Those Goshdarn Frankfurters

I found an essay online yesterday, which I've linked to here.

It's a very readable and informative look at the reasons behind the cultural shifts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which have had such a lasting effect on us, covering topics as diverse as art and politics, and the unlikely alliances and strange bedfellows which have shaped our times.

If you've ever wondered why modern art became  incomprehensible, or why educational institutions have become hotbeds of gibbering idiocy, this essay will provide some much needed insight.

When I was a young student, towards the end of my time in
college, I instinctively rejected what I was being taught. I stopped trying to paint like a New York abstractionist and started drawing from life. My small, ill considered rebellion had consequences which affect me to this day, but I never regretted it. I'm just glad to have found some of the reasons behind the forces that shape our cultural landscape.

Let this be a lesson to all you budding super villains out there. It's all very well building a secret lair, stealing nukes, or growing your own superbug...

But if you want to do some real damage - start a think tank.

Looking back

Taking time out to have a good long look at what you've been doing is one of the most terrifying exercises known to man.

A week or so ago, I spent an hour looking at all the paintings I've done since I started painting again in 2012. Getting on for 120 pieces, mostly in oil on board, most around 10" x 12".

52 of them ended up in a box labelled 'Do not show'. Right next to the front room fireplace, where they're likely to end up as kindling. Oil paint on MDF - that should get a good blaze started.

60 ended up in the box of salvation, back upstairs in the spare bedroom, waiting on being framed and getting shown. The quality is patchy, but generally high. Most of the works were begun on site, painting plein air, but generally finished in the studio, whether that amounted to a little tidying up or extensive reworking.

Most of them are landscapes, though there have been two forays into self portraiture, one still life, and an Old Master copy that taught me a lot.

A dozen or so are repeated variations of the same landscape over the seasons, a series that will be finished come September.

I like to think I'm forging a tool, putting together the skills and knowledge needed to bring something new and worthwhile to landscape painting. From a cold start back in 2012, my drawing has picked up and my painting is workmanlike. On a good day, I think I know what I'm doing. On bad days I wonder who I'm kidding.

But then, walking that particular high wire, and refusing to let either over-confidence or ludicrous self-flagellation get in the way of what you're doing, is all part of painting. My next step is to enter some exhibitions this year and see if I get anywhere. If someone else decides my paintings are worth showing, maybe I can believe it too.

Flaming June

Well, it was pretty grey and cool to start with, but things perked up.

Painting plein air a couple of weeks ago, working on a study for a larger (12" x 16") version. There's a short list of open shows I'm going to try and get into this year, and the finished version of this is one of the pieces I'll be entering.

Still working on the problem of keeping a painting alive in the studio. I'm pursuing two threads: the nineteenth century academic method of doing studies for a composition, and pulling them all together into a grand pictorial statement, and the more agile and responsive Impressionist method of painting from life and keeping the marks and colours intact in the finished work.

I've got studies from last year waiting on the time being right to attempt full sized paintings from them, notably a house in Rowthorne, and a field on the way there. I passed by the house last week and noticed swarms of workmen going in and out. I just hope it's still standing when I go back in August. They trimmed the hedges and the ivy on the walls last year when I was halfway through the drawing.

Two lucky purchases this month, the first being a copy of 'Victorian Painters', by Jeremy Maas, which I picked up, literally for pennies, on Amazon. It's a brilliant overview of English painting in the nineteenth century. The second was a similarly priced copy of W.P.Frith's memoirs, with stories from the life of the successful academician. Given that he personally knew Turner and Constable, and that the book features stories about both men, I found it of particular interest.

Putting a horse in a painting

...Is not a simple matter. Everything you choose to paint has to function as a design element, as a piece of a harmonious whole.

Some things are easy to incorporate in a composition. A house is a rectangle, a mountain is a triangle, a hill is a breast; all simple, pleasing forms. A mass of trees or a cloud share the happy facility of being pretty much any shape you choose.

But a horse has uncompromising facts of anatomy which must be accommodated without upsetting the balance of the picture. As a living thing, it will draw the eye no matter where you put it, even if it's only incidental to the main focal point of the painting.

And it is a collection of shapes: the truncated triangles of head, and neck, the sagging barrel of the body, and last, and most awkwardly, the legs. Many, many legs. Put those legs against a plain ground, like a grassy field, and they will divide it into beautiful, interesting paper cut outs, with nuanced straight lines, graceful curves, and odd little sharp angles. Which might be bad, because these shapes are too interesting, and could take attention away from where you want it to go.

One solution is to incorporate the horse into a tonal mass so that it doesn't stand out too much, blending into the background a little.

Paint the horses lying down, and you either have rounded boulders that fit in easily, or a sprawling mess with legs pointing everywhere. Painting is about as honest as stock photography, in that you're always looking for the best angle to show off your subject, and trying to avoid the awkward views. 

If you want to see what to do with horses' legs, check out Uccello's 'The battle of San Romano'.

Work in progress.

Just uploaded this recent painting to my Saatchi account:

Right now I'm working on a 12" x 30" 'Ramsons', for which I started painting studies and taking photographs a couple of years ago.

Actually I've painted everything but ramsons, as they haven't started flowering yet, but they're in bud, so all we need now is a warm, dry spell of sunny weather...

(Sits and twiddles thumbs.)

No matter. I've got a monthly 'Oak in a field' on the go, with only five more to do before I end up with a year's worth of 8" x 12" paintings of the same corner of a field in different lights and weathers. Standing in the same spot for a couple of days every month has probably set the farmer on edge, given the risk of travellers opting to squat on his land. But he's not come after me with a shotgun yet.

Painting the same subject in different lights and seasons is great practice. I've been forced to deal with painting things I'd usually avoid: snow, bare branches, open ground. But when you don't have to worry about drawing or composition, since they're the same from painting to painting, you're free to concentrate on the look of things.

I've also been forced to deal with passers by, given that it's beside a busy road. Most of them are lorry drivers, confused by the sudden countryside, and anxious in case they've taken a wrong turn.

The most memorable was an unusual couple who walked past. She, twenty something, pretty, brunette, talkative. He, same age, shirtless (on a cold autumn day) and raving while he literally wrestled with the air. I suspect chemicals were involved. But they were polite enough, and soon on their way, she chatting amiably, while he shouted at the trees and hedges.

I'm just about to draw out a 12" x 24" of an autumn hedgerow on its support, from drawings I did last year. Small paintings I'm happy to start on site, but bigger works need more rehearsal, and a preliminary drawing helps sort out problems of scale and composition before I take the painting to the subject. I will be working mostly on site, even on larger works, in future. I find both kinds of painting - plein air and studio -  are necessary, for every painting.

I tried painting a large studio painting from studies, last year, and it pretty much died on the easel. Without the injection of a real response to the real subject, actually there in front of you, a painting has an uphill struggle before it gets within reach of success. I find myself using photographs less and less every year.

For sale, one previous owner.

So I'm selling the mitre saw I bought.

Stop laughing at the back.

Why am I selling it?

It's not the right tool for the job. It's not accurate enough. And, let's be honest, I'm not the best woodworker around. The mitre cuts are close, but just a little out. When I assemble the cut stock to make the frame, there are gaps.

Not huge gaps, you understand. Nothing that would make the average joiner blink an eye, but unacceptable in a picture frame.

I've tried fixing this. Test cuts every time I set the blade, the cut pieces examined against a compound square. Excess wood shaved off with a block plane and a mitred shooting board. I even built a rotary framing sander from an old grinding wheel.

All to no avail.

Failure is not always a challenge. Sometimes it's life's way of telling you to try a different approach.

I'm a handy sort of chap. I could, for example, in theory, learn how to make my own shoes. But there are many excellent reasons why I don't.* Similarly, I have never tried to do my own dentistry. Just last month I also discovered that I really, really shouldn't attempt plumbing.

And I'm not going to do my own framing any more, but I'm going to pay someone else to make a really good job of it.

What valuable life lesson can we draw from my humiliating about face?

'Enthusiasm and determination are no substitute for surly acceptance of one's own inadequacy.'

Sounds a little harsh. Let's put a better spin on it.

How about this:

'When a task requires resources and skills you don't possess, pay an expert to do it.'

Better. Here's a cloud study:

* Not least being that it would be weird. Who does that?


I hesitate to attribute to a tree any such thing as character, but there are trees around my home that are as recognizable to me as old friends.

Off the top of my head, I can bring to mind two fine examples of Aruacaria aruacana, the 'monkey puzzle', in gardens. Add to them, at the side of a country road, the ivy covered oak that looks like something out of a Disney animation. Then there's the handsome cedar on the front lawn of a local National Trust property.

They draw the eye, and give pleasure. I have drawn, and painted, and photographed them.

Over the past few weeks I've ransacked old sketchbooks and pored over folders of paintings to gather together the best tree pictures I have made. They are collected here, in a book, for your viewing pleasure.


Algernon Blackwood wrote a story, The man whom the trees loved, about a painter who specialized in portraits of his favourite trees. While I share that character's affection for his subject, I hope that I'm not only a tree painter, just as I hope to evade his fate. (The trees steal him away.)

I also hope this small book gives you some of the pleasure I have enjoyed in making the drawings and paintings that fill it. I have always found the countryside to be a place of beauty and pleasure, and the trees in these pages have played a large part in that.