I return to a blog written 15 years ago and find that I still feel the same!
12th September 2007
Today I attended the funeral of my Aunty Myrtle who lived to the ripe old age of 91.
What has this got to do with painting or art for that matter? Well, quite a lot as it turns out.
Myrtle’s husband Allan, my father’s brother was a potter. The story goes that he became a potter almost by accident.
When quite young he met a man who asked him if he would like a job to which Allan said yes and took the man to meet his mother who assented to this arrangement and so began a lifelong profession and I believe, passion. He was employed by Premier Potteries in Preston which manufactured a large variety of pottery products from acid jars to egg cups. He became the senior potter within a couple of years due to the death of the original potter, a Mr Dee.
One of their products was the Remued range of domestic pots such as vases and platters etc. The classic form of these Australian pots with their gum leaves, koalas and other Australian fauna as well as featuring drip glazes has made them a very collectable commodity today.
Many examples now grace the collections of museums around Australia.
Myrtle also worked at the pottery and became Allan’s workmate as well as well as his wife and they worked together finally in Allan’s own business until his untimely death in 1979.
Being a good deal younger than my father Allan was more like an older brother to me than an uncle and I used to enjoy going to his factory and trying unsuccessfully to operate the potter’s wheel with Allan patiently trying to teach me.
Alas pottery was not for me, but Allan encouraged me to paint and was an inspiration to me as a craftsman of great skill.
He often comes to mind when I am painting, particularly when I am doing the things which require the learnt skills that I have acquired from my teachers and through practice.
Alan Martin once told me that watching Max Meldrum use a paint brush was like watching a great violinist handle his instrument. Watching my uncle on the wheel or even handling a long board with dozens of pots on it in or out of the kiln gave me the same feeling.
As an examiner at one of the largest art teaching institutions in Australia Allan used to bemoan the fact that many of the skills of the practical potter were being lost as art pottery became more the norm back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I guess that hasn’t changed all that much. I live in hope.
In my first lesson with Alan Martin he told me that his master Max Meldrum, had rated different painting subject matter in order of difficulty. He maintained that copying a set of abstract tonal shapes from one canvas to another was the easiest, followed by Still Life, Flowers, Portraits and the most difficult Landscapes. Landscapes were rated thus due to the changing conditions, light, weather, interruptions etc. All of the others could be painted in controlled light and their level of difficulty determined only by the subject’s ability to remain still. As to the selection of subject matter, Alan maintained that the KISS principle (‘keep it simple stupid’) should be applied.
Leonardo Da Vinci has been quoted as saying ‘Tis better to paint a fish in the market place well, than an archangel badly’, a fifteenth century KISS principle I guess, but I wish to discuss the art of landscape painting in this blog. This is an area of painting that many students find so difficult that they resort to working from photographs. This method of painting can be sterile and misses our the joy of working in the great outdoors and communication with, as a Japanese acquaintance of mine once called, ‘the natures’.
To quote Alan Martin, and most other painting teachers of note, ‘A painting is merely a set of shapes!’. Alan took this further with regard to landscapes saying ‘The majority of landscapes are a set of horizontal stripes and a few vertical disturbances. I think the example above ‘Fallow Ground Italy’, shows this, being basically two major horizontal stripes with a minor one in the centre, broken into smaller vertical disturbances. You cant get much simpler than that.
‘Merimbula’ above takes this idea further being four major stripes with the verticals being self explanatory.
If there is a so-called trick to this method of visual perception, it has to do with initially seeing less rather than more. The best way to do this is to half close the eyes which in effect generalises the shapes and eliminates the detail. Doing this with the above painting and looking for the biggest difference between the subject and your white canvas you can readily see the first task ahead, which in any ‘tonal’ painting is to separate the lights from the darks. Obviously the upper stripe is a light and the balance resolves itself as a dark with a few relatively light disturbances near the bottom including a yellowish minor stripe and a squarish light mark about a third in from the right. The bottom blue stripe could be considered a dark at this stage.
Now, here is the tricky bit. Our white canvas will serve for our lights for now, but what do we use to suggest our darks? My advice is that it doesn’t matter much what colour you use but the tone only needs to be darker than your canvas and the paint, when applied needs to be, as Shirley Bourne would say, ‘…dry and scrubby dearie’. In other words you need to have the surface of the canvas such that you can place your carefully mixed tones on it without changing their values due to the underpainting.
Painters have many ways of mixing tones but my way, which came from Shirley Bourne, is to start with the darkest dark and work my way, tone after tone up to the lightest light. I have written extensively about mixing tones and colour before and most teachers and painters have their own methods so I won’t go into detail here but suffice it to say that I generally do not touch my canvas until I have a full set of tones mixed and compared on the palette prior to placing them on the canvas.
The tones should ideally be applied to the canvas, using the biggest brush possible, in strict order of importance or getting rid of the biggest difference between the subject and the canvas. This difference can be determined by once again half closing your eyes and comparing your work at all stages with the subject.
The need for objectivity is critical for the realist painter. You may have noticed that in the above discussion there was no mention of skies, trees or buildings. One must at all times attempt to only see the shapes in the subject and not the things. Max Meldrum has said that the painter should see the subject as if it is a painting and make the painting look like the subject.
Remember, IT IS JUST A SET OF SHAPES.
Don James 23rd January 2022
Those who wish to find more information on this subject will find it in my book
My work was once deemed not suitable for a particular exhibition because it wasn’t ‘contemporary’. After pinching myself to find if I still existed I was left wondering how I could achieve that condition. The definition of what is Modernist or contemporary painting has been a vexed question for over 100 years now just as the question of what constitutes good or bad painting will always draw and argument.
Most regular exhibitions either through art societies or charity organisations, require certain conditions to be met for entry from ‘mainly painted from life” to “no use of digital media” as well as size restrictions etc. but there is often scant mention of copyright.
I am often asked by prospective student about copying paintings from photographs and my stock answer is that if one has a photograph of their own which they considered good enough to copy as a painting, the photo itself should be blown up and framed.
The use of sketches, preliminary paintings and even photographs as references for a final work has been widely acceptable for many years, if the photographs have been taken by the artist, but the use of other peoples images without permission is, if not illegal then certainly immoral in my opinion. As a student of realist painting one thing that was drilled into me was that we painted from life or to put it another way we converted three dimensional information into two dimensions, placed that information on a two dimensional panel in such a way that it looked three dimensional. When painting,I do not work from two dimensional data apart from the occasional posthumous portrait which I tend to avoid.
Whilst I have always seen myself as a painter and played down the image of artist I am proud to admit to composing or designing my own work using what little artistic abilities that I have. I have done my share of copying the works of those painters I admire, but that is for my own pleasure and not for display or sale. One of my teachers had us copy one of their works as an exercise, upside down of course and it was very informative as regards technique.
In this digital age quality images of all sorts are at our fingertips and the temptation to use them or worse copy them must be great for the amateur painter, but to see what are obvious copies of other peoples work being produced and displayed by professional artists, I find offensive in the extreme.
If that means I am old fashioned then I will proudly wear that epithet and I will remain contemporary for a few more years as well.
After one rather long session of painting, I was reminded of a quotation that I had seen on Facebook, supposedly by Edgar Degas. He said: “Painting is easy when you don’t know how but very difficult when you do.”
Maybe this was in my mind when I started the picture but by the time I had finished for the day it was firmly implanted.
I had been given some really colourful pomegranates with attached branches and leaves and so naturally I wanted to paint them. This particular day was the perfect opportunity with the rain and wind lashing the window, my studio was cosy and after spending some time setting up I started painting. What could go wrong? I had a palette of paint, clean brushes, a piece of linen canvas, great lighting and some Ravel in the background.
My marking out went well. Even the scrub in looked good. I studiously mixed my tones and so I hit the canvas bearing in mind Alan Martin’s dictum, ‘Ask yourself what is the biggest difference between the canvas and the subject?’
This statement is the basis of the tonal method once the tones have been prepared and probably the most difficult part of painting for most students. The reason is that unlike measuring of even tonal or colour comparisons it is widely open to interpretation. In other words what I see as the biggest difference may not be what you see.
The problem for me with this subject was that Alan’s question was particularly difficult to answer. Was it the tonal extension in the shadows or the various colours in the fruit? I went for the tonal extension.
This has occurred before, once frighteningly during a demonstration, but that time I managed to ‘give myself a good talking to’ and got back on track. This time, no such luck. By the time I had finished for the day I was still quite lost and my assessment of my work was not pretty. I was tempted to wipe it off, a rare event for me but I decided to let it dry and go back for a second session.
My analysis so far is that I think that I was intellectualizing too much, thinking too much about teaching and not just using my eye to determine what I should do next.
About 7 days later I returned to the fray. The painting was dry so after retouching varnish being applied I commenced mixing my tones and analysing the differences as before. This revealed that I had been following Alan’s dictum but had forgotten Shirley’s, ‘measure, measure, measure and when you think you have it right, measure again.”
Boy, was I wrong, not so much with sizes but with angles. After setting my tones again I recommenced using Alan’s advice and this time achieved a reasonable likeness to the subject.
When teaching I often liken painting to juggling. Most people can toss a ball into the air and catch it. Some can deal with juggling two balls but when I watch a great juggler with several items such as apples and very sharp knives together I realise what real concentration can achieve. Painting requires that degree of concentration.
When we achieve a degree of reality on the canvas the degree of satisfaction is in describable. As Manet is supposed to have said something like: “If at the end of the day’s painting I can relax in my chair and say that I have correctly related two tones, I am a happy man.”
Back in the middle 1970’s I stood in the recreation hall of he nurse’s quarters of the Fairfield Infection Diseases Hospital, to watch my teacher, Ms Shirley Bourne O.A.M. demonstrate portrait painting to a large audience of students and painting enthusiasts. She had selected as her subject my wife Marie who looked radiant in a beautiful white blouse and with her generous mane of auburn hair. Looking at her I could fully understand Shirley’s desire to paint her, but in front of an audience?
Earlier in the evening we had assisted Shirley to set up the lighting and the drapery as well as position the chair for the demonstration. I know that Marie was nervous but Shirley was anxious. She was not known for demonstrating and would very rarely even take a brush from a student’s hand during a class. In the previous year I had been ‘on safari with a group headed by Shirley and never saw her paint during the whole week even though we knew that she had done so.
Shirley was of the old school of painting teachers to whom discipline was the watchword. No talking in class, no coffee breaks just stay at your easel and work. After firstly finding this method a bit hard going I buckled down and now credit that system with giving me the skills that I now value much. I still don’t know if her reluctance to demonstrate came from her training or if she was just nervous. My impression of Shirley is that she was a very private person. She lived alone and on the few times I visited her found her to be kind and generous but very self contained and yet here she was preparing to demonstrate one of the most difficult of painting techniques, portrait painting in front of an audience of a hundred or so.
The convenor of the evening was Matron Vivienne Bullwinkel A.O. M.B.E. who was famous for her wartime experiences and was at that time the Matron in charge of the hospital. She was also a great friend of Shirley who had painted her portrait which now hangs in the National War memorial in Canberra. Shirley was among friends and the audience wanted to see how she was able to produce such beautiful work but added to the fear of failure was the fact that she had to wear a wired microphone so that she could explain her method to the enthusiastic crowd.
With the introductions over Shirley set to work in her disciplined way, closely observing, marking her measurements, mixing tones and placing the marks on the canvas just as she instructed us to do and we were all spellbound. Moving between her viewing spot and the easel or ‘hurtling’ as she called it, was somewhat complicated by the dangling microphone wire dragging around her feet, but to see our teacher do all of those things that were drilled into us, things that we all whinged about having to do, was to me a revelation. The non-painters in the audience were also impressed and showed their appreciation enthusiastically at the end of the demo.
When Shirley ‘hand passed’ me on to Alan Martin after 9 years, I found a teacher who demonstrated at the drop of a hat whether landscape, portrait or whatever. Another great teacher but with a different approach. Fortunate am I to have had two teachers of such quality who have inspired me since I first started painting in a realist manner fifty years ago. I continue to hurtle.
One of my earliest memories is of hearing my brother laugh at the Goons, a comedy show which used to be broadcast regularly on radio. I quickly learned to laugh at the knockabout antics of Neddy Seagoon, Eccles, Little Jim et al. I still enjoy listening to or watching these idiots nearly 70 years later, even though I have heard all of their sketches many times over. It is a bit like always being thrilled every time I see images ofJohn Singer Sargent’s magnificent painting of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Having seen this wonderful painting in the flesh at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1979 one could think that computer images would not touch ones heart, but no, I can gaze on that image and feel the thrill time and time again.
Another memory which remains strong is hearing the American comic Jimmy Durante singing his song about being the guy who found the lost chord. It is not often that comedy comes to mind when I am working but recently I was painting some Japonica in a clear glass Jicky Guerlain perfume bottle, a subject that I have enjoyed over the years and whilst completing the work, Alan Martin’s voice clearly said to me as he had in the 1980’s, “Remember, it’s not what you put into a picture but what you leave out that’s important!” Of course I have known this fact for years and have continued to celebrate lost edge in my work. I emphasise this idea with my student’s. and often tell them that when they find a lost edge that they should break out the caviar and champagne.
Hearing Alan put me in mind of great painters such as Sargent, Meldrum, Velasquez etc. and the paintings of theirs that I have looked at and enjoyed over and over again without noticing their lost edges.
Max Meldrum, in his book The Science of Appearances devotes chapter to ‘Objectivity vs Subjectivity’ which touches on this subject but all the aspiring realist painter needs to know was summed up very well by Alan Martin telling them what he had told me. Sounds simple but it is very difficult to overcome the need to paint what one knows to be there instead of what one can see easily. Much practice and discipline is required to do this but when a painter becomes the ‘guy’ or ‘gal’ who finds the lost edge it is truly time for a celebration.
Next time you look at a work of a painter that you admire, see if you can find their lost edges and also try to find them the next time you approach the canvas and see if you thrill to the sensation as I still do after 50 years of painting.
A friend of mine has been posting examples of paintings from of the Meldrum school on social media recently, much to my delight. Landscapes, portraits, flowers and still life paintings by my heroes or may I say my forebears.
Works by Max Meldrum himself and his followers like Archibald Colquhoun, John Farmer, Percy Leason and Alan Martin and other associates have for many years thrilled me with their simplicity and visual truth since I first saw examples in the early 1970’s.
My first teacher, Shirley Bourne O.A.M. might not have liked to be aligned with Meldrum but could not deny a connection via her teacher, Sir William Dargie, who was taught by Archibald Colquhoun. Even so, she taught me the tonal method and gave me a real grounding in the discipline . My second teacher Alan Martin, was a student of Meldrum from his teens and remained in the studio for a decade at least, so I became familiar with this group as I learned the methods they employed. I have never regretted a minute of time that I spent over the years under their tutelage.
Being in ‘lockdown’ I am not able to secure models so I have resorted to that good old standby, the self portrait. I have a 100 year old shaving mirror which belonged to my grandfather and which approximates a 10″x8″ canvas. Using this mirror I have so far completed three ‘selfies’ in the last two years. This latest effort was inspired by a portrait by Archibald Colquhuon and posted on instagram last week. I also have fond memories of a couple of his self portraits especially one which is in the National Gallery of Victoria, showing him with a model and the painting of her in the background. This wonderful painting is visible at https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5072/ Well worth a look! As my friend John, also a Martin student would say, “When I grow up.”
I have almost forgotten when I last had face to face contact with students but gee I miss them. Both of my painting teachers seemed to enjoy teaching, Alan Martin more than Shirley Bourne I think but she showed real interest in what we were doing and always encouraged us to strive for better results. For many of us teaching is a means to an end, that of financial stability, but I don’t subscribe to Shaw’s notion that “Those who can do and those who can’t teach.” If in the past those who could refused to teach, then the quality of painting would not have continued at such a high level to this day.
Those who know me will be aware that I don’t put much store in the idea of the born genius when it comes to painting. Max Meldrum has commented on the lack of prodigy painters and I tend to agree. In earlier times painting was considered a craft and artists took youngsters into their studios at an early age as apprentices and so by their early twenties they had undergone at least 10 years of intensive training, some to the point of establishing their own studios. We marvel at these painters today and rightly so. They may have had some intellectual qualities that many don’t but I believe that that their achievements came about due to good training, hard work and interest in their craft.
Going on a bit I’m afraid, but we don’t train painters like that any more. Painting is no longer considered a craft and has been lumped into that great amorphous conglomeration called art. These days anybody who wields a brush, or anything else with a flourish is labelled an artist. This is not a term that I enjoy being applied to me.
I am a painter. I teach people to paint and I am missing doing it! BRING ON THE END OF COVID.
As I settle in to my late seventies, like many of my age I have a tendency to look back and remember earlier times with tinges of regret and affection. My niece turned 60 recently and I have memories of driving her in my Morris Minor when she was around 18 months old, sitting on the front seat not secured by a seat belt let alone in a capsule, to see my future parents in law. How times have changed, mainly for the better I think in that regard.
My craft of painting places me the art world and in the early 1960’s as a budding artist I painted in the cubist manner and eschewed any ideas of traditional painting as old hat and outdated. I got the smell of oil paint, linseed oil and gum turpentine in my nostrils and have wielded the brush ever since. I knew then that I needed to learn to paint rather than pose as an artist and almost accidentally fell into a school teaching traditional realist painting from life. The wonderful perfume of those materials permeated that studio and I found that I enjoyed the discipline required to become competent in this craft.
So how has this world that I now inhabited changed? It is not the most progressive of worlds. Some of the materials have improved I guess but the biggest change has been in the people inhabiting that world. Whilst unavoidable these changes have not been advantageous in my opinion as this change alongside the rise of the internet is slowly destroying traditional realist painting in its pure sense.
The motto of the Victorian Artists’ Society, of which I am a fellow is ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’ and translates roughly as art lives forever but life is short’ and whilst the work of painters and sculptors etc. endures the artists die and are mostly forgotten.
Of course some artists are perennial and their work commands extraordinary amounts of money at auction but is the high price for the work itself or for what it represents? The further away we are from the times of Leonardo the more the dollar value of his work rises until it is out of reach to all but a very select few. Even the great galleries of the world can raise the funds to buy them. Why is this?
In a recent Netflix documentary, Fran Lebowitz in an interview with Martin Scorsese points out that at an auction of a work by Pablo Picasso the room does not applaud the work, they applaud the price. This shows the type of people who attend such events and their priorities but it shows how much works of art have become commodities whose monetary value out ranks the quality of the work itself.
Academics and such search for ever more meanings in the brush strokes of great painters in their quests for their fame or a PhD. They add to the mix of gossip and innuendo confusing the art loving public into thinking that these human beings had some special quality or magic power rather than concentrating on the hard work and dedication necessary to produce great work. Sure, some painters have led what could be called romantic and exciting lives but in essence, hard slog is what produced the results.
The idea of the artist starving in a garret or living on coffee and absinthe among prostitutes in the Latin Quarter of Paris may seem romantic to us in the twenty first century but most died young and in penury, never to benefit from the madly inflated prices of the their works being achieved today. Their stories, like the prices of their paintings have been exaggerated beyond belief by curators and dealers. All grist to the mill, I suppose.
I realised some time ago that my work could never approach the quality and appeal of many those who have preceded me. I also realise that this is mainly due to the fact that i was never driven enough to put the necessary work in. Given the advantages that I have had in terms of instruction and support I feel more than a tinge of regret and a deal of shame but one thing I have achieved is that I have passed on the knowledge generously given by my teachers and mentors to a number of my students of whom I feel rightly proud.
Of late I find that new students who have had previous instruction whether privately or in an art college have little or no knowledge of the basics of the craft of painting. They seem not to have been taught to recognise the degrees of tonal or colour variation or even to measure. it used to be a joke amongst students that teaching in some of our institutions consisted of receiving a set of materials from the teacher and being told to go and create. Nothing about the materials is taught apart from the dangers owing to OH&S requirements A joke no longer apparently!
Since 1979 when I first set eyes on the work of John Singer Sargent I have been a big fan. He was the epitome of the ‘artist’, painting in both oils and watercolour and drawing like a dream, apparently having little else to do throughout his rather privleged life during the Edwardian era. I was in London with my family in September-October of 1979 and my teacher had advised me to visit several galleries, one of which was the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square. I had no idea who Sargent was and had been looking at the paintings of Velasquez and Rembrandt in the National Gallery, extending my art education and dutifully went next door to see the Portrait Gallery.
If my memory is correct, we entered and almost immediately faced a staircase at the top of which was hung the large portrait of the Daughters Of Edward Darley Boit. Measuring some 84 inches square with the four girls spaced well apart on a Persian carpet with a couple of large oriental vases, it certainly stopped me in my tracks. At this stage I had not heard of Sargent but soon realised that, having entered a travelling retrospective of his work, that my life had changed forever. The portraits in this exhibition stood out for me, their colour, composition and what I can only call life made me observe other portraits with new eyes. Paintings such as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and Carolus Duran, Sargents teacher as well as the Boit children remain as some of my favourite paintings to this day.
In my more recent experience of Sargent’s work I had come across a very striking portrait of a Dr Pozzi, another spectacular example of his work. In the painting Dr Pozzi At Home, the doctor is portrayed full length against a red background on a red carpet wearing what looks to me like a red dressing gown. The only areas that are not red are his head and hands, his white frilled collar, shirt front and cuffs and his slippered toe peeping from beneath his robe. I love red, it is my favourite colour but this painting is not just red, it is ****ing RED as Billy Connolly would say. however, it works! Have a look at it, it is brilliant. It can be found online at- https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/644345
I have just read a book with this painting on the cover. Its title is The Man In The Red Coat written by Julian barnes. Although it is said that you cant judge a book by its cover, I couldn’t resist buying it and have enjoyed the read immensely. The cast of characters include the likes of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Marcel Proust and of course John Singer Sargent. It is essentially a potted history of the transition from the 19th to the 20th century as it concerned European society.
One passage in the book got me thinking about the fact that when we look at a painted portrait, whether historical or current, we cannot help but make assumptions about the sitter. Of course, this communication with the sitter is second hand via the eyes and the mind of the painter.
Our knowledge of the person painted may be great or none, personal or studied but our reaction to the painting will contain our prejudices and desires as well as those of the artist, whether scientific or emotional.
On page 205 of his book Mr Barnes makes what is to me a profound observation on this point and I quote:
“An artist paints a likeness, or a version or an interpretation, which celebrates the sitter during life, commemorates him or her after death, and perhaps sparks curiosity in the spectator centuries and more later. This sounds straightforward and sometimes it is. I was drawn to Dr Pozzi by the Sargent portrait, became curious about his life and work, wrote this work and still find the picture a true and dashing likeness. But it doesn’t take much for this collusion between dead painter, dead subject and spectator to go wrong. “(1.)
Mr Barnes then goes on to describe his relationship with a particular portrait, making incorrect assumptions about the sitter’s personality and having these assumptions changed by studying the man’s history. He comes to the conclusion that;
“When we look at a portrait – of an Elizabethan child, a Georgian worthy, a Victorian matron – what we are doing in part is trying to bring them back to life, to have have an ocular conversation with them, as we look at them looking back at us. And in this exchange we may mistakenly assume that their feelings are versions of our feelings – or what our feelings might be if we were in their place; also, that they are, somehow as interested in us as we are in them.“(2.)
When I look at Dr. Pozzi I see a handsome dashing man of middle years, quite well off and possibly slightly dissolute. Maybe I am projecting my desires onto him , being an elderly rather arthritic man who is not well off ,but on reading this book I find that I am close to being correct about him, although Pozzi is so much more. He is well a read celebrated gynaecologist who pioneered that discipline in France and the UK at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. He was also a brilliant surgeon bringing Dr Lister’s ideas regarding antiseptic practices into his own and other hospitals. He travelled widely and was acquainted with poets, authors, actors and artists of the day. So much more to the man than my first assumptions.
Whether one is a painter or a student of history you should find this book a fascinating look at Europe at the fin de siecle, in Paris in particular. A time and placed which has interested me since first coming across the work of Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec as a teenager.
1 and 2.. Julian Barnes. The Man In The Red Coat. Published Jonathon Cape 2019