Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Tail Whips and Back Flips

i-Pad study, local ramp park

It’s half term and I find myself at some of the local ramp parks as my six year old gets rid of some of that energy he’s full of on his stunt scooter and bike again. We go most weekends for a few hours whilst his sister naps in the afternoons, but as he was quick to tell me as I reminded that he had a week off school, ‘Brilliant! That means we can go to the ramps every day!’ At six, he is the only one on the planet.

Anyway, I did this i-pad study there the other day getting colder by the minute. I spend a lot of time there, often with a book, and always with a sketchbook, and have begun to amass quite a few drawings. I have been mulling over whether to develop something further about these cast concrete landscapes. I’m tempted to see if there are any ramp parks illuminated in the evenings to make studies from, as this would appeal to me more with my interest in the nocturnal landscape, now that the evenings are drawing in. 
Painting in my WASPs studio space, Edinburgh 1998
It’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for years the more I think about it and remember: scenes of illuminated parks and football grounds etc. It first came to me when I was lecturing at Sunderland University in 1998. The Fine Art Painting office was five floors up and overlooked a local park. One evening as I was preparing to leave and catch the first of my trains back to my home in Edinburgh I noticed the park below eerily lit up with brilliant floodlights and a small crowd of young guys playing football. Obscuring the view however, was this wonderful screen of silhouetted trees and branches. The combination of black against the artificial light of the park seemed such a good image and really captured my imagination. I consequently made some drawings and over a few months made a rather dismal attempt at a large painting of it back in my Edinburgh studio. I remember it as being my first serious attempt at a landscape painting and trying to move my work somewhere new. It felt exciting with possibility.
Jock MacFadyen, 'Mare Street Snooker Hall', oil on canvas, 1996 (?)
 Jock MacFadyen, 'Cambridge Heath', oil, 2004
Half way through making it, I ventured across the city to the Talbot Rice Art Gallery to see a very large exhibition of new Jock MacFadyen paintings. As a student I had enjoyed MacFadyen’s paintings of working class life similar to my own background, peopled by caricatured but always realistic characters set in the urban wastelands, but hadn’t seen any of his paintings for several years now. I was therefore shocked to see these new paintings where the figures had largely disappeared and the artist had foregrounded the buildings and the gritty, blasted urban landscapes. Several of them were also of floodlit parks with gangs of youths playing football at night just like the scene I was attempting to paint just a mile away in Gorgie! I felt gutted and unbelieving (this is all true by the way! I take this stuff pretty seriously!) I walked round the exhibition somewhat dazed, and then under grey Scottish skies staggered down The Mound and through the early evening headlights of Princes Street back to the studio, feeling that I had been totally beaten to it.  I went back and enjoyed the show several times, and reluctantly tried to finish my own rather lame painting.  I didn’t attempt anything serious with landscape again for several years, instead finding a route out of the corner I had found myself in by focusing instead on my portrait work.

Jock MacFadyen, 'Limehouse Basin', oil, 1998(?)
Now, having developed more of a ‘vocabulary’ in landscape painting of my own, sixteen years later, I feel more ready to return to this sort of subject again. If anything I’ve learned is that so often the development of certain ideas is a long, slow, and often unexpected process. You have to be patient. Also, knowing me I also know that I probably still won’t do anything with this idea, as it’s just one of several ongoing things I’m thinking of…

(There are a couple of nice Jock paintings on this blog of scenes at night, but I sadly could not find any examples on the internet of those floodlit football matches I was fed up that he’d done. Sorry.)

(It’s strange to observe the old photograph of the landscape painting that I found out and scanned for this blog and notice how much it looks like one of my present day nocturnal landscapes. I’ve still got it rolled up somewhere. When I have my major retrospective at the Tate it will feature in the first room you enter, ‘Early Beginnings’…! Or maybe not..)

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Kids and Painting

oil on canvas, 140 x 70cms, 2014

It’s been a long and tiring couple of months. I don’t think I have quite recovered physically or mentally from the school summer holidays and the looking after of my two children daily, especially my six year old boy, as I too am on holiday from my lecturing job at this time.  From seven in the morning to seven at night I would be continually on the go in parks, zoos, skate ramps, museums and of course at home in the garden, before eventually throwing them in bed, opening a beer and collapsing on the settee after another day’s action. Some children are great at amusing themselves, and my youngest seems happy to do so but not so my son who needs more support with this. And then back to work at college, which I’m glad to say I have slimmed down to three days this year, taking an extra day off to look after my daughter. We were straight into an Ofsted inspection at the start of term, which is always the most stressful time as you get used to new groups and crank up the engines for another year. Only thing is, as you can probably tell I think my engine has been running constantly without much of a break and is in need of a service.  Please don’t get me wrong though, I love the time with the kids and consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to have some good quality time with them.  We have all had lots of fun this summer, as well as the usual ups and downs of parenting. It’s just really tiring is all I’m saying…! I don’t think I’m unique to any other parent.

It has to be said though, that the crazy days out with the kids, has really helped me focus my energies in the studio, where I found myself most evenings, relishing the quiet time to myself.  In this time I’ve found myself working on three new paintings, working more piecemeal, on different parts of a particular painting each time. Admittedly, two of them were nearly completed in single sessions, but then subsequently slowly worked on, a process I have found very satisfying.

This first painting (top) seems to signal the beginning of a break with all the black that has dominated all my recent paintings, and was painted in a much more relaxed way over several weeks. It began with the pink sky over a red ground covering a previously failed painting, and went from there. Although I had a plan for it with a drawing, when I started adding the colour more unexpected things seemed to emerge with the artificial lighting in the scene (it is a transport depot, still at night, and the red rectangle is the back of a lorry cab) suggesting a mood to follow, and I enjoyed trying out different things with the paint application and the different brushes used.  It’s really rough in parts with some things pretty undefined, but having a ‘rightness’ in my mind that I didn’t want to interfere with. I like it.
 oil on canvas, 150 x 90cms, 2014

 This second painting is bigger at five feet tall and is a different version of a painting I attempted a few months ago and shared on the blog. I believe this is a much better realization of what I had in mind, after making some further drawings, which suggested simplifying things and adding more space to the top of the composition. 
pastel on paper, 25 x 17cms approx

As well as being a noticeably bolder with the purple motorway column! After an initial long session on this one, I was unsure how to resolve the difficult middle of the painting with the railings overlapping the lorry (yes, these are two lorry cabs again at the same transport depot). Eventually I was inspired to keep things more abstract after chancing across some images on the net of Ad Reinhart’s early abstract paintings, which contain lots of overlapping shapes and forms.  I think this abstraction creates a sense of dislocation in the image that I’m pleased with. My friend, artist Andrew Smith said that both paintings had a sci-fi feel too, with some of the details in the lamps and other forms, which I had also recognized, although this is accidental. It’s a happy accident though, as I’ve also been continuing to talk with artist Sian Stammers about developing the ‘By The Way’ project with a focus on the canals that link the West and East Midlands. In a proposal we have been working on, Sian discussed the idea of a return to the use of canals in a future ‘post-oil’ world, where motorways may lay desolate and empty. It planted a seed of thinking about these images of lorry cabs, of which I’ve now done three, where there is a sense of them being abandoned by the edge of these canals underneath the motorway, in a wider context or meaning such as this world envisaged by Sian.  Andy also thought I should work more on the railings in this one. I think he’s right. He usually is. 
'Shoulder To Shoulder', oil on canvas, 90 x 150cms, 2014

This final large painting has a slightly otherworldly quality too, but largely in the ‘reflected’ composition and the sense that the whole image is floating and mobile. It’s an image of a mountain-like collection of wooden palettes in a factory alongside the canal bank. I like the strangeness of the image, and the repetitive pattern made by the structure. I had imagined making something more expressive with this one, but it wasn’t where it wanted to seem to go, so it has ended up like this instead. I had thought it completed, but having since looked at the building-like structures in artist Viera De Silva’s paintings, I think I’m going to work on it further and try and be bolder with pushing the abstraction of the pattern. We'll see...
oil on canvas, 100 x 120cms, 2014

I’ve also been continually playing about with this painting too, which I’ve now flipped from a portrait to a landscape format and again, simplified things. This is the starkest, and certainly most abstract, thing I’ve done, and when I took it to this stage I didn’t think for a minute that it was finished. But since then I’ve been living with it around and I’m not so sure. I’m like it as it is just now, but things change. I certainly have no more ideas for it at the moment…As I reflect in this blog I can see how I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting of different kinds in the last few months, and with these recent paintings I feel like I’m beginning to push things on a bit more successfully and with a renewed sense of purpose. It’s hard though isn’t it? Creating stuff. 
 pastel on paper, 25 x 17cms approx

There seem to be a few key words to this blog: abstraction; simplification, experimentation, now that I’ve completed it, which reminds me of my how I talk to my students this last year in summing up our lessons, with an emphasis on promoting English in the classroom. It seems a bit sad really and a reminder how much I’ve had the Ofsted blues in the last year and the horrible pressures at work this has carried…Like so many in the profession, I really feel I’ve begun to lose my motivation and confidence with teaching lately.

This has been an uncharacteristically long blog, but it’s been a while…Kids and painting: that’s all I seem to do these days. Seems pretty good to me..