29 September 2021

Venice, 18 September, 1986

Venice, 18 September, 1986, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

The following is another entry from my diary from the year 1986.

For a number of years I went to Italy, first to both Siena and Umbria to fly and paint, then on to Venice in September and October. I found this entry the other night fascinating because, though I didn't really understand at the time, I was only ever drawn to the misty, the hazy, the shrouded fog and the uncertainty of transitional atmospheres. Strange that it took me so long to see this preference when it is so clearly evident to me today. 

This study is the one that I describe in the following diary entry. It makes sense that I found my way to a series of twilight studies here at Brunswick Heads, N.S.W. Australia, so many years later.

Venice, 18 September, 1986

My spirits are lifting day by day. I feel like a climber who makes his way ever so slowly up the backside of the mountain while the summit is still hidden from view. However, I am finding my way very slowly, each day the image comes more easily. This morning, I have found my way into some rather abstract visions of San Giorgio at sunrise. Half-hidden in the purple/ orange haze San Giorgio looms over a greenish orange sea. Needless to say, I enjoyed the foggy atmosphere, maybe it’s what I really need in the end. Of course, it makes me think of Monet and Turner who were both in the bosom of this visual feeling. I shall not be afraid of this influence. Increasingly these past five days I have been wondering to myself what it is that I really want to do here? I am not at all interested in replicating the reality which Venice presents to the world… the wonderful, unique details of windows, balconies, door steps. etc, etc, etc,,, It has all be done a million times before by very competent painters (and not) than myself. What I see are images which lurk between the off-hours of twilight and daybreak; images born from misty boundaries between stone and sea. There are fog-filled days when nothing is what it seems and these are my moments of bliss.

My goodness, do Venetian women have beautiful legs! I should invite Isabelle here by the end of the month or I shall go mad, or, (I shall go madder) no matter. I go through days without speaking any English which is interesting, and I like it. My Italian improves radically on these trips, and I learn also, the art of silence.

27 September 2021

memory and vision, then and now


Evening Prayer, Brunswick Heads, 5 February, 2017, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

Evening Prayer, Brunswick Heads,  26 January, 2017, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

These two studies date back to the beginning  of the series in 2017 when I had approached the project with all the sensibilities of an Expressionist painter. I like the one at the top very much because it reminds me of where I would still like to go. The other one below it,  is just so so. They are pictures done more with memory and sight than with presence and vision. But that's where I was when I began painting again from Nature five years ago. It had been a long, long time since I had worked from a motif and I had to learn anew how to use my eyes again. I do appreciate them but I see how far away they are from what I am doing today.

Evening Prayer, Brunswick Heads, 20 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer, Brunswick Heads, 20 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

25 September 2021

Usual and unusual, elastic and electric, Japan!

Frôler, August, 2013, oil on canvas, 150 X 150 cm

This painting was done back in Dieulefit in August of 2013, a year after the small gouache shown below. 

I was in a particular kind of groove, I think because I had just gone on two trips to Japan which gave me a jolt of elasticity. Maybe electricity too, but really, I was pulled and pushed to extremes both during, and after these trips. Japan has that effect upon people. I only met one person whom I know who didn't like it. But he was a sad and angry Parisian. 

Since I went to Japan I have never quite been the same. It affected me, had a strong effect upon me and also re-enforced feelings which I have harboured for decades regarding the world of Painting. It released this energy inside which allowed me to vault over so many ideas I had learned from European Art History which I had stored like a squirrel somewhere between my heart and mind. Vertical space, horizontal space, space used and unused, too much, or too little! Japan seems to be a culture of space, the reverence for it, the protection of it, the embrace of it in all its spiritual emptiness.

It seems to me that contrary to practically everything revered in America, where emptiness often connotes a kind of material desolation, the embrace of the void in Japan is an emotional bond. 

Of course, the Japanese abroad will be drawn to all those big spaces of America and Australia because to live in Japan is almost always to be cramped in little homes. Yet, generally, they are organised for a limited physical space and their homes are designed impeccably. Unlike Americans who go full and extra-large, the Japanese tend toward spare and lean.

The painting above and the small gouache below would never have been done if I had not made those two trips to Japan. In them both, I yearned to stop at just the edge of something, an inspiration comprised of so little. Having over-thought everything in my life and in art, suddenly, I wanted to slip quietly underneath the bridge. 

I began a lot of work which defied everything I had been taught. Some of it was Ok, some of it was not, but some of it was really interesting for me. I wouldn't pretend that it is even very good. But what I do know is that a lot of the work done in these last few years have spoken to me, spoken a strange and encrypted language that I was barely equipped to understand.

And that is a key for me for I will always prefer to feel an artistic emotional than to understand it rationally.  

The painting above, so simple it surprised me. I left it as is. And today, I am glad I did. I have ruined too many pictures trying to make them righter. It is hopeless cause. 

But this is titled after the French word verb frôler which means to lightly touch, or graze something. Imagine a butterfly alighting a rose petal. 

It also speaks to the gouaches too. Looking back, I suppose those several years were all about searching for a metaphor expressing that 'gentleness in all things tactile'. 

I took to framing the small gouaches with a simple band of masking tape while leaving paint splotches and ink drips as they had fallen. I do like works of any kind to show their battle scars, as it were. I hate pretty frames that attempt to cover up the organic execution of a picture which is sort of like putting a silk suit on a slob. 

Japan has been on my mind because I recently saw The Earthquake Bird which is set in contemporary Tokyo. It's a compelling film and I liked it very much, so much, that it has stayed in my imagination, lingering like  everything of substance.

23 September 2021

gli Uffici, and the Q train

I am still transcribing my diaries which is a Sisyphean task but I keep at it little by little most nights. I will share this day from so long ago.

Florence, 8 October, 1986

'...In the museum today, there was a young woman being pushed around in her wheelchair. She was hooked up to an oxygen machine which was attached to her throat. It struck me as most sad. The machine wheezed mechanically with a jerky rhythm pumping air into her, then sucking it out again with great urgency, almost a great violence. To imagine that I complain about my life so often! This poor woman goes through an unfathomable ordeal just to survive each day. Without the machine she is dead. I was very moved watching her in the museum today as she glided around looking at paintings so intently, more intently than most I thought. We must be thankful for our faculties I think to myself. They can be taken from us so randomly and with uneven violence. The sound of her artificial breathing moved from room to room just ahead of me. 

'... I am thinking of Paris. I always do at this time of year when the Autumnal streets darken in the moist, late afternoons. I have an urge to wander the busy boulevards aimlessly past the  cafes all lit up and full of apparent gaiety. I would be alone as usual, but that is part of this charming postcard in my head which was after all written back in childhood. Then suddenly, all the tall street lights would switch on, and the crazy birds would roost noisily in the great Plane trees overhead. That is Paris in the Fall....'


'...A funny little thing in the Herald Tribune today. In the subway station at Union Square a confused tourist on the platform was shouting at the conductor whose head had popped out of the cabin window as he was pulling out of the station. 

“Is this the 6 Train?” the tourist yelled out.

“No, This is the Q train,..Q train,, Q as in cucumber!” he shouted back as the train departed. into the black tunnel.

Ha Ha, only in New York...'

21 September 2021

White flowered dresses, three sisters at the Ball


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 18 September, 2021 oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 18 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

           Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 18 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

I arrived somewhat earlier than usual and set up on a very windy dune. The beach was almost deserted save for three or four kite-surfers who were cutting up the sea. The sky was slowly filling up with cirrus clouds full of tiny holes, and the deep blue sea looked scratched with broken whitecaps. They appeared, then disappeared. Just to watch was exhilarating. These studies came in quick succession the other night. I believe they are in order of when they were painted from top to bottom.

I jumped into the skies as soon as the palette was ready, and I didn't think much at all which is always wonderful. "In the groove" is what everyone says while in such moments; lost but then found again. Time evaporates temporarily.  

To be honest, I had been a little out of sorts over the previous few days for a number of reasons. Thankfully, these shadows rarely lasts long anymore. It is a great privilege to be able to go out to paint at the sea; a privilege to escape my mind even for a few hours. These are beautiful skies and I regret any day I miss them. 

There was the waxing moon which always disrupts this lovely 'bloom' or 'blush' in the sky, so I had to quit earlier than usual. But because it had clouded over, and the moon was briefly obscured, the whole sky suddenly turned the colour of red plum but only after I had already cleaned up the palette. Sadly, I had to watch it glow for a little while longer before it went deep, deep blue. But I was happy to have these three studies to carry home. 

I am beginning to really love these pale evening clouds at the very end of daylight when all colours and forms merge. This night they appeared almost like embroidery with soft, delicate patterns as if made for ball gowns from another age.                                                                                      

19 September 2021

James Salter and the time stamp of art

I have just finished this small book by Jim Salter, one remaining holdout which I had yet to read. It is a compact volume made from three talks which he gave later in his life. There is also a great introduction by writer John Casey. 

The talks are filled with stories, for like many writers, he loved anecdotes, and like any writer too, he was a story teller. But perhaps not like all writers, he really loved talking and telling stories. Though I had already read in his other books many of these delicious anecdotes they were a pleasure to 're-listen' to them again. He has been described as a 'bon-vivant', 'a Francophone', and 'a gourmand' who loved friends around the dinner table with bottles of wine on hand.

But again, all writers are not like this, some are listeners, discreet like church mice, and mostly somewhat invisible. But then, he was both it seems clear to me. 

What I wanted to say about him is that there are many points during this book wherein he speaks about a thing, anything in life that happens to us, risks to disappear if it is not recorded, written down. He says:

"....Everything not written down disappears except for certain lasting moments, certain people, days. The animals die, the house is sold, the children are grown, even the couple themselves have vanished, and yet there is this poem."

Curiously, he refers to his lengthy novel Light Years, to which he is referring, as a poem.

I don't know if he would agree with me that all of life is perhaps a dream, and that it must be recorded, otherwise it will slip back into the inconclusiveness, into the rich and enticing formlessness of a functioning dreamworld which is not an artistic process, though helpful I'm sure.  

All this resonates with me because in essence, as a painter I feel much the same way. A painting does the same thing as stories. Of course, one could say that everything 'conceived and physically constructed' by humankind is included in this, but I only use books and paintings as an example. 


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 16 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

For me, a picture needs to be as coherent and clearly communicable as any poem or short story, novel, what-have-you, or it too risks not living. It needs to 'exist'. And I am not excluding abstract paintings, for they too, possess the possibility for cogent, communicable ideas enough to give birth to a work which is alive, or I should say, has lived in this world. 

To go further out on the limb I would say that the problem with both bad writing and bad painting is that they employ cheap methods to attain their goals. In novels and stories, it is often the cliché, (among a number of overly used tools which dooms it).

And the same goes for Painting, for it is the cheap lighting effects, the poor drawing, or lack thereof, among any number of other gimmicks which derail it. How can a picture live if it is has been poorly made?

The problem with all this is that if (when) they fail, then perhaps there is nothing to give them life. One could say that they pass into the netherworld or dreamworld of a failed work of art. 

But if, and when they do succeed it's because a confluence of so many elements of greatness, talent and originality to name but two. When great they endure, and they can live forever.

Could one not say that only Art itself is what gives us an appropriate accounting of reality of history? 

There is a reason that so much bad painting is locked away in vaults of the Louvre and also why dime store novels are freely used to get the chimney fire started.

But, what I really wanted to say is that we  have so little time on this earth in human form that by 'passing our time' in the pursuit of Art is a worthy vocation.

An adult artist, not unlike a child who draws a lot, is hungry, almost obsessionally so, in order to concretise his/her feelings somewhere, and by any means. I think of the cave paintings of Lascaux.

So of course, I use my own painting done a few days ago as an example of how I put my own time stamp upon the day reminding me that I was there. I existed because this painting is proof that I was there out on the dune at dusk facing the Pacific Ocean. 

15 September 2021

Occam's Razor and the search for meaning


Evening Prayer Brunswick heads, 11 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm


Evening Prayer Brunswick heads, 9 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm


Evening Prayer Brunswick heads, 11 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

These days many of us cannot help but feel an immense state of anxiety about the world and the people who inhabit it. There are too many versions of reality because everybody knows best, more than everyone else, and because they have big mouths. Daily, after watching the News, I cannot shake the feeling that the inmates have taken over the asylum. Enfin! Quoi faire!! 

When it comes to Painting though, and happily so, diverse realities are welcome! "Bring it all on!" we cry out to the world.

In my pursuit of some abstract meaning in this particular motif I seem to be continually drawn back to a simple design, and this is fine with me. It is almost as if I am cutting everything down to the barest of bones via Occam's Razor. 

In olden days, it was known as the Principle of Parsimony, and that makes sense to me. And today I imagine that it lives on wholeheartedly in places like Japan for instance, where brevity and simplicity are still equally revered.

Myself, I often pare both the drawing and colour harmony down to the design of a flag for some verdant island near the equator. I don't usually set out to do this but it's true that when I am feeling uncertain I will sometimes just carve out the sea and sky into slices the colour of mango and watermelon.

Graphically, (for me) it is interesting, and somewhat easy as I adore stripes of all sorts, thick and thin. Sometimes it is a way to just begin something because time is precious. 

I could almost see an entire show presented just in this simple format yet inevitably with many, many varied colour harmonies. 


11 September 2021

Twins, 9/11

(This was first posted 9/11 2011)

Exactly ten years ago I was living here at the Belvedere with my friend Lydia who is also a painter and we spent that day trying to take care of a lamb whose leg was broken. At this time there was a shepherd named Roger from Catalonia who walked his dog and troop of sheep four  times a day, up and down the small road which is below the house. Early each morning the sound of tinkling bells and his bellowing voice awakened us. 

Up to a large field about a half kilometre off the road each morning, then back for lunch, up again, then back home late afternoon was his daily routine. For us it was a wonderful way to mark each day of our life here in the Drôme. Roger was friendly and always shouted 'Salut' when he saw me coming out onto the terrace to wave to him. Once in a while a lamb with a broken paw would straggle behind crying pitifully which was painful to watch four times a day. That week it was too much for our city sensibilities so we asked him if we could take care of the latest invalid. Thinking we were a bit crazy but being affable about the whole thing he gave it to us much to our surprise. 

So on the morning of September 11th we took it to the Vet's in La Begude who probably also thought we were a little 'dramatic', and he advised us that it had a broken leg and should be someone's dinner quite soon. We brought it back to Roger who promised he would put it in a small field next to his house. After lunch we each went into our retrospective studios and painted for the afternoon. Lydia painted a portrait of two large dying sunflower plants (see top photo) They were slumped over and hanging to one side. I worked on a few things but couldn't concentrate so at one point I threw two red vertical lines onto a small canvas hoping to throw me into some movement. I found it was a compelling image, I don't know why but I stopped and left it in that state to pick to up something else. 

We did not live with a television at that time and retrieving emails was a dial-up affair, and thus it was not as easy as today to access the internet. In truth, we were at the end of our relationship and we didn't have much to say to each other so I imagine that we ate dinner outside and went to bed. I do remember the telephone rang once or twice during the night but this was at a time when I wished to be out of touch I guess. Needless to say we didn't find out about what had happened in New York until the next morning when I did retrieve the phone messages. There were condolences from several French friends which I found perplexing and an hysterical message from my sister in the States. I went online to see what the fuss was all about. What really surprised us were the two images which had come up for us both completely independant of one another. There was something quite eery about these images being worked on at just about the same time as the towers were falling (6 hours ahead of Eastern standard time)

(An update to this story: Lydia wrote to remind me (which I had forgotten) that the small lamb which she had healed with argile had somehow lived and walked after a week!) 

Robert E. Lee and Antonin Mercié, condemned together


As these photographs attest, Robert E Lee will no longer have a bird's eye view over Broad street in Richmond, Virginia. The 12 ton statue will be taken somewhere, but where? 

The sculptor was a Frenchman, Antonin Mercié, who designed it in France, built it in four pieces and shipped it to America to be re-assembled and set upon the large stone monument in 1890.

I am all for the removal of iconic Bad guys, I mean, who would want to have to walk by a large imposing statue of Donald Trump or Adolph Hitler everyday on their way to work?

But, context is everything, especially these days and one cannot argue with its removal. But personally, I would have loved to see it remain with new brass placard revealing the real history of Robert E Lee. The problem with that is that there seems to be two very different stories about this man. So maybe the only answer was to remove it and be done with it. Only sadly, one is never done with it, for racism, and the rejection of a multicultural country is still an anathema to a great majority of people in the United States. 

And the truth is that all of this reverence for Robert E. Lee and so many other Confederate myths indeed were all fabricated after the Civil War. It is almost as if the Civil War never happened, or was it about something else entirely different? One can easily see how the White establishment behaved for the next 100 years. 

I rather like it also decorated with so much colourful graffiti like in the following photo. From a distance it looks garlanded with fresh flowers.

Being a painter, and a lover of most things artistic, I feel terrible for any works of Art to be ransacked and destroyed for contextual reasons. Haven't we learned anything from the French Revolution? 

My hope is that it will not be melted down but preserved as a work of great craftsmanship and perhaps stowed away until it can be seen as  in a different light certainly in another time. I think it is a magnificent sculpture.

I wrote previously about this, last year, when George Floyd was murdered. I reminded my dear readers that a walk through the Roman rooms in the Louvre revealed many marble portraits of anonymous senators condemned to reside in a dark wing on the first floor. Who knows what these guys got up to?

06 September 2021

Macy's Day Parade at the beach!


Evening Prayer Brunswick heads, 1 September, 2001, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

I arrived a little late to an already buoyant sky full of colour. Looking high above my forehead at the expanding clouds I suddenly remember myself as a small child underneath the Macy's Day parade in New York. Enchanted, I stretched upwards, over and over again in vain hopes of touching those vaporous cartoons suspended just out of reach.

And here a hundred years later at the beach, I find the same pneumatic pleasure watching clouds mutating from one gentle and friendly shape into another. 

I set up my easel quickly and began work. I made three studies which all began brilliantly or so I thought to myself, but I lost them quickly, one after the other, alas!  

I overwork almost everything due to perfectionism. It's my achilles heel. 

"Just one more touch here, there!" I think to myself. Then, I find myself lost, needlessly so, in search of a new ending. (Like authors, painters have endings too, B.T.W.) 

I need to learn to stop just at the very peak, the very top crest of the painting, no more but no less. The wise cook cuts off the flame of boiling milk right before the boil. Ha Ha.

Anyway, this study was the first one I battled with and had thought completely ruined, but to my surprise, it doesn't look as as bad to me as other night when I packed up. More to be revealed, more to be learned.

04 September 2021

1st class or Economy, or on a wall at TATE Britain?


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 August, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

This is from last Saturday evening. The sky was insane, and I really wanted to jump into it quickly, like a child, impulsively, and without a thought. I managed all of this except the last, for it was hard for me to keep my mind from butting in all the time. I had wanted to make a savage-looking, wild, Fauvist sort of picture without a thought for distance, colour harmony, or composition, for that matter. This was a tall order because, let's face it, I am who I am at this late stage in my life, but nonetheless I did paint it quickly. 

A friend in New York is interested in two paintings and she is curious about frames which I offer to accompany the pictures. So I made a few quick shots of recent things to give her an idea of how they look (I kind of liked the un-cropped and quirky feel of the photos so I have left them as they are). They are a satisfactory solution to the awful and vexing problem of framing which most painters I know struggle with. 

They are made locally, very simple and unpretentious, and not expensive so they are an easy solution for presenting these things. The very top one is not the same, it is from a shop in Montparnasse which I ordered when in Paris the last time. It is more expensive, and made with oak and brushed with a white paint but rubbed off, typical of that style of frame. Nice, but expensive. But since I am in Australia I found a small shop here in the nearby town of Balina. These are made of just pine but they are covered with a thin veneer of bamboo paper curiously enough. I like them, they are simple and people can change them easily if they want something more to their liking. I buy them by the dozen when I have some cash as I am hoping to show a large number of these small things one day soon. But who knows? In the meantime I send them off to art lovers mostly in America and France.

And then a curious but not unusual thought came to me after looking at the top one. I suddenly wondered, by chance, if I had stumbled upon this painting on some lonely wall, lost somewhere in Tate Britain, would I still like it? I confess that in fact, I often do this with my own work. This is my way of measuring up to what I deem to be successful. Does it seem to work? Will it stand up on its own, surrounded hopefully, by great things?

Yes, it's crazy, and not a little delusional, I freely admit, but HEY! we are in Lockdown, and at least I have an excuse for my general instability. But really, the truth is that I compare myself with my greatest heroes all the time. They are, after all, my teachers, my guides. Why wouldn't I think of museums as a parking spot for a picture of mine, however small and insignificant?

And, if, by chance, it were presented as the work of someone very famous, renowned, and with a big career, what would I see? How would I react? Would I look at it and think: "Oh Yes!" or "Wow" ou bien, "J'aime ça!", or would I quickly think: "This stinks!"? 

So many possibilities, so much foolishness!

And actually, (spoiler alert) this is something that I find myself doing anyway whilst still on the beach in front of a painting still wet. It's my device of separating it from me, as the painter, in my own mind. I regard it for a moment, wondering whether or not it is finished, and still in my mind, I frame it, and I imagine it on a white wall.

All this is done in less than a minute. Perhaps a bit strange, yes,  but it allows for some distance, a space that anyone else would not be able to imagine. They might see just a sloppy wreck of a picture on its own. But me, I need to see it even briefly, at Tate Britain. Ha Ha.

But then, I often wonder about the mind-set of the public when walking through a museum. Just because a picture hangs on a wall, is it a valuable use of our time, and imagination? Or is it being 'sold' to us by trendy curators and the gallery intelligentsia? Or indeed, is it not unlike being on a plane where those of us in Economy are expected to just eat whatever the stewards bring us, while those in 1st Class, have a choice of what they will or will not consume?