It’s a well known fact that up until relatively recently, painters made up their own colours from ground pigments and whatever carrier mediums they preferred; most commonly oil, water or egg yolk. One of the marks of the successful artist was being able to afford an apprentice (or two, or three…) to do the blending of the paints for them, and so the acquiring of the skill of paint blending became a crucial rite of passage for all aspiring painters.
By the time I entered art school however, the era of commercially produced, convenient pre-prepared paints, of all media was firmly established, and pestles and mortars had long disappeared from our studios. Nevertheless, I, and one or two fellow students of a more traditional persuasion were curious to experience, at least fleetingly, both making and using our own paint.
Fortunately, our school was close by an art shop that still supplied raw pigments, so we were able to have some fun making up our own oils, watercolour and egg tempera and then trying them out on paper and canvas.
Presented here are the results of my own experimentation with tempera and watercolour. Because water was free, and even back then eggs were relatively expensive, I was able to create a far broader palette in the latter, and had to restrict myself to just two colours in egg tempera – Prussian blue and burnt umber – hence the several monochrome sketches…
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.
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…
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 Martin’s 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 Martin’s 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…
“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…
I fancied myself as something of a colourist around the the time I started at Saint Martin’s (1978/79), when this selection of oils on paper dates from. The idea of expressing things like bodily posture and even personality and human attitude through blocks of colour – with just a bit of assistance from drawn lines – was a concept which had interested me since I’d first started looking at pictures by anyone, from Matisse to Mathew Smith.
The paintings here are all of people (including one each of my maternal grandparents) done from life, which even then, was unusual for me – I was always more of a studio artist than a “field artist”. All of my early oil paintings were done on paper (like those presented below) or board. It was only once the generous student grant kicked in (those were the days!), when I’d actually begun at St. Martins, with access to subsidised stretchers and countless yards of cotton duck that I was able to enjoy the use of canvas.
Looking at these pictures now I’m struck by how fresh they look, and despite some pretty crude handling of paint, how closely they portray the subjects.
All in all, they’re not half bad, and the pictures of my much-missed booba and zaida (the bottom two – Becky and Harry Pizan) are surprisingly evocative and poignant- for me at least…
In an earlier post I promised to reveal the fruits of my hours spent in the life room at St. Martins.
I always try to keep my promises, so here are the contents of my sketchbook dated 1979.
Looking at these drawings now after so many years hidden away in a drawer in my old plan-chest, what strikes me is their raw honesty. How good or bad they are I’m not the one to judge (although I’ve seen worse), but whatever else, they are truthful, even to the point of portraying how terribly bored the models were in most of the poses. I can also perceive the instinctive cartoonist in me trying to break out, especially in F&M 1.
I referenced several of these in my biblical themed paintings later that same year, especially the Adam and Eve series, and then in 1980, a couple of them were very useful for my “Wanderers” pictures.
About half-way through my second year at St Martin’s I made a drastic change of course – not so much in my expressive, heavy impasto style but regarding my subject matter. For about six months I became what can only be described as a religious painter.
At the time my reason for my doing this was a mystery to me as I had stopped believing in God or any other form of spiritual entity years before and Chagall – the artist to whom I looked for inspiration at the time – was one of my least favourite painters. All I knew was that I had become bored of churning out paintings of apples and bottles and weary of my constant fight with my tutors who so resented my failure to become a conceptual artist.
Looking back on it now, calmly and rationally I can see two clear reasons for this brief aberration in my painting career. To compensate for my feeling of alienation at St Martin’s I turned to Jewish/biblical subjects because it was a world which I knew and in which I still felt at home. Moreover, it gave my tutors, almost all of whom were not Jewish, a new dilemma in their dealings with me and my art. In a sense it put them on the defensive and rendered them altogether less confident in their criticism of my representational style. Accusing my fruit and beer cans of being “superficial” and “lacking true artistic depth” was one thing. It was quite another to level similar criticisms at apparently emotional evocations of spirituality and religious angst.
It all seems pretty cynical on my part from this distance, but back then I was actually on the verge of leaving the school. The choice seemed stark – knuckle-under if I wanted to succeed as an artist or continue being a waste of space. In desperation I guess, I did something which was neither, but it was drastic and did at least succeed in shaking everything up.
At first the tutors were mostly dumbfounded. I think I was about three weeks into my new style and it was Henry Mundy (who still used to look in on me from time to time) who was the first to say anything. I think he merely exclaimed, “astonishing Adam, simply astonishing…” and then as he was walking out of the room he stopped in the doorway, turned around and looking at the canvas I was working on said “Don’t forget the emerald green…’ What he really thought, and if he liked or hated the work I have no idea but from then on he came up regularly, and stood in the doorway watching me work for five or ten minutes at a time, a slight smile on his face, but without ever uttering another word.
As for the majority of his colleagues they basically backed off and left me to my own devices.
The only other visitor to my space I remember having during this period was the then international superstar of British Abstract Expressionism, John Hoyland. He was paying us a visit, mainly to deliver a talk on his own latest work, but afterwards he took a stroll around the studios. At this point it’s impossible to overstate the sameness of nearly all the other studio spaces he was viewing that afternoon, nearly all filled with Hoyland wannabes and their mostly pale imitations of his admittedly fine examples of the abstract expressive oeuvre. So it was really very amusing that when he passed by my space and glanced in he did a double take worthy of Scooby Doo seeing a ghost. When he then walked in it was with an expression of one stepping out of a space ship onto a new planet and not quite certain if the air was breathable. When I stopped to greet him he gestured for me to keep on working and he just stood there stroking his chin. I think he stayed about ten minutes, then just before he turned to leave, he said “whatever else, you certainly can paint…” All I recall feeling at that moment was embarrassment that I hadn’t bothered to attend his talk. Later on though, especially when I discovered that Hoyland was to be one of our degree assessors, it gave me hope that at least I would come out of St Martin’s with a BA of some kind.
As for the pictures themselves, what can I say?
Ultimately I think they work quite well, and of all my work at St Martin’s, express the angst and frustration I was feeling as I muddled my way through the first two years there. To those looking at the paintings above and detecting deep religious or spiritual truths – Jewish, rock and roll or otherwise – I say good for you. Whatever turns you on. For me; at their best they show how I was beginning to develop my basic paint handling skills, with brush and especially my beloved palette knife…
One of the things which really got up the noses of most of the tutors at St Martin’s was conventional drawing. They hated it so much that during my second year they actually closed down the life drawing studio, meaning that St Martin’s was the only one of the six UK major art schools without one – even Chelsea and Royal College maintained life drawing classes.
But I was a drawer. I had been since I was five years old (when my primary school headmaster described me as “the complete draftsman and cartoonist”). And fortunately for me I was not alone. Of our year of thirty odd students around ten others felt as I did, and because in those days we all received generous grants we were able to raise the funds between us to pay a model and support a once-a-week life class – much to the irritation of our tutors.
As in my first year there were a couple of tutors who bucked the general trend and attempted at least to teach and encourage us poor representational fools. Anthony Whishaw was my personal tutor that year and was always polite and gentle, despite the fact he was obviously repressing his frustration with me the whole time he was in my space. Gary Wragg was also incredibly affable and hugely encouraging, even if a bit hard to comprehend. On occasion he would stand in front of the canvas I was currently working on, gesticulate wildly with his arms and say things like, ‘Now that’s what I mean man! That’s what I’m talking about! Man, this is where it’s at!’ and so on (I always had the feeling with Gary that he thought he was on the set of a Shaft movie)… Not exactly constructive, but well meant, and I think – sincere. I believed I was Gary’s token representational artist, and I took that as a huge compliment given the whole weird context of me being at St Martins.
Anyhow, the drawings displayed below are from that time. No nudes represented here, although they will appear in future posts (I promise!) but rather an example of my portrait sketching. During this period while I was still searching for a satisfactory method of painting, I began each morning with an hour or so of sketching. Mostly, my own face but often a friend or girlfriend would be happy to sit for me if I provided them with a cup of tea or coffee as payment. It was a useful exercise and loosened me up for the rest of the day.
Ever the expressionist, subtlety was never my thing, but despite a slight heaviness of hand I’m surprised now, some 35 years later how fresh and alive these drawings appear. I hope others will agree…