Tag Archives: jmw turner

on nothing, to be done

Sunday 21 November 2010

lonely road sign
[a country road, a tree, evening…]

it was meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be,
it will happen, it might never happen

my life seems to have become quite beckettian of late…

i can’t claim to know much about the works of samuel beckett, other than what was required reading in my youth (waiting for godot, naturally)… beckett’s sardonic, sparse dialogue seems to make more sense now, in what i will fondly call the middle ages, in the middle of a sometimes barren & lonely landscape, on a road somewhere between what was and what will be… perhaps now is the time to immerse oneself in a closer study of samuel beckett. a quick ‘google’ has unearthed a few texts and many other resources online but nothing can quite match the tangibility of a real book…

these last couple of weeks have been a time of not quite knowing what will happen next; uncertainty is no ally of reassurance… just waiting to hear, waiting in a waiting room, or waiting in a queue, or waiting for the call back, or waiting in especially for the post to arrive (which more often than not is near enough lunchtime) just in case, only to receive a bundle of junk flyers on the benefits of hearing aids, double glazing and sky tv – so, no news is godot news..?

a couple of weeks ago i finally drafted my work proposal for a prospective exhibition, along the lines of this is what i want to do and why, this is what i will do and how. i have been playing around with these notions for ages but the chance to write a proposal gave the work some focus. i will start work on this very soon, just as soon as… well, some waiting is inevitably involved and i could say more about it but – it’s a secret for now…  i know what will happen…


[sketchbook page, vessels, early august 2010]

in these lean times i have, in the evening hours mostly, also been making more of these papier mache vessels. i like the repetition of this activity, it’s like making daily bread. they are made of my own handmade paper – seemingly delicate and yet robust – when i tap them they sound a little like hollowed-out wood or eggshells. the eggshell reference is perhaps no surprise. i like the disparity between lightness and solidity. these little vessels will, in time, have some of the environmental characteristics of my paintings, a bridge between object and subject, between appearance and substance, between fulfilling a need and having another purpose… as seems to be my habit these days, i have lots of little projects or themes in varying degrees of development and completion – is this normal practice for an artist?


[papier mache vessels]

i was prompted to to consider the issue of artistic rejection the other day, while waiting to pay for a book in a charity shop. the next customer in the queue spied that it was a book on turner, turner’s venice. the brief exchange went something like this:

hmm, turner, eh? i don’t like turner.
you don’t like turner? but the nation likes turner!
i like paintings that look like something, that you can recognise.
have you seen any of turner’s paintings – those in the tate?
yes, but i didn’t like them, they were all wishy-washy, nothing…
but turner, like monet, was suffering from failing eyesight they say…
no, couldn’t see anything in them. turner, very overrated i say…
what about turner’s earlier paintings of castles & ruins?
nope, turner, not what i would call proper painting, i’m afraid…

hmm… and i was afraid he would then say he liked paintings of classic cars, aeroplanes or racing horses, so i promptly paid my £3 for the turner book and then left the shop. i suppose it does help to see another person’s point of view, that the work is too different in style from what they have come to expect a landscape painting to look like, that they bring to it their own values and preconceptions about what is art (as we all do) – but art history often gives us a wry reflection on this cultural phenomena – on what is now highly regarded was perhaps once critically rejected… but there again…

in a recent conversation with another artist it was suggested to me that people (people who are likely to buy art from galleries or exhibitions) are most drawn to art that gives them a sense of joy or wonder about the world, hope for life not a reminder of the end of things. i didn’t agree entirely, but perhaps he was also referring to what is known as the ‘grey £’, since he then went on to explain why retired people like gardening so much – a sense of hope in the possibility of renewal. then i thought about vanitas, paintings which i view with a child-like fascination as much as seeing them as darkly symbolic allegories on nature and mortality – the memento mori. perhaps i seek out signs of imperfection & decay for a similar, symbolic significance, that death or decay is inevitable, but in a curious way it also signifies change and renewal…


[intaglio print on paper, mounted on canvas]

this small intaglio print on fabriano paper is from about five years ago. at some point i decided to adhere the print to a canvas, but then it was shelved. sometime later, i took the canvas into work where it hung up in the staffroom for a couple of years – but now it is back home again. it will serve to remind me that i shouldn’t dismiss things so easily…

lastly, this art journal (or blog) is also five years old… so, shall i go on..?

thank you […] is there anything else?
no, i think that’s everything… no wait, there is one last thing…
yes? what’s that?
it’s nothing, i just wanted to ask if….
ok, just wait there while i […] you don’t mind waiting..?
no, i don’t mind waiting, thank you…

on thinking, clouds in a sketchbook

Saturday 24 July 2010

dear reader, i have had my head in the clouds again, a mild attack of the vapours… the heavy rains came (more of a rain deluge, really) and then swiftly went away again, giving us brilliant blue skies for a day or so, but then those rain clouds gathered ominously once again…

sketchbook drawings - studies of skies and clouds
[sketchbook pages, july 2010]

these are some small sketches from the last few days, all completed during the course of travelling to places – and by humble bus, no less. it’s a surprisingly bumpy ride by bus in the countryside – the pencils which i thought were securely retained in a pencil case threatened to jump overboard and skittle across the floor of the bus, as one did, but luckily the bus was close to empty…

n.b. all of these sketches are all 14cm x 20cm.

drawing study of rain clouds, in a sketchbook
some rain clouds… i guess they are cumulus… with a peek of sky blue…

this is my favourite sketch of one day’s travelling, a brief glimpse of rainfall in the distance (or perhaps it was just the sun’s rays as seen through water vapour after a rainstorm), sketched on the return journey…

study of rain clouds - sketchbook drawing

here is another one completed around lunchtime… it was a bright and breezy day with some sunshine, the clouds gathered up (so to speak) and it was ‘looking like rain again’

sketchbook - sketches of clouds and sky

here is another sketch from earlier in the week (a single, small grey cloud, amongst the white fluff, that caught my eye). i had, to save some money, decided to draw on both sides of the paper in my sketchbooks – but i have noticed how the fugitive nature of graphite has transferred smudgy tones between the sketchbook pages, thus unintentionally clouding this drawing even further…

sketchbook drawing - sketch of a cloud

single grey cloud

sketchbook drawing - sketch of a grey cloud

another dark grey cloud – perhaps these incidental smudgings of graphite add a little life to the process..

there is no desire to use these small sketches as part of a preliminary process for painting – i think they will feed into my painting in other, less obvious ways…

artists sometimes use photography to record the details of things, as visual references for their work, but plein air drawing (or as seen through a window in many of these examples) as a process has its own sensibility – one that is exploratory and purely responsive, of the moment – of making brisk, spontaneous marks in real time, marks that have no definitive end…

i have, i think, a bit of a sketchaholicism when it comes to travelling (when not driving). there is the time and space to just gaze, to drift into momentary vistas, spied for perhaps only a few seconds. this inspires a loose, gestural style of drawing that i continue to work into for a few minutes, with the landscape or sky still there to refer to outside the window, slowing shifting in its perspective… this creates an immediacy and vitality of drawing, which if one were ‘still’ might produce a more technically-laboured outcome as one wrestles with capturing the singular ‘view’. here, in these sketches, the most time i spent on a sketch would be three or four minutes… i look, i draw, i memorise – perhaps it is a form of (re)training,  for the eyes and the visual memory, to hone one’s perception, to be more receptive and impulsive in drawing what one sees… and i like the self-imposed restrictions of drawing on the move

for some contextual reference it would be churlish not to mention suffolk-born artist  john constable, and also jmw turner, for their studies and sketches of skies and clouds. constable and turner were contemporaries, born only a year apart, with perhaps some professional rivalry if not open hostility towards one another at the time. three of the sky studies below are from the period 1822-23… perhaps the industrial, revolutionary smogs of those times made the turbulent skies into art…?

this also begs the big question: who’s the master of the painted skies, constable or turner? constable appears to offer a deeply respectful and naturalistic view of the landscape (rising metaphorically from the dark shadows of the industrial revolution), whereas turner immerses himself (and us, in turn) in the subjective, spiritual nature of landscape as a means to convey elements of the sublime…

john constable - cloud study - tate collection
John Constable, cloud study, circa 1822. oil on paper, 476 x 575 mm

constable - study of clouds - victoria and albert museum, london
John Constable, study of clouds, 5 september, 1822. oil on paper, 298 x 483 mm

what is most interesting in constable’s cloud studies is how they give an insight into his process. his often detailed annotations referring to time and place offer some evidence of the influence of advances in science during the age of enlightenment, although i am sure that romantic painters such as constable would have been a little sceptical.

constable produced many preparatory studies and the final paintings were then completed in the studio. arguably the most famous constable painting, the haywain, was actually completed far away from the suffolk valley it depicted – in hampstead, london. he was truthful to the spirit of nature as he perceived it, a deeply nostalgic and poetic vision of britain’s rural landscape, at a time when the real countryside increasingly exhibited the advancement of a more mechanised, industrial agriculture. i wonder if back then his paintings were seen as aspirational manifestations of a rural idyll existing only in the mind – he once said of his clouds that they were the chief organ of sentiment in his paintings…

turner - storm at sea - watercolour in sketchbook - tate collection - london
JMW Turner, storm at sea circa 1822-3. watercolour on paper, 178 x 257 mm

turner - study of clouds, tate collection, london
JMW Turner, study of clouds, with a shower passing over water circa 1826-32. watercolour on paper, 307 x 487 mm

you can view turner’s sktchbooks online at the tate

constable is undoubtedly the better painter of real skies but turner captures the essential, intangible beauty of the ethereal elements. turner seems to delight in the deft touch, the merest suggestion of colour in atmospheric movement, of a fresh breeze or a sea mist rising. this is meteorology without the boring science bit. these are not absolute recordings but sensory responses and turner’s later paintings always remind me that less is often more.

i find the implied sensitivity in these small studies most fascinating when what we know of turner’s personal life is that he was often brash and, how shall we say, a tad unrefined in demeanour, but let’s not spoil the painterly magic. turner’s magnificence as a painter and his influence on modern art is undeniable – as rothko once apparently said, this man Turner, he learnt a lot from me‘. sometimes, i can’t help imagining that if turner had just cleaned his brush on a scrap of paper it would be later viewed as yet another sketch of a storm at sea… constable, i think, would not have been so carefree…

lastly… i have just penned a quick haiku style poem, in honour of some fluffy white clouds…

reigning clouds
sometimes flirt a little
when spurning summer’s heated advances…

Seeing sense

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Are artists born, do they inherit a genetic artistry, or do they develop into artists through a process of being formally instructed on how to make art? Can art ever be taught? Is the acquisition of traditional skills a form of mimicry? I ask these questions today as I have been contemplating of late on the teaching of art.

I find it easier to refer to an analogy of the chef, who first picks his ingredients through the enjoyment of aroma, taste and texture, planning the recipe, creating the dish and savouring the end result. Similarly, trainee artists need to value the intrinsic qualities of things and not rely on a step-by-step recipe to guide their creative senses. They need to abandon their assumptions about everyday things, such as the sky is always blue, and develop more intuitive, honest responses to the sensations of real matter (colour, texture, shape, form), before embarking on the mechanics of picture-making (control of tone, application of colour, compositional structure). A chef will enthuse excitedly about the quality of ingredients, what they each possess and bring to the dish, the interaction of flavours and textures, the pleasure of making and sharing food.

Many students seem to prefer a fixed set of instructions for a finished model of work, rather than an open exploration or live research. Paradoxically, many professional artists (especially painters) focus less on a pre-defined outcome, abandoning some formality along the way, and are more engaged by the journey of its creation; what will happen if, let’s try that, perhaps include this, exclude that, combine, deconstruct, reinvent…

JMW Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, circa 1845

JMW Turner painted many hues in the apparent simplicity of smoke, smog and sea spray, capturing the transient beauty and ambiguity of its form; it seemed more than a process of conscious exaggeration, extracting a faint lilac hint from a mass of grey, a wisp of orange in an energetic swathe of smokey blue. He understood that colour had an intense, emotional value, transporting us beyond the literal and the obvious (it’s a sunset or storm) to something deeper within the psyche, a sense of danger or mystery, a vision of wonderment or the divine. So, painting (and drawing) goes beyond mere recording or depiction of an idea or event, it seizes the wonder that is the act of seeing (exploring the world around us, making sense of things), the whole experience from initial discovery to cognitive understanding and creative resolution.

Many artists will often talk about having a conversation or dialogue in the creation of their work – receptive to influences, embracing serendipity, questioning alternatives, emotionally engaged in its making. One way for students of art to learn this process is to record their work in development, recording initial ideas, the use of other sources, the stages of construction – to develop new skills in artistic judgement and critical reflection. But, there is still a belief that some artistic skills are better achieved through a disciplined, repetitive or copying process to reach a prototype of perfection. Ultimately, the teaching of fine art goes beyond a mastery of a set of practical skills, it is more about finding a voice or expression, the ability to define or articulate a personal view of the world, from the conceptual to the concrete, to engage or persuade others, beginning a new discourse between the artwork, the creator and the viewer. The act of looking and responding is learnt first, the practical skills of rendering it in a new reality give the work its sense of direction and purpose…