Sunday, December 18, 2005

A recent visit to Tate St. Ives revealed yet another video installation – this time by Tacita Dean. There is a lovely view across the beach from the semi circular atrium all changing light and weather - then they steer you into a darkened room to look at flickering black and white film shot in Berlin accompanied by harsh distorted sound - hardly a thrill. So moved on quickly to look again at the St. Ives modernists. Except for dear old Alfred Wallis whose reputation owes all to the misconceptions of Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson they grow with renewed acquaintance. For me the best of the non figurative bunch is Bryan Wynter. The paintings are simple linear compositions embellished with gestural and dragged brush marks – very subtle and he’s sensitive to what paint can do. The best of his work of the 1950’s was probably produced while in the trance-like state induced by using mescalin. The drug was used to suppress the conscious and let the subconscious mind take over.

After this disappointment it was good to see a big exhibition in Truro at the Cornwall Museum of work by Kurt Jackson. These days he supplements his watercolours with large works on canvas in water media. He works the paint by splashing and dribbling or pouring onto the canvas laid flat on the ground – and done on site. These are large works with their longest dimension at around 2 metres. Stretched up and displayed in a large gallery they look great there’s a subtle spaciousness to them suggesting glimpses into open sunlit woodland – lovely sensations.

I’ve seen two exhibitions where Kurt shows video of himself at work on these large paintings. Once on a Cornish cliff top with the canvas weighted down with rocks he was dancing around barefoot over the canvas making use of the occasional footprint or toe scratchmark. In the Cornish show he was more sensibly wearing wellington boots. There was no commentary just the natural sounds of the breeze but it was entertaining to see him at work and, unlike the St. Ives installations, the video had a point.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Making copies of other artists’ work is one of the best ways of gaining new insights into working methods. Whenever I come across a painting or drawing which grabs my attention I frequently try to make a copy of it. There is a reproduction of a Rossetti ink drawing in Bernard Dunstan’s annotated edition of Ruskin’s‘The Art of Drawing.’ that I once tried. There was some fine hatching that Rossetti had subtly drawn with diluted ink. Now how many of us would have thought of doing that – and yet it is an obvious way of introducing greater tonal subtlety into a line drawing.

Rembrandt made some lovely line and wash drawings of the farms, mills, and canals around Amsterdam which integrate lively line work with delicate washes. He used a quill pen and sepia ink and they prompted me to learn how to cut my own quills. I’ve also experimented with making my own ‘improvements’ – replacing the sepia washes with coloured ones, it adds to the fun!

Monday, December 05, 2005

This detail of Thomas Richardson's watercolour was set as a copy exercise to my workshop participants. I decided to make a copy myself. The buff paper ground of the original was simulated with a raw sienna wash laid on a 300gsm Bockingford sheet from a sketchbook. Next the underdrawing was made and the picture was built up with controlled washes and finally the touches of white bodycolour were added with White acrylic ink. I've floated a cropped image below to show the linework more clearly - some adjustment was needed to the roof of the left-hand building. No prizes for working out how it was done!

Richardson created this painting by the simplest and most direct means which left me full of admiration. The purplish blue wash laid on the distant hillside was carried down onto the buildings to bring them forward. Essentially the same wash strengthened was used for the shadows. All that was required then were the touches of white and a few added details. None of this would have been discovered by just looking at the painting.

Making copies leads to surprising insights. The aim is not to recreate a mark by mark imitation of the original. There is far more detail in Richardson's linework than in my copy. A careful study of his underdrawing would be worthwhile as a separate exercise. The hand guiding the brush writes its own calligraphy so why not improvise your own style on your copy once the general principles have been grasped.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I've recently completed a series of watercolour workshops for a group of complete beginners - it was something of a challenge. Routine exercises like laying washes, experimenting with wet in wet are not particularly exciting after you've made a few attempts. Sketching outside was a rather daunting prospect for most as it showed up inadequate drawing skills. Students managed a simple still life more convincingly but some had formed clear ideas of what they wanted to achieve. "I want to paint landscapes like Alwym Crawshaw." said one. Others were stimulated by the
'Watercolur Challenge' TV broadcasts.

Then it occurred that copying might be the best way forward - but from what sources? certainly not from photographs. Studying good reproductions of works of art is much better. Making copies has a long tradition as part of a painter's apprenticeship. Dr Monroe invited Joseph Turner and Tom Girtin as two promising RA students into his home to copy the engravings in his collection which he bought for 2s.6d and a bowl of oysters. Girtin often doing the linework and Turner adding watercolour washes - look where this training led!

So good examples were needed - what better artist to begin with than Rembrandt. His pen and wash drawings of the mills and farms in the countryside around Amsterdam display a mastery of line and tone which is an inspiration. Unless a reed or quill pen is used it is hopeless to try and achieve the variey of line which these tools can achieve in the hand of a master like Rembrandt - but for the beginner it is worth transposing the linework by using a modern waterproof ball or fibretip pen. Then the applied washes need not be monochrome - the sketches can be teated imaginatively by applying colour.

I chose two watercolours from the Royal Watercolour Society's Diploma Collection as models. These can be found in Stephen Spender's book 'The Glory of Watercolour.' The first choice was John Varley's delightful small watercolour 'Cader Idris.' It's merit lies in the beautifully controlled washes he has laid down to portray the receding planes of the mountains and lake. He uses a simple colour scheme mainly of blues and greens. The painting is an example of traditional transparent watercolour of the highest quality.

The second example shows a different approach to watercolour. It is 'Saÿn on the Pretsoh Bach, Rhine' by Thomas Miles Richardson. It was painted on a buff ground, the line drawing plays an integral part in the finished picture showing through the overlaid washes to record the details of the buildings. Final touches were added with white bodycolour to render the half timber buildings and a smoke rising from a chimney.

So two different ways of using watercolour which are instructive and worthy of careful study. I asked the students to make their own studies of the examples - I'm keen to see what they made of them.

Monday, November 28, 2005

An exhibition associated with Royal Worcester Infimary Installation showed photographs of the building showing the old wards in varying states of dereliction peeling paint and plasterwork nicely composed to show interesting textures and subtle colour effects created by damp and neglect. Then some striking photographs of what I took to be a former patient taken in what was probably the former physiotherapy gym. The model was nude and her legs and arms deformed – she was probably a thalidomide victim. The photographs were not repulsive, there are far more shocking images shown in newsreel but they were startling. The model clearly co-operated willingly and there was a simple dignity about her as she posed; ‘Look at me I’m not ashamed of my body.’ Were then they beautiful? Well no but then I confess to some prejudice against the photographed nude because of the limited artistic range it has. Artistically nude photography hardly rates compared with sculpture which does the incomplete body much better. As examples, The Venus de Milo, Michelangelso’s slaves or the torso’s of Aristide Mailliol and Eric Gill.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The video installations which are the current preoccupation of museum curators are a bore. I encountered one in Worcester recently commissioned, using I suppose Arts Council money, to mark the closure of the old Royal Worcester Infirmary. The RWI was a fine old building which nevertheless fails to meet the standards of present day health practice. The video was filmed in one of the corridors which had doors leading to a staircase at one end. A sequence of apparently unrelated incidents occurred. An old man in a raincoat entered through the doors and stood motionless at the side of the corridor. A young woman entered from a side door and performed rather graceful ballet movements, though the old man did not appear to be aware of her. Finally a young boy suddenly appeared sitting on the floor in the foreground playng a board game. The only bit I enjoyed was when the boy had to reach over to retrieve his dice after a mistimed throw and gave a self-conscious smile to the camera. Good he was living and not a ghost! What was the point of the triple sequence? I hope someone might be able to tell me – in plain words rather than arty jargon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Gallery Talk

Gallery Talk

It is always interesting to listen to comments people make about paintings. At the Ludlow Art Society Summer Exhibition this year I found myself stewarding with a man who was the husband of one of our members and not himself a painter.  His low opinion of one of our member’s abstract paintings led to a dialogue which went something like this:
Steward: “What on earth does that represent?”
Me:  “Well it has a title – what does it say?”
Steward: ‘Gone in 3 seconds.’ How was I supposed to know that just from those splashes of paint.” Then reading the title of the next one:  “‘Caves – Dan yr Ogof’  That doesn’t look like a picture of caves to me.”
Me: “Do you listen to music on Classic FM?”
Steward: “Yes – I enjoy classical music.”
Me: “Well when they play the theme from ‘The Armed Man’ you just sit back and enjoy the sounds you don’t think of a soldier kitted up with military hardware. So why not just enjoy the paintings’ subtle colours, marks, and textures because all those qualities are there when you look at a good figurative painting.”
Steward: “Well I expect pictures to look like something recognisable.”

So I left him unappreciative and unconvinced.

This little dialogue confirms the notion that for most people the pleasure they get from looking at pictures derives from recognition. If they do not immediately recognise the familiar world of experience with the marks on the canvas they are puzzled. This is a problem for artists because we are trained to be selective and to exploit artistic qualities of line, colour, and texture to communicate with the viewer. You have a better chance of engaging the viewer if you start from something observed in the world of everyday experience. Working from the more esoteric domain of pure imagination is likely to leave most people confused.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Organising Exhibitio

Organising Exhibitions: Tedious Repetition or Challenging Opportunity

The Chairman’s appeal for someone to organise the Summer Exhibition at the Ludlow Art Society’s Society’s AGM was greeted by an ominous silence. Members’ reluctance to grasp such an opportunity is odd because the Exhibitions are the sole reason which motivates most of our members to join. Slowly it dawned that it would have to be me or there might be no exhibition.

The preparation of the entry forms with my name featuring as the recipient aroused a feeling of déja vu – been there done that some fifteen years ago. In those relatively far off days things were much more leisurely. We invited external selectors to judge the entries and advise on hanging. There was no shortage of volunteers and we were all fortified with a glass of wine which made hanging a convivial occasion.  This all helped establish the Society’s reputation for mounting exhibitions of high quality that were well presented and tastefully hung. Nowadays constrained by a high rental we are forced to do things in a hurry.

So would a job I once tackled with relatively youthful enthusiasm be a tedious repetition of all the old chores or a creative challenge? Surprisingly it had elements of both. For many years we benefited from the computing expertise of a retired Anglican priest and I owe great deal to him through our association in the production of the Society’s Newsletter. He taught me about correct typographic conventions used in printed documents – when to use an en-dash and when to use a hyphen. The first creative task was to set up the software procedures to produce exhibition stationery to the standard which Ernest had established. This took about four weeks and was tested with the data we had stored from the Spring Exhibition.

  I was also helped by the exhibition organisers who succeeded me – I was delighted to find amongst a bag of papers passed to me a file of very detailed records which had been compiled by one of my succcessors. There are the routine chores of course, telephone calls have to be made, preview mailings, press releases, and posters distributed. All too often these tasks fall to the hard-pressed few and yet they could be undertaken by anyone willing to attend two or three exhibition planning meetings where a check-list of jobs is drawn up and allocated.

The August 2005 issue of ‘The Artist’ carried a very sad editorial called ‘Please Don’t Say No!’  It was written by Jan Milsom about her Art Society that finally had to disband after 23 years. The Society had been kept going by a dwindling band of ageing volunteers but inevitably it collapsed when the Chairman had to undergo major surgery  and a successor could not be found. It’s the same the whole world over. I correspond with a friend who is a member of the Thames Art Society in New Zealand. They had to call an extraordinary general meeting to appoint volunteers to enable the Society to carry on. The Ludlow Society has been close to that situation.

What then of the future? I have to be hopefully optimistic for two reasons. First, the Society has rightly earned a widely respected reputation for almost 60 years – yes that is an anniversary  we must plan to celebrate in style next year. Like many others I drifted into a Summer Exhibition when I was planning to move to Ludlow and was given an encouraging and friendly welcome by the Secretary who handed me a membership form. I’ve never forgotten that welcome or being told that there was no waiting list or that I didn’t have to present a portfolio of work and be voted in by members. The subsequent years of active involvement confirmed that I had been fortunate to join a very friendly society. If that experience is common to other newer members there must be sufficient motivation to continue the Society’s good work if it could be harnessed.

Jan Milsum’s plea in her editorial ‘…if you are asked to help out in some small capacity at your art society, please, please, please, think very carefully before you say no!’  was very apt. Better still, don’t wait to be asked just volunteer!

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The loose handling of watercolour has a surprisingly long history. The most notable exponent was Turner whose Venetian sketchbooks are full of drawings which have colour notes added in watercolour. Some of his sketches are made directly in watercolour and there are some interesting examples using body colour on blue paper. They were done as working studies to note down effects of light and to develop his visual memory of a place.

Another exponent of the genre was Sargent who frequently made watercolours on his extensive travels in Europe. Most of his watercolours date from c1900-1917 when he became disillusioned with portrait painting. He embarked on journeys through Europe with friends and students recording places in direct bold watercolours many of which he casually gave away. He probably painted them for simple enjoyment but his fame as a fashionable portrait painter ensured interest by dealers and collectors in everything he produced. In 1909 80 watercolours exhibited at Knoedler’s in New York were bought by the Brooklyn Museum and gradually his watercolours were bought by other American museums.

The loose fluid manner of execution which Sargent developed was very similar to that used by Edward Wesson. In particular there is a striking resemblance between a small watercolour of Venice by Sargent,‘All’ Ave Maria’ painted c1907 and one by Wesson titled ‘Venetian Waters’. The location and composition are very similar. Both paintings could have been made as a quick impression in front of the motif with the aim of further development in the studio. That seems to be the way Wesson evolved his characteristic style – he was able to refine a method that was quick and immediately recognised by his distinctive direct brushwork. It brought him steady sales and a host of imitators.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

I am a keen admirer of Edward Wesson’s watercolours but he is a bad exemplar for amateur painters. Wesson developed a very personal loose way of working which is very popular and his style has spawned look-alikes of varying degrees of competence. Demonstrations by professional artists who paint in a loose Wesson manner are sure to captivate audiences at meetings of amateur painters.

The April meeting of Ludlow Art Society members enjoyed two watercolour demonstrations typical of the loosely handled genre. The first demonstration followed a predictable course. First a quick sky painted with fluid washes laid on with a Japanese hake – Wesson’s favourite tool for this job was a French Polisher’s mop. The hake was used again with stronger blues to create foreground shapes. At this point the demonstrator announced it would be a snow scene. The use of a hairdryer to dry off part of the sky area enabled the demonstrator to drybrush the outline of an oak tree with the side of a sign writer’s liner. The point of the liner was used with a dark pthalo blue/umber mix to flick in suggestions of branches. Finally purple blue/grey washes were used to suggest distant hills and create the outline of a farmhouse roof. After further use of the hairdryer a suggestion of the detail was added and the job was done – a finished watercolour in 35 minutes. Members were treated to a second slick performance after an interval. Two large water colours ready for framing in 90 minutes.

Over the years I have observed several demonstrations of this kind and they teach you very little. For the beginner they encourage the idea that loose direct handling is the key to success in water colour and little else. After each of these demonstrations I always return to Barry Miles book on Edward Wesson* to compare his work with that of his look-alikes. This kind of study is important if you want to appreciate him. A superficial awareness of Wesson’s work overlooks the fact that the loose brushwork of his small plein air landscapes are based on keen observation developed through drawing.

Wesson like his contemporaries Jack Merriot, Leonard Squirrel, and Claude Muncaster was a fine draughtsman. For me Wesson is seen at his best in his pen and wash watercolours. There is a fine example, St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol on the dustjacket of Barry Miles book. The clean loosely handled transparent washes are there to be enjoyed but they are supported by accurate, though understated, ink line drawing.

Wesson has so many disciples - John Yardley and Ron Ranson being the most widely known - that it is worth reflecting that Watercolour has a long tradition. It is important to visit public collections to discover how other artists have used the medium. Dear old Edward's watercolours are very seductive but it is best to avoid becoming enslaved by them.

* Edward Wesson 1910-1983: Barry Miles, Hallsgrove (1999)

Friday, April 08, 2005

The other day I was talking to a friend about drawing in pen and ink. The medium is essentially a linear one and tonal contrast is generally achieved by cross hatching. Ruskin in ‘The Elements of Drawing’ sets a very tedious exercise asking the student to cover a small square with lines to achieve gradations of tone. I’ve tried this several times and however hard you try – varying the line spacing, varying the density of cross hatching – smooth gradation of tone is very difficult and time consuming requiring waiting for each stage to dry.

Studying the Whistler etching in Walsall's Garman-Ryan collection the thought occurred that some of the qualities of the print could be reproduced in a pen drawing. An etched plate is often dipped in the acid bath several times. The length of time in the bath determined the depth of ‘bite.’ A deeply bitten line holds more ink than a shallow one and results in a darker line. A similar effect can be achieved by using dilute ink for the most delicate lines in the drawing. Turner used dilute ink in his small watercolour in the Garman-Ryan collection for distant detail. It’s a simple idea which is rarely used and when applied sensitively broadens the scope of pen drawing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Artists, I am certain, love their own paintings – it is something that is inherent in the creative process. I daresay there are artists, driven by the necessity to sell, who turn out three or four paintings a day with little real affection for what they are producing. This has a hint of production line mentality and there can be little real satisfaction in that way of working.

David Cox, enfeebled and on his death bed, is reported to have said, “Goodbye paintings, I will never see you again.” It was as if he was saying farewell to some dear friends. I experience a similar sensation whenever I sell a painting – part of me is sorry to see it go. I sent'The Flower Girl' which is shown on a Blog posted in February to the LAS Spring Exhibition. I’d enjoyed having her around for a few weeks before the handing-in day and David Cox’ attributed remark came to mind when I learned the painting had been sold. “Goodbye Flower Girl, I may never see you again.” I only hope you give your new owner lasting pleasure. But then the purchaser may be a dealer who will add a 50% mark up and flog you off to someone else. I do hope not.

Monday, April 04, 2005

I paid a visit to the Walsall Art Gallery which houses the Garman-Ryan Collection. Sally Garman was Jacob Epstein’s lifelong mistress who he married late in life. Garman was born in nearby Wednesbury – a fact which influenced her decision to choose Walsall as a home for the collection of Epstein’s bronzes and the art works that she and her friend Sally Ryan had collected.

The Epstein bronzes in the collection are powerful works modelled directly and retaining a satisfying feeling for the plastic nature of clay. Epstein made friends with the Parisian avant-garde in the 1930’s particularly Modigliani. His interest in modernism made him a controversial figure yet he was denied the acclaim which he deserved. In the post war years he became sidelined largely due to the promotion of Henry Moore by the then Director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clarke.

The rest of the collection consists chiefly of drawings and works on paper – minor works perhaps but many are worth close study. A nicely handled drawing by Sickert of St. Marks Square freely drawn in pencil overlaid with watercolour washes. Then a small watercolour of Westminster Bridge with detail subtly added with diluted ink.

Another favourite is a small etching of riverside buildings at Chelsea. Whistler is mostly known by his loosely handled Nocturnes – sand also the controversial ‘Cremorne Gardens, the Falling Rocket.’ This little etching shows him to be a sound draughtsman. An artist who has learned his craft so well is entitled to display a little cockney impudence and fling a pot of paint in the public’s face occasionally. Ruskin, who was invariably right in his comments on art, was wrong in his assessment of Whistler.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

I’ve currently been working on a pastel sketch that I made some years ago on a painting course run by Claire Spencer PS at Westhope College in Shropshire. I think it was Claire’s suggestion to use a portrait format for an in situ pastel sketch of a view along Wenlock Edge. That did not present any particular problem but I never really resolved the composition satisfactorily and my enthusiasm for the painting went off the boil. I discovered the unfinished picture in a folder of work and decided that I ought to take another look at it.

The decision to work on it again was encouraged by my current preoccupation with ‘Land and Light’ as a progressing theme and the happy memories of the late summer weather when it was begun. Thinking about a strategy my first idea was to catch the sunlight on the rising slopes of Wenlock Edge. The second was to simplify the foreground in some way. In the original sketch there was a broken hedge in the foreground. I had been lured by its rampant summer growth much of which had gone to seed. The seed heads created interesting forms but they were really a distraction - but what to do?

The solution was found by simply playing! The joy of pastel is the pleasure taken in just making marks - it offers almost unlimited possibilities to rub, blend, scrape, and add new marks at will. So the first task was to rub out the hedge by making random marks with dark pastels and blending them – great fun. Then the thought occurred that a grassy path emerging from shade would create a simple foreground that would emphasise the feeling of sunlight on the rising ground beyond. All that remained then was to create a little more interest in the sky and enjoy a little more creative mark making in the fields with complementary colours.

After an hour or so of total absorption I felt the painting was finished – and as Alwyn Crawshaw used to say at the end of his TV demonstrations, ‘”I’m happy with that!”

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Whenever possible I try to avoid using fixative because it can create problems. Too heavy application renders the paper surface hard and smooth which makes further drawing and blending difficult. The problem can be solved when using robust grounds like board by roughing the surface with fine sandpaper. This happened when I applied fixative to the face and hair – fortunately Canson is a heavy robust paper which can take a certain amount of rough treatment so no real harm was done.

For this portrait an intermediate fix was needed to seal the underdrawing and prevent it lifting and soiling the final marks. Faces generally have to be highly worked in order to render the subtle tones created around the eyes, nose and mouth. Even the lightest pastel sticks make strong marks which have to be softened when drawing delicate forms. This detail from the completed portrait shows the degree finish that can be achieved.

My strategy was to treat crown of the hat and nightdress more loosely to focus attention on face. The best laid plans though collapse if you get too engrossed in mark making. I began suggesting the straw weave of the hat and the marks took over – I could have brushed them off of course but I was beguiled by the effect they created so it was too late.

Framing is another aspect of the craft of painting that I agonise over. Victor Ambrus lovely pastel drawings on light tinted Ingres paper look fine in a wide ivory mount inside a narrow frame. A full painterly treatment needs a different form of presentation. I had to hand a wide frame which had a gold finish, a slip made from a length of glass bead was used to separate glass and painting. There was a problem – the painting would need to be cropped.

I believe portrait heads need space within the frame if they are not to look imprisoned. The role model who led me to this conclusion is Goya, his head and shoulder portraits are all drawn sight size and the chest is often fully facing the viewer. The width of the shoulders then creates the required space for the head. I had drawn a sideways pose and I think the wide brimmed oversize hat created just sufficient space to allow the painting to be satisfactorily cropped to fit the smaller frame.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The attractive qualities of pastel are its directness and the textural marks which are possible with the medium. With a portrait currently on my easel I began to consider strategies which might be implemented to bring the painting to a conclusion. It helps when deciding on a particular approach to look at examples. One valuable source of reference is ‘Pastel Painting and Drawing 1898-2000’ published by The Pastel Society to celebrate the Society’s Centenary Exhibition.

The book illustrates some fine examples of portraits done by PS members which display the broad range of techniques which can be used with pastel. Ken Paine is an artist who tackles his portrait heads in a vigorous direct manner. The faces seem to emerge from a flurry of textural marks. His subjects are usually old, hirsute, and with ‘character.’ In contrast Victor Ambrus portraits are essentially light firm drawings with hints of colour in the face and parts of the clothing. The linear approach he adopts is ideal for recording detail.

Between these two extremes are portraits which have highly worked parts – usually the face – and more more loosely treated areas which exploit the dry textural nature of the chalk. I decided that this would be the best strategy for a portrait of a child where the skin is smooth with subtle tonal contrast best achieved by blending the coloured marks made by the pastels. Background and clothing could be given looser treatment.

Friday, January 28, 2005

I’ve temporarily abandoned studies of birds to return to a portrait that is in danger of going off the boil. I began it last summer prompted by the sight of my granddaughter dressed in my wife’s nightdress and her straw sunhat. Most children love dressing up and this one is no exception but recording them in their fancy dress is not easy except with a camera. Reliance on photographic references becomes essential since the first tentative drawing was made over six months ago.

The portrait has progressed to the point where major corrections to the pose have been made, one of these – to the outline of the hat – still shows. She is turned away from the light and the face for the most part is lit by reflected light. This creates subtle contrasts of tone around the eyes and nose which I hope to record rather - dare I say – in the way that Rembrandt did!

I’ve gone for a full painterly treatment in pastel on the reverse side of a grey Canson paper – preferring this to the ‘correct’ side which has an insistent regular grain that breaks into textural marks. The work has progressed to the point where I’m beginning to consider an intermediate fix. I’m always reluctant to use fixative preferring to scrape down to the ground when I can. I don’t think I will be able to do this on Canson because the rubbed blends and corrections have filled the grain of the paper. Little can be done that is not likely to damage the paper surface.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

This digital image was made from a photograph of a 2005 calendar published by Hawksworth Graphic and Print Ltd. The calendar was one of the most appreciated gifts I received at Christmas - it is now hanging on my studio wall and is a delight and inspiration. The illustrations are by Leonard Squirrel RWS, RE. who has long been one of my favourite watercolourists. He taught etching and engraving at the Ipswich School of Art and exhibited at the Royal Academy for around 50 years. He was born in 1893 yet he was not elected a full member of the RWS until 1941 – a surprising fact which shows how persistent and determined you have to be to progress in the art world.

He belonged to a generation which produced fine landscape painters like Jack Merriott, Stanley Buckle, and Stanley Badmin. They never get a mention in the scholarly art history books and rarely feature in exhibitions in public galleries - yet they were all very prolific artists making a living from commissions and sales of their work.One of the best ways to become familiar with their work is to look at Greg Norman’s book ‘Landscape Under the Luggage Rack.’

The illustration shows a watercolour ‘The Street, Kersey, Suffolk’ painted in 1960. It is a fine example of a class of English watercolour which use controlled washes over a fine drawing. The detail reveals the method but it is hard to decide if the tiles are drawn with a pen or a fine brush superimposed on the wash or beneath it. The choice of instrument and order of application is a matter of the artist’s preference. Jack Merriott advocated the use of a brush drawing in Indian ink with superimposed washes of colour.

Interest in the work of these artists declined as amateur artists engaged with the looser style of Seago and Wesson. Although both artists developed a loose understated method of working this was underpinned by close observation. Wesson in particular could draw well and it is fatal to try and imitate their style if you can’t. So many of the Wesson ‘look alikes’ in amateur exhibitions suffer from a badly drawn beginning.

I meet artists who are excited by the concept of developing new ways of using watercolour - extending its boundaries. Then I often recall a comment by Milan Kundera which I once read. He questioned whether 'the never before expressed is always ahead of us – may it not be found from something which has gone before and has been overlooked?' Artists like Leonard Squirrel tend to be overlooked but there is much in their work which can be rediscovered.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A poster announcing an exhibition called ‘Cuoto on Netsuke’ caught my eye at the Museum and Art Gallery in Hereford so I made a brief visit. Netsuke are small Japanese beads used to secure objects to a belt. They are highly decorative objects and very beautiful Cuoto turned out to be an artist who was showing large engravings influenced by traditional Japanese themes. Of more interest were the woodcuts of birds and flowers. Although they were described by the exhibition catalogue as realistic, to modern eyes accustomed to photographic images that seemed inappropriate. There charm springs from the limitations imposed on the artist by the medium he is using. Details of colour and texture have to be suggested rather than accurately recorded. For artistic rather than scientific purposes this is not a handicap and they can be enjoyed for their directness and honesty of purpose. These are qualities that distinguish the best hand made artifacts and which give them value.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I’ve just enrolled for a Wildlife Drawing and Painting Course at Ludlow Museum. The museum has a good collection of bird specimens that are interesting to draw. Our tutor Angela Gladwell MArt (RCA) is pushing us in the direction of careful observation and accurate recording. Good basic principles once instilled into art students in the life class. Drawing museum specimens is a good discipline. It’s more like drawing from the antique casts that were once used to prepare students for the life class than drawing a living breathing model.

That said it is a worth while form of study and a lot easier than drawing birds in the wild. I’ve tried drawing garden birds and visitors to our bird table and also puffins at their nesting burrows on Skomer. This is essential study if you want to capture a sense of how birds move, perch, or feed but there is no substitute for having a mounted specimen to study anatomy and plumage. I’ve only ever managed to record such details in a very superficial way in the brief time you get to observe from life.

Having tried sketching birds from life I never cease to be amazed by Charles Tunnicliffe’s sketchbooks. The published sketchbooks are a good source of reference and I’ve learned a lot about drawing techniques from making copies from them. Another artist I greatly admire is Victor Ambrus who makes drawings to reconstruct the buildings excavated by Channel 4’s Time Team.

Victor is also a prolific book illustrator and he has published ‘Drawing Animals’ a book which describes his method of sketchng animals from life. All of his drawings were done at various locations using carbon pencils. I’ve found it instructive to make copies from these by following his methods.

These quick studies copy the style of each of these two fine artists – a brush drawing based on an illustration from Tunnicliffe’s ‘Peregrine Sketchbook’ and a Macaw from ‘Drawing Animals’ by Victor Ambrus.

Angela Gladwell’s web site is also worth a visit at

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Compared to the practical humanitarian work that needs to be done to help the broken communities recover from the Tsunami disaster painting suddenly seemed to be a useless and irrelevant activity. The enthusiasm for painting left me completely as the daily news bulletins carried more and more horrific images. Then I saw aid workers helping children to face up to their horrific experiences by drawing. So there is a place for art even in the midst of complete chaos to help people overcome the trauma of disaster. Where words cannot be found to record the emotional nightmare perhaps images can.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Year’s Day seems to be a good time to post a Blog. The last day of 2004 saw the arrival of the Pastel Society’s Newsletter – always an interesting though rather brief read. Roger Dellar, the Editor made reference to ‘Degas, Art in the Making’ - an exhibition currently on show at the National Gallery. Degas late pastels are a source of inspiration for anyone using the medium. He frequently used tracing paper as a support. He made use of it to create mirror images of the poses of his drawings of dancers. In this way he could create varied figure compositions from just a few simple poses. He seems to have resorted to this practice as his eyesight began to fail and he was no longer able to go to the ballet.

Degas also used canvas as a support for pastels – a practice which is hardly ever used today. Sickert, who studied with Degas, criticises this practice in his book ‘Open House.’ because of the risk of damage through vibration. He has a point if a traditional stretched canvas is used but the risk is greatly reduced if the canvas is glued to board.

There are valid creative reasons for exploring the properties of different grounds for pastels. Roger Dellar states the case nicely in his Editorial. ‘I find myself being more and more concerned with the paint surfaces, textures, mark making, and also the composition.’ Painting begins with the preparation of a ground suited to the subject being portrayed. The use of prepared pumice grounds and materials such as canvas offer choices which extend the range of the medium. Degas seems to have been aware of this and in his late pastels he produced some of his most exciting paintings.