1) Welcome, to my house, to my studio. In this time of isolation it seems to be a curious thing to invite strangers into my home. I should have been in Hay-on-Wye, instead here we are at Hay-on-Wye-fi, but it gives me the curious opportunity to welcome people into my studio. When I was young I read The bone People by Keri Hulme and wanted to live in a tower by the sea and paint. Today my studio feels a little like that. And these are the paths that lead to my home, so walk with me now, down the pathway to the left, beneath the ash tree, a gentle being that I dwell with, and into my home. Upstairs. And today the air is cool, sun shining, garden alive with birdsong. The windows are open. And the studio is so full with books, materials, tools, owls, and strange things. But we need to concentrate. I’ve made a film for my event, because my rural broadband is so bad I didn’t want to risk the signal dropping out. ( Latest news is that a horse at through the wire that connects the unit to the mains. When the wind is high, it rains, there’s an ‘r’ in the month, the stars are aligned in a certain way etc, the signal is bad- and I wonder why the Welsh government doesn’t put more time and money into developing a reliable rural internet which would allow such benefits to the rural economy….. but that’s another story). Making a film gives me a chance to really show something of how a painting is made.
2) So, come into my studio, settle down, find space, and don’t jog my elbow. I’ve stretched a piece of paper, and worked on a prelim sketch. Every work of art, every painting, begins with hope. The first thing to do is to take the time to imagine. What is it you want to paint. My brief was open but the event is based around The Lost Words, the book that was awarded Hay Festival Book of the Year 2017, written by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by me. There’s a lot of gold leaf in the book and many people ask me how I apply the gold to the painting. Robert has yet to write me a brown hare spell, but there’s a hare in the dandelions in the book and it’s a while since I have painted one of these woodcats, so a hare, and the moon on gold….
3) Sketch books are so important. And giving yourself the time to think about what you might want to make, what you hope it might look like also is important. But also leaving space to let a piece of work evolve, that’s important too. It’s a bit like juggling.I use watercolours, build up the image with layers of paint, until I have something that I know will work. This takes time. There’s only an hour for my event so some is in real time, some is speeded up. I worked on the piece over three days. I’ve a hare who helps me to understand the shape of this elusive creature. And I have sat in field and watched as light drops into the day and hares rise from the earth, stretch and yawn, and run across the frost, even as barn owls head for home. A hare’s breath in the cold morning air is something to see and worth taking the time to find.
4) Once I have reached a certain stage with a painting, where I hope it is not going to fail, if I am gilding, I will put a dark wash over everywhere I want the gold to be, because I like to distress the gold, leave space, don’t want white showing through. The background colour, like everything you do when painting, is important as it is all part of the whole. For this I wanted deep blue, partly because I wanted to make a halo of the moon for hare.I did this with white gauche, but by now was so involved with the painting I forgot to take photos to show progress. It’s like juggling and spinning plates and my main focus was on making the best painting and I’d forgotten I was filming, that it was for an event and now I was simply painting.
5) Next I wait for paint to dry, have a cup of tea, check emails, walk the dogs, read. Then I cover the blue with acrylic gold sizing, being very careful to paint around the edges of things. The gold sticks to itself and to the sizing. After a short while, using a dog tooth burnisher, which has a curved end, is made from agate, is smooth ( shaped like a dog’s tooth, not for burnishing dog’s teeth!) I add the gold leaf. I use transfer leaf because I am a klutz and not clever enough to use loose leaf, but I hope to take some time to learn how to, One day….and for this painting I chose moongold. There are many colours of gold. Red gold is another favourite. Moongold is pale. If you look at the pages of The Lost Words you can see the different colours of gold.
6) So this is how I use gold leaf. It’s not necessarily the ‘right way’, and I was once told that I had tremendous audacity to charge so much for my paintings when they were ‘only watercolour’ and I ‘didn’t even use watercolour properly’. But there’s no right or wrong way to make art. There’s only learning and language and play and imagination. And some people will like it and others won’t but you can’t paint what other people want, only what makes your heart sing because everything else is hollow.When I paint a creature I hope to catch something of its soul. It’s an aim that I miss so often, but it’s what keeps me trying. And I learn something with every painting, even when they go drastically astray and very towards ugly.Mine is a constant striving for beauty. It’s also a constant learning with every painting, every book.
The hare and the moon has a love story that goes with it, for hare loves the moon, is her messenger. This one is going to be auctioned to raise money for Hay Festival. I love going to Hay on Wye, during the festival, and at other times. The place has a magnetic attraction for me. And the festival is so much more than a few days, with tents and silk flags, and books. It nurtures young writers, takes authors into schools, into prisons, helps people learn to find and value their own voices, brings together ideas, helps authors meet their audience and audiences meet authors they love. It’s a celebration that brings so much to the economy of this small town. It’s a love song to the positive, to the imaginative, to the light and all that is the best of what a human can be and can do. When first I went there I was so nervous. The Green Room was an intimidating rite of passage. But I learned soon that this was my problem, partly the result of the ‘imposter syndrome imp’ that sits on the shoulder. The young people who volunteer their time are so welcoming, and all the stewards. I think most of all this year I will miss seeing Max. Max, who would come to find me before my event, make sure all was well, calm nerves and take me to the stage and be there to hand me that story flower at the end, keep me topped up with tea while I signed books.
So this blog post is dedicated to Max. See you next year at Hay, I hope, if not before.
Jackie Morris paints The Lost Words at Hay Festival Digital later today (register here), which will be available to watch on Hay Player shortly after. The painting will be auctioned to raise funds for the Hay Festival's future soon; sign up to our mailing list to get the details.