Mono Standing Nude, Oil on board 71 x 58 cm

Standing nude in mono, Oil on canvas on board 70.5 x 57.5cm

This painting is at  the White Moose Gallery in Barnstaple from Thursday (4th) in a North Devon Arts group show.

A surprising example (for me at least) of an early stage in a painting which I decided to leave midstream under the theory that ‘less is more’ (advice I usually find hard to follow).  It is therefore mainly monochrome and ‘raw’.  Loving black & white photography, I felt it worked all right and liked the totemic monumental thrust.  Consequently it was submitted to The Royal Academy (for their ‘Raw’ summer show show a few years ago); needless to say rejected in preference to work much of which seemed to me to be trite, arch and not in the least raw.  Others twisted ‘raw’ to ‘roar’ and ‘war’ for example – literary games that left me cold.

I liked the work so much that it has a splendid expensive frame and is consequently quite heavy.

Spanish Notes, Part I

Since all difficulties these days are called ‘challenges’ (which, incidentally, is rubbish because life is full of colossal Difficulties in my experience, but, never mind, let’s call them Challenges), I decided, when thinking about how I might survive two weeks, half way up the Andalucian sierra, in the company of five children, that I needed a new challenge – a really Difficult one.

The challenge I decided to set myself was to ‘master’ (i.e. become reasonably competent at) the art of watercolours by the time I came home. How hard could it be? Even Ladies-who-lunch and Prince Charles do watercolours. However, I reckoned it would keep me out of mischief and give my poor tired brain something to tussle with (when I say, “keep me out of mischief” what I really mean is keep me away from children because I had expected Spain to be populated by swarthy dangerous toreadors and women who looked and behaved like Carmen.)

Why watercolours? My system for working in oils has become studio-bound – if you could see it in action you’d know why, and my sketching/drawing technique has, since the 1980s, involved oil pastels and a special shiny silky-coated paper; so the only challenge would be varying a long-standing practice. No, I needed a greater Challenge: something that would keep me engaged and, as I say, away from the children (as much for their benefit as mine it has to be said): so watercolours it was. My only previous attempts had been futile and derisory.

Since I hate being encumbered in the countryside – I’d had enough of that for 4 years when tramping around the cliffs of Wales and Cornwall festooned with a walking laboratory plus binoculars, tripod and telescope – and I’d fondly imagined I’d be spending my days in the high sierra with only lizards, snakes, toreadors and dusky señoritas for company, I didn’t want to be lugging trays of paint, palettes, water bottles and a variety of brushes about.

It so happens that a couple of years ago, I’d been given an “Art-Kure”™ watercolour brush pen – a lovely sepia coloured one. I confess I hadn’t used it much because I like scratchy methods and this was too much like watercolours (see last sentence a couple of paragraphs ago). But now, seeing I was going to enter upon a challenge, perhaps this was the moment the brush had been waiting for.

Cautiously I tried it out. Yes, if I approached the thing this way rather than trying to draw per se with it, suddenly there were possibilities. To the art store then for more colours. Predictably, the line had been discontinued: all they had left, hidden away in a cabinet at ground level, were a few examples of colours no-one else wanted. So, since I love a challenge, I chose a bilious yellow (of a shade which any 1950s teddy boy would have wanted socks in), a brown – much darker and more sombre than my nice sepia one, and a rather depressing blue – somewhere between Prussian and Black.

Well, there are challenges and there are stupid quests that even a Hobbit with Gandalf by his side wouldn’t take on, and this is my first attempt to use these colours.

Gunnera leaves

Is a pen & ink drawing washed with colour really truly a “Watercolour”? I have no idea. Either way, not a very auspicious start to this new new career, I needed more colours if my challenge wasn’t going to end up like a donkey confronting Beecher’s Brook for the first time.

Those old-fashioned colouring pencils, of the Derwent™ variety had always been around, and suddenly here was my salvation – my one ring to rule them all (perhaps I shouldn’t continue this Tolkein theme) – of course, watercolour pencils! So I bought a tin of 12 – my daughter had a tin of 24 she was prepared to give me, but a tin on its own minus the pencils would have been a challenge too far. However, if Titian could work with a very limited palette, then 12 colours plus my 4 watercolour brush pens would surely suffice. As a safety net, I also took a bundle of ordinary colouring pencils and my tin of scruffy oil pastel stubs with sketchbook of shiny paper, just in case I really was the feared donkey.

Years ago I’d been given a stack of lovely watercolour paper by artist and tutor John Weston’s widow. I’d given most of it away but since I always make up my own sketchbooks (unaware there’d ever be a need) I had nevertheless kept some back on the off chance that one day I might feel the need for a challenge such as this, so I made up two sketchbooks: one to fit in my bag, and a much larger one, which I could carry under my arm like a proper artist. I know you are supposed to soak and stretch paper for watercolour to prevent it cockling but this seemed far too technical for me and one helluva fag. Moreover, certain my efforts would not warrant such investment, I tried the paper first and found the quality to be so good that lengthy messy soaking and stretching was unnecessary. All it needed to prevent curling was a generous water laden brushed diagonal cross on the reverse side.

Trying out the paper first was also a sensible precaution in establishing I wasn’t going to suffer two weeks of mind-numbing frustration. My faltering efforts, poor, as they were, at least gave me enough confidence to carry on. My next post will be about the Andalucian adventure, and I’ll tell you how I got on.

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.