For reasons far too mundane to go into here, the next couple of months are going to be among the busiest and most frenetic for quite a while, and hence I will have far less time than usual to devote to these posts – at least in written form. Thus, for most, if not all of the next half-dozen or so offerings, I will revert to primarily presenting series of images, hopefully, linked by some kind of theme.
In keeping with this temporary minimalist expedience, I present here a series of my old line drawings, ranging roughly across a couple of decades, from about 1976 to the mid 90’s.
A tutor at Harrow School of Art once told me that “the line is the foundation stone of picture making…master the line and everything else will follow. She added that “artists who fail in this are like musicians attempting to compose tunes without being able to read music…”.
It was a simple message, and all the more powerful for that, and one which stuck with me ever since – its truthfulness being self-evident. Then, when I taught for a while myself, I would begin every class with at least an hour of line drawing exercises, to the point where it drove some of my students to distraction. However, they would invariably tell me when we met up years later, how much they now appreciated, ironically, the freedom and confidence this grounding had given them to develop their artistic styles, however figurative or abstract.
But, apart from anything else, and continuing the musical analogy, the simple line drawing, when done well, offers so much in and of itself in a way similar to how a piano sonata, or a string quartet, may express a deep intimacy and subtle power, lacking in a massive orchestral work. And, hopefully, the selection of doodles here give some idea of what I’m talking about – all very much “quiet, solo instrumental pieces”…
And so, in 1999, I felt the need to celebrate with this set of colourful, impasto gouache sketches, done as postcards; intended to express our sense of freedom and joy at the regaining of our lost paradise. But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined, even in that seminal year of 1999, just quite how fortunate we really were…
Not until experiencing the madness of three months of semi-house arrest in a small Oxford apartment (I refuse to dignify the “L” word by using it), followed by the oddly, even more disturbing new “normality”, did we truly grasp how blessed we are to have our little, private, mask-less, socially intimate, sanctuary of peace and sanity.
(I should add, that I still have the entire original set of 10 postcards, signed, titled and dated, and in near-mint condition, and far brighter and more charming in real life. I had originally intended to send them to select friends and family, but for some reason never got around to it. So now, I would be happy to sell them as a set for £200 – or other currency equivalent – plus postage. If anyone is interested please contact me through the “Purchasing artwork” link at the top of this page.)
…and the stark difference between copying and INTERPRETING.
This is not the post I had planned. But that was before I had the great misfortune, not to say fright of seeing the latest portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few posts ago I discussed how I came to paint from photographs, and how and why it can work brilliantly in the right hands. What I did not discuss however (and perhaps I should have done), was the converse of this, when photographs are simply copied as a form of craft, with the art all but forgotten.
The “artist” has succeeded in confirming every prejudice I ever had thrown at me by detractors of “photograph-method”, and arrived at a plasticised and peculiarly scary image, obsessed with technical finesse while utterly devoid of empathy and artistry. This is not so much a majestic portrait as a grotesquely kitsch, 2-dimensional waxwork. This is the produce of a copyist and not an artist all, and says much – none of it complementary – about the judges of the BP National Portrait Award; the winning of which landed the alleged “artist” this most august of portrait commissions.
As I attempted to illustrate in a previous post, copying from photographs offers so much more than the absolute stability of the reference material (i.e. total stillness and unchanging light). IN THE RIGHT HANDS – from Vermeer (with his Photo Obscura) to Rockwell – it offers up an essence and intensity of “moment” that resulted in some of the most empathetic and compassionate pictures ever achieved.
While I would never be so hubristic as to place my own photograph-method creations on a par with those of the great masters of the past, I dare to claim, that at their best, my efforts do at least show some of the positives of the genre. Three of the pictures below were not only exciting and fun to create, they are human expressions accentuated by technique rather than masked by it. The fourth picture is an example of my own, of what happened when I allowed technique to subsume the human moment.
…my brief spell “DESIGNING” JOKES FOR A top GREETINGS CARD COMPAny.
In previous postsI have described the frustrations I often experienced at the hands of unscrupulous greetings cards companies (of which there were a surprisingly large number), who would reject my artwork but then use my jokes and ideas without paying me. As described, I would submit a folio of cards designs; the company would sit on them for several weeks (sometimes months) and then return them with barely an acknowledgement (sometimes none); and then, a month or two later, cards with my jokes and ideas would suddenly appear on the shop-shelves made by different (presumably in-house, and thus far cheaper) artists.
I don’t know if things have changed since, but the problem back in the late 80’s, early 90’s, was that, unlike in almost all other areas of commercial art/illustration, there was no formal contract system in place for freelance artists doing work for greetings cards companies. Normally, you sent in your work on “spec”, and took a chance on the integrity, or otherwise of the company.
Thus it happened, that around 1990, I found myself with a pile of ideas and jokes, but wary of being stung yet again, I decided to try a different tack.
I telephoned the-then biggest card firm in the UK (they might still be, for all I know now) and asked to speak to their art director. I had never approached them before because I knew they only used in-house artists for their finished cards, but as I’d now reached the point where I would be content with at least earning something for my ideas, I guessed I had nothing much to loose.
I was put straight through to the lady in question, and told her of what I had experienced at the hands of several of her rival companies, and asked her frankly if I would be taking the same risk sending my material in to her for consideration.
My guess was, perhaps naively, that such a large company would be more straightforward to deal with, for the sake of their professional reputation if not for their innate honesty. However, she explained that they could not enter in contractual arrangements with freelancers as this undermined the morale of their in-house artists. Nevertheless, she offered to put a non-binding assurance in a hand written letter that her firm would definitely pay me a fair price for each and every idea of mine they liked.
Good to her word, the letter arrived a day or two later, containing her assurance, and a request for sketched roughs of my jokes and ideas – about 12 of which I duly dispatched to her, albeit on a wing and a prayer.
After hearing nothing for weeks I began to think the worst, but about two months later I was pleasantly surprised to not only receive back my roughs, but also a cheque for the half-dozen or so ideas they had decided to use.
Several of those roughs are displayed here, and I wonder which, if any ring a bell…?
A fact of the current restrictions upon our normal lives is at once curious, obvious and virtually universal; that being the loss of, and consequent longing for, normal, boring, and even tedious everyday experience. Missing erstwhile unremarkable pleasures of life, like going to the pub, restaurants and concerts is bad enough, but when one starts to get nostalgic over things like hopping on and off buses and even journeys on the tube, it’s apparent that the present regime is really starting to bite.
This nostalgia struck me keenly the other day when I was trawling through slides of old sketchpads dating from the time of my commutes to art school (an incredible forty-plus years ago). And, as an artist’s sketchbook is often a tool for magnifying the seemingly mundane into something more meaningful, it occurred to me that the drawings from those old books might provide a peculiarly apposite reminder, for all its apparent dinginess and dreariness, of the glory of normality…
My “first career”, MODELLING rubber products and other things…
In an earlier post I wrote about my wife Dido’s work as a model during her time in the ballet. What may be much more surprising for many of my readers and followers, is that I too had a brief career in front of the Hasselblads and Rolleiflex. For the first four or five years of my life, I was an occasional child model. In my case however, unlike my gorgeous wife, it was less to do with my photogenic qualities and more to do with the fact that the photographer in question was my mum’s brother, Sidney Pizan.
While the fact I was a cute baby and toddler (well, it’s true) was undoubtedly helpful, the main advantage for an aspiring commercial photographer based in the highly competitive world of 1960’s London advertising, was the fact my services came for free! The pictures here offer a record of what was in effect, my first career, and looking back at some of them now raises a whole gamut of emotions for reasons explained in the captions…
I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages how, very occasionally, I had my uses to the powers-that-be at Saint Martin’s School of Art. While generally I was shunned by most of the tutors for my work being “hopelessly representative”, every-so-often, when they required the services of someone with common-or-garden drawing and painting skills they came to your’s truly.
The story of my mural in Covent Garden was the most high-profile example of this expediency, but there was another occasion when my usefulness to the school was probably far more significant.
It was shortly after the Easter break in 1981 when St. Martins received a visit from a delegation of Communist Chinese dignitaries from their ministry of culture, led by the minister himself. Although I was blissfully unaware at the time, the visit was part of a drive by China to open up access for their top students to elite academic institutions in the UK and North America. I subsequently discovered that their “shopping list” of British institutions comprised, Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, the LSE, the Royal Ballet School, and (incredibly to me at least) Saint Martin’s School of Art. I was equally ignorant of the fact that the visit mattered at least as much to my school as it did to the visitors, as even back then, foreign students were a lucrative source of revenue.
Thus, in effect, I was an unwitting cultural/commercial ambassador for St. Martin’s. The fact that my work was the polar opposite of everything that St. Martin’s stood for mattered not. That it was “safe”, accessible, “good of its kind” and most important of all, unlikely to be considered “decadent” by our communist guests mattered a great deal. When I later asked my head tutor John Edwards, why they didn’t simply visit the Slade School or the Royal Academy Schools, where nearly all the art was like mine, he pointed out that St. Martin’s was “so much more than a mere school of painting”. And that its fashion and film departments, in addition to its art and sculpture “made it uniquely attractive” to the Chinese. “In truth”, he added, “the art department was the least significant element” of the school and the main thing was “not to rock the boat”. As things turned out, not only did my work prove the steady ship my superiors had hoped, one of my pictures actually ended up pleasing our visitors more than anyone could have predicted.
On the afternoon of the visit, the art department was cleared of students except for me, and the delegation was brought up directly to my studio. There were about ten Chinese, all men and all wearing expensive English-cut suits, and they were led into the room by John Edwards and the principal of the school, Ian Simpson. After some words of introduction from John, the visitors began to notice my pictures, which wasn’t difficult, as at that time I was working on a series of monumental canvases. However – and it’s a moment I shall never forget – as their eyes (and I mean theireyes, for they turned their ten heads as if a single organism) landed on “Apple Pickers at Rest” they let out a collective “ahhhh…” and all broke into broad smiles. Then, the leader of the delegation (the minister himself as it later turned out) looked at me and asked, or perhaps stated, “workers in the field yes?”. I think I just nodded. He then walked up to the picture, and pointing at one of “workers” contemplatively holding a raspberry ice lolly, he turned to me, and grinning and nodding enthusiastically queried, “Little Red Book, yes?”. Before I could respond, he’d already uttered something to his compatriots, to which they all responded with an even bigger collective “ahhhh…”, followed by more smiles and nods of approval. Finally, after each shaking hands and bowing their heads to me in turn, the principal led them out of my studio to continue their tour. The last person to leave was John, who, as he walked out the door, turned around and gave me a big thumb’s-up.
I was left feeling peculiarly frustrated, having been completely unable to explain what the painting was in fact depicting – a scene of Druze labourers, hired by the kibbutz on which I was a volunteer, enjoying a rest from picking apples with a refreshing ice lolly (ice pop). In retrospect, my being tongue-tied was a blessing, as Ian later informed me that the minister had described their visit to my studio as the highlight of their tour of the school and even inquired about the possibility of purchasing the painting. I declined this however, when it was made clear all the proceeds would be pocketed by St. Martin’s. After all, I thought, I had already done more than my bit for insuring the future prosperity of the school!
I began drawing when I was a young boy. Not because I ever enjoyed it, or got any particular satisfaction out of it, but simply because I always could and it helped me get through the many school lessons I found otherwise pointless and boring – specifically maths and French.
Drawing, for all its tediousness was a survival strategy for me at school in a way similar to reading the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) had been for me in Synagogue – the main difference being that I actually found elements of reading the Bible genuinely thrilling (see my previous post).
I rarely got into serious disciplinary trouble at school, but the little opprobrium I did attract from my teachers was normally because of my drawing in class. Fortunately I suppose, my maths and French teachers regarded me as a hopeless cause, and often liked my sketches, and so they generally left me to get on with it undisturbed. I remember one episode in particular, when I must have been 12 years old, my maths teacher did finally loose her patience with me during an algebra class. She marched up to my desk at the end of the hour-long lesson intending to scold me until she saw what I had drawn… an epic depiction of French cavalry assailing the British infantry squares at the Battle of Waterloo. Instead, she simply leaned over my shoulder and marvelled at my felt-tip representation Napoleonic military mayhem.
Ultimately my drawing led me to the art room in senior school, where I learned the rudiments of painting, and which in turn led on to a foundation degree and then to a BA. It was all an oddly thoughtless and ill considered career path which was never really planned, but rather just happened to me.
Thus it is, that the vast majority of the thousands of drawings I did over the best part of 40 years are of distinctly average quality, and perhaps more interestingly, that I cannot begin to explain the hows or the whys of the half-dozen or so decent sketches I did manage to pull off.
All I can offer as a theory, is that practise really does make perfect, very occasionally.
One of the many surprises thrown up by my recent digitisation of all my photographs of old artwork was how – once chronologically sorted – it vividly revealed the development of my painting skills – or, if not skills exactly; at least of my comfort with the medium of oil paint. Additionally, they exposed something even more interesting – at least to me – of the dramatic alteration in my spirits and emotions from that heavily pressured time at art school to my days as a confident, free painting spirit.
The two paintings I have chosen for this piece graphically illustrate what I mean:
Soho Buildings was the first painting I ever made on canvas, and how it shows! Thin washes, tentative drawing and clumsy composition. Looking at it now, even in photographic form, I can still feel my fear of the canvas, and my hesitant application of the paint. Plus there was the added pressure of being surrounded by – at least – equally talented artists, most of whom were already familiar with painting on canvas. So, I was desperate for it to appear like I knew what I was doing and that I was at ease with the process, which clearly shows in the picture. But, for all that, the painting has some merit; some lucky accidents; like the two white painted windows on the shaded side of the near building…something quite lyrical about them. Plus, it serves now as a powerfully symbolic and accurate reminder of my gloomy mindset during those first terrifying days at Saint Martin’s…
Girl Fastening Sandal was painted in 1988 and is evidently, everything the Soho picture is not. By this time I was confident and comfortable with both the oil paint and the painting surface and, more crucially, unencumbered by being part of any “art scene” – I didn’t have to worry about peers and rivals watching me over my shoulder. Whereas, with the Soho painting it was all I could do to produce any kind of image on the canvas, with the Girl painting I was preoccupied with expressing the joys and thrills of both the subject and the paint itself. It should look almost as if the paint flowed directly from my mind to the palette knife; a visual stream of consciousness; like a happy, joyous thought. The two paintings here graphically represent a pretty dramatic 10-year transition from student to artist and from teenage hesitancy to adult assuredness.
To many, the idea of travelling to Delphi to ski might seem as daft as travelling to Zermat for the archaeology, but once, many years ago I went to Apollo’s sanctuary for a winter sports holiday.
Obviously, we didn’t need to consult the local oracle to know that the skiing on Mount Parnassus would be nearly as scarce as Doric temples on the Matterhorn. Fortunately, the stunning ancient Greek ruins were more than a compensation for a lack of powder-covered moguls and red runs. What had primarily been intended as a fortnight of physical thrills materialised as a fitness course for the mind.
The treated photos here were taken with my trusty old Canonet 28, but I think they get across something of the drama of Delphi and the sheer majesty of the two-an-a-half-thousand-year-old remains of one the world’s most historically influential civilisations…
These columns of the Temple of Apollo date from the 4th century BC and sit upon remains of a 6th century predecessor…