Now, thanks to this global pandemic, now we know having a view is nearly essential. We finally understand that if we do not have picture windows, then landscape art can open up our small rooms and turn house arrest into a home sanctuary.
These works were painting from memory during lockdown. They are my response to the feeling of being in closed quarters: painting widening vistas across the canvas.
What techniques did I choose to create a sense of more space?
IMMENSITIES Opening Night Thurs Sept 24th 6pm SNEAK PEEK: Largescale dynamic landscape paintings from Greece to Belgium. The cool-to-the-bones Art Base venue hosts contemporary artists, cutting-edge composers and the kind of global musicians that bring together local communities. Musicians will be playing for you by reservation on the 25, 26th and 27th of the two weeks that my art will be on show. You’ve been starving for cultural events; we will feed you with rich colours, vibrant music and Mediterranean snacks.
Vernissage 24/9/20 18-21h
Visiting hours 26/9, 3/10, 4/10, 10/10 14-18h
Art Base, 29 rue des Sables Zandstraat, 1000 Bruxelles For reservations & more info to www.art-base.be
“I’m serious. I would love to have you make a painting or drawing inspired by current COVID-19 family life…”
14 May 2020 – Day 70 of our family’s Covid19 Lockdown in Belgium I wrote on Facebook:
“Out of curiosity, I timed and averaged across the interruptions yesterday. On average, during the moments when I explicitly told her I would be doing something other than engaging with her (e.g. working/cooking/going to the bathroom) my nearly 4 year old interrupted me every 15 seconds. For those of you who don’t understand what it’s like to be in lockdown in an apartment with no garden, with no childcare support, with a young child, imagine your thought process being interrupted on average every 15 seconds between 6.30 am and 8pm every day for 70 days. It’s INTENSE, people.”
Many, many people messaged me publicly and privately with solidarity but one message was bit different.
Mark Carlson wrote:
“Tamar, can you paint this feeling on canvas?”
“I think the interruptions would be part of the art. Or maybe the interruptions are the art. Can I commission a painting about this from you?”
“If you don’t mind the painting taking 900 years to complete [smiley face emoji].”
“Sounds like you already have a working title for the work [winky face emoji].”
“Haha! SOLD to the patient man in the front row.”
Then he sends me a private message:
“I’m serious. I would love to have you make a painting or drawing inspired by current Covid 19 family life. No rush and no expectations on my part. I think your talents are pretty cool.”
“Oh my goodness! I thought you were joking. I’d be delighted to do this project. Thank you. Will have to brainstorm how to depict all the big feelings. Thank you!”
“I really like your work and would love a way to remember this experience in life… I would like to hang something on the wall. You have the liberty to choose what it is. Thanks!”
“This is an amazing opportunity to be creative. I’m excited and inspired to do something that relates specifically to this era. I’ve started brainstorming ideas.”
“Please choose the size and materials that fit your inspiration. I will worry about finding a place to hang it. This moment in time is so rich in emotions. I am happy to are inspired.”
“Thank you so much for this opportunity, and for your faith in my abilities.”
21 May 2020:
At first glance this illustrated painting could be mistaken for a landscape, or a city park view. In fact, the subject is more precise. The neighbours. The pandemic allowed us to meet the neighbors. Can you see them on the balcony? People we’ve never spoken to before, cheering with us every night for the medical workers during the corona virus global pandemic, then shouting <<À demain!>> “See you tomorrow!”
I titled the painting <<À Demain!>>
As I was painting on our little balcony, cautious of the way the sun moved around the buildings and whipped the shadows out and around the other balconies I thought about how this art collector allows me to stay true to my creative inspiration, and yet is telling his own story about what he wants to see in a work. He trusts me to execute it well, he knows my interpretation might be akin to his own, as he’s known me for a few years and has a pretty strong grasp on my values through observation. At core he’s telling me all that matters to him is the creative documentation of a never before experienced, now globally shared event. I guess you could then conclude that we have collaborated on this project, through years of knowing each other as neighbours, this mutual knowledge, the trust, the creative skill set and the creative commission… yes, a unique collaboration befitting a public display of gratitude, as in the painting.
With Mark’s encouragement, I painted from our balcony, immortalizing a unique moment we shared: Every night my husband and child and I join the neighbours in a public display of unifying gratitude. See what looks like a trumpet in the turret? Someone in the turret next to them plays what I think is a trumpet, or maybe a French horn. He was always just inside the window, so the external image is from my imagination. He’s only learning and it certainly doesn’t sound perfect, but it brings tears to my eyes to hear that almost-salute. It’s the intention that counts. This painting is really about something unique to our experience of the pandemic; a public practice of gratitude, every night in our neighborhood.
The first time it happened I was holding my child in one arm, waving with the other, my husband shouting <<À demain!>> and I knew I’d never forget how unique that moment was, shared with intimacy with unknown neighbours made known by our shared experience.
I invited Mark to come see the work unfold as I painted it, standing beneath our balcony. I painted en plein air, attempting with all my might to get it all in one go, to commemorate the theme of a singular moment in time. This watercolour and mixed media painting is not as belabored as acrylic works because Mark asked me to include family life in the theme. There is no way I could have gotten through so many layers of colour and mixed media if I had even attempted oil paints. So, it’s the urgency in completion that brings the dynamism of the watercolour and mixed media to this canvas. I hope the unrestricted movement of the oil pastels, for example, can be seen by the viewer to bring a sense of immediacy to the image.
“No restrictions, whatever you want, just documenting this time.”
I was a little frightened that whatever may be my vision may not suit Mark’s aesthetic taste, but more than that, I felt deeply, truly honoured by the trust he put in me and incredibly impressed. For this is how this person, this art collector, demonstrates his creativity: with a truly original brief that pinpoints an era in time.
We spoke on the phone before I delivered it by hand.
Mark said, “Throughout history artists painted historical moments, I am yet to see art based on this historical event.”
I realized more than just creativity, there is a journalistic element here. As a professional video journalist, he’s expressing and exploring his own high level career through another high level medium; documenting historical events through this creative art commission.
The finished piece is the largest watercolour I’ve ever done.
A couple of details about the work: I have been primarily a portrait painter for many years, and portraits are about a likeness, capturing the essence of a person no matter the angle. In contrast, whenever I create a landscape I work hard to make it at an angle that is always accessible. The audience is invited to step inside. My landscapes create another room, an extension in your home. You look through your wall to another world that welcomes you.
We are the viewers, from our balcony. I do not comment on the tight quarters of our apartment. Or the length of time we’ve been indoors. I don’t comment on the very few vehicles left on this busy street. Or the empty sky that normally buzzes with airplanes from Brussels airport and helicopters covering EU summits. This scene is quiet. To people who know this park, this neighbourhood, like Mark and his wife Anita, they could tell you that’s part of the era I’m capturing here: a quiet street that is not normally a quiet street at all is a statement in itself. It’s a subtle statement. It’s one for people in the know.
I know that they enjoy our neighbourhood park as much as we do and I hoped that by immortalizing the tree-lined avenue they commute through every day it would be a painting they could carry with them through life, taking the park and the light and life it brings wherever they go.
I hope it’s clear, even though this pandemic has instigated truly tragic deaths and insolvency, my current work is still trying to share a positive and bright approach. It’s not gloomy or apocalyptic or expressing the frustrating circumstances around these strange pandemic times. Instead I’m expressing the way we connected with our unknown neighbours every early spring evening with light, bright colours and a dynamic movement in the brush strokes as the wind passes through the deserted park trees.
There’s a slight sense of grief in the way I depict our neighbourhood park from a distance. It’s not available to us now, only expressed to those familiar with it’s form, those who might spot that I excluded the park gates, any opening to the inside of the park, in this particular image. You’re welcome to enter the painting but we were not welcome to play in our park during the pandemic. If reading between the lines, that’s the only slight sadness on the canvas. The park play was literally policed and so the inner park was not alive to us. Here we are on the periphery. The periphery of the park and leaning over our balconies to applaud with others at their periphery too. The split-second depicted here is joy, the joy of meeting people from where we live, connecting to where they live and greeting them evening after evening. Even though the trumpet may not be in tune, it was still stirring. This piece may not be illustrating the sensitivities of loss or pushing abstract boundaries as Shock Art, but the positivity I try to portray is actually deeply, stubbornly and even politically reactionary. I encouraged Mark and Anita, to frame it with something bright like goldenrod yellow. It’s the sunlight on the leaves and the joy in this landscape that is reactionary to the anxiety portrayed in the current newscape. It may be Mark’s job to tell us the current news in images, but it’s my job to help you sit with them for years to come.
8 June 2020:
“It’s everything we could have wished and more!” ~ Anita Holten Carlson
“Unbelievable. The level of detail is amazing. This painting really invites you to walk right into it.” ~ Mark Carlson
“Thank you Mark! It was a very exciting project.”
When Mark sent this image of the work in a temporary frame I was really shocked how much more detailed it looks from a distance. While painting on our tiny little balcony I forgot to step into the house, to stand back from it while I was painting, to see how much detail carried up from ground level to the audience at a distance. I hope it does the same for the viewer, carrying vibrant details up to the viewer remembering this unique era at a safe distance in the future.
Everyone loves time lapse images, right? Here are some before and after photos, just for you. A smattering of art theory in between, but feel free to scroll through and just enjoy the pretty pictures.
This is the first painting in a collection called IMMENSITIES.
My first step with this painting was visiting and sketching the locations that inspired an entire 20 canvas landscape series. Hallerbos is a huge forest in Belgium. When I was little I was under the impression that bluebells are special because they only grow in the wild. Hallerbos has big wide promenade paths because bluebell colonies take a long time to establish and when crushed can take years to recover. The location of the forest (“bos”) is in Halle, which is mostly in the Flemish Brabant with a little part in Walloon Brabant. It makes Belgian people agree on one thing, which is unusual. Our whole local community, the Flemish, the Walloons and the expat bubble, all equally love the annual display of bluebells at Hallerbos, and there’s a lot of excitement every year when people start asking each other “Are the bluebells out yet? Don’t miss them!”
There are certain places, and certain people, that make me ache to paint them. I feel like even if you lost everything I’ve ever painted, those would represent the essential points of light in my life.
This collection is different from my previous art work because I normally do continuous line portraits and the only landscapes I’ve ever made before were miniatures. The “opening up” giant shapes I intended for this collection, were originally inspired by real out-of-this-world landscapes witnessed as I travelled across Greece. Just the Peloponnese alone has lava sand beaches and slate stone towers on dry mountains and lush vineyards and white sand beaches with ancient temples. One day across one coast is like visiting 7 different country’s landscapes all in one gulp. There are so many dramatic shapes in Greek landscapes, often with a cliff precipice involved. I carry that awareness of the movement of the earth with me now travelling through Belgium. To talk Art Theory of a minute (if not here, then where?), I try to actualise a Kantian understanding of the Sublime in my landscapes: the human-sized relationship to the greater-than-human sized “reveal” of the nature scene. This relates to the title of my art collection, IMMENSITIES, because immense spaces were the starting point and the sublime reaction was the intention behind the work. In Kant’s aesthetics, the sublime (distinct from the beautiful) occurs “when we confront a reality that exceeds our conceptual faculties,” (Martel 45). To be more precise, we experience the sublime when our mind is confronted with reason, which forces the mind to conceptualise the object (the world), but fails to conceptualise because the world is too enormous and overwhelming to be represented as a whole (24). In neurotheology, the part of our brain that experiences awe shuts down our sense of personal circumference. The individual literally lets go to experience the greater whole without ego. A combination of dynamic paint brush strokes mimic hot air shafts, which provides the movement that leads us into the sense of space. The use of paint on the frame should lean us into the depth of the space and lend itself to the enveloping of the enormous scene.
Over the last few years I’ve prepared for these paintings by workshopping unusual real-world shapes, especially landscape shapes in my sketchbooks, with pen and ink and watercolours too.
I spent about a month mixing my own bespoke colour palette for this series. Acrylic paints only because I have a family now and oil paint brush cleaners are toxic. I knew I wanted an Andy Dixon-style use of oil pastel to bring in illustrative details, but I wasn’t sure how I would achieve this on a more textured layering of paint than the flat surface he normally utilises.
It was very difficult to settle on which colours I would use throughout this whole collection. I knew I had to go with essentials rather than nice-to-have colours. I kept having to pull myself back from what are pleasant mixes and return again and again to the mixing board to find what are the essential mixes for me. For example, what is True Red for nobody but me. I found that the only indubitable red, for me, on a gut level is a very orangey red. A glossy red reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich, in my case.
Next step: me overthinking more things, of course. I worried about the cost of framing for the average art collector. There are often three stages of payment for a piece of art: purchase, shipment and framing. I get it. That’s a lot. Someone commissions a painting, pays half up front, or buys one already made and then has to pay for shipping AND framing. Sometimes that takes the art far out of their original budget, or extends the spending process that takes the joy out of the acquisition. So, with full empathy for the person who wants to own art, (and support living artists!), without breaking the bank, I came up with the idea to use beautiful antique frames, with their own original sculptural elements to inspire the shapes in the final artwork (rather than the other way around) and provide the new art owner an easier solution to the cost of framing. This should cut the cost of owning an artwork down by at least a third, and even down by two thirds if they don’t need shipment either.
Belgium has an incredibly rich antique collecting culture. There are regular antique markets, popular antique shops and international annual fairs too. I was enrapt when first visiting the “Old Market,” Jeu de Balle, in the Marolles district of Brussels. One of the most famous weekend antique markets, it was a living museum. Handling Delftware, Bavarian mugs, French asparagus plates, even original silver Art Nouveau period antiques, I realised there was a distinct diversity here: Belgium sits between the Netherlands, Germany and France. Of course the antique markets will reflect that crossroad! Then, most brilliantly, Art Nouveau was born in Belgium, in the middle of all that, of course. Sourcing the antique frames for this series was an exciting, educational hunt. I learnt a lot about history through the objects we treasure. (Even bought an antique that we traced to a friend’s grandparent’s honeymoon!)
A lot of sanding and cleaning and priming went into prepping these frames. I had to hold a vision for the final image, for each of the paintings, already in mind all the way back then, while choosing the size of the frame and the background tone for that canvas. Holding 20 visions for 20 paintings while working for over a year, while being interrupted by family every day. It’s a challenge.
I prepared preliminary sketches with a rough placing of the final images so I could visualise them even better. Then measured the gallery walls to check I had everything lined up correctly. Then bought new canvases to fill those frames.
By that time the holiday season was upon us, so I brought my studio work right into our living room. No, we do not have the extra space. Yes, I did get a little help from the mini artist.
I painted them multiple times to get a richness of tone for even that very fundamental base layer. With different colours layering on top of each other, only barely visible through thin patches, there’s a sense that emotions are bubbling under the surface.
I had intended to only work on largescale Greek landscapes but the curator at Art Base gallery suggested that I prepare works based on my travels through Belgium too, because as he put it, “That has been my personal journey, as a visual artist.”
After months of discussions with Art Base gallery over solo show scheduling, doing 40 other continuous line paintings for another solo art show at the EU Parliament, framing a different collection for another auction, and the final confirmation of the next artshow dates, I finally, FINALLY, got that sweet and scary deadline to work towards, and could focus on these antique-frame-painted paintings with the knowledge they had a host gallery waiting for them, somewhere truly special where they could come alive in the world.
The next stage was to think long and hard about the different points of light inside The Blue Forest (Hallerbos) and choose the part that felt like the heart of the place, to me. This was done from memory. Then to plot the best version of that on the canvas. Shaping the way you move toward it on the path through the trees, I wanted the forest to bend like a fisheye lens to the big reveal of the bluebell carpet that is blooming on the near horizon. This meant that I even had to have the light source and the fallen puddles of light already in mind before layering up all the foreground details.
When paint brushes finally hit the canvas, the first global lockdown in the history of civilization had just begun. Painting landscapes in lockdown felt like grief. It hurt to think of all the beautiful places we had travelled and the great outdoors. Nature felt inaccessible at the time of painting. Memories could be my only reference.
It was at this point that I came to the title for the whole collection. IMMENSITIES just fit. I think a lot about the theory and the philosophy behind the art, and I think a lot about the largess I want to convey. The sense that with this painting you have a new window in your home. The idea that you could walk into it and get a lungful of fresh air. I needed a word that reflected both the big ideas behind the pieces and the big views inside them too.
Where did the word come from? While painting I was listening to an audio recording of Howard’s End by EM Forster. It had been 20 years since I’d read the book and unlike most books, it ripened with age and was well worth the reread. Elizabeth Klett’s free Librivox’s recording is exceptional. The locations in the book are both intimate and immense. I listened while I painted as the characters were also listening, me to them and them to Beethoven. EM Forster was excited to describe Beethoven’s Fifth. He suggests that even if we lost everything else Beethoven had ever written:
If we lost everything he wrote except what is in this key, we should still have the essential Beethoven, the Beethoven tragic, the Beethoven so excited at the approach of something enormous that he can only just interpret and subdue it. It would be a pity to lose a Beethoven unbuttoned, a Beethoven yodelling, but this musician excited by immensities is unique in the annals of any art. No one has ever been so thrilled by things so huge, for the vast masses of doom crush the rest of us before we can hope to measure them. Fate knocks at our door; but before the final tap can sound, the flimsy door flies into pieces, and we never learn the sublime rhythm of destruction.
Howard’s End, page 120
Excited by immensities. That’s me. That’s exactly the work I’m doing here.
I’ll admit it. I always panic halfway through every painting. I call it the Midway Blues. It’s no longer the promise and potential of the start, nor the pleasure of completion at the end. I also wonder whether the final vision will be achieved and if the work in progress is not already beautiful enough… I’m taking a chance, a leap of wobbly faith, that my skills will be able to carry the vision all the way through the painting process to an objective audience’s satisfactory completion. I doubt myself. I often weep. It’s a frustrating moment. Just like Forster describes Beethoven’s music, the Fifth in particular, as the place of a “thrilling” conflict between the composer and “something enormous,” “immense,” “the sublime rhythm of destruction,” I needed to fully digest the vastness of the scene and with my own painting rhythm, layer it up and over itself, with layered paint upon paint, getting over myself in the process.
The thing that drove me through the halfway point on this Hallerbos painting was the knowledge that the bluebell forest is more shady than at that point in the painting process. It had more depth. It needed a lot more shade. Only then would the magnificence of the blue bells pop on the canvas, as they do in real life. If the real life shade of the woods had not been essential, to my commitment to the real place, I could have just left the canvas at the midway point. It was pretty enough. But pretty enough doesn’t cut it, in my book.
I layered on the shadowy bits, the crinkly bits, the leaves, the bluebells themselves. And finished it. Got it as close to my original vision as humanly possible, then varnished it. The painting was ready to visit the photographer’s studio. On the first day of the newly relaxed quarantine measures I put on a mask and gloves and drove to the studio of the incredible photographer Iris Haidau. I’m trying to get better at keeping a record of these works before they go live in your house!
Here is the final painting. I love it so much and can’t wait to share it with you, in person, at the artshow in September. I know when you see it in real life you’ll fall deep inside it and want this extra room in your home as seen through this handpainted window.
If you buy it here or at the show, I’d be delighted this painting found a happy home. That said, if nobody buys it, I honestly don’t care. It was so successful. I wouldn’t mind having this horizon in my own home from here on out.