In the middle of working on a new morris dancing painting, I went to New Zealand to attend Boxwood, a week-long workshop studying flute and fiddle, with three acclaimed teachers, Chris Norman, Alasdair Fraser, and Natalie Haas.
A concept for a show which had been simmering in my mind suddenly achieved clarity, and I have started a body of work called "Fiddle Icons". The works I am planning will be portraits of influential fiddle players and their instruments, borrowing some of the iconography of traditional Byzantine icon painting, which is mostly used for religious images. It has the advantage of being a beautiful form, features gold leaf, and conveys a sense of the subject being revered.
The Fiddle Icons series has been gestating for a long time. Its seven years since I met Peter Murphy, who paints icons in egg tempera and gold leaf. I fortuitously met him in Broadstairs, Kent, and got to spend time in his studio. The ideas in his work made such a strong impact on me, I have been keeping a little flame alive all that time, wanting to borrow some of the techniques. You can see his beautiful work here: www.petermurphyicons.co.uk
In that seven years I have also started to play the fiddle, and I wanted to revisit an older body of work when I was painting portraits of folk musicians.
At Boxwood, the concept and the process all gelled. In order to make an expressive portrait, I am interviewing my subject on video. I ask them two questions. "What gives you joy in your music?" and "Tell me about your instrument." I have conducted four interviews so far, and the emerging theme is that people become poetic and philosophical in a fascinating way when finding an answer to these questions. And it shows in their expressions.
I then parse through the video and select individual frames which seem to express my subject's personality. I'm seeking the essence of who they are as a musician, rather than a candid image.
From there, I create a portrait. So far I have done a small work of Alasdair Fraser, my first interview subject, in gouache on paper. It is a study. The final portrait will be in oils, I think at the moment, on board, with gold leaf. I may experiment with egg tempera, as the results look spectacular, but I would have to learn a lot about the medium.
The second part of the project is to paint the instrument. It may be a full painting of my subject's instrument, or it may be a detail of the part they talk about or favour in their interview. The instrument will be on a separate panel, hinged to the portrait.
The third part of the project will be to transcribe the interview, and select quotes which inform the viewer about the musician's philosophy.