Monday 30 June 2008

Painting Yourself

In these periods between surges of creativity, when I'm only tinkering round the edges of my practice without pursuing a strong thread, I often feel like I'm a bit adrift. I spend a lot of time looking at books of paintings, magazines pages I've torn out and filed away, exhibition catalogues. At the end of it I find I've gone through various changes in my way of working, all in my head, yet by the time I resume my normal routine, I'm working pretty much as before.

Inevitably, I suppose I absorb some influences but they're by no means particularly obvious, and it takes some time to shake off the feeling that something has just ... not happened.

I'm reminded of something Arthur Maderson said in an article in The Artist of March 1990:

The problem often starts by attempting to graft aspects of another painter’s work on to our own, a painter whose character and attitudes may be entirely at odds with ours. Lengthy periods of inactivity are invariably a symptom of this problem.

Not that I think my inactivity is due to this per se, but in looking at other painters' work, I do think there's a tendency to "want to paint like that." The rest of this part of Maderson's article is relevant in this respect, and I try to hold onto it:

Without constructing one’s own individual painterly concerns based firmly on what we are like as a person, then the probability is that the act becomes one of simply copying, in an uncommitted and emotionally neutral manner. A human polaroid approach no less. It is a useful exercise to try looking beyond the surface and begin to understand the ideas and motives behind other people’s paintings, rather than simply ask yourself whether you like it or not.

Van Gogh, for example, was scruffy, bold, impulsive, committed and emotionally unstable. His work clearly reflects these aspects of his personality. Not for him miniature portraits on enamel. On the other hand, we are able to form a strong idea that Vermeer was by disposition intelligent, well-organised, slow, meticulous and sensitive. [.....] Whatever qualities you have, make them work for you. Listen to that small voice in the back of your head which may indicate a yearning for a direction you have not yet dared to explore. It is essential if you are to make what you see your own.

The examples of Van Gogh and Vermeer are good ones, I think, and it can be instructive to consider where one might lie on the line between the two. My own personality is quiet, introspective and considerative. I'm not an especially impulsive person and certainly not given to flamboyancy. Looking at my work, I think those aspects are generally to be seen there. My paintings are carefully composed, not rushed and often dependent on small details for their final impact. On the other hand, I have no interest in photographic realism, where all of the details are included painstakingly and where accuracy is paramount. There are parts of my pictures which are cursory and others where the rendering is quite rough. I think this reflects the disorganised and often haphazard elements of my way of life.

What about you? Can you see yourself in your paintings?

As for the small voice in the back of my head. Well, it is there, and I intend to start listening to it soon.

Wansbeck Boat reconsidered

Wansbeck Boat and Houses (in Photoshop)

Following up on suggestions from Ian and Vivien, I ran this painting through Photoshop this morning. I've taken out the end house and changed the lighting on the boat, so that the side presented to the viewer is in shade.

I think it'll give me something to work with next Thursday, back at the Club.

Sunday 29 June 2008


(Fibretip, digital colour)

This is my entry for this week's Illustration Friday. It's a section from another old cartoon, with colour added in Photoshop. The bubble background was added with the bucket tool, although I'm still not sure where the pattern came from - it was just there.

Old Drawings #3

Poron with Books and Fruit (2B pencil, cartridge paper, 16.5 x 12 ins.)

Another traditionally arranged still life set-up, again from about 1973. The idea in all of these was to set them up like a little city, with some books under the cloth making a kind of mountain on which to arrange some of the important elements of the still life, in this case, more books and an earthenware poron.

I used to find this kind of drawing deeply satisfying, but I'm not sure I would be able to get into it now.

Friday 27 June 2008

Wansbeck Boat picture contd.

Wansbeck Boat & Houses (work in progress)

I'm not sure I'm entirely happy with the way this painting is working out at the Club. I gave myself a challenge with it, by deciding to make the main colour bias green, and by and large, that seems to have worked out, but how would I know? My reservation is pretty much to do with the picture itself. It just doesn't excite me at the moment. I'll finish it off next week and see how I feel about it then.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Club Man

Club Man (Oil on board, 4 x 3 ins) I sometimes get a bit irritated at the continued success of local painters who, inspired by Norman Cornish's example, make a name for themselves by painting old men in flat caps, whippets and decrepit terraces with snot-nosed kids playing in the street. Cornish still paints scenes of Spennymoor as if the pits were still operating, but he's now almost 90 and entitled to go on making pictures of how life was when he was young. However, the north east of England really isn't like that any more and what Cornish's pasticheurs are pandering to is a feeling of nostalgia. And as we all know, nostalgia's not what it used to be. When I was tugging on the portfolios of drawings, this little panel fell out. In 2002, I must have felt that if I couldn't beat them I should join them, so I painted this panel to show it could be done. This old gadgie was an echo of how things were when I first started drinking.

Old Drawings #2

Bottles and Pear (2B pencil, cartridge paper, 16.5 x 12 ins.)

This is probably from round about 1973. I remember being told off, and rightly so, for making that irregular shadow pattern in the background.

Monday 23 June 2008

Old Drawings

Mug with Apples (2B pencil, cartridge paper, )

Maybe it's something to do with the Summer Solstice, but I'm going through a period of retrenchment, reflecting on what's been achieved in the first half of the year, what's not been achieved, and taking stock of where I might be going as the days begin to shorten.

Some of this is due to a feeling of deflation after the work involved in putting together sufficient work for four exhibitions this year and the knowledge that there are still some outstanding issues with the last of these. Time to calm down and do some gentle thinking.

As I'm not bashing on with my painting, I decided that I'd make an effort to get my drawings photographed. It's been an interesting couple of days. Pulling out portfolios which I'd not looked at for years, meant that I found drawings dating back to my 'A' Level Art evening classes in 1971/2. Photographing them has also proven interesting, because the older drawings have come out looking like they're old.

Now that the drawings are safely stored on the Boogie Street computer, I thought it might be amusing (to me at least - you must tell me if the idea doesn't appeal) to start posting them here. Some are good, some not so good, but that doesn't matter. But how often should I post them? One a day seems too many, one a week not enough. Maybe it'll just be as and when the mood takes me, but what do you think?

I wish I'd always dated my drawings, but I'm pretty certain the drawing above is the oldest drawing I have (apart from some schoolboy work in the margins of notebooks). It must have been done in 1972, as part of those evening classes. Even then, I was obviously fascinated by extremes of light and shade.

The meaning of "Boogie Street"

And still they come ... every day here sees a small but constant stream of people wanting to know "What does Boogie Street mean?" As a public service I thought it might help if I quote this explanation from the Wikipedia:

Leonard Cohen has written a song called "Boogie Street", published on his album Ten New Songs (2001). In an interview with Brian D. Johnson in Maclean's Magazine on 15 October 2001, Cohen said of Boogie Street:

"… during the day Boogie Street is a scene of intense commercial activity … And at night, it was a scene of intense and alarming sexual exchange."

Later he goes on to talk of its metaphorical meaning: "Boogie Street to me was that street of work and desire, the ordinary life and also the place we live in most of the time that is relieved by the embrace of your children, or the kiss of your beloved, or the peak experience in which you yourself are dissolved, and there is no one to experience it so you feel the refreshment when you come back from those moments … So we all hope for those heavenly moments, which we get in those embraces and those sudden perceptions of beauty and sensations of pleasure, but we're immediately returned to Boogie Street."

Now your curiosity has, I hope, been satisfied, why not stay and look around? Leave a comment even?

Saturday 21 June 2008

Drawing for Today

Concrete & Wire (Pastel, A1 cartridge)

Something I found by the sea.

Friday 20 June 2008

More Wansbeck

Wansbeck Houses (Pilot disposable fountain pen, sketchbook)

I was a bit lost for something to do at the Art Club yesterday, so I took along this drawing to see where I might get with it on a small board. Instead of including the boat in the foreground, I've lifted in (and reversed) the little boat with the cabin on the right of this drawing:

Wansbeck Shacks (Pilot disposable fountain pen, sketchbook)

I'm not sure that it's going too well. The lack of any colour notes is making me fly by the seat of my pants, and I find that disconcerting. But I thought it would be good practice. I didn't have my camera with me, so I'll let you see how it goes next week.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Painting in Series

Shelter (Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 ins)

In a recent post on his blog devoted to Pastels, Casey Klahn talked about painting in series. Not all artists paint in series, but I'm one of those who do. You'll have seen, if you've been keeping up, that I most recently made a series of paintings concerned with people on the water-buses of Venice. In the past, I've also done a series of pictures looking across the River Tyne from Gateshead to Newcastle, and as this is one I never tire of, I still add to the series.. It's where I live and what I know best.

I like painting in series so much, that once in a while I make efforts to paint pictures which will fill in the gaps, or draw together two disparate series, rather like Edgar Rice Burroughs bringing together Tarzan with John Carter of Mars in the same novel (he never did that, but he would have done if he could have thought of a way).

It's this "adding to the series" that I'm thinking about at the moment. I'm preparing for the next Figure 8 show which will be in the McGuinness Gallery in Bishop Auckland Town Hall in August. I have one or two pictures in progress and have a couple of others which I think will make a harmonious fit, but I haven't quite decided for myself what the theme of my work will be.

When I sent the gallery my somewhat abbreviated statement, it read:

My paintings tend to be formal constructions based on the effects of sunlight and shadow. I favour the play of strong light on buildings and while the majority of my work is derived from the urban environment, even my occasional forays into landscape painting include references to the effect of man on the landscape. Figures may appear in the composition to emphasise the mood which may be mysterious and unsettling, but often their absence speaks just as loudly.

This is vague enough to cover a multitude of sins, I think, and certainly leaves room for me to include almost anything I want to. But at the moment I'm a little stuck.

As part of our exhibiting policy for this show, and because the gallery lends itself to it, we're each painting a picture 100 x 80 cms, to be hung together at the entrance to the show. And it's this that has me foxed, because nothing leaps into my imagination to fit that shape. Or at least, nothing that immediately seems to go with the other pictures I'm likely to be showing.

In addition to Shelter (above), I intend to finish and show these:

Blawearie Steps (work in progress)

Pillbox (work in progress)

And I hope to move this along sufficiently to include it in the show:

Collingwood (work in progress)

You can probably see that the "theme" in this case is more one of composition than anything else, although there is a definite sense of loneliness and it may be that I need to concentrate on that aspect to pull out the threads I need to make the final selection and to produce the problematic painting.

Thinking on those lines, suggests the possibility of including another earlier painting, from the same period as Shelter:

A Yellow Raincoat (Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 ins)

However, there's another piece to this exhibition jigsaw. We may be given the use of a gallery van, which would also allow me to show a painting (yet another not quite finished) which dovetails with Blawearie Steps:

Blawearie (work in progress)

This is quite a big painting (5 feet tall, hence the need for a van) which I've always liked but I've never found an opportunity to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.

On a point of interest, the tall composition is an impossible view. Standing on top of the rocks at Blawearie, you can't actually see the derelict farmhouse. But then, that's one of the wonders of art - the bringing together of the impossible. I began this at a time when I was particularly fascinated by Northern Renaissance painters like Heironymous Bosch.

Looking again at this picture, I think perhaps a similar approach might produce a subject for the missing picture. What do you think? Have I got a cohesive theme already, or is there something missing?

Monday 16 June 2008


Punchline (Fibretip with Photoshop colour)

Mr Punch has been a character of great interest to me for some time now. One day, I think he may take on even greater significance in my work, but for now, this will have to do. It's for Illustration Friday.

Thursday 12 June 2008

On the Wansbeck

On the Wansbeck (Oil on board)

Later, at the Club, I finished this, which I'd resumed last week.

In 2002, I spent a day with some Art Club friends, drawing at a boat club on the River Wansbeck. There's a formal rowing club on the Wansbeck, but the area we were in was a run-down strip of foreshore, not far from the mouth of the river at Sandy Bay, with little tarred shacks and rotting hulls. Very picturesque. My painting, Wooden Sunset, was based on one of the upturned boats there.

Amongst other things, I drew this group of boats and a couple of the shacks, and when I got home I made a start on a painting based on the drawing. As is often the case, other priorities intervened and the picture got put to one side, only to be unearthed last week when I was looking for a small board to start another painting on. The muse took me, and the boats were up and running again (if that isn't a mixed metaphor).

Wansbeck Boats (Charcoal, colored Conte, sketchbook)

Fallen Tree

Fallen Tree (Oil on board, 12 x 12 ins)

Shortly before going on the most recent Compo & Clegg Painting Week in the Lakes, I thought I'd get some practice in on the subject matter I usually find there, so I started this painting at the Art Club. As reference material I had a black and white photocopy of an old photograph and I began the painting on an old painting of a Cyprus landscape.

I didn't quite finish it before we left for the Lakes so I brought it home, but since then I haven't had the time or inclination to complete it.

This morning, I made the time and finished off the foreground, retaining some of the orange from the Cyprus landscape. I'm pleased with this, especially as I had no colour notes to remind me of how it looked. I guess enough looking at trees and rocks pays off eventually?

Wednesday 11 June 2008


Robin Malcolm's Chair (2B Pentel pencil, A4 sketchbook)

The Laird allowed us into the castle at Duntrune to draw and paint whatever we wanted. I'm not sure he was impressed with my choice of subject.

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Low Fogrigg again

Oil pastel on print-out map, 9 x 5 ins.

Apparently, it's pronounced, "Fogridge."

Monday 9 June 2008

Adventures in the Countryside

My city boy batteries needed recharging with some country air, so this weekend Patsy123 and I decided to test out the possibilities of free bus travel with our Old Codgers Travel Pass.

I'd received an invitation to Christina Mingard's exhibition in this year's Art Tour, so I wondered how easy it would be to get there by bus. I've known Christina for quite a few years now and it's always a pleasure to meet up with her again and to see her latest work. We decided that on Sunday we'd make a day of it (or at least a long afternoon) and do a short walk from Christina's house in Bardon Mill up to Vindolanda, close by Hadrian's Wall.

I should have known that public transport would be unable to come through with the goods properly. We ran into problems at Hexham, where the Stagecoach bus had broken down. Incredibly, they have no depot at the Hexham end of the Carlisle to Hexham run and so had to send for a replacement from Carlisle. The driver had no advice about when he'd asked for another bus or how long the replacement would take - "How long's a piece of string?" was his helpful remark, so we had no idea whether it might be advisable to go for the train to Bardon Mill.

As it turned out, we had to hang about the bus station, pacing up and down, trying to avoid standing on the pieces of gum (unsuccessfully), for an hour before the replacement arrived. To give him his due, the driver made the 15 minute trip from Hexham to Bardon Mill in a much shorter time.

We had a good chat with Christina and admired her new series of flower pictures. I'd had my reservations about how they might look, because the invitation card bore an image of red flowers with green foliage - my favourite colour combination - but they were lovely.

After a cup of tea and accepting a kind bottle of Ambre Solaire to protect us from the amazingly hot sun, we set off on our walk. The delay in Hexham meant we had to do the circuit (Bardon Mill to Vindolanda, via Chinely Burn) much quicker than I'd have liked. I've never been up by the Chinely Burn before and it turned out to be a really nice bit of the countryside. There are great pavements of fractured rock in the stream which I'd like to draw sometime, and sudden picturesque views with huge old oaks.

Low Fogrigg (Oil pastel, 8 x 9.5 ins)

No time to take in Vindolanda, either (I've not visited for at least twenty years), but round by Kingcairn Hill on the lonnen that runs down from the Military Road to Henshaw. Deep set, the lonnen has a great profusion of wild flowers in its banks - honeysuckle, briar rose and foxglove, as well as a lot my memory of 'A' level Botany no longer identifies.

Fearful of missing the return bus, we actually got back to Bardon Mill with enough time to have a cool drink with Christina in the painting shelter her husband Paul has built for her in the back garden. She pointed out to me the various views she's often painted and privately I commended her on finding colours within what I could only see as monotonous green.

Christina suggested to me that it would be a Good Thing if I were to up sticks and move out to the Tyne Valley where I could take advantage of the Art Tour, and for a while Patsy123 and I fantasised about the possibility. Then we got the (one an hour, except on Sundays when it's one every three hours) bus back to Hexham. Only to be held up by road works at Haydon Bridge and so miss the connection to Newcastle. The pint of Last Lion of Britain in the County Hotel while we waited for the next Newcastle bus, didn't make me change my mind that I'm better off in town with my once every 15 minutes bus service.

But I think we might go back to Bardon Mill this summer, if only to return the bottle of Ambre Solaire.

Saturday 7 June 2008

Abstract Thought

I rather like abstract paintings. However, when I get myself in front of a canvas, what comes out is never abstract. It starts with a strong abstract composition, but as the work progresses, the end product is never abstract.

I don't know why this should be, but perhaps I'm too much like Leonardo (he said, modestly):

Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. ["Treatise on Painting"]

Give me an abstract and I will find something figurative within it. So it is, whenever I start to paint an abstract, I find the figurative elements surging forward. This isn't a great problem really, except that when I'm in a reflective mood and wondering if my work is going the right way, I look around and all I see in galleries is abstract. I recognise this is a kind of tunnel vision produced by a transitory period of low self-esteem, but it does seem at times that all the general public is interested in buying is abstracts.

My friend Mo, in a recent email said:

"... thinking about it, it could all do with what's fashionable at the moment. In all the magazines I've seen recently about interior design and so forth, they've always shown rooms festooned with abstract art - maybe one large piece of work on a wall to make a statement - and you know how everyone follows like sheep - never mind what the quality is like."

The work of hers that has proven most successful in terms of sales has also been "a bit on the abstract side of figurative as well. "

This thought thread was brought on by the comments my post Corner Gallery, Biscuit Factory. Of the pictures that I posted there, the favourite among Commenters seems to be Wooden Sunset, and to my mind, this is the most abstract looking picture in the set (although it's actually a straight representation of the side of a boat).

So what do you think? Is abstraction the most enduring element of Modernism? Are the general public buying more abstracts than figurative and if so, is it all down to what goes with the curtains?


A brief aside, with thanks to Casey Klahn for bringing it to my attention:

I never became an abstract painter because I love to draw, I love to represent. I tried to do abstract paintings, and it always seemed to me that I was throwing out a baby with the bath water. [Wolf Kahn]

Friday 6 June 2008


I was recently contacted by WorkArt, who were interested in taking some of my paintings for leasing to some of their clients. I think this is a splendid arrangement. I get to free up some space in the studio, the work gets seen, the clients get to live with some nice pictures, and at the end of the month, there's some money in my bank account.

Today, I sent off four pictures, one of which is this little thing which had languished in the To Be Looked at Again section of the studio for some time. Adrian, of WorkArt, was particularly keen on taking this, so although I hadn't even signed it, I let it go. (The photograph, too, was rather hurried, and suffers from reflections)

Montezuma (Oil on canvas, 15 x 18 ins)

The painting is based on a sketchbook drawing I did on a day out at Royal Quays Marina in 2002. The boat had belonged to a fisherman who had died recently. His sons, who had no interest in fishing, made plans to take their father's body out to sea in the Montezuma, and scuttle it, but the Coastguard intervened.

As a result, when we visited the Marina, the two sons were hard at work doing the boat up so that they might at least earn a bob or two by taking others out to sea (though not for burial)..

Montezuma (2B Pentel pencil, 8 x 10 ins., sketchbook)

Sunday 1 June 2008

Hello & Welcome

It’s been a long time coming, but it was inevitable really. Once the blog changed from being an on-line writing exercise to the artist’s blog it is now, I knew it would be only a matter of time before I’d cast off the Mr Zip persona and add this to the surprisingly large number of references the Interweb holds about me.

Other bloggers have begun referring to me as “Harry” anyway, and the sidebar links and references to “Harry Bell artwork” were definitely a bit of a giveaway.

It took some time to trawl through the back catalogue of postings to make sure I hadn’t said anything rude about anyone who might now find me more easily and then be offended. But apart from a couple of totally irrelevant posts which I deleted, and a bit of bad language that I left alone on the basis that it was how I felt at the time, I haven’t changed a thing.

So here we are, a new look to the blog and a more open approach to the world. And now, more than ever, your comments are encouraged and welcome.