27 February 2023

Fractal secrets shared in front of the hearth

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,17 December 2019, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,17 December 2019, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,17 December 2019, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Three studies that were all made on the same evening, one right after the other. And now looking at them a few years later on I see three step sisters ready for the grand ball. But then my imagination is both eccentric and historic. Anyway, I came across them recently in a file and I liked them immediately as a trio because as a painter, it's the delicacy of these clouds that excite me. 

There is a certain kind of cloud that appears in a particular sort of pale sky, usually with a bit of humidity in the air that evokes all the lacework done by millions of women all over Europe throughout the centuries; rich and poor women, the sisters and nieces, the hired hands and the dilettantes too, all of them sitting around the hearth and sharing of secrets.  

And these small shredded clouds, like secrets themselves, are fragments that dissolve into thin air during the tumid moments before dusk swallows them up like a giant whale in a fairy tale. On the beach it's a marvellous light, and a gentle one, unassuming too, one where ancient secrets speak to weird painters and drunk poets, small dogs and wild children romp deliriously into twilight.

And these are the types of clouds which take me to Painting. For a long time I have thinking about how pieces (or planes, if you wish) of a whole painting are fastened together one to another. I know I have spoken about this before but not in a while. 

A scientist from Scotland whom I met at in Comps, near Dieulefit one summer evening years ago, urged me to read about the Chaos theory and suggested I read a great book aptly titled 'Chaos' by a NYT science editor which I ordered and quickly devoured. It's all about fractal connections (and disconnections) but measurements too, and it traces the history of this new thinking which sprung from a few eccentric scientists working on the Atomic bomb in Los Alamos in the late 1960's (L.S.D. was also involved). But anyway, I have always been frustrated at how mathematics rounded everything off to the nearest .0. It drove me crazy. Even as a small boy looking at the sky I understood empirically so, that infinity was ever-present all around us and that nothing could be nicely reduced down to an even and perfect equation. Like many children I used to watch clouds endlessly as they swirled across the sky, appearing and disappearing, cartwheeling and somersaulting into one another like in a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Clouds, like everything also in the plant world, was one of the easiest ways to witness the fractal behaviours in the Universe. And so, for me, when painting certain cloud shapes in the sky, the fractal connections manifest immediately.

The importance of how planes (and shapes) connect to one another is an essential element in Painting. But also in all Art, Architecture, Music, and, as a girlfriend once advised, in love affairs too. Every painter has to deal with this whether he knows it or not. And moreover I should say; whether he or she is conscious of it, or not, for I can see that lots of artists do not seem to place an importance upon it. And yet, they are still constrained by its importance nonetheless, for the successful unity of a painting is always still grounded in how the sum of its parts click into each other like Lego creating an energetic whole.

Of course the subject matter in Painting is extremely varied and uniquely different. And it is made up of so many physical qualities of materials that also deserve different treatment; the skin, bark, stone, wood, glass, flora, hair (human and otherwise), and the air itself, the most popular element that holds so many pictures in its light grip. In a unified painting, all these diverse materials desire to be connected to one another with great subtlety. Painters of every Age in history had to learn the delicate craft of bridging these often disperate elements on a picture plane. 

In the popular genre of landscape painting these various bits of fractal foliage equally work to attach different elements of a picture together one to the other; the fields to the trees, the hills into soft mountains, the chimney smoke into the air overhead. In landscape their tactile logic is terrestrial. 

But these studies are mostly concerned with painting the sky which is ephemeral. In the end, it is basically just coloured air and gaseous clouds that require a deft but patient hand.

Whether one looks at an 18th century marine-scape from Holland or an abstract 20th century work by de Kooning, the unity, or lack there of, is cemented by the manner in which each brushstroke of paint, both literally and figuratively, attach to one another. 

The really, really great painters do this extremely well, whereas all the others seem to limp along awkwardly in uneven circles. 

So I hope that these three studies above, whether limping, or in a 'Gavotte', reveal a tiny fractal system at work in some fashion or other, successful or otherwise. 

18 February 2023

Five paintings, the air but not the wind

Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads, 18 January 2023, oil on canvas boards, 25 X 20 cm

Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads, 18 January 2023, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

These are all from one evening about three weeks ago. For some reason I decided to try a mini series on small boards, I think because I hadn't been out to the beach so much, and maybe I was feeling unsure of what I was going to do. Of course, I am never really sure what I'm going to do anyway until I begin mixing a palette. Tiny ideas bubble up like water when I prepare my colours and they begin to match up with what I'm starting to see in the sky already. But I rarely have an idea until the last minute because I don't know yet what the sea and sky want me to do. But they usually need a human sacrifice first, and it's always the painter, meaning ME, in this case.

So on this evening which was showing great promise, I set up and began to patiently await signs of life in the sky, wondering just what it would dictate for me. 

I had made the decision to work quickly, to try to find something simple to grasp onto, to capture it then leave it be. I'm like a lepidopterist who captures a butterfly in a large soft net only to let it go after a brief but intense inspection. 

I think it was because during those few days I was still thinking of that small Turner watercolour of which I wrote about a month ago. Images like that can take up lots of space in painter's head the same way as a melody in a musician's. This evening I wanted to keep them fresh and not get bogged down into laboured paintings, I wanted some delicate studies; I wanted the air, but not the wind. 

And so these came out of that evening and I was reasonably happy with them. I believe they are in order of execution. The last one at the bottom is actually a slightly larger canvas board, so by the fourth study, I must have been feeling more confident.

The first one was very compact, barely a breath of a thought, but I really like the way the sea came out, it was almost sliced in two and creates an unusual foreground almost like throwing a silk scarf around a wool jacket. 

These kinds of spontaneous decisions whilst painting are more natural to my process than to many other painters who might exercise more thoughtful care than me in front of a motif. After all, I'm a remnant of another tradition, one more casual than dour. But that said, I do like detail, but details are just nuts and bolts which fasten a structure together. Imagine Uccello's grand picture, The Battle of San Romano, in the National Gallery of London exhibited in someway close to a jet engine. (now that would be a fantastic piece of Conceptual Art).

In any event, the second painting became a little more involved as I became more entangled  with the sensuality of the paint like an artist from 18th century Holland.

The third one (here below) was also done quite quickly, it felt rushed, as if I wanted to get through the meal in a hurry, getting to the  desert even faster. And it even reminds me of a plum tarte, a Reine Claude, made in the late Autumn countryside of France.

The one below it (middle), is perhaps my favourite as it too came quickly, but with also  a real feeling of getting what I had desired out of this sky, not scratching haphazardly for an answer, but moving without hesitation to its resolution like a trained dog looking for survivors.

And lastly, the large one at the very bottom, is a depiction of when the sky has just peaked and feels mellow like a large hot air balloon releasing its chamber and slowly returning to earth.

Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads, 18 January 2023, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads, 18 January 2023, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads, 18 January 2023, oil on canvas boards, 30 X 25 cm

14 February 2023

punished and sent to bed without dinner!

Evening Prayer Brunswick Head, 16 January 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Three dark pictures, taciturn, like naughty children who were punished and sent off to their rooms for misbehaving. They are not happy about it! In fact, they remind me of ME, when I was punished and sent to my room without dinner. Whether we like it or not, it appears that our past will always keep sending us postcards from places long ago that we would rather forget.

But these three were done on a rough and stormy-looking night. In the late afternoon I had driven out to the beach because the sky had looked decent from the house, but darn it, Mother Nature fooled me as it often does because it was overcast. I had had misgivings already when I hit the road and saw the dark sky but, "what the hell", I thought, I had been home all day and wanted to get out. After a ten minute drive I arrived and parked carrying my painting gear up the sweet little path about 60 meters further on to the small dune where I normally paint. The beach was windy and desolate but I set up anyway. My outings there had been sporadic all summer long due to the weather and I really missed these afternoon sessions. 

Though a bit confused by the form of so many clouds all jumbled together into a flat pile, I nonetheless jumped into the first painting above without too much thought and I quickly lost my way,. .. Ha Ha,... and so much for rigorous restraint. Remarkably though, I was able to 'bring it back' and save it by turning it into something I had not at all anticipated. It's now not at all unpleasant but just something very different than what I had had in mind. 

In fact, though surprised, I was reasonably happy with it, but the weather discouraged me from beginning another one from this dark and difficult sky. So I brought out two older studies which I had brought to see if I could also 'bring those back from the dead' and perhaps put them into an acceptable state.  

But there is something about these two older paintings (below) that make them somewhat unusual. When they were done (years earlier) they were not quite right, either just plain boring or perhaps just 'unfinished' or 'unrealised', which was what I actually felt about them. But anyway, they were unacceptable and worthless to me in their present state. No drama, this happens all the time to paintings. Often, paintings will either get better with time or worse. Unlucky paintings might appear great when just finished but over time they quietly fall off the podium and end up in the leprosy ward. Still others might look awful when just painted but improve with age like a bottle of whiskey. It's really out of our earthly hands, and as any artist knows, the Gods regulate all this stuff in the end.

But these two were rather mediocre, somewhat lifeless from the get-go and whether as Dr Frankenstein or Doctor Good, my desire was always to give them a life of their own. 

So over the past few weeks I have begun pulling these poor things off the shelf a few at a time and putting them into the boot of the car with the rest of my painting gear. When I have finished a session and my palette is drenched in colour, and importantly, if the skies seem to vaguely line up with an idea, I will put them on the easel, look at the motif, and throw colour at them to see what comes of it. What is that expression for politician's behaviour so prevalent on CNN roundtables these days? 

"Throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks?" 

After all, I have nothing to lose. Sometimes I pull it off while at others it's a lesson in exasperation. 

But Painting is not a zero-sum game as many seem to understand the rest of life to be, (mostly financiers to be honest). Still, the native American Indians (who are still a wise bunch) often quip: 

"Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you". It has nothing to do with a zero-sum game at all, its simply bad luck.

In any event I am reasonably happy with the first painting below, though there is that bit of scruffy-looking light on the righthand side that I might still tone down ever so gently if I get to it.

But I am really happy with the one below it, for it came out just right, to my complete surprise. And it was ALL just good fortune, really good luck, because this time around, the E.R. doctor inside me managed to revive this cadaver. But I have no idea how I did it. It happened so quickly, perhaps within ten minutes. It was done like in a dream that one quickly forgets upon awakening. It comes at the surprise end of a long trek home.

There is much to say about all this but it will have to wait for the next time to go further into this subject of what constitutes the idea of 'Finish' when considering a painting. 

Anyway, I always learn so much by going deeper and deeper into a picture, almost against my own instinct, like a cave inside myself, deeper and darker, until I feel as if I am back in my childhood bedroom again and still being punished without dinner.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Head, 16 January 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Head, 16 January 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

07 February 2023

Dreams and reality On Chesil Beach

As a creative person who believes in literature as a conveyance of truth, I almost always find more reality in works of fiction. I've been thinking a lot about how this relates to Painting over the past few years. 

I came to Ian McEwan quite late in my life, late like I've been late to nearly everything else in life, so it's no surprise that I've only just discovered his novel On Chesil Beach, that I recently found on the bookshelf which a friend had gifted me a few years earlier. 

But as a matter of fact, I've been late to many authors, late to many musicians and composers, even too late to some painters too. It's not surprising because I have been late to so many other important parts of my life; late to discipline and hard work, but also late to work, period. And I've been too late to love as well, way past my expiration date. I arrived much later than I would have liked at sobriety too. But like they say, better 'late than never' for that one. 

In any event I am not alone, there are many other latecomers besides me because Life is both difficult and quite complicated in this worldly space between dreams and reality. And even under the best of circumstances when life starts out for some in a cute pram off Regents Park, they can end up living on the streets in King's Cross. There are late bloomers too, some of whom spend their lives teetering on the edge of bar stools. And for too many in the Third World, life begins on a dusty dry road which they are then condemned to march for the duration. Who can say where any choices are made?

But how one awakens to the great Reality of what we call Life is also quite varied, and it's also kind of mysterious, especially as one ages, but then many of us for some reason, never awaken to reality at all, regardless of our age. To me Life is a great parade, marching in it, or watching it, oftentimes between the two. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 27 January 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

But, anyway,,, I love really good authors, not the cheap-reads but the ones who take us to a space where we can be confronted with Reality, the ones who show us where they fell and how got up again.

And this is equally true of the Arts in general, but I'm mostly thinking of how really good painters can also move us into this space of a wide reality through their own failures and successes.  

From the very first page of this wonderful and intimate book I was transfixed and transported back in time, to a Britain I had never even known. McEwan has the power of narrative and not unlike a great painter, he has a love for detail and mood. I highly recommend it for anyone, who like me, hasn't yet discovered this side of postwar Britain. 

Ian McEwan paints a picture of a complicated and unified order that is just on the verge of a social earthquake. I had seen lots of great British films, the edgier ones from the 40's and 50's that foretold the social unrest of the 60's to come but I had not read too many books about it. The 60's in every way, was a collision of several great forces that changed the landscape. 

Painting of course, changed dramatically like everything else as it went POP! But this movement seemed like a shallow display of ostrich plumage though I know many would strongly disagree. And hey! Who cares in the end? With perhaps the exception of Bacon and Freud, most visual artists went for the flashy gag which they managed to sell!! Silly money that made a few savvy investors wealthy.

But getting back to the world Painting, I ask always, how does a painter render a narrative, a voice, or a mood for instance? Is there a technique, or does it lie-in-wait, deeply inside a painter's soul for the right pictorial idea to surface at some point in his life? 

What I often think about in Painting is the specificity of detail that never bogs us down with tedium but lives in a generously grand operatic space. Ian McEwan paints this British social landscape with an eye like Chardin, but better yet, maybe Pietro Longhi with a twist of Goya thrown in.

Like a great writer, a great painter depicts the world at large by pulling it apart then only to piece it back together again whole and fresh as if by magic. The result is not a copy but an entirely new and believable world for the rest of us to experience. And with the subtlest of skill, his character development in On Chisel Beach pulls us into his drama within barely a few sentences. 

This reminds me of why we love Vincent Van Gogh's paintings so much. In front of his work we surrender ourselves obediently and give him the power to yank us into his feelings without a hint of defiance. He was that kind of painter, absolutely unique, he was a bonfire of feeling. Sometimes when I hear old scratchy recordings of Blues singers I feel heat from the same bonfire.

Don't we succumb to this because we have been seduced by his empathetic persuasion towards his characters like we do for an author? Both the artist and author seem to cast a spell over us, the really good ones are witch doctors while the bad ones are priests.

Lastly, and speaking for myself; why am I so much more moved by Truffaut's The 400 Blows than I am about my own childhood experiences of family life and boarding school? Is it not that Art pierces both dreams and reality by recreating the concrete out of our own abstract memories?

And what is it about truth and fiction in this space of memory in which we all live together, but separately? And how does a work of Art, a book or painting in these cases I have cited, possess the power to transport us to a particular place in ourselves that we recognise even if we have not yet been there? So many questions.... 

For your perusal and as a change of heart, a little like a tiny bowl of sorbet between gourmet dishes to change the palate, here are three different skies at three different times, from the same hand.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 1 May, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 30 March 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm