Why are you painting that?

Back in February of last year I stood on a path at the edge of a field and painted a small wood.

Some kid walking his dog stopped to take a look and asked me what I found to paint 'in this place'. The way he said it set me thinking. He sounded local, looked like he might have had a rural job. And he was evidently baffled as to why I chose to paint what, to him, looked drab and ordinary.

Except it plainly wasn't. The winter sun glared like a flashbulb going off. That hard light lit up the edge of the wood, but left the depths a rich, dark, velvet brown. Ragged clouds, cream and smoke grey, writhed across a sky of intense blue. The next field's bare turned earth glowed an unlikely salmon pink. It all looked beautiful. The only problem I had with it was how to paint it and do it justice.*

If I divide the world into painters and 'civilians', it's because of encounters like this. I had friends from school who were inept at drawing and painting, mostly because they didn't look at things.

They've all done well for themselves - in some instances, considerably better than me -  so looking plainly isn't a requirement for success. But it leaves me feeling sorry for people who don't, won't, or can't, see the world the way a painter does.

I've never had a dull journey. Give me a three hour train ride with a window seat, and I'll happily stare out for the whole way.

Shadows on a landscape, like that Inness painting? There's a real life example, take notes. Sheep on a hillside like ticks on a blanket, as in several Turners? What do you know, they look exactly like that. Dark out? Even better. Artificial lighting, perspective, and window reflections.

I don't get bored. Waiting rooms? Window light on walls and radiators, the stately change in shadow tonal depth. Every view presents a challenge. How would I paint that? What colours would I mix to do it?  

In the end, that's what painters do. They look at things so the rest of you can see them better. They show you the world as it really is: intensely beautiful.

* Which I signally failed to do, which is why you see a different picture here.


In a recent post I said I wanted to step up my painting game, and needed tuition to help me do that.

But where to find it?

There are options out there: painters who run their own workshops or schools of art, painters who make DVDs of their instructional videos, painters who write illustrated how-to-paint books, and even painters who do all three.

I'm too skint and lazy to pay for, or attend, a workshop. That leaves me with two choices, videos and books.

When you want to paint better than you already do, learn from a painter who can paint better than you do now. Let that be your guiding principle and you can't go far wrong when searching through all that's on offer. 

With that in mind, I have an Amazon wish list with over a hundred books on it. Every so often I check to see which prices have dropped, and snap up bargains from the list. Sometimes they're books by contemporary landscape painters, other times books about painters from the past whose work I admire. The former will tell you how they paint, the latter will contain works that need to be reverse engineered before you can get what you're after.

And what, precisely, are you after? Insight, mostly. A new way of looking at the same things you deal with when painting, that will add an extra tool to your internal toolbox. No matter how much you know, there's a wealth of undiscovered knowledge out there waiting to be applied.

I have to admit, it can be a lottery. Sometimes a book will overdeliver, in which case it becomes a well thumbed staple of my bookshelf. Sometimes a book will disappoint, in which case I quietly relist it for sale on my Amazon seller account. 

Sargent on Cezanne.

'When in 1912 Mr. D. S. MacColl wrote an article in the Nineteenth Century, "A Year of Post-Impressionism," he received from Sargent the following letter:

My dear MacColl,
I have enjoyed reading your article on Post-Impressionism very much—I should think it would bring a good many people to their senses—I admire the certainty with which you have refrained from hinting at the possibility of bad faith on the part of people like Matisse or at the theory that I am inclined to believe that the sharp picture dealers invented and boomed this new article of commerce.
     I think you have exactly weighed the merits of Cezanne and rather over-estimated the "realism" of Van Gogh whose things look to me like imitations made in coral or glass of objects in a vacuum. As to Gauguin, of course you had to deal with him for the sake of your argument, as if there were something in him besides rich and rare colour. Some day if we ever meet I should like to discuss with you the meaning of the word "values" and the word Impressionism.

Yours sincerely,

John S. Sargent.

In order to appreciate the value of Sargent's concurrence with Mr. MacColl's estimate of Cezanne, the following extract from the article may be quoted:

Cezanne was not a great classic; he was an artist often clumsy, always in difficulties, very limited in his range, absurdly so in most numerous productions, but "with quite a little mood" and the haunting idea of an art built upon the early Monet, at which he could only hint. He oscillated between Monet's earlier and finer manner, that of dark contours and broadly divided colour, and a painting based on the early Monet, all colour in a high key. In this manner he produced certain landscapes tender and beautiful in colour, but the figure was too difficult for him, and from difficulties he escaped into the still lifes I have spoken of, flattened jugs, apples, and napkins like blue tin that would clank if they fell. What is fatal to the claim set up for him as a deliberate designer,  creating eternal images out of the momentary lights of the Impressionists, is the fact that his technique, remains that of the Impressionists, a sketcher's technique, adapted for snatching hurriedly at effects that will not wait.

It is clear that Sargent was from the first definitely hostile to the more advanced Post-Impressionists; he receded very little, if at all, from that position. He regarded the Cubists, their followers and offshoots with uncompromising disapproval. He did not consider that either they or even the great majority of Post-Impressionists, by slighting representation, were contributing in any way whatsoever, as was claimed for them by a leading critic, "to establishing more and more firmly the fundamental laws of expressive form in its barest and most abstract elements." He held that it could be more effectually and much more emotionally attained by representing also the visual and spiritual values of the thing seen.'

From page 193 of John Sargent, by the Hon. Evan Charteris, K.C., with reproductions from his paintings and drawings. Charles Scribner's sons, New York, 1927. '

Website (Vanity II)


A website is an absolutely necessary piece of online real estate for every artist, where you can display, promote, and sell your work.


A website is an expensive way to waste time you could have spent painting. You have to learn to code, or pay someone to do it for you, and either way it costs you time or money. 

Your expensive premium WordPress theme looks great, but it slows down your site so much that Google hates you. So you waste half a day checking out fast loading free themes, every one of which is exactly wrong for your site.

Also, one third of your surprisingly low traffic is bored east european kids trying to hack your database for the fun of it, as you will discover when you're obsessively perusing your visitor logs in your host company's back end and wondering why nobody drops by. And your email sign ups will dump you the moment they get that free gift you gave them in exchange for their email address, never to be heard from again.

Which of these points of view is true? Well, they both are. Kind of. If you've reached a place in your art career where people are looking you up online, getting a website is a logical step to take, or at least it can be if you have a realistic expectations of online sales or some other kind of profitable contact from it - perhaps commissions, or exhibition invitations.

If you decide to go with the 'Heck, yes I want a website!' option, remember it's not all upside. Creating a customer base and selling your work without paying gallery commission? Well, that makes sense. Having to deal with the heavy lifting a good gallery would do for you in return for their commission? That's when it starts to look a little less inviting.

I've been looking at art marketing advice online, given that I'm ready to start selling my paintings, and one thing every art consultant agreed on was the absolute necessity of having your own artist's website. Given that all of them just happened to be selling artist's websites, I decided to take that advice with a grain of salt.

If you haven't reached the place where your name is getting Googled on a regular basis, maybe you should concentrate on your painting until it does. And, for once, I'll be taking my own advice and not getting my own website yet.


I've been drawing self portraits since I was an art student, partly because it's good drawing practice, but mainly because it's easier than persuading someone to sit for me.

Drawing the human face or figure means that any mistakes leap out at you, so you're less inclined to let your drawing become lax. Drawing yourself means you've always got a model, but it also means you get to examine your face somewhat more closely than you usually would, and see the harm that time is doing. (As well as the flaws that came built in - little lapses in symmetry, features that are too big or too small, a nose that points off to the side.)

If you have any vanity, drawing your face pretty much takes it away. Having said that, when I look back at photographs of me taken years ago, I wonder how that fresh faced innocent ever survived to become the evil old monkey into which I am slowly transforming. Altogether, I think I prefer the look of now me. 

Choosing paintings to show.

I wrote recently about looking back at what I'd been doing, and it seems like a good time to pause and take stock.

Having consigned half my recent paintings to the kindling pile, I then took a long look at what remained and picked around twenty pieces that could be worth showing.

There's a consistent theme of landscape,
with sub themes: the tree 'portrait', the light effect, the path in perspective, water and reflections, the horse, the house. All four seasons are represented, though mostly summer. There are several attempts at convincing skies.

In all of them there's a tension between finish and its absence, mostly caused by trying to keep the balance between making the mark and trying not to overwork the paint.

Attempts at making more ambitious works have foundered on the twin rocks of lack of preparation and this problem of finish. A big, complex realist painting takes a long time and a lot of work. If you're thinking of painting that way, here's a tip: do lots of studies.

Success? I've found my themes, and I now know how to tackle a new subject and assimilate it into what I can do.

Failure? I'm not half the painter I hoped I was. My ambition has outpaced my abilities.

Conclusions? I need tuition. 

A Good Painting Spot

This was a good painting spot, because there happened to be a thicket of blackberry bushes within arm's reach to my right. Free fruit.

Of course, it also happened to be on a footpath which got more traffic than I expected, which led to some akward dances around the easel, but it could have been worse; read this Telegraph article to see what can befall an RA in the middle of London.

Even as a landscape painter I sometimes get an audience. The good thing is that onlookers soon realize that painting isn't interesting, and they drift away. Sometimes a troll will try to spoil your concentration by talking to you, but I've perfected the deadpan monosyllabic reply and cheerful countenance that makes them realize they're onto a non starter, and they soon leave in search of fresh prey.

People who do that were the bane of Cezanne's life, or so my reading about him would suggest. A sensitive man who was quick to anger, he was probably easy entertainment for bored peasants on a slow farming day. I've been leafing through the local library's copy of Cezanne: His life and works in 500 images, by Susie Hodge (available at a surprisingly high price on Amazon).

Anyway...where was I, and what's my point? Pick painting spots with free fruit, avoid those with bored peasants and/ or jobsworths.