Well I have had 16 days of open studios. More than 600 people marched or mooched, depending on mood, through my house and admired my decor whilst briefly glancing at the pictures on the walls. I sold 25 pictures so a buyer every 24 people… though less actually since some bought more than one. I set myself up to paint and draw throughout as a sort of educational how to do exhibit or should I call it performance art? I had about a hundred works on show so I am pretty pleased with the way it went.
I am not shy about painting while people watch, that is one thing being a plein air painter prepares you for. What was fascinating though was watching people look at my paintings. There seem to be a few different sorts of art gazers. There are the skimmers, they zip round in a trice, some seem merely to revolve once in the room and they are done. They seem to scan in order every picture getting the briefest of glances. Their visits are over in minutes and they never buy anything. Next fastest are the skippers. They take a more random approach flicking past most paintings then diving in close for a better look every now and again. They don’t look in order and if they return to a painting more than twice it is time to chat with them… a sale is unlikely but you never know. Next are the browsers. They are going to look at everything in order. Some paintings are briefly assessed others given the third degree. They often look at a painting move on then dodge back again as if something has struck them. Browsers are definitely potential buyers. Next slowest are the indexers, they give each work the same length of gaze and do them in order, they never go back to look twice and never buy anything. Then we have the enthusiasts they bounce around admiring things gasping and ooing and ahing if they like something. They raise your hopes but alas they are usually other artists! Then the rarest bird of all, the collector, they always grab a price sheet and move quite briskly from picture to picture pausing occasionally to make a note against a title on your list. They might go away without buying but if you are lucky they will return once they have thought about what they like and they might buy more than one.
After you have watched a hundred or so peruse your efforts it becomes clear that some pictures are the stars of the show. Mostly they are not the ones you expect to appeal. There was one small, soft and subtle painting of Portland which garnered many gazes despite being in a corner and high on the wall. Damned if I know why… but if I could work out a theory I’d be rich! One thing that pleased me was that my pen drawings were a hit. I had put them in amongst other works last time and they got rather lost, so this time I grouped them on two adjacent walls. It worked almost too well, they out sold the oil paintings! It has decided me to work towards an exhibition of just pen drawings at some future date. Prints also went down well so I shall persevere there too. Now it is all over I am at a bit of a loss, but am painting in France soon so that will perk me up.
So here are my efforts from the 16 days. It was a little odd getting just 10min here and there to work. Short bursts interrupted by chatting to visitors and meeting and greeting.
I had decided to do Corfe from Nth, Sth, East and West, this is looking South. As I was marooned in my house I had to work from reference. I remembered I had needed to clamber all over the hill when I was taking photos to get everything in an interesting relationship. The day had been dull so the lighting here is largely imaginary, the result could almost be moonlight.
Another day another drawing. Beaminster was my next victim. On this day I had painted one view of the church only to find a much better one a few yards round the corner! With no time left to linger I had to take a quick snap and moved on. With tonal pen drawings the more dark the image the more work it is. Here though I used my new Fude pen that can make very broad lines, which somewhat reduced the task.
Here is the next view of Corfe looking West. Monday was bit slow with the visitors so I could take my time. I love the chunky marks the Fude pen makes, you can really give weight to the foreground tones.
Tuesday was another Corfe drawing, here we are looking East. I actually didn’t get this completed so it was Wednesday’s drawing too. Usually I would complete one of these in a couple of hours so a drawing dragging on over two days was a little odd.
The last of the Corfe ones this is of course looking North. You can see the thick Fude lines in the shadow on the road. This one sold next day.
During the brief snow we had here in Dorset I had climbed Hambledon hill to paint and was amazed at how the snow had brought out the shapes in the ground. Not the easiest subject in pen and ink but great fun to do. It will I hope become a Lino cut at some future date.
I realised at this point that I had better start pushing the oils, so I changed medium.
I actually got out to paint this quickie near Plush. The evening light was gorgeous and it was great to be outside to paint after being mewed up indoors. Oils 16in by 10in.
Back to working from reference. This is the Wellington Clock Tower in Swanage. I did a watercolour of this en plein air, as I was packing up the clouds rushed in and I rather liked the mood, but had no time to paint it. Oils 14in by 10in.
Next day I felt like doing a bit of sea. Also I have to give a talk on sea painting later in the year. I have done several others for the talk, but they keep on selling! this is Dancing Ledge, I went several times a year ago as I had a commission. 14in by 10in Oils.
I had enjoyed doing the drawing of Corfe so I decided to do a painting of the same view. It was a very busy day so I painted this in fits and starts. 14in by 10in Oils.
I was getting into the swing of it now so I took on this view of Chesil looking over Fortuneswell. It had to be seriously reorganised to make any kind of a composition so it was fun trying out different options from various reference pictures I had taken on different days. 12in by 10in Oils.
More sea! This time it is Pembrokeshire. I wanted to experiment with the knife to try and get the sparkle of the water. I was really getting into the routine of painting a bit chatting a bit now so I just did the knife work in stages. It was vital here to get the underlying tones of the sea right. It is very easy to get it too light then the highlights won’t sparkle. 10in by 14in Oils
This is the lighthouse at Portland Bill. Another one where I took a quick snap after finishing a different view. This one had been sitting as a basic block in up in my studio for a month or more. Again very good control of tone was needed a many areas were quite close toned but the contrasts had to be there without being too harsh. 24in by 12in Oils.
Another bit of sea for my talk. A bit more Welsh sea near Cardigan. You have to be so careful painting stormy seas as too much structure and there is no movement, not enough and it is just foam soup! Here I merged the features of about 10 photos picking bits here and there. I kept on defining and then blurring back until I felt I had the right balance of movement and structure.
That’s it I was surprised how much I got done during the exhibition. Many thanks to all those who came and took a look and even more thanks to those who made appreciative noises or even bought something. Being a painter is an odd business and a little bit of positive feedback really spurs you on, now I have to get back out and paint pictures from the real stuff!
We love to talk about accidents. Happy ones of course. We have to “allow” them to happen give them, “space” to occur. We have to be eagle eyed for serendipity, poised to stoop and exploit it. Chance can be out dearest friend, but only if we but let go enough to allow it to work its magic. Throw the dice in the air, spin the coin, pull on the one armed bandit’s single limb, watch the symbols spin. We scorn control, dreary control, the restraining whalebone corset of control. If you don’t throw over the traces the muses won’t speak through you. Stifled by the dead hand of thinking far to much. The flow impeded, the tide dammed, the rush down the helter-skelter road to art nirvana, sapped of momentum.
You must be the child. A child sees, wants and reaches out. You are a free spirit, an ancient soul, a primeval being sadly chained by convention. Released you could fly high to the sun shrugging off the fear of wax melting and Icarus falls. Leaving others to mundane long drawn out Sisyphean struggles with the obdurate stone of skill and craft. Surely somehow we can recover the lost innocence that was cast aside in the hunger for a quick and spurious understanding.
Shrug off the bindings of history, escape the already known, seek the thin ice, the terra incognito. How can you call yourself an artist if you do not attempt at least a few of these things? It is your duty to see beyond. To melt the cold metal of convention and cast it in the air unconstrained by any mould. To make a quicksilver response without the inertia of introspection or intellect.
I dare say many of you will tend to agree or at least lean a little towards the purple prose above. I myself would like it to be true, but it isn’t and there it is, we must live and make do with the lack of hey presto type magic in our world. Do our best with the impersonal mundane clay we have been handed. All talk of “energy” “flow” or whatever is I fear just foolish babble. We must join gamblers anonymous and give up the hope of the smile of chance and luck. No Gods watch over us, no saints intercede, no Norns weave our past and future together. There are no souls chained to our bodies, no spirits allied to our minds.
That is not to say however that there are no random imponderables in painting, or that allowing intellect to be sidelined by unconscious or subconscious routines cannot be a good strategy. Getting the “accountancy” part of the brain off line can allow ingrained learnt processes to run more fluently. You cannot control every motion, every brushstroke, its angle, pressure, direction, speed and duration. Most of this has to be pre-programmed, or as we say learnt. It is a strange thing but the iterative and unfree process of learning a skill actually brings freedom and an escape from technicalities. Without that process becoming ingrained actual freedom will only ever be a pretence. I see it so many times. Painters or drawers acting out freedom, as if mimicking how they feel the actions might be, they could somehow achieve the actuality by some sort of sympathetic magic
Watching a skilled person perform their trade can often look like magic to an onlooker. Many artists receive good money for demonstrating their prowess. For the viewers and students however it mostly looks like conjuring. I suspect some “demonstrators” play to this and build in phoney “abracadabra” audience pleasing moments. As with all conjuring what you see is just the just the tip of an iceberg made of many many hours of practice. In a way the magic is there, it is there when all those many hours of practice, failed paintings, dashed hopes all come together and amplify what you can achieve. Like Icarus for a moment you fly. Does it feel good, yes very, just don’t expect it to happen everyday, or to happen at all without constant practice. Of course you could just carry out the actions, talk the talk and imagine you have brought into being a masterpiece, a sort of air guitar for painters.
So another life drawing post. Now don’t run away, life drawing posts are on average the least looked at posts on this blog, I’m not sure why. Life drawing is where the above seems to manifest a great deal. People put a rather large emphasis on the means of doing it, rather than what is done. They seek the magic formula that will make a winning drawing materialise on their paper. The words, loose, free, expressive etc are bandied around a great deal.
In reality a different kind of drawing is produced depending on what you are looking for. If you are seeking to express the underlying flow of a pose you might produce a drawing with sweeping confident lines. If you are interested in how the edges cross and fade or are soft or sharp you will produce a different more nuanced drawing. If you are interested in how the volumes intersect then a more blocky approach might carry the information best. You might be drawing the shapes the light makes flowing across the surfaces and not the body at all, resulting in a soft impression. Or indeed any combination of any or all of these. Each will result in a different sort of image.
Due to the perception of art history by contemporary artists a fair few folk have difficulty appreciating different sorts of drawing. A drawing with wild inaccurate marks will be praised as loose and free. A drawing that is accurate and plots the ebb and flow of the edges dismissed as tight however good. On the other hand those with little art education will only be impressed with the degree of photographic detail achieved. Academic drawers will judge in yet a different way as to whether the tones and finish are precise and the terminus lines of the shadows emphasised to get that silky classical look.
When I look at the drawings others do my best to look for what the artists were trying to nail down about the pose in front of them. There are successful and less successful drawings in each of the categories above and each should be judged on how well that agenda is executed. The only bad drawing are those that have no premiss or plan behind them or where the artist is not truly engaged, whether they are skilfully executed or not.
I had not done any drawings on toned paper for a while so this was quite tricky. As always a struggle not to put in more than you can actually see.
A more back to basics approach. I was interested in the planes of the pose and how they flowed behind each other. The difficulty is trying to get that down in single unfussy strokes.
So often the quick 4min ones have the most charm. In some ways that is just because they chime well with the aesthetic of our times. I am not in the least immune to this, as with unposed photographic snapshots they have an immediacy that comes across well.
I have introduced a cool grey here. I find it a useful addition so it will stay for a while. I am really trying not to make a “picture” or “finish” in the given time. Just to add one observation after another until the time runs out. As with all “best laid” plans this tends to get watered down by the reality of having to get the marks down.
Here I stuck to the plan more rigorously. Just putting down observations and then restating if need. I quite like the effect of all the good and less good marks being seen as it becomes a record of looking and resolving.
Here I got sidetracked a little by the edges and over emphasised them.
Here I got a better balance with the lines supporting the main interest which was the flow of the gorgeous complex forms making up the surface of the back.
Here the line and flow is more important with the tone in a supporting role.
When I was first taught to draw, Bunny the tutor told us that a drawing should always be finished from the first mark to the last. So when you stop you always have a finished thing. I did not really understand this for many years, but now find it to be a very useful idea. She taught this by not telling us how long the pose was going to be. This meant no planning ahead was possible and each drawing had to be started as if it was only going to be a couple of minutes.
Steve our model was in his eighties and was amazing to draw. Age had melted away all the excess fat revealing the forms beneath.
A difficult one to draw, again the tone is in a supporting role needing to be just enough there to glue the line work describing the edges together.
More quickies. They really do help you winnow out the important and telling aspects of a pose.
Another one where I went a bit to far with the line. It is so so easy to make a line over defined. Ideally it should reflect how strong the edge is and so can go from hard and certain to very soft and undecided. This should reflect what you ca make out clearly and what you cannot. Squinting helps greatly in this regard. If an edge vanishes when you squint then it should ideally be either very soft or not there at all.
This was the second of two drawings done over an hour. In the first one I rather lost my way but the time was not wasted as all the looking helped me be more direct and concise in this one.
I think back to oils for the next session, so looking for light and tone a little more.
Easy eh? We are talking about oil paint brushes here. Not hard is it? Quickly wipe it off, swish it about in some white spirit, then soap and hot water bash it about on the bottom of the sink a bit of a dry and yer done… Well maybe not, you have actually just spent 5 min damaging you expensive brush.
Ok, the wiping off, this is the key bit, do not skimp on this stage. Really wipe it pulling hard from ferrule to tip spreading the hairs. Repeat until no paint shows on the rag or paper.
Next he swish about in white spirit and hammer about by pushing it down on the bottom of your pot… Hold it there, you have just created a very dilute pot of paint, the idea is to get the paint off the brush, not transfer it into your white spirit. The pushing the brush down working it around… don’t do it! It damages the hairs of the brush against the sharp edge of the ferrule and weakens them, also it pushed paint up into the ferrule which then hardens. So don’t do 2 ever… it is destroying your brush.
So don’t do any swishing in fact ignore 2 altogether, just gently dip into the spirit and leave for a few seconds, then do stage 1 again. Always do your wiping from the ferrule to the tip, repeat the process spreading the hairs until no more paint shows on the paper.
Do stage 3 again maybe twice, often not, just once is enough.
That’s it you are done, no need for the soap and water bit. At no stage whilst painting or cleaning should paint ever get on the hairs as they enter the ferrule.
OK you have let your brush dry for 4 days… what now? Being quite forgetful this is a regular scenario with me. So… just dip in white spirit for 1min, then gently bend the brush until the hairs separate a little, no need to be brutal. Then dip again for a further minute and go to stage 1.
Worse it is a big expensive brush that was loaded with paint and it rolled unheeded under the table 2 months ago… So… leave in white spirit over night. Then take a wire brush and comb the brush from ferrule to tip until paint breaks up. Dip in spirit for an hour or two and off you go to stage 1 again…
Remember all cleaning is aimed at moving the paint away from the ferrule and the removed paint needs to end up on your rag or paper not in the spirit! Rags should go in a metal bin ideally outside… there you can’t sue me for burning your studio down now!
Looking back over the years I have been blogging the word “style” has cropped up a few times. I have always been dealing with aspects of it though, not really considering the attribute itself head on. We use the word for personal appearance, dancers can be stylish, architecture and decoration are categorised by it, all in all it seems a covetable attribute to have and one worth acquiring. It sorts the hens from the geese, cats are stylish dogs less so, sorry dog lovers it’s just the way it is.
Eric Furnie says it is a “…distinctive manner which permits the grouping of works into related categories”. Now this is less attractive, it is now a kind of pigeon hole that some art historian wishes to shoehorn you into for their own convenience. Like so many things you think you know the meaning of, when you take a closer look the edges soften and definitions become soft and hard to pin down. The word actually seems to be two rolled into one. It has a meaning as an identifier of an individual or an individual belonging to a larger grouping. It also has a usage as a compliment on an interesting and exciting manner of being or means of creating. One tends to be applied to a thing that is made and the other mostly to the maker.
However much you wish your style to be you own and only your own you are, in this interconnected world, doomed to failure. Someone or indeed many someones paint, make, dress or whatever just the same as you do. In our age millions upon millions of people paint pictures. When Rembrandt wielded his palette there were far far fewer. There are probably more good painters in the world now than ever before, but that just makes it harder to stand out from the crowd.
Ah! I have said it… “Stand out from the crowd.” Along with the fascination of doing and learning a craft there is the wish to be noticed for doing it well or even not so well. For that to occur we must bring something to the table, either in ourselves or our work, that is remarkable. I have long puzzled at the popularity of my pen drawings. In my own opinion they are no better or worse than my paintings. They are made by the same hand and mind. I had a friend round and we were discussing what I should exhibit. She said, “Oh you must put in the drawings they are so unusual.”
Afterwards on considering it a small penny dropped. My paintings are “usual” you can find a load of painters doing the same or better than I. If you search for people doing tonal pen drawing to a high standard then there are very few. It is relatively easy to stand out from the hoard of felt pen stipplers copying photos of Elvis. This makes the decision to go larger on the drawings in my upcoming open studios and easy one. It does not however change my course as far as getting generally better at my craft. The “style” of the drawings might be a hit, but you must never let style drive the direction of your endeavour.
It is similar to when you allow technique to overwhelm the meaning of what you are trying to say. Allowing some style element, or desire to be different for the sake of it to dominate, is just as bad. It is difficult, when being a herd mammal on its way to being a hive mammal, to be lumbered with an incongruous sense of personal individuality. Hopefully this sense of individuality will slowly atrophy and we will become blithely busy uncaring bees.
I am busier than a bee at present organising my open studios which is part of Dorset Arts Weeks and runs from Saturday 28May to Sunday the 10th of June. This involves allowing the public to traipse through your house and studio whilst curling their lips at your home decor and ignoring your pictures. I will be there to sign the occasional autograph, but mainly to receive overwhelming amounts of money and adulation. So come along, cash, credit card, bitcoin, PayPal, praise, scorn and Facebook likes all gratefully accepted.
The amount of work involved in such a venture is a little forbidding. Pictures to be framed labeled and wired, hanging systems and lighting to be installed. Just the decision as to what and what not to exhibit is tricky. Cards must be printed, prints mounted and inserted into cello bags. Your home has to be reorganised and walls space cleared for pictures. Half your furniture, including the fridge freezer, has to go in your shed. Due to my shed being full of furniture I have to add a Gazebo to take the volume of pictures.
Once the rooms are cleared out the lamentable state of your decor is sure to be revealed so painting the walls is inevitable. You have to, in this contactless age, take card payments so an iZettle card reader is required. Signs must be put up at key road junctions, leaflets and maps created printed and distributed. Social media must be saturated with plugs and all your friends, previous buyers and acquaintances spammed with emails.
Now I have you all weeping in sympathy at the artist’s plight here are a few scribbles and daubs.
Here I am perched on a stool in a graveyard next to the smelliest compost heap in Dorset on a very chilly day. This is the church at Chesilbourne in Dorset, tricky to get the best view as it was in the middle of a track frequented by Range Rovers so this was the next best. I used my Sailor brush pen to speed things along with the darks. A5 pen and ink.
This is Christchurch Priory. These sorts of subjects can be overwhelming at first. But if you get the box and the underlying divisions of the box in place then filling in the gaps becomes easier. A5 Pen and Ink.
This one of Child Okeford was done from a photo whilst invigilating at an exhibition. There is a strange meditative pleasure in hatching large areas, though you have to beware of it becoming too mechanical. Pen and Ink A4.
Back to the oils before Venice! This is the view across to Melbury Hill from Shaftesbury. I love the structure of this view and have done it a few times now. Very hard to get the relative tones here as the roof highlights directly reflecting the sun were easily the brightest thing, so the rest had to be subdued to make them ping out. 10in by 10in Oils.
This is the church of St James from the same vantage point. A good time of year for this view as the leaves obscure the church in the summer. I enjoyed the transparent layer of the trees. It can be quite a challenge as if you paint neat roofs and then paint branches over them it looks dreadful. So I paint the buildings seen between the branches as negative shapes which prevents you getting over involved in things you cannot quite make out. If a thing is hard to resolve by looking directly then it should usually be hard to resolve and slightly vague in your painting. 10in by 16in Oils.
This is the Larmer Tree gardens in Wiltshire. Designed by Augustus Pitt Rivers it contained theatres and stages for the general education and entertainment of the masses. It became hugely popular in the 1880’s attracting 40,000 visitors a year. Quite hard to find subjects, a real contrast with Venice where it is hard to find bits which aren’t potential paintings! I settled on this upward view to a small rotunda. Not overdoing the mass of shrubbery was the greatest challenge here. 10in by 14in Oils
A brief study of a concrete statue… well I didn’t know it was concrete until I looked closer. My heart wasn’t really in this… I enjoyed the light on the leaves… but straight on to the “sand it off” pile! 10in by 10in Oils.
A relief to get away from gardens! This was on the way back over the Cranbourne Chase near Win Green. A quick 15 min splash on a small board, but much more my cup of tea… 10in by 6in Oils.
Venice. Like all artists I went there knowing it already. I wondered what I would make of it and if I could add anything worthwhile to the morass of artwork that takes it as a subject. Would I find the “real” Venice? The answer of course is no. There is no real Venice, Venice is a fantasy. Venice is a theme park and all the life that goes on there is devoted to the commercial maintenance and operation of the dream.
Venice is a city wide tourist trap, a veritable San Quentin for visitors to do their time in. A Venice street goes: mask shop, fake Murano glass shop, taverna, mask shop, restaurant, mask shop, fake Murano glass shop etc ad infinitum. After Napoleon conquered the city it slowly died until finally we are left crawling over it like flies admiring its beautiful corpse.
There are legions of immigrant workers slaving in its kitchens reheating dishes shipped in each day from the factory kitchens on the mainland. In China they labour to make the masks, glass, paintings and other tourist trash. There is an imaginary transport system that never takes anyone anywhere but on circular tours… no one brings their shopping home by gondola!
If I had been by myself I would have quickly done the rounds and been out of there pronto. Fortunately I was there with other artists and their company made all of the difference. The plethora of mask shops could be laughed at and the madness admired. I could rise early immerse myself in painting and join in with the fantasy.
So how is Venice as a subject for an artist to paint? Firstly there are subjects everywhere, if you came across any of them in a town in the UK you would set up your easel in a flash and set to. In Venice though every aspect and all directions are paintable. As Einstein said, everything is relative. You almost immediately start to rank the possible scenes and try vainly pick out the best of the best. Venice is also all very similar, endless repetitions and rearrangements of the same few ingredients.
Anyone who looks at my work will know my fondness for architecture and old buildings in general. In theory Venice is a cornucopia of perfect Rob Adams subjects, gothic palaces, mad baroque churches, cool classical facades and rustic mouldering buildings, roofs crowned snaggle toothed by random chimneys. Mostly though I painted legs. Visually the buildings reach down from the sky and are carried on the backs of the dark serried ranks of the innumerable visitors who obscure the join of buildings to street.
I am told that it was quite empty by Venice’s standards, I shudder at how in must be in high season. On the other hand I love watching people and enjoy seeing how they group, linger and go about their day. I enjoyed the contrast between drifting tourists and workers on missions trying to weave between them. Oddly I did not really notice the absence of cars. I did warm to the place after a while, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it just being a playground. The place reminded me of a computer game where you wander a city built by a long dead civilisation looking for clues and prizes while avoiding the ghouls hidden in dark passages.
So to the paintings, I will try and do them in the order they were painted.
Up early on the first day and off to the Rialto fish market. I was sharing the apartment with Ian Layton who is an old Venice hand who knew all the best spots! Quite a tricky subject, the light burning in from the outside is what struck me so I tried to paint that. I can see now that the effect needed to be exaggerated more with the interior darker and the outside almost completely burnt out. 12in by 7.5 in oils.
On the way back from the Rialto we were taken by this scene where the sun was slowly coming across on to our side of the Grand Canal. I had primed my boards a sort of Venetian red which mostly just right, but I should have done a few a more ochre colour. Like so much of Venice the fringe of people ran in a strip all the way across. I quite liked the more determined folk leaving the vaporetto on the right contrasting with the moochers on the left. 15in by 7.5in Oils.
Here is a very trad early morning Venice view. We were all painting away in a line getting spots on our retinas! Once the key was decided and the tones established a straight forward subject to paint. The main pitfall people tumble into is getting everything initially too light. If the painting is too high a key is is impossible to describe the sparkle on the water unless you have neon paint! 12in by 7.5in Oils.
In the afternoon I went to the Arsenal, no not to watch the football, the Arsenal in Venice was the manufacturing powerhouse that maintained its naval dominance of the Mediterranean. In celebration of this they gave it grand gates flanked by comedy lions. Like so much of Venice it is hard to get exactly the vantage point you would like without falling into a canal and getting wet. I should have done more drawing, the only reason I might return to Venice is to concentrate on the wonderful architecture. Pen and Ink.
Mist! We got up early and the sea mist had come in transforming the city. I was focused on the painting I imagined I would do after this one as the sun burnt through. A mistake as I abandoned this one early and it was better than the subject I was eagerly anticipating. Still I had more than enough down and only had to finesse the figures and drag pale blue over the distance to finish. Once again control of tone was the key. 12in by 7.5in Oils.
This is what appeared out of thew mist! I should have been in a different place about a mile away but I just had to set to and paint what I had in front of me. I never quite finished as the light moved on so rapidly. This one is no more as I painted a different one on top due to running out of boards! 12in by 7.5in Oils.
I drew this as I waited for my expensive and badly cooked supper in a restaurant. As it turned out the passing mosquitos had a better meal than I did for no charge at all… Pen and Ink.
My first canal painting. There are endless versions of the narrow canal with the thin vertical strip of light and reflection, but this was more open and attractive as a subject. I placed the bright vertical strip of the canal edge first as I felt it was the key to the composition. In the bright light I found myself quite frequently putting in all the lights first allowing the prime colour to stand in initially for the buildings etc. I found myself using a lot of black in the mixes as it seemed just right for the character of the greys the city is steeped in. 12in by 7.5in Oils.
Later that day I painted in that famous stage set St Marks Square. The afternoon light was flat on the facades reducing them to cutouts. I was sitting on the arcade steps and painted hand held. I was lucky not to get moved on by the gestapo who strut about the square. I tried not to get too involved in the architecture as getting the tones right was the challenge. In the event I had to very slightly lighten the cathedral later in order for the whole thing to gel. 16in by 7.5in Oils.
I decided the next day was a wandering about drawing and watercolour day. This is the Campo San Rocco… how could I resist the light slanting across this mad baroque confection. The school to the left is just as barmy but only plays a supporting role here. These wonderful buildings seem to almost never appear in paintings done by recent visitors. I suspect people find them just too much to take on. In actuality they are just divided rectangles, the complexity is not structural but an overlay on a simple grid. The trick is to firmly establish the underlying grid within which the decorative elements sit. Once that is done the mad stone salad of detail can be suggested rather than over defined. Pen and Ink.
My first watercolour of the trip. Though the stalls are full of the worst tourist tat they make good compositional punctuation marks. Watercolour easily captures the luminous quality of the light. 7in by 5in Watercolour.
This is an early morning Campo Formosa, the light was a real challenge and I nearly abandoned it. As so often I found in Venice the people are the key to a satisfying composition. In each painting I found myself more and more considering the makeup and grouping of the figures. 12in by 10 in Oils.
Next Campo! This is St Giovanni, one of the most interesting to paint. Odd how the old Venetians were not in the slightest bit embarrassed about putting up huge statues of themselves. Getting the horse in the right relationship to the rest and not over detailing were the biggest challenges here. Once again many of the greys were made using black. 12in by 10in oils.
Another day another canal. Here is where they service the gondolas. In my jaundiced opinion they look better upside down! The thrown together industrial sheds make an interesting contrast with the grand edifices behind. Not far from here the mask shops dry up and the grass grows between the stones. There are run down tenements and washing hung between the buildings. This is where some of the workers live, though it is only the briefest fringe before the industrial port. 12in by 7.5in Oils.
On the way back to the apartment I saw there two girls hanging out and doing phone stuff. They are students in the college on Campo Santo Stephano, a little glimpse of ordinary existence. Pen and Ink.
After supper it was nocturne time in St Marks. The wet paving made it a great subject. I rubbed violet blue over my board before leaving base which made a great ground, indeed most of the paving is just the resulting prime colour. Very quick hardly more than 20 min. 12in by 7.5in Oils.
Another day where I just took my drawing stuff and travelled light. We all met at the Rialto fish market in the morning. It is very nice to have other painters about to chat and laugh with. I found myself a little corner to sit and draw out of the way. The light was moving very fast so the first thing after setting out the drawing was to get in the paving, shadows and key figures. I also painted in the white first rather than at the end as I usually do. This was a real help in getting the darks the right value. Pen and Ink.
Deep breath before I started this one of St Stae. I am sitting as far away from the building as possible without tumbling into the Grand Canal… but still too close for comfort. To get what I wanted in I used spherical perspective so that few of the perspective lines vertical or horizontal are straight. This sort of construction is very tricky to do en plein air especially as I don’t like it if the distortion is too obvious. I spent quite a lot of time getting the facade laid out, deciding what should be warped and what kept straight. A very satisfying puzzle though and I enjoyed trying to suggest the bonkers architecture. Pen and Ink.
Santa Maria del Giglio and rain at last! I had been dying to paint the wet streets. Also it sweeps many of the visitors away and those that are there are rushing to avoid the wet. I was in a discrete dead end corner so I could paint away at my leisure. A bit of a relief as most of the paintings so far had been a bit of a rush to catch the light. 12in by 7.5in Oils.
Later I went to St Marks to look across to La Salute. I was hoping for more rain, when it came it was very brief so I got brollies but not the wet paving. I was forced to make the reflections up at the apartment after. Some of this was painted hand held as the gestapo made me fold up and put away my tripod. The highest leg count so far I think. 16in by 7.5in Oils
Last one of the trip! This is Campo Santo Giovanni again. I loved the angled shadow but it moved very rapidly. Had to be watercolour as my oil boards had run out! I then proceeded to do another that went completely pear shaped and had to be torn up… 5in by 5in Watercolour.
So there is my Venice. I might return to draw some of the buildings and I am glad I went and saw it all in the excellent company of my fellow daubers. Venice itself I found sad and defaced by the lazy, cynical, rapacious hand of greedy tourism. The mask and trinket vendors have done far more to besmirch this beautiful relic than any of the many graffiti artists have.
The age of discovery is drawing to a close. The scientific theories are done with, there will never be another dramatic moment of displacement in a bathtub that prompts the cry of Eureka! No fresh and shiny E = mc 2‘s no more 2πr2′s hidden in the woodwork. We will never again discover the unexpected fact that blood circulates, or find out how nerves do their electrochemical tango. There will be no more elements that last longer than a pico second to extend the periodic table. No new languages, no new geometries, we have found it all, made it all. The world of knowledge is perhaps a little like a sphere and we have pretty much mapped out all the continents upon it.
So now we are in the age of refinement, dotting the i’s, looking after the p’s and q’s. We might voyage to new planets, but never be surprised that they were there in the first place. We are encyclopaedia collators, we are indexers, we arrange ducks in rows. We wistfully talk of escaping the box and finding some mythical bleeding edge, but really we are at the end of innovation and at the beginning of a long age of tinkering with infinitely recessive boundaries.
There will be no new art movements, no new impressionists, we have been abstract, surreal and can only repeat the old well trodden expressions, there will be no more new, just warmed over old. Who could have expected human understanding to have grown so fast? We have the jigsaw puzzle on the table and the box is nearly empty. There are only a couple of pieces of sky to go and a bit of sea lost under the sofa, but the picture on the whole is just about complete. We are just a little disappointed that it does not quite match the one with the jolly bearded chap in the clouds that we imagined might be printed on the box!
Should we retire? Is our job done, like Deep Thought in Hitchhikers Guide have we found our 42? Should we become whimsical and quirky, always looking for some brief glimmer of newness to punctuate the ennui? Return to big wigs and farthingales, go mad for Steampunk? Butterfly at being this of that for just a day or two before moving on to paint a prettier flower? The world has enough books, tunes, plays and paintings to amuse anyone for a century or more. It sometimes seems pointless to paint another when there are so many better ones already available.
There is that word, “available” we are drowning in available. If I want to look at Russian painting, clickety click on my key board, and hey presto there it is. Not only that but most of the images are better than the ones you would have got in that 60 quid book 20 years ago, certainly there are far more of them. Affluenza doesn’t just effect material things it effects culture too. In times past you had a music collection… serried ranks of cd’s and Lp’s proudly displayed. Now you can rent any tune for the price of an advertisement. We don’t need collections, I sold all my art books, I never looked at them, they just took up space.
So, I must ask, does it matter? Most of human lives throughout history have been lived without a hint of new. In Tudor times, before the revelatory rush had really got started, it was a compliment to tell an artist that what he had done was almost as good as what everyone had always done before. They had guilds to prevent any possibility of innovation or deviation from the approved way. So no, maybe it does not matter.
Still for an artist today the idea of originality and newness is made out to be of vital importance. How cruel fate can be! We are like explorers born just as the last of the “Terra Incognitas” are filled in and the final “Here be Dragons” neatly erased. We have explored right round the world and met ourselves coming back in the other direction. Fortunately for us the world of ideas is fractal as a fern. We have broadly mapped out the major fronds, but each frond is made of smaller fronds and they too of smaller yet. So perhaps our world is unconfined, I can paint landscapes that make just a section of a part of the serrated edge of our landscape frond a tiny bit frillier.
For what is vaguely known as contemporary art this is a slight problem. Its avowed mission is to find new fronds, to go as Star Trek tells you, “Where no man has been before.” To this end they rush about making submarines out of tyres, piling up things to make other things, incongruity is king. All to no avail though, as, like our explorers who spot a hopeful new shore, upon landing they find footprints of men who were there before them in the sand, already softened by the tide. They have all the time only been filling in a few small wriggles in a coastline already mapped.
What has brought all this on you might wonder? Well the fear of Venice is beginning to set in. The most painted place ever. The most mapped in paint, its every mood, however transient, daubed by someone. There is a veritable Everest of paintings, an unstoppable grinding glacier of topographical art heading my way! All sorts of silly ideas pop up in my head, ignore the famous scenes, just paint dead ends and wheelie bins. Get behind the hollow tourist facade and tell it how it really is. I know of course that reality is not Venice’s strong suit, it is the oldest and most successful Disneyland on the planet.
In the event of course I will go and paint and draw stuff that looks pretty much like what everyone else has painted. I will then put them in my attic as Venice paintings don’t sell in Dorset. They will make a dandy blog post and garner a few ego boosting “likes” on Facebook and I will move on. The real gain will be inside my head. I will have been and looked. I will have observed tricks of the light, embellishments of stone, reflections in water. I will have been immersed in the place and be made a little bit different inside. An extra, hopefully elegant, wrinkle will be defined on my own personal frond. Like painting a portrait, they are much the same, we have been painting faces and bodies for thousands of years, but this will be through my eyes which will be, in the smallest humblest way, a first. Then I will paint Blandford with a little bit of Venice sitting behind my eyes.
A bright and breezy morning up on Fontmel Down, I’m not quite done with it yet and might have to return for another bash. I am showing it here with the bottom cropped, but I might reverse that and crop the top instead. It is one of those that has a decent picture in there somewhere, I just have to muck about with it until it gels. 16in by 10in Oils.
Here is Fontmel Magna later the same day once the rain had set in. Quite pleased with this one as it is great subject and I managed to get a feeling of the day down. I need to try it again in different lights and a slightly more refined composition. I love painting in the rain, everything is transformed, if only the practicalities of holding the umbrella and such were easier. Though the painting stayed mostly dry, the rain ran down my neck and made my boxers soggy! 14in by 10in Oils.
A studio painting of the famous Gold Hill in Shaftesbury from the first bout of snow. By the time I arrived here I was too cold to paint any more so just took snaps. Great fun to paint, I mixed up all my tones first as without sun the contrasts were very subtle. With snow scenes it is very tempting to take every area to white which ends up looking crude. 16in by 10in Oils.
Here we are on the Isle of Portland, the snow is gone and the sun is out. This is a great spot on the West side of the island I had not been to before. This was only one of the possible paintings to be done on this spot. The morning was quite misty with the last of the sea fret being dissolved by the sun. The tone of the distance was very hard to nail down. Too light and there was not enough contrast with the sea and sky, to dark and the feel of the atmosphere between you and the cliffs is lost. 10in by 12in Oils.
Are we in Corfu? Is this the Adriatic? No this is the same day looking South from Portland Bill! There was a great vantage point for the waves coming in so I decided a sea study was the thing to do. When people paint sea they often struggle with the fact that it is always the same but always different too. The result is that they impose their imagination upon it and it becomes rather static. My tactic is to get the tones and colours of the whole scattered about but not really resolved. Then I observe each smaller area and do a snap shot study of what is going on. Once done I just watched for a bit before putting a few features that tied the whole together. So the main wave was the very last thing to go in. 10in by 12in Oils.
The Mediterranean is gone and the Arctic swiftly returns! Our second batch of snow was bonus and I was determined to paint it. I waited and waited for the light to move from grey to sun before going up Hambledon Hill. When I got there I found the wind and sun had removed the snow from raised areas revealing the scars in the ground left by the walkers ascending to the earthworks that crown the hill. I got completely lost in painting this it had such fascinating contrasts. The snow came in handy too as I could build a level platform to paint from by kicking it in a heap and stamping it flat! Once again I took a deep breath before starting and mixed the key tones before doing anything else. 10in by 10in Oils.
The last of the snow. On my way back the light on the church and reflecting on the remains of the snow look pearlescent and very beautiful. However I was pretty cold and had a very wet bum from sliding down Hambledon Hill so I just blocked the bare bones of the focal point of the view and took a few photos. Thank heaven I did even that small amount as when I looked at my snaps they were just grey with none of the colours I remember seeing! So I had to work mostly from imagination colour wise and there is none of the original lay in left. In the last stages I put the photos away and allowed myself to play. 14in b y 10in Oils.
How important is history and context to art? Last night I watched a documentary that plainly thought context was everything. Simon Schama in the series Civilisation was of the view that art, specifically contemporary art, was fulfilling a visceral need and helping us come to terms with our lot of living in a deeply flawed and unjust world.
Fine sentiments, but where was the evidence for this? Well millions of people visiting to look at the stuff that is surely a good solid fact. So if we take Tate Modern which draws in 5.5 million per year, it sounds a lot doesn’t it? However London receives 19 million tourists per annum so most Tate visitors are in this category. We actually don’t know how many visitors are Londoners, very few I suspect. How many of these visitors gain some sort of moral solace from their visits? I would propose almost none. The numbers gaining gastronomic satisfaction in the cafe could be much higher I might suggest.
There are 60 odd million souls in the UK so how many of these are being reached? The answer is of course vanishingly small. If there really is this deeply seated need that Mr Schama went on about, almost none are getting it satisfied by looking at contemporary art. It is worthwhile considering that the three most popular soaps gain an audience of 1050 million people a year which pretty much dwarfs the art figures IE one 200th.
We are plainly, on average, not too keen on getting our art fix. Could this be because it is largely irrelevant to our lives? I am by the way not claiming any extra relevance for old art, it manages much the same sort of figures with the national gallery coming in at 6.5 million. So Art with a capital A is not important to us as a nation at all. It is only viewed by a vanishingly small elite, even more minuscule if we remove the casual tourist drop-ins and only consider the serious art viewers. So what sort of visual eye candy is enriching the average UK citizen’s eye on a day to day basis? Well a front runner must be packaging. Packaging is probably the most message heavy and art heavy imagery that crosses our visual field on a day to day basis.
Mr Schama was keen on showing artists that were, he thought, dealing in hard subjects of injustice and oppression. However you need to look more critically than Mr Schama who is too keen on greasy schmoozing with the artists to engage any critical faculties. There was a bit of work about refugees by Ai Weiwei. A huge black inflatable filled with black inflatable refugees. An interesting object, but does it make us any wiser about the plight of refugees? Who benefitted from its making and display? I suspect not the refugees in any practical way. Ai Weiwei and the galleries seem the greatest beneficiaries. I am not sneering at the artist’s efforts or questioning the worthiness of his intent, it is just that the making of the art has and can have no real bearing on the tragedy, it just feeds on it. If there were no tragedy there would have been no art and the object is meaningless once its context is removed and the tragedy forgotten. Imagine the same object bright pink and in a shopping mall.
Mr Shama hasn’t a critical bone in his body though. Another Chinese artist did forgettable stuff with gunpowder… I can’t even be bothered to look him up. The process and results were in my opinion laughable, a side show at best, all bang and no buck. The relevance of it all to big ideas and what it was meant to be commenting on were vague too. Our host oozed wonder and sycophantic praise at the results, which I have to admit infuriated me so much it made me shout at the telly.
In the initial program (I watched them in the wrong order) dealing with the first signs of ancient art underlined his poor thinking and dogmatism. When looking at cave drawings in Spain he averred: “These were not just works of art, but works of memory.” Her states this as a certainty. In his world our ancestor looked at the buffalo on the plain, fixed it’s aspect in their no doubt deeply shamanic mind and then scuttled down into the depths to draw these distinctly realistic looking bison. So did our ancient predecessors only make such images in caves? It seems more likely that the only surviving ones are in caves and they actually used such imagery elsewhere above ground too. Yet as artists we know that practice makes perfect… so the cave artist must have sketched on slate or bark, or skin to gain the facility to make the marks. It seems likely the artist looked at bison while doing this… it would be silly not to. Why would they not take sketches down with them? Alas no, Mr Shama believes in the magic man, it surely it could not be anything as prosaic as practice and observation producing these ritual images. Well the drawings look exactly the same as observed drawings do, so it seems perverse to propose they are anything other than just what they appear to be.
Indeed Shama seems to believe in the “an artist is a special person” theory in his bones. For him artists are there looking at the big picture, warning and chiding us to become better people. A sort of priesthood of whistle blowers calling time on man’s inhumanity to man. A race set apart seeing our weaknesses from a lofty height. Seeing significance that other poor mortal eyes cannot distinguish. Why poor old artists should be lumbered with this role rather than plumbers is beyond me. Throughout history artists have, as far as I can see, not attempted to undertake this role merely because it is not the best medium to communicate ideas or moral standpoints. Writing and speaking are the weapons of choice in this arena, not paint. Of course they have frequently been asked to “sell” moral stand points for others, but that is just a job of work.
The second in the series on the human form in art hosted this time by Mary Beard could not have been more different. She had real insights as the the connection between the objects and the cultures that produced them. She stressed that the figures on Greek vases were everyday things bringing small pleasures to people in their everyday lives. Where Mr Schama is dogmatic and so sure he himself exists on a morally superior level, Ms Beard is full of may be’s and might be’s, alive to the ambiguities rather than trumpeting personally held certainties
In the third programme Shama makes his portentous way through my own speciality, landscape. He writes well, he is eloquent, but he is also a fantasist, drunk on his own mellifluous words. He is like one of those old Disney wildlife programmes which constantly tries to see animals in a humanised anthropomorphic manner. He is, you might say, more Johnny Morris than David Attenborough. He wants to shoehorn contemporary concerns and intentions into historical painter’s minds. I suppose because he cannot imagine any other mental landscape or feels that because they were artists they must have thought that way even though none of them mentioned it at the time. A survey of landscape that misses out both Impressionism and the earlier topographical revolution in Britain is in any case fatally flawed in my view. Where was Claude Lorraine, or Constable we wonder?
I was naive in thinking it could not get worse. His meditation on colour was verbal diarrhoea, with him gurning franticly at the camera as his mostly unfounded flights of verbal fantasy were expounded. He knows almost nothing it would seem of the craft of painting. He cannot look beyond the febrile visions it produces in his own head. Never thinking for a moment that the artists and others might have differing experiences. Such is the peril of an overinflated ego.
He confuses of course the making of art with the consumption of art. An art object may of course become iconic or shamanic at any point after it is made, but this happens after the artist has dealt with all the practical aspects. The artist does not imbue an object with any iconic significance, the viewer does. We know this really, if we put Ms Emin’s bed in a twenty something’s bedroom it is prosaic. If we put it in a gallery it is significant. The bed is the same in both instances so it is the act of putting it in a gallery that added the iconic element. The actual making of the thing was irrelevant. You might say it is Ms Emin’s decision to exhibit it that was the art act. However if we consider Sigmund Freud’s famous couch, now in his museum. Which it seems to me could be considered to be an iconic object in very much the same way as Ms Emin’s bed is. Since he bought it he was the person who is responsible for its current placement and context. Now we would not think Freud was a visual artist, or indeed the couch maker, or the upholsterer. It’s significance is entirely created by the viewer and by the viewer’s prior knowledge of Freud.
There is of course no real problem with Simon, and no doubt most of his viewers, believing in fairy stories. It is however a problem if artists begin to believe it themselves. As with storytellers artists must stand at a distance from the tale they tell. Do not confuse the inner music of a musician with the landscape created by the music in a listener’s mind.
Well I’m glad to get that off my chest. Time to catch up on the watercolours…
I was here at the wrong time of day really. It does not look like it, but 6in behind my backside when I painted this is the A350… immanent threat of death by lorry certainly makes you paint fast! I have seen this view look so magical but it has to be 6am on a misty day. 9in by 6in watercolour.
In Child Okeford this is often my view in the morning coming back fro the shop with my pint of milk and a paper. I often looks wonderful so I thought I had better paint it. A very simple watercolour done in two colours and only about 4 tones. 10in by 6.5 in Watercolour.
This is the view from Eggardon hill. Quite a complex subject but a simple method. I painted all the shadow areas first taking as much time as it needed. Then I laid the colour washes over the top in big areas allowing them to wash back some of the initial shadows. Lastly I strengthened a few of the nearby darks. 10in by 8in watercolour.
Another one with the traffic uncomfortably close! This is the river Stour in full spate. I had to stand on a narrow bit of concrete on the bridge so a little rushed, but I have some great photos so I hope to do a studio one in a while. 10in by 7in Watercolour.
I can never resist this view of Hambledon Hill, it is one of those scenes that transforms dramatically with the light. Every time I pass I stop to admire it and if it looks good and I have time I paint it. 10in by 6in Watercolour.
This and the next one were done from phone snaps, but are of an interesting vantage point of Corfe Castle. A great spot and the land owner has said he is happy for us to paint there so I will be back! 14in by 7in Watercolour.
Last one hard to believe this is only a few yards from the previous view. I must go back at some differing times of day to see how it changes. 14in by 7in Watercolour.
We all know when a painting has gone very wrong, mostly we are pretty clear when we have triumphed against the odds. Which leaves all the ones that fall somewhere in-between. I have been reviewing my oil paintings for the year and reckon that out of about 140 oil paintings 33 fall into the successful bracket. 40 fall into the sand them off and reuse the board category. I must note that the truly cataclysmic ones got wiped off immediately! This is the way it is if you mostly paint plein air, you just have to accept that any day out painting has only a 30% chance of producing a decent painting. Anyone doing the maths on the above will conclude that 60 odd pictures fall into the, “Not completely sure about this one.” bracket.
So how do I judge whether it’s a goodun or a baddun or an inbetweenun? I wish I could say and promptly type in a wise, pragmatic rule of thumb method of assessing your own efforts to help beginners and others who meet the same issue. Well I can’t. I find it excruciatingly difficult to judge my own paintings outside of the very obvious winners and losers. I can always see good bits and so so bits in any painting I do, but often what stops the whole from working is extremely hard to pin down. It might be so underlying like a boring composition, so you have a decently painted but unexciting picture. Some are a little easier in that they have a part that is either distracting from or otherwise letting down the rest of the show. These go on my surgery pile. The really hard ones are the ones that there is something worrying me about it but I cannot put my finger on what might make the painting come to life.
How about, “Ask a friend.”? Well another brave painter I know made a Facebook group where we can put up the puzzlers and have another less emotionally involve eye assess the problems. I had previously floated this idea myself and received such sweepingly negative feedback that I didn’t do it myself. Painters it would seem are nervous of the opinions of others and would prefer not to hear. I am not unsympathetic with this as in my teens and early 20’s before I worked in the commercial arena if anyone voiced a doubt on any drawing I would immediately rip it up. Thank heaven I next worked on commercial jobs where the option wasn’t a practical possibility and in the commercial world you would receive negative feedback as a matter of course. Fortunately this soon broke me from a childish habit. At first I would argue with the client, but in later years this was reduced to a brief whine and a sulk!
So why are we so touchy? I think it is because in daily life to get on with each other we try to be polite. If you go to dinner and the host’s cooking is less than the full Delia Smith we smile anyway and lie about how much we are enjoying it. You always answer the, “What do you think of my new hairdo?” question with a peon of praise rather than mentioning that you have seen more stylish mops propped up in janitor’s buckets. We know instinctively it is kinder to let such poor souls continue life in a happy delusion rather than force them rudely into depressing reality. So it is with pictures and painters.
I have over the years tried various cunning methods of slipping a helpful suggestion past someone’s guard. One is to heap praise on various other aspects of the daub before mentioning the defect. It doesn’t work. You could spend an hour outlining the genius of the painter, the astounding masterfulness of every aspect of the work, you can bemoan your own inadequacy and express envy at their having painted such an astounding picture that the whole of western art might have to be rethought. This will all be received with an ever smugger expression or various insincere, “Oh you are just saying that!” and “Surely not.” protestations.
Then you say, “It’s only a tiny, tiny thing but I’m not too sure about that slash of bright yellow in the foreground…”
As the “but” hangs in the air the sunshine immediately darkens and thunderclouds roll in. The previously cheerful bubbling springs promptly dry up and the warm limpid pools before them freeze over. The ice that has instantly appeared under foot cracks menacingly. If any piano is playing at that moment it ceases leaving a discord hanging in the air and every head in the vicinity turns towards you. You look down and like Wile E. Coyote you have walked off a cliff and the canyon bottom is 2000ft straight down. Yes the mood has changed, all the positives evaporate like spit on a red hot frying pan. You have dared to be NEGATIVE. As we all know it is now a sin to be negative in any way. Positive thinking is espoused in books devoted to the subject. I used to go to brainstorm meeting where any negative comment was forbidden however stupid the idea put forward. Any possible failure must be described as “deferred success”.
All this is a pity really. We still have advice and criticism of course, but this must be in a clearly defined “teaching” context. So the best advice I can offer here on this subject is to learn to put some kind of emotional distance between you and your work. I know. I know. Your work is the expression of your innermost soul and you have torn off your skin to expose your quivering flesh to the unkindness of existence. None the less a little emotional distance will allow you to determine whether you have painted an existential cry of despair from a primeval man trapped in a mechanised universe, or a pitiful squeak from a pampered mammal in the grip of affluenza.
I have had this 36in by 12in canvas stretched up for a while… it even had a frame but I couldn’t quite come up with anything to paint on it! I decided in the end on this wide view of Corfe. What I attracted me to it was the way the tones that described the light subtly changed from left to right. I arrived at its current state intending to go further but in the end decided not. If I hadn’t had the frame to check the effect in I might well have resolved it more. Oils.
A great day out by the sea. This is Studland Bay. The tide was lapping at my boots by the time I finished! The underside of the waves was the most intriguing tone and I had to have several goes at mixing it. 14in by 10in Oils.
I toiled out through the mud to Dancing Ledge after, only a sketch really as the time and light was rapidly on the move. I took a set of photos as the light fell away which might make a studio picture in due course. Sometimes there is no real time to consider composition, if I had had more time I would have walked too and fro to check different aspects of the scene, in real life though if I had actually done that the light would have gone and I would have had no painting at all. It is a bit of coast I need to walk this bit of the coast more so I know which bits might make a good painting. If the light is looking good you can then go directly to the spot with no messing! 16in by 10in Oils.
This is Beaminster on a beautiful crisp morning. I was perched on an awkward corner with the passing Range Rovers trying to drive over my toes. After doing this I promptly came across a better view just round the corner. I might come back to this one though, I quite fancy trying to get a square crop. The sky was the most amazing flat blue, I was temped to add some clouds but in the end just left it as it was. 12in by 10in Oils.
Up in the hills a bit south of Beaminster, lovely slanting light that was only there for a moment then gone. I soldiered on anyhow but really I was painting a fading memory rather than what was in front of me. I should have just stopped and restarted! 14in by 10in Oils.
Entertainment for a wet afternoon. I couldn’t settle down to paint so I set about preparing a few boards. I had one which was of Lyme Regis that I had had hopes of and even made a frame for but I couldn’t get it to work from the information I had. So I sanded off Lyme Regis and as I did so a ghost of Old Harry rocks appeared. I then remembered I had started en plein air blocking in a picture of Old Harry on this board… having blocked it in I decided I didn’t like the composition… and started again on a 16in by 10in board- hence the ghost. My studio self quite liked the wider view so I dug out the photos from the day and set to. I remember struggling with the chalk cliffs on the other version so I experimented with using the knife on this one. I rarely use a palette knife except to scrape back so I am not as deft with the instrument as I might be. One reason I don’t often use a knife to apply paint is I don’t like impasto in dark or shadow areas, so I just used it in the lightest areas in the centre of interest. I found it hard to shake off the memory of the previous painting but quite pleased with the result. 20in by 10in Oils.
The day before painting this I had walked up on Hambledon Hill with a friend and noticed the light was perfect for painting. So as the next day wha sunny next day I ascended at the same time with my paints. The light was glorious but the wind meant I had to hang on to everything as I painted. Still I rather like this viewpoint, it is harder than you might think to get a satisfactory picture out of the hill. It is so expansive and dramatic that you always feel you have failed to catch its essence. 16in by 10in Oils.
Snow at last! This is the slightly surreal Shillingstone Station. The line is long gone so it only has a 200 metres of track. I found I had made a slightly painful choice as it was rather exposed as you can see by the snow blown in lines across the platform… Also there was fine snow blowing in the wind that got over everything. Due to all this I only got 20min before it got too painful and I had to escape, still after a tidy up it has an interesting atmosphere the light is quite unique in a blizzard! 10in by 6in Oils.
A view across the fields on my way back to Child Okeford. I liked the way the wind had blown the powdery snow into any dip, bringing out the shapes in the ground. I did this in a very brisk 15 min as conditions had got worse and the snow was threatening a genuine blizzard! 10in by 7in Oils.
I wasn’t going to do another but saw this odd line the path made in the field and thought I could get it down quickly. Ha! It longer than both the others and I nearly died of the cold. Painting large areas of nothing much is the hardest thing to do and the field seemed to take forever. Still the effort was worth it as it is my favourite of the day. 10in by 7in Oils.
It had well and truly snowed overnight so I had to go and attempt to paint it. I didn’t think I would be able to get to paint Fontmel Down as the roads were very bad, but heroic farmers had cleared some roads up the hill and my car is a 4 by 4. I had thought the painting on the station was painful but this was on another level. The cold wind was like having knives driven into my face! All I could manage was to block in the basic tones before I ran whimpering back to the car. Mind you the great thing with snow is the way it simplifies the scene so it did not take a great deal to finish off. I’ll do a studio one of this I think as would like a wider view. 10in by 6in Oils.
Last snowy one. On my way back with the snow threatening to close in again I saw this and after checking the wind decided to give it a go. After drawing out I blocked in all the snowy bits whilst carefully leaving any dark areas uncovered. Once done the painting looked more or less complete so I packed up and added a few brown and purply tones over the remaining bits of ground back in the studio. The warm priming works surprisingly well for snow pictures. On all of these I blocked in the pale tones leaving the darks. I takes a little longer leaving the darks but looks much better than trying to lay the darks over underlying lights. 10in by 8in Oils.
Since moving to Dorset I have been faced with a seemingly endless pretty villages with comfortably settled thatched roofs crowning rose wreathed cottages. I have to date not painted many of them, but feel that I perhaps should. I tell myself that I need a new angle on them that will lift them above the twee. A well placed skip, a sewage lorry pumping out a cesspit, a recently deceased pensioner lying unremarked in the road while the Range Rovers power by. Please God don’t let me become Helen Allingham, a snobby part of me cries.
I am going to Venice in the coming spring and that has brought a similar problem to mind. Venice has been painted and painted. In every mood from every angle it has beguiled generations of artists and made them produce… well pretty pictures. A few have broken the mood, Whistler, Sickert and Sargent but only if you are careful in your choices, they each painted some pretty pretty ones too. Turner as usual scorned his subject matter and just made it up, moving palaces and indeed entire districts around to suit his compositional needs. Later Thomas Moran one of the Hudson River school did many Turnerish views of Venice with overexcited skies and a mixed salad of all sorts of dramatic lighting, perplexingly occurring all at the same moment. I started to randomly put in artists names with Venice, Monet, Renoir, Parkes Bonnington, Allingham, Myles Burket Foster… it would be almost shorter to list those who didn’t have a splash at it!
Which makes me ask the question, what do I do in Venice? To be honest I have been avoiding the place. Which prompts the next question, does it matter if I don’t produce anything that is particularly new and distinctive from painting the city? Should I take to the outskirts and paint the industrial estates that house the service infrastructure needed to deliver food and goods to a roadless city drowning beneath the flood of millions of hungry visitors? On the surface of it the place is absolutely clogged with things just up my street, churches and palaces ad infinitum and maybe that is the problem.
The Dorset villages present much the same issue, but closer to home. They are determinedly chocolate box and that is irredeemably uncool to much modern sensibility. The term chocolate box was coined from the pictures painted to adorn Cadbury boxes. Before Helen Allingham painter Myles Burket Foster churned out many a saccharine image that got used for such purposes. Although a little research shows that the manufacturers spread their net pretty wide with even Velasquez getting pressed into service!
So why do we shrink from pretty? I do, my Mother used the term “chocolate box” frequently and when we went to the Birmingham art gallery she bemoaned the sentimentality of Victorian art in general. We shrink a little from Murillo and his sentimental Virgins and street urchins. I have only with a certain reluctance painted Gold Hill the iconic Hovis hill in Shaftesbury. It’s a great view it has everything going for it… except it is eyewateringly pretty. The resulting paintings would look dandy on a chocolate box too. I see fellow “serious” artists shrink from them. They do not see the painting, the subject overwhelms, or should I perhaps say that their educated sense of taste does.
It is very hard to look at these or the images of sentimental syrupy Victoriana without your inbred sense of kitch kicking in. It is even harder to view them as a Victorian might have done. Did all Victorians have bad taste? We can’t say they were all visually naive and ignorant. Lots of clever sophisticated eyes looked and liked. I can look at the absurd confections of Tiepolo or Tintoretto with a great deal of pleasure even though they contain many of the same elements. Are these images OK just because they are safely insulated by a reassuring quantity of time? I am forced reluctantly to consider the problem might be with me and my cultural indoctrination, not the subject matter or overt sentimentality.
People really do have syrupy sentimental feelings, just look at people crooning over babies, cute toddlers or wide eyed kittens. We are told to paint our inner feelings, are those particular ones exempt? A besotted artist might gaze adoringly into their muse’s dewey eyes, then paint their perception thus shaded by sentimental adoration. Is that interior transfiguration not a perfectly bonafide subject? It is part of being human after all. Maybe as artists we are just scared to tread such dangerous and potentially embarrassing emotional territory or admit any weakness that it might hint at. You might after all be thought “soppy” and who could bear that? Give me pain and torment, misery and nihilism, but please don’t threaten me with pleasure or pretty! It’s OK if it is “ironic” though… a cop out in my mind, perhaps a lack of the courage to face it head on…
Is all this going to provoke a string of kitten and baby pictures… well no, but I will perhaps try to do a few of those scary villages. As to Venice, well I just have to wait and see and try to achieve the impossible which is to put out of my mind all preconceptions.
I am very behind with putting work up as I am painting and drawing faster than I blog! So we have to go back and imagine it is Christmas again… picture it: pushing a trolley through a Tescos packed with crazed shoppers, the sound of “One horse Open Sleigh” ringing in your ears…
I had a two part holiday this year and the first bit was in Wales. This is Tenby, which abounds with fascinating views. This is the harbour which has great viewpoints from the steep road that leads up out of it. Here I have done everything you shouldn’t do. The initial washes were dashed in after 15min, but it soon was apparent they wouldn’t be dry until late in January! So I move on and did a drawing and had a glorious fiddle to finish it off in the evening. Watercolour 7in by 5in.
I moved a bit further down the hill and sat doing a drawing as my abandoned watercolour slowly dried. The sun even came out throwing fascinating shadows across the buildings. 8in by 6in, Pen and Ink.
This is the marvellous Newport sands, the weather had swept it clear of even the most hardy dog walkers, only a single lonely parked van was left, probably waiting for a break in the weather to exercise the pooch. Being a hardy bunch from Worcestershire we walked our dogs anyhow but I was rather taken by the solitary van and did this later in the evening. Watercolour 7in by 5in.
At last a breezy day when my paint would dry. I had not realised my watercolour sketch book was on its last pages so this is done on vile W H Smiths watercolour blotting paper. Oddly it rather suited the scene which is of the old town of Fishguard. I did lots of washing and wiping back here but had to be very gentle as the paper was so soft. Watercolour 7in by 5in.
Next I went down to the harbour and sketched on the quay. I have drawn this a few times but never really got it how I want it, partially because you can’t set up where the view is best. That is my excuse anyhow. Pen and Ink, 8in by 6in.
Next I moved on to Co Clare in Ireland, I barely did a thing I am afraid… to busy catching up with friends and carousing! This is the road to Ruan, as you can see it rained enthusiastically nearly every day… Pen and Ink, 8in by 6in.
Last one, an ex-sheep. Skulls are fascinating to draw and I have done this one before, a very tricky subject in pen and ink. The table took longer to do than the actual subject! Pen and Ink 8in by 6in.
That’s it for Christmas, put the tinsel away, back to Dorset for yet more rain…
Many things in the world are lovely or fascinating to look at. When in the West of Ireland, as I often am at this time of year, I will often stop to admire the growth of a lichen or some other wonder. Many of us admire the textures of rocks or a rusting gate. The paint flaking off an old door, the patina on an old workshop floor. You can transfer these objects directly into a gallery and the public will look and enjoy. Why wouldn’t they? The things are intrinsically interesting and if separating them from their context makes them more accessible to appreciation then all the better. It does not however in my opinion really make them art. Too much that is really just interesting in an old fashioned cabinet of mysteries way is hailed as art. Richard Long’s famed rock circles in galleries are just rocks, anyone could have arranged them in a circle in the gallery and the result would have been the same. The same with bisected sharks, it does not require a specific artist to present them.
This is of course why the much discussed urinal of Duchamp fame is art historically pivotal. How much or little intervention on an object is required to make it art? The urinal is an art historical comment and thus of interest, but not an aesthetic product of Duchamp’s hand and so the art content was supplied by the craftsman or designer who made the item. However the art world took it to mean that anything touched by the hand of the artist and declared to be art was henceforth thus sanctified. So how do we decide what is a sufficient input into a work to call it art and sit an object next to a Degas or a Rembrandt? The question is also relevant to objects made by accidental splashing or indeed painting flat areas of colour such as in a Barnett Newman. For me a hint is that a decorator with basic painting skills could do a pretty good painting in the manner of Newman, but very few people in the world, if any, could do a decent work in the manner of Rembrandt. I say “in the manner of” because we all know people can copy any painting, but that is not what I am considering here.
There are I think a few different things going on here. It is plain we have different degrees of interaction with the stuff or materials any work is made of. We also have different degrees of difficulty in the actions carried out. So how are we to link our Barnett Newman with our Rembrandt? They are both flat, both made to go on a wall, both paint applied to a surface, made for the same reason, to be looked at. We have to note however that Barnett in all likelihood could not have painted a Rembrandt, but Rembrandt could easily have painted a Barnett if he had so chosen. I think there is a clue in the difficulty of the task faced by each. Rembrandt had to balance and resolve all the things that Mr Newman had to deal with, colour, composition, structure and surface. then he had to deal with a whole other set of problems on top such as, subject, representation, space, narrative and content.
I am not saying that things that are difficult to achieve are intrinsically better. Only that the ambition is smaller with an abstract expressionist work. It is painted for an aesthetic elite. A Rembrandt may be commissioned for a wealthy individual, but it is intended to speak to all who see it. One is narrowcasting the other broadcasting. With art the wider the target is the harder it is to successfully hit it. What might please an intellectual might put off a simpler soul. To speak to each at their own level without condescension or false sophistry is an achievement indeed.
Rather a mish- mash of work this time as these oils are done over a month, I’ll add another post soon with the drawings and watercolours.
This is the excellent Saturday market that takes place in Bridport. Very lucky both with the light and being able to squeeze myself into a gap that didn’t annoy too many people. Still I only had a little while as those lovely shadows were not going to sit there and wait for me. I very briefly sketched in both the lit pavement shapes and the sky shapes. Once I had blocked those areas in the drawing was really done as the in between prime colour stated the buildings. When I first started wit oils I used to paint tree branches over the top of my under painting. The result was never satisfactory so now I paint in the negative shapes instead. It takes longer but the result is more integrated and gives the feel of light coming between the branches. I took off 2 inches from the left when I framed it as it improved the composition. Oils 14in by 10in.
Bridport again even quicker this one as it was time to move on. I blocked in very broadly and then scattered accents in more or less the right places! It is amazing how much you can get in with 20min of slapping the paint on. 10in by 7.5in Oils.
Then to the nearby West Bay. Only a colour note really as the light was going. I do find these looking down the beach paintings tricky. It is something about how the sea just runs off the painting edge. 10in by 5in oils.
This is looking towards Cann with Melbury Hill on the left. The weather was looking chancy but I love this scene with its winding undulating roads. It is nearby to me so I will give this another go in different light. 10in by 8in Oils.
Talking of returning to old scenes, this the track to the threateningly named Satan’s Square. I have painted this 4 or 5 times now and it never fails to engross me. Here the light was going fast producing some wonderful hues in the landscape. I put the reflections on the track in very first thing and then built the picture out from there. 10in by 7.5in Oils.
This is the wonderful beech avenue that leads to Kingston Lacey past Badbury Rings. I have painted it 3 or 4 time but this is nearest I’ve got to catching the feel of the place. Quite by chance I passed by with a friend on the way to Wimborne and thought that this was a perfect time of day light wise. So I returned at the same time a few days later. Initially it did not go well as the negative shapes between the branches took forever and the result didn’t look great. Once the tree tones were in I could see my way better and after messing with the tone of the sky and road several more times it more or less came together. 16in by 8in Oils.
This the road to Wareham where the road crosses some marshy moorland. The day was gorgeous with fantastic atmospheric perspective. A bit of nothing really but I was pleased with the mood as it caught a little of the magic of the day. I had to be pretty quick though as the sun was evaporating the magic in double quick time! 10in by 7.5in Oils.
This is the famous Kimmeridge bay which has dramatic strata on show when the tide is out… This you may well notice is with the tide in! I must get a set of tide tables… Still a great view with the Clavel tower on the headland. Most of the work was in the sea which seemed to have every tone and colour present in some part or other. It is very easy to fall into the lazy paint the sea all blue habit, but when you really look it is endlessly subtle and surprising. I suppressed everything else really and made the sea the star. 14in by 10in Oils.
This is Christchurch, the forecast was rain but in the event it was lovely. It just goes to show, never be put off by the weather forecast! Besides if you only paint on bright sunny days you will miss many of the best pictures. The sun came out halfway through doing this but I was too far on to change horses. I might well do a studio one of this as I have the sunlit photos. It is rarely a good idea to chase the light, making the facades brightly sunlit would have meant adjusting the underlying tone of every single area in order to be able to express the contrasts. 10in by 7.5in Oils.