Begin Again

All Saints Church, Hemley, Suffolk (2021 acrylic & collage 25cms x 37cms)

“My favourite people in the world…all rattle when you shake them. They have little pieces that have broken off inside them that are a constant reminder to them, and to me, of how far they’ve come and how much they have learned and what they have survived.” Jann Arden

It was a hectic dash to the finishing line of my career in academic publishing. There seemed to be so much to complete, to wrap up and put to bed before I could decently draw a line under it and retire. Then, at the beginning of April, it finally came to an end.

I had these plans all ready: there were drawings and paintings to be done, a big pile of books to read, things to sort out and put in order, and days of the week allotted to each. I could also take time to recover from an illness – and its treatments – that had slowed me down from late 2019 until the final quarter of last year.

In the middle of the pandemic I had met someone – an artist whom we’ll call R – whose work I’d admired for some time. A socially-distanced meeting one summer’s day in a churchyard in rural Suffolk led to greater things. It was, as those of you who have followed this blog recently will know, an unexpected development. I was prepared to carry on mourning a past that could never be reconstructed in this world, but then a wish I didn’t know I’d wished was granted, a prayer I don’t remember praying for was answered.

But let’s get back to art. The image above is of a village church, whose tower looms up behind two enormous old yew trees. The bark, the leaves and the seeds of yew trees are highly poisonous to cattle, horses, sheep and other domestic livestock as well as people, especially children, so they were often planted on church property to deter people from grazing their livestock there. They’ve therefore become associated with death, yet their fruit can be eaten by birds, such as the blackbird, song thrush and fieldfare; and small mammals, including squirrels and dormice. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.

R and I saw All Saints Church on a walk and decided to each do a picture of it. In the days before retirement I would have had two hours on a Saturday afternoon to finish mine, done something in ink and watercolour and been unhappy with the result. Now I had time to think of the best approach, discuss with R what media to use, paint and cut out bits of paper to use for collage, move them around and leave them for a day or two. I had time!

This is something of a departure for me. It’s imprecise. Things are suggested rather than described. There isn’t a line of cross-hatching to be seen. Many of the elements were adapted from abandoned still life paintings. Most of all, it took the time it needed rather than the time I had.

Please visit my website at https://www.michaelrichardsart.com/ – thank you!

I can draw a cat

Mickey (A5 Prismacolor indigo blue pencil 2020)

Axel Scheffler, perhaps best known as the illustrator of the Gruffalo, once said in a radio interview that if you can draw, people think you can draw anything. There are, he continued, so many things he wouldn’t even attempt.

As a young man this used to bother me enormously. Why can’t I draw a passable bicycle? If I can draw a dog why do I struggle to draw a horse? These days I simply avoid drawing bicycles or horses, but if my life depended on drawing a bicycle for some odd reason then I’d draw it like Quentin Blake.

I’ve also regretted never learning to play the guitar – or the acoustic bass. Why didn’t you then? you might ask. The answer, I’m afraid, is that I never wanted to be a mediocre musician and I was daunted by the amount of practice required to become proficient.

This is all rather sad, isn’t it? Worrying about what one can’t do instead of celebrating what one can. Not doing something that would have probably given me enormous pleasure and provided great comfort down the years simply because I would never be John Renbourn or Stefan Grossman.

Bonny Mayer: Glasses

My good friend, Bonny Mayer, recently decided that she’d like to draw and enrolled in a class during an extended stay in Thailand. After a couple of hours the teacher returned her money and advised her to try something else. Most of us, hearing that evaluation of our skills, might never pick up a pencil again. Not Bonny. On her return to the US she enrolled in another course and frequently posts her wonderfully vivid, lively drawings on Facebook (see above).

Let’s celebrate our own potential then, draw wonky horses and raise one of Bonny’s characterful glasses to the art of not giving up. We have one life and it’s frustratingly short, so not filling it with as much as we can would seem to be something of a shame. Wouldn’t you agree?

Art in a time of plague

Wild Orchid (178mm x 127mm acrylic on board 2020)

“When disaster strikes, so does inspiration,” wrote Bryan Appleyard in the (London) Times earlier this month, “Art is what humans do in spite of, often because of, catastrophes.”

I’d been planning a rather grumpy rebuttal of this for the past couple of weeks. Personally, I was finding it difficult to create much of anything at all. My company had asked everyone to work from home so the room I use for drawing and painting now had to be shared with my office computer. After working in there all day, I felt less inclined to spend my evenings and weekends in the same space. But most of all, what was the point of painting fruit or drawing dogs when thousands were dying of Covid-19, and the US and UK governments seemed to be trying to outrank each other in ineptitude? Nobody asks for a story when they’re struggling for breath, as the novelist Sarah Perry said recently.

Then spring arrived. During my officially-sanctioned lockdown daily walks there was birdsong, the smell of fir trees warmed by a strengthening sun, butterflies rising from hidden places underfoot. The climbing rose outside my bedroom window was heavy with buds, the lavender took on a rich green sheen, tulips came and went, bluebells the same, the fruit trees are in blossom.

I started to draw. Then paint – a series of small, stylised flowers: a wild orchid, a rosebud, a sunflower, a poppy. There they all were if I just had eyes to see. An illustration for a friend’s story, a drawing of an old piece of pottery. The blinds were open and the sun was shining in.

It’s easy to feel discouraged. Who knows how long it’ll be until we can hug one another, travel somewhere, sit in a garden with friends and food and wine? And yes, people are dying out there, not surrounded by their family but only by the hissing of ventilators and the beeping of monitors.

I read this quote from writer Olivia Laing on songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Instagram feed at the weekend. Laing is perhaps best known for her study of loneliness, appropriately enough, but this is about the role of creativity in troubled times:

“It’s a feeling of being inducted back into hope, a restoration of faith.  It’s easy to give in to despair.  There’s so much that is frightening, so much that’s wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected, just as Dickens said.  We have to keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch.  Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. ⁣It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.”⁣

I’m still not sure about the role of small paintings like the one above in the general scheme of things. I just know I have to do them.

Stay safe.

The fire inside

A couple of years ago, my beloved and I were having lunch in Chicago with her parents.

“Susie tells me you’re an artist,” said her father.

“It’s not a word I’d use to describe myself,” I replied.

“And a modest one, I see,” was his answer.

I can’t think what possessed me to give such a pompous answer to a man I was desperately hoping to impress, except that I truly do have a problem with the term, artist.

I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who operates on a sustained level of inspiration. Someone with curiosity, a need to create, and a way to tap into that almost mystical property that makes the thing we call art. Cezanne, certainly; Picasso, of course; but also Maurice Sendak and Wolf Erlbruch. I’m not being elitist here: it’s not to do with the number of your works in the Metropolitan Museum or the Tate Modern but rather how you draw up your inspiration.

Now, I’m sure even Cezanne had times when he couldn’t be bothered: having spent the best part of a week arranging apples and pears on a tablecloth until their positions made perfect sense to him, did he occasionally sit there and think, “I really don’t care” and spend the afternoon in his favourite cafe? But most, if not all, of his still life paintings burn with an inner life – you feel they had to be painted and painted exactly like this.

You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the urge to create is so strong it almost hurts. There’s something in you that begs to be expressed, and that’s when you’re an artist creating art. When you’re doing it simply because you feel you should you’re drawing or painting, but you’re probably not producing art.

Where does it come from, this urge to create? Some of you will say it comes from God, others from that elevated place in your mind that can only be reached when the stars align. Wherever it comes from it isn’t always on tap, which is what makes it so intriguing and frustrating and rewarding when it finally happens.

I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Ross King called The Judgement of Paris, in which we learn of the early career of Edouard Manet. As we know, his work was repeatedly rejected by the organisers of the Paris Salon, but when he exhibited privately not only did he sell nothing but the public dropped by to actually laugh and jeer at works we now consider masterpieces, such as Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Yet he continued to paint, and paint the subjects he wanted to in a style he knew was his own.

So how does all this relate to the little picture at the top of this post? Well, I had these tulips on my desk because I thought I should paint some flowers. I did the occasional sketch and tried an acrylic painting but it didn’t work out. The subject didn’t call to me. After a few days the flowers began to wilt, their energy expended, their beauty still intact but in a different way. Now with broad brush strokes I filled in some colour, drew the outlines in ink with a scratchy piece of bamboo, and lashed away at the background to define the shapes. It had to be done. Somehow these flowers, past their best and drooping in their vase became an embodiment of something I felt in my heart. I had thought I might ‘tidy it up’ but in the end this is what it was meant to be. I’d venture to say that this is art and while I was making it I was an artist.

Unfortunately these moments come too infrequently for me to seriously call myself an artist, hence my evasive answer over lunch on that happy day in Chicago. When the fire burns though, oh how warm the inner glow.

Hold Still

Sunflower – front and back (A5 Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook 2019)

Sally Mann is probably best known – to those without an interest in contemporary photography – as that woman who took pictures of her kids naked or, perhaps, the one who photographed decomposing bodies at a federal forensic anthropology facility.

She is that Sally Mann, as well as the one who documented her husband’s muscular dystrophy in a series of deeply moving images; who published pictures of the Deep South, “haunted landscapes, battlefields, decaying mansions…and the site where Emmett Till was murdered” (according to Newsweek); who wrote a remarkable, award-winning memoir, listed as one of the twenty best in the New York Times, called Hold Still.

It’s worth reading for its beautiful prose and often candid photographs, including ones that Mann thought hadn’t actually worked. One of the book’s many charms is this Gagosian-represented artist’s admission that some of her work, y’know, wasn’t up to scratch. That happens to me. It happens to you as well, I imagine? Well, it also happens to those whose work is on sale in one of the world’s leading galleries.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s unlikely that even the most accomplished photographer will produce spun gold every time she points her camera. Yet how satisfying to read that:

Writing came first. I was frequently the poet on duty when the Muse of Verse, likely distracted by other errands, released some of her weaker lines, but that didn’t stop my passion for it.

Maybe you’ve made something mediocre – there’s plenty of that in any artist’s cabinets – but something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near-misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner.

It’s that passion, those beckoning hands, that keep us moving on. We probably shouldn’t seek perfection as such (and Ms Mann points out elsewhere that this is something with which she struggles on a daily basis) but it’s the moving forward that matters. It’s not just a case of the grass being greener over there, but the passion in creating something is requited more completely when you achieve something like the image – or the piece of writing – you had in your head.

I’m not sure I really needed Sally Mann to tell me that, but I’m somehow pleased that she confirmed it in this very special memoir.

The two chairs

The final quince of 2018 (A5 acrylic 2018)

Recently I’ve been dipping into a book called Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons that Connect by Peter Jonker. I’m not about to write a sermon any time soon and I’m not even particularly religious, but I was told about the book by a dear friend and became interested in the author’s take on creativity.

The Reverend Jonker is himself a thoughtful man and a creative thinker (you can sample his very engaging sermons from LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, online if you wish). One of the images he uses in his book concerns two chairs.

Writing a sermon, he suggests, involves a good amount of time sitting in the straight-backed chair of concentration: checking your text, looking up references, researching what others have said or written about the piece, etc. Then – here comes the good bit – you have assembled a ‘beautiful mess’: all that ‘stuff’ you’ve noted down, cut and pasted, bookmarked online – it’s all there in front of you in its magnificent disarray and on Sunday morning you’ve got to engage the interest of your congregation – some of whom are sleepy from the night before or looking forward to a late brunch after the service.

So then you switch to the comfortable chair of contemplation. You move the pieces around in your mind, you try to pick out a thread from all these post-it notes in your head, you put the variations on your original theme in an order that produces a meaningful melody. It’s a more gentle process than the straight-backed chair phase but don’t let anyone think that you’re dozing because you’re sitting in the comfortable chair – your mind is still working.

The Mindfulness community will tell you something similar: if you keep rushing around you’ll achieve less than if you are able to give yourself space to breathe, to clear the table so you can see the pieces of the puzzle more clearly.

The painting of the quince above (don’t worry, it’s my last one for this season) lay unfinished on my desk for weeks. When I first started painting it, I was determined to dash this off in one sitting: it’s a single fruit, for heaven’s sake, how complex can that be? More than I’d thought, is the answer. Eventually, by sitting in the comfortable chair for some weeks (metaphorically – life isn’t that kind to me), I solved the problems with the picture and in less than twenty minutes one evening, finished it.

“Aren’t you just saying, take a step back?” you ask. Indeed, but that conscious switching to the comfortable chair of reflection is a powerful process, I’d argue. How many times do you feel like a fly in a bottle, banging your head against the glass sides, before you actually say to yourself, let me just sit down and think this through?

My New Year’s Resolution, if I did such things, would be to spend more time switching between the two chairs. In drawing and painting, too, there are straight-backed chair phases, but I know my creative process will benefit from mentally standing up, going into a different space, pouring a glass of red wine (I’m elaborating on Peter Jonker’s image, I realise – but, y’know, it’s my blog), and spending some time in the comfortable chair of contemplation thinking through what I’m trying to achieve.

I wish you a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Chahrshanbeh Soori, winter solstice or whatever you celebrate to bring light to these dark days. Thank you once again to those whose support has meant so much during the year, despite a rather unproductive rate of posting on my part, to all of you following this blog and especially those who take the time to comment. Here’s a Christmas Eve selfie for you:

On the brink

Language (A4 acrylic paint and pebbles 2018)

Recently, a new book by pianist Susan Tomes (published by the company where I work) was reviewed in a prestigious classical music magazine.  “[The author] is now in her mid-sixties but her tone of voice is that of a much younger person – inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial and gently provocative” wrote the reviewer. Personally, as someone much of an age with Ms Tomes, I hope that the day that I’m no longer inquisitive is the day that I’m no longer breathing.

Interestingly, I read this the same day as my copy of Parker J. Palmer’s new book arrived, On the Brink of Everything. In it, Palmer explores the questions that age raises and the promises that growing older holds: it is, he writes, “a time to dive deep into life, not withdraw to the shallows.”

For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. Those of us who are able should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about.

PJP has a few years on both Susan Tomes and me, and his spirit and joy in the wonders of everyday life as he approaches 80 are inspiring. He’s the sort of person you’d like to shuffle up close to, hoping that by standing next to him you could see the world as he sees it.

Then, earlier today, driving around Rochester, NY, I heard a programme on public radio about older people who’d picked up the thread of their creative activities – or started something completely new – after a long break. There were storytellers, stand-up comedians, painters and musicians (“I’m supposedly too old to rock,” said one, “but I’m too young to die”): one had given up art to found a business but discovered her life was lacking something without the smell of linseed in her nostrils.

What all had in common was the sense of relief in their voices that they’d returned to “whatever [they] care about”. Certainly that business was important, they’d enjoyed fulfilling careers, but it was the sound of an electric guitar being tuned or that first mark on a blank canvas that was truly important, the thing that fed their souls.

I’ve nothing against the young, of course, but I resent the idea that anyone over 50 should put on a cardigan and dispense toffees to grandchildren and leave life to others. If you can’t be “inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial and gently provocative” when you’re older there is something clearly amiss. In fact, the young and the old share a great deal: when you’re young you think you have a whole lifetime ahead of you so why not try something new? In later years, there’s a feeling that if I don’t do it now, I never will. Certainly in my own personal, professional and creative lives I’ve come to relish the leap into the unknown, the heady feeling of free-fall, the rush of adrenaline that comes with a sudden turn away from the expected or the familiar.

The image at the top of this post is a collage. I had a yellowy-orange sheet of paper ready to work up into something, and then scooped up a handful of pebbles from the beach which, I thought, looked like hieroglyphics when laid side by side. It seemed to capture something of the intrigue of a language that I don’t know.

 

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.

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.