WALKING AWAY INTO “LITTLE BIG LAND” – Israel painted through the romantic eyes of youth

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.

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“Walking Away at Ein Kerem” (120 x 170cm∗) – In the Jerusalem Hills – southwest outskirts of the city…

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.

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“Astrud at Tel Hai”  detail (150 x 100cm) – At the south-western entrance to the northern “pan-handle”…

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.

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“Pickers at Rest” (153 x 213cm) – Hired Druze pickers enjoying ice-lollies during a break from apple picking on the northern border kibbutz of Yiftach…

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.

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“The Banyas Falls” (180 x 120cm)  – The source of the River Jordan, at the north-western edge of the Golan Heights, and thought by the Macedonian conquerors of 332 BC  to be the birth place of the god Pan – hence: the Greek “Panias”, now “Banyas” in modern Hebrew via the previous “Banias…”

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.

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“The Coach Party”  detail (180 x 240cm) – On a roadside cliff edge overlooking the Hula Valley in the north western pan handle…

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.

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“On the Beach” detail (120 x 180 cm) – A group of my friends on Ashkelon beach on Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast…

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.

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“Resting at Montfort” detail (120 x 180cm) – Our tour party taking a break on the ruins of the Crusader castle of Montfort just south of the Lebanon border. Hence the need for the M16…

Despite the incompleteness presented, I still think one can sense the romance, and the optimism of the mostly-unseen whole paintings.

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“The Wanderers” detail (130 x  190cm) – The first of the “Walking Away” themed  series, set on the road down from Tel Hai south, towards Lake Kinneret  (The Sea of Galilee).

(∗ All sizes refer to the full canvases)

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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”. 

MY FIRST “ART CLIENT” – MY FIRST LESSON IN LIFE AS AN ARTIST

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ramon Crater Edge

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.

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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.

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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…

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

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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…

A PARADISE LOST, AND ANOTHER “REGAINED…”

One balmy September morning back in 1983, my then-girlfriend and I were incredibly fortunate to have the Generalife (the famous gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada) all to ourselves. In the years since, I must have visited the Alhambra half-a-dozen times but never again been anything like so lucky. In fact, on each successive visit the palace complex was becoming increasingly crowded until the final visit, when the experience resembled more being in the London Tube at rush hour than a gentle amble around one of the most serene man-made outdoor spaces in the world.

These days, people wanting to visit the Alhambra complex have to book a slot, similar to the system adopted by the authorities at Saint Peter’s in Rome, but all this really achieves is a regimented crush as opposed to a free-for-all melee.

While I wouldn’t wish to deter those visiting Andalusia for the first time from seeing one of the architectural and horticultural wonders of the world there are, dotted about the state other beautiful Moorish influenced gardens which still offer the kind of serenity the Generalife was designed to inspire. My favourite of these is the garden of the old castle (or Alcazar) of Seville.

In stark contrast to the mathematical perfection and order of its famous Granada rival, the Alcazar garden in Seville has a relaxed, informal and even ramshackle quality which has a calming effect the moment one enters its precincts. Even in the height of summer, its mature old trees, elaborately arched follies and numerous ponds and fountains offer a tranquil and fragrant, shaded refuge from the extreme heat which afflicts the city. It’s a fabulous place for a spot of contemplation and meditation away from the concerns of everyday life and thus also a fantastic place to sketch and paint.

I made the pen and ink pictures presented here in the early 1990’s during my second visit to the gardens. I’ve often found that deeply coloured inks have an immediacy and fluidity perfect for capturing scenes of exotic nature, man-planted or wild, as I hope these images confirm. And I’m guessing they do, as they comprised the major part of a sell-out exhibition in London later that year.

Seville Alcazar ExitSeville Alcazar Garden Arched FollySeville Alcazar Garden Folly ArchSeville Alcazar Garden Iron GateSeville Alcazar Garden Pond and CypressesSeville Alcazar Garden Small Fountain

DRY SUBLIME – gouaches of the Atacama

With only ten days to pick our olives and prune around a thousand vines, among many other farming chores here on our Andalusian finca, this post has few words and is all about the pictures. Suffice to say, I always felt the dry chalkiness of thickly applied gouache was a perfect medium for expressing the tonal aridity of the fabulous Atacama Desert. As ever, I hope all of you who pass this virtual way agree! Wishing all my visitors, readers and followers a 2018 as epic as the incredible Chilean desert itself…

 

 

MY ART CAREER 4 – SAINT MARTINS 1980: The Ein Kerem Triptych

In the summer of 1979 I spent two weeks with a friend in his apartment on the south western outskirts of Jerusalem. My host shared a studio with me at art school (in London) and had been whetting my painterly appetite with descriptions of the scenery in the hills close by his apartment. Although I was already developing into a studio-based artist, the thought of walking out into the Jerusalem forest, portable easel on shoulder and painting box in hand seemed exotic and enticing. And so it proved to be.

Every day for around a week we rose at the crack of dawn and walked across ancient pine-wooded terraces to a shaded clearing perched dramatically above the picturesque village of Ein Kerem and sketched madly from morning to sunset.  The combination of the dappled light, the changing colours and tones as the sun traversed the sky, the constant humming of the cicada and the aroma of pine needles intoxicated our spirits.  And as we ate our rustic picnic lunches, washed down with wine and then dozed, we  dreamed we were reincarnations of Gauguin and Van Gogh.

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A nineteen-year-old me, hard at work in the Jerusalem hills in August, 1979

I did all my sketching in pen and coloured ink. I found the intensity and the fluidity of the ink perfect for expressing the colours of the landscape and capturing the immediacy of the given moment. Then later, early the following year, back in my studio in London I found I could use the ink sketches to transfer that sense of moment onto canvas – thus capturing the moment and giving it both permanency and with expanded depth and breadth.

Presented here is one of the original ink sketches, and the culminating oil painting I made from them. I felt that the device of a triptych would give me the scope to represent not just the colours, and flow of the landscape, but also its altering mood across the course of a single day. This was my first attempt at a triptych and looking back at it now, although far from fully resolved,the sheer unadulterated joy of it does nevertheless bring a smile to my face. Whether or not Paul or Vincent would smile or smirk is another question altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

THE “WILD MAN”, “THE HEALER” AND THE STOLEN PAINTINGS

Twenty-four years ago I experienced the dubious complement of being burgled of three of my favourite paintings.

We’d more or less completed the construction of our house in Andalusia when all our household belongings arrived from England. I say more or less completed, because we had yet to make the house secure with things like window bars and securely locking doors. However, situated as we were, in the proverbial middle of nowhere and with only a handful of people knowing our house existed, we felt reasonably secure receiving our possessions. And looking back on it now, I don’t suppose that eight months of living on a building site devoid of all creature comforts and luxuries had done much for our sense of judgement when it came to matters of domestic security?

A perfect illustration of just how crazy we were is represented by what happened the very first night we got our stuff back.

After an entire day of frenzied unpacking I decided to reward us by rigging up our much-missed stereo. Our ghetto-blaster had broken halfway through the build and for the past four months the only music we had to listen to was whatever happened to be playing on our matchbox-sized radio. Now, at last we could hear our music, on our wonderful sound system and most importantly of all, at our volume.

And as it was the volume I craved as much as the music itself my choice of tune for this auspicious occasion was Led Zeppelin’s superlative “Trampled Underfoot” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftknR1gf9qw). My first hearing of the number was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old in the fifth row at Earls Court in 1975, when it had changed my life, and so it seemed like an apt song with which to celebrate this new chapter.

I put it on at full volume and immediately went out onto our north terrace to enjoy it against the appropriately spectacular view of the crimson Sierra Tajeda bathed in flaming sunset. Soon I was gyrating away in a state of manic bliss; then joined by our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, who, teddy in mouth joined in the head-banging. Shortly Dido appeared on our little bedroom balcony, next to the terrace, fresh from the shower, stark-naked, executing a superb go-go-dance.

All-in-all, quite a party…except that during one of the brief inter-riff silences in the music I thought I heard goats! And again, in the next silence, I could hear an instant of goat bell mingled with goat bleat. Then to my horror, I peered down the slope beneath the terrace, to the dirt track beyond our little vineyard to find myself staring into the face of one of the local village goatherds! I don’t know how long he’d been watching us, but his amazed expression was clearly visible, even from fifty yards away…

To cut a long story short, for years afterwards we were known in the village by the sobriquets that title this post. To this day, we still get odd looks from some of the older villagers.

Sadly, it wasn’t just the goatherd who brought us down to earth with a bump. The next evening, when we returned from a visit to the coast we found that three of my paintings had been stolen, including one of my favourites of the ships in Arica Harbour in Chile. What made the pain of the robbery worse was that we knew exactly who the guilty party was (not the poor goatherd by the way!) but for reasons too sensitive to divulge here, we also understood that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. Fortunately I did at least photograph the three pictures and have presented them here…

MASTERPIECE – or merely a collection of successful daubs?

Occasionally; very occasionally I miss painting huge canvases.

Not drawing – I really don’t miss drawing at all – nor watercolouring, or working with gouache or pen and ink, or even small and regular size oil painting. But once in a while I miss the thrill of that rarest of moments, when I almost felt like a genius, and for some reason this only happened to me when I was working on an epic scale.

I experienced the feeling just a handful of times in the thirty years of painting big canvases. It was normally sparked off by a single brushstroke when, just for a millisecond the brain achieved total control over the brush with the resulting daub a near-perfect expression of the thought behind the action.

Normally, these experiences and daubs occurred toward the completion of a painting, and were all the more satisfying for underlying the fact of conclusion – something rarely guaranteed when making any work of art.

I remember one such daub being a fleck of white light on the shoulder of a girl walking into a heat-hazed distance, and another being a splash of red, of a Coke can littering a pavement.

But of all the special daubs I ever applied to canvas, only one painting contained more than one, and this is that picture below, called Bormio 3000.

It’s particularly remarkable because unlike all the others which were “free works”, Bormio 3000 was a commission, and because of who it was for, and what they were paying me, it was painted under considerable pressure.

The patrons were a married couple who owned a successful commercial art gallery in London, and they wanted an extremely large skiing – themed oil painting to decorate the main room of their new chalet in Verbier. Moreover, they were paying me the largest sum of money I had ever been paid for my work – several thousands of pounds.

Somehow, and for whatever reason, the painting was a huge success, pleasing both the patrons and for once, the artist too.

Even more unusually, I like the painting as much now as I did then, when “special daub” after “special daub” seemed to flow from the brush as easily as breathing.

Bormio (unlike Swiss Alpine Verbier) is  in the Italian Alps, and “3000” refers to altitude (in meters) at the top of the run, pictured in the foreground. The painting was about 5 by 7 feet and when I look at it now, especially the portrayal of the far mountains and clouds I have not the faintest idea how I achieved it.

The term “masterpiece” is obviously a relative one and normally, highly subjective. However, based purely on Adam Green terms, so far as I am concerned, both in the summer of 1983 when I completed Bormio 3000, and now, 34 years later it remains the work of which I am most proud. It hits the mark in every department; tone and colour control; composition; light; drama; and near-perfect brush-work. All-in-all, not a bad conglomeration of “special daubs”…

(Bormio 3000 is available as a signed limited edition print – limited to 25 prints – about 32cm x 48cm / 13″ x 19″ size – at £150 each. See the purchasing and ordering artwork link above.)

Bormio 3000

 

 

“MARS ON EARTH” – Chile’s Incredible Desert

Of all the photos in my extensive archive of old camera film, there few that still excite me as much as those I took in the Atacama Desert in 1991. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have something of a passion for deserts and wildernesses.

Rather than try explain in words what it is exactly that gets my juices going (and to be honest, I’m not even sure I fully understand myself) here are a set of images from that trip. I made a series of mostly huge canvases together with a complementary set of small gouaches from these pictures, and they were the basis of two of my last one-man shows as a fine artist – one held at the Chilean Embassy in 1992. The first picture presented here (91 Chile Atacama) was the basis of the super-large canvas that eventually found it’s way to an architect’s studio in Seattle, as payment for the designs for our house in Spain.

The original images were taken on my then-antique Nikon FE using Agfa chrome slide film, and one day I hope to have a scanner with sufficient power to faithfully reproduce the pictures digitally — or better still, pay the Atacama a return visit with my current camera. Nevertheless, I think that with these pictures I’ve managed to reproduce some of the magic of Chile’s genuinely awesome “Mars on Earth”…