Wednesday, 28 December 2011

...Under The Bridge

'Stolen Car', pastel on paper, A4 size

I’ve been working on some small chalk pastel drawings in the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I’ve been trying to looking at colour more in these motorway studies, and am fascinated by the illumination of the surrounding area by the sodium light permeating from the M5 above. The contrast between the hard, black concrete shapes and the softness of the trees and bushes is interesting to explore. These pastels also serve as a bit more of a ‘bridge’ in my preparation to try and attempt a large oil painting based on these drawings I’ve been making. I have a canvas stretched and primed to start on in the next few days. I feel really nervous about it.

'Stolen Car', pastel on paper, A4 size

'Stolen Car', pastel on paper, A4 size

These pastels seem an apt end to 2011. These are dark and troubling times to be living in. So much of my year has ben spent in a state of anger and anxiety at the sweeping changes being made by this terrible and dangerous government across the country. I can't help but feel that these images reflect something of my state of mind as I enter 2012

Friday, 16 December 2011

Something Concrete...

'Camberwell Flats By Night', oil on canvas, 199 x 260cms, 1983

In reference to his interest in architecture and buildings, I was discussing with a student the work of painter David Hepher the other day. Hepher is well known for his large paintings depicting various London housing estates, largely populated by looming tower blocks. Over the years he has moved from an almost photo-realist style to something more traditional and painterly, but with his use of graffiti layered on top of the images, and by now actually painting on concrete too instead of canvas they seem very modern. I really like them, and they are a good reference for my current interest in the ‘edgelands’ that I had forgotten about, despite admiring his work for many years.

'Durrington Towers III', oil on concrete, 210 x 150cms, 2007

Hepher was the Head of Painting at The Slade until retiring fairly recently. He was also the External Examiner for my MA Course at Norwich School of Art, so I found myself being interviewed at key points in my course about my own work. He had a very professorial manner about him. He would sit there cross-legged, notepad on knee, listening intently as you rambled on. A friend said it felt a bit like going to the doctor. I felt it was more like confessing your sins.

He had a genuine air of authority though that you had to respect. I remember after talking at length with him about a large painting I had just made, he got up to leave and then turned and said, ‘It’s a good painting, though’, and nothing made me feel like I had gotten somewhere as these words. It just seemed to mean something more to me on a deeper level than anything else I had been told that year.

Anyway, here is a link to a video that accompanied his recent exhibition at Flowers East. He is seen in his studio, discussing his practice and painting.

Interestingly, he talked about how traditional his methods of depiction are, but not his subjects, and when he was younger the debate in studios and galleries was always about how you painted not what you painted. Style was everything. Not so for Hepher, who was always much more lead by his subject matter. As someone who for the last ten or so years has been more interested in style over subject, I found this resonated with my own current thinking. As the new year approaches I’m trying to get to grips with working with more particular subject matter again and try to move my painting practice away from concerns preoccupied with style on to newer territories…to the edgelands.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Up The Junction (working all the way through the winter, the weather brass and bitter..)

I took a group of my students drawing underneath Spaghetti Junction last Friday (poor kids, I take them to all the glamorous places). Like many people I drive under and on this famous section of the UK’s highways frequently and I often spy places I think would be good to get out and explore. So, motivated by the current landscape project this group are working on, I thought I would once again flex my new minibus driving muscles and head over there.

And what a terrific location it proved to be. It was incredibly intense under there. These huge, cathedral like motorways high above us weaved across each other in a complex network of concrete and steel, while below we walked the canals that pass underneath with our sketchbooks and cameras. It was the deafening noise of the enormous amount of traffic that I found difficult to be around after a while. I made a few drawings, but it was too cold to do much even for me, but I came away thinking I must return again as I really enjoyed making the drawings that I did. I thought it would be too complex, but actually it was great fun, as I moved from one part to the next looking at all the spatial relationships. If you get this right, the drawing just seemed to build itself. But I don't think the drawings are worth sharing yet, but the photographs that accompany this post are. The top one is mine, but the others are by Laura Gale, occasional guest on the blog, and the photography teacher at JCC. They seem to capture something of the atmosphere of this unique location really well.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

You Get So Alone It Just Makes Sense

Hours spent in the studio have been a bit scarce lately, but I enjoyed a long day there the other day, working into the evening quite compelled and lost in my own little world. This world happened to be the world of my studio, as I painted a couple of small still lives of some of the ephemera I keep about that interests me. I’ve been collecting what I call ‘crapola’ for a while now: disposable coffee cups; cup holders; paper bags; bits of packaging. They serve as reminders of my many hours spent drinking coffee on my own, often travelling between places. If it doesn’t sound too fanciful, they can often serve to remind me of a sense of dislocation and alienation I often feel too, and the objects are carriers of some of these feelings…as well as just being interesting things to paint…

I painted this ice-cream cup and this small, dirty jar from the studio that I had used to clean my paint brushes. I also re-painted the backgrounds to several other small paintings like these, trying different colour combinations with the yellow of the table the objects sit on. I just like to work on things like these occasionally, and think maybe something bigger may emerge from it one day. Maybe. I enjoyed myself anyway and that’s enough.

I had gone to the studio with different intentions but sometimes you’ve just got to go where you’ve got to go….it’s nothing to do with me.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Floater (Too Much To Ask)

I managed to get to London to visit ‘Panorama: a Retrospective of Gerhard Richter’ at Tate Modern last weekend. It was too important an exhibition to miss, as, like many, I view Richter as being probably the most important living painter working today. It was also a rare opportunity to see such an extensive collection of his work in one place….and yet, despite it being a retrospective, and a terrific exhibition, I left aware of how much work wasn’t there as much as how much was. A retrospective of Richter is such a difficult thing to pull off, as his output has been so prolific on the one hand, but also so much of his work has been produced in huge series’. I left somehow wanting more….

But still it was great, and it has occupied my thoughts all week. It is the depth and intensity of his enquiry that is so mind-boggling, and seems to really bore down into your very soul being the longer you spend with the work. Those series of grey monochrome paintings; the clouds; the colour chart series; the large ‘abstracts’ of details; the enormous squeegeed abstract paintings; the portraits of his children; his SS uniformed uncle; the aunt murdered by the SS; the Baader-Meinhoff portraits; the recent 9/11 painting.

Here is an artist with an unparalleled creative and restless mind that has questioned so much what it is to paint in modern times: representation vs abstraction; painting from ‘found’ photographs only; painting from his own photographs; painting only in grey; full, joyous colour paintings; the landscape romanticized; the landscape destroyed; an image built up; an image obliterated. And amongst this constant formal and conceptual questioning he has revealed and provoked so many questions about politics, history and culture. There can’t be a university painting department in the western world where his work isn’t discussed and debated. If there is, you shouldn't bother studying there...

Like I said, it was a deeply intense experience.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

No Time To Think...

Sometimes things just get silly at work and it’s hard to get a bit of perspective on the job. The last few weeks have felt like that, so I was glad to get in the studio today and put myself first for a few hours.

I finished this charcoal drawing above, and the oil study at the top. There is a lot going on pictorially in the drawing, and the oil study is my first attempt to try something in paint after these recent pieces I’ve been making. I need to do some serious thinking about how I’m going to make any attempt to develop this work into painting. I’m even wondering whether I should. Are the drawings the statement I’m trying to make?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

No Limits...

Wow! What a day I’ve had today. I write this exhausted, but with my head spinning with excitement, from a visit to the college today from the Royal Academy Outreach Team who ran a Life Drawing Workshop with around 30 of our students. I had organised it, having heard a lot about these workshops over the years, and thinking it would be a great opportunity to extend and develop our students drawing skills, and hopefully boost their portfolios.

It proved to do this, but so much more too. It was taught by artist, Paul Brandford, who was such an inspiring teacher. He continually challenged and pushed the boundaries of the student’s knowledge and forced them out of their comfort zone. I say the student’s, but me too as I also joined in alongside them with Alex, a student teacher on placement with us. We were both addicted to the whole thing throughout. It was great fun but also very hard work.

The day’s workshop was driven by the idea of drawing as an important form of enquiry, which is what I believe in. I did get increasingly despondent about my own efforts though, as I became increasingly tired of my own ‘handwriting’. The more drawings I made, the more I found it difficult to push past my own limits.

Tonight I’m thinking about the charcoal drawings of the motorway I’ve been making with fresh inspiration and drive. The last couple of ones I’ve made I have felt things becoming freer and more involved in ‘drawing’ and disentangled from their photographic sources. Paul has opened up my thinking about what I can do and I can’t wait to get back down the studio in the next few days.

On a final note I looked up Paul Brandford on the internet and discovered his own website, which has some really interesting stuff on it, but I also discovered that I had actually exhibited alongside him. Paul was the First Prize winner in the prestigious Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2003, which I was also selected for that year. Here is his drawing below. It’s a great piece, which is also derived from a photographic reference. I remember enjoying it at the time and enjoying the celebrations as Paul collected his prize from the judges at the Private View in London. What a nice coincidence to meet him today at a time when I’m beginning to develop my own approach to drawing and how I use it to express my ideas. I really got a lot from his workshop today. Below is a link to his website:

Paul Brandford, charcoal on paper, 39 x 53cms, 2002

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Going, Going, Gone...

I took a small group of students drawing and painting at the Lickey Hills yesterday. It was shrouded in damp mist that wrapped itself around everything and created a great mysterious atmosphere. The students really enjoyed it and made some great studies with little intervention from me. I think they had a better teacher this week in David Hockney, whose video of him painting outdoors we had watched earlier in the week. It had really inspired them, and they dealt confidently with depicting the outdoor space in colour and tone, working from the back of the picture plane to the surface. I’m going to make a display of their work back in the college studio and will try and share some of their work.

In the meantime, here is one of my photos above of the foggy trees and another of the view from the hill where you can normally observe great views of the Birmingham, but today could barely only vaguely make the shapes of the trees. I like this ‘barely there’ quality and might explore this in a study. The trees reminded me of this next M5 drawing below which depicts the concrete motorway supports.

'Stolen Car', charcoal and pastel on paper, A2 size

I like this drawing. It seemed to suddenly take the drawings into another, slightly unexpected, formal place that I really like . This only emerged as I made the drawing, despite using a photographic reference.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Endless Highway...

'Stolen Car', charcoal and pastel on paper, A2 size

This drawing above seems to exemplify those abstract elements discussed in the last blog post more clearly. As I do more of these and get used to the charcoal and pastel I’m beginning to think more about the formal qualities I want from them and make decisions around this.

Seeing them all on the studio floor and how they relate to each other is pretty exciting. There seems to be a real dynamism emerging from the big black shapes that dominate the compositions.

I watched with the students a documentary on David Hockney’s recent Yorkshire landscapes today. Seeing all the original paintings he made ‘en plein air’, before he went on to make those multi-panelled bigger pieces, I was really struck by their scale as he arranged them in his LA studio. Size is at the forefront of my thinking at present as I mull over how to take my own drawings into paint. I had thought that they should be really large, but seeing Hockney’s pieces, in combination with Kline re-entering my head, I’m now not so sure. They need to be large, but maybe not that large…

Monday, 7 November 2011

Beyond Here Lies Nothin'...

'Stolen Car', charcoal and pastel on paper, A2 size

This third drawing in charcoal above, reminded me of some of my original creative motivations behind these nocturnal images of the motorways around West Bromwich. The huge swathes of black shapes from the motorway structure itself and the dark large shadows reminded me of the paintings of Abstract Expressionist painters, Franz Kline and Pierres Soulages. I really like Kline’s energetic, yet spare, work and the reduction in them down to just using black and white paint. Soulages paintings are much denser and heavily worked but have a mysteriousness to them I like. I thought that the motorways had a similar quality worth exploring. Yet when I did visit them again with more creative ideas in mind, I was struck by the amount of colour actually in the scenes, so this seed of an idea of them being perhaps a riff on Kline’s paintings never grew any further.

Franz Kline

Pierres Soulages

Now making these black and white drawings Kline and Soulages have entered my thoughts again as I think about how to develop them into paintings.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Dark Eyes...

'Stolen Car', charcoal on paper, A2 size

I finished this last night. I really like the fact that this huge black shape dominates over half of the image. It really reminds me of my countless journeys under that motorway at night and the fear I’ve often felt as I’ve approached and walked under it.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Sign On The Window

After nearly 3 months and 8000 words later I finally submitted an application to the Arts Council for a Grant for the Arts this morning. It’s a huge relief just to send it off as it has really taken a lot of effort, but also been difficult to deal with alongside all my planning for my lecturing every day and my painting practise. The latter has really taken a back seat for this time.

Still, I’m not complaining as you have to try and apply for these things, and they do take serious thought, effort and time. I’m not complaining if it does not prove fruitful either (although just from doing the application and contacting people I’ve creating some exciting future opportunities that I’ll discuss at some point).The process has been really useful in focussing my ideas and thinking around my art. And besides, what is the alternative? Not to apply and just continue as I have ben? That hasn’t seemed an option for a long while. Whatever the outcome, it has all been worthwhile.

It was great to press ‘submit’ and then go down the studio for the rest of the day and work on a few things. I have been messing around with these small still life studies (above) for a while. Today I decided to drop a dark background behind these four paintings of ‘crapola’ (after Guston and Roth’s idea), to try and enhance the figures from the ground. They look a bit like Dutch still lives now which wasn’t the intention, so I’m think they’ll end up changing again.

I then set to task on working on the next charcoal drawing in my motorway series for a few hours. This is it so far. I need a few more hours on it yet. I’m pleased with this and the previous one I made and I’m keen to develop them into paintings, but I just can’t imagine the scale at the moment.

At around four I heard the ring of the wind chimes that hang on the gate on the top of the garden. I opened the studio door to see my little boy, Isaac come racing down. ‘We do some painting in Daddy’s BIG shed!’ he shouted excitedly as he pushed past me and ran inside. Let’s hope so over the next few months I thought…this is what it’s all about.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Everything is Broken...

'You have to reject one expression of the band first, before you get to the next expression of the band. And in between you have nothing. You’ve to risk it ALL’

This is a quote from Bono of U2 from last week’s documentary on BBC4, ‘Down From The Blue Sky’, which told the story of the crisis the band faced after their ‘Rattle and Hum’ album and film, and the band they found they had become and hated. We then followed their relocation to Berlin to record ‘Achtung Baby!, the album that would redefine them for a new generation.

I’m really not a fan of U2’s music, and Bono really irritates me, but I was really fascinated by the story told in this documentary. I’m really interested in the nature of creativity, and I love reading or watching films such as this about the struggles and lengths that artist’s go to in that search for what is so often unidentifiable, personal and hard to explain, but is instantly recognisable to the artist when it decides to step out of the shadows and reveal itself: be that a painting, a song, prose etc. Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ autobiography is a brilliant read in this regard, with the absorbing section about the making of his ‘Oh Mercy’ album in New Orleans. ‘Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress’, the film about the hugely talented and celebrated painter, is also a film I never grow tired of watching.

It’s important for any artist to face a crisis: out of this hopefully things will emerge from a much more deeply felt place. When I studied for my MA in Fine Art many years ago, it was presented to us at the start that if the course was to be a success for the students it was expected that we would go through a period of crisis: we would take apart what we were doing to try and piece it back together again in a different form. Fairly confident at this stage of what I wanted I wanted to do on the MA, I viewed this with a fair amount of scepticism. It wasn’t long however, that I was having a crisis every day. Sometimes it got so bad I would spend all morning in crisis, go for lunch, head back to the studio, and find myself head in hands facing another crisis.

This experience really equipped me with the skills to deal with the creative problems that one can face, and the many holes and dead ends you find yourself in when trying to extend yourself. They are experiences I’ve also drawn upon in moments of more personal crisis too. I’m beginning to recognise that I’ve been in a sort of crisis for nearly three years that has come to a bit of a head in these last few months. I feel in a better place conceptually with my ideas, but feel a bit like Bono in the quote at the top of this blog: I’m at a point of rejecting one form of expression, before I can get to the next one. And in between I feel I have nothing.

There are lots of problems as ever. But they are good problems to have.

(I couldn’t bring myself to illustrate this blog with a photo of Bono and U2, so I’ve included a picture of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver instead, whose own, well documented creative crises I’ve enjoyed reading about lately…and whose music I can’t get enough of lately either)

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Black Hands...

I worked on this drawing, above, over several nights last week. It’s a charcoal piece based on the M5 at night again, and I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating it. I’ve never really made any really good ‘finished’ pieces in this media, I just use it these days to make ‘cartoons’ for my paintings. I fancied approaching this composition differently, however by making a more detailed study for a possible painting that might also stand up on it’s own.

I’m pretty pleased with it. It was great getting my hands really black and grimy as I pushed the charcoal around, but I also enjoyed working more slowly for a change. I think I may do more of these.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Shedding Skin...

Time has been a real issue lately, but it is always in September when I return to my lecturing job after the summer break. New term, new students, new timetable, preparation, planning. It all takes over for several weeks until things start to embed themselves.

On top of all this I’m still painfully slowly completing an application for some funding to develop my work that I can’t seem to get completed. I am nearly there now though, and hope to send it off soon. I’m not especially optimistic, far from it, but the process of working on it has been extremely useful in itself. It has really helped me distil and refine my thinking about what my intentions with my painting really are, and how to get things onto a different sort of plane. I’m very excited about it, as I know much more clearly about what I want to do, and more importantly what I don’t want to do, and how I am going to pursue this. Strangely given this clearer thinking, I also for the first time in years I have no idea about how some of the things I hope to create in the coming months will appear and take shape. It feels very liberating. I feel like I’m almost shedding skin.

Underpinning a lot of my thinking and writing has been a lot of research around different ideas and influences that I will hopefully share in the blog a bit more. One of my current obsessions has been the work of acclaimed American photographer Stephen Shore, whose work illustrates this post. I’ve been looking at his ‘Uncommon Places’ and ‘American Surfaces’ series, and really enjoying his images of the seemingly banal and commonplace. Approached without any irony, but with a great eye for the details and textures of our lives across a range of subjects encountered on his many journeys, I find myself really attracted to these photos and the way the artist re-presents the world back to us, the viewer. I do believe the banal can be a very powerful form of expression, and Shore’s images really assert this.

Friday, 23 September 2011


Sometimes you make something that is so appalling bad you wonder what you have learned in the last twenty odd years of painting. What were you thinking of? What preparation did you do? Is that all? How can the drawing be so weak when you draw everyday? Have you become so conceited that you thought that you could skate through a painting as if you have done it a thousand times before (which you have)? Oh, your painting heroes make it look so easy, do they? Well get over it. You’re not them, and they are certainly not you- scratching away in your big shed in the garden. Do you know nothing about colour? And the light? What is that? Those marks look so lazy. It’s as if you are trying to will something into looking like ‘art’. How lame. They describe nothing. They describe nothing at all. You loser.

Destroy it. Wipe that wasted pile of paint off and do something more useful with your time.

Yeah, I had a day like that in the studio yesterday. It happens…

Sunday, 18 September 2011

A Kestrel For A Knave...

The artist with a Great Horned Owl

It’s my birthday tomorrow, which is not something I normally broadcast, but today I have enjoyed a rather special gift from my wife, Diane that I wanted to share. She, unbeknownst to me until I got there, booked me on a falconry course for the afternoon in the Warwickshire countryside near Stratford. I love birds of prey so this was a dream come true. We spent our time handling the most beautiful hawks, owls and falcons, taking a walk though the surrounding countryside and woods carrying the birds on our arms, and letting them fly to come back to land on our gloved arms. It was so wonderful to be that close up to these magnificent creatures.

It’s not the first time I’ve been so up close to birds like these though. During my ‘Seek My Face’ commission I met up with a falconer, Craig who kept some huge hawks in his house, which was on a rather tough estate in Great Bridge. I remember walking up his front garden to meet him for the first time for our sitting to be confronted by these two enormous hawks on perches, looking rather formidable. One of them was a goshawk, which today I learned is one of the deadliest hunters of all the birds of prey! Sitting in Craig’s kitchen trying to draw him with one of the birds on his arm was a surreal experience to say the least (but rather special too

Craig, oil on canvas, 150 x 140cms, 2007

I returned to Craig’s house a couple of weeks later to take some photo’s of him with the bird to help me with a possible painting. Before visiting I called him to check the details, only to be told, ‘Oh, I’m sorry mate, I’ve sold me birds! But don’t worry, me mates got one too, you can borrow that one!’. Keeping birds of prey seemed to be a bit of a thing on the estate. They looked happy and healthy though, so I asked no questions. I did make a portrait of Craig (above). I was never really that pleased with it, but it did prove to be one of the most popular when it was exhibited.

I love painting birds and animals, and would love somehow to take it further some day. I’ve just made the odd painting here and there. Here’s a great watercolour painting by John James Audubon (above), probably the most celebrated painters of birds, and an artist I really admire. It shows two peregrine falcons, one of the birds I found perched on my arm as I walked through the woodland today. A great painting to sign off on what has been a very memorable birthday.