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.

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

I’ve always believed – when younger, without really understanding why – that paintings breathe. Sculpture too. They are the only art forms where there is a tangible link between maker and beholder. Believe me, paintings talk to you! There is nothing in between: no translator, no intermediary, no signer, in short, no interpreter.

bottles-and-brushes-oil-on-plywood-49-x-73-5cm-2

Bottles and brushes, Oil on plywood 49 x 73.5cm

You confront a real painting (I don’t mean on-line reproductions, postcards or even high quality book illustrations) pretty much exactly as the artist did – at the same distance – as he or she did at the moment when (s)he contemplated the finished work and felt content with it. The visual experience is the same: you breathe on it in the same way and it responds. This is demonstrably not the case with music, film or writing for any medium – all of which require an intermediary and very often several or even a team. You are only reading this because it’s been through several machines.

This is all fine but an exhibition of paintings is a two-way thing. A meaningless exercise if one half of the equation is missing. It is unbalanced, there is no conversation. Paintings without people, talk to themselves or merely stare bleakly at each other across the void.

img_0415-3A corner of the gallery

The painter provides the paintings, the gallery provides the space, and both parties promote it as best they can. That’s how it works; the only way it can work. If a painter spends years in oblivion wrestling work out of heart, soul and mind, he can legitimately feel disappointed if the gallery falls short.

This is the second year running I’ve been let down by a gallery. Not tuppeny-ha’penny galleries but pukka ones. The exhibition with ceramicist Eilean Eland suffered from poor gallery publicity before and during the event. As artists, we did all we could: half-page illustrated articles in quality regional and local journals but both galleries did very little. Why that should be must be the subject for another time.  Nevertheless, those visitors who did attend were enthusiastic; words like “stunning”, “vibrant” and “expressive” cropping up in the Visitors’ Book but during most of my attendances, the gallery was often empty. Stairs from the busy shop and café one floor down appeared to be an obstacle too far. To be fair, there was little incentive from the Arts Centre – not the box office, shop or counter – to encourage movement beyond the caffe lattes.

wedding-carnations-oil-on-mdf-46x61cmWedding carnations, Oil on MDF 46x61cm

This was particularly depressing because we were in an Arts Centre and not a café. I felt sorry for my paintings and for Eilean’s terrific sculptures in having little or no human company. They felt neglected. Most artists need interaction with their audience. Imagine live theatre or an orchestra playing to an empty auditorium, or an important football game before no spectators. You cannot expect anyone to be at their best.  In a previous life, I’ve been a cinema projectionist several times, and occasionally had to show films – usually in matinees – to literally one or two aged people. Even though technically it made no difference to putting on a good ‘performance’, it always felt a tad futile.

Sweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms.jpgSweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms

At its most elemental level, art – painting and sculpture – is as much a part of show-business as anything else. People look at paintings to be uplifted, thrilled, enthralled, perplexed, surprised or, if they are of a more educated mind, perhaps technically intrigued. [I will not use the word ‘challenged’ in this context.]

Above are two versions of a Study of anemones after Vassyl Khmeluk. I fell in love with the original of this painting from a tiny reproduction in a newspaper. Khmeluk (1903-86) was a Russian painter who has for me become a favourite (see previous post That loving feeling.  Copying this got me back into painting after my Blighty Girls experience last year (see previous post My dear blighty girls). The anemones remain favourite paintings despite or perhaps because of that difficult time. It was, technically, an intriguing exercise which I hoped might rub off on visitors. Two people did indeed tell me (unsolicited) that they were their favourite paintings but otherwise I noticed little engagement with the more ‘challenging’ paintings throughout September at The Plough Arts Centre in North Devon.

Daffodils in blue glass - horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm.JPGDaffodils in blue glass – horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm

Since very few people reading this will have got to the show, I’ll include some photos to give an idea of the venue and exhibition. It was an opportunity for me to show some of my ‘still-life’ studies. In my naivety I thought it the most ‘commercial’ of the three exhibitions I’ve had at The Plough Arts Centre, but it’s difficult to sell if no-one much comes.

img_0417The Daffodil corner of the gallery

Are we down-hearted?  Yes, I suppose we are a bit, but no doubt something will happen to buck up the spirits: Carry on regardless (now that’s a film I probably showed once!). Actually, something has come along because I’ve just sold my third painting in 12 months to America without any opportunity of them being breathed upon by any of the buyers. Why Americans seem to like my paintings more than the British is a mystery to me.  A gallery owner in Cornwall last  week said that perhaps it was because they felt French (or was it because of my beret?). I love France inordinately but think I have only two paintings there, and I always feel they are more German than French, but maybe not the still-lifes. Any comments?

Apple triptych, Oil on panel 16.5 x 30 cm.jpgApple triptych, Oil on cherry wood panel 16.5 x 30 cm

[Ends]

Truth, Blood and Fashion

Truth, Blood and Fashion, Andrew Graham-Dixon in The Art of Germany on TV a few years ago described the German character by listing four couplets:

1. Passion & precision,
2. Craftsmanship & The impulsive gesture,
3. A love of nature & A love of the machine, and
4. A need for escape & A desire for control.

Each of these traits rang true for me.  I thought Donner und blitzen! – which (with Achtung!) was my sum total of German learned from war comics. [Incidentally, this elementary expression is a mixture of German and Dutch – which I’m told is my paternal grandfather’s side.]  But are those traits all in my genes from Luther and before? Somehow meshing with the Irish blarney or whatever other characters lurk there from my mother’s side?

Or is it all smoke and mirrors – you take from it what you want?  So what would a list of four opposing couplets look like?  How about:

1. Coolness & Inexactness
2. Ineptitude & Cautious
3. Uncaring & Luddite
4. Stuck & Powerlessness

Not very inspiring, are they?  I shouldn’t think many would want those on their CV.  Perhaps it’s not the qualities then in the original list that are important but their selection in the first place.  How does one define oneself?

My own life by Art and Science – it always has been. George Braque said “Art is meant to disturb, Science reassure”, but don’t both seek truth, whatever that is.  All painters know that perspective changes with viewpoint.  I think it was Cezanne who said, “Just by shifting my position a few centimetres, I would compose a completely different picture.”  Or words to that effect.

An artist has to be true to oneself but also to some universality.  Popularly, art is seen as more concerned with the former, and science with the latter.  For me, both are fundamental: it’s not so much sitting on a fence as striding back and forth across a stream.

But there’s a confounding variable in all this, which obeys but one rule.  It beguiles and seduces like a siren voice: it is wonderful, inevitable and dangerous.  It is called Fashion.  The wonderful and lamented Robert Hughes memorably wrote and filmed The Shock of the New; his thesis was spot on but he was insistent that just because something was new didn’t make it necessarily good or worthwhile.

There is plenty of new rubbish – the bin men collect it every week.

The crime writer Frances Fyfield, who has some of my paintings, gave these words to one of her characters, “I hate newness for its own sake … I loathe the deception hidden in new things,” (Trial by Fire, 1990).  This nails it; one must be suspicious of newness for its own sake – that which seeks to deceive.  Gee-whiz ideas are two a penny; you dream them up in a pub with a mate or over coffee.

“Where did you get that idea?” “In a pub. Ha ha!” I once had this response to a genuine enquiry of a film director; maybe it was true but to transform a good idea into Art requires intellect, perseverance, technique, hard work, reflection, genuine creativity, empiricism and something else utterly personal and altogether more intangible: a Quest for Truth.

I’ve just come back from looking at Rembrandt in London, so Truth is something that’s been uppermost in my mind.  I’d like to write more about that next time.

Portraits and Presentiment

 Portraits and presentiment (part 1)

        The Mij Oil on canvas 76x56cm 2          

The Mij, Oil on canvas 76x56cm

and

The Marmoset Oil on board 73x49cm 2

                                                                               The Marmoset, Oil on board 73x49cm                  

 Two new portraits presented themselves unbidden, and presented me in the process with renewed sombre misgivings about modern commercial art. [By ‘commercial’ I mean art produced for the marketplace] These misgivings conspired to see me destroying some old works, not because they haven’t sold but because they presented other misgivings: some technical and some personal. Since my first career was in zoological science, it’s perhaps relevant that curiosity weighs heavy with me.

That out of the way, portraiture must be the severest, most profound test of an artist (be they painter or sculptor) – something most avoid for its unforgiving and unrelenting scrutiny: of the practitioner of the model, of the beholder of the practitioner.

Over the last 12 months and more I’ve been debating with myself (there being no-one else really) about the path work takes and to where. You may (or may not) find these experiences a) interesting, b) helpful, c) provocative, d) irrelevant or e) just plain boring, so skip ahead if you don’t wish to read of someone else’s toils (but, as humans, don’t we enjoy some schadenfreude?!

2013 then is the background for a year of misfirings:

  1. My Structured Landscape exhibition produced all the inevitable doubts that such ventures always produce – one could do, think, arrange, select, price, publicize and invite better etc;
  2. The loss in early February of a dear friend & collaborator on some books, the great bird illustrator Malcolm Ellis              Paradise Park Garden Party 08vi06 3
  3. A disappointing talk to North Devon Arts at The Broomfield Sculpture Park fell well below the standards I’d normally set myself; for some reason, the slides in transfer to their computer got muddled, which doesn’t sound disastrous in itself but the thumbnails were displayed on the enormous screen while we re-ordered them – a bit of a spoiler which took time to correct meaning I had to cut out some hilarious (or so I like to imagine) anecdotes;
  4. This was followed by the misfiring (for me but it would seem for no-one else) of Open Studio Art Trek;
  5. Then there were laborious preparations (e.g. thematic, selection, doubt, framing, pricing) for my Autumn show The Constructed Female at The Plough Arts Centre, and the incomprehension and misunderstanding it seemed to create for some;
  6. Distressing and disturbing ecological consultancy duties involving (inevitably) the slaughter of badgers  – which I’m unable to avoid, and consequent on those…
  7. … thwarted attempts to reprint my 1986 book The Fate of the Badger (Batsford) despite some demand from affected caring people;
  8. My novel The Children Who Wouldn’t …http://t.co/mHsyDbdQXP was published. I think at least 10 people have read it, or at least bought it (for an impressive 77p, 99c in the US – and I just got a royalty statement from Amazon USA for 36p, mind you they withheld .12p for tax, I trust they spend it wisely). To top these distractions …
  9. there’s been a frustrating and disillusioning failure to find a venue for an altruistic exhibition of 12 paintings of 1940s pin-up ‘Land Girls’, done with the co-operation of some lovely mums in Cheshire, to help raise funds for ‘Help For Heroes’ or some other human warfare related charity. This I’d optimistically hoped to arrange to coincide with Centenary Commemorations this November – which is now highly unlikely.

While some of these tribulations are amusing and petty they conflate to such an extent that I found myself in the deepest doldrums since emerging blinking from a 5 year PhD in Glasgow and an ensuing short but disillusioning career teaching in Primary Schools and one ghastly private school. [Can doldrums be deep? Perhaps I’m just a lousy teacher]. The thesis, incidentally, of >300 pages, ca.100,000 words and gawd knows how many tables, figures and statistics remains I imagine unread and unused apart from by my sponsors www.paradisepark.org.uk/choughs. [The RSPB cannot even acknowledge its existence.] Of course it was not all awful, I had a good and rewarding year working in Cornish schools for the RSPCA, and a delightful two years lecturing and getting up and running a new FE College outpost in the grounds of Paignton Zoo, Devon.

However, outweighings prompted re-evaluation; so I destroy old work and find furious cathartic satisfaction in it.  All of which brings me back to the portraits – inevitably a substantial element in The Constructed Female exhibition.

The two portraits I mentioned at the top had an underlying cause – partly to convince myself after nearly a year of scant activity that I could still paint. The first was of a model from Cheltenham who contacted me via Twitter, and has since become an engaging and feisty ally, and the second of the beautiful and long-suffering Mij whom I have of course painted many times and who has crept unbidden into other portraits (or so I’m told by people; and they can see it and I can’t).

What I can see (and maybe what I can’t) follows.

Portraits and presentiment (part 2)

 Portraits, so I’m told by gallery owners, are virtually unsellable. I think this is disingenuous nonsense! To back up such a bold rebuttal, I cite the case of the Fowey River Gallery www.foweyrivergallery.co.uk who told me this but took one anyway. It was this one

 Naomi Oil on wood 43.bmp

Portrait of Naomi, Oil on wood 43.5 x 48.5cm

They phoned me in Wales the following day to say “Guess what? It’s sold! A young couple saw it, went away, had lunch, came back and said they couldn’t live without it” (verbatim because it’s a conversation I shan’t forget). Galleries guard their client list with a zeal that would do credit to Vladimir Putin’s police so I’ve never found out who they were but hope they still enjoy it. Even so, Fowey wouldn’t take another, but this was ten years ago, perhaps they might now.

Anyway, back to the premise. As I said in Part 1 my training (such as it was) was in wildlife zoology with an emphasis on sexual dimorphism and the captive breeding of rare and endangered fauna, so it seems obvious to me that biologically and ethologically the human face is central to our understanding of the human condition.  We scan and study our own and everyone else’s without realising it, picking up and processing the tiniest inflections. Intrigued, entranced, attracted and repelled by each in turn. How can we not be interested in the painted portrait, which is always a double portrait – that of subject and artist?

Disabusing this, people say something like, “But I don’t know them” thereby implying that they might be more interested if it was a likeness of someone they knew, or of course, better still, a family member. So what is going on?  Obviously we might like to have around us images of ‘loved ones’ but since we can admire a landscape or a still-life without ‘owning’ or even knowing it at first hand, why are we put off by the image of another human being?

Not always of course for we respond positively to a Rembrandt or van Gogh (self-)portrait, a Leonardo, a Matthew Smith, a Chaim Soutine, an Auerbach, a Hockney… and the list could go on and on.  Is it merely then that a portrait painted by someone famous is acceptable while one by an unknown (however good) is not?  No art aficionado, only a dealer, would admit this so one is left to ruminate on a determining factor. Is it simply that gallery owners are a conservative non-risk-taking lot and they simply believe that buyers do not like portraits, and will not buy them? As a self-fulfilling prophecy this takes some beating. But since I called Rembrandt as a witness, let’s return to quality.

Oh, I so hope this is the final arbiter, because then there’s hope. Quality is the touchstone: any artist worthy of the name aspires to it; and always before the grubby ephemeral of “Will it sell?”

So, I want ‘galleries’ to be worthy of the name they assume. A gallery should never be just a picture shop, though that is sadly what many are.  Yes, they have to be financially solvent but alongside that (and are the two mutually exclusive?) it is their duty to present Fine Art to the public. If they don’t where on earth’s high street, can we find honesty and truth mingling with spine-tingling beauty and forensic enquiry?

A rough and racy wench (revised from Jan 2011)

There lived a fine practitioner of painting in Cornwall. His name was Frank McNichol.  He has now sadly passed on but he left behind a phrase that rings with me still: “Craftsmanship, my boy, craftsmanship.”  There is no doubt that Frank was a fine craftsman, and I believe him, of course I do.  But did he mean the kind of craft learnt at the feet of a master, or that which one teaches oneself by studying them?  Perhaps both.My take on craft is that while it is indispensable and, indeed, the measure of art, even though I doubt many looking at my work would believe me.  But then what do they know!?  Laying paint on canvas, even when done with meticulous care does not necessarily mean over-fussy or prissy.  There must be that magical frisson of transfusion: The Moment in the act of painting which metamorphosises subject into object.  It can take infinite number of forms.What directs it is the ‘artist’.  What executes it is the craftsman.  Finding symbiosis is key.Sickert said, “Painting is a rough and racy wench.  Flourishing in the scullery, kitchen or dunghill but fading at the breath of the Drawing room.”

Image

Walter Sickert, Seated Nude, (Private collection)

Cezanne and his cardplayers (updated from Jan 2011)

Cezanne's card playersI had just returned from seeing this superb little exhibition at the Courtauld Galleries at Somerset House.  ‘Little’ in size perhaps but most certainly not in scope, depth and value to the serious modern artist.  To be able to get beneath the surface of these important works, see how the concept was developed, the thinking and process made manifest was vital to me as someone whose valued Cezanne above all others for some 40 years.  And moreover to get up tight to the paint surface and see the application and colours (so often corrupted by the printing process) for real was a unique opportunity: these paintings and drawings will never again be reunited in our lifetime.  Only two were missing, one from the Barnes Foundation (who aren’t allowed to loan out  works) and one in private hands who were regrettably unwilling to lend.

Going back to look at some of Cezanne’s writings, I came across some timely thoughts.  One in particular seemed germaine, “Art never addresses itself to more than an extremely small number of individuals“.  I heard someone at the exhibition say, “Are all these by Cezanne?”..!

He also said “It’s sufficient to have a feeling for art – and without doubt it’s the horror of the bourgeois, this feeling.”

Finally, “One doesn’t replace the past, one only adds a new link to it.”

The mark of a good exhibition for me is one that gets me leaping back to my own easel while reassuring me that I’m going in the right direction.

[February 2014]  Well I was then but not now for I’ve been away, battling with science and the corruption of it by politicians.  I’m waiting for a visit from Cezanne (he usually sits on my shoulder, grumbling and encouraging) or someone to gee me up and make me see the beauty all around me once again.

Green is a devilish colour

I hope to run some of my blog activity here as well.
This is from 7th March 2011 – we’re not quite there yet but Snowdrops and Daffodils are showing here in North Devon.

Lots of painters agree: green is a devilish colour.  Certainly many UK landscape painters would.  At this time of year grass re-emerges in brilliant emerald splendour…

oops, regressed for a moment there back to Natalie Wood ‘Splendour in the grass’, for as Wordsworth said…

“Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower”

Hmmm, anyway, schoolboy fantasies aside, green is everywhere, yet fiendishly difficult to nail down accurately.  We search for equivalents.  Although I no longer venture out much into the field (other than with sketchbook and trusty small tin of oil pastels and chinagraphs) the colour is still there – taunting and frustrating!
Recently, I’ve noticed many of my models and figure subjects have begun mysteriously to appear dressed…