Welcome Message

Thanks for stopping in! Please leave comments or links to your work in the box below the post.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Present

Last Year's Snow K Howell 2011 Acrylic on Paper 21cm x 14cm

  We've passed the year's midnight. A time to live in the present. Best wishes for a festive season, and a reminder of last year's snow! Who knows what will come?

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Dressed in Fog

Lost Leaves K Howell 2011 Acrylic on Paper 21cm x 30cm
     Trees wear the weather. The moisture in the air traps what little light lingers on these almost mid-winter, snowless days. This is magical and incredibly cold. If I had an ounce of sense, I'd paint burning candles.
     But where does sense get anyone?     
     In the book Don't Ask Me What I Mean (poets talking about the business of poetry), Ted Hughes describes his writing as a celebration of the solidity of his illusion of the world. And this I find heartening, so I pass it on. A wonderful description of the inside out nature of attempting to recreate an aspect of the world in order to understand it.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Let it snow?

Window onto Winter IV K Howell 2011 Available at Water Street Gallery
     To my knowledge, there is only one place you can go to purchase both fluffy angel wings and bloodworms. That was the rationale behind crossing the threshold of a garden centre at this time of year. Passage is carefully confined to narrow, winding  aisles branching into hellish cul-de-sacs overflowing with colour coordinated baubles and - brace yourself - snow globes.
     Interesting phenomenon, the creation of snow globes. Shavings of human bone used to provide the 'snow' in the nineteenth century, which was the only redeeming thing I could think of to say to my children whilst trapped there. I may have elaborated slightly, the bone used may not have been exclusively human. But I prefer to think so, so I'm refusing to look it up.
     It's an overwhelming time of year. I need Snow, that's all.
Anyone have a skeleton in the closet?

     For an intriguing take on the snow globe, see here.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Shedding Leaves with Marcus Aurelius

Excuse me, have you dropped something? 

Look beneath the surface: never let a thing's intrinsic quality or worth escape you.
     I have a thing about Marcus Aurelius. I was introduced to his meditations when I was a charming adolescent at the rocky heights of wisdom and humility. Something of his voice must've penetrated my thick skull because I still have his book and he turns up now when I most require his Soundness.
     Men exist for each other, he says. Then either improve them or put up with them. These are fine thoughts to hold on to when things get irritating on public transport.
     Marcus Aurelius understands the Immediate. He appreciates transformation and our tiny role in the greater cycle. Only a little while, he says, and Nature, the universal disposer, will change everything you see, and out of their substance will make fresh things, and yet again others from theirs, to the perpetual renewing of the world's youthfulness.
     The ground beneath our feet is covered with a scattering of gold and copper. Autumn's alchemy. Swirled in the cold breath of approaching winter. Beautiful.
     So it is to Marcus Aurelius that I turn when I see a man out with a turbocharged leaf-blower. What a piece of equipment. The noise! The futility! Why, Marcus? WHY??

Thursday, 24 November 2011


Limber K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
Mornings have been foggy. Very atmospheric. Quite conducive to contemplating the yogic exercises of trees.
I love the rich reduction of autumn. A new clarity in the bare trees. Crisp line and hanging mist. The sharp smell and cold air preparing the way for winter.
 Don Paterson, in his Book of Shadows, says:
     The trees in winter, those exact diagrams of all our dead yearnings.
It's a terrible thing to be distracted from work by an aphorism.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Rupture K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
     Being as it's fireworks season, minor explosions seem to be everywhere. Burning sofas, glittery sparklers and those keep-your-cats-indoors whistling rockets... I thought I'd been ignoring them. But I see that a seasonal theme is inescapable.
     I've been painting this fallen tree quite regularly, it's constantly changing. But today, it was bursting apart in the sun. We've had some spectacular autumn days; and the studio space is getting messy with experiments and work underway. So... flee!
      Today, there were deer. A pair watched me watch the tree. Emboldened by the sunshine and the quiet, they stood about for ages.  I might've been beneath their notice, but their indifferent company was enjoyable.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Words with Bite

Oak King K Howell 2011 Acrylic on Board 61 cm x 92 cm
     This is the first of a pair of disparate paintings based on the same oak tree. It has complete dominion over a sloping beech grove, and although it's not exactly a typical 'Frame of Civilisation' oak, it has attitude. Its wild disarray and exposed heartwood are intriguing; its galls are quite incredible.
     I've painted it many times and in trying to research what has caused the galls (disease, bacteria or parasite), I did find some recipes for oak gall ink, used extensively in Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The smaller galls produced by parasitic wasps are boiled to extract gallic and tannic acids to make an ink that bites into parchment. Over time, it slowly eats away at the substrate, and leaves a tracery of empty space instead of words.
      The word ink is directly related to encaustic, from the Greek 'to burn in'.  While I knew that many manuscripts were slowly 'eroding' due to chemical reactions, I didn't realise parasitic wasps were at the heart of it.
     It does make typing seem so ephemeral...

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Just in Case...

Window Onto Winter II K Howell 2011 Acrylic on Paper (Very Small Indeed)

     Water Street Gallery in Todmorden is exhibiting work 'Just in Case', small works in any media presented in a CD case. The clever ruse here is to make art more affordable for the artist to present and for the public to purchase. The exhibition will be running until January and the Gallery details are here.  It's a brilliant idea and Todmorden is a wonderful place to visit. So, Just in Case you fancy a day out...
     My pieces are Windows Onto Winter, microcosmic paintings exploring the structure of a hawthorne tree, the weight of the snow, and the play of light on and through ice droplets.

Monday, 24 October 2011


Exposed K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
     I was looking for a still hour. Maybe two. No radio, no internet, no bloody words. Stone seemed a likely option...
     A kindly passerby asks me what I'm painting. I point at the exposed gritstone and he scrutinises it for awhile and then says, "What, just the rock?"
     That is what I'm facing, there is nothing else here. I nod.
     "Do you really see those colours?" he asks me.
     Now this is where I feel a little exposed. What shall I say?  No, I'm just using up superfluous pastels, really. But he seems genuinely perplexed when I say, "That Is How I See It."
     "Looks like brown rock to me," he says. "But have a nice day."
     If only we could all own such tolerance...

Monday, 17 October 2011


Metamorphoses K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 28 cm x 28 cm
     The cold is descending slowly. Perfect weather to visit the beech. This is one of my favourite trees. Depending on the direction of approach, it has many aspects,  its identity constantly shifting. Today, this tree scuttles. As though it has woken up, found itself lying prone, and is trying to work out how to mobilise itself.
     The closely-grained, smooth surface of beech wood used to be made into tablets for writing surfaces. Old English bōc and Old Norse bók both have a primary meaning of beech and a secondary meaning of book, and this is the source of our modern word book.
     Sitting on a load of beechmast, I try to forget about writing, but you see, I've come to the wrong place...

Monday, 10 October 2011

Out of Season

Window onto Winter II K Howell 2011 Acrylic on Paper 14 cm x 12 cm
     This blog is a year old. Thanks to everyone who has dropped by! I've really enjoyed reading other blogs and seeing what people are working on. A 'blogs to visit' sidebar will be coming in the near future.
     This tiny piece is out of season, but I've been putting together a series of Very Small Paintings to submit for a winter exhibition. I enjoyed the challenge of confined space and tried to go for truly microcosmic pieces, based on ice and snow collecting on a hawthorne tree.
     I did some studies last winter exploring structure, and used these as the basis for some miniscule work. Working small is very inhibiting, but this was an exercise in limitation. An experiment. Having completed seven, four of which are 6 cm x 8 cm, I think I'm suffering from some kind of repressed brush syndrome. I was going for jewel-like, and if nothing else, the paintings are small. Terribly portable.
     Anyone else tried working ridiculously small? Any lasting damage?

Monday, 3 October 2011


 Birch Outstripped by Shadows K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 28 cm x 28 cm
     I like shadows. They are rich and full of mystery. Often, they are extreme; a dense pool of dark at your feet, an elongated exaggeration of your height, stretching effortlessly over uneven ground. In a wood, the patterns become entrancing. Actual trees and shadow trees connect and overlap in fascinating rhythms.
     Shadows are the places light doesn't reach. Obviously. They give the world definition. An intriguing wealth of colour goes into the illusion of their solidity.
     When I was small, I developed an obsession with the word penumbra, which is harder than you might imagine to use in conversation. But the sound of it was (and still is) magical. Almost shadow. A word that is evasive, vague, yet exact. I had to make do with umbrella, and translate it in my head as an epithet. Shadow-maker.
     It seems the right time of year to wax effusive about shadows. For the Impressionists, it was all about painting light. Today, I chase shadows.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Familiar Ground

Or, Why There Will Be a Relevant Blog Post in a Day Or Two...
     It is almost eleven at night. I'm staring at this paragraph (embryonic blog post) which refuses to reshape itself without me physically pressing keys and I think this is ridiculously churlish of the text. Enter fourteen-year-old. She drops onto the settee with an exhale that implies she was being held upright by pneumatic design.
     "Right," I say, adopting my parent voice. "Finished your homework?"
     "I still have ...English," she says. This language is clearly an imposition too far.
     "So...what do you have to do for English?" I ask. I check the screen to see if the words have done something extraordinary while I wasn't watching, but no.
     "You won't believe this," she says. "I have to write a paragraph, a character description, in the style of John Steinbeck."
Familiar Ground K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
     "So?" I say. "Write a character description in the style of John Steinbeck. You read the book." I consider rewriting my paragraph in the style of John Steinbeck, just to see what would happen. No, I'd sacrifice word count. Word count is dropping as it is.
     "But why should I? I don't like his style." She says.
     I see that she is not going to budge easily. I think back. What would I have done? I'd have written a paragraph describing a character who bemoaned the futility of such exercises.
     "You don't have to like it," I say. "It's an exercise. You just have to show that you understand his use of language, his sentence construction, his word choices - "
     "But I don't like his sentences! His vocabulary is boring!"
     "It's evocative," I say. I delete the adverb that somehow escaped my attention previously. Word count plummets again. Damn.
     "I don't want to write like that," she says.
     "You don't have to write like that for the rest of your life," I tell her. "Just for one flipping paragraph. Make it fun. If you don't like the style, mock it a little. Show you understand it. You can write however you want for the rest of your life." Yes, you can spend an hour staring at something, knowing how you want it to sound, and struggling to knock it into shape. That's fun, that is.
     "I like RICH language. I like INTERESTING sentences!"
     "So when you're finished your Steinbeck paragraph, write another one the way you want to write it." I say."It's a PARAGRAPH! How hard can it be?"
     "I don't FEEL like writing my own stuff right now," she says. "I'm tired."
     Really? I close the document, and determine to grow up before tomorrow comes. Renewed respect for John Steinbeck, who wrote many fine paragraphs.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A River Runs Through It

River K Howell 2011 Pastel and Rain on Paper 8 cm x 13 cm
It's marvelous how rock is shaped by the passage of water. This study is very tiny and quick (it has been quite wet lately), but shows something of what I was after. The sculpted rock holds the memory of relentless rushing  activity, and is still being shaped. Borges says, in his poem about poetry, 
To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know that we cease to be, just like the river,
And our faces pass away, just like the water."

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Rain Song

Song K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
     Partially owing to the wet weather, I've done very little painting out of doors. The rain has been spectacular. I love the smell, the heavy skies and the slick varnish on the world. I'm happy to get soaked, but my favourite moments are those bright breaks between showers, when a flash of sunlight bursts through from under the bruised layer of cloud and illuminates the wet world.
    This tree struck me as lyrical. It seemed to be having a good time in the rain, and has found a moment in which to shine. The very-close-but-not-quite manganese blue was admittedly an odd choice. I was thinking to evoke the elusive, toxic qualities of that blue. That's the colour I see when I smell rain. Usually.
   Interestingly, the main commercial use for manganese blue (other than its value as an artist's pigment) was to colour cement for swimming pools. It's attraction might explain my early, failed shallow dives...

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Underworld

Lead Mine Adit 
     We take a journey down a disused lead mine. The sound world is extraordinary. Our boatman isn't exactly your silent Charon type and exuberantly fills the space with his voice. People get nervous in the quiet, so deep below the surface, he tells us.
     This level tunnel, a miner's adit, has been methodically blasted and carved away. The regularity of the passage is beautiful, and in its flooded state, quite magical.
     The lead mine joins a natural limestone cave fanged with stalactites, stalagmites and veined with fluorspar, yawning over a subterranean lake. The chamber is spacious, with fascinating vertical shafts, all formed by the passage of water.
      I only mention this because it seems writing is shaped in the same way. Having spent some time in this underworld, I can attest to the usefulness of explosives, sharp implements and relentless water. The natural formations are great, but the subterranean lake can be devalued if it is filled with the rubble from blasting out the lead mine.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Petrifying Thoughts

Shelter K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
     My thoughts have been turning to stone. It's been a long, slow process. But I can see that this is definitely happening. Gritstone Edges are a stunning part of the local landscape, and I've been exploring some of these over the past few weeks.
     The forest in which I often paint shelters a gorge with exposed walls of Precambrian gritstone that I've always admired. I love the layers and fractures and lichens. So much to investigate.
     On the moors nearby there are some fantastic isolated stones as well as grouped outcroppings, evocatively named. For instance, we have the Bridestones. The Groom, alas, is fallen. The Hawkstones glare down over the moor, and my personal favourites, the Orchan Rocks, are formidable presences in the landscape. Their solidity provides an interesting foil to the supple nature of trees. I need variety and if you've visited this blog with any kind of frequency, I would imagine you do too.
     You may have noticed I don't do scenes. I'm calling my style a Visual Synecdoche of Landscape. Not sure that will catch on...

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Eternal Return

Ouroboros (almost) K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 28 cm x 28 cm
     This broken branch is almost an ouroboros, quite desperate to complete itself. Like the serpent Jörmungandr, encircling the Midguard world of Norse mythology, the ouroboros makes itself whole by grasping it's tail in its mouth.
     Being in the forest is an opportunity to leave linear, historical time behind and move into the  Möbius strip of Sacred Time. Where exist things infinitely more interesting than quantification, currency and turning lanes.
     Generally, I'm working on a tight schedule when I go out to paint. We are all ultimately answerable to the evil Clock, and I find it very necessary to carve time out to ignore the passage of the same, if you follow.
     In this way, art is alchemy, all about transmutation and immortal moments. In order to get started, I start as a matter of ritual. And the painting develops from there.
     What will happen when one of the factors changes? In a few weeks, I will have more clock time to work. More clock time than has ever been at my disposal, really. Lots of larger paintings germinating. Many shiny new ideas waiting. I haven't thought too much about it, certainly haven't talked about it. Probably because I don't want to be paralysed by possibility.
     I'm finishing the novel rewrite, with the full knowledge that I'll be going back to the beginning, reading through, and finding cringe-worthy bits that must be altered. Suddenly, I have this profound new respect for Finnegan's Wake. Which I couldn't properly finish. Begin Again. Awake.
     Completion may be an illusion, but I'm very fond of the ouroboros. And I wholly empathise with that branch...

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Lingering Disquiet

Mal'arbre K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
     There are some trees that are unsettling. They catch at your peripheral vision and pull you into a fairy tale moment. I love these trees. When you turn away, they move. I'm sure they do. And then they are completely still when you stop and take proper notice of them. At least, that's what I tell the small people. Do I truly believe it? When I'm painting, I do. Every tree has character and a story to tell. Some are a little more frightening than others. Those trees have seen some things happen.
     There's a voluble stream feeding into the larger river near this tree. I used to avoid this area of the copse because none of my senses seem to be working properly, when in fact they are working overtime.
      As the White Queen says to Alice, Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
      It takes practice.

Monday, 25 July 2011


Oak K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
    What with summer weather, Lucien Freud's death and cleaning out my studio space, people in a state of undress seem to be a recurring theme.
     Life drawing is a great experience. I rediscovered a stack of student work that reminded me of how much I enjoyed it. It takes a courageous person to strip off and let a bunch of artists explore and interpret their body. Looking at the drawings, I was amazed at the immediate recall of the particular session dynamic.
    'Learning' a person without much dialogue or touch is an unusual practice. Like consensual stalking. The individual model is so much a part of the work, what they bring to a session is terribly informative. I remember one male model who insisted on always working with a broom handle. So they could 'dialogue' together. He made quite an impression.
     I noticed in my stack of drawings that the stronger pieces were loaded with subtext. Irritation, admiration, familiarity: it all comes through. Indifference produces rubbish.
     Easy to see how this love of life drawing has carried over to landscape. And trees are so patient...

Monday, 18 July 2011

Hermeticism Begins At Home

Alembic K Howell 2005 Mixed Media 14 cm x 21 cm
     Aristotle says Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god. This is a bit extreme, but I'm happy to err on the side of the feral. Solitude is the necessary furnace for creativity.
     But having attended an exhibition of student's work this week, and then another put together by friends on the weekend, I was reminded of the importance of the exhibition process. Gathering work and people together and generating dialogue is a brilliant thing. 
     It's wonderful to see work you've viewed in progress or new work emerging from familiar hands carefully presented for public perusal and enjoyment. Somehow the whole event is more enjoyable when it's not your work on display. 
     Back to my messy alembic of a work space and the entrails of my rewrite.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Risky Business

Run!!! K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
     Art is fraught with risk. There are no guarantees that execution will match up to vision. The work may or may not be exhibited. People may or may not respond to it if they see it. Even if they do respond, the artist may or may not be aware of the success or failure of the work in that instance.
     We all invest a great deal in what we do, but as artists, uncertainty is our friend. Uncertainty is the dark underbelly of possibility; if we have one, we have the other.
     I know I'm always struggling to balance emotional intensity with games; trying to invest a work with strength and authenticity of vision, but also a certain amount of playfulness. I should take myself more seriously; I should have more fun. This is a risk.
     But risk, I believe, is what makes work interesting.
Yesterday, I attended a concert. The chamber group was marvelous, the sound world intriguing but ultimately upstaged. By a cactus. The unquestionably phallic shape and the fact that it was amplified gave the succulent a playful presence in the percussionist's toolbox. The spines kept me watching. So much potential for drama. Will they blindfold the percussionist? Will the stage hands be impaled? I spent the duration of the piece renaming the work and re-imagining the staging for maximum comic and tragic effect. So I've learned this valuable lesson: If you put a cactus on stage, harmonics aren't quite so interesting*. When RISK is presented as a possibility, the audience wants it explored. (Assimilating this information as I write.)

*This is not a criticism, just a fact. It was a very good event. And the film! Pierre Reimer's Modell, made to accompany a composition by Mark Andre, was brilliant. Very witty, slightly sinister, thoroughly entertaining. Clever and playful. I loved it! And I would've told him so, but my French is specious and my English... not much better. I failed to make my response known. I didn't want to risk sounding like a prat. Won't happen again.

Monday, 4 July 2011


  There, From Here K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
     If you've ever given birth, you'll know there's a certain inevitability about the situation. Labour can't go on forever, and harbouring this creature indefinitely is not an option. Something has to give. Your bones.  The same ones that, on a good day, hold you upright. The ugly phase where your muscles are convincing your skeleton to be that much more flexible is termed transition and could very well be the original source of the werewolf myth.
     On the occasions I've experienced this process, I've spent much of the time thinking surely there must be a better way. How long have we been evolving as a species? And this is the most efficient system we have arrived at? I make a mental note each time to move to Australia, where eventually women may become marsupial.*
     What does this have to do with creativity? In the development of work and the search for the right blend of intensity and flexibility, we definitely have periods of transition, don't we? When do we push on, and when do we relax? We've already forgotten what worked last time, and anyway, circumstances are different. Aren't they?
     My least favourite swim coach** once pressed me to finish a ridiculous distance swimming butterfly. When I told him I'd had enough, everything hurt and I took that as a Sign to Stop, he said, Hurts a little? Or a lot? Not wanting to sound feeble, I said a little. He raised a paunchy eyebrow and said, Then you're not working hard enough.
     Transition. The cost of improvement, learning a new balance of instinct and education. Pressure on the thick skull. Too late for the epidural. Alas.

*No, I don't truly believe this, but pain messes with your head.
**I can't remember the likeable swim coaches saying anything of value. But they were ever so nice.

Monday, 27 June 2011


Through K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
      Summer is here. Vegetation is rich and luxuriant. There are midges. Humans accustomed to several layers of clothing throw caution to the wind and expose their torsos and legs to the briefly magnificent sun. This is all very distracting. Disturbing. Sometimes frightening.
     A good time to retreat to the trees.
     Looking at this quirky beech, contemplating obstacles, I remember Robert Frost. The best way out is always through. While patience and persistence are very admirable, they're not terribly exciting qualities to cultivate. But three seasons later, I'm still rewriting. Is this wise? I've no idea, but certainly it's an education. The earlier draft is a bit bloated, dizzy with sun, running naked in several directions. Oblivious to the aesthetic implications of its activity. Sigh.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

What the Cat Said

Where Birds Belong K Howell 2011 Pastel on Paper
      I'm slaving away over my artist's statement in the brief window of time available, marveling at just how ridiculous it looks in black and white, wondering if I need to start again, when Distraction strikes. A cat has materialised and seems to be in difficulty. I move my feet. He looks offended, and offers up a self contained pile of recently ingested organism.

"Must you?" I ask.
The cat narrows his eyes.
Do I detect a judgmental tone? (cats speak in italics in my world.)
"I hate it when you do that. It's such a waste."
Philistine, says the cat. I am exploring the nature of birds. I am examining them from many angles, observing their behaviour.
Whatever works. The cat lifts its paw, and licks it.
Then I play with my material. Expand the possibilities. Toss it about. I separate out the bits you'll find most interesting, that's skill, that is. And I leave them where you will be sure to appreciate their qualities.
"The livers camouflaged against the carpet by the window?"
You noticed! That's a Duchampian triumph of Context over Content!
"It's quite off-putting."
You might want to watch your step in the kitchen...
"Why don't you do something useful with your life?" I ask.
The cat blinks. Looks down at its offering.
I've done my bit, mate. I've remade this material into something new.  Make an effort yourself.
"And what about beauty, you murdering wastrel?"
Axiomatic. The cat flicks its tail and walks off.
Artist's statement? What the cat said.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Pigment to Dye For

 A Peeling Tree K Howell 2011  Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
      Outside it smells of sun and elderflowers. To be honest, I'm avoiding updating my artist's statement and find I'd much rather contemplate the etymology of cyanide.
     Deep blue is a good place to begin. I tend to substructure studies with blue. This elder tree is typical.
      Elder trees are the source of so many good things. As we all know from our diligent study of the Harry Potter text, the easily hollowed elder branch makes a fine and powerful wand. Fragrant elderflowers are followed by richly purple berries, both of which can be made into Very Nice drinks. Drinking the essence of tree has benefits. Elder syrups can be effective treatments for colds and flu. But obviously you want to make sure the seeds and stalks are removed, as they contain cyanide-producing glycosides. A more conclusive cure.
     The body is perfectly capable of detoxifying small amounts of naturally occurring cyanide. The idea is to avoid ingesting quantities. I try to remind child number three of this guideline, as when there are pears in the house she tends to eat them in their entirety and look at me blankly when I ask what she did with the core.
     When Prussian blue pigment was accidentally maufactured around three hundred years ago, the name ferrocyanide was also invented for the 'blue substance with iron' produced as components of the dye. Prussian blue pigment was used for blueprints. A working plan in blue.

     Back to the beginning, it seems. This means I have to write a statement now. Curses.   

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Extremitree K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
     Passing this tree in extremity was an assault on the senses.
     Extremity is a word one can imagine a line of wizened men chanting whilst they relentlessly dock the tails of dobermans. Its rhythm is even and soothing, but it means the End of something or distressingly adverse conditions. 
     Moderation is something we are encouraged toward. It beckons like a scrolling supermarket conveyor belt or a moving sidewalk. Such steadiness is sinister. 
     Extremes are dangerous, cliff-edge and unpredictable. Always interesting. 
     Take Grayson Perry. I used to appreciate his work, but having spent time with his Pot and Print in Manchester City Galleries, adoration becomes an understatement. His careful blend of craft and whimsy, the mundane with the outrageous in life and art is so very admirable. Long may he continue.
     Julian Schnabel says some people must go to extremes to get the world in balance for themselves. Any thoughts?

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Dugout: Transportation From Transpiration to Exhumation

Dugout K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
This tree trunk has all the potential to be transporting; lying on the forest floor, a waiting vessel.

The life of a tree depends on the journey of water through its vascular system. A tree trunk consists mostly of dead xylem tissue. (Botanists may want to look away now.) Xylem cells are alive when initially produced by the meristematic cambium, but when they  become functioning water-conducting cells, they lose their cell contents and become hollow, microscopic tubes with woody walls. Water is primarily pulled upward due to the cohesion of water molecules through the plant's vascular system from roots to leaves. As water molecules move out through the stomata (tiny pores) into the atmosphere, they are replaced by new molecules entering the roots from the soil. More or less.

When a tree trunk is dug out, most of the vascular tissue is removed, and the tree itself becomes a vessel for all kinds of journeys. Dugout boats are the oldest boats archeologists have found, probably because they preserve well, being constructed from a single tree. The Iron Age Poole log boat is a fine example. Early Bronze Age 'ship' burials (the Gristhorpe Man) prepared the departee with weapons and food for the trip, encased within a hollowed-out tree trunk. According to Gerald of Wales (Liber de Principis instructione c.1193), the body of the elusive King Arthur was discovered 'hidden deep in the earth in a hollowed-out oak bole' in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey.

 In Norse mythology Ask and Embla , the first humans, are brought forth from trees. From womb to tomb, there is growth and journey. Touch Wood.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

A Centaur in the Compost?

Eroding Centaur K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
     Transforming organic material into rich, useful compost takes layers and time. In the depths of the dark bin, the hourglass cores of apples, the coils of orange peel and the revolting string-and-seed guts of squash start to smell. Fungi and worms get very interested. A little warmth, a little water (or urine, for those with a dedication to superior nitrate-rich results), a lot of stirring things up and giving it Time, and there are Results. A substance which smells fresh with possibility,  quite suitable for sustaining lovely new plants. Such as - oh, pick one at random, say, purple basil. The metamorphosis from the sordid to the sublime makes the compost bin an interesting place to investigate.
     I tend to think we perceive the world based on the compost of our lives. Which isn't a limitation, we're constantly adding new things. And while you can't control what everybody else throws in, at least it's variety.
     So here's to aerobic bacteria, and the transformation of the mundane.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Stairs: A Case Study

Rise K Howell Acrylic on Board 92 cm x 122 cm
     I've been cleaning this painting up, preparing it for a new home, and stairs have been on my mind. 
     Stairways are the spinal column of our living space. They embody the ups and downs of our everyday existence, a constant reminder that every endeavour is made up of incremental efforts. The stairs seem to provoke a strop in the resident four-year-old, and I can only conclude that between the hours of 4 and 6 p.m., they seem insurmountable. Some days, I quite concur.
     Rise was informed by a visit to a garden-in-progress, and seeing the raw, stacked material for the stairs in place, it seemed an expression of longing and determination, a plan for the creation of a small paradise.
     Stairs are all about aspiration and challenge.
  It's a flight for a reason.
     Building the staircase was what Mircea Eliade would call an Ascension rite, a consecrating and determining activity that sublimates a profane space into a sacred one. (I'm hoping you feel a garden is a sacred space, and you stay with me on this one.) 
     Stairs, Jung says, symbolize the process of psychic transformation in which the contents of the unconscious are brought into conscious awareness. The stairs are an expression of the paradoxical wish to achieve an ideal form within the framework of human existence. Of course, the stairs also mean people can reach the top of the garden. 
     Shamanic traditions hold the tree as the ladder to the heavens. So there it is. Even when I try to digress, it always comes back to trees.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Portals for Mortals

The World From Inside K Howell Acrylic on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
     The way in is the way out. What's not to love about a chamber tomb? A curious place of passage; empty, but full of Continuity. Neolithic Long Barrows are very accommodating.
      Inside, the air is separate; in May, it's obviously colder. A Barrow is essentially an artificial cave, carefully made to shelter the dead, to provide a resting point on the journey. Part of the landscape, a place of reincorporation with the earth.
     From the inside, the stillness and the careful rhythm of stone shape a window to the world. From the outside, the structure is built and marked as a ritual place, distinct and sacred. A swell in the land, a gateway.
     So much more than a Dead End.
     Five millennia later, the work of  James Turrell  draws on this tradition of creating resonant space and shaping a portal to the outside world. The Deer Shelter "Skyspace" at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a fine example of his work. Not quite a Long Barrow, but the next best thing.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

What is Not Working?

It followed me home...  K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
When work is play, what is a holiday?

  • Eating purple broccoli.
  • Revisiting a favourite chamber tomb (Jaded four-year-old comments, Well, there's not much to see in here, is there?).
  • Fishing said child out of a river (unrelated incident. Honestly.). 
  • Recovering the excitement of spotting Iron Age ring forts and remembering this reaction is not universally shared. Why? Why??
  • Picnicking on a long barrow, surrounded by round and bell barrows. Eight-year-old doesn't like the flies, and must be reminded that the people who crafted this landscape with antlers for tools were probably able to get past the insects. Surely she can do the same? People with antlers? She says. Wow! 
  • Singing loudly and often badly while traveling on foot or in the car. Pity the pedestrians in the vicinity. At least in the car, we pass quickly. 
  • Contemplating What is Not Working and finding solutions.
  • Contemplating What is Working, because this is easy to forget.
  • Discovering dragons and making stories out of twigs, because working or not working, this is what I do...
 Happy May Day!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Spring Ahead (with antlers)!

Cloak K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
     Sometimes tree forms suggest antlered creatures; part tree, part animal.
     Antlered animals are part of the forest, and the seasonal bone growth is both an extension of the essential beast and an echo of its environment. The majestic headdress is shed when the bone is dead and no longer of use.
      The anthropomorphic antlered form is very interesting. I like its Celtic manifestation as seen on the Gundestrup Cauldron, known as Cernunnos. He seems very genial, together and, well, flexible. His solidarity with fellow woodland creatures is most clearly shown by his excellent set of antlers. And while he is gripping that snake solidly below the head, it does seem like the snake might be amorous. Hard to tell with reptiles.
     Covered by vascular skin, antler bone is supplied with oxygen and nutrients from the outside until fully formed. Osteoclasts (A bunch of  cells with a Cromwellian aspect shouting, The bone must die!) destroy the antler bone at the base, resulting in shedding, usually in late winter or early spring in preparation for growing a new rack.
     Antlers are a display of hormonal activity, a tool for foraging, a weapon in combat. They must be heavy, and most human antler systems are removable. But antlers for a day; wouldn't that be fun?

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Bridges: A Conversation

Relevant Thoughts in Italics.

Here we are, in a quiet wood, set back from the dog-walkers' track, but NOT FAR ENOUGH. A painter stares at something and makes decisive coloured smears and marks on paper saturated with such activity. Clearly ENGAGED in what she is doing.
Enter, Man In Tracksuit.

MAN: You're drawing.
PAINTER: Yes. Well, painting, but let's not quibble.
MAN: You drawing the bridge?
PAINTER: I can't see the bridge. Can he see the bridge from here? What kind of eyes does he have?
MAN: Most people draw the bridge.
PAINTER: Not from here, they don't.
(Feeling bad for being snarky, PAINTER continues): I'm painting the fallen tree.
MAN: Which one?
Bridge K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
PAINTER: The one on its side. The one that looks a bit like my painting.
MAN: Uh.
A long silence ensues.
MAN: You're using pastels.
PAINTER: I am indeed.
Terrier licks a half stick of prussian blue. Man in tracksuit is oblivious.
MAN: Do you like pastels, then?
MAN: I find them messy.
PAINTER (regarding own purple fingers): Messy can be good. I like messy.
MAN: I can draw.
PAINTER: I imagine you can (Wipes prussian blue stick on denims).
MAN: I have a GNVQ in Art and Design.
PAINTER: Ah (Reaches for permanent red).
MAN: I have lots of drawings, at home.
MAN: Most of them are from 2005 or before.
PAINTER: I see (Reaches for light yellow).
MAN: It's finding the time, you know? To draw.
PAINTER: It doesn't happen unless you do it, does it?
MAN: Life is busy.
PAINTER (whose life is obviously comprised of more hours than the usual twenty-four): Sometimes you have to make time, really.
MAN: Too much on, you know?
PAINTER is silent. Terrier sniffs ochre stick.
MAN (indicates PAINTER's work): That's not bad, really.
PAINTER (expression could be construed as a smile): Cheers. How fortunate that I'm painting this specifically for your approval. How favoured and fulfilled I feel.
MAN: It's very peaceful here.
PAINTER: Hmm. It certainly was.
MAN (indicating a direction): Know where I'll get to if I carry on this way?
PAINTER: I really don't like to say... Eventually, you'll reach the road.
MAN: Ah. Well, enjoy your time.
PAINTER: You as well. As long as I have your blessing oh magnanimous one who walks with the scruffy dog. And I apologise with every fibre of my being for having time when clearly more talented, driven and able people are without such resources.

Truly, a most entertaining excursion.

Monday, 11 April 2011

No Dark Things

Pink Puddle K Howell Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
    The forest is a realm of transformation, full of uncertainty and possibility. For a few magical days in spring, as the trees are just coming into leaf, it is a place of complete renewal.
    The light is strong, the colours are freshly peeled and there is a tentative vitality to the wood that, as it will become something assured and lush, cannot last. In celebration of transience, I've painted an elusive pink puddle and Unstoppable rush of trees.
     Like Larkin's trees, Last year is dead, they seem to say, Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
    If this sounds like boundless optimism, I've also been (more typically) working on ancient shapes conjured out of dead wood... but those are for another day.


Sunday, 3 April 2011

Inhabiting Space

Bent Birch K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm

Watching the trees grow doesn't sound like a mind-blowing experience, but it is fascinating to see how trees inhabit their space. There's a rhythm to a forest, and all sorts of intriguing shapes, solitary in company.
In a forest, the space between the trees comes alive as well, creating a dynamic interplay between positive and negative shapes. Check out Emily Carr's Old Tree At Dusk. It's an amazing piece of work, and just looking at it makes me wonder why I'm typing and not painting. According to Ms. Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, author of Carr, O`Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, "Carr's trees form the thematic and formal scaffolding upon which her whole oeuvre was constructed."

Which is entirely understandable, when you consider the wealth of inspiration waiting in a forest full of creature-ly trees.

Saturday, 26 March 2011


Blasted Trunk K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 14 cm
There is nothing in the intellect, Aristotle says, that is not first in the senses.

Francis Bacon (the painter, not the philosopher and innovative chiller of chicken) claims that An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into fact.
Bacon's work often juxtaposes visceral, bestial forms within a rigid architecture, a two-dimensional cage. Primal and urban at the same time. His images affect us as a sensory onslaught, and resonate as we recognise what we are seeing. That's skill.

With this study, I was clearly going for Organic Bacon, in flavour anyway. Strange behaviour for a vegetarian, but I can see more clearly where these studies are going as a Body. When they are developed. But as the analytical part of my brain is otherwise occupied, I have to work at Sensation level for now.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


Human Heart image from the SPL
The landscape of the forest is strangely familiar. It is hardwired into our psyche. We are surrounded by the patterns and shapes that we are made of ourselves. In the bare winter, the trees are stripped back to essential forms. I like to think of the forest as a mirror for our raw selves, physically and psychologically.

Kept K Howell Pastel on Paper 21 cm x 13 cm

In mythic terms, the forest is an externalisation of the unconscious realm, a landscape of hunts, quests, perilous flights and where the Wild Things reign supreme.

The forest is replete with Help and Harm.
This angular piece of work is a hawthorn tree. Traditionally, the berries were used to treat heart problems ranging from irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, chest pain, hardening of the arteries, and heart failure.

On the other hand, a vampire can be well and truly finished by a hawthorn stake through the heart...

Monday, 14 March 2011

Life and Limb

There is something primal about the Black Line. It's strong, decisive and dark. Unapologetic. Every once in a while, it creeps in and dominates a painting.

In this instance, it's suitable for a truncated tree, maimed and full of edges.

The Latin limbus means edge, boundary, border. Well, no wonder the Black Line took over. It's all about Definition.

It's interesting how we separate 'life' from 'limb'. Life, with the vital organs, is contained in the trunk. Limbs are peripheral extensions. You'd think I'd been to see 127 Hours...

Sunday, 6 March 2011


So Inclined...  K Howell Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
       Perch yourself on a steep incline, after a recent rainfall. Have a folding camp stool, the kind with three legs. Then see if you can defy gravity long enough to capture something of the dark day, the luminous grasses. While sliding down said hillside.
       One definition of slide is to move smoothly, quickly, or unobtrusively. Ha. Give up on the useless stool. Sit in the wet grass. Get messy and take control.
       A sound decision, as it happens. So this is my philosophy for the rest of the month, in which I hope to finish the bulk my rewrite. Apply the knowledge gained on a slippery incline and recognise when to let go of the furniture. It'll take you down, every time. When in doubt, get messy.
       I generally value the experience of painting more than the resulting product, because the process is so involving. But this study shall be my talisman for the coming weeks. A gentle reminder...

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Lie of the Land

Restive. Really. K Howell Pastel on Paper 21cm x 14cm
     I'm all for inversions. I like things inside out, upside down, back to front. So it's no surprise that most of my landscapes are in portrait format. This is because I often do portrait-like details of trees, but also because a vertical layout gives a painting a particular dynamic. Energy is more fiercely contained in an upright oblong. Once in a very long while, I make a conscious effort to work on a proper horizontal, sprawling landscape. I seem compelled to fill the space with the repetitious vertical lines  to compensate for the relaxation of the paper.
     I think of it as a play on energies. According to Carl Jung, Great energy springs from a correspondingly great tension of opposites. Well, it's a theory.
 A piece of paper has such limitations, it's a game to energise it in different ways.

Sunday, 20 February 2011


Work in Progress...One of them.
     Works in progress are at once disheartening and exciting. On the one hand, you are on your way. You have Something to work with. On the other, it really isn't very good yet, it's confused, unclear, a bit of a mess.
     It's been an odd few days. After constructing an erupting fabric volcano on a Mesozoic play mat, I went to a concert. Three bands took the stage with the same objective; engaging the audience, communicating, striking a chord. The first effort evoked that painful combination of outraged senses and supportive tolerance you feel for an incompetent effort. The second had more confidence, more energy and took risks with power cords. That's always interesting. It was easy to slip into a noise induced coma and hope for some kind of drama to unfold.
     The supporting bands are works in progress.
     The headline act Worked. The music was Shaped, there was Voice. It hit the mark. Unforgettable.
      Our little lives are whispers in a universal vastness. It's always a fantastic thing when someone stands up and gives mortality the Archers' Salute.
     And that's what it's about, in the end. Resonance. Song. I'll go back to work now.

Sunday, 13 February 2011


Rent K Howell Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
    Samuel Beckett says, Try again. Fail Again. Fail better. Well, I struggle with the English Language, but this seems like sound advice. And so very achievable. The slippery words are being rewritten. Coppiced. Clarified. It's progress, of a sort.
     I'm posting another study. Paintings are going very slowly. Something. Glacial. But studies; tiny, concentrated compressions of colour are Essential.
     This tree is rent and reaching. The shifting forest light gives it a different mood whenever I visit, but it's always dramatic. Rain-soaked bark is beautiful.
     Incidentally, rhyming post titles was not my intention. But now that I've begun, it's going to be difficult to stop...


Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Spent K Howell Chalk Pastel on Paper 14 cm x 21 cm
     Painting isn't particularly energetic, on the face of it. Unless you're Jackson Pollock, no great feats of physical exertion are required. Painting seems to involve a lot of being still and staring. But without a concentration of energy, nothing materialises.
     I have two large panels, in the slow process of developing, and I find working on small pieces at the same time helps keep the energy flowing.
This tree is spent and slowly being broken down, returning to the soil. I love its irregularity, its mossy coat, its disarray. It has had a rough season and is spent. But life is creeping all over its surface. Just spending time watching this tree is energising.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Going Nowhere Fast

Inside Out, Upside Down K Howell Chalk Pastel on Paper 
    With its stripped bark and galls, this oak seems made of ritual endurance. It's only mostly dead. Every spring it surprises me by producing something green, a modest display of foliage from an unlikely source. In the winter, it takes on the aspect of the Hanged Man, the archetypal figure of sacrifice and renewal.
    January seems like a month of stagnation and patient stasis in the cold. So much of the world is waiting. Quietly regathering. It's the right time to visit this tree and be amazed at its formation. To get lost in its possibilities. The resilience of trees is remarkable; I like to share their air. Only not for too long, because it's CHILLY.
      Back inside it's more possible to be patient with slow progress... however galling 'Slow' is.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Hard Graft and Games

Pink Eye KHowell Acrylic on Paper 20cm x 28.5cm
Pink and frivolous.
This tree lost its intriguing branch formation after the heavy snow. I dug up a tiny sketch I'd made some time ago and reworked it in acrylic, to see what it would become. Can you have an exercise in frivolity? Looking at Joan Miro and Paul Klee, I think you can.
Andy Warhol says An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he thinks it would be a good idea to give them. 
A fair description, don't you think?

Having had the privilege of listening to Andreas Scholl sing this week, I was reminded of a few things:
  • Countertenors are sublime beyond mortal comprehension. 
  • Some can still pull a baritone voice out of some hidden cupboard for a laugh.
  • People will refer to this level of mastery as talent. As though it dropped out of the Ionosphere, and hasn't been cultivated through 10 000 hours of concentrated Work.
Creative endeavour is a mixture of hard graft and games. Difficult balance, but so reassuring to know it's possible! Sing on, sing on...

Sunday, 16 January 2011


The eye works in mysterious ways. In distraction mode, it picks up on details that excite the imagination. To create a painting then requires focus and single-minded purpose to make something of this moment and throw it into relief, so it is unmissable. The further along the painting is, the more distance is required to analyse what is working and what is superfluous. During the process, a painting can look pretty dire indeed. That's where focus and concentration become allies once more, because ultimately the material can be shaped into Something. It's a strange ritual, really.
     I blame my antipathy to driving on years of drawing and painting. I like to look at things, play around with associations and then remake them, and this is a disastrous habit behind the wheel of a metal object hurtling down the road. I have to reset my brain before driving anywhere. I'd really rather walk. To be physically connected to the world I'm moving through, and experiencing all the irrelevant details.
     The Latin  focuser refers to the domestic hearth. The centre. Sometimes the most difficult place in the world to focus on anything...Not a bad thing, just a fact.
     I've posted this study because the 'eye' is the focus and makes this post eat its own tail, so to speak. 

Sunday, 9 January 2011


It's one of those words that sounds like its meaning. From the Latin struere, to build, structure sounds stable and strong and reliable. But in practice, working with structure is a constant dance between support and limitation, isn't it?
I've been thinking a great deal about structure. Probably because it's winter, and I've been doing lots of studies using skeletal trees to structure and shape space. And because I'm cutting and assembling cradling for wooden panels that will provide grounds for paintings. I like working on panels because they can withstand scraping, sanding and all sorts of distress without the basic structure collapsing. A painting can be built, possibly several times, on its solidity.
I like the idea that a confined and limited panel with firm edges can be used to suggest something infinitely more slippery and elusive. Light. A moment.

Language is similar, really. Margaret Atwood, in The Year of the Flood, has a character propose that by saying "I'll be dead", you're still alive inside the sentence and the idea of the immortality of the soul is a consequence of grammar.
Structure. Is it confining or liberating for you?