Emma Howell

Abstract Art vs Still Life: Painting Memories And Being Human

Emma Howell
23 March, 2023

As an artist who covers a wide range of styles – abstract, landscape, still life, sketching, digital drawing etc, I often get asked “what is your favourite way to paint?

Abstract painting feels incredibly innate for my hands and head; my go-to thing for a meditative exercise and indeed the style that kickstarted my career as a professional artist. Painting in an abstract manner is a handy tool for when you’re feeling lost, angry and/or depressed. If you allow your hand to hold a paintbrush to drive your feelings, marks manifest and colours collide, consequently prompting a wave of relief to wash over. You can see your feelings on the surface in front of you, which actually allows them to become external instead of internal. I suppose it’s a little like frantically writing out your woes in a diary. Granted, this relief can be momentary.. but over time, I feel it helps you accept a situation or trauma. It makes the problem tangible and physical; an object you choose to view and a physical activity you choose to do – instead of being a scary, tangled up web in your head.

Abstract painting, for me, is also a way to uniquely translate sounds, sights and feelings experienced from life. When I want to quickly document a moment, in a non-literal way, I’ll jot down the marks and colours that come to mind when I’m having an interesting experience or if I’m enticed by something. See excerpt from one of my artist statements:

“A deep navy hue could be a woeful moment or the colour of a gentleman’s jacket; a wash of pale grey could be a loving conversation or a typical British cloud; an earthy green could be a Cotswold hill or the colour of a weathered road sign; a quick, rough mark could be a moment of frustration or a tyre blow-out on interstate 81”

Be that as it may, totally abstract painting isn’t the answer to the question “what is your favourite way to paint?“. (You’ll find this out in a bit.)

Yes, this style is overwhelmingly natural to my senses and brings a lot of comfort, but it’s me dealing with something or working to process something. That isn’t to say that all of my abstract paintings represent sadness or brokenness – not at all. On the contrary, you could say that they all represent healing, self-development and acceptance. I’m more referring to the reasons behind why the abstract obsession came about for me in the first place – it started with a tragedy.

Looking at my experience with abstraction as a whole, I often see the broken Emma who had just lost her Dad; an Emma that was working through one of her greatest fears of losing a parent and an Emma who used this type of painting to fight with the encompassing waves of grief.

Nowadays, abstraction has thankfully become a more positive and energetic part of my artist identity. Despite some of the sad words I write above, I’ll never stop painting abstracts – and the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of paintings I have created over the last few years will continue to live on and I’m grateful for that. They bring joy, brighten living spaces and spark interesting conversations – so for that, I praise the spectacle of abstraction.

Listen To Winter #2 (2018) in progress.

So, what is my favourite way to paint?

It’s actually raw life documentation in the form of still life that I enjoy the most, and what best represents my identity as an artist. This method of art creation is a tool that helps me cherish, share, reminisce, smile, look forward and appreciate; all things that radiate positive thinking patterns and ignite inner self-worth/confidence.

Sketching observations from life, taking a snapshot and documenting candid moments is a necessity for me; a way to love and appreciate the life I’ve been given (hello deep). You can take photos, sure (and I often do) – but there’s something about connecting my mind, my senses and hands (plus paint and paper) to a moment that makes me remember it better and a way for it to live on. I’m also rejecting the limited, digital barricade that we often put between ourselves and actual life; those devices that make us resist reality, smother our authenticity and diminish our innate creativity. (You can probably guess what my views are on Chat GPT.)

My honeymoon, for example, Jon and I were at Eleftherias Square in Kos and we found a café called Lemon. Many of you will know that I’m creatively hypnotised by lemons. They make an appearance in a lot of my work. I’m obviously seduced by the colour, the smell, the metaphors around them, I don’t know. Anyway, I was enticed by this café, Lemon, and we both sat there in these boldly patterned chairs, watching the world go by. We ordered two crêpes and two glasses of water (yeahhh, we know how to party), and I remember feeling just pure contentment. So content to be there, with Jon, the sun on our faces, surrounded by lemons, watching Greek kittens dance and enjoying bloody great crêpes smothered in Nutella. I sat there wanting this moment to last forever – I remember thinking it. So, I sketched it and later painted it. And now the memory lives on, with a lovely collector here in the UK. This is just pure magic for me.

These painting practices allow memories to live on outside of the mind and photo albums; a tangible memory that will live on until it’s physically destroyed. Creating art like this is showing the world who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen – all of the charming, individual things that make you human.

Another moment comes to mind: I was sat in a coffee shop on my own before an appointment (I was too early – standard), and I had one of my journals with me. In front of me was a couple that must have been on their first date – they were sweetly awkward and she didn’t want to share his lemon drizzle cake.The guy couldn’t find a drink he wanted. After quite a few minutes, he finally decided on a chocolate milkshake and the barista said they were out of it. Then the decision making had to start all over again. Me being me, I obviously documented this moment. And they’ll never know this, of course. Such a brief snapshot of their life that I’m sure they’ll forget, and there’s me in the corner scribbling it all down.

I smile when I think about that awkward lemon drizzle cake comment – maybe it’s just me that is moved by these brief scenes from life, but they seriously give me the urge to paint. Life seems to go by quickly the older you get (do you know what I mean?), so documenting experiences in the way I do helps to slow it down a little. And I make an effort to find beauty in the mundane. A towering stack of lemons in an old wooden crate, each carefully placed, differing shades of yellow overlapping each other and the puckered, waxy texture that you just have to touch, maybe even take one home. These kind of visuals in our everyday are usually overlooked, under appreciated and forgotten. Well, no way José – not in this artist’s lifetime. My eyes and ears are always open, and a painting will no doubt be at the other end.

Other humans are also fascinating, hence why we all love a good old people watching session (you know you do..). So, a lot of my inspiration actually comes from those around me – and they (you) don’t even know it. Viewing, admiring and collecting other people’s life moments (not just my own) just feels so marvellously endearing and a precious sentiment. Mentally, physically and emotionally, human connection is vital and we’d feel lost without others.

So, my favourite way to paint? Life snapshots, candid drawing and writing, documentation of moments, still life – just as it is, perfectly imperfect

N.B. I am aware of the hypocrisy that I’m on my digital device now, writing this, posting photos of my practice and interacting with you.. but I don’t think carrier pigeons would work out nowadays. I’ve also completely done my neck in, so I’m glued to the sofa today. Laptop/admin day it is.