Saturday, March 29, 2003

A book I received last week from a relative has prompted memories of New Zealand. Its title is ‘Timeless Land’ and it contains reproductions of paintings by Grahame Sydney of the landscapes of Central Otago on South Island where he lives. On my first visit in 1999 I was privileged to meet him briefly at a major retrospective of his work in Dunedin. Although he is New Zealand’s most successful contemporary painter his work is not generally known.

The landscape of Central Otago on superficial acquaintance does not seem to offer the painter many subjects. It is a wild landscape of eroded gullies; there are dilapidated farmsteads, empty shearing sheds and disused railway buildings, roads that appear to go nowhere. To capture the spirit of this landscape requires contemplation in Grahame Sydney’s words, "I’m the long stare rather than the quick glimpse." So his beautifully crafted paintings deal with acutely observed incidents, the shadow patterns created by the play of light across weatherboarded buildings or eroded hillsides. That’s about all there is in Central Otago but it is a landscape which is home to him.

You can get to know these paintings by visiting Grahame Sydney's web site.

Friday, March 28, 2003

Waikato River.

This is a pastel painting of some high pumice cliffs on the Waikato River close to where it flows out of Lake Taupo. Its a beautiful peaceful spot. The peace is occasionally disturbed by the shrieks of Bungee Jumpers leaping off one of the high points. They are picked up by boat and returned to the bank feeling elated no doubt.

I have a kind of affection for the painting and will be sorry to see it go when it sells. At least I will have the satisfaction of knowing it is giving pleasure to someone else. Alfred Cox the English 19th century watercolour painter had a similar affection for his paintings. As he was dying he is reported to have said, "Goodbye paintings, I will not see you again." - as though he was parting from old friends. I know what he meant.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Still on the subject of Rembrandt's teaching methods it is interesting to note that there was an air of theatricality which pervaded Rembrandt's studio practice. He would often explore the nature of biblical incidents by enacting them with his studio assistants. A good example is where he depicts himself carousing and with Saskia posed as a tart on his knee – the epitome of ‘The Prodigal Son.’ Rembrandt encouraged his students to enact similar scenes themselves and very often the notes he wrote on students drawings resembled stage directions – ‘move the ass backward’, ‘Mary must hold the child more loosely’, and so on.

There is an amusing story about the studio play acting which is almost too good to be true. Students had their own.enclosed studio space where they could work from the nude model. One student acting the role of Adam rather too literally was overheard to remark, “Here we are naked like Adam and Eve in the Garden.” When they were discovered by Rembrandt he banged on the door and shouted, “But because you are aware you are naked you are banished out of the Garden of Eden.” The master then drove them out into the street as they tried to get dressed. The account, which reads like a scene from a comedy, was recorded by Arnold Houbraken a student of Samuel van Hoogstraten, a painter who once studied in Rembrandt's studio.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The recent discovery of a Rembrandt self portrait which had been overpainted by one of his students was a reminder that Rembrandt, established a flourishing studio enterprise in Amsterdam. Quite why Rembrandt allowed one of his students to paint over the head of the self portrait is unclear. He had several assistants his studio and he would often rework part a student’s drawing and then insist they make a copy of the reworked original – a procedure which often left his students in despair. Allowing a student to rework one of his own paintings seems to be a departure from normal studio practice.

It was once common studio practice to allow students or apprentices to complete parts of a painting. There is a famous example of the striking figure of the angel in Verrochio’s ‘Annuniation’ which was painted by the young Leonado da Vinci when he was an apprentice in Verrochio’s studio. This was unusual because students usually undertook minor features like drapery or ornament. In the Rembrandt portrait the student has reworked the head, the primary focus of the picture. Whether the reworking was done in Rembrandt’s studio or later when the painting came into the possession of another painter is a mystery.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

I try to spend an hour each day studying Chess. I rarely play an actual game against an opponent except Fritz on my laptop. Its engine is much too strong to play at full strength and if I feel the need to boost my confidence I reduce its strength to ‘moron’ standard when I can usually manage to win. Chess is a beautiful but complex game and to make any sense of it requires study and analysis. Since I am no ambition to compete at any high level study of strategy and games played by GM’s in major tournaments is for me a form of relaxation.

The thought has occurred to me that a painting is constructed rather like a game of chess. An opening phase where the ground is prepared and the preliminary moves made with the brush. Next you have to devise a plan or strategy to develop the painting. Finally an endgame where the final marks are made and the painting brought to a conclusion. Just as the chess player has a number of variations to learn so the painter may have a bewildering number of options to consider in developing his painting.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Renewed interest in 'line and wash' brought to mind a TV programme made some years ago. It was called 'Making their Mark' and was broadcast on the the BBC's 'Learning Zone.' It recorded four artists demonstrating and talking about drawing. One was Sir Hugh Casson who was videoed sitting on a folding chair drawing a little Baroque church in the parkland of a country house – he described it as a delightful 'rich man's God box.' His kit merely consisted of a shetchbook and a Rotring Art Pen. He incorporated a wash into his line drawing simply by spitting on his finger and smudging. Later on in the programme he refined his technique by wetting his finger with water from a plastic cup. I adopted the method the following day!

I've never enjoyed humping cumersome painting gear around and for years I used a cartridge sketchbook and charcoal. With charcoal you have to work at A3 or larger which makes you rather conspicuous, and it is messy. I changed to a portrait format A4 sketchbook which gives an A3 double spread if you need it. Looking back through my sketchbooks around 75% of my drawings use pen linework and monochrome or sometimes coloured wash.

The only drawback with Rotring Art Pens is that the ink is watersoluble which makes a fully developed wash technique difficult. It is possible to use waterproof drafting pens of course but the Pentel Brush Pen makes varied marks resultinh in more lively drawings.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Jack Merriot was an inspiration when I began to paint in watercolour and I still get ideas from the techniques which he advocated. He was asked to devise a correspondence course in Watercolour and this gave him the chance to describe his methods.The material was subsequently revised by his associate Ernest Savage and published as a book 'Discovering Watercolour' which sadly has been out of print for years. After having it recommended I was lucky to find a good copy in a second hand bookshop and snapped it up. Over the years it has become my watercolour 'Bible'.

Feeling the need to get back to basics I turned to it today to refresh my knowledge of Line and Wash This was the first technique Merriot recommended for the beginner. The painting is developed in three stages, first a pencil lay in, followed by a fully developed ink drawing. The job was virtually complete after the ink stage all that remains is to add simple washes of colour. I never cease to get enjoyment from using the method although I have varied my use of it over the years, sometimes beginning with loose washes and then firming up the drawing with the ink linework. Further variety can be introduced if both pencil and ink linework are allowed to play their part in the final image.

The ink linework is usually done with a pen although the likes of Edward Wesson would happily draw with sharpened matchsticks or twigs. Merriot on the other hand was a firm advocate of the use of a fine brush for the ink linework and with good reason – it develops facility and control of the brush.. Watercolourists of the Seago, Wesson school used a french polisher's mop to produce loose understated albeit very attractive paintings and Wesson's style has been widely, imitated often with poor results. Wesson had a trained eye and could draw many beginners who try to emulate him lack these necessary pre-requisite for success.

I went back to Merriot's line and wash technique to experiment with a Pentel Brush Pen. This is a terrific tool.It has a finely pointed brush inserted into a pen loaded with a cartridge of black waterproof ink. The brush is capable of producing an amazing variety of marks – It will hold me engrossed for some time.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

DAYS LIKE THESE When I read about Cornelia Parker's little wheeze to wrap Rodin's 'The Kiss' in a mile of string I envisaged the effect might be like an old cricket ball which had lost its leather cover. As kids we used to play with these worn out cork cricket balls. I used to be fascinated by the patterns created by the hemp string used to bind the cork pieces together. Unravelling the outer layer revealed more of the same in the layer underneath. There was a logic to the way the construction process determined the string pattern.

There was a time when art students taught by Maurice de Sausmarez and others were encouraged to observe the ways in which processes created patterns whether they were derived from man made processes or natural growth. This study had two objectives; first to develop a sensitive understanding of the nature of materials and secondly, to see these patterns as basic elements of design. There is little evidence that these ideas are taught any more. It is hard to see any point to Ms Parker's creation or why the Mail on Sunday described her 'idea' as "a big, memorable statement of desire and pain." The London Evening Standard, Brian Sewell perhaps, fuming with outrage, writes; "shall have we have Canover's naked Graces waving dildos." A remark in bad taste which is hardly constructive.

Ms Parker's creation continues a fashion started some years ago by a German artist who wrapped buildings in plastic sheets. If you are going to engage in this kind of exercise the point of it is best conveyed with humour. Rather than a mile of string draped on 'The Kiss' why not fit a bra on the 'Venus de Milo' – less effort and it makes just as valid a statement. Duchamp of course painted a copy of the 'Mona Lisa' with a moustache and the trick was taken further when the photographer Philippe Halsman created a photo montage of the Mona Lisa with Salvador Dali's eyes and moustache. Amusing and trivial perhaps but at least Duchamp and Halsmann were exercising acquired craft skills to produce their pictures which adds merit to the final work. Does Ms Parker's creation display a comparable level of craftsmanship?
'Days Like These' at Tate Britain

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

It could be me being dense but I do not find graphics software easy to use. Yesterday I ranted on about tatty clip art and thought I might design a few simple amusing images to enliven emails sent to friends. I failed dismally to produce anything satisfactory. Far easier to pick up a pen and draw – the process is immediate.. Moving hands have been making marks on surfaces with a variety of implements for a thousand years or more. A process by which there was communication between what the brain perceived and the marks made by the hand. Sophisticated technology intervening between mind and hand is a recipe for disaster in most artistic circumstances.

I feel sorry for calligraphers and signwriters these days because letter forms and layouts are far easier to create with a computer than drawing by hand. That is one the one branch of computer graphics I enjoy, the ability to change layouts and font sizes makes designing much easier. So easy in fact that we can become insensitive to the beauty in traditional letter forms. There is a lot of ghastly illegible lettering used in commercial printing nowadays created by gross distortions of basic letter forms designed with the pen or brush. Adapting these forms to a different process – cutting in stone or wood produced changes but the esential character and legibility was preserved. The design freedom provided by digital imaging has been a mixed blessing. We have a local group of calligraphers and it is always a pleasure to see exhitions of their work to be reminded that our letter forms originated from written marks made by hand. Ugliness arises when we lose sight of our cultural roots.

Monday, March 10, 2003

All graphics software these days comes with a CDR filled with clip art and photographs. All of the decent photographs are licensed and can have restricted use. The clip art comes free but all of it is tasteless tat and mostly unusable if you want to produce elegant artwork of good quality.

Awhile back Corel adorned the packaging of CorelDraw with a vector graphic of Hedi Lamarr. An impressive digital tour de forgce I guess and God knows how long it took the designer to construct it. Somehow though it was a cold unemotional image which didn't allow you to acquire a perception of her character. Professional photographers produce better images of celebrities but then perhaps digital images were never meant for serious recording and will be confined to packaging and advertising.

Commercial art studios once employed talented artists and designers to produce hand-drawn artwork but all this seems to have gone to be replaced by digital imaging. I am saddened by the demise of hand crafted processes in commercial publishing and remember with some nostalgia a time when major publishing houses like Penguin used talented artists to produce engravings and woodcuts to illustrate their book jackets.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

We no longer need have qualms about painting from photographs – most professional artists do. Most of the current crop of 'how to do it' books have sections on using photographs – why not? Incidentally one of the best is Richard Betts 'Masterclass in Water Media. I guess Turner when recording his impressions with quick scribbles from a gondola would have given his right leg for a camera; yet the old prejudices linger on. I was amused when a friend was handing in his pictures to an exhibition and he was welcomed with the comment, "You've painted those from photographs." I haven't," he protested. He was silenced by a withering look of disbelief.

True professionals are unpretentious which is why I love John Palmer's philosophy. "I'll do a quick sketch of Venice," he announced at his demonstration, "Never been there of course." He then did a watercolour looking across the lagoon towards San Giorgio or perhaps the Salute – presumably from someone else's photograph. Nice one John.

Friday, March 07, 2003

Reflecting on John Palmer's performance at the LAS meeting last Thursday, what impressed was the simplicity of his working method. Just a simple pencil outline as a beginning and superimposed washes. Very direct and I suppose very traditional but not to be decried because of that. Essentially in a medium like watercolour it is the quality of the hand made mark whether made with pencil, brush or even finger print which counts. The watercolour painters marks are individual and distinct as with everyone's handwriting and – as with calligraphy – it is really the character and beauty of the drawn forms which gives quality to the work.

At Ludlow Art Society's March meeting we were entertained by John Palmer RWA who gave a watercolour demonstration. I had some knowledge of his work from a book he wrote on Drawing and Sketching in which he displayed an impressive variety of techniques in various grapic media and was looking forward to meeting him. I was not disappointed he is a most engaging and entertaining character and dashed off three watercolours during the course of the evening. John's artistic skills were sharpened during his 32 years as a designer producing commercial artwork to tight deadlines. To survive in that environment you have to develop the facility to handle a range of media and work quickly and to see someone display such skill is awesome.

But does the skill demonstrated in such bravura displays rub off onto us the observers? I don't think it does, in fact after watching John for 10 minutes I became filled with enthusiasm and would have loved to have grabbed the brush from his and to have a go myself. The next day with the performance just a memory, the enthusiasm and excitement has gone. It doesn't come back unless you get a brush in your hand and start to work for yourself.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

The tracker on my web site shows that around 25% of visits are from US Commercial sites — which makes me wonder sometimes what is going on. The only indication of American commercial interest has been the occasional e-mail offering me web services of various kinds. Fellow artists sometimes ask, 'Am I not worried that images of my paintings can be copied?' Well that is a risk you have to take if you publish on the web and there is really no way of checking if anybody is making commercial use of any of my images.

On balance I guess that the benefits of reaching out to a world-wide community to promote my work and share ideas outweighs the worry that somebody somewhere might be making money from copying my images. Unlike conventional publishing my experience of the web has so far been constructive and not soured by feelings of exploitation. I have been surprised by how willing people are to share their experience and expertise through support and discussion forums. Everybody who builds web sites will check out other people's source code from time to time. I was amused to read a comment in the HTML of one site I looked at. The author placed a comment between the tags, 'Now you're here you can help yourself to my source code but remember the words and images are mine!' A nice touch that and I hope it will be generally observed.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Struggling to recreate the subtle tonal effects of Seurat’s drawings set me thinking about the nature of drawing itself. For Ruskin it is merely ‘dirtying the paper delicately’ and certainly Seurat’s subtle and delicate tonal effects require great delicacy in the use of Conté crayon. For Dawn Arkell, a mature art student quoted in The Guardian drawing is like ‘Dancing on paper – that’s what it is just dancing on paper.’ I rather like that — the movement of the hand when hand/eye coordination is working well is like dancing. You can sense the thrill of the hand movement in Rembrandt’s quick sketches done with a reed pen or Raphael’s quick exploroatory drawings for his Madonnas.

I broke off from the Seurat studies to do some computer graphics. The contrast between the two processes is stark. Good computer graphics software allows you to draw after a fashion on a touch pad but the resulting marks bear no comparison to the hand made marks creatred by traditional drawing tools. Indeed computer graphics are created by a process in which the hand made mark has no place.