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Why bother learning to paint?

Paint is a material substance, it has body and behaviour, learning how it handles connects us not only with our bodies but to the calm quiet reality of the concrete world.

As our flesh manipulates the pigments a shimmering tracery of bio electrical signals seethes up the nerves and fibres of our organism to the neural octopus that occupies our head.

Observational painting and drawing, once learnt, is a mechanical process; like driving a car, it does not make a great deal of demand upon the conscious mind or intellect but it does engage our attention completely; using, as it does, the eye, the hand and in between, the entire chain of perception. Some of us find this quite therapeutic.

Which is not to say that mind does not get involved, because of course it does. There is an aspect of the mind which enjoys being the author of all that we do, the posturing mountebank who takes ownership of our successes and despairs at our failures; the one who is ready with a judgement but rubbish at art and frankly, needs to know when to step aside and allow the quiet artist within, the space to do what it will.

When that occurs – and it usually does after painting for a while –  there is a peculiar balance which pertains, there is a connection with reality and everything is in it’s rightful place. It might be seen that the physical world ‘out there’ is not separate from the inner world of self. Our paintings become a record not only of our visual perception but also of our experience of ourselves which makes better paintings and contributes positively to our self knowledge.

Good enough reasons to learn how to paint.

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A few things about which we can be certain

Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway – Joseph Mallord William Turner

Have you noticed how things keep changing? I don’t mean the natural things like birth, death and the weather but all the things we have invented for ourselves like what it means to be a good person, what is true, when is it appropriate to lie and what should be the consequences? That sort of thing. Even what makes good art?

We seem to live in a time which has given up certainty itself, and is in the act of embracing a darker reality, that shifts and slithers, refusing to stay still; oh! brave new world.

In art, uncertainty can add an edge to the work, it can intrigue, it casts mystery or tension, it can cause the viewer to join up the dots for themselves and engage more deeply. It’s a handy device but for uncertainty to work it needs one or two points about which we can be sure.

Take a painting such as Rain, Steam and Speed by Turner, painted way before abstract expressionism: for the image to work it needs some identifiable notes, the smoke stack, the boat, the arches, these tethers allow us to enjoy the swirl of colours and textures. These days, freed from explicit narrative, abstract painters still tend to use specific shapes or colours to fix the image, even if just the edge of the canvas. Where nothing is certain, we are left with white noise.

The starting point for us humble observational painters has always been the simple act of looking. Of course, there is absolutely nothing simple about the act of looking but you catch my drift. Whilst looking we may draw and start transcribing some things that we see about which we can be certain. Shapes, colours, values, relationships. These certainties can be returned to and questioned but once they are broadly established they provide a permeable cage within which the freedoms may roam.

Whilst the world around us may spin and swirl like a demented Turner, these acts of observation provide the artist with the grounding anchors upon which to latch their whimsy. Like death and taxes these things are certain.

In wider life our need for certainty is so great that without it we suffer anxiety and lose judgement, panic buying any murky fix offered by the politicians of the day. They do know what they’re doing!

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Keep on arting to save the planet

Image by Al Feldstein

It has become obvious to anybody who has been observing recent events that we are being governed by invisible alien space lizards, hell bent on spoiling our fun and leading us to annihilation. If you have a more plausible explanation, do let me know.

They infest our government and our institutions and force us to live in a self-contradicting puzzle. They seek to divide us against ourselves so that they can bring about their nefarious space invasion whilst we are squabbling about which lavatory to use. It may feel as if resistance is futile but there is one twinkly chink in their scaly armour. They are alien space lizards and as such their blood runs cold. They have no humanity and are bewildered when they see the kindness, community, camaraderie, the selfless love and care that we lavish upon each other with no regard for personal profit.

What they find particularly scary is art.

Art is irrational, personal and can be profoundly affective upon the viewer. Good art is often provocative, not through any wilful contrarianism or childish desire to shock but because when an artist follows their enquiry it can take them to unexplored places where new things are seen. New things are always a challenge, not just to the comfortable and complacent but also to the space lizards. They know that we are more likely to sense their presence if we start making our own enquiries rather than do what is expected of us.

Artists are the exact antithesis of the species of bland globalisation sought by the space lizards. Artists are individual, particular, granular, interested in detail, nuance, subtlety – ‘this’, ‘this’, ‘this’ not ‘those’ or ‘them’. Whilst the lizards seek to use difference as a fuel for division, artists have the knack of seeing difference as the joyful play of one universal truth. This is infuriating to the lizards whose cosmos of lies serves them well and absolutely why we should keep on arting and save the planet.

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The three rules of painting in oils

First, in one sense, there are no rules. Then again, there are dozens. Just like in nature, there are natural laws such as don’t go poking a bear if you can’t run fast, don’t get your shirt off if you don’t want attention and don’t eat Jerusalem Artichokes before a social engagement.

Oil paint is the most powerful and flexible of painting mediums and like gravity, another natural law, it is your friend. Gravity keeps us on the ground which is an excellent thing but step off a tall building and you will curse it. Oil paint also has it’s ways, follow the rules (or natural laws, if you prefer) and it will be by your side like a faithful hound, break them and it will turn on you like a Pitbull from the North Peckham Estate.

Dark to light

If you start your painting with darker colours you’ll find that the lighter colours sit on top of them quite happily. The reverse seems not to be true, but do try it out for yourself. We usually find that the last things we tend to paint are the highlights. If you paint high key it’s tricky to lower the tone whereas if your painting is a bit subdued it’s easy to bring in the light.

Thick over thin

Keep the paint thin at the beginning. If you are using turps or Zest-it to thin, then when you paint over previous layers, make sure that you use less or no turps, otherwise the preceding layer will lift. Thin layers of earth colours set up quickly so that if you are careful you can paint over them in one session. As you continue painting you can build up the paint to achieve depth and intensity. Painting into thick impasto is a nasty business.

Transparent to opaque

Transparent colours tend to fall back into the picture space whereas opaque colours come forward. In the same way that dark colours painted on top of a light colour corrupt easily, transparent over opaque requires a very light touch. Common transparent colours include, Ultramarine, Alizarin, the Phthalos and the umbers. You’ll notice that lots of artists will do their preliminaries using raw or burnt umber. They are dark and transparent and when painted thinly do not interfere too much with what goes on top.

If you are an alla prima painter, that is you tend to complete your painting in one session like the Impressionists, you don’t have to worry about the technicalities of glazing and layering paint. Artists colourmen worry about painters using their products in the wrong way, leading to the paint film cracking and so labour the point that each successive layer should be thicker and or contain more medium than the last one, the Lean to Fat rule. If you just put the right colour in the right place in one go you’ll be fine.

Some other rules which you can choose to ignore, plenty do:

Don’t muddle the paint – if you place your paint with a single stroke it is less likely to mix and muddy with the colours around it. Besides, your marks are beautiful, why try and mask them or blend them out of existence?

Use the biggest brush you can – little brushes lead to fiddliness whilst big brushes cover the ground quickly and where there are visible brush marks they are proportionate to the scale of the thing being described.

Keep your brushes clean, tiny shifts in colour verity can make or break a painting, with a clean brush the colour you mix is the colour you place.

Don’t use mediums unless you have to. Paint straight out of the tube is designed to have ideal handling properties, there are times when you may wish to slacken it off with a little solvent but use mediums sparingly and with caution, I’ve had some rather good paintings weeping beads of linseed oil because I was over lavish at the time of painting.

Use the best quality paint you can afford, at least then you’ll know whose fault it is if the colours die on the canvas….

Do you Fancy getting naked on telly?

I don’t have a television and programmes like the one above don’t persuade me to change my mind. The production company are looking for some people who don’t mind being dumped stark naked (except for a stout pair of shoes by the look of it) in the middle of the country and having to get back home by hook or by crook. If you’d like to be one of the naked people you can apply here

Clare Haward – Still Life, Winter

Panter and Hall are having a show of work by NEAC members – including some you’ll know

30th March-14th April

Amongst the paintings you’ll find some fine work by Clare Haward and Benjamin Hope who you may have come across in our studio at some point. The standard of painting at the NEAC is first class, worth going along to to see how it’s done if nothing else. Website is here

George Butler in Ukraine

George Butler Outside a Kyiv supermarket

Whilst most of us are showing our support for the plucky Ukrainians by splashing blue and yellow around our social media, George Butler thought he might pop over to Kiev for a spot of reportage artistry and support them by showing the human side of their plight. Brave fellow indeed. You can see his drawings here and read all about his experiences.

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Happy N*** Year

If I worked for Clinton’s Cards I might wish you all a Happy Nude Year. Fortunately for Clinton’s and me, that is not the case, although the sentiment is sincerely felt. I genuinely hope that we all have a year to come where we get to go where we choose and do what we will, without the shadow of doom hanging over us and Big Brother watching. Where we get to see each other’s faces and have zero curiosity about each other’s medical status, safe in the knowledge that a hug can only transmit the warmth of friendship rather than the heat of an infectious fever.

We can dream.

Back to the nudes… and you’ll know that we believe life drawing to be a truly life enhancing activity, not just for artists who use it as part of their practice but for anyone with a visual bone in their body.

Drawing, by itself, connects us with the quiet reflective side of our nature, a perfect counterpoint to the excitement of city life. Balance is good, not just for our mental health but by extension our physical health too.

Observational drawing is demanding and also profoundly engaging, using mental muscles that once summoned for use, become available in other dimensions of our lives. Observational drawing and painting of an undraped model in a studio, filled with other artists, connects us with the pulse of our creativity and our very humanity. People leave our studio with smiles on their faces and work tucked under their arm that they are proud of.

If you find yourself wondering what you could do this year that would usefully add value to your life, reaffirming your creativity by regularly drawing and painting might be a good place to start.

Last week we put up our prospectus for tutored groups, if you missed it you can see it here. We have plenty of opportunities to develop your skills with our fantastic tutors, all working artists happy to share their insights.

This week our term starts again and you can come and paint with us most days of the week, just book online and we’ll see you there, either in the flesh in our studio or on Zoom.

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As I wistfully pack away the pullovers and wet wear from my summer wardrobe, my mind turns to the exciting prospects that Autumn brings us. Yes mists, yes mellow fruitfulness but more the intense sense of purpose that comes from idling away the summer months watching the raindrops running down the window and popping another log on the fire.

My plums are hard and my tomatoes may be green, but I am super keen to get back to my art: sweet fat tubes of oil paint await me and the open white pastures of oil primed linen call to my heart, eager to be sullied with my big rough brushes. I hope you find yourself similarly disposed and ready for action because, unless our government is gaslighting us, it looks like we might have a relatively normal Autumn term coming up. Artists are visiting the studio in increasing numbers and as we’ve found that the injections offer rather less immunity than we’d hoped for, we’re keeping the Covid screens up for the while, so breathe easy.

We’ll be keeping the booking system online, everyone likes the fact that you know where you’ll be and the cool sense of order that ensues.

Wednesday morning life drawing and painting will come back from the 8th September and we have a six week long pose starting on Saturday afternoons from the 11th September. Just imagine what you could achieve with six weeks to push your paint around. The last time we had a six week pose was a very long time ago but some splendid paintings came out of it.

Tuesday afternoons will also return in due course.

There will be art and there will be artists but there will be no sunshine.

One artist who is always a ray of sunshine is Rob Macgillivray who has his exhibition starting on the 2nd September at the Jeannie Avent Gallery private view on Friday the 3rd September, email him to RSVP

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Is it creepy to get naked?

Capitoline Hercules,  4th century BC – photo by Mary Harrsch

When we do events for organisations we are sometimes asked for a draped model, the organisers fear that some member of their group will be offended. We always prefer working from the nude, drapes break the line of the figure and make it harder to understand what the morphology is doing, essential when you are learning to draw; that is our main concern. But then when you have spent decades squinting at the naked human form you forget the impact that nudity can have on the unaccustomed eye.

We know that in some countries nudity is kind of, ‘whatever’ and in others it’s seen as an abomination. All the indications point to the problem, when it arises, being sex.

Greek art was positively writhing with heroic nudity and when the Renaissance exploded in Europe, the nude, often inspired by the great works of the classical period, had a central place. Whilst you could argue that the divine is expressed through the perfection of human form it also has to be accepted that amongst the piety and aesthetics of beauty there is an element of “Phwoar!”

We are complex beings are we not? We may aspire to purity but comingled with the higher thought are the procreative urges, alas!

But one of the things that is so brilliant about what remains of our civilisation is the way that we have the freedom to choose. Confronted with the naked human form we respond at many levels, in our experience, artists do not generally choose the path of prurience. They choose to discover the naked humanity of their model and engage wordlessly with it. They want to gaze, explore, understand and describe. The study of the nude is an enquiry and celebration not only of the model but of the artist too.

The awakened artist will be aware that whilst we may have the weakness of flesh, what sets us apart from the beasts is our ability to choose to be more than bestial. The ability to integrate the full sweep of our humanity is what can make us divine.

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An Interview with Clare Haward

Still Life with Red – Clare Haward
When we are learning to draw and paint, (do we ever stop?) there are the basics that we all have to get under our belts. Like a writer, it’s hard to communicate without an understanding of grammar, there are things we all need to know at some level or another. Drawing from life is often central to this learning, encompassing mark making, line, tone, proportion, colour, composition and so on, we learn the visual language that is the essential currency of art.

Which is all very important and yet becoming too attached to the particulars can be a major constraint. Like being a grammar pedant who is so infuriated by ee cummings that they miss the joy of poems like “i like my body when it is with your”. Creativity often exists just beyond the structure that gave birth to it.

Drawing in proportion, for example, is an important skill to acquire but just because we can, doesn’t mean we must. Very many artists can draw exceedingly accurately in an optical sense and yet find greater fulfilment when they are not sticking rigidly to what might be called ‘the rules’*. What makes us interesting as artists is not when we fit the existing orthodoxy but when we challenge it.

Our very own Clare Haward is a case in point, she has been subject to a great deal of learning and yet has moved with her own language of shape and colour to produce images of deceptive simplicity and intensity. There is an excellent interview with her here

* They’re not really rules, we just treat them that way, the ideas that are put before us are entities that may or may not support us on our way as artists. Generally we discard them only when they have been fully digested.

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Problem solving

One of the things I picked up when learning about how to cope with life is that a problem can be solved head on, obliquely or sidestepped. We all have our favoured way of tackling things. Those of us who favour the head on approach may find that we are occasionally confronted with an immovable wall, an insoluble creative problem.  It may be the head of a figure we are painting which we can’t quite get right. So we end up overworking the head, painting the life and goodness out of it and ending up frustrated and full of despair.

In this case fortune favours the bold artist who owns a palette knife and is prepared to use it. A complete scrape down of the offending area will often be the best plan, or at least a partial destruction that gives us a whole new set of problems to deal with. Very often the original insoluble problem disappears and the new problems are at least interesting.

You’ll know that the first step in solving a problem is in defining it, when something is understood the resolution can already be clear. When it is clear, again, decisive action is to be encouraged, there is no point in trying to preserve work that falls short.

The oblique approach may be more appropriate when we know that there is a problem but we’re not quite sure what it is. Stepping away from the work for a while may do the trick; there are many artists who have paintings leaning against the studio wall for months or years waiting for the day when they spot the fail. Just viewing the work in a different way can be remarkable, certainly stand well back, turn it upside down, look at it in a mirror, pop it into Photoshop. Try different marks, brushes or colours. Change something and everything else changes.

Asking a pal may help but they usually find a fault in the work that we had yet to notice and that just adds to our problems and can spoil a perfectly good friendship. Better to ask someone whose opinion matters less to us that we may glean what we can without the risk of offence. Try the postman.

Sidestepping is a useful creative strategy, this is where we just put energy into another area, as if no problem exists. We can build up momentum so that when we return to the problem we may see that we were just looking at it in the wrong way or it has even become irrelevant.

Creative work involves plenty of problem solving which can be deeply satisfying and there is always the little burst of endorphins that rewards us each time a solution is found.