Monday, 30 March 2015

Ben Nicholson: Lines and Still life

Ben Nicholson was one of that glorious generation of British artists who reached their peak between the two wars. He is best known for abstract work, deeply rooted in the landscape and more often than not built up in near-monochromatic relief. I don't want to talk about that today; doubtless you've seen it all before.

Instead, I want to show you two things I stumbled upon, one from each end of his career.

His father, Sir William Nicholson, was a well regarded painter of still lives and so Nicholson grew up both steeped in this tradition and surrounded by eminently paintable gewgaws. As a child he must have learned to see objects and maybe the wider world as elements of compositions, as vignettes and dioramas so it should be no surprise that early in his career he should follow in his father's footsteps.

This, from the British Museum's excellent collection of works on paper, is a linocut from 1928 called Three Mugs and a Bowl. Already it contains all the elements that define Nicholson's work - graphic simplicity, elegance of line, limited palette, an awareness of substance and texture and, above all, clarity and decisiveness. Technically it is fascinating: according to the British Museum's notes here Nicholson all but let the ink dry before taking the impression and this created the texture. I can see in this a lot of parallels with his more famous work - the process of cutting, coating, colouring and texturing a surface and then combining it with a support is the same whether printing or making a collage or relief - the only real difference being that the surface is then peeled away from the paper again when printing but left attached to the canvas or board when building a relief.

This intriguing little thing is "Cluster of Spanners" from 1973 and is painted and drawn on mounted paper. I found it on the pages of the art broker Waterhouse Dodd. The similarities with the print from 45 years earlier are remarkable - the simple outlines, the overlapping forms which are both separate and merging into each other, the approach to space and surface. The main difference is perhaps a denial of physicality rather than an embrace of it within the image.

Seeing this continuity has set me thinking. If I wasn't aware of the other things Nicholson had done in between I would seriously question the lack of growth and maybe accuse him of stagnation. This would be unfair though as his oeuvre was inventive if narrow so it is more that this is marking a point at which he had come almost full circle. I suddenly find myself regarding the things he did in between in a way that hasn't occurred to me before. Was Nicholson, when making reliefs all filled with crisp but disappearing edges and small but changing spatial relationships, actually exploring the mechanics of the still life? Was he making constructions that were both the subject and the depiction of that subject at the same time? If so, that is monumentally ambitious, about as extreme as Modernism can be and perhaps even a pre-cursor to Post-Modernism.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Rant: A cry for subtlety

It was blog research time over the weekend so I went digging. What with the equinox and the official start of spring I thought I'd find and explore a painting I hadn't seen before on that theme. The plan was to rummage through some "new" old books I've bought but I started with a quick Google to see to get an overview of painters are up to at the moment. You can repeat my search easily enough, the term was simply "painting spring" and it was just an image search. This is typical of what came up:

The lack of subtlety and understatement is undeniable. It is particularly shocking because the artists have all chosen spring as a theme. Spring is bright, energetic and intense but it is also the most delicate and the most vulnerable season, when young life and weather are as fragile as each other and the world is as full of doubt and false starts as it is of optimism and growth.

While obviously a range of quality is present with a decent painting or two tucked away in there, the vast majority of the recent things which pop up are just intense colour upon intense colour with little variation within a painting from one passage to another. I believe this to be a fundamental problem which dooms a painting to failure. I don't know why it is so widespread; perhaps it is the lack of painting teaching within art colleges, a mis-understanding of what Impressionism was that is now so widespread that it has become fact, a reflection of the "bigger, brighter, louder and more instant is better" culture we live in or (as it I posited in my last post) a side-effect of fashions in paint manufacture.

I see this manner of painting as problematic because no matter what it is trying to be it is falling down. If it is trying to be realistic, it fails to realise that the brightness and intensity present in the real world is about variations in luminosity, not high levels of saturation - see this little sketch by Baron László Mednyánszky as an example (told you I was looking for spring pictures I hadn't seen before!) There are no ludicrously intense colours here, just careful mixtures and juxtapositions and the brightness of the canvas shining through and yet the painting appears both far more intensely coloured and far less garish than any of the multitude of day-glo blossoms Google fed me.

Equally if the Google paintings are just taking pleasure in intense colour, some sensitivity of handling and boldness of composition would help. This time I draw your attention to a painting by Ernest Lawson - this dazzling, eye-burning panel is effectively three stripes of blue-green and three stripes of yellow-green given form by marks, textures, specks of complementary colours and delicate changes in luminosity. Again, it is both brighter and less garish than my initial discoveries.

Perhaps you think the paintings at the top are an attempt to build on the work of the Fauves and Pop Artists and apply it to a traditional genre? Such things require extreme skill, extreme discipline and usually extreme simplification, all of which are lacking. Matisse only hit his absolute peak as he became too old to paint and as he simplified his work dramatically. Look any random piece of his: all the colours work together (both through harmony and discord) for a common aim whereas in many of the Google paintings the different colours and passages are just fighting each other for the viewer's attention.

What it boils down to is this: where has all the subtlety gone? Many of the paintings I started this post with appear to be emphasising speed of execution over careful consideration. Is this what their makers chose to do or are there chronic limitations in the ability of the current generation of retail (and to a degree contemporary) painters to handle colour and a desperate lack of understanding of light? If they did chose to rush, what does that say about the art market today?

I would like to end with an appeal to painters around the world who cater to the retail market: please slow down, consider your work carefully as it progresses and give your paintings a treat - lavish some subtlety upon them. They will be grateful, and they will reward you.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Paint Review: Potter's Pink PR233

A couple of years ago an unexpectedly detailed reply to an email unlocked a whole new world for me. It was when I'd first spotted Pip Seymour's paints in Cornelissen's; there were strange colours I had never heard of and a lack of knowledge made choice difficult so I asked Pip whether there was a starter set or any information. What came back was an enormous email, where different sources had been copied and pasted to give an overview of the qualities of every paint in his range. This changed my view of paint in general and the the repercussions are still echoing through my practice. One of the colours which intrigued me enough to include it in the second batch I bought was Potter's Pink. I've now been using it for long enough to share my thoughts.


Dusky and delicate are key the words. Potter's Pink is a very soft colour which is either warm or cold depending on context. Whichever side of neutral it appears, it is a colour born of the shadows. There are two variants, a lighter, brighter and more luminous version and a softer, duller and duskier version (see inside the caps of the tubes in the picture to see the difference in mass tone). As an oil paint (Pip Seymour's - looks like the dark version), it has a low tinting power and is semi-tranparent. In water-colour (W&N, looks like the bright version) it is quite granular and more intense - almost a rose rather than a pink. According to two pigment suppliers, Kremer and Rublev, it is safe to use in any medium but according to Cornelissen it is only recommended for aqueous media. It produces incredibly delicate mixes and is beautiful when used as a glaze or under another glaze. As you would expect of a colour with its origins in ceramics, it is lightfast and, when used with the right binder, very tough.


Sometimes known as Pinkcolour, Tin Pink or, in Germany, Nelkenfarbe (Carnation colour), Potter's Pink has its modern English name for a reason; it was invented by an unknown potter in Staffordshire late in the 18th century. It was one of the first "modern" pigments and, just like a huge amount of modern synthetic and stable colours, it is a metallic oxide. It has always primarily been a pigment for ceramics but Winsor & Newton introduced it as a water-colour under the Pinkcolour name in the 19th century. It was the first stable pink available in this country, far pinker than local earths and without the treacherousness of Madders.

As with so many of the older colours it fell out of favour as brighter, more powerful and cheaper alternatives were discovered. Currently it is available as a watercolour from Daniel Smith, Rublev, Pip Seymour and Winsor & Newton, as oil paint from Pip Seymour, as pigment from Kremer, Rublev and Cornelissen and as a pigment in an aqueous dispersion from Rublev so there are signs of a revival, especially as a watercolour pigment. If I've missed a manufacturer, please let me know via the comments.

In Use

I have been using Potter's Pink extensively in oils (Pip Seymour's). I find the mixing power to be low so real care has to be taken when selecting colours to mix it with; many newer colours are virulent in mixes and will simply obliterate it. As a result I tend to use it almost unmixed, either as a delicate glaze or as a gentle block of colour.

The clouds here are built from layers of Davy's Grey, Charcoal Grey, Cobalt Blue and Lemon Yellow (PY31 not the more common PY3) over a bright white gesso. Other parts of the sky are areas of Cobalt Blue, Cerulean, Zinc White and Flake White. Parts of the clouds have then been given an irregular barely-there glaze in Potter's Pink for warmth and richness. Its warmth has largely neutralised the cold grey but because it is applied unevenly and over many colours it gives a pulsating life to the clouds and helps them change colour with the light. There is also a gesture of more thickly applied Potter's Pink to help define the cloud and bring out the pinkness elsewhere.

Here is a painting with more widespread use of the colour. At the edges of picture it is over cold, dark areas. In the centre it is applied with varied opacity over Cadmium Yellow Deep. Towards the bottom right it is mixed with white. Elsewhere there is a very light scumbling, but it doesn't show so well at this size. It shows the ease with which the paint can mixed optically to make a wide range of glowing but delicate colours.

Potter's Pink mixed with oils on left (clockwise from top left) on its own, with Ultramarine Red, Titanium White, Raw Sienna, Cobalt Blue, Titanium Orange, Viridian, Ultramarine, Davy's Grey, Lemon Yellow (PY31). Mixed with miscellaneous watercolours on right - I especially like the burnt quality it gives Vermillion and the way it brings out the lurid green undertones of Lemon Yellow (PY3) at the bottom.
Above are a range of mixes. I have only dabbled with it in watercolour (Winsor & Newton) as I don't use the medium very often. It mixes far better as it is the brighter, stronger variant, giving a range of oh-so delicate but luminous colours. Liz Steel has another set of less random watercolour experiments here.

Final thoughts

I find there to be a real lack of subtlety in much modern painting and I think this is due in part to contemporary trends in materials. In paint manufacturers' scramble for pigment load, intensity and purity of colour at one end of the market and a combination of brightness and economy at the other, colours have been getting brighter, brasher and more garish and the more delicate, understated colours have been left behind. As anyone who was fortunate enough to see the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery last year will know, a skilled painter can make less intense colours sing out as brightly as one could want through a mixture of careful juxtapositions and the use of glazes. When this is done, the resulting painting can be bright and colourful without becoming garish. The same painting made from modern "sledgehammer" colours would be inescapably garish. By the same token, if an artist wants a subdued or delicate painting - maybe for a portrait, a flower or an overcast day - starting from a modern palette of cadmiums, azos and pthalos is making life un-necessarily difficult. Artists benefit from the bright, intense palette of today but I strongly urge them not to discount the older, more delicate colours. Potter's Pink is as useful and practical an example as any.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Magna Carta, Queen Elizabeth and the Unexpected Statue

Today I saw this week's Surrey Advertiser. The front page horrified me.

Last year I heard there was a proposal to erect a statue of the Queen on Runnymede in time for this year's Magna Carta anniversary celebrations. It surprised me, but I held my tongue because at that time the local council were refusing to have anything to do with the proposal so I thought it would fall by the wayside. It hasn't.

According to the report (which can be read in full here) two proposals were made. The full cost version is for a gold covered statue on a plinth (4 metres tall in total) in the Pleasure Grounds with an avenue of trees leading to it and hiding the existing car parking. The lower cost version has less landscaping, a smaller plinth and is described as "purple". The charity set up by two councillors has now raised enough money for the low-cost, purple version. The lower cost version is to cost £276,000 + VAT and the gold version £900,000 + VAT. For clarity, the proposal has not come from the Queen.

I plead, with every fibre of my heart, intellect and integrity, that this statue be erected somewhere else and at some other time.

To build it at Runnymede, to celebrate Magna Carta, is at best ill-conceived and at worst offensive.

Let me be absolutely clear: this is not an assault on Queen Elizabeth or the monarchy. I am a closet royalist and believe our Queen has done a sterling job in a tumultuous era. I have nothing but respect for the way the British monarchy has evolved over the last 150 years so that it still holds a useful function in a way that very few other monarchies around the world have managed.

Let me be clear again: this is not a comment on the artistic quality of this particular statue. All I have seen are photos of a maquette and although I am underwhelmed I am not in a position to judge at this time.

I am not even opposed to new statues of the Queen in general.

What I do object to is the lunacy of thinking a gold statue of the current monarch could ever be appropriate to a celebration of Magna Carta and to the thought that this specific site could ever be appropriate for any statue.

Magna Carta is of significance today not just for specific clauses that have been given new meanings down the centuries but because it was the first time the absolute power of the monarch was challenged by people who were not trying to displace him. Runnymede is significant as the place where this happened. So we have to consider, here, now and in this context, what exactly is the statue saying?

Is it saying that Magna Carta was the beginning of the process which led to the monarch today being an apparently ceremonial figure, wheeled out as decoration on special occasions like a Christmas tree? If so, this is deeply unfair on and offensive to the Queen.

Or is having a gold-plated monarch towering 4 metres over her subjects on the site of Magna Carta actually celebrating the fact that the reforms that have cascaded down the ages since its signing are being eroded to the point where it is increasingly just optional for our rulers to pay attention to it? To rub this in further, the Pleasure Grounds flood almost every winter. Every time they do, the Queen will appear to be walking on water. Considering one of the reasons King John acted the ways he did leading up to Magna Carta was the belief in Kings being Kings by divine right and effectively appointed by God, everyone from Queen to commoner via Parliament, the Church and the ghost of everybody who ever fought to make this country fairer should be appalled at this image. It is no wonder the council believe it will be a magnet for vandalism.

Not only is the thing wrong in principal, it doesn't even have internal logic. If the statue is being erected to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it should show the Queen as she is now, at the anniversary. Instead, it shows her in her youth. I can't help but wonder whether it was originally conceived for the Queen's Jubilee. In that context, it would make more sense although this would still be the wrong site for it. 

It must be very difficult for a councillor to say no to this project. After all, we are almost in the shadow of Windsor Castle here and it is being donated. It has been sold to the public as being at no cost to the taxpayer (it turns out this is not quite true according to the Advertiser report) and it sounds like there has been a certain amount of bull-dozing going on in committee and during fund-raising with things being prematurely presented as a done deal. The council seem to have woken up to this and have sent it back to be debated again. Considering the Magna Carta celebrations are about three months away procrastination may be the easiest, most diplomatic and most politically acceptable way to stop the project. This decision should not be rushed as, once installed, the statue will be there forever.

I believe this statue is at the wrong time and in the wrong place. If the people behind the statue are adamant they want to give it to the area, might I suggest they consider the Royal Park at Virginia Water or one of the town centres and, instead of rushing it, link it to a different and more appropriate event?

Monday, 2 March 2015

Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern

I'm not given to hyperbole and I'm not convinced that concepts like "best" are useful or even meaningful in the utterly subjective world of art but let me say two things clearly: I cannot think of a living painter producing work which is more powerful, more intimate or more emotional than Dumas and I cannot remember an exhibition which moved me and involved me as much as her current show at Tate Modern.

Marlene Dumas: Moshekwa
The exhibition is mostly painting after painting of heads and figures (ranging from the demure to the pornographic) torn from all context, often painted on a monumental scale and always with a breathtaking economy and tenderness. Tenderness is the key to the work; the paintings draw you into their isolation and call out in a way that goes beyond eye contact. As a painter though, it is the economy that fascinates. They may be centuries apart in aesthetic, technique and intent, but the only painter who springs to mind as besting Dumas' stark and tender economy is Hans Holbein the Younger, especially in his drawings. In Dumas' work, large areas of thin paint are played against thicker colour, texture and tone while lines and edges are kept simple and this is enough to describe faces, features and moods with eloquence. There is enough confidence and integrity within her work to allow her to paint with delicacy, vulnerability and fragility - or even to break her subjects' faces - but that confidence permeates them and keeps the paintings powerful. She says she works from photographs to keep her from worrying what the sitter thinks and I believe this may genuinely be what enables her to paint this way.

Hans Holbein: Grace, the Lady Parker
Marlene Dumas: The White Disease
I can't help but feel I ought to write something of the artist's intent and the grand themes she explores but in truth I don't want to. The Tate's accompanying texts and the panels in the exhibition do so but it feels like it this missing the point. These paintings function the way the very best paintings do: by osmosis. Words just aren't necessary.

That is all that needs to be said. Dumas' website is here, her career details are here, the exhibition website is here. Get to London before May 10th and see it.