Back on Solid Ground

It all boils down to reality doesn’t it?

Regular readers of this occasional blog (to whom I extend both my incredulity and gratitude), may recall that I have been grappling with Cezanne, or more specifically his ideas about Art.


Cezanne at his best – well for me at least – a French student of mine who grew up with the view says that it doesn’t look like that. He’d be pleased I suspect

Now I’m not an academic – I have no interest for instance in when he was born, worked, died, whom he married or any of that guff. Like any self respecting artist I simply wish to steal his best ideas.

Picasso would approve.

So what were Cezanne’s ideas?

Where to start… my favourite is the idea of temporality and mutability. So in essence Cezanne postulates that we simply don’t experience things in the way that a traditionally composed painting – or a photograph for that matter – suggests.  A stiff, fixed, perspectival view is all very well; but it’s hardly experiential.

We see and experience things temporally, and more than that we know more about a motif than we see when we look at it (I’m straying a little beyond Cezanne here).  Cezanne was non conventional in his use of perspective, because he knew that the ‘proper’ way of painting it made little sense if the point of painting, was to record how something looked to him.

So in comes a willingness, if not to abstract, then to create visual ambiguity. The aim? To make something look how it felt to see it, not how it was.  I like that, and it’s a keeper.


looking into Gordale, A natural cathedral or citadel of limestone.My attempt in the woods of Bacon – to ‘deepen the mystery’ Work in progress 48×60″

Take this to its logical conclusion – and Braque did – we get multiple simultaneous perspective. Take that on and it’s a short step to Abstraction (with an A, not an a). Cezanne didn’t take these steps because he never lost his wonder at the power of great, significant Art.

So what makes Art significant? My reading is that a work of Art has to have gravitas, visual power and for want of a better word ‘orchestration’.  A Poussin for instance oozes all of that. Cezanne’s works might be unconventional in his use of perspective but they reveal his respect for the Form.

His compositions and colours are  never glib, but sober, dignified, significant. Never stooping – as I have shamefully done – to zombie expressionism , he built his works so that each passage builds with and upon the next to become a greater whole.

It’s hard to grasp, and contradictory to his ideas of non fixed perspective (but then all great artists are contradictory). So by following the principle of orchestration we can reimagine a scene as having Macro and Micro passages;  colours for instance, but this might apply to value, temperature, opacity or any other range parameter we choose.

In simplistic colour terms a simple Cezannian (if I might coin that phrase) landscape might be divided into blue for the sky, and green for the ground – so two Macro areas. Within those we want lots of close interest, a symphony of blue green, blue, blue violet, (in various permutations of value, opacity or saturation), and then the same again for the greens.

Fill the Macro areas with those smaller marks and it becomes more visually interesting. Put the right small marks together in the right order and you have Micro colour planning  and that’s symphonic if you get it right. Cezanne did.

It’s not glibly sloshing paint about, it’s not regurgitating photographic detail, it’s looking at a very ordinary scene and elevating it by being selective, being rigorous and using aesthetic judgments, which when you come to think about it isn’t a bad definition of Art.

Another keeper. I was starting to like Cezanne.

Next a surprise. Cezanne was distinctly sniffy about Impressionism. Not that it wasn’t good or attractive  painting  – it could be both of those  – but for him Art (note the A) couldn’t be about something so ephemeral as a flash of light or a vagary of weather. By its very nature Impressionism was about visual effects not observed truths.


It’s an instance, but not Truth. Or so Cezanne would have me think. The peerless work of Monet.

A tough one for me , wedded as I am, to the ambiguous effects of wax and glaze. Could it be possible for me to view the Dales  as an opportunity for great Art rather than a theatre for transient light effects?

I’m struggling with that one, because I’ve never been stopped dead in my tracks by what Cezanne terms great Art. Poussin? It might be dignified, significant, cadenced and all that give me a ravishing Turner any day.

Now a confession. I stumbled across a show of Cezanne’s greatest works one day in London. I hadn’t expected to see them ( I was there for my hit of Turner and Rembrandt in those days), but I had the good sense to take the opportunity.  Well reader, I was underwhelmed.

To my untrained eye they looked a bit drab, a bit blocky a bit like poor Cubism. I certainly didn’t feel any urge to spend time with them.  I know. But – and this is important – I’ve never forgotten that I didn’t get it.

But, back to reality.  So we’re moving on from fixed perspective, the certainty of observation and all that implies. We’re also thinking about the work in terms of orchestration which demands we never loose sight of aesthetics and visual design.

So, progress, but not victory. I’ll leave you this time with some works in progress.  Here are the Dales, solid, structural, foursquare and honestly painted. It’s not great Art, but then it’s not a pastiche, a painted photo , a bit of zombie expressionism (see my previous blog  post), or another of my long running tributes to Turner. If nothing else my understanding of reality has shifted.

For the time being I offer you a few as yet untitled and unfinished works.


Spare and majestic but divided architecturally by dry stone walls and enclosures. Work in progress 48×60″

It’s been a good week.


New starts and false finishes

IMG_3667 2

My low point. Pen Hill, all technique and no heart. I could do better, and I might well have done (watch this space …)

A series beckons, or rather looms on my work horizon. Twelve months ago it seemed like a good idea; serialise my new project of painting the Yorkshire Dales.

Now, I’m a landscape painter – or at least I was – so the challenge of painting a few hills didn’t seem like a challenge at all, more of a holiday really, with a bit of enjoyable work thrown in. More than that, I come from the bloody place – or the next best thing  – my birthplace in the Pennines would make the dales feel very familiar, surely?

The trouble is , I love the place.

So when I cranked out a few worthy and respectable looking paintings, I knew it wasn’t enough. The  awareness came, as the things do, in an unexpected place at a time of its choosing.

Jane and I were sat in a teashop – the Dales positively swarm with them – and I was idly flicking through an art blog on my i-phone while she placed her order at the counter. It wasn’t a great blog, but one phrase stood out ‘ Zombie Abstraction’ . This – the author assured me –  might be best described as aping a style without understanding it.


I’d applied a style I knew, and I was competent with – on my new subject, without taking the trouble to really get to know the place.  I don’t do zombie abstraction, but I had done zombie expressionism…


Nice sketch, but that’s all it is…

A quick look at Google confirmed my worst fears, Google’ contemporary art Yorkshire dales’, and there they (and potentially we) were, rank upon rank of zombie expressionists. A dash of solvent, a few drips, a hill vaguely marked out, a Turnerseque dash of glowering light.

There comes a time in every painter’s career when this is OK; pressure from the gallery to create pictures ‘like those, only a bit smaller‘ , pressure from the bank to sell a few, and pressure from oneself to feel successful.

But this wasn’t that time, and that couldn’t be me again. I’d worked uncharacteristically  hard to get myself a studio in the Dales, and could I really look myself in the face again if the best I could do with that opportunity is crank out a few commercial turkeys?

So, back to the drawing board.

Having a sincere, personal reaction to one’s subject, might seem to be the obvious first step to any Art project,  but wrapped up in complacency, buoyed by competence and goaded by deadlines; I’d not stopped to think. Or rather I’d not stopped to experience.

They say that creativity is a process, not an event, and so it is.  Now, I’m not here to give the impression that all of the wonderful artists who work in the dales are copyists, or have no artistic merit, just that there style is not – could not be –  a successful outcome for me.

craven herald

‘Modern Artists who step in Turner’s footsteps’ from The Craven Herald & Pioneer newspaper. It’s not bad painting, but it is a well trodden path…


I know what I’m painting now, won’t be widely well received, I know it won’t fit in galleries ( I like BIG), and I know that it won’t be easy viewing for lovers of my earlier works, but it will have the virtue of sincerity.

In the interim , I offer you some zombie expressionism, as evidence if of nothing else of my commitment to the iterative, destructive, creative process that is painting.


Save me from myself – Zombie Expressionism; The Oil painting Dead…


Inspiration not Perspiration

No posts for nearly six months now; regular readers of my blog can be forgiven for thinking I’d given up.

Nothing could be further from the truth, I’ve never worked harder or painted less.

Opportunity knocked when I broke my foot. OK it’s not cancer or anything at all serious, and I neither expect nor deserve a shred of sympathy for such a minor injury, but it did stop me painting. In fact I’ll rephrase that – it stopped me regurgitating the same old paintings, and gave me an opportunity to pause for thought.

Now stopping painting isn’t something I’ve done for nearly two decades, mostly because I teach it, but more importantly because I love out.

I now realise that one can be too much in love. I was in love with the physical act of painting, the pleasure of being competent at at it, and the satisfaction of ‘not having a bad day’. I used to tell my apprentice that amateurs have painters block, professionals paint through it; bad days are for wimps.

I stand before you chastened and corrected. Complacent artists don’t have bad days, because they – like me – are too busy cranking out the (all too competent and lucrative)  turkeys to stop and assess if what they’re doing is actually any good.

Stopping to think what one’s doing is fatal, like stopping on a bike, loose momentum and you crash. And crash I did.

Were my ideas valid? Could my vision be original? Was I painting with vision or from habit? Theses questions are as old as Art, and the answers only apply to the questioner.

Last night I was sitting with an old friend in my local, and by way of conversation, he asked how my new project of painting the Dales was getting on. The answer was, ‘I’ve done it nine times now , you tell me.’

And so I had – nine different ways of getting into the Dales, and this from a painter who made what little reputation he has on painting landscape. They all competent, some of them are commercial and parts of it might even be flirting with originality.

A breakthrough came when I stopped painting, and started to write again. visual inputs are not always or often the best route to visual outputs, so I swapped my sketchbooks for a notebook and journal.

I don’t write to publish or meet grammatical criteria. Impressions in words suit me. Here are my current oils – except they are just words yet; pictures will follow.

Erosion, change. Impermanence, chaos, destruction, a lack of absolutes, a landscape which makes these truths palatable by disguising them under beauty . 

Dark pines, cool and resinous. sudden light on distant grey green hills, sullen trees marching into purple veils of rain up the dale. Yellow white sunlight the wind whickering, never still. 

Cottages and bothies perched on hills or nestled in valleys the road curves and swerves over crest and through scarp to disappear into a tangle of full trees , a spire betrays its passage through to the next sunlit height . 

The smell of swaledale sheep, cowshit and the fat scent of sheds stuffed with ruminants carried-away by fresh breezes. The Unexpected sickly note of agricultural diesel and municipal bus seems incongruous. 

Sunlight raking over fields, old plough lines, the cut of glacial ice, the line of the land and the hand of prehistoric man are revealed. New hands build on it, their fences and gaudy bales wet in the weak sunlight- they will pass into nothing, leaving no trace for the light to find.

Tourists crinkle in cagools and clumsy too new boots. Aluminium walking sticks, bright neckerchief and wrap around sunglasses which serve to keep the truth out . 

Streams bridges, falls and vistas swerve and rise unexpectedly around the bends of never to be found again ways byways and  lanes. Drovers tracks and beguiling rights of way lie nettle strewn in the valleys, promising clean fresh heights. 

Black sheep pubs, trimmed stone and foresquare stand by the roads, over the far dale and down snakelike roads, make do pubs straggle their barns and outbuildings by sunken lanes. Parking is difficult they flash by; better in anticipation . 

Evening falls on the dale casting one side into night, the other under the spotlight of the purest softest light. Fingers of golden light search over the land picking out a window , a stream, the passing of a distant car. The light makes jewels which flash in defiance of the softly stepping  night . Distant coverts and scarps glow roseate, shadows lengthen and then it is gone. The light falls flat, the day has lost its thunder and the long twilight advances. 

Curtains of rain march down the dale chasing the day before them, the earth smells wet and foetid. Ozone and wet traffic dust lie like a blanket over the one road in. 

Spring sunlight bright green and golden like a torch cast into trees looking for signs of regrowth. Cold wind unexpected in the uplifting bright clarity of late winter reminds us this is only a foretaste of spring 

Cloud shadows bisect the land framing a spire here, a vale there, pictures pass before us, nature is never satisfied or still, coyly revealing its potential, keeping the whole truth to itself. 

The dales flow like transfixed water, lapping up to the edges of scarps. Spumelike, woods  flow and eddy in straggling lines against the crooked dry stone breakwaters and groynes , trees like flotsam dissolve and swirl into sunset lit vistas . High barns stand like lighthouses or stately ships out to sea, straining their anchored foundations against the inexorable rise and fall of the land; a record of change.

Name giving, the rivers scratch out their long lost fame down each dale,  broad valley and high walls mute testament to a lost roaring torrents

Long dead trees now sunken into peat, we walk on treetops. The present sinks inexorably into the future.

I look now to turn impressions into visions, but I’m nervous of painting instances when I might find bigger truths beneath them, if I persist. This week I’m teaching a Masterclass on Cezanne, who rejected the colourful vaporous instances of Impressionism to find a more profound, solid truth behind what he saw.

Perhaps Cezanne is the gate and the key? Picasso thought so, I shall see.




‘We can learn nothing from the Old Masters’

Coming to the end of a five day course it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve achieved.

Was it five days well spent helping people to realise their dream to become better painters, or five days I’ll never get back?

Ask the same question in most art tutors and you’ll get a quixotic answer, ‘Art cannot be taught’ . Leaving aside the obvious point that the whole aim of any college is to teach, does that mean I’m wasting my time?


What one can’t impart is that spark of original genius which animated the brushes of painters like Velasquez or the imagination of Picasso, but it’s all to easy to throw one’s hands in the air and say that these things cannot be taught, and therefore the whole thing shouldn’t be taught.


Aesop by Velasquez, technical skill is a solid basis for creative innovation, but there’s precious little of that here; this is bravura technical skill but not, I think, vision.


Watching me watching you. Las Meninas is a work of originality, insight and genius underpinned by years of unglamorous craft.

But where did artists of that calibre start? With the basics of course, for while ephemeral genius might come unbidden, its visualisation and realisation must be built on the  concrete skills of Painting (note the capital P), and it’s precisely these skills which art colleges need to turn their hands and energies to, rather than shooting straight for some kind of conceptual end game.


The style that launched a thousand representational ateliers. Too much craft is a bad thing. because flawless technique isn’t the point of Art if it doesn’t flower into visionary genius. Sorry John.

True, one can hardly expect every competent painter to turn those craft skills into a means of expressing some personal creative genius, but that equation doesn’t reverse. Even geniuses need the craft to express their ideas in a way we can all benefit from.


Creative vision will always trump technical skill, but you’ll always need a sound grasp of the latter. Bacon’s screaming pope might be visionary but its technically competent too.

I wonder  – I really do – if that’s not the central omission in our state Art education.

It’s commonplace to bemoan the fact that Art isn’t being taught because those who teach it were not themselves taught to paint, and certainly the growth of practical teaching studios such as mine do nothing if not bear witness to that sad fact.

Worse still, those who are taught to paint, often lack the plurality to embrace contemporary practice. Ateliers always teach great skills, but I wonder if the world really needs more classically trained painters? It’s not useful to impose a style upon creative minds by insisting this Art is valid and that type as not.

So I’m for a middle ground, although I understand compromise is so very unfashionable these days. Enough craft to enable creativity, but not a diktat on how those skills should be used; that attitude should have ended after 1874 and Impressionism.

How wonderful it would be if we could prepare young – would be – artists with the practical and technical skills they need to express themselves before they took on the very necessary and useful conceptual training on offer at university.

All that’s necessary are the basics:

  • The use and creation of grounds, boles and gesso
  • Ditto that of mediums
  • The central role of Value in creating the illusion of Form
  • The key processes of painting (direct, ebauche, indirect)
  • Understanding how to read and use a triadic colour wheel
  • How to use brushes, rags and knives

Learning the craft of painting so they can become artists. The trick is not to confuse the input with the output. The craft of painting is not an end in itself but an enabler.

Once one has the things inspiration if it comes can be expressed, and it can be done in just a week with a few willing minds. Over five years of high school and two of college it doesn’t seem much to ask, yet every week I work with people whose creative spark has been inhibited by their inability to put thoughts on canvas.

So not a week wasted, but a week seeding the ground in case originality and genius arrives to enable it to root and flower.

‘Nothing To Do with the Genius of Turner’

A slow news day has netted in Mr Gove’s latest contribution to British public life; his confident assertion that the Turner Prize has ‘nothing to do with the genius of Turner.’

Now, I’m no fan of what Mr Gove has previously termed Art which ‘celebrates ugliness, nihilism and narcissism’, but only because it’s easier to knock up a powerful negative image than create a positive uplifting one. As much as I admire the terrible vision Bacon, I infinitely prefer the utopian images which Bonnard conjured up from nostalgia and memory. Suburban, bourgeois, comfortable – but there you are, my taste is as valid as yours.


Hurst’s macabre vision. Not for me, but only because it’s easier to shock than delight. A lesson I learned in my career in advertising, and that personal, subjective judgement has nothing to do with the merit of his work. 

But personal taste is no measure of merit, and it seems nonsensical to me to dismiss an established and respected Art competition with what amounts to a half baked comparison between Marten , Turner, Holman Hunt and – of  all people – Ruskin.

One can’t really compare Picasso with Titian, they both painted wonderfully, innovated and used paint but that’s about it, and in the same vein is it reasonable or desirable to compare Turner prize winners with the great artists of the past?

Interestingly , a friend passed on a catalogue of Turner prize winners to me last week, and just through the lens of a decade of so it’s amazing how quickly what was once avant grade has become  – almost – establishment.  It’s harder now to see Hurst, Doig, Kapor and Offili as the cutting edge, but they were, and as Greyson Perry memorably observed, ‘everything was contemporary once’.


Art moves on, what was once new very quickly becomes routine. How can we spot what will be regarded as great art in 500 years time? I don’t know, but replicating what was new isn’t the answer… 

The difficulty here I suspect for Mr Gove – and most of us – is how to identify what will become the ‘good’ art of the future. One of his heroes Ruskin, famously got it wrong when he railed against the (then revolutionary) works of Whistler.

Now I don’t always get it, and I for the record I can’t love anything quite so devoid as aesthetic beauty as Marten’s assemblages, but I can understand why they are good and compartmentalise my taste from their merit.

The answer of course  is to rely on the judgement of people who have totally immersed themselves in the world of contemporary art to the point where they can make sound, comparative judgements about the merit of various nominees. There must be a word for them , let’s call them for the purposes of this blog ‘experts’.

Hang on , we don’t do experts any more, because the ‘experts’ were THE PROBLEM which we’ve all so democratically and wisely marginalised with our Brexit vote and maybe a hatred of experts telling us what to do and think is Mr Gove’s issue.

‘Who are expert judges to tell us what’s good and what we should like?’, seems to be the strident cry from Mr Gove? If so this reading of the prize is facile, the Turner prize simply informs us which artists – in the opinions of experts – have the most merit; whether we like what they produce on an aesthetic level  or admire their intellectual rigour lies within our remit, as my feelings about the British Art Exhibition bear witness.

It seems to me – as no expert – that great Art is not some simple clever one liner – to paraphrase Will Gompertz, but about universal truths, enduring ideas and us. Marten’s works are thoughtful and full of depth and intellectual rigour, and they might endure if they speak forcefully about human truths half a millennium from now.

Time will tell us if our current art experts were right, but if we position Turner as an ambitious, driven, visionary artist willing to steal ruthlessly from the past to reimagine the future then it seems to me that the Turner Prize and its winners have everything to do with the great man.

sun setting over a lake, Tate

It’s about innovation, not respect for  tradition. What’s not to get Mr Gove? New ideas have to be taken on trust, but their enduring value is a longer game. 



“The ultimate biscuit tin image”

So it’s crunch time for Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, or “the ultimate biscuit tin image” of Scotland: a bulky stag set against the violet hills and watery skies of an isolated wilderness,” according to The Sunday Herald.

I can’t imagine anybody in the contemporary art world shedding a tear for its’ loss after nearly two decades on loan to The National Gallery of Scotland, mind you. Because if any picture ever summed up the cliched irrelevance of Victorian art then surely this is it, and it’s not the one I would rescue from the fire should the building ever take.

But – and this is a big but – did you ever get the feeling you were missing something? Just before we metaphorically chuck it on the bonfire, isn’t it worth reflecting on what it’s worth?

This, after all, might have been the image that sold a million shortbread fingers, but does that alone make it bad Art? And if it does, then why do so many people like – no let’s admit this, love it?

The nub of this it seems to me is that this isn’t so much a painting – as an idea, a concept, a way of life, a vision. It’s the Victorian vision of Romantic Highland Scotland distilled into a striking image.


Imagine painting one image which will encapsulate an idea of the Romantic Highlands, this is heather, weather, whisky, wilderness and wildlife all in one. We might be bored of the image but such economy of means should be admired

Landseer was good at this. He did visual expressions of BIG ideas; as his Lions in Trafalgar square nobly attest to an idea of Empire. It’s just a pity he also stooped to expressing smaller, incidental, almost trivial things; the royal’s favourite hounds and horses for instance, maudlin expressions of grief and cutsie pictures of anthropomorphic pets. Popular taste it seems quickly loses it savour, while big ideas transcend .


Landseer did big ideas and that’s not a common skill, as the efforts on the fourth column in Trafalgar square regularly attest.


He also did popular taste, The Old Shepherds chief Mourner is harder to see today as great Art.

So it might have graced a million biscuit jars, but I’d argue that its’ enduring, inexplicable popularity, far from putting The Monarch Of The Glen beyond the pale with the contemporary artist should make us interested in why it’s so enduringly popular.

Buy ‘us’ I mean visual artists,  and the ‘why’ it seems to me, is easy to explain. Yes, it’s popularist, cliched even, and yes it reflects its’ time, but, and this is important, it’s the distillation and communication of a complex web of ideas into a simple, strong , striking and memorable visual image.

And, when you think about it; how many paintings, works of art even, fit that criteria? The Angel of the North by Gormley, Mother and Child Divided by Hurst – these are of the same quality: simple, strong, striking, memorable, visual images.

Bizarrely, that most brand-aware of branded goods companies, Diageo, feels it no longer needs to own the painting as it has (and I quote) ‘no direct link to (their) business or brands’, but then when did they ever sell stags, or Scotland or the Scottish dream and how did the value of understanding how to create a big visual band cease to be important at Diageo?

We might not mourn its’ passing, but we ought to reflect on the reasons behind the popularity of The Monarch Of the Glen.

‘Mere Freaks of Chromomania’

Two days in Margate and two exhilarating visits to Turner: Adventures In Colour – what have I learned?

Turner the man was driven and contradictory, by turns acquiescent to public taste, respectful of tradition and suddenly dismissive of it, revolutionary, almost self destructive. Such change comes slowly of course but can seem to manifest itself quickly in the eyes of collectors and critics.

Incisively curated, this small exhibition is seasoned with wonderful reactions by Turner’s contemporaries to both the works on display and Turner’s himself, ‘In his knowledge of colour he (Turner) is equalled by none,’ noted one reviewer, before wryly observing , ‘and it is this which gains him much admiration and many enemies.’ 

It took a while for these enemies to gather however, and as Turner went from strength to strength the plaudits grew, for here was an artist with his finger firmly on the pulse of popular taste, for this was the period of his greats; the Temeraire, Modern Italy and all of that bright popular Italianate luminescence which transformed industrialised England into another Eden.

Yet as his art matured and vision grew, Turner began to push the boundaries and patience of his clients. A recognised genius, Turner’s clients both wanted his work to be startlingly original and what they expected; that’s a square which is difficult to circle.

When money is tight and reputations are still to be won, we can all bend a bit to popular taste (as my many oils of Holkham Bay silently attest), but eventually smiles become strained, acquiescence fades and compromise seems – well, too much of a compromise.

Starting with little grumbles about the topographical veracity of his scenes, Turner’s clients vocalised how they felt about losing their creative mandate. Their views; genius should be bounded by topography to be valid, and that an artist of his stature should paint in committee.This could never work – and Turner broke decisively with it.

Turner could and no doubt did dismiss the odd disgruntled client, but even so, something was starting to become unhinged, Turner the quintessential demagogue was looking not to safely emulate the masters of the past, but towards building his own artistic legacy, and if that meant moving the odd church spire in the Venetian skyline or making the sun rise in the west, then reality had to bend now, to his vision.

Critics were supportive, but qualified: ‘Turner has struck out a new route by the singular mixture of prismatic colours, with which he represents sky and water. His scrutinising genius seems to tremble on the verge of some new discovery in colour, which may prove of the first importance to art. ‘

It didn’t. The final room neatly contrasts two of Turner’s latest and greatest works with one of the sturdy, almost academic ones which made his reputation with the ones that ruined it ‘Mere freaks of chromomania’ as the Spectator damningly concluded.

Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mere freaks of chromomania , Turners late works were not seen in his time as being ‘of the first importance to art’. They are though.

Yet failures, though they were adjudged to be Turner’s late works, were indeed to prove of the first importance to art.

So Turner made it his business to meet (and exceed) public expectations before sacrificing that approbation on the altar of his creativity.

For me then, the interest here was not in Turner’s technical capability, creativity or dazzling use of colour, but in what people thought about it; for what measures of success do artists today have, but critical approbation?

It’s commonplace and obvious to say Turner was a great technician, an inventive colourist and a self obsessed, self seeking autodidact, and he was all these things, but he was and remains one of us; an artist ‘trembling in the verge’ of creative discovery.

And that, dear readers, is why the gallery was full of artists, there to understand themselves as much as Turner.  The lesson here, was not in the paintings but in how they were and are received.

The most illuminating moment of the exhibition? ‘Well that does nothing for me,’ dismissively remarked a visitor glancing sideways at Turner’s ethereal vision of The Salute, on her way no doubt to the safer ground of the Tate’s excellent coffee shop. Others stood in front of the work, lost in contemplation. Turner would be pleased his work can still provoke and divide opinion, and that might just be the test of great art.

Venice with the Salute c.1840-5 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

‘Well that does nothing for me,’ I was delighted Turner’s work can still induce a healthy dislike for his creative vision. I adore it, for the record.

Topping and tailing the Turner exhibit were two stimulating contemporary rooms, on the ground floor, two selected pieces by the wonderful Yinko Shinobare, the best of which was The British Museum which I’ll let the gallery itself describe.

‘Presented alongside this new commission is Shonibare’s The British Library, a colourful work, celebrating and questioning how immigration has contributed to the British culture that we live in today. Shelves of books covered in colourful wax fabric fill the Gallery, their spines bearing the names of first and second generation immigrants who have enriched British society. From T.S. Eliot and Hans Holbein to Zaha Hadid, The British Library reminds us that the displacement of communities by global war has consequences that inform our lives and attitudes today.’

Colourful, powerful, thought provoking but utterly and regrettably unambiguous.

The British Library was a good work that spoke to the mind but sidestepped the imagination. If Turner teaches us anything it’s the power of the incomplete thought; art which provides imaginative space is always so much more compelling. There was imagination here – but no imaginative space for us, the viewers.


An important message, visually striking and delivered with great clarity; immigration is a force for good. It’s an important message but Turner teaches us that ambiguity will always resonate more than factual delivery. Shonibare’s important work might be colourful but is at odds to the great themes of the Turner show.

The British Library was accompanied by an end of Empire themed sculpture where the two great powers literally engage in the balance of power and diplomacy. Apparently the best way to visualise the balancing act of the two great powers was to err… show them, well… balancing. Really?

I don’t mind being spoon fed and I’m not keen on art which is so aesthetic and remote as to be inaccessible (see my previous posts on the Turner Prize), but if there’s an award somewhere for visualising the blinking obvious then this has to be a contender.

Striking? Yes, memorable – certainly, clear, absolutely but did it evoke deeper feelings in me than the idea that two great powers played a game of diplomacy with the world- no not really and I already knew that.

Art has to do a bit more than be just spectacle – luckily it does upstairs with both Turner’s work and a stunning contemporary piece.


Look its the balance of diplomacy, represented as the balance of diplomacy…

The upstairs gallery housed a much more relevant and resonant work to the Turner show by John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea. Again, I’ll let the gallery introduce it.

Turner Contemporary is a partner on the UK tour of John Akomfrah’s multi-screen installation Vertigo Sea, premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

A meditation on whaling, the environment and our relationship with the sea, the work is a film essay continuing the ‘recycled aesthetic’ of John Akomfrah’s recent gallery pieces, fusing archive material, original footage and readings from classical sources.

Shot on the Isle of Skye, in the Faroe Isles and in the North of Greenland and Norway, the film is inspired in part by two influential books: Hermand Meville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation (1988). Also referenced is the incident on board the slave ship Zong that led JMW Turner to paint The Slave Ship almost a century later, exhibiting it in 1840 to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.’


Not to be missed; Vertigo Sea encapsulates Turner’s themes of ambiguity, recall and evoking imaginative space.

Ambiguous, evocative, ephemeral, imaginative, Vertigo Sea exemplified Turner’s central themes of the artist as a conjurer of emotional responses to the mundane reality of life. It worked – it really did and I applaud it.

There are bigger galleries and more expansive shows, however the big themes are here. Highly recommended.

‘Memory is the best Filter’

Nothing prepares you for the act of painting as much as memory; forget sketching, forget studies and most of all forget photographs; digital or otherwise.

‘Memory’, as Bonnard observed, ‘is the best filter’, so it’s to memory that I’m committing my first studies in my new project of The Dales. It’s so easy, so seductive, so instant to take that snap – and with my iPhone – snap after snap after snap; as if the act of looking is in any way comparable to that of seeing.

It’s just not, and as I’ve written elsewhere in this occasional blog, devices don’t see things like we do. They record everything of a scene, but nothing about it, they have no bias, nothing they store is filtered through the lens of our experience, and worst of all they simply don’t store  memories as we recall them. Committing an image to your device, in the hope it will be a reference,  is quite possibly the surest way to ruin a painting before one starts.

So here’s the plan; a full scale show based on observation and recall; all about the visual and emotional traces impressed upon me , and not about what was there.

Landscape is a metaphor for so much of our being, standing in – and out in it – roots one in a time and place in a way one can’t experience secondhand. You can’t feel a place and feel part of it through the lens of a device only the lens of actual experience. Time spent outdoors locates us in a place, we experience it physically and recall it viscerally, and no where is this more true for me than the Dales.

For me the Dales is life writ large; beautiful, unexpected, mutable, by turns enchanting and hostile. I was drawn to it as a boy,escaping from the smoky congestion and industry of Pendle, and return this year to look it in the eye on new terms.

Much has to be done, how to visualise it, evoke its moods, express my own and most importantly impress that vision upon the viewers of my work.

I made a start today, a 2M canvas wrought from memory, the sky mutable, the Dale cast into shadow and spotlit, cottages huddled against the scarp. Is it good Art? Not at all – but it’s a good start, and I trust in those more than a thousand oil sketches painstakingly transcribed from photographs.


In Sullen Acquiescence to the Night. Oil on canvas 2.5 x 1.75M

There’s nothing new in this of course, as Pollock noted his work was no more – or less than ‘energy and motion made visible’, and what could be more useless in meeting that aspiration than a still image?

I’ve heard it said that a painting, like a conversation, is never definitively finished; I now understand how true is this when one talks not of one work  but a whole project such as my 2016 show The Painted Garden.  So the Dales and my work on the Painted Garden will need to sit side by side on my easel for a year or two, will one mellow the other, or will the garden take on something of the spirit of this new landscape?


And Such Gardens Are Not Made, Oil on Board 8’x4′. From The Painted Garden Series 2016

These aren’t questions which can be answered quickly, and certainly not by seeing,experiencing and recording life through a lens.

Not Confusing Faith with Religion

An evening lecture on The Sacred and the Secular in Contemporary Art with Charles Saumarez Smith (Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts), left a deep impression upon me.

Before I get ahead of myself, the lecture was billed as’An exploration of some of the relationships between the practice of contemporary art and religion: the search for transcendence; the idea of the sacred; and the use of symbolic meaning.. with examples drawn from the work of, amongst others, Alison Watt, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Edmund de Waal.

Before you juggle with all of that, it boiled down to this:  are people today finding something in galleries which they used to find in Church?


Interestingly cathedral visits are increasing as church attendance declines. We like the experience of the numinous but may be rejecting the dogma, prefering experiencing evensong to attending regular worship. It was a wonderfully engaging lecture.

Mr Smith certainly felt they were, and statistical attendance of galleries does suggest that in terms of numbers and regular attendance, galleries may indeed be fulfilling a need in people to get away from the rhythms of everyday life and experience – if even for an hour or two – a life less ordinary, if you will.

All of this touches on why the experience of seeing great Art is so uplifting, and it was to this question to which I was drawn – or rather directed to,  by Mr Smith’s excellent lecture.

Not all art is uplifting of course, much less spiritual. You must have experienced this; go to any number of local galleries and plough through wall after wall of those old standards; local landscapes, dog portraits, a sunset or two, maybe a snow scene and a harbour scene… quite.

You might be by turns, informed, impressed or so forth ; but moved? Spiritually in the moment? Not likely.

Now transport yourself in your minds eye to a great show, and place yourself in front of a powerful piece of Art – and it doesn’t matter which one -as long as it works for you. How do you feel? Can’t take your eyes off it? Lose yourself in the moment? Thrill at the use of colour? Of artistic vision? Of value? Of scale?

Great Art takes us somewhere other than where we are, and leaves us with a memory of something which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s experiential. Have enough great art in one space and the whole thing might fairly be described as creating  a transcendental – almost religious experience.

And so to the most interesting part of an interesting evening. Mr Smith discussed in passing the general public’s cogent, coherent and articulate reaction when asked to jot down their thoughts on Rembrandt’s works, before noting (with not a little regret, I’m pleased to say) these ideas were not, felt by the gallery to be qualified, as compared to those of an art historian for instance .

In plain language;  Art should be seen, approached and commented on through the lens of academia, if opinions on it are to be given weight, but is that a sustainable position for publicly funded institutions?

I’ve never had a problem with differentiating religion – as in organised worship, with faith, and understand that its quite possible to have one without partaking of the other, and indeed the two may become incompatible . This it seems to me lies at the heart of Mr Smith’s observation, in a time when people are increasingly being engaged with art , are our institutions increasingly engaging with people?


Rembrandt, we can all ‘get’ him and be moved by him; but are we qualified to feel that unless we’re academics?

When I look around the contemporary art world, I wonder – I really do – if inclusivity is at the top of many curator’s measures of success. When institutions meet public demand they must bend to that flow or the stream of public enthusiasm will simply find a new course.

Fail to meet demand,ignore expectations, inform people they are wrong and the public will break with you. Schism – as the church would assure you – is a terrible thing.

So to keep with Smith’s religious metaphor, we have in one corner the established Church with all its rituals, dogma, and formality, in the other unqualified expressions of faith, honestly felt and directly expressed. As with the Catholic Church and early Protestantism, so with art historians and art lovers.

Replace the word’Church’ with ‘Gallery’ and we neatly have both Mr Smith’s opportunity and his dilemma.

The opportunity here, it seems to me is to open the Art world to these honestly and directly expressed opinions, and not disqualify people from holding a valid opinion on art merely on the grounds they are not ordained to do so by having passed through some course in Art History on how to think and feel about Art.


Mr Smith has an enviable track record of democratising Art  by putting big shows on at the RA and getting people from all walks of life engaged with them – now that’s somebody whose work I can support and follow.

If, as Mr Smith asserts, the common man is finding something in our galleries and museums which he or she no longer finds in church, then it follows that these institutions  should now consider if they are doing enough and if not then how the common man reacted to dogma in times past.

As Machiavelli noted ‘Prudent men are won’t to say – and this not rashly or without good ground – that he who would forsee what has to be should reflect on what has been.’


Luther overturning centuries of exclusivity; we should all be encouraged to engage with visual arts without the ‘help’ of our academic and cultural betters; starting with an acknowledgement that public taste is a good barometer for progressive curation.

Mr Smith strikes me as a prudent, impressive and thoughtful figure, I eagerly await the time when he nails his equivalent of Luther’s 95 theses to the door of the contemporary art establishment.

But is it Art?

Browsing through the news recently I greatly enjoyed seeing pictures of bales wrapped in colourful plastic decorated to make everything from gigantic cows to castles, all standing rather incongruously in the countryside made by various associations of Young Farmers. All great fun, and probably for good causes, but is it Art?

The BBC certainly thinks so (‘Young Farmers make art from bales’), and if it is, where does this leave sculptures by Michelangelo, Rodin, Moore or the wonderful Anish Kapoor?

Or to put it another way, can anything creative be legitimately labeled Art? And by extension of that is all Art equal?

This isn’t just semantics or some meaningless metaphysical navel gazing; if we accept that all Art isn’t equal then we can say this piece is better than that and why. Which and why are important because that means Art can be taught, and artists can improve.

Not so long ago I read a prospectus for a well known college whose director of painting started a summary of their course with the assertion that – and this is true – ‘painting cannot be taught‘.

We can laugh this off as a classic example of turkeys voting for christmas, but teaching should probably start from visualising some kind of roadmap of success; a direction of travel if you will towards improvement from unskilled to more informed. Buy into progress, then you’ve already bought into good – better – best.

So how did the idea that Art cannot be taught leak into our thinking? The culprit of course is that old chestnut ‘All Art Is Equal’.


The Fountain 1917. Duchamp described his intent was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation, and on those grounds I’d say The Fountain is Art, but is it as ‘good’ as a Rodin or Henry Moore?

The thing is, I don’t think All art is equal is, in fact I’m certain it’s not.

As much as I love hay bales made into cows, they just don’t move me in the way a great sculpture does, amusing yes, innovative, great fun, laudable – but not – absolutely not Art in the great and ancient sense of the term.

Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) above is generally identified as a watershed in what qualified as ‘Art’ , and if you find yourself suffering from insomnia I heartily recommend ploughing through some of the guff written about it starting with my current favourite ‘ “it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal’s gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance madonna or a seated Buddha.’ I wonder , I really do, what critics and art experts add.

Duchamp’s proposition was both simple and overdue. Craft wasn’t Art. Art was intellectual, an idea communicated, a feeling shared, an emotion evoked.

By taking a piece of craft and placing it in a new context he made it into Art.  It isn’t great Art – but it deliniated as little else had done before the difference between a beautifully made object and a beautiful idea.

In other words craft is making, Art is thinking – or more accurately, evoking feelings in the viewers of one’s work. Understand this and you can put art, craft, critics and hay bales as cows, in context.

Compared to a hay bale cow or a urinal, a sculpture which evokes feelings of pity, empathy, humanity or so forth is demonstrably a ‘better’ piece of Art, whose artistic value lies in proving Duchamp’s brilliant assertion; Art is intellectual, and great Art evokes an emotional response in the non artist. Here’s to great Art.


Auguste Rodin, The Old Courtesan, 1855 . A very moving study of human truths: Art.