Thursday 26 October 2006

A Change Is Gonna Come

Since returning to the Glades of Blogdom, I've been a little dissatisfied with the layout of this blog. The template looks a bit old and clunky. I don't feel ready to rush into "beta" because I haven't the faintest idea what that is, but maybe it's time to change to one of the tidier templates that Blogger has available.

The only reason for reticence is the possibility of everything going belly-up. Will everything posted and arranged heretofore - the stuff on the sidebar, the illustrations - suddenly go arse over tip and leave me with a load of work trying to put it back together again?

Somebody tell me?

Wednesday 25 October 2006

Red & Green

The Blindfold (oil on canvas, 16 x 16 ins)
[ An experimental painting with a tenuous link to the post. It was actually inspired by Siri Hustvedt's novel of the same name.]

In several comments on other blogs recently, I've mentioned the fact that I'm colour-blind. Specifically, my perception is deficient in the red-green range. Lots of people when they learn this wonder how on earth I manage to paint, but really it doesn't cause me much in the way of problems these days

For a long time I was unsure of colour and tended to limit myself to black and white drawings. It wasn't until I decided to buckle down and learn to paint, that I found all I needed was an understanding of colour-mixing. And when it came to red, I simply made a red that looked like what I could see.

There are times when I go against what I can see, however, and then I worry a little about how it might be perceived by others. I remember once deliberately using a Constable trick: I put in a spot of indian red on a traffic light in a painting to draw the eye. It didn't draw my eye particularly, but it seemed to work OK - the picture won me my first painting prize.

Reds vary, of course, and I find I can see red-orange more easily than red-violet. And when they appear in combination with green, I start to have practical problems. I don't often notice berries on trees, or poppies in fields (expect no Monets from me!) until they're pointed out to me, and even then, I'm underwhelmed by their vibrancy.

Green I dislike immensely, unless it's an earthy green like olive green. Don't like to paint with it, don't like to even wear it. I am unlikely to produce any useful pictures in the Summer countryside. Too much bloody green! Give me Autumn and Winter any day. Even better, put me down in a street in the city and I'm in painter's heaven.

Tuesday 24 October 2006

I have no mouth and they must scream....

Both Ian Gordon and Patsy123 tell me that they've had trouble accessing my Comments. Some people are evidently getting through OK, because I've got comments, but I see from the Forum slot on Haloscan that other bloggers are having similar problems.

I'll see what can be done, although as a technological incompetent, I've no idea what. Meanwhile, just keep trying, guys!

Monday 23 October 2006

The Confidence of Drink

Coming back from London by train from our Venice trip was the usual uncomfortable affair.

The crummy old carriages that GNER were using to haul us home (and the rest of the passengers on to every station between Edinburgh and Aberdeen) were ill-equipped to take luggage and everyone had piled their suitcases precariously onto the overhead racks and into the aisles.

As the train pulled into Newcastle, there was the usual pandemonium as people wrestled their cases along the narrow aisle to the door.

A Scotsman appeared coming the other way, a can of lager in his hand..

"You might find it easier going if you let us off first," I said.

"Oh aye, but I'm a little bit drunk you see, so I'll give it a go anyway," he beamed, and squeezed past, through the muttering crowd.

Sunday 22 October 2006


Venetian Wall (Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cms)
I went to Venice for a week in 1997. This painting was one of the results of that trip and I've wanted to go back ever since. Earlier this year, I sold a picture for a decent price, so Patsy123 and I decided it was time to go back, this time for two weeks.

These are just some thoughts I wrote down shortly after our return

Venice was everything I remembered and more. I think I could happily live there. Even the heavy rain we got in the last couple of days didn't put me off. Indeed, while Buddy K and his wife were with us for a few days, we were hatching a plot to go back for a visit in the Winter (of some unspecified year).

The little bridges over the canals showed up a minor disadvantage of roller-cases. "These damn bridges," said an exasperated American tourist. "Why didn't they just build everything on the same level?" By which I guess she meant they should have raised the ground level by at least twenty feet - this, in a city where the ground level is already supported on piles driven into mud.

We wandered for hours every day, side-tracked by little alleys that might lead to a dead-end or a canal, but could just as easily open out into a delightful little campo, with kids playing in the pools of rainwater.

The Jesuits were not popular in Venice during the Republic, but when they were eventually given more permanent status, they really pushed the boat out in building their first church there - Gesuiti. It's the most vulgar palace of kitsch imaginable. They coated the entire inside with green and white marble, inlaid so as to look like the finest curryhouse flock wallpaper. And the balconies have huge swags of drapery all carved from green and white marble. The weight of all this grandiosity means that the church has suffered from subsidence ever since

Looking at paintings took up a greater part of the trip this time.

The Peggy Guggenheim is always worth a visit - Max Ernst's "Robing of the Bride," Picasso's "On the Beach" and Robert Motherwell's "Personage," to name but three I was glad to see again.

And the great collection in The Accademia. Amongst the many treasures there, of course, is Paolo Veronese's "Feast in the House of Levi" which eventually inspired a Monty Python (or was it Secret Policeman's Ball) sketch

But this time, ah this time I got to see the Tintorettos. After a spell-binding time with Titian's "Assumption of the Virgin" in the Frary, we went round the corner to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Blimey. After agreeing to the contract for the first painting there, Tintoretto (who,incidentally, is alleged to have been able to tell the difference between forty different reds) accepted a commission to spend his life filling the place with yet more. There are somewhere around sixty pictures by him .And all of them breathtakingly daring in their use of composition, perspective and light.

I like the description in The Rough Guide of the first picture to greet you as you enter (although it was painted in later life):

The tempestuous 'Annunciation', with the Archangel crashing into the room through Joseph's shambolic workshop, trailing a tornado of cherubim...

... scaring the life out of Mary who was getting on with her sewing. You can see the picture here.

The trip was not without its mishaps. I'd completely forgotten about the Mosquito Menace, and was bitten rather badly before we could get to a pharmacy to buy preventative measures and oils and unguents. Even with those, however, they got to me, and I do tend to respond rather unfavourably. As a result of a bite on my finger, I woke up in the middle of the night with a hugely swollen finger and a signet ring inclined to cut off the blood supply. I managed to keep it from turning blue, but had to find a jeweller the next day who could cut off the ring for me

A couple of days later, I woke up with my face badly swollen on the left side. Took two or three days for the swelling to go down with the aid of yet more stuff from the pharmacy and I was forced to go round with what, in my childhood days, would have earned me the ultimate insult - a fat fyess.

Later in the holiday, I evidently let one of the little buggers get up my right trouser leg when out to dinner. The next day I had 8 bites on the leg which gradually developed into coffee-saucer sized scarlet areas of painful itch

Despite all of this, I never wished I was anywhere else. One day we went to the Lido to look at some rather neglected Art Nouveau houses. Within minutes of getting there, we were pissed off with the automobile traffic and yearning to getting back to Venice itself where you can wander about and never think of getting run over.

Oh, and just about everything else. One night, the four of us went to a concert in Chiesa San Vidal in Campo San Stefano. Given by a group called Interpreti Veneziani who performed Vivaldi's Four Seasons, a Mozart piece and Folies d'Espagne by Marin Marais. It was splendid -- especially the Four Seasons, each of which were led in turn by one of the four violinists; and the Marais, when the cellist took centre stage and played the cello with every inch of his body, flinging his sweat-soaked long hair at the audeince

And then there were the bottles of Prosecco, glasses of spritz with Campari, plates of fegato, bowls of fish soup overflowing with mussels, clams, prawns, squid, and langoustine, excellent grilled sea bream, buns and pies, the fun of travelling everywhere by vaporetto, and above all, helpful pleasant people who never seemed to feel it was more than their job's worth to help where they could

I can't wait to go back

Saturday 21 October 2006

Taken to Task

I began my path to a Structured Life last night. I prepared a list of things I wanted to get done today; it was a "closed" list, a list of Must Do tasks.

Unfortunately, I stayed up so late making the list that I slept in and didn't have enough time to get all the tasks done.

There's more to this thing than meets the eye.

Tuesday 17 October 2006

A Night with Roger

There are times when I can surrender to sentimentality, but it's not often that I'm overcome with emotion. Last night was a whole other order of emotion. Patsy123 and I went to see Roger McGuinn at the Sage Gateshead and both came away on an emotional Higher Plane.

From the opening Mr Tambourine Man (McGuinn walking onstage with electric guitar and wearing a "McGuinn No.1" NUFC shirt) to the 3rd encore My Back Pages, it was an unforgettable trip through his back catalogue via Byrds and Appalachian songs, all with witty and entertaining introductions. I gasped - gasped - when he played Eight Miles High on his 7-string acoustic (the Roger McGuinn RD7) - it brought back memories of hearing it for the first time and now it was even better. A combination, as he said, of "Andres Segovia, Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane."

I always contend that I dislike nostalgia for its own sake and I don't honestly think this was nostalgia. It was honest-to-god consummate musicianship, truly memorable songs and the still pure, still strong voice of one of my favourite performers.

Many of my friends tell me that good music came to an end with the 80s. I've always disagreed and gone on buying new music, but last night's concert helped me see their point of view.

I was moved, I tell you. Moved.

Saturday 14 October 2006

As I Walked Out

Walking and thinking. Thinking and walking. They do work together if you want them to. I'd set out with the intention of seeing where my thoughts led, and it was instructive, if not terribly unexpected.

Because it had come up the previous day, I reflected on the idea of the city and the countryside becoming interpenetrating. What started to surface was the possibility of seeing how this subject might be treated in paintings. At this point, I'd reverted to thinking in images, so I can't readily convey to you what was in my mind. It'll have to be filed away for the future. Before I can tackle that as a subject, I have to finish wrestling with the sensory input of two weeks in Venice last September. There are canals and vaporetti to be brought into existence.

It was only after I'd finished shopping in Borders and Sainsbury's that the other raft of thought drifted into view. The choice of self-help books had been almost instinctive and while I'd be the first to admit to serious tendencies to disorganisation and time mismanagement, I'd not felt previously that these were indicative of anything more deep rooted. But now I began to see that they probably are.

When I left work in 1997 to go to University, I didn't find it difficult to adapt. I simply exchanged one form of disciplined routine for another. There were times when I was lonely (my fellow students didn't share my need for discipline or routine and stayed away in droves, so that most of the time I was alone in the studio) but everything seemed to be continuing more or less as before.. I suspect now, however, that the first cracks in the foundations of my life structure began then. It was as I graduated in 2001 that the real collapse began to manifest itself. In rather quick succession a series of Bad Things happened in a period on which we do not dwell.

So here I was now, a free agent trying to make a living from painting, but with no sense of routine, no commitments to anyone or anything,other than to visit my Mother and ensure that she had everything she needed (except that I couldn't provide the one thing she needed above all else - my Father).

In September my Mother died, shortly after her 90th birthday. It wasn't unexpected and given the quality of her life I viewed it as something of a release. Until now, however, I hadn't viewed her death as the destruction of the last remaining prop in my world edifice.

But here I am now, an even freer agent whose only constants are the need to make artworks, and Patsy123 (the least demanding and more reliable of the two).

It may seem obvious that the death of my Mother should leave me in something of a state, but it's more than that. It's the death of the past; the death of all the old certainties; the death of my original support system.

So I need a new support system and a new set of routines and structures. Recognising that is the beginning. Enter the self-help books.

Friday 13 October 2006

Not so Down in the Valley

"You should get out more." Everybody says it, though mostly in a Postmodern, ironic sort of way. I say it myself, but rarely to myself. Anatole France said, "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing," which is worth a moment's consideration; but more to the point, he also said, "It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks."

I decided to test his theory today and set out for the Valley once again. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and it was a beautiful day.....

Trudging back from the Valley in the dark some four hours later, I felt I was able to consider the project in an even-handed way. Even-handed, because in my left I carried a bag of books from Borders; in my right, a bag of groceries from Sainsbury's. In my mind I carried thoughts from the walk, and as anyone will tell you, they were the most valuable of all. If they don't tell you that, you should thrash them soundly until they admit it is so.

What were the books? Books to change my life. Books to put me on the path to order, success and happiness. Nut books, in the words of my friend Doctor Pam (who swears by them) But not your run-of-the-mill everyday nut books like,Men are From Mars but Women Moved my Cheese. I sat at the table used by the man who'd committed to memory the Illustrated Karma Sutra on the previous day - though I was careful to sit in a different chair - and looked through a bundle of potentially life-changing books.

I came away with Why Am I So Disorganised? - Sort Out Your Stuff by Dr Marilyn Paul; Getting Things Done by David Allen; The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp; and another which I shan't tell you about (and no, it isn't the Illustrated Karma Sutra) I also bought a magazine glorying in the improbable title of Turps Banana.

The David Allen book is something I just had to read. I did some research on the Interweb yesterday, finding out what I could about the books I thought I might want to buy. In the course of my research, I came across David Allen. David Allen is a phenomenon. I've never heard of him before, but try Googling his best known book Getting Things Done - or better yet, the way it's become known, GTD - and you'll find around 20,300,000 hits. It's like a religion, with the GTD acolytes vying with one another to find the best software to accommodate his "43 folder" system (which he himself advocates putting into, well, folders). Who knew so many people were in need of advice on Stress-free Productivity?

Tomorrow: what I bought at Sainsbury's. No, really...... tomorrow: what I thought about on my walk. Well you'll just have to wait, won't you?

Thursday 12 October 2006

Down in the Valley

I wonder if it's possible to write and paint? For me, I mean. I'm fully aware that there are painters who write. And there are writers who paint. There are even painters who write on their paintings. But it seems that the only time I'm visited by the writing muse is when I'm stuck with my painting.

Or when I'm in something of a depression.

Which tends to be the same thing.

I went for a walk on the Valley yesterday. As a kid, I used to love the Valley. I'd cycle there with my buddies and we'd play all day in the woods, drinking Tizer and making useless clay lamps out of the mud we'd dig up from the river bank. I don't think you can get at the river now; it's been culverted in. And there's not much left of the woods either. Cut down to make room for more offices and factory units. But that's OK really; it's what the Valley is for, and if it makes for more jobs, then who am I to complain?

I still like walking on the Valley, though. Despite there being fewer areas of woodland, there are still open fields and every Avenue is filled with trees and bushes. These are usually kept trimmed a bit, but still spill out onto the pavements. And curiously, it's pretty quiet.

A dual carriageway runs down the middle and this is always full of cars, lorries and buses rushing about their business, but the other Avenues are generally rather quiet. I suppose because everyone's at work. Except me, the lone pedestrian.

So it's a little like walking in countryside which has been invaded by the city. Or in a city which has been invaded by the countryside. I guess it's one of those curious non-places that modern civilisation tends to produce, such as airports and shopping malls, but this one is much nicer than those.

The Valley teems with wildlife. Every bush twitters with sparrows and there are innumerable blackbirds flitting silently from tree to tree, or shrieking at everyone and everything. Earlier this year (or maybe it was late last year - pleasant memories seem to flow together now into a sun-filled whole) Patsy123 and I walked on the Valley and saw a family of rabbits sitting about in the late rays of a setting sun. As we approached, they scampered off to the safety of a huge clump of overgrown shrubs by the side of their field.

But why was I on the Valley yesterday? It was a fairly miserable day, grey and misty with occasional showers, and I was somewhat grey and miserable myself. I'd decided to go there to see what Borders might have in stock (did I mention that, in addition to offices and factory units, there's also a Retail Park?) My curiosity had been piqued by mention in a recent blog of a book by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. I thought it might prove interesting and/or useful.

In the event, I found I wasn't in the mood for the Tolle book, but I spent some time leafing through some other self-help books. Nowhere near as much time as the guy who slid a big illustrated copy of The Karma Sutra off the shelf and sat himself down at a table in the corner with it. He was still there when I left, slowly turning the pages. I'd like to think his wife or girlfriend might be in for a good time later that night, but somehow I doubt it.

Mostly I was fascinated by books about organisational strategies and time management which seemed to suggest a way out of my present malaise, but in the end I didn't buy anything. Maybe I'll go look again. Or maybe I'll just shake myself up and get on with things.


I saw the Giant Rat of Sumatra on Sunday. Well OK, it almost certainly wasn't the Giant Rat of Sumatra, given that although we don't know the outcome of that infamous case, we can usually assume that Mr Holmes effectively sees off his foes and anyway, it would be rather elderly by now.

But it was a big rat.

I spotted it as I was helping myself to some muesli in the kitchen. It was at the bottom of the garden helping itself to the seed I'd just put down for the ever-hungry wood pigeons and collared doves.

At first I wasn't sure it was a rat, because I couldn't see a tail, but using the binoculars in the living room, I could see it well. As I watched, I could see it raise up on its hind legs and sniff the air. I could feel Patsy123 shiver next to me.

It wasn't totally unattractive. Unlike the rats in movies, which are always wet and dirty, this was a very clean specimen, with white fur showing clearly on its underbelly. But it was a big clean specimen and I manfully went out into the garden and sent it one its way. It ran off through Lucy Smooth's garden, so far as I could tell.

With luck it might prove to have been just a passing rat, a traveller by trade. But it does mean I've had to stop putting down seed for a while. The feeders are kept well stocked, but the wood pigeon doesn't like the new regime of having to pick up bits and pieces the sparrows have dropped or thrown away.