Jethro Buck is a painter with a special interest in Indian miniature painting. He applies traditional techniques to explore and celebrate the natural world often using hand ground natural pigments.
We talk to Jethro about his journey to becoming a specialist in miniature painting and how he finds inspiration in nature.
Your works are inspired by traditional painting techniques, how did your journey working with traditional art forms begin?
Many converging paths led me to study miniature painting in Jaipur. And, subsequently to do an MA at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.
I have always been interested in pattern and repetition. I would repeat shapes and doodle for hours as a kid. In my childhood home, we had a tablecloth with a Celtic knot border pattern. I used to follow the line of the weave with my eyes. The boring conversations of the adults would fade into the background as I got lost in the knots. At the age of twelve, during a holiday in Andalucía, my aunt Jane Carroll took me to the Alhambra. I was absolutely blown away by the geometry everywhere. The zellij-tiled patterns were infinitely better versions of my patterned doodles. I thought that they were so perfect that it would be impossible to ever attempt anything like it. How on earth did people make such perfect patterns? My aunt who had studied under Keith Critchlow (Geometer and Founder of the School of Traditional Arts) in the late 70’s early 80’s told me that I could learn how to make them using relatively simple methods with a compass and ruler. She tried to teach me but I simply wasn’t patient enough at that age. But, I had the sense that at some point I needed to learn how to construct these amazing tessellations. This was when the seed was sown to later study at The Prince’s School.
My Dad (who is a painter) had a few books on Mughal Miniature painting in our house. They always intrigued me but again I had no idea how to make something so unbelievably detailed and refined. I wrongly assumed that this was a forgotten language and that the knowledge must have been lost over time. Eleven years ago I saw an advertisement on The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts website on ‘Islamic Illumination’ run by the amazing illuminator Ayesha Gamiet. I thought ‘wow maybe this knowledge isn’t lost’. Ayesha taught me how to paint a traditional Shamsa ‘Little Sun’. It was amazing to discover the specific materials and techniques required but also the time and patience needed to pick up these skills and to use a brush with that much control I came to realize that there was a symbolism at play both in the images themselves but also in the action of making them. In order to command the brush, you need to command yourself. A certain poise and balance is required to make them.
In 2010 I visited a friend in India. One day while in Udaipur I peered into a shop and saw three miniature painters working. Each at a different stage. One person was mixing paint in a little clay bowl, another flooding colour onto a design and another doing the line work and shading. I got goosebumps from gazing at this scene. I watched them for ages imagining the same scene repeating itself over generations stretching back hundreds of years. They were actually painting copies of Radha and Krishna stories for the tourist market. They were not necessarily the best examples of miniature painting but it was amazing to see this ancient story living on in this ancient painting tradition. I bought one of their paintings and marveled at the tiny details.
I went back to the same shop the next day and they laughed at me standing there staring and asked if I wanted to help. Before I knew it, I was mixing some paint. I told them I was an artist and they kindly gave me a couple of squirrel hair brushes. Tiny brushes that go to one hair thick.
When I returned home I fell in love with miniature painting. Returning to the same books that had intrigued me as a child but this time equipped with a bit more knowledge of how they were made. It did feel like having new eyes. I started thinking how I would depict my hometown of Oxford through the eyes of a miniature painter. I tried to paint the world around me in a miniature style.
I realised I still didn’t really know what I was doing! I needed to study the craft more. At this point, a friend told me about a grant from INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) which actually for British students who wanted to learn Indian crafts. I couldn’t believe such a thing existed. I decided to apply for a grant in order to return to Rajasthan to learn miniature painting properly. I got the grant so I quit my job as an art technician in a school and flew out to Jaipur where I met Master miniature painters Ajay and Vinita Sharma. They kindly took me on for three months as an apprentice. I learnt so much from them.
Where do you find inspiration to create your work?
Mughal, Pahari and Rajput miniature painting.
But primarily Nature. The mind-boggling mystery of it all.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
― Albert Einstein
With that quote in mind, it’s not so much a matter of what to paint for me but what not to paint. Quite a lot of restraint is required to simply work on one idea. Once a decision has been made on what to paint, it can be difficult to stick at it and put all the other ideas aside for a while.
I think the question could be the other way around… Where does inspiration find me? If inspiration wants to find me then I need to be in the studio working so I’m ready for it.
I guess the subject I paint the most is trees. I am interested in their scale, their verticality, their longevity and as symbols of interconnectedness. I am inspired by blossoming and fruiting trees - they blossom and provide fruit unconditionally to anyone and everyone, whoever you are.
What are your aspirations as an artist, what do you hope to achieve?
With most of my work my aim is to yield a sense of delight and peace.
When painting nature, the aim is not necessarily to paint the appearance of nature but to become the nature and let the painting grow. Sometimes there is a sense of flow when you forget everything and painting becomes a calm action.
It might sound mundane but most of the time you paint you are preoccupied with trying to create something that “works”. It’s quite hard to put that into words. It’s a nonverbal language of its own. When the brush is not on the paper or canvas I am stepping back and asking things like;
Has this painting got the right balance between opposites? What is the relationship between that mark and that space there? Is the composition satisfying? Does this stimulate the senses in an interesting way? Not enough? Too much? Is that line too strong / too weak? Is the consistency of paint right? Etc.
In the end I want my work to create a quiet space of contemplation for the viewer, something that nourishes the senses and the soul too. Sometimes it’s a joy getting to that point and sometimes it’s a nightmare. I want to create something beautiful - not just pretty because then there is the danger of the work becoming too sweet.
How do you create your colour compositions?
I don’t know. Intuitively. I’ve always loved Matisse’s colours. Interestingly he apparently collected Indian and Ottoman miniature paintings. Initially I tried to imitate the colours and tones found in nature. When I was at Falmouth College of Arts (2005 -2008), I did a lot of painting from life in the outdoors trying to mimic the tones and in-between hues that you see when really observing the world as it is before your eyes and not as you think it is.
When it comes to miniature painting and in lots of pre-modern traditions natural pigments are often used. These colours are beautiful in themselves. I now select colours more for their inherent beauty rather than trying to match them with what I see.
I like complimentary colours i.e. colours opposite each other on the colour wheel or slightly off from directly opposite each other on the colour wheel.
Your work expresses the rich heritage of Islamic art and culture. What has the response of audiences been?
The response has been positive and from quite a wide-ranging audience which is good. I have painted Persian carpet designs and Islamic geometry in my work in the past. I am increasingly aware of the grey area that can arise with regards to appropriation of cultures different to the one that you have grown up in. With that in mind, I try to avoid any overtly religious subject matter. I am not Muslim and I am not well versed in the Quran. I have been taught by Muslim artists and from other teachers of many different faiths and some with no faith at all. I have learnt from them all and met many friends along the way. So there have been many different inputs influencing my outputs. Through going to Jaipur and studying many different schools of miniature painting, I have become increasingly interested in the sacred texts around Vedanta philosophy. I am currently in the process of studying the Bhagavad Gita.
What I can say is that I am very much a lover of Beauty. Not just images of beauty but the concept of Beauty itself. I think the practise of contemplating this question ‘what actually is beauty?’ is a beneficial one.
I think some of the greatest artistic achievements in history have come from the Islamic world.
“Verily, Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty. He loves the loftiest of affairs and disapproves of pettiness.”
Source: al-Mu’jam al-Awsaṭ 6906
Why is the preservation of cultural heritage important?
That’s a big question!
There is a lot of wisdom in a lot of cultural heritage. The ability to recognize that wisdom (a traditional skill in itself,) is not valued so much in the contemporary world. It seems the world today values data, information and intelligence over wisdom, contemplation and discernment. As a result, I think we have more things at higher speeds but maybe less inner peace. Higher quantities, less attuned to qualities.
It is more important to understand the meanings behind cultural artifacts than it is to preserve the objects themselves. If the meanings reflected in an object are understood then a culture has the capacity to live on. Museums tend to preserve the shells rather than the yoke. We live in an age that worships the shell not the yoke. The yoke is where the life lies.
I think it is important to maintain cultural heritage in the same way it is important to maintain healthy ecologies. In fact, I think they are two sides of the same coin. Different traditional cultures have distinct fragrances that have evolved over time in various geographies around the world. Each culture and language make up part of the collective intelligence (or wisdom) of a place. In an Ideal world all communities contribute equally to the cultural tapestry of the whole while being in balance with the natural world but much like the ecology of the world, culture is also out of balance. When any one culture dominates then the result is a bland monoculture. Unity in diversity not uniformity.
I’m not saying things should ever be done or repeated again simply because that’s how it was done in the past. A lot of bad things are repeated and get called ‘tradition’.
But if something has stood the test of time, and still rings true, then it is worth asking why is that?
What has been the most challenging work you have created and how did you overcome obstacles?
On my MA program I decided to paint an ancient imagined British/Celtic forest full of European flora and fauna but using the methods I had learnt in India. I included trees of northern Europe including oak, ash, willow, birch, alder, hawthorn. I also looked up birds and mammals native to the British Isles, both common and rare. In the process I discovered that the last wolf of Britain was shot in the 1700’s and that the UK used to be home to Brown bears up until Roman times. I asked myself what if Europe had been invaded by the Mughal Empire? Or what if the Renaissance had never happened? How would that effect how the world was seen and depicted? I also looked at a lot of European medieval miniatures and tapestries as well as Tudor miniature portraits at the V and A. To my surprise, I discovered very similar methods and materials were used in Tudor times to the ones I had learnt from Ajay, including mixing paint and ink in fresh water mussel shells. I wanted to source pigments from my locality. I went to Clearwell caves in Gloucestershire to collect some ochre pigments. In the end I wanted more saturation so I decided to use malachite pigment and cinnabar, peori and indigo in my palette.
It was challenging because it felt a bit like inventing a new language. I was trying to incorporate both a Western, Eastern, old and new aesthetics. I didn’t want it to look like a jarring hodge podge of conflicting styles.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
It has been really great getting Ajay and Vinita over to London from Jaipur to do workshops at the Prince’s school. Hopefully once the pandemic has passed these can start again
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep the tradition alive?
I think it is alive and the artists in this magazine are testament to that. The key is to keep making art, stay true to timeless principles but approach them in fresh ways.
For more information check out www.jethrobuck.com
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.