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  • Writer's pictureAnna Curston

Weeks 1 & 2: 30th January - 11th February

Hello! So, the new term has well and truly started and I’m back to spending seventy percent of my days in the studio painting to my heart’s content. I won’t lie, I am majorly stressed, but I also know that if I just put my head down and crack on, I will be absolutely fine. It’s very odd knowing that the end of my degree is so near; I’ve been here for four years (because of the one year of Astrophysics I did) and not only is this place home, but the familiar structure of classes and working is all I’ve ever known. I’m twenty-two years old and I’ve never been out of education – I am seriously considering a masters, but even then, I’m likely to have a year of no ‘school’ and that is a bizarre concept to me. It’s not just that it’s familiar though, I genuinely enjoy learning and bettering myself and it’s just easier to do with external guidance. Enough talk of the future though, my degree is not over yet and I’m only two weeks in! I’ve got a good couple of months left to enjoy and stress over!

Week one started with a lot of research – I really wanted to set myself a solid groundwork of research to build upon in the weeks to come. This research was both around artists (which we will come to later) and the context of my work: space (more specifically space objects I want to bring to life with my paint). This meant looking for reference photos, and I began my work looking at M1 (the Crab Nebula). The M1 is an interesting one to look at as the x-ray and infrared images of it look vastly different due to the pulsar hiding inside (a very dense core of a star (neutron star), left over from a supernova explosion, that spins, causing the jets of particles that come out of it’s poles to appear to pulse at very fast regular intervals).

Infrared and x-ray light is invisible to the naked eye and so my next task was to think about colour. How should I use colour to portray this colourless light? One idea I had was to use coloured greys – more purple to the violet side of the EM spectrum and redder to red side. While there are definite pros to this idea and in many ways, it makes a lot of sense, in my mind the more energy the wave possesses, the more vibrant it should look, and grey just isn't vibrant. This led me to the idea of simply using any colour, but making the light with the highest energy the brighter colour and the light with the lower energy less saturated (or dull it down with maybe the mixing of a complementary colour).

I did a lot of colour mixing before starting any paintings to make sure the colours I picked worked together. I then tested them further on little black squares stuck to the wall – as you can see, I tested a second shade of purple as I wasn’t happy with the first one I mixed went with the red.

I think I mentioned in my last blog that I wanted to experiment using modelling paste. I did. I used the paste to create a textured outline on the board, marking out the ‘classic’ curve of the nebula with the aim of using this a both a way to tie the diptych together and to also reference the concept that not even empty space is really empty. It was an interesting experiment. It looks okay and does create some interesting effects with the poured paint, but I think I should have used it more sparingly because there are areas of the painting I wish were flatter as when it catches in the light, there is a little too much going on, on the surface; the texture of the paint in the focal point of the picture is less impactful. On hindsight, the way I used the modelling paste to create an outline was a bit arbitrary; the fact they are a diptych and that their titles share a name is enough to show they are a set, the whole point with M1 is how different it looks in different light. I will do the next diptych on a flat board so I can compare the pros and cons properly of the textured background.

Over the last two weeks I have looked at eleven artists, and they can be split into two categories: Science and Art artists and Art artists. The former being relevant to the field I am interested in taking my work towards and the latter being important for the development of my painting practice. I have summarised the most important lessons from each group (so far) into a list.

Science and Art (Melissa Weiss Walter, Rachel Sussman, Semiconductor)

o Observation, research, translation.

o Engage human tendencies with the image – pattern, colour, aesthetics.

o Making science an experience – highlight the individual experience. They are a part of our universe too.

o Trying to make sense of the universe and our place in it.

o Deep thinking.

o Scientific accuracy.

Art (Fiona Rae, Lita Albuquerque, Simon Kenny, Robert T McCall, Wassily Kandinsky, James Rosenquist, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley) materials, colours, techniques…

o Halos

o Small squares (like stars or glare)

o Overlapping shapes were the overlap shape in lighter in value than the two original shapes

o Wide value range – use lightest sparingly, only at focal point

o Bold brush marks – big brushes

o Directional marks for movements – trails

o Texture – dry brushing, layers, impasto, palette knife

o Colour and emotion

o Expressive and controlled marks (opposites)

o Block colour

o Paint opacity

o Blended and unblended colour

o White on black

o Orientation of mark

o The energy used in the creation of the mark is directly translated onto the surface.

That last one is especially important to think about; a mark that is carefully applied across the surface will tell a very different story to one that is aggressively applied with a lot of energy and force.

After a fair amount of frustration (already), the 8th of February was a good day for me. I came to a realisation about what was causing me so much difficultly in my painting process; I was leaning too heavily on photo editing (I think partially because of nerves after a long Christmas break mixed with the pressure of a new term). While photo editing is a valuable tool and I use it a lot to help me when paintings don’t seem to be going my way and I feel I keep making bad decisions, I was spending too much time looking at them and obsessing over them (see above for all the edits I did for M1 x-ray) and not enough time listening to my painting (and my instincts). I was trying to control the painting too much and ignoring when it needed something other than what I had ‘planned’. As soon as this realisation hit me however, I found my studio time a lot more positive, productive and successful. I felt less like I was fighting a losing battle against my paintings and instead we became as one again – my paintings are just an extension of me.

As the last two weeks came to an end, I can very happily say that I resolved both paintings in the M1 diptych.

M1 x-ray: The use of glazing to push back the value of layers of paint was really successful, and the use of blue and pink glazes in addition to the main purple is effective at further pushing and pulling the layers about using colour temperature. There are some good strong expressive marks within the painting as well my signature geometric shapes. There are also a small amount of the feathery fan-brush marks that I became so fond of last term, but I think I could have used them to better effect especially if the surface hadn’t been so textured. The use of the black triangle fanning out from the centre alongside the main jet really helps draw attention to the area – the contrast between it and the adjacent white triangle is very eye-catching. My favourite mark on the painting is the one inside that that adjacent white jet that flows from the central point; it was inspired by Gerhard Richter and was created using a sponge. It has wonderful texture when viewed up close. That lovely textured mark is the main reason I regret some of the texture on the rest of the surface as it would be a lot more striking and dramatic if the surrounding areas were smoother.

M1 infrared: This painting has a lovely intensity to it, the red with the white and black really seems to glow. A lot less structured and directional than M1 x-ray, its energy feels more diffused and spread out – the colour is more blended and softer. The geometric shapes in red feel a lot less harsh and much more within the space rather than dominating it. The mix of the hazy white marks and overlapping hard geometric black ones round the image off nicely and give the viewer a focal point as well as guiding them around the rest of the painting. The texture in the background is less intrusive in this piece because it is smoother overall so avoids that busy look of its mate.

M1 (as a pair) works pretty well. Despite small annoyances with the texture of M1 x-ray (and the texture of M1 infrared helps balance this slightly when they are next to each other) I think they are a successful diptych. The colours and shapes work well together and the softness of M1 infrared exaggerates the hardness of M1 x-ray. While there are definitely lessons to be learned from this diptych, I couldn’t have hoped for a more positive start to this term of painting and it’s giving me confidence looking ahead.

I didn’t only produce that diptych these last two weeks though, I also started the next one! 3C 461 (x-ray and radio) For both, I started with a base of a white paint pour to highlight the brightest areas of the compositions. These two images will look considerably more similar, partially due to the fact the neutron star at the SNR’s heart is not a pulsar like the one in M1. I created a word list for reference alongside my compositional drawing and source images to highlight the things I feel it is most important to portray in the paintings, I also did this for M1.

3C 461 x-ray went surprisingly smoothly and took only two days to resolve. I’m very happy with it currently and think I made an excellent colour choice for it as it’s very striking, but I will not analyse it before it’s pair is also complete as it is vital they should look good and give off the correct vibe when together, so there is a chance I might still decide to tweak it later on based on the the diptych as a whole, we’ll see. The painting's pair, 3C 461 radio, is currently going less well and is a bit of a state, but I’m not concerned. Sometimes you make all the right decisions and finish really fast, while other times, things take longer to come together.

I’m also working on a (potentially a series of) 8x8 inch boards in black and white. I did debate at one point doing my main paintings completely monochrome, but colour is too much of a focus for me at the moment and I just think colour is more engaging. These little paintings could be useful for the development of my larger pieces as they are similar in terms of subject matter and focusing on the tonal aspects of a painting. Small paintings have often also been a bit of a struggle for me, so this could be a good way to push myself out my comfort zone. I have to produce an additional suite of works to the work I’m creating for the degree show so this is where I am at with that currently. If I don’t get along with this idea then it may change, but for now little black and white boards is what I’m exploring.

Going into the next two weeks, I want to not just obsess over 3C 461 radio, but also focus a bit more of my attention on these little boards; I’ve been putting them off. Maybe finding some small black and white abstract works by another artist could help me feel a bit more inspired, but I will never improve my small painting if I do not paint small because I’m waiting for inspiration. While I search for that, I need to just get on with it. I also want to find some more inspiring space objects and create more compositions in preparation for my bigger boards that I am planning to use (1 metre squared). I’m also interested to see if I can find any non-contemporary artists that worked in the Art and Science area, specifically relating to astronomy/physics, as all the ones I’ve looked at so far have been modern. I also think further research into artists that work with colour interaction could be beneficial, as well as some more of my own colour mixing experiments.

It was long one today, but it seems that being back in the studio gave me a lot to think about and thus a lot to write about. Have a wonderful next two weeks, and I’ll see you in the next one!


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