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…
The travel destinations I have liked most have had two things in common; good food and drink, and dramatic landscape. For me, these are the two essentials that not only ensure an enjoyable trip, but also make me want to return again and again.
Thus far in my life, no country has consistently epitomised those two qualities more than Italy, and one trip there in particular stands out for me as an exemplar.
During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I was fortunate enough to ski Christmas and New Year at the Italian Alpine resort of Courmayeur. And although the skiing itself was not particularly challenging, this was more than compensated for by Courmayeur’s spectacular location at the foot of Western Europe’s tallest mountain, Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and the hearty, local Valdostana cuisine. Days spent skiing through landscape straight out of a Martini commercial, followed by evenings dining on rich chamois stews washed down with copious amounts of black-red Nebbiolo wines made for exceedingly happy times.
Then, in 1981, I had an Italian girlfriend from a village near Cremona, only a three-hour drive from Courmayeur, and so decided to take a few days off from skiing to visit her.
She, in turn took me to her family apartment on the shores of Lake Garda where we spent an idyllic 48 hours where, among other wonderful things, I had my first taste of genuine Italian home cooking. But even more special than the food was the fact that we had the magisterial lake, and its enchanting winter light all to ourselves.
Fortunately I had my camera with me for both parts of what transpired as a trip of two deeply contrasting parts. The pictures presented here are digitally enhanced, sepia-filtered examples of some of the photographs I took then, designed to emulate my memories of a special time…
“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now From up and down and still somehow It’s cloud’s illusions I recall I really don’t know clouds at all…”
Joni Mitchell 1969
As we flew into Madrid a couple of flights back we descended through a dense and towering bank of clouds. From above, bathed in late afternoon sunshine the great stacks of vapour were a kaleidoscope of whites, golds and deep shadows. After a couple of minutes of being buffeted we emerged from beneath what appeared as an upturned flat grey carpet. The contrast between the two views, from above and below the clouds was stark, and as we made our landing approach the Joni Mitchel song From Both Sides Now came into my head (although I should say that I was hearing Sinatra singing Don Costa’s more schmaltzy arrangement).
This in turn reminded me of my first year as a fine art foundation student at Harrow School of Art and the weeks I spent that autumn sketching clouds from my vantage point in the library.
The library was on the top story of the building, and with its large picture windows offered unimpeded views of Harrow Wield and the constantly changing big skies above.
At this time in my burgeoning art career I was still steeping myself unashamedly in the grand English landscape painting tradition established by the likes of William Turner, John Constable and the sadly, mostly overlooked, John Crome.
The importance these painters placed on accurately depicting the skies which illuminated and shaded the earth below is attested to by the reams-upon-reams of their cloud sketches still adorning the walls and the display cases of galleries throughout the land. And for me, as a student of English sky painting, it was the eternal freshness of these sketches which excited me so much more than most of these same artists finished masterpieces, which often appeared so formal and contrived by comparison. I remember the thrill I experienced the first time I saw Constable’s watercolour cloud studies at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) as a child, and how these 150-year-old pictures looked as if they had just been painted. I could almost feel the frantic movements of the brush across the paper as Constable raced to capture a single atmospheric moment.
It was either Constable himself, or one of his equally gifted colleagues who once said “the more I paint clouds the less I feel I know them” – or words to that effect. For his part, Turner, in his desire to understand the nature of clouds attended the Royal Society lectures of pioneering meteorologist Robert Fitzroy.
The one thing that both Constable and Turner did know about clouds was the part they played in defining English landscape. Virtually ever-present in our skies; masking and or diffusing the sunlight; constantly shifting the colour and tone of the land; the atmosphere’s grand controller of dramatic effect; the need to portray clouds accurately in paint was key.
Anyway, the point of this appropriately rambling post, like banks of cumulonimbus scudding above the Harrow Wield, is to explain why I too, for a relatively short while at least, became obsessed with clouds, and despite studying them in watercolour for weeks on end came away realising the wisdom of Joni Mitchell’s lyric…
While I would generally agree with the saying that business (or work) and pleasure shouldn’t mix, I’ve been fortunate to successfully buck the adage on several occasions.
In the late 90’s I won two illustration commissions from the British-based Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA). Short of working as a Michelin restaurant inspector, this was as close to a perfect job as I could have wished for, encompassing as it did two of my favourite British passions; beer and pubs, and getting reasonably paid for it into the bargain.
Both commissions were for covers for two of CAMRA’s newer guides: The first; for their guide to Pubs for Families and; the second, for their first ever Good Cider Guide.
Living as we did then in the county of Kent – otherwise known as the Garden of England – surrounded by gorgeous country pubs I barely had to travel more than a few yards from the front door of our cottage to find all the architectural and ale-related inspiration I required for the first commission. Moreover, our close friends and neighbours at the time, together with their two young kids comprised a particularly representative version of the typical pub-visiting English family – perfect models for the cover’s human content. However, the second cover posed more of a logistical challenge.
For those reading this not familiar with the details of English cider or its production there are a couple of things which I should point out. Firstly, unlike so many of its continental and North American cousins, English Cider is strong in alcohol – often seriously strong. Also, there are two basic types of Cider: The massed produced variety; made by half a dozen mostly, multi-national companies; pasteurised, gassy, crystal clear, and ranging from sickly sweet to semi-dry. Then there is the drink CAMRA’s new guide was highlighting: Made by small, often family outfits, to age-old recipes; unpasteurised, still, normally unfiltered; using dozens of local apple varieties with an infinite range of flavours and styles and mostly known these days as “Scrumpy”. These two highly distinct types of Cider have only three things in common: They’re both made from apples; they’re both highly alcoholic, and production of both are concentrated in the two main apple-growing regions of England; the south west – centred around Somerset and Devon, and the west Midlands – centred around Herefordshire.
It seemed to me early on that as the central theme of the Cider guide was “authenticity” I should find some way to express this in my picture for the cover. So, while it would have been so simple to set up a still life with a pint of scrumpy in my cottage studio, I decided I’d get better results by doing some actual research. The fact that this research would entail the odd bit of product sampling would merely help my striving for authenticity!
After some discussion with my very knowledgeable contact at CAMRA and a few phone calls I managed to arrange to visit the illustrious 200-year-old cider maker of Burrow Hill in Somerset (now known as Somerset Cider Brandy Company and Burrow Hill Cider*).
When we arrived, the orchards were draped in an appropriately hazy, golden autumnal light, and cider production was in full swing. As wine makers, Dido and I were used to the heavy pungent odour of crushed fermenting grape across our Spanish finca, but this was nothing compared to the aroma of hundreds of thousands of crushed and fermenting Somerset apples. Burrow Hill boasts some of the oldest and most picturesque apple orchards in England, bearing over forty apple varieties. The visit was intoxicating in every sense; visual and olfactory. Moreover, and to our surprise they not only made delicious ciders, but ten years earlier they’d begun making brandy too. The ones we sampled were every bit as good, if not better than most Calvados.
In our long experience of visiting wine makers, from the most prestigious chateaus in Bordeaux, to the most remote and humble boutique winery in the middle of the Negev Desert, we’ve always had warm and cordial welcomes. Yet, none to surpass the friendliness and helpfulness displayed that day by the people at Burrow Hill, who went above and beyond the call of duty to help me get the material I required. It remains an apple infused, golden memory as I think the pictures shown here attest…
*For those of you interested in learning more about the story of Burrow Hill and its delicious range of apple-related liquids you can visit their website here: https://www.somersetciderbrandy.com/
In 1983 I painted one of my largest oil paintings on Canvas, and at over seven feet high (about 2.1 meters) it was certainly the tallest oil I ever did. It dates to the height of my post Saint Martin’s landscape period, intended as the center piece for a proposed exhibition of my works at the Israeli embassy in London (why that show never materialised is a story for another post). At the time, I still harboured a naive ambition to become a sort of 20th century successor to artists like Claude Lorraine and William Turner, and was thus obsessed with the spectacular, the epic and visions of the sublime. As with the subject of an earlier post (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/06/15/masterpiece-or-merely-a-collection-of-successful-daubs/), I was still, at this stage, exclusively applying the paint with brushes, and consequently, my pictures could take weeks to complete.
Mount Meron from Sefad manifested as one of the more arduous pictures I painted, taking around a full month from sketch to final brush stroke. But, it was also one of the most satisfying experiences of my painting career as regards both making the painting, and my contentment with the finished work. My “technical intention” had been to draw the viewer in from the bottom of the picture and then send them on a virtual journey down into the valley and then upwards towards the distant mountain. My “intellectual intention” had been to stir the mind of viewer by the use of “sublime” tonality and rich graduated colour. Whether or not I succeeded as well as I believed back then is hard to tell without standing in front of the painting itself (last I heard, residing on the walls of a private home somewhere in France), but from the little one can tell from this format I didn’t do too badly.
Ten years later, toward the end of 1993 I made another large oil painting of another mountain, but for very different reasons, and with a very different approach. Around the mid to late 80’s I’d become bored with brushes and moved on to the more immediate and primal method of applying thick daubs of paint with palette knives. My mostly large canvases, were still spectacular and even epic, but “the sublime” had been replaced with raw painterly passion. The spacial illusion of the former supplanted by a flat tapestry of thick impasto.
[Mount] Maroma Sunbathed turned out to be the final large scale oil on canvas I ever painted – or “knifed” (about 4 foot square). I did it the first day my studio was set up in our then-brand new house in southern Spain. After eight long, hard months of building the house and living rough (see: https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) the work was a celebratory expression of pure joy and relief. I merely pointed the easel at the mountain across the gorge from our home and proceeded to pictorially express the view before me. It took only about two hours, from start to finish.
Two oil paintings of two different mountains; executed in two hugely contrasting styles, separated geographically by 3000 miles and ten years in time. But here’s the funny thing; the genuinely wondrous thing. For, totally unbeknownst to me until I prepared and researched this post; I was painting two mountains with the same name!
Briefly; the name of the Galilean mountain, Meron is recorded in the Bible, in which it is also known as Merom, which itself (and this is the bit I was ignorant of until very recently) is an ancient Hebrew derivation from the earlier Canaanite Maroma.
The Canaanites in question were either identical with, or at least closely related to the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon, and who ruled over what later became Galilean Israel well into the time of the early Israelite kings – perhaps as late as around 950 BCE.
About 800 BCE, Phoenicians settled along the southern and south western coast of Spain and quite possibly, in a way identical to European colonisers of the New World, brought the place names from their old world with them for recycling in their new land.
Bearing in mind the similarities the settlers would have noticed between the two mountains; both being the tallest in their native locales (the Galilee and the Axarquia respectively) and both sharing strikingly similar physical form, it seems highly plausible that they named their new mountain after the original Maroma.
This is at least as plausible as the currently accepted theory, that the word maroma (which means a rope or a cord, or a twisted flax in modern Spanish) has vague Arabic origins, but with no apparent etymological evidence for such a linkage. Far more likely it seems to me, that just as the Phoenicians indisputably named the nearby city of Malaga (Malaka – mlk), so too they named the region’s most imposing mountain, Maroma! The fact they were the subjects of my two most ambitious mountain landscapes proves nothing on the other hand, but it is one hell of a coincidence…
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.