helen barker

painting and writing

Mini Mountains

I have a new project on the go! It hasn’t yet made it to my ‘personal practice’ page because it is only in the early stages of development. Since having my baby daughter in July 2017 my mind has been simultaneously full and muddled with ideas, images and feelings. I have finally started to emerge from the hazy days of serious sleep deprivation to find a project coming together in my thoughts. Mini Mountains. First of all I love the idea of squeezing something as vast and wholly incomprehensible as a mountain into an inappropriately small space.* A place squeezed into a small space. Secondly mountains have been a strange obsession of mine ever since my geography teacher asked me to complete a project on Mount St. Helen’s in secondary school (a mountain with my name really appealed to me as an objective already achieved at such a young age). These mountains I love are often not really mountains at all but volcanoes or ticking time bombs waiting to shift the earth’s face. Freezing them into tiny windows, making them brief gestures of a passing whim is possibly one way to scale down their terrifying potential.

I could ramble on all day about them. But this is where I am starting – with small paintings of huge mountains. Here’s the first one. I think I’ll name the next one, as if to catalogue them.


*Is this in some way linked to the birth of my daughter…as I write about squeezing mountains into small spaces I wonder if the experience of birth has somehow infiltrated my thought processes more than I realised.


Studies in oil part 1

When I decided to come back to painting, after taking a short break to advance my day-job in design, I knew it had to be in oil. I had unfinished business. Previous paintings were exploratory but naive. This time I wanted to paint for myself, from the heart, and with the confidence I knew I harboured somewhere within.

But I didn’t know how to start.

I made the decision to do some studies, copies of other artists paintings. Like they did in the old days, you know, apprentice painters learning from the great masters.

A painting by Nicolai Fechin that I found in the pages of an old American West Painting book once had taken root in my heart. I loved it’s vibrant reds and untarnished oranges. It was a sumptuous thick soup of colour and texture and I wanted it. So I painted it. I painted her. The girl. And I finished painting her 8 hours later. I was on fire – not worrying about my subject imbued me with so much freedom, and I soaked up everything I could glean from the image and the article detailing how Fechin created it.


This is my interpretation.

On Contrast

Later paintingEarly painting

2015-03-04 16.25.12

Later painting

On re-reading Martin Constable’s article ‘On Contrast’ in Turps Banana Issue Fourteen, I found myself considering the values of my painting (in many senses of the word) this week. Values: hue, saturation and lightness as a way to chart colour, offer changes in intensity and quality which determine the way an image is not just read but found. Constable discusses two categories of contrast in which an image might be found: local contrast and global contrast. Local contrast (the contrast of one thing with another) suggests that everything is something because of its relation to another thing; “a blob of colour on an artist’s pallet may be considered as existing in a state if suspended animation, waiting to be related to other blobs of colour within a painting”.

When painting this week I found the brushstrokes from my pallet knife forming an ever morphing dialogue with one another as each simple form related itself to the other. A sweep of blue became a wave when pressed against a knife-edge of white froth. Against my instincts – which were to keep a sequential narrative of blocks, abstracted from the origin of their taking, not particularly readable but somehow mysterious in their flat, painted state – I found the values of my painting shifting into focus and assuming a more readable, obvious state. From a position of interest in the quality of the paint itself I moved to the readable presentation of contrasting forms that soon became a seascape. Suddenly a seascape. How did this happen? The danger of contrast is, perhaps, that the eye must seek out a form from a formless face and, in the words of Captain Picard, “make it so”.

Global contrast, Constable notes, is determined across the whole painting – “the contrast of all the values in that painting understood or expressed as a singular”. It relates to the finished aspect of the painting, observing the values of lightness and saturation according to the whole spectrum present in the final image. Histograms are used to determine values but are “blind to how values are spatially distributed”. With this in mind, my week of painting seemed well informed by the global contrast of a painting which seeks to funnel all the highs and lights of its content into a crack in the central part of the landscape. Spatial distribution was certainly on my mind when, as the image chose to form itself, I noted that the contrast of the darker blues with the lighter yellows made for a more dramatic, intense experience. A romantic, broody sky emerged through the global contrast of my finished, painted, fact. In his article, Constable goes on to quote German theorist Rudolph Arnheim: “a configuration of colours will strive either toward contrast or toward assimilation”. I wonder if my fear of assimilating the more unknown, abstract qualities of my earlier painting into one another has led me to contrast them rigorously into an identifiable image.

Is an image found out? Can it be stopped and prevented from being found out or will the eye always seek pictoral meaning?

Final paintingFinished painting

Way back in

Half term is here and the consuming ritual of school has ceased for a week. After a beautiful weekend away in the Peaks I am re-kindled with that wondrous mix of nature, architecture and light – particular only to Yorkshire.

2015-02-14 11.39.38And I remember thinking, is there a way back in?

Haven’t painted for months. Haven’t written, spoken or allowed myself to think about painting. Is there a way back in?

I keep coming back to certain images on my phone, camera and in my mind. Images of long, tall trees and misty hills hiding stone buildings and broken structures. Sheds, walls, canals and hotels. Last night I put Twin Peaks on and reveled in the opening title sequence, an epic homage to the grandeur of colour, nostalgia and nature. Type in green neon font and water cascading down rock faces. Driving through the Peaks we passed purple carpets and dense patches of wood. In my mind wild flamingos run free through the trees and Capuchin monkeys bang rocks against the ground outside glass houses. These are the images I long to paint.

This morning I woke with a material on my mind: acrylic. Bright, clean, layered. Geometric, graphic, obtuse. Recent sketches and commissions for friends have all been painted in gouache, flat against the surface of the paper. They comfortably dwell in the linear representation of form through blocks of man made colour. It’s an awkward contradiction – an artificial surface and a fascination with natural spaces. But, somehow, I think it could work. Is this a way back in?



Studio thoughts on painting thinness

I recently spent some time in the studio playing with materials. I want to make work that embraces the liquid nature of paint. I like that, essentially, paint is a liquid and therefore quite unpredictable. Painting on aluminium makes sense to me at the moment; the ‘canvas’ is flattened and closer to a wall, paper or surface which resists object-ness (athought I’m attempting to keep clear of all modernist implications).  I’m most excited by the prospect of a two dimensional space on which the paint can faintly rest.

Thinned paint provides a ghostly image which reminds me of a watermark or residual stain or screen burn. The images I’m working with stem from photogrpahs,  screen captures and video games. Drawing them out with oil is like rewinding the development process on a roll of film, pausing prior to the fully developed image – seeing the suggestion of an image, as though it were pixelated or corrupted by the process of its production.

Interesting article on the resolution/imperfection of contemporary image making here:  In Defense of the Poor Image by Hito Steyerl.




It’s come to my attention that much of my work orbits around the epicenter of an absence. That is, a hole. This is both disconcerting (is the heart of my practice lacking?) and enticing (I journey around my very own Bermuda Triangle, pulled towards a possible alternate existence not yet seen).

Holes litter my work, punctuating it like Swiss cheese. They don’t always appear in the shape of the traditional, cartoon hole (a black circle), nor are they confined to physical perforations (like hole punched paper). Often, they fluctuate in size. Growing and shrinking like living, breathing things.

When thinking about the reason for my obsession with holes I came up with the following list:

1. Possibility

2. Presence

3. Punctuation


Possibility : IDEA

I recall reading a lot of literature as a child which used the concept of holes to proffer alternate realities. Fiction uses holes to transport people through worlds. Falling down the rabbit hole of reality characters experience fantasy adventures, dig their way into new lives and get sucked into time and space. Holes are a possibility, a chance to play with the idea of something other. As an artist, the idea of something other is often at the crux of my creative drive. It’s the what if of existence.

Presence : VISUALLed-Zeppelin-Presence-1976-LP--Front-Cover-34058

During my MFA I found myself drawn repeatedly to the image on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s LP ‘Presence’. To me, this image proposed a conundrum. Situated around a black monolith like object, characters seemed to be touching a parallax. Was the black object something or nothing: was it a presence, or was it an absence? A black symbol of materiality or a black void? The ability for a hole to be both there and not there intrigued me. Holes have always been an important part of my image making process. The very act of making a hole seems inconsistent with its nature. Can we see a hole or not? 

executioners-axe-and-blockPunctuation : LANGUAGE

When writing my dissertation in 2010/11 I used the illustration of an execution to think through the concept of a full stop. A full stop, it seemed to me, was a very complicated piece of punctuation. Acting as a point of exit in language, the full stop closes down a sentence. An execution enacts a full stop on life, and yet there remains a question mark – winking in the distance. Like a hole, the full stop seeks permanence and mystery at the same time. Will there be another sentence? Or is the execution the final word?

There it is, three very briefly explored reasons for holes in my work.

Lend me your hand

Find out more



I’m in the process of re-designing my website/blog content. But in the interest of self publicity and keeping anyone who follows my blog (thank you both) up to date, here’s an update.

I’m currently in the middle of covering Sheffield’s Doc/Fest for Exposed Magazine. I’m also writing a personal blog on the festival on AN Artists Talking.

Entries so far include posts on Melvyn Bragg and The best of Bug/Adam Buxton. More to follow.

Bartle: Catalogue

As previously posted, I was commissioned to write the press release and catalogue for Sheffield based artists Richard Bartle’s solo exhibition Deities at the bottom of the garden. The catalogue is on sale at Site Gallery, Sheffield (amongst other places) and can be purchased here. It’s a beautiful book designed by The Designers Republic and containing my own essay, Being and essay on the subject of Deities at the bottom of the garden.

Bartle Catalogue text headingAn excerpt from which I will include here:

Deities at the bottom of the garden sustains an inquisitive tension between the microcosm of our individual beliefs and the macrocosm of our worldly inheritance. Moving as tourists from one attraction to another we find ourselves navigating the significance of human creativity and ritual practice. Art meets tradition in the garden shed and our early ancestral practices are revealed. Art, after all, was borne out of a kind of adoration for the world around it and has its roots, as Walter Benjamin writes, in the service of the ritual.

Bartle Catalogue cover

Drawing (old man)

A line for every time that can be remembered.

Old Man_Jan 23 2013