Thursday, 28 June 2012

Reading about Caravaggio

If you're only going to read one definitive book about Caravaggio, then I guess it has to be Andrew Graham Dixon's 'Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane'.

I enjoy Andrew Graham' Dixon's obvious passion for his subject, whether he's presenting on television, or in his writing.

It's well-researched, well-written, and scholarly without being dry.  It is informative about the paintings, the person and the times in which the artist lived, which help to contextualise and explain the dark aspects and contrasts of Carvaggio's personality and his art, which are inextricably intertwined.  It's a painstaking piece of research which forms an authoratative account of a larger-than-life, bigger-than-death character. and functions both as a definitive piece of art historical research and also as a really good read.

(My only quibble is that the indexing isn't great, and there is a lack of cross-referencing between text and illustrations, but I guess that wasn't Mr Graham Dixon's department.)

For another aspect of Caravaggio, there's this book - 'Painting for Profit; The Economic Lives of Seventeenth Century Italian Painters' by Richard E Spear and Philip Sohm.

This is the nitty-gritty of business and accountancy deflating the loftiness of art, as a group of art historians and economic and social historians get out their calculators and tape measures, apply them to the works of the Baroque Italian masters, including Carvaggio and his contemporaries, rifle through their expense accounts and get down to brass tacks with an audible ka-ching.

Thus we have the cost per square metre and per figure of various Italian altarpices, such as Caravaggio's Calling of St Matthew in S Luigi dei Francesi in Rome - at 322cm x 340cm, it cost 200 scudi in total; 18 scudi per square metre, and 27 scudi per figure.  Domenichino's Life of St Cecilia in the same church 10 years later commanded only 8.5 scudi per square metre and 10 per figure.  Those are the figures, but what does that say about the comparable 'worth' or value of each piece of art?  How do you actually value art, its skill, its emotional power, its message?  Can a piece of art be worth more to one person than other?  Is one person's art not actually art at all to another person?

TThese aren't questions covered in this book.  With its tables of figures, details of the economics and politics of commissions, inter-studio rivalries and the basic necessity for artists to run a business and make a crust, it's a sobering and dry counterpoint to the creative process.  Behind the aesthetics, the beauty and the ideas, there is the reckoning.

Art may be big business today - take a look at a book such as Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton...

...but art as an economic commodity certainly isn't a modern idea at all.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Big Day

It's my son's last day at primary school today.

His school makes a big event out of it, with a special leaving ceremony.  The children wear their 'grown up' uniform and receive their new school ties, then sing the Leavers Song.  (It wasn't like that in my day...)

Needless to say, it's an emotional day, with huge excitement and many mummy tears.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A Bird in the Hand...

When I was in new York recently, I visited the American Museum of Natural History.

Amongst the exhibits in the African Peoples section, this sculpture caught my eye...

It reminded me very much of this, which I saw earlier in the year at the sculpture show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art ...
It's Bird Swallowing a Fish (1914) by Henri Gaudier Brzeska.  This is the painted plaster version of the piece (there's also cast bronze versions.)

One's in a natural history museum as an interesting piece of ethnography from a 'primitive' tribe and is worth - well, not that much. 

The other is fine art, and is worth - well, quite a bit....

Monday, 25 June 2012

Tree and Fields, Fife

Here's another of the images of spring fields in Fife.

Tree and Fields, Fife (Oil on linen, 20 x 20)

Sometimes when you note-take with the camera, the photos don't turn out as you expect, and you can get a whole succession of images that just don't work.  

Other times, you can be pleasantly surprised by the way that the elements have all lined up, and an image jumps back out at you when you review the photos you've taken.

Here's the original photo...

The most obvious difference perhaps is that the photo is rectangular, and the painting is square.  A square format makes a landscape composition more dynamic, and a lot of Scottish painters seem to use square canvasses.

Although I was trying to closely follow the photo, as well as put in what I'd visually noted from the scene, you can see that there's a lot less sky in the painting than the photo.  There's more middle ground, which is tipped up.  I suppose that's because the thing which caught my eye on the day as being interesting about the landscape was the pattern of the fields.  That pattern-making now takes up two thirds of the painting.  I also liked the soft quality of the light and the really subtle secondary and tertiary colours.  

However, I put some sharp orange at the bottom as a little colour-pop in an otherwise subtle (for me!) painting.  It compliments the bright blue of the sky at the top and brings the foreground forward in the picture plane.

The organically-shaped tree growing on the left is contrasted by the straight and functional telegraph pole on the right, and reading from one to the other then leads your eye into the painting with the farmhouse on the crest of the hill of land.  

It's going to be on show in London with Duncan Miller Fine Arts at the 20/21st British Art Fair in September.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The Friday Spot - Big Yellow Dog

Earlier in the year, I was on a photo-taking trip to the Lake District.

At that time, there was a long stretch of 50mph motorway on the M1 because of roadworks before Scotch Corner, and I got I got stuck behind this...

Its eyes followed me everywhere, mile after mile....

On another occasion I got held up by a unicyclist on the A66 from Penrith to Scotch Corner.  What are the chances of that?   During Appleby Fair, you can often get held up by all sorts of horse-drawn shenanigans, but a unicyclist was a first.

Apparently he was unicycling all the way from John O'Groats to Land's End, but the poor man must have ended up doing double the mileage because he was rather wobbly.  Hope he made it!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Your Paintings - Uncovering the Nation's Art Collection

You might like to have a look at the BBC website Your Paintings by clicking here.

Your Paintings is a very interesting and ambitious project which aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings, the stories behind the paintings, and where to see them for real. It is made up of paintings from thousands of museums and other public institutions around the country.

It's run by the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, and first came to my notice when I was contacted by them earlier this year about a painting of mine which is in the collection of the University of Strathclyde as part of the Dr Helen Cargill Thompson bequest (which you can read about here).  They wanted to catalogue the painting and put it online as part of the project.  

Here it is...

 Autumn Glen (Oil on panel, 8 x 11)

You can view the painting on the Your Paintings website here. 

It's a little picture of Glen Falloch, on the road from Loch Lomond to Glencoe, and was sold at a solo show that I had in September 1995 at the Torrance Gallery in Edinburgh. 

In fact, it got a very favourable write-up indeed in the Scotsman from Professor Duncan MacMillan  (art critic, art historian and author of Scottish Art 1460-2000, no less)-

“Broad brush strokes and bold use of colour evokes the power and presence of the Scottish landscape...the artist’s bold technique is equally capable of drawing objects of delicacy and beauty.  (Her work) combines harmony of colour with subtlety of form.”   

I was very pleased indeed with that review!

The Your Paintings project hasn't yet got all of the 200,000 paintings onto its searchable database (and doesn't have the University of Strathclyde ones up yet).  However, new work is coming online all the time, and you can see what collections it does have, search the database for a particular artist, and get involved in the project by helping to tag paintings and provide stories behind them.

It's a great resource to have.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Sheep in Early Spring Fields, Fife

Here's a painting which is going to on show in London in the autumn.  

Earlier in the year I was travelling through to Fife to visit family, and it was a wonderfully bright, clear spring day.  I saw these beautiful clouds over the bare fields, with the lovely reddish-purpley coloured earth.  It was like travelling through a William Gillies landscape.

Sheep in Early Spring Fields, Fife (Oil on linen, 20 x 20)

The sheep in the foreground have dirty winter coats, so that they almost become part of  the colour of the land.  There is a bright, white-painted farmhouse on the crest of the hill, and there is a track that leads through the fields, linking your eye between the sheep and the house, so that you're travelling up and through the fields yourself, going on a little journey through the landscape.

It was a scene that I saw only very quickly, but I always have my camera on hand, and you learn to anticipate the elements of the landscape lining up and to read the composition coming together, and so have the camera ready to take the shot. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Stuart Sutcliffe Poster - Barbizon Gallery 1990

I've just wobbled up a ladder and sorted through a tsunami of posters to find this.... it's the Stuart Sutcliffe poster that I got from his exhibition at the Barbizon Gallery in Glasgow as part of Mayfest in 1990.

What an image.  It shows Stuart in a conscientiously bohemian pose, in a decadently silver-lined studio with ornately rococco table groaning with alcohol.  It's a scene that's funkier and artier than Andy Warhol's Factory, and says 'Look at me - I'm light years away from my working class roots - I escaped!'.

Hope you like it!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Favourite Paintings - Van Gogh's 'Crab on its Back'

Here's a painting that I really love, and try to see at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam whenever I'm there (it's not always on display).  It's Vincent van Gogh's Crab on its Back, painted the year before he died.

Vincent Van Gogh, Crab on its Back (Oil, 1889)

It's not a very big painting....

..and is of a very ordinary subject.  Van Gogh had a real burning need to paint, and did so pretty much every day.  You get the feeling that perhaps the weather was too bad outside to go out to paint on this particular day, so he grabbed the first thing that came to hand indoors and set to work on it.  Perhaps it was his dinner...

Have a look at the picture.  How would you choose to paint a crab?  

He's put it on its back, off-centre, tipped up towards the light, at an awkward uneasy angle that gives a feeling of struggle.  He's deliberately put something under the shell at the back to tip it up so that it looks like that.  The sense of movement and struggle is further echoed by the surrounding brushstrokes. 

It has a background of sea green, which acts as a complimentary to the orangey red of the legs.  The brushstrokes are bold and obvious in the background, painted fast and with urgency using a flat brush about 3/4" wide.  The crab itself has been painted with a narrower round brush, and in the area of the ends of the legs it almost looks like a watercolour brush has been used, the lines are so fine.

So there are lots of contrasts going on - the large crab claws at the front have a real volume and strength to them, while the small legs at the back look spindly and frail.  The painting has contrasts of complimentary colours playing off each other, areas of luscious thick paint then passages of great delicacy, and the taking of a humble, everyday object that has been elevated to something monumental, made the entire subject of a painting - just like the  peasants that Van Gogh drew so often in his early years.

But there's more than that.  It's a crab on its back.  Something with a hard shell that's revealing its soft, vulnerable underside.  He's using the crab to say something about himself and his own feelings and siutation.

Have a look at this.

Eugene Delacroix, Christ on the Sea of Galilee (Oil, 1853)

This is Delacroix's painting Christ on the Sea of Galilee, painted the year that Van Gogh was born.  Van Gogh knew and admired this painting, mentioning it in his letters.  He admired Delacroix' "symbolic language through colour alone".  

Delacroix was an artist who knew a thing or two about colour, and wasn't afraid to use complimentaries as major themes in his work.  Have a look at that viridian green colour of the turbulent water and the orangey-red colour of the boat and the figures with their flailing arms.  Remind you of anything?

Delacroix's painting is about the vulnarability of a small shell of a boat on dangerous waters as Christ, the fisher of men,  sows the seeds of faith.  The image of a sower and reaper was very important to Van Gogh, who had of course initially been a preacher himself.

So the crab painting works on different levels of meaning - it's something low, common and ordinary, just a picture of a humble crab; but it's also something extraordinary, with a spiritual element to it.  It's vulnerable and fragile, but also enduring - something which will smell and decay tomorrow, but yet remains enduring and potent as a painting well over a century later.

It's a very, very beautiful painting, so if you ever get the chance to see it, please do.

(You can even order wools from a website that dyes them to match the colours of this particular painting - really! - which is very interesting, because Van Gogh used to have a box of wools, and used to spend time winding the different coloured strands together to see how they combined and the colours interacted with each other.

These are the wools to match Crab on its Back from website The Spun Monkey. I'm not sure what you're meant to do with them once you get them - knit your own masterpiece maybe!)

Friday, 8 June 2012

Exhibiting in Sweden

Very exciting news - I'm going to be exhibiting paintings in Sweden later this year at the Affordable Art Fair in Stockholm.

Based on my recent trip to Morar and the West Highlands, I'm going to put together a really strong little collection of vibrant, distinctively Scottish work like this...

 Sea Thrift on the Rocks, Morar (Oil on linen, 12 x 12)

Scandinavian art has parallels with Scottish art in its use of bright colours and love of semi-abstraction, so it's going to be really interesting to see what sort of a reaction my work gets!

My paintings will be on show this autumn with the Lime Tree Gallery at the Stockholm Cruise Centre from 4-7 October.  Can't wait!  

For more information about the fair, please click here.

The Friday Spot - Fancy Footwork

Thought you might like to see a picture that I took in Blackpool of a shoe shop window.

It's obviously a very niche market they're aiming for - or else there's something rather strange about the good people of Lancashire...!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Back from Hungary

You may have noticed it's been a bit quiet here on the blog.  This is because I've been away on a trip to Hungary in my 23 year old mini.

Every year I go to the IMM (International Mini Meeting) which is held in a different country each year (last year it was Switzerland).  This year, the destination was Balatonfured, which meant travelling through a total of eight countries on route.

As usual, all holidays start with packing an alternator, plenty of glass fuses, heritage motor oil, a lot of maps and then a trip to the ferry at Hull.  

The sun was setting as we sailed out of port, and I was on deck to take pictures.  I've done several paintings of the sunset over Hull - perhaps not the most poetic of settings, but I think it's really beautiful.

We travelled to Rotterdam, and then through the Netherlands and Germany, staying overnight in Dresden, which was really beautiful.  The next day was a 4-country day, starting with a drive to the Czech Republic and Prague (the main road to Prague disappearing into unsurfaced mayhem with raised ironwork which played havoc with the car).

The main road to Prague

Approaching Brno at rush hour in the heat with large trucks driving right up close, the car was now not idling, and cut out when it slowed down.  It was one of the most stressful things I've ever done.  

The problem continued through Slovakia and on to Hungary, where the car now cut out on the many unmanned level crossings that crossed the road down to Lake Balaton.  Changing to a better grade of fuel didn't help.  Fortunately, help is only a text away, so at this point I was contacting friends back home to ask for ideas about the problem and how I could fix it.  They obliged with suggestions about the carburettor.  However, we eventually pulled in to the campsite in one piece (minus only a wheel nut and a vaccuum hose), with 1800 other minis, and got the key to our little bunglow by the lake.

International rescue was soon on hand.  Amazingly, a twig jammed in the right part solved the problem, but a more permanent solution to the loss of the vaccum hose running from the carburettor came in the form of a piece of fuel hose with a screw jammed in the end, which I fixed on (appropriately enough) with a jubilee clip.  Et voila - car working perfectly again! 

The scene by the lakeside was idyllic, and the campsite very relaxing, and it was great to meet up with so many people again that we see every year with their minis in a different country

Lake Balaton isn't clear.  Rather the water is sort of milky, so that it reflects the light as an amazing turquoise colour, becoming pink in the evenings.  It really is very very beautiful.  Lots of white and red sailed yachts caught the sunlight.

Fortunately there were no more mishaps on the epic return journey, where we came back via Austria and Vienna, staying overnight at the beautiful city of Wurzburg.

What a weekend!