Painted Veils ~ Unworded Letters

Ideals oFthe Veils and Stones project:

To forge accessible ways to create personal and communal narratives, because humans live by narrative and the global culture is accelerating towards an alienating and fragmenting barrage of information. To find a way to involve people, not only ‘artists’, in the processof creation, and by this, also encouraging them to become active, not passive receivers of ‘art’ and to respect their own and others expression in small, intimate enactments of ‘art’. To create moments that are meaningful in their intimacy and individuality and to tie them into a wider, meaningful context that doesn’t deny, but respects and celebrates their originality. This ‘wider’ context could be universal in its perceivable humanism, but more importantly, exists within a community, however small – as a reflection of its own depth that doesn’t need the popular validly. TO ENCOURAGE CONFIDENCE WITHIN peoples expressive LANGUAGE, PERSONALLY AND COMMUNALLY, AND AWARENESS OF THE FREEDOM OF CREATIVE SPACE WITHIN IT..




I have been thinking a lot about narrative, how it forms our understanding and expression:

“Only that which narrates can make us understand” Susan Sontag

“Information is alienated experience. Only experience can de-alienate the bits”, ‘You Are Not A Gadget’Jaron Lanier

And about the role of repetition, in literature, oral storytelling, dance, theatre, music, and visual arts. In some arts repetition occurs in words, in others, by gestures. Sometimes the repetition can be indirect – only an echo, perhaps of mark or of material. I began to look practice with repeating very simple marks, looking for a language:

Some emerged looking like maps, some like flocks of birds, one like a letter:

I began to think about letter-writing, which I do often, and what is so compelling about it. When writing a letter, expression has a direction, an audience, a confidant.  It draws on the need not just to create but to communicate (an instinct that necessitates creation). I thought also about the materials. Never have I achieved the amount of personal expression on a keyboard as I have with ink and paper. The expression of handwriting alone, large, small, neat, messy, slanted, loopy changes with my mood and says so much, it is transcribed body language.

I also write on unconventional materials and in unconventional ways – many scraps of paper collect thoughts, falling from the envelope they have a shifting order. I write on many different textures, switch from drawing to words and back again, draw with my words. I find that the textures and colours fit different moods and ideas. Sifting through a pile of papers can inspire the subject, or a subject can pick the paper.

Particularly I thought of a letter written on tracing paper, partially painted on the back so that the reversed letters emerged in mysterious shapes when the letter was turned over. I wrote of the desire;

“to see the strange and beautiful shapes our meanings make before they leap past the eye and into language.”

From all these thoughts sprang the letter writing project, which became the Veils and Stones Project. I began making vast amounts of colliograph prints with different colours, textures and moods. I asked people to write a letter, on any one of these that suited, presenting both choice and inspiration, but to write it without words. I also asked them to use an ink dropper to move them away from well known motions of the pen and free up their hand from habits of language.

From a familiar starting point, writing, the unusual materials and removal of words begins a journey, of de-familiarization and re-familiarisation. Taking an accessible and personal activity, writing a letter, and moving it step by step towards a new form of expression and a wider context.

Each letter came out in a distinct visual language. And the writers found something useful and fulfilling in the expression. I wanted both to take the individual experiences further and to join these letters in some way that gave them meaningful context. To re-familiarise the work through context.  I began to have ‘visual conversations’, as in the Serendipity project, using the symbols from their letters. Without knowing the meaning of the symbols however these conversations felt vague and full of misunderstanding. To explain their symbols, requiring them to be converted into the words they had been liberated from, would undo their power.

So I began a new tactic. Creating a map or diagram from the letters. Asking the writer to chose 5 symbols of importance from their letter and placing them north, south, east, west and centre. I transcribed them onto a separate print and asked the writer how they linked together; to describe the connections (without explanation) between the symbols. I then interpreted their answers into lines that joined the 5 symbols into a strong image. Often people had to think very hard about the connections, and said that, like the letter, the map or diagram had revealed something to them of their own mind and understanding and helped them to find some order. Writing is very linear, but our experience, particularly our emotional experience often doesn’t occur this way. Using the familiarity of writings linear narrative to discover important symbols and then freeing them from from that linearity allowed some people to reach an expression and understanding more revealing of their mind and connected to their experience of thought and emotion.

Combining the letters with the maps gave the language of each letter a greater sense of meaning. They also began to take on the context of the other letters. Each writer became more invested in the letters of others. I began to think of these letters as painted veils, veils which are seen and whisper what is not, hanging side by side, mysteries on display.

The body of letters grew and grew and as I’d hoped, the repetition of material; with it’s subtle variations, format;  with the letters followed by maps, and the number of pieces began to build the sense of a mutual language.

Growing sense of mutual language

The experience of letter-writing was so personal and tactile but when I thought of them hanging I still wanted something for people to touch and engage physically. So the signs from the letters took another journey as I began making pebble-like clay stones and carving two symbols from each letter onto a stone. (see following page)







Recent Posts

Hockney: Ode to Invisible Blue


Hockney’s Retrospective at the Tate Britain.

hockney self p

I used to draw when I visited galleries, but these days I tend to lean less on the pencil, and more on the pen, making word impressions where sketches will not suffice. With notebooks overflowing and piling up around me I’ve decided now to share these reflections, not posing as a critic, but sharing and exploring experiences of art as I have encountered them and felt compelled to pen them from time to time.  

Hockney’s exhibition at the Tate Britain was the first thing I went to see back in London when I got home. I had so many notes that I planned to write a walk-through of the exhibition, a fascinating journey through the work of an ever changing artist. But in the end I found I had enough to say about a single painting for one post. What was surprising was that it was a painting I had seen reproduced, and did not expect to find fascinating. This reminds me that a large part of the ‘work’ that makes an artwork work is that it takes time, attention, and presence. It is the work of the viewer, as well as of the artist that creates an experience. After a long while of looking I felt very attached to this painting, not it’s miniature reproduction on screen, but the vibrating body of the canvas itself. 

Portrait of an artist 1972 – Pool With Two FiguresDavidHockney-PortraitofanArtistPoolwithTwoFigures. - light


First of all I need to note that although I have put the image here for reference, it is inevitably limited in in capturing the impression of the real piece which I would estimate to be around three meters wide and two high. The colours also are different in real life, some are brighter, some deeper, some subtler. I’m including a black and white image because I think it leaves room for the imagination to project the impressions described.

DavidHockney-PortraitofanArtistPoolwithTwoFigures. - bw


Summer Skirt Mountain

The use of colour in this picture edges on an impressionist realism, using the standard optical tricks to create spatial illusion, purple mountains, receding objects becoming opaque, tending towards blue and contrasting with the bold, bright, warm colours of the pool and the figures, pitching them to the front of the canvas. The stones around the pool are subtly coloured, and there are remarkable white lines with flashes of yellow in the water that truly seem to dance. These things are not just symbols – they evoke the scene through an artful illusion. And yet the whole effect side-steps realism. Two things stand out to me, the intensely saturated blocks of colour in the water, skin tone and salmon jacket, and the stylized patternation of the middle distance mountain, in floral pastel hues that put me in mind of an old fashioned tablecloth, or a faded summer skirt. These things flatten the spacial illusion. I found this over and over again in Hockney’s work, the play between depth and flatness that makes his pictures self aware, breaking their fourth (or only) wall sometimes harshly, sometimes, as here, with a gentle whisper.

Draft Line, “I drew this…”

Although the foliage of the mountains to the fore is more detailed, varied and realistic, the initial sketch lines of their gradients show through the trees that have been painted on top. In an image so consummately painted, controlled and detailed, leaving evidence of the drafting process can only be intentional. And so with this, and the domestic patterned mountain the painting becomes self aware, self conscious of its draftsmanship and decorative potential. The painting says “See this scene.” it also says, “I drew this scene, and then I painted it.”

We, The Watchers

The draft line of the ridge on the right passes behind the head of the standing man, tracking his gaze and drawing our eyes down to follow his view of the swimmer. It is a line of tension. We watch the swimmer with the man in the pink jacket at the pool edge. The sense of watching, and waiting, is static in a way that might be broken at any moment, like the surface of the pool. We are drawn into the scene as participants, sharing a view, “Look”, says the picture, “Let’s watch and see…”

Invisible Blue

I am most impressed by the heavy, soft blue of the body of water that hangs in shadow above the swimmer. It functions so well that it took me a long time of observing the painting to really notice it, despite being a potentially dominating colour and hue, and so boldly placed right across the middle of the canvas. It is a quarter of the painting’s height and two thirds of its length. And it’s almost empty, courageously so. There is some colour shift but no detail, nothing happening. It is painted quite roughly in comparison to other parts of the picture, and it is that emptiness and vagueness lets the eye pass over it without catching. Like meeting the pole of an opposing magnet, your eye rolls over the thick blue mass and lands instead on the bright colours and stark shapes that surround it. The deep hue, the soft and solid nature of this block of water in shadow throws the ephemeral swimmer and streaks of living light out towards the viewer. This blue is the drummer in the band, the broad base line off which the colourful melody plays. Or perhaps it is the silence, the space between notes that allows them to strike out with such clarity. Although as a portion of paint in itself, gloriously and deeply blue, it does not display the finest of Hockney’s talents, it is used in exquisite harmony with its surroundings and demonstrates his deftness with both colour and composition. So I make this short stock of observations an ode, to the invisible blue.

By happy chance today I came across a history of blue pigments

I cannot find a digital reproduction of this image that satisfies my memory of this blue. In the picture at the top of this blog it is far too light. Screen reproductions, besides being flat and small, also play with colour and tend towards brightening everything. The more I learn about colour theory the more I realize that the mixing of colour through light (screen) and pigment (paint) are fundamentally different. The picture below has a better sense of the blue, though all else is much too dark, you get a better impression of the light and shadow in the water.

DavidHockney-PortraitofanArtistPoolwithTwoFigures. - DARK bluejpg

If you have a chance to go and see the actual painting, (and get your own impressions!) and the whole exhibition then please do go. It’s on at the Tate Britain until May 29th. And besides this picture there is a wealth of artwork from Mr. Hockney’s varied and fascinating works.

I would very much like to write about Hockney’s in terms of his relationship with photography but…. He has written and spoken so eloquently about this that first and foremost I suggest anyone who is interested see his documentary on the historical use of camera obscura and camera lucida by many of the revered artists of the past, “Secret Knowledge”. I honestly couldn’t recommend this more if you have an interest in the history of western art and the ways we have learned to see, understand, and construct the world around us as a culture.


Thanks for reading my first ArtNotes post.

More soon from BlancheEllisArtNotes  


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