As a young artist I went through numerous phases and enthusiasms, the briefest of which, being a desire to master the portrayal of animal-kind. I think my “animal period” lasted about five months in all, but despite its brevity, I still managed to fill several sketchbooks and give myself highly useful reference material for my later professional career.
Sadly, I have since mislaid two of the main sketchbooks, and could only find a handful of pictures as examples for this post. Nevertheless, I think they are sufficiently worthy, and interesting to be reproduced here.
My two favourite painters, Vermeer and Hopper, shared an amazing knack for turning unremarkable moments and scenes into images packed with dramatic nuance and eternal resonance. Their most famous paintings offer graphic testimony to the enormous power of the “small still voice”, where the importance of the message belies its volume.
Lacking those two gentlemen’s genius, and in common with most regular artists, I was typically more of a megaphone artist when attempting to get my own pictorial messages across, relying on devices like huge canvases and epic subject matter.
However, even an artist of my own normal abilities could occasionally succeed in imbuing the mundane and the ordinary with a little charm and presence, especially, when I resorted to watercolour. For me, watercolour painting was an antidote to everything else I did, in oils and even gouache – a therapy almost – a sort of breathing exercise with brushes and colour, whereby I visually inhaled a scene; processed the scene in the blink of an eye; and then exhaled the scene through my water-sodden brush.
The pictures presented here are good illustrations of how a few simply applied watery daubs can raise a mundane suburban sitting room into a theatre of colour and light. No overthinking; just a touch of keen observation and easy application, and the everyday is morphed into the exotic. These watercolours are the closest I ever got to successful whispering.
(Incidentally, I should mention that I still have the originals of most of these images from my old watercolour sketchbooks and I’m happy to sell them for £400 each, plus, they reproduce beautifully as digital prints on fine papers for £100 each, plus postage and packing. All images, original and repro’ about 25 x 18 cm)
My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.
The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.
Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.
All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.
Photography has played an ever-growing role in my picture-making since the first day of the second term, of my second year at Saint Martin’s School of Art. It was a bleak winter’s day in 1980 and I remember feeling particularity depressed about the direction – or lack of direction to be precise that my painting was taking. For the past four terms at the school I’d walked a wobbly tightrope between the pressure to emulate my tutors’ abstract expressionism, and my own innate passion for making representational images. The resulting stream of paintings echoed this dichotomy, rarely convincing as abstract or figurative; more often than not, a clumsy, unresolved mishmash of the two forms. If, as occasionally happened, I turned out a pleasing picture, it was always more by luck than by design, with me clueless as to how or why I had achieved this.
Then, on that winter’s day in 1980, while I was pacing back and forth, dreading the coming weeks and months, a new tutor called David Hepher walked into my studio space, and my art career was changed forever. David, unlike all the other tutors at Saint Martin’s was a figurative artist and to this day I have no idea how he came to be teaching there, but for me, his sudden appearance was as timely as that of an Old Testament angel. I distinctly recall his expression as he first set eyes on my paintings – large canvases full of expressively, heavily painted figures of young people hurtling boldly through a romanticised Israeli landscape.
A warm quizzical smile came across his face like that of someone unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. Then I remember that he sat down on my rickety paint-spattered moulded plastic chair. During the previous four terms at the school not one tutor had ever smiled this kind of smile when looking at my pictures, let alone sat down in my space. By the end of the ensuing conversation it became apparent that he was almost as relieved to see my work in that school, as I was thankful that he was now teaching there.
The first thing he asked me was who my favourite artists were, and when I said Vermeer and Hopper he looked curiously at my wild and frenzied pictures. He then reminded me of Vermeer’s reliance on the camera obscura for achieving these perfectly painted captured moments and asked me why I didn’t use my own photos in a similar fashion?
While I’d already been using photographs for the past year or so as a form of rough reference, in the same way I worked from my sketchbook, David convinced me to try something “bolder”, in his words, but hugely controversial; especially within such a temple of conceptualism and abstract expressionism as Saint Martin’s. He suggested that I take my favourite photographs and copy them as faithfully as possible in oils, like huge painted photographic enlargements. He felt certain that in this way I would find the inner artistic peace I was craving.
And cutting a long story short, David’s empathetic advice proved successful, even though the pictures I went on to produce with this new method ensured that I would prove even more of a problematic enigma for most of his colleagues. Presented here are several of the large canvases I painted as a direct result of David’s tutelage. Some them have appeared on this site before, but never side-by-side with the “offending” snaps!
I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages how, very occasionally, I had my uses to the powers-that-be at Saint Martin’s School of Art. While generally I was shunned by most of the tutors for my work being “hopelessly representative”, every-so-often, when they required the services of someone with common-or-garden drawing and painting skills they came to your’s truly.
The story of my mural in Covent Garden was the most high-profile example of this expediency, but there was another occasion when my usefulness to the school was probably far more significant.
It was shortly after the Easter break in 1981 when St. Martins received a visit from a delegation of Communist Chinese dignitaries from their ministry of culture, led by the minister himself. Although I was blissfully unaware at the time, the visit was part of a drive by China to open up access for their top students to elite academic institutions in the UK and North America. I subsequently discovered that their “shopping list” of British institutions comprised, Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, the LSE, the Royal Ballet School, and (incredibly to me at least) Saint Martin’s School of Art. I was equally ignorant of the fact that the visit mattered at least as much to my school as it did to the visitors, as even back then, foreign students were a lucrative source of revenue.
Thus, in effect, I was an unwitting cultural/commercial ambassador for St. Martin’s. The fact that my work was the polar opposite of everything that St. Martin’s stood for mattered not. That it was “safe”, accessible, “good of its kind” and most important of all, unlikely to be considered “decadent” by our communist guests mattered a great deal. When I later asked my head tutor John Edwards, why they didn’t simply visit the Slade School or the Royal Academy Schools, where nearly all the art was like mine, he pointed out that St. Martin’s was “so much more than a mere school of painting”. And that its fashion and film departments, in addition to its art and sculpture “made it uniquely attractive” to the Chinese. “In truth”, he added, “the art department was the least significant element” of the school and the main thing was “not to rock the boat”. As things turned out, not only did my work prove the steady ship my superiors had hoped, one of my pictures actually ended up pleasing our visitors more than anyone could have predicted.
On the afternoon of the visit, the art department was cleared of students except for me, and the delegation was brought up directly to my studio. There were about ten Chinese, all men and all wearing expensive English-cut suits, and they were led into the room by John Edwards and the principal of the school, Ian Simpson. After some words of introduction from John, the visitors began to notice my pictures, which wasn’t difficult, as at that time I was working on a series of monumental canvases. However – and it’s a moment I shall never forget – as their eyes (and I mean theireyes, for they turned their ten heads as if a single organism) landed on “Apple Pickers at Rest” they let out a collective “ahhhh…” and all broke into broad smiles. Then, the leader of the delegation (the minister himself as it later turned out) looked at me and asked, or perhaps stated, “workers in the field yes?”. I think I just nodded. He then walked up to the picture, and pointing at one of “workers” contemplatively holding a raspberry ice lolly, he turned to me, and grinning and nodding enthusiastically queried, “Little Red Book, yes?”. Before I could respond, he’d already uttered something to his compatriots, to which they all responded with an even bigger collective “ahhhh…”, followed by more smiles and nods of approval. Finally, after each shaking hands and bowing their heads to me in turn, the principal led them out of my studio to continue their tour. The last person to leave was John, who, as he walked out the door, turned around and gave me a big thumb’s-up.
I was left feeling peculiarly frustrated, having been completely unable to explain what the painting was in fact depicting – a scene of Druze labourers, hired by the kibbutz on which I was a volunteer, enjoying a rest from picking apples with a refreshing ice lolly (ice popsicle). In retrospect, my being tongue-tied was a blessing, as Ian later informed me that the minister had described their visit to my studio as the highlight of their tour of the school and even inquired about the possibility of purchasing the painting. I declined this however, when it was made clear all the proceeds would be pocketed by St. Martin’s. After all, I thought, I had already done more than my bit for insuring the future prosperity of the school!
I began drawing when I was a young boy. Not because I ever enjoyed it, or got any particular satisfaction out of it, but simply because I always could and it helped me get through the many school lessons I found otherwise pointless and boring – specifically maths and French.
Drawing, for all its tediousness was a survival strategy for me at school in a way similar to reading the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) had been for me in Synagogue – the main difference being that I actually found elements of reading the Bible genuinely thrilling (see my previous post).
I rarely got into serious disciplinary trouble at school, but the little opprobrium I did attract from my teachers was normally because of my drawing in class. Fortunately I suppose, my maths and French teachers regarded me as a hopeless cause, and often liked my sketches, and so they generally left me to get on with it undisturbed. I remember one episode in particular, when I must have been 12 years old, my maths teacher did finally loose her patience with me during an algebra class. She marched up to my desk at the end of the hour-long lesson intending to scold me until she saw what I had drawn… an epic depiction of French cavalry assailing the British infantry squares at the Battle of Waterloo. Instead, she simply leaned over my shoulder and marvelled at my felt-tip representation Napoleonic military mayhem.
Ultimately my drawing led me to the art room in senior school, where I learned the rudiments of painting, and which in turn led on to a foundation degree and then to a BA. It was all an oddly thoughtless and ill considered career path which was never really planned, but rather just happened to me.
Thus it is, that the vast majority of the thousands of drawings I did over the best part of 40 years are of distinctly average quality, and perhaps more interestingly, that I cannot begin to explain the hows or the whys of the half-dozen or so decent sketches I did manage to pull off.
All I can offer as a theory, is that practise really does make perfect, very occasionally.
Generally, one associates the concept of theme and variations with music. From Classical to Heavy Rock (e.g. Brahms’ wonderful takes on that tune of Haydn’s or more recently Leslie West’s fabulous live improvised versions of his own Swan Theme on the album Flowers of Evil) and all idioms in between and beyond, most composers have enjoyed playing around with a basically good tune (their own or other people’s) and taking it to new places.
However, this is hardly unique to musical composition and if anything, an exercise exploited far more by visual artists, and most famously by both the Impressionists (e.g. Monet’s Waterlilies) and then the post impressionists (e.g. Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire).
The greatest distinction between the musical and painterly approaches is that in the former the variations are normally presented together within a single work, whereas in the latter they typically appear as a series of individual pictures.
As a regular practitioner of the latter painterly approach in my past life, I often mused whether or not I was merely obsessed – struggling for an unreachable perfection – or rather practising the artistic imperative of interpretation.
In the end, I came to conclusion that it was a mixture of the two and that in fact, the secret of all good art, and good science too for that matter, is an obsessive love of a particular subject and the interpretive skills to channel that love into something coherent and meaningful. The four pictures shown here present my first ever paintings of Dido, before we were married, standing in a doorway in the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville: The object of my love, obsessively interpreted…
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…
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.