Long awaited painting

Sunflowers in a glass vase (lr)

Sunflowers in a glass vase, Oil on board

My resistance finally broke down and I tackled a study done after a break of 18 months. This the second attempt; it’s rough round the edges and it’s been a struggle feeling a way back into managing thick paint.

The actual sunflowers had long since expired, so I needed recourse to memory, pre-knowledge and imagination. This is a detail of the painting.

Sunflowers in a glass vase (det2)The only other oil painting done in that year and a half was this commission for a friend.

Rosh on a couch A3 size 2 (2)

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New Chris Thomas Exhibition

Chris Thomas catalogue

We took the bike down to the Camelford Gallery for a preview of Chris Thomas’s impressive exhibition Documenting the New Build. The exhibition is exactly that: paintings recording a housing development adjacent to his studio in North Cornwall. From very understandable initial resentment, he soon saw an opportunity to use the experience artistically, in the process becoming part of it, to the extent of being accepted on site by the builders as a kind of hard-hatted, hi-viz ‘artist-in-residence’. From my perspective, this took some guts.

During the course of building 21 ‘affordable homes’ Chris produced a tumultuous body of work: starring large oil paintings (some of them 2-3 metres wide) mainly on board. It is not hard to imagine how, to a casual passer-by, Chris lugging these round the site would have looked exactly like one of the builders. There are also intense smaller studies exhibited and a portfolio of large charcoal drawings. My favourite of all is Study from the studio executed in February this year. – I wish I could afford it. 

There is also a comprehensive illustrated catalogue with illuminating text produced to a very high standard. This was something I could afford and mine – the first to be sold at the Preview – Chris kindly signed for me: it is something I will treasure.

 

Chris Thomas frontispiece

Gratitude also due to artist John Blight for putting on the show at his gallery which, for me, exemplifies precisely what a gallery should be: something not unlike Rembrandt would have recognised: a real working artist-gallery with little concession to commercialism; in other words, not a ‘picture shop’ which so many so-called galleries actually are.

I’ll stop there lest another rant begins!

Chaim Soutine exhibition

A visit to see Soutine at The Courtauld Gallery in London turned out to be a mismatch of the expected. Having studied this phenomenal artist ever since I began to paint seriously myself in the 1970s, his work has been massively influential, validating looseness and freeing up honesty. I’ve responded most to his landscapes – more so than the portraits but Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys are the subject of this exhibition. There aren’t many Soutines in British collections, so to suddenly be confronted by 21 portraits, most of which I knew so well from reproductions was something of a shock to the senses. Not so much the visual as the tactile.

soutine-3The Chambermaid (1913)

In truth, they were both disappointing and exhilarating. Maybe that sentence needs some explanation. Disappointing because they were less spontaneous than I expected. The execution was carefully considered even though he never made drawings, either on the canvas or in sketchbooks. In fact, there are none in existence. There I was, expecting de Kooning-like explosions of passion. Frenetic paint and ideas mixed up together and dumped spontaneously on the canvas, instead I found repetitive series. Nothing wrong with that, it was just not what I was expecting. More fool me.

My visit happily coincided with a curatorial talk. His painting practice was not mentioned once; at the end I had to ask the question ‘Did he use knives or just brushes?’. Neither on the information panels was there any reference to technique, well, just one reference to brushmarks. All reviews have been concerned solely with the subjects of the paintings – who or rather what they were, their jobs, their social status, their poses etc. It was more a psychological study than a painting one. That was disappointing for me as a painter, but it must be what most visitors are interested in. As a masterful manipulator of paint and restricted colour, how could this be?

With van Gogh, we hear about the way he painted, as with de Kooning, Pollock and Dubuffet, but if anyone needs his technique discussed and analysed it’s Soutine. One often encounters the same anthropocentricity with Rembrandt, whom Soutine admired above all, as must, I submit, any real painter. Just look at Rembrandt’s handling of  paint.

Details, Soutine (l) Rembrandt (r)

So those were some disappointments, what about the exhilaration? It’s what I get when in front of a REAL painting, a work in which the integrity and sincerity of the worker smacks you in the face, right between the eyes. This doesn’t happen often, even with ‘big names’ and the grand masters, there is so much commercialism to sift through. This has always been the case.

If I don’t paint for money, why should anyone else! Soutine didn’t, at least not until, he was ‘discovered’ by the immensely rich American collector, Albert C. Barnes. He became an overnight celebrity in Paris, and possibly more repetitive.

Soutine’s enormous impact stems from his ruthless approach and his early forthright attack on stuff of painting; his independent vision, fierce individualism. His close friend Modigliani had absolutely no influence on his technique whatsoever although he did on choice of subject. The other big quality was his downright angry unconventionalism. Oh, yes, his landscapes are angry, and from that anger he derived energy. But I’m not convinced his portraits are angry at all.

A human-being sat in front of you, staring straight at you – as his models did – can be unnerving, especially if that person is bored or anxious, and doubts whether he’ll ever get paid. I found it difficult to concentrate on the actual panting and distance myself from the living being in front of me, for his paintings certainly are ‘alive’. When I did, my passion bounded back.

In 1913, at the age of 20, he arrived in Paris from Lithuania. It took 10 years of extreme poverty before being discovered by Barnes. As a Jew he felt constantly persecuted and from 1940 hides from the Nazis. He dies tragically from an untreated ulcer in 1943.

Residency at the National Trust’s Bucks Mills Artists Cabin #2

Residency at the National Trust’s Bucks Mills Artists Cabin #2

BM05, Oil pastel on silk paper 13.5 x 8.2cm (2)

BM05, ‘The Cabin from the beach’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

After my last entry which was somewhat concerned with the Bucks Mills venue and its interior decay, I showed a few examples of the Pebbles. This series amounted to some 30 sketches and subsequently has developed work in the studio where I am able to work up the drawings both in technique and scale. Below are two examples:

Pebble series 30, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series #30, Oil pastel on silk art paper 32 x 45cm

pebble-series-31-oil-pastel-on-silk-paper-32-x-45cm.jpg

Pebble series #31, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

But the coastline was compelling both on the small and large scale. So here is some of the other work done there. As mentioned before, I felt the urge to disappear into the woodland: 66 steps both east and west, up and down a steep climb. There were some overgrown steps on the western side; coming down first time I did an ungainly skidding swallow dive coming down painfully on my left wrist. Fortunately no lasting harm done and not my main drawing hand. It wasn’t this that deterred me from going back there time and again, it was realising that I can study woodland to my heart’s content at home and that it was the coastline which was the whole point of me being here.

BM06 Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM06, ‘Woodland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM02, Oil pastel on silk paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

BM02, ‘Tree trunks’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

At first I was inspired by ‘Bideford Black’ (a pigment historically mined just up the coast http://bidefordblack.blogspot.co.uk/p/history.html) to work in monochrome and while this was satisfying I felt unable to get the quality of the limpid light. Though I did try and these are some B&W sketches.

BM15, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM15, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM01, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM01, ‘Coast westward towards Clovelly’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM18, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM18, ‘Coast eastward to Hartland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

After to some extent abandoning this rather artificial monochrome constraint, I did do more work in and around the woodlands in the company of my parasitic arachnid friends…

BM10, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM10, ‘Edge of woodland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23x32cm

… but concentrated thereafter on the cliffs and shoreline.

BM11, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm (2)

BM11, ‘Cliffscape’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm (2)

BM04, ‘Coast east to Hartland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM13, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM13, ‘The red cliff’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM08, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM12, ‘Vegetated cliffs’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

I have subsequently been developing the Pebble series because of its enormous possibilities. I’ll post some of this work later and hope also to show some paintings from these same sources before too long.

 

 

 

 

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Two weeks of intensive focus on Art at this majestic venue has now finished leaving me tired but with a body of work which ultimately feels worthwhile. “Majestic”? This is the location, not the actual cabin, which is anything but majestic: dilapidated inside with very little of the spirit of those two lady artists, Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland remaining despite their artefacts being everywhere. Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to have been given this chance of residency at what the National Trust calls an “Artists Retreat”. I should have liked it to have been both: a residency and a retreat. It was neither really: one couldn’t reside there (sleeping was not allowed) and the continual footfall of visitors past the door made “retreat” impossible, at least for me.

Let me hastily qualify the above criticism by acknowledging the difficult position NT must find itself in with regard to this unique place. Deciding how to preserve or conserve perishable textiles is very difficult but there is little inside the Cabin which could not be resolved by a good clean and refreshing of some of the furnishings: the carpet and curtains in particular. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a pernickety person (ask my wife) and well used to roughing it, but I was upset about the disonance between the spirit of Edwards and Ackland and the state of the cabin interior now. They were sophisticated, educated and well-to-do ladies who would not, I’m sure, have tolerated such decay.

There is a vast difference between that and a simple frugal lifestyle. I was told that the dirt was “original” and that the cabin was as it was left by the lady artists but a lot of the grot has been left by subsequent users – and not, I’m sure, by previous artists, who would have all treated the cabin with great respect. [I hear the cabin was used for parties etc between 1971 and ownership by the Trust in 2008.]

Fabrics decay. Should they be allowed to, in honour of their provenance – ultimately to disappear completely – or be replaced by facsimiles the better to convey the original style? Is it necessary, by virtue of dust, dirt and decay, to convey the impression of a ‘time capsule’? I think the Trust should address this question as a matter of urgency. The beauty of Bucks Mills is its inspiring location and the spirit of Ackland and Edwards. It is wonderful to have their belongings as left by them and there is enough documentary evidence to keep it very much the same. But it really does need some sensitive TLC. It was the spirit I tried to tap into.

Although a good part of my working life has been on western UK cliffs and coastlands, my natural inclination is always towards woodland, and there are superb tracts of ancient woodland east and west from Bucks Mills. It was here I first gravitated, spending time in the company of what appeared to be an epidemic of ticks before coming to my senses and realising that the main point about being at the Cabin was the coastline. And so thereafter it was here I mainly concentrated, becoming intrigued by the endless jumble of rocks and pebbles played upon by the light, weather and tides which made each day very different from the preceding one.

IMGP2542

The coastline looking west.

I hope to be posting some other examples of work here and the entire body on my website in the near future. Below are a few examples from the Pebble series. My main medium was oil pastels on high gloss silk art paper in self-made ‘sketchbooks’. I also use chinagraph pencils. These media allow a lot of flexibility. The more I worked, the more I became aware of the magnificence of Jackson Pollock’s intuition – instinctive painting and mark-making.

Some of the studies will lend themselves to larger oil paintings, and I’m looking forward to that. I will post more results soon. Please leave comments, I will greatly value them.

Pebble series 15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32X45cm (6)

Pebble series #20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series 13, Watercolour 23x33cm

Pebble series #13, Watercolour 23 x 33cm

Pebble series 06, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #6, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 01, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5x16cm

Pebble series #1, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5 x 16cm (the first small study).

Pebble series 04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32.3cm

Pebble series #4, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32.3cm

Vincent van Gogh and the impossible need for help

Vincent and the impossible need for help: Dale Carnegie (1888-1955), the American writer, said, “Most important things in life have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no help at all”. I try to cling to this thought when things go bad or I feel intellectually and creatively abandoned.  The most important people on this planet are Enquirers after Truth, and the function of the artist (along with ‘genius’ surely the most abused noun in the English language) is exactly that.  It’s what, I’m convinced, Dale Carnegie was on about.

As warned on 17th May, here is a bit more about ‘truth’, or at least my take on it.  Despite the need to keep body, soul and family together, everything I’ve ever done – writing and teaching, natural history and science – has always been about that quest for truth; and it applies to the subjective matter of art as much, if not more, as anything else.

I honestly think this is what has sustained me through difficult times.  For example, during my doctorate – much of which saw me living in a camper van on the Welsh and Cornish cliffs – I used to promise myself a visit to the purpose-built Graham Sutherland Gallery at Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire. It was to here that he bequeathed his work (scandalously reneged on when it was all moved to Cardiff after his death, but that’s another matter). I used to drive past regularly; Fine Art promising as great a truth as the science I was doing.

But does ‘fashion’ represent truth in any sense? Even though I’m fascinated by its trends, I don’t believe the important things which Mr Carnegie was on about include it. Jean Cocteau said, “Art produces ugly things, which frequently become beautiful with time, while fashion produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time”. So much so-called art is clever novelty; the fact that it is promoted by businessmen doesn’t alter that view.

Another view is that craft alone produces good art; I don’t believe this is true either. It has its place of course (qv. Blog entry 7th Jan 2011, http://www.meyergallery.co.uk) but it is in practice a tool allowing the functioning of art. Too often, beautifully presented bad art masquerades as fine art because it fools the “imbecile” Cezanne spoke of last time (4th Jan 2014, if you haven’t read people’s interesting follow-up comments to this, they do repay it).

Craft always demands time, but it is possible to spend too much time on something. ‘Beginner’s luck’ relies on the rank amateur diving into a task without thinking about it; the brain – source of all our discontents – replaced by intuition. This is why child and (truly) naïve or outsider art can be so engaging and staggeringly true. [A lady close to me, once picked up darts for the first time in a pub and immediately starting hitting the bull; when she was told how good she was and started trying to do it again she couldn’t; I don’t think the facility ever returned.]

Van Gogh was a hugely intelligent and intuitive artist, largely self-taught at a mature age. On my shelves, amongst several hundred books devoted to other artists and genres, I have 50 volumes devoted to him and have studied his work exhaustively, reading all six volumes of his massive correspondence. So, trying to draw on the rational bit of my brain, I find I differ from all the words written by others about his technique (not that many bother with that).

It seems to me that most of van Gogh’s paintings and, more so, his drawings are shorthand – a means of getting a visual sensation down as quickly as possible. Not only from temporal necessity (eg. before conditions change) but also from impatience.  I do know all about this!  It is one consequence of a sense of mortality – something children, the naïve and the outsider don’t have.  Vincent dealt with it in his own unique way.  True, he was only in his 30s but, given his health and impecunity, he did not expect to live for long – always fearing his one true friend and supporter, his elder brother Theo, would abandon him. Reading his unedited letters, you realise that it was not always a happy relationship.

I am nearly twice his age so have a great sense of mortality (let’s not beat about the bush) but I’ve always been driven and impatient.  This is not cool, I know that, and frustration only ever an impulse away. Again, nothing to be proud of, but from anger comes energy; it is how you use this that is important. I admire the calm painstaking builder of crafty(?) images but just get cross with my own ineptitude – always eager to get down the next sensation – the next miracle that nature has contrived to lay out for the curious.

Had it not been for Theo, we would never have heard of Vincent van Gogh; have no doubt, his stunning work would not exist.  So perhaps Carnegie was both right and wrong: surely we all need at least one steadfast supporter.  Vincent was a driven individual; maybe he would have been lucky and found someone else who was (relatively) rich, influential and supportive, or maybe he would have died in alcohol-fuelled bitter anonymous ignominy. Oh yes, we can relate to that too.

But above all his drawing repays profound study, I mean the pencil>chalk>ink system he developed. And although his Arles period is considered by most to be his apogee, I have always related more to the following Saint-Remy asylum work. Here he was removed from worry and ambition. Gone was the impossible dream of his Studio of the South, the nightmare of his Paul Gauguin worship, and all the day-to-day cares, which are considerable if you are minus a life partner (and, um, even with one).

Then Theo and Jo had a baby, and by the time he got to Auvers, under the quixotic care of Dr Gachet, Vincent was self-destructive, bored and worried beyond endurance. This the work reveals all too clearly.  Originality was exhausted – burned out – and what any artist worthy of the name doesn’t do is repeat himself. Some Auvers work is unfinished – abandoned because the effort was too much – pointless and desperate, it no longer engaged or excited him.

It seems I paint sweetpeas each year – they always engage me – but this year, as part of a series of still lifes I’m doing for The Plough Arts Centre in Devon, England, I did one partly as a homage to Vincent.  It’s not in my gallery yet, so this is just a tiny preview.  Even though, as usual, I paint with knives not brushes, I hope you can see something of what I’ve been prattling on about in it.

Sweetpeas in a blue coffee pot, Oil on canvas 61x46cm   Sweetpeas in a blue coffee pot, Oil on canvas 24×18”

Empty Surfaces

Paul Cezanne wrote to his mother in September 1874, “I have to work all the time, not to reach that final perfection which earns the admiration of imbeciles. [T]his thing which is commonly appreciated so much is merely the effect of craftsmanship and renders all work resulting from it inartistic and common. I must strive after perfection only for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser. And believe me, the hour always comes when one breaks through and has admirers far more fervent and convinced than those who are only attracted by an empty surface.”

Two years later, at the end of a letter to Pissarro, he wrote, “I almost forgot to tell you that a certain letter of rejection has been sent to me. This is neither new nor astonishing.” Nothing much changes, does it?

In my recent wonder of Rembrandt’s portraits – surely his greatest triumph – I saw surfaces with barely an empty inch between them, and this includes swathes of canvas scrubbed in with huge cursory skill – no learnt craft that – the better to reveal truth and the perilous condition of humanity, so beautiful in its pathos and vulnerability.

We must distinguish between art and craft. The desire to display a high level of empty (taught) craftsmanship in painting (I can’t speak for any other art form) is often an attempt to deceive. To what end?  That you have something to say, that you have great skill, that people with money to spend will do so on you…?  I put ‘taught’ in parentheses because craftsmanship at its best and most meaningful is learnt on the hoof, empirically – then it is truly unique and genuine… bespoke craftsmanship. Andrés Segovia, the virtuoso Spanish guitarist said, “I had only one teacher, myself, and only one student, myself.” He also said, “If people have even a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them.”

Much so-called art is therefore simply the display of craftsmanship. This can often be of jaw-dropping beauty, but if not used in the service of Art (with a capital ‘A’) it is as empty as a dumb blonde. [And I love the spectacle of a dumb blonde as much as the next man.] So, what are the empty surfaces Cezanne talked about? Don’t we see them everywhere? In every picture-shop gallery where art masquerades as a veneer of cleverness.

Fine Art is only revealed to those with the insight to see it. It is an insight that can be learnt, but how many bother, so beguiling is the cheap thrill of ooh-aah-art?  While I was being seduced and again educated by Rembrandt, he spoke, saying, “Look around, where else can you feel such breath of rare sincerity?”

Once you get your eye in, you can find sensual delight and phenomenal qualities of kindness and empathy. Here are a few artists who come quickly to mind and who reveal it in spades of differing sizes, (in no special order) Leonardo, Tiepolo, Francesco Guardi, late Titian, el Greco, Goya, Constable, Morandi, Daumier, Millet, Corot, Maurice Utrillo, Henri (le douanier) Rousseau, van Gogh, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Gwen John, Alfred Wallace and… please add your own.

Most of those names are well known, but there are others far less celebrated, whose paintings deserve to be recognised for their own sheer depth of humanity. The reason they are not is because they fall foul of the ‘imbecile’ rule. I’d mention, for example, Vassyl Khmeluk, Agnes Martin, Leon de Smet, Alvar Cawen, Philip Guston, and Sheila Fell. Friends also alert you; thank you Isabella Whitworth (who knows a thing or two) for Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Today, because of our capitalist and celebrity wracked idiocy, one must search diligently, and often forlornly, for equivalent humanity (wrack is Middle Dutch for shipwreck). It exists but may remain unseen forever.