The Story of Cobalt – Narrative Abstract Portrait

 The inspiration behind the painting.

Abstract Portrait Painting - "Cobalt"
“Cobalt” Narrative Abstract Portrait. Oil on panel 30x42cm

Inspiration Strikes

Painting a portrait is never easy but creating a narrative abstract portrait almost felt like too tough a call. 

We’re not always lucky enough to be able to trace back to that exact moment when inspiration strikes. Nor, sometimes when it strikes, do we act upon it and sometimes there is no “tada”  inspirational moment at all. We instead feel inspired in a different way – a way that galvanises us to work through the unknown,  to trust our process,  to answer our question with a creative solution, an artistic response.

I can still vividly remember that tight, sour, knot in my gut. I remember the swell of outrage and shame and profound sadness that hit me quite unexpectedly as I watched  Alex Crawfords Sky News report on child labour. Children as young as 4 years old digging by hand for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s estimated that 40,000 children work these mines for as little as 8p a day.

The DRC is home to more than half of the world’s supplies of cobalt, a metal that is used in almost all lithium-ion batteries. Batteries we use in electric cars and mobile phones. Batteries whose demand is rising phenomenally as we strive for cleaner air in our own countries by converting to electric cars.

I can still recall seeing the torrential rain soaking the red soil, seeping into unstable mine shafts and enveloping the children’s tired, tiny frames. Such a graphic picture of child labour. They work the earth with only rudimentary tools and their bare hands. They lug massive heavy sacks of cobalt, working to exhaustion and often on empty stomachs. The finer sifting of the earth is often carried out by small hands exposing themselves to the harmful dust the World Health Organisation says exposure to can cause long-term health problems.

As a human, a mother, an aunt, the artist in me felt utterly compelled to respond to this. But there was no immediate vision or crystalline image of how to do this in my mind. I only had a feeling I wanted to convey; that the painting should not be too sentimental.

Quickly, I very roughly sketched out some ideas and wrote some notes. This helped me maintain my concept and preserved my initial reaction.  Then I created a simple grid (this just helps me keep a face proportional) and began painting, laying in a very basic structure with a thin wash of OMS and burnt umber oil paint. Once that dried I set to work creating a sense of form as well as trying to get the face to look immersed it its environment.

Abstract Portrait Painting - work in progress
Cobalt – Work in Progress

There were times I felt I’d never suggested enough, evoke enough. Other stages of the painting I felt it was too obvious and too sentimental.  I felt inspired and inspirited by Degas quote:

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

It was important to me that the portrait I painted focused its attention on looking directly at us. I wanted to create a part resigned, accusatory stare. I hoped these eyes show we are all accountable.

The colours were also hugely important and create the narrative of the environment these children work in. It’s obvious the blue represents the cobalt they’re mining and the indian red oil paint represents the soil in the air surrounding them. I wanted to show the blue of the cobalt on their skin and how it dominates their lives.

When you’ve finished a painting it can be hard to know whether it’s fulfilled your hopes and original concepts.  I believe, on reflection, it has.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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