Last week I asked 10 artists How has painting during lockdown been for you? Their responses show a mix of pragmatism, despair, resourcefulness, a feeling of responsibility, and hope. Read on to see how lockdown has been so far for Peter Brown, Melissa Scott-Miller, Suzon Lagarde, Tom Voyce, Brita Granström, Narbi Price, Melvyn Evans, Gabriella Buckingham, Tim Benson and Jane Clatworthy.
I always paint for exhibitions. My Bath show finished in February and Johnnie Messum had just offered me a show in London in November. I was panicking a bit – the usual: would I get it done – 50 of my top drawer works. This was a short lead time. I had also just finished my residency at Stonyhurst College, had had the work photographed, the catalogue was being put together and the paintings off to the framer (30 oil sketches of college life).
Then Covid-19 arrived and our lives began to change dramatically. Firstly everything was cancelled or postponed – the NEAC Annual Exhibition and the Stonyhurst show – others were to go online only. Social distancing became the norm along with encouragement to work from home, to avoid pubs, restaurants and big gatherings.
London had become very quiet. I went on the 18th March to finish a large painting of Hammersmith Bridge in thick mist that I had started a few weeks before, and again on the 20th to paint at Queen’s Gate – The wonderful mounted Queen’s Guard now devoid of tourists posing for photographs. It was a grey day and I set up to paint for 4 hours. You could see Trafalgar square clearly from there – you could see so much tarmac! The armed police would come over every now and then to check progress. Amazingly there was still the odd small group of tourists. The guardsmen liked the painting and when I posted it later on social media a couple got in touch. That night they were stood down for the first time in their 350 year history. I had caught a moment in history. As I drove home I knew that would be it for London for a while.
The following Monday afternoon I went up to Lansdown Crescent in my home city of Bath to finish a painting I had started. I put BBC live on my phone and propped it on the easel but learned that the 5pm BoJo show was to be aired at 8.30pm so I turned it off and finished the painting.
At 8.30pm we sat down to the lockdown announcement. Ollie had come back from Durham on the Friday and we had everyone at home now – all 7 of us.
The phrase “You must work at home if you can. If you really have to go in to do your work then that’s ok.” was what stuck in my head and led to endless conversations for the rest of the evening. It was still in my head unresolved when I woke up on the Tuesday. I had a commission in London which would keep the wolf from the door in these likely now quiet months ahead. All I needed was to get up for the morning to do a sketch which I could probably work from.
I worked it through in my head and came to the conclusion that, as 99% of people who see plein air painters working assume it is a hobby, if I went out I would be seen as flouting the guidelines and that in order to show solidarity I should stay in the house. Memes would appear on social media: “Our grandparents fought in 2 world wars and we are being asked to sit on the sofa. Don’t **** this up.”. So I squared it in my head. Beautiful low warm spring sun or not I was going to paint interiors in the house for at least the next 3 weeks.
Like so many ways in which our lives have been affected by this virus there was a positive here. Something that would not show its head in my lifetime if we had not been put under these restrictions. It meant I could concentrate 100% on these interiors and not worry about capturing a more beautiful or exciting view outside. It was in fact a liberation. The opportunity to do what I wanted – to put me 100% in control. And so it has started.
The need to rush has been taken out our lives now. I walk the dog happily in the morning in road daylight, enjoying the sun on my back without worrying “God the light is wonderful! I should be painting” because now we have time. We have time to stop and talk (at 2 metres), to get in and have a coffee and a gas with Lisa, to draw Ned still asleep in his bed.. All these things before having to get into some serious painting. But it was not just this that prevented me from cracking on. There is a nervousness within us all and a guilt. We worry about our elderly relatives, about the awful loss of life around the world and about the fact that while a tiny proportion of the population in the main underpaid and overworked will be going through hell and putting their lives at risk while we ‘sit on the sofa’. That all has to be squared, accepted or put to one side.
Each day, I just paint. No emails, no looming deadlines. One day I painted a 25 x 20 inch canvas of the mantle piece full of dusty untouched clutter side lit by the bay windows looking out to a crystal clear blue sky. The following day I set up my easel to paint the sunlight on our unmade bed. It was not the most amazing painting. I had the chance to paint the sheets though. Who would ever want to buy that? Who cares.
Things are going to get a whole lot worse for a long time before they get better. As a painter I am utterly useless. I have been told to do one thing – sit on the sofa. I shall stand by my easel and paint while I admire from a distance the age old heroes of our society – the nurses, doctors and frontline hospital staff and also the new heroes – the delivery drivers, the supermarkets, the pharmacies and the postal workers. It is also very important, particularly if you are on your own to stay sane. You can help save the world when you are released but you will not be able to do that unless you have not looked after yourself. So don’t beat yourself up. It is OK if you can’t bring yourself to pick up a brush. It’s OK to sit in the sun and remember a beach holiday when you were a kid.
View the full length version of this article here – https://www.peterbrownneac.com/staying-at-home/
At first I thought this is not going to be difficult for me, my studio is my home anyway and I always find inspiration in the view out of my window, or painting my son and my dog and even myself. But it was annoying that it happened just as the sun came out and I had been planning lots of plein air paintings! In fact I was in the middle of one of a magnolia tree in the mornings and a night-time view in a nearby street.
When complete lockdown was announced I was actually painting my night-time view. I quickly finished the area I was painting and now I may have to wait till next year as the trees will be different when things do get back to normal. I had recently painted a view from my window which looks out on back gardens and a small roof terrace attached to the house where some of the residents from the other two flats leave their bikes, I had drawn out there but it’s quite difficult to climb out of the window and bring all my stuff, but this time I thought I will go for it, because of the lovely sunshine and the beautiful pear tree which is just about to erupt in white blossom. So that’s what I’m doing, and taking the dog out as my bit of exercise.
I’m also planning on a night-time view from a window in my flat where you can see a block of flats and in the early evening every single window is lit up and you can see people in their self isolation, just for a short time before they close their curtains!
A couple of weeks ago I was still leading a very busy life in London: painting in my studio, studying part-time and working long hours as a life model. When everything had to stop, I spent the first days getting ready: I had recently moved onto a canal boat and a few things were still to fix before I could live exclusively on it. It is tiny (so am I) but works for me as I’m used to paint quite small anyway. I have a box full of art material, a little table on which I paint in natural light, and sometimes I go on the roof to draw. The corridor has become my drying rack, and I make sure to ventilate the room enough for the fumes. I feel very grateful to have a passion to keep my hands and mind busy.
I started on a canvas offcut a painting of small objects that I have around and are important to me (like my teddy). I paint one a day, it keeps me focused and brings me joy. It helps not to have to think about the subject, I can just wake up and go on with this theme.
I also painted the interior of my new home for the first time. Again, it helped me feel connected to the present and be appreciative.
In April I was meant to show work alongside talented friends in the Now We Are Six exhibition. We had just received the catalogues and were pretty much ready for the Private View. Of course we had to postpone it, and decided to launch a website instead. I feel very grateful to have this project to keep me busy, and I’m looking forward to share the work with those who have supported us.
Really I’m glad I have painting.
Painting during the lockdown for me has provided me with a very much needed escape from the reality. I am able to switch off from what is going on and focus purely on my practice. In many ways this has helped- I no longer have an excuses to go out to see people or to go and to the local shop and buy snacks or head out for walks. I guess on one hand it is making me more disciplined. I am extremely lucky to have access to a studio in the first place after having worked in a garden shed for several years, so I am always trying to make the most of my time in there not matter what time of the day. Mostly I go and paint during the day for most of the late morning and afternoon, but I try to divide jobs up in the studio- such as tidying/ arranging where things are/ stock counts/ packaging up works/ reading and researching/ website and admin stuff/ taking photos for reference of social media/ prepping boards/ drawing prep studies/ and finally painting (which I do 90% of the time!)
Teaching part time has stopped for a while, so I can dedicate myself to my art. Going out to gather primary information is hard with the lockdown, but I have sketchbooks full of drawings and photographs for reference. I am also finding myself drawn to things within the studio to draw- creating small still lifes. Being an artist is itself a lonely occupation, but keeping in touch through blogs and on social media is always something I am keen to do and it’s important now more than ever!
My partner and I are both artists but since isolation, and with two boys off school I have found myself working downstairs. We have a large painting and Illustration studio on the fourth floor of our house but with no illustration work to do, (having finished our last book The Wordsworths for Hachette) and as someone who tends to paint landscapes on large canvases, I now find myself stuck indoors. The studio no longer appeals and it feels better being near the family. Perhaps it’s an instinct to stay together in adversity.
I find myself working in the kitchen and dining room with a portable studio of paints and brushes, focusing on small intimate interior studies. I want to celebrate the day-to-day routines that have now changed so drastically. For example I have just painted some beautiful fresh beetroots on our kitchen table with our son listening to the radio. It looks peaceful and innocent at first; until you see my son’s worried face and notice one of that one beetroot is sliced and leaking dark red onto the plate.
Another portable studio painting is an old tea caddy that is my button tin; make do and mend. I know my big top floor studio waits for me with it’s sea-views, but just now I feel the need to be downstairs with brushes and some tubes of paint squeezed out on a square of cardboard.
Like everyone else, it’s been a huge adjustment for me to get into a rhythm, and method of working from home. My studio has been in lockdown for a couple of weeks, there was a rather hasty scramble to grab the materials I needed, and to think about what I could practically make at home.
My approach has been influenced by the domesticity of the set up, but hopefully not limited by it. I found myself thinking back to a wonderful old documentary from the 80’s, about Roald Dahl’s writing set up. He wrote his books by hand, in pencil. He sat in an armchair, with a board on his lap, in a hut in the garden (which in turn was inspired by Dylan Thomas’ method).
“The Writing Hut was central to Dahl’s writing process. He would go down to the hut in the morning with a thermos of coffee, sit down and pull out his custom made writing board; the board was covered in green baize felt because he found it easy on the eyes. He would then brush off the rubber shavings from the previous day’s work with a stiff clothes brush and sharpen his pencils before starting work… He… worked with precisely six pencils, five kept in a toby jug next to his chair and one to write with.” (https://www.roalddahl.com/blog/2017/may/10-wondrous-writing-hut-facts)
These rituals in mind, I’m similarly working at a modest scale sat in an armchair, with a board on my lap, a pot of pencils and brushes by my side. My work is inextricably linked with travel, so I’m revisiting journeys I’ve made, and looking at alternative source imagery, to process through the different media I’ve chosen. I’m enjoying reconnecting with drawing, and have started making some watercolours, drawing on Hot Pressed Bockingford, and painting on a Hot Pressed Saunders Waterford block to avoid the need for stretching the paper.
I’ve been participating in Matthew Burrow’s amazing Instagram-based initiative #artistsupportpledge, whereby artists sell work for £200 or less, and then pledge to buy another artist’s work for £200 when they reach £1000 in sales themselves (search for the #artistssupportpledge hashtag on Instagram to see available works from all around the world).
It’s a great example of artists working together, and finding positive and innovative solutions in trying times.
I’m still really busy after the exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (which has sadly had to close) reprinting prints for sales online, many exhibitions are postponed or have gone on line. However artists are a great community and very resourceful and there seems to be a great sense of support and camaraderie.
Initiatives to help support each other and the vulnerable are springing up, I’m taking part in the Off Cut project set up by Suki at theprintblock.com raising money for food banks and there are many others. I love working in my studio and I live in my head most of the time so being at home hasn’t effected me too much so far, but I often think about the many in hospital and those brave people in the front line whose lives are not quite so quiet.
I have found that I’ve become more thoughtful during lockdown and alternate between being irritable and feeling blessed that I work as I do and that my family is all well. I wonder how, as artists, we are going to continue to sell our work? Will people still want art? When all this is over surely the whole economic system will have to be changed!? I love the Labour idea of a universal income for all. The global impact of this is massive. So much unemployment has and will come. As a self-representing artist I don’t yet have any galleries representing me so the decision to approach a few this year is out of my hands for a good while! But will they still be there? Like many, I’ve had a show and a painting course I was due to attend with Emily Ball at Seawhites has been understandably cancelled. Emily has swiftly begun teaching on line via You Tube. We’re all going to have to adapt, some more extremely than others. Right now, as someone who sells online on various platforms I have been busier than before; not selling art but personalised greeting cards and paper goods. Perhaps painting sales will still come. I’m also a part-time key worker at this bizarre time we’re living through so, unlike a lot of people I leave the house three times a week to work. Apart from not being able to physically see friends my life isn’t substantially different. Yet.
One thing that I’ve wanted to develop for a while now is my teaching on Skillshare. I am not sleeping deeply at the moment and was up at 4.30am writing a few notes on ideas I have for short classes which I will begin filming next week. I have tidied my studio and have glanced through the canvases and boards that were propped up in various spots sorting them all out. Old and finished work is all safely put away. All my half begun work is now stacked together so that when I am inspired I can flick through looking at the surfaces to find the best one for what I have in mind; so thankfully I have a little bit more space in my tiny studio!
I feel I need time to think about where my work will go next but I am still painting intermittently. The difference at the moment is that I am not thinking in terms of a series of work because I’m not working in earnest for a show in May. My attempts are a bit fractured and I’ve noticed that I am painting a little as I used to years ago – wanting to introduce more natural subjects and using thinner paint. This could just be a phase! I feel as though I have a window of time in which to explore again but I am going to have to be disciplined enough to do that. As someone who isn’t naturally organised or tidy this time is welcome to sort out all the things that are usually rushed or last minute – or that frustrate me. It’s a time to sort out my desktop, my receipts … all the boring but oh so necessary things! But they’re still the last things I want to do. The irony is that I fill my time no matter what and there’s the pressing matter of our garden too. Being lucky enough to have a large space it would be a crime not to try to grow some food and I have seeds at the ready. I think we all have to live in the present ideally. And I would love to be the sort of person who does daily yoga and intentionally spends time reading but it’s not happening yet! I feel a sense of urgency. I wouldn’t call it anxiety. It’s more a feeling of making the absolute most of the time I have. So that when things begin to recover I’m ready.
My next event is the Art & show in York in late October so there will come a point in early summer when I will settle to a theme for my next body of work. From what I know of other artist friends we are all very different. Some can’t paint at all. I feel full of ideas for mini projects which I am excited to be able to explore. Somehow knowing that so many people are at home creating, which is actually where I always am when I create, makes my situation more “normal” and I feel a huge camaraderie. This is a time in which we all get to really know ourselves.
The whole lockdown thing has been a seismic shift for everybody but clearly for people in the arts it has been very disruptive. Everyone has been clamouring to try and make ends meet and to find a new rhythm. In a funny way for me though, it hasn’t been too much of an upheaval, because as a painter I am used to painting in isolation most of the time anyway. My usual routine involves going to my studio, painting, returning home, repeat the next day, and quite often I don’t see anyone. The main difference is that all my teaching and lecturing has been cancelled, and my upcoming shows have either been cancelled or put on hold, which is very disappointing, but also very much understandable.
I’m still able to get to the studio, and travelling in has been the same as usual. However I do think that in these times a sense of routine, and feeling that you need to go to work is more important than ever. There isn’t much variety in our daily lives at the moment. Feeling like you’re going in and doing something and being productive, and coming out with something that you’ve created from nothing at the end of the day is hugely important. So if anything I think I’ve been more productive over the last couple of weeks than I had been before. I have found the past couple of weeks very focussing.
One difference to my work is that I’m not able to work from life at the moment, so I am having to use old photographs as a reference – landscapes, portraits…and actually as a result of that I recently put a call out on Instagram to ask people to submit photos of their most interesting landscapes for me to paint, so that I can paint from them, as I’m kind of running out of inspiration! Actually I think that is the hardest thing for me at the moment, just to have something to paint everyday. If I have something to paint, I will not lack the motivation to paint it, it’s just about having the inspiration there in the first place. The other slight issue for me is materials. There seems to be a lack of them at the moment! Everyone is painting, which is fantastic, it’s great for people to be using their time to create and rediscovering things they haven’t done for years (I’m talking about the amateur side of the market here), everyone has more time on their hands and they’re able to indulge in the activities they don’t usually have time for, which is brilliant. So I think we’re going to see, when this all ends, a resurgence in painting which I think is absolutely brilliant.
During the last few weeks, there has been very few people working in my studio complex. I think I’m the only one there at the moment which is a little bit eerie but it certainly means that I can focus when I go in, and don’t get any distractions. I hope I will be able to continue to work with this higher level of concentration and productivity in the weeks ahead. You have to turn negatives such as this situation into a positive. Put it this way: I am going to have loads of work available for sale when this is all over!
As the reality of Covid-19 started to impact on our lives, I was coming close to completion of a large painting. I’d be in the blissful flow for a few hours only to come out to remember that there was something I was grieving, because of course, as all of our normality is deconstructed and dismantled there is a very real sense of loss that is going to take time to process. Once we went into lockdown it did feel like I’d lost my ability to paint and had become emotionally separated from my practice. I’m fortunate in that I can get from home to my studio in total isolation. At first, I thought I could simply carry on as normal and during my time in the studio I could isolate myself from the chaos out in what has become an unreal world. Not so easy. As an artist, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, I’m particularly sensitive to the energy of the collective and right now it is overwhelmingly fearful and anxiety ridden, definitely not conducive to accessing the creative flow.
However, I do strongly believe artists/creators (writers, poets, musicians etc) are the keepers of light. We might not be key workers in the sense of life or death, but I do think we have a duty to bear up, not only to record, to represent this moment in history, but to keep hope alive. Humans have long since found solace in the arts, it is where our souls go for relief when the physical 3D world overwhelms us. Art burns brightest when everything feels dark and foreboding. To be lost in a painting, a moment of poetry, a piece of music, can offer enough escape from the battle to renew our strength, to remember our humanity, our solidarity and to remind us, that after all, beauty does still exist. We creators should value what we do immensely. We have a role to play in these changing times; the cultural and spiritual soul of humanity needs nurturing and healing too.
Going forward, I’m going to use this time and the energy around it to dig deep to find the courage to keep on painting, the fearlessness to experiment, to destroy, to give myself permission to make the mistakes necessary for growth. Whilst that is what we should all be doing anyway, it’s not always easy when there are deadlines to paint to. Since all that has been swept away now, there really is no better time than in this liminal space to embrace the disruption of our own practice and to see what fabulousness can grow from the rubble and then to simply keep on painting. It’s my duty to use the gift I’ve been given to help keep the lights on.
Header Image: Brita Granström’s Kitchen Studio