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In praise of Still Life

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Critics often say that still life paintings are a little uninspiring, an acquired taste, decorative yes, but a little dull. When compared to human subject matter and landscapes, still life ranks quite low in the pecking order of art forms.

My view is that still life art is more than just genre paintings, something pleasing to hang on your wall. So what is it about  the portrayal of some natural or man-made items that should make us reassess the impact of still life painting?

As an artist, and this is a technical standpoint, they are an exercise in looking once, and then looking again. For an artist it is the demand on the observation, the attention to composition and the arrangement of space and objects. The artist’s level of technical skill involves depicting colours, light, form and a response from the viewing experience. This experience could be anything. It could be realism, emotion or symbolism, but it depends on your style, your outlook and approach as an artist.

Still life paintings can be symbolic, as shown by many of the Dutch and Flemish 17th century painters. They would use books to represent knowledge, skulls to represent death and wine for pleasure. The still life painting would be bound up as an overall reminder for the viewer that we are all mortal and life is fragile. Known as ‘Momento Mori’ artwork (Latin for ‘Remember you must die’), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/m/memento-mori and taken further with ‘Vanitas’ paintings http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/v/vanitas , they were a sort of visual cautionary tale that the pleasures and goods we pursued in our life were effectively worthless.

Obviously these paintings were symbolic, steeped in and framed by the strong influence of the church at the time. However, still life painting should act as a catalyst, making us look in more depth at the world around us. How many times do you watch TV, look at your mobile, answer a text while still talking to somebody? There is no focus on any of these things to any real extent, but that is how we seem to function these days. How many times have you walked to get somewhere, yet have no recollection of what you’ve really seen when walking? Do you really look at buildings, natural objects, people etc, other than a cursory glance?

Modern life has a bearing on how little we observe and really take time to look at something. Our attention span can be short on a variety of different issues. However, we know that many medical and technological innovations have come from somebody simply observing something in the first place. From really looking and understanding a problem or disease, a solution or medicine has been created. If we spend time really looking at something for more than a few seconds we can probably understand, appreciate and inform ourselves about what we have seen. May be our first impression was not entirely correct, may be we are not seeing the full picture!

Still life paintings take everyday objects we take for granted and show them in a new light. There might be symbolism, but the act of looking again is something we should probably try to practice in the outside world. In all this I’m not referring to spirituality or religion, but just the simple act of looking and observing. So the next time you see a still life painting, have a look, and may be later on see what’s around you in the real world. You might be surprised or look at things a little differently.

Learning to draw and paint the Atelier way

Charcoal drawing of cast model
Charcoal drawing of a cast at London Fine Art Studios.

Even the most skilled artists are always learning, and continue to develop their art. I thought it might be interesting to share my experiences, particularly for those who already draw and paint or those who maybe want to start drawing.

With improving my drawing and painting in mind, I went looking for ways to do this with some focused tuition. Obviously constant practice is essential, but sometimes you want more advice and guidance. My answer was to go to an Atelier workshop.

What is an Atelier? Sounds highbrow and slightly daunting? Not really, an Atelier is a workshop and process where an artist acts as a tutor teaching by example and demonstration to a number of students. The idea behind this is that groups of artists learn a process together, and learn how to use this process utilising their own individual styles. Everybody is different and has a different way of working, but there is a straightforward process on how to learn to see and draw.

Still confused? Well what I’m learning at the London Fine Art Studios (http://londonfineartstudios.com/) is the importance of working from life, not photographs. Although I already knew this and practised it, I’ve learnt about classical techniques such as encajar and sight-size (http://www.painters-online.co.uk/techniques-and-tips/view,encajar-and-sightsize-learn-classical-drawing-techniques_5232.htm). Tutors emphasise the quality of line to construct images, the importance of values with darks and lights, and the treatment of form, edges and the use of colour. All of these processes are critical in creating a realistic drawing and transferring that drawing into a painting if required.

Now, for some of you, the above techniques might sound and seem totally alien but you probably use some of them already, and if you want to really develop your drawing I would seriously recommend just finding out more. Ateliers are centuries old, used by the Renaissance painters, Rubens, Van Dyke, Singer Sargent etc, and their methods are tried and tested. They also dispel the myth of the solitary artist struggling away and demonstrate a more inclusive way of learning to draw and paint.

Lennon – A commission down memory lane

Portrait painting John Lennon
John Lennon circa White Album

This recent commission, an acrylic painting of John Lennon around 1968, was an interesting one and got me thinking. What is my favourite Beatle track? What is my all time favourite Beatle’s album? I even played a Beatle song or two while painting it!

Like most people born in the 60s, but not everybody I appreciate, the Beatles were either a focal point or backdrop to your musical tastes and development. Over time they have fallen out of favour and come back in again, but their influence was immense musically and culturally.

So I started to go over a few songs and albums and the usual suspects all reared their heads – ‘Love Me Do’, ‘She Loves You’,’Yesterday’, ‘All You Need is Love’ etc etc. Now this wasn’t easy with such a back catalogue, however, there was one song which I still think is one of their best. It wasn’t a single but an album track off ‘Rubber Soul’, the reflective and slightly plaintive ‘In My Life’. Lennon and McCartney at their best.

With the albums again everybody seems to cite ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band’ as the seminal album and game changer. For me this was difficult so I cheated and have picked two albums ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’ from the 1965/1966 period. What I like about these albums is that the songs are taut, simple yet cleverly constructed songs and the beginnings of intelligent and insightful lyrics.

Whatever your opinion is of the Beatles give it a go, unless you absolutely detest them you will find something. What’s amazing to me is how sometimes a simple portrait painting of somebody, who when all said and done is not somebody you know or have met, but can evoke connections and memories taking you back to a place somewhere like your childhood. Long live the power of art!


 

‘Ship of Fools’ – Painting can be a laugh

Sometimes it’s fun just to create a painting that’s a bit of a laugh. I started to paint this one with poking fun in mind, particularly the pompous Tory crowd on this boat just about to go over the edge of a waterfall.

The painting loosely inspired by Bosch’s painting ‘Ship of Fools’ http://www.hieronymusbosch.net/ship-of-fools/ and gives a big nod to the works of James Gilray and John Heartfield. In their time all these artists were capable of sending up the establishment and the rich and powerful.

Whatever your political stance the art of wit, humour, sense of the ludicrous and general lampooning should never be lost, and for me this is what this painting has recreated.

This painting is on show at the Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering until 26th May 2018 if you want a closer look.

Kingley Vale painting

Landscape painting towards Chichester from Kingley Vale
Towards Chichester from Kingley Vale

Well, this is my first blog post on my new website. So here’s a painting from my travels.

This is a scene across Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve towards Chichester. It’s a wonderful chalk grassland littered with ancient burial mounds, yew trees and woodland dating back 500 years and more.

The view painted here is at the top of the valley with its stunning panoramic view over the woodland with Chichester harbour in the distance.