Saturday, December 29, 2007

Naipaul: a creative moment

That afternoon, in the front room of the house, where the furniture was old but cared for, I looked for the first time for weeks at the typescript of the book I had tried to get started on in Victoria, the sequence about freedom and loss. I found it better than I had during the writing. I even saw the sentence where it had come alive – a sentence written out of concentration, from within the mood created by the words. That critical creative moment had been missed by me in Victoria, perhaps because of my anxiety about what was to follow in the writing; and perhaps as well because of my anxiety about what was to follow Victoria.

Now, recognizing the validity of that good sentence, I surrendered to the pictures the words created, the other pictures they trailed. I summoned up again, and sank back into, the mood of Africa, the mood out of which the sentence had been written. I heard – or created – snatches of dialogue from different stages of my story; this particular story in the sequence was full of dialogue. I made brief notes. And it was only when I came back from the mood or came out of the concentration that I understood how far away I had been.

-- V.S. Naipaul, in The Enigma of Arrival, 1987

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Water, water

This was an effort to draw ripples on a pool. I see it as a drawing even though it's in paint and in colour, because I was trying to work out the forms and shapes of the ripples (which were in constant movement). I have yet to find a satisfactory definition for drawing that includes this kind of situation, but I most certainly felt I was drawing with the brush while doing this little piece (oil on linen, about 7" x 5").

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Drawing movement

Charcoal on paper, approx 20 x 16"

Why not? No harm trying. One needs plenty of cheap paper such as newsprint, and a drawing tool such as charcoal that moves easily over the paper and leaves a good dark mark. The model performed a repetitive movement in one place, such as turning to one side and back, or sweeping (pretending to). After a while I put a sheet of tracing paper over the scribbled figure and continued to draw while the model continued to move.

It might seem daft. It’s hard to draw a thing when it’s still, let alone when it’s moving. But strangely enough, the results weren’t all that bad. Of course the drawings are only scribbles. I wasn’t looking for perfection, just an idea of what the person was doing. On the positive side, the fact that the model was moving made me freer and braver and less finicky about detail. I ended up with quite a few ideas from a series of drawings of this kind.

And it sort of broke a spell. Since this series I’ve been trying many more moving things, such as ripples on water and animals at the zoo. It doesn't matter if they turn out a mess, just one good scribble in a batch is enough to make me happy.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The best I can do

Impatiens, study, black and white Conté on brown paper, about 18 x 9"

How do I know something is the best I can do? This might sound like an excuse, but it’s not – everything can’t be “best”.

But that’s not what I meant to say. What I was thinking is . . . when I start to do something, it has a better chance if my intention is simple and clear. Not a great vague thing like “best I can do” (though that too, in a corner of my mind), but something much less ambitious. In a still life it might be . . . correct observation. The act of correct observation. When the going gets rough if I can remember to run this through my mind it nearly always helps.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Talking Through the Wire Fence--the evacuees talk with visitors who were unable to gain admittance." by Chiura Obata, July 1942. Sumi, 11" x 15 ½"

"In the midst of this desert, we artists' job is not to discuss the war, nor waste time by gossiping and foment uneasiness among our residents. But our utmost effort should be given to develop culture and soften the people's hearts which somehow seem to have a tendency to harden under the circumstances.

Existence of an art schools is now more necessary and essential than ever before, especially in such a place as Topaz, where it is like a lone beautiful flower with a sweet fragrance in bloom....It is not for the mere existence of teaching technique, but also to foster infinite inspirations, emotions, and peaceful thoughts in the people, young and old."
Hibi, in Beyond Words: Images from America's Concentration Camps. From an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Leonardo on imitation


That painting declines and deteriorates from age to age, when painters have no other standard than painting already done.

Hence the painter will produce pictures of small merit if he takes for his standard the pictures of others. But if he will study from natural objects he will bear good fruit; as was seen in the painters after the Romans who always imitated each other and so their art constantly declined from age to age. After these came Giotto the Florentine who--not content with imitating the works of Cimabue his master--being born in the mountains and in a solitude inhabited only by goats and such beasts, and being guided by nature to his art, began by drawing on the rocks the movements of the goats of which he was keeper. And thus he began to draw all the animals which were to be found in the country, and in such wise that after much study he excelled not only all the masters of his time but all those of many bygone ages. Afterwards this art declined again, because everyone imitated the pictures that were already done; thus it went on from century to century until Tomaso, of Florence, nicknamed Masaccio, showed by his perfect works how those who take for their standard any one but nature--the mistress of all masters--weary themselves in vain.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452--1519), from his Notebooks, available free from Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Cubism essay, update

I have now put the Cubism essay of the previous post into html which is much easier to access, approx. 50K vs. 1.6 MB, and I've removed the PDF file. The html file is at

Friday, May 4, 2007

Cubism, the Big Picture

I've put a PDF file on my website called "Cubism: The Big Picture", here. It's an essay I wrote last year on the origins of Cubism and its logic and rationale, focussing mainly on Picasso. It's just over 2000 words, about 10 pages. I will do it in html eventually, don't have time right now. The conclusion I came to was not what I've seen in standard sources such as Gombrich. Unfortunately I had to take out most of the images and put links instead. Comments would be great... and please do email me at if the file gives any trouble to download or to open.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Dear Brutus

I've heard that J. M. Barrie comes out of copyright later this year, having died in June 1937. Best known (or only known) for Peter Pan, he was a highly successful dramatist in the first three decades of the 20th century, authoring dozens of popular grown-up plays. He's been accused of sentimentality, justly at times, but he was also a fine and compassionate observer of human nature, and his gentle wit and humour were legendary in his day. My favourite play, Dear Brutus, is (amazingly) available for download at Project Gutenberg --

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Daumier's young artist

Honoré Daumier (French, 1808 -- 1879), after 1860, oil on canvas,
41 × 33 cm. National Gallery of Art, washington DC

Daumier is one of my favourite artists. I love his acute observation and his humour, and find endless pleasure in his drawings and lithographs, as the French public did during his lifetime. His ability to make recognisable and pointed caricatures of public figures got him thrown into jail, more than once I believe, but he continued as soon as he got out.

This piece
is one of his rare paintings. It shows a young artist asking advice of an older one. I love how Daumier has managed to make the youth so callow, and how he has created a relationship of deference vs experience between the two men with a minimum of means. And I also love the way the feet of both figures are flat on the ground.

Image from Wikimedia

More Daumier images from Wikimedia

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Klee on good pictures

"I want to find out whether or not I'm looking at a good picture and just what is good about this particular work. I don't want to examine the common feature of a series of works or the difference between two series of works -- no such pursuit of history for me -- but to consider the individual act in itself, and were it only a single work that had the luck to become good, as recently happened with two or three of my 'paintings.'
For the fact of my not painting good pictures with a certain measure of regularity results precisely from my imperfect knowledge of what makes a good individual work."

Paul Klee


Monday, February 19, 2007


Untitled, acrylic on panel, 14 x 10" approx, 2006

I decided to post two images today because I'm expecting to be busy for the next few weeks. The bottom of this one is cut off, it didn't quite fit on the scanner. It's based on a drawing of a heron and a gull on an estuary in West Cork, Ireland, and except for the birds it's imaginary. In fact it was done before my last show but it was so different from the rest of that work that I kept it back, and now it's all on its own, a strange and lonesome little piece. Maybe I'll do another to keep it company.

Hand study

Hand holding a book open. Conte crayon on brown paper

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sketch for an interior

On a letter size page, coloured pencils.
Something new is better than nothing?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Vendor, Port of Spain

Vendor, Port of Spain

It's been a productive week for me, I finished another assignment in one of my courses. Aaah! Not much time for drawing though, unless you count the technical kind, which gobbled up most of the available hours. I snatched this pencil drawing of a vendor in Independence Square sometime around the middle of January, and as always with drawing from life, discovered some odd little facts. Such as, the back legs of the woman's chair are resting on a low step and are therefore a little higher than the front legs. Of what possible significance could that be, I hear you murmur. I don't know at all, it's merely a fact, duly noted.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Men at work and art teaching

This photo of an electric company worker and the previous two photos (one of a car repair shop and one of lifeguards) have a common theme of "Men at work", which is not entirely accidental. The theme reminds me of a secondary school art exam more than 40 years ago. Students were required to make a painting, on terrible paper and with terrible paints, on this very theme. I don’t believe any of the students had ever done a figure drawing from life. Whatever art teaching we had may have done no harm but I don’t think it did much good either. In fact I don’t remember being taught anything at all, though I could be wrong on that point. In my memory, art classes were for daubing around with no very clear purpose, though I remember liking art a good deal. So how would a class of 16-year-olds, with no knowledge, no facts, no experience, have tackled the theme of "Men at work" out of their heads? I know my own effort was pathetic. I did a variation of a picture that the teacher had praised in the past, containing a dramatic rearing horse. The trouble was, its relation to the theme of "Men at work" was tenuous at best.

Art was a Cinderella subject in my school at that time. The other subjects were fine. We even got to blow glass in the Physics lab. I often wonder about art teaching now, especially in secondary school. How does it differ from the bad old days?


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Denis Dutton on Kitsch

In The Dictionary of Art, Macmillan, London, 1998:

Kitsch (from German, pretentious trash, kitschen, to smear, verkitschen, to make cheaply, to cheapen).

“Kitsch” has sometimes been used (for example, by Harold Rosenberg) to refer to virtually any form of popular art or entertainment, especially when sentimental. But though much popular art is cheap and crude, it is at least direct and unpretentious. On the other hand, a persistent theme in the history of the usage of “kitsch,” going back to the word’s mid-European origins, is pretentiousness, especially in reference to objects that ape whatever is conventionally viewed as high art. As Arnold Hauser has remarked, kitsch differs from merely popular forms in its insistence on being taken seriously as art. Kitsch can thus be defined as a kind of pseudo-art which has an essential attribute of borrowing or parasitism, and whose essential function is to flatter, soothe, and reassure its viewer and consumer.

Read the whole article