MY FRIEND JOHN
JOHN WAKEFIELD IN ALAN MARTIN’S STUDIO CIRCA 1992
Recently I attended the opening of a retrospective exhibition of oil paintings by John Wakefield OAM spanning the years 1970 to the present day. Fifty years of painting is an achievement in anybody’s book but this show, curated and hung by John’s son was an example to any aspiring painter and to some already established ones.
For variety of subject matter and consistency of quality I couldn’t wish to see better examples. Paintings from Sicily to the Australian Outback, floral studies and still life all in John’s signature style, full of colour and enthusiasm.
As a celebration of 80 years of life and fifty years of painting I found the experience both gratifying and inspiring.
25th October 2018.
It is a long time since I cast off the mantle of the artist and revealed myself as a painter. In my late teens I wore the uniform of the artist of the day and indulged myself in an orgy of creativity. I still remember those days fondly and I would have to say that my education during that time stood me in good stead for what would become my life’s work, that of imparting my accumulated knowledge about tonal realist painting to others.
The time has come for the technician in me to tackle the thorny problem of creativity in realist painting. After many years of learning my craft and avoiding this subject where possible I now have to come to terms with the following ideas:
Is there such a thing as natural ability when it comes to the craft of realist oil painting?
Is creativity inherent?
How does the teacher deal with these phenomena if the answer to the above questions is yes?
Max Meldrum proposed that he could teach anyone to paint provided they had the necessary desire to learn and put in the amount of work needed to make them into a good painter. I have found, during my teaching that there is a percentage of students who are willing to work to gain a level of expertise but that percentage is quite small. Many students do not realise at the beginning of their training how much work is involved and many merely wish to create ‘wall furniture’ quickly without learning the basics.
My favourite metaphor for this training is the marathon runner. It takes years to gain the necessary strength to finally run a full marathon, let alone do it in a time approaching the current record and even if you break the record the real runner will want to better that!
I guess this all sounds obvious but as a teacher of adults my greatest difficulty lies in convincing the student that it is O.K. to be wrong. Quite a few adults I have taught have been embarrassed when they can’t do things properly straight away. These days I am in the happy position of being able to interview prospective students and have them interview me so when they start classes they are aware of my methods and I am aware of their potential.
Back in the 70’s my teacher told me that she taught every student as if they were aiming to be a professional painter. Many classes in oil painting are run as ‘hobby’ classes with students painting from cards or photographs. This is a waste of time for the serious student. I have never attempted to do this and whilst a number of my students may not win prizes or sell many paintings their work can approach real competency because they are willing to put the work in.
And so to attempt to answer the questions proposed. I do believe that there is such a thing as natural talent and it is to do with Abstract Intelligence which I have seen defined as ‘the capacity to think more generally and top look at objects and situations as a whole versus as their individual parts.’
This facility is gold to the painting teacher and the higher the level of abstract intelligence, the easier it is to impart the necessary knowledge in the studio. I believe that this is why still life painting is the basis of all good painting, as it requires the painter to see the relationships between the tonal areas as a pattern which has to be repeated on the canvas. Students who see only the individual objects will surely fail to represent them with any sort of visual accuracy as they are painting mainly from memory rather than observation.
About inherent creativity I am not so sure. Watching my three-year-old grandson play may have given me an insight into this subject. He was recently given a set of DuPlo blocks which could be built into a steam train. Initially his mother assembled them but he was not satisfied until he had built a tower of blocks on one of the trolleys and now each time he plays with the set he rebuilds the tower.
This tower bears no relation to the pictures on the box so I guess he is being creative.
When I talk to students I encourage them to LOOK at everything as they go through their everyday lives. We take so much of the visual information available to us for granted. I tell them to go to exhibitions, not just of paintings but sculpture and photography, to look at fashion and industrial design. I believe that by doing this we help to train our eye and maybe therefore our creativity.
Painters live in a visual world and they should inhabit that world to the full.
The realist painter is a creative person in that the selection of the subject matter, the arrangement of the still life or the drapery, the posing of the model, the lighting of the subject or even the selection of the portion of the landscape to be painted are creative acts in them selves.
As a teacher I attempt to impart this information to my students and I find that those who accept and understand these things are the better painters for it.
18th July 2018.
A.W.HARDING – AN EXHIBITION OF A LIFETIME
Every once in a while one is stimulated to the point of a Eureka moment and I experienced such a moment last week. On a cold wet morning we drove into East Melbourne to see the above exhibition. As I stood in front of Bill’s wonderful painting of Dunsborough Castle I said to my wife,‘ Turner, eat your heart out.’
I knew Bill as a member and fellow councillor at the Victorian Artists’ Society for a number of years enjoying, in particular regular hanging days where members works were selected for what are now called seasonal exhibitions. At these hanging days Bill, who was never one for holding back about art, would give his opinion about controversial selections. His opinions to me were almost always sound and were important in the formation of my own aesthetic.
To view this exhibition was a revelation. I had seen many of Bill’s works over the years and had painted beside him during a couple of VAS portrait demonstration days, but to see three galleries full of his works was almost overwhelming. My statement to Bill’s daughter Virginia was. ‘It’s all so bloody honest.’ A quality lacking in much of art these days.
Realist painters need to be unafraid of expressing what they see in front of them without fear or favour to whatever fashion happens to be in vogue.
To quote the Lesley Harding, Bill’s daughter,
“In his paintings Bill held in balance formal concerns and observations of everyday life and was disinterested in fashion, popularity or commercial outcomes.”
These paintings were painted by an artist unafraid of light, dark or colour and used these elements wonderfully.
18th June 2018
ARTISTIC OR WHAT?
In my email this morning I received information from my art material supplier. The banner consisted of text over a photograph of some very dirty brushes and a palette knife lying on a filthy palette. I am almost tempted to change my supplier. I suppose they think it looks artistic.
Call me old fashioned but what is it with ‘artists’ who have no respect for their tools? I suppose that it is because they are ‘artists’ rather than craftspeople. I was trained to look after the equipment that I use as a painter. My teacher used to say that ‘…a disorganised palette was the indication of a disorganised mind but I won’t say what a dirty palette indicates.’ Of course we used to laugh but most of us took notice and went on to care for our tools and equipment.
Some time ago I did a short course in printing at Baldessin Press. I would say that you could almost eat off the benches and of course the presses. One might say that printers have to be careful. Well, it is my experience that painters need to be as well. I work at an artists’ colony, where there is a guitar maker who also teaches students to do the same. He could not carry out his craft with rusty or blunt chisels or saws, just the same as I cannot paint with a dirty palette or brushes.
I help my new students to prepare a new wooden palette by seasoning it and tell them that it is their very own Stradivarius and that if cleaned properly will last them for many years. The same thing goes for brushes. I have always bought the best brushes that I could afford and cleaned them thoroughly after each painting session. Good brushes are expensive and beautiful to use until they wear out, not because of paint clogging them but because the bristles get too short. This takes a long time, and like using artist’s quality paint rather than student quality or cheaper, in the long run you may come out in front financially.
Alan Martin hated to see brushes standing upright in a ginger jar or such. He saw this as an affectation and said it would allow dust to fall into the bristles. He maintained that brushes should be kept in a drawer. This may be a bit extreme but when he was not going to use brushes for an extended period, he would put neat’s foot oil into the bristles. This is a non drying oil at room temperature and would be needed to be washed out before reuse.
People will point to great artists such as Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud and the condition of their studios and equipment and I could say that they are the exception that proves the rule, what ever that might mean. I would advise the prospective student of painting not to start down that path either from a financial or an artistic viewpoint. The financial advice is obvious but the artistic I believe is along the lines of, learn to use the tools with respect and care and if you happen to accumulate such funds that allow you to abuse them go for your life.
My bet would be that if you start out with such respect you would retain it.
7th February 2018
Mother’s Beach Mornington
BEING OUT THERE
I have never used twitter or snapchat but I am a regular user of Facebook and Instagram. Many have warned me about these sites and I admit that they are somewhat addictive but they have been quite helpful in getting the message about tonal painting out there and they are terrific for looking at great paintings. Admittedly the majority of postings I find boring and useless but of recent times a number of world famous galleries have been posting pictures from their collections and these are great to see, and it is a good way to see the work of others, both friends and strangers.
Until the advent of the internet one had to rely mostly on word of mouth or some publicity from a solo exhibition to raise one’s profile to gain more sales or students. For thirty years I worked as a teacher with art societies in Victoria starting in Woodend in 1982 as a replacement teacher for one who had gone to China for six weeks. I must say that it was a difficult job, during winter on a Wednesday night and occasionally finding only one or two students had battled the rain/fog to be in the class, then driving back to Melbourne through the heavy fog, I battled on and I was given the opportunity to hold a class on Saturday mornings which in turn morphed into two classes on Thursdays.
A friend of one of my students ran an arts program for a suburban council and asked me to teach there, which I did for a time and then whilst holding my first solo exhibition at he Malvern Artists’ Society I learned that one of their teachers was having surgery and needed someone to replace him I thought, for a short spell and I volunteered. In fact he was retiring and so Wednesday mornings became a regular teaching spot for many years.
In 1988 Alan Martin died and at the time I was attending his Portrait Workshop which I had done for about four years. During his short illness, rather than stop the classes he asked me if would take over the evening class. I took this as a great compliment and continued to teach in his Eltham studio until 1992.
With a number classes each week I needed to think as my teacher Shirley Bourne put it to me, whether I wanted to paint or teach. My answer then as it is now was that I wanted to do both.
An opportunity arose in 1992 to join David Moore in Justus Jorgensen’s last studio at Montsalvat Artists’ Colony. It was an offer I could not refuse and whilst I have now ceased all other teaching commitments I remain a proud resident artist and teacher there. This position led directly to my recent teaching stint in Tuscany.
Looking back I realise that all of these opportunities were received without the use of social media but I now find it both useful and fascinating and a great way to keep oneself ‘in the loop’ so to speak.
21st January 2018
GRAND CANAL VENICE
LA BELLA ITALIA
I have just returned from a month of travelling in Italy, probably my second favourite country. It has been 38 years since my last visit and in that time I have continued to reminisce about my favourite Italian things such as art, Ferraris, coffee machines, great design, wonderful architecture, both ancient and modern and cities like Rome and Venice.
They are all still there and remain pretty much the same but in 40 years tourist numbers have destroyed at least the atmosphere of Venice.
‘La Serenissima’ is serene no longer.
20th January 2017
VALE JOHNNY JAMES
This one is off the cuff so to speak. I normally write these blogs after much thought and editing but today I just want to get it off my chest.
Last week I attended the funeral of my only brother. My big brother at that. So now I suppose am the oldest male of the family, a precarious position. John was 6 years older than me and may as well have been 20 years older considering the differences in our experiences. He was born prior to World War 2 and I in the middle of that conflict. He grew up with Frank Sinatra on the radio and I with Elvis. His haircuts were always short and neat and mine varied from a very short crew cut when I worshipped Jerry Lewis to quite long during my beads and incense days.
With all of that we had more in common than our parents. He loved Jazz and so do I. As well we had a common love of Rachmaninov, Beethoven, golf, good food and really good red wine, especially Pinot Noir. There is still a Hoddles Creek in the cupboard awaiting his next visit. He won’t get to sample that one I guess.
It has been many years since we rode together in the ‘dickie seat’ of our father’s Plymouth Roadster, gormandised on mashed potato and home made clotted cream and plum sauce at Coles Hill, our grandparents’ farm or played tip and run cricket in the back yard. We also had a comon love of the Goons, a throw back to our pommy ancestry I guess.
He taught me to ride a bike and drive, inspired my tastes in classical music and much more.
We had our good times and some not so good together but I miss him already and echo Joni Mitchell when she sang ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’.
Thanks and goodbye Big brother.
IN YOUR FACE
Recently I have been doing a lot of reading about painters such as Daubigny and Corot, artists that have been called early impressionists. We know that they were among the first to paint regularly in the landscape following the development of the metal paint tube. They are painters that I have admired for many years, not only because they painted in the landscape but that their work really represented reality to me.
I guess that the above may be a rather controversial title to a blog about painting but I have given this subject a great deal of thought and I feel that it is applicable.
Wonder at the beauty of the natural world has been something that I have had since my early childhood. The changing seasons with the brightness of summer days, the colour of autumn and the gloom of winter, with the physical as well as the visual manifestations of those changes impressed me then as now.
As a child I spend a good deal of time with my Grandfather on his property.
He was a hunter as well as a farmer and most of the time with him was spent outdoors. Later I travelled with my mother regularly between Melbourne and Canberra to visit relatives. She preferred the coast road and so I was introduced to the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales and I learned to fish. Fishing requires time and patience of course but it also engenders contemplation of the water, the skies and the landscape.
On commencing my training as a painter I realized quickly that I really enjoyed having my subject in front of me rather than working from a two dimensional images, hence I trace my painting family back to those landscape painters mentioned in the beginning of this piece.
I guess that students of mine will now see where I am heading and they will be partly correct as I often talk in class of the sterility of painting using two- dimensional data as a reference or to put it bluntly copying photographs. But in reference to the title of this essay I want to posit the idea that the advent of the camera and digital imagery has caused more problems for the world of painting than was at first thought.
With the improvements in camera technology over the last few years one would have to say that photographs of amazing clarity are now accessible to even the rank amateur photographer. Many painters now use such photos as reference material and one would think that this would assist in the production of great works of realist art but I would beg to disagree.
It strikes me that these improvements contribute even more to the sterility of such work as they cause the artist to see more rather than less, especially within the focus of the camera being used.
I once heard of a method of seeing which a teacher had called the ‘ten apple’ method. This required the painter working from life, to paint the ‘front’ apple in clear focus and gradually reduce the clarity of the apples as they recede towards the background. This, of course is an attempt to imitate the camera which is a monocular instrument as opposed to the eyes which are binocular and multifocal.
I have written previously about such nonsense but I mention it in an attempt outline what I believe is a further degradation of the craft of painting, in particular landscape painting as a consequence of the digital camera.
My theory comes from close observation of paintings, obviously painted from photographs and in a number of media which now have far higher colour values than obtain in nature as well as an excess of detail, a combination of which I would characterize as ‘IN YOUR FACE’.
In my visual world, which many would see as old fashioned I yearn to see paintings which have a little mystery and represent subject matter the way that the eye really sees it. From those early impressionists to the wonderful Clarice Beckett there is much to celebrate about true landscape painting but I am afraid it is being swamped by the current spate of ‘IN YOUR FACE’ stuff.
Painting should inspire rather than impress. It should be gentle rather than loud and above all have a sense of mystery about it.
26th October 2016
REFUSED BY THE ARCHIBALD PRIZE BUT…….
Recently I was selected for the Salon des Refuses at the S.H. Ervin Gallery and the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery. I suppose that you could call this show the second rank of portraits entered for the Archibald Prize, the most prestigious portrait prize in Australia. I deemed it an honour to have been selected as I had not been before 2016.
The painting is a self portrait, painted in 2015-6 so it shows me, warts and all of my 72 years. I am quite pleased with the result and have enjoyed self portraiture for many years now. It is quite a small work for the Archibald being only 40 x 50 cm. although this year seems to have many smaller works.
To see my work in such a show is a new experience for me, especially amongst the large and colourful works which people the show in the main.
I can recommend self portraiture for any aspiring realist portrait painter as it requires intense concentration and relating of the tonal areas as it is very difficult to measure in a mirror. Try it!
Anyway here it is and with it, one from about 1984. Shows you what life can do to a lad.
6th October 2016
FROM THE BALCONY BENABBIO
I have the honour of having been asked to take a group of painting students to Tuscany next year for two weeks in September /October. It will be a small group of 7 or 8 students
One thing that I really enjoy is plein air painting and whilst I have been to Italy before, I have yet not had the pleasure of painting there.
For many years I have had a love of Italy and in paricular Italian art and design.
When I was younger I designed refrigeration equipment and was heavily influenced by the small amount of Italian units available here at the time but I studied magazines and books and in 1979 visited Italy and went to a trade fair in Milan. The opportunity to see more of the country was too good to miss so we travelled the length of the peninsula entering from Austria and leaving from Brindisi by ferry for Greece. I was already painting at the time and wished then that I had more time to stop and paint. Alas I didn’t, apart from a couple of small works In Venice.
The Villa at which the workshop is to be based is close to a small village called Benabbio in Northern Tuscany, not far from Lucca. The surrounding country is quite mountainous with spectacular views and the baroque Villa dates from the 17th century with a late medieval wing and chapel. It has recently been restored and remodelled into a comfortable residence with ten bedrooms and all mod cons.
Sounds too good to be true? Details of the trip are still to be worked out but if anyone wants to see what the Villa looks like click here.
HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY
When I think back to the important things that were inculcated in me by my painting teachers, the one thing that stands out is honesty. Whilst not aware of it at the time, gradually I came to realise that both of these people, although having quite different approaches to art and the art world, possessed a deep and abiding honesty when it came to painting.
They both came from the same family of painters but from slightly different directions. Shirley Bourne was Sir William Dargie’s studio assistant for many years, and he in turn was taught by Archibald Colquhoun who was a student of Max Meldrum. Alan Martin, on the other hand was taught his craft first hand by Max Meldrum. Both could be said to be Tonal Realist painters in the Meldrum tradition but Shirley would not have welcomed this epithet.
Having studied, as best I can, the life of Max Meldrum I find that this honesty in painting applies very much to him. One can see it in his work and read about it in his writings, in fact his whole life seems to be based on a need to be honest to the point of making himself unpopular for expressing his opinions on art, politics or morality. He seems to have had the need to prove to the world that his ideas about painting were correct and he strongly eschewed other methods. This honesty made him a lot of enemies but it engendered a deep and abiding admiration and loyalty amongst his students.
I think that this is where this honesty in painting originates.
My two teachers, although friends had entirely different ideas and lifestyles and would find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades in a political debate, nevertheless they maintained an honesty and integrity in their work which I believe should be much admired.
One could say that Alan loved Meldrum as a mentor and a father figure and always spoke of him with reverence in my presence. Shirley, on the other hand, on the few occasions when the dreaded M word was mentioned in her presence, showed discomfort and indicated a dislike for the man, though she must have realized that without his teachings her work would have been much different.
One explanation for her apparent dislike of Meldrum could be politics. He appears to have been what we would call today a ‘left winger’ and I believe that Alan followed in his footsteps.
Whilst I never discussed politics with Shirley I guess that her loyalties tended towards the conservative side.
Alan’s attitude to Dargie was interesting, often referring to him as ‘the businessman’. I guess that there would have been an amount of professional jealousy in that Dargie , with eight Archibald Prizes to his credit and Membership of the Melbourne Club, seemed to live in a world of glittering prizes. This was a different world to that of the Eltham painter and teacher, living what to many at the time an alternative lifestyle, I would not think Alan would have swapped that for anything.
Life is a journey with many twists and turns and occasionally one must decide a direction to go when presented with a choice. My relationship with Shirley was an accident although a very happy one as she introduced me to the world of tonal realism from Velasquez to Max Meldrum. I joined her class as it was the only night class in oil painting at the Victorian Artists’ society at the time. I always found her to be a disciplined teacher with a wicked sense of humour and a passion to paint and teach her students the correct way.
My association with Alan was by choice, made on the recommendation of Shirley. Alan extended my knowledge of the Meldrum method and my passion to teach it. Alan also had a wicked sense of humour and a great love of music, food, wine and the life he had with his work and with his generous and formidable life’s partner Lesly and their family.
I have been fortunate in my choices in life and I will be eternally grateful to these two people who I am happy to consider as more than just teachers.
1st May 2016
A PROUD OLD FOGEY
One of the words to define a fogey is conservative. To most people, that may be the kindest definition but I guess that I have always been that in the world of painting.
This blog comes about because of a discussion with my wife. Nothing new there, but we were talking about an article she had read in the newspaper about Sir Robert Menzies’s driver. I had avoided reading this piece due to my long held dislike of Menzies who I see as Australia’s arch-conservative. As Prime Minister for some 17 years, he led a coalition of the Liberal and Country parties, whose rule seemed to go on forever. It certainly spanned my childhood and my parents seemed to think that the sun shone out of Sir Robert’s rear end. This adoration was accompanied by a similar worship of Sir Henry Bolte, whose conservative Premiership of Victoria spanned 12 years of my adolescence and early adulthood.
I must admit to having had no real political opinions other than those of my father until I met my future father in law. Whilst he did not indoctrinate me he taught me to question and this questioning led to me supporting the other side of politics. So whilst conservative certainly could not describe my political opinions, I do claim to be such in my opinions about painting.
The article had mentioned that during the painting of Sir Robert Menzies’s portrait by Sir William Dargie, the great man could not afford the time to attend all of the sittings and his driver was co-opted to sit in for some of the time. I would assume that this would be for the clothing etc.. This was the accepted method of completing a portrait of a great or busy person. Portraits of the Queen are an example of this. One apparently gets a specified number of sittings with Her Majesty present, and this time needs to be spent on the face and probably hands and a stand-in is provided for the clothing and regalia.
To me this is perfectly acceptable, but it is the increasing use of photographic references which is I believe is going a long way to destroying the art of realist painting.
For many years now I have written and spoken about realist painting from life as being set apart from the act of painting from two-dimensional data. The former is ‘a collection of ocular facts’ gathered over a period of time rather than a fraction of a second’s information recorded by a camera. I cannot see, no matter how hard I try, what advantage there is to teaching people to slavishly copy marks from a piece of photographic paper. I must admit to having on a couple of occasions used photographic data to paint posthumous portraits but I found the process boring and sterile. One has no choice in such a situation apart from refusing the commission.
One of the joys of painting has been to be able to communicate with my subject, whether a person, a landscape or even still life. I will continue to enjoy this communion whilst I am still physically able to and to attempt to excite others to the same enjoyment. I guess that this is what makes me a fogey, probably an old fogey at the age of 72, but I must say that I wear that epithet proudly.
5th April 2016
WATCH AND LISTEN
One of my facebook friends has posted on Youtube, a beautiful piece from ‘The Faerie Queen’ by Henry Purcell. As I have mentioned before, my taste in music is wide, ranging from plain song to punk and this particular piece always gets me where music can. It is more than just a physical reaction. It’s deeper than that. On this occasion the piece is sung by Alfred Deller whose voice, one of the most beautiful counter tenors that I have heard, suits the work of Purcell perfectly.
As well as the music the accompanying images are stunning. They are details, mainly of the face, of Mary in the painting of the Immaculate Conception by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo from the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
My wife and I were lucky to see this picture quite recently in Melbourne and found it beautiful on that occasion but looking at the details of the face and hands set me to thinking about the skills required to do such beautiful work.
It is a favourite of Marie’s and I can understand her delight in seeing it from her point of view as a painter of religious Icons.
Looking at it in the gallery one sees the overall composition but from a distance and as it is quite a large full length piece, the head is rather high on the wall so the true beauty of the ‘portrait’ is not to be seen.
Talking to my friend and fellow painter John recently we got to discussing our mutual teacher Alan Martin and his insistence that we always suggest and never state when painting and the details in this painting are the perfect example of that idea. My other teacher had a favourite saying when teaching portrait painting, saying ‘no nostrils Dearie’, which is Alan’s saying in another form. Often students see nostrils as holes in the face when viewing the underside of a nose and paint two dots when in fact, that area is usually a dark tone of a particular shape with smaller darks suggested within that tone. This is particularly when the subject is lit from above, as is traditionally the case.
I could continue with my praise of this picture for a lot longer but I heartily recommend that those with an interest in traditional portrait painting go to the following link and see for themselves.
To quote my friend John, ‘When I grow up I would like to paint like that.’
23rd January 2016
THE JOURNEY TOWARDS AN UNATTAINABLE GOAL
It’s been a while since I wrote but it has been a very busy time.
In the last few weeks I have been teaching as usual but with a portrait workshop as well. The other thing that has been occupying my time is that I started a course in printmaking, more specifically dry point.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, dry point involves scratching a design on a metal or Perspex plate, inking the plate, judicially wiping some of the ink off and printing the image onto paper. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
I have been admiring the work of my friend John Wakefield who is also printmaking but mainly etching which is somewhat different from dry point, in that it involves dipping the plate into a mordant to fix the image on the plate.
In dry point the printmaker is relying on the burr which is created as the plate is scratched, to hold the ink. The resulting line therefore is relatively soft.
The major drawback seems to be that the burr is damaged by the press, resulting in a small number of prints before the burr is flattened.
My teacher recommended that I look at an exhibition of the work of a printmaker Deborah Luccio at Port Jackson Print Room. Display consists of both Dry point and Etched prints of ballet dancers and they were very beautiful. The quality of the line was what is meant to catch the eye and it does, together with judicious place tone and, surprisingly accidental marks which, far from detracting from actually enhance the image.
The cuts in the plates must have been quite deep to get such strong lines and the fluidity of line was a thing of beauty in itself.
I could imagine a couple of the prints as wire armatures for a sculpture but with inherent movement.
This viewing has inspired me to work much harder at engraving the plate and removing the ink with much more care.
On the first day of the class I left feeling elated. As if I was back in my youth and the world was new and shiny. There is no doubt that the learning of a new skill; especially one that you desire to learn can lift the spirits at any age.
As long as one realizes that the learning process is a journey towards a goal that is never reached and that you retain the humility necessary to know that there is always more to do and learn.
This brings to mind a story that I heard about the great American violinist Yehudi Menhuin related by a journalist visiting him prior to a concert when the maestro was in his eighties.
On approaching the hotel room the journalist heard the strains of Beethoven’s violin concerto and being ushered in saw the violinist practicing the piece which he was to perform that evening. The journalist was surprised and asked how many times the maestro had performed that piece and on being told ‘probably hundreds’ asked why it was necessary to continue to practice it.
The Maestro replied that one could always do it a little better no matter how many times it performed or practiced.
As it is the end of another year I would like to wish my readers my best wishes
for the holiday season and for the coming year.
Don James 23rd December 2012
WHY TONAL REALISM
As a student at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in the early 1960’s my interest in painting was enhanced by the influence of a lecturer whose sessions you would try to attend in the mornings, because afternoons were a dead loss after his long lunches at the Oxford Hotel. I could not classify him as passionate but he was a member of the local ‘Contemporary’ artists’ society and encouraged us all to go and look at all sorts of work and to experiment with various materials for gouache to collage.
When I look back on that time some of the subject matter that we were set seems a little naf but it was the beginning of my life as a voyeur as something was stimulated which made me want to look, not just at things but how they were constructed visually. My regular readers will know of my tendency to use musical metaphors and I will use another one to explain.
Most people listen to music of varying types, from the earliest to the latest manifestation of that wonderful art, never wishing to know how the music is constructed. In the 1960’s I like many of my contemporaries wanted to play guitar in a band. Not all of us just because we wanted to play the music but for what were considered the side benefits of being a ‘Rock God’. A number of these aspiring musos were actually interested enough to learn or even teach themselves to play an instrument and a very small number wished to attain the skill of an Eric Clapton or a Keith Richards.
On reading about these two musicians it is obvious that they put in the hard work required to become as proficient as they are because of interest in the structure of the music. This interest in both cases was stimulated at an early age and whilst both may have some special physical talents the major component of their ultimate skill would have been from listening, practicing and playing.
During my time as a student I was invited to visit the National Gallery School in Melbourne where I found myself alone in one of the great studios and first experienced a sense of euphoria from a combination of light and an atmosphere filled with the aroma of gum turpentine, oil paint and linseed oil.
Soon afterwards I left RMIT and commenced working at a ‘normal’ job, realizing that Architecture was not for me, and my experience of that day at the Gallery school was pushed to the back of my mind for a time.
For the next decade I worked variously as a draftsman and studied at night school graduating to the position of design engineer but my desire to paint remained, so I continued to read and do some painting. My main area of interest had been Cubism, particularly the work of Georges Braque and the early cubist portraits of Pablo Picasso. I also developed an interest in the work of Diego Velasquez and Eduoard Manet and encouraged by my wife decided to take some lessons in oil painting.
A friend of my brother suggested that I contact the Victorian Artists’ Society, and soon commenced Friday evening classes with Ms Shirley Bourne, who coincidentally had been a student and studio assistant to the head of the painting school at the National Gallery School mentioned before.
Her training had been in traditional painting and drawing and followed methods used by painters such as Velasquez. What she taught at the VAS was called Tonal Realist Painting
Max Meldrum had developed a method of teaching this craft in the early part of the 20th century, and I managed to borrow a copy of his book The Science of Appearances from our local library. I don’t think Shirley was terribly pleased to know that I was referring to this book while she was teaching me as she was not a great fan of Mr Meldrum but I found it very helpful as I recognized a similarity between the methods outlined in the book with some of the tenets of Cubism which helped me across the divide between seeing like a normal human and seeing as a realist painter must.
It was the crystallization of this connection and Shirley’s and later Alan Martin’s excellent teaching that made me realize that the tonal realist method of painting was for me and I have continued to paint, teach and learn since that time.
23rd September 2012
What Is It? (TONAL REALIST PAINTING EXPLAINED)
As a teacher and exponent of tonal oil painting a question that I am constantly asked it ‘What is tonal painting?’
The term is a difficult one to define but I will attempt to in an understandable manner.
No matter what I write it will always draw an argument but all that I can say is that this is the way that I was taught to paint and it forms the basis of my painting and teaching work.
It is a fact that all realist oil painters use tonal values as a key factor in their work.
In reality there are three dimensions, height, width and depth.
A realist oil painter, painting from life is faced with representing these three dimensions on a two dimensional surface using only tones shapes and colours.
The representation of height and width on a canvas is quite easy. Depth is another matter.
Over the years I have heard of many methods employed by painters to represent depth or the third dimension and they invariably involve some form of contrivance such as the variation of focus. I find this to be most unsatisfactory and in fact a move away from reality rather than towards it.
If one needs proof of this one needs only to look at the work of some of the great still life painters such as Henri Fantin Latour (www.henri-fantin-latour.org) or even Caravaggio.
Max Meldrum posited that the major component used by the painter to represent depth is tone.
I have written elsewhere about the subject of contrivance in realist painting and will probably do so again.
I like to say that tone is the third dimension.
When Meldrum returned from his first sojourn in France he appears to have been profoundly affected by the paintings of the likes of Rembrandt and Velasquez. After having studied at the Gallery School in Melbourne with its emphasis on drawing and the use of drawing in the preparation of a painting I think he realized that this method was cumbersome and unnecessary.
He saw in the works of these painters what he considered to be a better way of painting and set about developing a method of articulating it to others.
If we consider what drawing is we may gain a better understanding of tonal painting. Most people regard drawing basically as the use of outlines to create an image.
The craft of drawing is a wonderful skill to develop as evidenced by the drawings of such artists as Leonardo da Vinci and John Singer Sargent and whilst they represent a form of reality, in truth outlines do not exist. One will notice that in Sargents drawings he also uses tone to great advantage. Meldrum is supposed to have said that there are no lines in nature and for the realist painter this should be obvious.
If we suppose this to be true then the oil painter working from life has only a set of planes to observe and repeat on his canvas and they need to relate correctly to each other in tone, form or shape and colour.
Of these three elements the least important is colour, hence if we produce a painting in which the elements of tone and form relate correctly it will be perfectly readable like a monochrome film or photograph.
As I see it the degree of importance between tone and form in a picture is a close run thing but for Meldrum form was easy. After all he had won the drawing prize at the Gallery School in his first year as a student but his discovery of the key importance of tonal relativity was to govern the rest of his painting and teaching life.
This shows to me that the practice of drawing is important to the painter to help develop the skills in measuring and relating shapes but one must bear in mind that line drawing has no place in tonal realist painting.
Working on his developing theories Meldrum formulated a method of mixing puddles of paint on the palette and measuring accurately by use of the eye, the relative differences of tone that he saw within the subject.
Hence the term tonal painting
As Alan Martin always said “Oil painting is easy. All you have to do is mix up the right tone, in the right colour, put it on in the right place and control the edges.”
19th October 2011
As I approach the age of 70 I find that I appear to be one of very few painters who wholeheartedly embrace the teachings of Max Meldrum, that crusty aggressive promoter of the methods he developed in the late 19th, early 20th century in Australia and France. This concerns me in a couple of ways. Not just the ‘everybody is crazy except me and thee and I am concerned about the thee’ problem, but also that I truly believe that a really effective way of teaching the art of realist oil painting may be lost or merely consigned to the pages of books, becoming a mere curiosity to be discussed by historians and theorists.
Generations come and go with worrying speed and I belong to the last which had direct contact with those who learned at the feet of the master.
During his lifetime Meldrum was already a curiosity within the art world, and two decades before he died he was considered old fashioned. Of course his political and social views, which he was not afraid to publicly espouse, were radical in his day and he alienated many in the community with his support of the likes of Egon Kitsch, a Czechoslovakian communist who was subject to an exclusion order by the Australian Government in 1934. The order was finally lifted after a court challenge and it was found that Scots Gaelic was not a suitable European language for a dictation test.
A lifelong atheist, a creed that he is said to have ‘embraced with a Calvinistic zeal, Meldrum characterized himself as a 4th generation free thinker although many thought that his conservative ideas about art were somewhat restrictive.
Politics is a difficult subject to discuss, but in the area of art and painting in particular, I believe that Meldrum was seriously misunderstood. His magnum opus, “The Science of Appearances” appears to be dry an humourless and is certainly written in language which seems unfamiliar to us today, it is not a book to casually read but a handbook filled with the most valuable advice for the serious student of oil painting. My first readings of a copy, borrowed from the local library, ultimately concentrated on the lesson notes, small statements or quotes on many of the pages which to me, even today, are the essence of the book. The balance of the book is like a manual for the painter, to be used as a reference resource from time to time.
Mention of these lesson notes brings me to Alan Martin, my most direct connection to Max Meldrum. Alan started as a student of painting with Meldrum in 1938 at the age of fifteen, and remained with him for the next 15 years. According to Alan, on meeting his teacher for the first time and expressing his desire to be a painter, Meldrum told him that needed to have a job to support him in his studies and early years, and arranged for Alan to work with John Heath a Melbourne dentist, as a dental mechanic. This position not only enabled him to attend classes but also gave him the skills for one of his enduring sidelines, that of mould making and casting. Some of the molds made by Alan and copies of others are still in use in the making of plaster casts for the use of artists and students. Alan also told me that he had written down comments made by Meldrum during the classes and that these became to basis of the lesson notes in “The Science of Appearances”. He studied design at the Working Men’s College, now RMIT University, and later with Sir William Dargie at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. I guess that it was here that he met Shirley Bourne, who was William Dargie’s student and ultimately his studio assistant, and they remained friends until Alan’s untimely death at the age of 65 years. Both of these painters were my teachers, Shirley from 1972 to 1980 and Alan in the early 1980’s.
I cannot remember being enamoured of art as a child but quite early I developed an interest in the way that things looked. This interest led me to choose Architecture as a course of study and I attended RMIT in 1962. My dislike and inabilities in the areas of mathematics and physics, coupled with my discovery of painting via graphic arts subjects, put paid to a career in architecture. My favourite class was with a sometimes ‘well refreshed’ lecturer. This entailed some drawing from life and the use of mixed media and Ron turned me on to the Cubist Movement, especially the work of Georges Braque. For the next decade I dabbled at home, read books and in 1972 I wound up in Shirley Bourne’s oil painting classes at the Victorian Artists’ Society. This was my first experience of so called ‘tonal’ painting and after a few initial doubts, I was hooked.
At this time, 1972, there were few of Meldrum’s generation around although I did not meet many of them. William ‘Jock’ Frater was one as he was still the president of the Vic Arts at the time and was often to be seen with his shock of white hair stalking the galleries. Although he had been an exhibiting member of the Belmont Group which formed around Meldrum, he had moved on to embrace Post Modernism and the likes of Cezanne and Van Gogh. By this stage he could not be said to be an admirer of Meldrum. Also around this time a group of young painters had formed under the guidance of Alan Martin. They called themselves The Seven Painters and one, Angela Abbott, had been a student with me at Shirley Bourne’s classes.
Shirley spoke often of Alan Martin with great affection. They had painted each other for the Archibald Prize and Shirley shared with Alan’s wife Lesly, a passion for puzzles and brainteasers.
Although they were good friends, Alan and Shirley had many different ideas about art and definitely about politics. I think much of it came from their relationship to Meldrum, as whilst Alan worshipped him, to mention the ‘M’ word in Shirley’s hearing was to incur the wrath.
Alan of course had direct contact with Meldrum over many years, first as a student and then as a friend. Alan showed a deep antagonism towards Sir William Dargie, Shirley’s mentor even though they came from the same stable, so to speak. Dargie was first and foremost a successful painter of the rich and famous of Australia as well as painting Queen Elizabeth the 2nd and Prince Philip. He studied under Archibald Colquhoun who in turn was a student of Meldrum. Shirley was also a very successful portrait painter painting many local dignitaries as well as in the U.K. Alan, on the other hand, although painting a number of great portraits both commissioned and otherwise, is probably best known for his landscapes and still life work, as well as his teaching.
To me both were a great and good influence on me, as a painter and a person.
Shirley was ever the perfectionist. ‘A painting is only as good as its worst part Dearie’. After a scrub in, one could not approach the canvas until all of the necessary tones were mixed and checked.
Alan, whilst stressing the need for tonal accuracy took a far more relaxed approach, and of course there was always the sainted Lesly in the background boiling the kettle, cutting up the fruitcake and organizing this and the next run of classes.
Shirley never demonstrated to her students, in fact she rarely would touch a student’s canvas except to ‘lose’ a few edges with her thumb, but Alan would take up the brush at the drop of a hat whether to paint a demonstration landscape or to show the individual student a particular technique.
Whilst I can say nothing against Shirley’s methods, I think that witnessing her painting of a demonstration portrait of my wife in 1976 crystallized much of what she had taught me in the previous 4 years.
During my early painting years I received great assistance and advice from many painters. Within the circles that I have inhabited most people are very generous. An instance of this was my first meeting with Alan Martin.
This occurred after Shirley, from whom I was learning at night, suggested that I try landscape painting and so I ventured out and found Wingrove Park at Eltham. As it turned out this was an old haunt of Meldrum’s and many of his iconic ‘Gum Tree’ paintings were painted there. This particular day I arrived, unpacked my gear and walked into the park. I had noticed a group of women gathered in the centre of the park and I decided to keep to myself and turned towards the creek when I woman called to me from a picnic table and I approached her. She was the fabled Lesly Martin, Alan’s wife and she was tending a gas heated urn and laying out her famous fruit cake for the student’s morning tea. She had noticed that I was carrying an easel and when she found that I was a student of Shirley’s told me to go and watch Alan as he was painting a demonstration. I tentatively wandered across the park and stood on the outside of a circle of admiring women watching this surprisingly small man with a bushy black beard as he painted an talked explaining about tonal values and relationships.
He seemed to finish the picture in no time at all and, on seeing me asked if I wished to join them for the day, which I did and enjoyed both the teaching which Alan generously provided and the morning and afternoon tea. A confirmed fan of both Lesly and Alan I ultimately joined his portrait workshops at both Montsalvat and his Park Road studio for several years.
My memories of the years studying with both Shirley and Alan are mostly happy ones and certainly these years were most productive. I still carry with me the memory of their mostly gentle but always generous ministrations and attempt to convey these feelings to my own students.
I have a vivid recollection of a very early sojourn into landscape painting at Kangaroo Ground. Being somewhat inexperienced I attempted to find a spot away from prying eyes and I drove into the driveway of the local Country Fire Authority station along the road to St Andrews and selected what I thought to be an interesting subject. Having set up my easel and canvas and prepared my palette I was about to put brush to canvas when a small red van swung into the drive behind me. Out jumped a woman with flaming red hair and I recognized her as a member of the Seven Painters group that I mentioned previously. Knowing her brilliant work I was rather pleased that I had not placed any marks down at that point that I would be ashamed of and without introduction she asked what I was about to paint. With some confidence I pointed down the valley at the windmill and dam with the homestead close by and further up the hill the stand of gum trees and the track and main road. I also liked the
mountains in the distance and the wonderful clouds in the sky.
She stood and looked for a moment and said, ‘Too complicated for me’, turned on her heel and left.
It was a mark of my inexperience that I stayed and tried to paint the same subject and failed dismally but I immediately recognized what Alan Martin was saying when in the first lesson he outlined ‘the kiss principle’ or ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’.
A FUNERAL CAN CONCENTRATE THE MIND WONDERFULLY
STUDIOS AND THINGS REMEMBERED
I have great regret that I did not question my ancestors more closely about their early experiences. Having been lucky enough to have three Grandparents until I was into my twenties I had at my disposal a treasury of family history which I ignored and my ignorance has forced me to search the records online for snippets of information that were mine for the asking. Of course this is a common fault of youth, the belief that we will always be here.
The same applies to my ancestors in the world of painting. Thankfully there are still a couple of them around and I did manage to garner some history from my teachers, in particular Alan and Lesly Martin.
My association with Montsalvat Artists’ Colony has and continues to be a great resource. On Wednesday last I attended the funeral of Matcham Skipper, one of the original residents of Montsalvat. It was a wonderful celebration of his life and a confirmation for me of the correctness of the ideals framed by Justus Jorgensen all those years ago.
The following information is taken from the excellent book by Peter and John Perry, Max Meldrum and Associates, Their Art, Lives and Influences.
Jorgensen was born in 1893 in Victoria. His father was a Norwegian Sea captain and became articled as an architect in 1907. From 1915 to 1917 he studied at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. After hearing a public lecture by Max Meldrum he left the gallery school and joined Meldrum’s class later becoming an assistant in Meldrum’s studio.
He travelled to Europe in 1924 with A.D.Colquhuon and met Colin Colahan in Paris. He had two paintings accepted for the Paris Salon and received favourable comment from the critics.
In 1935 we find Jorgensen establishing the now famous artists’ colony Montsalvat at Eltham an outer suburb of Melbourne, putting his architectural and building skills into practice. A number of the buildings in the five hectare block are reminiscent of a French provincial village and constructed in stone and pise’-de-terre using mostly re-cycled materials.
It is here that Matcham Skipper, already a follower of Jorgensen finds his home of the next 77 years. He once told me of his early years as a painting at student in Jorgensen’s Melbourne studio. It sounded to me that his experiences were much like those of students or apprentice artists in the 16th and 17th centuries, starting as a general ‘dog’s-body’ making the tea, sweeping the studio and graduating slowly to preparation of painting surfaces and finally to the easel.
Although Matcham became an extremely competent painter this art form was not to be his first love, as he became a sculptor and silversmith inventing methods of casting along the way. One could say that he was a true artist in the best sense of the word. Imagine a very active and inquisitive 13 year old being let loose on five hectares of bush-land and helping Jorgensen and a group of artists and artisans build a village from the ground up.
The sourcing and use of recycled materials becomes a way of life.
My first encounter with Matcham was around 1983 when I visited Montsalvat to see if I could bring a group of students to paint there as a summer school.
I paid my entry fee to Lesley Sinclair and walked towards the Great Hall on a fine spring morning and as I passed Matcham’s house I spotted him and a couple of friends relaxing on the lawn. I said good morning to them and Matcham with his trademark grin asked me what I was doing.
When I told him that I was a painter and wanted to bring students to Montsalvat to paint his mood changed from on of amused aggression to genuine interest. Asking of my painting origins and other details he outlined that fact that he had learned painting from Jorgensen but that he had taken up sculpture and enjoyed the extra challenge of working in three dimensions, a theme that he constantly reiterated on his visits to the various studios that I occupied from the early 1990’s. “Oh you painters have it too bloody easy.”
He was a great resource. Even if his take on history was a little romantic that only made his dissertations more interesting.
At the time of this first meeting he was obviously in conflict with his nephew Sigmund Jorgensen who was trying as always to keep the place viable and said that he was pleased that I wasn’t somebody looking to turn the place into a circus where the artists would have to strip naked and run around with peacock feathers stuck up their backsides. Matcham was not backward in expressing his opinions forcibly.
In the early 1990’s I was contacted by David Moore, a painter who had belonged to the previously mentioned Seven Painters group with the view of sharing a studio in Brunswick. Regrettably I was not able to take up his offer at the time but in 1992 he rang again with the view to sharing the ‘Boat Studio’ at Montsalvat. At the time my home studio was not available to me as we were having alterations done to the house, including a new studio so I jumped at the chance to share this wonderful space which had been Justus Jorgensen’s last studio and living space before he died in 1975.
I had also attended Alan Martin’s portrait painting workshops there during the 1980’s and so was familiar with the space. I would rank the atmoshere of this studio with the studios of the Victorian Artists’ Society’s and the old National Gallery School.
Of course as with almost all painting spaces it had its shortcomings but it was a unique space with its rammed earth floor, low sloping corrugated iron roof and heavy beams. The centerpiece was a great fire place and chimney at one end which now make up part of the Barn Gallery. Justus’ four poster bed stood on one side not far from his bluestone shower, cold water only and along both long walls was a veritable treasure trove of books, ceramics and file cases full of drawings and such. Lighting was by means of bare electric light bulbs and the area was part of a large building built mainly of timber and brick. The impressive timber doors on the central section which had been built to house a wooden hulled boat, about 18 meters in length had been salvaged from Wilson Hall at Melbourne University after a disastrous fire.
What this studio lacked in comfort it more than made up with atmosphere.
I had been in impressive studios before including the marvelous rooms at the old National Gallery School in Melbourne during the early 1960’s but this room was definitely one of my favourites.
Here I must make mention of another purpose built studio, that of Alan Martin in which i worked for a number of years from the onset of Alan’s last illness until I moved to Montsalvat. I taught there for a time taking his portrait class when he fell ill and finally sharing the studio with John Wakefield and Angela Abbott where we painted from the figure doing life work and portraits.
The room was very large with a soaring roof and ‘sawtooth’ windows facing south so the light was spectacular. There was also a 500watt lamp mounted on a flagpole for night work. The walls were lined with hessian and covered with paintings by Alan and a few Meldrums. Very inspirational. It was heated with a “pot belly’ stove in which Lesly quite often burned gum leaves and wood imparting a complex scent when combined with the linseed oil, paint and gum turpentine, the latter being one of the scents that i clearly remember from the National Gallery and Victorian Artists’ Society studios where I took lessons for most of the 1970’s.
Alan’s piano was in the upper level as well as his incredible collection of audio tapes of both jazz and classical music. He had organised these into a logical order, catalogued at to composer and performer.
To work in this studio late at night to the strains of J.S.Bach played by Andres Segovia was a great experience for me.
The major difference between the VAS and other studios mentioned was that a student was required to paint the same subject there whereas in the others each student had their own subject except during figure and portrait work. This allowed students to paint ‘sight size’ rather than having to proportionally measure.
If I had a wish it would be to work in Justus Jorgensen’s original studio located at the rear of the Great Hall at Montsalvat. This stone building with its high ceiling and wonderful south light is my idea of heaven and I often go there and sit, soak up the atmosphere and dream.
23rd April 2011
HISTORY LOST TO VANDALISM
It is Good Friday today and I am in the studio listening to some of my favourite music, nothing to complex. A bit of Neil Young, some Lynryd Skynrd and Eric Clapton after varnishing a couple of pictures that I have completed recently. Currently I am not teaching, it being a term break which gives me time to attend medical appointments and ‘do my own thing’.
Autumn is a beautiful time in Melbourne. The trees colour up and drop their leaves. The weather is usually calm and fine with mild temperatures although this year we have been having record rainfall. During this break I have spent a good deal of time at Montsalvat painting in the studio and doing some necessary maintenance on some of our easels which we purchased in 1996 after losing all of our equipment in the fire which engulfed the Barn and Justus Jorgensen’s previously mentioned Boat Studio which we were using at the time. The fire was deliberately lit after an unsuccessful attempt to set fire to the Great Hall. Everything in the studio was lost. Sixty years or more of accumulated treasures including books, paintings, Justus’s four-poster bed and accompanying drapes, still life equipment, plaster casts, easels and tables.
Next door to the studio was a massive workshop with the original overhead pulleys and shafts for a central belt-driven machinery drive system and all of the tools and benching required for the maintenance and restoration which was and is still required on a set of buildings like Montsalvat.
Then barn also housed a wooden hulled boat which had apparently been bought by Justus after the Second World War for restoration and ultimately for use as a floating studio. Although I never measured the boat the building into which it neatly fitted was, I guess around 15-20m long and when one entered the workshop the deck appeared to be around 3-4m above the ground.
It had been used as storage for excess furniture including such esoteric items as a full set of the Stations of the Cross.
Some time before the fire many of these items had been shifted into our studio as the boat was finally undergoing restoration with the view to launching it. The work was almost complete by the time of the fire and when I visited on the day after the fire to view the smouldering damage, all that was left of it were the metal tanks, the charred engine, drive shaft and the bronze propeller which had melted into some eerie abstract sculpture. The keel timber was still burning but little else was recognizable.
From the studio we managed to salvage a charred enamel jug and a couple of blackened ginger jars.
The only part of the building that was left was ironically the great fireplace and chimney which was in the studio and today forms part of the Barn Gallery.
Since that terrible day we have had to move studios three times but have been settled for the last few years in the White Cottage Studio which was for many years the home and studio of longtime Montsalvat resident Lesley Sinclair.
The house was completely restored or almost rebuilt but remains a timber cottage with lath and plaster walls. The original studio is basically intact with the addition of an extra room which was I think a sitting room when Lesley was alive. We are lucky as well to have the use of a bathroom and a kitchen
And although the working space is relatively small, it retains a real atmosphere which is inspirational to me and to the students who attend my classes.
A photo of Lesley hangs above the fireplace and the connection with the original members of the ‘Montsalvat family’ makes not only this studio but the whole property a very special place to be and to be part of.
I consider myself very fortunate to have been a part of this colony for so long and hope top remain there for many years to come.
8th May 2011
LOVE, ART, FOOD, ARCHITECTURE AND OTHER IMPORTANT THINGS.
CONTEXT-The great tonal painter and teacher Ron Crawford one said to me “ Paintings always look best hanging amongst their friends” after I had complimented him on a solo exhibition at the Victorian Artists’ Society Galleries.
What I took him to mean was that context was important in the viewing of paintings as it is in many other things in life.
In the 1970’s I remember an Archibald Prize show that I attended, the first and last, in which an awful, messy painting had won the prize and to my eye the best painting was a relatively small work by Sir William Dargie portraying a man in a grey suit. I guessed that this was a commissioned work for a business or for the sitter but of course it was from life and beautifully painted.
One may say to me, a descendant in painting terms of Sir William that of course it would be my favourite and they would be right but the painting was completely lost among the highly coloured monster paintings of various styles from photo realist to unclassifiable mess. Here Ron’s words ring true but we now have to deal with another subject and that is taste.
TASTE- in art is a subject which is often in my mind. As a painter I suppose that every time I paint a picture I am exercising my own artistic taste buds.
Some painters try to second-guess the taste of the art buying public when they paint or paint to the market. An admirable thing to do but something that I haven’t tried.
Once, Many years ago I was selling reasonably well at a country gallery both in the gallery and from commission work and the owner said to me “why don’t you paint a few rusty sheds with broken wagon wheels in shades of brown?”
This was a very popular genre at the time and I had to tell that I didn’t know how to and even if I did, I didn’t want to.
I have no Idea where this need to be artistically independent sprang from. My parents were both business people relying on the public for patronage living the maxim that the customer is always right but their influence in this matter had no effect on me.
It should be apparent from my work that I am not a rebel but I love the idea of crafting a picture using the elements that are available to me in my chosen medium and achieving a level of satisfaction. Of course I am thrilled when someone chooses to buy a painting.
I suppose that I am exercising my taste when I paint and the buyer is doing the same when they make a purchase. Occasionally a nice conjunction!
This morning I drove through one of the leafy eastern suburbs in Melbourne.
I was shocked at the amount of new houses being constructed in this well settled suburb which to my mind had mostly substantial house sitting among established gardens. A pleasant place to live no longer I am afraid.
The area that I saw was now replete with what I can only describe as monstrosities in brown brick and render with Roman columns supporting verandas over doorways that would suit a medieval castle. Of course most had mansard rooves with no eaves therefore requiring air conditioning.
Many of them are of exactly the same design and may well be being built on spec by a developer but I guess that if this is the case the developer is guessing the taste of the house buying public.
All that I can say is that apart from their obvious unsuitability for our climate, they are not to my taste and whilst some of the older houses are still in place, they are out of context.
Food, one of my other passions can also be discussed in this paper both from the point of view of taste and context.
I remember having a meal at a very fashionable restaurant some years ago and on the menu was an entrée of scallops and liquorice. On first reading I felt that this dish failed my test on both counts. I thought that the two ingredients together would not taste nice and as one was a shellfish and the other a confection, probably failed the context test
How wrong I was. I stepped outside my comfort zone and had it. It was delicious and I would not hesitate in having it again.
I don’t know where context comes into love but I feel that taste certainly does.
How does one explain physical attraction? I won’t even try but this morning I read an article in the Age, one of three major daily newspapers in Melbourne
about researchers showing people works of art whilst monitoring blood flow to the brain with using an MRI scanner.
They found that seeing certain great works of art also stimulated the areas of the brain that were stimulated by seeing a loved one. Of course these areas may also be similarly affected by seeing a pet dog but the connection between attraction to a loved one and certain paintings probably goes largely to taste.
Why are we attracted to another human being? We have been told that it has a genetic component to do with preservation of the species which is logical,
but our taste in this area is quite not the same as some of our friends or family members.
I would have to say that I have never had that terrible-wonderful feeling in the pit of my stomach that means love whilst viewing a painting but I can recall a similar feeling when looking at the original of a Rembrandt Self Portrait as a Young Man painted in 1628 both at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and more particularly in Melbourne more recently when it was on loan as part of a larger show of European Masters. Like with true love, in the intervening thirty years I had remained true.
LIKE OLD TIMES
Recently I was asked to contribute to a fund raising event for the Victorian Artists’ Society, an organisation that has been close to my heart for some 30 years as readers of this blog will be aware.
It is a yearly event in which I have taken part a couple of times before and takes the form of a number of portrait demonstrations over a weekend at the society’s premises in Melbourne. It is called People Painting People and takes the form of five prominent people, usually from business or the arts, each sitting for four painters on each of the two days.
Two of these sessions take place in each of the two upstairs galleries and one was staged this year, in the society’s historic studio. I was fortunate enough to be working in the studio with three of my fellow members painting a gentleman who had been the veterinary surgeon at Melbourne’s famous Flemington Racecourse where he had attended to sixteen Melbourne Cup winners.
Whilst I find doing any such demonstrations stressful to say the least, they can be made easier if the sitter is cooperative and ‘gets into the spirit’ of the occasion, as this gentleman did.
Due to some bouts of illness in the last few years I have not demonstrated for some time and it had been more than twenty years since I had worked in the studio in which I had spent the formative years of my painting life under the gentle care of Ms Shirley Bourne has not changed. It even smells like it used to with that heady mix of linseed oil, gum turpentine and oil paint. Of course this time there were many pairs of beady eyes keeping watch as it is a public event and, I am told that several hundred people attended over the two days.
What is most interesting to me about this room is that it once formed part of the original Victorian Artists’ Society building which was constructed in 1873.
The thought that the original members of the society as well as the likes of Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder as well as the many great artist members since had used these rooms has always filled me with awe and it was with pride that as a councillor I showed the studio to the Deputy Governor of Victoria, Lady Southey during a visit and she commented on the historical importance of the place.
I remember reading Lloyd Rees’s autobiography Peaks and Valleys some years ago and his description of what could be called the anglo-australian’s dreaming as it compares with the Australian aboriginal’s dreaming.
He hypothesised that ours was not here in this country but in Europe and more particularly Britain.
My feeling is that he was right but that places like the studio in question are going a long way to transferring our dreaming to this country.
Don James 2nd August 2011.
EVEN RICHARD NIXON HAS GOT SOUL (‘CAMPAIGNER – NEIL YOUNG)
Scene: Driving from Lakes Entrance to Merimbula via the Snowy River Valley.
I start to consider what I think is wrong with much of painting today.
Last night my wife and I watched an excellent ABC documentary entitled Mrs Carey’s Concert, about a spectacular musical concert presented by the Methodist Ladies’ College in Sydney at the magnificent Sydney Opera House.
I am old enough to remember clearly the controversy during the construction of this great building and the early departure of its architect the Dane Jan Utzon. It was always going to be a difficult build as most of the ideas were still in Utzon’s head rather than on paper at the commencement and the client was a very conservative state government more used to the building of public toilets and office blocks at the time, it being the early 1960’s.
We had gone to Sydney by ship in 1966 and it had docked at Circular Quay and provided us with an uninterrupted view of the work in progress. The great component parts of the shell structures that form the roof were being hauled into place and even then it was obvious that this was to be one of the world’s great buildings.
It was an experimental building and many of the processes were being worked out as it took shape but finally it became to much and the
conservative government and the inspired architect parted ways with Utzon never to return.
Whether the building would have been better if this had not happened exercises the minds of architects to this day but I have often thought that without Utzon to guide the rest of the work, mainly on the interior that the Opera House may lack some quality. The interior has had to be heavily modified in the intervening years to improve its acoustics. But without its creator maybe its soul has been diminished.
Which brings me to painting, a subject about which I know more than I do about architecture.
I spend a great deal of time looking at what hangs on the walls of galleries, public buildings, private homes and at the moment holiday apartments because we are travelling. As I sit typing this in an apartment in Merimbula on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales I have two views of the sea.
One straight ahead over the oyster beds towards the Pacific Ocean albeit with a series of rather ordinary apartments facing the other side of the bay but if I turn my head to the left I have a view of crashing emerald waves on to reddish golden rocky cliffs. It is all happening, the crashing waves, the light from the setting, or is it rising sun on the rocks and trees, the eddying pools in the foreground and the high horizon line, I guess 1/3rd down from the top edge of a rather cheap commercial frame. The work has been signed of course in the bottom left hand corner in what annoyingly looks like Naples Yellow.
You can guess which view I prefer.
Many painters have a passion for painting, an admirable quality to be sure. Many jazz or rock musicians have a passion for their music but they express that passion by making a lot of noise i.e. passion equals loud. In my short and uneventful life as a musician I met a number of drummers who were of this ilk.
Lovely guys who were passionate enough to cart their drum kits to the gig but once set up played so loud and so long that the other musicians, a guitarist, a bassist and myself on piano could not get a look in.
In the area of music that interests me most, jazz and blues, much is made of the quality of soul. Think of Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Muddy Waters and even Jimmi Hendrix. Their music runs the gamut of loud and soft, fast and slow even warm and cool. It provides variety and interest for the listener.
They do, to a degree the same as the great classical composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and even Mahler did. That is, draw you into their musical world by providing the above qualities as well as an air of mystery which leaves you wanting more.
Mrs Carey, in her efforts to get the best out of her charges for the Opera House concert talked of the emotional connection between the player and the music to be played which had to be conveyed in turn to the audience and she succeeded. The playing of the pieces by Ravel, Vaughan-Williams and Bruck in particular showed a passion and maturity beyond the years of these young players and the soul of the music was evident, hence the opening quotation.
To my mind painting should be like this. Not blatant, in your face, all explained.
The great painters to me are Rembrandt, Velasquez, Singer Sargent as well as the likes of Clarice Beckett or Archibald Colquhuon and John Farmer of our own tonal school. My teacher Shirley Bourne had the same quality and I think it comes from having not only a passion for painting but also an almost undefinable connection with the subject. Not just a desire to produce a picture but a deep love of nature and how light falls on and illuminates things so as to present the painter with an exciting set of shapes to place on the canvas.
22nd September 2011
I have just finished a painting from a point overlooking Bar Beach and as I was painting I clearly heard Alan Martin saying in his inimitable fashion whilst demonstrating at Wilson’s Promontory,
“…remember that a landscape is only a set of horizontal shapes with a few vertical disturbances.”
I have been following that advice for many years now and it rarely lets me down. It sums up perfectly for me the simplicity of the so-called tonal method developed by Max Meldrum whereby one can represent nature in all its glory with a simple set of shapes that interests and sometimes excites the viewer.
Not for me the laboured overworked canvasses that I so often see. Great painting should obey the ‘kiss principle’. For those who don’t know,
Keep It Simple Stupid.
19th September 2011
Happy Birthday Jean Emilie
My mother, had she lived would have been 100 by now and the New Year has me thinking of her and her attitude to my artistic leanings which I think started in the 1950’s.
She was very supportive in this area just as she had been with my brother’s musical leanings, arranging for him to have lessons which he then continued for many years becoming an excellent pianist and teacher.
As to my musical ‘talents’ she also got me learning the piano at the age of eight. Of course I hated having to practice and go to lessons and at that time, was not at all interested in playing music although I enjoyed listening.
I continued reluctantly to learn finally giving lessons up at around the age of 16. My teachers had patiently attempted to teach me to read music and to play but I continued to play by ear rather than take notice of the notes on the page and so never gained the facility to think in the language of music.
In the late 1950’s music came to mean more to me with the arrival of Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley, playing what some thought of, in those days as the Devil’s music. I was very quickly hooked and quickly expanded my taste to include all of the music which incessantly blared from the Pop radio stations on my transistor radio, which went everywhere with me.
By the early 1960’s, especially when I began attending the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology I of course wanted to fit in and quickly developed a taste for Jazz which I still have to this day.
My musical taste extends now from Miles Davis to Mahler and still includes Blues and Rock.
In the early 1960’s my painting was mainly abstract and I loved, and still love the cubist painters, particularly Georges Braque. My mother would not let me destroy any of my dabblings, most of which were very ordinary and I occasionally took her to exhibitions. Her usual comment was something like ‘that’s nice love. What does it mean?’ This was before the current fashion of Artists’ Statements. The work may or may not have a title and if it did it would be something like Quantum Leap No 2.
I never pretended to have any more insight into the meaning of an abstract piece than my mother but I don’t think she ever understood that the meaning didn’t matter. When she saw a painting it needed to tell a story much like the genre paintings that the candidates for the Melbourne Gallery School had to submit for the travelling scholarship in the late 19th century.
Why I became a tonal realist painter I will leave for another day but I have always regretted not having learned better the language of music especially as I now am trying to teach myself the guitar and much of this task requires that facility.
I am pleased, however that my painting teachers taught me the language of painting to the point where I can now think in that language which after all is the proper definition of fluency in any language.
Whether it is Rothko or Holbein I continue to enjoy looking and enjoying the tones, shapes and colours that make up many paintings.
The painter needs to be something of a voyeur like the photographer, someone who uses his or her eyes to the full and plays with light.
It is the language of light that painters must become fluent in, be they realist or abstract. Unlike sculptors who have a plastic medium and work in three dimensions the painter must rely on a two dimensional surface to convey their ‘message’. The viewer’s eyesight is the only sense that can be used to receive that message and of course it is light which is the key.
To a tonal realist painter the lights and darks in a subject are paramount and give meaning to the picture. I like to think of tone as the third dimension in a picture.
Edouard Manet is quoted as saying ‘The principal person in a picture is light.’
8th January 2012
FIRED UP AGAIN
Canberra, that strange city in the middle of nowhere. It appears soulless on first arriving by road having had to drive many kilometres north before turning south and heading towards Mt Kosciusko. A government town placed inland between the two major cities on the coast of Australia, both vying for the honour of being the capital of the country.
Canberra was and is a compromise capital.
I first came here as a child to visit family who had settled in the early days of the city and found it fascinating. None of the billboards or gaudiness of Melbourne or Sydney, beautifully laid out much to Burley Griffin’s plan. Although in those days no lake, just the Molonglo river separating the parliamentary precinct from the city, the main part of which was called Civic and contained the shopping precinct. This in turn was surrounded on three sides by growing suburbs which included Ainslie where my relatives lived.
Returning in 2012 was something of a shock. The skeleton of what existed in the 1950’s is still visible. Civic is still recognisable because of its unique design in a sort of Spanish mission style with arched colonnades on all sides.
The War Memorial and the wonderful view from there to old and now new Parliament houses is still very moving, especially since the inclusion in 1963 of Lake Burley Griffin.
As for the rest, on the north of the lake there appears to be a spreading virus of higher rise buildings which I feel, are spoiling the human scale that the city once had. The Parliamentary precinct which now includes such places as the National Portrait Gallery, the High Court of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and of course both the old and new Parliament Houses more or less retains the human scale and still has its beautiful parklands.
We had driven north, not to study the architecture but to view the Renaissance exhibition which was a showing of paintings both in oil and tempera from the Italian city of Bergamo.
One has to adapt to the pace of a city such as Canberra. Having been requested to arrive 15 minutes prior to our booking time of 10.00 a.m. we drove up to the entry with time to spare only to find that the car park would not open until 9.45 a.m. Backing out of the driveway was a problem as a number of other patrons had lined up behind us. I guess that they were from Melbourne or Sydney as well.
Arriving finally at the forecourt near the entry to the gallery, we were serenaded by a baseball cap wearing violinist playing Vivaldi as the crowd milled around being calmed by some very laid back officials and when the doors opened the crowd entered in good order. We ignored the dreadful audio guide and entered the gallery to be fascinated by exquisite works by the likes of Bellini and Raphael.
Seeing the development of representational painting during the 15th and 16th centuries and the very early use of oil paint on both wood panel and canvas was fascinating and being Canberra we had the time and space to contemplate these works at our leisure.
We then paid a visit to the Australian section of the gallery where I was very interested to see some of the Heidelberg School paintings that I had not seen before and a couple of very good Hugh Ramsay pictures.
At the National War Memorial there were some paintings to see by teachers, old friends and acquaintances and as with Canberra much here has changed with sections becoming much more interactive making the dioramas that I remember look somewhat ordinary.
At new Parliament House, a building meant to impress and it does, the many portraits of past prime ministers range from the exquisite to the awful as portraits can be. I still feel that the high point in portrait painting in Australia has well and truly passed. I must put this down to the increasing use of photographs as references, preventing the painter from truly relating to the sitter and instead of gathering a collage of ocular facts over an extended period we get a slick representation of the subject.
At the National Portrait Gallery, one of Sir William Dargie’s many legacies to the country, things were much the same. The best of the paintings here were amazing. A brilliant painting of Max Meldrum by Graham Inson and paintings by Dargie and William McInnes impressed as well as a beautiful Robert Hannaford picture of Robert Dessaix, painted in 1998. Very inspiring.
Coming back to Melbourne we dropped off in Tangambalanga, on the N.S.W. Victorian border. This was a town from my childhood, associated with long hot summers, swimming in the Kiewa river, shooting rabbits amongst the wet yellow grass on cool summer mornings, catching yabbies and redfin in ponds and in the Hume reservoir.
These activities came long before I even thought of being a painter but visiting there on a lovely autumn morning with the mist rising from the mountains and that balmy perfume of dry grass, dust and a faint touch of diesel smoke I regretted that I did not have my paints and determined to return and try to get some of those wonderful colours and tones onto canvas.
In summary, lots of good pictures, a few great ones, a number of bad ones and an itchy painting hand that needs to be scratched. Oh, and a couple of extra kilos from some overindulgence at the table.
14th April 2012
THE CRAFT OF PAINTING
A few years ago I commenced reading the Spectator, a conservative British weekly which has been published since 1828.
When I commenced reading my political views were somewhat different to those expressed in the magazine but the book reviews and general articles were excellent and at the time their art critic was a gentleman named Giles Auty.
Unlike many of the critics during that period, he seemed to talk sense and if the Emperor was wearing no clothes he was quite happy to point this out.
After a time he came to Australia and became the art critic for the Australian newspaper, another conservative publication but his columns made the purchase worthwhile.
I was lucky enough to meet him at the Mornington Regional Gallery where we were both on the bill at the launch of a book about Max Meldrum and his associates, he speaking and I demonstrating the Meldrum method of painting.
He was a tall and distinguished looking man and very interesting and pleasant to talk to.
I still read the Spectator and since Mr Auty departed there have been a few columns I have enjoyed in particular one by Simon Hoggart who in the magazine dated 17th September quoted Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen speaking on the BBC4 program Hidden Paintings saying,
“…the art establishment hates works that are generally agreeable to the public unless they were painted centuries ago. Like babies denied mashed bananas we are moved on to broccoli and liver, whether we like it or not.”
The value judgement as to your preference between bananas and broccoli aside this comment questions the value of some paintings currently held and displayed in galleries around the world.
As readers will gather from my web site I am a resident artist at Montsalvat in Eltham, a leafy northern suburb of Melbourne. In a studio there I hold classes and paint surrounded by buildings constructed in French provincial style by various artists and craftspeople since 1935. Its founder Justus Jorgensen was born in 1893 and has become renowned for more for his rumoured dictatorial attitude to his students and friends rather than for his painting ability.
This is a shame as he has shown himself to have been an excellent painter in the true sense of the word but the taste for the sensational has tended to hide his skill both as a painter and a builder. Like his fellow painter Max Meldrum, he retained and promoted a conservative attitude to the craft of painting.
Meldrum’s abilities as a painter of great skill have also been clouded over the years by publicity and myth regarding his social and political views.
Originally known as an artists’ colony, Montsalvat has now become, among other things a place where the crafts of painting, sculpture, jewellery and musical instrument making are practiced at a high level. Long may it remain so!
Recently I was discussing this last point with a long term dedicated employee of Montsalvat and I was reminded of the importance of recognising the difference between what most people call art and, in my case the practice of the craft of painting.
The difference between our understanding of the terms Art and Craft has shifted in the last 100 or so years. As a conservative in these matters I can understand that some works, badly prepared, transient or experimental may be classed as art and to some may constitute craft of sorts, but I feel that a well crafted piece whether painting, sculpture, jewellery or even video or computer generated work will show out.
Having just recently seen works from the renaissance by Bellini and Raphael only confirms this to me as fact.
6th May 2012
A SCIENTIFIC INSTRUCTION ‘SUCK IT AND SEE’
When I was a child I remember my parents being regular patrons of a vaudeville theatre in Bourke Street Melbourne called the Tivoli. It had a reputation for what was then known as blue humour and bare breasted showgirls. In fact for many years my father had a black and white photograph hanging over the bar in his den, of a number of these girls on stage,
It is not about the girls that I wish to write, although they were of great interest to both my friends and me during our adolescent years.
Among the many comedians who worked at the Tivoli was one called Roy Rene. He was half of a double act known as Stiiffy and Mo, Mo being Rene’s stage persona Mo McCacky. He also was on the radio at a later time with skits called ‘McCacky Mansions which I was occasionally permitted to listen to. Mo had a couple of signature sayings. The best known I think would have been “Strike me lucky” but the one I remember most was “Suck it and see.”
Just lately this saying has come back to me during teaching and I have been thinking of or sometimes using it when helping students in the mixing of tones and colours.
In the early stages of learning to paint with oils, students are usually afraid of the medium due to their lack of experience as well as being constrained by previous learning generally from books. Many of these books and articles are proscriptive in that the authors quite often use terms like always or never do this or that. This I believe slows the learning process as the student becomes straitjacketed and will not try what they think may work in favour what they believe will work.
The most common of these problems it to do with the mixing of colours in two areas, so-called skin tones and colours perceived to be green. I am often asked at portrait demonstrations how I have mixed a particular skin tone and I answer that I do not know. Usually this is met with skepticism, the questioner believing that I am keeping a secret but I always offer to mix the tone again and allow them to watch. Of course I may not use the same colours as I used last time because my mixing is now call the Suck it and See method which operates as follows: –
I find the closest colour on my palette to the one which I want to mix and make a puddle using a suitable brush. (Large for a large area and small for a small area.) Then I ask myself a most important question.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH THAT?
Is it too dark or too light? (TONAL VALUE)
Is it too warm or too cool? (COLOUR VALUE)
Depending on the answers to these questions I select a colour to mix into my puddle which will push it in the right direction and after completely mixing the puddle ask myself that important question again. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THAT?
This process continues until the puddle is correct either of itself, if it is the first puddle or until it relates correctly to the other puddles on the palette.
Another point to remember about colour mixing is that if you are looking at an area in your subject which in life is monochrome, say a piece of yellow cloth and it is partially in shadow, the area in shadow will not merely be a darker tone of the lighter area. The colour value may be different (warmer or cooler) as well.
With a yellow cloth the darker area could range from orange or red/brown to green. This variation depends on a myriad of factors including the type of lighting, the type of material and its colour, none of which concern the objective painter.
If we see each area as a separate tone and colour and mix the puddle according to the above method we will approach the reality we seek.
We are not interested in the why only the visual what.
Probably the best-known example of this phenomenon is to be seen in the haystack paintings of Claude Monet. The striking colours he placed in the shadows are certainly not a darker version of the surrounding grass area but provide the viewer with a heightened sense of reality nonetheless.
Many people make the mistake of using white to lighten a puddle without considering whether the puddle needs to be warmer or cooler.
Remember, in general, to lighten a puddle you need only put something in it that is lighter than the puddle. In the case of a puddle of black this could be almost any colour including white. Cadmium red would make the puddle warmer whereas a blue would tend towards cool. White would not change the colour value only lighten the puddle.
An unnamed French painter is quoted in The Science Of Appearances as saying “It takes thirty years to learn to use white paint properly”. I agree.
This text is taken from my book, On Painting pub. 2006
Remember that each time you put some paint into a puddle to push it closer to what you want it is like adding salt to the soup cooking on the stove. One generally tries it to see how it is going and decides what to do next. Mixing paint is the same.
SUCK IT AND SEE
10th June 2012
WHAT IS REALITY?
For the past few years I have had some health problems that necessitated regular visits to a radiological clinic within a large public hospital. The hospital was originally built in 1941to treat veterans of the Australian Armed Services and handed over to the Victorian health system in 1995 becoming part of the Austin hospital campus. The buildings and the grounds are still reminiscent of the 1940’s with a few newer buildings around, one of which was this clinic.
The treatment which I underwent was stressful but made easier by the great kindness of the staff as well as the setting of the waiting area which was built around a low maintenance garden with bamboo and other dry climate plants. It may seem strange to say that it was almost a pleasure to visit but to sit in the waiting room with the light streaming in, even on dull days was not unpleasant and helped to allay much of the stress that all patients must feel.
This week I had my now annual visit but now to the shiny new Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre. I was rather excited by this prospect as I have watched this new building rise during the last few years and from the outside it looks an impressive edifice.
Having finally found my way to the reception area the very helpful receptionist showed me to the bright, clean comfortable waiting area. It is a room with no windows but tea and coffee making facilities, comfortable seating and glossy magazines. In place of the windows one wall featured a large three panel illuminated photograph of a beautiful but completely unpopulated beach.
I am sure that the selection of this photo was workshopped or the subject of long consultation and I suppose that it is better than nothing. Suffice it to say that it was bright and very colourful.
This brings me to a short discussion I had recently with another painter about what constitutes reality these days in painting.
Being a Tonal Realist painter I understand that my perception of visual reality will differ from that of the average person or even from that painter working in another medium or using a different method than I do, but the shock of being placed in this ‘Soylent Green’ style room forced me to consider a current popular term, digitally enhanced.
I have written before regarding the increasing use of digital imagery in our world and the heightened expectations that such images create in the general populace. Why, now I can take photographs of stunning ‘perfection’ on my trusty iPhone, download them to my computer and produce near professional quality prints.
Working from two dimensional data to create paintings has never appealed to me and so, apart from the occasional posthumous portrait I have not done it.
I realise that this method is widely used, in fact there is an upcoming workshop of this method coming up at an artists’ society of which I am a member but I am finding increasingly that due to the use of digital imagery, paintings which are being displayed both in galleries and at art shows are becoming more homogeneous and as a result, rather boring.
I really think that the oil painting profession as I know it as opposed to the profession of artist is under threat of fast disappearing up its own fundament. Whilst this may not worry many, to me it is a tragedy.
The use of photography in painting is as old as photography itself and before that painters such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable worked up paintings from sketches and colour notes. Of course the convenience of being able to paint in oils on site was only brought about by the invention of the paint tube in 1841. Interestingly a wider use of photography came about at around the same time in 1837 and the arguments over whether photography would replace painting commenced.
Painting changed about then from being a method of documenting life on a day to day basis and went its own way though Impressionism and all of the other ‘isms’ causing rivalries between Modernists, Expressionists and all of the other ‘ists’ including the realists which is where I came in.
I guess what is happening now is the creation of a new ‘ist’, the digitalist.
I am afraid that my quest is to keep alive the methods and standards inculcated in me by my teachers may be becoming increasingly futile.
They in turn had learned them from their teachers and so on back to the time when man first discovered the way to represent three dimensional data on a two dimensional surface and have it look three dimensional, without any enhancement or use of aids other than good eyesight and training,
Some my find this method of painting boring or old fashioned but it still excites me and enough students to keep my classes viable and I am still able to view paintings that excite me on occasion thank goodness.
Others may find it inconvenient, maybe even slow but we not only need to paint we must also paint for a reason and an enduring reason for me is to improve my craftsmanship and not to turn out, what Alan Martin termed ‘Wall Furniture’.
17th July 2012
HUMILITY IS IMPORTANT
Recently I was honoured to have been asked to open an exhibition celebrating the Medallion of Excellence Award at the Australian Guild Of Realist Artists here in Melbourne. The winner of this award for 2012 is a student of mine who happens to one of those rare painters who make me reconsider my ideas regarding natural talent.
Two of her Grandparents were very well known painters and her Grandfather was also head of painting and acting director of Melbourne’s well-credentialed National Gallery School in the early to mid 1900’s. His name was William Beckwith McInnes.
Some idea of his work which included seven Archibald Prizes for portraiture can be summed up in a quotation from the Australian Dictionary of Biography,
’ To him art was craft and his love was for the qualities of naturalistic vision, to which he brought a virtuoso technique in oil………….’
Vicki has memories of her Grandparents’ works as she was growing up and I guess, like most children these pictures would have had a profound effect on her decision to take up painting.
My short opening speech is attached and sums up the essence of my ideas regarding the craft of painting.
AGRA Medallion Exhibition 2012
Opening Address 03/08/12
Some time ago I had a short discussion with an artist regarding the importance of Humility in realist painting.
His idea was that Humility meant ‘eyes cast downwards’ and that this as an ideal had no place in the life of a painter.
I happen to believe that the realist painter should always remain humble in the face of nature.
I guess that we agreed to disagree but when I look at many exhibitions today from the Archibald Prize to the local Rotary show, rather than Humility I see many examples of what I believe to be Hubris or what I call ‘look at me’ paintings, with apologies to Kath and Kim.
Leonardo Da Vinci is quoted as saying ‘tis better to paint a fish in the marketplace well than an Archangel badly’ and as I look at the work displayed here I think Leonardo would be well pleased.
Vicki, is a painter who would see the beauty in that fish and set about trying to represent it so that others might appreciate it.
To me the craft of the realist painter is to show nature in all of its glory without resort to tricks. Just to put down honestly what they see.
The art is in first of all recognising and selecting the portion of nature that they desire to represent.
Vicki’s work represents all that is good in this craft and I commend her work to you by having pleasure in quoting my teacher Shirley Bourne.
‘The best reason to buy a picture is because you like it. It will give you years of pleasure.’
5th August 2012
SUGGESTION BY ABSENCE
I have long been an admirer of the work of Giorgio Morandi the great Italian painter of still life. Just recently I came across an article about an exhibition of his works on paper at the Estorick Collection in London and was fascinated to see that one of the works, a watercolour, entitled of course ‘Still Life’, is referred to as Suggestion by Absence. The article was by Andrew Lambirth in the Spectator of 26th January 2013.
In my teaching I am always looking for words or metaphors to help describe visual sensations and one of these instructions to my students is to …’look for what you can’t see rather than what you can.’ I can’t remember whether I heard this from Alan Martin or Shirley Bourne but it sums up well what the realist painter has to do to achieve that almost magic quality in their work.
Leonardo da Vinci has been quoted as saying ‘tis better to paint a fish in the market place badly than an archangel badly’. Whilst this refers to subject matter rather than method I have seen many paintings which could be called competent but in which every feather in the ‘archangel’s’ wing was painted to within and inch of its life. Great monstrously complex still life pictures with every detail picked out with consummate precision but no magic.
Many painters have informed me of tricks that they use to achieve what they believe to be reality on canvas, from colour modification to the infamous ten-apple rule. Frankly they are in my opinion only complications and do not act as an adequate substitute for the eye for it is the correct use of this organ alone that will provide a realist painting with al of the magic it needs.
Learning to observe the subject through relaxed eyes and ensuring that when you are checking your palette or your painting against each other or your painting, that your eyes are in the same condition and learning not to stare at the subject will help a painter towards satisfactory results.
Suggestion by absence is a really good term for the painter because just as the spaces between the notes in a Mozart symphony is essential so are the lost edges or tonal equivalence in a painting.
A careful look at the picture with the eyes partially closed will give you the idea.
Don James 9th March 2013
A Turd Too Far
A few months back I wrote of my sense of loss on the death of Robert Hughes, the great Australian art critic and author. He could always be relied upon to tell it like it was and happy to point out the emperor’s state of undress.
His name has been mentioned in the 1st December 2012 issue of the Spectator magazine in an article penned by Ruth Dudley Edwards entitled ‘A Turd Too Far.’
Ms Dudley Edwards is not referring to the great man here. As a matter of fact she seems to share my admiration for Mr Hughes and couples him with Brian Sewell in a group of those who were not willing to toe the Serota line.
Sir Nicholas Serota was chairman of the Turner Prize until 2007 and according to Ms Dudley Edwards still retains some influence.
What caught my eye in this article, apart from the catchy title was the purchase by the National Gallery of Australia of a work by Michael Craig-Martin titled ‘An Oak Tree’. This work consists of a glass of water standing on a glass shelf but the artist’s statement explains that he has changed the physical substance (though not the appearance) of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Damien Hirst, another conceptual artist and Craig-Martin’s student described the work as ‘the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture, I still cannot get it out of my head.’
Hughes, looking at Hirst’s ‘The Virgin Mother’ says ‘Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce.”
Craig-Martin postulates the idea of his work as a comment on the transubstantiation of the wafer and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ putting himself in the place of the priest. What the priest says, we are supposed to believe and that the artist should be believed as well.
Frankly I don’t believe either of them
The fascinating thing about this whole sorry episode is that when the work was shipped to Australia the water had to be replaced with Australian water due to quarantine laws.
I suppose that such happenings at least give us something to discuss and either be amazed at or appalled by, depending on your point of view.
It should be obvious from readers as to which category I belong.
24th June 2013
As I prepare for an exhibition which I will hold in October with my wife Marie, in October, I begin to reflect on the reasons for doing what I have done now for the last 40 years.
Painting has been in my life for all of that time, in fact for longer than that as my interest was sparked in the early 1960’s when I began to dabble with various media but oil painting became the medium for me once I had began to use it seriously as a realist painter in the early 1970’s.
I have just been painting using oil and a little gum turpentine and the studio is filled with that wonderful perfume. Some would say stink but to me it is a trigger which activates memories of those early days in various studios that I have either owned, rented or worked in and I can say that the majority of those memories are good ones.
As a student at the Victorian Artists’ Society that perfume carried me through some difficult times when paintings were not going my way and my teacher was being particularly critical, in her own sweet way. She was of the old school. No talking. No cups of tea. Maybe a ‘sweetie’ from a packet, usually provided by another student if you behaved well.
Paintings would be confiscated if you worked on them when you should be mixing tones. Those bloody tones! I just wanted to get to the canvas.
It took some years for me to realize that she was correct and that if the paint on the palette was incorrect it would be wrong on the canvas.
Eduoard Manet is quoted as saying that if at the end of a day’s painting he could say that he had correctly matched two tones he was a happy man.
I realized that I would be a painter when I began to enjoy mixing and matching my tones as well as cleaning my brushes.
My brushes are my tools and need to be kept in good condition. It pains me to see documentaries about painters showing poorly kept brushes and palettes covered with thick dry and drying paint. How they work, I don’t know.
A film about Francis Bacon recently, showed his studio and there was not a space on the floor which was not covered with empty paint tubes. He was a painter whose work I have always admired but I can’t say that I admired his housekeeping.
We are all products of our upbringing and experience and I deem myself fortunate to have had two teachers who showed me the advantages of discipline in my work, even if it only has saved me money in the purchase of brushes. Alan Martin kept his brushes in a drawer, to keep them away from dust and felt that brushes in a ginger jar on the shelf was an affectation.
I wouldn’t go that far but my brushes and palette are always cleaned thoroughly at the end of each working session. Needless to say they last me for a good length of time.
Good brushes are expensive and a palette takes time to season and is the painter’s Stradivarius. Look after them and they won’t let you down.
Don James 22 August 2013
WARMED BY THE SUN – TURNER FROM THE TATE
Our new Prime Minister Mr Rudd may well be feeling the love here in Canberra, but one has to rug up to feel any warmth on a winter’s day in our national capital.
Marie and I set off to the National Gallery to see the Turners but had to turn back for lack of parking. Round and round the car park and back to the hotel, into a taxi and we arrive at last at the vast entry to the Gallery.
I have visited here before but had not noticed how much space there is in this building.
On the way to the Turners we passed a group of Arthur Boyd paintings, then three large interesting Francis Bacon pictures and so to the Turners.
The exhibition is spread across six themed rooms spanning Turner’s life.
Commencing with an engraving by William Holl the Younger, of the well-known self-portrait, the first room shows the beginnings of his career at the Royal Academy School at the age of 14.
Joseph Mallord William Turner claimed to have been born on April 23rd, St George’s Day in 1775 but he was baptised on May 14th in St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden London. His father was a barber in Maiden Lane.
Turner’s fascination with the power of nature begins to show in room 1 with a variety of works such as the exquisite oil of Moonlight, a Study at Millbank from 1797 followed by some of the famous seascapes, showing fishing boats being tossed by monstrous waves and the mountains, earthquakes and thunderstorms that he was to return to throughout his painting life.
In room 2 ‘ Turner’s Britain’ we see a number of his sketches in watercolour, pencil and gouache many of which would be later developed into prints.
Turner sketched and painted on site and his metal paint box and palette are displayed, complete with pig’s bladder tubes of premixed paint as well as bottles of pigment ready to be ground with oil, or gum for watercolour as required.
Also in room 2 are a number of his classical paintings in the style of Claude Lorrain.
In room 3 ‘The Drawing Cabinet’, we see his work heading towards more abstract forms, especially in watercolour and I was very impressed with a large work ‘Scarborough’ c.1809, I guess a sketch for a later painting also shown but with a freshness and power somehow lacking in the final work.
Room 4, ‘Turner Abroad’ reminded me of an exhibition of the same name in Melbourne several years ago. His sketches of Italian landscapes, some on blue paper held my attention as much this time as when I saw them back then.
No exhibition of this painter’s work would be complete without his paintings of the sea and room 5 has some great examples of this genre. We are now in the 1830’s and his work shows the maturity of his years.
Storms and shipwrecks, many painted at Margate are full of power and frighteningly realistic. They never cease to amaze me.
When we get to the late works in room 6 we are obviously in the presence of genius. One picture, ‘Three Seascapes’ c.1827 is very reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s work but is apparently three separate seascapes painted on the one canvas.
At this stage of his career, from the late 1820’s, his work is being abused by the critics who objected to his use of vibrant colours and impasto paint, but he had a champion in the redoubtable John Ruskin, whose praise forced people to look again at the work of a man who is now considered by many to be Britain’s Greatest Painter.
I came away from this show warmed by the experience of seeing en masse the work of the man, reputed to have uttered as his last words on his deathbed in 1851, “God is the Sun.”
Tate Publishing has produced a comprehensive catalogue for the exhibition in both Adelaide and Canberra. It is a pity that many Victorian art lovers will miss the opportunity of seeing shows such as this and the Toulouse Lautrec: Paris and the Moulin Rouge exhibition which also visited Adelaide and Canberra recently.
Congratulations must go to Ron Radford and his staff and the Art Gallery of South Australia for securing both of these shows.
The Turner exhibition continues at the National Gallery Canberra until the 8th of September.
Well worth a visit!
Don James, Canberra 02/07/2013
ARTIST OR PAINTER
When I first picked up a paintbrush with serious intent my ultimate aim was to become an Artist, an honourable but a foolish aim on my part, as I had no idea what being an artist meant or what was needed to achieve this.
Sure, I had romantic notions of the artist’s life, bohemian living and all that entailed, but what one had to do to attain such a life, I had not thought of.
If I had thought a little longer as to my aim I would have realised that I wanted to paint or better still, to be a painter.
It took some time for the notions of becoming an artist to be suppressed, mostly by reality but these notions had a very early beginning in my life and practical ideas during my late teens did not come easily to me.
My environment during those days was conducive to dreaming and financial reality alone played a large part in planting my feet on the ground.
This is not to say that to aim of becoming an artist is not a practical thing for many people. It was not for me.
After more than 40 years of painting I ask myself am I now an Artist?
Just yesterday I was re-reading an article from the Australian Newspaper by John Macdonald, their esteemed art critic about an exhibition of what could be loosely called the Meldrum School of tonal realists, called ‘The Misty Moderns’ which toured the country a few years ago.
Mr Macdonald maintains that Max Meldrum claimed to be able to teach anybody to be an artist. I don’t know if that is a true statement. My understanding is that Meldrum said that he could teach anyone the principles of the art of painting.
As a teacher of painting I know that if a student has the necessary physical attributes and a driving desire to learn those principles then I can teach them.
The discussion here gets down to a couple of definitions;
What does the term artist mean? What does the term painter mean?
Because I work in the field of realist painting, working from life, I am often criticised as being a mere imitator of nature. Does this mean that I am not an artist?
One of my conclusions regarding this conundrum is that the term ‘artist’ has, like many words in the English language been corrupted through time. And has become an all-encompassing word taking in all who work in the visual arts as well as many others such as musicians and actors.
It fascinates me that Meldrum has said that there has never been and never would be a prodigy painter. In other words I guess painting has to be learnt
under instruction and that to do so one needs experience of the visual world.
The meaning of art has and been and will continue to be debated for centuries and as a consequence the term artist should be included in these discussions.
Both terms are almost indefinable but it is fun to talk of such things.
Just yesterday I visited a very good friend who I would define as being a true artist. Not only does she paint using several media, she also sculpts and prints. All of these skills she has developed are carried out with a sense of creativity that I continue to marvel at.
I said to her at the end of the visit that I always leave her studio with a sense of my own inadequacy at being a mere painter but it is what I wanted to be and so I should be happy with my achievements.
I must say however that I am pleased to feel that inadequacy, as it does provide the driving force required to keep me on the road to becoming better at what I do.
10th May 2013
A TITLE WILL SUFFICE
Having been working on the preparation of paintings for an exhibition I have really had to think of which of my pictures will be suitable for public display.
My job is easy when I read in the current news of the problems faced by such as Bill Henson and others who obviously need to judge whether their work will be acceptable in a public forum or whether a complaint will have the work, covered, removed or at worst bring down on the head of the exhibitor the wrath of armchair critics such as happened to Bill Henson when the Prime Minister, no less expressed his disgust at the work, sight unseen.
My work is similar to that characterized by Juan Davila as being in ‘Gold Frames’ and therefore not subject to such examination or comment.
Being a realist painter my work which is mainly still life, landscapes etc. won’t engender controversy.
This brings to mind a comment by Barry Humphries recently in a review of the Australian exhibition at the Royal Academy. He quoted Margaret Olley who, when accompanying Humphries at an exhibition commented on a particular
painting along the lines of “…no one home there.”
I hope that there is someone home in my work but that will depend to a great extent on the viewer.
I have always had my favourite painters, and my pet hates and I am often asked by students whether one or another painter or particular work is good.
This brings us to the question of what qualifies as good or bad painting.
My main criterion is whether a picture is what it purports to be. Badly painted pictures abound. This is to be expected as painters starting out often enter local or country competitions in the hope of selling work or even winning a prize but occasionally a gem will appear.
A good painting to me is a work which asks me to inspect it more closely. Usually it has nothing to do with the subject matter but it must be honest and say what it needs to without embellishment. It certainly will not be in need of an artist’s statement. A title will suffice.
25th September 2013
TONAL REALISM – A COLLAGE OF OCULAR FACTS
THE SEVRES VASE by ALMA FIGUEROLA
Sitting at my recent exhibition, I spent some time watching people come and go and the way that they looked or didn’t look at the work. This set me to thinking about what it is that attracts a person to one sort of painting over another.
For some, my work appears ‘not finished’ enough but others like the ‘softness’ of the edges. I must admit that I am drawn to work in which not all of the edges are defined when I view realist oil paintings and I put this down to my training, in particular with Shirley Bourne.
Shirley had a habit of scrubbing out edges on our paintings especially at the end of a class and telling us to ‘just lose that edge dearie and try to find it again next week.’
Another statement of hers that sticks with me is ‘ Always paint against the form but if you find that you have to paint with the form, hate yourself for doing it.’
For a student who had trained as and worked as a draftsman I found this very confusing in the beginning but I came to see it as an important way of becoming an objective painter. This training helped me towards seeing as a painter who wants to paint from life, must see. The objective eye is the major tool in the painter’s tool kit.
In Max Meldrum’s book, The Science of Appearances, he writes:
‘The interested non-practitioner seldom goes beyond his conditioned reactions to painting. This tends to make him more interested in the representations of legends, fairy tales and moral principles – to him more easily understandable than the story which pure objective facts have to tell.’
I think that this is the reason that landscapes or seascapes will tend to out sell still life painting in that the former evoke memories, often pleasurable in the mind of the viewer or kindle a desire to visit the place represented by the picture. The occasional still life that I sell generally goes either to a student with a developed or developing objective eye or so some one in whom the picture evokes a memory.
The majority of my sales of pictures over the years have been landscapes or seascapes, all of which have been painted on site. This fact also, in my opinion says a lot about why particular pictures sell.
The difference between a painting done on site and one painted from a photograph is generally a minimum of one to two hours. The photograph is an instant in time and a plein air painting can be likened to a film shot over the period during which it is painted. It is what I like to call a collage of ocular facts.
Collating this material, changing light, changing shadows, things coming and going gives a well painted picture a quality that is impossible to gain from two dimensional data transferred to the canvas in the studio. There is also the fact that a camera is monocular and has a tendency to distort images, particularly towards the edges of the frame.
Whilst surfing the web recently I found an artist painting a portrait from a photograph of a young woman. It was a beautiful photograph of a very attractive woman but his finished picture was merely a painting of the photograph not a portrait of the woman.
When one paints a portrait from life it is generally done over an extended period of time, weeks, sometime months. During that time the subject changes. One day they might feel great. Another day they may not feel so good. Sometimes happy sometimes sad and during each of those painting sessions the painter does not repaint the picture to suit the mood. He merely looks for the biggest difference between the subject and the canvas and attends to that.
As a result the picture becomes a complex set of marks which represent the subject much like the changing landscape as discussed previously whereas a photograph of a person represents an instant in their life and says very little about them.
This is why great portraits are sometimes said to have ‘captured the personality’ of the sitter. This of course is not true but a good portrait painted from life will say more about the sitter than a photograph ever will.
The true tonal realist painter will struggle to represent the shapes that they perceive in the subject in as simple a manner as possible giving credence to four qualities only:
1. Relativity of TONE. (lightness or darkness of the tonal areas)
2. Relativity of FORM. (the shape of the tonal areas)
3. Relativity of COLOUR (warmth or coolness of the tonal areas)
3. Relativity of EDGE QUALITY. (soft or hard – lost or found)
Handle these four qualities with skill and your painting will achieve that magic quality that the tonal realist method can bring to a picture.
14th November 2013
DEGREES OF SEPARATION
I may have been painting for in excess of forty years but viewing paintings still can still move me as much as it ever did. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a visiting exhibition in which I saw my first Henry Raeburn portrait, that of Sir Duncan Campbell. The gallery was very crowded as it was a special preview showing but the red of his jacket attracted me from across a crowded room, as the song goes and I fought my way to the front and stood, transfixed for some time. Tears came to my eyes as I surveyed this portrait which was for Raeburn, a simple composition.
A vast area of scarlet dominated the picture, which depicted half-length, a youngish soldier in the uniform of an officer of the 3rd Scots Guards. He had fought in the Peninsula War rising to the rank of captain. Gradually as my eyes cleared and I began to notice some of the detail my attention was drawn to the rather narrow black leather belt on which hung his sword.
To this day I cannot forget the marks that Raeburn used to depict the curve across the width of this belt. Having been well used the belt had curled and the painter had succeeded in showing this with two or three simple marks.
Up until that day I had admired Raeburn from afar but only through reproductions. I could almost smell the paint as I looked at this work and from that day became a devotee.
As readers will be aware I have been a devotee of Max Meldrum for many years, admiring both his teachings and many of his paintings.
Recently I attended an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Bendigo of paintings by artists of the Australian Federation period and included in it were three works by Meldrum.
One of these was a family portrait including his wife, daughter and himself looming out of the darkness. I first saw this painting at the National Gallery of Australia in whose collection it resides. It didn’t inspire me then and the same reaction occurred at this showing. It is a large work but to my mind unfinished.
Meldrum is quoted as saying that one should never be ashamed of a work if one has put their best effort into it. I don’t think that Meldrum had put his best efforts into this one or he didn’t get the chance to finish it in which case it shouldn’t have been shown.
However, the other two paintings, done in France were wonderful. Both landscapes and once again large works, they shone out for me as amongst the best of the works in the exhibition. Both were wonderfully composed and showed the masterly skill that Meldrum had with tone, form and colour. They moved me in the same way the Raeburn painting had all those years ago.
As an interesting aside, apparently Meldrum and Raeburn had attended the same school, George Heriot’s Hospital, Edinburgh.
17th January 2014
ANYTHING FOR A QUIET LIFE
Recently I was having a discussion over a cup of coffee with some of my students and we were trying to figure out how much of our memory was brought to bear in doing a painting.
One of the things that I have said to students is to leave their memories at home or at least outside the studio. Of course this is impossible but it goes to the discussion that Max Meldrum has in his teachings about Objectivity vs. Subjectivity in painting.
I have heard from both of my teachers and proved it for my self that it is easier to paint a portrait of somebody you don’t know than somebody that you do. This especially applies to painting members of your close family as I found to my cost as a student painting my wife for the first time.
Another idea is that the first time we paint a portrait we paint ourselves, as our face is the one we know the best.
Meldrum stressed that if after studying the subject with the view of adding to or changing the painting, one approaches the canvas and you forget what your purpose was, you should return to your viewing spot and look again.
It seems to some a silly notion that one would forget your plan in that short amount of time but be assured it is a common problem.
When you look away from the subject to the canvas it is very easy to say,
‘that doesn’t look like a nose’ and proceed to paint what you think a nose should look like. This could be where your memory of your nose comes into play and you lose the objectivity necessary to complete the picture and attain a good likeness and paint a self-portrait.
Of course these ideas don’t only apply to portraiture but equally to still life, flowers or even landscape.
Blue skies and seas abound in amateur art shows merely because people think that is what they should be. The painter needs to look harder and forget what could be characterized as colour prejudice. Once having found that some skies are yellow or pink and seas green or grey the painter should learn
to look and assess each tone and colour and its relationship to the patch next to it for it is only though getting these relationships correct that the picture will attain that little bit of magic that comes with careful observation of the relationships of tone, form, colour and edge quality.
The last item, edge quality is not much talked about but I firmly believe that relativity of edge is as important as the other three. There are few greater thrills for me in painting than being able to lose an edge between two tones, but then as I say to my students, I lead a very quiet life!
10th April 2014
RELIGIOUS FERVOUR OF SHEER VANDALISM
GIRL FROM THE SEINE
Several times in the last thousand years great works of art have been destroyed in the name of religion whether by the Tudors, Puritans or the radical Islamists who exploded the great statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan.
Every person, religious or otherwise will have an opinion as to whether the human mind can be influenced by imagery be it paintings, sculpture, photographs or film/video. I guess that the so-called graven images which inhabit Roman Catholic cathedrals all over the world were not put there for the tourists although it is probably that group who spend most time staring at them these days.
At an art show opening recently I was discussing a painting of mine with a friend who had bought it. She was saying how much she enjoyed having it and the fact that the subject, a cast of the Winged Victory of Samothrace had been destroyed in a fire gave extra interest to the picture.
This cast which stood about a metre tall belonged to a friend with whom I share a studio at Montsalvat Artists’ Colony. To me it was a thing of beauty and a very good representation of the original which I had seen in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Our studio, which was the last studio and living space of the founder of Montsalvat Justus Jorgensen was a magic place where I took lessons in portrait painting with Alan Martin in the mid nineteen eighties. It had a rammed earth floor and a leaky roof but it contained such things as Justus’s four-poster bed and bluestone shower recess as well as a myriad of casts, still life pieces, books etc. It also had that special quality for a studio. Atmosphere!
I painted many a picture in that room but my paintings of winged victory are amongst my favourites.
Plaster casts are considered important in the training of painters in the tonal realist school. They are generally only varnished or, if painted done only in monochrome. Their value as a tool in learning about tone and form cannot be questioned.
I have been told that Sir Redmond Barry of Ned Kelly fame and father of the University of Melbourne, The National Gallery and consequently the National Gallery School was instrumental in importing many casts for the use of students for the practice of drawing the human form. Casts were also used in the art school of the Workingmen’s College which became the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
Some time in the early 1960’s, students of both institutions decided to ‘do a way with tradition’ and commenced destroying all that smacked of such, including the casts, some of which were the original works imported in the late 19th century. I suppose that this was seen as a form of religious fervour by the students.
I was at RMIT at the time in the Architecture faculty but I am ashamed to say that I probably would not have lifted a finger to stop them as at that time, my passion was for abstract art and cubism.
A couple of practicing painters who were passionate about tradition made an effort to save as many pieces as they could but many were destroyed.
‘Such is Life’!
19th May 2014 FILLING IN
As often happens in my classes, discussion turns to the subject of ‘the way we see’ which is something that I have given a much thought to in the last 40 years.
One of my students has done the same, but about the actuality of optics, studying the physical connection between the eye itself and the brain and in the class he mentioned an experiment which I will attempt to explain, which confirms an idea I have been mulling over for the last few years.
It goes as follows: –
With a person looking straight ahead a red dot is introduced into the field of vision and as it slowly continues across it is noted that there is an area where it disappears and as it continues on appears again. This is a blind spot or scotoma, common to all normally sighted people.
Then the same procedure is repeated but instead of a red spot a line is used and the blind spot is not noted.
This does not mean that the blind spot has disappeared but that the brain has filled in the gap, as it wants to perceive the completed line.
It has been said by many a painting teacher what one leaves out of a picture is more important that what one puts in. Hence relativity of edges can be pushed beyond the hard and soft to the lost and found.
The best example of this for me is the painting of clear glass which many students baulk at, thinking it too hard when in fact, if the painter looks at the subject correctly it is one of the easiest of tasks in painting.
In general clear glass is transparent and, apart from reflections is not visible, so in theory all we need to paint is what is behind the glass. Of course the image of what is behind the glass can be distorted somewhat but observations of these areas of tone, looked at like any other are easily dealt with. In this discussion though it is the edges of let us say a bottle that are of interest.
Almost without exception a student painting a clear glass bottle for the first time will want to outline the shape of it completely even when it is lit and set up so that most of the edges are invisible.
I have attached an image of a painting of mine that illustrates this point and shows the idea of lost edges. To my mind this is the very basis of so-called Tonal Realist painting as it emphasizes the importance of looking at the areas of visible tone and colour values on the subject and placing them on the canvas rather than drawing or attempting to paint the ‘things’ that make up the composition.
By not showing the lost edges that our brain knows exist, we allow the viewer to fill in those edges for themselves and marvel that the painting looks real.
I clearly remember in my early student days seeing for the first time a reproduction of a painting by Diego Velasquez called ‘The Water Seller of Seville’ and marveling at the way he had represented the water drops on the side of the earthenware container as well as the glass of water.
Since then I have aspired to paint like that and I am still trying.
5th June 2014
THE TROUBLE WITH MAX
MAX MELDRUM DEATH MASK
One would find it difficult to discuss the subject of Tonal Realist painting in Australia without mentioning Max Meldrum.
I never met Mr Meldrum, as I have heard some of his students call him, but I was trained for a time by one of those students, the late Alan Martin. Alan embraced not only what Meldrum taught but what he stood for in other areas of life. From what I could see, it was very much the old-fashioned master pupil relationship.
This type of association very rarely exists today, particularly in the world of painting.
Most readers will be aware that painting has been taught as a craft for centuries and in earlier times aspiring painters usually started work as apprentices and learned the craft from the basics at around the age of eleven. Just like any trade, the skill and application of an apprentice would determine his or her final place in the studio, or whether he could start his own studio and then train his own apprentices. Changes to this system occurred over several centuries and we now have many institutions teaching painting and other forms of art, as well as a few like myself who are trying to keep the craft alive. Much of today’s painting education is a far cry from early days, and as a result we very rarely if ever, see skill or ability to match that of a Raphael or Rembrandt.
It is this world that I think Meldrum hankered for. His teaching methods are brilliant for the student who wishes to learn the craft of painting, and his lifelong quest to improve the methods and materials of his craft is to be much admired. In my opinion he was a painter of the first order, winning the Archibald Prize in 1939 and 1940, a time when that prize was awarded for excellence in realist portrait painting from life and not for controversy or size. He was a portrait painter of note and his magnum opus ‘The Science of Appearances’ was published in 1950, 5 years before his death at Kew in 1955.
So why does the very mention of his name in certain company can inspire vitriol today, almost sixty years later? In my opinion it is mere ignorance. He upset what may have been the wrong people and he stood up for what he believed against those who on the one hand saw him as a radical, and others who thought his methods outdated. The differing opinions and arguments have now become the stuff of legend and like all legends need to be taken with a grain of salt.
To understand history one must also understand context. Looking at Meldrum’s controversial life through modern eyes can give us a skewed idea of the man and his ideas. According to John and Peter Perry in their excellent book Max Meldrum and Associates, he was born in Scotland in 1875 and educated there to the age of 14 years at the school that had also educated Henry Raeburn. This great Scottish portrait painter died only 52 years before Meldrum’s birth.
Settling in Melbourne with his family, he ultimately enrolled at the National Gallery School where he was instructed by Bernard Hall and Fredrick McCubbin winning the travelling scholarship in 1899, apparently narrowly defeating Hugh Ramsay, another Scottish immigrant. He studied and painted in France, met his future wife and returned to Melbourne where he began to teach his methods, developed after experiencing the work of painters he admired and those he believed to be keeping to the right path. Around the time of this first visit to Europe the work of the French Impressionists was becoming well known and even the work of the likes of Picasso and other Modernists was gaining notoriety around the world, even in far-flung Australia, however during his visit to Europe Meldrum studied the work of the likes of Velasquez and Rembrandt.
On his return to Australia he is said to have destroyed the painting with which he won the travelling scholarship, swearing to never put an insincere brush to canvas again.
He opened his Art School in 1915 in Melbourne and it became an alternative to the National Gallery’s school attracting a number of the students of that school to learn his methods.
Much has been written about the art community at this time in Melbourne, suffice it to say that some of the disagreements which occurred were bitter and still continue today. I will leave it to the reader to follow up on this interesting subject.
Over time some of his students left to join modernist groups and others lined up behind their impressive leader. Even at this early time Meldrum was inspiring extreme feelings in those around him from blind loyalty to intense dislike to say the least. On top of this, Meldrum was politically radical for the day and a campaigner for human rights. He gave support to Egon Kisch, a Czech born Jewish communist, when he was refused entry to Australia. He was also a pacifist during World War 1. These stances did not endear him to the establishment.
He continues to inspire controversy, particularly in the art community in Melbourne. My views about him are well known but I would counsel those with little knowledge, who criticise Meldrum and his methods to at least research their ideas before commenting, as I believe a closer assessment of the man may well provide them with an enriched view, not only of Meldrum but of the history of painting in Melbourne.
To sum up I believe that Meldrum was an inspirational teacher first and a brilliant painter second. His achievements need to be seen in the context of the period of his life and so much of the criticism levelled at him these days can be discounted as ill-informed rumour. I believe that his paintings are a great legacy but his documentation of and his commitment to the so-called Tonal method encompasses his most important contribution to the world of realist painting. My research shows that his influence has spread beyond our shores.
He was a passionate man.
To sum up, the methods developed or refined by Meldrum are, to my mind an excellent way to teach the aspiring realist oil painter to see so that they may, with much practice be able to adequately represent three dimensional objects on a two dimensional surface. In a world where we a bombarded with two-dimensional imagery of a very high standard on TV, movies and computers this has become a very difficult task but it does not stop us from trying.
I happen to believe that the traditional craft of painting is worth preserving like many other such crafts and the use of Meldrum’s methods foster such preservation.
‘Max Meldrum and Associates’
by Peter and John Perry
Pub. Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum 1996.
Australian Dictionary of Biography at adb.anu.edu.au/biography/meldrum-duncan-max-7553
The Science of Appearances as formulated and taught by Max Meldrum. Arranged and edited by Russell Foreman
Pub. Shepherd Press Sydney 1950
INSPIRATION, PERSPIRATION OR WHAT?
I am very fortunate to have a home studio where I work most days. This means that I can have a regular morning coffee with my wife who also has her studio in the house. Having been together since childhood we have many common memories, albeit we often remember things differently but our lives are peopled by many of the same relatives and friends. As well we have occupied the same houses and travelled to many of the same places.
Some may think such discussions could become boring but they range over a large area including the normal things like family, the house and garden, movies and the like, but with both of us being painters, me in oils and Marie painting or writing icons, very often our chats turn to these and associated areas. A recent chat centered round what inspired us to take up the particular art form that we did.
In the last few days I have been watching a film depicting the life of Ian Drury, the leader of the punk music group the Blockheads from the 1970’s. I have admired Drury since first seeing him on TV, not just for his performing and lyric writing skills but for his determination to overcome the restrictions he suffered because of childhood polio. Whilst I could never imagine the problems he faced I can relate to him in part because of a childhood disability that I suffered until the age of 13 years. In discussing this fact I said that such a disability had the effect of isolating me from my peers and made me internalize many things. To an extent one becomes an island and because you cant play sports or even keep up with the other kids you find refuge in other activities.
My refuge became cars. Not the mechanics of them but the way they look and of course this was the 1950’s and American cars were becoming works of art in themselves. I remember having a fixation on the Cadillac Eldorado which had shark like tail fins and the 1959 model, double taillights looking like rockets. I drew these forms endlessly even though during my primary school years I had not enjoyed art. It was probably the first time I took up drawing materials for enjoyment.
Preston Technical School, where I attended had a number of inspirational teachers, a couple of whom did not appear to be so on the surface. It is to four of these men that I believe I owe my final direction in life through their apparent devotion to their profession and particular area of expertise.
One of these teachers was essentially a trade teacher but also taught mechanical drawing and solid geometry. Two others were teachers of English. They both had extracurricular occupations, one as a Square Dance Caller and the other as an actor, becoming ultimately on of Australia’s
best-known playwrights. They inspired me to read and enjoy a wide range of literature. The last of these four was also a trade and drawing teacher but was something of a rebel. He prepared a small number of boys who were interested in architecture for further education by coaching us in subjects not normally taught at the school such as Sciography, which is the science of shadows, and Geometric Art. He also had an outside interest in that he was a builder and was, at the time building the school’s new gymnasium with this small coterie of students assisting.
I think these teachers inspired me not wholly by what they taught but the way that they taught us. These were the first of my teachers to treat students with the respect they deserved and if they deserved no respect, boys were basically excluded from the class. I am sure that most teachers of mine to this time had the best of intentions but had little understanding of the effect they could have on children under their care. This was in the late 1940’s to the late 1950’s and many of the teachers at that time had been brought out of retirement due to the debilitating effect on the teaching profession of the recently finished Second World War. These gents were of a later generation.
They all showed a love of their particular subject and an excitement in the teaching of it. The last mentioned probably had the greatest effect on me, as I had planned at that time to become an Architect and to study at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. I succeeded in gaining a place at RMIT but did not succeed in completing the course, only being there for 2 years but it was a great experience and I left with a desire to create paint. What or how I was not sure.
RMIT was in LaTrobe Street in Melbourne and opposite the National Gallery of Victoria. Within that building was the National Gallery Art School where some of the greatest Australian painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries trained and one day, I visited the school with a friend and had my first experience of a proper art studio with its plaster casts, easels, odours of paint, turpentine and varnish and above all, superb light. I had never experienced an atmosphere like this before and the thrill of walking into a purpose built painting studio still excites me to this day. Having been a painter now for 40 years I find atmosphere very important in inspiring me to paint whether in the studio or out in the landscape. Music also adds to the magic for me and my wide-ranging taste allows me a wide choice.
When people ask me now what I paint or why I paint I express my interest in the way light falls on or defines objects be they heads, bodies, landscape, flowers or still life. My early experiences outlined here, my painting teachers, my fellow painters and my family all inspired me to paint and light inspires me to start a painting and hopefully to see it though.
As I have quoted elsewhere on this site, ‘The sun is God.’ (J.W.M. Turner)
5th April 2015
RED AND WHITE
‘COME ON BABY LIGHT MY FIRE’
William Butler Yeats is quoted as saying; ‘Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.’
Recently I was having an email conversation with an artist friend and we fell to discussing the current state of general arts education.
As a teacher of painting this subject has interested me now for over 40 years and I have watched with interest the variations in quality that have been evident during that period in my home state of Victoria.
As a student in the early 1960’s, whether I was taught or not mattered little to me as I felt, like all teenagers that the school of life would fit me well for the future and I attended lectures and tutorials basically because I had to. I was taken up with romance, fun and generally being with my mates. My reading consisted mainly of Rolling Stone magazine, Francois Sagan novels, biographies of artists such as Picasso and Modigliani and, for some reason books on psychology. All of these had little to do with the subjects that I was studying such as applied mechanics and physics. Naturally I was a failure as a student of Architecture and by the time I left college I had decided deep in the back of my mind that I would work at ‘a normal job’ and be a part time artist at some time in the future.
Whilst working in industry I was assessed by a Human Relations company and found to be a suitable candidate for the art world but told that hobby painting would satisfy me.
They were wrong in this.
During the next few years I did more reading about artists and their lives and developed an interest in realist oil painting with painters such as Velasquez and Goya as well as the Australian Impressionists and of course, Max Meldrum becoming my heroes and I enrolled in painting classes. I found these classes difficult at first but soon realized that the Hippocratic saying, ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’ was true, and began to enjoy the challenge of attempting to get it right. My fire had been lit and I continued to go to classes regularly for more than 10 years and became a full time painter in the early 1980’s.
My time both as a student and a teacher has afforded me the opportunity to observe a number of organizations and probably hundreds of students in the field of oil painting and I must conclude that at this time that particular field is pretty poorly served by many organizations who claim to train students to become painters. This may seem to some a pretty strong statement but I truly feel that organizations that set themselves up as teaching institutions in the arts need to take themselves much more seriously when it comes to the selection of tutors and the courses they offer.
Maybe I was lucky as it was purely by chance that I joined Shirley Bourne’s Friday evening class at the Victorian Artists’ Society in 1972, and it was Ms Bourne who recommended that I join the studio of Alan Martin. Both of these teachers, who were professional painters managed to fan the flames introducing me to the world of realist painting which has been a joy to me ever since.
I note with disappointment the current tendency of organizations such as artists’ societies are tending more towards the holding of short course workshops at the expense of regular classes. Institutions such as universities and art colleges have a great responsibility to their students, to produce artists of quality. These graduates, whether they go on to be professional artists or work in some other profession need to carry their skills into the community for the betterment of all. After all that is what art is about. The experience of art should make us all better members of the community. Whether a student intends to be a hobby painter or a professional in that field, it is vital that the basics be taught in a disciplined manner. When a student has these basics under their belt, they are then able to apply good practice to any work that they do.
I say to my students that I knew that I wanted to be painter when I started to enjoy cleaning my brushes and mixing my tones. I still enjoy both.
Shirley Bourne used to say that there no happy accidents in painting. I believe her to be right in this and realize that a work of art needs to be worked at. It is hard work but very satisfying.
1st August 2015
This Blog was published in the Victorian Artists’ Society Quarterly Journal in October 2015.
ARTIST OR STUDENT? – ART OR ARTIFICE?
The catalogue from the celebrated Misty Moderns exhibition held at the McClelland Gallery at Langwarrin in 2008 is an excellent publication with good reproductions as well as very interesting text. Part of the text is taken from ‘The Triad’ which appears to have been a newspaper published in Sydney in the 1920’s and it quotes Max Meldrum as follows:
“Yes, I have often heard of that imaginary stage where the student leaves off and the artist begins. But in the sense in which the words “artist” and “student” are generally used it might be said that the majority of great artists never became “artists” at all, but remained students from beginning to end. Take the case of Corot, for example. His early efforts tell us that he was attempting to arrange nature on his canvas in such a manner as would raise it from the mere “study” to the picture or work of art (or what was understood to be the work of art). In his later works he has become less the “artist” and more the simple student. There is no further attempt at conventional picture- making, at composing, changing, distorting or in any way tampering with nature. Rembrandt is another famous example of this seemingly paradoxical progression from artist to student”.
The world of art has changed much since Meldrum penned those words but I feel that in some areas nothing changes. So much these days is determined by taste rather than consideration driven by observation. There is still a great difference between objective painting and picture making. Alan Martin who was of a protégé of Meldrum called the picture makers ‘manufacturers of wall furniture’.
Comments like that these days will not win many friends in the world of art but I think it is necessary still to differentiate between the “artist”, and the “painter” who remains a student of nature and attempts to depict her warts and all in a truthful manner.
Formulaic painting using variable focusing, adjusting of colour values and various other artistic gymnastics can produce wonderful images, but when represented as nature these images are as false as corsets, coloured contact lenses or dyed hair on a human being, male or female. They may enhance the final image but are untrue.
The jaded eye of the art buying public must be exhausted from the constant bombardment of imagery which assails it on a daily basis in magazines and on television etc.. Much of this is heavily modified through editing and filtering, which gives a false image of both the constructed and the natural world.
If any art lover required some rest from this avalanche of artifice they would have benefitted from a trip to Langwarrin to meditate on what the Meldrum group saw as reality in the early 20th century. The natural world has not changed since those days and these painters celebrated nature, as we should today.
I remember reading in the Spectator Magazine Alan Massie’s regular column Life and Letters in which he discussed Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited and the fact of its being made into a feature film having already been a highly successful television series
He goes on to discuss the relative merits of each version of the story and in the last paragraph he says something which struck me as quite profound about the paradox of art being ‘………..that whatever its ostensible message, the true work of art enriches our experience of the world we live in and, in doing so, offers delight. Something to remember in our time, when so many self-styled artists set out to shock rather than to please.’
Our constant quest as students of the arts makes us ask what art is and whilst Massie’s statement may not exactly define it, it gives a pretty good definition of what it should do and it will suit me as an explanation of the paradox until a better one comes along.
30th October 2015
A MASTERPIECE IN MUD AND STONE
UP THE STUDIO STAIRS
This place has fascinated me for more than 50 years. Some people may call it a folly, I call it a masterpiece. Conceived by an artist, built by artists and artisans and occupied by the same sorts of people since the 1930’s Montsalvat has developed not only as a group of interesting buildings but as an inspiration to many like myself who see that he preservation of tradition and skills are important.
Many question the value of such goals as is their right but I would not like to think of such traditional skills being lost in the quest for the new. Questing should always be carried with an eye to the past.
I believe that places like Montsalvat should ideally remain as islands of reason in a world centred on controversy and the next shiny new bauble.
What an old fashioned person I am!
25th December 2015