Becoming an artist can be a matter of fate, accident or choice. Our relationship with art is such a deeply personal thing. The seeds that later grow into a passion for creating art can be as unique and unpredictable as Life itself.
Teikn & Khoros – a watercolour illustration from my novel, The Children of Gaia
Learning to print and write felt like drawing to me and I loved it. Forming the letters well was as rewarding as drawing the standard house with flowers in front and a tree with rounded foliage growing beside it. As children we can be easily influenced by praise, criticism or disinterest. I was lucky that my efforts were generally encouraged but one incident had a special impact. I was six years old and had carefully copied a Donald Duck that was embossed onto my brother’s new plastic wallet. My Mother made a positive fuss of the drawing, showing it to my father and brother—I glowed.
An architect and engineer, my father was technically competent and it fascinated me that he could easily get down the shape of something. It seemed a kind of magic, the way a cow or horse could appear out of the paper as if it were already in there waiting to be drawn out by the touch of the pencil.
When I wanted to take art at High School however, I was not allowed. It was not a valued subject for a girl taking a ‘professional’ course. I didn’t feel too badly about it. The first two years we all had some art classes as part of the general curriculum and I’d seen enough of what kind of work was encouraged to realise I would not fit well in this programme. The exclusion from art class didn’t stop me drawing though and by fifteen I was sneaking in some quiet scribbling, when my attention should have been on the regular lesson being taught! Like most teenagers I had my idols—pretty tame by today’s tastes—like Hayley Mills (rendered here in a blue school ‘biro’) and Cliff Richard (I think it was those lovely brown eyes!)
Actress Hayley Mills in Biro
Occasional Teenage Artist
Around the age of sixteen I continued to draw in my spare time. Inspired by some pictures of Maori Rock Art I even constructed some ‘rock art’ designs of my own along the theme of earth elementals like this ‘taniwha’. Little did I realise that the realm of deva, which includes the elementals of nature would later become such a huge part of my life.
I sponged water-based paint onto the paper for the background and filled in my elemental with Indian Ink, a somewhat revered medium in those days.
The only other paintings I did in those teen years were a couple of figures from a book on how to draw cartoons that my brother and I practiced from now and then. Cartooning, I have since realised, has a great deal to offer as a training ground for illustrators. But what was it that inspired me to illustration?
Life is full of Magic . . .
You just have to find the way in. A way was created for me by an unexpected fairy godmother. Now there were lots of books in our house. My parents, with their middle-class attitude that education was the key to opportunity, were avid readers—fiction for her, technical books for him. (He took pride in claiming he had never read a novel.) We were amply supplied with picture books yet it was Miss Zillah Castle who lit the spark that was to shape my life.
For two years around age twelve and thirteen I learned piano from her. Miss Castle lived in an old, wooden two storey house painted green. The rooms were furnished with Victorian antiques and permeated with an air of elegant but comfortable good taste. Miss Castle herself was not tall, and by the time I met her, very round; her large hips and ample bosom balanced on each other like two heaving doughnuts. Her hair was a deep brown with a tinge of chestnut. It was so long she wore it plaited and pinned into two large coils one each side of her head like some ancient Viking heroine. The music room—all sage green and muted mustard browns—was at the front of the narrow house viewing the road through a tall Edwardian-style window. The room housed not only the piano but Miss Castle’s museum of musical instruments including a harpsichord whose age-coloured keys I was allowed to play now and then.
If my piano lesson went well and I had obviously practiced, Miss Castle, with some kind of keen instinct, would reward me with a visit to the kitchen where there were two large wooden dressers. One housed an extensive collection of Willow Pattern China. The other protected a display of mint condition, beautifully illustrated children’s books standing partly open behind glass doors. She would take one down to show me, handling the books with obvious love and reverence, sending the message that here was something precious indeed. The beauty of the books and her clear joy in that beauty stirred something in me—a seed that sprouted from the well prepared, fertile ground of my upbringing.
A Quality of Love
What was that certain quality of energy I felt in Miss Castle’s kitchen parlour? In art what some love, others hate or at least intensely dislike. One of the hardest lessons we have to learn as budding artists or writers is that not everyone is going to like our stuff, no matter how ‘good’ it might be. But is it possible to feel that magic of artistic passion that flows intuitively from the soul of the artist into their work, even if the form of the art is not to our taste? I believe it is, if we are open to it.
Mentors are very important in our lives even if they are not recognised as such. It was only a few years ago that I realised it was Miss Castle, who doubtless had no hope whatsoever for my musical future, that triggered my deep desire to create beautiful picture books. I can still, more than half a century later, recall the feeling of that awakening. I felt I had come ‘home’. When I began The Children of Gaia, it did not occur to me that it should not be illustrated. It seemed perfectly natural and right that grownups could still delight in the magic of a story with pictures.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here so let’s back track a bit.
University and marriage in my late teens were followed by motherhood in my early twenties. Whatever creative energy was left over went into sewing clothes for myself and sometimes for our two little boys, making craft objects for community fundraising events and establishing a couple of homes. The second included a major rebuild.
Suddenly, it seemed, I was thirty-one years old. Both our sons were in school and it was time to decide my long term direction. A local high school had asked me to teach social studies. I did what we are usually advised to do at such points in life— consider our options. So I sat at the dining table and made a list of my qualifications—private secretary, an education major, setting up and running community groups—it all looked very logical but it felt wrong. I was missing something. So I tried another tack and asked myself, ‘When I’m sixty-five, what am I going to regret the most if I don’t do it?’ The answer was instant and obvious—Art.
Clearly I had always loved to draw but had done very little painting so I researched library books. All of them said that though it was more difficult to learn, watercolour provided the best training. I enrolled in the local Art Society and found myself the youngest by about thirty years! They were kind, inclusive and had a wonderful watercolour teacher. Anita Gaskin was a graduate of one of New Zealand’s top art schools back when the subject was classically taught, so the grounding she gave me was excellent.
An early watercolour painted under Anita Gaskin’s tuition.
I discovered that painting nature was as much a delight as drawing it.
Among the techniques Anita taught were granulated washes and how to paint white objects.
After I’d learned to do pictures of apples for the first week or two she pointed out the window to a tree I’d decided to paint and said that the leaves were a ‘blue green’. I didn’t have the faintest idea what she meant or how to get that colour from my few tubes of Windsor & Newton paints.
The moral of this story? Keep going, even if doing art seems confusing and unlearnable at first. One day you’ll realise you can pretty much mix any colour you want. It’s amazing how easy something becomes when we eventually acquire the skill!
At this time, we were living in a pleasant coastal town an hour north of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. The district was a haven for artists, potters and sculptors. These were accomplished professionals who were generous, supportive and sharing of their knowledge and experience with this newbe. Before long my work was being accepted by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and by commercial galleries.
From Paint to Porcelain
Early in the 1980s I spent a weekend with long time sculptor friend, Carol Johns. She offered me a piece of clay and urged me to ‘have a go’. I was shocked at how both easy and difficult it was. Clearly, I needed training. I bought books on anatomy for artists, which were helpful but bored me witless. So I looked around for a class and over the next four years, drove an hour each way to the city for weekly life drawing at Wellington High School’s evening Community Institute. I was hooked!
Soon, established artists in my area welcomed me into their life drawing group, expanding my horizons yet again. During this time I branched out from watercolour and drawing to produce a solo exhibition of porcelain sculptures and a couple of bronzes.
If you’re a professional and have keen, budding artists in your area, do welcome them into your inner circles. They usually deserve it!
My first attempt at sculpture!
With Life Drawing classes improvement was rapid.
It had always been my intention to work with oil paints but having discovered watercolour I found there was so much to learn and experiment with in this versatile medium it was sixteen years before I got around to doing an oil painting.
Creating The Children of Gaia further honed my art and at last I was following the impulse that began when Miss Castle shared her love of illustrated books.
In 1995 I illustrated Once in a Blue Moon, a delightful children’s story by Julie Leibrich (Random House NZ Ltd). An Australian woman later confided that her seventeen year old daughter loved it so much she often read it at bedtime. The things we love as children are sometimes clues as to what connects us with our soul and one of the challenges of adulthood is to keep healthy doses of that soul magic in our lives, to remind us who we are at our core.
Taking a break.
In January 2008 disaster struck. I stepped on a patch of ice in Scotland and slipped. As the excruciating pain hit my right wrist I thought, “Oh no! It’s my painting hand, my drawing hand, my everything hand! Ironically, I’d only just got back to art after a long absence. I had just completed Elements of Autumn, using Derwent Tinted Charcoal pencils, a picture which led this prominent UK company to invite me to apply become a registered artist with them and a request that they have the picture on their website. It was there for a few years. My portfolio application was successful too!
Elements of Autumn
It never occurred to me that I might wind up teaching others about art. In 2007 we were staying at Beaconstone Lodge, our favourite traveler’s retreat on the stunning, rugged West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Also staying there was a beautiful young woman from Israel who was an artist with the Israeli Navy. Although her English wasn’t up to reading my recently published The Children of Gaia, Ortal had fallen in love with the pictures. As we were leaving she asked if I could tell her how I did my art. I was stumped and spent the next ten or fifteen minutes scrambling to think of ways to describe what I thought she wanted to know.
As we drove away I realised ‘doing my art’ was actually a subject I knew a good deal about. The idea was seeded for sharing that acquired knowledge and skill with others. I just let it percolate away for a good while.
A year of traveling and then complications from the broken wrist robbed me of art for a while longer but gave me time to think about Ortal’s question and early in 2009 I ran my first ‘The Heart of YOUR Art workshop’ to help both beginner and established artists raise the quality of their work and improve and expand their skill set.
I enjoy sharing in the form of workshops. Art-wise, I have recently added an Illustration Workshop to give back what I’ve learned on that long and on-going journey.