Mastering The Hit and Mystery of Watercolour
I live in a blur.
Drawing deblurs…..it defines boundaries, it makes lines round things and creates shapes. However- in nature edges arrive due to the force that drives from within. A line is a direction – a movement. A line does many things during the drawing process. As it changes direction it becomes less ambiguous. Defining a shape, the line loses its energy and transfers the energy to the shape it has enclosed. The line then has two jobs – to define what is next to it whilst retaining the energy of the stroke.
This morning I am strolling through a thick fog, a white sun seeps through the haze like a melting marshmallow. Walking downhill through the park that lies between my home and the invisible otherwise gleaming spires of Oxford, all I can see are the ghosts of trees dappled with a few remaining pointillizing leaves and a looming figure trailing the silhouette of a dark dog. The blur that wraps around me like a scarf is vaguely comforting. My surroundings are simplified- they are mystified into a state that could readily be translated into paint!. Nevertheless, I walk on in punning rather than painting mode – mist defying.
I am pondering the mental blur that passes for my thought process, the way in which I am constantly trying to define things, the need to organize, make boundaries, have goals, arrange, how life is a drawing process, balancing on the cusp between order and chaos, creating structure from day to day in order to survive whilst keeping in touch with the disordered self, the self that has the ideas that make me tick.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of painting on large metre square tiles in the studio of a Beijing ceramic factory. Armed with a variety of brushes, my favoured tools turned out to be sponges, wire wool, rags and fingernails. The process of getting the glazes fixed to the slippery surface was totally unlike painting on paper. I found it exhilarating. Ideas that I had previously laboured on with mixed success on paper, board and canvas became liberated on these tiles. Marks that I might have previously considered out of order in my paintings suddenly gained respectability on ceramic. Each day I arrived in the studio I was off on a new tack responding to the mood of the day. I can’t wait to see how they look after firing.
Back home in England I am considering the ‘safety’ and ‘validity’ of my own painting whilst driving west for the opening of the RWS show at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro and then on to visit a long-awaited major exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Cornish painter Peter Lanyon at Tate St Ives.
Lanyon was a visiting speaker at my college when I was a teenager – I didn’t realize then his importance in the development of English landscape painting. Subsequently, I tuned in to his preoccupation with the shape that topographical images take in our memory and how they reassemble themselves when we act out and represent places and experiences in paint. St Ives painters and sculptors, like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who abstracted elements from nature to make aesthetically pleasing and tasteful objects, were anathema to Peter Lanyon who employed shapes and colours derived from his Cornish surroundings in a simultaneously jumbling and ordering process, to represent a specific place or sensation. Taste didn’t come into the picture.
This ‘getting a grip on reality is obsessive for we painters. Our mental images may seem clear to us until we start to express them and then we realize the enormity of the blur we are attempting to grasp!
Artist & Illustrator “A Splash of Colour” No.13 | Jan 2011
A gleaming fighter jet, polished to a mirror finish, rests between columns in the heart of the main hall in Tate Britain.
Adults and children alike flock around it looking at their reflections, marvelling at the craftsmanship, attracted by the sheer impact of it’s presence in these unexpected surroundings. For me this scene brings back 1950’s childhood memories of spitfires hanging in The Imperial War Museum, of rows of tanks at the army museum in Bovington. Of glistening suits of armour in The Tower of London, The Wallace Collection and Hatfield House. Of the braid and colour of military uniforms at the United Services Museum in Whitehall, which my mother had to pretend to enjoy when taking me on birthday treats around the museums. This before I was old enough to go off on drawing trips on my own. In those colourless post war days, the scarlet and blue uniforms of the Guards on sentry sung out against London’s soot and war stained buildings. I have another distant memory on holiday of being stunned into silence by powerful vision of a working paddle steamer engine. Impressed then by what I would now describe as the ‘sculptural’ power of such man made bits of engineering and design, another person might have dreamed of making an equivalent one day. I wanted to draw to keep the experience alive.
Looking back, I might have seemed an odd child. With my sticky up hair, squinting through national health specs, short of stature clutching my sketch book I bore an uncanny resemblance to the black and white, Picture Post, image I had seen of Stanley Spencer reeling off drawings on a loo roll in Clydeside Shipyards.
Long before I became aware of painting and sculpture in galleries, like the rest of us I suspect, I was interested in sounds, people, events, places and “Things”. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the museum curators and the collectors who wanted to share the engineering, invention and beauty of ‘Things”. When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up I used to say “a museum curator” – this, so that I could spend my time amongst all that amazing stuff! Would I call the person with the energy and enthusiasm to bring ‘Things” to Tate Britain an artist, a collector or a curator? Are the museum curators ‘artists’ for allowing things to be displayed in their museums. What’s the difference between an Art Gallery and an Art Museum. All these questions end up pointlessly tying a brain in knots. However what Fiona Banner, who polished the aircraft and initiated the project and combined with the museum have done, is presented, or maybe represented, for us a beautiful object. So here I am ‘re-representing’, encircling a jaguar jet plane, at The Tate Gallery, with pad and pen revelling in the rows of flush rivets, sweeping lines and distorted reflections reminiscent of the steely dress pattern-like shapes in the Stanley Spencer Port Glasgow Paintings.
The Imperial War Museum houses paintings and sculpture under the same roof as aircraft and Tate Britain are doing the same with no distinction between ‘manufactured object’ and ‘art’. Now I feel at home! Somehow I have found a bit of spare time for painting this year! In my coming one man show, in Hong Kong, I have combined a recurring obsession for worn Chinese walls with a portrait of an erhu player whose notes seem to waft into the rendering behind him and become picked out in the brickwork.
Artists and Illustrators | “A Splash of Colour” No.11 | Nov 2010
In attempting to do the impossible the dreamer enriches our lives.
In the plethora of my current disparate creative activity, the ploughing of straight furrows is problematic. Over the hill of my brow, crazed furrows are etched and wild thoughts flock in their wake.
In all this busy-ness how come I still miss out on so much?
But then, how nice to be continually making new discoveries?
With the aid of those wonderful internet search engines, I have belatedly discovered the Australian artist Fred Williams (1927-82). He is a link, along with American abstract expressionists, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, between the painting of place and the calligraphic mark making of Chinese ink painting. A link which I consider still contains great mileage.
Fred Williams tackled new ways of portraying the vast featureless parts of the
Australian landscape in paint and print. Through recent Royal Watercolour Society exchanges with the Australian Watercolour Institute, and president David Van Nunen, my eyes are being opened to the breadth of Australian painting.
The R.W.S. Autumn exhibition features the work of five painters from the A.W. I. I look forward to finding out how much their paintings are concerned with the the largeness of the landscape and the bright clear light for this is only one aspect of a continent with a global presence in the world of art and literature. This exhibition then tours to Truro.
Historically, there is an ongoing link between Cornwall, which had a flourishing tin mining industry in the 19th century, and Australia to where in 1870 many Cornish miners emigrated and relocated their skills.
With a mid-morning coffee, I am watching the long shadows of autumn make pictures on the white walls of the garage at the bottom of my garden. Clear at the source, blurring in their extension as they mix and overlap- shifting in the breeze.
The shadows become theatrical when they fall across the remains of some casually constructed stone and wood, still-lifish objects decomposing patiently in my garden. The drama created by the juxtaposition of unrelated objects is an element of some of my work. Those blurred edges between painting, sculpture, mechanical invention and architecture are where invention stirs. In attempting to do the impossible the dreamer enriches our lives. The hinterland of creative invention is the birthplace of innovative art, science and engineering.
In Shanghai last month I was moved by an exhibition of the work of ‘Peasant Da Vincis” with dreams of flying. Machines, suspended from the roof, reminded me of childhood visits to The Imperial War Museum. Wu Shuzai, a peasant farmer, inspired by helicopters, which he saw as flying stools, ‘squandered’ his impoverished resources on building a flying machine out of old water pumps, wood and plastic. The resulting invention, which looked like a chicken coop with wings, never flew and his wife died before he was invited to transport his machine to Shanghai for exhibition during the Expo. Photos show the whole village carrying the machine,, like some godly creature, in a procession across the paddy fields and Mr Wu is eventually left to tell the story of his plane flight to the big city to a photograph of his deceased wife!
I can’t help making an Australian connection with this touching image and the dishevelled glasshouse, drifting up the river, in Peter Carey’s book ‘Oscar and Lucinda.’
The first RWS Autumn Lectures, with David Boyd Haycock talking about Symbolism
in Paul Nash’s art, will be held at Bankside Gallery 6th Nov.
Artists and Illustrators | “A Splash of Colour” No. 10 | August 2010