A question of detail

People often ask about my process – how do I go about a painting – and because I do still life paintings that are ‘realistic’, the assumption seems to be that I am painting in detail but I don’t feel as if I am.

I got asked at the RI Private View last year if I used an 000 brush (tiny) which I found shocking as I hardly ever use anything under a size 6 and often use quite large brushes. But that comment was thankfully counteracted by a fellow artist coming up and saying, “Do you know Lillias, I always thought that your work was highly detailed, but I’ve just been up to your nest painting and it’s not is it !” 

So why do those two comments stand out to me?  Well, I paint with ‘the whole’ in mind. I never feel as if I home in on details.  In other words, the details you think you see have evolved from initial broad washes and slowly building up the object by continually standing back to take the whole thing in and making decisions so that things hang together all along the way.  But all that freedom in building up the painting can only be acted on following careful thought and planning (where are the lights, where should the eye be drawn to, juxtapositions etc.) and those decisions evolve along the way.

Once I have got initial things set out in my mind and on paper, I feel I have the freedom and confidence to get going. Even at the end when I seem to have got that ‘detailed’ look through building up tone etc., I may emphasise a section with a wash of colour or do a wash over the whole lot to tone it down and subdue the details – all so it works together. 

So I never work ‘from the off’ in detail – I never move along a painting completing one section before moving on to another – it just slowly develops and the art is to stop when it can be seen as a whole in the way I want which is never obsessively finicky and photographic. 

So next time you see a painting of mine please look at it as a whole and then take a closer look if you want.

Opposites together at the RI show

On the shelf  watercolour 24.5 x 80cm

In this year’s RI show three of my long still life paintings of nests, mallets and shells will be hanging together. I’ve written about the nests in a previous blog, Nesting. The other two seem to be polar opposites – while the mallets, below, are dense and heavy, the shells, above, are delicate and light. The mallets are bashed and heavily marked, while the shells are pristine and intricately patterned. The mallets dominate their picture and are restricted within a box-shaped shelf. The shells are on an open shelf. Painting two rather opposite subjects wasn’t an intentional thing – it just turned out that way – but it’s interesting looking at it retrospectively. It shows how objects seem to determine the way you place and approach them even if they are all in a line! Perhaps they will play against each other in the show. It’ll be interesting to see.

Mallets   watercolour 31.5 x 96cm

The RI show at the Mall Galleries, London, is open from 3 – 18 April (10am – 5pm) and all the paintings can be seen by clicking on this link and scrolling down. I am delighted that my painting, Archive, is on the front cover of the catalogue – it is being auctioned to raise money for the restoration of the RI Archive, recently housed at the V & A museum. It also features on the back cover of the new RI book, Then and Now, being launched at the show and including a foreword by HRH The Price of Wales, a history of the RI since its inception in 1831 and features on all its current members. It’s a long- awaited publication with over 170 beautifully illustrated pages.

Archive watercolour 29 x 49cm


Empty nests 31 x 95cm

Empty nests  31 x 95cm

I did a small painting earlier this year called ‘Nest egg’, see below, which sold at the RI’s annual exhibition. I had been planning a larger painting of a row of nests at the same time but it had taken some time to collect them after the nesting season was over (thanks to friends, walks etc). Having sat looking at them for ages, I eventually got going a couple of weeks ago. I’m not completely sure which birds they belong to (see note below)  – I was just inspired by their varying forms and quirks and the feelings they can evoke.


Nest egg 31.5 x 41.5cm

Nest egg   31 x 41cm

For those who may be interested, from the left, I am reliably told that no.3 is a long tailed tit’s and no. 6 is a blackbird’s. No.5 came out of a tit box. Nos.1 and 4 are a mystery – all that’s left is the twiggy scaffolding that was probably lined with softer things.  No.2 is also a mystery – it is just a tiny remnant of something mainly made from feathers intertwined with a few little twigs  – any ideas?

Making connections

..between still life, landscape and architecture ….

“Despise not trifles, though they small appear.  Sands rise to mountains, moments make the year and trifles life.  Your time to trifles give or you may die before you learn to live.”  Daniel Sutton, an 18th century scientist.

Hanging by a thread  30 x 90cm

‘Hanging by a thread’ – new limited edition of 20 prints for sale – for more information click here.

As mentioned in my previous blogs, my still life painting often depicts rows of everyday objects laid out as if for inspection and I am sure that this analytical approach has been influenced by painting my local fenland landscape.  I also think that having spent time closely following the construction of a cathedral tower, I began to appreciate the smaller things that played an important role in the greater scheme of things but often went unseen and unappreciated.  My mother always supported the underdog – perhaps I do too!

I’ve said this before – I find these everyday objects quietly evocative – they seem both intimate and worldly.  They seem to be trying to convey something more than their everyday purpose.

These lightbulbs came from many different places and most of them are now redundant having lain in my brother-in-law’s cupboards for years!  From a technical point of view, the varying shapes and opacity fascinated me and the more I looked, the more subtle variations I could see.  The surrounding backgrounds, shadows, reflections etc.  are essential in describing the essence of the objects themselves.

New horizons

I have a small solo show, ‘Horizons’,  at the Old Fire Engine House in Ely, Cambridgeshire, from 3rd to 26th November 2017. After many years of still life painting, this exhibition has been an opportunity for me to revisit the landscape.  My still life painting manifested itself in rows of everyday objects laid out in front of you as if for inspection. There is no doubt in my mind that this analytical approach was partly influenced by the flat, open and regimented landscape of East Anglia where the far horizon is always there and everything is laid out in front of you. Towards it and on it things stand out like props on a stage and catch the eye.

Nearer the time I shall be regularly posting some of this new work on Facebook (Lillias August RI)

Floodlands 22 x 43cm

Floodlands   watercolour  21 x 43.5cm

Bed time

Unmade bed 1   33 x 41.5cm

I am currently working on a series of paintings of unmade beds.  The inspiration came from walking round a house that I was renting with my family.  It was very quiet.  They had all gone out for a walk and there were just these ‘remains of where they had been’ and I found it very moving. The subject matter is naturally evocative – I want the paintings to be dark and still, slightly brooding but peaceful.  Technically the method of painting has been rather brooding too with paint being layered on and lifted off in stages to create a muted, soft yet strong, effect.


Unmade bed 2   33 x 41.5cm

Uncomfortable subjects

Decommissioned  93 x 35cm

Last year I went to visit the Suffolk Constabulary Headquarters as I wanted to paint a picture of the knives that had been handed in during a knife amnesty. While I was there, there was news of some firearms that were going to be decommissioned and I asked if I could look at them too. My paintings, ‘Amnesty’ and ‘Decommissioned’ are the result of my time there. There was quite a wait before I could see the result of the firearms decommissioning process – a powerful metal machine had sliced through the guns and rendered them useless. I know knives and the guns are disturbing and don’t make comfortable subject matter. I can’t really explain why I wanted to paint them. They are powerful and evocative and will say different things to different people. I suppose that I was drawn to what lies behind them – the stories that they could tell.  The shafts of light through the vertical blinds seem to enhance the mood (see previous post on backgrounds).  Both paintings will be with Beaux Art, Bath at the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea, London 8 – 12 March and then at the gallery itself.

Amnesty  41 x 96cm


Background work

Most of my still life paintings are set up in my studio with light from a window on my right. Although the subject matter is what inspires me, the backgrounds and shadows are some of the most important parts of the painting as they enhance and compliment the subject matter itself.  On the technical side, I nearly always start with the background and shadows, move on to the subject and then dance between the two, building up their relationship until I think it works and they are ‘speaking to each other’.

Bits - 36 x 96cmBits  36 x 96cm

Shadows reflect their object – that’s obvious – but it’s not just the shape or the type of light that comes into play. They have hints of reflective light and colour in them that speak to the object to each side of them.  Sometimes small bits of light bounce off other things and interfere with the prominent shadow and it’s hard to work out where it’s come from.  Likewise, bits of light often capture the dark side of the object.  If the background is busy, it too becomes something different within the shadows.  The relationship between the lit side of the object and its background also varies.  So there is a lot to think about and get involved with.

So what happens when light goes through the object?  “We’ll see”, as my father used to say when I was asking something he didn’t want to answer!  I recently finished a painting of light bulbs with many shapes, sizes and degrees of opacity and I am now working on a row of ten green bottles – all different thicknesses and shades.  We’ll see…..

Hanging by a thread  30 x 90cmHanging by a thread  30 x 90cm


Ten green bottles – work in progress

Splash! – a unique exhibition…….

The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI) is holding a fundraising exhibition called ‘Splash!’ (8-13 November). This exhibition offers a unique opportunity to buy work by top watercolour painters. Included in the exhibition is a silent auction of 65 small paintings – with a starting bid of £50 it is highly likely some people are going to go home with a little treasure.  Please come along and support this event.  Members of the RI will be there every day to show you around.  Here is a Private View Invitation with all the information.