Friday, 31 January 2014

Picasso Linocuts at the British Museum

The British museum recently acquired sets of proofs of two late linocuts by Picasso - "Still life under the lamp" and "Jacqueline reading". They are currently on display in room 90, where all the good stuff goes.

Jacqueline... is a two block print. Each is shown printed separately. The more complex of the two, developing tones like a crude engraving to show the modelling of the face, is shown in two states. The simpler one, showing outlines you might expect from a linocut, is shown in one state only. Finally, the two are printed together to form the finished print.

Still life... is a multi-coloured print. A proof has been taken from every stage of printing so that every decision about carving and the effect each colour had is clear and easy to trace. Again, the finished print is displayed alongside. Personally, I don't like it much but I respect it and I have learned from it.

This is a rare opportunity to see the development of important pieces by a giant of recent art. There are proper insights into Picasso's creative process waiting to be gleaned. Its an interesting show for anyone into 20th century art in general or Picasso in particular, a very interesting show for anyone who makes art and an absolute must-see for any block printers and lino cutters out there.

The show is free and runs until 6 May.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Ancient drawing materials (and not so ancient)

Sometimes something appears before you, takes half a dozen strands of unformed, chaotic speculation from different corners of your brain and presents them to you as a moment of shining, flawless clarity.

I've been preparing a post as a broader, more philosophical follow up to my Pip Seymour review and I went to his website to see if his swatches would illustrate my point and - oooh. Oooh. That didn't used to be there.

Oooh indeed. Pip has launched a new range - solid lumps of ancient (and not so ancient) pigment to let you draw like there's an ice age receding. Seems appropriate in a period of climate change!

There are clays, chalks, slates, shales and traditional earth colours along with lumps of vivid blue cobalt. To make things more fascinating their source is identified - so one can buy chalk from London and chalk from the North Downs for instance. These two sources of theoretically the same thing are 30-40 miles apart, depending on exactly where they came from, so I must admit to being curious to see the difference. It is recommended that they are applied on a smooth surface treated with a pastel primer but to that I raise an eyebrow. I can think of much more interesting surfaces.

For a while now I've had things in development which I haven't mentioned here. The next batch of nocturnes will major on finding transformations within the landscape, alluding to myth, magic and storytelling n.b. not imposing them on the painting but actually seeing them in the landscape and recording them. I'm learning to etch to take Quercus Quercus to what I always had in mind, transforming the two trees into emotion and narrative. I have a mixed media series which has been in prototype for more than a year, picking up ancient themes of shamanism and transformation - there is just one technical issue I have been unable to overcome. This side of me was always waiting to come out but huge amounts of fuel were added to the fire last year by the Ice Age Art exhibition and it was finally unlocked in the late summer when someone told me that I see the landscape in a magical way.

As if by magic, the paint-keeper appeared. (If you're not my age or UK based don't worry about that reference). I'm in London tomorrow so I'll see if Cornellisen have the range and I'll have an exotic one, to see what selection process Pip goes through. I'm in Guildford to take my paintings down on Thursday so I'll go early, climb up the downs and find myself a little chalk. When I have spare time, I'll get clay from the hillside and some river silt from the recent floods and form them into cakes like those to the right. Preparations complete, I will scavenge for surfaces - bark from fallen trees, things thrown out of cars, stuff drifting down the river. Then I will go drawing and have fun.

It's time to go caveman!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Paint Review: Pip Seymour Extra Fine and Early Oils

Finally, after months of painting and much musing, I'm ready to write down my thoughts on Pip Seymour's unusual approach to paint making.

Any colourman setting out to make artist quality paints is faced with several problems. He seeks to make a paint which is clean and intense, which is stable in the tube, predictable in handling, consistent in drying and long lasting on the canvas. Easy? No. Paints are made from, at a minimum, pigment and a binder - in the case of oil paints the binder will be a drying oil like linseed, poppy or walnut. The pigment defines the colour and the binder turns it into a paste which is capable of becoming a tough film - in other words it turns it into paint. The difficulties arise because every pigment has different characteristics. Colour is the obvious one, but transparency, drying times, texture, robustness during grinding and mulling, lightfastness and other characteristics vary hugely. So how does a colourman go from making one simple paint to making a cohesive range? He will blend different pigments together to combine characteristics, he might add drying agents to make drying more predictable, fillers to make the intensity more consistent and reduce his costs, different amounts of oil or different types of oil to try and get the stiffness of the different paints consistent and doubtless he can perform all sorts of tricks I haven't heard of to help with factors like shelf life. Different brands take different approaches to these options. Ultra-premium brands like Harding and Williamsburg will use as much pigment as possible and the minimum of everything else that is necessary to give the characteristics they want - very intense and often quite stiff paints. Some brands like W&N use different oils with different pigments to try to attain consistency and place an emphasis on usability even if intensity has to suffer a little as a result. And so it goes, with each range taking a subtly different approach consistent with their budget and their philosophy.

Seymour, however, appears to have had a long, hard think about these approaches and concluded "Bollocks to that!" Instead he has roamed Europe and further afield, seeking out both good conventional pigments and historic, obsolete and esoteric pigments and, instead of trying to turn them into a consistent range, he has turned them into paints that celebrate the differences between the pigments. The differences are epic and they are the reason this review has taken so long. These paints have a steep learning curve. You can use them first time out, but it will take a while before you start to get the best out of them so I waited until I was sure I had the hang of them before passing judgement.

Over the last few months I have been regularly using his Titanium Orange, Victoria Green, Cumbria Iron Ore (Florence Mine), English Green Earth, Davy's Grey and Roman Black Earth. Many of you will only have heard of one of those colours before and some may have heard of two more.

Titanium Orange is the "most normal" paint here. It is a dusky orange and, as you might expect, it has many of the qualities of titanium white - in particular it is a simple colour and the most opaque of the paints here. It is just a good quality oil paint that anyone would be happy to use and it happens to be a phenomenally useful colour for round here - one use I have taken advantage of in studies and sketches is mixing it with pthalo blue. In different proportions the mix is a very good starting point for foliage from late August right through to the end of autumn, at least for trees like oaks which just go straight from brown-green to orange-brown without ever being flamboyant. As a combination it ticks another box of mine; mixing an opaque and a transparent colour. This works for me as varying the thickness of the paint creates very subtle variations in the apparent colour without further effort.

WIth Victoria Green, we are getting more interesting. Seymour says it is unique, a throwback to the 19th century. This is an out and out glazing colour, very weak, easily dominated when mixed with other colours and very transparent. It is a beautiful, soft and almost silvery green and I stand by what I said in my first impressions; that it is the colour of South East England in summer in the sort of rain that is so fine it is almost mist. To put it into terms that painters stand a chance of understanding it is perhaps like a Terre Verte with all hints of earthiness removed; it is cleaner, clearer and softer but shares many of the same characteristics and, when alongside each other on canvas, you could believe they are related. When they come out of the tube it is obvious they are not though. While the Terre Vertes that I have used feel like regular, lean paint, Victoria Green is softer, runnier and oilier. Indeed the first tube I received could be poured from the tube. The retailer fired off an email to Pip, and later the same day a replacement was on its way to me which was much more paint-like but still very, very soft. It perhaps sums up Seymour's approach better than the others here. It is a difficult paint to use. It really needs to be combined with a medium (I've been using the quick drying glaze medium from the same range) to help tame it and make it more controllable. I suspect there is a reason the pigment became obsolete and it is possible that there are difficulties making a paint that stays homogenised in the tube for a long time. The replacement had no issues so I may have just been unlucky. The thing I really want to get over with this paint though is that it is worth accepting the difficulties and learning to use it well. It is simply beautiful and wonderfully delicate. It provides solutions when I suspect nothing else would. Just use a good glaze medium with it and you'll be fine.

The other paints don't go to the same extremes. The Cumbria Iron Ore is an intense paint with a soft feel and a slightly gritty texture out of the tube. It is like rusty mud on the palette, but again is utterly transformed as a glaze into a fiery, rust coloured glow with violet undertones. English Green Earth, again from a named quarry, is a very delicate, transparent, gritty green-grey earth. Davy's Grey is what you'd expect, but hand-dug from a specific quarry. Roman Black Earth is a warm, transparent black which actually gives life to colours instead of killing them stone dead as many blacks do and without which my nocturnes would have been very different indeed. Doubtless the pattern is becoming clear. Seymour's oils come from specific, named and often traditional sources which have been chosen for very specific characteristics and they are often awkward to work with unless used in conjunction with a medium. The variation in characteristics is such that if you were to read a review of one colour, you would not be able to apply that review to any other colour in the range. Just because you like the sound of one doesn't mean the others will suit you, and just because you don't like the description of another doesn't the range has nothing for you. Each paint in the range has to be taken on its own merits.

So where does that leave us? I love the paints to bits but I'd be reluctant to recommend them as they are so unusual and the learning curve won't suit many (maybe even most) people. Certainly if you're a beginner I wouldn't choose them as a starting point. If the idea of esoteric, historic and delicate colours made into paints that play to each pigment's strengths and weaknesses appeals though, definitely give them a go. They reward effort and are genuinely beautiful. To be honest, the range has set me questioning the approach taken by brands like Michael Harding and their never-ending quest for intense colour. Working with delicate paints has been refreshing and if anything they make mixing real-world colours easier than the ultra-strong colours from MH.

One size fits all is not an approach that applies to art. It is pleasing to find a manufacturer who doesn't think it apples to art materials either.

Monday, 20 January 2014


I don't know what it is about this place, but I never lose my sense of wonder here and no matter how many times I walk the same mile-long circuit, it always feels like I'm seeing something new. On reflection, I think I like it best with a coating of frost.

 Incidentally, spring isn't far away now.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Nocturnes @ Guildford: An Invitation

I managed to get down to Guildford Library to make sure everything was OK with my paintings and I was delighted to see how many business cards have been taken. I really was worried that the paintings were too extreme for the venue but apparently not.

Incidentally, I have decided I will take the paintings down fairly late on the 30th of January.

Anyway, I would like to take this opportunity to let the people who are taking the cards and Googling me know that they're more than welcome to get in touch, even if they have no intention of buying (I might possibly raise the subject from time to time but I don't put pressure on people.) I'd particularly welcome feedback as the paintings are so strange and it would be really helpful to know how other people read them. I'd also love to hear from other artists (especially if they are members of galleries, groups, associations or co-operatives) who have a response to the work because a bit of intellectual cut and thrust or even full blown collaboration would do my practice the world of good. So basically, whoever you are, however you found me, don't be shy. Email me or comment here or even phone me, its all good.


Monday, 13 January 2014

Georges Braque: Le Portuguais

What with having no electricity due to the floods, I have started reading some of my old textbooks from college. At the moment, I'm working my way through Norbert Lynton's Story of Modern Art which, at least in my day, was the UK art schools' main primer for 20th century art - an equivalent to Gombrich for modernism.

Last night I hit Cubism, that most mis-understood and perhaps most appropriated of genres and I'm grateful for the reminder. The fundamental difficulty, according to Lynton, is that Picasso and Braque were just playing with space and surface and form and even memory and in doing so they forged a new language but almost everyone else read a lot more into the paintings than that - the language based on multiple facets was so adaptable that it could be used for almost any end and so new that everyone - artists, critics and practitioners of other arts alike - all wanted a piece. As a result, a thousand claims were made for the process and it spawned many of the conflicting approaches that enriched the last century. To add to the confusion, many of these were also known as Cubism and this has lead to the difficulty in defining it. Don't get me wrong, these offshoots are good thing, but its important to remember that in the early days, the period known as Analytical Cubism, the two mountaineers were by and large just playing with language, space and surface. Sometimes there is nothing deep behind a painting and it can be appreciated for what it is, not what a critic chooses to make it. So here we have a beautiful Braque painting from 1911, mostly brown, showing a collection of planes which hint at space and light, some recognisable shapes which hint at objects, and some elements (brushwork, letters and geometry) which draw attention to the surface. If I wanted to push this further, I'd say it was a perfect precursor to so many of the 20th century's art related angsts - space vs surface, representation vs abstraction, completeness vs fragmentation.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Runnymede in Flood: The definition of "Water-Meadow"

Went wandering before dawn yesterday...

Its got a lot floodier since, so much so that I don't want to blunder along the riverbank in anything other than broad daylight...

Incidentally, I've decided Blogger (this blog's host) sucks when it comes to showing pictures - in order to get the before dawn pictures up without really bizarre things happening to the colours I've had to sign up to things I don't want to sign up to. As a result, I'm considering this blog's future. I can't afford, when it comes to paintings, for Google to be changing colours when it feels like it. The fact it is doing this may explain my frustration with the reproductions I've been able to post here. I think that I will most likely host the blog myself as part of my website but I have yet to decide. When I do, there will be clear links from the last post that I put here.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Another day, another dawn

Look out the window now and again, you never know what you'll see :-)

Maybe its time to start painting skies again.

I'm still reading Japanese poetry and it will form the basis of some sort of work this year. Matsuo Basho was the most famous writer of haikus ever and specialised in finding the beauty and the wisdom that exists in tiny observations. One of his poems translates as follows, give or take:

Clouds now and again
give a soul some respite from
moon-gazing— behold

This was one of the times when he was just plain wrong. Clouds won't give any respite if you're a dreamer, they give you just as much to gaze at and daydream about as the moon ever will.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Now showing: Nocturnes at Guildford Library

Who knew that Guildford Library lets parts of the building be used as a gallery? Well I did, but I didn't find out very long ago.

Five of my nocturnes - two you've seen, one which is another you've seen with some reworked areas and two all new - are now in central Guildford until the end of the month. If you choose to buy one, part of the purchase price will go towards supporting the library.

It may not sound that prestigious and the spaces - staircases - may not be the archetypal white cube but it actually works really well as a gallery space and I'm very happy to be there - not least because the library is central, open long hours and heavily visited. The nature of the space works well with these particular paintings too. As you walk past them, you are moving up or down
as well as across. This means the paintings' relationship with the light is constantly changing as you move and this is critical because some of them depend on subtle variation in gloss and texture to help build an impression of space. The viewers' movement increases their chances of discovering this.

When you first see them, especially in the real world instead of an artist's studio or a more conventional gallery space, they really are sledgehammer paintings - sudden small bursts of dark and swathes of the strange sodium street lights that characterise this country at night. I was genuinely surprised at just how much oomph they have. Get past that shock though and they are minutely rich and subtle and this is the other key to the library being the perfect venue. Many hundreds of people will see the paintings every week and a high proportion of them will be there fortnightly, weekly, even every day. Regulars will have a chance to get to know the paintings in a way normally denied to people unless they own them. I don't rate my chances of selling there but I don't mind about that, I think for these paintings it is one of the best places I could have found.

Click here for opening hours and the address. The paintings are there until around about the end of January - I'll confirm here when I'm sure of the date.