30 March 2024

Painters and Pianists

This morning I spent over an hour playing just two measures of a difficult piece by Erik Satie. It took me a short while to get into it but then after I did, time melted away.

It was difficult tempo that had to be burned into my head and fingers through concentrated repetition. By the end I got up and made more coffee and then I suddenly marvelled at how I was able to do this at all because for most of my life I had been so ill-constructed for any kind of concentration. And as a child I could never pay attention for longer than the time it took to scratch my own nose. Unlike today, they didn’t have fancy names for this sort of demeanour back in the 1950's, nor was their any medication for it. But I would have been a fine candidate for it all. The best explanation they had for me was that I was a redhead.(!) 

This kind of concentration on a piece of music even on just a few measures feels so vastly different from how I operate out in a painting session today. 

But why would I want to invest four months of piano practice just to learn a new piece by Erik Satie? Like so many amateur musicians (and mountaineers worldwide) I proclaim, mostly to myself, "because it’s there!!”

Recently, I watched a great interview on YouTube hosted by the musician and journalist, Rick Beato in Atlanta. He talked with Brad Mehldau a pianist who I didn't know, and it was absolutely wonderful. See him (above) playing Blackbird, at the Steinway factory in Hamburg from two years ago. 

Like a great painter Brad Mehldau expands lots of rich relationships in this lovely song by Paul McCartney, the lyrics of which were inspired by the racial tensions in the American South. 

Mehldau plays it with luscious harmonies that he gently weaves out of it like he was making taffy at a country fair. This rendition reminds me of the way Pierre Bonnard painted his pictures; patiently, richly, and ever expanding a whole image as if one were watching fireworks in slow motion. 

My Painting teacher Léo Marchutz, once said that the greater the number of relationships in a work of art, the greater the work of art.

But I bring all this up because at a certain moment in the interview he spoke about the 'flow', and how essential it is when improvising music. He said, "Thought was the enemy of the 'flow'". A cliché for sure, but it's a truth that any creator, athlete, barrister in a court room will attest to, no matter the art form. The flow is how the world of creativity functions.

And it's something I'm always conscious of in both Painting and in the study of music, but also just  playing tennis or even reading a book.
But I must confess that this idea of the 'flow' came quite late in my creative life. I recently only began to learn about it specifically through the piano but also in my sessions at the beach over the past six years. With the exception of LSD, this 'flow' had mostly eluded me for most of my life.

Au Chateaunoir, early 1990's, oil on canvas board, 30 X 22 cm

But this older painting (above) is a rare early example of the 'flow' that I've somehow managed to connect with in my painting process. I include it here because it was such a rarity and because for me it has a certain feeling in it, one of a constant musical movement that I recognise. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 3 February 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

This painting (above) on the other hand, was randomly selected to reveal the flow in my working process today. But I could have picked any number of these oil studies
(out of hundreds) to reveal the presence of the how the 'flow' was cemented into my way of working on a picture. It's a shame that it came to me so late in life but my mind wasn't able to access it earlier on a steady basis. Alas. 

These paintings always come quickly with little hesitation or thought. I generally set up to work before Dusk when I am assured of the greatest number of colourful changes to come. This rapid procedure insures that I will be pushed out of the thought process as if I were improvising on the piano.

But the painting motif is simple just like the melody for the pianist. This allows the focus to be oriented around the harmonic key changes. And this is how the flow normally begins for both painters and pianists.   

27 March 2024

Vincent Van Gogh, the biggest con artist in history!

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 19 March 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Here are three things from last week when the sky opened up between weather systems arriving from the Eastern seaboard. It was a lovely 'Bloom' but was a little short-lived as it shut down quickly. But while it lasted, Yes!

There are presented as they were successively painted. This top one, I really liked it right off the bat and for once, I stopped just in time because my guardian angel came to me in the form of a magpie which wandered around my easel while looking straight at me, she gently sang in that warbling kind of way they do here in OZ. So I said, 

"OK, Grace,,, I hear you, and thank you."

So I dutifully stopped work and left it despite my inclination to continue. It had come very quickly and I was grateful because when I haven't been painting out here so regularly I feel nervous. I'm badgered with questions on the 12 minute drive to the beach, (What am I doing? Shouldn't I find something else to paint? I'm too tired, too sore, so maybe I'll stay on the sofa and read). But somehow I almost always seem to show up regardless of ME. And like they say, I'm always taken care of,,, always.

In the second one, the sea had turned pale blue and afterwards when I had finished it felt a little spooky to me. Today it still does. I'm not sure why but maybe the orange sky feels a little too 'bloody'. But as many landscape painters will tell you; 

"Hey! it really looked like this!! No kidding around!"

But actually, I've got news for you, if the viewing public hasn't figured it already, I'll let you in on a big secret hiding in plain sight: All artists are liars! We're all liars, all of us,,,, we're con artists because the motif never really looks like we say it did, ask anyone. Ask Vincent Van Gogh, the biggest liar in Art history! 

Everything we do is distorted (ask Picasso), twisted (ask Chaim Soutine), fanciful (ask Marc Chagall) theatrical, Philip Guston, long-in-the tooth, ask Giacometti.

Everyone of us is a Pinocchio in a hoodie.

But regardless, it was wonderful to be out painting with a small breeze on my face and a rather empty beach save the usual suspects; beach walkers, a few surfers, the late afternoon bathers who finish work and come to jump in for a short splash, then back to family dinners or take-outs, and then Netflix for everyone. This Australian beach life is pretty laid back like most Australians are in general, pretty much everywhere around the world.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 19 March 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

The last painting (below) was somewhat of an afterthought. The 'Bloom' had almost evaporated but I thought I might eek-out another study from the light traces of colour still imprinted on the sky. 

It's a strange picture that began with such promise but I lost it and my heart sank. Here it is anyway. As I say, all too redundantly here in these pages, only Time will tell if it's true.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 19 March 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

19 March 2024

Mail from beyond the grave


I just watched a new CNN report about the crash of TWA flight 800 back on the 17th of July 1997.  For so many of us who often flew this route from New York to Paris it hit home as these events always will. They become personalised.

I was back in Aix when it happened and like everyone else I was saddened. But the next year I was again back in Aix that summer and I received a large beaten-up looking envelope from the post office in Queens New York. I opened it not without curiosity and found this letter inside a small plastic bag. Accompanying it was a letter from the Queens Post office explaining that my letter had just been released by the FBI after their investigation into the TWA flight had been terminated and they were therefore allowed to deliver it to me. Shocked as I was happy to receive it under such macabre circumstances, I opened and read it.

It was from a friend with whom I shared a regular correspondence, John Spinks, an artist living in NY. There are several things about this that I need to note about this strange occurrence.

John, by habit, always wrote with a ball-point pen so thus the ink was pretty indelible, as seen in the photo above. On the other hand, had it been a letter from me to him it would not have survived because I have always written by habit, with a fountain pen, using blue/black ink that was almost never indelible. So it would not have survived the Atlantic Ocean. 

When I wrote back to John with a photo of his envelope he was naturally flabbergasted and because he worked principally with collage I believe he turned it into an art work almost immediately.

I am sure that many others received their mail like me after such a long time. Like every tragedy we seem to all be witnesses by varying degrees. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 7 March 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm 

In this spirit I offer up this study that was made about two weeks ago. The sea is deep, deep Blue Violet and Emerald Green that despite the bright summer yellow joy, it seems to possess a somber feeling. 

As a child, I remember swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in July and August at the height of the hot summers but this ocean always felt cold and black, like it could never warm up, unlike the Pacific. The Atlantic Ocean felt to me as a kid  like an old witch who could sink a sub for no reason at all.

16 March 2024

Tolstoy and death and painting

 This is a reprint of a small piece I posted almost three years ago. 

11 August 2021

Tolstoy and Christian Martel, peintre de Montpellier et La Drôme 

Christian Martel, (circa 2012) oil on linen, 25 X 20 cm

Christian was a friend for about 30 years before he died suddenly two years ago. The way he died reminded me of the short story by Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which I read in high school so long ago. Though Christian did not at all live an 'ordinary life', as Tolstoy had described Ivan Ilyich, he did live a discreet and unglamorous life. He devoted himself, and all his resources, always, to his creativity, wherever that led him.  

Like many creative people he was extremely sensitive, so touchy that it became a joke between us when he would lower his head and say 'half-truthfully' 
"Oaui, Oaui,, Coffey la Brute!" 

Sometimes he would not take my calls for months on end until he got over it whatever it was that so upset him. But I did eventually stop teasing him when I finally realised that he was so fragile. I tempered my gregariousness and learned to temper my behaviour. I can be that way with people for whom I have a really great affection. Often, I needed to lay off and tell him: 
"Oui, oui, J'avoue qui je suis un Taquinuer au premier rang! Pardon-moi."

We always made up, that is to say that I always apologised in my light-hearted manner, only then, did we pick up where we had left off, sort of. 

He was a very gifted painter even if I didn't appreciate the skills he had picked up at the Beaux-Arts in Montpellier 500 years earlier while in school. He worked from photos of landscapes and industrial buildings from which he would invent small paintings. I was very critical of this approach to Painting, and let him know it whenever he asked my opinion of something he had done. But I learned to never throw out anything in an unsolicited manner.  Sensing my displeasure in something, he used to explain that they were 'tourist pictures' which sold. And he did support himself with the sales of these pictures, but also by teaching small groups of mostly adults each week. 

I admired him for the life which he had managed to create for himself. Life wasn't easy for him. I knew he struggled as an artist but it was mostly with himself, I believed. He was a survivor of his weird childhood. Me too, which is what bound us together. Our difficulty was fitting into a life where most people seemed to have so many other priorities. We both believed in Art, above else.

He often came and stayed for weeks at a time when I lived at the Bélvèdere in Dieulefit. Each night, we hosted anyone who showed up for dinner. Great wonderful improvised affairs, Summers, Springs and Autumn were a wonderful time outdoor on the terrace. We never ate indoors. We 'rugged up' with extra clothes, as the Aussies say down here. 

So, I have always loved this painting (above). I often told him that too, but he never understood why this one, but not others. It is a complete success as a picture, and now when I stare at it on my desktop, I think of him dead, gone forever. I find it ironic that, for me, this small church became such a great painting because I knew that he loathed churches. In fact, anything, remotely religious he loathed with a passion. Renaissance paintings, icons, statues; lovely and simple, and not even a  Romanesque church on hilltop in Nature could move him. No beauty withstood his rancorous disdain for anything connected to the Church. 

Ma foi!! 
Et Pourtant! Ironically, this little church, lit up from his imagination, is so very very lovely on every pictorial level. For it is unified by every tiny squiggle of colour and detail. It is embalmed in a black/red/purple mix of sky gripping it in place. It is this mass of deep colour which allows that pale blue sliver of artificial town lighting on the right side to work so well. 

It is a great little painting, a marvel of invention! If only I could write him this....from today.

I will not show his other work out of respect for this one picture, though he made so many small lovely things throughout his working life.

I read Ivan Ilyich when I was seventeen years old, when death seemed a million miles away from me. My teacher was an older man, a really nice guy who I liked. He was very moved by this short novella by Tolstoy, and this in turn, moved me. I understand now, at this later stage in my life just what my elder teacher had perhaps felt for the simplicity in this story of a banal life, even worse, a banal death.

And this brings me back to to Christian, who had survived Myeloma Cancer several years earlier only to fall down the narrow winding staircase in his apartment building one night. According to the coroner's report he died of a heart attack as a result of the fall.

I wonder what he would have thought of that ending? Actually,,,, I wonder what any of us would think of our own exits?

07 March 2024

The Japanese architect, meets Billy the kid and Ockam's Razor

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 February 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 24 cm

A few years ago I read about a Japanese architect who was explaining about the best placement of a garden pathway from the driveway to the home he had recently designed for a couple. He told them that he had not planned for it but wanted to let the pathway "just happen naturally over time" as the began couple living in their new home. Only then would the new occupants figure out where their pathway would spontaneously appear.

I loved that. And it came to mind the other day during my piano practice. As I've just started another learning a new piece by Satie, one I hadn't planned to memorise, (too much work and time!) I was faced with the notation for the fingering. This is the 5th Gnossienne, and the delicate fingering is really tricky.

Like all amateur musicians, I note the fingering whenever I begin a new piece in pencil just above the notes on the manuscript. But they can often change as I look for the better fingering to get me through each measure while preparing for the next one. So like the architect advised his clients, when working this out, I allow my fingers to find the most natural pathway throughout the piece, measure by measure.

So regarding Painting, I wondered what the correlation might be between this procedure and how I go about Painting. This question asks me to analyse my habits already developed over a lifetime of experiences and to which I don't think I have any answer. 

In this beach series where the focus is particularly narrow, with little or almost no deviations from a drawing perspective, there is a simplicity that borders on the austere because the motif is so Zen simple. In other words I don't have to subjugate myself to a procedure for these sessions. My procedure is already simple.

But, this architect's advice can work in every other part of my life and it can also sharpen the edge of another of my favourites maxims; Ockam's Razor, already, a practical vehicle for navigating intelligently through Life.

The picture above is from last week, it's one I like. Initially I thought it too sloppy, but now I'm not so sure. In fact over this past week I've come to really appreciate things about it. 

Below, is another picture from the same night. They have both been big hits on Instagram. Though I like the one above I don't care for the one below. It's a study that doesn't really do it for me at all. It seems to work, everything is in place, but it doesn't grab me, certainly not the way the one above does. So I am trying to see what others see in it. 

One thing I have shared often in these pages is that I really appreciate social media. It is a godsend for painters like me who live like spiders, high up in the corners, out of reach of  life below, where civilised, normal people go about a practical life.

I am continually surprised at what many people like and dislike in my work. I'm never offended just curious. I say this, but I admit that I didn't like someone the other day who wrote me to say that, "all of your pictures look the same". Hmmm, I fumed.

Of course, I immediately unfollowed him. So, evidently, I am curious what people think, but I don't want to put up with snarky comments that are just made to offend me. After all, I'm not famous enough to be trolled. 

And hey!, as my cousin Billy in the Bronx told me; "Thump the mother****er" first before he thumps you". This was advice that took me a long to time to exercise in my own life. But then, I'm still alive while cousin Billy was stabbed in the Bronx in a street fight back in the 1990's, so go figure. 

Anyway, like the Japanese architect suggested, don't make a plan, but live first, let the plan  unfold in the right place for you. Apparently, Cousin Billy had the plan but was just too early, and it killed him (just sayin). 

In this series, I don't have a plan but I do have a motif in front of me, and I use a simple palette of just five colours. I work quickly without hesitation, and also without conscious thought. Is that a plan? I'm not sure. 

But I'm still not nuts about the study below. Maybe I will change my feelings over time, but maybe not. Feelings about art do change often over time. Things I liked years ago are a no-go now, but conversely, studies I didn't see just a short while back can suddenly look like genius to me. 

Because I'm the beholder, beauty is alway in my own eyes, that's just the way it is because it's a rigged system and the painter always wins in the end.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 February 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 24 cm