Painting on Wings of Song
Like many children, I loved to illustrate the stories and legends I read during my childhood. When studying at Glasgow School of Art in my early 20s, illustration more than landscape or life painting absorbed my attention. Since then, I have illustrated poems, folk tales, images of war, and studied the art of Indian and Moghul miniature painting as well as the narrative paintings of Japanese and Chinese artists.
And so, when I took up intensive piano studies, not surprisingly, I was inspired to illustrate the works I played. While learning to play The Skylark by Glinka-Balakirev, I was struck by the concordance I perceived between the composer’s score and the flight of the skylark – a bird with exquisite song as well as the ability to soar and circle from a nest on the ground to the upper regions of the sky around the sun. The skylark’s song has inspired poets and musicians and I eagerly studied their poetry and music. I investigated descriptions and pictures from nature studies, showing the lark’s flightpath, take off and landing, as well as the annual song and nesting cycles. I was greatly helped in this search by my sister in law, Miranda Tufnell, who supplied many beautiful photos of the English countryside where larks might lie and make their nests.
The next series of paintings illustrates the Bach compositions I was studying together with material taken from books on Bach’s extraordinary life. I incorporated images of the magnificent towns and cathedrals and organs where he played. I placed the images I collected on a wall near my worktable and opposite the bed where I sleep. I pinned and unpinned the images until I found the right sequence for my story. My ‘walls’ must be compositionally right and pleasing since I live with them for 3-4 months; they are the first images to meet my dreams as they slip away into the light of day. I have followed the same order when illustrating Mendelssohn-Liszt’s On Wings of Song and Schubert-Liszt’s Du Bist die Ruh. It’s become my method. I love the research work into the composers’ lives and compositions, and the worlds in which they lived, the imagery selection for the ‘wall’, as well as the painting process that parallels my daily piano practice.
As an illustrator, I am used to working with ink, gouache, acrylic, watercolor and pencil. I started with this mix of materials but, early on in the Skylark series, I discovered the translucence, brilliance and layering afforded by ink alone. Unlike acrylics and oils, ink pigments do not mix well. Purity of color comes straight from the bottle, often mixed with clear water washes. With ink, I can build up many layers, sometimes light on dark, until a glow and enamel effect is achieved. This is a time-consuming process. I believe that Leonardo, when using the sfumato technique, built up over 30 layers of transparency, spending months, even years, before completion of a work. I have always admired the intense color and glow in the paintings of the British painter, Samuel Palmer.
Many of the piano pieces that I illustrate are transcriptions – they are transcriptions by one composer of the works of other composers, often piano transcriptions of songs in which an earlier composer had set a poem to music. As is well known, Liszt transcribed many of Schubert’s songs, and Schubert’s songs were often inspired by the poetry of writers in his extensive artistic circle. And musicians have often created music from paintings that they loved.
My work involves the transcription of the music I love and play into painting.