My Twentieth Year . . . Well, That Was Unexpected
First published Wednesday 20th January 2021
In 1992, I went to see Baz Luhrmann’s film ‘Strictly Ballroom’ with my then movie-buddy Linda Molyneaux at Pictureville, an art house cinema in Bradford. As it was just released, we did not really know anything about the film, but it had been recommended to us. The movie starts with jump cuts of ballroom dancing competition interspersed with ‘talking heads to camera’ from obviously obsessed and ambitious characters. During this, Linda and I turned to each other wondering what on earth we were watching. Something happens (I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what), but then one of the characters, a little girl, turns to camera and says “well, that was unexpected!”. That about sums up 2020, my 20th year of working as an artist.
2020 started out with my new husband returning home from our Christmas and New Year trip to the USA, while I went on to Phoenix to stay and paint with abstract artist, Nancy Nowak-Utech. I had not met Nancy, and her husband, Art, but she was a friend of my brother, who she met when they both worked for AT&T in the UAE, and I had a lovely week with them before returning to the UK on the 10th of January . During my stay in Arizona, we went Sedona and also to a workshop with an Phoenix based animal artist, where I painted a portrait of my whippet, Scribble, in acrylics. I am afraid that I really don't get on with acrylic paint, partly for the rather plastic feel of it; because it does not stay 'open' - drying extremely quickly and cannot be re-wetted; but mainly because the colour shift after few hours drying/curing is about two tones darker than when working on it. For someone who more usually works in watercolour, which dries a half-tone to a tone lighter, it makes it very hard to judge colour and tonal balances without thinking all the time, therefore breaking my flow and concentration.
I have a better affinity with oil paint, and one of my favourite pieces from this year, 'Sightline' is an oil painting that I used to further explore the lessons from Arizona.
You may see that I have not many paintings of horses from this year. Some of the paintings I did were commissions, but in 2020, I ended up with more unfinished works that ever before, maybe due to having no show deadlines. But then I have lots to 'go at' and get back to in 2021.
I was supposed to have a couple of months working before flying out to Houston on 29th March with Julie Cross, to paint with Lesley Humphrey and a few of Lesley’s American artist friends. The reports of a new virus in Wuhan, China were filtering in from the moment I came back, and the first two cases were confirmed in the UK, in York on 29th January. I was going about my work as usual, including Life Drawing with Andrés Jaroslavsky in York, but while I had intended to set up some workshops to coincide with the Society of Equestrian Artists’ exhibition at Weston Park in April, a ‘feeling’ stopped me from going ahead. On March 23rd, the United Kingdom went into lockdown, and my shows and exhibitions started falling like dominos. I had also been booked to deliver workshops by, among others, The Society of Equestrian Artists, and Hornsea Arts Festival, who would be celebrating their 50th year in 2020. All were cancelled as it became apparent that this would not be a simply-solved outbreak, and with the USA closing its borders to flights from Europe, my Houston trip was also cancelled. Incidentally, though I had studied both the World Wars in history lessons at school, they had never touched on the Spanish flu pandemic. I learned about that when studying Art History at University as artist Egon Schiele died of the Spanish Flu in 1918, aged only 28.
In studio, I had plenty to get on with, as
Dr Sally Bulgin, editor of ‘The Artist’ magazine had commissioned a further series of five articles, this time on Figure Drawing. So I set to work on the series to be published in the July to November issues. Coloured pencil drawing, 'Beneath the Swan' is my favourite from the series, and featured in the article that included notes on drawing hands and feet. It is a study that carries a commentary on the hard work and sacrifice that goes on beneath the surface of, seemingly, effortless elegance. I am pleased to say that this piece found its perfect home with an ex-dancer.
All went well until I came to the last article, which was all about drawing from life - in cafes, parks etc, something I had done since University. Of course, with lockdown, I could not do that. Lesley suggested drawing from television, which I had already done before (see 2012), and I did include a drawing I made from the television programme 'Devs'. There is an issue there though: television images are copyright in the same way as photographs. I contacted the producers and distribution company, who gave permission, and the image was included in the series - I have not included it in this blog, as I did not get specific permission to publish it anywhere else, and social media, websites etc count as publishing too. After my panic, I realised that there were still images to be made that also made a social commetary on the changes in our 'normal' way of life. So I sketched my husband gardening and painting the eaves of the garage, people 'Applauding the Frontline' and, made the steering wheel of my car into an easel to draw, 'Queuing for the Supermarket'.
Later in the year, I took part in supporting The Artists' Support Pledge, an initiative by artist Matthew Burrows to help visual artists whose incomes had been inpacted by the pandemic. The idea was simple. Artists would use social media to offer works for up to £200, and when they sold either five pieces or pieces valuing £1000, they would, in turn, buy an artwork from the scheme for up to £200. I listed some of the drawings from the articles, and some smaller, experimental or preparatory works that are usually 'kicking around' my studio. So far, I have bought works from Jacqui Bassett and Eunice Knott-Linsdell. I still have some pieces from my original Artist Support Pledge listings and also works that I have rediscovered under piles of other stuff, which I am completing in studio to add to the list in 2021.
I had some commissions to do (I am usually book up around six months ahead), but also started following the Sky Portrait Artist of the week Facebook live four-hour sittings on a Sunday.
It seemed a good opportunity to play some more with oil painting, and painting from screen while listening to the featured artist talk with the sitter gave insights that I saw reflected in my work. This portrait, of
'Will Young' is my favourite from the series. I was not the only one to work with different subjects and mediums. Many artists who I have spoken to were ‘doing other things to their usual’ in 2020, maybe an unexpected effect of lockdown.
‘Other things’ also came into play beyond my artwork. My husband, David, with no work (all cancelled as soon as lockdown came into force), no income, furlough or grants as he was one of the 3 million – I think that a conservative estimate – who ‘slipped through the net’, set about working in our rather neglected cottage garden. I had not much skill or interest in gardening, though bizarrely I had been receiving social media posts on my newsfeeds from gardening groups since the start of the year. Apart from my from orchid collection thriving on neglect, I pretty much had a black thumb with houseplants, and early attempts at growing tomatoes and cucumbers in the conservatory (after I had moved my studio out of there back in 2005), were thwarted by being away at shows with no one to water them. We cleared a gravelled area outside my studio window and managed to get hold of a raised bed and a small plastic greenhouse. Hunting around in the garage also produced some old wooden apple crates that had originally been my book shelf system when I was a student (easy to move quickly – just turn the box on its back and it was ready to go!). With the addition of a bin liner, these also became planters and I grew tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, mange-tout, courgettes, broccoli and carrots as well as salad leaves making us self-sufficient in vegetables for the summer and beyond (I still have beans and ratatouille in the freezer). I found a new joy in watching the gradual growth out the window as I sat at my desk to write or work in sketchbooks, and marvelled at the sight of water droplets on the broccoli leaves and insects busily pollinating our crop. Gardener’s World also became required viewing for us on a Friday evening.
Once more in the vein of ‘different’ I was contacted in July by Rebecca Glaze of equestrian, country and home ware company, Glaze & Gordon. While they had mainly ‘bought in’ products so far, Becs had been thinking for a while about producing their own ranges, and had been looking for an artist to work with. She had come across my work on Bailey’s Hunting Directory social media pages (I hadn't even known my work was on there). Over the years, I have been approached a few times to licence my work, but never felt confident that the quality of print and product would match the care I put into my own published works. I had seen Glaze and Gordon at Burghley Horse Trials, and my impression then had been of quality, an impression that was re-enforced by a look at the Glaze and Gordon website.
Becs wanted an image that could be printed stand-alone, or as a repeat pattern, so I went to see an old designer pal and he showed me how to set up a repeat on the computer, and some other tricks in PhotoShop.
It was an interesting exercise to then design a painting that could be scanned and interlocked as a repeat and ‘The Hunt Jump’ was the result. There were hurdles to clear along the way, with printers affected by covid-related restrictions and staff absences, but the products were available just in time for the Christmas market under the banner Glaze and Gordon • Ruth Buchanan Collection. Becs and I have other products and projects planned, and hope to expand the Ruth Buchanan Collection in the New Year.
At Home, we had some Zoom and Facetime interaction with family and friends, and two clients who have also become friends have also shared weekly Zoom meet ups with us during lockdowns, although sometimes with some technical problems! My plans for developing some online teaching have, so far, been thwarted by problems with our internet capacity. Living in a village is great for many reasons, but not when everyone is on their computers at home. David is now working towards new routers and moving things(?!) to try to improve the situation.
Once lockdown was eased, I visited my friend, Yvonne Scales, to reference the three foals born at her home in the late Spring/early Summer, returning monthly to document their progress. While I was there, one of her cats also had kittens, and one was very small and not able to fight her way to food. She was tiny – half the size of her siblings even though by now she was being hand-fed and, being a long-haired Siberian, had fur sticking up at all angles, so I promptly named her Scrap. Yvonne does not sell the ‘special kittens’, and felt that Scrap had claimed me, so in August Scrap, now properly named Tiger Lily but always Scrap to us, came to join the Buchanimals.
While every other show was cancelled, the Association of Animals Artists’ Autumn Exhibition did manage to go ahead at Weston Park in October. I had three paintings accepted, and also went down to Shropshire to courier works from Yorkshire, and to help with the hanging.
Lesley Humphrey had returned to Texas earlier in the year, and was also impacted by lockdowns, with the early closure of her exhibition at the Pearl Fincher Museum in Houston. She did however make a video with the museum where she mentioned a book called The Artist’s Way, which co-incidentally was also mentioned by one of the featured artists on Sky Portraits. In 2020, I bought the book, and started to work through the programme, supported by Lesley at each step. I highly recommend this book to other creatives in any field. My co-mentorship with Julie Cross had become an integral part of my art practice over the past few years, and we continued to support each other remotely through lockdown, and in person once restrictions eased.
We were able to return to Life Drawing together, first at Leeds Drawing Club, then in York when Andrés Jaroslavsky re-opened his classes there, and 'Reclining Nude', drawn from a one-hour pose, is my favourite Life Drawing from this year. We have also had some shared artist-to-artist studio sessions with Andrés where the student sometimes becomes the teacher! Michelle Clarke-Stables also remains an artistic rock for me, and I missed seeing her this year. These wonderful artists have made a huge difference to me, diverse as they are in their own work. They are all generous with their time and knowledge (I hope that they think the same of me) and have all contributed to my development as an artist, as well as sharing humour and the ‘arty chats’ that send my husband scurrying away to find something else to do. After so many years working in isolation I feel that, as well as ‘the master appearing’ (see quote in year 2015), I have the interaction and artistic community around me that has made this year bearable and the future, one to look forward to.
2020 had not finished with me yet, and I had to return to working with an altered ‘hold’ and my, non-dominant, left hand in November. I had fallen, receiving a broken right collar bone and index finger (as well as bad bruising to my shin and hip), just before tier lockdowns were re-introduced.
While I have had (more than) my share of riding accidents, this time I had stepped onto a mat during a visit to an art gallery, where Julie was exhibiting some of her work. Unfortunatley, the mat at the top of two tiled steps had slipped to one side, so there was no step under it. The next thing I knew, I was on the tiled floor at the bottom, but was lucky to avoid a rather sharp metal sculpture! of course with typical English 'stiff upper lip' (ie. embarrassment), I picked myself up and carried on, but from the moment we left the gallery and walked back to the car, Julie had to put up with me saying 'ow! ow! ow!' at every step.
I went to Life Drawing a couple of days after my fall. I had to draw the hour-pose with my left hand, as reaching to work at the drawing board hurt my shoulder too much. As I had a commission with a Christmas deadline, I had to keep working, and the images show me drawing with strapped fingers and working with my left hand on 'roughs' - drawings from which the client can see which verison best shows the character of their animal, and from the roughs, they can decides which will go forward to become their painting.
I really could not decide what to do for my Christmas card in 2020. I came up with a few ideas, but either they referred to the life that Covid-19 restrictions had imposed (after the first year when they are my personal card, they join the collection that I have for sale, and something so specific would not have a ‘shelf-life’), or they just seemed disrespectful to all the loss that people had suffered.
In the end I played around with my new-found PhotoShop skills on the computer and one of the results (from messing about with ‘In Time’, a watercolour of a single horse which I painted for a demonstration feature on 'experiemental watercolour techniques' in 'Paint' magazine the previous year) became ‘Timeless’. Even then, my indecision kicked in and I could not decide if the design was better with or without the Christmas tree, As David preferred the tree, and I slightly leaned more to the treeless, we printed two versions: ‘Timeless and ‘Timeless Tree’. Both are now listed on my e-commerce website at www.HorseDrawn.co.uk.