Very sad to hear of the death of John le Carré; I had just bought three of his novels at a charity shop. If I ever see any books of his going cheaply and I have not read them, I always buy.
I was late to come to him as an author, only picking up and reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a few years ago. Since then, I've read quite a few but am lucky to still have many left to read for the first time. Le Carré is one of those authors that makes you realise the difference in quality between the merely pedestrian and the masterful.
I read his memoir recently, The Pigeon Tunnel, and what an amazing selection of stories from his interesting life. This includes some amusing anecdotes about Liz Taylor and Richard Burton during the making of the film. Le Carré's set pieces were always absolutely beautifully put together and could be mesmerising. Wonderful dialog, believeable characters.
Thank goodness he left us so many books to read! Goodbye David Cornwell.
By Neal Stephenson
I've had Neal Stephenson's door-stop sized novel on my shelf for a few years now but never managed to get around to reading it. It's a big book and that meant weighing up the big investment of time. This is a hangover if being disappointed in the past with some of his work (e.g. the "Baroque Cycle" trilogy); but I loved his older stuff and the novel Anathem from 2008.
Seveneves is about the end of the world. An "agent" of unknown type causes the Moon to explode into large fragments that hang around in orbit initially. However, they start banging into each other and people realise that these pieces will soon start falling onto earth and rain down destruction as they fragment: an exponential process. A two year grace period before the "hard rain" falls lets the world plan and execute a massive effort to get enough people and materiel into orbit to save human civilisation.
Stephenson uses this catastrophe to create a big story about the politics and science behind such a huge undertaking as this. He always loves the science aspect and Sevensves is a hard science-fiction novel. As such, he mainly concentrates on the physics and engineering parts but, since we need to ensure the survival of the species, also touches on the genetic. So, orbital mechanics, propulsion systems, robotics plus DNA and medical science. Big rocks and asteroid mining. The book is very good on just how dangerous space is to humans. Some people are slightly upset that the book splits towards the end and transports us into the far future (5000 years) to see the end of the planetary destruction and what comes after. I liked this (long) finale and the fact he didn't split the story into two books.
Although a lot of bad things happen here, the message is still one of ingenuity and hope. When he can reign himself in, Stephenson is an excellent writer.
At the moment, it's raining. It does this a lot in Scotland. This is late autumn if I'm being optimistic but probably fairer to say winter now. With a week of rain and gales stripping the trees much barer of their leaves, it's starting to look like winter again. It's been such a great year that people are already starting to look forward to 2022.
My oil painting energy diminished somewhat over summer, although I did a few and then some larger paintings. Having seen a bad trough of motivation hit a couple of months ago, I managed to pull things together a bit and complete a picture I'm very happy with. I'm about to finish another. It feels like a bit of a slog just now; it's not only writers that get a block. They come and go though, like the gales.
One thing I have discovered this year is that I can easily listen to a podcast whilst painting and not be distracted. I've a lot of podcasts downloaded from the BBC (mostly), including plays, dramas and book readings. These are things I've grabbed over the years but put aside for a "rainy day". Luckily, there have been quite a few rainy days this year.
Some of the things I've listened to include :
- MR James stories, some read by Michael Hordern. I love these classic ghost stories.
- William Gibson's Neuromancer and Burning Chrome. BBC dramatisations, done well.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A BBC dramatisation of the book. I read it years ago but it was half forgotten. Quality.
- Robert Louis Stevenson's The Bottle Imp - a short story dramatised.
- Whisky Galore - BBC dramatisation
- Darkness at Noon - BBC dramatisation of Arthur Koestler's novel about Stalin's Soviet Union
- BBC dramatisation of Dracula in two parts
- Arthur C Clarke's Rendevous with Rama
- I, Claudius - Graves dramatised over six parts.
- Understand - Ted Chiang's short story dramatised. The author of "Arrival", a favourite story of mine.
- The State of the Art - Iain M Banks short story dramatised.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. A dramatisation by NPR in 15 parts. Great cast, beautifully produced radio. A book I really liked.
There have been others and all have been good: this is what the BBC does so well. Luckily there is a large back catalogue because these are hard times for media producers.
As well as Eliot's Silas Marner and Middlemarch, I still have War and Peace to listen to and that's a great reason to start planning a big painting!
Another slight one completed a while ago. An overwhelming sense of green-ness on a sunny day in the park. I am working on a bigger painting but very slowly. In Edinburgh, summer comes and goes ever few days.
A slight one but at least completed and presentable.
Figurative Art Fair 2020
Art show from the Mall Galleries, an online only Figurative Art Fair from the Federation of British Artists. It pains me that I can't see this in real life now, even without the current virus situation (without a long train trip) but virtual is better than nothing. Something for everyone I think, not all "figurative" (very little maybe, oddly). Some terrible, some lovely. Worth a few moments to have a page through the works.
You don't see "100% Extra Free" boxes of blueberries in the supermarket now, which is a shame (although I had to struggle to get through them). On the other hand, summer is here. But the news is still bad. A never-ending supply as I've noticed before.
My posts have dropped off a bit and my artistic endeavour has also taken a hit. Such is life sometimes. I've had a lean period with my painting for two weeks really, with a so-so picture, preceded by a couple of abandoned works. It's not the end of the world and occasionally it's necessary to take a step back, wait and rebuild motivation. You can't force inspiration and there's no point worrying about it.
I still have quite a few paintings completed over the last few weeks to show, and even from last year. Maybe some not as worth the display. But I'll leave that judgement open for now.
Here's one I did a few weeks ago. I've spent a lot more time biking and walking, discovering some of Edinburgh's paths and parks. It's easy to forget Edinburgh is on the coast, with a northern as well as an eastern aspect. This picture is somewhere along the northern coast from Silverknowes to Cramond.
Below is a screen capture from a short YouTube video, an interview with David Hockney. The video's only about 4 minutes long and he's talking about the state of his art and the world. As usual, good sense and humour from him.
I don't think I can get such bright, almost neon, colour in my painting! Mine aren't backlit though.
He speaks of a philosopher he saw talking on television: the news comes on and he's asked how he can be optimistic with news like this? He replies, well, that's television. Bad news sells. So he's asked, what's the good news then? And he replies ... the arrival of spring. Hockney chuckles and it's a typical Hockney observation (about "observation" itself).
he says, of course nobody notices spring arriving usually but in the past, everyone noticed. In 2020, I think many more people started noticing as well. And now it's summer. End in sight of the "crisis"? At least the beginning of the end.
Above: Queensferry and Learmonth Shadows, oil, 8x10", April 15 2020
I painted this a few weeks ago, the "hook" being the light through the large tree casting a great mosaic of a shadow on the road. Not a particularly complicated picture and it came out fairly well. Unlike some other paintings recently though. In fact, a week or so ago I was having a lot of trouble sitting down and getting anything done. Some days are like that, and it can definitely cast a bit of a depressing shadow itself. Very frustrating. Luckily, I managed to break the spell last week. Hopefully for a while.
The National Portrait Gallery in London are hosting the BP Portrait Award show online this year and have created a virtual gallery in the web browser. I had a poke around and it works very well, although I think I heard my laptop fans start to spin a bit faster. A "virtual" gallery like this is not bad at all but no substitute for real life. I'll be having a "stroll" around it and checking out the pictures, almost as usual. The painting just in the above frame to the left is the 2020 winner.
I hope the London gallery does the virtual display like this every year. I was very disappointed that 2019 was the last year the BP Portrait Award exhibition would be shown in Edinburgh. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery decided they did not want to host anything sponsored by BP, an oil company. I'm opposed to that decision and feel a loss. I bet a lot of people do. Edinburgh's loss.
Four years ago, the Royal Academy had an exhibition I reported on called Painting the Modern Garden ("Monet to Matisse"). I enjoyed it immensely (I think I went twice): the RA know how to put on a great show. The Monet water lilies in the last room were like being before an altar. Quite magical.
The Academy have just put their film of the exhibition on YouTube. Beautifully produced and full of colour as you would expect. This is worth putting up on a big screen and sitting back to wallow in: much art and beautiful plants.
From the same day as the previous work. I liked the view a lot and did another small oil painting of the view of the city over Inverleith Park pond.
This is a study I painted in December 2019, based on a reference photograph from earlier in the month. A lovely cold and fresh morning, frost on the ground. The pond was mainly frozen and birds were standing around on the ice. It came out well I think :
No visits to the Mall Galleries this year either! This is the gallery I think I miss the most. This year's Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition is on and we've all got the email alert. Great paintings, online only. It really does pay to take some time to have a look through them.
Darren Butcher's painting shown below could be called caricature rather than portrait. Does it matter though? Very well painted anyway and there's an Expressions Two as well. In fact, there are a lot of new artists in the show this year, as well as the usual ones I remember and love.
The portrait below is by Alex Tzavaras. He runs a good YouTube channel called SIMPLIFY Drawing & Painting where he teaches painting technique and does some artist interviews.
It woud be great if the various painting societys and groups could work out a way to take their exhibitions north of the border each year as well somehow.
The Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibition is on just now. In normal circumstances I'd be up there in person. Unfortunately, these are not normal times. Anyway, thank goodness for the internet. These are a few pictures I liked, but there are quite a few others worth seeing.
The above Alan Robb painting is very striking (and large). This is only a detail.
Like the RA Summer Exhibition, it can be a hit or miss affair but there's always something good in it and I won't be alone in missing being there in person. Although there are many good things about viewing art online, it's not the same at all, no matter how good the photograph. I feel a lot of sympathy for the organisers of the show this year, but in particular for the artists. Some would have been looking forward to their first RSA presence. They must be very disappointed.
In a past life, before the crisis (maybe that should be BC, Before-Covid), I would often travel up to Edinburgh on the train for a holiday in September. I'd take a day trip to Glasgow and visit the Kelvingrove Museum, and the Hunterian a short walk up to the university. Sometimes freshers week was on and I got a reminder of my student days.
The sun was shining in a good way on this beautiful tree in the university quad one time over there. It was one of those magical moments that sometimes happens and you're in just the right place, light and colour link up nicely. Definitely something to try and capture in paint later. I did one of my "studies", which I thought was successful, and then blew up to a larger canvas :
The sky is blue, the sun is out and it's a beautiful day.
Geraniums by Ruth Murray.
Ruth Murray has won the Jackson's Painting Prize with this amazing oil painting of a garden greenhouse at night. I wrote about this prize a week or so ago and remember opening this picture to have a closer look and thinking how good it was. Very deserving. You can see some other examples of her work linked on the Jackson's page.
Ruth's web site is here.
At the end of his interview with Tim Marlow, Hockney says that he might be boring others but he's not about to go and bore himself: he'll do what he enjoys doing. This is another great YouTube video from the RA, covering Hockney's 2012 show with his amazing Yorkshire lanscapes, and his 2016 show with all the portraits (and a still life).
I've gone on about how much I loved his colourful landscapes many times before. He is 82 now and currently "stuck" in Normandy due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Luckily he paints and draws, so I hope he's capturing some great spring weather over there.
With the "lockdown" continuing, we can't go to the gallery. If I was still in London, I would definitely have gone to the Royal Academy to see their Picasso and Paper exhibition. The RA have created a virtual exhibition though and they've done an excellent job. Watch on their own site (link above) or on YouTube :
I have to say that I really like some of Lachlan Goudie's work, especially some of his newer stuff. It's bright. colourful and accomplished, whether the landscape, still-life or complicated engineering (see his shipyard work). Some of the gouache sketches he did in the Holy Land were also very good (a BBC film was made). I think that as far as the landscape and still-life work goes, he is very much in the tradition of the Scottish Colourists.
If you visit Goudie's web site (which is not the easiest to use), start with the "gallery" link (bottom) and view his "New Work" to start.
Paintings to draw inspiration from.
A painting of the front of the St Vincent Bar and the corner of St Vincent Street and Circus Lane, done a few days ago. I've not been in the bar but it's always seemed an attractive picture, as is Circus Lane.
This painting is only "OK" as well but I think it might do better on a larger canvas. We'll see (I have no plans).
This is Lachlan Goudie's "isolation" message via the Scottish Gallery. He's well known from being a judge in the BBC's various Painting Challenge programs but also makes other art related programs (e.g. on Charles Rennie Mackintosh). I like his work. He's also one of the few artists who seems to regularly use gouache paint.
Reasons to be Cheerful Part 1
Tesco were selling fresh blueberries : "100% extra free".
It's nice not to have the constant thrum of traffic on the roads.
I'm not just showing my "good" stuff, I'm also calling things "studies" to try and emphasise that I'm not spending too long on the paintings. I'm not going to display anything I think's terrible though! These two studies are not great: let's say I think they're OK. However, on occasion, I've initially hated a painting only to change my mind after a few days, so I try not to rip stuff up too quickly.
These were both done in the past week. The beach scene was rubbed out and re-done once. It's done on an MDF board, not canvas textured, so much smoother than I'm used to. I had some trouble adjusting.
Also from Jackson's blog, a post from Lisa Takahashi.
She asked various artists how they're doing during the "lockdown" period. The first asked is Peter Brown, one of my favourites. A lot of art is created in a solitary way anyway, but some does require more space or equipment. Some artists don't have much of a "home studio", so have to make do and packed what they (thought) they needed. It's tough for everyone but I think that an artist has some advantage at the moment; maybe writers as well. Everyone wants to decompress in the sun sometimes though, or feel comfortable popping out to the shops. An online and virtual life doesn't cut it yet.
Jackson's Art Prize
I've bought quite a bit of stuff at Jackson's over the years, and quite a bit recently as well. I never visited a shop when down south but they do a lot of business online. I am not affiliated with them in any way but can vouch for their service, range and quality. They also have a good blog with regular and interesting posts.
As well as all that, they do a painting competition every year and have just announced their shortlist. I like this sort of thing, as well as group or club exhibitions, as it's great to see a wide variety of art on display. Some very good works of art here.
There are many pictures I like, one I've highlighted below :
This sort of outdoor painting is called contre-jour, against daylight. Painting facing towards the sun. I think it is particulary good in urban settings.
Luckily, we're still allowed a walk in the park, for exercise. Once a day anyway.
Living in Stockbridge, I'm lucky to be near the Botanics and Inverleith Park. The Botanic Gardens are closed just now unfortunately but the park is open. It's a lovely great big open space, with an outlook over the Edinburgh skyline from far East to far West, including Arthur's Seat and the Pentland Hills. Lots of bird life around as well, not least around the pond. Spring's here, the sun is out and we're (mostly) stuck inside ...
In frostier weather last year, I did an early morning visit and managed to take some decent photographs. From one I did a small study. And earlier this year I expanded it to a large canvas. This is the largest canvas size I've used so far and I think it came out well.
I've been enjoying listening to Professor Roger Penrose talking about aspects of his work on YouTube. Not only is he a very clever guy, he's also a good presenter. He's done an amazing amount of interesting and important work in mathematics and physics and is well known for his expertise in exotic things like Black Holes. I remember buying a book of his years ago called The Emperor's New Mind, in which he theorises on the nature of consciousness and its links to quantum mechanics. In book form, over my head; but in talk form, much more accessible.
Penrose saw work by the great Dutch artist M C Escher at an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1954. Struck by how ingenious Escher's "impossible" drawings were, he invented some "impossible" stairs with his father, Lionel Penrose. From a picture on Wikipedia :
Escher loved this and incorporated the idea in a famous drawing of his called Ascending and Descending :
Here's some Penrose :
Last year I painted this study of a scene in the graveyard, looking towards the church with the early morning sunshine strong but low in the sky. I thought I'd try and expand this onto a bigger canvas, starting the larger painting today. Early days. It has one of those complicated trees in it, something I always have to stop and think about how to do. Background first, then paint on top? Or foreground, and paint background around? I'm going to try the first option and see how it goes.
The Mound again. This time in full sunshine with a bright blue sky and a lone cloud that seemed to park itself over the castle. Yes, this was a real scene. I liked the strong contrast and bright colour here and did a small study last year. In the painting, I reduced the people and car traffic, leaving things a little lonely. Earlier this year, I blew the study up onto a larger canvas.
My second "study" was done from a reference photograph I took one evening at sunset, standing near the top of the Mound and looking out across the city. The sky was full of dark blue clouds but the setting sun made a bright yellow/orange gash stretched across the horizon. Quite a view.
This was the second of the quick paintings I attempted to do last year. If you want to do something like this in 2-3 hours, you have to compromise. Be bolder and much less fussy or concerned with detail or embellishment. Being a generally tight and fussy painter ... this is a challenge.
I thought the result was promising enough to do a larger version earlier this year. I'm pleased enough, it was the largest painting I'd done up to this point and I even have a frame for it.
The "Mound" in Edinburgh is, literally, a big pile of dirt: an artificial hill that connects the Old Town to the New Town. It was formed from the excavated dirt, rock and rubble dug up when the New Town and Princes Street Gardens were created in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. It's quite scenic now, with the Scottish National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy at the bottom, and the old Bank of Scotland building near the top. Standing close to this at the top of the hill, you can look down and across the New Town, and over the Firth of Forth all the way to Fife.
When Google's AlphaGo AI triumph was news in 2016, I was impressed but not very informed about the board game Go, or the real achievement. AI (and "machine learning") was starting to make a lot more news though, and people started to take notice.DeepMind's artificial intelligence system AlphaGo beat the Korean Go master Lee Seedol 4-1. Go is an extremely popular board game, especially in China, Japan and Korea, and it is considered a much harder game for a computer to play than chess. DeepMind was a British AI company that Google bought in 2014. Few people thought a computer could beat a good human Go player, at least not for a decade.
Watching the documentary film AlphaGo - The Movie on YouTube opened my eyes to the scale of thing. The Korean interest in the AI challenger match was intense: the sort of press scrum you get on the Hollywood red carpet for big film stars. Also quite astonishing how much the Korean Go experts discounted the possibility of losing (any game). I found this film quite riveting. Great to see inside a cutting edge technological start-up as well.
You can watch AlphaGo - The Movie on YouTube. You don't need to understand the game.
This was completed yesterday, started the day before :
(No) Sunshine on Leith, 10x8", oil on canvas board
Named from the great Proclaimers song, Sunshine on Leith of course. This shows a big warehouse in Leith, from a photograph I took after a bike run down and around various bike/walk paths starting at Warriston. A cloudly, overcast day.
This took two afternoons because I ended up wiping off the main warehouse after messing it up. I knew I'd have some trouble painting the big building: all the windows and complicated front decoration! This sort of fine, straight-edged detail often causes me headaches when painting wet in wet using oils At least the case when I'm not wanting to use layers, let things dry, take extra care over time.
And a last point. Yet again, a huge amount of trouble getting a decent photograph. Something that looks like the actual painting. I have a Canon EOS 700D, not a bad camera at all, shooting in RAW format. I know how to set ISO, shutter speed and aperture. I use a tripod. I've taken the RAW into a RAW editor to play with (Darktable), used a photo editor (Gimp) to try adjusting and have had a lot of trouble with the results. In some cases, I think it might be glare, perhaps exacerbated with the canvas texture showing up in the light/glare. I still need to figure out a good way to do this. It's very important to get this as good as possible. I'll get there .. still diggin'
Like her, I see an artist's life can already be quite isolated in the studio, on your own. It's harder for many people. I loved Crowe's show at the City Art Centre last year. I'd love to see her actually painting because I was intrigued by some of her techniques.
These are two small oil paintings done recently on canvas boards. Both 8x10" and completed in an afternoon. This is a photograph using my mobile phone camera :
All the rest of the photographs are from my Canon EOS 700D but using the built-in JPEG (not RAW), then slight "auto" white-balance in an image editor, then a scale and re-export ... and I'm usually unhappy with the way my paintings come across on the computer! I need to fix a workflow that makes them look more correct.
This was done on 2020-03-19 after a visit to the beach at Portobello :
This was done yesterday, 2020-03-24, and is from a screenshot from a YouTube video (see below).
Thoughts on Painting
I've been watching quite a lot of the artist Tom Hughes on YouTube via his channel Thoughts on Painting. He is a Bristol based plein-air oil painter and it's been interesting watching him work, and travelling around the country. No fuss or magic, but down to earth and personable. It's made me start considering trying outdoors painting myself and buying a similar "pochade" box. The painting above was done from a screenshot taken off a video he shot in Cornwall: after finishing a painting, he panned his camera around and I thought it looked worth a go myself! I like his work: it also reminds me of work by another painter who is out and about all the time, Peter Brown. Brown's painting of George Street, Bath, in the rain was worth a big mention in a post I made in 2017.
Tom Hughes' web site is : https://www.tomhughespainting.co.uk/
Talking about small scale art, the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh has an annual show in December called "On a Small Scale". It is an exhibition of small postcard sized (15-21cm) works of art by well known and invited artists. There are four walls filled with all these works, perhaps a couple of hundred in total (I didn't count). All media and all small. This type of exhibition is my favourite because of the huge variety on the walls: there's always something good, sometimes great. Another reason to look forward to December.
Path to the Loch, Argyll, by Robert Maclaurin, oil on linen on board, 15x21cm
Slow Morning, by Gertie Young, mixed media, 15x21cm
Now I'm in Edinburgh, I have a bit more room to devote to painting in my "studio" (bedroom number two - no actual bed). This makes a big difference.
Late last year I decided to try and do more painting, and seriously sit down much more. I seem to have a lot of trouble starting anything, sitting down and actually getting going. Plenty of procrastination. I think this is a trait shared by many people. I pushed a bit harder and started a small (8x10"), quick (2-3 hours), afternoon oil painting. This turned out well so I tried to keep this up. I bought a lot of small canvas boards and thought "who cares?" if I mess up, or rip them in half afterwards! I didn't quite keep the pace of one a day up, and doing quick (what I called) "studies" requires quite a bit of adjustment. However, I managed to do quite a few small paintings over a few weeks into December 2019, until Christmas got in the way.
Some of these turned out quite well I think, and some good enough to be redone on a larger scale. This year I've painted four much bigger paintings based on four of these studies; two are the largest paintings I've done. I think they have all turned out quite well and I hope to stick them up here.
In the meantime, last week I biked down to Portobello beach early, my first time down there. Lovely place that should be beautiful in the summer (but busy I bet). Of course, it rained: a heavy shower passed over quickly but, luckily, I was sheltered. I had a few photographs and painted this the day after, showing the rain clouds moving off towards North Berwick. Quite a striking view and I'm pleased with the end result :
More to come hopefully.
Maybe more time for :
- Spring Cleaning
- Art - more painting
- Reading - getting through a queue of books
- Learning something new
- Talking to friends and family
- Meditation - would love to get into this again
- Getting a different perspective on life
Oh, and maybe there'll be a baby boom.
And within a breath, the world was changed ...
It looks like we're in for a difficult and trying time for the next few months. If the disease doesn't get us, maybe the cure will. The BBC, doing their bit, have ramped up the coverage, extending their (5) PM radio news program to start at 4:30 pm, more news to add to our misery keep us informed. I'm listening to much less of that and more Radio 3.
I used to be a bit of a news junkie, reading the papers and taking in the news all the time. However, given the explosion in news media over the past few years, even from as far back as the start of the 24 hour news cycle with CNN 30 years ago, I've reduced my consumption a lot. Especially over the past few years, I've shrunk what I read, hear or watch a huge amount. This was for the sake of my own mental health: the news media seemed to cause a constant anxiety, worry and agitation, let alone political polarisation. I think this could well be a major causal factor in the decline of many people's health over the past decade. That and advertising perhaps. The internet, for all it's wonderful utility, has made it much worse.
With this new pandemic hitting, things are much worse. I'm trying very hard to not take in too much horror or hysteria. I don't even watch television but I know it will be winding up the panic day in and day out. No wonder we all get so sick, tired and angry.
Stay informed but it might be a good idea to switch off the firehose of negativity.
Take care everyone.
The above cartoon is by (I think) an American political cartoonist called Bruce Beattie. I took the image from the blog Maggies Farm.