Tuesday, 28 May 2013

What a difference a day makes

I don't know what its like where you are, but an English spring can be madder than a box of frogs, weather-wise. At the weekend it was so cold I had to light the fire, yesterday it shorts and flip-flops weather and today its been proper lashing it down. I like the fact the weather is always a lucky dip; reckon living somewhere more predictable would be dull. One bonus is that I've been waiting weeks for the right weather for one of the next batch of skylines paintings; I got my sky today in the nick of time. I'm planning to start painting again at the weekend all being well. It wasn't so much the sky I've been waiting for, its seeing how the falling rain affects the appearance of the wooded hillside above the mead and for that I needed just the right amount of rain.

PS. If the translate button can't cope with "lashing it down" in this context its heavy, squally rain

Sunday, 26 May 2013

British Masters: In Search of England

The BBC's art output this year has been truly excellent; from pre-history to the dark ages and the 20th century there has been simple, sensitive and beautifully produced coverage. I stumbled onto the repeat of a series from a couple of years back which I hadn't seen before yesterday. British Masters traces a path through British painting. It has no great thesis or revolutionary scholarship but each episode shows a handful of artists from a particular period in the development of art, showcasing their work and contextualising it. Those of you who are regulars will have worked out that English landscape painting between the two world wars is phenomenally important to me and this happens to be what yesterday's episode concentrated on.

From a very personal point of view, the programme made Stanley Spencer a little more accessible to me; out of that entire generation of heavyweights he is the one that does least for me though I can appreciate his skill and his epic-ness. I think the fundamental difficulty I have is that we have no common ground. It also re-confirmed that I am inescapably a Nash-ite. The true value of the show though was that it showed me some work by John Piper I haven't seen before (I have to do a proper piece on him sooner or later) and reminded me about the quietest master of all, William Coldstream.

Coldstream thrashed around, directionless and lost, for some time before he found his calling. He ended up stripping all the glitz, glamour and pretension out of art. At his height between the wars, it was just him and a subject and the paintings did nothing more or less than show his subject with a beautiful, understated honesty. The quality is inescapable, but when your paintings are so quiet it is easy for the world to overlook them, easy to not notice them in a gallery, no matter how strong they are. In this instance there is an aptness to their beautiful invisibility; when a painting is about honestly depicting modern lives shouldn't it, as the programme said, be slow and dull, because that's how most people's lives are.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Adventures in Linocut continued...

Here it is, a snap of my first linocut. It's one of the bluebell glades in the woods above the mead. When I've done a few more I'll be wishing it were better, but for now I'm chuffed. I've printed half the edition now and will do the rest tomorrow. Only having done the odd proof up until now I am surprised at just how physically demanding printing with a baren is - it may be easier with a proper one which is designed for applying pressure but I can't justify that expense yet so am improvising.

It's 10 x 15cm and in Raw Umber on mulberry tissue. I'm talking to a framer and if I can afford it, black walnut should set the ink off nicely. I'll take a proper photo when I've finished printing.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Khadi Papers

With my first linocut just needing tweaking I have ordered some delicate handmade paper from Khadi.

Khadi is a small company working with paper makers in India and the surrounding countries. The Indian papers are handmade from rag in the Western tradition. They come in a huge range of sizes, up to perhaps the biggest handmade paper in the world. As each size is made on a mould of that size rather than being trimmed down they all have deckle edges, which is nice.

A lot of the non-Indian papers they source are in the Eastern tradition, with mulberry, lokta and mitsumata prominent in the range. In fact some of the papers aren't just the same species of bark the Japanese use, they are made with the same methods too. Their Himalayan range is effectively a budget priced handmade Japanese style range.

I have bought a lightweight smooth rag, one of the Himalayan Washi papers and mulberry tissue. As soon as they arrived I couldn't help myself; its proofing time! No photos yet until there are finished prints but here are first impressions.

These papers are very suited to block printing with care. There is obviously a long woodcut tradition in Japan which has evolved hand in hand with the evolution of Washi. It has enough transparency to enable you to see the progress of the print as you work it. It has a lovely absorbency and is astonishingly strong for such a thin paper. The mulberry tissue is surprisingly strong (although it becomes very delicate while saturated with wet ink) and has a beautiful, uneven transparency so will take the brightness of the board it is mounted on for framing and is very easy to see through whilst working, but it is essential to have a layer of paper between the baren and the paper to protect it. The rag is very smooth and far and away the softest Western style paper I have come across this side of blotting paper. This is because it is only lightly sized with gelatin. I would be reluctant to let watercolour anywhere near it even in heavier weights, but it looks like it would be an exquisite drawing surface. That very softness and absorbency means it picks up both the ink and the texture of the block with relatively little pressure.

They all have their place but for this set of prints I choose mulberry tissue. I need a bright white that the washi can't provide. The rag picks up detail almost too crisply for this design. The tissue can be crisp too, but less so, and its transparency means you can see progress clearly enough to manipulate the amount of ink it picks up - since this print is based on dappled sunlight this is a bonus. Tomorrow I have to work out a work area thats right for me; then its time for my first ever linocut edition...

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Meadow flowers

There's now competition for the bluebells out on the mead. The section of it nearest to Staines is left to grow to hay each year unlike the rest which is grazed. Its knee high already, and chock full of wild flowers. I'll pick a little red clover blossom to make a gallon of wine but that's still a few days away; for now the mead is dominated by little yellow flowers like tall buttercups and pretty grasses.

Meanwhile the woods are in full leaf now and there are drifts of cow parsley against all the hedges where just a few months ago there were drifts of snow. Aren't seasons brilliant!

Monday, 20 May 2013

New Work: Virginia Water

Two simple paintings which show how my language has evolved in recent months. They both show the ornamental woods at Virginia Water on the cusp between late summer and early autumn.

The one on the left I started last year when I was re-learning to paint and I gave it up in frustration because it was so heavy handed. I have had to resort to cheap tricks to get it up to an acceptable standard but the point is my capabilities have come on enough that I could turn it round. There are a couple of issues I couldn't resolve without fundamentally changing the nature of the painting so I left them; after all I saw the picture as a missed opportunity rather than something fundamentally ill-conceived. It is important to me because it was where my ongoing fascination with the interplay between transparent and opaque paint first came to light. Beyond this, my interests had not yet become clear.

The picture on the right is a response to it and uses the same techniques and almost the same palette. Those of you who have visited my website will realise it is not the first time I have made a variation on this composition. It takes the transparent/opaque games and pushes them far farther. In doing so it reveals a problem I have come across before: it is very difficult to photograph work which depends on this relationship. All opaque paint and the camera picks up colour relationships fine. All glazes and, again, fine. But half and half means I can have either one set of colours accurate or the other but not both and not their relationship. Its a frustration and I will find a cure, I just haven't yet. Other than opacity, the 2nd painting draws on my experiments with space. Beyond that there is nothing especially sophisticated; on the one hand being too complex would prevent the paintings from working together and on the other, as I have said before, its nice once in a while to simply bask in the wonders that are before you rather than being clever for the sake of it. I take particular satisfaction that the second, new painting is so much more boldly, loosely and confidently painted yet it also displays a far defter and more delicate touch. With these two paintings before me, rather than flawed reproductions, it is clear I have come a very long way in a short space of time. I can't help but wonder where I'll end up.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

A quiet pleasure

There is satisfaction to be found in the small things. They help one find a stillness yet still give a sense of achievement. This morning I think I finished an oil painting; it was the last thing I've been finishing up before breaking from painting for a couple of weeks and had been dragging on longer than I'd hoped; even now my opinion is changing with the light so I won't declare it officially done until I've slept on it for a few days. With the next few weeks devoted to linocuts and the development of the next batches of paintings I will not be touching oils for a while. This meant I could deep-clean my brushes this morning. I can't do it that often as the brushes end up wet with water, not solvent, and so can't be used for oils again until completely dry which takes a while for large brushes like my hake.

Its a slow, leisurely process, especially as I own quite a few now. Any that aren't already clean and dry are cleaned in white spirit as far as possible. Then each brush is used to work brush cleaning and conditioning soap (I think mine is Da Vinci but the writing wore off a long time ago) into a lather. This is worked deep into the bristles. The brush is then rinsed in water, then back to the soap until no more colour comes out and the brush feels as supple and springy as I want it. One final rinse, then remove most of the water with tissue and reshape the brush while its damp. Finally leave to air dry. It all ends up as a slow and soothing rhythm if you can do it uninterrupted.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Spring isn't just about bluebells...

In all my excitement about the bluebells I forgot to show you the extent to which the rest of the woods and the mead have changed with the season. When I was out walking last week I found myself somewhere very familiar: I give you Mudward and Floodward at the tail end of Spring, as opposed to the tail end of Winter.


 OK, so I didn't stand in quite the right place or aim in quite the right direction, but its close enough for you to see the difference. I can feel another couple of paintings coming on... In fact, I'm tempted to go round where all the February paintings were as well to see how much they've changed. One of my favourite things about Southern England - and I admit to being biased because I grew up here - is that the seasons are just right.

Friday, 17 May 2013

A medieval education: The stained glass at Fairford

A few years ago I used to live about halfway between Oxford and Swindon. Sometimes I'd have to drive up to the West Midlands for my job and as I cut across the bottom edge of the Cotswolds on my way to the dual carriageway I'd pass through a little place called Fairford. Now two things puzzled me about Fairford; the welcome sign in the edge of town mentioned its "world famous church" and for a few months a year every house along the main road would display the flag of a different country from a pole mounted between the bedroom windows. I never did find out about the flags but I did make time to visit the church and that was a very good move.

It turns out that St Mary's Church in Fairford has pretty much the most complete set of medieval stained glass windows in the country, second only to York Minster. I can't make that comparison as I haven't been to York since I was knee high to a grasshopper but without a doubt the glass at Fairford is a thing of wonder. One thing that you need to bear in mind is that back then - I guess it may still be the case in countries which didn't go through a Protestant reformation - services were conducted in Latin and the bible had not been translated into English so the windows, showing important stories and saints, were the only access to scripture an illiterate and uneducated peasant would have. The windows and their teachings were a primary way for the parishoners to learn the bible and how to behave and therefore avoid eternal damnation. No pressure on the artists then!

Details from Day of Judgement
The end result is extraordinary. Each window, I think going anti-clockwise, shows a key bible story in chronological order finishing with an astounding depiction of the day of judgement. There are bosses on the roof showing saints and devils. The misericords are carved with domestic and nature scenes which have a hint of virtue and vice about them. I don't know how the decorations survived Cromwell's vandalism but they are pretty much an encyclopaedia of the Christian faith.

Day of Judgement
Centre of Day of Judgement

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Runnymede Art Society

I've finally done it! After a month of umming and aahing I've chosen and joined one of the local art groups. Its called the Runnymede Art Society and meets weekly. After just one meeting I'm glad; I'd been starting to get a bit isolated so its nice to meet people with a similar interest. They're a friendly bunch, have a show a couple of times a year which is good (especially since I'm turning out work with an element of local interest) and, as an unexpected bonus, I met the kind of someone I've been on the lookout for for a good few weeks - someone who operates a small framing business from a shed at the bottom of the garden. Framers like this are by and large a lot cheaper than framers who have to pay rent on high street premises, so I'm hoping that his work won't do to much damage to my margins. A good day all round.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Paint review: Winsor & Newton AOC Flake White No 1

Until relatively recently, lead based paints were the only high quality whites available to artists and there is a long tradition of their use. In recent years however lead based paints have been increasingly outlawed for reasons of Health and Safety. There are valid reasons for this and they do present a genuine risk if consumed, breathed in or worked extensively with bare skin. I was never too bothered about their disappearance until recently as I'd always been happy with titanium white, erroneously thinking white is white. Others knew better though, so many artists have been up in arms as ban after ban has come in. Lucien Freud famously bought pretty much the entire stock of his supplier of choice's Cremnitz when restrictions first loomed on the horizon. As of this year, Winsor and Newton are perhaps the only source of affordable genuine lead based whites in the UK. This is because, although in the EU there are exemptions in place allowing lead based paint to be sold to artists, the loss of every other market means that pigment manufacturers don't bother making the raw pigment that paint makers use. Niche manufacturers like my favourite, Michael Harding, make their own pigment but this leads to astronomical costs, so kudos to W&N for going against the grain.

"A warm white, made from completely opaque and permanent pigment, Flake White is a fast drier and mixes very well with other pigments, reducing their colors softly due to its low tinting strength... Desired by oil painters for its mixing qualities and pure whiteness, Flake White creates an astonishingly durable and flexible paint film. It was once commonly used as a base layer on canvas due to the strength the pigment gave to the paint film. Conservationists note that sections of oil paintings containing Flake White withstand time better than those without." W&N website

Sounds good!

Over the last few months I have been working my way through a tin of genuine Flake White and it has been a revelation. On opening the can and digging in a trowel, the first impression is one of stiffness combined with softness. This paint is even stiffer than the Williamsburg Umber I reviewed a couple of months ago. Soft brushes are not a viable option unless the paint is mixed with other paints or modified with thinners or a medium. Having spent the time adjusting to this I like this aspect of the paint. Unmodified it holds marks and textures far better than any paint I have ever used and adding thinners or a medium is hardly a hardship.

Applied on its own, unless it is applied impasto, it has far less covering power than my titanium white. For my method of applying translucent and transparent layers of colour this is a huge advantage, especially as it interacts with the colour it is going over far more subtly than the other whites. Equally, as W&N say, it is far softer in a mix, making it much easier to get controlled tints than with the sledgehammer that is titanium. For tints I would say Ti is brightest and harshest, Zinc is crispest and cleanest and Flake is softest.

Using three whites, often in the same painting, has been an education. As the three are noticeably different colours and have substantially different characteristics, making tints from the same colour with different whites creates very subtle relationships. This is what my Enwhitenment project will explore in due course (the missing ingredient, Cremnitz (Names of lead based whites have shifted over time - usually a mix of lead carbonate PW1 and zinc oxide PW4 is known as Flake white whereas pure PW1 is known as Cremnitz where historically it was a reflection of origin and pigment quality -far more heavily loaded with pigment and accordingly with a different, more stringy texture and apparently it has more of a glow in tints), is available again but I can't afford it right now) in a more formal way. Zinc is coldest and clearest - see the patches of blue sky in my work, which is pthalo blue with zinc - Ti the whitest and Flake the warmest.

Overall, I adore this paint. It has become my default white. I frequently use it with Zinc as a counterpoint and have all but abandoned Titanium. It mixes easily and the range of textures is glorious. The fact that it is as close as white comes to being translucent is a huge bonus for my way of working.

Thoroughly recommended.

Hillaire Germaine Edgar Degas - La Coiffure - c. 1896

For once I have very little to say. This painting is perhaps the most extraordinary example of close harmony colours I have ever seen and certainly the most exquisite use of such a burnt palette. You know how well you have used colour when Matisse buys your painting! I like this painting best when I'm as close as the guard will allow, so the construction is clear and my whole vision is filled with colour and the texture of the canvas. I suspect the painting's construction is a legacy of Degas' use of pastels, with simple, soft blocks of colour over a ground of a closely related brown. Its at the National Gallery, in a little dark room full of Degas, and it is well worth dodging the school trips to see.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Runnymede Skylines, Runnymede Skies Part 1

 Finally, after a few weeks of teasing them, here are the first three skyline/landmark paintings. There will be six in due course, maybe even more, but I am taking a week or two away from painting to freshen up before hitting those hard.

Collectively these paintings are intended to address the scale of Runnymede and the fickleness of spring weather here. Most of them take a wide view of the place - one of the ones I haven't started yet will actually contain a 180º field of view. In all of them, the landmark building is dwarfed by the mead which is in turn dwarfed by the sky. This first one, showing the Founder's Building of the Royal Holloway University lurking on the horizon, takes the tightest crop. It shows one end of the building almost a mile away but still dominating the Staines end of the mead. I have given the building a character which is half animal by exaggerating its owl-like shape and half paternal - it dominates in a supervisory way, not a threatening way - and it becomes part of the landscape as there is no boundary visible between the building and the line of trees on the horizon and because the trees and falling light by turns echo and reflect its shape. Both the hedge bounding the mead and the landscape have been reduced to simple cloud-like bands of layered transparent colour. The sky reflects this as we almost stare into the sun; it is a gentle, warm haze which may or may not be lightly clouded and it gives the painting a calm, almost feminine feel.

This painting is perhaps my favourite of the three although it has proved to be a bit of a git to photograph; it has lost a lot in translation from the painting - perhaps because the painting hangs so much on faint directional brush strokes and the interplay between opaque and transparent paint. It shows the Air Force memorial although this view doesn't exactly exist - I had to wear my x-ray spectacles to remove several trees. In the real world you can only really see the very top of the tower from this viewpoint. I love its dynamic feel and, again, the building is given animal qualities. It stands proud atop the hill with its back to the wind and wings spread wide. The wings of the building have missing edges and, combined with the treatment of two areas of trees at either end of the building, this makes them truly wing-like. There is an ambiguity about the building's relationship with the wind. Is it just standing there, joyfully feeling the wind on its back? Is it actually whipping the wind into a frenzy? Or is it exhorting the landscape to rise up and join it? In the flesh, the building belongs to the ground but dreams of the air as is appropriate for an airmen's memorial. In the painting, the colours mean it belongs to the sky and it appears to be trying to lift itself up, taking the hillside with it. Key to achieving this is the use of two different sets of not-quite-verticals in my rendition of the building.

The third of these paintings shows the two National Trust buildings at the Windsor end of the mead. The one on the left is a tearoom, the one on the right is the office and part-time art gallery.

This painting is late in the afternoon on a four-seasons-in-one-day sort of day - pretty standard April weather in Southern England. The two lodges are hunkered down below the tree-line at the edge of the mead, taking what shelter they can from the wind whilst basking in a sudden burst of sun. They are reduced to a beautiful combination of warm browns and I am delighted with their economy. You'll need to click on the picture to see the bigger version to appreciate it. I may post a close up later.

This painting shows the colours which I am using to tie the series together most clearly - the sky is pthalo blue and zinc white, the clouds are based on an indigo made from pthalo blue and vermillion which is largely scrubbed away, contrasted with lemon yellow, indian yellow and raw umber with highlights in impasto flake white. These colours are the foundation and common link between all of the paintings.

I am really looking forwards to doing the next three!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Adventures in Lino

As regulars will know I am experimenting with linocuts. A few days ago I finally got round to making my first proofs and, although I will not be showing them here, they are hugely encouraging. I really like both the feel of the process and the graphic quality the work has. An unexpected benefit is that because the tools want to go in a straight line my slight tremor effectively disappears. Anyway, now that I think the first three skyline/landmark paintings are done (I won't be sure for a day or two yet) I'll take a couple of weeks off from painting to keep myself fresh and will concentrate on lino.

I have read a bit about it just lately and the fundamental skill seems to be drawing so I should be okay with a little experience. One of the things I came across is a video of an artist by the name of Bill Fick showing the entire process from surface preparation to finished proof. I thoroughly recommend watching it. As a film it has a nice rhythm in its own right and it makes the process crystal clear.


Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Last Post for the Bluebells

This will be my final "bluebell watch" post this year. Right now they are at their absolute best; they'll stay this way for a little and then just fade away while ferns grow up around them. The other reason for shifting my attention is that the first ducklings have appeared on the river.

Anyway, one last picture to try and convince you to get out in the woods.

Next we have a quick and dirty stitched but un-cropped panorama. The raw material is right but the result needs refining but you can see very little at screen resolutions. I uploaded it at a fair size so click on it to see it as big as your window will allow. This is one of my first 360º shots and it helps illustrate the point I was making in my drawing post. The exposure is tolerable everywhere, but I have chosen carefully which area was the most important and made sure that was exposed perfectly. The very deep shadows caused by slight under-exposure everywhere else do two things; they give a sense of being deep in the woods and they help highlight the area which is correctly exposed giving the picture a structure over and above that of the actual trees. It helps shift the photo away from the magpie-like gathering of pretty pictures and towards an art-like conversation with the scene. The detail below is not the prettiest part of the scene but was chosen to show one of the compromised areas - there is still enough detail for digital trickery if I want it as the compromise was very carefully chosen indeed. If ever I can afford to have it printed, the finished photograph would be 10" tall and over 10.5' long.  Thinking about it, thats about the right size for where the adverts are inside tube trains... Hmmm. The Underground is keen on getting culture into the tubes, they commission poems. I wonder...

Back to the real world... If the ends were butted against each other they would match up and form a seamless circle of about 40" diameter (assuming I've remembered the value of pi correctly). I haven't come up with a proper use for them yet but I like the idea of mounting panoramas in a circle then hanging them from the ceiling at eye level so the viewer can stand inside as a miniature tribute to the way that panoramas like Dodwell's were originally displayed in rotundas.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Drawing: the wonders and limitations of short cuts in image making

The British Museum has a room near the top of the North Stairs in which it displays temporary exhibitions of drawings and prints. One recent show was "In search of Classical Greece - travel drawings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi 1805–1806" which was a collection of topographic illustrations and large scale panoramas showing classical Greece, abandoned, raw and un-excavated as it was in the early 19th century. This was a time when Greece did not exist as a country as it had yet to fight its war of independence from the Ottoman Empire and Athens was barely more than a large village. Brian Sewell talks about the show here and gives a good overview of the two protagonists but I want to use it to draw some broader conclusions.

Traditionally most artists and certainly most painters would regard drawing as a discipline central to their practice. It allows a deeper understanding of one's subject than is otherwise practical and is a fast and low-cost way to develop and rehearse compositions, to clarify one's interests and to discover problems. By their very nature though humans like short cuts and a fundamental one with regards to drawing is the camera obscura. The principles of using a pinhole or a lens on one side of a darkened room to project an image onto the opposite side are truly ancient and the device became popular during the Renaissance as perspective and correct anatomy became important to artists. They would quite literally trace images off the wall. In due course portable versions were developed and Dodwell and Pomardi made extensive use of this technology on their tour in order to make drawings both more accurate and faster than would otherwise have been possible.

Standing before their drawings, as full of strengths and weaknesses as anybody else's, it is apparent that the limitations of the drawings have a lot to do with the very technology that made them. There are many passages that feel mechanical. There are passages where the lack of intellectual involvement has plainly led to boredom. There is one in particular, a village on a hillside, which is as if both artists' knowledge of perspective has gone for an afternoon nap. Walls of houses suddenly appear to be random shapes instead of rectangles distorted by perspective. On close examination it appears the drawing features multiple horizons. In some work that would not be a significant issue or might even a deliberate device, but for a topographic artist who is asking us to accept his work as being as accurate as humanly possible, this dramatically undermines trust in the rest of image. If the houses are demonstrably careless, why would one accept anything else is accurate? Time and again I was left wondering about the purpose of the drawings. The panels on the wall said they were primarily prep work for engravings which makes sense of them to a large extent but, had I been Dodwell's engraver working from the drawings at a later date, I would have cursed him.

Other drawings, less dependent on the camera obscura, were far more human, vibrant and considered. It is inescapable to me that when the pair relied on mechanically tracing their images, their work suffered. When they went back to engaging their brains - as in the pieces that were reworked into finished watercolours as this one has been - the human and lively qualities one would hope for from an artist returned.

Allow me to demonstrate the limitations with my own work. Here is a photograph which I have previously mentioned which is intended to become a drawing when time allows. Indeed the distortion and exaggeration I have applied means it has some of the characteristics of a drawing already. These are two intertwined oak trees in the woods above Runnymede and the intention is to explore their relationship. This photo would be useless for working from in isolation. It is just a confusing mess of branches and one can gain no useful insight from the photograph; one can see the complexity of their relationship but not the nature of it. Indeed, before I started working through the process outlined below, it was impossible to separate these trees from their neighbours just using the initial snaps. The insight that I have and the idea that that has led to has come from sketching and walking round the trees in the field.

This of course leads us to today's short cut of choice. We have moved from the camera obscura through the film camera and now to the digital camera. Suddenly time and resources are no barrier to image making. There is a danger that discrimination and consideration can take a back seat to gratuitous recording. To take a well worn phrase from another context, we are in an age of "shoot first and ask questions later" and there is a tendency that pictures become less about pro-active composition and more about retrospective editing. Over the next few years, there will be people leaving art school for whom Facebook, Twitter, Flickr et al have been a key aspect of their life for as long as they can remember. They are of a generation who have lived their formative years living in a digital kaleidoscope, snapshots of every aspect of their lives sparkling through the ether. For some of this generation, the concept of "enough pictures" does not exist. For some in this new culture, activity is mistaken for action and talking is mistaken for communication. People who live this way hold the tantalising promise of being able to present things in a new, infinitely fragmented way but they also risk never being aware of contemplation and the benefits it brings. With a digital camera it is too easy to shoot indiscriminately and return home with hundreds of pictures and no insight into those pictures at all.

Dodwell forewarns us of this danger in his method of composition. When choosing the locations for his panoramas he didn't look for beauty, charm or artistic value. He sought out the the spot from which he could see the most points of interest and then took it as he found it and, in doing so, the depiction of each point of interest was compromised by the need to depict the others. Panoramas were perhaps the first examples of composition by editing and of composition being compromised by too much information both in the image and for the artist to be able to handle with intelligence and discretion.

Perversely, the panoramic form doesn't just give us insight into the problems caused by mechanised image making and composition by editing; it also hints at the solutions. If the idea intrigues you, I suggest you download some image stitching software and with the instructions and with trial and error learn to take 360º panoramas. Don't just head to your local beauty spot and shoot the horizon but instead find somewhere more complex, with a foreground and a middle-ground as well as a background. Find a spot from where you would be able to take several attractive photos just by turning round. To get a panorama which is stitched in a truly seamless way the camera should be on manual focus and manual exposure. It should be focussed to the same distance all the way round and it should use the same exposure all the way round - this will help avoid visible joins between photos and will make the computer work far easier. The decision making process this forces begins to turn photography from being passive information gathering into active composition as you will need to interrogate your scene carefully. Having the correct exposure and focus for some areas will mean other areas are light, dark or soft. Choices need to be made. Small movements in location can have a significant effect on the final image. There is no longer room for a trigger happy approach, everything must be considered. In short, to create an image in this way forces you to observe closely and make choices and in so doing it bridges the gap between the nature of photography and one of the key purposes of drawing; it becomes rigourous and gives the photographer insight.

My own personal and ever developing solution to the strengths (speed and accuracy) and weaknesses (lack of involvement, untruthful colours and tonality) of the use of digital photography in the development of art is to use it in an iterative way. I go out, open minded, with my camera and I take pictures. I sometimes fall into the trap of being trigger happy but this way it is not so important. I review the pictures and let the germ of an idea grow, leaving it for days, weeks or months. When the idea begins to crystallise, I head back and take more pictures this time concentrating on the idea. On my return home, the pictures are again reviewed. Those that may translate into a painting are then thoroughly photoshopped  - I mess with contrast, exposure and colour balance to help me see the structure of the scene. I blur all the details out to see it simplified. I sketch from it to understand particular areas or shapes. I then go back to the scene again and, if necessary, re-shoot or sketch. At the very least I poke around until I have answers to questions the initial photoshopping raised. I then go back into Photoshop again, distorting, compositing and tweaking as required and this will be the basic composition I then work from in combination with drawings of passages which are either complex and confused in the photo or where I have changed them significantly.

In conclusion, mechanical, optical and digital processes are of huge value to an artist but come with enormous caveats attached. It is necessary to recognise the dangers that accompany their use, in particular the risk of lifeless, mechanical draughtsmanship and the potential elimination of all discrimination and invention within a composition. When an individual artist can find a workflow which allows him to exploit the efficiency of this type of information gathering whilst avoiding the pitfalls then it is a very good thing indeed.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

They're ready!

The bluebells are finally properly ripe!

I'll head back with proper kit in a day or two...

Incidentally, my drawing post is going well if getting out of hand. I'll write it full length then edit it down to blog-size, maybe see if I can find a journal that wants the proper one. I'm finding it really useful as it happens; focussed, sustained and questioning thought is a really important foundation for an artist's practice and doing it as a blog post helps me stop getting distracted, see it through and not go overboard. A truly unexpected benefit of keeping a blog!

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Saatchi Online

As you may remember I have made reproductions of my work available worldwide through the Saatchi Online website. Last night they notified me that with immediate effect they are changing their pricing structure for open edition prints so the minimum price I am able to charge for a 8"x10" print is now US$40. Considering the stage I am at in my career and the fact that I have no part to play in the quality control process other than supplying the master photograph I do not consider this to be a fair price from a consumer point of view, however good the print process and paper. Limited editions and things made specifically to become prints should be priced at levels that reflect their attractiveness, their status as art and the time and money invested in them but I think open edition on-demand digital reproductions should be priced far more aggressively and democratically; they should be a very affordable way to get high quality and accurate reproductions of my images into people's homes so they can start to build relationships with my work.

The long and the short of it is that, although this may change as my skill level and profile rise, I believe $40 is too much for this particular size and type of print. The small print of the email said that work already up there can remain at current prices, so all work up to Mudward and Floodward is available at a more competitive price. I will not be adding any more work to the site and will look for an alternative way to provide this service. I'll post further developments as they occur.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Barrier paintings

Here we are then, two paintings which have me caught in a thousand minds. Many of my compositions feature a distinct "here" and a "there"; these paintings were designed expressly to clarify my area of interest - am I interested in a two adjacent spaces with two characters, or am I interested in the junction - be it boundary or barrier - between them?

On the left we have a very simple composition. The Air Force Memorial, simplified, stylised and almost made animal is blurred into a streaky sky as if taking off. Before it are two barriers, impenetrable brush and a thicket of young silver birch trees which may be a barrier or may be a gateway and adds to the vertical movement in the painting whilst also tying the top and bottom together as if they were pieces of string. Space is very compressed, existing only as three planes and the viewer has no way to step into the painting - of the here/there elements I have spoken about this painting only has a "there", the "here" is implicit and the actual space the viewer occupies. It is a simple, likeable painting.

On the right by contrast we have a looming, organic monster. This is a view along the inside of an oversized hedge which cuts across the mead. Its a very different barrier with a very different handling of space. The perspective of the shrubs creates a tight and difficult space while preventing access to it. The only "here" available for the viewer to occupy is a small patch of sunlight. The painting only hints at the existence of a "there"; the mead and the wooded hill above are glimpsed, out of reach and in blinding sunlight. Although it contains far more space than the first painting it uses it to almost create a claustrophobic feel while the other uses the absence of space to create movement and freedom.

The problem I have with the painting is the unpleasant nature of the hedge. It was intended because the painting would not fulfil its function so well if it was pleasant. Nevertheless, its part of my job to find beauty within the ugliness. To me, juxtaposing bright, clear greens with grey and muddy greens is just ugly. Here though, it is necessary. The greens need to range from the bright to the de-saturated to create space because the bright sunlight and deep shadows mean the transition from light to dark is busy re-creating the weather so isn't available for the creation of space. I'm also uneasy about the texture of the paint. Its texture is true to the scene (every shrub is covered in thin moss) and the change in texture again builds space, but to me its far from attractive. The other painting then inherits a watered down version of these issues as they are intended to work together as a meditation on barriers and boundaries, space and the absence of space, here and there. This then is my simple problem. The paintings do what I want them to, but I don't like them.