Drenched in orange blossom water

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It was this that captured me (24 cms x 32 cms mixed media on Hanhemuehle Britannia paper 2017)

Writer and artist Deborah Brasket generously compared my painting of Andalusian cherries from last summer to Mu Ch’i Fa-Ch’ang’s Zen painting, Six Persimmons. This inspired me to bring some of the lessons I learned at the recent Seawhite Studios still life course to bear on the subject that I find most meditative to paint: fruit.

This arrangement of Mediterranean fruits started life as a series of painted stripes, little of which is now evident. Building up the layers of colour over this underpainting was immensely pleasurable: teasing rounded shapes out of a linear background, adding and removing colour, pushing it around with my fingertips, using charcoal to produce a delicate shading and finally adding collaged phrases.

The phrases are from a London-based Palestinian chef’s received memories of the produce of her homeland. “Large, plump, tangy and bitter”, “so wild and fresh” and “drenched in orange blossom water” are so evocative of eastern Mediterranean food.

I was reminded of some weeks I spent on the island of Crete as a young man – so cut off from the rest of the world that I had no idea the Falklands War had started until I was told by an old man in a bar; a short visit to Lebanon nearly twenty years ago – such a beautiful, troubled, disorienting, sensuous, wonderful country; more recently, an idyllic holiday in Sicily where my former partner and I lived among lemon groves and avocado trees and a creature of some kind scuttled across our roof at about 10 each evening. In all these places the fruit seemed so much plumper, brighter and tastier than that we could find at home.

Separated by eight centuries and several levels of skill from Mu Ch’i, I nevertheless hope that this painting conveys something of the same Zen calm and brings some sweet Mediterranean sunlight into your February day.

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The prince and the quince

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Three Quinces I (A4 mixed media 2016)

Longer-term followers of this blog will know that I have something of a weakness for the noble quince.

Apparently (Wikipedia informs me) some ancient texts maintain that the fruit Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge was a quince rather than an apple. I’d rather not contemplate that such a beautiful fruit could be instrumental in our fall from grace.

To me it feels more like the sort of thing that would appear in fairy tales. Its sensuous shape, wonderful colouring and aromatic scent would be ideal for an enchanted fruit given to a young prince by his evil stepmother. One bite of its bitter flesh would be enough to put our sensitive hero into an endless sleep. Until, that is, some ten years later when a beautiful young princess from a neighbouring kingdom passes by with, unusually, a jar of quince jelly about her person. She rubs a little on the prince’s lips and his eyes flicker open, focussing slowly on the lovely features of his saviour. The wicked stepmother is fed to the bears (there are always bears in these stories), and the prince and princess live happily ever after, not having to bother with any of the things that make our lives so challenging.

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Three Quinces II (A5 ink and watercolour 2016)

So there you have it, the beautiful quince as poison and antidote. It does seem a lot for a harmless fruit to carry.

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Draw 16

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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.

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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!

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Inspiration part 2

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Gages (A4 acrylic and mixed media 2016)

Recently, in response to my post, Inspiration, I was asked

Whatever happened to the motto practice makes perfect? Don’t you believe someone can self learn when it comes to art and painting? After all art is a form of expression there [is] only so much of it to be taught.

I would never argue against practice. For years, as a child and then a teenager, I drew every day in order books that my Father brought home from work (one page was lined, the next blank – that alternating blank page was such a luxury). All through my twenties I continued to draw, less often than before but still a couple of evenings a week – overly influenced by illustrators such as Edward Gorey and Aubrey Beardsley – and tried to get to grips with watercolour.

I didn’t bother with lessons during this time (even at school my art teacher would set us a task and then disappear into his stock room to smoke) and eventually I grew frustrated with my lack of progress, turning instead to photography when I moved to the Netherlands and later Germany.

Returning to the UK I began drawing and painting again with renewed passion. I took classes with professional artists such as Sarah Baddon Price, Helen Gilbart, Annie Rice and Ed Cooper.

With each I made some sort of leap forward. Thanks to Sarah, I tried acrylics; after several years in Helen’s classes, I observe my subjects better, use bigger paper and experiment with charcoal and pastels; Annie taught me to draw and paint more freely; without Ed’s tuition I would never have tried oils or experienced life drawing.

So while I agree that practice is essential, to advance on a technical level I maintain that one needs help unless you’re Vincent van Gogh. A good teacher will stretch you and coax you out of your comfort zone, something that is difficult without help.

Art as a form of expression is something else: I think you can always tell if someone really has something to say. That’s where the magic lies. Without it you may as well be painting by numbers.

The image above was produced by painting the gages as a mass of colour and then adding the background ‘over’ them, so to speak, to produce a sort of negative space composition. The individual gages emerged from a multi-coloured blob, allowing a more accidental colour mix.

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Schrödinger’s Pomegranate

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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:

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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.

Listening to Felix Scheinberger

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Cherries I (Grazalema) (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2016)

In painting terms, it didn’t go as smoothly as planned on our Andalusian holiday. Although I have Felix Scheinberger’s book on watercolour to hand where he warns specifically against it, I was too focussed on the ‘finished’ picture instead of what he eloquently calls enjoying the 100 small steps on the way.

Then one day the owner of the cottage where we were staying (near Grazalema) left us a plate of fresh cherries. Their various shades of red – from deepest blood to an almost yellowy orange – begged to be painted, not in any mimsy, nineteenth century Sunday afternoon sort of way, but boldly and loosely, enjoying some of the 100 small steps.

So here are two, painted in the shade of an Andalusian summer’s day, noting once again that it just needs some small inspiration – a gift of cherries – and hearing what the masters have to say.

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Cherries II (Grazalema) (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2016)

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