A GREAT DEMONSTRATION

MARIE by Shirley Bourne

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.

SELF PORTRAIT by Shirley Bourne

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.

Don James September 2021

THE MAN WHO FOUND THE LOST CHORD

MISTY BUSH ELTHAM

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.

Don James

6th September 2021

Inspiration

The Panama Hat

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.”

Don James

4th September 2021

MISSING THINGS

At the back of the stables.

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.

Don James August 2021

SEEMINGLY LOST FOREVER

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!

June

Dr Pozzi – The Man in the Red Coat

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.

The Man in the Red Coat Julian Barnes. Pub. Jonathon Cape 2019

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

Don James 26th September 2020

A COLLAGE OF OCULAR FACTS

A COLLAGE OF OCULAR FACTS

This blog was inspired by a Facebook post by a fellow painter regarding an exhibition entitled “From Edwin Dickinson to the Perceptual Painters, Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire”

It can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1Ok899YQu4&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3Ov3xAKKM9bCge8D9iBoegJslIJHpBCs8sHPbyw329OYhi9nwQhbuyp-g

Several years ago, I coined the phrase ‘a collage of ocular facts’ to describe what I aim to have collected on a canvas when I have completed a painting. The phrase could be deemed accurate in its use of the words collage and ocular, but I guess that some may quibble at the word facts. Ones perception of the accuracy of this word as it relates to any finished realist painting depends on one’s knowledge of the subject represented, and virtually nobody gets to see that from the same physical viewpoint as the painter, let alone through the painter’s eyes, so to speak.

Having just watched a video entitled, “From Edwin Dickinson to the Perceptual Painters, Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire.” I was reminded of the general tone of Max Meldrum’s book, “The Science of Appearances” which stresses time and time again the necessity for the tonal realist painter to forego all thoughts of  modification of the natural world in our work and to paint only what we see.

 

Her we have a problem. As painters, is what we see modified in the process of visual interpretation due to our different experiences of the world?

I suppose that Mr Meldrum may say ‘so what?’ We can only put down what we see if that is our aim, and the differences in perception will be governed by our ability to be objective about what we see. This is why I believe that it is easier to paint a portrait of a stranger than a close relative. We face fewer pre-conceived notions or imprinted memories.

 

In our need to label things Max Meldrum’s work has been called Tonal Realism and I will happily wear that epithet for my own work. I note that Edwin Dickinson’s paintings have been variously labelled Expressionist and Neo Romanticist, probably because some are hard to categorise. According to his daughter Helen, he became enthralled by all he could see and learn of early modern art from abroad, when he went to New York in 1910 to attend art school. This interest would set Dickinson apart from Meldrum who showed no interest at all in Cubism and Impressionism and what would come to be known as Modernism.

 

The major similarity between Dickinson and Meldrum to my mind is their insistence that the painter work from life only, without the assistance of two-dimensional data, particularly photographs. They appear to have understood the difference between painting an instant in time from a photograph and working from life to produce a picture which includes some of the changes that occur during the time spent in front of the subject.

 

 

Apart from possible changes in light, still life does not change, but all other subjects from flowers to portraits and especially landscapes change constantly, and my belief is that these changes are what gives work done in this way a greater reality, hence the ‘Collage of Ocular Facts.’

 

On scanning Dickinson’s catalogue raisonne and comparing it with my knowledge of Meldrum’s work I would say that Meldrum is by far the most conservative painter of the two.

From what I have seen of Dickinson’s work it shows more variety and experimentation than that of Meldrum. The work of his which appears to have been commissioned shows his apparent need to represent reality in much the same way as Meldrum did in the bulk of his work but when painting for himself, Dickinson moved away from reality, sometimes to the point of abstraction.

 

Both Dickinson and Meldrum were classically trained utilising the skills passed to them by their teachers and continuing in that line of painting ancestors which stretch back as far as Caravaggio and beyond.

 

Meldrum had developed a method of painting which involved, as far as possible a scientific approach to the mixing and application of tones and colours as a set of patches on the canvas without any preliminary drawing as he believed ‘there are no lines in nature.

Landscape. Max Meldrum

For someone who wants to be an artist, this method can be seen as restrictive but for one who practices the craft of painting from life and who is interesting in representing reality on canvas and producing work which will last in a physical sense, I believe it is the way to go. Once the painter has achieved sufficient skill using this method, moving to the realm of the artist is not just possible but readily achievable as the painter will know how oil paint works, a skill that is sadly ignored by some artists today.

 

Don James

 

11th September 2020.