Academic Conferences

Academic Conference blog

Conference delegates (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2016)

During my career in academic publishing I’ve attended numerous conferences. As a marketing person I’ve rarely had the pleasure of attending a session or hearing a paper, instead my view has always been from behind a table loaded with books. I’ve met some of the world’s leading doctors, scientists, musicologists and historians at these events, but always with about a meter of books between us.

There have been some memorable moments: the leading American surgeon who asked me three times where his book was, when a pile of them stood right in front of him (should he really be operating with eyesight like that?); the Romanian paediatrician who told me that our policy of reducing the price of our books in Eastern Europe had saved children’s lives (we both got a bit tearful at that point); and the chemistry book exhibition I set up in Bratislava the day that the borders to Austria were thrown open – after an hour of my own company I closed it up and went off to celebrate the end of the totalitarian state with the organiser.

Two of the things I most admire and enjoy in life are curiosity and enthusiasm, and these you encounter in spades at an academic conference. Never ask delegates what they’re working on if you were about to visit the bathroom and unless you really do want to know. Earlier this year at a medieval conference someone told me that once a month he liked to get together with some friends, get in a few beers and settle down to an evening of translating early Nordic texts. Then, after a pause which a stand-up comedian would envy, added, “Sometimes for a change we switch to modern Icelandic.”

Well you would, wouldn’t you?

For another view of the conference crowd, see my colleague Rosemary Shojaie’s blog post here.

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Schrödinger’s Pomegranate

Pomegranate 1608 blog

Pomegranate (15 cms square oil on board 2016)

When I started painting this pomegranate it was a fresh young thing, its skin an appealing mixture of vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. I blocked out the fruit in oils on a small (15 cms square) piece of hardboard, prepared with gesso and a bright yellow undercoat.

And then I stopped.

I played around with background colours, plain, stippled, the colour partially lifted with newspaper, rubbed with my finger, and all the while the pomegranate sat on its white plate, growing older.

In the meantime I painted the acrylic Weathered Wall from last week, drew some pictures of dogs, and the little square oil dried in the sunlit conservatory, aka my ‘summer studio’. The model itself continued to age and shrink.

Last weekend I finally got around to finishing the background and the purple shadows under the fruit. The pomegranate itself had become a different beast to the one painted: it was now angular, leathery with a spreading yellow area from the stem. Was it still edible? Was it rotten inside? Having finally finished with it I cut it open…

Let’s just say that the tiger worms in the compost bin will enjoy it.

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Inspiration

Weathered Wall blog

Weathered Wall (30 cms x 23 cms mixed media 2016)

If you’re serious about your drawing or painting but haven’t been fortunate enough to go to art school you have to learn where and how you can. You might enrol in evening classes or study life drawing, follow online courses, blog tutorials or exercises in magazines.

Nothing, I think, can replace the feedback you receive from a good teacher: some years ago I discovered some excellent drawing classes by Helen Gilbart, who emphasised ‘looking’ above everything else, and life drawing with Ed Cooper and his proactive model, Blue King. In addition, I learn a great deal from looking at work by other artists – whether on blogs or in galleries.

Over the past year I’ve been trying, in oil and acrylic, to develop a style that avoids outright realism, yet remains recognisable for what it is, has a looseness about it but contains some graphic elements from the noble art of illustration.

This week I’d wanted to paint the ripening fruits that were growing in our own garden: at the moment, mulberries and transparent gages. Mulberries lend themselves to a very graphic style:

Mulberries blog

Mulberries (A6 acrylic with colleaged borders 2016)

but I was somewhat at a loss how to paint the gages.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a striking painting by Karolina Gacke that I saw in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I like the idea of drawing and painting objects or groups of objects far apart from each other, and found this painting on Karolina Gacke’s website (you should also look at her compelling self-portraits). Borrowing from Karolina’s composition, the picture that heads this post slowly came together.

Collaged newspaper cuttings formed the basis of the weathered wall. Odd bits of collaged words or phrases suggesting food or flavours scattered here and there on the tabletop hopefully give the picture some unity. The jug is one I bought some years ago in a local gallery, rendered here in a mixture of acrylic and pastel. The gages I tried to paint loosely, smoothing their rough edges as I painted the tablecloth around them.

Without seeing Karolina Gacke’s painting I couldn’t have put this together as it is, yet I hope – in the end – I’ve created something different, something that is ultimately mine.

Birds

Birds blog

Birds (A5 mixed media on a Moleskine sketchbook 2016)

Something pretty grim must have taken place in our garden in the early hours of Saturday morning.

When we went outside to breakfast in the pale sunshine of an English summer morning, we found a perfect young female blackbird dead on the lawn. A few metres away were the scattered feathers of a male with more under the mulberry tree. Who was responsible for this carnage? A sparrowhawk? One of the evil cats that stalk our quiet road?

For me the blackbird’s song is the sound of summer. That melodic trilling they do when seeking a mate is so evocative of warm summer evenings, of peace after a long day, of lying in bed as a child while it’s still light outside. To see a dead blackbird with its song forever stilled is heart-breaking.

Here’s my contribution to Draw-a-Bird Day, which happens every month on the 8th. One month I’ll draw a ‘proper’ bird – mine always seem unconvincing, like they’re made out of painted concrete or something – but here are some that I did to test a Moleskine storyboard notebook.

‘Angry crow’ is almost tautologous: have you ever seen a crow that isn’t highly annoyed about something or other? The Scribble Bird was drawn with one of those multi-coloured pencils you see in museums (Quentin Blake actually does beautiful drawings with those things). Road Kill is self-explanatory and the Gulls owe something to my new hero, Felix Scheinberger, who wrote a whole textbook on illustration in German themed around birds.

I hope you’re as happy as a seagull with a stolen chip.

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One morning (with strawberries)

One Morning blog

One Morning (A4 mixed media 2016)

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition comes in for a fair bit of stick. It rarely gets reviewed in the weekend broadsheets and if anyone pays it any notice at all, it’s to give it a hard time. Seen until recently as rather conservative and dominated by older, male artists, the RA invites anyone to enter works for the Summer Exhibition: this year 12,000 submissions were received but only 700 works by non-Academicians were accepted.

The 2015 exhibition was stylishly curated by Michael Craig-Martin, whose own work I find rather sterile despite photographer Richard Guest’s shedding welcome light on it earlier this year. This year’s was left to the care of Richard Wilson and, if not as ground-breaking as it was under Craig-Martin, there’s still plenty to admire.

Among the less showy numbers was a small painting by Karolina Gacke, an artist whose name is new to me. Despite the presence of bigger names – including a particularly wobbly print by Tracey Emin of a woman doing something or other on a hotel bed and some vibrant prints by Jim Dine – I kept wandering back to this still life by Ms Gacke, looking at it hard and long for some time.

It’s been an uninspiring couple of weeks, I have to admit, but long after I left the Royal Academy Karolina Gacke’s lovely painting remained with me. Over the weekend I had a go at her spacious, loose style. Although my painting is more contrived, I present it here as a tribute to someone who, for me, stole the show at the Royal Academy this year.

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