Spilling over the edges

Helen White www.helenwhite.org

Helen White www.helenwhite.org

The preoccupation I have with “flow” and with softening things, with over-spilling edges and boundaries and with water as a healing aspect or as expression of the sacred feminine was bound to come up in my painting sooner or later and, this autumn, emerged as a series of waterfall studies. Inspired by my two recent trips to the Brecon region of Wales (yes, I fell in love with the place so much I had to visit twice), the Moving Water series is a collection of five oil on canvas paintings, three quite bijou and two somewhat larger, exploring different facets of the idea of “waterfall”; each of which could just, as easily, be said to describe aspects of the feminine.

Helen White www.helenwhite.orgWhether demure seeming and withdrawn, like a magical portal to another world or brazen and relentless, these paintings also seek to express something that is universal about water and that is its flux, its flow, its adaptability, its softening and concessionary aspect. It moves and sculpts the earth (quite literally)…and, yes, making things happen in its own formidable way…yet it would always rather go around the obstacle than create the stand-off or impasse that becomes the hard conflict. The beauty and gentle power of falling water speaks for itself; anything that holds that much light, anchoring it to the earth, is an agent of radiant momentum and the most uplifting, dynamic kind of enlightenment, bringing this aspect in to the world by enchanting, relating to and engaging with others. This, to me, is the feminine aspect at work in the world.

The three smaller canvases have been presented under glass, which is new for me; adding a fresh, contemporary and uncluttered foil to all the movement going on within the artwork. All of them work together as a series or hung individually given no two are even nearly the same; testament to the many complex faces of the feminine (and these are just a few of her expressions) so I suspect this may be a subject I return to fairly soon. Certainly, “spilling over hard edges” and “soft power” are themes I anticipate playing with some more in paint as I explore its very real potential in life itself.

You can see all waterfall paintings in much more detail under the “recent artwork” heading on my website www.helenwhite.org



RELATED: These are just a couple of related posts about waterfalls (there are more) on my website Spinning the Light:

A longing for waterfalls

The Lady Falls…and then she stands back up again




(We’re all a) work in progress


I’ve noticed how my growing preparedness to share work in progress is like a “coming out process”. Those raw, progressional shots that I’ve started putting up in social media are like a form of self-exposure by degrees since they require of me that I overcome some deeply-stuck mindsets of old.

These include a deep insecurity around sharing what is not “perfect”, not completely “done” to my most exacting standards, showing an un-pristine face to the world.  Its like coming out of hiding, making oneself vulnerable, going out without make-up. It can trigger some interesting layers of reluctance. The perfectionism that has ruled my life like a tartar has been rocked from its throne and I have joined the more playful ranks of the self-accepting mortals to whom such exacting standards are not the great cross they have opted to bear. Its been liberating and humanising to step into this domain; allowing me to laugh at myself (just a little) for taking things far too seriously.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve become less paranoid about the anticipated critique, the second-guess and the judgement. Have stopped taunting myself with tangly monologues such as “they might think that I think that this is better than it currently is” or “what if they think this is the best I can do?” I’ve had to get over that my audience might not have a clue where I’m going with something and yet its alright for me not to divulge that until I’m completely ready, on my terms. I’ve stopped holding my breath for the finish point like the whole process of getting there is a race to get that pristine “face” out there all the sooner. I’ve allowed the imperfections to settle in for longer and become part of the process, to feed into the finished picture rather than always on a seek and destroy mission that rushes to eliminate flaws before somebody sees them. I’ve uncovered an irrational fear that people will question my methods, my order of doing things; that my un-taught, ham-fisted processes will come under fire and label me an imposter in the tightly knit art world. I’ve had to get over a deep-running fear of the mess in the process; the exposé of the experimental; the need to caption everything with “I know this doesn’t quite work yet but I intend to change it some more…” I’ve made the evolution more important than the idea of completion; perhaps the biggest evolution of them all!

Just putting out there and out there and out there in the raw has taught me to accept my own perpetual “work in progress” state of being; the never finished aspect of who I am and the acceptability, the honesty and the commonalty of that. There’s a power in that and such a relief; a profound moment of letting go, like bands of muscle go soft and a layer of armoury falls away. I’m now learning to apply it across all aspects of life.

The alchemy of art


A few weeks ago I sold a painting that I considered “finished”, not only in that the paint was long dry but because its fiery subject felt done with; it had burned itself out for me. This was a sunset landscape full of light-infused poppies (harking back to the “old” era of bloodshed and sacrifice symbolised by the familiar red poppies of remembrance) now softened into radiant blush-white hues of love and healing and I had processed what I had to say through it in November 2014 at a time of year when red poppies can be seen everywhere in our culture. I had visualised a new reality, a softened landscape, that felt transformational and I had unleashed it in paint.

In fact I so knew I had done what needed to be done, had expressed what was in me to be said, that I really wanted the painting to sell now so that a line could be drawn under it. I had shared what was my own truth; hard won through years of processing through old traumas and learning that I needed to reinvent these as the building blocks of a different landscape in order to heal. For a long time, this canvas had resisted finding a new home (for all it had been popularly received when exhibited in three galleries over the next two years) so when it finally sold on the exact two-year anniversary of when I had finished it, coincidentally to be delivered the day before the very cultural landmark of 11/11 that inspired it, I really sat up and noticed.


When the address that it was to be delivered to turned out to be a short distance from the most southerly point of a north-south leyline I have been having some powerful epiphanies upon this year, I sat up even straighter, knowing its message of healing and transformation was now being plugged into the broader energetic grid for others to experience; taking it out of my personal domain in exchange for this final wink of synchronicity. In other words, it was time for it to move on and it had naturally found its rightful place. I felt the absolute significance of this through the truism of how many of my artworks have continued their own journeys in ways that feel deeply significant to me even after I have finished painting them; not unlike the way we send our offspring out into the world and they are both the continuance of us and their own  unique thread, working as one with us upon some of our pervading themes even long after we have watched them fly from the nest.

So I have learned that the endpoints of my creations are not when I have finished “making them” them…not even nearly when I (so often) keep them for a few months to hang on my own wall while I continue to unpack their deeper meanings for myself…and then not even when they go out of my possession to hang in other people’s homes. I could write a book about how meaningfully many of the people and places to which they have flown have proved the continuance of the story of their journey, beaming back their influence to transform me just as surely as they go on to make an impact in other people’s lives in their new place. Many times, I have watched my artworks anchor their particular nugget of light to some very synchronistic geographic node that fits their theme and into the lives of people who have fed back remarkable reactions and transformations on the back of their new artwork; such as sudden urges to move house or make brand new beginnings after my work has hung on their wall for a few weeks. I have heard stories of healing vibes that come out of these canvases and of conversations and catalysing situations arising out of them. In this way, I have seen over and over again how the end-point of the creative act is so often just the beginning, how what can feel like a loss (to me; as there is a little loss in giving up each one of my paintings) is really the birth of something new in the great flowering of circumstance that is our human condition. We are to each other the nudges and prompts of endless rebirth and flowering, like the Russian dolls that keep revealing to each other the deeper and deeper layers of experience that…ultimately, collectively…transform us all whilst we keep seeing enough familiarity in each other to recognise ourselves in all of the many layers.

mti5mtgxnjm2nze2nziwmdk4This post is an abridged section of my longer post on Spinning the Light entitled “In every ending…a new beginning” published just a couple of weeks ago.

Since then, I have watched a film I enjoyed very much and which turned out to be incredibly multi-layered and synchronistic in its themes. The film in question is “The Woman in Gold”(2016) starring Helen Mirren  as Maria Altmann, the Jewish refugee who takes on the Austrian government to reclaim the collection of Klimt paintings stolen from her family during the holocaust.

The screenplay, based on a true story, plays with how we get to heal the deep wounds of the past in the “now” experiences that we work through and how art sometimes plays a part in this, serving as a kind of portal between “then” and “now”. It toys with big current themes such as what constitutes “ownership” and “nationality”, including what makes people belong and feel respected where they live; is it only to do with where they are born or is it also to do with where they contribute (and are allowed to do so… through respect for their fundamental humanity), regardless of where they happen to “come from” or any differences in culture. What keeps people attached to a place; is it because they were born there or because of shared ideals, a commonality of how they treat one another. And where does an artwork (or indeed anything) belong; with those to whom it is deeply personal, to those who most prize it, to those who are strong or rich enough to claim it or is there more organic flux to its journey. Perhaps its own higher purpose means it will change  hands several times as a catalyst to healing, transformation and deeper understanding, always moving on when it is ready until it becomes its own story, infused with a life all of its own. Perhaps by allowing the eye to follow where the artwork leads – like watching an ember rise up from a bonfire – rather than trying to force where it goes, we will realise it has something important to tell us…

In my experience, these are the artworks that leave the biggest impressions as though we can see them with far more than our eyes. They seem to speak to us in layers that incorporate the original impulse and creative act that birthed them, then also the very personal things that they mean to those associated with that creation…plus all the many other stories that they weave into and become part of, whole identities (even national ones) that they become inherent with and the complex stories of all that we are as human beings. One single painting  – like Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” – can become synonymous with a whole culture and feel like a lynchpin that is removed when their rightful place there is challenged or even denied. This was a deeply thought-provoking film from both the art perspective and the vastly broader one and brilliantly delivered by Mirren; well recommended viewing.

My paintings have something important they would like to say to you…

One canvas finished…one just started

Its been a transition week in my studio (no less the world)…one major painting finished, another started. In fact, I thought I had finished the previous one many times, having already spent numerous hours tweaking it…then a sudden urge had me spending another few hours on it on Saturday afternoon (when I wasn’t even meant to be painting). This time, I really felt it was done as I kept scrutinising it all through the emotion-laden days in the run up to the election and it seemed to encourage me, seemed like it was  more than “enough” to serve its purpose in the world. In fact on Sunday, when my heart felt heavy “for no apparent reason”, it seemed to shine out at me from the gloom of the rainy October afternoon and so I started planning my next work.

I knew I wanted to paint another swan and had one lined up ready to go…but then, in Tuesday’s high-octane energy, I saw a different painting in my mind’s eye and decided I needed to start work…immediately…on one I had previously saved up for “the future”. This canvas would be bigger and would include the swan risen up, wing’s outstretched…and I already knew it was my “masculine and feminine”, “left and right” theme coming together, ready to fly; so I spent all of Tuesday evening preparing it for canvas while American’s voted and we all held our breath.

Wednesday’s news both turned my stomach to liquid yet, at another level, didn’t seem to surprise me at all. I knew I had seen it coming, whence my dark-heavy mood since the weekend and even…if I’m honest…for several weeks before. Everyone seemed to be professing surprise; was it only me that knew this “had to happen” to shake us all up out of complacency and the endless status quo? At the level where I knew this, I found I also knew what felt like darkness was our quickest route to the light.

When I set about painting that new canvas, as I had intended to do on Wednesday afternoon, I found I simply couldn’t…it was like there wasn’t another breath, an ounce of strength in me; like most people, I discovered the wind had been taken completely out of my sails. So I prepped the canvas extra thoroughly with layers of gesso and saw in that monotonous act the laying down of sturdy foundations that would guarantee the strength and longevity of my next creation.

Then I sat down to start work on it on Thursday’s shining new morn; which brought with it a renewed vigour and a longing to paint. But no…yet again there was still something blocking me and I knew it was the so-called “finished” canvas propped up across the room still calling me, like it had something new to say. Looking it over again, it was like it had completely changed over the previous two days (or so my perspective had altered) and what I was seeing was no longer “good enough”. It was no longer quite what was required in the light of this new reality we had found ourselves in and I knew just what had to be done so back it came onto my easel and I looked at it again, as if with brand new eyes.

It needed softening…it needed more light…these were the things I worked upon for the next hour and a half that (finally) brought it to conclusion. What I had created before felt brazenly light filled, almost garishly so like it was so self-assured in its mission of light yet what it called for was something softer, more authentic, less pride-driven and more gently treading. When I was done, I saw that none of this detracted from my vision for this painting, which is that it conveys what happens when we progress through life’s waters driven only by our lightest aspects. I’ve known for several weeks that it wants to be entitled “Where Grace has been” (with a nod to my 2013 painting “Grace”) and I knew exactly why.

Just like those situations where grace has passed through in our lives, she creates movement only in such a way that the light is amplified, made more of; turning the everyday materials of life into rainbow sparkles where once were placid patches of white stood against black. She generates beauty by mixing things up. Yet she doesn’t avoid what seems dark but passes through the rays of light only to continue into those darker places, trailing her light with her, creating gentle currents of movement that invent new realities and transform the whole scene. She knows where she is headed and she trucks powerfully ahead (if you’ve ever seen a swan move across water, you’ll know just what I mean). Above the surface, she is all elegance, softness, ephemeral textures and femininity yet beneath that water…you know…super-powerful legs provide the engine house of where she wants to go. The effect is both unifying yet cathartic; she brings together as much as she reinvents from scratch and the resultant “picture” is sublime; seeming effortless yet conveying so much more than you might realise. This is what we need in our world; grace-driven folk on a mission to beautifully, elegantly, definitively change the world picture to incorporate more light; not through destruction or stand-off but by mixing up what we already have!

Once this was done, I was able to set about my new canvas and lay down the first fluid outlines of what I intend for Grace risen; Grace poised; Grace in touch with herself at the highest level (you will see what I mean when I finish this one…) Here, she has brought together both sides of herself, left and right hemispheres, yin and yang, all those things…and their seeming polarity have become the wings with which she is about to take flight. This, as I see it, is us…and I intend to paint into it every ounce of my vision for what we are capable of.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo here they are, side by side…and though the laser-beam of light in the second shot is a flook caused by the lamp that I work by, its message was received by me loud and clear; in fact I find the two paintings, side by side, have a narrative to deliver together. I see Grace “apparently” leaving the light to swim into the dark (isn’t that how we all feel this week?) and yet…see where those golden lights shine the most distinctly in her so-called shadow in the choppy water. By the next frame, she is risen up against the night sky…and in that sky, she finds herself more definitively than ever before (again, you will see what I mean) and, already, she is beaming light like a beacon to all, reminding us this is where we are; for in our darkest moments we get to know ourselves far better than we ever did before.

“Where Grace has been” will be added to my website just as soon as she is dry and the new work…well, that will take just as long as it takes but it will be worth it (and I intend to relish every brush-stroke of the process)!

Shining a new light on Eden


11,500 years ago, a cataclysm happened that tilted the planet on its axis and set in motion the precession of the equinoxes and the seasons as we know them…this is the premise I discuss in this week’s blog on “Scattering the Light“. Whilst the basis of my discussion is a compelling book I am currently reading “Awakening the Planetary Mind: Beyond the Traumas of the Past to a New Era of Creativity”(Barbara Hand Clow) I have been realising for some time now that, with increasing clarity, I recall aspects of those times and our experiences before that; and that those surfacing memories have been playing out through some of my most bizarre health issues and the most pressing preoccupations of my painting.

The good news is there’s absolutely no need to replay the cataclysm we have been through already, having done that throughly and got the T-shirt. If only we could get it through our heads that what we have been most fearing, at the subconscious level, as though projecting it onto some future screen is actually a video recording of what happened already!

Of course, if we really want it to happen again we get to create it as a bi-product of our own panic as, helped by all the bad news merchants, we kid ourselves into thinking that we’re already “done for” or start blaming other people for what’s been and gone. This isn’t a time for blame, its a time to concentrate upon remembering what we can of the time before and how beautiful that was, how we worked together back then to create a balance that allowed liberty and harmony to manifest through all things…our relationships with each other, the planet, other creatures and (most importantly) ourselves.

Along the way, we have learned something immeasurably powerful about ourselves; that our alignment with our highest aspect is not conditional upon anything…not the seasons or a particular tilt of the earth, not any of the ever-changing celestial alignments that occur in the starry skies, not anything other than our own inner-alignment with the fullest knowing of all that we are…both at the broadest level and as our human aspect, in perfect balance and most collaborative harmony. When we find that inner harmony, all else becomes possible though, sometimes, it is necessary to push through a layer of cataclysm to get there…and that’s alright too, its the healing mechanism in action (and can often look like it gets worse before it gets better when, really, its the last bastion of fear). As Clow points out “Most people are not aware that the shadows they struggle with come from confusion caused by the false story of the past; people feel guilty about something they can’t even describe”. To heal this hidden trauma, just like any healing journey (exactly like mine as I have healed myself from chronic, inexplicable illness these last ten years) we need to bring it to the light of our conscious understanding or, at the very least, our acknowledgment.

To return to that place is like returning to Eden only better for all the new perspective we gained since we “left”. You could say its like shining a “New Light on Eden, a “place” we get to appreciate and understand all the more for the intensity of the shadows we have encountered since we were last there. By “chance” (in case I needed a universal wink at everything I have just made sense of for myself) this just happens to be the name of my new painting.

new-light-on-eden-new-small“New Light on Eden” has been with me all summer, mostly painted in the dappled sunlight beneath the (maple, not apple) tree of my summer garden, relishing the opportunity to do that in equal proportion to how I almost dread the long-cold-dark winter days ahead. My uncomfortable relationship with the seasons is just one of the ways that my memory started to jolt to the surface aspects of an ancient trauma of “love and loss” that seemed to want to rise up and express through my paint brushes, intersected with thoughts I was already having about the archetypal “Eden”; why is it that we always imagine it seasonless…always sunny, golden and ripe?

As many layers of thought around the idea of a return to some sort of ideal state began to converge within me, this painting became a compulsion that helped me to process my own deepest layers. I worked on it for a handful of months…picking it up…putting down, the original source-point (some opportunist photos I took in a pub garden several years ago) long-since discarded and working only from what seemed to want to come through me; a distant memory emerging like a photograph taking shape in a bath of developing fluid. Already the title “New Light on Eden” had begun to suggest itself to me as I played endlessly with that stream of light and its warmth which, to me, was the most important detail to get right (and which was extravagantly turned up from the photographs I’d taken, below); also only possible to convey through the counterpoint of just enough shadow…10491653755_6703c4dbc1_o-2

In total “coincidence” with all of the above – though clearly not! – I finished the painting during the first week of reading Clow’s book and this helped me to see, in good time, the full potential of what I was harking back to here and the multi-faceted ways I had been feeling my way back to my own place of “return” across all the idyllic summer months of painting it. Its completion marks a new level of understanding and – yes – of healing as I take ownership of somewhere that was not so much lost as deviated from, all the more to appreciate and recognise it now that I feel ready to build on its foundations as we all co-create somewhere even better than what we knew before.

Living in my studio

Is this the bit when I finally admit that I do – in fact – have an art studio but that it happens to be my house; that I live in my studio rather than the other way around, which used to feel like a house with constant art-mess? For years I kidded myself I wanted, or needed, a separate studio in order to feel “real” as an artist; heaven know why, it’s a defunct belief system we’re sold along with many others. At exhibitions, people would ask “where’s your studio?” and I would squirm as if to own-up to not have one was to remain unvalidated as an artist; just like not having an art degree (since I don’t have one of those either). I would imagine myself hearing a drop-off in their enthusiasm, as if my paintings had just lost value because I painted them “at home”; that, despite what their eyes were seeing, my work had now been down-pegged to nothing more than the product of a hobby in their mindset. You may laugh but I know I’ve been turned down from at least one prestigious gallery on this basis; like I wasn’t serious enough about my work. I accept now that these are just ridiculous symbols of worth we dole out to each other like pretend money in a game of Monopoly and I want nothing to do with them. They mean nothing in the reality where painting is what I do, must do, almost every day of my life. And why would I want to be separated from my art by sticking it in a shed?

With canvases propped up almost everywhere in my house, I find I work on these almost all the time, with my eyes, even without knowing it, or quite literally when inspiration strikes out-of-the-blue. I require nothing to motivate me; I’m the most self-motivated person I know but I hold to no strict timetables and refuse to wear a watch. “You need to put your work away” those of us who work from home are repeatedly advised; “keep a strict demarkation line between work and pleasure and where these two activities are performed”. I realise, these days, there is no such line since my work is my pleasure (as it should be…); surely such compartmentalisation applies only when it isn’t!

img_4907Mine is just an ordinary modern house; we’ve raised two kids here, we have a large dog. You may think oil paints in that mix would be a complete disaster but I work without chemical thinners and I’ve learned to be very tidy in my practices. With one away at uni and a daughter who is as artistic as me, there’s been a level of succumbing to the living-studio that is quite palpable in recent months. Painting several of my biggest room spaces white was probably the first clue that things were heading this way; and it certainly works better with the eye and as a way of keeping work-spaces light all year round. Then the massive project of decluttering my house down to almost minimalist-living (I said almost!) has certainly helped; suddenly whole swathes of space have opened up in which for me to prop my easel and my work in progress. Unfinished canvases have become part of the room scheme, not an obstacle to it; my house has developed the sort of bohemian flare that I see interior mags try to emulate, only mine is for real. As this has materialised before my eyes, I have found myself laughing at how I once believed so fervently that I  needed that separate space in which to work. Not even the long dreamed-of studio shed in the garden that I kept telling myself I had to save for feels desirable any more. I realise I have more than enough room to manoeuvre right before my very eyes now that I’ve got my priorities straight!

img_4909How else do I get to ebb and flow with my work whenever it pleases me; to write then paint then write again or to pick up a brush and tweak something on a whim day or night. To light a roaring fire in the grate in winter, to stop to throw food and spices into a pot for later (a remarkably similar act) between bouts of throwing paint onto canvas. To cuddle my dog, hold conversations with my dog, to take him for a walk to clear the head. To move my work under the tree in the garden on a sunny day (where I did all of my painting from July until a week ago) or to spew half in and out of wide open French windows, to take inspiration from the flower borders, the birds and the afternoon sun. How could I want it any more perfect than this?

If I’m honest, I couldn’t create a thing in one of those shared studio spaces, those painted brick industrial conversions, not even one with separating “walls” and the occasional shot of daylight. I thrive on unlimited daylight, comfort and warmth. I like to sing, to play loud “quirky” music, listen to audios of people talking, to talk to myself when I paint. I put on voices or hop-gallop around the room with elation if the mood takes me but I only do these things in private. Who on earth thought up that art should be a social pass-time, collaborating and cohabiting with other artists? It makes me shudder if I’m honest. This is the year I’ve admitted to being a hook-line-and-sinker introvert more than any other of my life – and without apology – I embrace that fully about myself; its what makes me tick.

If I had to go to a studio to paint, I would have to get in a car to “commute” or make actual effort to be there, to plan ahead for it; who wants that? What is this twentieth-century-overhang idea that work must take place outside of the house; when did we start that one after eons of skilled crafts pursued in the vicinity of our own front doors? I’m not a factory worker and who, these days, can afford the rent on such a place; it would make a slave of me, forcing me to take commissions I’m currently able to turn down and keeping me from the natural rhythms of my work due to the pressing need to be commercial.

I’ve turned the table on all these things by appreciating what an enviable position I find myself in doing what I do from home. All these years I’ve been merrily dreaming up such a studio space, my husband has been longing to work more and more from home. Now I find myself thinking (tongue in cheek) “no you can’t do that, this is my work space” but really I see how we could both be here and there would still be space enough to do our own thing and meet up in the middle without feeling claustrophobic. In fact, at times when he works at home already, the fact he does completely different work means he doesn’t interfere with my wavelength; I remain in the pure stream of my own creative inspiration in a way that I know would be a struggle, probably impossible, if other artists worked close by.

These preferences just happen to be the ones that best support my creativity and its typical of so many introverts to be like this – to require personal space and even complete solitude . Yet we’ve been made to feel like we should conform to other people’s way of working, whatever our type of work happens to be, for the longest time. I say “enough of that”, this is my way, the only way that I can produce what I do and its time to own it fully.

img_4903It can be so funny when you realise that you’ve been chasing after ideas of what you aspire to like a dog after a clockwork hare or that, to quote my father, “you couldn’t see for looking”. In the aftermath I look back and see that, although the idea of a commercial studio space had long since disappeared, I had still clung on to the idea of building an outdoor studio or of moving house to somewhere more “suitable” to create a separate workshop in a barn or similar. Such a place would require massive investment when, in reality, we aspire to move somewhere more manageable and in keeping with our ever-simpler lifestyle.  Therefore this thing had applied immense pressure to my expectations of the future, feeling like so much unfinished business on my to-do list and an ever-present feeling of “how on earth…?” whilst raining on the parade of the circumstances I already have and which honestly do work for me so perfectly well. Its like when you spend your life assuming there is something wrong with you, that’s missing or that needs to be fixed. In focussing on this art-aspiration (which turned out not to be mine), I had been kept from my enjoyment of the way things are right now!

So, what do you do when you realise you have everything you ever wanted already; that there is no outcome you have to keep chasing after upon which your ultimate fulfilment is supposedly conditional? You appreciate it…throughly…and you get back to doing what you truly love!

Where I am now

By the time I get close to finishing a painting, its rarely a marker of “where I am now” but, more accurately, a marker of where I have been lately…which seems to be a landscape I am passing through with ever-more dizzying acceleration. Started weeks, months or even (my last one) a year earlier, I often feel like I’m editing and honing someone else’s work by the end of the process. Rather than feeling like this detracts from the authenticity of the piece, as though my heart isn’t in it anymore, it feels like it enhances it; like I’ve handed the “book” over to its editors who can objectively refine it. I can appreciate the final result all the more for feeling somewhat detached from its headier ups and downs as I do what is necessary to finish it and can allow myself to be more ruthless with the parts that aren’t really working. Then I find myself spring-loaded from all this patience and the waiting for completion when its time to move on to the next pieces of artwork.

It even (after many years of grimacing) makes me smile to send out finished work that people assume is where I’m currently at whereas I know I am light-years away already.  “New” I declare on social media when, to me, it already feels very “old”…or at least a fair few steps behind. Its one of the reasons I love to work in oils; they slow things down, cause you to see things through to the end (or, a lot of people, to give up), to understand the time differential between consciousness and manifestation in a way that grows the kind of patience and trust that can be applied across all of life….whilst always considering ways of getting there quicker, smarter or in entirely new ways. Oils teach you that corner-cutting isn’t always best; that the layers and diversions become part of the finished painting. In over a decade of painting, I’ve abandoned less than a handful of started canvases, preferring to keep at them until they’ve said what they wanted to say…and always pleasantly surprised at how they tend to save up a “last word” that even I didn’t see coming.

The process can feel like spinning gold out of straw. You work very hard to get the best out of what you started when you work like this; and so you learn to appreciate the very best in all your earlier trials and tribulations, the many steps you took to get here.

By the time I’ve been liberated to start on something new, that new artwork comes easily; spring-loaded. I launch into it as though I’m launching into a brand-new life opportunity, a slate scrubbed clean, sensing the piper’s tune of where I am being called to dance off to next whilst knowing exactly what I would do differently to the time before.

So, you could say, being an artist is like living out a very long series of lives. None of them is wrong or regrettable. At layers that are already fast dissolving into the mists of my newly reset memory when I dip that first brush like a very first breath on life (though they remain encoded in the DNA of my evolution as an artist…), all the paintings I have ever done before underpin what I am newly starting without me having to consciously think about this. However different the subject or my style, there is a hidden continuum…like a soft melody or a soul-signature that remains the only constant…and this forms the subtle thread between vastly different artworks and an ever-evolving style across many years.

Its like being born many many times over…and it explains the profound excitement I experience (as well as just a touch of anxiety…) when I look into a blank new canvas, pausing to breathe in whatever potential I feel is asking to be realised here. “Do I even know how to do this?” I still find myself wondering for just a split moment, daunted by the journey ahead, the potential for failure, the huge investment of time, perhaps (but far less so than before) other people’s expectations of me; but then I want this with every fibre of my being and so I dive in.

And almost every time, I see it to the end…even when it feels hard, painful or when the original intention feels “tired”, worn out or lost. Even when, rarely, a canvas gets put aside, I see that too as its own particular ending, taking from the curtailment whatever is asking to be known. Occasionally, but not often now, I completely overpaint a canvas with something else but I find this is never very satisfactory as there are always remnants or ghosts on the canvas that assert themselves because every artwork, finished or not, has a “soul” of sorts and cannot be completely wiped by another identity that walks in. But then, integration of a previous composition into a new one; that can have interesting outcomes that are multilayered and powerful. Oh yes, art has taught me about so much more than “just” art; it has made the creator of me and helped me see vast things in the microcosm.

img_4742I work in batches of several paintings at once and concurrent paintings, though rarely similar to look at, work in “teams” on the same themes yet even I don’t tend to know how until all of them are finished, like sheep brought back to the fold where I can view them side-by-side. Until they are all gathered and the gate close on them, I can rarely move on to the next burgeoning impulse and so this keeps me focussed on completion, even while new urges for expression are growing stronger by the day. After all those weeks of ever-more considered movements, the longing to go back to the start and make fluid, primal, wholly expressive marks on canvas is like a profound longing for childhood in the heart of an old woman; and that longing is like a stifled waterfall waiting to thunder down over the edge. The sheer exileration of unleashing what wants to be born makes an addiction out of the rhythms of creation and I can see so clearly why I do it; both painting and living…one and the same.

A new series of work entitled “Moving Water” has just taken its first breath this week; watch this space for updates.

Reflection upon life

Helen White Art

Reflection upon lifeReflection Upon Life” feels like one of those paintings where an explanation is quite unnecessary yet offers whole new layers of meaning that could potentially  bring the artwork to life. The choice whether to read on or just look at the image or, perhaps, a little of both in whatever order best suits you, is yours entirely and this too is part of its metaphor.

A year in the making, this artwork had driven me to distraction for months by the time it got close to completion and was nearly scrapped many times. It began as a seed of inspiration on seeing one of those oh-so fashionable butterflies pinned inside a glass frame in a shop window in Amsterdam…only this turned out to be no butterfly but, rather, a “humble”-  if quite spectacular moth; a Madagascan Sunset Moth to be precise. This easy mistake became part of its metaphor because of the way it made manifest how we tend to assume things and to regard even the most natural things within some sort of hierarchical context (butterflies “superior to” moths, flowers “preferable” to weeds and so on). Here was the most spectacular “butterfly” I had ever seen and it wasn’t even what it looked like; it made me laugh.

It might also be assumed that it has impressively coloured wings when, actually, the most vivid parts of those wings have no pigment at all but are actually made up of zillions of miniscule prisms which reflect the light of the world around it. You could say, it takes whatever is most readily available in its environment and transforms this into what you see before you; this awe-striking display of iridescence. It struck me as all the more ironic, therefore, that this shop-window was anything but its natural environment yet there it was in a shop that was closed for the day, overlooking concrete pavements and all the dreary traffic flow of downtown Amsterdam and it was still the most vivid thing in the vicinity. I often navigate my holidays by interesting sunset scenarios yet this was a new one for me.

Painting in oils Helen WhiteWhen I came upon this moth, a tree outside the dark shop interior was reflecting on the glass of its frame so that, at certain angles, it seemed to be escaping; dematerialising back into its component colours and making its getaway to the outside world and beyond. Or, I also considered, it might actually be materialising before my very eyes, choosing its own “butterfly” wings in daubs of paint-like colour that gradually organised themselves into what I was seeing take shape. Out of the blandest surroundings, it seemed to be aspirationally manifesting itself, choosing its own parts, its particular colours and wishful thinking itself to a pair of spectacular wings…just like a caterpillar does during metamorphosis. You could also say, just as we get to do every day…

Either way, the potential metaphor of it started to present itself to me from that moment and, everywhere I looked, there were butterflies juxtaposed with glass – inside frames or live ones inside greenhouses at the botanic gardens I love to visit….but were these really any more free beneath their glass ceiling than the sunset moth? My encounters with relevant “material” to take this theme further continued for exactly a year across trips to Amsterdam, Stockholm and back to England where, the very week I felt like I was about to finish it but only wished I could just get the colours just a little bit closer to what I remembered (photographs do no justice to what you see with your eyes), we stayed in a small hotel in Hastings owned by a guy who turned out to be quite the butterfly enthusiast. There…on the wall…was another Madagascan Sunset Moth (though even he assumed it was a butterfly), pinned inside a glass frame in a room that only a last-minute impulse took me into five minutes before we were due to leave; I literally gasped to see it there. While I was both saddened and thrilled to find it, once again, in a frame on the wall, the repeat opportunity to really study the wings up close was like a signal that I was ready to go home and complete this painting now, and so I did. It had been one year – to the day! – since I came home from Amsterdam with the burning intention to put what I had encountered in a shop window onto canvas and now it was about to take flight.

When I started work on this one, of course, I began with my photography but it was the experience of that shop window that was really informing my intentions and painting “what is asking to be known” out of an experience is not necessarily the same as going after the extreme realism that a photo could deliver, as some artists do (I long-ago parted ways with making that the aim of my art). The more I kept “true” to the photography, the less the painting seemed to work. The more I followed my own internal map, what I believed I had seen, what it meant to me and what it had to show me at the deeper levels, the more I took tenuous yet profound steps forwards in my painting process. Even then, my frustration ebbed and flowed with this artwork and, at one point, I put it away for probably six months or more, not really knowing if I would ever get it back out on the easel again.

What the painting seemed to want to get me to work through…with my brushes…was my own hemispherical state-of-being and how this was working out for me (or not) as a human being that lives predominantly in the right hemisphere of the brain and struggles most with the physical world. Very quickly, I knew what I was looking at here (in the beginning…) was an almost irreconcilable split, in terms of the way that I experience the world, into two halves that weren’t collaborating as well as they could, however much I like to think of myself as an extremely balanced brain, the artist/spiritual-type with the fully-functioning intellect (and, in tests, I am exactly that). My reality is how that has been extremely hard to reconcile as a unified experience “in the world” and I have found many aspects of being human, not least my physical health, very challenging indeed whilst preferring to lose myself in the other-worldly pursuits that take me away from all that.

So, on one side of the composition is the crisp edged left-brained way of regarding the subject; detailed, precise, scientific you could say, complete with all the typical evidence of its three-dimensional existence, shadows included. On the right, the moth’s form is broken down into composite colours and arbitrary-seeming patterns that refuse to be hemmed-in and seem to want to float away off the corner of the canvas. This side of the moth over-spills its own edges to become part of a broader reality that includes all of nature and the patterns of light that inform a reality that exists way beyond the physical world… yet, as a figment of the three-dimensional world, it now appears less convincing and has become quite the abstract work of art. The shadow is absent on the moth’s right-side – something I found I wanted to celebrate – and yet it has merged almost entirely with the tree so that there is no clear distinction  in places; in fact, they have become so interchangeable and both have started to surrender their identity or “label” in this half of the composition. This side of the painting stretched me the most in that it felt closer to what I was trying to convey and yet was harder to make “work” compositionally, which was telling.

Oil painting Reflection on LifeWhat I also noticed was how the reflection of the tree was most distinct “through” the moth; that it was all-but mono chrome where it was reflected in the white areas of the frame but really came to life where it corresponded with the moth’s wing, using the moth’s colours to paint out its own leaves. The resultant patterns are a collaboration of two distinct forms merged in union to the extent they are losing their individual identities yet have become more than the sum of their parts, a theme I have explored many times.

This also seemed to suggest that the way that the impulse for life (that most fundamental urge to express selfhood as matter) will use whatever is most available, without preference, to realise that potential but can only do so “through” living things and will choose the most accessible and abundantly available means to take the shape that it claims for itself. Here that impulse is more apparent where the moth and tree coincide because, you could say, this provides twice as much substance for source to express through. In this way, Pure potential (as explored in my last painting) is literally drawn through living things as the means of exploring and expressing itself and seeing the moth in this pared down version of itself was like witnessing the universal impulse for life take shape before my very eyes.

This harked back to the age old question, does anything really exist except in so far as it appears in relationship with sentient life forms or, you could say “through” us….and what I was seeing certainly supported that the (reflected) world was realised in a much more vivid way “through” the form of the moth rather than the vacant portions of the frame. You could argue that this moth was no longer alive but there is something about the fact that its “butterfly” wings continue to reflect light that made them seem to be alive whatever (and this is perhaps why butterflies in frames are so popular). All of this spiralled into thoughts about the nature of consciousness that I played with endlessly while I painted.

Helen White artistFor all the months that I worked on this piece like a painting-meditation, I played with themes like these or, rather, let them play with me and, in doing so, found that I edged ever closer to recognising my own truth. To get even close to completing this painting I had to embrace both realities (“left” and “right” brained versions; you could just as easily say “male” and “female” or “scientific” and “spiritual” or “logical” and “artistic”…) within one “whole” and I knew I was being asked to consider that both sides were viable, appealing and certainly not “wrong” as ways of experiencing the world; in fact, they are entirely complementary, a partnership, joined in the middle like a pair of wings allowing what joins them together to “fly”. In ways that were highly relevant to where I was in my personal circumstances, I was being shown how my human, physical reality was as valid and desirable as anything that I might consider “spiritual” or “other worldly” and that, to get the most out of this existence (or “take off”, you could say), I needed to go after the very same level of integrative balance that I had been seeking with my paintbrush all these many months.

It was about then that the painting got put away as it still wasn’t “working” as an aesthetic piece of artwork for hanging on the wall; something still didn’t look right and I had nowhere else to go with it…for the time being. My inner “spiritual know-it-all” wanted to say I had achieved the ideal in splitting this creature down the middle and allowing both the form and the dissolving of form to be equally valid realities, joined diplomatically in the middle like two neatly enclosed compartments of possibility. To start messing with that status quo in the name of a higher aesthetic seemed to make the painting’s underlying meaning messy and pointless, its metaphor lost. Looking back, I see how a tug of war was still occurring inside of me, my left and right-brained perspectives refusing to reach a workable compromise that allowed for both “sides” to take equal part in the peace-negotiations; they were meeting in the middle yet they weren’t really allowing each other’s perspective into their own. I was still trying to make things far too academic while my right brain was being told it had to continue playing second-fiddle to the left and so I diplomatically put it (the painting and all it represented…) into storage and almost forgot about it for a very long time. Of course, that was my “problem”, my very “stuck-point” (like the pin in the moth), holding me to something that prevented either sides of who I am from taking off and flying.

When I brought the canvas back out into the light and started to play with it again, it was under the influence of a far less rigid stance (newly arisen out of many month’s personal evolution) allowing that each “side” could now cross over onto the other side and mix with it…in fact the composition depended on it to go any further. With a touch of softening light like gentle clouds passing through on the moth’s left side, a little more solidity, structure and assertion of boundaries on its right, it all started to come together into a newer version of wholeness based upon an interchange of perspectives, an amicable overlap, a seeking of common ground and a reappraisal (or allowance) of each other’s specialisms…making room for both left and right perspectives according to requirement, not some sort of territorial line drawn in the sand.

From this point onwards, I simply painted what looked right from the overall aesthetic, not necessarily what my camera had captured at the time or what was either logical and accurate (on one side) or attractive in a purely abstract way (on the other). When it came to those left-sided shadows, I placed them where I felt they needed to be and allowed that there might be contradiction in that; that the shadow wanted to be deeper closer to the moth’s core and much lighter around the wings (and noticed how this told me something about how we all tend to assume that our shadow is much more darker, more defining than it really is). The photographic references that I had started painting from had long-since been dispensed with  and it had been many months since I had even glanced at them. I was working intuitively, applying colour and light wheresoever they felt right and allowing this process to take as long as it wanted; never rushing it to premature conclusion or forcing it to a timetable. In fact, I finished this painting three times, loading it up to my website ready to launch…only to realise something else needed changing or that it wasn’t quite there yet; it taught me patience like no other I have ever worked on before.

Reflection on life painting edgesThe glass frame that the subject was meant to be “in” was a very obvious metaphor but one that had more layers than I originally realised. Of course, it struck me at first how the moth was trapped in there and (ideally) “needed” to get out, to be free. It then occurred to me that, on its right side at least, it already was free and the way I had managed to capture it – merged with the reflection of the tree – had been its way of showing me that its state of being was not conditional upon any circumstance such as so-called “imprisonment” in a physical sense; that such a thing was a merely an idea that could be transcended by consciousness. Then I played with the idea that the moth in its frame was – like all of us – caught up in a reality that appeared to present the sky as the only limit (its “view” open to the tree and the sky beyond) and yet, really, it had a glass ceiling above its head; did it know that? Its reality was also  determined by the sides of a frame that prevented it from “seeing” any further than it was “allowed to” (you could say, it was being held in by its belief system and that of the world order that it exists within) and so I continued to play with identifying ways that this kind of circumstance is a limitation to my reality or that of any of us while we continue to hold beliefs and trust that “what we see” is all there is to anything. After all, realising all the boxes we are “kept in”and noticing all the false walls and glass ceilings we are subjected to, then taking steps to exist beyond them, is the first step to attaining unlimited consciousness and true liberty.

The one detail of the original photograph that I left out was the label stating “Urania Ripheus Madagascar”. To start with, my intention was to include this as a way of playing with our obsession with capturing, possessing, pinning-down and labelling things. Did the label define what the moth was, did the moth care that it had been given a label, did its colours shine any differently because of such a label, does the label have any meaning outside of a three-dimensional context, does it actually limit what we know about it? Then I tried distorting or curling-up the label on its right side or, perhaps, blanking its letters out with some of the reflected light. None of these seemed to add anything to the composition; they felt like they were trying much too hard to make a point and so I listened to the more abstract artist in me and dispensed with the label altogether…which, in itself, had something meaningful to tell me about how left and right approaches to art (and life) differ and do so much better together when they actually talk to one another!

Relection on Life paintingThen, of course, there was that all-important pin through the moth’s middle – a detail I felt as quite the personal affront when I first saw that such a beautiful creature was stabbed into its frame by a dressmakers pin as if it was no more than a brooch on a hat. Yet it felt so important to include it here as part of the context for the composition. It seemed to remind me of oh-how much we all feel pinned down to something, how it feels just like that thing goes straight through the heart of us and yet we usually feel there is absolutely nothing we can do about it (we all seem to have that thing). But then, the more I worked on the painting, the more my indignation softened because I came to realise how small and insignificant that pin was; it was nothing to the “whole” consciousness I felt like I was now representing with my brushes; a wholeness that sees things from both within the physical yet also from the infinite perspective – simultaneously. From such a viewpoint, no pin, nail, circumstance or handicap could ever be sufficient to hold you down to anything you didn’t agree to be held down to; it can all be overcome and turned into the best thing that ever happened to you when total collaboration of all perspectives is fully embraced. The complicit nature of consciousness; the level where we all consent to whatever is presenting as our “limited” reality, became tangibly manifest to me as I continued to work on this piece and I felt myself as though lifting out of the box as I understood this at the deepest level of my life so far.

Painting by Helen WhiteMy own biggest reconciliation came in the form of recognising the beauty of both sides of the composition but, especially, being forced to acknowledge how the moth was perhaps the most beautiful of all on the side depicting its wings in three-dimesional detail, conveying something of how those wings use tiny prisms to reflect and so work with the available light to create unlimited and ever-altering, iridescent combinations of colour formatted to every possibility imaginable. What this represented to me, in physical terms, excited me and reminded me how to be excited about the physical form we happened to have manifested as; even those of us without “butterfly” wings. The moth reminds us that the more light there is, the more those colour possibilities expand…endlessly; so, heading towards the light opens possibility up, for all of us. The moth had presented to me our human condition in its most fundamental terms; we are only ever limited by what we feel capable of reflecting out from ourselves using all the abundant light we gather along the way and we get to make of that light whatever colours, shapes and creations we choose.

Here’s another parallel with the human condition: it struck me that this was the most spectacularly colourful creature I had ever seen yet I sensed its complete oblivion (whether alive or not) to just how stunning it is. Did it ever see itself as we see it, our jaws dropped in awe; did it have any idea how arresting all the ever-changing colours of those wings are? No different to us really…we are all of those things that we see when we gaze at the wonder of a sunset but how many of us really see ourselves in the true light of all our sunset glory or even notice all the vast quantity of colour and light we reflect out into the world?

This three-dimensional “side” of the moth was so challenging to convey with any degree of authenticity – which bespeaks just how challenging it is to reproduce the natural, physical world using three-dimensional skills such as holding a paintbrush; it is quite astonishing how beautiful these moths really are “in the flesh”. Yes, even the shadows are a crucial part of this side of the moth, contrasting with the colour and light, creating its depth, enhancing its credibility as something of substance that you can hold in your hand and making it relatable to all other living forms because we all possess a shadow, don’t we? We can’t escape it; it is part of the deal of being here and to try and lose it is like running away from ourselves, making an enemy of the very thing that is allowing us to have this extraordinary experience of being alive. It came as a timely reminder to me to notice how the side of this composition that depicts the kind of physicality that I have long had such an ebb and flow relationship with (the shadow side being all of the issues I have had with my health) was actually my preferred aspect of this artwork and the one I came to respect the most having spent so long working at it. This realisation came just in time for a key stage in my own healing journey as I overcame aspects of my physical health (and to do with my desire to be here in human form…) that have long been a hindrance to fully functioning existence.

Butterfly painting in oilsThe final epiphany came as I was finishing the edges to the canvas, painting them white to complement the background. I only use “box frames” for certain paintings now, preferring to use such thick sided canvases on the rare occasion they are called-for as a complement to the subject and, for this one, a box-frame seemed most appropriate. It was only as I painted the deep sides of the canvas white at the end that I realised it seemed as though the deep-inset frame that the original moth was held “inside of” had been seemingly turned inside out in the process of painting it; an origami trick that made the inside become the outside and, in the process, releasing the moth from its glass-ceiling. My profound sense that the painting process had, indeed, aided the escape process through the well-travelled metaphors of my mind felt complete with this final realisation. The feeling was of something much more universal than “just a moth” having worked its way to new-found liberty via this process; in other words, my metaphor had much broader implications for both me and for where we are as a world at large…for we are all, in so many ways, working our way “out” of things that feel like they have held us pinned-down for so long. As such, I felt the sheer power of the journey it had taken me on much more so than the satisfaction of a painting finished, though I was glad to be able to say (at last) that it was done and so “release it” in the most literal sense that I know as an artist.


“Reflection on Life” can now be viewed on my art website www.helenwhite.org

22837240979_85f27a7e6f_oThe photography that inspired this work can be seen in my Flickr album Glass Butterflies here

For more winged themes in oil on canvas visit my website


Realising pure potential

Pure Potential, painting of lilies by Helen WhiteAt surface level, I was fascinated by the purity and light-holding quality of these lilies and wanted to capture the waxed velvet consistency so that, even “just” with your eyes, you can imagine what they feel like to touch. But that’s not all…

The title “Pure potential” suggested itself after it had been hanging on my wall for a while and I kept finding I was losing myself in it, experiencing it way beyond the three-dimensional. The plunging depths of those seemingly bottomless portals at the core of these blooms, combined with the pristine white layers that unfold from them, remind me of the endlessly flowering source of pure potential that lies at the core of every living being, unfolding and unfolding without beginning or end…aways delivering more to us as long as we are prepared to take hold of that potential and run with it towards…well…whatever we choose. But then that potential must come through us; is realised via the unfolding “story” of who we are otherwise it has no edges, no form. Those petals are the form that flowers from the core of our potential; they tell us about ourselves and we see in them the kind of “bloom” we have become. In fact, potential can only be realised when it is channeled through a living form; a truism I seemed to be playing with across more than one of my artworks at the time of painting this (see “Reflection upon Life” for more on this theme) and there, in front of me, I seemed to have painted two very distinct portals of potential realised in subtly different yet similar or complementary ways, one more outward seeking..reaching out expansively…the other a little more immersed in its own physicality; could they be the left/right, male/female distinctions that I was also playing with elsewhere? The more I have come to allow this painting to show me what it has to say, the more this has felt like something it is conveying to me along with the beauty and synergy of  both ways of looking at things.

There are so many other layers of meaning in there for me, ones that delivered via the subject as I focussed on it with such delicious attention to detail for so many weeks, allowing it to speak to me on multiple levels as I “pained” over the fine points. Like life itself, the great unfolding happens while we are concentrating on other details and this was the case for me. As ever, the painting process became a meditation and, especially now, this one is still delivering to me every time I allow myself to relax my gaze upon it…especially, since it is currently opposite my bed and the first thing to see when I wake up in the morning. I like to think infinite layers (not necessarily mine) are held “in potential” for anyone who comes to look at it, especially if you open to the possibility of something flowering beyond what is delivered through the the intellect and what you are expecting to see. In this way, the painting mimics the potential it represents, giving and giving whatever you most happen to need to “see”.

www.helenwhite.orgPure Potential can be seen in more detail on my website www.helenwhite.org