Karl Mårtens

Lithographic Prints 2007 – 2017 and Newer Paintings. Exhibition at Edsvik Konsthall, Sollentuna, Sweden, June 2017

Karl Mårtens paints birds in watercolour and for lithographic prints, although never the same image. His prints are originals made in editions, he says. For his watercolours he uses large papers, Chinese and Japanese brushes and lots of water. This gives the work a life of its own with surprising effects and “mistakes”. He paints large and quickly, beginning with sweeping moves and concluding with the fine detail around the face of the bird. He says, the bird tells him when it’s finished.

Intuition and an “empty state of mind” are central to his working process which includes zen meditation prior to painting. Being separated from the intellect, and thus from doubt, fear or expectations, brings him in contact with intuition, he explains. There is always the element of chance and the need to incorporate mistakes, adapting the image as it was imagined to how it turns out. Life long experience from drawing and painting birds and mastery of his medium makes this possible, I imagine. A short documentary about Karl Mårtens and his way of painting can be found here.

I am impressed by the movement in his paintings and his unerring sense for balance – in the shape of the bird, the composition as a whole and in the use of colour. Placing a bird on the paper he turns its shape into a work of art. Colour, texture and empty space are working together to form a whole.

This magpie – reduced to black and white in order to make the lithographic plate – shows how much of the images expression lies in the composition:

Karl Mårtens, lithographic film

He uses different levels of detail in his paintings. This gives them an overall looseness and freedom while still giving the impression of minute detail. It also enhances the tension and interest in the pictures.

The birds’ faces are always very detailed while the brushstrokes in the body, wings and tails are loser. The roughness of the paper, interactions between colours and additions of salt give interesting textures and effects that cannot be wholly controlled.

eagle hela
Karl Mårtens, Eagle. Watercolour

In the following painting he uses a bright orange in one of the wings. The same colour occurs in the bird’s eyes and in a very faint tone also in the lower wing. This very beautifully reflects the overall composition and balance.

Karl Mårtens, lithographic print

My favorite in the exhibition was a gull. Among all these fantastic birds this one got under my skin more than the others. It was as if I felt the wind under my wings which I don’t have, I almost felt what it means to fly. She is the queen of the storm.

Karl Mårtens, watercolour

I suspect it is the size of the painting, approx. A 1, and the volume in the bird’s left wing that initiated these feelings. There also is the detail of a few drops of paint behind the bird. To me they convey the speed with which the bird is sailing on the wind. A fantastic painting!


Without aspiring to paint like this there are a few things I would like to take with me into my own work:

  • Emptiness – I do not meditate to empty my mind but I know that when I reach a state of immersed concentration when drawing/painting the images become much better. My thinking often gets in the way, wanting to control too much, not daring to rely on my creativity, expecting too defined an outcome. Maybe I should learn to meditate.
  • Balance – The composition of an image plays a huge role in its expression and interest. Pay more attention to this and try out different ones before committing. Unusual angles or distributions can underline aspects of the subject.
  • Detail – Work out a focal point in detail but keep areas of looseness and empty space. This gives the image freedom and space to breath.
  • Size – Dare to paint large! I know it feels wonderful.



Mårtens, Karl: Letting Intuition Rule – Lithographic Prints 2007-2017, Edition Vulfovitch, Stockholms Lito Grafiska AB, Stockholm 2017



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