We all like it when we are sure of our ground. Carrying out a familiar routine. With painting and drawing however I have overall found certainty is best treated with caution. Once you know how to successfully do a particular type of painting or subject the temptation is to reprise it and of course espouse it. Now we all need to develop a system to carry out a difficult and complex task such as painting a picture, we cannot hope to reinvent the process from scratch each time. There is a fine line however between being systematic and stuck in a rut. This is something I feel is worth watching out for more for as I get older.
There are many artists who end their careers repainting their greatest hits with small variations again and again. There are others who admire some artist alive or dead so much that their work becomes what they call “fan art” which tends to never be quite as good as the original inspiration. Another pitfall is some “method” or academic system. If you research so called ateliers the work of the students has a distressing uniformity. Often also a strange dead quality. Endless patiently rendered classical life poses that contain every single detail but no life at all. The odd thing is how when you look into these works often the overall accuracy is far from good.
Ateliers really need their own paragraph, you would be right in thinking I find them worrying. They try to give the impression that they are carrying on the “traditions of the old masters” but a little research shows that seems to be a fair way from the actual case. What they replicate is the 19C system which sought to revitalise art by restoring classical techniques. Mostly it seems to me these methods such as Charles Bargue’s are the result of imagination, as the resulting works do not have the vivacity of Michelangelo or Rubens or indeed any renaissance or baroque artist. The proof is in the pudding in my opinion. If you look at the students of these institutions on line you see endless dutch style still lives, but somehow dead in their perfection and lacking in the exuberance of the genuine articles. Acres of droopy classical style draped maidens and risible attempts at allegory.
I don’t in anyway disapprove of learning these skills, but I very much disapprove of teaching anyone that these are the correct and only way. Sight size is a good example. Yes it helps to draw this way at first as it removes the difficulty of rescaling on the fly and makes direct comparisons easier. However any well trained artist will be perfectly able to draw something whatever the relative scales. Singer Sargent, (who is mysteriously approved of even though he rejected much of the academic dogma) for example used to place his canvas in a position so he could stand back and compare the two at the same scale. He did not however according to reports work all the time that way.
Essentially the academic systems are todays naive painting. Before photography naive painting had a cartoonish feel, but after that they have a photographic feel, think of those endless minutely finished pencil drawing of film and pop stars you see on line. To my eye they have more than a little similarity to the highly finished drawings produced from carefully lit plaster casts. You rarely see drawings with the fluent line of Tiepolo or Rubens because the training does not seem teach that ability. However if you want to gain basic drawing experience and skill then the ateliers are almost the only place you can go. Sadly I fear traditional contemporary art colleges do not have the staff or inclination to teach the relevant skills as they are alas almost completely hidebound, a surreal state of affairs for institutions who supposedly espouse continual revolution!
The things I hope, but sometimes fail to avoid are dogma, and purism. They each can produce enervation and stunt flexibility of approach. This happens in all areas from classicism to modernism when one particular style or intent is elevated to an ideal to be sought after and emulated. That kind of thinking is becoming the past I hope. I doubt if there will ever be another revolution in painting. Everything that can be thought of has been done. All that can be done if you pursue originality is tinker around the edges where absurdity and stupidity lurk. What we do have that no other age has ever had though is all the possibilities laid out before you like a huge buffet table of styles and techniques. We are free to go to that table and pick whatever we wish or just as importantly leave whichever dishes we choose untasted. We can feast luxuriously or pick and choose with parsimonious reserve.
Each and every style and manner of painting has perhaps something to teach another. Field paintings certainly bring new ideas to landscapes and their underlying divisions. How a biblical scene is set out can inform the painter of a busy cityscape as to how to arrange the transient details to best effect. I could go on but I am sure you get the gist. What helps no one is saying this sort of painting is the best and all others are outmoded. I don’t think styles and manners of painting can never become outmoded any more than types of carpentry. A carpenter doesn’t chuck out his chisel because he has bought a snazzy CNC cutter, why would he?
I am preparing a one man show to go on at the Gallery on the Square in Poundbury starting on September the 10th and running on to October the 9th. Due to this I have been framing and agonising over which pictures should go in which includes the fretting that I might have included a stinker that I had an illogical fondness for.
I managed to get up to London on a glorious sunny day to paint with the Wapping Group. The brief was Victoria Embankment but I had spotted this view on Millbank on a previous visit and thought the conditions might be just right. I was standing on the zebra crossing reserve but as it was a generously sized one I was quite comfortable, a bit of a breeze was taking the fumes away too. I spent quite a lot of time organising the tones as the glare was washing darker tones out and I wanted to get that feeling in the painting. I had to be very quick as the light was moving very rapidly. The motor bike was one of those flukes, I put in a bike shaped blob intending to refine it later, added 2 highlights and it pretty much did the job! In contrast I repainted the perfectly simple van on the left 3 times, the first time I made it red for some unknown reason. 10in by 12in oils.
I met another member of the group painting this on the Embankment. These bright sunny day river scenes are not really me especially as the light was flat at my back. Almost for this reason I decided to have a go. I didn’t enjoy it at first as I sort of lost my way with it, but in the last half hour it somewhat came together. The colour of the water was outrageous and I had to redo it 3 times before it was something like. 7in by 10in oils.
Just before pub time I decided to do this as it looked wonderful. This is only 40min worth so it is very bashed in, but with the photos I took I think I have a possible studio picture here. I am just by Clement Danes which is the building on the right. 10in by 14in oils.
A dramatic change of location! I went for a day down to the coast at Charmouth with a friend so we were walking with no chance for me to paint, the day was showery and blustery but looked wonderful. As I had a mission to Dorchester next day I returned with my paints. It was even more windy an wet but very beautiful. The beach was actually quite busy with people chipping away at rocks looking for fossils, but once the rain set in people soon vanished. These two girls were the last to retreat and I felt they were just perfect, I cheekily asked them to go back and walk slowly for me which they did despite the rain setting in. I was going to repaint the sky but once back I decided to leave it alone. The headland in the distance is Golden Cap. 10in by 14in.
As I was so wet the car was steaming up from my clothes drying out I had not intended to paint any more that day. But this was too good to resist. This is Rawlsbury Camp, an iron age hill fort. Not as well known as others but in my opinion one of the best. Despite more rain I loved painting this. It breaks into 4 tonal layers like a stage set. First the sky, then the distance, thirdly the fort itself and lastly the path in. Each area had its own section on the palette so I kept the distinctions clear. Only at the very last did I put a little of each into the next layer to bring them together. I went home very damp but pleased, I don’t often get 2 decent pictures out of a day. 10in by 14in oils.
A bigger studio picture of Golden Cap again and one that has really put me through the mill. What you see here is version 3, at one stage there were nearly 60 people on the beach and it looked like a disaster movie with the population of Dorset escaping some dystopian calamity! The sky and the headland all went swimmingly… then I hit the beach. Almost the whole reason of the painting was this damn beach and now I had depopulated it it became increasingly clear that the damn thing was too big. As it was on canvas I had to restretch it down to a more svelte 12in by 36in. I had already made the frame so that had to be done again too.
Here it is almost done, a few more inhabitants appeared and disappeared but aside from tidying up the damage I am done. 12in by 36in oils.
I can only apologise for the Golden Cap density in this post! Here it is again, I did this from a watercolour I did ages ago. 10in by 16in oils.
The studio has a new arrival a Tofko press so now I can get those lino cuts printed, but more on that next time!