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.
Do you have art on your walls? How long has it been there? When did you last actually notice some of it? If the answer to the first is, yes, the second, ages and the third years then maybe the art is worn out and has become uncontemporary. You may well need to replace it entirely with fresh stuff. Completely worn out art of historical significance gets retired into national institutions so that no one except the staff have to look at it every day. Any art over time becomes worn and faded and the “art” potency becomes discharged. Much like biscuits art has a best before date.
Art is you see not like a bit of practical furniture that gains longevity and aesthetic patina through usage over time. It is an object charged with art power that has half life much in the way that radioactive elements do. A new bit of art, if it is potent, fires out aesthetic particles at a certain rate. Leave it on the wall for 10 years though and that rate will have decreased by at least 50%. Leave it there for a 20 years and it will barely register as art and become just decor. There is no way at present to recharge a discharged art object, though work is being carried out at the Cern laboratories to measure the exact weight and properties of the Icon particle, as they have named it.
For this reason it is important to renew the art on your walls a regular intervals. Iconic radiation has been shown in several influential studies to fight depression and SAD, so keeping a fresh display of recently created art on your walls can extend active life and keep cognitive faculties in tip top condition. I need hardly point out that art comes in different qualities with some artists imbuing their work with a more potently charged Iconic particle than others. However potent the original aesthetic charge of a work is the passing of 50 years will see it sadly diminished and in need of replacement.
Different people are receptive to various wavelengths from the Conceptual at 20,000 Hz through to Kitsch at about 89 Hz, some poor souls are unable to detect the radiation at all and others such as critics are over sensitive to the higher frequencies. Great art emits on a wider band of frequencies so there are many things to consider when buying new, or replacing discharged art objects. Art objects have distinctly variable half life, Iconic and Sublimic radiation has a half life measured in years but Ironic radiation wears thin very quickly, this is known as the Dada effect.
The aesthetic field and the Iconic particle are of course liable to the same weird and unintuitive properties as other sub atomic particles. For example you can measure value by auctioning the work but not aesthetic quality. If you measure the aesthetic strength then value becomes uncertain. This is known as the Rauschenberg Uncertainty principle. This in turn means that an artwork can be in a state of worthlessness and high value at the same moment until a sale makes the probabilities to collapse one way or another. Paintings or sculptures of cats are particularly prone to this effect.
This is not really an article for painters or other practitioners of art, but for buyers and collectors. Buying art is not something you do once and you can then forget about. If any work of art in your art in your house becomes overly familiar and does not draw your attention as it used to then it needs to be replaced with a fresh work from an artist or a gallery. Collectors don’t seem to realise that when buying paintings by an artist a 100 years ago they are not buying an object of high aesthetic charge, but one only with historical and rarity value. For these objects of much reduced potency storage in a vault is more appropriate that actually hanging them on a wall.
I am very pleased to be in the January 2018 edition of the Artist magazine (on sale now!). Throughout my childhood and as I grew up my mother was always a keen reader. It was, I understood even then, a step up from the Leisure Painter despite it sharing a publisher, much of its production team and containing very similar content. It was only in later years that I was informed by other artists that these publications were for the amateur market of enthusiasts rather than professional artists. By this time I was a professional commercial artist myself and so busy I gave the subject no more thought.
Now however I am not sure I fit the profile of professional anymore. Professional surely means you make your living or at least the bulk of it through painting both by selling pictures and fulfilling commissions. Artists have an understandable desire to talk up their sales so it is not always easy to discern exactly what return they are getting on their efforts. I gave up a pretty lucrative business as an illustrator, designer and visualiser that paid for my way through life and generated enough savings to get me to the position where I could say, “What the hell I just want to paint!” Nearly 7 years after that decision where am I? My friends tell me it is just so uncool to reveal your financial details… but well what the hell I don’t care in the least. So… painting pays for a couple of holidays and the materials required to produce and frame as much work as I please. It does not supply housing or something very close to my heart… dinner! Or any of the other every day bills and needs.
So that’s it I have to demote myself to amateur along with Van Gogh and Vermeer. There are however different degrees of amateur I might be a serious amateur rather than a dabbler. That would give a little boost to my ego after the previous collapse in status. Professional might need a little light shone on it too. If you make most of your living selling DVDs and giving demos aren’t you a teacher rather than a painter? I am not I might add trying to offend anyone here, but just wondering if our current categories are a little arbitrary. Maybe there is a better way of assessing the relative dedication of painters.
I could perhaps define someone who spends most of their lives effort over a long period into improving their capabilities as serious, through to the enthusiast who finds the process fascinating and maybe has only had the chance in later life to take up their lifelong interest full time. I must note this has little bearing on the quality of paintings produced. That being the case you may wonder, and I do too, if making any such judgements, or paying any heed to those that do, is worthwhile. The answer has to be for me, none whatsoever, there is a little waggy tailed needy bit of me that would enjoy the pat on the head of being deemed professional, but a much larger part that can’t take any such divisions seriously.
I have been experimenting with doing small oils in our wonderful weekly life sessions. At first I didn’t attempt it because is seemed unlikely that anything worthwhile could be achieved in the 30min window of opportunity that you have. I was wrong of course it seems with a bit of luck you can get quite a lot down and described in that length of time.
I had on my palette a set of tones left over from doing a self portrait which eased the process considerably, you don’t always realise how much time you spend mixing and re-mixing. Direction of stroke is very important, here I have painted along the direction of the arm, which is not a good idea as the arm also has a direction at 90 degrees to that. Oils
Here’s the next go. These are all 30min or less so little time for drawing out. I try to see shapes and keep areas distinct as it is impossible to do much laying paint on top of paint in this timescale. Oils.
Another session and I am painting a little better now as I gain confidence These are all 7in and smaller so not a great deal of real estate to cover. I try to be very systematic patching areas in by importance and size until most of the ground is done and only then refining edges and details. Oils.
A little better here with the choices in direction of stroke. I am swinging between getting the lights or darks in place first. Here I did the lights first but was mindful that the tone needed to take a final highlight. Oils.
This session was just with a few of us which made it easier to focus. This was 15min or less so not too accurate but has an immediacy that pleased me. Oils.
This one was the first of the session on a tiny bit of board. I had arrived telling myself to not try and get the whole figure in! Oils.
I loved painting this! The head against the light gave me an easy hook to build the rest of the picture around. Oils.
It was grey outside so this one and others from the session were more subdued. Oils.
I tried to get the mood of the room here, would have loved a bit longer on a bigger board. Oils.
I was pleased at how I managed to fit the figure to the board here, stretched out poses are always difficult I find but helped by close cropping. Oils.
Only 10 min time – gone in a flash! Oils.
Didn’t take my own advice and crop here. That said I am getting better at placing paint strokes concisely. Oils.
Another private session with only a few of us. A bit longer about 40min. On canvas board which I don’t like as much as MDF, something about the quality of the dragged paint isn’t as nice. Oils.
I loved the soft hues and tones in this pose. I quite like to introduce the occasional unashamed drawing stroke, but I cut them back a bit after with lighter tones which makes them “sit” in the picture nicely. Oils.
Last one, I could easily get addicted to figure painting and it is a great challenge that brings to the fore any weakness in your technique or laziness in observation. Oils.
That’s it Christmas looms and I will be off on my travels with my paints… Wales and Ireland this time so I hope I get some painting done in-between the eating, drinking and catching up with friends and family.
When I was at art college doing a degree in Fine Art Sculpture practical matters were of secondary importance and the purview of mere “technicians”. The painters didn’t even have that as practical issues were ignored, no technicians required. They did not even know the very basics such as how to stretch and prime a canvas decently. There was no colour theory, no teaching of proportion, or any of the basic painting and drawing skills. I dare say it is still largely the same today. So what were we being taught?
Well that is a tricky one. We had a certain amount of art history, aimed possibly at removing any hint of fuddy duddy traditionalism from our heads. Most of it was about how the modern art project swept to victory against the forces of traditionalism from the Impressionists onward. What was taught to us by the fine art tutors is hard to define. A lot of it was swathed in art speak so we were quizzed about our “realms of concern” or what our art was about. In old fashioned parlance “subject”. A fair bit of teaching was aimed at fitting you somewhere neatly into the current art genre of exploration and questioning. The questioning part was I have found useful, though I now realise that one set of unquestionable things had merely been replaced by another. The focus was I suppose almost completely on “what” and “why” but very little on “how”.
I have puzzled for years about my art college experience, trying to put it into some kind of rational context. At first I felt angry as it wasted the years when I could have learnt things that took an age to find out and learn for myself later. Accurate drawing, anatomy, colour theory, usage of art materials and compositional theory, all these would have been easier if an experienced knowledgable person could have taught me the basics. I feel if I had learnt all that at that age when we are like a sponge I would be further on in my craft than I now am. The thought that much the same thing is still happening to young people in fine art colleges today is a sad one. So where did it go wrong? Well from writing and thinking on this blog over the past few years I have come to have the inkling of an idea.
The art revolution occurred at a moment when painting was in a difficult place, indeed because it was in a difficult place. Photography had arrived threatening a large chunk of the bread and butter work of artists. Mechanical reproduction of images had reached new levels of cheapness and quality. Also examples of the art of other cultures were becoming commonplace and more importantly proving very popular. This followed on the blows delivered in the previous centuries where art had lost a great deal of its purpose as a tool for selling organised religion. A divide had opened up between artists serving the reproduction and design market and the pictures on the wall market for the wealthy which was largely served by “gentlemen” painters who were required to operate within the bounds of the polite society of the times. This is what we now call “Fine”. Similar artificial divides had been in evidence in the previous centuries such as the silly arguments about which of the arts had precedence over the others.
The idea that particular sorts of painting were of different worth took hold more firmly in that time. History Painting was top dog, followed by Portraiture, then Landscape and finally Still Life. The atelier system as we think of it today really came into being at this time too, with the society painters forming cliques of young followers to carry the master’s style far and wide. The Napoleonic amalgamation of the separate academies into one had brought a new stricter systematic method to the teaching of all the arts. Then the revolution occurred. At first it was basically a scientific take on how we see prompted by the novelty of cameras. The camera caught real moments and the painters naturally wanted to emulate this. Previously all paintings were imaginary staged composite concoctions made by posing models and props to tell an idealised narrative.
So the first thing that went was explicit storytelling narrative, we still had figures and activity, but less moralistic and idealistic content. compositions became as the photographic ones – truncated and cropped. Subject broadened hugely encompassing everything from dreams to everyday moments. We all know the resulting progression through abstraction to the plethora of isms we now have. A few things though did not get thrown out with the baby, some things stuck to the tin bath. One thing was fashion. Painting and other art still served fashion. It might have become a wildly oscillating Alice Through the Looking Glass version of fashion, but nonetheless what was required of us at college was that our work fitted and did not step outside of the established fashion which was generally then known as modern now just called “contemporary”. The other thing that was retained was a simplified version of the precedence of the arts. With art for display on walls, or plinths,in galleries set or for investment above any work that served any another purpose.
The baby in the cold outside the door was craft or skill. Something hardly ever mentioned in my college years and after without the word “mere” inserted before it. Something to be avoided not sought. Craftsmen had skills and they were for our new snooty art elite very much tradesperson’s entrance. Suitable for illustrators and their commercially tainted ilk only. I worked in the commercial arena for 30 years after leaving college. In that time I didn’t paint a single picture to go in a frame. Partially I think because of my disaffection with the fine art world in general being compounded by being told by others that as I was an illustrator I couldn’t be a “real” artist.
It was only later when I was building and painting film and theatre sets and having to employ people that I found that ex “fine art” degree students were easily the best people to have on your side. I have thought about this more in recent years and realised that although they were missing many skills they had inventive strengths and would come up with new ways of doing things. A vital quality when many of the jobs were novel, such one where we had to build a model city entirely out of biscuits! They also very quickly learnt new skills and ways of doing things. Specialist commercial artists were less flexible and more likely to say something was impossible to do.
My views were again challenged when I gave up commercial work to paint landscapes. The people in this world had skill in plenty, but their view on contemporary art were of a simplistic “a child could do it” and “emperor’s new clothes” nature. Then I came across the Art Renewal movement and the reconstituted atelier system. These people wished appallingly to return to mostly constipated 19th century France with its vapid underdressed sirens and bogus historical painting. For me, despite my earlier disaffection, this was just throwing out a different baby to freeze in the snow. There is always the desire to return to some previous elysian past, some golden age populated with people who would of course agree with us. On examination though these visions of the past never hold up and you might well find that they in turn hankered for a return to the values of a yet earlier era.
So too hell with fashion and daft snobbish divisions. I want to keep the freedom of subject, thought and method that the modern movement brought. I don’t mind silly and badly thought out conceptual art or indeed any of the fun of the fair Turner prize fodder. However I also feel we should make a place and recognise the worth of people who spend life time fully mastering an artistic skill. What they produce enhances the present and the result of their labours will likely in the future be the objects our age is remembered by. That you cannot go to art college and expect to find anyone there with a fully developed skill in drawing capable of teaching you, only pretentious drivel about “mark making” etc, is appalling.
So what can be done? If you look at the Crafts Council site it is at first hard to work out what they want. The dread words “experimental” and “contemporary” are much in evidence. Quite a bit of the featured content could be invisibly dropped into a Fine Art council site. Painting and drawing are noticeably absent… illustrators oddly don’t get to be craft at all. I get the distinct feeling they would prefer craft to move towards proper art rather than that pesky skill stuff. On the fine art side there is nothing. Well NAFAE the grandly titled National Association For Fine Art Education… which appears to do nothing whatsoever at public expense. Their meeting reports are a miracle of purposelessness. So who decided on the curriculum quality of teaching and general standards in fine art colleges? Well no one. There are no checks at all as far as I can see as to whether these publicly funded institutions are doing their job. Indeed there would be no point in checks or assessments as no standards or aims are in place to be measured.
Now these things are decided by someone, but who? Looking at it critically the purpose of Fine Art colleges seems to me to teach students to become teachers of fine art in Fine Art colleges. Only a tiny, tiny minority actually end up make their living from selling or exhibiting. So gainful employment is mostly only possible in an art college and indeed most fine artists even the well known ones are dependent on lecturing work. How these jobs are handed out is another mystery. I searched for adverts… they are thin or non existent! Here is the what the job entails blurb from the one application I could find:
“With a background in emergent/experimental forms of Art practice and/or related areas of creative cultural practice and research, you will lead on the innovation of integrated approaches to studio art teaching and the critical and historical context of practice. The successful candidate will have extensive knowledge of recent practices,theories and frameworks in contemporary art, and be able to teach both Fine Art and Fine Art & Illustration students through innovative approaches to teaching and learning. The post-holder should have a developing research profile in scholarly or practice-based research with ambition to contribute to the School’s growing research agenda and must have a proven track record of exploring new and emerging modes of practice and scholarship.”
So what exactly is to be taught? “Practice” is a word used 5 times, I Googled “Fine art practice” and a blizzard of art colleges came up, but no one seemed keen to define it in any way… even the links to the colleges led to vague assertions about “methodology” if skill is mentioned it is mostly linked with business skills in making your way in the gallery and institutional world. The message is that you will be tutored but not taught.
So how are these jolly nice, well paid and I suspect cushy art tutor jobs being handed out? I cannot answer this as there is a deafening silence on the subject. I suspect they are handed out through personal patronage, no doubt dressed up in the appropriate open to all clothing by being briefly advertised on individual college sites. There seems no attempt to reach far and wide. All this must in my view result in an incestuous clique and all my experiences lead me to believe this is the case. Only people who back the current methodology and status quo can gain entry. So the system is self maintaining for the main purpose of continuing the institutions unchanged existence, not primarily for educating anybody. Students are merely the fodder that bring in the cash from the state which keeps the show on the road, teaching them anything of practical worth is by the by.
It is traditional to blame someone for public institutions gone awry, but really if a cushy number turns up people will always try to keep it going. They have no incentive to try to institute or reach definable standards, just the reverse. People in the system mostly did not learn any transferrable practical skill so they are hardly likely to welcome that becoming a job requirement. For government it is attractive too. If there are no definite standards or assessments then no failures can occur. They can tick the “supporting the arts” button and relax.
I have gone on enough maybe, but I find it infuriating that a young person with ability and interest in art cannot get a decent unpretentious education to further their hopes and ambitions. So what might a solution to breaking the cycle look like? Well I don’t think the current fine art colleges will or can change. So replacement rather than revolution might be easier. However private colleges are only open to a wealthy few and suffer from wishing to return to some imaginary age equally as hide bound as the fine art establishment. What I think might do the trick is to undo the divisions between commercial craft and fine art. If we taught the “how” to people and left the “why” and “what” to the individual then the students could gravitate towards the theoretical/experimental or the practical/skill side or indeed anywhere in-between. Delivering such a change would be a life’s work as only setting such an establishment up and then hopefully pointing to its success and benefits would allow incremental change to spread.
Every area of art and craft has its outer limits and exploring these is important, but so are the less glamorous areas of skill and craft which in my view supply the firm terra cognita from which exciting leaps into the unknown can be more effectively made.
No exciting leaps here… only a few hopefully entertaining bits of shuffling along…
It’s my ugly bonce again! I found myself at loose end unable to make a start on anything and with a pile of rapidly congealing expensive oil paint on my palette. Not the best reason to do a painting maybe. I am working very hard on tone at the moment. How to navigate areas of subtle close tone convincingly. The eye always wants to give every area to much contrast and it can actually be very hard to determine the true relative tone of any area. I couldn’t be faffed with drawing so I gridded up my mirror with a felt tip pen. This isn’t so accurate as to cause stiffness but will allow you to get everything in proportion without too much trouble. It is very important to look at you painting in the mirror at regular intervals as it is surprising how far an eye can migrate with several wiping outs and re-paintings. 10in by 16in Oils
I went to Corfe to deliver pictures to the Gallery at 41 who have kindly taken me on their books. It was a glorious day so I walked up to Ballard Down and then to East Hill to look down on the town. If ever there was a subject where close tones were to the fore then this was it. A real battle not to see too much and to get the tonal layers properly separated but still related. I ended up with 3 distinct areas on my palette which I tried to keep separate as much as possible. 10in by 8in Oils.
I was on my way down as was the sun when I came across this scene and just had to paint it. Very awkward as I was on a killer slope and my ankles were not amused! Fortunately the colours were already pretty much mixed and just needed warming to reflect the sun having dropped. I laid in the whole thing in 4 simple areas, sky, distance, the town and the bushes. I tried to get a mix of warm and cool in each area whilst keeping the tone more or less flat. The only thing to do after that was to indicate and hint at the detail within each zone. 12in by 12in Oils.
Such a great time of year to paint! This is the wonderful avenue of beech trees near Badbury rings. No chance of doing anything other than indicate the mesh of branches with general tones. Here I laid in all the sky shapes first and then the green bits as that more or less defined all the drawing. The base tone of the board was a mottle red brown so I could see the painting as a whole from quite early on. Quite pleased with this as I have made a mess of this subject a couple of times before. It is still not quite what I want but I can see maybe now how to get a decent painting out of this wonderful subject. 16in by 10in Oils.
Later the same day… this is around the back of Kingston Lacey near the church. Oaks rather than beeches. Trying to catch the feel of the late autumn was my aim, some might not paint the van but I needed something to build a rough composition around. 12in by 8in Oils.
Last one of the day and the best I feel. Not a spectacular composition but just the thing to showcase the wonderful light. Again I did the sky areas first so that it defined the drawing. Also it was the main event so that also helps to get the picture headed in the right direction. 12in by 8in Oils.
I have been busy with things other than painting so not a many paintings have got done. The prospects aren’t good for the next month either with the prospect of a serious bout of framing having into view. I have let the Lino cut printing slide… where does all that time go!
Before I started writing this blog I never really gave much thought to the terms that artists and art historians tended to attach to supposed works of art. I have repeatedly found that if examined the various isms and ists are more for the convenience of historians and theorists than for artists themselves. So even though it will cause me to go over some old ground I thought I might consider a few of them in more detail and see where I am making assumptions or just accepting opinion without examination.
Expression is today’s term. First a definition from the Oxford Dictionary: ‘The action of making known one’s thoughts or feelings.’ Pretty straightforward every word spoken and picture painted partakes of this. It is so inclusive that I need to narrow it down to just the visual arts. Expressionism, the dictionary states: ‘A painter, writer, or composer who is an exponent of expressionism, seeking to express through their work the inner world of emotion rather than external reality.’ so maybe structured thoughts are out and feelings or emotions are in.
The Tate Gallery tells us: ‘In expressionist art, colour in particular can be highly intense and non-naturalistic, brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured. Expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes mystical.’ Wikipedia says: ‘Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.’ I think Wiki wins there… the Tate seems to think swishy brightly coloured thick paint might be the key…
The traditional key work that is credited with firing the shot that started the expressionist sprint was The Cry by Edvard Munch but I think perhaps we can look back further than that. There are hints of it in El Greco for example. Western art’s interest in attempting to describe our inner workings in a symbolic manner really got going with the arrival of tribal art from Africa and the huge exhibitions in Paris of ethnographic art. They rather condescendingly sometimes labelled it ‘Primitive’.
Tribal art is much the same from wherever or whenever it comes. I’ll put some examples below and see if you can identify them by culture and period!
Some are easy (no I am not going to label them) but others are harder… there is even a modernist one in there. I’m more taken by the similarities than the differences. I prefer most of these to western 20C expressionism, the difference is perhaps that all the tribal ones have a purpose in giving the fears and superstitions of a mysterious and dangerous world a concrete tangible form in the hope of placating or protecting. I think they for me more visceral and less self-conscious.
If you place a Picasso head next to the tribal one that inspired it, as above, I cannot help but feel that the African one has more depth, but you can see the connection.
So what is going on? Tribally organised societies worldwide and all through history seem to produce much the same sort of art. They collide representation with decoration, symbolism, stylisation and abstraction. As soon as a culture becomes larger and necessarily more settled, layered and organised the art produced changes. We tend to call these ‘early’ and ‘late’ and ascribe a linear development, but I think that is not all that is going on. Very early pre-dynastic Egyptian art is pretty much tribal standard, but as they move from tribal to civilised the art becomes more and more easy to identify as being from a distinct and separate culture. I think what has happened is that the required rule making that suffuses any organised living is carried through to making rules about the art the society makes.
The art in larger more organised cultures seems to fulfil a slightly different function. One is that it is codifying memory or history, not necessarily as a true record, but more how powerful individuals or groups wish it to be remembered. So we get friezes depicting great victories and the glorification of rulers, specifically underlining their connection to whichever gods. So the later art is specific and the earlier tribal art less so. It represents a movement from representing the group to transferring information down the generations and glorifying the individual. This is what you would expect really, in a large grouping it is harder and more desirable for the individual to stand out from the crowd and signal power and status. Thus a movement from the communal to the individual. The tribal head was about the fears and hopes of a small community in a dangerous world, Picasso’s was about Picasso as an individual within a greater society.
This is reflected in the role of the artist in the community. Tribal artists are all anonymous it is, as far as I can find, unknown for any kind of maker’s mark to appear. This means the artist didn’t consider it important for anyone to know that they specifically made an object in the long term. They almost certainly would have enjoyed any social status that accrued from their skills, but they didn’t seem to have any ambition to have their individual identity as an artist passed down the generations. There was after all as far as we know nothing to stop them including an authorial symbol on each of their works.
Some of the first maker’s marks were used by stonemasons, but these seem to be to do with payment rather than gaining any sort of personal kudos. The people or institutions who were commissioning work had little or no interest in the individuals that created them. The earliest named artists I can find were Greek, interestingly that this also coincided with the arrival of lifelike observed works representing specific individuals . China also had signed artists from around 400AD but Chinese paintings are more akin to poems than illusions and writers had identified the authorship of their work from long before visual artists had thought it important.
I realised we are a fair way from Expressionism the art movement but the movement toward the concern of the artist to be identified with his or her work seems to me a key factor. How many artists today don’t care whether their work is credited to them personally? There is more and more the pressure for an artist to make work that is theirs and theirs alone with a singular identity.
So Expressionism grew out of the feeling that in the process of becoming ‘civilised’ we had lost something primal. Rousseau’s theories of the ‘Noble Savage’ etc gave weight to the idea. Childhood, the loss of innocence and the attempt to regain it was also an idea of the time. The artists so inspired soon found that it was impossible to make the return to tribal innocence. How could they when they were inevitably products of an organised stratified society? They could not express tribal fears only individual existential ones. Most modern attempts at tribal styles seem to me to be pretending, perhaps only some graffiti really succeeds.
This begins to explain why the the Tate’s description of the term is so woolly and has to fall back on describing the way the paint is applied. The explanation that it is trying to give voice to inner emotions and visceral feelings is a better one but still I feel falls short.
When we use the term when we talk to each other about our and others work we talk of ‘expressiveness’. We rarely specify what is expressed, only that the appearance of the work signals that expression was the intent. The unspoken assumption is that this thing being expressed is so inchoate that words would not suffice. We also assume that the resultant work encapsulates the emotional state of the artist over the period the art was produced. This might mean turmoil or calm or refer to the recalling of an emotional memory.
Music perhaps has some parallels that might be useful. We are used to music provoking emotions, joy, sadness or whatever. Also for the most part music eschews the use of mimicry. You might, and many do, put forward that such work is a sort of visual music. However music has a time element. Also it has an element of patterning we call rhythm. It is perhaps most like decoration in the visual arts. Oh dear, I don’t think many expressive painters want the epithet of ‘decorative’ hung around their necks!
So ‘Expression’ doesn’t seem to be that useful as descriptive term, other than to describe the apparent vigour of the application of materials. It is a handy term to compliment someone it you can’t find anything specifically good to mention I suppose.
I often find it useful to look at the purpose created objects fulfil. If we return to the tribal mask and the Picasso. We can say that the mask was made as a theatrical costume to transform a performer from a recognisable individual to an archetype for the benefit of an audience. The mask’s maker presumably benefitted personally status wise. The Picasso was painted to further the career, the bank balance and reputation of Picasso. It also was a decorative item enhancing a wall and the owners potential wealth and status as it might be perceived by others.
That’s it, here are some decorative items made for the enhancement of walls and the momentary entertainment of web surfers…
I made a further attempt to translate a life drawing into an oil painting… better than my last attempts but still no cigar. For me the result has to be a step up from the drawing, but if the painting is to be observational then this is merely a painting of a drawing. 10in by 14in Oils.
This was done straight after… Self portraits are always intriguing. You know your own face but its perceived aspect is overlaid with our hopes and fears. When we view ourselves in the early morning mirror we might either think, ‘decaying wreck’ or ‘handsome beast’ depending on the self deluding swings of our moods. Here I was pissed off at the previous failure and short of ideas so I just leant the mirror up against my iMac and painted what I saw… hence the rather unusual angle! You soon forget that it is you in the mirror the face becomes a stranger to explore. In fact I suppose due to vanity your own face is more strange to you than that of a passer by. 10in by 12in oils.
I enjoyed doing the previous painting so a few days later I set up the mirror again. This time I considered the composition (even cut my hair!) and put the mirror up on a tripod. Very hard to get both yourself and the mirror in the right relationship! I resorted to poking the legs of the tripod with a long pole to nudge it into position. Then you discover that the ideal pose position is very far from an ideal painting position… so the result is a compromise. I must get a bigger mirror too. With a self portrait you cannot judge likeness, all you can do is observe and put down the observation as best you may. So I blocked in quite freely and then took it one stage further tonally. Next I more or less ignored what was already there and redrew as accurately as I could in black over the top. Once that was done I adjusted with colour until the black redrawing was mostly gone, then repeated the process again. I rather enjoyed the method as it led to increasing accuracy without getting into excess concentration on any particular aspect. Next I took a photo with the camera on the tripod in place of the mirror and considered the outcome by comparing the two… Is the result ‘expressive’?… Who knows, I hardly care. 12in by 15.5in
A day out painting on a very strange day when a storm had blown dust from the Sahara and caused the sun to be bright pink at midday. This is Kingston Lacey but the light was so odd I mainly tried to get the light in the sky something like. 12in by 10in Oils.
This is the same day, it looks like late evening not mid afternoon! This is St Mary’s at Tarrant Crawford. Again I really tried to catch the strange light and how warm and subdued it made the scene. 14in by 10in Oils.
A painting day by the coast at Langton Matravers. This was the best of the day but I rather struggled to find a scene that inspired. The skies were racing past and very bright. 16in by 10in oils.
More from Langton Matravers, so hard to get the tone relationship between sky and land. To mimic the observed reality either the sky must be white or the land black! I decided perhaps wrongly that the dazzle in the sky was the thing to aim for. 16in by 8in Oils.
A very quick daub before a cake break! Will be sanded off but a great exercise. I don’t do enough just painting stuff to improve my observation.
A very rapid study of Chapmans Pool. The light was tremendous but too rapidly changing to really nail it. I have a sequence of photos so I might attempt a studio picture in a wider format.
This is the view from halfway up Pilsdon Pen. A great area I will return to. 10in by 8in Oils.
This is one of the amazing beech avenues up on Lewesdon Hill. I was quite pleased but did not spend enough time on this or consider the composition beforehand properly so once home I set about doing a studio one. 10in by 8in Oils.
Again not too bad and looks good in a frame, but in reducing that mad complexity to areas simpler areas of paint you lose something of the essence of the place. 20in by 12in Oils.
I had to go into Dorchester the next week so went back and tackled it with pen and ink. The result after nearly 3hrs is much nearer to how the place feels, so the next step is to go again and see if I can manage similar in oils. Sometimes simplification is not the answer, especially if busy fractal complexity is the main story the subject is telling you. A4 pen and ink.
“Oooh you are soooo talented!” Anyone who reaches a certain point of competence in any creative area can expect to receive this plaudit. Before I started to write in this blog I never really thought about what it might actually mean. On the rare occasions it came my way I would just shrug it of with a sort of semi-grateful embarrassment. They might think I was granted a special ability, but I was always completely certain that I was not. The word talent was once a measure of weight like pounds or kilograms, around 25kilos although it varied between cultures. I was also a measure used in weighing silver and from there perhaps became a measure of worth. We however use it as a description of inherent aptitude.
Here the word “natural” creeps in. Natural talent… from here it is only a small step to “God given.” Which is where my hackles start to rise! In some ways the word talent is used by people to explain why others can do a thing they cannot quite imagine they themselves doing. If you believe some people are special and “gifted” then it absolves you from not having devoted any appreciable effort to achieve similar yourself. Once you start to look the same idea is deeply embedded into our world perception. We believe in gurus, priests, geniuses, high fliers, heros, astrologers, quacks and film stars. We believe in “special” people, no wonder superheroes are so popular at the box office!
In the finance world people believe in magic people who can, “Beat the market” this is despite really good evidence that this is not the case. The trackers and computer controlled investment algorithms consistently trounce them on average every year. People believe in super powered CEOs and executives who need to be paid vast sums for their magic touch. Really they were perhaps only competent and just got very lucky once or even incompetent and lucky will do. Having got lucky the mantle of specialness is laid across the shoulders of that person and they are duly expected to get lucky again. Intelligent people may know that the evidence is against this magic being true, but in practice continue to act as it it were true anyway. For the same reason gamblers who are perfectly aware of the rules of probability still hope for the magic benison of “luck”.
With talent being lucky is just one strand, but it shows we are predisposed to believe some people have a sort of extra “mojo” that makes the difference. “Special” is another word we are very fond of “Special reserve” the very peak of rareness and quality. Advertisers love the term as you can well imagine. They have though made a discovery: Specialness and quality can be separated. You can if you build up the myth make something quite ordinary “Special” and hence charge a premium rate. Fashion brands and pop stars are built by this process. This again plays to our deep feeling that we are each of us special and distinct from the herd. We even try to big it up more… “extra special” to deal with those moments when we are going down under the avalanche of supposedly special things and need to expand the category! We might even go for “unique” just one of a kind… I have seen commercial products described thus… presumably they are all uniquely the same…
I try not to swerve too far off the topic of painting, but once I started looking at where we see “magic” people I found them everywhere. Politicians, the myth of the “strong” leader, which people still cleave to even though most examples led to large piles of dead people. Healers, saints, scientists and mystics they all seem to benefit in different degrees from the invisible halo of talent. It is interesting to see who doesn’t get the plaudit… you might be a talented garden designer but farmers don’t seem to get to be magic. No one ever said, oh you are such a talented window cleaner or plumber. Artists and Architects get to be talented with wings on their heels but Builders and Bricklayers are born to live forever with feet of clay. Actors, musicians, writers and sporty types get to be special but stagehands, roadies, librarians and groundsmen do not.
I cannot help but notice you can get to be “special” by either luck or hard work. You can do something so well that people elevate you or the media can randomly focus on you and garland you with specialness like it or not! For a painter then talent is a worthless plaudit, getting good and improving at your craft is the aim and the is not done by any kind of magic. We have varying intelligence and propensity for being patient and determined. It is these factors not any semi mystical “talent” that makes an artist.
I am behind on the life drawing and painting so I will use this post to showcase my magic, God given talents in the area…
I always find it interesting how the eye can conjure a figure in 3 dimensions from a few blobs! Not many of these super quick ones succeed between one does it makes all the duffers worth it.
I don’t know why it is but a square sable brush is so much better to paint the figure with than a round one. Odd really as you would think the rounded human form would be more in tune with the latter.
I find it a great benefit to change media with life drawing, it encourages you to focus on different aspects of the figure.
Life drawing has this built in time constraint, the model is going to pose for this long only and that is your one chance.
I was pleased with this one, it is sadly rare that you manage to say just enough in the right places and not too much in any area.
I am trying to more frequently allow the figure to be cropped by the paper’s edge. This makes you concentrate on the shapes made by the areas that are not person.
I always seem to do better when I don’t think about the whole to much but just add observation to observation until the time runs out. Strange that the resulting drawings don’t look unfinished even though had the time been extended I would have presumably carried on adding marks.
You can always see where you lost concentration. Here I was going well but let the whole thing down by not looking hard enough at the chest and stomach. Or maybe by making unnecessary marks that were not backed up by observation.
One thing I strive and often fail to do is avoid seeing boundaries that I know are there but cannot quite see. It is perfectly OK if we are not sure quite where the figure ends and the room starts. That is after all often the case when we observe our world. In practice that means marks can flow past the figure’s bounds and a line can be part of both figure and background.
It is so hard to consider all the factors at the same time and I sometimes don’t try and focus on one aspect. Here it was direction and weight of line.
Here I really had to resist the temptation of seeing too much when due to the light I could actually see very little. People often concentrate on confidence and certainty, but uncertainty and tentative conclusions are actually a large part of our seeing experience and there is nothing wrong to my mind in expressing that aspect in a drawing.
One where I used patches of line direction to build up the forms. It was the model’s first experience of posing and when I look at the drawing now there is a hint of the nervous tension that the new experience provoked.
Later in the same session she has relaxed. Toned paper is wonderful for life drawing as it means large areas don’t need to be drawn at all!
This season we have had a mix of male and female models, it shouldn’t make any difference but somehow the subtle differences of proportion and degrees of external form revealing underlying structure make the experience of drawing each fascinating in a distinctive way.
That is it for life scribbles. I have recently taken to using oils in the life sessions for the longer poses which has caused some thrills and quite a few spills as I struggle with the process!
I find it odd how particular techniques in painting get a fan club type following. Wet into wet for watercolour is one and I suppose plein air another. Sight size is an interesting one. It comes from academic training where you set up your drawing of a plaster cast so that from a certain position both cast and drawing appear next to each other at exactly the same scale. All observations need to be made from this viewing point. It was much used by portrait painters such as Singer Sargent to get good likenesses and accurate tones. Although it appears Sargent only set up the painting in this way for parts of the process and to check progress. It was never intended however to be a method used in all circumstances. Here is a link that gives a good description of the method: Sight Size.
If for example you want to paint a wide view then getting both your scene and the painted image the same scale would be pretty tricky. Also if you were painting a subject that was far away then your picture would have to be very small or your viewing point would have to be a very long way from your canvas! Sight size drawers tend to use plumb lines etc though a threaded frame over the subject would seem to be easier and quicker IMO. This is not a debunking of the method, I think everyone would benefit from learning and trying it. I do however feel over reliance on the method can produce rather stiff soulless paintings. The method shows it’s weakness in the work of atelier students who tend to produce identikit sub Sargent paintings and academic drawings that all seem to be from the same dead hand. That said many of those students move on and successfully establish their own identity.
Really the method is part of a whole suite of techniques to get the perceived and very 3D world down on 2D paper. Plumb bobs are good if you have never used one then I suggest you give it a whirl. If you use a black thread you can put little blobs of white paint every inch which helps transfer information. Their main use though is to make it easy to determine how things in your subject relate along a line. You can use it to translate horizontal information or angles as well. All of these methods depend on you returning to the exact same position to make your measurement. The easiest by far to use but more tricky to set up is the threaded frame. Really you need a separate stand for the frame, but as with the plumb line I would encourage everyone to try it out.
What I would not advise however is to make any of these methods into your everyday standard painting procedure. Their use is to teach you how to make comparisons of scale angle and alignment. Your aim in using them should be to evolve the ability to do those measurements by eye, this may seem hard but it is surprising how quickly the brain catches on and eventually they become second nature. Nonetheless I still get out my frame for work where it is very important that exact proportion are achieved.
Its disadvantages are that it is a monocular method, it allows you to see the world pretty much as a camera does. In turn this means it has all of the problems associated with camera images, the distorted proportions at the edges of the frame which become impossible to hide as the view widens. The method assumes we should only see what we can see with our head fixed, but to my mind this is only a small part of the visual experience, it is literally too narrow. To paint wider or higher than convenient views requires a whole other set of skills including constructive perspective both linear and hyperbolic. Also a number of adjustments such as sliding vanishing and eye points. Although this sounds hifalutin and complicated the actual application can be taught to anyone a day or two.
A very mixed bag of work in this post as I have been dodging between media .
This is Blandford Forum in Dorset. The challenge here was to reduce the busyness of the scene without loosing the impression of complexity. If you succeed in doing this people come up and say, “Oh look at all that detail” and “Just like a Photograph!” For windows it is important to get both consistency and variety into them. So I try to keep the position and rhythm accurate but vary the mark made to indicate them. Pen and Ink.
Here is one where sight size would let you down! You would have to have your nose touching the paper to get this view. The camera could not produce it either, the building on the left would be very distorted. It is really a composite view as I am both raising my head to look up and turning my head to look left. A point that is vital to fix is the one where you look straight ahead. People assume that in a drawing the straight ahead point must be in the middle but here it needs to be far to the right where the road ends. Each of these movements causes swings in perspective that result in distortion. So what appears a simple scene is actually quite complex to construct. In practice I sketch in the rectangles of the facades and adjust them to find the best compromise between observation, what I “know” is there and the restrictions of a flat surface. Here the key line to track is the join to the walls and roofs. Pen and Ink.
This is Llanerchaeron in Wales a beautiful walled garden. I only had time for this quick sketch but would have been happy drawing there all day. I decided in the end it needed slight touches of colour. This is always tricky as the temptation is to add more, but I think greens would have been too much so I left them all out. Pen and wash.
This is St James in Shaftesbury. I very rarely do a half sheet en plein air in watercolour as splashing it on with big brushes is the only option so the drying time becomes key. The other reason is that they are expensive to frame, rarely sell and if you do sell they get a lower price than a far smaller oil. This subject was a gift though and it was great fun to paint as is often the case the light improved as I worked but with watercolour you cannot easily chase the light. Once I got home I felt I could get more atmosphere in by washing back and as it was a 1/2 sheet I used the garden hose! It is nearly always worth taking such risks I find even if a few almost alright watercolours bite the dust. Watercolour.
This one put me through the mill and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. It is Warbarrow bay near Tynham in Dorset. I find these looking down at bays type compositions very difficult especially when they include foreground. I had a plein air watercolour and photos but I still ended up trying several different tonal arrangements over a few weeks. It still may not be finished, I might cut it down as I think a better picture could be had by loosing a 1/3 rd of the right hand side. 24in by 12in Oils.
I recently visited London to see some exhibitions and just before the heavens opened the light on St Martins in the Fields was fantastic. No paints with me so this is done from phone snaps. Another one that might loose a couple of inches from the top! 16in by 12in Oils.
I escaped to Wales for a few days and was greeted by blustery weather and fantastic skies and seas. This is Newport in Pembrokeshire and I had very little time to paint before being chased off the beach by the tide. I got rather too involved with the ruffled surface of the water which seemed to have every colour under the sun in it. 10in by 8in oils.
This is Ciebwr Bay near Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire. This is painted sight size as I hadn’t used the method in a while. I can’t say it made much difference as far a judging things goes, a little easier to judge relative tones maybe. I did use my tone guide which is just a bit of very black plastic with a dab of titanium white on it. This allows you to more easily judge how far away the darks are from being black and the lights from white and their average hue. It was astonishingly windy and I had to anchor my easel to some big rocks. It makes it impossible to do really accurate brushstrokes as your board is flapping like mad! 12in by 10in Oils.
Done on the same day but a bit down the coast. I had almost given up finding something to paint when I spotted a patch of sand that made an interesting contrast. Even windier than the last but very interesting to paint. 12in by 8in Oils.
Another day another cliff top. After a rough block in I kept my eye on the changing sun light sparkling on the sea, the whole key of the picture had to be organised so that the highlight would eventually be punchy enough. This meant keeping the landscape tones within quite tight bounds. To much highlighting would have ruined the balance. Another very windy one it was only possible by backing up close to a wall. 14in by 10in Oils.
Yep it’s another windy beach! This is Llangrannog near Cardigan. Sight size again as it was convenient, it did help here in getting the drawing in quickly, the method makes drawing errors very easy to spot. Many pauses as the rain came down, though I loved the muted tones the foul weather created. I still far prefer painting on a stormy day than a bright sunny one. 14in by 10in Oils.
This is Dinas Head from Newport. Only a very quick sketch. The light was changing rapidly as the cloud shadows brightly lit or threw different areas into shade so I might do a studio one or over paint this one using the various photos I took as it changed as reference. 16in by 10in Oils.
More Newport and more very muted light. I might chop this one down and frame it tighter. I loved the tone of the yellowy house, very hard to get right and I wiped and redid it at least 5 times. 16in by 10in Oils.
I took my time with this one, it is Porthgain which would like to do more of as it has very interesting part ruined industrial buildings. I was nice to paint a calmer brighter moment with the storms over. 16in by 8in Oils.
For the visit to Wales I used a quite restricted palette heavy on the earth tones as follows: Cobalt Blue, Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and a tiny bit of Cadmium Orange on the last one.
Augmented reality, the media tells us, is the next big thing. They don’t seem to realise that the basic human being has it built in already. The light that bounces off and passes through our exterior world and the photons bouncing around inside our eyeballs have no idea what they might represent. There is no tree photon, or sky photon. They just have amplitudes and wavelengths which we call brightness and colour.
When we do what we call seeing everything obvious comes ready labelled by our image processing system. Houses are houses, trees trees and even things that are obscure are given tentative labels such as scrubland or hedge. We have all had the experience where our heads up display has got it wrong and we realise that there is a building in that clump of trees, or when walking home in the dark when the brain frantically relabels that dark blob as a parked car we are about to collide with rather than a hedge.
The image processing does not stop there. The shadows are lightened the brights are darkened so we can perceive details within those areas. You have all I expect noticed that your sky in a photograph will come out almost white and over exposed if you set the exposure to show detail in the shadows. 80% of the colour you see isn’t there, only a tiny part of the eye, the fovea, sees in colour. Our image processing software paints the rest in. If in tests a red light is put in the peripheral vision, with the subject fixing their attention straight ahead, when the light is changed to green the subject will continue to see it as red.
When looking at our fellow humans the process goes even further, our heads up is supplying age, sex and status information on the fly. It even supplies narrative guesses such as: that group is a family, or those two are a couple. We astonishingly can even work out the mood and emotional state of passers by from their general demeanour.
For the observational painter all this post processing this causes major problems. We see trees labelled as green when they are often a grey brown, we see the sky as blue when it is really a steely grey. As I have mentioned we see the darks as lighter and the brights as darker. The problem is that if you paint the post process version of your perception then when someone else looks at your picture they reprocess the whole thing again. So your darks which you painted too light appear even lighter and the light areas such as the sky duller and not as you had hoped luminous. Your brown trees, which you eyes have made you paint in phthalo green, get a further boost into luridness when viewed by another.
Paint manufacturers don’t help by selling us lots of very bright pigments which we put out on our palettes. Odd really as 95% of our picture is probably going to be brown or grey even if we are painting that day in a funfair. Digital camera manufacturers and before them film manufacturers did and do much the same thing. Most of our cameras process the images we snap so that the greens are a brighter green and the blues of our skies the expected pure bright blue. They also process contrast so that our images are punchy with dark darks and clean whites. What is called properly exposed… the real world is however often not properly exposed and it is that version we need to try to paint.
So if we are to observe the world for purpose of painting it we need to strip away the processing. We do not need to know that the tree is a tree or the house a house. They are just shapes that have a tone and a hue. This is not easy to learn how to do. Even harder is to strip out the tonal adjustments our perception systems make. The best way I have found is to squint. If you progressively close your eyes down to the thinnest slit possible you will find that the image starts to break down into simple tonal areas. The shadows will coalesce into single areas without interior detail. If you make a small hole in a but of black card and squint through that it makes the process a little easier. Or you can take a snap on your phone with the image effect set to sepia or similar.
The other method I use is to make a small ring with my fingers to look through and flick it quickly between areas. This way you can quickly determine that the darkest colour in that threatening sky is still way brighter than the road that your eyes perceive as quite light. I advise going and getting bits of the world and plonking them on your palette next to the colour that you have mixed for it. This is especially disconcerting with greens. Go and get a leaf from that bright green tree you are painting, you may be surprised!
The aim of all this is to be able to paint the world so that the viewer of the painting does their usual post processing of the visual stimulus supplied by your picture without the overlay of the painter’s own visual system doubling everything up. This will produce a much more nuanced, lifelike and subtle perceptual experience when you picture is looked at.
Detail is another issue. We don’t actually see all that detail. The brain just puts in off the shelf wall paper to fill in the gaps. So that detailed city is not bespoke it is generic. Only if you concentrate on it as you do when painting do all the buildings take on individual character. Many people never actually see the world as it is only as they expect it to be. So when painting if you put in all that detail it looks unreal like a photograph rather than something seen by a living eye. What you need to do is find a generic language of marks that says buildings without being specific. You will be amazed when people compliment you on all that detail which isn’t actually there. So like in the real world their brains filled it in because that is what they expected from the clues you gave them.
The purpose of all this is to give your paintings the immediacy and mystery that looking at the real world through human eyes gives. Nobody after all stops in front of a real scene and says, “Ooh it’s just like a photograph!”
This is the Wellington Clocktower which once graced the end of London Bridge. It was found to be in the way of the traffic and got demolished and rebuilt by the shore in Swanage. We have had wonderful skies lately and this day was no exception. I took a fair few photos as it changed with the idea of doing a studio oil. 12in by 8in watercolour.
Here it is. Watercolour is so good a luminosity, but oils are great for solidity and form. I tried to keep the touch light but not to ape a plein air work. One of those paintings that I felt “ho hum” about until it was in its frame where it sprang to life. I think it is paintings with very open edges such as this where a frame allows the feeling of more beyond. 20in by 12in Oils.
I’m starting to get a taste for beach paintings, this is Swanage again. The mood has changed now that Autumn is looming and the schools have swept the children and families from the shore. I stretched the view a little left and right perspective wise as a camera would to accentuate the sense of space. I spent about 20min on the town and mid-ground and then battled for 40min doing the beach! Areas that have very little going on can be some of the hardest things to paint. 14in by 10in Oils.
This was a real quickie as the light faded. It is Melbury Hill from Shaftesbury. Dusk when the sun is below the horizon and there is a cloud cover as well is a very tricky mood to catch. I didn’t really manage it this time but it made me want to go back for another stab at it! 12in by 8in Oils.
This was started a couple of years ago when painting with the Wapping Group by the Thames in Richmond. I dug it out of a box and thought it had potential. I remember getting the young lady in and feeling pleased she worked so well even though her legs belonged to another! I then added a couple with a dog going the other way and it all fell apart. Luck has a big part in painting and the couple was obviously pushing mine too far. As soon as I saw it afresh I had the idea to simply remove the doggy couple and just have empty paving. A bit of tidying up and I was quite pleased with the result. 10in by 10in oils.
To the seaside again! This is Weymouth on a wonderfully dramatic and showery day. A real struggle with the elements so the picture is a bit rough around the edges. On getting home I considered tidying it but decided best not. 10in by 12in Oils.
Another one from the unfinished pile I am working through. The storm was painted looking across Weymouth Bay about a year ago, but I had tried to paint beach in the foreground and had given up halfway. However on this last visit I had taken a snap of the sea and a not too dissimilar sky which I whacked in across the bottom. Much better with this sea as it adds a touch of colour, the painted out one was rather grey . 14in by 8in Oils.
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