BEHIND THE SCENES – painting with oils on different surfaces…

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.

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Still Life with Bottles and Lemons – oil on paper – 1980.  Paper makes for a super slick surface, so that the brush or the palette knife has a tendency to “skid” across the surface – great for fast, energetic gestures.

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.

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Dido at Caesarea – oil on board – 1991  Board has some of the slickness of paper but conversely the brush tends to “stick” toward the end of the stroke. It’s rigidity makes it unresponsive to palette knife.

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.

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Restaurant Juanita – oil on cotton duck – 1992   Duck is a cruder weave than canvas so that it’s slightly rougher to work on. Fine for free, painterly brush work and palette knife but not so much for fine work. No use at all for the photo-realist.

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…

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Wild Flower and Almond Trees – oil on canvas – 2000   Top notch canvas is worth the extra cost for those artists striving for total control over the paint. When correctly stretched and sized with rabbit skin, its smooth-yet-holding surface allows for the complete range of “attack”. 
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I REALLY DON’T KNOW CLOUDS AT ALL…or why I tried to capture nature’s atmospheric ephemera in paint.

 

“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

Clouds 2

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).

Clouds 3

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Clouds 9

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…

OILS ON PAPER… “FORM THROUGH COLOUR”

I fancied myself as something of a colourist around the the time I started at Saint Martins (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…

 

MY ART CAREER 3 (d) – SAINT MARTINS 1979: NUDE SKETCHBOOK

In an earlier post (adamhalevi777.com/2014/10/20/my-art-career-part-3-b-st-martins-finding-my-vocabulary-ii/) 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.

 

 

MY ART CAREER PART 3 (c) – ST MARTINS – FINDING MY VOCABULARY ‘III’

About half-way through my second year at St Martins 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 Martins I turned to Jewish/biblical subjects because it was a world which I knew and in which I still felt at home. Better still, 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 Martins 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 Martins, 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…

MY ART CAREER PART 3 (b) – ST MARTINS – FINDING MY VOCABULARY ‘II’

One of the things which really got up the noses of most of the tutors at St Martins was conventional drawing. They hated it so much that during my second year they actually closed down the life drawing studio, meaning that St Martins 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…

MY ART CAREER PART 3 (a) – ST MARTINS – FINDING MY VOCABULARY ‘I’

My time at St Martins, from 1978 to 81 can roughly be divided into three periods, one for each year spent there, more or less, or though there are of course some overlaps.

Going to St Martins was a major error on my part. I was so flattered at being accepted that I totally overlooked the fact that I was a firmly representational painter entering an establishment at the forefront of non-representational and conceptual art. Both Slade and the Royal Academy School had both showed strong interest in me and either would have been perfect fits but I thought that St martins was where the glory was and as an 18 year old wannabee William Turner, boy, did I crave glory.

I realised the gravity of my mistake within the first week there, when the irritation with me from nearly all the tutors  was palpable as I resolutely stuck to my representational guns. There were two notable exceptions though – Jennifer Durrant and Henry Mundy who both took pity on me. Jenny wasn’t any happier with my painting than her colleagues but at least her approach was gentle persuasion rather than bullying. Henry – despite his international stature –  was simply a mench who instead of trying to mould  me in his own image gave me practical and accessible tips as to how develop the skills I already had.

The images here illustrate that development and are in part at least a testament to Henry Mundy’s kindness and astute understanding of who, and what I actually was. In his opinion at least, I was a “gifted colourist”, and it was this ability in particular which he helped me to hone. Henry’s influence is graphically illustrated in two images posted here – the two views out of my studio window of the local Soho roof tops. The first is all monochrome and gloomy – before Henry had ever set foot in my space and it well reflects the same gloominess of my mood. The second one was more or less the same but in browns. However, the tiny daub of emerald green in the window was the result of the very first piece of advice he ever gave me and, from then onward I was liberated, as the rest of the “gallery” posted here clearly shows.

The heavy impasto though is all mine.