Last week I did something I haven’t done for a very long time. On the invitation of a friend, I set everything aside for five days to sit by a big window and paint.
It was hard not to feel guilty at first. Though I am artistic by nature, I have struggled a lot to feel I am justified to spend time on art in my life. It’s funny – somehow whenever I sit down to create something I have in the back of my mind, an image of all those friends and family who are hastily commuting to work, slogging away at all kinds of things – I feel that I should be doing that too…as if to sit and paint, write or draw is a luxury one cannot afford.
Well – I digress. Perhaps in times of dire need, yes, there may be little time for art. But I don’t believe that deep down.
Anyway – I was very grateful to have this time. Personal circumstances in my life had me feeling a little lost and bewildered, and to sit down with a teacher and create was soothing and inspiring on every level.
The course for the week was in Indian miniature painting in the Kangra style. I have to say it’s a genre of art I had become a bit weary of. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many naff prints or stale compositions over the years. But the course really opened my eyes to how masterful a form it is.
Our tutor was a beautiful Spanish lady; Dr. Susana Marin – who had deeply studied this form for many years, including for her PhD at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts. I was all raring to go with ideas for full on paintings, and had sent her some of them in advance. On our first day I was shocked to hear her firm recommendation that we only take on one figure, or a simple nature scene. I couldn’t imagine how that could stretch over five days, but I was due a real lesson.
Before laying a pencil or brush on paper, we chose our compositions. I chose to paint Lord Krishna sitting cross legged playing his flute. It looked simple enough! After freehand copying from a sample image, Susana guided us to note the various subtleties about the Kangra style in terms of facial features. She ably led us to notice things I never had before – for instance, that the traditionally painted eye, when turned on its side, should look like a slightly blossomed lotus bud, with the eyelid forming a one side petal, and the ‘lower lid’ a second petal.
After this we used tracing paper and powdered mineral pigment to transfer our drawings onto the paper we would paint on. The paper she brought for us was thick, smooth, and over 100 years old! It had Urdu writing in black ink all over the back, and mine had a stamp saying ‘Jaipur 1905’. She explained that paper of this type was originally used for bookkeeping records – and since it is no longer made in India, old books of it are now commonly recycled for painting.
We outlined our drawings using an extremely fine squirrel-tail hair brush – unique to this painting style. The tip is capable of making eyelash thin lines – finer than any pen or pencil. Needless to say some practice was required, and Susana taught us some interesting exercises, painting spirals, mango shapes and undulating lines to get used to the movement.
Next we were ready to start preparing the pigments. Many of these are made from natural sources, such as the indigo plant, and crushed minerals. Each colour was placed in powder form on a special glass plate, and mixed with a few drops of gum arabic to bind it, and water. It then had to be ground with a special glass mortar for a long time. It was heavy work and we built up muscle as we watched the vivid, brilliant colours come to life.
When the paints were ready, we could start applying colour.
I was very unsure at this point as to how he would be taking shape. Also, to apply the pigment, we had to paint over all our painstakingly drawn lines…we began to realise that drawing and re-drawing is part of the process – internalising the lines of the final image as you go so that they become second nature. Susana explained that great masters paint straight onto the paper, without first sketching anything out…
Our work station-home for the week…
Susana explaining the subtle details about the facial features. You can see her sample sketches in the foreground.
After the base colour I had to outline everything in a slightly darker tone. At this point I was starting to notice lots of niggly things I was not happy with in my original drawing…oh well – there was no turning back now.
Line and shading practice with the squirrel brush, alongside developing Krishna. As you can see I also had to let loose and draw some things when all the delicate brush movements got too much for me.
Evolution…at this point I had started to shade Krishna’s cloth and body. The shading process – unlike shading with watercolour which may be as simple as the swipe of a brush in a slightly darker shade; required extreme patience. The squirrel brush would be dipped in a darker tone and then dried off til there was almost no colour or moisture on the brush. Then we had to very, very gently draw it over the area to be shaded – with the soft precision of a surgeon (it felt like!). This was probably the most difficult part to get right for me. I had to correct my mistakes many times and start again – in this image you can that the shaded line around Krishna’s body is very dark. Susana would very sweetly, but firmly tell me I had to paint it over and try once more.
The shading was starting to come, but I was unhappy with aspects of the face. The eye suddenly looked huge and too close to the edge of the face, and we had to do a bit of trickery to correct a pouting bottom lip which had evolved by accident. Still…he was coming….it began to get exciting. I really feel when painting devotional images that Krishna, or whoever is being painted, reveals themselves – if they want to. If they don’t want to…well…you just have to accept it.
Susana taught us techniques in ornamenting the figure – garlands, necklaces, gems and pearls all had a specific method to be learnt. We also started the process of making gold pigment to apply – by crushing 24 carat gold leaves in a bowl with water and gum arabic. That process alone took two days before the mixture was ready to be applied. Just another way that I felt the artform taught patience and perseverance, and above all – to SLOW down.
Susana is a brilliant teacher – passionate about her subject, extremely refined in her own technique and patient enough to guide beginners. She was a constant source of interesting information and a watchful eye over our every step. I really relished this experience since I don’t really have any teacher in the arts these days – my days of dance and music lessons seem like a lifetime ago – so it felt so wonderful to again be connected in that relationship, even for a short time.
The details proved the most relishable part – painting the ornaments was like a meditation in decorating Sri Krishna, and painting the gold on was extra special too. I decided at the last minute that I didn’t want to have Krishna without his signature peacock feathers, so I added them in too. The painting was completed with a monochromatic background, painted in walnut ink – I liked the contrast, and how this made Krishna stand out even more. Though it looks kind of contemporary, the idea came from an old painting Susana showed me, where the exact same thing had been done.
Lastly I remembered my revered spiritual grandfather’s statement that Krishna is never seen to be alone – he is the most attractive and his friends are never far away. So I added in a cow, and some sweet little birds too.
Complete! The name of the painting felt natural – ‘Tota Gopinath’ – after the beloved deity that sits in the same pose in Jagannath Puri, India. This deity is very special for so many reasons, and I was fortunate enough to stay nearby his temple this year in January for many days. It was a moving experience for me, and I think about him often. I’ve included a rare image of him just below these images of my final painting. Hope you like it…