Wednesday, August 16, 2017


oil on canvas 100x80cm

Before we begin, get the speakers on and the music track clicked. Hear the piano? Off we go…

Some of you will recognise that this is Kate Bush singing ‘Wuthering Heights’. For those too young or forgetful, this was her debut hit single, which featured memorably on Top of Tops in 1978. You’ll probably be aware that the song is based around Emily Bronte’s novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ – the Heathcliff and Cathy story. 

Some paintings seem to paint themselves, this one didn’t for some reason. Not only is it larger than usual, but it’s quite heavy due to the much thicker stretchers needed, and I pulled my back quite seriously one day while raising it awkwardly on the easel. The blue sky and upper clouds were washed off and repainted once, then overpainted three or four times during the campaign to achieve the right colour and wispiness. The hardness and cragginess of the rock cliffs were built up – counter-intuitively perhaps - with thin veils of opaque/transparent paint, so they took a long time. The cumulus masses on the left kept developing unwanted hard edges, and the colourful young lady (inserted last, after the sky was completed) got very stroppy and refused to be convincing in all the important criteria – stance, colour, tone, solidity, and recognisability. 

Which was annoying, as she is obviously the primary attraction, seeing as how she’s dancing around in a bright red dress against the sky at the edge of a cliff. The grass, happily, took pity on me, and its painting went fairly effortlessly.

Arriving at the right image source for the rocks was a lengthy process too. Initially I was trying to work with composites of Buckstones Edge, but I just couldn’t get a workable skyline shape. (I think it might have been the chance discovery of these rocks that sparked the whole idea) At one point I was desperate enough to consider looking at Salisbury Crags up the road. Luckily it was raining, so I did one more picture search and discovered the Almscliffe Crag. This outcrop was everything I was looking for, and it has a wonderful shallow concave cliff face. As a bonus, it’s a proper Yorkshire feature, which is nice. I’ve flipped the crags left-to-right and altered the scale – they’re actually a lot more massive than suggested here – but the lighting on the source image was perfect for the bright sky I’d already chosen, so I just bluffed the scale. The vital green counter-curve of sunlit ground was a serendipitous contrast with the dead, hard rock.

On the left there’s a bundle of smaller cumulus clouds, and this is where the piece’s title makes sense. If you haven’t spotted them already, there are a couple of transparent figures there, looking up with interest at the young singer. They are, of course, the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff. They’re taken from a couple of stills from William Wyler’s Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon film version. I didn’t want them to be immediately visible so I’ve camouflaged them a bit by putting them against a more contrasting cloud background. Possibly too invisible, but we’ll see.

My scenario is that young Kate is belting out her piece at the very crags where the young lovers used to meet – where the novel suggests their shades were last spotted - and that Heathcliff and Cathy are still there. Though the singer is telling their story, she is oblivious to their presence.

Boiled down, it’s an image about the continuing presence of the dead, and, perhaps, a comforting notion that they can be approving of the living.

I’m aware that the narrative isn’t obvious, and that it will probably become impenetrable within a couple of decades. The viewer has to know all four of the elements - the singer, the song, the novel, and its storyline – which will become a rarer and rarer occurrence as time grinds on, and the recognition factor might be stronger if the title was ‘The Ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy’. Hmm. Purely as an image though, without the pop and literary references, I still think it has legs, and it does have some interesting bits of painting in it (the rocks and grass if you hadn’t noticed, and I’m also quite pleased with the mix of reds in the dress)

Anyway, it’s done now, and I’m going to have a bit of a rest before starting on to the next piece.

Which, with a bit of luck, will go a bit easier…

Sunday, July 30, 2017

More Figures and a Seagull


Yet another pencil window work I’m afraid, which is an admission of two things: 

a) That I still haven’t finished the painting I wanted to get finished. I did think that I’d manage to get it done by the end of July and be able to post it on the blog this month, but the final - most important element - is proving to be difficult and elusive, stubbornly refuses to convince, and to compound its general recalcitrance is refusing to dry as fast as I would like it to. Every morning, I check my side-sample, and every morning my fingertips feel the slight tackiness – reducing a bit, day by day – that signals ‘Unsafe paint surface, liable to lift with the slightest agitation. You labour here at your peril’. Very frustrating, but at least I have taken the decision not to over-hurry it – the painting, after all, does only get made once.

b) That I’m really enjoying doing these little life sketches in pencil. 

They are tiny – most full-length figures are no more than 2-3 inches, so they’re much more about drawing from the wrist than from the shoulder. This month I’ve diversified slightly away from the random figures that wander into view, and have been attempting to draw the birds that flit past – mostly seagulls and pigeons. It’s a funny thing, but while I can recognise a gull in flight instantaneously – even from quite far away off – analysing quite why that is, and then recreating it with marks on paper is quite a different thing. And they move so fast – they make the movement of humans and clouds seem positively glacial in comparison.

By the way, two more things: 
c) That’s not John Cooper Clarke there, just a passing Goth. 

d) I am aware that there is no such species as ‘Seagull’. In Edinburgh, on the North Sea coast, we are treated to several specific species such as Herring Gull, Lesser & Greater Black-Blacked Gulls, Black-Headed Gull, and Common Gull. I am at present not confident of identifying these species accurately, so I am, of course, using the term as a generic.

And finally: 
e) Enjoy the poem…

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Humble Pencil


I’ve been painfully aware that my rapid Watercolour Window Work exercises have become stale and much less rewarding over the last few months. Short of actually concentrating and working bit harder, which is difficult, I’ve taken the easier solution and changed my tools – hence the switch to pencil.

Actually, it’s been a very pleasant return. What’s not to like – it’s correctable when necessary, it’s dry, and unlike a wet brush doesn’t have ‘apparatus’ or the need to be re-charged with wash. The range of marks, and colour of course, is more restricted than the watercolour, but the pencil does have immediacy and speed that the watercolour can’t match, and that’s what these little live sketches are all about.

They’re still about the same size as the watercolour figures, but can be a touch smaller (the smaller the faster, as in the one of the bloke on the bike - which is about 4cm from helmet to tyre – and which simply would’ve been an indeterminate blob in watercolour).

The paper is still the A4 copy paper, and the graphite is the narrow 4B in my Staedtler clutch pencil, which keeps everything nice and clean, and probably favours my more linear style. I was never particularly fond of grinding away with a 6B – I always seemed to end up with most of it on my face – but it might be interesting to look one out that’s not broken-all-the-way-through and give it a whirl. I’ll see what happens.

I think it’s maybe quite odd that I’ve walked away from the pencil over the years. I think I stopped using one regularly for figure drawing at College when I began favouring Conte crayon for the hours and hours of studio work we had to do. Art Colleges were pretty strong on studio drawing then, and Monday was ‘Figure Drawing’ day. All day. If I remember correctly (and there may be some doubt about that) we started at 9.30 till maybe 12, then carried on after an hour’s lunch till 4pm, and that was, more often than not, a Single Pose. After a break for a cuppa, we’d have another session from 4.30 till 6.30 – with a different model, and maybe broken into two poses – just to finish off the day. It did actually pay off, because there was quite a high level of draughtsmanship amongst the students at the time, and I found that I was getting quite good results with the fine bistre, sanguine, and white Conte hard ‘pastel’ sticks (I loathed the dead black ones – completely lifeless). After College, if I was doing ‘window work’ or fast sketching off the telly, or landscape (which I did very, very, rarely indeed) I would most likely use watercolour (usually Indigo). When I started Artypainting again in 2007 one of the first things I discovered was that I had lost all the facility in my drawing, so I went off to Life Drawing classes, and what drawing medium did I use to get back into it? Yup, my trusty Conte crayons. I’ve used pencil for working ideas out, of course, but never for ‘serious’ work since, ooh, probably, the late 1970’s. 

Which is a long time ago. About when this was playing every night on the juke box in Clarks Bar – where the art students’ drank, across the road from the college at the top corner of Lady Lawson Street. Not to be confused or mistaken for the other Clarks Bar (no connection) in Dundas Street. ‘Our’ Clarks Bar was also across the road from the Fire Station, so it had a quite strange atmosphere – the front bar had the fireman, who were fairly burly down-to-earth guys, very good at darts, while in the back lounge were all these young, arty long-haired, earnestly questing, collarless shirt wearing, hedonistic ‘finding themselves’ types who couldn’t handle their drink very well, who dominated the juke box. For some reason it changed its name to ‘Tap o’ Lauriston’ in the early 80’s and became quite the trendy hotspot for New Romantics and synthesizer bands, party contacts etc, until it suddenly all changed. One Saturday evening myself and Mr Walsh trotted along there looking for a good time, and the place was empty – both bars. We asked the barman (his first night) why, and he said that he wasn’t sure, but that someone had been murdered there a few days before. Well, more than a little shocked, we finished our drinks, and like everyone else had before us, moved on, never to return. The bar closed shortly after that, then the block was demolished, and a Novotel now occupies that space, blandly unaware of its colourful predecessor. 

Hmm. Well, there’s an anecdote you maybe didn’t expect to hear. I only posted a Window Work because I haven’t managed to finish anything this month, and I didn’t imagine for a minute that I’d be diving so deeply into the Waters of Nostalgia. Powerful stuff, that graphite.

To the humble pencil then, unjustly overlooked…

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Wheatfield – late August

oil on card 30x20cm

Another view from the train - late afternoon, last August. It’s a combination of two photos taken ten minutes apart; one had a bright wheatfield with a dull sky, the other of a very interesting sky with a dull landscape. (Interesting, for me, to see how dramatically the sky changed between the two photos.) The central cloud form appears to be a low cumulus trying hard to become a multi-layered lenticular*, and, sadly, not quite making it. 

The viewpoint is high because the train has just crossed the River Almond – which curves away northwards through the line of trees on the right. This is just west of the industrial estate that is Newbridge, and about 500metres from the end of the airport runway. I’ve edited all of that out, so the setting isn’t actually as rural a scene as I’m letting on. 

Overall, the light is the thing. I’ve made an extra effort with the sky, and thought a bit about maximising the clarity of the colour. It’s a combination of Utramarine and Winsor Blue (a redder shade of Pthalocyanine Blue), and Zinc White. The thinking behind those specific pigments is that the touch of Pthalo give a pungency to the Ultramarine, while the Zinc allows the maximum saturation at lighter tones. For the blend/fade I reverted to the cloth ‘dabber’ pad, which seems to produce a smoother texture at this (small) scale than my usual soft stippling brushes. The clouds had been roughly indicated at the setting-out stage, but I didn’t bother about preserving their outlines too rigidly, as I planned to draw them properly once I was satisfied with the background ‘blueness’. The first greys in the clouds were calibrated to be about the same tones as the sky to increase the blue, and were worked darker and lighter quite carefully.

Just in passing: Grey is a very useful colour for boosting adjacent colours. I first really appreciated this phenomenon when doing the antique furniture – you could make the polished wood of a glazed bookcase positively buzz if the interior was a matted mid-grey.

That’s it really, quite chuffed though…

*Commonly, and descriptively, known as a ‘Pile d’assiettes’

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Trees – Glazovo

oil on canvas 56x56cm

I got this image when pootling fairly randomly around Russian back roads on the Google Streetview, and was struck by this ‘cave’ I found in the trees on the edge of a village called Glazovo. I did think about adding figures, and did try out a barking dog early in the compositional stage, but it seemed to be too much. So, no figures or anything else lurking here, just the dark.

Sometimes an image strikes you for no reason, but I think I was reminded of seeing a particular painting by Edward Hopper in a magazine when I was in my mid-teens. There’s something a little unsafe about those murky shadows.

Technically, there are lots of thin glazes in this, most of the thin darks and stronger shadows in the trees are made using Prussian Blue and Raw or Burnt Umber, and a lot of the greens are a pure transparent Yellow Lake laid over them. Come to think of it, with this subject matter and colour range I could’ve saved myself an awful lot of bother by establishing the masses in monochrome. More straightforwardly though, the central ‘dark’ is a simple glaze made with pure Ivory Black. The idea is to differentiate that particular area from the rest in an effort to make it a bit edgy, like the shadow in the Hopper. This layered transparent surface is actually very rich, but possibly a bit overcooked. I think I started off aiming for some quite subdued late summer, overcast colours, but they see to have run a little out of control, which is interesting, but not what I was aiming for.

According to one of my painting tutors at the College of Art – Jimmy Cumming - Renoir said ‘Black is the Queen of all colours’, and that he (Renoir) had spent forty years learning how to use it. I do try to use it sparingly because it does have an impact, but then again John Singer Sargent used it all the time. Sargent was apparently quite miffed when, on a day’s painting together at Chez Monet, he asked if he could borrow some black and Monet rather sniffily told him he didn’t have any ‘cos he didn’t use it. I doubt if there was actual fisticuffs, but it’s an interesting little story that proves that there are no rules about this sort of thing.

I’m not unhappy with the bush on the left, but, like the colouring, the rest of the foliage got a little too loose and fuzzy and I think I lost control of the tree forms and masses on the right at a fairly early stage. There’s a phenomenon where the brain interprets random marks as faces. This can be useful when mapping out complex marks like foliage, but I think it started to get on top of me a bit here. I’m actually quite pleased with the sky though. I know it’s a thick overcast, but it has a glow about it. I wish I’d done it sooner – I’d worked up the foliage layers quite a lot before sorting the sky, then had to recreate the layer system over the grey overspill for the newly re-drawn tree line. This duplication of the surface-building process was entirely unnecessarily, and was very frustrating and annoying. A bit of thought at the beginning would have avoided all of that and got this piece out of the way in at least two-thirds of the time. 

I’m sure the idea’s a sound one, but at the time of writing I’m a little bit ‘meh’ about this one. Short of re-starting (No!!), I cannot think of how to take this further so I’ll just draw a line under it and let it go. It happens sometimes, but if further inspiration strikes I’ll decide then whether to pick it up again. 

Anyway, here’s some trees from Russia, and what with my curse/evil-eye/ superpower of killing trees that I’ve featured in paintings, if they’re not floorboards now they soon will be…

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


oil on card 32x18cm

Another sky exercise on small card. It’s a view from the Dunblane-Edinburgh train, looking at the low hills across the Forth river plain, just past Bridge of Allan.

It’s really about the sky of course, and most of the effort has gone into that part of the painting. The ground is treated fairly cursorily, but I think it’s still quite effective. It’s actually a fiction – a computer-generated composite. In order to get the wide sky I took three photos and put them together using a panorama stitching programme. The sky was fairly constant over that time, but because the train was belting along at 50/60mph the nearer ground features were entirely different in all three photos. The image produced wasn’t bad though, and a little tweaking brought the composite to something I could work with. Any remaining minor inconsistencies were rationalised out during the painting process.

On the technical side, I used this little piece to try out Michael Harding’s ‘Warm White Lead Alternative’. He recently introduced this in response to requests from painters (not me) to ‘synthesize’ an easily available alternative to Lead Carbonate/Flake White at a reasonable cost. It’s a blend of Titanium and Zinc whites, with a touch of Yellow Ochre, in Linseed oil. He may have added a bit of wax or something as well (purely guessing here), as it feels more like real Flake White than greasy Titanium or lightweight Zinc. It doesn’t dry in the same way though – one of the major attractions of Lead White is that it’s fast and thorough drying – but this ‘Fake Flake’ is pleasant enough, and I’m sure I’ll continue to use it. Having said that I did use Titanium white for the final top lights behind the central cloud. Sometimes you just have to.

The low hills are the magnificently-named Gargunnocks. They’re aligned with the Fintry Hills and Campsie Fells to the southwest, and feature a straight-edged escarpment along their northern edges, tilting gently down towards the south. This fault line continues northeastwards and becomes apparent again along the steep southern edge of the Ochil Hills. However, these tilt towards the north, and I’ve absolutely no idea what’s gone on there as I’m not a geologist, but visually that’s very interesting.

I do actually enjoy painting these little sky pieces. They’re something I can get done quite fast – this one clocked in at 10hrs over five sessions - and I feel I can afford to treat them quite freely and experimentally, which pays off when tackling the larger stuff.

Looking forward to the next one already - the light is strengthening by the day, and it’ll soon be Spring… 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

September 2014

oil on panel 71x61cm

You may (or may not) have noticed that there wasn’t a January blog post. I apologise. My attempts to finish this painting for last month were soundly defeated by Xmas and New Year, plus a couple of doses of man-flu and one of lady-cold during December and January - and rather than just post yet another Window Work I just didn’t post anything.

I’ve been working on this on and off since October, so it has taken a long time. It’s as finished as it’s ever going to be, though it feels a little stressed and overwrought, and not as calm and serene as I had planned. The location is a real place – a small glade on Easter Craiglockhart Hill – and I took the source photographs myself back in 2014. It was late afternoon and the sun was quite low. I’d toiled up the steep path on the ‘pond’ side (carrying my bike on my shoulder), and emerged from the trees looking down into this small open space. The decaying mauve and orange rosebay willowherb opposite were lit up by the sun, and the elms and oaks behind me cast their shadow onto the two central ash trees. The atmosphere was still, and quiet - a serene lacuna in a particularly fraught day. Which felt a little like this*

It’s painted on hardboard panel for a change; I wanted a smooth surface that didn’t need ages to prepare. Unjointed battens were glued onto the back to make a simple frame to stiffen the panel and to receive all the stringing gubbins, and it doesn’t look out of place next to the canvasses. The cutting and woodwork stuff, as always without a proper workshop, was awkward, and (literally) a pain. That slightly bending forward position seriously does my back in, and I have to stop and ‘normalise’ it every ten or twenty minutes. Buying wooden stretchers from a shop and stretching a canvas is so much easier. The priming was a doddle though, so I suppose a prepared panel is best reserved for when I need a surface fairly fast. 

When I started composing this piece I knew there would be figures in it, but I was well on the way to finishing by the time I got round to working them out. I wanted two figures; one demonstrating dominance and power over the other. I used myself as both models, spending a morning photographing myself in alternating dominant and submissive poses - which may have been puzzling for the occupants across the road - then photoshopped the two ‘me’s’ together. So if both figures resemble a portly gent in sloppy joggers that’s the reason.

I’m quite pleased with some of the paintwork on this, and as usual the best bit of painting – the pink-topped trees on the left – was done almost without thought. What I’m not pleased with is that I made a huge mistake, or misjudgement, or wrong choice, whatever you’d like to call it. I darkened the right ash (which needed to be done) with an opaque mix and let it dry. This was an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, and it meant I had to re-paint the branch and foliage forms all over again. There are, apparently, parasitic worms which alter the natural behaviour of their unfortunate hosts for their own purposes, perhaps I was a victim of one such. Who knows, but probably not.

That day in September, when I went up the hill for a wander, was exactly a week before a referendum, and a poll result had sparked off a forceful counter-action from one side. ‘Events’ were happening, and the news on the radio and telly was a wall-to-wall avalanche deployed for that side. The weather was beautiful, and I would’ve gone out and left it all behind, but I had to stay in until the parcel I was expecting arrived. I remember the whole day as stressed and unreal, a little over-saturated, and perhaps I’ve unwittingly made the painting reflect that.

Again, sorry about January. With a bit of luck, normal service will be resumed next month…

*A version of ‘La Folia’ – a popular Renaissance and Baroque tune, and also the theme for the film ‘Fargo’. Richter’s version is part of a work about Virginia Woolf, and has a couple more very intense variations, and has only recently been released . What I was actually listening to on that day and around that time was this

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Four Figures and a Canine


It’s been a while, so here’s the cream of the Window Work done since April. 

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve been particularly diligent in my pre-easel warm-ups lately, and I’ve maybe been ‘going through the motions’ a bit. I quickly realised this when going through the drawings pile and saw that most of them really weren’t up to scratch (cue extra sessions and renewed concentration over the last few days).

As usual, they are done with the usual Paynes Grey watercolour on 80gm office A4, but you might notice a change of brushmark amongst them. My Pentel Aquabrush – which I felt I’d better get used to a while back – has become quite blunt and difficult to make fine marks with. I was still using it for the heavy metal guy, the dog, and the girl on the right, but the other two figures – done over the last couple of days – are done with a new, sharper, watercolour brush. If you compare the half-man and the dog sketches – both about the same size - you’ll see that his marks are pointed and quick, whereas the dog’s are rounder, softer, and a little less precise. The worn Pentel Aquabrush has been put aside for now - and that has absolutely nothing to do with a bad workman blaming his tools.

It’s the end of 2016, and – artyworkwise - it’s been quite a good year for me. I’ve been selected for both the SSA and RSA Opens, and have had work on show at the Union Gallery. There have been some sales (I have very mixed feelings about that but I’ll move swiftly along) and people have said some very nice things about the work, which is always very nice to hear. Looking forward, I’m wanting 2017 to be calm and placid - with no external excitements and tensions - so I can a) finish the stuff I’m working on just now, b) get on with the stuff I’ve already got lined up, and c) think up more ideas (the scary bit) without being unduly distracted by ‘events’. And I wonder how that’ll work out.

No more to say really, so that’s it for 2016. A Happy and Healthy New Year to all when it comes…

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


oil on card 30x21cm

Nice little cloud study, from a photo I took in October when up Craiglockhart Hill. You’re facing broadly north-eastwards – you can see Fife across the Firth of Forth, and if you look closely there’s an indication of the Lomond Hills. It was just a quick snap of the light on the cumulus clouds, but I tweaked the foreground trees, and the near coast a bit, and I think I’ve ended up with quite an interesting little composition.

It would’ve been finished a couple of weeks ago, but I started it disastrously by not being able to get the tones and misty greys right – I was at least a couple of sessions down before I finally got to grips with them (which sounds ridiculous as it is such a tiny painting). The space between cloud ‘ceiling’ and the cumulus ‘wall’ is a little ill-defined and indistinct, but I could spend ages re-defining that so I think I’ll just leave it as is. Got there in the end though, and, as ever, the most successful bits of painting – the foreground trees – took the least bit of thought and trouble. There must be some way I can use that…

Not much else to say, really, except that the other week Madam and I went to the National Gallery of Scotland to see Carel Fabritius’ ‘The Goldfinch’ – which is on loan there from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Earlier this year we’d actually been thinking about taking a little jaunt to Holland specifically to see it, then - who’d have thought – it turned up here in Edinburgh. It was on a special stand in the middle of the gallery, but cordoned off and only viewable from about six feet away from the front. Which was a little annoying. The real thing is very different from most of the reproductions I’ve seen. The colour is quite subdued - though the pale yellow wing flash leaps out – but I did get a new sense of how just cramped into the right side of the painting the bird is, and how it seems to sit in its own shadow. There is a theory that it’s designed to be a piece of trompe l'oeil – so true-to-life that you’re tricked into thinking it’s real - but I’m not so sure, as the shadows seem a little inconsistent. The perches are lit from above, but the main shadows seem to slant upwards. This indicates, to me, that the light source – probably a window - is below, which, cruelly, means that the bird cannot ever see the sky. 

The ropes at the side allowed me to stand a bit closer and I was able to get a better look. The quickness of the drawing is superb. The painter has introduced a slight droop to the tail feathers, but as I leaned in close enough to focus clearly on the face I was shocked. This wee bird looking at me was so sad, so beaten, so hopeless. I can feel it still.

The picture was painted in 1654. I saw it in 2016, and it reached out.

That is what very good painting can do…

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Big Cumulus

oil on card 30x25cm

Google streetview is an excellent tool for sourcing landscapes, but it’s also pretty useful for finding skies as well. The source for this very small painting is from Russia – just outside a town called Kalachinsk, about fifty miles east of Omsk – where the summer weather has generated a dynamic sky, and the flat landscape allows an uninterrupted view of it.

I’ve tweaked a couple of elements from the original image; the hillock at the right edge has been developed from a clump of trees as a compositional support, and I’ve generally turned the colour up a bit. 

I wanted to play with the blue, and I fancied having a patch of clear sky separating the main clouds for some reason. I couldn’t make it work though. Madam couldn’t see at a glance which one was nearest, so I drifted some of the cumulus on the right behind the closer central one, and that’s made that space feel a bit more secure. Pimping up the blue meant I had to develop (invent) some aerial perspective, so I introduced an Ultramarine glaze fading upwards from the horizon, which I have to say works very well. It’s a shame that the distant clouds under the glaze weren’t done a bit more carefully though; the paint was quite clumsy and ‘lumpen’ – not smooth enough – and I think that hinders the near-to-far recession.

On an interesting technical note though, I returned to my old enemy Radioactive Blue for a more intense clear sky colour. I used a tiny bit of it – handled at a distance with tongs, and shielded by protective clothing* - with Ultramarine and Zinc White in a fairly translucent base mix, and built up a couple of layers of Ultramarine glaze on top of it. That system produced a blue that I’m quite pleased with, but it did mean that I had to spend extra time de-toxifying my brushes. My antipathy to this pigment goes back some time, and I made a solemn vow to never, ever, use it again, as it taints and stains everything it comes in contact with. My use of it here, however, rather proves that one should never, ever, say never.

That’s about it really. It didn’t quite go to plan and took far too long, but I’m glad I kicked it into something approaching what I had in my head. Oh, and I’m quite pleased with the painting of the ground and trees. As usual, the bits which took the least effort and thought turned out the best…

* I didn’t really. I was using ‘humour’ in that sentence to convey how powerful Pthalocyanine Blue is. It seems to have a mind of its own and delights in contaminating your brushes, palette, and household. One of the cats actually had a patch of it on his fur and I have absolutely no idea how it got there. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Portrait of an Arachnophobe

oil on canvas 91x91cm

No music this time, but here’s some birdsong to accompany the picture. It’s a lark. Life is short and it’s a long post, so let’s get on with it…

Two or three years ago I’d been reading about a group of Renaissance intellectuals in Wiltshire, one of whom was a Dr Moffett. He studied insects, especially spiders, and had a daughter - possibly the original Miss Muffet. I thought it might be interesting to work the story into a pastoral landscape, but I hit trouble fairly early as I couldn’t pin down how she was to run away, and the whole thing became stupid and pointless. However, I became interested in the idea of the subject not actually being there at all – an absence at the centre - even though that might require a lot more effort on the part of the viewer. 

If the landscape looks familiar it may be because it’s the one I was working out in last May’s ‘Downs Prep Sketch’. I used more recent sources for the nearest stuff along the bottom edge; the daisies are from Bruntsfield Links, just up the road. It wasn’t mentioned in that post, but there are three landscapes stitched together here, which I shall explain.

When future archaeologists dig me up and analyse my teeth, they will conclude that I spent my earliest years on the clays and chalks of London. From our house in Croydon, with good binoculars, you could look north and westwards along the North Downs edge into deepest Surrey. I would’ve loved to have used a view from the clearing in the woods behind us – ‘my’ playground - but the only source I have is wintry. In the painting, the central dry valley featured is actually the Devil’s Kneading Trough, in the South Weald in Kent. I’ve flattened it a little, but as a dramatic stand-in it works fine. 

The island in the distance is Arran. I was sent off to school in Ayrshire, and Arran was clearly visible from the upper floor, and from the Tarbolton road when we had to do exercise runs. The peaks were part of everyday life, and were the first real mountains I had ever seen. Scotland seemed a very different place from South London - I didn’t know strange words like ‘burn’ and ‘ken’*, and didn’t understand why I was being corrected by my pals when I referred to Britain as ‘England’ (I’m sorry, but I didn’t know any better).

The darker area this side of the water is the Edinburgh/Lothian section. It’s based on the view from the B7007 as it emerges from the Moorfoot Hills – a fantastic downhill cycle if you ever find yourself there; with the wind behind you, you’re freewheeling all the way to Middleton. This section features Arthur’s Seat, the castle (slightly exaggerated), the Pentland Hills to the left, and some modified high ground to the right. I have ruthlessly vaporised Corstorphine Hill - I needed to use the sea behind it and get a bit of light going on the left. There’s no compositional fault-line dividing the Lothian and the Southern landscapes; there’s quite a lot of inventive blending of the two sources, which I think works well. Edinburgh is not that big a city, yet the world comes to it. My family migrated north here in the 1960s, as did Madam twenty years later, from USA, and I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up here.

Now, I have to draw your attention to the bottom right hand corner, where there lurks an interloper. It’s no great secret that I feel distinctly uncomfortable around a spider, especially a large-ish one – it’s entirely irrational, but there you are. This was not an easy piece of painting to do. Just sourcing the spider images on the web was tricky - I very much wanted to see them, but at the same time I very, very much didn’t. I was flicking my eyes at the screen in little bursts of focus while turning my head away as if I was kid at the dentist’s. Painting the damned thing wasn’t easy either; I had a reference image eight inches across on the laptop screen, and I was making it appear a foot away from my face. It was the last element I added, and two days before I planned to start on it a large spider appeared in the kitchen. The next evening Madam and I were up the road watching the Festival fireworks and a similar spider took up residence on the kerb just beside my foot, which spoiled my concentration a bit. I really don’t know what the spider gods were trying to tell me.

This painting took an awfully long time, not because of technical problems, but because I didn’t really believe in it. I felt that it was overblown and only got drawn in once the surfaces got going. The whole thing is really about negative space – specifically, the negative space within the bowl of the valley and in front of the central plain. This is roughly the space which would have been occupied by the subject had he actually stayed put for the portrait. I even desisted from developing the cloud forms more fully because I felt that they would actually detract from the aerieness. Some of the paint is quite pleasing - I still quite like the sunlit central area - but I think the most effective bits of paint are where the distance goes back over the left chalk ridge, over the next shadowed ‘Lothian’ rise, and back yet further to the Pentlands, and Arran beyond. The annoying thing is that I barely thought about that section at all – it all came together very easily.

So, as it turned out, the original nursery rhyme idea ended up being an obtuse self-portrait - using elements of personality, historical geography, and a little wit. For all I know, it’s probably a recognised form, and frankly, it’s a wonder I haven’t done this before, seeing as how I regularly combine different landscapes. Ah well, there is nothing new under the Sun, as they say, and I’m now happily moving on to the next set of projects.

None of which involve small, harmless, scurrying things…

* In Scotland, a ‘burn’ is a small river, brook, stream, or beck. ‘Ken’ is an old Norse word meaning ‘to know’, and is also available in Northern England

Monday, August 1, 2016

4pm February

oil on card 30x19cm

Another little cloud painting, from a quick snap taken coming back to Edinburgh along the A9 last year. As far as I can remember it’s just outside Dunblane. Looking west, obviously.

It’s a fairly straightforward transcription of the photo. I’ve edited the odd awkward cloud out, but the photo was so dark that even after photoshopping the Dickens out of it I still couldn’t make out the landforms. I took my lead from the outlines of the trees and just made up the folds in the ground in between. It’s all about the sky anyway – the land just has to be there to support it. 

Most of the pigments used here are transparent or semi-transparent – so the white priming shows through the paint surface, as in watercolour - but I’ve used a little Titanium White in two areas. It’s an extremely opaque white, and I’ve used it in a pale pink band in the sky (where I went a little too uneven and dark), and I’ve added a touch to the fine grey scumble/glaze layer on the lower clouds to give them some weight (to contrast with the more aerie Paynes Grey/Raw Umber clouds towards the top). The red areas – made with two layers of the same Indian Yellow, Transparent Oxide Red, and Alizarin Crimson as last month’s ’Fight’ – were quite intense, but have been modified with the ‘cloudy’ fine grey to cool them down a bit at the lower cloud edges and rain drifts. Altogether, I think the whole sky ensemble is quite subtle and rather satisfying. There’s really not much more to say about this piece – it’s just an attractive little painting. 

And, it all went to plan. Which was nice…

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


oil on canvas 81x51cm

Finished at last, this month’s post is a very obvious sunset, based on my own photos taken locally. It’s the Meadows, in Edinburgh, looking south at Marchmont and Bruntsfield. I’ve flipped it left to right, so the Barclay Church at Tollcross is just out of sight on the left, and I’ve taken some liberties with the far trees and ornamental cherry avenues. There’s also a soundtrack for it, should you feel the need.

…Small digression - I’ve more good news. For the first time, I’ve had two pieces hung in this year’s RSA Open. They’re Oldies – Wreck No.1 and Bad Valley - but Goldies. So, if you happen to be around Edinburgh before August 30th, you can pop into the Royal Scottish Academy building – lower gallery of course - and see them (and loads of other stuff) for free…

Back to the main subject: It’s an OK painting, but definitely not as good as some I’ve done recently though, and it had a bit of An Accident. Anyway, have a closer look – its title is ‘Fight’ for a reason. I found the two blokes fighting on google - they were originally on a beach, and were rather stupid and funny. Then I realised that if they were darkened, their combined shape suggested something quite ugly and arachnid. The idea had – if you don’t mind – legs, and I could misdirect the eye away from their silhouette on the dark grass with the big technicolour sunset.

The Accident: Progress was fairly straightforward until my bike got a puncture. After fixing it, I was flipping my bike back upright (Works in Progress are hung in the hall, above the radiator) and carelessly scraped the handlebar down a couple of inches of the smooth, flat surface, which caused an extremely annoying ridge. At one point I was considering cutting the whole left side away to get rid of it. Which would have been a shame as I really liked the fade from the hot ‘Sun’ to the much cooler left edge. A patch on the back helped a little, but the flaw was in a deliberately featureless area, and would interfere with the blurred and stroked surface I had planned. The solution I came up with – not entirely successful, but which did help to disguise the surface damage – was to use small, thick, unsoftened strokes of paint for all the foreground grass – not the texture I wanted. Anyway, it’s done now.

The paintwork that I am pleased with, though, is the layering of glazes, plus the odd thin white layer, around the Sun. They’re a heavier mix than normal – based on the usual Stand oil, but with slightly more Damar resin and less turpentine. Particularly pleased with the hot ‘peachy’ areas, which use incandescent mixes of Indian Yellow, Transparent Oxide Red, and Alizarin Crimson. To be honest I’ve gone a bit over-the-top with the hot stuff in the sky at the expense of the cool blues, and I promise that I‘ll be a bit more discriminating about where and when to cut loose with them in the future. 

There may be a more subliminal reason why this painting has ended up being so very lurid and overcooked. Perhaps I’ve been over-affected by recent events, both at home and abroad. In the previous post, I alluded to a Big Moment, and that perhaps the UK was in for yet more stormy political weather. Well, I wasn’t wrong; the EU referendum went Leave’s way, so the whole United Kingdom is now heading out of the European Union. This caused the then Prime Minister (‘I’m not a quitter’ – the day before the vote) to announce his resignation the day after it, and the main opposition party to disembowel itself publicly for some inexplicable reason. There was carnage on the successful ‘Leave’ side as its main proponents either resigned or were savaged by each other in their attempts to be the governing party leader, and we now have a new Prime Minister who has slaughtered* the previous PM’s cabinet and set the remaining ‘Leavers’ on course to carry the electorate’s wishes through. So out we’ll go, much to the bemusement of the rest of the civilized world. 

So, if I can sum up how my own perception of the imagery in the painting evolved – and I do hope you’re enjoying the soundtrack – we have at first glance an exaggerated sunset. Which is nice, if a little clichéd, until you see the two blokes intent on destroying each other. It doesn’t stop there, oh no, because I have to admit that as I worked on the figures, the distant ‘flash’ on the horizon became more threatening, and deadly. And I think we all know what that’s about.

Done now. Back to normal. It’s just a nice sunset, and a nice park, in which two blokes are having a fight, OK?

Now, lest I get too political and flag-wavy in what is essentially a blog about making marks with coloured pastes, let me re-set my composure and equilibrium and just say that -
a) I feel that it’s not all over yet, and every cloud has a silver lining
b) We’re doomed, I tell ye, we’re doo-oomed…

*Not literally of course

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Window Work, an Interlude


So, Window Work drawings again. 

I’m having a bit of a pause, a rest from full-on easel work just now. For a start, the last post, from way back in April, was such a gob-smacker of a painting (and I don’t mind saying that myself) that I wanted it to be the top-title blog post for a while. Secondly, Madam is having a few weeks off, so I’m taking it easy too. Thirdly, there’s a lot of Events going on at the moment, which sap the concentration; namely, the European footy cup, a dirty great big Referendum on whether UK should leave the European Union, and some of my paintings are in the inaugural show of the newly relocated Union Gallery – about which, more directly below. That’s not to say I haven’t been doing any work at all over the last couple of months, it’s just that it’s not been very intense work. It’s not very finished either, hence the Window Work post, but you can see it in progress through the Work in Progress link if that’s any consolation. If you have the ‘Info’, or ‘Captions’, or image text showing you’ll be able to read all sorts of technical stuff (the notes are for my own benefit really, so that I don’t forget what I’ve used, but I honestly don’t mind anyone else seeing them). Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Now, some gallery promotion/publicity details… 
If you’re in Edinburgh at all over the next month or so, I’d urge you to go and see the above-mentioned new Union Gallery. It used to be in Broughton Street, but is now in a much larger and grander premises at 4 Drumsheugh Place, in the West End, Edinburgh. The ‘Reunion’ show opened at the very end of May, and will be on until the end of July, so there’s still lots of time – but not too much – to go along and have a look at the very varied work on show, and who knows, maybe buy something.
There, now you know…

I suppose I should really be telling you about the drawings above. As you may be aware, I do them as exercises, and they tend to have phases of being in bad or good form. These ones mark a small swing towards a period of better form (I hope) and have been done during the final phase of a very shrill campaign about Britain’s future. The vote itself - whether to Remain in the European Union or Leave it - is taking place today, so I’m writing without knowing the result. The pre-vote polling is absolutely balanced at 50/50, but today, while the actual voting is taking place, there is a ban on campaigning throughout the media. The resulting ‘normality’ is pleasantly calm – though it may prove to be more like the eye of a hurricane. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying this little Interlude while it lasts.

Anyway, back to the drawings. The lady on the left is included purely because of the economy of line, and I quite like the untidiness of the ‘tonal’ girl on the right – she was actually like that – and I think her knees and face come across very well. Of the four drawings I like the larger image best; it’s a very interesting angular ‘pose’ and it was one of those sketches that seemed to draw itself, which is nice experience. What they have in common - like most people in UK over the last few days – is that they are conscious of an imminent Big Moment in which they’re about to participate. 

And the wee dog? He hasn’t a care in the world… 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Landscape with Shadows

oil on canvas 90x70cm

This was actually started way back in April 2014, and was worked on in four or five blocks of time over the last two years.

There is some sound to go with it, but because of the extended production period I’ve listened to all sorts of music and radio during that time, and there’s nothing that I can really call a constant. When I’m working I’m sometimes listening to drama or speech stuff, and sometimes I need to be energised with a bit of rock or pop - mostly oldies – though that doesn’t always result in better painting. Usually, I’m looking for something that will tick over and produce an introvert mood, but stimulating enough that I can find resonances between what I’m hearing and what I’m trying to produce. Two pieces that did that during this painting’s final approach recently were the aptly titled ‘Falling Shadow’, and the more haunting ‘Path 5 (delta)’ – both by Max Richter

The finished composition is a combination of two very different sources. The landscape setting is an anonymous roadside in Russia, from google streetview. It’s nothing special, just some country about 80 miles northwest of Moscow, but I liked the light, and the arrangement of the trees and bushes. The figure is from a US army film* documenting the WWII ceasefire in Czechoslovakia. The cameraman was filming the German soldiers coming over to the Americans, but he happened across a group who had been set upon by Czech partisans. Some had been beaten – and are clearly terrified - but others were killed, one of whom is a beautiful young boy. 

The catalyst that linked these two images is Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with The Fall of Icarus’, at which I was having a good look at the time. In that painting, if you look closely behind the tree on the left you’ll see that Breughel has placed what could be a body under the hedge. Copying Mr Breughel, I simply took the German boy and placed him under my found bushes. I swapped my source sky and background for a more open view from along the road, then flipped it all left to right so that the figure was in the lower right-hand corner.

The shadows cast onto the ground and bushes are from trees directly behind the viewer, and I liked the dappled foreground against the full-lit distance - and the dappled lighting helped make the boy less obvious. I had a lot of trouble trying to work out the structure of the trees and bushes from the source, but I think I’ve got away with it. But it’s all about the light bouncing around anyway, and I was careful not to go too dark, and kept the whole scene bright.

I’m weaning myself off Lead White (sigh), but as I had started with it, I kept on the palette throughout. Which was very pleasant. It was very necessary too; for some reason the surface developed a long surface ridge right in the middle of the sky. It was an area I wanted to keep absolutely free of cloud – which could have helped disguise the anomaly – so I had what I euphemistically called ‘a problem’. I filled both sides of the ridge with stiff tinted Lead White, and left it to dry thoroughly – for several months. I rubbed that down, then did it again. Finally, the surface was smooth enough to proceed, so I finely matched in the colour then overpainted the repair together with the rest of the sky. I used the Lead White because I knew that it would dry right through very evenly, and that it was the same substance as the rest of the painting. I could have used a rapid-drying epoxy filler, but I feared that after a few years of the canvas expanding and contracting it would simply detach and fall off. Time will tell of course, but under normal conditions, now, you really can’t see that there’s been a repair. Which is a Good Thing, and would have been more tricky with slower-drying and weaker Titanium White. So there.

As usual I’ve used layers of fairly thin paint (no specific reason; I just prefer thin paint) but was getting in a state about the warmer pales over darks going cool in colour. I finally gave up laying thin cadmium oranges over the shadows in order to get dull brown, and simply drew with ‘generic’ pales – yellow ochre or something like – then glazed over with Burnt Sienna or Umber. A little trick which really has proved very useful since.

There is, of course, yet another layer of resonance for me within the painting. My grandmother – Nana – had a framed print above the piano in her front room in Streatham, in London. It was of a young boy lying on his back in the sun, and I was fascinated by it. That print will have long disappeared by now, but I discovered five decades later that it was of Franz von Lenbach’s ‘A Shepherd Boy’. It may be that part of the reason that I was so struck by the boy in the film was that he is so similar to that long-remembered figure, even down to his red jersey. 

Though, one has his whole life ahead of him - and the other has not.

US army film* The figure appears at 6.16mins. Please bear in mind before viewing that this is raw, uncensored footage. The boy appears at 6.16mins