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 Martins…
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.
When one thinks of an oil painting, one generally thinks of a picture painted on canvas, but across the centuries since artists first mixed coloured pigments with oil they have applied their oil-based paints to a large variety of surfaces, including things like metal and glass. These days, especially within typical art school settings, the most commonly used materials in addition to canvas are, cotton duck (a cheap-yet-similar cloth cousin of true canvas), board (usually either plywood or stiff backing board), and paper. When I started out as an art student in the autumn of 1976 at Harrow School of Art, I had never painted an oil painting – on any surface – in my life.
Although I’d had in my possession a box of half-used oil-paints since I was a babe in arms (left behind by my father when he disappeared from my life) I’d never known what to do with them. Somehow, painting with anything but watercolours had always seemed mysterious and slightly scary. But all this changed in the second year of my foundation course when I realised that if my aspirations of a career in fine art were serious I’d have to learn how to paint in oils. However, my foundation student grant was only sufficient to fund the paints themselves and not the surface materials upon which I was to apply them. Fortunately though, Harrow had a junk room crammed full of backing board, So, my first experience of oil-painting was on board, primed with two or three coats of liquid PVA glue.
When I began my BA course at Saint Martins the following year my student grant was substantially improved and I was able to “progress” onto stretched cotton duck (or poor-man’s canvas as Sam, our school technician and unofficial canvas-stretching instructor used to refer to it). Nevertheless, large pieces of cotton duck (and I was already working on extremely large-scale pictures) cut a substantial swathe into my grant, leaving precious little for another essential “tool” of the young art student – that being copious amounts of ale every evening at one of the many wonderful local Soho pubs. This meant that I did much of my oil sketching on paper, which, when sufficiently sized, took the paint pretty well. In fact, I did not get to paint on actual “canvas, canvas” until around ten years after graduating from Saint Martins when I at last had enough dosh of my own to afford the real thing, ready-stretched, and ready-sized and primed.
The four paintings presented here are examples of each of the four surfaces I used. In the flesh it’s easy to tell the difference, even between the one painted on cotton duck and the one painted on canvas – but that’s a whole other story, perhaps for another time…
Regular readers and followers of these posts will be well aware of my ambivalence regarding my past life as a fine artist, much of which had its origins in the way I fell into art following regular school. I didn’t so much choose to be an artist as being an artist chose me. In fact, my greatest passion as a schoolboy was ancient history, but due to a combination of academic laziness and the relative effortlessness of making pictures I convinced myself that I’d have more fun being a painter. And thus, I spent the following twenty years pursuing a career for which I was intellectually and emotionally singularly ill-equipped to find lasting success.
To truly succeed in the world of contemporary art a thick skin is the first prerequisite, not the crepe paper tissue that covered my bones as I embarked on my life in fine art. And while it’s true that during the eight years of repeated false dawns and disappointment; praise and insult; momentary glory intermingled with incidents of outright abuse, the crepe paper gradually metamorphosed into the hide of a triceratops; I left the world of “pure art” disillusioned and cynical.
Several disillusioning incidents stand out to this day as key markers in my journey toward the exit from that world. The most farcical of these incidents was also the one from which the gouaches shown here date, and occurred only a year after I left art school, in 1982.
It concerns my first significant painting sale to an industrial entrepreneur who made his fortune securing the UK patent for the plastic seals that line beer bottle caps and somewhere along the way acquired a taste for collecting contemporary watercolours. He became aware of me and my work through his PA who became friends with my mother when she temped for the company and one evening in April the two ladies arranged to bring their boss to view my paintings.
As it happened, I had recently completed a series of large gouaches of Israel and had them hanging in my studio just in time for the visit. My “studio” was the converted – very small – spare bedroom of our bijou north London suburban bungalow and was all-but-filled by the gentleman; a jolly “larger-than-life” figure; his PA – an equally jolly and even larger figure; her daughter – built on similarly generous proportions; and my diminutive mother.
During what turned out to be the cosiest viewing of my artwork that I ever hosted, I quickly became aware that both the industrialist and his PA’s daughter were at least as taken with your truly as they were with the pictures. Nevertheless, after what seemed an eternity of me enduring their overly physical displays of affection towards me – incessant squeezing of my arms, numerous embraces and even the holding of my hands – all beneath the guise of gushing over my pictures – a sale was agreed upon. And what a sale it was, as he purchased all seven pictures I had on display, writing a substantial check for the full whack – no haggling or bargaining – then and there on our dining room table.
In my immediate euphoria over the sale I totally forgot the touchy-feely goings on of a few moments earlier in the studio and was even delighted when the guy suggested we all be his guests for supper at a pucker local Chinese restaurant. However, I was soon brought rudely back down to earth when I found myself sat between my new client and the PA’s daughter at a table slightly too small for the five of us, with the result that the cosy mood of the studio was restored, but with increased physicality.
In the event, I ate little of the delicious looking food as I constantly wriggled and squirmed to avoid the wandering feet, arms and even hands of my two neighbours. At one point, towards the end of the second bottle of Gewürztraminer, with their remaining inhibitions now completely dissipated, I had to fight off hands straying up my thighs towards my crotch from both sides! In my panic, I pushed back in my chair so firmly that the two lusting so-and-sos almost fell in against each other. Then finally, as we were waiting for our taxis outside the restaurant, the man made me the most extraordinary proposition. He brazenly suggested that I become his travelling companion, accompanying him on all his travels, in the UK and beyond, helping him build his collection of art. He assured me that all my needs and comforts would be catered for, and that he would pay me handsomely for my services. He even offered to set me up with a fabulous studio in the grounds of his Buckinghamshire mansion. Not wanting him to block the check, I asked him for a few days to think about the proposition. Five days later he sent his driver round to my house to collect the pictures, to whom I gave a typed note declining the offer. Needless to say, I never heard from the man again. I can only hope that the gouaches provided him with some degree of solace, unlike the PA’s daughter who had to make do without me and my works of art…
“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…
In 1983 I painted one of my largest oil paintings on Canvas, and at over seven feet high (about 2.1 meters) it was certainly the tallest oil I ever did. It dates to the height of my post Saint Martin’s landscape period, intended as the center piece for a proposed exhibition of my works at the Israeli embassy in London (why that show never materialised is a story for another post). At the time, I still harboured a naive ambition to become a sort of 20th century successor to artists like Claude Lorraine and William Turner, and was thus obsessed with the spectacular, the epic and visions of the sublime. As with the subject of an earlier post (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/06/15/masterpiece-or-merely-a-collection-of-successful-daubs/), I was still, at this stage, exclusively applying the paint with brushes, and consequently, my pictures could take weeks to complete.
Mount Meron from Sefad manifested as one of the more arduous pictures I painted, taking around a full month from sketch to final brush stroke. But, it was also one of the most satisfying experiences of my painting career as regards both making the painting, and my contentment with the finished work. My “technical intention” had been to draw the viewer in from the bottom of the picture and then send them on a virtual journey down into the valley and then upwards towards the distant mountain. My “intellectual intention” had been to stir the mind of viewer by the use of “sublime” tonality and rich graduated colour. Whether or not I succeeded as well as I believed back then is hard to tell without standing in front of the painting itself (last I heard, residing on the walls of a private home somewhere in France), but from the little one can tell from this format I didn’t do too badly.
Ten years later, toward the end of 1993 I made another large oil painting of another mountain, but for very different reasons, and with a very different approach. Around the mid to late 80’s I’d become bored with brushes and moved on to the more immediate and primal method of applying thick daubs of paint with palette knives. My mostly large canvases, were still spectacular and even epic, but “the sublime” had been replaced with raw painterly passion. The spacial illusion of the former supplanted by a flat tapestry of thick impasto.
[Mount] Maroma Sunbathed turned out to be the final large scale oil on canvas I ever painted – or “knifed” (about 4 foot square). I did it the first day my studio was set up in our then-brand new house in southern Spain. After eight long, hard months of building the house and living rough (see: https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) the work was a celebratory expression of pure joy and relief. I merely pointed the easel at the mountain across the gorge from our home and proceeded to pictorially express the view before me. It took only about two hours, from start to finish.
Two oil paintings of two different mountains; executed in two hugely contrasting styles, separated geographically by 3000 miles and ten years in time. But here’s the funny thing; the genuinely wondrous thing. For, totally unbeknownst to me until I prepared and researched this post; I was painting two mountains with the same name!
Briefly; the name of the Galilean mountain, Meron is recorded in the Bible, in which it is also known as Merom, which itself (and this is the bit I was ignorant of until very recently) is an ancient Hebrew derivation from the earlier Canaanite Maroma.
The Canaanites in question were either identical with, or at least closely related to the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon, and who ruled over what later became Galilean Israel well into the time of the early Israelite kings – perhaps as late as around 950 BCE.
About 800 BCE, Phoenicians settled along the southern and south western coast of Spain and quite possibly, in a way identical to European colonisers of the New World, brought the place names from their old world with them for recycling in their new land.
Bearing in mind the similarities the settlers would have noticed between the two mountains; both being the tallest in their native locales (the Galilee and the Axarquia respectively) and both sharing strikingly similar physical form, it seems highly plausible that they named their new mountain after the original Maroma.
This is at least as plausible as the currently accepted theory, that the word maroma (which means a rope or a cord, or a twisted flax in modern Spanish) has vague Arabic origins, but with no apparent etymological evidence for such a linkage. Far more likely it seems to me, that just as the Phoenicians indisputably named the nearby city of Malaga (Malaka – mlk), so too they named the region’s most imposing mountain, Maroma! The fact they were the subjects of my two most ambitious mountain landscapes proves nothing on the other hand, but it is one hell of a coincidence…
As an amateur student of history, one of the phenomena I’ve noticed is how human nonconformities sometimes transform into mass consensus. It is perhaps one of the great historical ironies that people and ideas which start out on the margins of society, once adopted by society, have a tendency to marginalise the people of the existing consensus who previously marginalised them. This is a pattern common to all fields of putative human coexistence, which more often than not results in the followers of the usurped consensus being persecuted by the holders of the new. These persecutions are usually most obvious and brutal in the areas of religion and politics but they happen with equal intellectual ferocity at a cultural level.
In the 1960’s and 70’s Saint Martin’s School of Art was one of the world’s high temples of the-then recently adopted art consensus of Abstract Expressionism.
Abstract Expressionism developed out of the near-century old grand consensus of Modernism, in a similar way to how a reformed religion develops out of an existing ancient religion, with similar intellectual tensions and conflicts resulting – albeit without the physical violence.
Thus, when in 1978, a callow 18-year-old “classical” modernist, realist painter misguidedly found himself stuck for three years in the beating heart of western European Abstract Expressionism, his creative life was always going to be something of a struggle.
That young aspiring artist was me, and my time at Saint Martin’s School of Art was in fact, one long battle of wills between me and a group of teachers who almost* to a man and a woman regarded me as a hopeless heretic from the start. My overall experience of being “taught” comprised a mixture of verbal bullying – in an attempt to bend me to their will – and / or complete indifference to my work when these efforts eventually failed.
But one day in the Spring of 1981 during my final term at the school all that changed, when I was paid a rare visit to my studio by my 3rd-year head tutor John Edwards, who came bearing a surprising request.
The Greater London Council (now defunct) together with the construction company, Myton Taylor Woodrow were looking for a student artist to paint a temporary street mural to jolly up a large hoarding in James Street, Covent Garden during the area’s major refurbishment. They wanted a student because they only had £100 on offer for the commission, and they wanted that student to be from the local art college, which was Saint Martin’s. However, they also wanted the mural to be figurative, and that was where I came in.
Edwards was typically candid with me, and admitted that when first approached by the GLC he had suggested one or other of his star students in Abstract Expressionism, but when they insisted on a figurative artist, the only person he could think of was me. While there were a couple of other representational heretics in our year, Edwards told me that he thought I was the only one with sufficient mastery of grand scale painting to handle such a large mural.
With just a £100 to spend and two weeks to execute the project, I was tempted to refuse what was a virtually impossible commission. But the certain public exposure of painting a mural in a bustling London street adjacent to Covent Garden Opera House was an opportunity too good to turn down; so much to John Edward’s and the school’s relief I accepted.
With half the £100, I employed two of my fellow student “Modernist heretics”† to help me with the huge physical task of covering so much white hoarding in paint. This left me all of £50 with which to purchase the paint itself, the brushes and rollers and plastic paint-mixing buckets. The only paint I could afford in sufficient quantity to finish the job was the cheapest industrial emulsion, and because of the time constraint, it had to be quick-drying “matt”. In other words, this was hardly going to be a Michelangelo or a de Rivera so far as colour intensity was concerned.
In the end, the subject matter of the painting was as much determined by these extreme material and time limitations, as it was by the unusually wide configuration of the street “canvas”. And so I came up with the idea of all the highlights of the Book of Genesis, with each chosen episode “bleeding” into the next. With only a few days to make a scale sketch and then just five days (London weather permitting) to execute the actual mural I decided to go with a kind of Chagall-meets-comic strip approach, allowing for quick, strongly drawn cartoon outlines coloured in with simple large blocks of colour.
As things turned out, the weather was unusually kind for May in London, and the three of us completed the mural with hours to spare.
All things considered, including the lifeless paint, it looked pretty good, and graced James Street for about the following two years. It received favourable reviews from the London and Jewish press and was probably my first claim to 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps more importantly though, it earned me the appreciation of my school and its tutors for the first and only time, and I’ll never forget John Edward’s response upon viewing it; “You know Adam, I’ve often wondered why we accepted you at Saint Martin’s, but seeing this, all I can say is that I’m bloody glad we did!” Even heretics have their uses I guess?
*David Hepher and the late Henry Mundy were glorious exceptions to this general dereliction of tutorship, and for that they both have my undying gratitude.
†Danny Gibson (now a brilliant printmaker) and Robert Lewenstein (the most gifted portraitist I ever knew).
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.
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…
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.