Sun, 23 Nov 2014
Small Glass Study

My latest painting, from a Will Kemp course once again. This is 26x31cm acrylic on canvas :

It's a dark scene, and I was a bit concerned about how dark it was all going to come out. But I'm fairly happy with it in the end. It looks a lot better in real life though - the JPEG image tends to show up some poor colour quantisation in areas (although this highlights bad painting as well!).

Once again, as usual, it was hard gauging the proper hues and values from a print out of the reference, each printer I've tried produces a very different output, itself very different to what you see on your tablet screen. Colour calibration s a real bane of my life!

This is now varnished (with an isolation coat first) and I'm even thinking of a frame.

I did another smaller painting from the same photograph of just the oranges. Good practice while I'm set up for it. A quarter the size and not bad, although quite dark again.

This time about 16x21cm and acrylic on canvas paper.

Wed, 19 Nov 2014
An Ambiguous Utopia

The Dispossessed,
by Ursula Le Guin

A very pleasant surprise, I bought this on a whim and it turned out to be a gem! This is the first Ursula Le Guin I've read but I'll definitely try and pick up others now.

There are two planets, one the moon of the other (or vice versa?). The moon Anarres is a revolutionary, anarchist settlement that broke away from the planet Urras two centuries before. This break-up was so Urras could forestall a revolution. Urras is a planet more like our own: nation states, some capitalist, some authoritarian. inequality, war and private property. In contrast, Anarres has no private property, no government, a language that precludes the possessive case (which implies ownership) and a radical egalitarianism.

Shevek, the protagonist, is a physicist on Anarres working on a grand theory of time and space, with a potential for instantaneous communication. Quite a prize! He has an independent streak and feels unappreciated and increasingly shutdown on the anarchist world. He travels to Urras (the "propertarians!") with the hope of working on his mathematics in a spirit of scientific enquiry with fellow academics. Unfortunately he discovers that the Urrastians have their own agenda. Le Guin tells Shevek's story from childhood, through work and marriage and how he came to such a momentous step as leaving his wife and child, and whole life. The freedoms of Anarres can also stifle the non-conformist. People are people everywhere, good and bad.

Being classed as a science-fiction book, The Dispossessed will not get the audience it deserves, which is a shame because it is well written, sparse and effective, the story moving, intelligent and, in parts, very poignant. There's also a great deadpan humour as the characters grapple with unusual (to them) situations.

The themes are big: the organisation of society and its power structure, the way language impacts how we see the world and the place of the individual within the social fabric.

But don't let that put you off because Le Guin engages these ideas through sympathetic characters, using a fantasy to better explore our own world and society. This is a book I enjoyed a great deal.

I used the title "Ambiguous Utopia". Quoting wikipedia on the book :

When first published, the book included the tagline: "The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!" which was shortened by fans to "An ambiguous utopia" and adopted as a subtitle in certain editions. The major theme of the work is the ambiguity between different notions of utopia. Anarres is not presented as a perfect society, even within the constraints of what might define an anarchist utopia. Bureaucracy, stagnation, and power structures have problematized the revolution, as Shevek comes to realize throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin has painted a very stark picture of the natural and environmental constraints on society. Anarres citizens are forced to contend with a relatively sparse and unfruitful world.

Sun, 16 Nov 2014
Forest to Sea

Emily Carr at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Emily Carr was a Canadian painter who worked mainly in the far North West of Canada in British Columbia. Painting in the first decades of the 20th Century, she is known in Canada for documenting the landscape and native peoples such as the Haida.

She has an exhibition at Dulwich just now and I had a look.

I don't think she ever had much money and this is reflected in the common use of paper rather than canvas for her oil paintings. She also often used petrol to thin her oils, another reflection of lack of means. Even so, an artist must create and she seems to have managed to get by with what she had. I especially liked the pictures below.

Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912 :

Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC, 1913 :

Since the wonderful Group of Seven show at Dulwich, I keep my eyes open for Canadian art shows.

Fri, 07 Nov 2014
West Wind

A few years ago, the Dulwich Picture Gallery had an exhibition of work by the Canadian Group of Seven artists. It was a brilliant show and one I remember well, not least because I actually went back and bought a large art book about them (which I regularly flick through).

There's another Canadian artist at the gallery just now, Emily Carr. Her work looks interesting and I hope to pop down and have a closer look, but of immediate interest was some commentary about her show and the mention of a film about Tom Thomson called "West Wind".

Tom Thomson was not officially a part of the Group of Seven due to his tragic early death in 1917, but in spirit he was, and they acknowledged his inspiration.

There's some mystery about the circumstances of his death ("accidental drowning").

Right: In the Northland, Tom Thomson, 1915

His painting is beautiful and the film "West Wind" is available on Youtube (see below) and worth 40-odd minutes of your time.

One of the other artists of the group I particularly like is Lawren Harris, whose work seems to have an amazingly powerful inner light, at times almost hallucinogenic.

Right: The Red House, c. 1925.

Lots of wonderful paintings of snow, ice, light and reflection.

Right: Clouds, Lake Superior
Lawren Harris, 1923, oil on canvas

Sat, 01 Nov 2014
Rembrandt, The Late Works

When I was little (10 or so), we had an art book in the house and I used to like looking through it. One picture in particular fascinated me. Little wonder something like this subject would interest a little boy : an anatomy lesson, a dead body with the top of the skull removed and the glistening pink brain on display! The artist: Rembrandt. This was my introduction to this great artist.

I met this painting in real life recently, unexpectedly on display at the National Gallery's Rembrandt: The Late Works.

Jeremy Paxman puts it well in his short video introduction to the exhibition: there is a humanity to Rembrandt's works, a way he manages to capture the real expression and inner life of his subjects, often beautifully.

I didn't always like his work, finding them a bit dark and sombre but the more I've seen, the more I now appreciate and love the work.

Left: Young Woman Sleeping, about 1654.

Right: The Apostle Bartholomew, about 1661

These pictures might sometimes show scenes from the ancient past but they're more than models dressed up. The people are gritty and real, like all of us. A great artist.

Art forger Tom Keating has a program on Rembrandt on Youtube, doing a painting in the style-of. Worth watching. It is quite amazing how much art technique a painter like Rembrandt had and how involved the production.

Mon, 27 Oct 2014
Glass and Paper

I've done another picture based on a Will Kemp tutorial: painting a glass of water. I'd not seen this exercise before but it was referred to in a lesson I downloaded, so I decided to try it before the "real" one.

First version (click for larger) is on "canvas style" oil/acrylic paper :

I wanted to see if I could do better blending on the table top, so this is version 2 (on 140lbs hot pressed watercolour paper) :

The answer was .. not really! It didn't quite work out the way I wanted, but not too bad in the end. I think I prefer version 1 though.

Right now, I'd like to try and get to grips with blending acrylic paint, something hard to do because they dry so quickly. To blend, there (really) needs to be wet paint. There seem to be various ways of dealing with this problem, including drying "retarders", more "open" acrylic paint, "glazing" mediums etc. It all gets a bit much.

So, just now I'm playing around with painting some test spheres in black and white, trying glazing medium, slow-dri blending medium and maybe other things. You don't need to do smooth blends when painting, but it is definitely one of those things I'd like to master for those times they're useful. The alternative is using oils, but that's a whole different can of worms! I think I have a high threshold tolerance for painting test spheres - we'll see.

Another thing that makes a difference to blending (via drying time) is the surface you paint on. I've noticed this after trying oil/acrylic painting canvas paper, watercolour paper, canvas board and proper canvas. Some surfaces absorb the water much more quickly, which means watercolour paper might not be ideal if you want to blend (but adding a gesso surface to it helps I think).

A blend using Watercolour paper (here 140lbs/300gsm, cold-pressed but fine grain) :

That's with plenty wet paint around!

A rougher, textured canvas paper :

People demonstrating how to do acrylic blending (e.g. Youtube) often seem to show the above straight up-and-down rectangular type of example. The easiest to do! You really need to master something a bit harder e.g. spheres ...

Sat, 25 Oct 2014
Great North Road

Great North Road
By Peter F Hamilton

I read some Peter Hamilton books a long time ago and decided to check him out again.

I enjoyed his Commonwealth Saga series (Pandora's Star, Judas Unchained) and his Night's Dawn trilogy (The Reality Dysfunction,The Neutronium Alchemist,The Naked God). These books contain a detailed and well thought out future and some very exciting action. Pandora's Star includes a chilling and believeable alien race (with extra stress on alien).

On the negative side however, his books are extremely long, and well padded in places (tangential storylines and characters). This is also a big fault with Great North Road. The book is just far too long and not enough happens in it. The action that does occur doesn't grab you as much as it should, and happens too near the end, far too late. The rest is too pedestrian.

I haven't read his Void books but, with my reading list long, I am much less inclined to now.

Tue, 21 Oct 2014
The Other Art Fair

I didn't know anything about this until Friday, and was reminded about it when I was in the area on Saturday morning and saw some people queing for it outside the Old Truman Brewery ( "London's revolutionary arts and media quarter" ...) on Brick Lane. I popped over on Sunday to have a look around.

The Other Art Fair is billed as a "platform for emerging artists", and it definitely veers to the newer, contemporary and "street" side of art. That's not to say that there weren't a lot of things I liked.

On the right, a painting from Rowan Newton, a South London artist in a "street" style. Big, colourful and pretty good.

This picture's on wood, there was another version on paper at its side (both for sale, I forget the price).

On the left, Benjamin Murphy at work. What appeared to be bold black and white brush work is actually cut out electrical tape. Looks like it must be a painstaking business putting the pictures together.

His art actually reminds me a little of Charles Burns, a comic artist. Do a Google image search to see what I mean (but warning: some weird stuff e.g. see the The New Yorker strangely enough).

And a whole booth seemingly devoted to Star Wars Stormtrooper art. I'm sure there are plenty of people interested in this sort of thing (I've known a few).

I also liked some of Bridget Davies long watercolours. Some are long as in a metre or so, but look good framed on the wall. Stylish.

Sun, 19 Oct 2014
Constable at the V & A, 2014

The Constable exhibition at the V&A is titled The Making of a Master and shows Constable's growth as an artist and many of his influences down the years.

A lot to see in the show, each room has a theme (common practice now) and some rooms devoted to prints he might have owned, or borrowed to copy. Many prints are "after so-and-so" (e.g. After Rubens). In those days, collecting or looking at prints was the only way one could see a lot of art, second hand. No wonder some (well off) people built special cases for a painting so they could carry it around with them wherever they went.

I've grown to really appreciate the 17th Century Dutch school of landscape painters, artists like Van Ruisdael : Constable learned a lot from them.

Right : A Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Church, about 1665-70, Jacob van Ruisdael

However, he holds his own (and then some) in such august company. One of the best aspects of the exhibition is being able to stand in front of both the study and the final work. For some of his paintings, the study is large: as large as the final work. Big, momentous oil paintings, as big as Turner's, but otherwise very different.

Constable's The Leaping Horse is over 6 feet long and has an equally large oil "sketch" hanging beside it.

Below : The Leaping Horse 1825
Oil on canvas

And his oil sketches stand out, one of the first artists to try and complete more of the painting out of doors, in front of the subject. As you'd expect, the weather often caused him problems, rain-drops running into the paint in some places.

Below : Willy Lott’s House 1816
Oil on paper laid on on canvas

The Victoria and Albert's a good museum that I don't visit often enough. I couldn't resist some lunch in the very ornate café either!

I bought the Turner exhibition catalogue, a lovely large glossy book showing off some his great late paintings. I spent some time looking at the Constable catalogue book as well but couldn't bring myself to buy it in the end. I think that Constable's paintings, as much as I like them, just seem too dark printed here. I assume the printing was "correct", but it's hard to colour balance art in books versus life. It just didn't seem to do the work so much justice. It was a tough call though.

Tue, 07 Oct 2014
Late Turner at The Tate

Walking around the Tate's Late Turner show, it's hard to believe that he was painting like this so long ago. That's over 150 years ago! It's hardly surprising that so many found his work strange and hard to fathom at the time.

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of
Germanicus exhibited 1839. Oil on canvas.

There are many large canvas paintings to savour here, with the trademark sweep of light and colour, quite abstract at times but always looking to capture that fleeting moment: the snow storm, the mist and fog, roaring water. Quite an amazing painter although one has to sympathise with the audience at the time, wondering what to make of it all.

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842. Watercolour on paper.

As well as the big pictures, a lot of smaller watercolours and sketches show off his virtuosity in this medium as well, not only the landscapes but the built features such castles, buildings and ruins. Some are beautifully finished and detailed, others more ghostly and atmospheric.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842. Oil on canvas.

This is the first of three big exhibitions I was looking forward to. The others are Constable at the V&A, and soon the Rembrandt show at the National Gallery. The Tate's made a very good start.