Tuesday 28 August 2007

Involved and Detached

The comment by Judith Baker on the last post raises some issues about detail in painting. My general approach over the years has been to suggest rather than define, but now and again I find myself drawn to detail to such an extent that I find I'm in danger of getting fiddly.

This is not new and isn't confined to painting. Even when I was cartooning, I'd find myself being sucked into what I think of as "nuts and bolts" drawing, where I'd quite literally end up drawing every rivet in a machine, every stitch on a leather belt. Sometimes this can work, but I have to say that I prefer a more broad approach. It's the way I'm made.

In her excellent book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp explores the difference in viewing things in detail and from afar.

The photographer Ansel Adams, whose black-and-white panoramas of the unspoiled American West became the established notion of how to "see" nature ... is an example of an artist who was compelled to view the world from a great distance. He found solace in lugging his heavy camera on long treks into the wilderness or to a mountaintop so he could have the widest view of land and sky.

She contrasts this with the work of Raymond Chandler:

The plots of his stories are often incomprehensible ... but his eye for descriptive detail was razor-sharp.

Chandler kept lists of observed details from his life and from the people he knew: a necktie file, a shirt file, a list of one-liners he intended to use sometime in the future.

Up close was Chandler's focal length. If some people like to wander through an art museum standing back from the paintings, taking in the effect the artist was trying to achieve, while others need to a closer look because they're interested in the details, then Chandler was the kind of museum-goer who pressed his nose up to the canvas to see how the artist applied his strokes.
Tharp suggests that these two ways of looking at things indicate the difference between involvement and detachment, and she finds that her own choreography is constantly being pulled by these opposing forces. She explores the tiny detail of a dance piece; then, when she understands how it's made, she pulls back and views it as if she were the audience. But she finds that, while she is interested in producing dance pieces which tell a story and invoke the detail of people's lives, she finds that harder than a work about broader more abstract subjects, like life force.

I'm in danger of losing myself in this, but what I think I'm trying to say is that although I am interested in the detail of life, I tend to make my images from a distant, slightly detached point of view. And they're meant to be seen from a distance, but if, like Chandler, you'd care to get your nose up close to the canvas, I hope you'd find the abstract quality of the marks interesting, because there likely won't be any bricks to count, grass stems to admire, or stitches on a leather belt to savour.

Pillbox (2nd stage)

The painting of the coastal pillbox is following this approach. There is some apparent detailing of the concrete walls, but get up close and there's not really much to make out. And as for the grass, it's just areas of paint, dragged and scumbled over the initial pumice layer.

Thursday 16 August 2007

Given the elbow, a new series

Shelter (Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 ins)
This painting is from 2001, but it represents a theme I want to see if I can return to.

Despite the injury to my arm - it turns out I have tennis elbow - I've been putting in some vigorous palette knife work on a couple of paintings which I think may go well with Shelter.

Blawearie Steps (work in progress)

I don't think this needs a great deal more work, but I may surprise myself when I return to it. The other I'm less sure of, but I like the subject matter. It's based on a Second World War pillbox lying at the edge of the golf course just beyond Dunstanburgh Castle.:

Pillbox (first stage)

I bought these canvases - they're Loxley Ashgate canvases - in a carton of ten from Ken Bromley at a decent price. They work out at about a fiver a piece. I couldn't make them for that price, even if I could make them of better materials. Still, tennis elbow and all that ... The canvas is only 10 oz., which is a bit light, and they're only double primed. but I've put on another three coats of acrylic primer and they look much better now. In addition, on the Pillbox canvas, I put on a layer of Winsor & Newton Pumice Texture Gel to give the area of the foreground grass a bit of "tooth."

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Isle of Arran

I liked Arran a lot. It reminded me of the Lake District and I suppose, geologically speaking, it might be part of the same mass.

Patsy123 and I had gone there to celebrate some friends' Ruby Wedding anniversary. For the first couple of nights we were in the house the friends had rented in Blackwaterfoot. Then, as more celebrants arrived, we moved into the Kinloch Hotel for a further few nights. Not a bad hotel, although every now and then we could hear a strange rumble like someone rolling a barrel down the corridor. Something to do with the heating system of the swimming pool, I believe.

They certainly served a fine full Scottish breakfast, with a choice of bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, lorne sausage, black pudding, fried tomato, hash browns, tattie scones, baked beans and mushrooms. Far too much unhealthy food, really, but when you're paying for it as a B&B guest ... what the hell, I indulged.

I liked the barman in the lounge, too. He offered what Patsy123 called three measures - single, double and whoops, my hand slipped. My glass of whoops, my hand slipped Laphroaig went down well.

Iron age forts and standing stones litter the island, and in the evening of our first day there, we walked to the standing stones on Machrie moor. Even in the company of other people, there's something a little unsettling about these stones, still standing after 3700 years, witnesses to who knows what on this desolate open ground.

The weather was, as is usual on my trips to SW Scotland, not all it might be, but we got off to a good start. Our first full day there saw me sitting for a while, looking out at a sky and sea of the kind of blues I've only ever seen in the Mediterranean. Wagtails played on the washing line and sparrows seesawed up and down on the pampas grass. A little idyll.

We'd spent that day driving round the island. At Whiting Bay we stopped and walked up to Glenashdale Falls. Pretty good waterfall. While the others went back the way they'd come (why do some people think that flip-flops are the ideal form of walking gear?), Patsy123 and I walked on a little higher, then dropped down on a much better track. The way was lined with the kind of hedgerow I'd thought had disappeared forever - wild fuchsia, roses, crocosmia, rowan, old man's beard, honeysuckle, vetch and yellow ragwort, were only some of the plants I could dredge up from the memory of my long-ago A-level Botany course.
By Sunday, the sun being enjoyed by the rest of Britain was lost to Arran. We sat under a long skein of raincloud and it just poured all day. My sunburn of a only a couple of days previously was becoming a fast-fading memory. There's really only one thing to do on Arran in the pouring rain - go to Brodick Castle.

The Castle is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and as it's apparently much cheaper to take out membership of that august body and use it to enter National Trust properties in England, we joined.

It was Victorian Day at the Castle. Every room was staffed by someone dressed in Victorian garb, ready to fill you in on the merits and peculiarities of that room. Very interesting, if soon forgotten. There were a lot of rather indifferent paintings on the walls, and some decidedly peculiar ones of fighting cocks which looked like people standing upright in cock costumes. I did find a couple of pictures by Watteau - not great, but interesting - and was very disappointed to find the only Turner in the collection was being restored.

The display of children's paintings in the cafe , some of them reworking Picasso's Weeping Woman , others on a theme of portraits with one eye covered (who knows?) was, however, a good accompaniment to the delicious vegetable soup.

All in all, a good trip, and I still had the midge bites on my scalp to remind me of it several days after I got back.