Hello folks. No words today. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve just added an artwork gallery to this site. There are few previews below, and you can drop over and see many more at the all new Artwork Gallery.
Interview with Kate Forsyth
Hello folks. Just a quick note to point you to the blog of the wonderful Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, The Impossible Quest series, and much more. She interviewed me recently, about my artwork, process and inspiration, and posted that and some of my work a few days ago. Kate is an incredible and prolific writer, working with fairy tales and historical fiction, so it was a great privilege to talk to her about my own small place in the fairy tale genre.
If you scroll right to the bottom of her post, you’ll find my most recent work, which I recently teased here on this blog here.
So, head on over, and say hi to the lovely Kate while you’re there.
Fairy Tales and Narrative Structure
As you all know, I’m working on a project about the lost strong girls of fairy tales. The project involves searching out old tales with strong female protagonists, and illustrating them with my artwork. Another aspect of the project, and a part I’ve only just begun working on, is the rewriting of some of the tales. I tossed up whether to leave them as they were, or re-write, for a long time. I like the idea of keeping them as they are, in their own culture context. Unfortunately the cultural context is all over the place. Some were recorded in the 1700s, some early last century. All were originally taken from the oral tradition, removed from their true context anyway, as a story told in the moment; to a group of listeners, a child caught wandering to close to the woods, around the dying embers of a fire. The storyteller was the holder of these stories, a role vastly different to the author. A storyteller brings stories into everyday life, an author sweeps you away from it. Many of the stories were rewritten several times over several generations, to fit the fashion and morals of the time. Some stories I’ve found are on webpages that look like they haven’t been updated since 1998; without references, and with no mention of whether the story is taken directly from an old (and out of copyright) collection, or written in 1998 by the owner of the website, and therefore very much in copyright.
All of this has lead me to a point where I feel, I think, that I’d like to start afresh; to take the framework of the stories and weave my own narrative between the bones. One, because it feels like it will be a more cohesive book; two, because I want children to enjoy reading them (some of the stories are pretty hard to wade through, or written for a vastly different era); and three, because it’s fun! Really fun.
It has also got me thinking about things like narrative structure, all that cultural context (as above), and the difference it writing between eras. When I write fiction, I usually write short stories. That’s the genre I’m most comfortable in, so to me it’s important to frame my ‘new’ fairy tales within the appropriate constructs of short story. Not in all cases, but often, fairy tales go something like “Intro to characters, moral supposition, this happened, then this happened, then this, the bad people die, the good ones get married and/or untold riches, moral conclusion, everyone live happily ever after”. That, you cannot get away with in a contemporary short story. Readers want to know what characters are feeling, and why they are feeling it; they need to be shown and not told, and they don’t want to see everything laid out in black and white. The best short story, to me anyway, is made up of a whole lot of shades of grey. But not, ahem, fifty.
I feel I’m going to have a whole lot more to say about all of the above, but for now I’m still grasping for ideas, writing, and thinking about writing, and frankly, having a lovely time.
A Tender Beginning: or, why I’m not showing you my new artworks (yet)
After talking and blogging and social media-ing about fairy tales and art for a while, I’m getting back into creating new work. I have a couple exhibitions coming up and a book project waiting for me to get back on board, which means I often begin my day like this:
Not shown: strong black coffee, slice of vegemite toast, existential angst. It’s rare for a photographer to start with a blank canvas. Though, this isn’t technically the beginning of the process for me. I have already photographed the many separate elements and created the silhouettes I need. But it is the beginning of the final artwork. I’ve spoken before about how I create the silhouettes. They are all sitting in the background waiting to be added. If you look closely, you can see some of the file tabs already open behind that blank page.
I’m not sure if I even feel like a photographer at this point. The creation of the final image is a tentative process of layering, pushing and moulding the work into life. Something like painting, sculpting and kindergarten cut-and-pasting all in one.
I usually begin with the silhouettes against a white background, so I can see where they are fitting together, and to make sure I’m not leaving stray bits and pieces when I’m erasing the elements I don’t need. Sometimes, if the background is integral to where the silhouettes are placed, I’ll have it in place, and toggle it on and off when needed. Often, if the background is there simply for atmosphere, I won’t even know what image I’ll use until everything else is in place. Whenever a new layer is pasted in, I alter its blending mode if needed. ‘Multiply’ is wonderful for placing silhouettes with residual tonal detail, as it settles them into the images in a softer way than a direct overlay. They are then scaled and flipped if necessary with the Transform function. (Apologies to those who have no idea what I’m talking about – I’ll be brief I promise). The ‘Liquify’ tool is my friend if slight adjustments are needed to the shape of a silhouette – longer hair, fabric not flowing smoothly, a tree branch not quite reaching the right way. All those layers start to add up, especially when trying alternatives of the same elements and adding multiple adjustment layers. It’s not unusual for the image file to gather 50+ layers and start tipping 3GB in size.
When everything is in place, then begins the long process of standing back, squinting, head tilting and stepping back in to move something three pixels to the left, or dodge and burn parts of the background, or resize a leaf fourteen times, a pixel at a time, before it looks right. The process of tweaking takes at least as long as putting the image together, usually longer. It’s a process of highlighting the important bits, balancing out the composition and making that frankenstein of an image look like a cohesive whole.
The final piece feels raw and still made up of its separate pieces. It is not yet the sum of its parts; a fragile thing, part newborn baby, part freakish conglomeration of arms and legs and liver and lungs, stitched with careful threads. I look at it and see the separate parts that make it; can’t see the forest for the trees. At this point I try to walk away and let it settle for a day, but usually I can’t help peeking in; a nervous new mother checking on a peacefully sleeping baby. I want to show everyone, to see if they see it like I do, but I feel protective of it too. It needs time to grow into itself, to heal from its stitches and become whole. In reality it’s sitting here on the hard drive, a collection of code, but in my mind it’s coming to life. It was a thing that didn’t exist, and now it does. It belongs in the world, but not yet ready to face it.
I’d love to hear your feelings about the creative process, knowing when something is ‘finished’, and letting go.
Magical Shadows: The technique behind my silhouettes
I recently had a studio session with my daughters and one of their friends to create some new silhouettes for future artworks, and thought I share the process with you. As I mentioned earlier, my works are completely photographic, and made up of many layers, which means photographing every element individually. The figures are the most fun. The kids love the chance to leap around and ham it up in from the camera, while I beg them to stay within the realms of the backdrop, or yell ‘Argh, I just cut off your foot!’ when I miss-frame an airborne child.
The studio set up is thus: white backdrop, kept as (ahem) wrinkle free as possible to avoid shadows that can make it harder to isolate the figure later. I light the backdrop with one or two studio flash units, and hook up the camera with either a long lead or slave. The slave is simply a wireless trigger for the flash units. The subject is then given strict direction on where they need to be when the camera is fired – in front of the lights, so no light falls on them (unlit subject + brightly lit background = silhouette!), but still on the white sheet, and between ‘here’ and ‘here’ to keep the backdrop behind them. We usually begin with some ‘crazy’ shots to get them settled into being photographed, then I direct the images I know I need. I shoot a lot of frames, and also leave a lot to chance. The surprises are often the most exciting.
One of the characters I needed for a future image is the Baba Yaga, witch of the forest. Here’s my eldest daughter Mari with my cardigan over her head. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be allowed to dress her up, but I’m enjoying it while I can. Note the lit background and (almost) totally unlit figure.
I import the image into Photoshop, select the figure and tidy up the outline with the ‘refine edge’ tool. I then create a new black layer and use the selection to copy and paste the silhouette into a new image file. Sometimes, if I want to keep a little bit of tonal detail, like light glowing through a dress or a glint of golden hair, I’ll select the image and darken most of it down to black, keeping the details I need. In this case, the Baba Yaga is all silhouette.
Then begins the search for a background. I have a stockpile of background images that I shoot whenever we go on holiday, or out for a walk with the camera. Or, often just around the back yard. Most are close-ups with a shallow depth of field. This gives me a few details, but leaves most of the image as a soft backdrop for the detailed silhouettes I lay over the top.
The image below is not a final artwork, but a test for how the silhouette works over a background. I often make small sample images to gather elements before compiling a final piece.
I love the magic you can weave in photography by removing detail and context in an image. Suddenly my daughters can fly, fall through space like Alice in Wonderland, and be whoever they want to be. Though of course, they can already do that…
Brave Girls of Fairy Tales
For those new to my work, I thought I’d give you a brief introduction into what I do. My recent artwork has been focussed strongly on strong girls and women in fairy tales.
They may be Vasilisa who outwitted the Baba Yaga and her own wicked sisters, the Scottish single mother who rescued her son from the faery-like Sidh, the Japanese daughter of the Moon who refused an earthly marriage, the African Moremi who questioned her people’s blind faith in those disguised as gods and ventured alone into an enemy town. They are the women who acted bravely and independently within a male dominated society, and those who ruled their own. They are the girls who survived and prospered because of their own bravery, kindness and wisdom. They are the characters and protagonists who all but disappeared in the face of the Victorian era’s dictates on the female place in society. They are the girls and women who deserve to have their stories brought back to new readers.
The advent of the fairy tale’s golden age in the late 19th and early 20th Century was a boon for the cultural spread of traditional stories, and for fairy tales as we know them today, but a great loss for the representation of girls and women in those tales. The imposition of Victorian values onto the stories meant that any female character with a whiff of independence or initiative was rewritten, or written out, completely. My hope is to bring those protagonists back to light.
A Mother’s Gift I & II were created as illustrations for an old Gaelic fairy tale; The Stolen Bairn and the Sidhe. The story evokes the power of a mother’s love, in the telling of a woman who bribes her baby back from the fairies who have taken him, thinking him an orphan. She makes a harp from driftwood and bones, and strings it with her own hair, and a blanket woven also from her hair. As they were given of herself and made with a mother’s love, the blanket is the softest ever felt, and the harp the sweetest sounding. The fairies can’t resist her gifts, and she is reunited with her baby boy.
When not directly interpreting fairy tales, I often still use them as inspiration, as in Wild Swans below.
All of my work is created through the medium of photography. I photograph each element of the image separately, then digitally manipulate and montage them together. In the case of A Mother’s Gilft I & II, about twelve individual photographs were used for each image. Many of my other images have used upwards of fifty. I will talk further about my process in a future post.
If you’d like to see more of my work, you can visit my website here, and watch the short video below.