Thursday, March 30, 2006

Brian Sewell is a class act – but there’s surely something more to him.

I’ve been entertained by Brian Sewell’s television series on ‘The Grand Tour’ and enjoying his comment on the Italian locations visited by wealthy English gentry in the 17-1800’s. Sewell loves comfort and admires elegance and refinement. A choppy crossing of the Bay of Naples that induces queasiness and the wild untamed crater of Vesuvius are anathema. He’s at his knowledgeable best when commenting on the fine arts using carefully groomed manner.

The trouble is that the measured delivery and slowly enunciated words make him a bit aloof - you never feel you are getting to know the real man. On camera his act does not allow him to say certain words. Quoting a letter from the Earl of Mar describing the boredom of life at the exiled court of the deposed King James he had to explain an obscure word. It means the same as that word which begins with ‘f’ and ends in ‘king’ he explains. The brash Australian critic Robert Hughes would have had no hesitation in saying the word which Sewell took pains to avoid.

Somewhere between Paestum and Venice travelling the length of the Apennines Sewell’s producer persuaded him to talk about incidents that happened when he made this journey in a group of graduate students. Given a room where four boys were expected to sleep in one bed; driving an old Vauxhall Velox up a street so narrow the car almost jammed between the walls of opposite houses to an impasse where the only way out was down a long flight of steps. Reliving the memory brought a subtle change of body language and the haughty manner and measured diction slipped – just a little.

Behind the act there was a guy who had lived and had fun like the rest of us. I was left with the feeling that off camera and relaxed he would be good company.

Monday, March 27, 2006

'Il Divino’ at his magnificent best.

A visit to the Sistine Chapel needs an early start – a bus from Piazza di Porta Maggiore takes a ‘scenic’ route directly through the ancient heart of Rome and crosses the Tiber at the Victor Emmanuell II Bridge to a stop a few minutes away from St. Peter’s Square. It was Wednesday and the Pope was due to conduct mass – the faithful pilgrims crowding into the Square were being welcomed in their native language to appreciative cheers. Fewer then in the queues for the Cappella Sistina perhaps!

Crowd management at the Vatican Museum entrance is slick and well organised involving airport style security. Once through the admission procedure it is important to remain focussed and not get sidetracked by papal artefacts acquired over the centuries. I kept my eyes raised appropriately heavenwards admiring the gloriously painted ceilings in the corridors. None compares with what Michelangelo achieved in the Sistine though.

Despite the distraction of the moving crowds it is a moving experience to look up at the ceiling then take in the scale of the ‘Last Judgment’ on the altar wall. I grabbed the first vacant space on the marble bench which runs the length of the chapel wall and sat for a long time and gazed. There is too much to take in of course all you can do is savour the atmosphere of the place then come home and study a text with good illustrations.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Moses horns seem an odd icon to modern eyes

Little more than a stone’s throw from the Colosseum is the Church of St. Peter in Chains where there is a treasure that will have to await a future visit. It contains Michelangelo’s statue of Moses carved when he was 30 as part of a monumental tomb for Julius II. Even in a photograph the figure is powerful and striking. The locks of hair that fall from the shoulders are rendered soft and pliable – remarkable given the hard marble material from which they are carved.

The statue bears a mark below the knee apparently caused when Michelangelo threw his chisel at the work and screamed “Why don’t you talk?” The story is plausible given Michelangelo’s fiery temperament and the pitch of emotional intensity at which he worked. Lifelike and powerful though the figure is it is not hard to imagine him being frustrated by some subtle nuance that was eluding him.

Although Michelangelo took painting and sculpture to new heights he was always conscious of tradition. The portrayal of Moses with ‘horns’ was a curious medieval icon which Michelangelo continued to use. They seem strange to a contemporary eye and make Moses appear diabolical.

The origin or meaning of Moses horns is obscure. Exodus records an occasion when after talking with God on Sinai Moses face appeared to shine as he stood before his people. I came across an early painting in the Vatican Museum showing Moses displaying the stone tablets with golden rays emanating from his temples - a primitive painterly ploy to depict Moses shining face perhaps. Maybe Michelangelo was seeking a sculptural alternative to suggest Moses’ shining face.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Roman Blog

It was Sheila's idea, "I'd love a trip to Rome." she said. So it had to be - I didn't need to be persuaded. A no frills Easy Jet flight from East Midlands Airport got us installed in the Hotel Bled by 12.00 on the day of departure, leaving the rest of the day to explore. In Rome you are immediately made aware of how a civilised society planned and built the city when northern Europe was barbarian. The old aqueducts which once carried water into the city are everywhere and only breached by the main through routes. It was time for an exploration to get our bearings.

A ten minute walk along a busy road assailed by the deafening sound of city traffic brought the imposing facade of St. John Lateran into view. The figure of Christ holding the Cross of Redemption holds the central position on the parapet. St. John Lateran is Christendom's earliest basilica dedicated by Constantine to Jesus the Saviour. The interior is a delight - Italian churches are well lit compared with the dark cathedrals of Northern Europe and they make good decorative use of local stone and marble. This Church is a bit special - the adjacent Lateran Palace was the home of the Popes until they were forced into exile to Avignon.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Watercolour to Acrylic: a seamless change
I find myself evolving a working method which moves between traditional gum Arabic based watercolour and fluid acrylic. Why? – well I like the loose way in which watercolour can be used to begin a painting with colours floated on to wet paper and pushed around or sponged out. Then I like the strong vibrant colours and opacity that are some of the characteristics of acrylic.

It is possible to build up strong vibrant colours in watercolour by repeated application of lots of pure washes but it is a time consuming and hazardous process – the underlayers can all too easily be disturbed. Then there is the attraction of playing off transparency against opacity in different parts of the painting – or floating transparent washes over opaque passages – a method similar to the glazing method frequently used by oil painters.

There remains the question of how to describe the results of this way of working in exhibition catalogues. Mixed media is a description most often used where pastel or chalk is combined with watercolour or gouache so doesn’t appeal. Watercolour/Acrylic is clumsy and neither one thing or the other. So the simple description ‘Water Media’ is the one I think I will use for exhibition catalogue entries - with an explanatory note added to the label on the back.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

tapping my tablet in Painter IX
Getting to grips with Painter IX and what it offers is clearly going to need time and practice. The range of ‘brush’ styles available is daunting for a start so fitting in the occasional short session between more orthodox painterly activities is not going to work.

The on-line tutorials and the printed ones in the handbook are very helpful but I’ve decided that unless I devise a simple basic working method that enables me to achieve good results the potential of this marvellous piece of software will elude me. Exploring the properties of a range of different brushes in an unsystematic way is not much help.

Using a clone of a photograph with the tracing paper function described in the tutorials proved to be too complicated. So I settled for inserting a clone of the photograph on a new layer above the canvas – but I’ve no idea what happened to the tracing paper. Then adding new layers for each stage of the painting process, sketch, underpainting, and so on gave a hint of a simple working method I could manage.

So my standard procedure for now is to create a ‘canvas’ with a light textured ground, copy a sketch onto a new layer above it and develop the painting on successive layers. Sometimes the linear qualities of the sketch enable simple transparent colour enhancements to be added. With others overworking can cover the original drawing as in an oil or pastel painting.

It’s a marvellous way of developing drawings and colour studies for working up in water media or pastel without getting your hands dirty. As Alwyn Crawshaw used to say “I’m happy with that.”
dianna ponting: pastel workshops
I received an email yesterday from Dianna Ponting a Canadian Pastel Painter who I introduced to readers of my blog back in January. Dianna is givng a series of Pastel Workshops at some venues in the UK and Ireland. Which I am sure will interest lovers of the medium.

Details can be found on her website at: Dianna Ponting: Pastel Workshops