Chiaroscuro

The Curse of the Camera Phone #TravelThursday #Paris

Gary and I visited Paris at the end of January as I have long wished to see Eugene Delacroix’s painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ around which my WIP revolves. While in Paris we visited the Musee Rodin – dedicated to the works of French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

One of Rodin’s most famous works ‘The Thinker’ is there, set in the beautiful garden. We went out to see it. There was a little queue. We stood for a while, watching this queue. Each person waited patiently, then walked up to the sculpture, sat on the plinth, took up the famous pose, and their companion snapped away. Then they got up and walked away.

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Wonder what he thinks about it all?

We watched for a few minutes and not a single person actually looked up at the sculpture itself. Not a single one.

We spent a good hour or so wandering through the gardens looking at Rodin’s beautiful works, then we wandered through the museum itself, looking at the interesting displays (the work that goes into sculpting – my goodness, it’s like a science!). It’s an absolutely fantastic place, one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. And Rodin looks strangely like an old Tom Hardy! But as we walked round we noticed that the majority of visitors were looking at everything through their phones, snapping away.

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Tom Hardy’s future look?

The day before, we’d been to the Louvre, where all anyone seemed to want to do was to take a selfie with the Mona Lisa. Earlier that morning we’d been to the Musee d’Orsay , where again we had to keep ducking to avoid starring in other people’s photos. That afternoon we went on to Musée de L’Orangerie, home of Monet’s stunning murals. Monet envisaged the murals as providing a place of calm, of retreat, somewhere in the middle of busy Paris to sit and be quiet after a long, hard day. We duly sat and relaxed and took in the beauty of these amazing works. And across our sightline every couple of seconds someone would walk, taking a panoramic picture through their phone.

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Guia Besana for The New York Times

Why do people do this? Seriously, I really don’t understand.

I do take the occasional photo, although I’m not that great at it, but to me, as someone who isn’t a professional photographer, a photo is something I use to remember a good time. The photos I’ve got of Gary and me in Paris are mainly pretty bad and are the two of us grinning away at the fact that we’re standing in front of Delacroix’s house, or the place where Jim Morrison died. I didn’t take any photos of paintings, or sculptures, because what is the point?

When you look at a painting in real life you realise how no photograph can capture what’s actually there. If I’m standing in front of a Delacroix, or a Monet, or a Rothko, or a beautiful sculpture by Rodin or even an intricate carving in the stonework of a cathedral, I know that if I take a photo of it, I won’t be able to recapture what it looks like, how it makes me feel in that moment. And it wasn’t as if these people were looking at the paintings or the sculptures for a while and then taking a quick snap. No, their whole focus was on taking the photograph. I watched one woman come in to one of the mural rooms. She put her phone to her face, and walked round the whole room, with the phone to her face. Then she walked out. Will she look at that again? What was the point of her going to see those murals?

I don’t want to sound like a snob or pretentious, but I genuinely don’t get it. The age of the camera phone seems to have reduced the beautiful things in life to a list to be ticked off. Trip to Paris? Mona Lisa – tick, here’s the picture to prove it. Venus de Milo – tick. The Thinker? Tick. The Kiss? Tick. And here on Facebook is the picture.

And it’s a picture that will show none of the real beauty of that piece of art. You can’t capture those colours, those lines in a little snap on your phone, however good your phone may be.

And, in my humble opinion, you’ve missed out completely on seeing something really worth seeing. But if you do insist on doing it, then please keep out of my bloody way!

Visiting Delacroix’s Paris #wwwblogs

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Eugene Delacroix

The last weekend in January, Gary and I went to Paris – the realisation of a dream I’ve had for more years than I care to remember. I don’t know why it took so long to get there, but I wish I hadn’t waited. What a fabulous city it is.

I was desperate to visit the home of Eugene Delacroix, the artist around whose painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ my WIP revolves. Of course, I wanted to see the painting itself, hanging in the Louvre, and also wanted to visit his grave, at Pere Lachaise cemetery (where Jim Morrison is also buried, so Gary was happy!).

We stayed in the Left Bank, the art district, so it was a short stroll to the Musée National Eugene Delacroix in the Rue de Furstenberg where Delacroix lived from 1857 until his death in 1863.

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It was a very strange feeling walking through the rooms where Delacroix lived and worked and eventually died. The museum is wonderful – thoughtfully and lovingly designed, with artefacts and objects that belonged to the man himself and many artworks too. The garden at the back of the building has been recreated to include many of the plants and trees he loved and would have grown there. It is so peaceful in the little walled garden – the centre of Paris, but calm and tranquil. It was easy to imagine Delacroix walking there. The garden is the setting for one of the scenes in my book and actually being there was so much more inspiring than looking at photographs.

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We went to the Louvre next, and straight to the Delacroix paintings. There are several of his works there. I have seen some at an exhibition at the National Gallery, but not ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ itself. It is truly a magnificent painting. We sat there, just looking, for ages, really taking it in.

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We did go on to look at the Mona Lisa, because you do feel you have to. There was quite a queue, which we didn’t join, we just looked at it from across the room. To be honest, it wasn’t very inspiring. There are wonderful things in the Louvre, amazing paintings and sculptures, and so many people were walking past these lovely, irreplaceable works to take a selfie with this tiny painting. I do think Leonardo himself would be pretty annoyed to think that that’s the thing people associate him with. It seems to have become something to tick off on a list – been there, seen that.

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Hmmmm…

Anyway, we saved the cemetery for our last day in Paris, and the skies were suitably grey. It is a strange place, horribly crowded and a bit confusing. We were armed with a map though and instructions from our daughter who had been there the week before Christmas. We soon found Delacroix’s grave – it is simple, so unlike his paintings, but somehow that seems fitting. After all, how can you really commemorate someone like Delacroix?

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I always find it touching that people leave small gifts at the graves of those that have touched their lives and it was nice to see single flowers left there. It’s always gratifying to know that other people revere and love the people you admire.

There are so many others here, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Ingres, Géricault, Balzac, David, Chopin, and of course Jim Morrison, among many, many others. That all these people have Paris as their final resting place is testament to the city itself, vibrant and liberal, intellectual and open, a place where art, music, writing and philosophy have always flourished. In a time when the world seems to be moving to the right, to a political landscape where free thinking, creativity and critical thinking are denigrated and ridiculed, let’s hope it remains that place.

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Frustrated Writer – Help Needed! #wwwblogs #IAmWriting #WritingTips

 

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What I imagined…

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The reality…

So another week of solitude in Devon (read why here) and another attempt to get back into the writing.

This time though, I’ve hit a bit of a crisis.

When I began this second full-length novel (absolutely ages ago) I sort of knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted it to go. But, as often happens, when I came to write, it went off on a tangent and I’m not sure, at this point, how to get back on course. I’m not sure, anymore, exactly what this book is.

I do know that I’m not altogether happy with the direction it’s taken, or the way some of the characters have evolved. But 50,000 + words in, I’m a bit loath to start all over again.

So, do I give it all up as a bad job, or do I persevere and potentially waste more (precious) time?

The thought of ditching all that work, particularly as I find it so hard to fit in time for writing as it is, fills me with horror.

So where do I go from here?

Part of my issue is, I think, that I’m a great list-maker. I like to be organised and to have schedules and time tables and deadlines. And when, more often than not, I fail to reach those deadlines or stick to those schedules, it can feel like there’s no place left to go. And when a story, or an idea, or 50,000 words refuses to stick to my original idea, I find it hard to move on.

But 50,000 words is 50,000 words. I can’t and won’t ditch it all. I need instead to go back and read and read again, and evaluate every word, every twist, and every change in what I’ve written and try to get to the whys of it all. And perhaps too, I need to let go of that original idea of what the book was, and of what kind of writer I am.

I’m not starting again though.

So advice please, all you lovely writers out there – what would you do if you were me?

The Joys of Solitude #wwwblogs #Iamwriting

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I’m not sure exactly where she gets it from, (it certainly isn’t me) but my daughter has a brain that leans towards maths and science. Which is a good thing, because she’s always wanted to be a vet. So a couple of weeks ago, the two of us set off for Devon – Jess to spend the week with the local farm vets in Holsworthy, and me to spend a week on my much neglected WIP.

While Jess really did have the proverbial arm up a cow’s backside (or three – cows, that is, not arms) and was literally counting sheep, I sat in the very sunny kitchen of our beautiful rented cottage and listened to the silence. Well, it was silent except for the mooing of nearby cows and an enormous amount of birdsong.

It was… weird.

At least it was at first. I’m normally a headless chicken (which Jess didn’t encounter last week), rushing from pillar to post, from editing work, to working for my husband’s business, to ironing and shopping and cooking and clearing up after the dogs. You get the picture. My life is exhausting, as is true for lots of people in this day and age. And it’s noisy too. Our house is not all that far from the M3, and I can just about hear the traffic during the day. My office is at the back of the house, and I do get the birdsong (from any birds not completely terrified my Milo, our massive cat)  but I also get  the lawn mowers, builders, DPD vans delivering endless parcels etc. etc. All of which can be rather distracting.

So the peace and quiet of this little corner of Devon took a bit of getting used to. For the first couple of days I felt a bit lost. Once Jess had gone off in the morning, there was just me, and a friendly robin that hopped on to the doorstep once or twice, and quite a few lady sparrows (not a gentleman sparrow in sight). There was a family (of people!) in the cottage next door, but they went out every day. The owners were close by too, but they were the perfect mix of there if you needed them without being obtrusive. So, it was quiet. I stared at my screen, avoiding the temptation of Facebook and Twitter. I’d made a promise to myself that there would be no social media. And my mind went blank.

Then I remembered that old adage about applying the seat of one’s pants or however it goes, and I made myself type.

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It got easier. And by Wednesday I was chilled, and writing well and keeping right away from social media (well, almost).

And by the time we were packing on Friday, I’d written more than I had in a long while, and, even better, I felt enthusiastic about my writing again, ready to continue with it.

So it was a luxury, this week of solitude, and one I was very lucky to have. I admire so much those writers I know that hold down a job, or two, and have young children or care for elderly parents. Those writers who still manage to write, despite all that. And I know I’m extremely lucky to have had that week in Devon, and to have the prospect of a second week in Devon later this month when Jess is working with another vet. And I know I’m lucky to have had that time to work in peace and quiet and reflect on my writing. It really was bliss.

And it made me realise how important it is to try and find a bit of peace and quiet, if we can, in our everyday lives. I can’t swan off to Devon every time I need to get on with my writing, however much I’d love to, so I need to make sure I try and recapture that sense of peace and calm. I know it won’t be easy now I’m firmly back in the midst of the responsibilities of daily life, but I’m determined to try.

And if you’re planning a trip to Devon (and do, it is utterly beautiful) then I recommend Staddon Barns. The Post House, that we stayed in, had everything we could have asked for, was charmingly furnished and spotlessly clean. Details here.

Staddon

 

 

Street Art in Bristol

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We were in Bristol this past Saturday visiting the university as my daughter is thinking of applying there to study Veterinary Science. It’s only the second time I’ve ever been to Bristol, but on both occasions I’ve been struck by what a lovely city it is.

Without getting too political (I’m sure that anyone who knows me even a little bit will have no doubt as to my views on today’s referendum), the atmosphere in the UK over the last few weeks has been toxic to say the least. We seem to have forgotten about the many benefits of multiculturalism, indeed of culture, and it was lovely to wander through the streets of Bristol, seeing people of many different backgrounds, faiths and cultures. I’m not sure what the exact ethnic make-up of Bristol is, but like most cities, it has that wonderful metropolitan feel – that sense, often missing in small towns, that you can be who you are and no one could care less.

One of the lovely things about Bristol of course, is its connection with street artists, Banksy among them, and the opportunity to see some of their work. It’s quite astonishing to be driving or walking down a Bristolian street, to glance up and see a work of art – just there, accessible, free, as it should be.

I was particularly pleased to see the queen/Ziggy Stardust piece by Incwel. I’m a fan of one but not so much the other (I’ll leave  you to decide which) and I love this:

We also saw this beautiful work by artist JPS:

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Art has always been a comment on our times, a way of expressing ourselves, whether through painting, poetry, novels, and even, nowadays, through blogs. Regular readers and followers will know that my new book involves a girl with a passion for the French nineteenth century painter Eugene Delacroix, an artist whose work I adore. I’ve been very lucky to see some of his paintings. Another painter I love is Mark Rothko, who could be viewed as being as far from Delacroix as it’s possible to get. I’ve also seen some of his work, both in London and in New York.

What Delacroix, Rothko and, I feel, these street artists have in common, is the way they provoke emotion, the way they cause discussion, the way they draw attention, both to themselves and to the world around them. Art, particularly now, can be a provocation and a balm. It has always been a way of celebrating diversity, and culture, and humanity.

I’ll be keeping that in mind today.

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Delacroix at the National Gallery #wwwblogs

 

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The National Gallery

My current work in progress – Chiaroscuro – was inspired by and features the French painter Eugene Delacroix. I love visiting art galleries and have been lucky enough to visit the National Gallery, Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So I was thrilled when I found out that the National Gallery currently has an exhibition of Delacroix’s work, focussing on his influence on modern art.

So on Easter Monday my husband, son and I went off to London. I’m very lucky that my son shares my love of art and isn’t above accompanying me to galleries. Plus my daughter, who has no interest at all, was on a college trip to the Belizean rain forest (much more her thing) so I didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving her out!

The exhibition was amazing. I know it might sound over the top, but to actually see Delacroix’s paintings in front of me was truly awe-inspiring. And to learn how he was so influential on so many artist who came after him, many of who are certainly more well-known than he is, was really interesting. I don’t know many other people who count Delacroix as their favourite artist, so it was heartening to know that I wasn’t alone and that he was held in such high esteem by artists of the calibre of Renoir, Van Gough, Cezanne, Picasso and Signac, to name but a few; I felt in very good company!

Delacroix is known for his lavish use of colour, but it truly isn’t until you are actually standing in front of his work that you can really appreciate just what that means. And while the paintings by others accompanying his were by artists considered geniuses in their own right, for me their works paled in comparison. As you moved from room to room, it was the Delacroixs that stood out, that captured your eyes and imagination.

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‘Homage to Delacroix’ (1864) Henri Fantin-Latour

The most touching part of the exhibition came at the end though. The wall outside the exhibition is adorned with a print of Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘Homage to Delacroix’. Fantin-Latour painted this tribute to give Delacroix the recognition, the respect and the admiration that had more or less eluded him in his lifetime. Artists and writers, among them Whistler, Manet, Baudelaire and Fantin-Latour himself, cluster around a portrait of Delacroix – if the critics had not liked him, his contemporaries and those that followed certainly did. And as the exhibition shows, Delacroix’s influence was far-reaching and long-lived. Indeed, Picasso’s ‘The Women of Algiers’ painted in 1955 was one of a series of his variations on Old Masters and was a take on Delacroix’s magnificent painting of 1834. Picasso’s painting sold in 2015 for $179 million, causing a bit of a sensation. Delacroix’s original never made nearly as much, but caused a sensation because of its subject matter and its sexual connotations. And while I admire the Picasso, having seen Delacroix’s amazing painting in reality, I know which I prefer.

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‘Women of Algiers in their Apartment’ (1834) Eugene Delacroix 

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© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ARN Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) by Pablo Picasso. 

The exhibition is at the National Gallery until 22nd May.

The Role of the Life Model #wwwblogs #Writinganovel

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Study for ‘Liberty Leading the People’

Two of the characters in my WIP ‘Chiaroscuro’ work as life models – one models for Eugene Delacroix as he paints his controversial work ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, while the other, a 21st Century student, supplements her income posing at the local university.

It’s one of those jobs that many people find fascinating. What must it be like to take your clothes off in front of all those people? What sort of person does that for a living?

Well, a surprisingly varied type of person! As part of my research, I read many articles and blogs written by and about life models. They come from all walks of life and come in all shapes and sizes – life modelling is definitely a modelling job where difference is celebrated, where you don’t need to be a size six, and any ‘unusual’ physical features are welcomed, not disparaged.

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Study for ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’

Life models are vital for the development of artists.  Drawing a real person, with all the imperfections, nuances and attributes that come with the human body, is essential practice.  The students are appreciative of their models and respect and realise their importance. So what does it take to be a life model? And what is it actually like?

It’s not as simple as it might appear – it’s not just a case of taking your clothes off and standing there. The Register of Artists’ Models offers some very sound advice. You will need to be comfortable with your body – and happy to be naked in a room full of strangers. You’ll need to be unconcerned by a tutor mentioning your defects over and over again. You’ll need patience and stamina – standing or sitting in the same position for up to forty-five minutes at a time can be uncomfortable, to say the least. And can you come up with interesting poses? Often a teacher will ask you to improvise so you’ll need to be able to think up new positions.

You’ll also need to be reliable – often life models are booked for a run of sessions, posing in the same position so that students can work on a painting or sculpture. You need to be able to guarantee that you’ll be there.

The blogs and articles I’ve read are mostly filled with positive and sometimes extremely funny experiences. Many say that they were worried at first at the reaction their imperfect bodies would fetch from the students, but found that no one was bothered by a middle-aged paunch or too much body hair or dimples, freckles and birthmarks.

So far from being a nudge-nudge wink-wink type of job, life-modelling seems to me to be rather life-affirming and rather good for a positive body image too. A way of celebrating our imperfections (and we all have them) rather than hiding them. And a refreshing antidote to the photo-shopped and honestly rather weird nude selfies pumped out on a regular basis by certain attention-seeking celebrities.

And as the sketches here show, life models are a vital resource for artists – the men, women and even animals that modelled for Delacroix helped to add the vitality and richness that the figures in his paintings possess.

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Crouching woman

Sardanapalus – The Man Behind the Painting #wwwblogs

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My current WIP involves three different centuries and was inspired by a painting by Eugene Delacroix. The painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ portrays a man watching as his possessions (including concubines, slaves and animals) are destroyed around him. The painting is lavish and in some ways shocking. So just who was Sardanapalus and why did he allow this to happen?

One of the problems with trying to write about such an ancient subject is the lack of information. But I have been able to find out a surprising amount – how much is accurate, how much actually happened, is, of course, debatable, but as with all historical research, you can only learn from what’s there, keeping an open but questioning mind.

According to the Greek writer Ctesias of Cnidus (I’d be really interested to know how to pronounce that!) Sardanapalus was the last king of Assyria. Already though, it’s not that simple. The last king of Assyria was actually Ashur-Uballit II. Ctesias was a physician and historian. He wrote a series of books about the history of Assyria and Persia called ‘Persica’. Unfortunately, the books are lost. There are fragments included in other books and abridgements, but not the originals. In the account written by Diodorus, a Greek historian writing in about 30 to 60 BC. who used Ctesias as a source, we get an idea of Sardanapalus as he is later known – a decadent man, self-indulgent, concerned mainly with physical gratification.

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Diodorus

The name Sardanapalus is most likely a corruption of the name Ashurbanipal, the last king of the Neo Assyrian Empire. However, Ashurbanipal was, by all accounts, completely different to Sardanapalus; he was a scholar, a military man, powerful and efficient. The similarities seem to lie in the fact that Ashurbanipal fell out with his brother, as does Sardanapalus in Diodorus’ account, and it is this brother’s death that bears a passing resemblance to Sardanapalus’ fate. However, nether Ashurbanipal or his brother led the type of life that Sardanapalus is associated with. Confused yet?

Delacroix was apparently not inspired by either Ctesias or Diodorus though. He took his inspriarion from the play by Lord Byron, who was inspired by Diodorus. So by the time we get to Delacroix’s painting, we are seeing something inspired by a play inspired by a Greek historian writing hundreds of years before, who was inspired by a Greek physician and historian writing about three to four hundred years before that. It’s not really surprising that things might not be completely historically accurate but we are left with this enduring idea of a lascivious, decadent, self-indulgent man who lived for pleasure.

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It is this that is depicted so well and so shockingly by Delacroix – the moment when, his city besieged, Sardanapalus has everything he owns made into a huge pyre, and awaits the moment when all will be set alight, including him. It is his expression, his apparent lack of concern that really stays with you.

Of course, the painting didn’t go down too well at the time. The violence, the nudity, the actual style of the painting itself and the techniques used brought Delacroix much criticism. It was only in later years that the painting became valued for its boldness and its bravery.

 

New work in progress – ‘Chiaroscuro’ #wwwblogs

I’ve finally completed the research (as far as I can) and have at last put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard, anyway) and begun my second full-length novel. All through the research, I kept myself on track by writing regular blog posts, something that I’m going to continue to do during the actual writing. Hopefully the posts will be interesting to others, as well as giving me a focus!

The idea for this novel has been in my mind for a very long time. Almost ten years ago I was studying for a degree with the Open University. One of the modules included a study of Eugene Delacroix, the nineteenth century French romantic painter, and involved an analysis of his paintings, including The Death of Sardanapalus’.

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Delacroix’s painting fascinated me. It’s so vibrant, the colours are so vivid; there’s so much detail, so much going on. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king, watches dispassionately as everything he owns, including animals, slaves and concubines, are destroyed. His kingdom is under siege and he would rather everything was obliterated than left to the invaders.

This got me thinking. About Sardanapalus, about his concubines, about the man who painted it all. What stories lay behind the women who were Sardanapalus’ slaves? And what about Delacroix himself, his life, his art? And the models he used? What would it be like to work with an artist like him? These ideas were all jumbled together and have remained so for the last ten years or so. Somehow, I’ve managed to put them all together in a storyline that covers three different eras, three very different women and three very different men. The novel will range from the sixth century BC to nineteenth century France and into 21st century England.

Why the title ‘Chiaroscuro’?

Chiaroscuro is the Italian for ‘light-dark’. In art it refers to strong contrasts between light and dark. Delacroix was known as a master of colour, and he took this contrast to extremes, bringing a sophistication to the technique. In ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, he uses contrasts of light, of shadow, halftones and bold brushstrokes to create vibrancy, a sense of life and movement in the face of death. I hope to carry this theme through the novel, into the lives of my characters; the lights and darks of their worlds, their relationships, the events that shape them. It’s a bit daunting, but at least I’ve finally made a start.