Total Art Soul - for artists

" I can explain it for you, but I can't understand it for you "
Tags >> journey

Generally I keep Friday’s open for local issues, appointments and opportunities to meet with interesting and creative people. This was one of my goals for 2011; to spend more time doing the things I love the most. Fridays have become my reading, writing, painting and meeting day and my diary pages are reflecting that, so far, I am on track. 

Last Friday I pencilled in a coffee date with Paul Stillwell a portrait artist who works out of his home studio in Poole Dorset. A mutual friend Bob Chivers, an architect and artist living in Hampshire, had introduced me to Paul’s work. At 10am promptly I rang the doorbell to Paul's apartment and was rewarded by the buzz of the security lock and the gate swinging open. A warm handshake and a smile greeted me at the door to the apartment and soon the kettle was boiling and tea was being poured.

Paul is a quietly spoken man with a gentle spirit and a soft manner. He is laid back as you would generally expect from a creative mind but with a sharp twinkle in his eye and a good sense of humour. It was not too long before we were talking about his work, his life and the adventures that the love he has for his work has embarked him on.

The walls of his studio apartment are hung with what Paul calls his “best pieces”, portraits of celebrities, each signed by the celb and a few with a short message. I was immediately struck by the relationship Paul has with each portrait and the way he enjoys reliving the experience of painting the piece and the associated journey to get it signed.

Paul related a number of stories about the obstacles he encounters getting within range of a celb and the of the smoke and mirror tactics he has had to employ to connect with the person. To say that he has the tenacity of a British Bulldog is an understatement, travelling great distances, standing around for hours, dealing with the celebrity security cordons and over protective publicists are only a few of the hurdles he had to clear.

Paul’s rewards for his tenacity and commitment have however paid off and on the walls hang the signed portraits of Robert De Nero, Al Pacino, Jennifer Lopez, Johnny Depp, to name a few and I believe, his greatest achievement, the Dali Lama. These are more than simply signed portraits, they are milestones, milestones which are an important part of Paul’s personal journey, not only as an artist but also as someone exploring the spiritual nature and relationship between an artist and a subject.

I view and engage with a great many artists and their work but have always had a special regard for portrait artists. Having attempted portrait painting on several occasions myself and having downed my brushes in unfulfilled frustration, I was able to really appreciate Paul’s work. The one great quality of his work, which was immediately obvious to me, is Paul’s ability to capture “the attitude” of his subjects. Paul spoke of how the portrait of Robert De Nero defied his attempts to capture Mr De Nero’s subtle and almost secretive nature. After much effort Paul had one of those “eureka moments” when suddenly, after a few small brush strokes to the subtle curve in the subjects mouth, there before his eyes, emerged the depth he needed to capture the spirit of the man.

Our visit could have lasted much longer but I had already taken up two hours of Paul’s day. We had covered so many topics in our time together; painting, people and the nature of our journeys as artists. We had touched on the practical, the material and the spiritual. We had spoken about the demands that creativity makes on our lives and the price we willingly pay to honour the call to expression. We spoke about the commercial value of Paul’s work and his road to recognition as a popular artist. We discussed successful marketing and the compromises an artist has to consider in the quest for commercial retail status. Paul currently exhibits his work in galleries and has held a few small exhibitions that have produced a number of commissions.

As we shook hands and I departed from Paul, his studio apartment and the company of his portraits, I couldn’t help feeling like I had got to know all three in a rather profound and special way.  I intend to keep a close eye on Paul and his work and look forward to another inspiring Friday’s visit to this gifted young man and his inspiring work and ongoing story.


A Studio Community

Posted by: thornwoodstudio


It seems that the creative potential in each one of us is ignited when the combination of ideas and restless energy reaches critical mass and we spontaneously ignite into expression. At flash point we head for our studio’s, overflowing with the desire to commit it all to canvas before the image fades and the colours disperse in our minds eye.


Today is such a day and a simple walk into a local shopping precinct to enjoy a casual cup of coffee while watching the colours and the movements in the public open spaces was all I needed to combust. It also helps that the temperature today is comfortable enough to leave the studio door open, inviting the garden light and the summer colours and energy to join me.


I have been preparing for a number of pieces which I have wanted to paint for a while. Perhaps it is this amazing English light and the crisp clear colour I am experiencing which has sparked the tinder today.


Painting is a solitary experience for me. Not that I would choose it any other way and nor do I find the solitude a lonely experience. It is in such a place that I begin to find companionship in inanimate objects. I have never discussed this with other artists but wonder how many other creative souls experience the same state of mind when engaging with their brushes, paints and canvas. Like many studios, mine is filled with all the materials, tools and substances you would expect in an artists intellectual pantry; it has its own unique character, smell and sprit.


My studio, while being is a very personal place is not a private one and enjoys company and hosting friends. The space is like me, turned inside out with my ideas, passions, memories and thought on view for all to see. The items and objects which make up the sum total of everything that occupy the space represents and showcases much of who and what I have become. There’s my favourite set of brushes, standing in a Talisker Single Malt whiskey box, a memento from a memorable visit with an old friend. There’s photo’s of friends, family and images which have always been special to me. Stuck in the corner of a frame are the long white teeth of two thorns from a Mimosa Tree from where Thornwood Studio derives its name. I grew up with these trees on our farm in South Africa; their aromatic wood is one of the primary sources of heat for cooking the finest mutton chops in the Eastern Cape as well as heating our large old homesteads in the winter. Fixed to the studio’s low ceiling hangs a large shofar made from a Kudu horn; I sound this horn from time to time and love its deep resonating moan. Books, materials and music CD’s punctuate tops of shelves and ends of tables, each item having its own familiar place, like some local resident who is always to be found at their favourite table at a street café. 


As I unlock the door each day it’s like walking into a room full of friends and acquaintances. I have bright happy friends like the old music centre which is a constant entertainer and source gossip; there’s the family of coloured antique bottles on the window ledge and the small glass crystals which dance their rainbow light around the walls when the sun shifts and animates the space. I have a few really  grumpy friends too, such as the bad tempered electric pencil sharpener who, from time to time, will suddenly grab a delicate pencil and in a hot temper will trash the wood and the graphite. I keep the old boy simply because on better days, when his mood is not so sour, he sharpens like a real pro. I also have an old hairdresser’s swivel stool which has a stubborn temperament and refuses to ever adjust to the height I need. One of my hardest working studio comrades is my faithful dehumidifier, a trusty mate who keeps our studio home free of dampness during the long cold, wet winter months. He never ceases to produce the clearest distilled water which I bottle and store to use with my watercolours.   


The rag-tag bits and piece of furniture which house the whole studio community are a motley bunch of tramps and vagabonds. Characters who I have personally saved from the death rows of countless scrap yards or the terminal sentences handed down by people making room for new furniture. Each character in my studio remains loyal and grateful for the reprieve they have received from certain destruction, happy in their redemption and committed to pledge allegiance to the cause.


So as I close this post, it is, to this inanimate community that I must now head as they await instruction on how to aid or inspire me with my next creation or project. What I do know for sure, is that as soon as they hear the key turn in the studio door they will quickly assume their places and be ready for duty and to welcome me back with the greeting, “Long live our noble artist, God save the artist”   


Posted August 2, 2010 by thornwoodstudio
Evolving, Journey, Travel
Tags: Colours, Home, Journey, Safari, ThornwoodStudio, Travel

My studio is quiet, almost as if it is waiting, knowing that I going away.

A good friend of mine used to have a dog that was very good at reading the signs. It seemed to know when preparations were being made and the family was getting ready for a vacation. It would sit silent, head down, and perform the saddest portrayal of rejection, worthy of an Oscar for a tragic character from a Shakespearian production.

That’s how my studio feels tonight as I gather and select the materials for my trip to South Africa. I find it amazing how this space, Thornwood Studio, has taken on a character, a personality, an almost human nature. Of course I tell myself that it is simply a room, a pre-fabricated room full of paint, canvas, bottles, brushes, books and music…..damn it, it’s my studio and an extension of me…that’s why it feels almost human; it’s a part of me and it knows it’s not going to Africa with me.

I have selected, for this trip, 12 fine pieces of watercolour paper, my, as yet unused Windsor Newton watercolour Travel set and a very limited selection of brushes, pens and watercolour pencils. I have limited space so am travelling light.

It is four years since I was last in South Africa, a land seldom far from my thoughts and longing. I have lived in England for fifteen years and love this beautiful land and the opportunity it has afforded my family and me; yet always there is this distant voice, almost like the sound of a drum beat in the night which draws my attention south and to the constellation of The Southern Cross. To deep, dark, velvety African nights enjoyed under the Milky Way and in the company of the hot crackling Thornwood fires from where my studio derives its name.  

My visit is mostly for family reasons; firstly I must deliver the ashes of my late cousin to those who will inter them in the family burial grounds at the foot of nTaba Temba a mountain in the Eastern Cape. Then I must acquaint my twelve-year-old daughter, who was born in the UK, and has little knowledge of her roots in Africa, with her family history. She will learn of her grand parents and ancestors and how they established themselves and prospered in the area known as Queenstown, a settler town named after Queen Victoria. She will tread the paths I once ran on as a little boy and she will inhale the sights, sounds and smells that will, in time to come, become the drum beat which will draw her back on her own pilgrimages and towards her own longings.

When we have visited all the sights, left our footprints on ancestral land and enjoyed the reunion of family and friends, I shall steal-away and rekindle deep memories of my own. If the spirit is willing, the flesh strong and the eye true then the twelve watercolour papers will return to England, having captured something of the colours of my memories, the scenes and the emotions of what was once my life in Africa.

Wish me well everyone and pray for creativity, vision and interpretation. That my African trip would truly be a safari of the spirit and that I would return to Thornwood Studio with tales to tell to my canvases, colours to relate to my palate and instructions to give to my brushes.   

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