Friday, 5 June 2020

Recreating Work of Art: Our Hilarious Lockdown Project

What do writers do in lockdown? We write, right?

But I seem to have found myself another job in this strange time: recreating works of art with my husband using things found around the house. My Dad is an art lecturer and I have worked for years for an art and craft publisher, but I never expected to become so deeply and joyfully involved.

It started as a lark with Van Gogh’s Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear. We found a broom head in the garden, taped it to Jon’s head, added a bandage, approximated a few background details and posted on Facebook. People seemed delighted, as if we’d injected some much-needed fun into the troubling early days of the lockdown.

We started to do a recreation a day. I would emerge from the intense focus and realise I hadn’t thought of the virus for an hour or more. It was worth doing for that alone.

We began with the obvious paintings and even while sending them up, we gained a surprising insight into what makes them work. It wasn’t only poses, expressions, colours and shapes that we needed to recreate but also texture, tone, lighting, contrast and mood. I became fascinated by the artists and their original models. It was like the most enjoyable Art History course ever.

Our second effort was Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The pose looks like an effortless glance, but I soon became aware that it’s painfully unnatural as I stretched my neck and eye muscles. I can only imagine what the original model went through. This was my first wake-up call: I am a tiny bit older than most artists’ models! The Older Lady With a Pearl Earring.

The Card Players by Cezanne was the first one to involve our 24-year-old son as photographer. He did not want to faff obsessively about details as I do and was far from amused that we had commandeered the entire kitchen when he wanted to make breakfast.

For Munch’s The Scream, Jon perfected his Expressionist expression while I created distant figures from cardboard and a sunset from an orange towel. I always place our effort next to the original, cropping and placing it to enhance the resemblance. Oh the frustration when a glaring omission comes to light when it’s too late to take the photo again! I fussed over not getting the perspective right here. ‘Oh, Munch exaggerated it,’ said Dad. Now you tell me!

You’ve got to do Frida Kahlo, because of her amazing paintings and monobrow. I don’t really have eyebrows at all and have to paint them on for most recreations. Maddeningly, my head angle is not right here, but everyone’s patience was at an end, especially our cat, Misty’s. She got sick of being held over my shoulder and scratched us all.

I came home from shopping to find Jon dressed as Whistler’s Mother, with a fake painting and black bin bags pinned to the wall. I think you’ll agree, Jon was born for the role.

For Millais’ Ophelia, we dragged an old car roof box from behind our shed, but it was locked, so Jon hacked it open with a saw. It was early April so we had to search for flowers to strew. Jon filled the roof box with water and I lay down in it, which really made me feel for the original model. Millais found Elizabeth Siddall in a hat shop. She posed lying in a bath in his studio and the cold gave her pneumonia – her father made Millais pay the medical bills.

Everyone kept daring us to do a Picasso, so here is his Portrait of Dora Maar. I painted a mask with oil pastels and my face with liquid eyeliner, and I had to twist my mouth to conceal it under the mask. It’s not much of a likeness but those Cubists really messed with reality.

Sometimes you think a painting is going to take hours to recreate and then it just falls into place. Renoir’s A Dance in the Country was one of those and got a huge reaction. People just love to see marigolds in art.

Social distancing restrictions explained the deserted scene in our version of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergeres. I sinched in my waist, corset-style, with a sports bra, and a cardigan, kitchen paper ruffles and some clear plastic made up the barmaid’s outfit.

Contemporary critics assumed that Manet’s demure, smartly dressed model, Suzon, was a prostitute, which perhaps says more about them than about her. I’d never noticed before how unhappy she looks. She really worked at the bar, but the scene was reproduced in Manet’s studio where she posed behind a table laden with bottles. The angle of her reflection was hard to reproduce, and it turns out that Renoir just put it where he wanted it. It has been fascinating to learn how artists have faked things in the staging.

I had though Jon would be The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, but he didn’t have the hair for it and it turned out I did. We faked the hat from a fancy-dress witch’s hat and the facial hair from gardener’s coconut matting – very tickly when you’re trying hold a swaggering pose.

Vermeer’s Milkmaid had had a kitchen refit! Again, her pose looks natural but almost did me an injury. Perhaps that’s why my expression could turn milk sour! I am still consumed with regret that I found the perfect bright blue cloth to hang from the table, then forgot to put it in.

Magritte’s Lovers 1 was recreated on Southborough Common. You’ll all be wearing these hygienic facemasks soon!

Modigliani’s Woman With Red Hair was not a difficult pose, but I had to paint my eyelids black to recreate her blank stare. I should get some real white lace – it would save me a lot of kitchen paper.

Around this time the local news channel featured some of our efforts, but it wasn’t the heady fame that kept us going, but friends and neighbours saying that our ‘art’ was cheering them up every day and we mustn’t stop. They are still saying that eleven weeks on!

For Magritte’s Son of Man, I confess we ordered a bowler hat online and taped an apple to its brim. People particularly liked the clouds stuck on the wall.

Pre-Raphaelite paintings are perfect for lampooning because they are already quite silly. Sometimes, it’s a prop that inspires you, and I couldn’t wait to wear the red travel neck pillow on my head for Frank Cowper’s Vanity.

Noir et Blanche by Man Ray. Our mask was a bit big, as was my hamster-like cheek as gravity pulled it south. The model, Kiki, attracted Man Ray with her ‘cute accent and air of mystery’ – and probably her firm young cheeks.

Next came Rosetti’s Prosperine, holding an onion in place of a pomegranate. Do I have a short neck or did Rosetti exaggerate hers? The model was Jane Morris, embroiderer, wife of William and lover of Rosetti, who married Elizabeth Siddall from Millais’ Ophelia – keep up now.

I wonder why Egon Shiele’s Woman With Legs Drawn Up is wearing rags for shorts, (reproduced of course with kitchen paper)? I learned here that artists de-emphasise perspective to imitate the way our brains adjust for it, but the camera records it faithfully, so limbs stretching towards the lens looking huge and distorted.

Lucien Freud’s Girl on a Sofa does the same thing in reverse – her feet look normal-sized but mine in the photo look stunted. I butchered my fringe to imitate hers and have lived with the result for weeks.

Jon got out his fairy costume, veteran of fancy dress Parkruns and school pantos, for Degas’ Dancer with a Bouquet. I think he captured her feminine grace to perfection.

The pose for John Singer Sargent’s Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast must be natural, as it worked best when I imagined I really was drinking a giddy but heartfelt toast. A bit of transparent plastic recreated Madame’s gauzy wrap.

It all went a bit haywire as the global pandemic continued. For Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, I cast around for something for Jon to munch and found the rubber chicken my son uses for teaching. Like Abraham’s ram, it meant that the son himself was spared.

By now my lockdown hair was barely controllable – perfect for Caravaggio’s Medusa. The original shows Medusa undone by the sight of her reflection, with ‘a shocked gaze, a terrified scream’, which is how I felt looking in a mirror. No snakes were required to reproduce the horror.

Hygienic gloves and a Pound Shop brolley were perfect for Manet’s The Balcony.

We found yeast in the shops after weeks without homemade pizza, so it was lovingly placed, with flour, in The Cradle by Berthe Morisot. She was the first woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, and painted her sister, Edma, with her baby. Edma’s expression is hard to read and some have suggested she was yearning to paint, as she did before motherhood. I was yearning to do some writing and for Lockdown to end – but mainly for pizza.

The photo we did before our VE Day street party created controversy. Albert Eisenstaedt snapped a sailor kissing a nurse on VJ Day in Times Square. Some Facebook comments said his photo showed a sexual assault. We were too busy partying to engage, but the debate raged so fiercely on the Recreate Works of Art page that admins took the post down! We could only get the pose right once we realised it’s like a dance move. As my son took photo after photo of his snogging parents, he said, ’This is the worst thing I’ve ever done.’

Jon insisted on wielding a real axe for Ferdinand Hodler's The Woodcutter, and regretted it as I kept saying, ‘Lean over more… no, much more…’

I thought it would take ages to recreate Andrew Wyeth’s decrepit and downcast old woman, but I put my lockdown hair up and there she was! This one proved popular, probably with other people missing their hairdresser.

I was delighted that we were able to recreate the lighting and composition of Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, if not Mr Clark’s hair. The sombre expressions and the bright outdoors just beyond reach seemed to sum up Week 9 of lockdown.

Jon took a while to wash off the Emperor Augustus’s bronze-verdigris green. I used liquid eyeliner for his hair and that washed off too, though many thought he should keep it. A teacher on Facebook asked to use this for GCSE History. We were happy to consent.

It was fascinating to investigate American Gothic, which many people suggested for us. The original scene was completely contrived: Grant Wood used his dentist and his sister to pose in front of the house and ordered her puritanical-looking apron from a mail-order firm. I felt no less authentic standing in front of a neighbour’s garage in Jon’s black sweatshirt, with a paper ‘brooch’ and a bit of cut-up fabric pinned to my front.

We no longer have the time to do a recreation every day, but we will carry on as long as restrictions remain and people enjoy our efforts. Thanks to the Recreate Artworks From Things You Find at Home Facebook page, which has been full of hilarity and inspiration. In strange times, we do strange things, and God knows, we need a laugh!

Thursday, 2 April 2020

3 Easy Steps to Calm Anxiety in the Coronavirus Lockdown

When I’m not being a writer and editor, I’m a mentor in a local school. Many of the pupils I see struggle with anxiety, and in these times, that’s all of us isn’t it?

I wanted to share a simple three-step process designed to ‘reset’ your system when anxiety takes over. It involves activity, relaxation, and thinking of a happy memory – all things you can do under lockdown conditions!

Holiday memories

Nearly all my happy memories are of holidays. My upcoming novel, The Year of the Ghost is about a treasured annual family holiday which one year is the scene of a haunting. It’s a story of family: of brokenness, secrets and love. The characters are not my family, but it is based on our annual pilgrimage to my father’s Welsh homeland. My memories of this beautiful place span most of my life and my happiest times. I have spent the last couple of years immersed in them as I write.

The good news is that those memories which keep you going through the winter can be accessed in this difficult time, and all the good feelings they give you will bolster your spirits right now. There's a reason why people all over the world are sharing pictures of beaches!

Anxious times

I have a constant background hum of alarm, apprehension and sadness which I put aside as I try to live this crisis one day at a time. But the effort of powering through it tires me out. Most of the time, I'm fine, but I have bouts of low mood and over-sensitivity that are not like the usual me.

These three steps are designed to help when anxiety becomes overwhelming, but at the moment I’d suggest that we need them all the time!

1 Activity

When you’re worried, your heart beats faster and your stomach feels wrong. Just becoming aware of these symptoms can make the anxiety worse. The first step to resetting your body is to do something active and fun: take your daily outside exercise or do something indoors. Make sure it’s actually fun, not something you have to force yourself to do! Dance to your favourite song, do step aerobics to music on your bottom stairs, play table tennis on the dining room table, bounce a ball against the wall… Changing how your body feels is a quick and effective way to start transforming your state of mind. Now move onto the next step.


Tense all your muscles at once: make tight fists, clench your buttocks and tighten your leg muscles, then scrunch up your face. Count to 5 with everything clenched! Then let go, loosen, relax.

Now take a deep breath in through your nose. Picture the air going in, down to your belly and out to every part of your body… then breathe out slowly through your mouth. Again, let the good, cooling, balmy air in through your nose – and all the tension will flow out through your mouth. Do this five times altogether, in and out, in and out...

 Your happy memory

Think of a time you were happy and relaxed, perhaps in your favourite place. Remember all the details: the smells, the sights, the sounds. How did it make you feel inside? Be there again in your mind. Relish it, revel in it, enjoy that feeling now.

I really hope that this combination of getting your body moving, relaxing and remembering a happy time will help you through your day. 

Monday, 6 January 2020

Beat Procrastination – A Guide for Writers

Most writers live in the battle between motivation and procrastination. This morning after listening to this BBC4 All in the Mind podcast  The Psychology of Motivation and Procrastination, I did something I had been putting off for years. It was to do with freelancing rather than writing, but it had been a huge cause of dread and anxiety, and I just did it in a heartbeat.

So read on, writers, these insights from the podcast will really help!


Dr Ian Taylor from Loughborough University says: 
"Motivators are the fuel that lead to a desired behaviour." 

Fact 1: Willpower is not the best motivator

We think of willpower as crucial, but  it is actually not the best motivator at all.

Fact 2: Enjoyment is the best motivator

We are more likely to do something if we do it for the love of it. We writers need to remind ourselves that this is why we write. We are inclined to think about the times when we're struggling, or when we read back over our work and hate it. What about those times when we look up to find hours have gone by and we’ve written something good?

Fact 3: Identity is the next best motivator 

You are much more likely to do something if we do it because of who you are.
If you want to get into running, think of yourself as a runner. Then you’re not just someone who should go running. It’s not all about the task. It’s about your identity.

The album I got for Christmas, Now 100 Hits: Forgotten 70s taught me this: 

Pearl’s a Singer. 

Elkie Brooks drives the point home in the haunting refrain of this forgotten classic. Pearl sings because she’s a singer. That’s who she is.

If you want to write, call yourself a writer! 

When my children were little, if I had a tiny scrap of time to myself and was tempted to use it to clear up the house instead of writing, I’d chide myself, Are you a writer or a housewife? This always did the trick.

Years later I took my biggest step towards actually being a writer after years of wanting to be one. I started this writer’s blog. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been published, or paid for writing. I called myself a writer, and so I became one. Pearl’s a singer. What are you?

Fact 4: It pays to plan ahead

Willpower is fragile, so minimise the effort required for a task. If you want to go running, don’t have your kit packed away, leave it out ready. 

If you want to write, don’t plan to do it after a hard day’s work, or when you’ve finished all your paid work.  Plan to do it in the morning or whenever you’re fresh.

Leave off writing at a good point, when you’re pleased with what you’ve done and know where you’re going with it next. Don’t make yourself pick it up again at a difficult point, or you’ll be filled with dread.


Dr Fuchsia Sirois from Sheffield University says:
“Procrastination is the unnecessary delay of an intended, voluntary and important task despite knowing you’ll be worse off for doing so.”
Oh writer, behold your face in a mirror! That’s us, isn’t it? We’re procrastinators! No, wait a minute, we’re writers! Procrastination is just a bad old habit we’re about to kick. It is not who we are!

Most people procrastinate. It’s when it becomes chronic that it can be really problematic. 

However, as writers, we can really help ourselves by understanding the beast that always confronts us.

It’s all about negative emotions...

We think procrastination is about poor time management, but actually it’s about poor mood management. We use procrastination as a way of regulating negative feelings. We want to write, but we look at the task of writing as boring, challenging and stressful. It brings up a sense of incompetence and a fear of failure. It won’t be perfect, and that will be unbearable…

Most people delay a challenging task a bit but then think of the benefits and get on with it. However, if you can’t manage the negative feelings you have about a task, you put off doing it to make yourself feel better.

...and an unrealistic view of our future selves

To rationalise the fact that we’ve put a task aside to feel better, we tell ourselves we’ll be less tired, more positive and more capable in future. We paint our future self as a superhero, and so this self begins to seem unattainable, abstract and unreal. We don’t identify with it any more.

Who is more likely to procrastinate?

People who are prone to negative moods such as worry, anxiety or fear are more likely to procrastinate. They already have a high level of negative mood so an unpleasant task makes them want to back away from it.

Some people are not very good at thinking about the future or planning. They prioritise feeling good now, and so procrastinate. People who can think about the future and plan can balance short-term negative feelings with the thought of future rewards.

It just adds to stress

Although in the short term we feel better because we’ve put something off, the task preoccupies our thoughts and makes us anxious. I can vouch for this! The thing I had been putting off kept creeping up on me in my most vulnerable moments – for instance when trying to get to sleep – and hitting me with terrible anxiety. 

But today I did it, so there is hope for us all!

3 Top Tips to beat procrastination

1 Set achievable goals

Break down big tasks so they’re not so overwhelming and don’t activate those negative emotions. Louise Minchin, BBC presenter and Team GB triathlete, says that taking small steps helps her. She undertakes small tasks to avoid a future task being really painful: for instance she will go for a long run because she has a triathlon coming up and needs to be fit.

As writers, we can set ourselves daily or weekly wordcounts rather than focusing on writing a whole article or book.

2 Think positively about the task

The true secret to overcoming procrastination is managing our negative emotions about a task. In a two-week trial, people were given tasks. They were taught to either tolerate their negative emotions about a task, or reappraise it more positively. Compared to group without these instructions, their level of procrastination went down. This is an amazing achievement in only two weeks.

Find something positive in the process of the task (not just the goal, which might seem too far away to motivate you). Think what you’ll learn through the process.

You're a writer because deep down, you enjoy it. Few activities are more likely to get you in the ‘flow’, reducing external stress and making time go by in a rush of creative fulfillment. Remember this when you’re approaching it with trepidation!

3 Be kind to yourself

Procrastinators often think they need to be stricter with themselves, but actually they need to be kinder. Have compassion and practise forgiveness as you would towards a friend. Being hard on yourself just adds to those negative emotions that will get in your way.

So now you know! I'm off to do some writing - how about you?