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 ValĂ©rie 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.