It’s based on the New Zealand ‘Kiokio’ fern – one of the Blechnums : Blechnum capense. They often grow on banks, and the fronds can reach quite a size – often 2 or 3 feet long. They look like great green waterfalls.
Where there is plenty of sun falling on them, the tips of the fronds take on an orangey hue.
The interesting thing about this genus is that its fertile, spore-bearing fronds are a distinctly different shape from its normal fronds.
I’ve brought this out in the painting – the fertile frond is shown in white silhouette behind the normal frond unfurling.
Here in New Zealand, any kind of unfolding fern frond or ‘koru’ is regarded as a symbol of new beginnings, development and growth. For me, it is also a symbol of enormous power. A botanical magnifying glass reveals some mighty wonders!
Click on image for more details.
This is a painting of a NZ native pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), the Kereru, or as they’re called up here the Kukupa, soaring above the volcanic outcrop where I live.
They are quite a large bird, with very distinctive and beautiful coloring, the breast pure white, the head, neck, back and wings green of varying hues with purple and grey intermingled. They have quite a heavy flight, although their nuptual flights in spring are quite spectacular. A pair produces only one chick a year, so it it doesn’t take much brain to see how easily numbers become depleted.
Sadly, this bird is becoming scarce here because although they are protected, certain people think they have the right to take them for food.
When my parents moved in here about 40 years ago, and for many years after, the kukupa native woodpigeon could be seen in numbers swooping and soaring over the thermals from the warm rock face.
Nowadays, thanks to attention from some people, they are so depleted in numbers that I rarely see one in the bush, let alone up on the rock. The irony of it is that according to Maori tradition, the area behind this rock, known as ‘Kukuparere’ was fabled to be the place where ALL the Kereru birds in New Zealand originated from. So much for respecting our treasured legends! Where are the kaitiaki?
Click on the image for larger size and more details.
This was inspired by New Zealand’s magnificent Central North Island Plateau (National Park as we call it) – the location for 3 volcanoes, 2 of them active. Note: Mount Tongariro has proved me wrong on this, with a series of recent eruptions – Yay! The ‘inactive’ volcano – Mount Tongariro – has so many blown-out craters, it’s probably more like a bunch of volcanoes in its own right.
If you saw the “Lord of The Rings” series, one of our active volcanoes on this plateau – Mt Ngauruohoe – was featured as Mt Doom.
Ngauruhoe is actually a beautiful, symmetrical cone, regarded as a female in Maori tradition, and she looks anything but ‘doomful’ under normal conditions. She does, however, tend to have a plume of steam arising from her crater quite often – a sign that she is by no means as sweet-natured as she may look.
Anyway, the inspiration for this small ACEO painting was Mt Tongariro doing its undoubted best. Click on the image for larger size and more details …
At the age of 13 in the Scottish educational system, a pupil has to make the choice of what they want to do in life. Obviously a very big decision, quite hard to make at a relatively young age: I don’t know if things are the same now.
The options for me were Languages, Science and Art.
I wasn’t in any doubt what I wanted to do and it was called Art.
But here’s where one of life’s major disappointments reared its head: my father’s response was a flat, “No! You will never make a living at art. Keep it as a hobby and enjoy it.”
This was painted later in life, after I moved to Wellington to work as a lawyer. But it reflects the desolate feelings I had earlier – plus my grief at devastation of nature. Click on image for more details.
Looking back, I can understand his reaction at that time, but it sure was hard on me. What’s more, I was also very good at both languages and science. It wasn’t as if art was my only option. So I didn’t have that leg to stand on.
One doesn’t argue with an RSM, especially my father. With a great deal of sadness, I decided to go for languages.
There was nothing else to do but carry on …
This is another later painting and it’s worth clicking on the image for a fuller explanation of what’s behind it.
My dad’s comment impacted very heavily on my mind for far too long, and I am only just now beginning to shake it off. What’s more, I never until very recently fully forgave him for what he’d said because as I grew older, and especially lately, I became so very aware what a strong influence it had on my thinking and choices since.
Though I sold quite a lot of art all through my legal career, I found I had indeed a very deep belief that I’d never make a living at it. How deep that belief was, I only discovered when I quit my job and moved up north here – about which, more later. It seemed like I would never shake off the stigma (as I saw it) of not having been to Art School.
Parents: Be careful about what you say to your kids – especially about their dreams. Select your words carefully.
Aside from Disney, of any film I ever saw, this film had by far the widest and most lasting impact on me. I had already been studying Latin at school from quite young (thanks to that great Scottish education), and I found it rather dry.
Now for the first time, the Roman world began to come alive. I bought the book, The Robe by Lloyd C Douglas, was fascinated by it, and started taking an interest in the Romans and their culture.
More than that though, I got a crush on the movie’s leading man, Richard Burton. Ah me – the effect of getting a teenage crush! But it was a very good thing for creativity, all the same!
Doing the usual teenage girl crush stuff of finding out more about Burton’s career led me into the world of Shakespeare at The Old Vic, Alexander the Great, The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Coleridge’s Rime of The Ancient Mariner, and some of Christopher Fry’s plays. This new world I stumbled upon had an exciting richness of spirit. Shakespeare took on new life, and I began to look at literature with different eyes.
All of this impacted on my art – especially Alexander the Great : the door on Classical Greek Art and Architecture was opened for the first time. That was hugely valuable, because Greek sculpture taught me a lot about anatomy – along with a couple of books I got for Christmas presents. I spent some hours drawing anatomical studies from pictures of Greek pieces (didn’t they used to do that in Art School? – never thought of THAT at the time!)
The human body is arguably the hardest thing to render convincingly in art. Quite a number of people doing art struggle noticeably in that area, though the Photoshop ‘Artists’ just grab photos of models, and solve their problem that way. And they call it ‘Art’? Ha! Which goes to show : the good old Art School disciplines – canned in this modern age of ‘permissive everything’ – had some great value, after all!
A couple of years ago, I picked up the B/W drawing at the head of this post and worked it into a full color art piece. Click on the image for larger size and more details:
Done from a Roman sculpture – this is the most ornate helmet I’ve ever set eyes on : isn’t it gorgeous?
The earliest piece I have, done within a couple of years of moving to Scotland, is a half-finished drawing on a sheet of lined paper ripped from a school exercise book of a tiger attacking a buffalo, copied freehand from an illustration in the book “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” by Major Jim Corbett.
It was perhaps the fist edition of this book, and there have been many since. I’m not sure if they all have the original artwork, which I think was by the great wildlife artist, Bob Kuhn. I remember being fascinated by the illustrations in that book – more quality artwork!
And though the book was technically a “hunting” book, it was special. Jim Corbett has an enormous reputation as a humble yet highly skilled and patient hunter, who rid parts of India of some really dangerous wildlife, while at the same time showing humanity and care for wild animals. In later life, he exchanged his rifle for a camera, as many hunters do.
Another very early piece was this Guy Fawkes, developed from a black and white logo in a newspaper advertisement run by a fireworks company. Inside the small circle, probably less than 1″ across, you could just see the face and the tall hat, the armful of fireworks and the side of Guy’s lantern. Tiny as it was, the quality of the design made an arresting image.
My dad suggested I do something with it. The challenge was to expand it out, bring in color, and still retain the play of light and shadow created by the lantern. I was about 10 when I did that.
Learning About Art
Gradually, art awareness began to develop. With help, I was learning to analyze what I saw from a graphics point of view – maybe not with the improved understanding that comes from years of practice, book study and looking, but at least innately. My dad encouraged me to start a “swipe file” of pictures I liked, as a reference tool. Over the years it grew to huge proportions, but it still contains stuff that dates back to that time.
Soon, when looking at books or magazines, I was taking note of the artwork. How was that picture done? What about the composition? What about the colors? What about the angle? At the time I was barely conscious of this, except to know that I enjoyed pictures, but through sharing my dad’s thoughts, the habit grew stronger and never left me. It took me a while to realise that not everyone sees things this way. Quite a shock!
Years later, that old Tiger drawing got reworked it into a fantasy battle between a tiger and a huge snake. Must have been looking at too much of Frank Frazetta’s work, he had a real passion for huge snakes!
Michelangelo didn’t limit himself to drawing from life. In 1492 at 17 years of age he put himself in serious danger by dissecting dead bodies in the mortuary of the Santo Spirito monastery in Florence.
The penalty for interfering with human remains was death. Why would he do that? To understand how the human body is constructed and how it works – and that is what gave such unprecedented life and movement to his paintings and sculptures.
Drawing – Making Line Live
I’ve come to appreciate that though I never went to art school, I did get a pretty rigorous training in drawing and in making what I created truly express the reality. This came from my dad’s critique, which harked back to the good old basics of looking hard at one’s subject-matter, understanding it and capturing it.
If what I drew or painted didn’t look like what it was meant to be, and didn’t have life, I GOT ROASTED. If the technique was weak or fussy, I GOT ROASTED. About that, more later.
So I came to value clarity of line, especially when it expresses 3 dimensional mass and movement economically.
The Second Principle : Strength of Composition – Design
Composition is arguably THE most important element of a painting – sculpture too, though it’s more complex in three dimensions. If there’s one thing that really puts me off, it’s a painting with a number of elements scattered around the space, without real consideration for the overall layout of the composition as a whole. No design! And that happens more often than you might think. And the average person doesn’t see it.
Look at frames from Disney cartoon movies, and see how all-pervading good composition and design was in the huge array of Disney’s animations – masterly! Given the number of artists working for Disney at any one time over the years, maintaining such consistency is a huge achievement in itself.
Taking the subject of composition a little deeper, here’s something most people are totally unaware of. It was clearly explained in a book called ‘The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art’ by Charles Bouleau, which I have among my texts. The book is out of print now, but people on Amazon are crying for a reprint. I really can’t improve on this short excerpt from a review by T Campbell:
“This is the art history text we all should have had and didn’t. It is the only book I have found in several years of looking into what has been printed on composition/design in the 2-D arts that actually shows the manner in which artists in a number of Greco-Roman to western traditions managed their space. It was certainly not the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach that is so common now. The great ones then, and to a certain degree even now, were very well educated in their traditions, which included mathematics, especially geometry, the application of which to image making was connected to their faith, as well as being an expression of their genius.
“Bouleau carries his argument into the 20th century and shows that respect for geometric spatial division to establish harmony is not dead. It still works, even with completely nonrepresentational art.
“This is a stunningly informative look at the visual arts in the European traditions and is the only book I have found that informs me on how the “old masters” and some contemporary masters built their paintings.”
Below are works by 2 relatively modern artists, showing their use of geometric principles in composition. “Miserere” by Georges Roualt and “Composition ll in Red, Yellow and Blue” by Piet Mondrian:
Don’t be misled: this is not a case of art being forced into a geometric matrix to suit some theory. Just as mathematics underlies much of our world (think of music, for a start), it is inescapably true that artworks whose composition or design complies with certain geometric principles, are more powerful and satisfying.
Hence the value of basing your studies as an artist on the very best of traditional and contemporary masters.
We lived first in a semi-detached Army villa in the suburb of Seafield. At the bottom of the street was – is – a small park called Johnstone Gardens built around a rocky landscaped stream, surrounded by paths, shrubberies, flower beds and rock gardens, with tall trees as a backdrop. I was given my first little camera and shot many photos – now lost – in that park.
My mom took me there often : it was a ‘wild’ landscape in miniature.
I’d just got a serial comic – it was Odham’s “Mickey Mouse Weekly”. My folks enjoyed it too, but I’m sure my dad was looking for artistic quality in what he chose, and I’m really grateful. I looked forward to that comic, and devoured its contents. It wasn’t all Disney though – many of the other cartoons and illustrations were of a different quality and appealed less. I found myself gradually getting a preference for the Disney style of artwork.
Two principles stand out in Disney’s works, and I’d like to think they are a good training ground for any artist. Firstly, clarity of line. The Disney line is stylish in its boldness. Eye and hand are coordinated to produce a highly polished, clean result.
The First Principle : Clarity of Line (ie Draftsmanship)
In today’s art world it’s kinda cutesy and clever to leave your viewers guessing. “Is that a fish or a bird?” “Is that a person standing in all that murk or is it an elephant?” Hmmmm. Too many people are getting away with bad draftsmanship because their creations are regarded as “innovative” or “thought-provoking”. We are putting a premium on gimmickry rather than solid grounding. Art is becoming cerebral instead of visceral in its appeal.
Maybe the fact that the Universities have got in on the act of training people to be artists has something to do with it.
I admire Prince Charles for stepping up to the plate and founding The Prince’s Drawing School. It’s time someone stood up for the real fundamental values in Art. There’s nothing ‘old fashioned’ about it – these fundamentals apply to digital art just as they’ve done to traditional art through the centuries. For more information see also Wikipedia on The Prince’s Drawing School.
Photographs are definitely not art
Right now, photography is doing its darndest to take over the Art space. Many would say, “If you can get a good photograph why go for paintings?” And that, of course, provides another excuse for the current trends in Art proper. Well, I’m sorry, photographs (even manipulated, Photoshopped ones) won’t ever compare, and that’s because they lack involvement of the hand, eye, brain and understanding of the artist – the true creative process. And I mean involvement with the subject-matter, not the photographic process.
About which, more next time
They earliest thing I can recall about doing art was drawing a kiddy house as a square with a pointed roof, four windows and a door. The usual standard tot’s drawing.
When I drew the pathway as two straight parallel lines going downwards from the door to the bottom of the page, my dad showed me how to draw a winding path in perspective, wider at the bottom than the top and with a couple of sinuous bends on the way – looking like it was lying on the ground and not sticking up in the air.
What a revelation, at that young age! What a foundation for future interests in architecture, model houses, and landscapes, haha!
So began a long “collaboration” on art between us. And though there were times when I was right properly irked by his input, I know I owe my dad an enormous debt for what he passed on to me over the years. Where HE got his knowledge from, I have no idea.
Art at School
When we moved from Chelsea Barracks to Kennington, London, I attended the girls’ side of the boys’ prep school for Dulwich College for a short time. It’s a pity that in those days kids were not encouraged to keep their artwork. Hopefully things are different today – it’s important to start building your portfolio as young as possible, and.parents need to know this, too.
Anyway, the one piece of art that sticks in memory from that school was a shaded pencil drawing I did of a goose that was sent off somewhere to an exhibition and to be critiqued by the mysterious “powers that be”. I was told it got awarded some kind of distinction, but I got no record of it, and the work never came back to me. Wish I had it now.
Real, live animals didn’t come into the equation in those days – living the nomadic army life doesn’t lend itself to relationships with pets, or long-term friends either, unfortunately.
I’m sure thousands of army brats (gee what a phrase – who ever got to be a brat with a Guards RSM, or any other army NCO for a parent?) know exactly what I’m talking about. On the one hand, you get enough exposure to the wide world to kill parochialism stone dead for life (thank goodness!). On the other hand, you find it hard to conceive that ANYTHING (especially friendships and relationships) can be lasting.
It’s a lonely world, especially if you’re an only child and forbidden to play with “ranks’ kids”. In my early years, I had only one real friend – the son of one of my dad’s NCO associates. Nowadays, animals are some of my favorite subjects, as well as my best friends. And it’s that goose drawing that stuck in memory over the years.
The Movies – Walt Disney
Movies were another major influence. Just off Piccadilly Circus there was a small picture theater that ran continuous Walt Disney cartoon movies. Whether it still exists, I really don’t know. At any time of the day you could buy a ticket and wander in there and stay as long as you liked watching Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. We went there quite often and I can still vividly recall watching Donald Duck especially – oh man that attitude and that voice! It wasn’t until I got real live ducks of my own only a few years ago that I realized what a great duck impersonation Donald really does.
It was all just entertainment.. At six or seven years of age, there was for me no critical appreciation of what we were looking at – the colorful antics on screen were just something to laugh at and enjoy. But this first brush with Walt Disney was going to develop into a relationship that would impact on skills to come.
About which, more next time!
When my dad ran away from home to join the Guards, he tried to escape the influence of his father’s name on his own career by enlisting in the Coldstreams. Short-lived dream: the enrolling officers in the Coldstream Guards knew the name Howitt all too well and shunted him off to the Scots Guards real fast. It was a tradition that sons should follow in their father’s regiment.
Now my grandfather’s mother, Georgiana Howitt (nee Hewitt – Yes!), ran a cab yard at the top of Normanton Road, Derby, England, where I was born. This involved taxi services, funeral services (all horse-drawn), and a hostelry, or inn. Though she had brothers, it was she who took the business over from her father. So horses run deep in the family.
I used to hear family talk about “the cab yard” from time to time. It was many years before I got to the bottom of what it was all about. Not until of my own volition I started riding horses – and wishing I’d learned earlier in life.
To keep her only son out of trouble – and probably to give herself time to run her business – Georgiana packed him off at an early age to live with relatives in Heanor, a small mining and textiles town about 8 miles north-east of Derby. In that rural environment he labored, did carpentry, found time to paint and sharpened his skills with horses. As a result I believe he became senior riding instructor at Sandhurst for awhile. He was also an outstanding soldier.
My grandfather fought as an NCO with the Scots Guards in the trenches in France in World War l and was severely gassed. His batman saved his life, and he returned home, to be invalided out of the Guards and into the Sherwood Foresters (now part of the Mercian Regiment of the British Army).
Sherwood Forest – now THERE’S a name that rings through family history down the generations – of which, more to follow later.
My grandfather died when I was still a toddler. I can remember he used to call me ‘Poppy’, and I remember his roses, his woodworking shed and the aviaries at the bottom of his garden. I dearly wish I had got to know him. Aside from roses, his love was finches, budgies and canaries. As a sideline, I have bred rare breeds poultry. That kind of came upon me and I didn’t think of the connection when I first got started …
When my aunt, Ena May Howitt (my father’s twin), died in Boston USA in 1983, my mother and I went over to clear up her estate. I hoped above all that I might find some of grandpa’s paintings from the Heanor days. I’d heard about them – especially one of a water mill at Heanor – and I clung to the dream that they might have been in my aunt’s house in the States.
Well, I came home with heaps of family photos and stuff – but no paintings. The only artwork I have of his are a pair of beautifully painted Scots Guards crests – one for each of his twins, with their names hand-lettered underneath. They are very dear to me.
Among my aunt’s belongings I found my grandfather’s Regular Army Certificate of Service – another of those slim red books. It came home with me to join my father’s.
Once again, history repeats itself … The Final Assessment of Conduct & Character, completed personally in the handwriting of his CO, Major A A Sims, was : “Exemplary”.
True: but journeys don’t only have beginnings – they have roots. Physical and spiritual roots that reach back through the generations standing behind us. It’s scary to contemplate at times.
We accept readily enough that our immediate physical world operates by cause and effect. No-one has the slightest difficulty in understanding that if they jump off a building they will hit the ground. What we do have trouble with is recognizing that same law operates on a spiritual level as well, both for individuals and generationally – “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Hummmm. Food for thought.
My father, Kenneth Methuen Howitt, was the source of my artistic journey. Its roots lay on his side of my family. Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, with an army career spanning 24 years, he had an amazing artistic talent operating around the sidelines of a busy working life. As I’ll explain later, he nurtured in me the talents I got from him, and though he never had time to be a serious ‘painter’, he produced great sculpture with seemingly little effort.
He organized and ran some stunning Charity Balls for the Guards in London – with Royalty counted amongst the guests. He thought big, and produced the results to go with it: everything had to be right and to look great – and some of that at least rubbed off on me.
He was exceptional in the skills of training and handling men – which may have saved his life more than once. One time, in April/May 1940 contingents from the Scots Guards were sent on the ill-fated Allied invasion of Norway. My mother often told the story of going down to visit him in London and arriving at the barracks late at night to find – unexpectedly – the troops lined up on the square ready to move off for Norway. One can only imagine her state of mind as she waited at the barracks gate while one of the sentries went to find her husband.
When he finally came, it was with the news that he was not going to Norway – he had been promoted and held behind to carry on with training the troops. Thank goodness – as I child I can remember being told many men were lost in the Norway Invasion. Wikipedia states “The British lost 1,869 killed, wounded and missing on land and approximately 2,500 at sea.”
Years later when we moved up to Aberdeen, my dad was seconded to run to run the Aberdeen University Training Corps under Lt Colonel Thomas Broun Smith, QC – training potential army officers from the ranks of the students at Aberdeen University. He was later commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders, wearing the kilt and continuing to conduct training maneuvers in the Highlands of Scotland – with the same outstanding qualities of character.
I still have his Regular Army Certificate of Service – a small, slim, red book that details every step of his army career. The Final Assessment of Conduct and Character, completed personally in the handwriting of his Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Tom B Smith, was “Exemplary”.
Briefly, I was born an Army child in Derby, England, traveled about, and now live in New Zealand. Having trained and worked as a lawyer, I’m at last refocusing my life on what I’ve been secretly doing all along – art.
The journey so far has taken me from England to Scotland, to Africa, and now New Zealand. Through it all, art underpinned and sustained me through a heap of stuff – I’ve been grateful for that.
Now, this exercise of putting down on ‘cyberpaper’ the journey that brought me to where I am as a person and an artist is helping me rediscover myself after ‘losing’ ten years of my life caring for my elderly mom with Alzheimers. I’ve come away with no regrets for giving that time, and at last it is being returned to me. Here, if you care to check out some of the struggles of being a carer, is my account of the process written while in the thick of it – The Alzheimers Carer.
This blog is in a sense its own fulfilment, though like my art it does have a definite message of love and respect for our wonderful planet and the creatures that inhabit it with us – we have severely misused both.
If anyone cares to join me in this journey, I shall be truly honored. For my main Home Page that links and knits together all my websites, click HERE.
For a time warp journey to my last project, visit Taketakerau.com which features the 36 major paintings I created for a recently-published book about the nature and history of New Zealand.
Showcasing the Paintings, Sculpture and Jewelry of a multi-talented New Zealander with a love of nature and a background in – of all things – the law.