Friday, 16 November 2012

Sterling Edwards - yet another watercolour painter I like

I have just bought a book ‘Creating Luminous Watercolour Landscapes’ off It features the work of American artist Sterling Spencer. I think he more than anyone has convinced me not to be a watercolour photorealist – to paint with larger brushes and none of this painstaking delicate artwork with tiny brushes.

I love his landscapes and if I can fuse his approach with that of Jean Haines I’d be very happy, nay, I'be shocked!!! I’m looking forward to seeing where all this goes. No doubt it’ll be a road with lots of curves and hopefully I’ll navigate  my way around each bend and learn how to keep out of those ditches.

Now where’s that 2 inch wash brush?

Thursday, 15 November 2012

RUA and John Luke Exhibition at the Ulster Museum

Went to the Ulster Museum so that Caroline (Caz), who was home from Manchester for a few days, could see the place in its new clothes and with the intention of taking in the John Luke exhibition. 

We were both quite surprised the 131st RUA Exhibition was showing too. First time I had been in an awful long time. I could have just dandered around like a kid in a candy store just feasting my eyes on whatever but Caz thought it best we bought a brochure to have some sort of idea what we were looking at. 

Art is a curious thing, what appeals to one is frowned upon by another. I think I’d be the older, more traditional voice, more into paintings and less interested in sculpture pieces or installations. I didn’t think a lot of Redmond Herrity's 'Freshly Squeezed’ – a flawless marble sculpture of a generic juice carton. Caz, liked it! We were both amused by Rita Duffy’s ’Thaw Factory Produce’ which poked fun at Irish politics and its indecent history via the medium of branded groceries. Oh boy, was I at home here, having to stop myself from giggling out loud for fear of being asked to leave by the fuddy duddies. There were tins of Peas Process, Border Butter Beans, Red Ham of Ulster, King Billy’s Baby Carrots  described as being succulently sectarian and tenderly triumphalist and Ulster Vinegar – enjoyable to the bitter end! I never really associated Edward Carson with jars of Covenanters Marmalade nor Padraig Pearse with Pasta Sauce, or more likely  the historical significance just whooooosed way over my head. 
It was juvenile, it was different and how it never won anything is a surprise - well maybe not a surprise as what ordinary folks like, the snooty ‘we know better’ art critics probably hate! 

All I know was there were more people gathered round that installation reading the small print, eating up every little ounce of humour and sharing what they’d gleaned with strangers than any other displayed piece. 48 hours later I still want to go back and see it and maybe bring my own meagre offerings – Adams pack of six extra large Pork Pies and Robinsons 'Little Bit on the Side' brand of condiments. 

OK back to the RUA exhibition and my likes and dislikes. I stood in awe at Francis O'Toole's 'Ambrosio (the Monk)’. That’s real painting! I don’t really get Neil Shawcross. His work does absolutely nothing for me. His portraits just don’t stand comparison with Colin Davidson’s wonderful oils! Graphic Designer’s Rule OK! I’m reading Shawcross won the William Conor Award for figurative work. I am totally underwhelmed! 

Most gruesome award for me went to a large photograph of a dead rat – Thanks Emma-Jane McAleese! You really do need to stay away from back street alleys. I have no idea what Emma was trying to say with this piece. Was she even saying anything at all? All I could do was reminisce. You see I used to live above a Greek restaurant in Cardiff and had to walk through their back yard every morning and night which sent lots of overfed and petrified rats scuttling for cover! 

My old art teacher Ivor Coburn had two 'nudes' on display - a change in direction away from his giant watercolour lilies and Irish/French/Italian landscapes I've grown accustomed to. There was so much more to see and admire but we were time pressed and still had to see Mr Luke before we went across the road for afternoon tea at Café Conor!


John Luke, is someone I had grown accustomed to while working for the Irish Linen Centre over the past ten years! This exhibition, the leaflet tells me is Luke’s most comprehensive critical assessment to date. It includes most of his important portraits, a selection of drawings, designs for his Northern Ireland murals and sculptures as well as examples of his woodcut and linocut prints.

The leaflet details his life as such: 
Luke originally worked in the mills and dockyards of Ulster, and perhaps it is this grounding that informed his methods before enrolment in a night class at Belfast College of Art revealed a natural talent for drawing and painting. He swiflty progressed during the late 1920s to the Slade where he was taught by the great Henry Tonks. The economic downturn in the 1930s saw him return to Northern Ireland, and a teaching post at Belfast College of Art where he developed a reputation as a quiet and private man with a famously austere and ordered lifestyle. He also forged a friendship with the poet John Hewitt and together they are credited with creating an image of Northern Ireland as a region with a uniquely modern identity. To experience his paintings today is to step back in time to a world of floating figures and vibrant landscapes that conjure an optimistic spirit of mid-century-Modernism.

He’s good, probably my favourite Northern Irish artist. His style is instantly recognisably – a decorative graphic approach with stylised figures and colourful basic landscapes. 

He’s a craftsman and he’s managed to conjure up some beautiful rhythmic and flowing lines in the beautiful Northern Rhythm, considered by Luke to be his master work. It’s here together with The Fox and The Road to the West. His portraits are again more graphic than detailed in their approach and the simplicity of them work beautifully. Others on display include the graceful trio of Ballets Russes-inspired figures in ‘The Three Dancers’; the stylised, rolling meadowlands and casual promenaders of ‘The Old Callan Bridge’; the swirling, mysterious scenarios of ‘The Dancer and the Bubble’ and ‘Landscape with Figures’. My old favourite is there too – the one at the Locks on the Lagan River in Lisburn which I have used so many times in exhibitions!


I had never heard of Kenneth Shoesmith until I viewed his ‘Art of the Liner’ exhibition. He died in 1939 at the age of 48 but following the death of his widow in 1974 the contents of Shoesmith’s studio were bequeathed to the Ulster Museum and that’s the reason they are on display today. 

Shoesmith was a bit of a geek as he travelled the world on the ships he loved from the age of 16. Between duties he would paint the maritime scenes and landscapes around him. The artworks in this fascinating exhibition capture his painterly view of the golden age of the great liners, with atmospheric and detailed records of the ships themselves, and of the exotic worlds he and they travelled to. In 1918 he began a career as a full-time painter and in 1936, at the pinnacle of his career, he designed and painted the murals for the luxurious liner, Queen Mary. This was not an exhibition I had planned on seeing but I found his work extraordinarily good and a complete contrast to John Luke.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Vincent Van Gogh

I remember coming out of an Art History lecture I attended in first year at College and thinking that the post impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh would have been someone I would loved to have met. I had a list of questions as long as my arm for this tortured genius and I only had the inadequate art library to find the answers in. There was no Google in the 70s, neither was there a vast array of books that delved into every corner of his complicated life.

My love affair with Van Gogh actually began three years earlier when the American singer-songwriter Don McLean crafted a beautiful poetic homage to Vincent called ‘Starry, Starry Night’. It went to Number One in the charts and still remains one of my favourite pieces of music today.

Van Gogh for me is the greatest artist who has ever lived. Better than Picasso, Dali, Raphael, or any of the Impressionists he so admired. Yet, in his short lifetime, he only ever sold one painting, The Red Vineyard, for a mere 400 francs. Today his paintings are worth millions and are found hanging in galleries all over the western world. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen some of the lesser masterpieces in the Van Gogh Gallery in Amsterdam but I fear I may never set eyes on the major works.

It is a bitter twist that millions today find Vincent an accessible and wonderful artist. During his troubled career despite all his devotion and self sacrifice to his work he was not readily accepted, nor his gift acknowledged, even with an art dealer for a brother. That seemed to be the story of his life. It didn’t help when he came across as a difficult, ill-mannered character, an all-or-nothing manic who was a bit of an oddball.

His personal relationships were unsurprisingly rather troublesome and were doomed to failure from the outset. In London he fell in love with Eugenie, his host’s daughter, not knowing she was engaged. He returned home where he was to be rejected by his widowed cousin Kee after her father (his uncle) decided he couldn’t support her financially. He moved to Le Hague and against his father and brother Theo’s advice took up with a prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik (Sien) and her five year old daughter. She became his muse for a while but they drifted apart. He returned home again, wanted to marry a neighbour Margot Begemann but that scandal met with disapproval. His would-be bride survived a suicide attempt but they never made it to the altar. He just was not cut out for marriage. Nor did he fit into the workplace.

After a period art dealing in his teenage years in England, France and his native Holland he lost interest and was dismissed. He turned to Christianity but struggled to follow in the steps of his father and grandfather to be a Christian minister. Doors closed due to his unstable temperament, eccentric behaviour and excessive devotion to his job. Not only did he get rejection slips from the religious authorities who appointed him but more scathingly the peasant people of the working class mining town of Borinage in Southern Belgium turned on him too. If that wasn’t painful enough he also experienced the cold shoulder of his own family, particularly his father who literally disowned the son he considered wayward! Not surprisingly he left the church embittered and impoverished though always held a bright light for the God he claimed he served.

At the age of 27 and with no place to turn he took to drawing and painting with the lofty ambition of becoming an artist despite have no formal training, little previous interest and no sign of artistic talent. His brother Theo, always a rock in Vincent’s life, supported him financially as Vincent set to work on mastering perspective, shading and anatomy and getting him tuition from his cousin Anton Mauve. His early drawings were the weathered hands, heads and bodies of the peasant people from the mining town that had shunned him and he produced ‘The Potato Eaters‘ during this period. It never got the applause he craved so he took himself to Antwerp and enrolled in the art academy there for professional training in art techniques. Both here and in Paris where he was to later move he was keeping company with notable painters like Toulouse Lautrec, Signac, Degas, Pissarro and Gauguin and exposing himself to Japanese influences and Impressionism. His dark palette changed significantly, becoming brighter and more vibrant, his paint the short brushstrokes of his Impressionist friends. This period was undoubtedly the seed for the incredible fruitful canvasses that were to follow.

I don’t know what took Vincent away from Montmartre and his new found artistic companions. Was it really the desire to create a school of art based in Arles in the south of France? Was he confident enough to now stride out on his own and create his own unique personal style? Or had his argumentative ways and lack of social skills been the cause of his downfall again?

For whatever reason he moved to Arles in 1888. Here he worked on sunflowers which were to become his signature pieces and he evolved the style for which he became famous - the application of bright, expressive colour to the canvas in frenzied, thick brushmarks.
Self portrait close up

Arles was a prolific period for him as he captured his exuberance and passion for the surrounding countryside in famous works such as Sunflowers (1888), Café at Night (1888), Starry Night (1889) and Cornfield and Cypress Trees (1889). His little known watercolours such as Fishing Boats at Santeo Maries and drawings were also of the same deep intensity, while the hundreds of letters he wrote to brother Theo are now considered important literary documents in their own right.

Paul Gauguin did finally take up Vincent’s offer to come to the ‘Yellow House’ in Arles and after two months of painting and talking, their friendship ended in a quarrel which resulted in Vincent having a mental breakdown and cutting off part of his left ear with a razor which he then bizarrely gave to a shocked prostitute friend called Rachel. I remember reading recently that two German art historians forwarded a theory that Gauguin (also an expert fencer) might have been responsible for the mutilation during an argument. Anyway he wisely left in December 1888.

Sadly this was the beginning of the end for Vincent as he flitted between fits of madness and lucidity and in 1889 he booked himself into the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence so he could have more immediate attention for his epileptic seizures. It was here that he painted Starry Night and the spiral swirls became a feature of his new work possibly as a result of his worsening mental condition. You have to wonder how could a man so tormented be capable of painting such a masterpiece? How could his anguished soul even conceive such beauty?

In the May of 1890 his condition improved and he went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise under the watchful eye of Dr. Gachet. He continued to paint prolifically despite his depression. Sadly, Vincent viewed his life as horribly wasted and yet another failure,. On July 27, at the age of 37 and after another fit of frantic painting, the troubled artist took a gun and shot himself in the chest. He survived, but died two days later with Theo at his side.

Tragically poor Vincent died in poverty not knowing the acclaim his art would receive. His legacy is immortal - well over 800 landscapes, still lifes, portraits and interior views painted in his trademark blazing colours and passionate, impulsive brushstrokes. His genius might have been ignored during his lifetime but his name will live forever as one of the world’s greatest artists.

Vincent by Don McLean (1972)

Starry, starry night 
Paint your palette blue and grey 
Look out on a summer's day 
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul. 
Shadows on the hills 
Sketch the trees and the daffodils 
Catch the breeze and the winter chills 
In colors on the snowy linen land. 

And now I understand what you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free. 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they'll listen now. 

Starry, starry night 
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze 
Swirling clouds in violet haze 
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of China blue. 
Colors changing hue 
Morning fields of amber grain 
Weathered faces lined in pain 
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand.

And now I understand what you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free. 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they’ll listen now. 

For they could not love you 
But still your love was true 
And when no hope was left in sight 
on that starry, starry night. 
You took your life as lovers often do; 
But I could have told you Vincent 
This world was never meant for one 
as beautiful as you. 

Starry, starry night 
Portraits hung in empty halls 
Frameless heads on nameless walls 
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget. 
Like the stranger that you've met 
The ragged men in ragged clothes 
The silver thorn of bloddy rose 
lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow. 

And now I think I know what you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free. 
They would not listen, they're not list'ning still 

Perhaps they never will. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The 'Wee Arty Man' remembered

When I was in the RUAS exhibition at the Ulster Museum in October I came across a painting by Ivor Coburn my old art teacher at RSD. I had no need to see the signature as I recognised his style from some distance and he’s still painting those huge flowers nearly forty years on.

Ivor was not my first art teacher, that privilege belonged to Brian Kennedy who went on to become a major figure in Northern Ireland art and in the Ulster Museum in particular. He left after my first year to be followed by Miss Buckles. I don’t think she stayed very long. She was possibly a stop gap until Ivor walked in through the door of Room 7.

There were four of us doing A Level Art, not a lot out of an Upper Sixth of ninety students. I doubt if any of our peers had a better relationship with a teacher. Raymond, Stephen, Jimmy and myself talked life with him and he urged us not to accept everything at face value but to be questioners and look all around a subject just as you would a still life to get to the answer. He was opinionated and though we didn't always agree with his views it made for lively banter and sometimes thoughtful expression. I loved to hear him rant about the education system; he flaunted the school rules and was often in hot water with someone or other. He often talked about leaving but he was still there in the early 80s as I dropped in quite regularly. He was always glad to see me if only to give him reason to air another major grievance. In some ways I think I have become like him.

I recall the day Raymond and I went up to see ‘the wee arty man’ in the wilds of Magherafelt having only a brief idea of how to get there. We drove around endless country lanes for about an hour before stumbling upon his grand country house by accident.

He had designed and built his own house on an acre of sloping land on which there had been an old flax mill and a small stream. Like most good artists he was dreaming ahead and had conjured up plans in his mind to make a waterfall and a decent size pool that he could swim in! That sounded seriously far fetched and cold! He lived on the first floor and through the bay window he assured us there was a fine view of the Sperrin Mountains out there somewhere in the darkness. The first floor was also the best place to relax and view the garden - the source for so much of his botannical watercolour interest.

It’s the fireplace I recall the most as I had never seen anything quite so beautiful. Art teachers, Raymond and I thought, must be paid well to live in luxury like this but then again we were just two lads from working class housing estates who hadn’t seen much of the world. He showed us his kiln and the studio where he pottered around with clay. His paintings were there too in varying sizes, some unfinished and others unframed. I was impressed by the lifestyle he had and by the work he had done to achieve this little piece of heaven in the backend of beyond. Why he bothered to teach at RSD, twenty five miles away confused me when he had all this at home, but I guess he had to give his pride and joy, his wee green sporty MG a run out five days a week!

When I came home from the RUAS show I checked Ivor out on the internet and came across a beautiful written article on his biography where he described his paintings as a good friend he didn’t want to lose. I have copied out the piece, his ‘philosophy‘ here.

“A certain rapport seems to exist between me and my subject; something fleeting, whimsical perhaps emotional. Something gels between ‘us’ almost demanding co-operation with the resolution of a problem - or challenge? A challenge to translate an inner feeling, impulse, into a gradually coalescing image. A symphony a composition to translate the moment to capture the essence of light and colour and atmosphere. To respond with utmost speed lest the fleeting something should fade, and the theme be lost… Then a wave of satisfaction - completion and suddenly I am tired - elated, but tired. A part of me has been transposed onto canvas now, like a good friend whom I never want to loose. A subtle relationship exists now with someone - something I have come to know, am going to know. My paintings are all friends to a lesser or greater degree, some I love and want to keep others maybe less so. ‘Parting’ surely is such sweet sorrow”

How profound was that. I felt like that with my ‘Harry Chapin’ picture and at times when I’ve finished post-processing some of my photographic images. They become my new best friend and I feel pride and achievement in that I have moulded them with so much love and attention to detail.

I was quite astounded (don't know why) that his paintings have travelled the world and hang in homes as far apart as America and Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Sweden and Israel; indeed one is even owned by the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia.

He hasn't really changed that much in the forty years I have known him. The beard is a bit greyer but he looks the same guy! He must be in his mid-70s now. He's still involved in art and from what I can see it's still watercolours. There are more landscapes than what I remembered before and from those he seems to have a passion for the west of Ireland, France and Italy. He makes me want to get into watercolours and putting brushstrokes on to paper. There he is, he's at it again, encouraging me to get the palette out and start making friends!