The Senses No 4; Smell

9 Apr



The Senses No 4; Smell


This has been most difficult to try and depict visually. I did so by exploring my own experiences which is the best way for an artist to express himself.

The picture base is a slice of lemon – a scent evocative of times as a child sitting in an old lemon tree hiding from my siblings, trying not to get lacerated by thorns. From the centre comes a wisp of smoke carrying its own memories – smoke of a camp-fire, the smell my grandmother’s wood-burning kitchen stove, the faint smoky aroma of our nanny who cooked her food over an open fire.

The olfactory, and limbic system (responsible for storage of memory), are anatomically closely associated in the front of the brain (which happens to be where the nose is). A particular smell with associations can induce activity in adjacent nerves, thus resurrect memories long dormant. One autumn morning near Oxford, UK, cycling alongside a wheat-field burned yesterday by the farmer, the pungent bread-like scent of dew on the black stubble was so powerful and the emotional response so unexpected that it nearly knocked me off my bicycle. I immediately flashed back over twenty years. Those were significant times; cool early mornings in Central Africa after a bush-fire with a sense of relief that our house had not been caught overnight by the burning grass, and the heady smell of first rain in November, come at last after long months of drought, falling on the burned ground.

Those were smells with positive associations but the opposite can also happen. The smoky wisp in this image arises from the centre of a Chest X-ray – a man with cancer of the lung from years of tobacco smoking. It evokes that sour smell of a habitual smoker, the yellowed fingernails, caustic breath.

They say that links between aromas and memories begin even before we are born. Aromas such as garlic that upset many babies can be comforting to infants exposed ante-natally.

The Senses 3; Vision

28 Mar
Senses 3 C Vision

The Senses 3; Vision


I could start with the words “The eye is the window of the soul” but, for a change, I won’t. But I am fascinated by the visual component of art.

The eye provides a way to look directly at the brain of an individual because it is an extension of the brain to the surface as it were. When a physician or optician looks at the fundus of your eye using an ophthalmoscope, they are looking directly at your brain. Here is the connection between one person and the next. When you look deep into the eyes of another you are looking past the surface at the person to the inside. By contrast, if someone is avoiding you they won’t look into your eyes. The eye is so important showing the inner feelings and those sculptures with flat eyes like many Greek sculptures have lost their expressivity. The eye is also spiritual, it expresses the personality. A picture of an eye isolated as in my image expresses secretiveness.

Quality of vision of course affects the painter – the shimmering effect of Monet’s waterlilies, his broad brush-strokes are thought to be due to the blurry effect caused by his cataracts with yellowing and darkening of the lens. Similarly Degas nudes became blurry as his eyesight deteriorated that the paintings have lost all their detail becoming significantly more abstract as he developed retinal disease, likely macular degeneration.

In this image I have tried to express both the physical and spiritual components of vision using a mélange of colour, texture, and form, in the centre is the eye which reflects the view from my home, and a wedge-tail eagle breaking free from the surface of the cornea



The Senses 2; Touch

23 Mar


The Senses 2; Touch

The main reference in this picture depicting the sense of touch is the dada Object, nicknamed Le Déjeuner en fourrure, by Méret Oppenheim, she transformed these genteel items traditionally associated with feminine decorum into sensuous, sexually punning tableware. My version is much more fuzzy-furry and hardly decorous. 

This was a fun experiment with a couple of fur brushes in Photoshop. The furry part of the picture alone had six layers, and I constructed my own furry cup, saucer, and teapot taking it one step further than Ms Oppenheim’s version, (though to be fair she did make a teaspoon as well).
In my imagination the sensation of the touch of fur on the lips when trying to drink hot tea makes me shiver.
The hand in this picture is passing through a much deconstructed cheat X-ray and has a splattered gold texture by which I’m trying to indicate the tingly sensation of the finger in the fur. The rest of the image has a gritty sensation that contrasts with the soft fluffiness of the fur.

Senses 1: Hearing

6 Mar

Senses 1 Hearing B C

Senses 1; Hearing

After some time away, I’ve returned with a new series of six pictures focussing on the senses, starting with Hearing. I’m not sure whether I will subdivide the senses and increase the series by dividing taste, for example, into sweet, sour, bitter, umami, etc. Time will tell.

For my first picture – Hearing – I’ve tried to give the impression of time passing without leaving a trace by linking the sea, sound and music in my image Aquatic animals use sound between members of their species, for communication and survival and the sea itself continually makes its music. To broaden the sense in this I’ve combined the sound of the sea with musical notation from a Celtic tune; The Blossom and the Rain (Brian Peters).

It is interesting how visible imagery is linked to sound ;we describe tones as light, dark, and use a term “colouring” to describe the special timbre of an instrument by an expert player.

Whilst vision itself is a primary sense, auditory perception of music, and especially speech, involves information from more than one sensory modality. The McGurk effect was discovered when a video sound recording of someone speaking was dubbed with a different sound, they discovered that an observer often hears a third sound, showing how much the two senses rely upon each other.

“If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there, does it make a sound?” a philosophical thought experiment that compares and contrasts observation and reality. “.. objects of sense exist only when perceived…” Since sound is only waves of vibration passing through the air, an ear must be present for the sensation of sound to be perceived. So, the answer must be “No”. It’s appropriate therefore to include an ear in my picture – the pinna of a close and much loved relative.

Self-Portrait 10 B; Portrait of the artist as a Pict

20 Feb




This picture is another version of 10A and for that reason I have numbered it the same, also keeping to my initial decision only to have 10 in this series.

It put me in mind of the film Braveheart written by Randal Wallace, directed by Mel Gibson (1995). Set in 13th century Scotland the hero leaps around painted blue, but the historical inaccuracies of that film are staggering; The film character William Wallace has been referred to as “farcical representation as a wild and hairy highlander painted with woad (1,000 years too late) running amok in a tartan kilt (500 years too early).” The ancient Iceni tribe of Britannia allegedly painted their faces and bodies with woad. The Romans called them Picti (the Latin word for “painted”). Caesar also noted in his book about the Gallic wars De Bello Gallicum, that Britons wore moustaches, whereas Roman soldiers were clean-shaven, hence I suppose the hairy Mel Gibson (with no moustache). There is some contention about whether the dyes for painting were derived from the woad plant (blue) or if it was copper oxide (green) There have also been suggestions that an iron derivative was used, but prussian blue- a ferrocyanate -wasn’t invented until the 18th century. Caesar uses the word “vitrium” which may refer either to green glass or perhaps to woad. “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horribiliores sunt in pugna aspectu.” (All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with [glass/woad], which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in battle). The use of woad (which was used to colour textiles) as a body paint is to a certain extent presumptive.  

This picture ends a process of self-discovery through art which was unexpected when I started the series. I intended just to use the self-portrait as an object, but in the course they revealed a lot of things about my inner self – a kind of Zen exploration. I recommend using this activity to anyone interested in that journey.

The other thing that was interesting was the relationship between the face and the Chest X-ray in each image and how the association of those elements changed through the series.

I’m still not sure where this will take me and what direction I shall go in but I am still having fun doing it.

Self Portrait 10 A; The Providential Eye

14 Feb


I was initially going to discard this image – in fact I had already started work on another version of the same photo (see my next picture) but I decided to keep it anyway. Although I had intended to do just ten in this series it has been included mainly for comparison – it will throw my numbers out. It was interesting afterwards to see two quite different emotions emerging from the same photo.

This picture contains three photographs facing left, centre, and right respectively however the third looking to the right predominates. The face is framed by a chest X-ray with a mitral and aortic valve transplant though little detail is visible. The subject glances out of the picture towards the right with a look of defiant apprehension. I liked the interplay of colours in the patchwork on the left side of the picture and the texture of the textiles in the lower half. The tension between the hard geometric figures on the left and the amorphous patterns on the right adds a further dimension.

Interpreting it literally the picture suggests there are two sides to this person, the old and crusty side, and the shadowy side. Does this really reflect the character of the subject? I’m in no position to say…

On looking at the image later I noted that it contains, in the centre, the symbol of the Eye of Providence; the eye and triangle or pyramid. This ancient Christian symbol was appropriated in 1782 to appear both on the Great Seal of the United States and on the US dollar bill. It was later taken up by the Freemasons to represent the Great Architect of the Universe i.e. God (there are many conspiracy theories regarding the link between freemasons and the Great Seal).

Finally, I notice that the picture has a cubist element, again this was unintentional.

Self-Portrait No 9; Is it Real?

6 Feb

Self-Portrait No 9; Is it Real?

For my penultimate self-portrait (for I have decided to limit this series to ten) I have chosen a different focus, not centring on the eye, but this time the hand and X-ray instead. I’ve seen X-ray art exhibitions entitled something like “Looking right through you” and wanted to exploit that idea, perhaps to make a point. How often do we see someone pick up an X-ray and hold it up to the window, and expect to be able to read it? When you do that you can’t see the X-ray picture properly and what you see is trees, windows, light bulbs, and the information is badly degraded. Sadly this behaviour seems more prevalent amongst those members of the medical profession who would rather impress the patient than make an accurate diagnosis – but I digress.

I like to see text included as a visual element in artworks provided it doesn’t dominate or replace the design (See Portrait of Iris Clert by Rauschenberg. ). Text seems to give a second level of complexity.  This collage includes an X-ray, twice, and some text from the original has been retained in each. Apart from patient details, information written on an X-ray is like a secret code understood by radiographers (X-ray Technicians). If you understand the code, yet another dimension is added to the image. In a way, it brings to mind that pseudo-Biblical cliché “He who has eyes to see, let him see” which implies that only those who understand the code will be able to interpret it. It is demonstrable that a lot of artworks are made with a point, or message, some of those are overt, whilst others are hidden. An artist may place within the picture references to ideas outside of the primary subject, and viewers will interpret it according to their prior knowledge and experience. The Pre-Raphaelites were past masters at this subterfuge, and a picture such as “The Hireling Shepherd” (Holman Hunt) painted in 1851 whilst evidently saying something about rural beauty and love, referencing the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is my Shepherd), was said to be a comment on the behaviour of the church in Victorian England. The sub-text in that picture says a lot more about sex and its implications at a time when that word was never mentioned in polite society. (See )

There has been a lot written about the Image as Reality, dating back a thousand years when a Chinese empress insisted that a net be placed over a painting of goldfish so that they would not escape, to the present where reality TV captivates us. Many doctors, especially young ones, see an X-ray, which is after all just a shadow photograph, as reality – the patient. “Treat the patient, not the X-ray” was an aphorism much bandied about when I was training. Hugh Turvey (Artist in Residence, British Institute of Radiology) has said “Ultimately, I think [an X-ray] reveals a truth, an unseen truth about the world around us.” He makes a good philosophical point. However any radiologist will tell you it is dangerous to assume that because something is either visible, or not visible on an X-ray this is a diagnostic truth (whatever that may mean).

Therefore in portrait No 9 the subject is really the X-ray, as it were a laser image, visible but insubstantial, trying to make the point that although they can be useful as reference, an X-ray is not the patient.


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