Reality or Realism?

Where does the time go? According to WordPress I’ve not written anything on this blog for a couple of years, and yet with all of the stuff swirling around I could swear that I’ve been doing this much more recently and frequently.


Where we left off, a sketch from Beyond Here

Time it seems, is very much a relative concept, which brings me on to my current area of painting confliction – the depiction of reality. Any of my readers who have not been carried off by strong drink and ill living in the years since my last blog post will recall that I’ve been kicking about North Yorkshire since 2015 in an attempt to capture something of the character of the place in my landscapes.

To bring both of you up to speed  I’m happy to report that it eventually all went – and continues to go – tolerably well. I put on a show (Beyond Here) in Leyburn which was taken up by both the members of the jury of the Paris Salon, and the curators of the Bowes Museum (The V&A of The North),  County Durham.

Martin kinnear silver medal paris salon 2019

Silver Medal at my first Paris Salon – good result. My lovely Dutch neighbour put me back in my box when she said ‘so still not good enough for gold then?’ I just loved that.

To cut a long story short I looked the start of 2019 in the eye with the Medaille d’Argent for Peinture from the 2019 Paris Salon, and a confirmed solo show at The Bowes for November 2020 – Feb 2021. As is the nature of these things . rather than crank out what was obviously working I decided to try and do better, and that as it turned out, was the start of a long rocky and winding road.

Martin kinnear bowes exhibition shoot

Filming at The Bowes for my first solo show – right then I felt that the venue was wearing me and I’ve got a year to do enough good work to turn that equation around.

Maybe we all have a self destructive streak, but I’ve always had a horror of settling for a style, resting on my laurels and generally going to seed. It’s fair to say though that I’ve been preoccupied and conflicted for most of the year, but thanks to the patient efforts of my long suffering and critically acute wife, I’m happy that at long last I’m turning out work which will a: get me back in the Salon and b: look as though I warrant a solo show at The Bowes.

My damascene moment came –  as they often do – whilst teaching at my proper job The Norfolk Painting School, but I’m getting ahead of myself by not explaining the question I was wrestling with before blurting out the answer.

My problem was overwhelming, or rather being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of visual information here in the Dales.

Take a two minute walk from my studio and the place simply throws beauty, sublimity and visual interest at you.

pen hill

We see too much these days- Monet would be fine with this – but in this visual age its not enough, to replicate a view

It’s the problem of the information overload of our digital age in a nutshell, were I Cezanne or Monet I might spend a blissful and focused decade painting a multi canvas series of Pen Hill, like a Yorkshire Mt St Victoire or Wensley Church as a nascent Rouen cathedral. But, we see too much these days don’t we? Gad-fly like my internet trained attention wanders ineffectually from motif to motif, in search of the next best thing.

Too much choice – it’s the modern disease.

The artistic cure of course is to settle down stop and really LOOK. While I can see that focused working from a single fixed point on a single view would stop my attention wandering I just can’t subscribe to a doctrine of simply painting what is there.


Amazing craft but is it Art, well no not really unless you think looking as real as a photo is enough. An i-pad painting pf a photo from a photo

So there you have it – over 500 words in and I’m finally getting to that which ruined my social life for a year induced painters block and compelled me to renew this long neglected blog.

The problem – and write this on your studio wall – is Reality. Reality it turns out is a slippery concept. For instance if we were to paint precisely what was in front of us, would that in itself, make the painting more real?

Obviously not, simply by transposing the real three dimensional world onto a 2D plane we take a huge step away from what it really looked like. Then of course we have to take into account that even if we could paint a 3D image of our subject, it still wouldn’t be temporal, or personal, or experiential. Videos are compelling but they are not adequate substitutes for first hand experience.


Full Moon- my favourite experience at Houghton Halll. How I wish I could paint the experience of seeing this – then I’ll have cracked it.

No, to be useful a painting has to do something more, be something more say something more than a mere facsimile, it has to exist in and on its own terms.

So there you have it, that’s why I reject painting simply what I see, it’s pointless. it’s silly and I have a great camera on my phone.

Now, I know that its fashionable to be polarised in these days of hard Brexit, but I take the eccentric view that the middle ground isn’t a bad place to be, and while I’m clear that painting shouldn’t try to be a facsimile, I’m also of the opinion that pure abstraction is generally a bit of a cop out.

klein blue 1961

The other ‘great heresy’, Pure Abstraction by Yves Klein – which I find beautiful but so inaccessible and excluding.

I’m no more going to paint a canvas plain blue and claim its my way of ‘experiencing the meditative spirituality of the Dales’  than I am of being an inefficient camera. No, for me the art follows the subject, impulse leads inspiration and authenticity is always key.

My problem was then how to capture the reality of the subject, visualise my experience of it and engender a sense of its temporality without resorting to – as Patrick Heron memorably termed them – the twin heresies of strictly figurative or purely abstract painting?

So that was my question – the answer as usual came from having a cup of tea.

In this case I was lecturing and discussing this very point, when inspiration struck. ‘You see this cop of tea?’ I said holding it aloft, ‘and notice that its being held by the handle?’ My students nodded warily, no doubt wondering where I was going with this or whether I was on medication.

‘Now you can’t see the handle’ said I turning the cup around , ‘but does that mean it’s not there?’, I asked, hoping the point had stuck.

The point , as I’m sure you’ve guessed is this – is it more ‘real’ to paint merely the instance of what we are seeing from a fixed view, or should we paint what we know to be there.  Do we paint in other words , our current static, limited and incidental, view or our experience of the subject?


Garden Of Delights Oil 20×30″ one of my many attempts at nailing reality down a bit since we last chatted.

And that is how I solved my painters block with a cup of tea.

My current work is based purely now upon memory, recollection and the orchestration of recalled instances. It seems to offer a fuller sense of place, a feeling of temporality and something of my experience, and just for the record it did get back into the Societie National des Beaux Arts Paris Salon – so Boris willing – I’ll see you in Paris this December.

Filature de Coton (The cotton mill) by Martin Kinnear. Selected by the Societie Nationale de Beaux Arts, for the 2019 Salon des Beaux Arts. Carrousel de Louvre, Paris

The Cotton Mill (Empire)./ My 2019 Salon entry, showing at the Paris Salon from Dec this year! Oil 48×36″




2 thoughts on “Reality or Realism?

  1. Thanks for that, entertaining and inspiring as always.

    I am just reading some stuff on Odilon Redon and have come across two quotations, one after the other, which brought to mind your blog and I think they resonate with some of your thoughts. This is lifted from the publication I am reading:

    .. Redon claimed that his originality consisted of putting ” the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible”, and in his diary he noted Corot’s advice to him “beside a certainty, place an uncertainty”.

    Kind regards Barbara King


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