I’m delighted to introduce you to pastellist Fiona Carvell. I can’t remember when I first came across Fiona’s work but I do remember that I was knocked over when I saw her cool ladle and kitchen utensil paintings. I was already familiar with her money plant still life paintings with their intricate relationships between subjects and their cast shadows and which I love. With the appearance of the reflective series, I knew I needed to ask her to be a guest on HowToPastel. And whoo hoo!! She said yes!
First, a wee bit about Fiona Carvell.
Bio for Fiona Carvell
A signature member of the PSA, Associate member of The Society of Graphic Fine Art, and a Unison Colour Associate Artist, Fiona Carvell exhibits regularly in her native UK and is represented by several galleries across the country. Awards include the 2020 Royal Talens Award from The Pastel Society UK and the Advancement of Pastel in Modernism Award donated by Arlene Thek from the PSA in 2021. She has also exhibited with the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) in 2022. See more of her work here.
And now here’s Fiona Carvell with her story and process. Grab a cuppa and settle in!
When Gail asked me to write a blog about my Still Life work, I have to say I was delighted. I also paint seascapes, landscapes and the occasional portrait because I am genuinely interested in everything. It is with my still life work, however, that I feel most connected to my subject and this goes way back to my childhood and my first steps into the art world. By the time I was an Art student at the age of 18, I was reasonably competent in creating still life pieces in oil pastel but it would be another 25 years, following a career in design for television broadcasting and then teaching, that I would pick up a pastel again.
I have always been a drawer. The physical connection between myself and pencil/pastel/charcoal is fundamental to creating artwork. The flexibility of application and variety of results that soft pastel brings means I never tire of possibilities.
I approach different subjects in different ways, according to the intention. I am ideas led, which stems from my training as a Graphic Designer, yet find my work becoming increasingly emotive in recent years. I think this is something that comes with life experience.
I have mentioned the physical connection to the process, but I also see still life as a very physical subject. When teaching young children to draw, for example, I often use fruit and tell them to pick it up. I tell them to feel it, throw it gently from hand to hand, and feel the weight of it before beginning to draw it.
All of these things are important. Each object has a surface, a density, a texture. We see with our eyes but also gain information from touch, smell, and taste. Considering how these things can be incorporated into an artwork is endlessly fascinating and always challenging.
I cannot write about my still life work without first writing about Fire of The Deep which was the first painting I had accepted into the Pastel Society UK exhibition in 2020.
I started painting seaweed a few years ago after taking photos and sketching along the rocky beaches of Northumberland and Scotland. Winter storms had washed up masses of it – strewn along the shore in ribbons and twists of deepening colour. I am interested in presenting subjects that may be overlooked or unrecognised and I think this is probably why I got so engrossed in examining the seaweed that day.
I wasn’t sure how my first seaweed painting, Treasure of The Deep, would turn out. It was huge (over a metre high once framed) and took me 6 weeks of incredibly detailed, complex pastel work to complete. Painting it was torturous. For someone with little patience, this tested both my technical skill and faith in myself, but I knew it was the only way to create the outcome I wanted. I needed to draw the viewer in, to see what I could see – all that incredible beauty, something from another world, something that should indeed be treasured. Treasure of The Deep was sold at exhibition in Northumberland and a few smaller seaweed paintings followed but it took a lot for me to muster the energy to tackle another large-scale seaweed painting as they are so incredibly time-consuming, but nothing prepared me for Fire of The Deep.
The new seaweed painting took just under a month to complete and took over my life during that time. I would spend hours on end, gradually making it grow and emerge. Often I would paint in my running gear, so I could take a break and go run a few miles to release the tension. Even so, I still succumbed to migraine at times brought on by concentration and stress that would eat up days. Once finished, I could barely look at it. I covered it up and put the easel in a corner for a week.
Paintings are like children (and as a mother of two amazing children, I do not say this lightly) and the relationship between parent and child can be a complex one. Some paintings are an absolute joy, they almost create themselves; they fly across the paper and land in a glory of delight. Others are a real struggle. They fight back, they argue, they make you question your own sanity and reason. Such battles can be drawn out and can leave you mentally and emotionally drained. By the time I had finished with Fire of The Deep, I was exhausted and wanted my life back. The only thing to do was enter it for The Pastel Society exhibition in London and hope that perhaps somebody might see in this painting what I had seen on that beach. Not only was Fire of The Deep accepted for the exhibition, I was delighted and honoured to receive the 2020 Royal Talens/Rembrandt Award.
A year on from Fire of The Deep, I found a new obsession and one that would produce a whole series and change the direction of my work.
The Honesty Paintings
Inspiration for me often comes from the natural world and discoveries when out walking or running. One day, I spotted the light shining on some Honesty seeds by the roadside, and was immediately transported back 30 years to my Mother’s house. She always had a vase of these pretty seeds and the associations of warmth and childhood saw me return later with a pair of scissors to snip a few bunches and bring them home to arrange in a vase, as my Mother had. It was not long before I decided to light them and explore their beautiful textures with pastel.
The depiction of light is of course, an essential element to any artwork. Having worked in broadcasting, my approach to lighting still life has been learnt from working with Lighting Directors (for which I will be forever grateful!) and although I may not have a huge studio or cinematic lighting kit, the principles and technical basics remain the same whilst using a simple spotlight.
The shadows I created became an integral part of the composition, carefully considered and rendered with delicate layers of pastel to build up subtle tones and nuances of shade. The process of creating Finding Honesty was very different from Fire of The Deep in which I used a great deal of careful blending to produce a sheen to the seaweed.
The Honesty paintings have barely any blending, the emphasis being on texture and shape. The background rendering was as complex as the composition, with a considered use of line to separate the seeds from the wall, which helped to create a sense of space. Different elements of a picture have different physical qualities and so I try to communicate this with my drawing, using a variety of marks, direction, pressure as well as colour selection.
I painted four Honesty paintings, three of which were exhibited with the Pastel Society UK (Shadows of Honesty, Silver & Gold, and Suspended Animation) in 2021 and the fourth, Finding Honesty, was accepted for my first PSA exhibition and my first international award, the Advancement of Pastel in Modernism Award, donated by Arlene Thek.
Besides being totally elated from receiving recognition for my efforts, the Honesty series was an important turning point in my work; I had found my artistic ‘voice.’ I had found a way of working that I felt represented myself with the potential for growth and that is, as an Artist, an exciting thing.
A New Series
Wild Opulence and Wild Abandon (you can see this painting at the top of the post) were my Pastel Society UK exhibits for 2022 and followed on from my Honesty series. I enjoyed presenting Rosebay Willowherb (widely regarded as a weed) as something spectacular. These were created with a combination of my usual Unison Colour pastels plus Caran d’Ache pastel pencils for the very fine details. Again, lighting was very important for setting these up and I worked both from life and photographs for these pieces as they wilted pretty quickly!
Alongside exhibition entries, other still life pieces have proven significant in other ways. One of the things I have always loved about Art is the possibility of communicating a message. Sometimes this spills over into being more of a story. Three old particular Chinese dolls are an example of that.
The Chinese Dolls
Displayed in a loft room of a 16th Century Cottage where I stayed during a family reunion, these three small, delicate figures were unlike anything I had seen before. The owner of the house is a writer and currently composing a book about the objects in her house and the stories behind them. Her grandfather had brought the dolls back from China. I was struck by some being male dolls. The one on the right I think is female because there’s a little bun at the back of the head, so it could be a family.
I only had a sketchbook and pencil with me and managed to quickly scribble down the figures, making a mental note to include some of the walls as a backdrop. Full of texture and irregularities, the heaviness of the structure seemed an appropriate contrast to the fragility of the dolls. I took a few photographs and then got to work in the studio when I arrived home.
I deliberately left the mark-making loose and light, reflecting fragility and age. The smallest doll, which I took to be a child, had some damage to the face, with the nose and mouth somewhat disfigured. The larger two dolls had quite fine features, carefully carved from wood. The clothing was faded, but there was indications of it all once being quite splendid. The colour inside the coat of the child was a strong blue, unfaded by light and tiny. Chinese knots featured on all the garments, holding them together. Each doll had undergarments, carefully fashioned from linen and cotton.
After a bit of research, the owner of the dolls and I have discovered the dolls are quite possibly ‘Door of Hope’ Mission dolls. Made circa 1901-1949 by young women and children to raise funds for destitute children. The Door of Hope Mission was a Christian mission organisation, which aimed to help children and young women escape the brothels of Shanghai. The dolls were handmade by young women and children and sold abroad to an international market, with the proceeds helping those living in desperate conditions leave for a better life. Apparently, there were a number of different character dolls, each having handmade clothing which was replicas of clothing worn by Chinese people. It is believed no more than 50,000 dolls were produced and they remain very collectable to this day. Creating an artwork based upon objects like this feels like a privilege.
Dolls of Hope marked another transitional step in my still life work. The shift from the complexity and rich colour of Fire of The Deep to simplicity, space, and a more neutral palette is marked. I always approach each painting on an individual basis – even if they are part of a series – and to that end, will adapt the way I work according to my aim. But this was something more – I gave myself permission to let space breathe within a composition, to be calm, and to contemplate more. It was with this mindset that I embarked upon what would become my next series, my ‘Reflective’ still life pieces.
The Reflective Series
Taking a different direction can help to re-invigorate the production of artwork, presenting new challenges and new ways of thinking about things. Unfamiliar subject matters and approaches can sometimes be daunting but one can learn a great deal in exploring them. I don’t always know why I decide to paint/draw something and this is not an uncommon thing; being attracted to a scene, person, or object as a subject is often embedded in a subconscious connection to colour, shape, composition and emotion.
My daughter had been busy drawing typewriters at the kitchen table for her A-Level Art homework. It reminded me of my own experience of drawing household objects. I noticed my reflection in a ladle as I cooked tea and that was it. It made me smile and thought it would be an interesting exercise. I drew it from life, quickly. Moving on, I added a large serving fork and vegetable serving spoon, (which was a bit of a challenge because it had lots of holes in it). This was Ladle Selfie II.
I decided I very much wanted to keep the essence of it being done from life and although there is a reasonable degree of accuracy, from a technical point of view, absolute realism was never my aim. I could have amended the holes to make them more exact and uniform, but deliberately left it as it was because I wanted something more than a technical reproduction of kitchen utensils. Having my own image included in these pieces was a record of them being created and I wanted the physical process and nuances of personal pastel application to become evident in the final image.
Bringing in another implement expanded the composition and also brought in another story with Self Portrait with Blue Handled Fish Slice. The fish slice belonged to the artist Yousef Naser, who I lived next door to in London, 25 years ago. Yousef is a dear man and I have many memories of evenings around the barbecue, singing songs and playing music with artists and musicians.
If you look closely at the handle of the fish slice, you can see where it melted when it was left on the barbecue for too long. We moved house and somehow the fish slice ended up coming with me and I still cook with it, all these years later. It was after painting this piece, that I realised a deeper connection with the subject matters and perhaps why I was doing them; the subject is not the object, but the lives connected to them.
Light is very important in all of these pieces. I had been painting quite deep shadows in other works but here I wanted the light to be delicate to contrast with the metal and hard edges and so worked with natural light as opposed to setting up anything artificial.
By the time I started Self Portrait with Apostle Spoon, my second piece, Ladle Selfie II, had been selected for the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) webshow 2022, which I was absolutely thrilled about! This also gave me reassurance that this may be a subject worth exploring further.
Again, I introduced a different item – a single teaspoon that belonged to my Mother. I knew it was called an ‘Apostle spoon’ and that my Mother has the other 11 in the set. So this piece is also about memories and connections with someone dear and also about something being different, apart, lost or misplaced. Apostle also alludes to my Christian faith. There are times when this is perhaps hard to find, metaphorically hidden in the kitchen drawer, but is something that is always there, part of my everyday life.
I now wanted to create an artwork that was about my community and the connections between people. My still life work has recently developed into something more than simply depicting objects. There are stories and lives attached to everyday items and this is something I wanted to represent in a wider context.
I put out an appeal to my village for teapots. The guidelines were: One teapot per household, must be ‘working’ teapots and have been used at some point, of any age, and that I would have no call on which pot they should bring. My job is purely to respond and create compositions that reflect my response. I had no idea what would turn up, but the response so far has been amazing. The most remarkable thing has been the stories that have unfolded attached to the teapot. Tied up with memories and events, sometimes of family members that departed long ago.
Tea is never just about tea. It is about listening, sharing, putting the world to right, calming nerves, laughing and crying. It’s about life shared. I am aiming to create a series of teapot paintings that bring together these life experiences, represented by each teapot, together in pastel. This is the first of what will hopefully become a series. The title comes from the handwritten note found inside one, written by the owner’s mother, some 20 years ago, This Teapot is Valuable I am Told. Apparently, the teapot turned out not to be valuable in monetary terms but does have great sentimental value.
It was important for me to take into account the different materials in each teapot- metal, bone china and perspex – as each have different physical and visual qualities. I found the bone china teapot the most challenging as there are so many details and changes in curvature.
Using shades of grey/white was key in creating subtle differences in this picture, not just in the teapots themselves, but especially in the background. These shades changed several times over the duration of painting as the light changed and as I tried to balance the overall composition. I used mostly Unison Colour pastels and layered the light shades to create differences in tone. The use of line and texture is very important here in separating the background from the objects as well as grounding them on a surface.
I now have several other teapots and more arriving every day, so I will be painting more. I do hope this project brings together and reflects a community as well as perhaps giving my work a new direction. I am excited for what lies ahead.
Thank you soooo much, Fiona! I loved seeing how your journey has taken you from one subject to another. It’s easy to look back and track our route but we have no idea, in the moment, what lies ahead in our artistic progress. And your path has been such a revealing one!
If you enjoyed this guest post by Fiona Carvell, be sure to leave a comment. We want to know your thoughts!! Feel free to leave questions too.
Until next time,