Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wreck No.9

oil on papered canvas 31x25cm

Just like waiting for a bus, there are none for ages then three come along at once.

The whole point of this piece was to produce a quick, loosely-painted, straightforward, beautiful landscape that I could maybe punt through a commercial gallery for money. No High-brow Layers of Meaning, no Art, no Big Ideas about the Human Condition, just a Sellable Pretty Picture.

Well, that idea started off really well, and - without any squaring up or preliminary drawing at all - I had the basics freely bashed out in an afternoon. I came back a few days later to tweak some shadows and puff up the clouds, and then it happened.

There I was, humming away, so pleased with myself, and it suddenly struck me that the painting was crying out for a wreck. It was irresistible, so there we are. The landscape is just as beautiful, the sky as innocent, but there’s now a hint of mortality. Those high street galleries will just have to wait.

Having finished all the works in progress that’s me relaxing for the Year End. No doubt I’ll be doing little sketchy bits over the holiday period, but I’ll start wrestling with the next batch of planned work in January. And just so that you know, I AM aware that I have to work faster.

But that’s me done for the year, so Cheeers…

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wreck No.8

oil on canvas 51x51cm

Hard on the heels of Wreck No.7, this piece is carrying on the idea first explored in Wreck No.6 in August – a section of damaged tank forming a ‘landscape’ beneath a sky. I’m still not convinced that the idea has legs, mainly because a landscape usually involves distance, and a wreck silhouette usually does not. We’ll see…

I was on the verge of abandoning this piece not long ago. I had doubts about my first cloud patterns and painted a very mixed, layered sky. Well, that lacked focus so I painted a great big rising cumulus in the middle, and that didn’t work either. Describing all the contortions I put that poor sky through would make very tedious reading, so suffice to say that I ended up utilising my original idea (the lower shining group) - but slightly smaller.

I think the tank element contrasts better than in Wreck No.6, and is a bit more suggestive of a dead thing. The damage is adapted from other images and not particularly exaggerated.

At the moment, the painting is hung in front of the bookcase next to Madam’s sofa. She has been lying looking up at it and seeing shifting shapes in the clouds.

Which is VERY flattering…

Friday, December 16, 2011

Wreck No.7

oil on canvas 91x91cm

I was just idly browsing for interesting landscapes when I came across a field with white cows. They struck me as being very pastoral and mysterious, and suggest a distinctly ‘Arcadian’ context. The wreck was chosen very carefully from my now disturbingly large library of destroyed tank photos. It doesn’t sit but seems to lay on the ground, and where the superstructure tilts towards the grass, the angles are similar to the cows’ tucked-under forelegs - an interesting rhyme across contrasting subjects.

I’m sorry to say that painting this was mostly very frustrating: I misjudged the tones of the sky and grass right at the start, and it took several corrections to get them as I wanted. As the cows were outlined fairly carefully in the setting-out, repainting the grass around them each time was a major chore. The light was to be quite subtle and I had trouble gauging the tones for a dull but luminous sky. I was grateful that painting the tank was pretty straightforward, and I have already written about the problems drawing cows in the previous post.

However, painting the middle and far distance was pure joy. I loved unrolling the landscape, and at times it seemed to paint itself. Not that it matters, but the wheatfields and trees are from France, and the valley and hills are Strathearn in Perthshire.

Though it was finished over a week ago, I’ve been working on this since summer, and a lot of music has come through the speakers since then. There isn’t a specific mood-setter, but I was listening to Shostakovich’s 24 Piano Preludes and Fugues a lot. If you’re tempted, here’s Keith Jarret playing No16 in B flat minor . This is the first version I came across and it got me keen to hear others. I usually listen to Konstantin Scherbakov’s - on Naxos - which I think is slightly more delicate but less available to link to on a blog.

I don’t know why but I felt very sad after having finished this, even though it’s quite a good painting, and I had to go for a big walk up the road. Often, finishing a piece is like the culmination of a hunt – having stalked it I’m chasing the painting and it’s twisting and turning trying to get away, and I’m getting closer and closer and then with the last dab and smear, I’ve got it. Signed and dated, Painter Triumphans.

This time I’d thought that I’d be relieved to finish it, but as soon as I had, it felt as though I’d just lost something.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


pencil 10.25x6cm

Oh dear. The end of November is almost here without me having posted anything. My hours book (yes, hours book) tells me that I have been working slowly but solidly on two paintings. Admittedly, there have been small diversions - tiny landscape sketches, devising and constructing a lighting system, and a short trip to London (AFC Wimbledon 1- Swindon 1) and Wales - but what have I got to show for it?

One of the paintings (see Works in Progress) features twelve white cows. Now, it is over thirty years since I seriously attempted to draw any kind of ruminant, and I was experiencing no end of frustration trying to depict these animals convincingly. As the work developed, their forms, especially those further away, shifted through cow, sheep, and horse, and occasionally veered towards dog. Rather than spend another week creating mutant farmyard animals, I decided to study the beasts in question the best way I know how – by making many drawings of the damned things.

So, I find myself almost at the end of a long November looking to finish at least this piece before the disruption of the so-called festive season, and here is a drawing of a cow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Watercolour Wreck

watercolour 18.5x11cm

With the watercolour stuff still set out on the worktop, it was just a matter of time before I had go at seeing how the medium could tackle a tank wreck.

I wanted to paint it in complete transparency - where highlights needed to be reintroduced they had to be washed out, rather than slipped in with gouache or acrylic. Luckily I didn’t have to correct that much, and a bit of washing out helped in getting that bright horizon, where over-painting in opaque would have drawn undue attention to itself. I think that the general idea of opposite qualities (air/solid, soft/hard, gentle/harsh etc) still comes across – so I count this little exercise as a success.

(And so fast…)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two Watercolours

watercolour 28x17cm

watercolour 19x12cm

I am waiting for two very, very oily pieces to dry, so I thought I’d get some watercolour practice in. I’m always roaming through Google Streetview looking for useful references, and there are a few landscapes I’ve been meaning to explore further. These two weren’t painted from prints or photos, but directly from the computer screen.

The autumn view was done first. It’s in Northern France, about 1.16km along Rue Houvin, heading southwest from Neuvillette to Occoches. It’s a lovely little wooded valley and there are some very interesting looking white cattle further along. I find the red trees and horizontal light very dramatic, and I love the rolling forms of this whole area. It’s quite similar to parts of southern England - but not as built-up, and the scale of everything is much smaller.

I don’t think it’s a bad piece, but the marks are a bit clumsy and some of the shadow a little too harsh. If I were to do it again I’d leave out the single tree on the right; it blocks the interesting stuff further away, weakens the negative space, and is just a bit too obvious and twee.

The other watercolour, with wheat and woods, is in Denmark. It’s postcard-sized, and, realising the cloddiness of the other one, I tried to be more concise and accurate. The paper wasn’t very absorbent, and the hard edges have helped in describing the texture of the foliage – a happy accident I’m quite pleased with.

The location is by Bronderslevvej, the road heading southwest from Frederikshavn. The land there is all rolling golden wheat fields and dark clumps of trees, and is dotted with ancient burial mounds straight out of Johan Thomas Lundbye (nice clouds, Mr Lundbye).

I think that recently I’ve maybe got a bit bogged down with the bigger paintings. Oil paint is lovely, lovely stuff, but sometimes slogging away at the same idea for weeks on end can get a bit monotonous and unrewarding. Dogged persistence is an overrated attribute and I think a stimulating change of media is quite healthy, and overdue.

Watercolour is immediate and mercurial, and it’s quite satisfying to see a row of finished wee paintings cut and dried before teatime…

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Duddingston Loch

oil on papered canvas 31x25cm

A break from the usual grind, this is a commission from Madam. When she first came to Edinburgh in the early 1980’s she worked as a nanny with a family in Duddingston, who we still see. She often took the eldest, then about three, off to the loch to feed the ducks.

The wee girl got married earlier on this year, and Madam asked me to do a painting of Duddingston Loch as a wedding gift. We thought it would be an idea to suggest a look back to those days.

It sails close to the sentimental but I think the optimism and freshness of the sky blows that away, and the image works perfectly well without knowing the back-story. The canvas is quite small but there’s a wide variety of paint handling there – quite dry from a splayed out hoghair in the tree to smooth blended oily in the water and sky. It was a challenge doing the birds and figures so that the tiny, tiny marks were simultaneously unobtrusive and recognisable. I think they work quite well, especially the swans on the water and the geese under the tree.

There’s definitely a mood set-up track for this – Sigur Ros’ ‘Takk’. Click here Takk - Very shimmery and bright.

The painting’s not perfect but it’s gone as far as it’s going, so as soon as the paint is good and dry, we’ll go for tea at Duddingston and pass it over. Most important, Madam loves it, and is sure it’ll be appreciated.

And it made her cry.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wreck No.6

oil on canvas 51x51cm

I seem to remember that this series started with a destroyed tank and a beautiful sky, so this one is a bit ‘Back to Basics’.

The sky is fairly simple - cumulus on blue. The tank, and I’m not sure if this idea works or not, is meant to seem like a landscape. Hmm. Let's just say that I quite like the contrasting shapes and textures between the two subjects.

Technically this piece is a step forward. For starters, I used touches of Magenta throughout, so it has a strange overall colour. As well as that I put some stand oil in some of the glazes and dabbed, not stroked, them on. That solved my problem of how to make the fine tone/colour gradients in the sky and the soft blended ‘cloudiness’ of the nearer clouds. Prior to that I would have made up a lot of oily free-flowing paint and physically worked the colours together on the surface. The dabbing deposits a thin transparent-ish glaze vertically onto the surface with a brush or pad. Repeated semi-transparent layers can intensify colours, and I’m quite pleased with the blueness of the blue (mixes of Payne’s Grey, Ultramarine and Prussian Blues and Zinc White).

The hard metal was great fun to do. Wettish paint, dryish paint, thicker paint, thinner paint, opaque paint and transparent paint – basically I just made it up as I went along with a refreshing lack of theory and planning.

I mentioned the blue earlier. I am no longer at home to Pthalo blue (or its nasty cousin Pthalo Green). It has behaved in a consistently boisterous and unruly manner and no matter how I have tried to calm it down and make it feel settled, I feel that it has let the work down, has let me down, but most of all has let itself down. My new friend Prussian blue doesn’t upset the rest of the palette, mixes genially with yellows to make healthy greens, and doesn’t leave lurid stains all over my brushes…

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wreck No.5

oil on canvas 91x91cm

Let me introduce this by writing what someone else thought about the painting at first sight.

A little while ago, when this was almost finished, an old pal came round to the house. As soon as he entered the room he started looking at the painting. I started explaining about the Wreck series, but he motioned me to silence and said that he would tell me his own reading of it.

He started by saying that it was a beautiful landscape, possibly Northern France or Germany, very pastoral. He spoke about the clouds, and then said that the tank looked like a beast. He liked the way the grass on the right blew into the crop field, and led you back to the wood. He stood and looked at it a bit more, then asked if he had got it right.

Well, he had. He’d ticked all the key elements. ‘Beautiful landscape’, ‘Pastoral’, ‘Beast’. He even got the French location right. As you can imagine, I was well pleased.

This painting seems to have taken ages to do. I think I started it in May, but then I had to stop for a week for a big priming session. Wreck No6 has been on the go at the same time, and Madam has had the few days off in the house. If you take that time away, then I suppose it’s been reasonably efficient, but everything still seems to take such a long time. There’s no specific music mood primer for this, but I did enjoy being reacquainted with Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ - that guitar solo from ‘Time’ still fair blows the cobwebs away.

Anyway, I’m glad that Bill understood that the piece wasn’t just militaria (i.e. a portrait of a tank in a field) but more like a slain dragon in a landscape, and when I explained the ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ tradition - the evidence of Death in a pastoral Idyll - it seemed to make sense to him.

As I hope it does to you…

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bright Stratocumulus

pencil and crayon 21x21cm

I had a little brainwave when cloud sketching last week – don’t use watercolour.

I’ve had various crayons hanging about for ages and never really used them, but on this particular sunny afternoon last week it all fell into place. The drawing is on very some thin copy paper that I had handy, and luckily I didn’t have to be too robust.

I’m quite pleased with it – it has quite an energetic dash and gets the general brightness across. It’s not just all effect either, and I’m sure that there’s enough re-creatable information here to use as reference for other work.

In case you’re wondering, the number 156 is the sketch sheet number. All my A4 out-the-window sketches are numbered and kept in order.

This is the first time that I’ve ever referred to a page number, and now that I think about it, I’m not actually sure why I started.

It does sound like I’m very organised and know what I’m doing though…

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tiny Evening Sky

watercolour 5.5x8.5cm

This tiny piece is the view out of the sitting room from where I sit on the sofa. It’s just past 10pm, and I know that because I painted it while listening to the News on TV on Monday night.

The latitude here in Edinburgh is about 55 degrees - the same as Moscow and the lower edge of Hudson’s Bay (though without the climatic inconveniencies). In this little sketch you’re looking northwards, and the sun has been below the horizon for about half an hour. In mid-winter, this would look very different as it is dark by 4.30pm.

At this time of year, nearly a month after Midsummer, the sun rises at 4.45am. For some reason, I very rarely see it…

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Quick Sketch

pencil 8x10cm

Unfortunately I haven’t actually finished anything grand this month (been busy though, see Work in Progress) so here’s something very small and very humble. It’s a tiny sketch done from the front seat at the top of a No10 bus while going along Princes Street. The cloud was the main thing, but as the bus kept having to stop – as they do - I had time to indicate a bit of Calton Hill (because it was there). N.B. It is inadvisable to make marks when the bus in motion – messy.

It was drawn in a plain notebook but I’ve taped the page into my large sketchbook, otherwise it would get lost/knackered/smudged etc, and I wouldn’t have had it to show.

The point is not that this is a particularly meaningful piece of ‘Art’, but that it was dashed off from life in a spare moment. Which is a Good Thing.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Wreck No.4

oil on canvas 91x91cm

I was idly following a road in Finland using Google Streetview, and found this melancholy view of birches and spruce up north – it turned out to be Pallastunturi National Park.

After shifting a few trees, replacing the original bland stratocumulus, and adding a more distant horizon I felt I had an interesting piece to develop. The wrecked tank of the title is basically a StuG IV, I think, and I find its harsh angular presence within the serene natural setting very exciting.

While painting this I was listening a lot to Max Richter’s Infra (copy and paste into a new tab or window to listen) all of which seems to fit the mood, but ‘Infra 7’ - - is a good aural illustration of the clear thin verticals and wide distant hills.

It felt good to be working on a 91cm/3ft square canvas again, in fact it was quite liberating. I’ve got Wreck No5 started on one already, and I’ll be priming up three more soon.

The only problem is where to put these things where our cats can’t get at them. Looks like I’ll have to clear out under the bed...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


watercolour/gouache 14x10.5cm

Edinburgh had quite interesting gales and showers yesterday. Late morning I could see Big Clouds moving around, so I tore myself away from the easel (not difficult), gathered my watercolour gear and trekked up Blackford Hill.

It was too windy to stay at the top, but I found a sheltered hollow facing the Forth. I sat through a short hail shower, then unpacked my sketching stuff. After an hour of hesitant starts and ineffective splashing about of watercolour, I turned and looked south over the edge of the hollow. There, sailing slowly by, was this magnificent Cumulonimbus - with fleecy edges and dark streaks of altocumulus.

Working quickly, as if in slo-mo, the sky was laid in, cloud wiped off, highlights gouached, darker bits dibbled in – job done. I started to indicate the foreground, but before I could draw enough detail to scale it, another cumulonimbus that had crept up over the top of the hill opened up and I was caught in a withering hail of rain and, er, hail. With everything getting wet, I gave in, quickly packed my gear and retreated home.

Looking at this later, I saw that the wet green had taken the rain spots. The foreground is unfinished, and isn’t fixed in space, but I liked the rawness of the sketch, and that the rain had made a visible impact on it.

However, next time I go out sketching, I’ll maybe pick a day that’s slightly less elemental…

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ash Tree and Fireworks

oil on canvas 31x25cm

A very quick painting for me, only about ten hours work.

The scene, from memory, is last year’s festival fireworks as Madam and I saw them from Montpelier. I worked the composition out later from reference photos in an ink and watercolour sketch, and meant to do the finished piece on a three foot canvas last year, but I bottled out when the time came. As it happened, when painting this version I couldn’t access the photos on my computer so had to work directly from the sketch, which was interesting.

It was quite a good subject to explore the layering of transparent blacks and whites, and treating the work more as play rather than ‘Art’ loosened me up quite a lot.

All in all, quite a good exercise, and, I still have a large-ish canvas primed and ready to go...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Evening Altocumulus

watercolour and gouache 14x10.5cm

Last week we had some beautiful diffuse evening skies, and I thought I’d try out my new grey-tinted Bockingford heavy-duty watercolour paper. The shapes are bit all-over-the-place and the blue strip of sky is probably too dark, but this quickish sketch is a good reminder, to me, of how it was.

I have to say that I really don’t recommend drawing directly into the sun. Even if you’re able to discern the paper through the after-images flickering all over your retina, one’s judgement of colour and tonal values becomes quite alien and irregular (though that doesn’t excuse the sloppy drawing...).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Two Cloud Sketches

watercolour/gouache 14x10cm approx

March has been spent concentrating on a bigger Wreck painting (see ‘Works in Progress’ to the right) but I’ve still found time for some cloud work.

I love doing these little sky sketches – especially now that the days are longer. It’s not so much about recording particular formations - photographs are more accurate, and sit still long enough to use as reference material - it’s more about becoming familiar with how light and clouds interact.

The top one was done in six/seven minutes and has turned out very ethereal. The lower is much more worked – I added to it from memory later on that evening. It’s not bad, but it maybe lacks the life of the first.

Looking at clouds gives me immense pleasure, but that only goes so far. Drawing demands a different kind of examination, and, like the rapid figure sketches, you have to take in, simplify, and reassemble a lot of information in a short time.

I suppose I imagine that if I draw them often enough I will become so familiar with their forms as they absorb and reflect light, ebb and flow, mutate as they rise and fall, condense and evaporate, darken and glow with changing densities, let alone as they scoot and shuffle across the sky, that I won’t need to rely quite so much on still reference photos.

That’ll be the day…

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wreck No.3

oil on canvas 65x65cm

First of all, I have some good news.

I have had two pieces selected for the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) exhibition, in the Royal Scottish Academy building in Edinburgh this month - ‘Edith Stone’ and ‘Wreck No.2’, both recent. This annual event is a very prestigious show to be selected for; it shows the best contemporary stuff being produced, and only two hundred pieces were selected out of seven hundred submitted. It is confirmation that I have achieved a standard of work equal to when I last showed there – back in the early 1980s – and that the blind slog of the past few years has been worth it. So, you can imagine that this means a lot to me.

All I have to do now is build up The Body of Work, which means working even harder, and preferably less slowly. Finally got this one slogged out – through such interruptions as Xmas, hyperactive kittens, an interminable virus thing, and cold calls on the phone too numerous to mention.

Wreck No.3 takes the current series forward with a more complex landscape – a mash-up of the original photo, and landscape details sourced from Google Streetview. The sky is from various photos, and modified where composition demanded – specifically the darker diagonal shapes that funnel the eye down the right.

The tank is a Hetzer, an ambush gun, and the paint scheme is not exaggerated. I wanted to use its own camouflage to diffuse its very angular form so that the damage (the only bits using black) seems more shocking.

So, that’s done. Meanwhile I’ll have to see what’s in the In-tray - got to get on with that Body of Work…