NIGHT 51 – THE STORY OF KING UMAR ‘IBN AL-NUMAN AND HIS FAMILY

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We’re going in the dome.

I never do self-portraits – in fact the only I did one it was forced upon me in a secondary school art class – and yet here it is of my own volition. This dome painting marks a major shift in my attitude to my own art – while the dome itself is a slow-cooking, considered painting, there have been subtle yet big shifts in my approach (see below, Things I’ve Learnt). This is my favourite photo of myself and so I’m going in.

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In. Ghostly figures; the first outline.

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Painting in a circle is tricky enough and this is a dome, and a rotating dome at that, so I need to think about perspective. The viewer will be looking directly up, and I am looking down at my painting while working. Down and across, so slightly slanted, so I need to make sure that my reference photos are upright and that I am constantly checking that everything is in proportion. I’m compiling two entirely separate figures from different photos and placing them onto a carpet together in a semi-isometric perspective that also has to make sense with the rest of the painting. Tricky, but doable with concentration and focus.

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A strange man.

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He’s going in too.

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THINGS I’VE LEARNT:

A master slows down towards the end, and doesn’t speed up (as I was wont to do in the past). A master is not afraid of using whatever tools, equipment and materials to get the job done. I never use toothbrushes in serious art – yet I’ve done so here, in one of my most ‘serious’ paintings! It’s what was called for and it’s what was best (they make good stars). There is no need to be a purist for the sake of it.

A master is not afraid to mix the ancient and the modern – we live today, not in the past, and yet we have access to the past. A master blends the best of both worlds. In this painting I’m happy to have finally understood the colour red (a colour which I have studiously avoided in previous artworks – either ignored and left out of my palette completely, or used as a mixing colour, or used in very tiny amounts only). Studying Medieval art and Persian and Indian miniature painting made me appreciate all colours and especially how red is very carefully used – and I’m finally absorbing and reproducing those lessons here. Red is in the lanterns and in the volcano – things that really do need to be red. And it fits perfectly… and there will be more.

A master knows when to have sharp edges and when to have soft edges. Sharp edges for  details – and God is in the details – and softness for variation and depth. A master is judicious in the provision of blank spaces – although I have horror vacui (horror of the void) like the miniature painters, I am also half Chinese and appreciate the ‘pregnant’ empty spaces of Chinese paintings. A master knows that blank passages complement areas of high detail beautifully and thus they provide breathing spaces en route while your eyes rove around the painting. This works for both big and small artworks. This is a dome which will eventually revolve, so the ‘blank’ spaces (areas with less detail) are even more important to the experience.

A master is not afraid of mixing perspective and is able to make effortless switches between 2D and 3D in the picture plane. It all makes sense if you allow it to be so. A master is not afraid of using beautiful, rare or luxurious materials in their work because they are confident that they can handle them and that their work merits them. A master uses gold where appropriate. A master is not afraid to paint anything: while painting, instead of asking ‘What do I want to paint next?’ the master asks ‘What does the painting need?’ and responds appropriately. In this way, the master creates new worlds with their own internal logic.

For me this dome is really a learning painting, which is why I call it my ‘masterpiece’ in the original sense of the word – not as a piece just to show off, but as a piece in which I’ve really learnt the techniques and honed my approach and combined all my skills into one painting. And most importantly, changed my attitude.

And now for some abject monks. I conjured up these abject monks quietly and spontaneously during my own vision in a dream while daydreaming while painting while pondering while my brush was working in a flow state and the idea came to me calmly, naturally ~

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NIGHT 50 – THE STORY OF KING UMAR ‘IBN AL-NUMAN AND HIS FAMILY

THE DOME IS TAKING SHAPE AND FORM

More to come on the poem Kubla Khan later (there’s lots to say so I will break it down).

I’m pleased that the dome is making progress; some paintings are slow cookers and this is definitely one of them! It’s best to leave these slow cookers to cook, I’ve found, and worth it in the end. Going to make a masterpiece! I’ve never painted a dome before so taking it slowly means I don’t make mistakes, I really consider each thing I’m going to paint (unlike with other paintings where I am more free to make mistakes and/or happy accidents). There is room for me to be spontaneous here of course, but it is a considered and slow spontaneity – close to the more real, ancient Chinese, Zhuang Zi version of spontaneity – where ideas flow freely off the brush after long, considered work. It’s the opposite of impulsive. This kind of spontaneity springs softly. It’s not whimsy although there are whimsical elements. It comes in the doing (‘inspiration has to find you working’), not in the waiting around. However, the waiting around and doing nothing is also important, in the way that meditation clears and resets your mind… so evidently it is hard to put this creative process into words. It’s a fine balance that needs to be honed and perfected. That in itself is a lifetime’s work in progress ~

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NIGHT 49 – THE STORY OF KING UMAR ‘IBN AL-NUMAN AND HIS FAMILY

THE DOME AND KUBLA KHAN – IN XANADU…

My dome is inspired by Coleridge’s famous poem ‘Kubla Khan’. And I’m going in the dome.

Amazing poem, amazing back story. Possibly my favourite poem in the English language:

Kubla Khan

BY SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise ~

Above is a map with cusped outlines that I love by Ottoman cartographer Piri Re’is. I studied him a little during my Medieval and Renaissance Studies MA at UCL a while back. He was from a family of corsairs and seafarers and he was also a navigator and compiler of geographical information and local culture (as mapmakers often were in those days, having multiple roles). His Kitāb-ı Baḥrīye, “Book of the Sea”, published in 1521 and revised 1524-1525 as a gift for Suleiman I, was one of the most famous cartographical works of the period.  I studied Christopher Buondelmonti in depth – he was the first to make an isolario, or a book of islands, the precursor to the modern atlas. And the portolan charts and littorals, the maps for ships that hug the coastlines, eventually gave way to wider spans of oceans. (All this and more in my Floating Islands thesis on my page at http://www.academia.edu) But in these early days I was inspired by the cute, almost cartoonish – yet still Renaissance – cusped outlines of Piri Re’is. It was almost as if he had grouped a mass of coastline into one big semicircle and just hazarded a guess as to the major areas – or that the coastline was symbolic, and painted in cusps because it only represented a coastline, not accurately. Visually, it makes for striking images and ones I couldn’t forget easily ~

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