal stories, have mysterious dreams and am acutely aware of the unseen flow of Change in my life and the world at large. How to express all or even a bit of THAT in line, color, form, I wonder. Expressing a poem in paint must be equally as nebulous. Any yet, the paintings live beautifully on, separate from their "success" as illustrations.

Perhaps feeling so inadequate SO much of the time is to be expected when one is a thinking, deeply-feeling and question-asking creator…not merely a product-maker? It seems to be a challenge characterized by a face-to-face meeting of the material and the spirit worlds. Working with physical materials, depicting a tale that has a linear sequence, a specific setting and character---that seems achievable, a fit for a flesh-and-bones artist with paint, paper, pencil. But HOW to express the intangible thing that the words of poem or fleeting feelings of a dream allude to and evoke??

I am beginning to suspect that it is an age-old question for an artist who reaches for something *more* than the merely decorative, entertaining or realistic. And to suspect that there are no definitive answers, no solutions, no formulas, no victories to be had. Only the Journey, the timeless struggle to express the ineffable which has touched us for a moment or two.

Be proud of these Rima, they are wonderful paintings and will have a life of their own. Meanwhile, you have become wiser and even more open as a creative channel. Well done! There should be Nobel prizes or Purple Crosses for this sort of thing, don't you think? :-)

dragonladych said...

I've tried illustrating poems once, it's incredibly hard. I wasn't really happy with the result but the poet seemed to like them enough to use them.

I think that though poems evoke images, they are not the same kind of imagery than stories would require. I would probably go even more into abstract if I had to do it again.

Another question would then be, do poems actually need illustrations? They are quite powerful in their own right and "competing" with this power is really hard.

Milady DeWinter said...

"...it was very hard not to step on the toes of the poem, and to illustrate but still leave space for the unsaid."

That sums it up rather perfectly, doesn't it? There is so much left unsaid in poetry; so much gravitas in the spaces between words. The images you've created are startlingly beautiful, even though they may have been difficult to coax from the ether. <3

Heather said...

Such a pity your skillful and sensitive paintings didn't 'fit' the poems. I think they stand on their own as beautiful works of art and you will have no trouble in finding new homes for them. I particularly like the hare.

sarah said...

These are beautiful, so wistful and dream-like. But I understand the difficulty in matching image to words. I have a lot of trouble getting photographs to accompany my written pieces. You'd think since I was both writer and photographer, I could make it work easily enough. But (with photography anyway) the words have their own spirit, the picture has its own, as if they are two individual beings. I might make them as sisters, but that's as close as they get. And even then, the genes or dreams that shape words do not necessarily come together in the same way to make an image. In any case, I'm sorry your pictures didn't fit Em's poems but I do think they are visual poems on their own.

earthandink said...

I'm a poet, named Em too, actually, and I also do watercolour. I've been thinking about doing illustrations to go with some of my poems, but haven't started them yet. I've wondered about what I call the-music-video-problem, which is putting images to something which then means the reader doesn't get to spin their own images.

Really interesting topic. And I love the paintings. (I have two watercolour techniques I tend to favour and this is somewhat similar to one of them ... I do a wet on wet technique and then paint on top of that. The other is very simple and very illustration-y.)

Nanita said...

Illustrating poetry must be one of the hardest things to do, and you capture the delicacy of it very well. I do love your watercolours, the fragility of them and the brilliant use of harmonious colour. You were courageous enough to paint outside your usual style, yet still these paintings breathe "Rima", which is wonderful!
xxxx

Anna said...

They are wonderful images - maybe they just need their own words! I agree with other commenters about the difficulty of illustrating poetry. On the other hand, 'Väinämöinen sings a ship' is great and I hope one day we will see your illustrations for other aspects of the Kalevala - particularly Louhi.

elizabeyta said...

Batwoman just pulls me. I would agree these are very different from your usual style but very powerful. Batwoman is the one that pulls the most but there are others as well.

Rima Staines said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful and honest words about these paintings, I really appreciate hearing that you feel they have life despite my feeling they didn't work. Illustration's a fascinating process, and one I will enjoy continuing to explore...
I like the idea of heading toward more abstraction for illustrating poetry, tho I suspect it's something I might struggle with at this stage in my process as an artist.
I'm really glad you have found this post useful too, I'm not always brave enough to share my artistic "failings" here, but shall endeavour to do so a bit more!

Jess said...

They're all beautifully painted. I especially love the cave one with the birds and the beautiful trees in the second one. I find illustrating extrememely difficult to get right because it's to please someone else but poetry must be nigh on impossible!
Jess xx