Sunday, 12 October 2014

Turfed out into the cold

Bristol is brilliant.
It's one of the few places where people actually look for ways of doing jolly things that make the city more fun.
Even the sensible people who did their homework on time and ended up in the council offices have been known to smile benignly upon delightfully daft projects involving water slides on main roads, public pianos and lampposts that cast someone else's shadow as you walk under them, (which is damned clever and a bit freaky).
The problem is there are just too many people with nifty ideas, and not enough opportunities or funding to get all this wonderfulness out there.

The locals have neatly sidestepped this by simply doing it anyway.

Not for them the approval of lofty Art Institutions, the warm feeling of civic recognition or the intoxicating celebrity of getting in the local free paper.
They operate in a twilight world of anonymity, their only reward being the knowledge that someone, somewhere will see their efforts and assume it must be art students mucking about again.

Which brings us to the tricky issue of graffiti.

Even if you're not a fan of having your fence scribbled on, and have forgotten how much you disapproved of that local bloke until he got famous, it's reassuring to know that there are industrious souls out there with an opinion, who have done something more with their evenings than watch singing apprentice bakers on ice-skates crying in rich peoples gardens.
I like the clever stuff, and the constant overpainting means it doesn't outstay it's welcome.
Like all the best jokes, timing is everything.

Some seem to linger like sad reflections on us all, like the large name on a wall I often pass.
Whoever painted it had grand ambitions, as the letters are huge.
Unfortunately, he could only afford one can and his attempts to colour it in get fainter as he progressed, tailing off in a sad little sputter.

A bit like life....

Walking through an abandoned churchyard this morning, I was met by this recumbent figure.
Next to him was a pot of daises, so I planted one about his person and had a little think about some of the people who I visit now only in memory.

There was no official plaque sanctioned by the Arnolfini or the Tate, no endorsement from those who would choose our art for us or instructions as to how we should view it.

I hope it doesn't get taken away too soon.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Baptism of fire

My father died in February.
Going through his papers, I found photographs, documents and articles about a largely ignored, but extraordinary event from the very beginning of the First World War.
I had known the story as a family legend, but here was the first hand proof of what took place.

War was declared at 11.00pm on 4th August, 1914.
The following morning a Royal Naval task force set out from Harwich, lead by the light cruiser
HMS Amphion, following reports of a German ship laying mines in the North sea about 30 miles from shore.
My Great Uncle Robert, as signals officer, was on the bridge with the captain and three other officers when the enemy ship was engaged and sunk.
The surviving German crew were rescued and brought aboard, and the ship turned for home.

At 6.30am on August the 6th, she hit one of the recently deployed mines, the foredeck exploded in a fireball and she began to sink.
Great Uncle Bob was blown into the water, his face and hands badly burned, and survived by swimming under the leaking oil from the dying ship before being picked up by one of the accompanying Destroyers.
Within 15 minutes she was gone, along with 167 men including all but one of the German prisoners.

Great Uncle Bob, along with his brother George, had joined the Navy as boy cadets and risen through the ranks.
Photographs of them reveal tough, muscular men with twinkling eyes and rough hands.
Both had distinguished careers, retired with handsome pensions, a chest full of medals and at least one MBE.
It would take more than a few mines to sink either of them.

The other brother, Melville, was my Grandfather.
He was altogether a gentler, more artistic sort who had survived both TB and a broken heart as a young man, and been left ashore to look after the aged mother.
On hearing of his brother's injuries, he took rooms in Harwich so that he could visit Bob every day at a Naval hospital across the bay.
One evening, whilst waiting for the ferry, he was spotted idly writing a postcard under a gas lamp and promptly arrested as a spy.
Things weren't helped when they went through his pockets and found a sketch of a battleship that he'd dashed off that afternoon.
The guard was called, and he was marched throughout the town by a squad of soldiers,
bayonets fixed.
Jeered and spat at by an angry crowd, he ended up in the cells of the Redoubt, an old Napoleonic fort then serving as the local military headquarters.
In the transcript of his interrogation, the sergeant of the guard asks him for his occupation:
"I make pictures and write stories" he replied...
After an anxious night on an iron bed frame, he was finally released back into a world that had only just begun it's descent into madness and loss.

Largely ignored by history, the sinking of the Amphion appears to involve the very first British, and German casualties of a war that would go on to claim millions.
There are no headstones, no memorials, no visitor centres, just a tiny x on the charts to mark the wreck site.

At 6.30am, on August 6th 2014, at a point on the same latitude as the Amphion's resting place in the North Sea, I marked the moment as best I could.

The sea is a cruel, lonely place that leaves no evidence of past conflicts.
Time means little out here, and a century is just the movement of the waves under passing clouds.

I never met my Great Uncle, but I hope I have honoured him.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Ever feel like life's become an Escher drawing?

Blues singers get it.
Country and Western Yeehaws have been known to articulate it.
Even floppy haired 60's beat combo fops in frilly shirts strayed into the arena now and then.
I'm talking about the down-on-your-luck, nobody-loves-me, life-ain't-fair lyricists who remind us all of how pointless it can be to keep paddling in an endless sea of disappointment, rejection and futility.

Songs like ' I started out with nothing and I've got most of it left' and 'My wife ran off with my best friend and I really miss that guy' are like anthems to the dispossessed.
Some people, when they fall, hit the ground like a dropped pie whilst others seem to view hard flat surfaces as trampolines to help them bounce higher.

Me, I'm somewhere in the middle, sort of rubbery but fragile round the edges like a badly cooked bat.

I made a real grimley of the last portrait.
It's still a touchy subject but suffice to say it was a lurid combination of v.attractive singer/songwriter, charity fundraiser, impossible (self imposed) deadline - um, 5hrs?! -and a Lot of Awkwardness.
Lead balloon, fart in a spacesuit, Susan Boyle at the Commonwealth Games awkward.
I'd have had a better response if I'd presented her with a shit in a bottle.
Ooh, the lessons learnt...

Anyway, moving on:
My dad met my mum in 1940, when he was barely out of school and still very interested in model aeroplanes.
My mum was a bit older, and was more impressed with chaps who smoked pipes whilst doing the foxtrot, so dad had to come up with something special to catch her eye, so he carved a perfect little plane out of a single piece of wood and presented it to her.
It must have taken him hours, but the shear devotion of it won the day or I would not be here to tell the tale.
( I think it was a one off. Can't think of a single woman I've ever been able to impress with whittling skills. )

I think our family tree was the sort that bears nuts.

 My grandfather spent  years creating amazing contraptions, intricate models and delightful paintings in the face of hostile disapproval and a lifelong pressure to "knuckle down and stop messing about with arty hobbies" but the things he left behind which I treasure most are not what he earned his daily crust from.
The painting I found recently in an attic connects me to him because it allows me a glimpse through his eyes, even though it was painted 116 years ago.

It's about allowing yourself to dream; about not listening to the voice in your head that tells you you're not good enough and about getting up more times than you fall down.


ps. To restore my dented crust I'm off to Dr Sketchy's Big Birthday Drawing Bash on Sunday 27th.
Nothing beats a class full of arty dreamers and outrageous Burlesque models who definitely know a thing or two about bouncing.
Maybe see you there.
I'll be the one in the pork pie hat.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Mirror, mirror on the wall...

I've only got myself to blame.

Having decided that the only way to get anywhere is to throw yourself at every possible opportunity that even glances in your direction, I now have to follow it up.

Last year Sky Arts filled several posh buildings with bug eyed, sweating portrait artists.
Under the watchful eye of the public, a northern comedian, a pretty lady in saucy shoes, a friendly thin man and a stern  woman you wouldn't accept an apple off if you met her in the forest, they were made to paint pictures of celebrities looking uncomfortable.

Ultimately, a groovy hipster with runny paint turned in a very tidy and respectful picture of a heroic soldier and everyone went home feeling pleased that nobody had done anything controversial or unpleasant.

Well done him.

His prize is a large bag of cash and the chance to paint a famous author who, with the best will in the world, does look like a Bushbaby staring at the back of a spoon, but hey, a win's a win.

There was much in the show to point at in outrage, and there were moments when my tea came out of my nose but all in all it was a Good Thing because it got portraiture out of the attic, dusted it off and encouraged people to think about it a bit.

I felt sorry for the artists who got publicly voted out, and even sorrier for the ones who got through and had to actually talk about their paintings to 'the experts'.

Trouble is they're doing it again this year.

They insist on your entry being a selfie, so I've had to spend today looking at myself in the mirror like some mad narcissistic budgie, but it's got to be done.

Like Unlucky Alf, I can feel myself wobbling towards the metaphorical hole in the road, and knowing my luck, I'll probably fall into it.

Any road, 'ere's me entry.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

It takes balls to be a Drag Queen

Never a dull moment.

I first met Ryan at a photoshoot that was all about fabulous ball gowns, outrageous make up and spangly shoes.
It was obvious he was in his element.

We met again at a Dr Sketchy drawing class, where Ryan was one of the models.
This time he was in full warpaint, huge wig, figure hugging skeleton dress and an attitude that made the her in him into the patron saint of PMS.
Ryan is tall. No, I mean really tall, as in really, really tall, but in heels he is a danger to aircraft.
I'd arranged to meet him beforehand to find out who he is when he's not being Ryan, and a who he is when he is.
As I drew him, he emerged as a lovely, confident guy with a lot of caring, sensitive attitudes who just happens to like morphing into a loud, outrageous Diva bitch monster on a regular basis.
What struck me most was how logical, reasonable and fun that seemed.
At the risk of getting too clever, maybe there's a streak of that in all of us, it's just some of us haven't got the legs for it.

Anyhoo, he became  my 'face of the BP Awards' on the basis that entering national portrait competitions is about as wildly optimistic as sending Putin a T-shirt with a smiley face on it that says 'Love thy neighbour' and expecting him to buddy up with the Dalai Lama,  so you might as well send in something a bit bonkers.

This, then is what is going on a trip to London, where it will pass before the dead, doll-like eyes of the judges for about 1/60th of a second, before being spat out and sent back to the Shires where all the wannabe artists who nobody's heard of live in bucolic resignation.

Basically, I don't think they'll like it. They may not even notice it, which is worse.

Thing is though, it doesn't matter,

I use competitions as deadlines, a false line in the sand that provides the pressure to get on with it and not faff about.

And I got to meet another amazing person.

Or two...

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Are you looking' at me?!

Painting pictures is a tricky business at the best of times.

Dabbing coloured goo onto fabric with a hairy stick in an attempt to create a recognizable image, such as a bowl of fruit or a particularly handsome cat, is an activity that invites frustration and failure.

Compared to portraiture, though, it has one redeeming aspect: it’s virtually unheard of for a bunch of bananas, or Tiddles from next door, to offer an opinion on your efforts.

The thing is, everyone has a very private view of their own appearance.

No matter how long you stare at your reflection, it’s always back to front, and that’s before we get to the issues of which expressions we’re comfortable with.
Add to that the layers of  complexity that form the encyclopedia of our self awareness and the whole thing becomes a bit of a challenge.

So, do you paint somebody as they see themselves, or as you see them?

Phil is a man who rarely troubles his mirrors for an opinion.
He and I travelled across Scotland together, and during that time I saw him a little more clearly in the grey, Celtic light.
His story is both commonplace and extraordinary, a mix of great good fortune and teeth-clenching adversity that would have driven a lesser man to his knees.

Every man has a mountain to climb, and for Phil it was Ben Nevis.
We gave it our best shot, but as a metaphor for life it proved less than cooperative, and we conceded defeat, backed off and went to the pub.

Several months later I got a call.
Against the advice of the medical profession, his horoscope and his own common sense, he had gone back, and was now standing on top of the biggest bump in Britain.

I painted him as I saw him then.

He’s too modest to recognize himself, but in looking at his own image he may see himself as others do.

I sincerely hope so.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Meanwhile, back at square one...

I've never been one for following the herd.

I'd much rather find things out for myself than sit quietly amongst a crowd of supplicants listening to some windbag demonstrating their superiority in the naive expectation that you will somehow be inspired to emulate, but never exceed, their abilities.
You will have gathered from this that I was not a huge success at school.
I'd rather blaze a trail than trail my blazer.

All of this gives me a warm feeling of maverick integrity and daring independence, but the passage of the years has revealed that it is also an extremely long winded way of going about things.
If I'm going to make it as a portrait artist before they measure me up for some Grampy Pampers, I'm going to have to get a wiggle on.
Against all my instincts, and through gritted teeth, I'm going to have to ask for help.

Andy James is Vice President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, but let's not hold that against him.
He occasionally runs courses designed to help aspiring artists so I coughed up, locked the delicate ego in the cupboard under the stairs and joined in.

Mercifully he turned out to be a genuinely nice bloke, a top rate painter and a good teacher to boot.

Now it's not easy making the transition from illustrator to painter, and old habits die hard.
The temptation to employ all the clever tricks and effects that have got me through the last thirty years is strong, but whilst they might impress some observers, they're a dead giveaway to any artist with 'Vice President' on his notepaper.

Suffice to say the experience was a tad humbling, highly informative and ultimately inspiring.

So, armed with  a more 'muscular' style, a new set of techniques and the confidence to paint direct from the live model without cheating, it's off into the big wide world to put it into practice.

Here's a peek at some of the exercises he put us through, against the clock and with no safety net:

So what next?
The BP awards are on again, as is the Royal Society open exhibition with a deadline for admissions in Feb.
I'm going to have to have a go, but it feels a bit like being back at school sitting for an exam.
Except this time I can't forge a note from my mum.