Thursday, 16 June 2011

My blogs have moved!

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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Watercolour paintings from a recent trip to Cuba

First thoughts on Havana

Imagine taking the wonderful, captivating, exciting architecture of Fortnum and masons’ in London’s Mayfair, emptying it out, then leaving it to rot for 30 years and finally moving a pound shop in. That’s what almost the whole of Havana is like.

I admittedly this introduction reads as a disaster but there is something about this broken city that makes you fall in love with it.

My initial impression was wonder and fear in equal measure. Wonder because the standard of care in the architecture is very high and deliciously eccentric. Inexplicably mixing The Baroque, Gothic Revival and Art Nouveau in a single street. It should not work but somehow it just does. Whoever built Havana was clearly making a statement of civic pride, independence and prosperity as one sees in Seville or Barcelona.

And fear because although Havana is majestic it is also near derelict. You look down a dimly lit street, both sides littered with abandoned cars and abandoned dog’s. You can just pick out a gang of teenagers sitting on bins smoking and doing not a lot. Hmm do you go for a walk down here? Nope! You decide to try another street only to be greeted by more or less the same scene.

In the end you have to either stay inside or ‘risk it’. Once you do venture out however you realise you were viewing the world through Western European eyes. Clearly Havana has been neglected, though not by the people who live there. You soon realise they are just doing their best to get by and making the best of what they have. So despite appearances you soon discover walking about is pretty safe. Havana has much to offer for a city and too much to go into here though you get the best of music, people, architecture and if you are into Ernest Hemmingway or the early history of the Italian Mafia then Havana is a must.

The community
I decided I wanted to paint the average street in Havana. Just a normal community away from any tourist areas. In Western European cities your community does not live on your street it lives on your phone. Your street is the place where you sleep and hide from your community.

In Cuba most people do not have mobile phones and certainly no computers with the internet to be swallowed up by. That in combination with the tropical climate means a greater part of a Cubans day is spent on the street in front of their homes chatting and gossiping with the neighbours.

So when I sat up against a corrugated iron wall, pulled out by drawing board and began my picture I was noticed immediately. I was being studied with quiet long looks from doorways, the street and the balconies above. The whole street was looking at me. I confess I felt a slight renewing of the tension I experienced when I first arrived in Havana. I decided I would carry on and if they didn’t want me there I would just quietly retreat.

No matter where you paint in the world you are always approached first by the very old and the very young. After a few minutes an elderly man came out of his house and told me he liked my picture and he used to be an illustrator prior to his retirement. Another elderly man ran out of his house, handed me a photograph of a painting he did and before I had a chance to say thank you promptly ran back into his house again. I saw him a few minutes later peering at me over his balcony. I waved and said thanks. He smiled.

The children came next. You can tell the state of a community by the state of its children and these were spotlessly clean, well fed and stoically polite. There were three children initially and this later increased to ten. They organised themselves around so each had a decent view of the proceedings. Small at the front, large at the back. They would watch for half an hour or so, disappear for an hour to play and reappear later to see how things were going. Over the day I also chatted to many of the residents and I was made to feel very welcome and was even invited to a party. The parents liked me especially as I baby sat their kids all day!

The cars
Prior to visiting Cuba I was told that pre-Castro 1950’s American cars were still being used on a regular basis. I assumed these would be just a few tourist catching oddities as is the old Routemaster red bus is in London. Driven only for weddings and other special occasions.

On arrival however I could not have been more wrong. At least 20% of the traffic in Havana are these wonderful gas guzzling remnants of a bygone age.

Some are gleaming although most are battered, rumbling, consumptive old wrecks which evoke the long lost names of Mercury, Studebaker, Buick and Plymouth. Despite their state the owners clearly take pride in these vehicles and you can’t help wanting to cheer and clap when one of these heaps manages to stumble away from a traffic light for what must be near on the millionth time.

When they are not being driven they are being tinkered with and repaired. No surprises there as the whole of Cuba is in a permanent state of (dis)repair.

Slavery, Sugar plantations and the The Iznaga Tower
This tower was built in 1816 by Alejo Iznaga as an ‘Up yours’ single finger salute to his hated brother and rival Pedro who lived some ways across the valley. Beneath the tower Alejo also treated himself to a wonderful, airy and opulent mansion to reside in.

His 350 or so slaves however were forced to endure short, exhausting and miserable lives in wood and banana leaf huts under a searing tropical sun. One can only imagine what these hapless persons thought on the day their Lord and Master also hit on the wild idea of using his new tower as a spying point to ensure they are all working hard enough. As transgressors were spotted there would be a ringing of a large bell to gain attention, followed by the bellowing of chastisements and punishments dolled from the lofty height.

Alejo must have been a real neighbour from hell.

Making a living
For a communist country there certainly is a fair bit of free enterprise or be it on a small scale. Older Cubans tend to scratch a living either selling fruit, and cigars or occasionally posing for photographs for passing tourists.

Old men and young girls
Around the tourist hotels and pools in Havana it is not uncommon to see elderly European men with Cuban girls who are barely in their teens. These ‘couples’ appear oblivious to the neck breaking double takes they sponsor all around them.

Merely witnessing these relationships makes one feel uncomfortably complicit. 

Sunday, 27 March 2011

I am working on an oil painting of Brick Lane.

Well technically it is Sclater Street although most people will know it a part of Brick Lane market.

Brick Lane
Click on the image to see it larger

Like any area in transition there are quite distinctive parts. On the south side can be found the Bengali community who replaced the Jewish community, and in the north side you will find the self appointed Shoreditch trendy’s on fixed wheel bikes ‘Oh yeah! The maintenance is significantly reduced on fixed wheel, it’s a MUST buy!’ Jammed in between however is this tiny market. The only demography here seems to be poverty which is found in all shapes, ages and sizes.
Women chatting
Click on the image to see it larger

The new railway line above their heads is now linking London East to West and this is bringing in huge investments of area regeneration money. The significant word of course is ‘area’. As with most regeneration projects it is for the area and not for the people who live there. They will have to go and live elsewhere. So with rents rocketing all around them these people will not be here for much longer.

Man walking
Click on the image to see it larger

I drew the main part of the market and some of the locals: A friendly atmosphere. I considered taking out the four meter graffiti monkey head malevolently leering over us, In the end however I felt it was a rather fitting metaphor for the fate of this small community so in it stays.

Cello player
Click on the image to see it larger 

Friday, 18 March 2011

Threadneedle disaster at Southend-on-Sea and Clacton-on-Sea

At the weekend I went to Southend-on-Sea and Clacton-on-Sea to paint something for the Threadneedle Prize. I was most excited and planned it for weeks. This over planning was the beginning of the as yet unseen problem. In my ferment i had it all done it in my head first before checking the places out. I wanted it all too much.  Like the child that gets too excited about going to a party and ends up being sick 10 minutes after arrival and has to be taken home.

Well i got to Southend-on-Sea at 8.30 am on Sunday and quickly I became a mess. My Mojo completely deserted me and my pencil and paint went on strike. I was left wondering around eating chips and drinking tea out of a plastic cup. Defeated I decided to try Clacton-on-Sea for inspiration. I bet no one has said that before.

I got lost on the way and it took me two hours to get there. Clacton-on-Sea was worse than Clacton-on-Sea. An empty well!

Near the pier there is a Wetherspoons which was packed full of Sunday locals having cheap beer and food. It did not take the smokers outside and their children long to notice me. I occasionally get mistaken for a vagrant when i sit in the street drawing. Well here I don’t think they thought i was a vagrant but I just didn’t look like them. One girl of about 12 shouted “hey! You look like a twat” Her father guffawed with savage approval and her friend continued, a podgy whelp she was “Nice outfit!”. On it went while I was trying to draw. Dozy cider slapped faces idly gazing on, I was the only interesting thing to look at I presume.

I decided to go over to a shop window and draw me (more laughter) if only to see what the fuss was all about. I have not surprisingly a sad face and I do look different from them I suppose. I feel however “twat” was rather harsh.
 Click on the image to see it larger

It started to rain and left with nothing in the bag aside from some sardines I bought in a fish shop near the sea front. On the way back the windscreen wipers packed up and i almost got killed on the A13 at Dagenham.  

My life feels like an Alan Bennett short story. In fact as I read back what I have written I can hear his cosy northern brogue. ‘Ohh what will Mam say?’

To lick my wounds I decided to paint some of my Sardines. Satisfying to do. The trick is to get them looking shiny. Il have another, calmer go at the Threadneedle Prize next week.

Click on the image to see it larger 

Friday, 4 March 2011

finished oil painting of a family allotment

 In a previous blog or two i went through the process of how i build a painting up from the drawing stage. Since that time i have painted the picture and it sits below. You may notice there are a few changes since the initial  drawing. I have taken out the landscape at the back as i preferred the zig zag of the rooftops.. I have also taken out the two children because I felt that they cluttered the composition and the eye was left wondering about in the middle.

I don’t often change my mind at the  last minute though for this painting it was the right decision. The cabbages were great fun to do. I was surprised how much purple and lilac they contain.
Click on the image to see it larger 

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Arts - A laymans point of view

It all started with that latrine, you know the one, originally cast to be just another receptacle in the privies of Paris. Then in 1917 it was re-cast by Duchamp to take centre stage in a revolution. He signed it, interestingly not with own his name, and boldly declared that anything can be art. This simple act created a seismic shift in the world of sculpture which still resonates today.

The exhibition begins from 1920 just three years after Duchamp's ‘Fountain’ and ends at more or less the present day. It tracks the vibrant and creative the freedom the 20th Century released and also pin points, to my mind at least, the place where it all started to go wrong. More about this later.

The first rooms feature works by Barbara Hepworth, Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein next to their ancient, long dead influences. These artists flocked to the Victoria and Albert and British museums and drew on the powerful, passionate and raw influences they found and re interpreted them for a modern world. You can also clearly see the creative touchstones of Picasso’s genius pick-and plunder-and-mix approach to painting and sculpture. It was he after all that said ‘Great artists steal. ‘

The next room contains the single alabaster sculpture of Jacob Epstein’s ‘Adam’.

To me, Epstein represents Adam just seconds after nibbling on the forbidden fruit. Here we see him, awakened, head thrown back and charging smartly through Eden hunting down his Eve. Sporting, it has to be said, a vast, swinging, bludgeoning member. She, as yet unseen, pretending to run away!

The twin set and pearls crowd were stopped in their tracks. The shock of knowing where to look delivering the all too familiar ‘not knowing where to look’ feeling. Adam proudly uncaring shooed them into the next room only to be met by Queen Victoria, her un-amused face staring directly over our heads back at Adam. Surely this positioning was deliberate?

Adam and Victoria stare each other down
Click to see larger

Moving through, you will find ceramics followed by a room containing a single work by Henry Moore and another by Barbara Hepworth. Moore’s is a reclining, writhing androgynous figure and Hepworth’s a sharply worked stone facial silhouette. Both these pieces were created in the 1950s and you can see in both a desire to communicate to the whole of post-war Britain. A naive, optimistic place where they hoped to make it fit for heroes with a long awaited national health service and the Grammar schools which were soon to deliver us Alan Bennett, Mike Leigh and a fistful of Prime Ministers. Although these pieces are ‘accessible’ (now a dirty word) they are still challenging. They urge you to look again at the human figure and relook at the shapes and emotions we all exhibit and perform. ‘What am I like?.. really?’

Moore and Hepworth
Click to see larger

Where it goes wrong
Someone far smarter than me once said “You don’t just leave a job! You go to one”. Here, to me at least, there seems to be an abandonment of the figure in sculpture. Which is fine, but it needed to be replaced with something worthwhile. This to me (with the very rare example) has not happened.

This is the stage of exhibition where the visitors become more interesting than the exhibits. Here we have the ubiquitous pile of bricks by Carl Andre who is American anyway, which is snappily entitled ‘Equivalent VIII’. The visitors stand before it. Children snigger and adults squint and become confused and throw each other glances for re assurance as if to say ‘Tell me what to think’.

The highlight of the room was naturally Damien Hirst. He delivered to us a sealed glass room containing an abandoned BBQ with raw meat scattered about. In amongst this were thousands of flies and maggots feasting on the rotting food. Subsequently these flying, hapless exhibits were being lured in by an ultra violet light before finally succumbing to the merciless appetite of an eclectic insect killer.

The Hirst BBQ
Click to see larger

Like the footballers of today who once got buses to the match with their fans but now distance themselves from the plebs in monstrous cars with blacked out windows, here too the artists have distanced themselves with the smoke and mirrors of alleged intellectuality. This made all the more obvious with the sublime beauty of Moore and Epstein just meters away.

I suppose many will say that the great creative tide of the late 20th century has completely washed over me. I have disappeared beneath the waves while above Cap’n Emin and Boson Opie ride high and dry down Dean Street for another celebratory rum ration at Grouchos. I don’t feel like that. I feel like the tide has gone out to an arid scratch on the horizon and I’m sitting on the abandoned beach sniffing a latrine and only Damien’s flies for company.

Now there’s a painting!

Exhibition runs from:
22nd Januray to the 7th April

Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House
London W1J 0BD
Royal Academy of Arts opening times

10am-6pm Saturday-Thursday (last admission to galleries 5.30pm)
10am-10pm Friday (last admission to galleries 9.30pm) 

Saturday, 15 January 2011

getting a painting onto board

I paint on board. This is first primed with the acrylic gesso. I paint the gesso on with two or three coats. Once dry it forms a tough and forgivable surface to take oil paint. Now I need to get my composition onto the board.

My work does not go edge to edge. I choose only what is needed and simply leave out everything else. This creates A void of white. Many artists use voids to focus the eye though these voids are more often very dark or even black. Caravaggio would probably be the greatest exponent of this technique.

To get my void I trace around the outer edge of the composition in the centre of the board and mask out the outer area to preserve the white. Painting straight onto white can make colours look jumpy, sharp and somehow unrelated to each other. So I paint on a ground of dark brown which will give the final painting a warmer and more harmonious feel.

While the brown ground is still wet I place my drawing over the top and tape it down. Taking a 5H pencil I trace over the drawing. Drawing over the top has the affect of making the oil paint stick to the back of the paper. This leaves a white outline of the composition when I lift it off. Once this is dry I have a clear idea of where you need to paint and it will never rub out or shift. I can now begin the painting.

adding all the elements together for a painting

All the separate elements of the painting are finally pulled together in the composition. There is no real rule on how to achieve this aside from moving things around, re tracing, looking at it all in a mirror and eventually it just starts to 'work'. This process can be a little frustrating and always seems to take me twice as long as I first estimated. It gets there in the end though. Time to paint at last. 

creating a composition

Once the characters have been created they are placed into a series of small compositions. Though these will make a larger painting, each smaller composition has to work in itself. Each can be separated out and make a single painting on its own. I feel this helps the eye move across the whole painting comfortably.

Click on the image to view it larger

Click on the image to view it larger


Click on the image to view it larger

Monday, 10 January 2011

the beginnings of an oil painting

I though I would blog the process I use in developing an oil painting.

Initially it begins with a very simple idea or message. This is often very loose and oddly for a painter who paints a lot of architecture the characters can come first. These are often based on people who I have met or seen as a normal part of my day. They are often drawn on the spot, simply developed at home without any reference or photographed if I have a camera handy. All pretty rough at this stage.

I have started to put together some ideas on characters I may want to use below. Many will be abandoned for good or reincarnated in a later picture.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

norman rockwell's america from the 15 december - 27 march 2011. a layman's point of view

In between Christmas and New Year I took a freezing trip south of the river (always scary for a North Londoner) to the Dulwich Picture Gallery (DPG) to see the Norman Rockwell exhibition.

Although the DPG is tricky to get to and no doubt suffers as a consequence, it is an ideal space to show an exhibition of Rockwell, as once inside the gallery, you firstly have to pass through the gallery’s permanent exhibition of old masters. Here you are treated to what are clearly some of Rockwell’s key influences. The collection has some fine Rembrandts, A room featuring Poussin with all his theatre and a great personal treat for me, the mood gripping brush of Velasquez in the shape of a portrait of King Philip IV of Spain. Philip of the doomed Hapsburg dynasty which not long after disappeared down an interbreeding induced plug hole. All these and more are a fine introduction to Rockwell and well worth the trip on their own.

A bit about Norman
 Norman Percevel Rockwell was born on February 3, 1894 in New York. As a child he showed huge early promise and enthusiasm as an illustrator and was working professionally by the time he was 18. His unique style was developed illustrating magazines and books. His first big break came in 1916 gaining a commission to illustrate the national Saturday Evening Post. He went on to regularly illustrate the Saturday Evening Post for an astonishing 47 years with 323 covers until 1963. The Ken Barlow of art! This body of work in the process, making him the most popular American illustrator of the 20th Century. Testament to this was Rockwell's Breaking Home Ties which sold for $15.4 million at a 2006 Sotheby’s auction.

His style became so well known that it even had its own name ‘Rockwellian’. This being a ubiquitous view of America somewhere in between the Waltons and Little House on the Prairie with handfuls of Mom’s of apple pie jammed in between the gaps should any reality dare to peep through. This way of seeing is the essence of what has made Norman Rockwell loved and vilified in equal measure.

The Exhibition
There are 40 original paintings spanning the whole of Rockwell’s career placed in loose chronological order. Adding to this, along one long wall are copies of all 323 covers of the Saturday Evening Post. Whatever one may think of Rockwell, you cannot help but be impressed by such an extensive body of work and he clearly put everything he had into each one.

Click on the image to see it larger

I had only seen copies of Rockwell’s paintings before now and these were often reproductions of the Saturday Evening Post. I believe I was subconsciously expecting the originals to be marginally sepia and around 40 cms tall. I could not have been more wrong.

The first painting you see is at least 80cm high and is entitled ‘The Volunteer Fireman’. A portrayal of a man and boy running to quench a fire which is out of shot. Typically Rockwell in composition, exhibiting his genius in telling a huge story in a single scene. Why do we know the boy is his son and not just a passer by? That just has to be the family dog and not a stray, no doubt about it. The father is rushing to put the fire out and his son is rushing to see a bigger fire.
The colours are brilliant and vibrant. Rockwell has used the trick of putting the opposite shades of red and green together so they excite and rebound against each other. The blaze is massive and very hot. A fantastic piece of illustration.
Click on the image to see it larger

An illustrator has no time for the viewers to ponder the image, quietly stroking their chins as one would in a gallery. It has to shout its message over the din and jostle of the magazine rack and ‘The Volunteer Fireman’ exhibits this skill perfectly and is an object lesson for anyone wishing to a pursue a career in illustration.

All through the exhibition you are treated to a master of brushwork and the expressive skill of characterisation. Particular favourites of mine being:

  • The Charwomen in the theatre
  • The bridge game
  • Threading the Needle
Click on the image to see it larger
The politics
I don’t think you can go to a Norman Rockwell exhibition without looking at the political context. If he just stuck to Mark Twain books then politics would not be an issue. He did however work for media publications.

It needs to be emphasized that the Saturday Evening Post was not a current affairs magazine featuring the latest news and politics. It was essentially a showcase for short stories, hence the Rockwell covers. Over the years it featured authors such as::
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Agatha Christie
  • William Faulkner
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • John Steinbeck
That said, I did my best to look through all 323 covers of the Saturday Evening Post (I may be wrong as there were so many) and it appears that The Post missed out the entire Vietnam War where the USA endured 58,000 dead. And the only non white person I saw was an African American as a railway porter overloaded with suitcases.

For me, the illustrations individually are delicious although what they leave out the as a 47 year body of work feels rather disturbing.

This exhibition gives a fascinating visual touchstone on how certain elements of America still wants to see itself, what it believes in and consequently what it is prepared to defend. This is deep within the conservative politics of  The USA.
“We're going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”
George H. W. Bush

But is it real? Was it ever real? Of course the answer is no. And that is how Rockwell should be viewed. An illustrator painting unreality.

A footnote on Norman
I have been an illustrator myself and as I wrote this I couldn’t help thinking that if my editor scythed out vast swathes of history I don’t think I could have carried on. Digging a little deeper, I found that there was a bit more to Norman that meets the eye so to speak. He had a life long struggle with depression and may have been bipolar (manic depressive) He was treated for depression by renowned analyst Erik Erikson, who said that “He painted his happiness, but did not live it”. Alongside this, his wife drank herself to death. Hardly ‘Rockwellian’!

There may be a small clue to this in the shape of a painting which was produced for an advert but never used. A sullen and isolated little girl staring out at us surrounded by adults set in a dark background looking at her intently.
Click on the image to see it larger
This surely could only be suitable for advertising the NSPCC! Truly disturbing.
Maybe his work was his escape? He painted a bright, happy optimistic world for decades to chase away the demons of real living? An escapist? I don’t know.

To summarise
I do not, like many totally blame Rockwell for an airbrushing of reality worthy of Stalin himself. I remind myself that he was not an artist. He was an illustrator working for a ‘Today’s news is tomorrow’s apple pie paper’ short stories magazine which was in a sales scrap just like any other publication. He had to deliver exactly what was needed for 47 years within briefs so tight that they would make Tom Jones squint. That is how he needs to be seen and he did it brilliantly.

Monday, 3 January 2011

drawings for the bath art prize

We went to Bath over the new year and I took time out to get wrapped up and get a few sketches together as a spot of pre planning for the Bath Art Prize in the summer. I am not sure which one i shall do yet.

I think I will go back in the spring to have another look and make my decision then. In the meant time here they are.

london seen – nine man show 10 january – 10 february 2011

At the LLEWELLYN ALEXANDER (Fine Paintings) LTD London

I have a water colour exhibition at the Llewellyn Alexander in Waterloo. All six are scenes of London. Do pop along if you have the time. Chase away the January blues!

"Familiar and unusual scenes of London by this group of nine well-established artists: Dianne Branscombe, Roy Connelly, Lisa Graa Jensen, Mark Harrison, Terry McKivragan, Liam O’Farrell, Nancy Petley-Jones, Nadia Tsakova and Robert E Wells. Oils & Watercolours."

Leadenhal Market

Whitechapel Market

Gallery Open 10am to 7:30pm Monday to Saturday:
124 -126 The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 8LN UK (Opposite the Old Vic Theatre)
Tel: 0207 620 1322/1324 Fax: 0207 928 9469