I was hoping to be able to kick off the New Year with showing some new work – but alas – the powers that be have again threatened nighty visitation of chittering things from beyond the veil if I do – so I won’t.
So, I wasn’t really sure what I could wax lyrical about this time, and it was only because of a bit of new year clearing up that I found some things that, if not inspiring – at least got me reminiscing.
Like many of you – concentrated work on a fixed piece can often lead to a studio floor strewn with the detrius and debris of possibilities that had to be culled in order to make way for hopefully better ideas to find their way into the final piece. Books with numerous pages marked, screwed up bits of paper containing – well – screwed up bits of ideas and drawings. My last painting, that I can’t show you, seemed to cause more than it’s fair share of crap, so in the spirit of a new year I cleared up, and then took it a little bit further by trying organise my space and things a bit better. This then lead to digging through some old portfolios and finding some old art school stuff. Old. I mean late 70’s. 1970’s.
They were golden days when certainly I – if not the whole world, lead a much more carefree life. Highly recommended. At art school all we had to worry about was how to get better at stuff and what bands were playing where. We had the time to do nothing but art and we had the tutors who were able to encourage us to do it. They themselves were each great at what they did, so it was easy to listen and learn from them. Now, any “learning” I do just seems to be naturally included in the process of trying to get a painting to stumble over some sort of finishing line. I learn from having to do anatomical studies – sorry – scribbles, of various characters. Looking in a mirror to sketch out tricky poses or see how folds would be on clothing. Just because I left art school all those years ago it does not mean I stopped studying. Just happens in a different way.
During those heady years of art school we had regular excursions into the outside world for drawing and painting experience. Sometimes a couple of weeks in one place – give or take a couple of days where we tried to stay awake in a dark lecture theatre whilst been reliably informed about the merits of Cubism, Modern Art and other such riveting subjects.
Those outside excursions were my favourite of many great times at art school, and I managed to find a couple of pieces that show what we got up to. When I think about it now, I’m actually quite shocked with what we physically managed to do out there amongst the public in very public places. Where most of my art school output has slowly been unceramoniously whittled away over the years – I guess these two managed to survivet because they are reminders of very happy times. This was way before families, dogs, taxes, rates, a house, scumbag politicians, global problems and a general awareness of what a blight we are to this planet. You know. Oh – and all the other things that go hand in hand with each of those afore-mentioned facts of life. Then, our art and trying to be good at it was the centre of the universe and it was just down to us – no interference from social media or the outside world then. And we had great music.
These pieces were from stints at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, and the RAF Museum in Hendon, North London. I also remember a week at London Zoo, sweating in the heady and pungent aroma of the elephant house. Elephants move, so I was never really happy with what I produced and the work has been shelved along the way. Another two weeks at St Catherines Dock on the South Bank, before it was taken over by development for millionaires. Tough one that. Boats, water, reflections. Luckily it rained a lot and there was a fantastic pub nearby that we would happily retreat to with our tutor leading the way. The kind of ale-house that, two hundred years ago would have been full of smugglers, pickpockets, tarts with a heart of gold, a three legged dog and a one eyed cat on the bar.Hadn’t changed that much and so provided a welcome port in a storm. There were other outings as well – but the drawings and paintings haven’t survived to jogg my memory – so we’ll stick to the Natural History Museum and the RAF Museum.
When I remember back to those painting in public days I’m amazed. I just couldn’t do that now. And how the hell did I manage to have a set-up whereby I could actually paint with tubes of goauche and water colour. I must have had a pot of water, something to sit on; I remember I did not have an easel. Must have been on my knees or propped up against something. And I had sandwiches. How did I carry stuff? I mean, I have a very controlled area that I sit and work in every day. It’s a bit like an old school, medieval Nasa control bunker. Lights, books, shelves, brushes, water. Everything todays artist needs at his fingertips. All reached with just a gentle swivel of a chair. I remember specifically the old brown, imitation leather bag I had back then that I must have carried everything around in, and I’m quite impressed with myself to think that I could sit/squat/kneel and come up with a fully fledged painting – conjured up from whatever I had in the afore-mentioned bag. How did I change water or keep a palette clean – and manage to consider doing something as ridiculous as sitting under the tail of a W.W.2 Lancaster bomber and trying to paint it in public. No idea. I wouldn’t dream of it now. We trusted our tutors, so if they said we could do something and learn as we were doing it, we did it. But seriously – me – a Lancaster bomber – and a helicopter in the background. Pretty optimistic – eh? Not really my thing, even back then. But we knew we were learning so I didn’t complain about the lack of goblins and trolls. Those, I kept to myself at home. But, I could see they were getting better as I slowly started aquiring more confidence and more knowledge from tackling the very real and very difficult problems of more worldy things. And I can tell you – none of it came easy. As I think I have quite happily stated before in these hallowed cyber pages on more than one occasion – I don’t consider myself a naturally gifted technician. It’s always a struggle, and in thinking back on those days I think it was marvellous and somewhat incredible, the investment of faith that our tutors had in our capacity to learn, and our need to do so.
So, I’m kind of proud of these two as they were kind of “no looking back” pieces for me at the time. There are lots of things wrong with them, especially the Lancaster. Some very dodgy vanishing points, perspective and – well planes. But I couldn’t have done them better, and for me that is always a good thing to be able to say. I remember at the RAF Museum there wan’t always lots of public, but on one of the days, a group of worthies came by. Old gents, in suits with ribbons and medals on their chests. The Lancaster being one of the focal points of the museum, they slowly wended their way around to it, saw me sitting under the tail and a couple of them pealed off to investigate this long haired, denim clad creature ( I said it was the 70’s – didn’t I?) and see what he was up to. Turned out one of them was Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. Possibly Englands most famous WW2 fighter pilot. Lost both of his legs in a crash before the war and went on to become one of Britains most important fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain – without legs. He was caught and imprisoned in the infamous Colditz Castle – where his false legs were confisticated in an attempt to stop his endless escape attempts. An impressive gentleman – and very gracious about my efforts. He died a couple of years later, but I’ll never forget meeting him.
At the Natural History Museum, I can’t say I met anyone famous. Lots of little people that thought maybe I was. I inadvertently got to meet hordes of inquisitve schoolkids. ” Ere Mister – are you an artist?”. ” My little sister can draw better than that.” and ” What are you drawing?”. That last one, always a bit problematic, when I would hope that even to an inquisitve 9 year old it would be bloody obvious what I was drawing. Don’t know how I did that. Sitting in the hallowed and dusty halls of Englands finest museum. Swarms of people, most of them as said, belonging to that noisy, giggle prone sub-species of children known as Children getting a day off from school and being able to run amok in places of apparent interest – interest apparently – usually lost on them….oh – and always trackable by trails of crisp crumbs and the discarded crusts from egg sandwiches.
My dad having taking me many times to the museum through out my childhood, made it a favourite haunt for me, not least because of the breathless expectancy of seeing the hugely impressive Diplodocus skeleton in the grand entrance hall. A moment always filled with awe, that never disappointed. But for that week there were just too many people to even consider sitting under it’s tail and trying to draw it. I happily set out on an exploratory expadition where the wonderful and bewildering array of natural goodies on display made the choosing rather time consuming. Something up to the task of having me stare at it for a whole week was required. I knew the Diplodocus would understand my rejection when I found the magnificent sabre tooth cat skeleton a little bit off the beaten track. Off the beaten track, but not quite inaccesible to breathless kids trying to get away from teacher.They would always appear at full speed from around a corner, as if they were being targeted by a very real sabre tooth cat, and then, in a cloud of flapping uniforms and crisp crumbs, skid to a halt upon seeing me. I’d be lying if I said that the ensuing and hushed explanations to their fellows didn’t make me feel rather good – “Shhhhhhh – it’s an artist!”.
Perceptive little buggers.