Smoke and Mirrors

Hi guys, here’s a quick one – a wee social media gimmick I commandeered recently:

It’s not all just smoke and mirrors you know!

Actually, that’s exactly what it is.

Easy trick to get an interesting background for your instagrams...

Literally, all you need is a mirror….

…and a camera, I suppose.

Easy mirror trick for a neat instagram background for "1986" by Tiina Lilja

Works for video or photos, but you may want to wait for pleasant weather.  Between this still and my video, the sun was up and my wee insta clip wasn’t quite as nice as the photo, but here we are.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  I have been on a lookout for new ways to present my work and this trick looked really nice.  Well, I’d say that, wouldn’t I, but what do you think?

I got a few blogs lined up for you in a bit, an announcement and a bit of new work, but that’s going to need to wait until I’m done celebrating my 30th birthday.

Till then, keep calm and create!

Txxx

Advertisement

A word with the Micromanager

Anybody else struggling with motivation lately?

Seems like this is all I talk about these days; I am not really built for the anxieties of the new normal.  Where I tend to be pretty good at setting my own goals and sticking by them, lately the uncertainty with work and life in general has really started to affect my productivity.  Add in a generous helping of self-doubt and you end up with this hard-to-shake feeling of existential dread.

Not the best of times to revisit a finished artwork, I know, but here we are.  Remember “1997” – I wrote a blog about the meaning behind the picture some weeks back and logged it as finished on my studio inventory.  Case closed.  Yet I have not stopped thinking about the wee thing.  It is a piece that means a lot to me, being a sort of self-portrait and all, but I kept thinking it should somehow be… well, better.

This is by no means the first time I have started again: just last summer I completely repainted one of the faces in Two Brides.  It was a calculated risk that paid off, but not an easy decision to make at the time.  The materials I work with, mostly oil- and acrylic paints, are non-reversible.  They can be removed using solvents or brute force for sure, but generally speaking you cannot restore areas that are overpainted once the paint has dried.  A strict one-way system of sorts.  The reason a conservator would use specialist pigments in restorative overpainting is so that their work can be safely removed when necessary.  As an artist however, a maker of things, this is not a practical way to build artworks.

Personally, I thought the multi-coloured elements I added on top of the black and white portrait in 1997 were a bit heavy handed.  I did not want to remove this layer fully, but rather integrate it better with the portrait underneath, by making areas on the face more translucent.  I could have added more paint, or sanded down parts of the coloured top layer, but I opted out for a riskier strategy of a solvent, turpentine to be precise.  The main reason I felt this painting was not working previously, was the dull precision of its parts, making it all too uniform for my taste.  By choosing to remove some paint in this unpredictable way, I managed to re-introduce character that I felt was previously lost.

I am really pleased how it turned out, but again it was not a decision I took lightly.  At the end of the day, any artist is responsible for their own quality control.  Is this piece sign-off quality?  Could I be displeased about it simply because I feel down about most of my work just now?  Is the time used reworking this piece time/money well spent?  Question yourself before taking steps that are irreversible.  Measure twice, cut once etc.

If you need to think whether an artwork is finished, it probably is not.  Conversely, there is a fine line between sensible quality control and micromanagement.  You can set any picture (or a problem) aside and return to it when you are feeling better/more confident/re-inspired.

Or simply, ask a friend – if there’s one thing I have learned from the Covid-19 crisis it is that we’re all in this shite together.

This is probably the most famous picture in the world.

It’s been a weird few weeks so I hope you forgive me for not being desperately active on the blog lately.  But I have been busy in the studio, trying to finish up my furlough paintings and working on some new embroideries.  Even so, finding the motivation to make art has been a struggle.  I surprised myself, really, when I positively leapt on a chance to take part in the Door to Door project organised by Art Aviso.

The concept is simple: Each participating artist will be supplied with a page from Newnes’ Pictorial Knowledge 1950’s Encyclopaedia selected at random, which will form a basis of an artwork to be exhibited at Lite HAUS Galerie, Berlin in September 2021 as well as joining the active, evolving Art Aviso Door to Door virtual exhibition.  There’s still time to join in – Art Avisos Door to Door – Art in time of Covid-19 project is open to their subscribers based in UK and Europe.

I just finished submitting my artwork “This is probably the most famous picture in the world” , so how about a little “behind the scenes” tour?

Here’s how I wrote about my contribution:

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the finest portrait ever painted.  Arguably the most famous picture in the world, she has earned her place among the most copied images too, through countless reproductions in books and in print, all the way to keyrings and tea-towels emblazoned with that mysterious smile.

Her entry in the Newnes’ Pictorial Encyclopaedia can be found in Volume 7, under Great painters of all Nations- How they lived and what they achieved, on page 13.  She is iconic – and utterly untouchable.  My work is very much concerned with icons and idols, but the only way I felt I could approach the Mona Lisa, was through her numerous copies, from the tastefully informative such as the black and white illustration on my allocated leaf, to the utterly absurd.  A naughty Mona Lisa Halloween costume comes to mind as a good example of the latter sort.

With this in mind, I set out to embroider and draw around a set of photo transfers featuring digitally altered snippets of the page I was allocated.  Beyond scaling everything to fit a sheet of A4 paper, I made no sketch or a plan for the piece as I wanted it to assume its shape organically.  Like in a game of Chinese whispers, the end result is both reminiscent of its origin and removed from it.  A nuanced smile.

As said, I was well chuffed about the project briefing: maybe my page was going to be an awesome medical illustration or an obsolete graph of some sort.  What dropped in my inbox, however, was a black and white rendition of the most famous portrait ever painted: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci.  I was not disappointed by any means; just a little lost at first.  The Mona Lisa is not just one of the most recognisable images in the world, but also amongst the most copied.  Any retelling of this image would immediately be compared not just to the page from Newnes’ Encyclopaedia, but to the thousands of other renditions of Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Faced with this dilemma, I decided to focus on the idea of reproduction through repetition rather than simply re-imagining this renaissance icon in 2020.  Two snippets from my allocated page, digitally altered and cropped, became the core of my piece in form of photo transfers, ironed on patterned scraps of cotton.  The rest was left to form freely around a sheet of A4 paper set out as the base for my work.  As said previously, the process best resembled a game of Chinese whispers with an excitingly unpredictable end.

Material wise, I thought it was important to stick with things I had in my studio at the time.  Although I did have to purchase a can of mount spray, I was pleased how the colour scheme of the piece was influenced by other projects I am currently working on, rather than being pre-determined through deliberate design.  I am a slave to habit and breaking out of my usual comfort zone of meticulous planning has truly been my favourite aspect of participating in this project.

If any of this floats your boat at all, pop over to the Door to Door exhibition page to see how other artists have re-interpreted their encyclopaedia pages.

“This is probably the most famous picture in the world” by Tiina Lilja for Art Aviso Door to Door - Art in time of Covid-19 project. Mixed media on paper, (2020)

 

Summer 2020

I can’t believe it’s almost Midsummer!  This has not really been the season by the sea I was hoping for, but at least I am lucky to be spending it safe and sound with my husband and the dog, who absolutely loves having both of his parents home with him.  In other news, my furlough continues, and with it, the exploration of different ways of making art:  this cheerful little embroidery below will make up most of my next artwork aiming to combine embroidered and painted motifs.

Embroidery in progress - Mix of different stitches

The intersection of contemporary art and traditional crafts has intrigued me for some time now: most of my life in fact, if you count in the masterpieces I was creating before I could lace up my boots properly.  In fact, one of my earliest art-making memories is about my grandmother and her sewing cards.  These colouring-meets-sewing kits tend to be a bit of a Nordic thing, but basically they are these sturdy printed cards with pre-punched holes for kids to “embroider”.  The concept is pretty straightforward: first you stitched around the outline of your colouring picture with a plastic needle, using any of the multi-coloured threads from the kit or a piece of left over yarn.  Then you were to expertly colour in the image and presented the magnum opus to your Nan, who would immediately call you a very clever little thing and perhaps reward you with a bowl of wild strawberries liberally sprinkled with talkkuna.

View this post on Instagram

Samaan aikaan toisaalla #6vuotias #ompelukuva #muumi

A post shared by Lilli (@lilli.katariina) on

I adored my Nan and I adored her sewing cards.  She spared no expense nor effort in getting me the Moomins kit, tons of nature & farming ones as well as the coveted Disney Pocahontas collection.  Eventually, I had sewn through the whole range available from the mobile shop that visited her secluded farm twice a week, so we started making our own.  This was frankly much more interesting.  Forget about the dull plastic needles for silly little children – the thick utilitarian card we used required a long, sharp adult one from my Nan’s sewing kit she kept in the drawer of her pedal Singer.  I only ever stuck myself once.  Embellishing my sewing-card self-portrait with my freshly-drawn blood remains the most avant-garde event of my art career to date.

My current piece is by no means the only time I have attempted to create combining visual art and embroidery.  During my student years in Edinburgh College of Art, some years earlier, I returned to the subject of embroidery and painting time and time again, frankly, with mixed success.  At that time, I felt a keen pressure to perform as a painter rather than pursuing any mixed media interests and it took me some time to return to carry out these experiments.  Although inspired by a very different strain of research material, my Double Exposure project, begun in late 2018, borrows heavily on the work I did with my Nan’s sewing cards back in the early 90’s.  Two of those pieces are currently on view at Envision Arts’ online exhibition Threaded II.

It is fascinating how I return to this subject matter time and time again, especially when I feel my college-aged experiments were not particularly promising.  In a way it is like an itch I need to scratch.  Now is as good of a time as any – the world has gone mad and I suddenly feel less self-conscious about my work than I have ever been.

All those years ago, each time I finished a sewing card, my Nan would pin in on the wall, adding it to a growing collection of drawings by her grandchildren at the back of her cottage, right above her radio and next a selection of framed family photos.  There was some rotation, but her favourites would remain for years, long after I stopped embroidering, probably long after I grew up and stopped visiting too.  All that yellowed card and faded thread – as far as I can remember they were the only art she ever owned.  Well, besides from those naff tea-towels printed to double up as calendars.

She died of advanced dementia nearly ten years now, my Toini-Mummu, and this one is for her.

Threaded II

I have been so busy with a project that I almost forgot some of my Double Exposure pieces are currently on show at Envision Arts online exhibition Threaded II!  This is a multimedia exhibition, curated around the idea of fibres, and all work submitted needed to consists of 25% fibres of any form.

The two pieces accepted for the show combine found imagery, drawing and embroidered motifs, with an aim to highlight how our knowledge on the personal life of an author affects the way their work is viewed.  I was compelled to create this body of work upon receiving a book of photographs called “Souvenirs” by David Hamilton.  Like a window that gets dirtier and harder to peer through with the passage of time, it is difficult to observe Hamilton’s photography in earnest without the cloud of child abuse accusations obstructing the view.  Following this line of reasoning, I began to draw with a view of obscuring, but not entirely covering the pages of Souvenirs – to physically replicate this effect on paper.  The embroidered inserts, executed using cotton and wool, are an extension of this process.

Double Exposure by Tiina Lilja (2019) mixed media on paper

You can read more about the project and its evolution at my previous blog posts Double Exposure and Double Exposure – Drawing New Narratives.

Tooting my own horn aside, I was blown away by the quality of the pieces on display.  My personal favourite being two tapestries by Jordan Holms, who was rightfully awarded an honourable mention for their contribution.

But why am I rabbiting on about it, you can view the whole exhibition at Envision Arts in June 2020.

Enjoy the show.

Pumpuli Enkeli

Can I withhold pay if my studio assistant refuses to social-distance himself?

My studio assistance refuses to social distance himself.

Greetings from the atelier floor – I’ve got something to show to you and I swear it is more than just adorable photos of my dog.  The rainbow-hued mixed media piece that cropped up on this blog last week is finally finished.  Now named “Pumpuli Enkeli”, it started out as a simple test in blending, on a slightly defective canvas panel.  It is quite rare that I have time to experiment beyond doodling on the pages of my sketchbook, so this has been a real treat.

Long story short: I wanted to see if it would be possible to use acrylic paint markers on top of an oil painting.  Usually you’d expect some rejection, but it has turned out much better than first predicted.  I used spray-on picture varnish as a blocker between the oil-painted basecoat before adding the line work using acrylic paint markers.  A few days later, further two coats of picture varnish were added to protect the finished surface and give this artwork an even sheen.

Only time will tell how it will age, but so far so good.

colourful calico painting by Tiina Lilja

I have been drawing a lot of floral patterns lately, inspired by one of my favourite books: Owen Jones’ the Grammar of Ornament as well as his the Grammar of Chinese Ornament.  Yet it wasn’t Mr. Jones who turned me into a connoisseur of printed cottons.  I grew up in a historic textile town of Forssa, in the South West of Finland, so you could say the love of pattern is in my blood.  The name Pumpuli Enkeli translates as the Cotton Angel – a nickname of the factory girls of Forssa who worked in the Finlayson textile mills.  This is the official version anyway, sanitised by the passage of time.  Some old beards who worked down at the mill as lads in the beginning of the 20th century, however, recalled a cruder alternative in a documentary I saw years ago: Cotton C*nts.

Fair enough.

Angels or not, this painting is my tribute to those largely nameless girls and women who shaped Forssa into The City of Colourful Cloth.

The history of my hometown has inspired me to a great extent and I cannot deny the influence Finnish design has had on my work.  There are many artists and designers I feel indebted to, with special thanks given to Aini Vaari, who drew patterns for Finlayson in the 1950’s and 60’s.  My painting “1958”, featuring her Coronna-design as a background motif, continues to be one of my own favourites.

At the time I was obsessed about mid-century Americana in Scandinavian graphic design, such as the Boston cigarettes pack featured in my painting.  It is modelled on a real pack of fags given to me by my builder dad, who had found it under a floor on one of his job sites.  Either left behind by accident in the late 50’s or placed there to amuse renovators of the future, the dinky cigarette case was all crinkled up, but as vibrant in colour as on the day it was printed.

"1958"

Oddly enough, the other paintings I am currently working on, too, remind me of home.  Most of these pocket sized portraits feature my immediate family back in Finland.  Although I have lived overseas for ten years and a bit, it is this pandemic that makes me feel light years away from them.  Tracing the likeness of my dad or my wee sister makes me feel that little bit closer to them when the world seems to be going down the toilet.

But enough of that negativity already.  I should be back at my 9-5 in a few weeks’ time, fingers crossed, and in the meantime I have a studio full of paintings to finish.

So happy painting!

Tx

Nothing but a Hound Dog – digital illustration

Greeting from lockdown guys – things have not quite reached the banana bread-stage of cabin craziness, but we’re almost there.  In avoidance of baked goods, I thought it would be nice to brush up my Photoshop skills and add new digital work on my illustration portfolio.

Now, I’ve used Photoshop in the past to work out packaging concepts and edit other work, including finishing off hand-drawn illustrations, but always steered away from making creative work completely digitally.  There’s nothing too dramatic behind my Adobe antipathy: I find making digital images less interesting than drawing by hand, partly because of my limited skillset in rendering illustrations to the standard I expect from my other creative work.

big dog illustration by Tiina Lilja

I once had a teacher who told me the biggest back-handed compliment you could throw on a calligrapher was to say their work looks just like it has been printed.  Fifteen-odd years later, her way of thinking still affects the way I assess my own design work.  Whether hand-drawn or not, the greatest value I can add to a piece of work is my handwriting: my personal style or approach, a wee touch of humanity, if you will.  When it comes to digital media, illustration in particular, I appreciate work that does not reveal its origins too easily.

Do not be fooled into thinking this means I despise digital means of creating imagery, on the contrary – I find it sort of magical.  Like good painting or a drawing, a good digital illustration carries a mark of its maker.  And do I think conveying a sense of individuality through the artists’ handwriting is more difficult to achieve digitally than simply by pressing a pencil against a half-decent sheet of Fabriano.

cavalier king Charles spaniel illustration by Tiina Lilja This one was inspired by Staffordshire dog statues.

This is really what I have been practising recently – adding to my digital illustrations that little je ne sais quoi.  I chose to go about it roughly the same way that I began developing my style of painting, about a thousand years ago now: by copying other artists’ work, studying their methods of image making and listening to helpful advice from my seniors.  Thankfully, did not need to start tracing over Guernica from the pages of an art directory, technology has moved on a fair bit since the late nineties, and I simply watched helpful tutorials from YouTube, most notably from Retro Supply & Co.

A shout-out to these guys, they are great.

When it comes to learning, imitation really is a form of flattery.  It is pretty much the same as cooking industrial quantities of Nigella’s scrumptious banana bread until you develop a recipe of your own.  The process takes time and you are sure to find yourself in that awkward half-stage where your work is strongly influenced by a style or a trend yet undeniably yours.  Some of my early paintings are heavily influenced by the work of the Nordic symbolists such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela and the Pre-Raphaelite movement – does that make those canvasses any less my own in your view?

german shephard / Alsatian illustration by Tiina Lilja

Returning to these illustrations I have been making:  As you can see, they are all dogs, mostly my own good-boy, Rusty.  Some are based on drawings from my sketchbook, others put together completely on screen and each finished to look like vintage prints.  It is a style I have been admiring from afar, thus it felt like an approachable starting point.

For the tech curious, I use Photoshop to make my illustrations, using a stylus on a touch screen rather than a graphics tablet.  As a painter, that pen-on-paper illusion genuinely helps me to bridge the gap between what I can achieve on paper and on screen.

I do hope you have enjoyed this interlude to view my illustrations.  If nothing else, it feels great to be confident enough on my digital work that I can publicise it to you here.  My side-hustling days as a freelance designer have been put to rest for a bit since I began working as a studio painter, but maybe this is something I should write about more.  The rift between arts and design is frankly ridiculous and I am tired of feeling like my design work is some sort of a dirty secret when exhibiting fine art and vice versa.  There are ultra-talented people working on both sides of the fence and we would be better off talking to each other more.

Tiina x

Two Brides

I have written a bit about the Two Brides before, first focussing on the element of painting a figurative portrait with the aid of photography and latterly to discuss the concept of failure as a creative practitioner.  This time, however, the piece is no longer a work in progress: I have indeed finished my first portrait of persons in nearly seven years.

Two Brides, painting by Tiina Lilja, oil on canvas (2019)

If you are a regular reader of my wee blog or you found yourself here via Instagram, I imagine you to be pretty familiar with Two Brides already.  I sketched out the foundations for this artwork in January 2019 and having moved house and struggled with achieving what I considered a good enough likeness, I worked on it in little bits until I was happy with the costumes, background and, of course, the identifying features of the faces and hands of my two subjects.  This one is a fairly classical composition, drawing heavily on the look of the 1930’s studio photography this piece was directly drawn from.  Inspired loosely by the drawing Three Brides by Jan Toorop, a Dutch-Javanese symbolist, and the zeitgeist of the period between the two world wars, Two Brides was an interesting piece to execute from start to finish.

de-drie-bruiden-jan-toorop-53113-copyright-kroller-muller-museum.jpg
Three Brides by Jan Toorop via Kröller-Müller Museum

I feel any deeper analysis of my own work would be pure hubris, so this is where I will leave you, with my favourite work-in-progress shots of this painting and a promise to get back to you soon with news of new work!

P.S. Oh yes, and here’s a wee bonus: Seems like the Snapchat genderswap-filter does work on paintings too!  I hope you find these as funny as I do…

Voilà. 

T xxx