Jumping over shadows

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Abstract (55 cms x 48 cms acrylics 2017)

Without wanting to revive the debate about whether one needs to be taught or not, taking part in a workshop that inspires certainly works for me.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie Sollohub‘s still life course at the Seawhite Studios in the south of England. If you look at Katie’s website – or indeed Emily Ball’s, who runs Seawhite – you’ll notice that slavish realism is not their thing – the course was certain to be interesting.

In fact it was an intriguing mixture of formal exercises with the encouragement to go where those exercises led you. For example, we began by mixing a dark colour followed by a light, and juxtaposing them while experimenting with different edges to each block, which led to the abstract above.

For a still life course I came away with relatively few paintings of apples, jugs and flowers. Instead, it was suggested that I could use elements of the still life arrangement to create something more abstract. The picture below, therefore, includes a single small vase, while the wavy line and circles are the pattern on a batik cloth, the windmill shapes stylised versions of a fleshy plant, the magenta cross another motif from a piece of fabric.

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Abstract still life 1 (55 cms x 46 cms acrylics 2017)

I found another exercise – concentrating on negative spaces side-by-side with outlines of objects – led to the sort of straightforward composition that I was hoping to avoid. Katie’s answer was to simply paint over it, using the blue underpainting, as it now was, as an element in the new composition (below). Once again, I took parts of the set up to create a somewhat abstracted still life, rather than painting exactly what I saw on the table.

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Abstract still life 2 (50 cms x 40 cms acrylic 2017)

To say all this was exhilarating, refreshing and provocative is an understatement. I had hoped to have limiting beliefs challenged and they were: what I thought of as still life painting was deconstructed and reassembled into something fresh (for me) and alive.

The Germans have a saying about jumping over your own shadow, meaning to try something new, take a risk, dare greatly. That was certainly what I did last week, and I suspect its effect will be long-lasting.

 

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The year of painting dangerously

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Still Life (30 cms x 22 cms acrylic and coloured pencil 2016)

I’m preparing, mentally at least, for something I’ve wanted to do for some time – a three-day still life workshop with Katie Sollohub at the Seawhite Studios. For years I’ve looked wistfully at their website and Facebook pages, at students smeared in charcoal and paint having a wonderful time and breaking through their limiting beliefs.

I clutch on to a number of limiting beliefs: that I can’t paint, that I can’t do anything on a scale larger than A3, that I don’t know how to use certain media. Some of these, I hope, will be challenged and possibily even dispelled at the end of this month. It’ll be wonderful to work with an artist like Katie Sollohub whose style is loose and free and very different to my own. I’m also hoping to work with multi-media artist Doug Selway soon, again exploring aspects of painting that I would find difficult to confront on my own.

Why all this sudden activity? Well, you can only tell yourself stories for so long before they become real. As we learned from the poem I posted last week, one must ‘keep changing, you just get more who you really are‘. I am, I hope, someone who can paint without inhibitions, without the limits I seem to want to impose upon myself. It was time to paint ‘dangerously’.

The picture above – although small in scale – is a product of such abandon. I’d made a mess of something and had lots of unused acrylic paint left over. Without first drawing or sketching out a composition, without even setting up a still life group, I used up the spare paint and just made it up as I went along. The result is no masterpiece but neither is it completely worthless (and it was fun to do because there were no expectations and no borders to fear).

Watch this space…

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The refuge of the drawn line

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Blue, clothed I (A3 charcoal 2016)

There is no Chinese curse that goes, ‘May you live in interesting times’, probably because it’s meaningless. We may imagine that the current rise of populist right-wing politicians would qualify, but is it worse than living during World War II, or Stalin’s Russia, or anywhere during the medieval period?

In our own personal sphere, things are always ‘interesting’ in the sense meant by the bogus Chinese curse. Without the lows, as they say, how would we enjoy the highs? We are complex creatures in a world buzzing with activity and sensation – it couldn’t be anything else.

Yesterday I returned to work after a short illness. Inevitably there were the crises, deadlines and demands that pile up while you’re away from your emails. Although I’d had a delightful weekend – lunch with a dear friend on Saturday followed by a visit to the Edward Ardizzone retrospective in London, some therapeutic leaf-raking on Sunday – by the end of the day I felt like my head was full of chattering birds. Two hours of life drawing and a 15 minute meditation at home did the trick: soon the avian throng were quietly sleeping on their perches again!

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Blue, clothed II (A3 pencil 2016)

At the moment life seems to offer me an intriguing opportunity with the right hand and slap me on the back of the head with the left. Through all of this, there is the refuge of the drawn line. As long as there is time to sit, switch on Astral Weeks and draw dogs or quinces or Carly Simon’s imaginary friends, adversity can be defeated. It’s a privilege, I know.

And if the drawing goes wrong or the quinces don’t live up to their promise then I have the advice of my good friend and author, Bálint Varga: ‘Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work is part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you are doing: you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.’

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One small step

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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.

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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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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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