Sunday, 22 December 2013

Artists' Christmas Cards

I have been blessed with some wonderful cards from artist friends this year.  I thought I would share some with you.

From left to right: Valérie Pirlot and John Berry and their beautiful baby Louisa; Haidee-Jo Summers' 'Sledging At Belmont Park'; Valérie's calendar for 2014 (full of lovely things); Karl Terry's 'Road To Camber';  David Pilgrim's 'Morning Snow, Mill Lane, Stony Stratford'.

What a great idea to put a winter scene on a card.  I used to do a Christmas lino cut each year, hand printed by me  but I got tired of it.  Seeing how well these cards have come out I am tempted to have a go next year.

Well, the tree is up, half of the 48 mincepies I made last week have already been eaten and I have brought in the Yule Log only to discover it won't fit in the fire grate!  I have also found all the decorations in the attic that have not been chewed by mice (my mother's old glass baubles are mouse-proof), practised the reading I am doing at our 'Carols and Claret' service tonight and done a thousand other Christmas jobs.  I love Christmas but actually I can't wait to get back to painting again.  Might have to sneak into the studio while the others are watching Harry Potter repeats.  Happy Christmas!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Altarpiece - Almost There

I thought I would put these up to show how the image is developing.  On Friday morning I worked on the image in acrylics.

Yesterday evening I added more German faces, knocked back some of the distant figures and darkened the left foreground.  I developed all the faces a little more and then tried re-adjusting the tones of the big areas to make the snaking composition a little more obvious.

Today The halos need re-gilding and tidying.  Then I will work on the sky in oils - it would be almost impossible to achieve the highly blended 'Raphael sky' in acrylics.  I wanted the shell bursts to look something like those stylised tree-tops you see in many Renaissance paintings.

I feel that the image has now gained in subtlety but at the expense of impact - in other words the usual dilemma applies!  I think it will work well on a larger scale but choice and placing of the transfer images will be crucial. I also have to make and gild a much bigger carcass.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Prototype Altarpiece

I have started a series of pieces that puts WW1 imagery within Renaissance-style altar panels.  One of these will be 48 inches x 24 inches, which will be a big undertaking so I thought that I ought to make a prototype.  This would enable me to make all the mistakes and learn from them before I tackle the big piece.  It is just 12 inches x 24 inches

First I had to make the carcass:

I primed the central panel and applied acrylic transfers to it before starting the carcass, so in this view it is masked off with paper.  The construction is quite crude, with the really rough bits improved with home-made plastic wood. Then I gave the carcass two coats of traditional gesso sottile (rabbit skin glue and whitening), to provide a surface that I could sand and polish before gilding:

After this had dried I applied a reddish acrylic 'bole' - ie something the colour of the real bole used for water-gilding, as a ground for the gilding.  I then applied clear gilder's size' left to dry for two hours, followed by the gold leaf.  I am using imitation leaf as it is thicker than the real thing and much easier to handle.  This picture shows the process at about the halfway stage:

After all the gold leaf was on, I could then strip away the masking to reveal the images already applied.  I was not happy with the composition and so cut out some images and added others.  I also distressed and glazed the gilding and added home-made rottenstone to the crevices, to age the piece.  From here I will start applying paint and maybe a few more images.

I have learned a lot and will no doubt learn more as I finish the piece.  Then I can get on with fabricating the bigger 'production model' for the Armed Forces Art Society's contemporary show next year.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Rejection and Recovery

Life is full of ups and downs.  All 6 of my submissions to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (ROI) were rejected this year.  After getting two in last year and one the year before I thought I had a chance but' No!'  I tried to tell myself it did not matter.  I have only ever sold one painting at their annual open show and actually gave up submitting for a while.

Here is one of the rejected pieces:
Divine, 82nd Street Edmonton
9x7 inches.  Oil on board

Over the years I have come to understand that rejection is not the end  - indeed it can be a new beginning.  After coping with the initial disappointment I now go back over recent work and try to analyse where I might do better.  Often it comes down to choice of subject and composition.  Many of my paintings lack impact, mainly because I am too quickly content with a design.  Sometimes I am not quick enough to get down the important elements.  Here is another rejection:

Towards Forest Hill
8x10 inches Oil on board

Rejection tends to strengthen resolve.  More rejections:

River Chess Below Sarratt 
12x8 inches Oil on board

Seville Rooftops
10x8 inches Oil on board

That nagging feeling that there is something very wrong with all my work is then blown away by the next success.  At the Army Arts Society show in November I submitted 10 works - 6 unframed.  One painting was sold immediately it was hung, five more more went at the Private View and two were sold later in the show but the most positive indicator for me was winning one of the two main Chemring Painting Prizes.

Of course the prize money was very welcome but it was the fact that Ken Howard chose my work that really gave me a special boost.  To so many plein air painters in this country Uncle Ken (sorry, Prof Ken Howard OBE RA) is our a hero, so to receive an accolade from him had me reaching for the champagne.

Here are the ones I sold framed.  The prize winner was Old Harry Rocks:

Old Harry Rocks
9x19 inches Oil on Board

Piazza San Marco
10x8 inches Oil on Card

Against The Light, Sennen
14x10 inches Oil on Board

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Much Neglected

I mean of course the blog!  For the past month I have been preparing for doing some very large contemporary pieces with a series of titles based loosely on WW1.  These will be a mix of painting, gilding and acrylic transfers of maps, photographs and other ephemera.  In between I have done a little oil painting and on 22 Sep enjoyed a day out in Oxford painting with David Pilgrim and David Bachmann.

Radcliffe Camera From Catte Street 10x8 (unfinished)

I felt very rusty and slow doing this and only had time to put a few strokes in to indicate the height of the figure.  I think the subject might repay another attempt when I have more time.  I made a better job of Queen Victoria, high up in her niche on Christchurch's Tom Tower:

Victoria Statue, Tom Tower 10x7

Finally - and much to the disgust of my two illustrious companions ('cheesy', 'chocolate boxy', etc) I chose the White Horse front in Broad Street:
White Horse, Broad Street

I am always rather depressed by the thought that I become so out of practice in just a few weeks!  I did have another chance to get out in early October but only managed this tiny view of the reed beds on Otmoor:

Reed Beds, Otmoor 9x7

In preparing for the big pieces I have been using an acrylic transfer technique to transfer printed images and text.  I am some way from nailing this completely but here are some of the test pieces I have produced so far:

Madonna Of The Front-fighters 11x9

The gold leaf shows up poorly in the photo but it catches the light beautifully as you move in front of the image.

Notre Dame des Tranchées 10x10

This shows the basic start point - two images, one of them some text, both transferred using acrylic binder onto acrylic.  This one will have WW1 'trench folk' applied around the Madonna figure.  What I like about this technique is that ensures more permanence than simply collaging the images.  At the same time it is more difficult because the images have to be mirrored and then applied without any accurate means of 'registering' them.  I am experimenting with wetting the paper from the back, which makes it translucent enough to place the image without affecting the strength of the acrylic-to-acrylic bond.  Francesca Bex has told me how to do acetone lift prints so that might be the next set of experiments!

The biggest pieces I am planning are called 'The Many Men So Beautiful' and 'Exeunt Omnes (Alarums and Excursions Off)' and they will take up quite a few Winter evenings, as will 'You Are Not Your Stuff', based on a wall I saw in Moss Side, Manchester - now sadly demolished to make way for new flats, and 'A Quiet Day At The Knicker Factory' based on my experiences in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Sitting For Tim

On Monday last week I went up to London, to Tim Benson's studio in the old Chocolate Factory, Wood Green.  Tim had prepared a huge canvas and after we had played around with various poses he sat me down so that I had to look up at him as he painted standing up.

The whole experience was a real eye-opener.  I was aware of the energy in his portraits and particularly remembered his painting of a 92-year old lady that was in last year's BP Portrait Prize show at the National Portrait Gallery: big, bold and bravura, in fact the very antithesis of the current drift towards photo-realism.  What I came to realise is that the energy is there from the start and his method of working preserves that throughout the process.

We had roughly half-hour bouts - I use that term for Tim's way of 'sparring' with the canvas as he paints!.  Mozart provided us with musical accompaniment.  After 3 hours we broke for lunch and then did perhaps another 2 hours after that.  At lunch we talked about everything arty, including how to engage art society members and encourage them to participate fully in society activities.  He is the current Vice President of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and I am the publicity wallah for the Armed Forces Art Soc so we had plenty of ideas to kick around.

At 3.30pm we were both tired and Tim decided to call it a day. The portrait is huge and I was amazed at the amount of information Tim had been able to put into it in just 5 hours, of which maybe 3 or 4 hours were actual painting time.  Working with 4-inch brushes certainly helped but I could see that his level of concentration was extraordinary and he must have walked miles between the canvas and the back wall!

I was allowed to take a photo of him and the unfinished portrait before I left. I understand from Tim that the portrait has moved on quite a bit since then.

Here he is cleaning up after the session:

I am hoping to go up to Wood Green again to have another look and perhaps next time he will allow me to buy the lunch.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Nostalgia, A Day With The ROI, Streatley Lock

Nostalgia.  I am all for a bit of nostalgia: in life definitely and sometimes in paintings.  In 2 weeks time I will be meeting up with other members of 'Rhine 35', our platoon at Sandhurst.  It will be 50 years since we went there as 18-year-old hopefuls.  Rummaging through my records I found this shot of 6 of us after we had completed the 'Teddy Bear' parachute course - exclusive to Sandhurst cadets and designed to give us a taste of what it would be like to serve in Airborne Forces.  I am top right and Edward Bear himself (the course mascot) is centre stage with his parachute.

Kevin flew Army helicopters; Mike left the Durhams after the Borneo campaign and made millions on the NY stock Exchange; Brian became a successful businessman but died of cancer a few years ago; Rick became a Tankie but then took up flying and still runs his own outfit in the USA; Ian left the Royal Signals to become a specialist in auditing and rescuing failed businesses. I was the only one who ended up as a parachute soldier and I count it a great privilege to have been part of the 'Maroon Machine'. There were 24 of us in the platoon and well over half of us are able to come to the re-union, together with our partners.

ROI.  On 4 September 8 of us met up at the Winsor and Newton HQ for a ROI Friends day: three full ROI members, 2 Associate members and three of us who are 'Friends of the ROI'.  We had a lot of fun but I felt decidedly rusty.  As well as five sessions painting each other (we ran out of time for all 8 of us to 'sit') we had a very interesting - and impressive - tour of the labs from W&N's chief chemist.

I was able to paint four of the others but then had to 'sit' myself, so the following 30-minute sketches are of Tim Benson VPROI, Ian Cryer PROI, Adebanji Alade AROI and Pauline Hazlewood.  The others painting were David Pilgrim ROI, Tony Merrick AROI and Ric Holmes (Wapping Group):

Tim  - 30 mins

Ian - 30 mins

Adebanji - 30 mins

Pauline - 30 mins

Poor Pauline said I made her look like a witch and it's true but 30 minutes is no time at all for major adjustments - you just slap the stuff on and hope that you are seeing things right.  I was tired by then and not concentrating but one has to be honest about failures.  If you want a cracking portrait of Pauline then look no further than 'Camisa a Quadros' - her self-portrait that was selected for the 2008 BP Award show at the National Portrait Gallery: it is superb.

Of these I think my best effort was actually Ian, with his typical Winston Churchill 'we will fight them on the beaches' look.

Streatley.  The following day was light relief.  Mike Worthington and I drove to Streatley to try finding a bit of the Thames worth painting.  After much faffing - absolutely necessary when no previous reconnaissance has been done - we settled on a view of the North side of Streatley Lock:

Streatley Lock 7x10
Contre jour so a little 'bleached out'.

Then after a very pleasant pint of Holt's in the local pub we went round to the South side:

Streatley Lock 10x7 

I wish I had taken the trouble to put some of the visitors in - it looks a bit deserted and in fact was bustling with life. It is a lovely area and now we have had a good look round it will be on our 'hit list'.

Sunday, 1 September 2013


We go to Westonbirt School every year for the Armed Forces Christian Union houseparty, taking my schizophrenic brother-in-law, Charlie, with us.  After a heart operation and a new hip Charlie was in better shape than he has been for many a year.  The school grounds are one half of the old Holford family estate - the other being the now-famous arboretum across the main road.  I love painting in the peaceful surroundings of Westonbirt School.  The Italian Garden is a particular favourite and this time almost all my paintings were made there.

On Monday 26th August I caught Pat Warwood against the dark background of the East Pavilion:

Pat In The Italianate Garden
11x7 inches

Much of the stonework in the garden needs extensive renovation.  The lily pond with its two 'fish fountains' will get some tlc soon but for the time being one fountain is dry and the other just dribbles:

Fish Fountain, Westonbirt

As always it seems, some of my best work is done on very small panels.  In this one I caught the evening sun on the East Pavilion:

East Pavilion, Late Afternoon
7x5 inches

My camera does not take greens well - the greens just aren't that violent in the actual painting.  This one suffers from the same problem:

 West Pavilion with Ghastly Green Lawn

This one of the school building in the early morning does not suffer in the same way:

Early Morning, Westonbirt

There is a large round pond with an old fountain in another part of the grounds.   Again the camera seems to have done something odd with the dark passages.
Old Pond, Westonbirt

I did a lot of sketching - mostly pen and brush-pen on primed card such as this one:

Rear Facade from the East
Pen and brush-pen

On the last day I did one more of the Italianate Garden - a general view  'just for the record':

The Italianate Garden, Afternoon

I gave Pat the one of her but will perhaps keep the image so that I can work up something more resolved in the studio.  

Mid-week we went to have lunch with Valérie Pirlot in Bath.  It was lovely to see her looking so well and once the baby (girl) is born I am sure she will be back at the easel with re-doubled enthusiasm! 

Hook Norton

Two days after our return from Canada, Michael Worthington bundled me into his car and we set off for North Oxfordshire.  The weather was brilliant at first and we chose a spot above Swerford for our first painting:

Fields Above Swerford
11x7 inches

After lunch we did a lot of walking, trying to get a good angle on the Hook Norton brewery.  I think this might go well in winter as there is rather a lot of green in the scene at this time of year:

Hook Norton Brewery

This sketch supports my belief that on some days you should stop after the first painting!  Still it did give us a feel for what was in the area and I think we will return there.  It was nice to be back on familiar ground - all those lodgepole pines in Canada were beginning to bug me!


My Canadian nephew Thomas was marrying Allison, from a Ukranian Orthodox family.  Five of us went over to Edmonton in late July to join in.  Pat Galbraith, who is the founding president of the Alberta Society of Sculptors, offered to put us up.  It would be hard to think of anyone kinder than Pat.  She lives in the Belgravia part of Old Strathcona - across the North Saskatchewan River from downtown Edmonton. Her house is huge and like an art gallery inside so we were very happy there!

In between all the wedding events, including a fascinating Orthodox wedding (I had never witnessed one before) I would sneak up to 82nd Avenue and paint small oil sketches.  82nd - or Whyte - Avenue is the oldest and most 'alternative' district, with very different shops and restaurants from the steel and glass monstrosities of downtown.  I did half a dozen paintings there and here are 2 of them:

 'Divine' 82nd Avenue 
10x7 inches

Sidewalk Closed, 104th Street

The river divides Edmonton so is always a presence:

The North Saskatchewan River at Edmonton
5x7 inches

The back alley at Pat's house also provided the subject for a couple of quick sketches.  This is one of them: 

Back Alley, 72nd Ave, Edmonton
10x7 inches

 On 29th July, after the last wedding social was over, we headed out to the Rockies, to Lake Louise - me, Maddy, Ben, Fran and Robert.  We did a lot of walking and climbing in the following two weeks, including climbing Mt Niblock and Eiffel Peak and a great day's rock-climbing on the huge crag at the back of Lake Louise.  Leading the last climb I did actually wonder if I should still be risking my neck in that way (I nearly took a long fall on the final 20 feet) but I get such a buzz from it and the rock there is perfect.  We also toured around doing all the usual touristy things, including revisiting our favourite restaurant in Banff - The Coyote - and going to an exhibition entitled 'Pleinairism' in Banff's Walter Phillips Gallery.  Anything less to do with our idea of en plein air would be hard to imagine - I was deeply underwhelmed except for the token presence of three superb Walter Phillips watercolours.

When I was not brewing water on the Kelly Kettle (my camp job) or sitting sipping coffee in Laggans Bakery I painted.  I did 15 small oils in the Lake Louise area so here is a selection.  First the inevitable ones of the Lake itself.

Lake Louise From The Boathouse
11x7 inches

While I was painting this and Maddy relaxed in the sun we met Bruce Bembridge, a heritage guide who is a bit of a legend in these parts and happened also to be a friend of Pat.

This one was done after a day on the rock.  You can see the 'Back-Of-The-Lake' crag on the right.  On a good day it is swarming with climbers.

Mt Aberdeen and BOL Crag
11x7 inches

The official photographer for the Boathouse very kindly took a picture of me painting there.  I used an old fashioned tripod with swivel head and yet another homemade 'palette-easel' with 7 inch wide boards.  The boards were stored in two foamboard-balsawood-gaffer tape boxes copied from a Mike Richardson design.  The tripod-easel assembly weighed just over a kilo and all my kit fitted easily into a small rucksac.  The boards were rag board, triple-primed front back and sides and light enough to be stuck to the easel with double-sided tape (actually masking tape wrapped round itself):

Down at the camp ground, regularly visited by a pair of young Grizzlies so we had to keep a lookout, I did several sketches of the Bow River:

Bow River from beneath the Campground Bridge 

Bow River from the Campground Bridge

Including this tiny one:

Fishing The Bow River
5x7 inches

One morning I got up early and caught Mount Temple in sunshine - a rare sight at the start of our stay although on the last few days we had brilliant weather:

Mt Temple from Lake Louise Village
7x10 inches

Mt Temple is a big beast (11,200 feet a.s.l) that Fran and I climbed 4 years ago but like most Rockies peaks it is incredibly loose and the vertical interval from Moraine Lake (15,000 feet up and down) makes it a very long day.  Some of my best efforts were the tiny ones.  This one of the railway tracks near the campground was done in minutes and with just a few strokes but I think I caught the scene better than many of the more 'finished' sketches: 

Railway Tracks, Lake Louise Village
5x7 inches

Well, that is probably enough to give you an idea of what we did.  I also filled a sketchbook and  took photographs so I hope to work up some of the sketches into larger studio paintings in due course.  The Edmonton Bookstore sold me enough books on Fred Varley, AY Jackson and the rest of the Group of Seven to warrant buying an extra baggage allowance on the flight home so I have a lot of reading to do too!  We returned on 15th August.