Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sun Study with Fallen Icarus

oil on panel 24x18cm

I was in a gallery recently and noticed that, in one landscape, the painter had included the Sun. It struck me that all the light in my own work was indirect, and that I hadn’t really tackled how to depict the Sun full on.

I looked at how other painters had done it and did some watercolour sketches while glancing extremely briefly sunwards.

I found an interesting sunlit view to experiment with (Iceland) – and the study was going fine, but it seemed incomplete. I woke up at 5am one day with the answer – Icarus. During my Non-Painting Interval, images of Icarus had bubbled up occasionally, enough to actually note them down, so I’m quite glad that he’s made a much-delayed appearance. It’s a very small panel, and went quite well, though the light around the Sun is a little too greenish – which I’ll solve elsewhere.

There is another, much more interesting and thought-provoking, very beautiful and very moving painting that features Icarus, by Pieter Brueghel. This Flemish painter has been a favourite of mine since my early teens, and, though commonly considered a ‘pretty’ painter, his work is often very dark under closer scrutiny. 

In ‘Children’s Games’ for instance, the perspective lines will direct you to an execution. This was painted in 1560, during the Reformation, when heretics were regularly burnt. The soldiers in ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ are Spanish. At the time, there was a Flemish Protestant revolt, which was brutally suppressed by the Catholic overlord Philip II of Spain. The figure in black in the centre is the Duke of Alba - the Spanish commander. Brueghel himself considered his own private drawings and sketches so dangerous that on his deathbed, he instructed his wife to burn them.

Before I, reluctantly, leave Brueghel behind, I’ll just include W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ -

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on

Friday, October 25, 2013


oil on canvas 90x60 cm

A while ago I did a whole load of landscape composition exercises. I cut a little card window with which I drew 2-inch rectangles in the sketchbook, and then viewed the computer screen through it while browsing through google streetview. I did loads of quick little watercolours, just sitting down listening to music, finding compositions and working them out. It’s actually quite a good exercise on a dark rainy day.

As it happens, as I was doing this particular view, near Cherbourg, I became aware that this track was playing. It worked well with the road winding away and the rather melancholy dark trees. I left the idea alone for a while, and waited for something to gel for this setting.

Some time later I was searching for pictures of destroyed tanks, and found myself on a Ukrainian militaria site. I was going through all this ghastly stuff, when I came across a post with three or four pictures of some very well-to-do 1940’s people standing in a road, then some lying down face–down beside it in an orderly row. My Russian isn’t that good, but I knew enough. They were Sudeten German civilians, rounded up in Prague a couple of days after the war’s end by the local Czech resistance, marched to a suburb called Borislavka, and just shot.

It didn’t take much to put the two ideas together – the horrific within the beautiful. The figures were worked out in last month’s pencil drawing, and the landscape tweaked. It had to have quite a lot of foreground reworking, juggling of trees, and a completely new sky (at least twice on the canvas). 

I wanted the eye to move from the distance to foreground – along the road the figures had walked - and be stopped at the trees. I tried flipping it so that the trees were on the left, but then it read, to me, as though the figures were the starting point, and that the image was about the absence of the perpetrators, who had walked away down the road. I think this may be something to do with the Western writing system – we naturally read from left to right, and that implies a sequence of events. I’m not sure if this is a strict visual rule, but it works for me in this case.

Technically I’m quite pleased with how this has gone. I am aware of how dark (physically) my paintings are getting, so I set quite a light - for me - ‘darkest tone’, which has been quite successful. I kept the forms fairly broad and resisted the temptation to use smaller brushes until absolutely necessary. It was very difficult doing the figures, as they are very small indeed. They still have to read as figures without the tiny delicate marks catching the eye and dragging it in too quickly.

It works though, and has definitely been worth the effort to get it right.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cloud Study

watercolour 19x13.5cm

As the sun sets earlier and earlier in the afternoon, I’ve been sitting sketching the sky again. This one’s done on budget 300gm paper – the surface starts to break up with heavier handling when it’s soaked – so I was extra careful about doing any wet manipulation or scraping. I actually fanned the surface dry between stages, and this seems to be the way forward with this technique - certainly with this particular paper, of which I have rather a lot. It does mean, though, that you have to remember very strongly what the original vision was.

Most of the cloud is done with ivory black, with little hints of Payne’s grey. The warm sunlit areas were washed very lightly with Burnt Sienna into Indian Yellow after light dry scraping to bring back the paper whiteness. If you look at the bottom corners of the blank border you can just make out where a run of wash seeped beneath the masking tape surround. I managed to scrape most of that off too, so that worked out quite well.

The blade I used for this delicate operation was my trusty Swiss Army Knife, which I’ve had about me since 1980. I lost it recently, but found it again - ten minutes after the new one arrived. So that worked out quite well too…

Friday, October 11, 2013

Banana Skins

watercolour 10x14.5cm

Just for a much-needed change, here’s a reference drawing done from life. Yes, it’s a banana skin, or rather three of them.

Quite a quick small watercolour, this took just a few hours earlier today. Purely transparent layers with no added gouache, it’s a bit clumsy and probably overworked, but some bits work quite well. 

I find the way the skins distort as they dry and harden very interesting. A group - or bunch - of them becomes almost unrecognisable, and quite suggestive of other non-banana forms

Quite a long way from the classic comedy prop…