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As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle Omri resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir.They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart.‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice.‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feet. ‘You’re right on top of it.’
During my ten years or so as a commercial artist I had spells with two top London artist’s agents. The main and obvious advantage of having an agent was that they went out and got you commissions. Most artists by definition, tend to be ill equipped, emotionally and attitudinally for the tasks of both finding and especially negotiating with clients. Artist’s agents on the other hand, often with backgrounds in advertising and / or art production have extensive lists of contacts and the wherewithal for exploiting those connections.
The big disadvantage in the artist / artist agent relationship however was the near-total lack of control the artist has over the process, from commissioning to payment. And, it was ultimately the payment issues which trumped the advantages and convinced me to toughen-up and go it alone. My final artist’s agent’s commission was a case in point and also the last straw. What began as an unusually free brief – to paint a series of of 24 poster-style gouache paintings to decorate 12 luxury, first-class cruise liner suites for a seriously good fee, manifested as an exercise in frustration and acrimony. The fact I had to resort to the threat of lawyers against my own agent to extricate partial payment gives a good idea of just how sour things got.
In the normal course of events, I worked directly with the clients, and delivered my work to them myself. For some reason never fully explained, on this occasion I did not get to meet the client and instead dealt exclusively with my agent. What exactly went wrong between the time of me handing over the finished pictures to the agent, and her passing them to the client – or indeed, if she ever handed them to the client, I never discovered. All I did know for sure, was that two months of hard work was never fully paid for. Fortunately, during my ongoing film-to-digital trawl, I recently came across colour slides of several examples of the artwork from that fateful commission and the original photographic templates.
If I was ever to receive a similar commission again, apart from making sure to deal with the client on a one-to-one basis, I might also decide to produce Photoshop images (presented on the similar art papers to the original gouaches) rather than paintings. For me the finished results, especially with these highly graphic, minimalist images are at least as good as paintings, and in the awful prospect that I again would not be fully recompensed, would have expended a fraction of the time.
Presented here (within the text) in triptych form are four of those very images. The photo templates comprise the central images, with the original gouaches on the right, and my new Photoshop treatments on the left. See what you think and don’t be afraid to let me know…
I don’t know if it’s the same today, but when I was at art school it was constantly drummed into us students to carry a sketchbook, “always and everywhere”, and to use it frequently. For some reason, this was a habit I found hard to acquire, and thus an early indicator perhaps that I never had the mentality of the true artist.
It wasn’t so much the issue of self-discipline – I had plenty of that when sufficiently motivated to a given (normally non-art-related) task – it was the somewhat ironic fact that I felt that sketching was more of a barrier to, than an absorber of, the world around me.
Perhaps part of my problem was that although only 16 when I started my foundation course at Harrow School of Art, I was already an experienced photographer and had become used to having a camera with me much of the time. Ditching my elegant Nikon, and its power to capture everything I saw at the press of a button for a sketchpad and assorted, often unwieldy drawing implements seemed a retrograde and pointless drudgery.
Of course, deep-down, I recognised the wisdom of my tutors’ insistence on me interpreting the world I saw through the point of a drawing implement as a fundamental prerequisite for learning the language of picture-making. Yet I remained resistant for a long time into my art education; a bit like the reluctant music student longing to skip his/her daily four hours of practising scales. Eventually however, although never an enthusiast, by the time I started my degree at Saint Martin’s I’d found a way to become a regular sketcher.
The “way” I’d landed upon was to lubricate the grind of the actual sketching by means of large doses of simultaneous self-gratification and self-stimulation in the form of pints of my favourite beverage at the many hostelries adjacent to my Soho-based art school.
In authentic and time-honoured tradition, I found wiling away hours of time in saloons rewarding both sensually and artistically. And while my fellow pub punters may not have offered up images as exotic as those that greeted the French Post Impressionists in the clubs and dives of 19th century Paris, they did nevertheless provide an endless source of unwitting, and thus natural model subjects.
Needless to say, this element of my nascent art career necessitated a significant chunk of my student grant. How good or not this investment was, is a matter for debate. From my, admittedly biased point of view, all these years later, the examples shown here don’t look too bad, and if nothing else, they do go to show that even the humble biro, can be an effective artists tool…after a glass or two of fine English ale…
Regular readers of these posts will know all about our finca (small holding) in southern Spain and especially the adventures we had building our house. However, what I haven’t done thus far is said that much about the little farm itself.
Our biggest crop is from our two small vineyards (about 1000 vines in all), one preexisting our move (in 1993) and the other planted by us in 2000. The older vineyard comprises mostly Moscatel (Muscat) used for making the traditional local Malaga style sweet wine and the one we planted ourselves which is a third Moscatel and two thirds red Cencibel (a varietal of Tempranillo) with which we make a strong red fortified wine similar to port.
In addition to our grapes we also grow olives (for oil), almonds, citrus, and a variety of other fruits including avocado.
We harvest the almonds from about mid July through to mid September, the olives around the new year and the grapes, depending on the vintage, from late August when we also make our two wines.
The pictures here are a montage of our annual vendimia (grape harvest and wine making). Although we appreciate help from our friends with all the annual farming tasks it’s only the wine-making that people actually return for. The work is hard, and depending upon the weather – which can vary from sunny and hot to chilly and damp (like this year), sweaty, monotonous at times, but always rewarding once the must (mosto in Spanish) is all safely in the barrels.
Over the years various rituals have developed around the process, the most enjoyable of which is Dido’s Mexican feast on the final night, when the work is over. We’re not quite certain how this particular tradition started, but somehow delicious treats like tamales, enchiladas and re-fried beans washed down with margaritas provide a uniquely festive climax to several days of hard labour.
On behalf of Dido and myself, I would like to take this opportunity to offer special thanks to all those friends, who have helped us over the past 25 years, with special mentions to Pepa for returning every year and Valentina for her technological innovations. We literally, couldn’t do it without you! Finally, all volunteers welcome for next year…
I rarely get to the cinema these days and do most of my catching up with the latest films on the two or three long-haul flights I do every year. So it was last Spring, I found myself 33,000 above the North Atlantic Ocean, watching The Death of Stalin. The film itself was somewhat disappointing, and I was considering changing to another movie when something caught my attention. It was a scene in a study in Stalin’s quarters, in which Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) was talking to Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), but it wasn’t the “drama” that caught my attention; it was the study itself.
The room was somehow familiar, and then, in following scenes set in the tyrant’s abode, I saw other rooms that I thought I recognised. However, my mild curiosity over the apparent familiarity of the movie-set for Stalin’s quarters was insufficient to maintain any interest in the alleged black comic-drama and a short while later I was watching something else.
And, until yesterday, when I began preparing my next post for this site, the film and the film-set had completely slipped from my mind. The post I was preparing was to have been a brief history of my old school, Carmel College, and my experiences as a pupil there. But, when researching some details about the Victorian mansion that I had known as School House, I made some discoveries which seemed to offer me the prospect of a more interesting piece than the one I was originally working on.
Presented below are several photographs of locations from the late Carmel College with captions describing their respective roles in 20th century British architecture; inspiring the world’s longest running play and indirectly one of the world’s most successful board games; in British Cinema; and finally, in military history…
My phase of painting large epic landscapes in oils happened to coincide with a period in my life when I spent most summers in Israel. From around 1978 until about 1986 I went there every year, partly out of idealism and partly because I just loved making paintings of the place.
Looking back on that time now I can see that the two motivations were part of the same “condition” and fed an inner yearning to find expression for my youthful optimism and romanticism.
As I think I’ve said before on these pages, Israel, although geographically a tiny country, can often feel vast to the naked eye. Among the hills and valleys of the “pan-handle” of the northern Galilee, and especially in the arid canyons of southern Judea and the Negev Desert, the landscape creates an illusion of almost infinite enormity.
My initial efforts were okay as paintings but they failed to transmit the epic quality of the scenes I was depicting. But then I remembered a device often used by my favourite painters of “sublime” landscape, such as Claude Lorraine, William Turner and John Martin, which was to offset the vista against a peopled foreground. This not only gave scale to the views beyond, but also created a feeling of depth and a sense of “moment” with the human figures caught in time.
So, from about 1981 I began to inhabit my Israeli landscapes with people, normally young people like me, walking away, down a track or road toward some distant horizon. And for me, then, it did the trick, seeming to offer a message of future hope into the bargain.
Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) I failed to record most of the “Walking Away” series (I think I did around ten of them over the course of that year) on camera. In fact, I have very little photographic record of any of my people-in-landscape pictures from that phase of my career.
However, I have managed to cobble together what you see here, including two from the Walking Away series (one complete and a detail from another) and the rest, mostly details and sections from other pictures.
Despite the incompleteness presented, I still think one can sense the romance, and the optimism of the mostly-unseen whole paintings.
Apologies to my loyal followers but the wine making and other arduous – sometimes pleasant – farming tasks have left me little time to devote to this blog. Normal posting will resume next time. For now, here are a few striking images of the local environment around our small finca in the heart of the Axarquia in southern Spain.
It’s always intrigued me that the greatest photographs of landscape ever taken, by the incomparable Ansell Adams, were all in black and white. To this day, when scenes of Yosemite or the Grand Tetons enter my my mind’s eye I invariably see them in Adams’ deeply contrasted, brooding monochrome. For me, as for so many others no doubt, American Sublime is at its most sublime in Adams’ black and white.
Hence, it might surprise some to know that with the advent of Kodachrome film in the late 1930’s, Adams also took thousands of pictures in colour. His main reason for not publishing most of them seems to have had something to do with the lack of control he felt had over the finished image. Whereas with his black and white work he had total mastery over the entire process, he found colour film (especially early colour film) unreliable as a medium of his vision.
Bearing this in mind, it would be fascinating to know what Adams would have made of the digital photographic world of today? While I suspect, in common with many current “film-purists”, he would have been inherently suspicious of film-less images, I also think it’s possible at least, that he would have been equally intrigued by the almost limitless control offered by tools like Photoshop. Whether or not he would have been sufficiently titillated to swap the darkroom for the desktop I somehow doubt, but it’s fun to ponder.
Apart from the fact I share the singular form of Adams’ surname as my forename, my own photographic offerings have little in common with the great late master, either as to quality or as to ambition. However, the hypothetical conundrum I pose for Adams above, is something that I, and thousands of my contemporaries – professional and amateur – have actually had to confront. In my own case, I at first resisted the transition from film to digital, until one day, during the early 90’s, a retired professional photographer friend scanned an old film of mine, for me to “play with” using the hitherto unemployed Corel software on my Gateway computer. I was hooked within moments and traded in my old Nikon film camera for a Nikon digital camera the next day. And, over the subsequent years, as I’ve gradually upgraded both my camera and my computer software, I’ve never once regretted the decision.
The photos here were taken on that first, crude Nikon digital camera, and remain to this day the closest I’ve ever got to emulating Ansell Adams himself – at least with subject matter (the scenery around Banff in the Canadian Rockies) if not in quality. They are presented in their original colour form, side-by-side with Photo-shopped monochrome twins. I upped the contrast to deepen the shadows and dramatise the tones in an attempt to give them a more “Adams feel”, and to see whether I would prefer them, or the original colour images. In the end, for me at least, there is no contest, and thus much to consider for my future landscape photography…
When one thinks of an oil painting, one generally thinks of a picture painted on canvas, but across the centuries since artists first mixed coloured pigments with oil they have applied their oil-based paints to a large variety of surfaces, including things like metal and glass. These days, especially within typical art school settings, the most commonly used materials in addition to canvas are, cotton duck (a cheap-yet-similar cloth cousin of true canvas), board (usually either plywood or stiff backing board), and paper. When I started out as an art student in the autumn of 1976 at Harrow School of Art, I had never painted an oil painting – on any surface – in my life.
Although I’d had in my possession a box of half-used oil-paints since I was a babe in arms (left behind by my father when he disappeared from my life) I’d never known what to do with them. Somehow, painting with anything but watercolours had always seemed mysterious and slightly scary. But all this changed in the second year of my foundation course when I realised that if my aspirations of a career in fine art were serious I’d have to learn how to paint in oils. However, my foundation student grant was only sufficient to fund the paints themselves and not the surface materials upon which I was to apply them. Fortunately though, Harrow had a junk room crammed full of backing board, So, my first experience of oil-painting was on board, primed with two or three coats of liquid PVA glue.
When I began my BA course at Saint Martins the following year my student grant was substantially improved and I was able to “progress” onto stretched cotton duck (or poor-man’s canvas as Sam, our school technician and unofficial canvas-stretching instructor used to refer to it). Nevertheless, large pieces of cotton duck (and I was already working on extremely large-scale pictures) cut a substantial swathe into my grant, leaving precious little for another essential “tool” of the young art student – that being copious amounts of ale every evening at one of the many wonderful local Soho pubs. This meant that I did much of my oil sketching on paper, which, when sufficiently sized, took the paint pretty well. In fact, I did not get to paint on actual “canvas, canvas” until around ten years after graduating from Saint Martins when I at last had enough dosh of my own to afford the real thing, ready-stretched, and ready-sized and primed.
The four paintings presented here are examples of each of the four surfaces I used. In the flesh it’s easy to tell the difference, even between the one painted on cotton duck and the one painted on canvas – but that’s a whole other story, perhaps for another time…
A major part of the allure and enduring reputation of the British rock band Led Zeppelin was down to a carefully crafted blanket of privacy and secrecy woven by guitarist Jimmy Page and manager, Peter Grant. Unlike most of their rival bands who used publicity and commercialism to boost their image and their album sales, Page and Grant masterfully strode a counter-intuitive path of obfuscation and opacity in both their dealings with the media, and with the recording company that released their music. And in so doing they succeeded in enhancing the undoubted brilliance of the band’s music with an air of mystique and mystery.
Accordingly, the facts and statistics concerning their appearance at Knebworth in the summer of 1979 are hard to pin down. The main dispute was over how many people attended the two concerts? According to official ticket sales around 120,000 turned up for each concert, but unofficial estimates were virtually double that figure stating more than 400,000 people saw the two gigs (over 180,000 the first night and around 220,000 the second).
All I can say, as one of the bonafide possessors of a ticket for the second concert, was that I witnessed a constant stream of fans breaching the perimeter hedges and boundaries of the Knebworth site throughout the day and then again scaling the fence that contained the concert area itself. The exact figures, like so much else to do with Led Zeppelin became yet another element of the band’s mythology.
What was not mythological however was the fact that Led Zeppelin’s Knebworth appearance turned out to be their final concerts in the UK. Within weeks of the gigs John Bonham, the band’s irreplaceable drummer was dead, signaling the end of one of the most influential ten years of music making of the 20th century.
My own infatuation with Led Zeppelin had begun four years earlier when my brother took me (then, a particularly callow 15-year-old) to see the band at Earls Court. It was my first rock concert of any kind and it proved to be the proverbial life altering event.
I’ll never forget, when, about six songs into the concert (it took me three or four songs merely to come to terms with the shock of the volume and the novelty of the spectacle) they broke into Trampled Underfoot and for the first time in my life I experienced something which I guess was close to religious ecstasy. Then when this was followed by In My Time of Dying – and somewhat ironically given the theme of the song – I underwent something akin to a spiritual rebirth. My life had changed for ever.
As it happened, Earls Court more or less coincided with my atheist “awakening” and Messrs Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham proved a more than adequate substitution for my previous notions of deity. Not that I ever worshiped them, but they certainly provided me with an often powerful, sometimes lyrical outlet for my youthful passions and sensitivities. My feelings for Page and Plant in particular was a kind of love or adoration which only faded when I began dating girls a year or two later.
But, if my adoration of the band members had faded by the time of the Knebworth event, if anything, my appreciation of their music had grown. My only problem was, I hated Knebworth itself; the sights, the sounds, the eternal queuing for absolutely everything, the incredible array of smells (I’ll never forget the peculiar blend of marijuana and faeces that permeated around the latrines) created by so many people in such close proximity.
Basically, I found the entire experience to be overwhelming, from the initial period of weird car-park camping, to the concert itself, which I was too weary, too distant from the stage and probably too sober to truly enjoy.
Whereas Earls Court had been intense, personal and a strangely intimate sensation (given I was sharing the space with 20,000 others), Knebworth seemed intangible and dreamlike from the start. My one consolation remains that I was one of the privileged people to witness the final act on home soil of the world’s greatest rock band. Whether or not I was one 120,000 or 220,000 remains a mystery…
Regular readers and followers of these posts will be well aware of my ambivalence regarding my past life as a fine artist, much of which had its origins in the way I fell into art following regular school. I didn’t so much choose to be an artist as being an artist chose me. In fact, my greatest passion as a schoolboy was ancient history, but due to a combination of academic laziness and the relative effortlessness of making pictures I convinced myself that I’d have more fun being a painter. And thus, I spent the following twenty years pursuing a career for which I was intellectually and emotionally singularly ill-equipped to find lasting success.
To truly succeed in the world of contemporary art a thick skin is the first prerequisite, not the crepe paper tissue that covered my bones as I embarked on my life in fine art. And while it’s true that during the eight years of repeated false dawns and disappointment; praise and insult; momentary glory intermingled with incidents of outright abuse, the crepe paper gradually metamorphosed into the hide of a triceratops; I left the world of “pure art” disillusioned and cynical.
Several disillusioning incidents stand out to this day as key markers in my journey toward the exit from that world. The most farcical of these incidents was also the one from which the gouaches shown here date, and occurred only a year after I left art school, in 1982.
It concerns my first significant painting sale to an industrial entrepreneur who made his fortune securing the UK patent for the plastic seals that line beer bottle caps and somewhere along the way acquired a taste for collecting contemporary watercolours. He became aware of me and my work through his PA who became friends with my mother when she temped for the company and one evening in April the two ladies arranged to bring their boss to view my paintings.
As it happened, I had recently completed a series of large gouaches of Israel and had them hanging in my studio just in time for the visit. My “studio” was the converted – very small – spare bedroom of our bijou north London suburban bungalow and was all-but-filled by the gentleman; a jolly “larger-than-life” figure; his PA – an equally jolly and even larger figure; her daughter – built on similarly generous proportions; and my diminutive mother.
During what turned out to be the cosiest viewing of my artwork that I ever hosted, I quickly became aware that both the industrialist and his PA’s daughter were at least as taken with your truly as they were with the pictures. Nevertheless, after what seemed an eternity of me enduring their overly physical displays of affection towards me – incessant squeezing of my arms, numerous embraces and even the holding of my hands – all beneath the guise of gushing over my pictures – a sale was agreed upon. And what a sale it was, as he purchased all seven pictures I had on display, writing a substantial check for the full whack – no haggling or bargaining – then and there on our dining room table.
In my immediate euphoria over the sale I totally forgot the touchy-feely goings on of a few moments earlier in the studio and was even delighted when the guy suggested we all be his guests for supper at a pucker local Chinese restaurant. However, I was soon brought rudely back down to earth when I found myself sat between my new client and the PA’s daughter at a table slightly too small for the five of us, with the result that the cosy mood of the studio was restored, but with increased physicality.
In the event, I ate little of the delicious looking food as I constantly wriggled and squirmed to avoid the wandering feet, arms and even hands of my two neighbours. At one point, towards the end of the second bottle of Gewürztraminer, with their remaining inhibitions now completely dissipated, I had to fight off hands straying up my thighs towards my crotch from both sides! In my panic, I pushed back in my chair so firmly that the two lusting so-and-sos almost fell in against each other. Then finally, as we were waiting for our taxis outside the restaurant, the man made me the most extraordinary proposition. He brazenly suggested that I become his travelling companion, accompanying him on all his travels, in the UK and beyond, helping him build his collection of art. He assured me that all my needs and comforts would be catered for, and that he would pay me handsomely for my services. He even offered to set me up with a fabulous studio in the grounds of his Buckinghamshire mansion. Not wanting him to block the check, I asked him for a few days to think about the proposition. Five days later he sent his driver round to my house to collect the pictures, to whom I gave a typed note declining the offer. Needless to say, I never heard from the man again. I can only hope that the gouaches provided him with some degree of solace, unlike the PA’s daughter who had to make do without me and my works of art…
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.