PAINTINGS OR PICTURES?

Review of recent exhibition of some nature painting with Eilean Eland’s sculpture with some thoughts on the differences between paintings and ‘pictures’.

       

  Eland Blue woman               Meyer Sweetpeas in a blue jug

Having just taken down my exhibition with ceramicist Eilean Eland at RHS Rosemoor, I fell to reflecting on its success (or lack of it) and the responses of some sturdy folk who visited having braved the often pretty awful weather, and have once again come to the conclusion that most people look at pictures, not at paintings.  Let me explain, and I’m not speaking here of watercolours, they are a quite different kettle of fish!

In galleries, paintings are usually scanned cursorily, and not examined or studied.  But let’s distinguish between pictures and paintings: a picture is always a picture, but often not a painting. In other words, the ‘artist’ is primarily concerned with a pictorial effect: something perhaps intended to please the casual eye, or maybe summon up a memory or some other pleasant feeling.

‘Real’ painters may be concerned with this too but something much deeper is going on.  Those who enjoy real painting (verb) and real paintings (noun) will peer deeply into its heart to see the construction, the harmonies, the composition and the sheer physicality of the actual paint itself (the texture and ‘brushwork’.  Herein, I submit, lies real joy and satisfaction.

I stood beside people and showed them the way the work was created: some see it immediately, some get it, many do not or they are simply not interested.  Their interest starts and ends with pictures – the superficial surface effect – there is nothing wrong with this even though I regret it, if only because it means my paintings do not sell very well!

You might be drawn to a picture by its superficial character, a bit like one might find a pop song catchy at first even if it soon becomes irritating.  An awful lot of pictures are like that: you stop seeing them – they become wallpaper.  That won’t happen with a real painting because its depths are infinite and each viewer brings to it their own unique perspective.

In the arts, let’s briefly compare painting, which has prehistoric origins, with more modern media.  To read a book requires investment of time, as does listening to a piece of music, so why is a painting just glanced at?  It  always strikes me as odd because a painting, unlike the other two examples, is independent of time – you can stand mesmerised by it for ages, no pressure.  So why is it that most visitors look at a painting for about 5 seconds?  One study showed that in major galleries, viewers glance at a painting for less than two seconds, read wall text for 10 seconds, glance back at the painting to verify something, then move on to the next.

I’ll leave you with a couple of examples from paintings at Rosemoor to show the detail and texture which cursory viewing misses and leave you decide your own response. Thanks so much for reading this.


Detail of ‘Daffodils in a blue glass’, Oil on cardboard 76 x 53.5cm

Detail of  ‘Barn in a landscape with dancing figures’, Oil on board 35.5 x 49.5 cm

RHS Exhibition and Christmas Greetings

Just a chance to wish everyone a happy time this Christmas season.

Apologies if you’ve already seen this but it’s been such a difficult year, what with losing £15,000 to a building company than went bust after agreeing to convert my studio into a small dwelling and build a new one, I’m not too sure what I have done and haven’t! But we carry on: little money but lots of rain and mud, and good spirits (most of the time).

Thankfully there is always Art and Poetry.

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Please contact me direct for more information and/or visit my website https://richardmeyer.co.uk/index.php/news.

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.

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.

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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.

Spanish Notes Final part (III)

If the route up the Tejeda Parque’s mountain fizzled out after 50 yards, going from path to single goat track to multiple goats tracks to indiscernible scrapings which would have confused Kemosabe’s sidekick Tonto, the route back down was completely invisible. [Tonto in Spanish means ‘stupid’, so in the Spanish version of The Lone Ranger, Tonto became Toro (bull), and kemosabe sounds a lot like the Spanish phrase quien no sabe, “he who doesn’t understand”.] Already I digress, but since I’m not unused to being ‘he who doesn’t understand’ this title seems quite appropriate. Not for the first time, I’ve heard myself say confidently, “This way” only to realise that not only have I lost myself but also my unfortunate companions. Yes, I did once lead field courses so Mij should really have known better than to follow me. If there’s a hot sierra equivalent term for off-piste, that’s what we found. If you look at the photo below, the area top left is very similar to our downward route.

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Mij and Robin revisiting the Parque Natural (in inappropriate footwear)

We had gravity on our side and we were roughly going in the right direction so it was only a matter of time before we reached the bottom. Three-quarters of the way down, we met three goats, which danced off giggling on tip-toe.

It was extremely hot (ca.35oC) but at least we’d been sensible enough to take water with us. He who doesn’t understand was not always so sensible: one sweltering afternoon, I wandered off to do some drawing on a parched hillside. Not going far nor intending being away for more than a couple of hours, I didn’t want to be carrying water other than a small amount needed for watercolours, but soon became aware of how easy it would be to become debilitated and disorientated. I also thought what a pleasant place it would be to die (you ponder such things when alone in a wild places). Ever since working with vultures many years ago, I’ve had a deep respect for these beautiful disposers of waste, and it seems to me a fitting end for one’s mortal remains, soaring hundreds of feet above the earth, as close to heaven as I’m ever likely to get. It was the King vulture in particular I liked; this species doesn’t come from Europe but Spain has its own vultures, and towards the end of our stay we saw flocks of hundreds wheeling and soaring, carrying away others’ mortal remains.

The hottest day of all we experienced was in Granada at L’alhambra – one of just two conventional sight-seeing days. Such a well-known and easily researchable site needs no introduction from me but I liked the car park which put most British tourist car parks into the shade. And it was the shade that impressed most: the entire massive car park was virtually entirely covered by a shady leafy roof – the spaces between each space planted with low flat canopied trees (I couldn’t identify the type). They were certainly needed for the temperature was over 42oC.

It was interesting to see old Granada laid out from the heights of the fortress walls.

Overlooking Granada 4 rightGranada

Along some ancient walls covered mainly with blue Morning glory (Ipomoea sp.) large Violet carpenter bees (Xylocopa violacea) were busily foraging. That evening Josie found a dead one in the pool (Josie did spend the majority of her time at the villa rescuing insects from the pool); I took the chance to draw it before the ants and wasps consumed it; they were impressive insects…

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… as were the ants and wasps, fearsomely voracious scavengers.

Apart from innumerable wasps the most interesting and spectacular rescued insects were Praying mantises (Mantidae).

Praying mantis 1 (2)
The twittering of Red-rumped swallows (Cecropis daurica) and European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) were a constant reminder of their swirling presence around the villa, sometimes sweeping so low you felt you could reach out and catch one. What we had, I confess, initially thought to be interference from overhead electricity cables – which were everywhere – turned out to be countless cicadas which we could never see. One day, searching a tree near the villa – from where the chainsaw-like noise was coming – as we might, we could see nothing.

Our other ‘day out’ was in Malaga – the birthplace of Picasso. It has a lovely pedestrianised city centre and there is a Roman theatre which is being renovated.

Malaga + female guitarist (2)
A pedestrianised street in Malaga

Malaga (me as tourist) (2)Me as tourist in Malaga

The Picasso Museum was well worth the queue to get in. The staff were friendly, and a lovely lady insisted on seeing my ID to confirm my age (warranting an old geezer concessionary price). When I pointed out my grey beard she said, “Ah, no, you look too young.” One can fall in love disastrously easily.

The breadth and inventiveness of Picasso’s art never fails. He would try anything and generally succeed, but I think what I like most about him is his sense of humour; great artists often seem to lack this but Picasso has the ability to be both funny and ultimately deadly serious simultaneously.

Back in Sedella solitude, I took myself off into the groves of almond and olive trees (an almond plucked off an Andalucian tree is juicy and nutty in a way unknown to me in the UK). I felt the need to take every chance of immersion in this ancient landscape and impress on vestiges of a retinal memory its essence so that on return to the verdancy of England I could try to recall the dull parched dusty greens of Spain, and the watercolours helped.

Before leaving Spain, I continued to experiment with some basic water-colour enhanced drawing, using for motifs whatever was at hand: prickly pears, agaves and other vegetation in the garden of the villa.

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Whether or not I’ll continue seriously with watercolours remains to be seen. A lot, I suspect, will depend on time; I already seem to have too much to do (what is all this nonsense about “retirement”?), especially right now, with a forthcoming exhibition in July/August to prepare for. So it’s back to oils, and on my return from Spain, whilst the retinal memory was still vivid, I got quickly on to two medium sized canvases of an almond grove.

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If you’ve made it this far, you have my admiration and thanks.

© Richard Meyer, February 2015.

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.