Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sunshine On Leith

Henry Kondracki, 'Edinburgh Lovers', oil on canvas

I’ve just returned from a holiday in Edinburgh. I saw some great painting in the small commercial galleries dotted around Dundas Street in the New Town area of the city. I really loved an exhibition of paintings by Henry Kondracki at the Scottish Gallery. They had a real directness and honesty, with some terrific handling of oil paint. I haven’t been so excited about a painting exhibition in a long time. His atmospheric Edinburgh landscapes really moved me and took me back to the time I used to live and have a studio there between 1996-1999.

I love the city, and it will always have a special place in my heart as it is where I met my wife, Diane. I met lots of interesting artists and friends in the studio I was based in Gorgie in the West End. Many of them are doing really well now earning a living through their art. It always struck me that many of the students that left places like Edinburgh College of Art had a different attitude to their English counterparts, one of taking their craft more seriously in becoming professional artists and seeking out the many opportunities to be found in the commercial galleries in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The quality of work I saw was inspiring, but also depressed me when I thought of how little serious commercial galleries we have in Birmingham. What do we have? Number Nine? Come on…please!

Anyway, here are a few examples of work and links to a few of the artists and friends I was lucky enough to work alongside then…

Robert Maclaurin, 'Early Morning, Howqua River'.
oil on linen, 196 x 165cms, 2005

Donald Provan, 'Lochside', oil on panel, 90 x 120cms

Donald Provan, 'Blue Shoal', oil on metal, 45 x 70cms

Chris Bushe, 'Shimmering Light, Loch Roag', oil on canvasboard, 16 x 14 inches
Matthew Draper, 'Foggy Evening', pastel on paper, 45 x 90cms

Scottish art and literature has been an enduring influence on my own work and life ever since I was a student on Foundation Course years ago and discovered the work of artists such as Ken Currie and Peter Howson. It would be good to discuss this further in a future blog…

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Turning Japanese...

Kitagawe Utamaro, 'Three Beauties', woodblock print

I went to see the Utamaro exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham the other day. It blew my mind. I know the work well in reproduction, but seeing them for real was something else. The scale of them and the uniformity of the installation of what was a really substantial number of prints struck me as being so powerful and perfect. It was the best show I’ve seen in a long while.

Julian Opie

The influence of the Japanese woodblock artists has of course been a huge influence on Western painting from the Impressionists onwards in the late nineteenth century. It still exerts a powerful influence on more contemporary painters such as Alex Katz, Elizabeth Peyton and Julian Opie, who has co-curated an exhibition of Hiroshige’s prints at Ikon, and also created some recent portrait works that have been a sort of dialogue with Utamaro’s portraits.

Shaun Morris, 'Audience', oil on canvas, 240 x 450cms

Utamaro’s portraits have also been an influence on my own portrait paintings. I love the generalized treatment of form that is then juxtaposed with the most convincing and nuanced observations of gesture. I looked at these qualities a lot in my ‘Audience’ commission at JCC, as well as the deceptively simple, but inventive compositional elements he uses. I don’t think I could ever come anywhere near to the brilliance of his work, but it always remains very inspiring.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Talkin' Priming Yet Another Canvas To Sit In The Studio Gathering Dust Blues

I’ve been priming a canvas in preparation for a painting. I’ve stretched and primed hundreds of canvasses over the years, and I never really enjoy this part of the process. I just find it boring. I’m impatient and just want to get on with painting. Yet the fact that this part takes time is probably good for me. It allows me the time to think more carefully about the painting I’m about to embark upon. The primer is the first paint that goes onto the canvas, and priming is particularly useful in giving me a feel for the scale of the painting and an insight into how I might approach it. Once primed and ready however, I do love the blank, white canvas and that exciting feeling of anticipation before starting the painting.

I read in his journals that Keith Haring often used to paint a border first within the edges of his canvasses for a similar reason; to sort of mark out and feel the arena where the ‘action’ of his painting would take place. He created nearly all of his paintings completely spontaneously which I find remarkable. I love Haring’s work. The sheer energy within it and behind it is always so inspiring. Those journals are a great read too.

Keith Haring 'Untitled'

Some artists are obsessed with priming. I once attended a lecture by painter Bernard Cohen where he talked about the joy he had in priming his huge canvasses twenty times or more, sanding between each coat. Many painters apparently do this to achieve the perfect ‘surface’. I wondered what I was missing, but also how they afforded it. The most I have primed is about six coats, and I must say I found it made little difference. I’ve experimented a lot with primers over the years, and have come to the simple conclusion that with good gesso double priming is perfectly fine, which is what I was taught on degree in the first place! Some artists on a budget also use a mixture of emulsion and PVA to make their own primer, but this is a bad idea. Emulsion is meant to be used on hard surfaces like walls or wood, not flexible ones like canvas. In time it will turn brittle and your painting is likely to flake and peel off. David Hockney famously experimented with emulsions in the sixties and many of his paintings from that period have deteriorated already. I’m getting a bit technical here so I’ll finish. I might find it boring, but good preparation is important.

Bernard Cohen 'Untitled'

I bought Bob Dylan’s latest in the Bootleg Series today, ‘The Witmark Demos 1962-64’. They sound brilliant. Their unfinished, and often sketchy quality, reminded me of all the preparation and rehearsing that goes into things before the finished product of the official recording (though Bob fans will know how much he dislikes most of his official recordings). There are some comparisons to be drawn here with painting. This can also be seen with the way the preparation, or demos in Dylan’s case, can contain more vigour and spark than the final piece. Catching the thing can often be a disappointment after the chase.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The Last Picture Show...

I spent an interesting morning in West Bromwich last Friday, as I took down my paintings from the empty shop units that I’ve been exhibiting them in for the last two months as part of Sandwell Arts 'Art In Empty Spaces' project.

The town is in desperate need of regeneration, and indeed there is a great deal of activity to support this. I’ve enjoyed exhibiting my work, and even if I say so myself, I don’t think the portraits looked half bad. Sadly though, my intention to change some of the portraits around during the exhibition never materialized for one reason or another.

I lined up all the paintings along the shopping arcade for a few photos, as I thought that this might be the last opportunity I ever have to see all the paintings together again.

I was commissioned to paint 25, and eventually made over 30. One was sold when they were first shown, and I’ve also taken a couple off the stretchers which I felt weren’t as successful in retrospect. Looking at all of the remaining ones now in these photos, it still seems like a pretty substantial body of work. I can’t ever imagine being presented with an opportunity like this commission again.