Sunday, 29 September 2013

Paul Nash: Follow the Fuhrer above the Clouds

Paul Nash's official work in the Second World War was fundamentally different to his First World War work.

He didn't go back to the front line, so his work had more distance and perspective and, Battle of Britain aside, it was less about the heart and more about the head. Another major difference was that his brief was more to do with propaganda and less to do with pure, visceral art. A third was that during the 1930's Surrealism had finally crossed the Channel and started to influence English artists, none more so than Nash.

I've always had more than my fair share of issues with Surrealism. I appreciate the impulse but too much of it (cough - Dali!) appears forced, arbitrary and formulaic when it should be spectacular, emotional and arresting (like Ernst at his best). Nash himself had a curious relationship with the movement, falling onto both sides of that divide at different times and eventually declaring himself to be "for, but not with" surrealism. His work had always had a tendency to see magical transformations in the landscape, to make unexpected juxtapositions and to draw similes quite literally. I wrote an essay many years ago which I'll rework and post here; I find Nash's links with Surrealism fascinating but don't want to get too sidetracked ;-)

Anyway, long story short, sometimes Nash + Surrealism + WW2 = startling image, and here is one of the lesser known ones: Follow the Fuhrer Above the Clouds. It was rejected as propaganda and is now hidden away in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

A what if about Whistler

I was coming home last night and cut across the meadow. The moon was rising and so was a mist so I nipped back out again with my camera; I'm really enjoying grappling with my own Nocturnes so the more raw material the better. The mist did beautiful things to the street lamps and headlights on the bypass in the first photo and conjured light seemingly out of nowhere across the whole width of the meadow in the second - the light on the right is from the entrance to the duty free warehouse and the light on the left is from the bypass and even though they are hundreds of metres apart the mist has managed to draw them together. The light on the horizon is a house just on the brow of the hill.

I can't help but wonder what Whistler would have made of modern digital cameras and the ability to capture fleeting effects of colour and light so effortlessly. Would he just revel in the joy of it and lose his discipline? Would he be frustrated at the limitations of the kit and the distortions in colour, shape and space photography inevitably introduces? Would it just be a way to gather information for paintings, a companion to the sketchbook and a prompt to the memory? Or would he find a way to elevate the medium to new heights? Of course there's no knowing and the same questions could and should be asked about Monet and Degas and many others, but speculating about it is an intriguing way to while away five minutes.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Whistler: Nocturne in Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge

I've spent a lot of time over the last 6 weeks developing some night paintings so, now that the first ones are probably done and I've found my way to make them, I wanted to have a look at other people's approaches. Whistler is the obvious place to start. His friend, Frederick Leyland, started describing them with the musical term "Nocturne" and it makes sense as Whistler's Nocturnes are about evoking a mood and enjoying colour for colour's sake, albeit within an incredibly restricted and de-saturated palette - in other words they operate in the same way as music. Some of the Nocturnes were a lot more colourful than this one because they were set at dusk or dawn or featured fireworks but I've chosen this one as it is one of the purest ones. I love its stillness, its restricted palette and the way the far bank of the river indicates a focal point but that focal point is just a blur - the viewer's eye finds no rest there and keeps on moving. It takes an effort on the part of the viewer to make their eyes as still as the painting. In spite of its games and its uncompromising approach it does pick up the character of the Thames at night when the water is at its stillest.

I've never been a huge Whistler fan, but I suspect that's because he was all about subtle and delicate colour and I've mostly seen reproductions rather than originals. A glance at this lovely little thing is all it takes to see that one has to view the original to really appreciate it; I guarantee the colours which are all but absent from the reproduction will breathe and change before you. It turns out its in the Burrell collection I blogged about a few weeks back. A trip to Glasgow is definitely in order.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Its Christmas!

This month, for the first time in a while, there wasn't too much pressure on my materials budget so I've taken the plunge and bought myself half a dozen of the Pip Seymour paints I mentioned a few months back. Today, they arrived.

First up, a quick word about where I got them from, Pegasus Art. They have the biggest selection from the range that I've found, the swatches on the website are remarkably accurate (as long as your screen is set up correctly) and, very importantly, the order was the best packed box of art materials I have ever received through the post. Jacksons in particular should sit up and take notice of how well this outfit pack things.

Today I'm just going to give first impressions of the paint - you'll see why! As many of the colours in the range are unique and there is very little in the way of independent, unbiased information on the web I will look at some of the individual colours when I've spent quality time with them.

I bought English Green Earth, Davy's Grey, Roman Black Earth, Victoria Green, Cumbria Pure Iron Ore and Titanium Orange. Not the most obvious selection, but I was thinking about gaps in my paint box and the oncoming autumn and winter. Of these, 3 are unique (Green Earth, Victoria Green and Iron Ore) and a fourth - the black - is only available from one other supplier as far as I can find. One of the things I find particularly compelling about the range is that Pip is very specific in his information - the iron ore comes from the Florence deep mine on the Furness peninsula while the green earth and Davy's grey both come from the same quarry in Oxfordshire.

Pip says on the website that, whereas other manufacturers try and be consistent across their range, he wants to mill each pigment as if it were done by hand, adjusting the amount of milling to emphasise that pigment's fundamental character which, depending on your point of view, is either a revival of traditional production when each studio would make its own paint or the paint-maker's equivalent of modernism. This is the overwhelming first impression. Tested blind you would not believe they were all from the same maker, and the fact you like or dislike one paint can't be used to predict your reaction to the rest of the range. This is the quality that will either appeal immensely to you or put you off the range for good. Its difficult to communicate just how far Pip pushes this. If you buy a tube of bog standard, high street artist-quality paint or one from most of the pro-quality paints like Michael Harding you can read a lot into that tube because every other tube of paint from that manufacturer will be very similar. Each pigment will have its own characteristics in terms of opacity, how strong it is in a mix and - to a lesser degree - how much oil the pigment has been mixed into (aka how fat the colour is) but fundamentally the entire range will have a similar consistency (Harding tends to be stiffer than W&N for example) and a similar pigment load and approach to fillers and bulking things out (again, Harding tends to be far more intensely coloured than W&N). A few makers, like Williamsburg, embrace the variation between pigments and make different colours have different characteristics - some may be thicker, some more intense, others slightly gritty - but I have never come across one that takes this to the same extreme as Pip Seymour. The English Green Earth has visible particles in it and gives a clearly visible texture, even in just my first manipulations on a piece of scrap. The Cumbria Iron Ore feels gritty and looks like fine mud in texture. The Titanium Orange looks and feels like a normal high end paint. I can't overstate the difference between individual colours, and this is why I will look at them individually when I understand them better.

I was going to put up a picture of the colours as I have squeezed out a little and played with them, but I've played too much and it would be confusing. Follow the Pegasus link above and you'll see decent but small swatches. For now it will suffice to say that a palette of Green Earth, Davy's Grey, Roman Black Earth along with Raw Umber, Ivory Black, a couple of whites and whatever green suits your local area will make an awesome palette for winter landscapes on those days when at first glance everything is monochrome, that as I suspected Victoria Green is the colour of Southern England during spring and summer rain, that the iron ore is very close to Burnt Sienna in hue but it is far more transparent and it behaves differently and that the Roman Black Earth might just be the answer to a lot of painters' prayers - a black which is lively, a black which doesn't kill a picture stone dead, a black which is subtle and transparent. I've avoided black for such a long time, seeing it as a very blunt tool, but this one is possibly going to be the most useful colour I've bought today.

Anyway, in short, really really really not for everyone! Indeed I wouldn't want them to be the only paints available to me, but it looks like they will provide solutions and opportunities that nothing else will. Most of the colours will need time, experimentation and understanding - there are some you can just pick up and use like any paint but others are strange beasts that will need to be learned. Its really nice to see a manufacturer doing something entirely on his own terms.

I'll report back when I've got the hang of them.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

I've really struggled to settle down after the disruption of recent weeks but I've been out walking again and I'm beginning to think a little clearer; I think I know what's going to happen next and that's a big thing, I've been a bit directionless since I pulled everything together for the show.

The key thing is that the season is beginning to turn. Regulars here will have seen how over-excited I was about spring and that the frequency of my reports about the meadow and woods dropped dramatically when summer hit. The simple reason is the day to day changes got too subtle for me but now, well now we're heading into another time of year when the world is different every single day, as if it gets made afresh every night.

Click on the picture to make it big and you'll notice there is a lot of variation in the colour of trees now when there wasn't a couple of months ago. Round here, the Horse Chestnuts are the first to change to yellow and brown as they are plagued with fungal infections in their leaves but the other trees won't be far behind.

As an aside, the skies are still epic but there won't be many more of the soft and endless skies of summer like there was this morning; if you think the spring skies were dramatic, wait until autumn lets rip! I've been wondering and asking other people why Runnymede's skies get so spectacular; the best guess is that, although Cooper's Hill is only low and is 20 miles inland of the Thames Barrier, it's the first steep hill any wind coming up the Thames Estuary meets and that must do funny things to the air currents, which will be damp and cloudy from the North Sea or cold and dry from a trek over Northern Europe. Doesn't really matter though; when the fireworks are good who cares how they make the gunpowder!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

New Work: The Avenue at Ankerwycke

Here we go then, my first response to Runnymede's darker twin, Ankerwycke. This is the avenue of birches which leads to the yew and the picture is 2 feet wide and three feet tall. Try as I might, I can't capture the greens in the photo; as ever with my paintings they are multi-layered and transparent so the colours keep changing with the light and as you move around the picture. I've put up a decent size photo as it does need its scale to work properly - just right click and choose open link in new window.

It had a working title of Ankerwycke Cathedral because when you first step into the avenue, especially on a sunny day and when you're walking away from the yew, it feels exactly like an English cathedral. As a result, and also because the site has likely been a centre for spiritual and religious activity for millennia, I drew on the tricks used by masons when making big religious buildings - I made the tree trunks straighter, more alike and more regularly spaced, I used the gate both to divide the space (like the screen that separates the choir from the rest of a church and indeed like the door that separates the church from the real world) and to echo the shape of a simple altar, I used the leaves to filter the colours for the rest of the painting as stained glass would and finally used the progression of light and dark to emphasise height and lead the eye away from the ground and into a half defined, ethereal far distance. I had to be very careful to keep this subtle - the effect was more important than the devices used to achieve it and I didn't want to ram it down the viewer's throat. This process of hybridising trees and bushes with a cathedral is intriguing to me and very appropriate because the site has seen Christianity (a priory - the ruins are still visible), more earth based spiritualism (there are still activities centred on the yew tree around traditional festivals like midsummer and Lammas) and, quite probably, old pre-Christian paganism too all in the one place at different points in time.

The sections I am most pleased with are the tree trunks, they are economical, powerful and lively. I have scrubbed some small areas back to the vermillion underpainting and where this glows through its as if life-blood is pulsating through them - I ought to take a close up really. I'm less than happy with the top left corner though; I was trying to work in too many contradictions and as a result it just looks indecisive but, since its primary purpose was framing the bright section which is both sky and sunlit leaf canopy, that's not the end of the world so I called a halt as I'm happy with the colour and the texture.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Oskar Kokoschka: View of the Thames

And I'm back! I had a last minute trip up North to see some friends and freshen up a bit as I was getting jaded. Long distance coach travel is horrible but you do see things, and one thing I saw on the way back yesterday in North London was Oskar Kokoschka's apartment.

Kokoschka was a fascinating artist and for me the fascination is in the way I either really like his work or really hate it. He was in his nineties when he died so had a very long career and there was inevitably a lot of stylistic change within that. Although he was mostly an expressionist he was a lot more complex than that suggests, sometimes showing quiet restraint, other times being brasher than a Fauve, sometimes being simple and graphic, other times marshalling a frenzied chaos across his canvas.

I was going to post his famous crab painting which I liked a lot when I was younger but I'm not so keen on it this morning, so instead here is a view of the Thames from 1959.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Between the devil and the deep blue sky

I've been saying it for months now, and I suspect I'll keep saying it for as long as I'm around Runnymede, but if I painted half the skies I see here, no-one would believe me!