Thursday, 28 February 2013

A postcard from Runnymede

One thing that intrigues me about a blog is that you can see which country your readers come from. As a result I can say safely that most of you have never been here, and if you have then it was most likely a package tour which paused at the monuments while doing a day trip to Windsor. I thought today I would share with you a little of the magic of the mead.

This photograph is a week or two old now. It was taken from the hill that you've seen in the background of some other pictures here, looking towards the Runnymede Hotel. The dark band along the top of the picture is the hedge alongside the road to Windsor.

I've included a couple of details a bit larger as it is a complex picture - at full screen its epic but I can't see how to do that in Blogger. As far as I could make out, the chap on the left was taking his dog for a wade (where he is is usually a path across a field) when he saw ducks and tried to take pictures of them. He's plainly more hardcore than me as I've been avoiding the water, and he's plainly dafter too as you don't take a dog when you're trying to photograph birds!

The other detail has been chosen because it shows the characteristic colours of the area - the grass, the grey, purple and brown undergrowth, the grey brown of probably an oak (I wasn't close enough to check) and the spectacular, ever-changing orange/ochre/sienna of the willows. These are usually a lot brighter, but it was a washed out kind of day.

The reason I think this picture is a good summary is that it shows the richness, the bleakness and the epic scale of the mead. The man is dwarfed by trees, water and field alike in the wide view and yet we're only looking at a small fraction of the place. For all its sunny richness in high summer, I almost prefer it at this time of year. This view will just be a shapeless mass of leaves soon, but for now if you can put up with the biting, biting wind the trees are still showing their structure and their true, mysterious colours.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

The British Museum's current blockbuster is a gathering of artefacts made around the turn of the last Ice Age. It argues that the existence of these 40-10,000 year old objects proves that by then man had evolved into what he is now, with the same instincts and capacity for thought. It goes on to argue that the discovery of specialised workshops and work done by experimental archeologists suggest specialist artists existed, and that means there must have been organised social groups - one hunts, another makes - and given that there are individual caves where there are similar paintings made thousands of years apart then these social groups must have retained very consistent values over an enormous length of time.

One thing I was delighted to see was the acknowledgement of, or maybe even obsession with, the fact that we will never know what the purpose of the objects was and although its fun to guess its ultimately futile. As such the secondary message was that we can't do other than appreciate these as we would contemporary art. To this end the exhibition tried to show how art had been influenced by the discovery of these objects but I found this a half-hearted distraction - a photograph of Picasso's studio, a stone Henry Moore, a couple of Matisse prints.

So what of the objects themselves? They range from the very famous - the Venus of Espugue that obsessed Picasso, a reproduction of the lion-man (the original is in a lab in Germany as some of the missing bits have recently been discovered and are being re-attached) - to things that were completely new to me. I will concentrate on just a few.

The lion-man is an underwhelming object in photographs, but in the (false) flesh it comes to life. Carved from a mammoth tusk, it is a man with a lion's head. It is simple, relaxed and stylised yet utterly sure of itself. What really struck me was its size. It is the perfect size to be grasped around the waist by a man's hand. Indeed this is really evident in the video that shows someone making a reproduction with Ice Age tools. When you consider its feet are cut at an angle so that it would not be able to stand on its own you can't help but wonder. It could have been made to lean against a wall or in a niche but with its back leaning forwards as it follows the curve of the tusk it would look like it were cowering - hardly lion-like. So surely it was made to be held. Even today, held above your head there would be a kind of "By the power of Greyskull" moment, or held in front of you before a crowd or between you and an individual there would be a clear statement of power. I know I said its futile to guess, but that's my point. These objects are so engaging, ambiguous and alive that its very difficult not to be carried away into a realm of imagination by the best of them and that is what sets them apart as masterpieces few artists are capable of matching.

Perhaps my favourite object is the tiny diving bird. It half the size of my little finger and utterly compelling. When you scour the web there is an assumption it is diving through the air and even the card accompanying the exhibit in the show speculates about the spiritual role of birds in flight. I disagree. It looks an awful lot like a cormorant underwater to me. The neck is perhaps a little short but I think the distortion from the surface of the water accounts for that. I see cormorants along this stretch of the river every day and, if I'm lucky and the water is clear and the sun is in the right direction, when I'm up high sometimes I glimpse them underwater. This reflects where, for me, a lot of the strength of the work comes from. To be able to accurately carve something moving that quickly, which you will only ever glimpse, requires an unimaginable understanding of your subject. This is a point Andrew Graham Dixon picked up in the preview show on the BBC when comparing the horses of George Stubbs with the the work on display here. Stubbs dissected horses. He knew every sinew and every vein and it shows  in his paintings. Ice age men would perhaps have spent a large chunk of their lives killing, gutting, butchering and eating the subjects of their art. They are likely to have known the appearance, texture, weight, smell and taste of every part of their subjects anatomy in a way no modern artist does, even if they didn't understand the function of each part as we do.

I do wonder about the most common raw material, tusk. The drawings in particular have a particular quality which is consistent across thousands of miles and thousands of years. They feature very clean, precise yet lively lines. I suspect it is inherent to the process - scratching with a very fine and sharp implement on a surface which maybe has softer and harder areas. Most of the lines seem to be a constant width yet the effect is of a width that varies, so I would speculate the lines are deeper in some areas than others. If I can find an equivalent material I would like to explore this further.

In conclusion, it is a compelling exhibition which is thoroughly recommended. Man has been capable of extra-ordinary things for a lot longer than we might think. As an artist, the key lessons are not new but are of fundamental importance. Rigour is everything. Learn your subject intimately through observing it every which way you can. Then take your time and anything is possible.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Paint review: Winsor & Newton AOC Cobalt Violet Dark

Brand loyalty is a funny thing. I freely admit to being a snob, but I would never think of myself as a brand snob. Yet I have huge loyalty to particular paints. Whilst this is partly down to the practicalities of having learned a particular paint, it is also in part snobbery - an irrational belief that one brand is best. Those of you who have been paying attention may have worked out that last time round I was Michael Harding man and I still am.

One thing that being away from art taught me is that there is no universal best, only best for a particular set of criteria. So recently I have made it my business to find out about alternative sources of paint and I have several interesting things on order. The first to arrive is the now discontinued Winsor & Newton Artists Oil Colour Cobalt Violet Dark.

W&N is a brand I have largely ignored. Their ubiquity makes them easy to dismiss; it is natural to assume a small atelier full of craftsman will make a better product than a factory. There is also a temptation to see them as old fashioned, doing exactly the same thing for decades and yet isn't the use of traditional techniques key to the way Harding, Old Holland et al promote themselves? W&N have fiercely loyal clientele, but again this is easy to dismiss as the ones who shout about it tend not to be very "Alan", for better or for worse. This loyalty speaks volumes though and begs an interesting question - when it comes to raw materials should one prioritise absolute quality of product or consistency between batches and reliability of supply?

All things considered, when I stumbled across a chap selling this paint at £4.75 for 21ml versus an RRP of £42 for 40ml of Harding's I thought it worth a punt. After all, he particularly states that this particular paint is the equal of the Harding and Mussini equivalents in appearance and handling. It uses the same pigment Cobalt Phosphate PV14 but in safflower oil. It seems to me a non-yellowing oil like safflower is critical for a purple in spite of its darkness as yellow is the complementary colour of purple - any yellowing will therefore lead to a greying and de-saturating of the colour so I'm pleased they avoided linseed.

First impressions are awesome!

What a colour. This is the archetypal regal purple. This is the colour Cadbury's wrappers dream about at night. It is truly imperial.

Second impressions are pretty good too! Smeared on the palette the colour is clean, even and bright. Consistency is soft and smooth and it forms nice peaks on the palette which bodes well for brush marks. It claims to be and seems to be semi-transparent too, with good enough covering power when required. Mixed with white it is strong enough but immediately controllable - it doesn't feel like it will overly dominate in the way that say a pthalocyanine will. Mixed with a couple of other colours it is doing what I'd hoped - yellow ochre produces a rich but subtle mustard-brown a lot like our clay and this mixture with a lot of white and a touch of blue is a good starting point for the smooth, young tree trunks round here. The mix I'm really excited about is optical though - a brushed out and scumbled combination with umbers and ultramarine for the rainbow-coloured black mud that characterises the wooded parts of the riverbank; a treacherous but fertile mix of rotted leaves and silt. I've been underpainting with a thin wash of vermillion that lets the canvas glow through like a watercolour, then applying these colours grunge-ily over the top.

As far as mark making and brush strokes are concerned, I'm not the ideal person to ask as I rarely go near impasto and I'm not interested perfectly smooth areas of transition or flat colour. The relatively thick marks I have made have held their shape well enough, though at only a millimetre or so off the surface of the canvas I haven't been demanding. Equally, in areas where I have tried to brush my marks out the paint has responded well. It seems happy enough blending wet-in-wet too.

The only thing I'm not quite comfortable with is that it feels different to the Harding's I'm used to. Under the brush it is a little softer and squidgier. That's not a bad thing from my point of view but it may have implications for very thick brush marks where the painter requires every bristle mark to stand proud.

Overall I'm very pleased. On first encounter this appears to be a very competent paint in a spectacular but versatile colour and I hope as I learn how to use it it will seem better and better. It has been a very pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Ice Age Art - Part 1

There is a rather splendid exhibition of drawings and carvings at the British Museum at the moment. I will chew over the exhibits soon, but first I wanted to discuss the exhibition itself. This often interests me as hanging work is a black art in itself so I am always curious to see other people's approaches.

There is a truism in many fields, notably typography, that if people notice your work then you've not got it right. I read a quote from Adrian Frutiger (the designer of many famous fonts including Univers) the other day which sums it up - If you can remember the spoon you ate your lunch with it was the wrong shape. In his epic work Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst compares typography to a loaf of bread - done well it is very satisfying on its own in many, many ways but ultimately it is only there to "honour" the filling of the sandwich. For me the same should apply to exhibitions - the infrastructure should not be noticeable.

There is a reason I have taken that little diversion. I want to pay tribute to whoever set up the lighting inside each cabinet. The cabinets are very simple and, as the room is so dark, I don't have a clue what they look like. The lighting is done with very small, directional lights about the width of a biro. There are several above and below each exhibit and they have been very carefully directed. The net result is that there are no deep shadows obscuring the detail and yet there is enough contrast and the angle of the lighting so acute that every detail, mark and texture of every object leaps out. My one complaint was that the rest of the rooms were so dark that the contrast between the light levels was very much the poorly shaped spoon or the ostentatious loaf of bread. Its hard to see how the low light levels were for the benefit of the exhibits since they were bathed in light from the spots. If it was to be cave-like they shouldn't have lit the exhibits so brightly. It may have been for un-necessary dramatic effect but whatever the thinking it made the lighting inside the cabinets appear too artsy when it was in fact supremely functional.

The other thing I wanted to comment on is the atmosphere of the place. I have never been to an exhibition quite like it. It is hugely popular and they limit the number of entrants at any one time but it is still crowded. What a crowd though! The levels of concentration were intense and near universal. There was no conversation. It was like starving men eating, ramming it down their throats as if they were scared the food was going to be taken away. Thanks to the four sided cabinets it is easy to watch the people on the other side as they look at same exhibits as you. You can look into their faces, lit by same spots that light the objects. Their concentration was near total and rarely broken. Not once did I see anyone look back. I don't know how much of this was the quality of the objects and how much was the modern obsession with the audio guide but either way it was remarkable.

Come back soon to find out what was in the cabinets!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Big Day Out

I made it to London today and have just got in. I will write properly about Ice Age Art and Giorgio Morandi once I've gathered my thoughts, but here are some quick conclusions.

1 The Estorick Collection, though charming, is unnecessarily cruel. £5 ticket price, £8 minimum spend on cards. Fortunately its only a couple of minutes walk to an ATM. Still, if you're on your own, take cash, or get some from near the tube station.

2 Still not a fan of London!

3 If you're going to Ice Age don't let half term put you off as they limit numbers. This does mean booking in advance is a very good idea.

4 I don't like being in a train carriage crammed to bursting with Chelsea fans - especially not the ones who are drinking at 10 on a Sunday morning.

5 I wandered through the Impressionists looking for Friedrich at the National - egad! Degas understood colour! Its a while since I've seen one in the flesh - reproductions suck.

6 In the topmost rooms at Estorick are some other modern Italian pieces. You know Umberto Boccioni? The Futurist responsible for the famous bronze of a man moving? There are 3 pre-Futurist drawings there. Delicate, sensitive, rigorous yet full of life - one in particular might be best described as Whistler's Anti. It has the same pose from a different point of view but it is dancing and vibrant and intimate and dark. Apologies for the reflections on the image, I didn't take a camera and its near impossible to find online. The other one the link in the picture goes to is even more likeable.

7 Frederic Church. Where have you been all my life? The finished work leaves me cold, but the sketches... ooh

8 I have the answer to my own question about Friedrich a few weeks ago - I didn't pay attention because the example in London is numbingly mechanical and stuffed full of over blown symbolism. Still intrigued by the woodland one though - I think it's in Germany so I may never know if I like it in the flesh or not.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Air Force Memorial revisited

I made it back with a tripod. The door to the roof was locked which was a shame so Windsor Castle is still through a window, but its amazing what a difference a lower "film" speed can make on a digital camera.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Been out walking

I thought it was time to gather some new material, but it was a bit cold to be drawing outside today so I took the camera. Although the wind was only slow it was cutting so I ducked into the Air Force Memorial for shelter for a while.

Windsor Castle on the horizon from the Air Force memorial at RunnymedeThis is a monument on top of the hill above Runnymede with views from Windsor Castle to central London on a clear day. The Castle is maybe 5 miles away and it turns out you can sort of see it even when its snowing. You can also see Heathrow and Wembley stadium.

Inside the Air Force Memorial at RunnymedeThe point of the memorial is that it lists 20 000 Allied airmen who lost their lives in the Second World War but have no known grave. It is a courtyard with two additional wings and a tower. I'd never bothered climbing the tower before, but I'm glad I did today. I knew it to be an elegant building but upstairs the combination of the sculptural detailing of the spiral staircases, a simple but textured square room and a quality of light somewhere between a church and an art gallery absolutely blew me away.

Next time there is an overcast day when I have time on my hands I'll hoick a tripod and more lenses up there, the room will reward time and thought.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ice Age Art

I am so glad I didn't make it to London yesterday, for if I had I would have missed out on the new pay-to-play exhibition at the British Museum. There are enough free things in London that I tend to avoid the paid for shows, but last night Andrew Graham Dixon was on a Culture Show special giving the background to the latest one, Ice age Art - The Arrival of the Modern Mind.

If you're in the UK watch the show before it vanishes off the I-player next Saturday. If you're not in the UK, get on a plane to Heathrow, then the Underground will take you straight to Russell Square - you don't even need to change trains. When you get to the surface you'll be a few minutes walk away, just follow the signs. If the flight isn't too long you could do it as a day trip!

Seriously though, this show appears to be that important and that majestic. When I draw, sometimes its about tonal structure but more often its about using quality of line to capture something as economically as possible. This I share with ice age man, but the quality, vision and skill on display in the objects highlighted last night is humbling. There were moments when I just sat open mouthed.

Some of the objects are familiar, some less so, but if you draw or sculpt or even think, it looks like this show may just change your practice.

As and when I get there I will report back.

Ps - While you're there, don't go and see the terrapin 2 posts down, its on loan at the British Library until April.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

I like free stuff!

I was hoping to be analysing this artist and that artist today, but with one thing and another London will wait. Instead, I thought I would share a resource I stumbled across.

It appears the only supplier of reasonably priced genuine lead paints in England at the moment is Winsor and Newton, (Mr Harding, I don't care how good it is, £400 per litre is too much money for white paint) so I have spent some time on their website. If you can see past the PR it is a fabulous resource which I will be referring to extensively in future. I particularly like the analysis of historic painters palettes.

This morning while following links and trying to find somewhere with Cremnitz White both in stock and below full retail, a dealer's website pointed me to a free download I hadn't noticed: The Oil Colour Book. Look past the agenda (strangely enough, it only mentions one manufacturer's ranges and only describes one manufacturer's history in depth before eulogising that same manufacturer's commitment to excellence at every opportunity) and there is excellent information on pigments and oils and their characteristics and on techniques, supports, manufacturing processes and just about everything oily. More detailed information is out there, but to get it in one place costs money and this will be more than deep enough for most people.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Mystery of the Terrapin in the Cistern

I'm getting myself together for a day in London. It doesn't happen very often what with me being broke and hating the place, so when I go I like to have a plan and, thanks to this blog, I do. Morandi at the Estorick and Friedrich at the National for sure. I'll have to see where there is a Nicholson or two but there's bound to be one in one of the Tates. If its Tate Britain there will be a Nash and a Sutherland in the same room, and it would be rude not to get up close and personal with good old JMW. I would look into the Barbican as its almost en route between Islington and Pimlico; the free gallery always has something interesting and unexpected and that is where I discovered Anthony Whishaw but unfortunately it appears the current exhibit is so popular there is a three or four hour wait. Wherever I end up, it will be a hard day of deconstructing, examining and beard-stroking.

The point of this post though is not a route but a habit. Every time I go to town, I start with the same object: the Terrapin in the Islamic room at the foot of the north stairs in the British Museum.

Sculpture is not my thing, I prefer the ambiguous spaces of paintings but I adore this. Its one huge lump of jade, carved into a terrapin 18 inches long with workmanship that is flawless. Even the underside is immaculate. I know little about carving, but I do know jade is difficult to work with. The fascination for me though  is stylistic. The terrapin was carved in Allahabad in the 17th century, yet its form is so sleek and simplified it could have been made in the west between the two world wars. Despite this simplicity, it is so accurate that experts have identified both the species and the gender and I just love it when objects manage to bridge to opposing sets of goals like this - in this instance simplicity and realism, stone and liveliness, understatement and extravagance.

The sadness is that it is not better known. It was discovered in a cistern and now lives in a mirrored glass box in the far corner of a room filled with Iznik ceramics, antique weaponry and intricate astrolabes. The people in that room aren't interested in a terrapin by a window and just walk past. In truth, most people never even find the room, tucked down by the back door, and those that do are often just getting their bearings before heading upstairs to the nearest blockbuster gallery, the Egyptians.

Update: The terrapin is on loan at the British Library until April

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Frustration of a Water-Meadow in February

Everywhere I go it is plain that Spring is in full flow.

Some trees have blossom already, there are a few flowers in the gardens, leaves are in bud, the kestrels are out, the kingfishers are visible again and the change in dawn and dusk is very apparent. I think I even glimpsed a bat the other day.

The mead however is still so soggy as to be un-passable in parts. There are areas that are fine, a tarmac path, the raised area beneath the woods, the woods themselves and the part of the mead closest to the Windsor Road, but the most interesting part is still out of bounds. I could probably wade through it in wellies, but that would be very hard work that is likely to involve falling over or losing a boot.

It is still all the rain that fell at Christmas thats the problem. There's been enough to keep topping the mud up ever since. The patches of water shrink or grow each day, but they show no signs of going as after a couple of days the squalls come back.

Ho hum.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Stepping on the path to Enwhitenment

The work I have done with the recent snow has highlighted to me my ignorance about white and I have determined I will make better use of it in future. It has forced me out of my comfort zone and made me treat white as a colour in its own right. I have yet to fully resolve them but there have been some very interesting moments featuring off-whites in ultra close harmony which do strange things to your eyes and perception, turning the surface into an apparent source of light. In particular white modified by a blue-green like viridian or pthalo-cyanine is startling when adjacent to white modified by a violet. My initial impression is that if you start with two colours close enough to each other to clash and use them to tweak different areas of the same white, strange things happen.

It is time I understood all this.

Left is a sketch of Runnymede in a break in the snowstorm with the Egham skyline as a dark streak in the distance. The sky is based on Zinc White. I painted this to explore the cold in the aftermath of seeing Grayson Perry and Will Self talking about Hunters in the Snow. I realised part way through that, since we are all used to seeing the world blurred by camera and speed, smearing the horizon would speak of the harshness of the wind here, almost as if the wind is whipping the paint across the canvas. It was also conceived as a vehicle to explore my new tube of paint - Winsor and Newton Iridescent White.

When I first saw this paint I assumed we would be talking about oil on water types of iridescence and I was both excited (having read the Seven Deadly Colours: The Genius of Nature's Palette in which the author examines seven ways nature generates colour, pigment being just one and iridescence being another) and wary as I thought it could be uncontrollable. In fact it is ground up mica coated in the same pigment as titanium white and has a very subtle shimmer. In use it is reminiscent of some of the more subtle shimmering make-ups and body-lotions out there - it turns out there's a good reason for that! I have yet to play with mixing colours in, but for pristine snow its subtle pearlescent quality adds a cute little something which you would not be able to put your finger on.

The big problem for me is its sheer warmth doesn't cut it in this context. Fortunately it allows colours beneath it to glow through so I painted the foreground with a mirror image of the sky in alizarin crimson, lemon yellow and ultramarine before adding a coat a of zinc white and finally a heavier coat of iridescent white which was worked entirely horizontally to emphasise the movement on the horizon. This all gave it a blushing, shimmering coldness which doesn't photograph at all but does enchant me and leaves me desperate to know more about the colour.

The first step on the road to mastery of the colour white is to gain understanding. As and when I can sell some junk on ebay I will invest in a tin of the lead-iest lead white of all, Cremnitz to round out my options. I think I will be able to make use of its relative warmth and texture in interesting ways. Soon I will have whites based on titanium, zinc, lead and mica. To explore these I will work on small, postcard sized canvases or boards, probably with one repeated composition. It may end up half colour chart, half weather forecast and half Ben Nicholson. I suspect each will be a moment of stillness if seen individually, or a bewildering chaos if put together. We'll see.

My seven step plan is as follows:

Step one: Complete my palette of different coloured whites
Step two: Play
Step three: Immerse myself in the work of Ben Nicholson and Giorgio Morandi (there happens to be a show in Islington until April which is a bonus)
Step four: Undertake my series of postcard sized experiments
Step five: Remake my snowscapes with this new-found skill and understanding
Step six: Translate this palette for use in landscapes which are not covered in snow - perhaps concrete in bright sunlight, tarmac in the rain and southern England's characteristic flat, overcast skies
Step seven: Gather these into a small show that shows a compelling progression - initial sketches > experiments > sketches reworked into proper paintings > paintings from step six.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A plea

Back in the day I saw paintings by Sean Scully. I forget where and they were, maybe New York, maybe 90's, no matter. As ever, his work was monumental with simple, painterly stripes of alternating colours. The paintings I remember were exploring olives, earths and greys. These colours were thickly painted over a bright ground which peeked through here and there between the stripes.You will rarely see a more convincing exploration of how colours affect each other.

These works changed my attitude and were the beginning of a love affair with colour, although back then I didn't realise it. The practical effect was not evident for some years but in due course, I found I would use a searing bright orange for my underpaintings. It would glow through the colours, tying them together and would wink at you through any gaps in the paint.

It wasn't just a random orange though. Used with care it could burn your eyes, but it was also versatile in a mix - strong enough to hold its own but not so strong as to overwhelm the colours it was mixed with. It was semi-transparent, could be knocked back enough to let the canvas shine through, used with a medium in a very clear glaze or lifted off with a cloth to leave delicate almost peach-coloured staining. Used thickly and with planning it could appear to be opaque too.

The paint in question is Orange Lake by Michael Harding. It is no longer available. I am looking at alternatives - Michael Harding themselves recommend Permanent Orange as being a different colour with similar characteristics - but in the mean time, if anyone out there has any usable surplus they would sell at a reasonable price, please get in touch!
Left: neat Orange Lake squeezed from the remnants of a ten year old tube - Centre right: mixed with Michael Harding Lemon Yellow - Top right corner: mixed with Atlantis Yellow Lake