The Party

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Quinces (21 cms x 29.7 cms acrylic and collage 2018)

“A painter should be able to see space as a flat plane. The viewer should be able to see a flat plane as space.”

The Czech painter Vladimir Kokolia is also a teacher, one who is generous with his ideas about drawing and painting. His own paintings, now on view at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, are beautiful, shimmering evocations of nature. They’re the sort of pictures that critics and art historians struggle to describe, their clumsy words bumping up against his luminous paintings like moths against a light. They exist in that beautiful space between the figurative and the abstract: a place that is difficult and perhaps even dangerous to reach but once you’re there it’s as radiant as a spring morning.

Laura Cumming, who I think is one of the most evocative writers on art, says of his painting, Looking at Ash Tree, that “while the tree may be present, in the tangle of marks, the emphasis is entirely on the sensation of seeing; specifically, the way that leaves percolate sunshine and breezes shift leaves.”

Seeing.

My life drawing teacher, growing impatient with my attempts to draw the woman that was in my head instead of the one sitting in front of me, once said, “I pay for the f***ing model – you might want to look at her now and again!” Why don’t we look? Why can’t we see? Why do we struggle to describe what is actually there given that the language that we use is one we have devised ourselves?

That’s why I love to paint fruit. I strive to describe the ‘quinceness’ of the quince, the ‘pomegranteness’ of the pomegranate, as I see them. Not that my way is any better than yours but it’s surely different, and to me it feels somehow important. Kokolia’s way of looking at the ash tree, all shimmering greens against a grey and white background, is (probably) more interesting than a photograph. He invites us into his world: he has transformed this ash tree in rural Moravia into a flat plane of twisting colour and form; we on our side must interpret this plane as a three-dimensional tree in that world between what we see and what we feel, between the figurative and the abstract.

The quote from Kokolia that opens this post stopped me in my tracks as I leafed through the disappointing, over designed catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (which I haven’t seen, by the way). I love the idea of a bargain between artist and viewer, the artist saying “Trust me, this is what I know” and the viewer responding with “Yes, and this is what I understand.”

Many years ago I went to a party in the house of a famous rock guitarist in London. I didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know me. For a while I wandered around with a glass of wine in my hand and even, for a while, hid in one of the bathrooms wondering how I could make a dignified escape. Then, in a distant room in a dimly-lit corner, I came across my two best friends (who had invited me). “Where have you been?” they asked, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Sometimes creativity feels like a you’re a guest at a party where everyone knows each other and you know no-one, then you turn a corner and find that, yes, you do belong here after all.

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Searching for an exotic old fruit

Tomatillos, Rochester NY (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2018)

In this year of rethinking the direction of my painting and drawing – trying to rein in some of the tangents I follow and develop a recognisable style – I’ve more or less decided to follow two paths simultaneously.

First, there is the line drawing path. I do enjoy drawing people wearing animal heads or household items on their noses. I like ‘illustrating’ Carly Simon’s imaginary friends or a woman in love with a fish (a similar idea won several Oscars, let me remind you). It’s fun to draw Benedict Cumberbatch as a vampire, legendary gallery owner Kasmin naked and the lines and folds on the faces of Jasper Johns.

On the other hand, I love painting fruit. My passion for the lovely quince is well known to regular readers of this blog. Occasionally I’ll let my head be turned by a ripe pomegranate or an exotic purple mangosteen, a gaggle of plums or even a delicately-coloured Swede. Fruit favours acrylics or oils, I think: layering on those colours and shades, adding a touch of shocking blue to a red and orange pomegranate or positioning a highlight of purest titanium white – all very satisfying.

This makes shopping in a well-stocked market or a foreign food store even more of an adventure. For me, Borough Market in London is a place to buy overpriced cheese and subjects for painting. That’s where I first discovered the almost comic mangosteen, shaped like a smaller, purple version of those plastic tomatoes that hold ketchup in transport cafes.

My latest hunting ground is Wegmans, a supermarket in Rochester, NY, on my frequent visits to this under-rated American city. For some time I’ve been eyeing the blousy pitaya (dragon fruit), vibrant pink with little green and yellow horns. Only the fact that I’m here without my acrylics has prevented me from dropping a couple into my shopping cart. Then last Saturday, while seeking out herbs for a New York Times recipe which pairs chicken and mushrooms with cognac and madeira sauce, I discovered tomatillos.

Like small green tomatoes wearing diaphanous outer skins over their shiny green bodies, these Mexican fruits are mainly used to make salsa verde. You can gently peel back the delicate husks, allowing them to tear into interesting shapes that describe the arc of the succulent green flesh where they remain joined to the fruit. I drew them in charcoal, in pencil and, at the top of this post, in watercolour pencil and ink. At under 70 cents for three, they’re the cheapest still life models I’ve found.

Now, where can I get a green pomelo?

The transfiguration of the pomegranate

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Two Pomegranates (acrylic) 2018

Sometimes I look at some of the artists I follow on Instagram and wonder if they ever get bored, painting the same type of thing day after day. If I paint a piece of fruit today, tomorrow I want to start a line drawing of a man wearing a mask in the form of a fox’s head. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

So the idea of following a seven day online painting project to produce a series of variations on a theme was a little outside the box for me, but that’s exactly the point of Tara Leaver‘s challenge. I started with a straightforward painting of a pomegranate, just to ease myself into it:

My plan was to move from this towards an abstracted version of the fruit but, switching media to charcoal and pastel, I produced something more conventional on the second day:

A fresh approach was needed, so I put together a collage next, just to see what would happen:

That seemed to do the trick, and by the end of the week I was more relaxed and, after a short detour into a painting of quinces, I finally reached the rather more abstract pomegranates at the top of this post. The full sequence can be found on Instagram. As I wrote to Tara at the end of the seven days, it was an exhilarating experience. Exploring different ways to approach a single subject every day for a week was astonishingly liberating. I felt no compulsion to produce ‘finished’ work even though I was posting it on Instagram. The journey was the key, empowering me to experiment. Others, it seemed, had the same experience. Tara was the perfect companion on this journey: her admission that her own theme had gone somewhat awry but she was going to enjoy it anyway inspired and relaxed many of us, I felt.

If, like me, you like to flit from subject to subject, I can wholeheartedly recommend a short period of concentration on one, using different media, pushing your style in new directions, not worrying about the outcome as much as enjoying the process. If we can do that, it would appear, an ‘end result’ suddenly makes itself apparent.

A creative thanksgiving

Apples blog

Apples (A4 acrylic 2017)

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to thank with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Parker J Palmer opened his Thanksgiving Facebook post with this quotation. We don’t have Thanksgiving in England. We now have Black Friday, of course, another opportunity to acquire stuff we possibly don’t need, but we don’t have a formal occasion to sit and be grateful for what we already have.

Many times during this rather dismal year I’ve had cause to be grateful to friends and family who have helped me keep the flame alight. As I’ve mentioned before, there were times during the first half when that seemed an almost impossible task and I thank all of you who have helped with a well-timed spark. You know who you are.

But this is an art blog so let’s move over to that track.

There are times when you bump up against what might seem like an insurmountable obstacle to creativity. Over the past few months I’ve been struggling to consciously loosen up the way I paint and I have plenty of half-finished monstrosities to prove it. Yesterday evening I took three apples from the bowl, squeezed out some acrylics onto a palette and set about painting a simple still life. My ambition wasn’t to recreate what I saw in front of me but to intrepret those three apples with a complete freedom of execution. The result (above) is no masterpiece, but as with other experiments it got me over that hump.

There’s a fascinating blog post by artist Christopher Gallego entitled 5 unusual habits to keep you growing artistically that I urge you to read. His second piece of advice is ‘Do the impossible’ (the first, ‘Paint some crap’, is also worth trying): ‘Attack something, anything, that scares you to death’, he advises. So painting these apples with big, bright slabs of colour, buttered on with a square brush, was far from the usual way I paint. It was glorious. After an hour of that I felt exhausted and exhilerated, defeated and victorious in equal measure, and glad that I had just attacked the thing that scares me to death: looseness and spontenaiety. As Lorca described the Andalusian folk lyric, ‘a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive…the trembling of the moment’ – that’s what we should be aiming for!

So thank you, Christopher Gallego, for your timely spark. Thank you, Annabel Mednick, for making me look and draw what I see every week in my life drawing course. Thank you, Ingrid Christensen for showing us how to paint beautiful loose still lifes, and to you Stanley Bielen, John Button, Lisa Daria, Jennifer Pochinski, Karolina Gacke and many others who show what can be achieved just this side of abstraction.

That’s my creative Thanksgiving.

Quince, essential

Rotting Quince (A5 ink and coloured pencils) 2017

When an apple is past its best it becomes a weirdly wrinkled thing. A pear ages particularly badly, appearing to be whole but beneath that perfect skin lurks a mushy interior. Grapes shrivel, pomegranates go brown and foul-smelling when cut open, mangoes turn into ochre bruises.

Quinces, however, are altogether different. They rot dramatically, their agony written across their flesh like a medieval martyr. Sometimes they split and the edges turn inwards as they discolour, producing a dark blue chasm that reaches down to the heart of the fruit. There is a faint smell of early morning in Spain around your fruit bowl as the dying quince starts to decompose. That beautiful yellow skin acquires brown spots, the base seems to turn inwards and produce bulbous curves like babies’ fists.

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know of my adoration of the quince. This fine example – the only fruit from a tree in my ex-wife’s garden – was irresistable. Wearing its fatal wound nobly it nevertheless tried to last the season, ripening in the south German sunshine. I wanted to commemorate its will to survive.

I’m still out there trying to move my art practice on to a different path: my heart wants to explore but my hand wants to draw and paint like it has for the past few years. This drawing is a good example: I had intended it to be a semi-abstract acrylic, it came out as an ink and coloured pencil illustration.

Then again, any representation of this wonderful fruit is worth your time. At least, that’s my view.

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On the brink of everything

Mangosteens blog

Mangosteens (A4 acrylic 2017)

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d eagerly await Facebook posts from a 78 year old Quaker educationalist I would have been, er – sceptical. However, I now do just that: I’ve yet to read a dull or uninspired post from Parker J. Palmer.

Last week he took us back to a piece he wrote for the On Being website in 2015 called On the Brink of Everything: An Early Morning Meditation. In it, he references another article on the site in which a mother writes about seeing the world through her toddler’s eyes, greeting everything with a sense of wonder and discovery. You don’t have to be a child to do that, PJP demonstrates:

It’s winter in Wisconsin, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. The horizon behind the bare trees was aglow with a crimson sunrise that, seen through the tracery of ice, turned the pane into stained glass. For several minutes I took in that scene as if I were admiring a great cathedral through a rose window.

Could anyone other than Mr Palmer write so eloquently about having an early-morning pee? I wondered.

The article ends like this. ‘I’m old enough to know that the world can delight me, so my expectation is not of the world but of myself: Delight in the gift of life and be grateful.’ Isn’t that superb? ‘My expectation is not of the world but of myself‘ – how often do we wait for something to happen, for things to improve, for someone to do something that will enable us to feel better about something else? And how often are we disappointed when the planets don’t align? Discovering one’s own delight in the world is a gift beyond riches, what the mindfulness gurus call ‘beginner’s mind’, I believe.

In the comments on PJP’s Facebook page someone quoted some lines from a Mary Oliver poem (not a writer I usually enjoy): ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’

The painting above grew out of a simple delight, finding a fruit I’d never seen before during a day out with a friend in Borough Market, London. It  was meant to be much bigger. It was going to have a table’s edge, a scrubbed out wall behind it. For weeks, on and off, I painted and re-painted, drew a cup and a vase and a cylinder and painted over them all. I was so pleased with the three mangosteens and how loosely I’d rendered them I was determined to finish the painting and not abandon it. Posting it as a work in progress on Instagram and sharing it on Facebook, the painter Karolina Gacke advised me that all it needed was some shadow on the tabletop and it was done.

Less is more…

 

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Poised between fact and fiction

Pomegranate, the symbol of Granada (A5 Faber-Castell coloured pencils 2017)

I’ve just finished a remarkable book, The Moor’s Last Stand: How Seven Centuries of Muslim Rule in Spain Came to an End by Elizabeth Drayson. I read it extremely slowly, not only to savour the elegance of the writing, but because I simply didn’t want to reach the end.

It tells the story of the twenty third and final Muslim king of Granada, Abu Abdallah Muhammad XI, known as Boabdil. It’s a tale of intrigue, betrayal, cruelty, bravery and broken promises, based, we’re told, on considerable new research but with novelistic touches that bring Boabdil’s story vividly to life.

The eighth-century Muslim invasion of Spain began a period of cultural magnificence and political stabilty in the country: in Cordoba, for example, there were street lights, paving and over seventy well-stocked libraries by the tenth century, a time when London languished amid narrow, muddy, unlit streets. Anyone who has visited the Alhambra in Granada will need little convincing of the artistic triumph of Muslim architecture in Spain.

Boabdil is a controversial figure still. In Elizabeth Drayson’s account of his life he emerges as a man of integrity and honour, yet another recent author describes him as “the ludicrous Boabdil…[who] would bear down on Granada with the full weight of his fear and vulgarity”. Ultimately he was betrayed by the duplicity and corruption of his own family and the ambition and insincerity of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The city of Granada had to wait several hundred years before a statue was erected in his honour in 1997 – even then somewhat half-heartedly:

Today, in almost exactly the same place in Granada where Boabdil handed the keys of the city to King Ferdinand, a pair of life-sized bronze statues stand in a flower bed in a small gravelled park surrounded by towering blocks of flats. The park is well off the beaten tourist track, close to a large modern conference centre, and bears no sign or indication of who the statues represent. Their out-of-the-way location and understated tribute and homage belie the historical importance of their subject. In this encounter amid roses and pomegranate trees, a bearded man wearing a turban sits on a throne looking down sadly at a young woman, her head lowered in humility as she offers him a rose…The young woman represents Granada, who offers Boabdil a rose as a symbol of love and in the hope of forgiveness. There is no previous public monument to acknowledge the expulsion, or even the presence, of the Moors who were so fundamental to the city’s historical memory…Its message of love and reconciliation marks a special moment in the evolution of the perception of Boabdil. [pp-140-141]

My image this week is a pomegranate which, along with quinces, is one of my favourite subjects. It is also the symbol of Granada, a city of majestic beauty with, as we learn from Dr Drayson’s thoughtful book, a violent and poignant history.