One small step


Plums on a handmade plate (25cms x 22cms acrylic and pencil on board 2016)

For me, this painting represents a step forward and a loosening of the creative ties that bind. It may not seem that remarkable – three plums on an asymmetrical handmade plate can only say so much! – but it’s not a result I would have been happy with a year ago.

My ambition in still life painting is to achieve certain things: accurately representing what lies before me isn’t one of them. You know what a plum looks like; nothing I can tell you about a plum will make it more profound; however painstakingly I try to reproduce the plum in all its shades and textures and colours it will never look as beautiful as the plum that sits there on that off-white plate.

Instead I offer you my graphic interpretation of a plum. It suggests a certain plum-ness, but like the gages I painted a few weeks ago, you wouldn’t mistake it for the real thing. None of this is new, but what makes it a breakthrough for me is that I didn’t try to tidy it all up.

I thought the red shape behind the plate of plums enhanced the composition, even though it represents nothing concrete in real life. I flattened the perspective of the surface that the plate sits on even though the plate itself is somewhat elliptical. And I painted a line across the top that my art teacher in school would have said was a compositional error had he been interested enough to say anything at all!

So, although this isn’t perfect it is exactly how I wanted it to be, knowing that it wasn’t perfect. When that happens, as the composer Jean Sibelius once said, it’s as if God has thrown down pieces of mosaic from the floor of heaven and asked you to reassemble them on earth. When the hundred small decisions go well in your own small picture, as Felix Scheinberger has it, it’s almost as if you’d discovered the pattern in heaven’s mosaic! I hope you agree.



Frankfurt in October

Autumn leaf 1509 blog

Autumn Leaf (A4 ink and watercolour 2014)

Every year in October I travel to Frankfurt for the book fair. It’s an inspiring time to be in Germany. The days are often warm, as if the summer can’t bear to let go, but the trees are already starting to turn red, gold and brown.

How often have I picked up a particularly beautiful leaf and put it somewhere – intending to draw or paint it later – then forgetten about it, finding a brown and shrivelled thing weeks later. This time of year is transience made visible, when everything changes from day to day, nature drawing down the shutters for winter.

The book fair is an international expression of creativity. The world’s publishers set out their stalls in five or six halls, some with three floors per hall. Those of us who are mainly English-speaking can only feel humbled walking through, say, the Norwegian or Dutch sections, seeing books by writers largely unknown outside of their own languages. There is so much that we can never know.

On the theme of creativity, this morning I read an interview with the conductor, Simon Rattle, in the Sueddeutscher Zeitung magazine. He described how, when conducting, the music is felt in every part of the body. He mentioned a conversation between Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn. “How are you, Andre?” asked Bernstein. “OK,” Previn replied, “But I have terrible backache.” “Really?” Bernstein gasped, “I had no idea you were so successful!”


I must remember…


I Must Remember (24cms x 20cms ink and watercolour 2016)

When I was younger no-one talked of seasonal affective disorder: a cynic would say that giving something a name enables someone to sell you something to alleviate it. Whether it is real or just a way to pharmaceuticalise that feeling that winter may never end, it is the case that many of us endure winter rather than enjoy it.

Where I live, with its typical northern European sea climate, the peaks and troughs of the seasons are somewhat levelled, but when I was growing up in the north of England and later, living in the south of Germany, the seasons were more clear cut.

And winter brings its own rewards. What could be better than a crisp morning with the frost on the grass and a thin mist hanging in the trees; or that peculiar silence when you wake to discover that it has snowed overnight; or even a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon with a log fire and a DVD of The Big Country or that book you’ve been meaning to read?

I saw these cobnuts and thought their papery husks would lend themselves to the looser approach to still life painting that I’m trying to develop. The words, taken from The Thrush by Edward Thomas:

I must remember

What died in April

And consider what will be born

Of a fair November

actually refer to memory, language and perception, but could easily be a call to mindfulness, to living in the moment, to appreciating the seasons as they arrive with their gains and losses. After all, what else is there to do?



Into Autumn


Sunflowers (30cms x 40cms pastel 2016)

So that’s probably it for summer: the evenings have acquired a chill edge as soon as the sun drops behind the trees; the gardens and hedges have that exhausted, end-of-the-season look about them.

Last week a neighbour placed a pot containing an extravagant sunflower by her front door, its big bright face a last celebration of summer colours before the winter comes. I was inspired by this to try an abstract pastel drawing of the three sunflowers wilting in a vase in our hallway, something a little more free-form – perhaps in the spirit of Joan Mitchell (woefully under-represented at the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show, I thought).

In the end though, these chaps came out looking more art deco than New York School, perhaps with a memory of 1960s curtain fabric. I’m not sure how successful this was: perhaps acrylic or even watercolour would have been a better choice of medium than pastel, like this from a few years ago:


or this one from Kate Osborne. Anyway, I offer it as a reminder of the summer just passed before the season of fallen leaves, quinces and russets.







The Imposter of Wolfenbüttel


The Imposter of Wolfenbüttel (15cms x 10cms collage and watercolour 2007)

I admire artists who can handle collage with ease and assurance, especially those who combine it with drawing or painting.

I stumbled on a wonderful Ralph Steadman retrospective at the Society of Illustrators in New York City last weekend, whose illustrations for Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary take the technique to an extraordinary level of invention. The acclaimed German illustrator, Christoph Niemann, has also developed his own way of combining drawing and collage in a series of photo-drawings.

My own attempts have been infrequent and on a more modest scale. The example above is about ten years old and based on a simple grid pattern. The material was ‘borrowed’ largely from the annual report of the Herzog August library in Wolfenbüttel along with some other medieval and one or two more modern pieces. I was so pleased with it because within the grid there is a rough ellipse created either by the outside or the underside of each piece.

Why is it called The Imposter? Because one piece is different from the rest, yet it tries to pass itself off as if it belongs.


Man on a Train


Man on a Train (A4 ink and watercolour 2016)

Although the above isn’t a self-portrait – it was drawn from a photograph I took secretly of a man on a local train – on Thursday I will be a man on a train. Having flown over to Rochester NY yesterday, I’ll be travelling down by Amtrak to meet a client in Hudson in the morning, and then on to New York City for more meetings.

The themes of change and endings have been on my mind a great deal lately. I’ve always embraced change with enthusiasm: moving from country to country and job to job with a sense of adventure. There have been some profound sadnesses along the way, but I always believed that we are generally a creative and resourceful species and that in the end things work out. Lately the changes have been somewhat out of my control and, as I heard last week during a course on Well-being in the Workplace, control over one’s situation is essential to peace of mind.

My stay in Rochester has been somewhat piognant, as it’ll probably be my last in the bed and breakfast inn at 428 Mount Vernon. The elegant, quiet Mount Vernon has been my home from home in Rochester for most of my visits there over the past 15 years, but the owners, Phil and Claire, have decided to retire.

It has always felt like far more than a hotel: I usually stay in the same peaceful room with a view out over the garden, watching the northern cardinals on the bird feeders and the chipmunks scurrying through the undergrowth; the breakfasts are, as I’ve described before, the perfect start to the day; and a visit in election year always includes a robust political discussion with Phil even though “Claire told me not to talk politics with the guests but you asked, right?”

Change happens and we are well-equipped to deal with most of it. Sometimes though, change takes with it a little piece of your heart and casts a shadow over one small part of your life.



Draw 16


A few weeks ago I received an email which began “We had an unprecedented number of entries…and the competition for space was fierce”. What usually follows, in my rather limited experience of entering curated exhibitions, is disappointment. I was therefore delighted to see that the next sentence started with, “However…”

It’s a real thrill that two drawings I entered for the Society of Graphic Fine Arts exhibition in London next month have been accepted. Founded in the early years of the last century, the SGFA is the only society in the UK dedicated to drawing and encourages new media and contemporary practice as well as traditional drawing skills.

The two pictures are my paint sample chart drawings, Dimity and Other Stories, above, and a pastel drawing of swedes (rutabagas) – below – which marked the end of a rather frustrating period when every new project seemed to run into the rough.

Swedes blog

The Draw 16 exhibition runs from October 3-15 (closed Sunday 9 October) at the Menier Gallery, 51 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU.

See you there!