Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Edith Stone

oil on canvas 51x51cm

At last. That’s it. Done.

This started off as a simple exercise in making a portrait from a photograph. That was in December 2008. Ah, So Long Ago. I’ve been hacking away at this on and off ever since (see ‘Works in Progress’), and you may remember the painted cellophane post of March 2010. If I ever do this again - and I probably will - I really must make sure that I have adequate source material to work from, and not a fuzzy and confused original that was badly printed and a bit too small.

Anyway. The source image is from some interesting Sydney police photos of the 1920’s and 30’s, before the mug shot was formalised. I was struck by Edith Stone’s photo because of the light, and the intensity and complexity of her expression. She looks stupid and desperate, but also submissive, as if playing for sympathy, but there seems to be an underlying coldness and anger. There is no indication on the original plate what her crime was – she could be a petty thief, prostitute, bank robber, or murderer – take your pick.

Compositionally, the collar and bobbed hair were a gift and there are some nice rhyming shapes in the hair, jaw and neckline, but I struggled a bit with the backdrop. Finally, out of desperation, I filled it in with featureless opaque Mars Black, which set off the rich transparent coloured blacks in the hair quite nicely. To distinguish the silhouette of the hair a bit more, I used the rough green edge from the March 2010 cell painting, which adds a little more drama very effectively. The paint surface on the figure is very rich - not surprising considering that’s it’s been re-worked on and off for two years.

There is a mood-setter track to go with this – ‘When you were young’ from Sam’s Town, by the Killers. It’s oddly melancholy for such a high-energy track. Oh look, here it is…
…and the rest of the album works too, if you have it.

Hopefully this has been a successful exercise. It was tempting to write this off when I plainly couldn’t make it work, but I find it difficult to let these things go unresolved. I actually had it almost beaten a couple of times, but it had slightly wrong resonances, and in trying to pin it down I ended up knackering it. Learning all the time, of course, so nothing’s really wasted. I think this is the nearest I’m going to get to reflecting the initial stimulus, so -

’Bye Edith… it’s been emotional.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

ITRI in Itri

oil on canvas 57x42cm

Buon Giorno!

We have a lovely, very convenient, Italian Restaurant just down the road. A couple of years ago they were kind enough to offer me wall space for paintings, and I was embarrassed that I didn’t have any whose subject came remotely close to Italy, food, or Italian food.

Not long ago we found that it’s named the ‘ITRI Restaurant’ after chef Antonio’s hometown – Itri, about halfway between Rome and Naples. Through Google Streetview, I saw the distinctive castle at the town centre, and got the idea of mashing Edinburgh and Itri together using each other’s buildings and features. Via Civita Farnese has a good view of the castle, so I just transplanted the restaurant, with two of its satisfied customers, into a suitable block.

It’s the restaurant’s now, and the proud hosts Gennaro and Filippo put it straight up on the wall. They’re both very chuffed with it, and it was great to see them recognising all the elements.

By the way, if I haven’t mentioned it before, the restaurant is called the ITRI, and more information and menus can be found at - And, if you haven’t guessed already, that’s Madam and I waving at you from the tables outside, like we’ve just had Spaghetti Carbonara and a wee Limoncello.

Ciao! Arrivederci!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


watercolour 10-15cm high

The weather in Edinburgh has been unexpectedly wintry for the past fortnight. City centre temperatures have been as low as –10C, and the snow has accumulated and hardened along the roadsides. Edinburgh folk are simply not geared up for this, and we totter along the icy pavements slowly and uncertainly.

These are a couple of quick sketches out the window, of passers-by negotiating the tricky surfaces. I think their cautiously balanced gait comes across quite well.

We’re due for a thaw this weekend, but who knows what the weather will do later. I wouldn’t hold your breath for sketches of folk in shorts and Hawaiian shirts though…

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wreck No.2

oil on canvas 51x51cm

The scene is a soft, still summer evening. The trees are flipped right to left, but the setting is recognizably Bruntsfield Links. The tank is a Panzer IV - obviously quite badly damaged, but resulting in interesting shapes.

Hopefully the grass, trees and sky read easily, but I’ve tried to make it so that you have to work a little to read the form of the tank - the marks are harder and cruder, and contrast with the blended forms behind and above.

I am yet again rather annoyed that, after slogging through these first two paintings, they’re too small. They were done on canvasses that I had ready, but at 20 inches square they maybe sell themselves short and lack impact. I’m pretty sure that it’s a confidence thing - the next lot will be bigger.

Having said that, I have to say that I’m really quite pleased with the evening light in this one…

Wreck No.1

oil on canvas 51x51cm

I’ve started what could turn out to be an extended series of paintings of wrecked tanks under calm skies or in serene landscapes. I’m not entirely sure why - the idea sprang out of nowhere – but I think it’s worth exploring. I know that this theme combines two subjects that interest me - clouds and tanks – but I’m uncertain what underlying message this sends, if any.

It’s easy to say why the sky is interesting. It is ever-present and ever-changing. It is plainly beautiful, and though remote and impersonal, its variations of colour, light, and form clearly influence our psychological state.

Tanks are another thing entirely. They are heavy, loud, powerful, expensive, and dangerous. They promise so much power and invulnerability, but are just hard scrap when destroyed, and I find that transmutation fascinating.

The two elements in these paintings are absolute opposites on several levels - light/heavy, light/dark, hard/soft. Solid/ethereal, mobile/static, open/closed. One is made through fire and ore, the other of air and water (I could go on…), and this lends itself to exploring different ways of using paint.

A lot of the tank images came from the web. However, I am reluctant to depict a feature of some of these pictures - the ragged uniformed bundles scattered around the wreckage. No, too much. That would to say something that I don’t want to say, and, frankly, I don’t want to dream about them.

Right then, enough Prologue; let’s explore these particular pieces individually.

Wreck No.1 is the first in this series. It has a beautifully patterned sky - rafts of altocumulus translucidus perlucidus if you must know - which I always associate with calm (soft tinkly piano music for some reason). The tank is a Panzerkampfwagen V, commonly known as a ‘Panther’. All the hatches are open, so hopefully everybody got away.

I simply posed the tank, side-on, against the sky in a featureless landscape, trying to make the sky soft and blended, and the tank rougher and coarser.

The sky is done with quite oily paint, for its softness and ease of blending. Each layer took ages to dry, which became quite tedious.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Artist and his Wife Promenade in the Park

oil on canvas 84x62cm

Bruntsfield Links is criss-crossed by tree-lined paths and has several rises and hollows. In bright sunlight the dappled shadows fall on these in a very interesting way. Initially I wanted to compare that pattern of light and shade to a strongly dappled sky, but as I put the painting together, it became more about the light shining down onto the grass.

No figures were planned at first, but the painting began to feel a little empty, and it seemed a shame to make this lovely place and not have anyone enjoy it.

When adding them I was concerned that that the fine marks I needed to describe such a small pair of figures would be anomalous. Now, after knocking them back with a bit of fuzzy glare, I think the figures add rather than distract.
What did drive me up the wall was the large foreground tree. I just couldn’t make the volume convincing, and whatever I did it looked like a two-dimensional cut-out. I’m not entirely sure that it still doesn’t.

I can’t remember why, but I started listening to a lot of Max Richter while working on this. The resonant mood track for this painting is ‘Arbenita (11 Years)’ from ‘Memoryhouse’. (At time of writing it can be heard online at..., which is lucky, and also very generous of Mr Richter...)

Madam and I have a strong connection to the Links - it was where we first kissed - so it seems right and proper that it’s us two enjoying the nice sunny afternoon there.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Two Cloud Sketches

watercolour/gouache 15x10cm

Now that our windows are scaffold-free, quick sky studies are a pleasant distraction from slogging away at the Works in Progress. A lot of them end up overworked and messy, but these two are quite lean and clear.

They are on grey A4 from the local stationers – cut into quarters and used unstretched. The grey allows the white gouache highlights to work much better; on white paper, they can appear slightly yellow.

Viewing images on the computer usually flatters them, but that’s not the case here. The play between transparency and opacity doesn’t really come across – seen ‘live’, they fizz a lot more.

Which is, after all, how it should really be.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


oil on canvas 51x41cm

I’ve been having a look at the different lights and translucencies through leaves and trees, and I wanted to explore what was going on when a tree is strongly lit directly full-on. This is quite a dramatic sycamore growing on Bruntsfield Links, just next to Bruntsfield Crescent.

Compositionally I think it works quite well – it’s fairly symmetrical, with the main subject dead centre and lit from straight behind the viewer. The open spaces between the clumps of leaves allow the silhouetting of the dark branches against the bright cloud (which wasn’t actually there but was pulled in from somewhere else).

Most of this was painted with the biggest brushes I could get away with (I’ve just bought a whole lot), and possibly I should have gone to the smaller sizes sooner. The brushwork is quite active, which I quite like, though maybe some of the leaf textures could have been done more convincingly with smaller, more considered, marks.

I’m not an expert in tree identification, and I say it is a ‘Sycamore’ (Acer Pseudoplatanus) because it matches the little pictures and description of a ‘Sycamore’ in my little Dorling-Kindersley ‘Trees’ book. My book also usefully adds, in a tiny footnote - ‘This species is known as a plane tree in Scotland but has no connection with the true planes (Platanus)’.

I don’t think a lot of people know that…

Thursday, July 29, 2010

World Cup Sketches


You really do have to be fast when sketching the footie. They’re moving about quite a lot (mostly) and it comes down to memorising a flash image - which is good eyeball practice. I can’t remember which matches these figures are from, though the two on the left of the lower group are definitely second-round Ghanaian.

Obviously, there are no sketches of any England players here. Had I been drawing during their three matches I would no doubt have been able to produce fully finished portraits, such was the urgency with which they strolled about.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Serpent and Cherubim

oil on canvas 78x107cm

This is the Grand Project for which all those drawings of trees, hands, and Anton Walbrook were made. At over a metre high, for me it’s quite a large-scale figure composition, and I’ve been working on it for a while. I finished it earlier this month, and still don’t really know whether I’ve been successful or not.

Some of the drawing isn’t bad, and I’m quite pleased with the composition. I like the way the guard stands in a narrow space that curves towards us from under the trees, and how the shapes of the armour, walls and visor rhyme with it. In this lower section the forms are all man-made. In the upper section they are organic, chaotic, scary, and are intruding into the organised space.

You can, of course, supply your own interpretation of what’s going on, but there is a specific narrative. The clues are there – my nephew got it with only a little prompting, so if you want to solve it without help, stop reading now.

First of all, there’s the title; does it refer to the figures, and where might you find those two together? Is the coldly detached, sinister man in the tree the Serpent or Cherubim, and why do you think that? Why is the armed guard wearing a (rather obvious) angel-wing lock emblem? Who or what is he guarding? What is going on between the figures and what are they thinking about each other – if at all? The answer is coming up next.

The painting is a response to the question ‘What happened next back at the Garden of Eden?’ and is a sequel to January’s ‘Expulsion – Marchmont’ (The armed guard features in both). Satan is still mooching around and his only diversion is the Cherubim at the gate, and he can’t do anything else but try to undermine and subvert him. My guess is that he’d start by giving him a cigarette, and lighting it. The painting shows the moment before the cigarette is lit.

I strongly urge you to look at this while listening to the Rolling Stones single ‘Gimme Shelter’. It has a potent atmosphere of menace and foreboding, and was my mood-setter while getting this done. Play it through and let your gaze rove all over the painting - you’ll probably end up at the cigarette/face/lighter area, but take your time.

The model I used for the angel’s face was Madam, who was very pleased to have her very own halo. She doesn’t smoke, but has a dark, unfulfilled desire for cigarettes, and was disturbingly exhilarated to be immortalised as just about to have one.

Monday, June 28, 2010


oil on card 28x20cm

So, just after stating to someone that I never wanted to do another painting featuring chimney-pots – I go and paint this.

As you see, our building is being worked on, and the view out of the front window has strange angular intersections. It’s an ill wind that blows no silver lining, and as not everyone gets the chance to experience a bird-in-a-cage’s-eye view, you may get some benefit from our experience.

Seriously, it is quite an interesting subject. I had to think quite carefully about the focus – was I trying to paint the pretty view through the scaffolding, or the scaffolding with the view as backdrop? As it’s turned out I think I’ve painted quite a balanced work, and the eye can settle on one without being distracted by the other.

The sky blues are quite luminous. I’m putting this down to the careful use of Pthalo and Prussian Blues, touched with Payne’s grey, and Zinc White – in a damar/walnut oil medium. This is quite a translucent mix, so glows quite nicely even though it’s on a grey primer.

Interesting little work, but I do wish the building guys would hurry up and finish…

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sketch - Night Sky

watercolour and gouache 14.5x10.5cm

My watercolour and gouache gear was set up at the window already, as I’d spent most of the day sat there dashing off yet more very quick, very small cloud sketches (without particularly good results - the damned things simply will not keep still… the clouds that is). I slapped this out while waiting for the news on the telly.

I have to say that I’m not that hot with gouache; it changes SO much as it dries, and the Permanent White – well… it’s more like Here-today, gone-in-five-minutes White. The underneath stuff always seems to bleed through it, screwing up the tones. I’ll persevere, though; it’s a matter of using it, and finding what works and what doesn’t.

Like pure watercolour - which I do have a handle on – the more opaque gouache is particularly useful for instant work, but without having to think too much about preserving the surface white.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cumulus Clouds

watercolour 20x19cm

A very quick sketch of some very puffy cumulus masses in bright sunlight. I liked the contrast between the lower cumulus and the straight bands of background cirrus.

Only one colour used here – Payne’s Grey – which IS actually as blue as it appears on this scan. The paper is heavy-ish A4 copy paper. It’s not absorbent at all, hence the pools and blobs, and had to be flattened later (successful).

You have to work a little bit to read the lower half, but I quite like its overall freshness and spontaneity.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Portrait Re-draw

oil on cellophane

This is a cellophane correction sheet on two different backgrounds. I made it in a final attempt to get a likeness in a troublesome portrait. The clear cellophane was taped over the (dry) painting and the face safely redrawn and painted on it in oil paint, without disturbing what good stuff there was on the original surface. It’s a bit like using Photoshop layers. The cellophane is a huge improvement on using tracing paper for corrections, and for trying out and adding new elements to an established painting.

Once happy with the new likeness, I traced the face in ink lines on a new cell sheet, removed it from the painting, and pricked out the lines with a needle. I taped this pierced ‘cartoon’ (yes, that’s the technical term) back onto the painting, and lightly worked water-based gouache paint through the holes. When the cartoon was removed there was a map of the new, corrected image over the original, inaccurate work. I repainted that with oil, using the dots as guides, with the painted cell propped up nearby as a model. Any anomalous gouache dots were washed away with water. It’s actually quite simple. You can see what a difference this correction made by having a look at the ‘Works in Progress’ link to the right.

This sheet looked so fresh and alive, even though it has alignment marks all over it and was taped to a piece of cardboard, that I may get it properly framed up as a work in itself.

The really tricky bit was making the corrections. I had to make the image unfamiliar so that I wouldn’t be repeating the same old mistakes. The new image was created by studying both the painting/cell and my reference image in a mirror facing the easel, then turning round and applying the paint the right way round.

Now, that actually wasn’t simple…

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Study - Anton Walbrook

pencil 20x19cm

I needed a face I could reference for the painting. It had to be a mixture of sophisticated, remote, a bit strange, and also quite powerful. I quite liked the idea of a nineteen thirties/forties smoothie.

Anton Walbrook in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ was perfect. He plays Lermontov, the manipulative impresario. Madam has the DVD, so I played it on the computer, took screenshots, and with a bit of tweaking, got the model I wanted.

The drawing took less than two hours, very fast for me, and I think it’s a good one. It actually looks like the subject, is full of information about form, and the marks are quite deft and confident. This is one of those occasional bits of work where you look at it the next day and think ‘Did I do that?’ (in a good way).

I find doing ‘portraits’ extremely difficult; you have to be very good to do it consistently, and it’s something I should practice more. In reproducing specific faces and expressions the variables are so many, and the tolerances so critical, that a likeness can easily slide into a similar person – in this case, Stewart Grainger or David Farrar.

This phenomenon is quite similar to the way that the theme tune for ‘the High Chaparral’ turns resolutely into ‘Telstar’.

I think this needs serious scientific research.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Studies for Painting

pencil on A4 – photoshop montage

Over the past month I’ve been working exclusively on the current larger project, but doing quite a few more contributory studies. These are some of them. The individual scans haven’t been tweaked in size or contrast, though some have been cropped from A4 to avoid swathes of blank. Click on the picture to get a bigger image you can stick your nose into.

Through ‘Works in Progress’ (in ‘Related Links’ – to the right) you can see the main painting - two figures - and how it has developed so far. The ‘Slideshow’ button on that site is good for that. You may recognize where the studies have been copied, though not all have been used.

At the moment, painting this particular work feels a bit like writing a Large Novel, and quite a lot of problems still need to be solved. It doesn’t really help that I naturally seem to be a bit of a slow worker.

…as I’m sure my former customers and employers already know.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tree Studies

pencil on A4

I needed some reference material - weird-looking tree parts - for use in a current project. I had taken some photos of likely subjects, but as they never print out how you’d want, I thought I’d draw them from the computer screen.

Though laborious, there are two big advantages to working this way.

Firstly, it is easier to edit the information from the source. A photo of a tree contains so much information you’re never going to use – background, tiny branches etc, which just get in the way. Better to decide what you’re going to use or lose at this stage than later.

Secondly, you are better acquainted with the subject’s form – its mass and shape - when it comes to painting it on the canvas proper, having already examined and described it once before.

Contrast these drawings with the watercolour ‘Street Sketches’ from last month. Those look effective, but you would be hard put to reconstruct the forms from the information given. These drawings above are utilitarian; I have to put in all the information I think I’m going to need for reproduction in a larger painting.

Not that you can’t be creative. The upper drawing is a composite of two different trees (one wasn’t effective enough for purpose) and, to be honest, it would have taken longer to photoshop the two images together and not been as good.

Ah, yes - and Thirdly, it’s very good drawing practice.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Expulsion - Marchmont

oil on canvas 84x69cm

Finally, at long last, it’s done. I’ve been working on this on and off since May 2009, and drip-feeding it into ‘Works in Progress’. At 84x69cm it felt ambitious but it was more than about time I stopped restricting myself to tiny pieces.

The location is recognisably Marchmont, Edinburgh, the chapel transposed from a block away. I think the painting works quite well as a decorative urban landscape, but there is also a strong underlying narrative.

At first glance it’s a slightly fantastical street scene of some trees behind a wall, and three figures. When you have figures in a painting, you can often construct a narrative, maybe even the one that you’re meant to. You just need to ask a few questions, like; where have the couple come from and where are they going? Why is there an armed guard on the gate? The couple could be Adam and Eve, so are there snake or god references anywhere? If we’re correct, they’ve just been thrown out of a pretty free and unrestricted place (by all accounts) into an uncomfortable world of hard edges and rules. Does that fit? If so, what are the characters’ states of mind?

Well, most of the clues are there somewhere: the gated wall, the snake-branched apple tree, a chapel. As the title indicates, this painting shows the expulsion from Eden, but set here and now. It’s a very traditional subject, usually as a good excuse to show nudey bodies, but it’s also one where you can explore big human emotions as well.

I was listening to all sorts of stuff while working on this, but especially ‘The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’. The track ‘Soldier’ resonated very strongly once the figures were in place.

There’s a lot of chlorophyll represented in this painting, and I’ve always been a bit nervous about greens. Chrome and Viridian are docile but expensive. Terre Verte is lovely but weak. That really only leaves (gulp) - Phthalocyanine. I’ve got its blue cousin house-trained, but those pthalo greens – they’re still out there… feral.