The World Was All Before Them – Charlie Calder-Potts

Tuesday August 23, 2022

Last year, I had the huge privilege of receiving the Queen Elizabeth ScholarshipTrust Award, which enabled me to travel to Pakistan and work with traditional Miniature Painter, Heraa Khan, in Lahore.

When looking at a miniature painting, it is obvious from its infinite detail that the making of this work is far from speedy. What is not obvious, however, is the time-consuming process of preparing the materials required to paint it. My first day in the studio was a humbling one. I thought I had a pretty good idea of the miniature painting process…I did not. Sitting on the floor of Heraa’s studio (barefoot and cross-legged on the most beautiful silk Persian rug) she informed me that before we even start our miniature painting, we must first make the traditional white opaque paint base (safeda) and the finest brush I would ever see (a kalam).

The safeda was essential to get right; with it I could go on to mix all the colours of the rainbow, storing each one in its own mussel shell – the perfect container for a litle jewel of pigment. It was relatively easy to make safeda but also, unfortunately, relatively easy to mess up…the tiniest speck of dirt could contaminate the whole thing, rendering it useless. Since it takes an entire week before it is ready to use, it’s not something you want to get wrong. After I made mine, Heraa (in true ‘Blue Peter’ style) then whisked out a perfect ‘here’s one I made earlier’ for me to use in the studio for my lessons that week.

The kalam is a truly magical brush created using materials taken directly from nature; a pigeon feather, gum arabic and some carefully selected squirrel hair (or…if you are really stuck for a dead squirrel…hair from a willing Persian cat…but only as a last resort as squirrel hair is apparently THE BEST). This brush is finer and stronger than any brush I have ever bought from an art shop in the UK. As I sit in total awe of my first homemade kalam, Heraa tells me with glee that it will last at least a year and will only get better as the tip becomes finer and more honed to my practice.

It is no exaggeration to say that my new brush opened an entirely new world of painting possibilities; the most resounding of which being the impact of colour when applied patiently, thoughtfully, and most importantly, subtly. With my kalam I learned how to layer colour so delicate it appeared, at the first instance, to be only clear water with no pigment at all. Traditional miniature painting teaches that you must not mix directly on to the palette, but instead, on to the back of your hand for your skin to absorb any excess paint. What you are left with is an amount of pigment that is almost invisible to the naked eye. The important thing is that however seemingly nonexistent this colour appears to be…it isn’t. As Heraa said, it is in these essential subtleties that the story comes alive; real life is reflected through these edges and layers.

Charlie Calder-Potts - Whilst the World was Silent - Mixed Media on Wasli - 17 x 13.5 Inches
Whilst the World was Silent – Mixed Media on Wasli – 17 x 13.5 Inches

During my time in Pakistan with Heraa Khan. I learnt skills I have wondered for years how to achieve…a flatness of colour, the finest of lines, how to make my own materials and tools directly from nature. During those first few days in the studio, Heraa impressed upon me not only the importance of your materials but also the respect they demand. She taught me a new reverence for the process of making itself and I hope this most essential lesson will be forever reflected in my practice.

My solo exhibition, The World was all Before Them, will show my first completed series of work since Pakistan. The characters depicted are real, faces from the ‘here and now’ photographed by me all over the world, from the streets of London and Lahore to the souks of Samarkand and Damascus. The pieces are in a sense an immediate form of reportage; people captured going about their everyday, the routine of life. Yet it is in their ‘everyday’ that we find the timeless; echoes of stories from long ago, forever repeated and adapted, a reflection of humanity itself.

Charlie Calder-Potts  2022