Mon, 15 Sep 2014
Learning to Sit Still

I read a very good short article by the author Tim Parks online in The Guardian the other day. It takes about 5 minutes to read, and is well worth the time. Have a look, it's funny as well :

This is more than medicine.

Parks is an atheist and a sceptic and as an author he lives with words, "in his head" (as he says). He also believes in the rational fruits of science and the scientific method, thinks too much perhaps, maybe the classic over-thinking. He also has a serious problem with chronic pain in his "pelvic floor", something that had been plaguing him for years. In the end, medical science seemed to be doing nothing for him, however much he tried and the diagnosis for his chronic pain seemingly the null result: they can't find anything wrong.

Approaching despair, a serendipitous discovery led him to try healing himself with a relaxation technique (showing some surprising promise), which in turn led him to massage (shiatzu), finally leading him to try meditation. Parks doesn't believe in any "new age", or spirituality, in fact he's dismissive of it all. But by the end of his journey, he's quite a changed person.

His book is called Teach Us To Sit Still and I bought it on the strength of the article.

It really is one of the best and (in the end) most profound books I've read, entertaining as well as philosophical. People will wince (especially men) at some of the medical descriptions (with pictures unfortunately), but it's so well written, and funny, that you keep turning the pages. As becomes fairly plain in the book, Park's seems to "tussle" with himself, a far from relaxed man. The book is his argument with himself as he discovers what it is to relax and "let go".

I've been sitting, trying to do a daily meditation since the start of the year. I've read about the benefits of doing mindfulness meditation but a book like this is fantastic in showing the journey someone might take when doing the practice. As Tim Parks shows, it can be life-changing.

The book is highly rated on Amazon, with a lot of people describing how good a read it is. I completely agree.

Sat, 30 Aug 2014
Sea, Sun and Sand

Another painting, this the second of two (the same) I did a few weeks ago. Again, from a Will Kemp tutorial.

I did two because I wasn't happy with number one, but I'm not very happy with two either! (and this is why I debated whether to "publish" or not). In the end, why not?

It's a bit flat and unexciting, athough it is meant to be "painterly" i.e. not concerned with obsessing over fine detail etc. Maybe version three would be better but I lost interest in painting it! I never quite got the colours right (the oranges and pinks).

I've decided to try my hand at one of Kemp's paid lessons, so we'll see how that goes.

After doing this I did actually paint a little picture I'm very happy with. I won't display it here (yet) because it's to be a Christmas present. But painting something you really like is very satisfying.

Wed, 27 Aug 2014
Gallery Etiquette

The National Gallery used to be quite strict: no photography. Not even of the big Sainsbury Wing staircase. Now it's all change. Quite a surprise, but a pleasant one. If you read the post at the Evening Standard, you'll note that not everyone is happy though. According to the gallery :

As the use of wi-fi will significantly increase the use of tablets and mobile devices it will become increasingly difficult for our gallery assistants to be able to distinguish between devices being used for engagement with the collection, or those being used for photography.

For that reason we have decided to change our policy on photography within the main collection galleries and allow it by members of the public for personal, non-commercial purposes.

I'm pleased because I like to be able to take photographs, not just of pictures I like, but of the rooms and spaces in the building. Or even the people. I often like to use the photo as a record of what struck my fancy that day, maybe research later or put on the blog.

I'm not sure I see too many downsides: there are always people standing in front of or around the popular paintings, and taking a photograph takes little time. It's a bit depressing seeing how many people seem to only see the painting (briefly) via an LCD screen before quickly moving on to the next display though. Not really looking at the pictures really, other than snap ... snap ... snap. There are some noisier cameras as well as annoying people. But hasn't it ever been so? The gallery staff still have to shout out on occasion when people try to take pictures of things they're not allowed to (most things from private collections, perhaps copyright issues).

Anyway,now I can take pictures of some of the great paintings on display, including the edge of a well known Van Gogh, the Chair, and zoom in closely :

Look how rough the canvas is on the left, where it's bare of paint and meets the frame. It's almost like a hessian sack, and quite a shock compared to some of the smooth cotton canvas you buy in the art shop round the corner. It's a shame I can't run my finger over it to feel how rough! No wonder Van Gogh laid the paint on so thick sometimes.

Mon, 25 Aug 2014
Margaret Heath, Watercolours

And now for some watercolours ...

I came across Margaret Heath at the Llewellyn Alexander gallery at Waterloo and was struck by how beautiful her watercolours were. Some of the best I've seen : very technically and artistically accomplished.

Summer Courtyard

From her web site :

Her paintings show the transient quality of light, often early in the morning and late in the day, that can make a scene look so beautiful. To be on a beach or cliff top, alongside a harbour wall or Venetian canal, and to show the viewer how wonderful it looked at that moment is her reason to paint.

And this original painting goes for £695 :

Handfast Point, Dorset

A lot of skill here and she really captures that special quality of watercolour art, the luminosity. Beautifully done.

Her web site has more :

She will also be exhibiting at the Llewellyn Alexander gallery from 23rd October for three weeks,

Sun, 24 Aug 2014
Still Life - Ann Wilkinson Pastels

I was at the Mall Galleries on Saturday to have a look at the Still Alive show, an annual show of "contemporary still life". This was the last day of the show.

A few of the artists I liked a lot, including some beautiful pastel painting by Ann Wilkinson. She had three pictures on display, one shown below :

Still Life with Vase and Flowers

That was on sale for £850. Here's another from her web site (which seems a bit out of date) :

Still Life 7

Her web site has more.

Fri, 15 Aug 2014
Tom Keating on Painters

Their perspectives on art were as disparate as their backgrounds. "Although Renoir’s first impulse to paint came from an almost naïve sensuous delight," Clark wrote in the Burlington Magazine, "he never imagined that the mere representation of agreeable objects was the end of painting." Keating begged to differ. “He loved young girls,” Keating told TV viewers. “Don’t we all?”

The above quote is from Jonathon Keats in Forbes comparing Keating's outlook on art to someone like Kenneth Clark (Baron Clark), of Civilisation fame. Tom Keating, the famous art forger, was pretty down to earth, one of the reasons people liked him.

Keating died over thirty years ago but before he died he recorded a short series of TV programs for Channel4 called "Tom Keating on Painters". I think we are very lucky that he did these, and luckier that most have been uploaded to YouTube because they're fantastic programs for those interested in the techniques of the old masters.

The uploaded videos look like VHS quality, so not great. They also have poor audio (I need to crank the volume quite high) and bad subtitling unfortunately.

Leaving aside the transfer quality, what comes through is his enormous depth of knowledge on how these painters worked, often an extremely laborious process hardly used at all anymore (and with the knowledge increasingly lost). He knows what he's talking about and talks about it with great wit as well.

It's amazing how bad the paintings he does look at some stages, before clearing and becoming recognisable. At some points, it seems hard to believe the artist can recover the work having seemingly destroyed it!

A couple of good articles by Jonathon Keats describe his life and work (apologies for the poor interface in these pages) :

And the YouTube videos :

Mon, 04 Aug 2014
"Monet-Style" Impressionist

Another painting, and again following a Will Kemp Art School lesson, this time How to paint like Monet.

The good thing about lessons like this is that you don't have to worry about choosing a subject, or composition, what colours to use or even what brushes: it's all chosen for you. Easier to get started and actually do something. Starting is often the hardest part.

The painting (click to enlarge) :

OK, not quite a Claude Monet, but I'm quite pleased with the way it turned out. A bit "tighter" and fussier than I'd like (and definitely more than Kemp's) but not bad.

I was never much of a landscape artist, preferring figure work, but right now the landscape suits me fine. The painting is also a lot looser than I'd ever do before. I would never have left the edge of the hill fuzzy, let alone smudged! No visible brush strokes if possible either. Of course, impressionism is often all about brush strokes.

And this was one of the points of the exercise: try and stop being too fussy and precise. Something I have to strain against is the desire to have the painting look good at every stage. It almost never does, often looking quite the opposite (crap) at the various stages it passes through (and this painting definitely did). It's hard but you have to put that aside and concentrate on what you're working towards. Something good hopefully.

Thu, 31 Jul 2014
Red Mars

Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars, written by Kim Stanley Robinson in 1992, is a highly regarded novel about the human colonisation of Mars in the mid-21st Century.

It's a wonkish book in parts, analytical and scientific, and is good showing how the group of pioneering colonists (the first 100) deal with the challenges, social as well as technical. In this respect, it's a sociological study as well.

Robinson's research into the requirements of a Martian colony give the book a very believable edge. He also loves describing the planet's spectacular landscape, geography and geology, but perhaps at a slightly too great a length on occasion! Geologists may appreciate it a bit more.

The novel is much more than a science lesson though. Although some of the main characters are not very likeable, there is enough interesting discussion, and some excitement, to keep us reading. With planet Earth breaking up into war and conflict, increasing immigration to Mars and lots of tension between government and corporates, things start getting ugly.

So, hard science to a degree and sometimes the length of the discourse on the planet can drag, but I enjoyed the book quite a bit.

The political and sociological aspects of the story reminded me a little of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although Heinlein's novel is much more libertarian.

Wed, 23 Jul 2014
Making Colour, National Gallery

It was a toss up between the National Portrait Gallery with the BP Portrait Show or the National Gallery with Making Colour. I decided on Making Colour on Sunday, the paid show, and will check out the portraits over the week.

Making Colour is about the colour in paint pigment: where the colour comes from and how it's created and bound (such as egg yolk for egg tempera or oil for oil paint). The technology of paint changed once the industrial revolution kicked into gear, to the great benefit of artists.

Today we generally don't care where the things we buy come from, or how they were made, but much of what we take for granted didn't exist, or was very expensive. Colours themselves were extremely expensive sometimes and paint didn't come in an easy to handle tube. For this reason, artists were as much artisans and had to learn a huge amount of technical preparation and mixing, in addition to the creative side of their work. A lot of paint pigment is ground up "rock": consider the "earth" colours like raw umber. Historically, the most expensive have been the rarest, like Lapis Lazuli, mined in far away Afghanistan, giving the rare and intense Ultramarine blue. An artist's contract would often be very specific in requiring the use of real ultramarine for the Virgin's coat.

The Wilton Diptych (below) is a very good example of the beautiful blue you can create with ultramarine. This picture was not shown in the exhibition but is one I always think of when I think of a striking blue colour. It really has to be seen in person to appreciate how intense it is.

Wilton Diptych, 1395-9.

Today, Ultramarine is easily affordable and has been chemically synthesised from the early 19th Century.

Another couple of paintings that I thought worth remarking on are below, both unknown to me. The Moroni painting Portrait of a Lady is large and imposing, rather like the sitter. I loved her expression: slightly pursed, a hint of a smile. She seems a bit pleased with herself, perhaps pleased with her beautiful dress.

Portrait of a Lady ('La Dama in Rosso').
Giovanni Battista Moroni. 1556-60.

The full size painting is a real fashion statement. Great colour of course, and very bright.

The second painting is by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, working in the late 18th Century in France, an exciting time to be alive (especially if you were patronised particularly by Queen Marie Antoinette. She has a straw hat on and she's working, her palette in her left hand.

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. 1782.

The full size painting.

I like this painting a lot. Not only a pretty face, but a nice loose, bright painting. Not formalised like a Ingres or David.

I've been down to the NPG to see the 2014 Portrait Award show now and, as usual, it is very good. There are a huge number of very good artists around today, many very technically accomplished. This show consistently has a high standard.

Mon, 14 Jul 2014

An apple. A start anyway!

This is an acrylic painting of an apple - see below for the inspiration. I've been wanting to do some painting for a while, something I used to do a lot of before being distracted with work and life. It's been a long time.

I can't say that I love the painting, or that I think it's very good, but it's not bad and I'm quite happy with it. As a first attempt anyway. I think my photograph of it leaves a little to be desired as well ...

I find acrylics much easier to deal with than oil paints, mainly due to them being water based, so no smells or complex preparation or clean-up. This makes a big difference when you don't have much space (let alone time).

Hopefully more to come. I have a lot to learn.

The inspiration for this, and the source of the above apple is Will Kemp's Art School. He not only has a great web site devoted to all aspects of painting and drawing but a huge enthusiasm. His willingness to share his knowledge and help out is absolutely wonderful (popping up all the time in the comments) - I don't know how he finds the time. Also check out his YouTube channel. I find watching people paint fascinating. A very refreshing site and a great teacher. Thanks Will!