Thursday, 23 August 2012

In Conversation with Naomi Frears and John Emmanuel

As part of the August programme at St Ives School of Painting, an informal series of conversational meetings has been introduced, and finding myself free to attend this one I felt that it would be interesting to go.

John Emmanuel has been a resident of Porthmeor Studios for 30 years, and is one of the longest still there. Self taught, he produces textured abstract surfaces which marry elements of the human form with the Penwith landscape.

Naomi Frears is one of the most recent to have moved into Porthmeor Studios, having been there since 2005. Her work is partially abstract and part realist, and ghostly forms often hover in the image as a result of her process of making and scraping back. Originally trained in printmaking, it is sometimes possible to determine a specific area which has been influenced by a printer’s rather than painter’s technique.

In many ways John has been Naomi’s mentor, and it was clear from the outset that they have a close bond while developing their individual visions separately. Indeed John stressed the importance of having one really good artist friend-one who you can talk with about anything. When he first arrived at Porthmeor, his was John Wells.

The talk ranged across all sorts of areas, with side excursions thrown in by questions asked from the attendees, so I am attempting to record what I can clearly remember.

Both John and Naomi use oils, with acrylic media and sometimes paint in the underpainting levels. They paint on canvas or prepared board, sometimes collaging elements onto the picture plane and sequentially scraping back or building up many layers of glazes. Naomi admits to being a colour addict and says she probably has far too many tubes of paint, whereas John is keen to point out that you don’t really need that many colours, or indeed brushes, to make work, and tends to work from a fairly limited palette.

Studio practice
Naomi joked that this was the key secret which all of us were dying to know the answer to, that, once mastered, would magically transform us into “real” artists, and added that actually it was really more like a day in the office, with the usual coffee breaks when they would stick their heads out of the door and catch up with the other residents on news and gossip. John added that the real advantage was having a dedicated space, everything was around you and there was no interruption caused by the need to put away or get out work upon arrival. Pictures of both artists’ studios are on their respective websites.

Voice and vision
John spoke at length about the need to have a clear focus of intent during the process of making work. He also suggested that if a dead end was reached, not to be shy about going away and doing something completely different. In reference to Naomi, he remembered her becoming stuck at one point and had asked the question “What is it you feel like doing? You should do that then.”

Naomi described how her working methods often meant that a piece evolved into intent at some point through their creation, or changed into something else. She tried to explain how to stay open to what is happening on the canvas and realise where it may be going.

Self confidence and motivation
Both admitted that there is nothing worse than a poor reception to their work, and Naomi in particular said how she practically lived in fear of a negative response and that it could really bring her down. John, more pragmatically, suggested that a knock occasionally was a good opportunity to review work with a critical eye.

As both artists work full time from a dedicated studio, they felt that motivation was easier to maintain, in that they travel to their studio, shut the door and work uninterrupted in their own space. Both have previously worked from a room at home or part-time, and had experienced the lack of continuity that working in this way can entail.

We were able to see sketchbooks from both John and Naomi. John is a meticulous sketchbook user, and a whole book can be used just chasing down an idea. Of the two he brought, one was filled with collage of figures cut from newspapers, where he was seeking the exploration and abstraction of the human form. The margins were crowded with notes. The other was full of colourful oil pastel studies which he had done when on a week’s “holiday”, he had taken himself off to nearby Clodgy Point and recorded the colours and landscapes of an area he loves. Having commented that the sketches didn’t really tie in with his other work, he went on to say “I suppose I have made rather an icon of Clodgy Head- it has such a distinctive shape, and you see it in my work, in the skylines, I use it a lot.”

Naomi, while carrying a small sketchbook all the time, laughed depreciatingly and commented we would all see how bad she was at drawing. Her pages are surprisingly uncrowded, with brief notations of shapes and people, often in biro or felt pen and (in this book) mostly simple line with no tonal notations. Even a tiny head or statue will eventually make it into a painting, not necessarily as the main feature but to round out the story, and she showed us a couple of specific examples with the help of some exhibition catalogues she had also brought. Later, reading an essay on her website which mentioned her specific and meticulous drawing, I was surprised because there was little evidence of that in what Naomi showed us, and in fact she said she preferred to work up her outlines directly on the canvas.

Self taught v. art school
John is wholly self-taught, having trained as a signwriter. He stressed the importance of having a focussed vision but felt that he had been able to develop his own work without undue pressure from tutelage.

Naomi was of the opinion that she had not learnt anything from art college and only began her learning process when she began her practice.

However, both recognised the value in group participation and networking and acceded that in some areas of the country, as well as abroad, there was a tendency toward snobbery against those artists who had not attended an art school.

Exhibitions, galleries and dealers
A normal period for an exhibition would be two years, and in that time the artist would normally produce about 20-25 pieces to comprise the body of work. Naomi usually only looks to produce around 10 pieces as her method of working is slow, and she says that being under pressure to produce more would not enable her to make the paintings come right. She stressed the importance of having a strong relationship with a gallery so that each understands where the other is coming from.

John has had a varied approach to selling, and although he dealt with galleries originally he spent time selling through dealers, which he now regrets. One of the biggest cautionary notes he raised was that dealers want too much, and can put far too much of your work out there, either flooding the market and devaluing or losing the presentation of the theme by including work which is more experimental. He also said his name disappeared for years as he was not being promoted, he was still making work but very much behind the scenes.

In all it was a very interesting evening, both in seeing Naomi and John’s passion for their work, and learning that they too suffer the same doubts and crises of confidence as we do.

Examples of their work and biographies can be seen on their websites:

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Pentimenti and Restatements

A pentimento is an alteration to a drawing or painting where evidence of the previous work can be seen, showing where the artist has made a new decision.

Evidence can be seen in either the underdrawing or any of the subsequent layers, and most examples from the Old Masters have only been found by the use of x-ray and infrared imaging techniques, although as oil paint becomes more transparent over time, an underpainted section may show through a reworked version.

Pentimenti in drawings are easier to see, and examples often quoted are found in Leonardo da Vinci’s and Edgar Degas’ work, such as the multiple adjustments of line around the shoulder area below.

Ballet Dancer seen from behind, Degas, c.1870s
As more examples come to light, it has become clear that pentimenti are very common in the work of the Old Masters. They play an important part in determining the originality of a work as there should be none or at least less in subsequent copies. Painters such as Rembrandt, Titian and Caravaggio appear to have worked directly onto the canvas and thus corrections and changes are going to occur more frequently.
Marks which reveal a totally different subject are not generally classed as pentimenti. Often such examples are where the artist has begun a new work over a previous, abandoned canvas, for example Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist”. These significant or different changes are referred to in some sources as “restatements”. Picasso had begun two distinct works beneath the final layer which were identified by x-ray and infrared in 1998.

x-ray showing earlier compositions

infrared image showing woman's face

In a slight deviation from the subject, during my research I came across this site which examines a painting begun by Bellini, reworked by Dossi and finished by Titian, which shows the process of restatement very clearly.

Friday, 17 August 2012

A Brief History of Landscape Painting

It seems like common sense that before I embark on the next assignment I should familiarise myself with how landscape has been portrayed through the years. My knowledge of art history is sketchy at best, although there are three specific research projects in this section to begin to remedy this, and it seemed that researching the development of the genre would help place the practical exercises in context.

My first brief in this assignment was to look at how different artists have depicted landscape, so it seems logical to examine the development of landscape painting in an historical timeline, particularly as my knowledge of art history prior to the twentieth century is practically non-existent.

Landscape has been painted from Classical times, although more often used as a decorative mural on villa walls than as a subject in its own right. It did not gain popularity until the Renaissance, when the idea of the land as a place for pleasure was reborn. Initially it was used as a backdrop to religious scenes or portraits, as shown in this work Madonna and child with Saints (c. 1454) by Alessio Baldovinetti.

As accuracy in depiction improved, so did the proportions of the figures within them, and there was increased use of colour to suggest the mood of the overall composition. This process continued to evolve through the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.

By the seventeenth century there were two main schools of landscape. The Italian school remained idealised and classical, and was not highly regarded as standalone landscape representation, as portraiture was still seen as preferable. In the Netherlands, recently free of Spanish rule, people eschewed the Catholic artworks and found national pride in depictions of their own country’s landscape. However, the use of light and colour continued to be heavily influenced by the Italian style at the end of the century, and artists such as Aelbert Cuyp produced mannered and stylistic works on these lines. A typical example of his work, Landscape with a Hunt (1650-55), is shown below.

In the eighteenth century, the fashionable “Grand Tour” set wanted to buy souvenirs of the places in Europe they visited. In a grandiose forerunner to the picture postcard, artists responded to demand for landscapes inhabited by romantic ruins or dramatic architecture. Sometimes the artist would travel with their wealthy patron, recording the adventures of the Tour. One of the best known artists of the day was Canaletto, as Venice was one of the most popular destinations.

Closer to home the focus moved to France and England in respect of a new landscape tradition. In France, Watteau invented the “fete galante”, pastoral idylls showing picnics and walks in the countryside. They have a fantasy element in their carefully constructed arrangements and several suggest quite racy exploits in the course of the “picnic”.

Watteau, Le fetes Venitiennes, (c.1718)

 Meanwhile Gainsborough in England was making preliminary studies and even models to make his landscapes more accurate, although it is interesting to note that his group portraits set in landscape have all the quality of bad Photoshopping in respect of the lighting on the figures (a case of giving the customer what they want?!), and it is the rural and peasant views which seem to integrate across the picture surface.


Across the Atlantic, American artists were using the landscape as a means to create their sense of history, often on an epic scale to reflect the enormity of the new land they now roamed, or emphasising the raw power of nature. Thomas Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone helped to persuade Congress to award its National Park status.

Thomas Moran, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1872)

When photography was invented in the nineteenth century, artists were freed from their former role of merely recording the scene and could seek out new ways of portraying it. New equipment, such as premixed paint in portable tubes and boxes, allowed artists to paint outdoors and have a direct experience of the landscape, and the railways allowed them to travel more readily. By the latter half of the century, the Impressionists were exhibiting work which appeared unfinished, but was all about catching the light and mood of the moment.

Claude Monet, Poplars on the River Epte (1891)

 Art was rebelling against the strictures of the old Academies.

New media in the twentieth century has opened up many different ways to portray landscape. Many new styles and movements developed, and new techniques were employed in increasingly unreal or abstract renditions of landscape. Urbanisation has now had an impact on subject matter, possibly best known in Lowry’s depictions of industrial townscapes. Below is shown “Market scene in a Northern Town” (1939).

In some cases, landscape became a means to express an emotional journey, much as Terry Frost does with his “A Walk along the Harbour” (1960), left, and Peter Lanyon with “Porthleven” (1951), right.



As environmental awareness grows, a picture can often have a political or environmental message about the plight of the countryside. Hawaiian artist Christian Reise Lasser uses colourful marine landscapes to celebrate and raise awareness of the fragile shore around his native islands, often using a split composition to show both surface and underwater landscape. The Majestic Kingdom is a typical example of this device and is shown below.

Other artists have taken the tools they habitually used and have explored new ways of working with them, both pushing the medium to its limits and integrating new media and substrates. A particular favourite of mine is Michael Morgan, who uses watercolour in a way I have never seen before to create richly textured imagined landscapes.

In the twenty-first century, there are now a wide range of approaches to landscape. New technology has brought new ways of creating art in the digital age. Satellite imagery has inspired some artists, myself included, to paint landscapes seen from space, as they seek a distant objectivity from the immediate pressures of our society, and the growth of digital media has been embraced by some, shown most recently by David Hockney: A Bigger Picture (2012) an i-Pad generated landscape exhibition of 2012, in which he has used the most cutting edge technology to revisit the countryside around his native birthplace.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Collage and printmaking inspired by Sandra Blow

In June 2012 I had the opportunity to attend a workshop taking the work of Sandra Blow as its starting point. While the course title stated collage and screenprinting, it transpired that the printmaking component was to be a brief introduction to the subject, but after several objections from the six of us attending, this was later changed so that we had a day and a half printmaking at the end of the course.

I was unfamiliar with the work of Sandra Blow, as although she lived in St Ives in her later life she is somewhat removed from the usual line-up of "St Ives artists". Our first morning was spent having a guided tour of Bullen Court, her home and studio, where our instruction was to "draw whatever catches your attention". (In hindsight this could have been better communicated as none of us understood how we would be using the material we gathered. Cameras were also allowed although most of us hadn't brought one and had to make do with our mobiles instead.)

Jon Grimble, Sandra's agent and executor, led us around and the factual content was well sprinkled with anecdotes as he was a long-term friend. He and his partner Denny Long now operate a gallery from the site while preserving the workshop and living space. We had the privilege of viewing an early painting done on her first visit to St Ives, only recently purchased and re-located to Cornwall from America, where it had lain hidden for many years.

Jon Grimble shows us Sandra Blow's "Cornwall" (1958) in her studio at Bullens Court, St Ives

 I made a quick tonal sketch of the canvas. Later, over coffee, we wandered around the showroom looking at some of Sandra's sketchbooks showing her working methods and systematic repetition of a theme or idea- it puts my experimental sketchbooks to shame and has made me rethink how I should approach preparation for a project.

Back at the studios, our tutor Liz Luckhurst encouraged us to select different small sections of some of our drawings and chase down the permutations found in the picture plane. Using viewfinders to isolate sections, we drew lots of boxes, both square and rectangular, filling them with the lines or shapes we found.

 I found it an interesting exercise in abstraction, not one which I would have used to generate a painting perhaps, but I used to employ a similar selection process in developing screen print designs years ago at school. Our final task for the day was to produce a white on black and black on white collage of two of the studies we had produced. Immediately I was out of my comfort zone- collage is something I have rarely done and as an alien way of mark-making it completely threw me. Liz encouraged me not to get too stressed about it and suggested using a mixture of torn and cut edges and "see what happened".

The following day I arrived late and was pichforked into an intensive series of exercises with collage- we'd had to step the pace up a bit to make time for the printmaking part. I remember thinking that I spent longer that morning staring helplessly at bits of torn paper rather than doing stuff, but somehow I managed to produce quite a few pieces by lunchtime- an informal affair where most of us were still working and refuelling at the same time as a BBC documentary/interview with Sandra Blow was being played.

The afternoon was spent being introduced to the techniques of simple printmaking, with an emphasis on being able to do it at home without too many complex materials or resources. While I thought that this would be the part I would enjoy, having screen-printed before, I found it harder to decide what to do than I had with the collage! In part I think this was because I wasn't clear in my mind about how to translate images between media, especially two media which behaved and were applied in completely different ways.

Eventually I developed some very simple torn paper shapes with which to resist the ink, and worked up a few backgrounds to give me a basis on which to work the following day.

On the morning of the third day I found it incredibly difficult to get started, and it was only after fiddling around with some found arrangements of collage material on my trolley (above) that I eventually settled to make a screen using a dual stage resist medium. None of us, tutor included, had used this before, so the results we had were variable. I painted some of my lines too thin so the resist bled under them, although some lines opened up slightly with repeated prints. I had selected a vaguely organic motif from the work I had done on the first day.

Discouraged by the poor quality of the output, I returned to the torn paper strip technique, and began to add pieces of collage to them. The one below shows an accidental result where I had not seen the paper strips had transferred to the paper, so they only partially came off leaving a thin layer of paper adhered to the surface.

This eventually cumulated in a red and orange grid with corrugated strips and a black sun, which I felt was the best piece I had produced during the course.

I really enjoyed the course, not just for the opportunity to be challenged by new materials and methods but as there ware only six of us we had ample time to talk with each other and the tutors, gaining feedback and insights which are the invaluable component of working in a group. It was fascinating to see how each of us developed a completely different aspect of our original drawings, and we had six completely distinct bodies of work by the end of the three days. At the very end, both tutors went round each of us in turn and critiqued our work, which we all found valuable and helpful.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

George Stubbs 1724-1806

George Stubbs, self portrait

The son of a currier (specialist leather finisher) and leather merchant, he had a brief apprenticeship to a painter and engraver where he soon left as he objected to copying.

In around 1745-51 he studied human anatomy at York County Hospital. It was a subject which had long fascinated him, and I might speculate that he would have had an early introduction to anatomy as his father's trade would have doubtless brought him into contact with all the other processes of leather production from slaughterhouse upwards. This led to him contributing the drawings for a book on midwifery.

Illustration from "A Complete New System of Midwifery" (1751)

In 1756 he and his common law wife Mary Spencer spent 18 months dissecting horses, this cumulated in the publication of his book "The Anatomy of the Horse" ten years later. The original drawings are now in the collection of the Royal Academy.

In 1759 the 3rd Duke of Richmond commissioned three large paintings, as his work ws already seen to be far more anatomically correct than those of his peers, and his depiction of a short coat showed the animal's musculature to best advantage. Some of his work broke with tradition in having a plain background and the best known is "Whistlejacket".

Whistlejacket (about 1762)

This helped establish him as a major artist of the day. Many of his patrons were the noblemen who were to form the Jockey Club. He painted portraits as well as horses, often adding in a groom or stableboy portrayed in a realistic manner and pose.

Pumpkin with a Stable-lad (1774)
 In later life he painted a series of dogs, and produced some paintings of wild exotic animals which he observed in private menageries.

Zebra (1762-3)
 These were often developed into dramatic paintings often depicting horses startled or attacked by lions. The dynamic poses allowed him to fully illustrate the muscles and tendons to accentuate the drama of the scene.

Horse attacked by a lion (1762)
His work in studying the horse remains the principal reference work to this day and is required reading for trainee vetinarians.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Sketches at the Animalarium

The Animalarium is a small private zoo at Borth, Ceredigion, Mid-Wales. It was originally set up as a rescue centre for unwanted exotic pets, the most impressive of which is Rajah the leopard. I din't draw him as he was constantly prowling on the top of his shelter and was nigh on impossible to observe for more than a few seconds.

The owners are passionate and informative and encourage you to get closer to the animals where practicable- I came away having handled corn snakes, monitor lizards and having had a 3 stone boa constrictor draped over me- all complete firsts!

There isn't much shelter on site and on the day I visited the weather was changeable, but I cruised round with sketchbook and attempted to draw the animals, occasionally aided by my husband tempting them with tidbits from the feeding pots to get them near to where I stood.

I started with the goats, however they were restless as they were waiting for their feed time. I managed a study of an older billy who was content to sit and chew the cud.

The pony stood fairly still although he eventually moved away, hence the forelegs not being very accurate. I did find that life class has helped me focus on getting an overall outline down fast to begin with.
The meerkat sentry was the best model, as he only really moved his head. I didn't get the mass of his lower body, though, as it was bulkier where his weight settled in his seated position.

The lynx was only too happy to stay put- I think it was the female as she was smaller. The sun came out and she was half drowsing.
The emu was a quick capture of shape as the male chased his offspring (emu dads are the childrearers) back to the far side of their enclosure, previously I'd not been able to see all of him. I think the legs should have been a little further forward.

I made a second less detailed study of the lynx to catch the way her limbs were sprawled out.

The wallabies were busy feeding in their shelter. I kept to a simple line and I think it worked better than trying to put any tone in- the line shows their dynamic shapes better. The rhea (ostrich-like bird) was seen at a distance, when I went closer to photograph him he tucked his head under his body and resembled a giant fluffy toadstool on two legs!

The lemur was really only interested in being fed grapes. His brother had the same idea so it was difficult to settle him for any time between skirmishes. I managed to catch his wide-eyed "spectacles" okay, and was pleased when I later compared it to the photos I had taken.

The hornbill kept moving his head from side to side, athough from the angle I was looking at him from I could continue to draw by referencing the mirror image. I couldn't see his feet or lower body as he was sat among foliage at the time- I did get a couple of reference photos later.
The perfect model! I had great fun drawing this African Horned Turtle. Unfortunately he was flopped out against a support post, and in moving my head to see the rest of him I failed to get the width of his shell in the right place- the outer line shows where it should have been as I realised my mistake at the end.

As we were leaving, the wallabies came out for a walkabout. I again concentrated on their lines as they were moving around a lot, hence the superimposed studies rather than lose time turning a page.
There were many other animals I either didn't have time to draw or who just moved too fast- the marmosets being one example. There were also a couple of caymans in the reptile section but the dim lighting made them difficult to see. I came away with a good range of different animal shapes and felt I had trained myself to observe better than when I visited Newquay Zoo last year. Life class is not just about drawing people!

As a postscript, the final picture was done later in the week when I returned to my friends in Cwm Duad, and did a brief sketch of two of the horses grazing, from the same viewpoint as last year. Again, I think the overall shapes are better observed although I have not done any horse studies in the interim period.
The larger horse has thickset stubby legs as he is a draught breed. The smaller horse is a true Thelwell barrel-on-legs character- a miniature Shetland with a personality to die for.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Ben Nicholson and his still life pictures

Ben Nicholson had little natural drawing ability, and was pushed toward the study of art largely because his parents could not comprehend that he had not inherited their own talents. Finding himself enrolled at the Slade, he frequently bunked off classes with his friend Paul Nash, also a (self-confessed) draughtsman of ineptitude. Often they would play billiards at the Gower Hotel, where he later attributed the colours and forms of the balls as being an important factor in his road towards abstraction. His sole offering for the Slade’s in-house exhibition was a striped jug, and he left the school the following year.

In 1924, after his first forays into pure abstraction, he returned for a time to the humble jug and mug, which he painted in silhouette, with one or the other form competing for dominance in the space. These were much admired by Jim Ede, then assistant to the Director at the Tate, who as a result obtained several works either gifted by Ben or at a knockdown price.

The chance meeting with Alfred Wallis in 1928 was to have a profound effect on Ben’s approach to landscape, and later that year his painting 1928 (Porthmeor Beach, St Ives) included an architectural feature on the right-hand side (which Checkland construes as a gable end, but is more probably one of the dominant three arches in the pier at St Ives).

The picture is clearly painted over another image giving it additional depth, and is generally regarded as the precursor of these layered landscape/still life works.

Ben’s collection of mugs, jugs and jars was precious to him and travelled with him throughout his various homes during his life. Drawings of these are often simple outlines, often overlapping each other, superimposed onto an abstract background which sometimes have elements of landscape in them. He developed a signature fusion of abstract and realism during the war years, when there was no market for progressive “Modernist” art, and often portrayed views over rooftops and out of upper windows, a device he had previously seen in Cubism, combined with still life groupings in the foreground.

The works showing a more realistic and definite landscape setting he referred to as his “pot boilers”, or “Cornish best-selling schemes”, terms which were designed to indicate how contemptuous he was of the need to be so commercial, and they were produced purely from the need to bring some money in during the early years of his relationship with Barbara Hepworth, who had little time to work herself as she was exhausted from looking after the triplets and in poor health as a result.

Possibly the most prolific output happened in February 1945, when, having secured scholarship funding for the triplets to Dartington Hall in Devon, the pressure was on to raise the necessary balance, and he completed twelve paintings in just ten days, of “fishing boats and flags on mugs and still life generally”. These include the well-known images including Union Jacks, which are often erroneously attributed to a celebration of the end of the war in Europe, although in fact most were painted before VE day.

The series ranges from 1944 with works such as Carnstabba Farm (above), a relatively conventional view, to the late 1950s, e.g. August 1956 (boutique fantasque), in which the background has been reduced to fields of colour only suggestive of the landscape. In between, the landscape sits at varying degrees of tension with the still life elements, a particular example being November 11-47 (Mousehole) (shown below) where the realism of the scenery is at odds with the lopsided panel of still life shapes in the right foreground, and at the other end of the scale the later work 1959 Argolis, painted in Greece, synthesises the tabletop with the sky and sea completely.

While Ben himself clearly had a low view of what he achieved in these paintings, moving away from his ideal of total, pure abstraction, there is no doubt that he inadvertently hit on a unique pictorial style, one which has become as recognisable, if not more so, than the White Reliefs with which he first shook the world of 20th century art.