09 December 2014

Notes on Turner

You know you have arrived when a world-renowned gallery like the Tate Britain decides to make a retrospective of your artwork and even hangs the canvases you hadn't even started.  That's Turner for you and that's the level of esteem he achieved not only in England but around the globe. That those unfinished canvases had already launched a decade long race among art critics to label them as the precursors of abstraction among other things is another story. ...isn't all landscape an abstraction?

About the movie...I liked the photography quite a bit, and the acting. But I did hate the premise the director shoved down our throats. Yes, Turner was probably just a "bloke" but I doubt he was a wild grunting beast as well.
The show at the Tate: "Late Turner"focuses on  the master's twilight years.  If I was expecting a few doodles scrawled with  a trembling pulse at the onset of dementia (I wasn't), I got sore feet to prove that such an assumption would be dead wrong. This show consists of room after room of masterworks as if the old JWM was on something, no diminishing powers until the very end when his eyesight began to fail.

As a successful, economically well-off and respected master at this last stage of his life, Turner after sixty was doing pretty much whatever the hell he wanted: traveling like a maniac, filling notebook after notebook of sketches and ideas, experimenting with a new blue here, a new format there, a new subject everywhere, cavorting with a Mrs Booth in Margate and getting offered money by patrons and disparaging remarks from the queen in equal parts.  I only wish to have an older age like he did. Then again, he had a very early start in the path to success -he was a bit of a prodigy actually-  and becoming Britain's painter par excellence. 

Oh, you sketch too? That's cute. Some of Turner's notebooks.
Let's mention the abundant notebooks. Turner might have liked an IPhone.  His itineraries cover practically all of Europe from Denmark to Italy, with trips to Switzerland, Germany and France in between. One wonders about the state of roads and lodging in those times. And weren't Victorians practically dead at sixty with all that bad hygiene, rotten teeth, STD's  and stuff?...not this one!.   Thick with landscape compositions and notes, Turner's sketchbooks contain many thousands of studies. He used all kinds of formats and purchased notebooks as he ran out, sometimes even notebooks meant for something else like accounting sheets. He dyed the pages with soot or tobacco or had them dyed. He drew with pencil most of the time but used watercolor and other opaque mediums liberally.  The purpose of a lot of this doodling  and travel was so that he later could produce engravings which did very well in the market. He also derived watercolors and some oil paintings came out of it as well. But it wasn't ALL business, he drew  figures, clouds, interiors  and even some erotic  but not too titillating sketches.

"Blue Rigi, Sunset" watercolor

 Most students of the master point out how Turner wanted to immerse himself in nature and optics and understand light and storms to the point of tying himself to a boat's mast  to experience a gale from inside... That sounds like those weathermen on TV that just have to report while being wet and pummeled by hurricanes to "show" us how it really is. I think that story might be an exaggeration but I haven't read on it. yes, he probably had a keen interest in natural phenomena but he was no scientist. Like with Leonardo da Vinci and many others, people insist in ascribing "scientific" interests to Turner and what are nothing but his very poetic observations.

BTW:  I've often rejected the idea of Leonardo as scientist.  Opening a corpse or studying the flight of birds, engineering complex (and failed) machines and advancing theories about the presence of sea shells on mountains or tides being the result of the Earth breathing demonstrate an open poetic mind, an observant mind, not a disciplined scientific approach. No matter how much of a prerequisite an open mind might be to be a scientist, both Turner and Leo would flunk the maths test.

Unless the weatherman is wet, nothing is really happening.

 To me, Turner was a concept artist. He painted mostly imaginary things  and titled them in ways that would make a Hollywood executive run for cover.  The titles sound long and over-budget: "The fleet departs, the queen of Sheba and her monkey say farewell to a thousand eunuchs."  (I made that one up) or more down to earth: "Crew of a Whaling ship burns blubber to extricate themselves from the polar ice".  He was re-creating events that suited his imagination, not trying to render those events accurately. He did several paintings of the burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons for example. They are all dramatic and glow beautifully but their excess is what triggers the awe caused by the magnitude of the real thing, not their accuracy.

Burning of the houses of Parliament. 1835

He had a keen eye for accuracy nevertheless. Turner could do detail and paint a cathedral with the precision of a surveyor if he wanted to. But he was a painter's painter.  His main focus besides selling prints seems to have been the potential of paint to create the moods and light present in nature, by itself and with but a fleeting suggestion of the actual scenery. On a side note, some people  say that the pervasive yellow atmosphere of his paintings was prompted by ash in the air from a volcanic eruption. Can't blame varnish for that one apparently.

This is a sketch from a younger Turner, he could do detail.

A watercolor of a dangerously dangling bridge in the Alps.
 I took a  (bad) picture of this somewhat nocturnal sketch because it was the one that looked to me like the work of a modern concept artist at, say, a film studio.  It's a small idea of a fabulous environment with turquoise domes and a tower that exits the frame.  Of course I scribbled the title in some paper I ended up throwing away.

Add caption

When it comes to full-fledged oil paintings, Turner seems to have continued the experimenting.  His paintings are often painted and repainted, almost as in a continuous state of flux. Sometimes decades pass between re-paints.

Talking about flux, the sea had a great appeal to the artist and I think his whaling pictures were my biggest revelation personally because they suggest so much without really nailing anything down. One could say they are "abstract" except what they are trying to convey  is still  atmospheric and narrative. In that vein, I do love the "Sunrise with sea monsters" I post below. There's really nothing but those lurking eyes and grotesque shapes.

Let's mention here two knock-outs like "Burial at Sea" and the acclaimed favorite of his:    "Fighting Temeraire".   

A subject that comes up very often is the modernism of Turner. Rob Adams wrote a beautiful article about it here. Like him, I am more ambivalent than critics on this matter.

 Turner was in fact a modern painter very much in touch with progress. He didn't shy away from new pigments or techniques  (there are some examples of a particular chemical blue pigment in the show). He depicted a new world coming full speed ahead from behind the fogs/smogs of the Industrial Revolution. Current events like the aforementioned Parliament burning interested him. So did other subjects like slavery and the power and the  threat/thrill  of steam power and industrialization. But Turner is firmly planted in Romanticism, that period in which all art forms dissolved in a rapture of movement and emotion, sometimes dark.  His art is not abstract for the sake of abstraction, he is always referencing something no matter how diffuse.

-This idea of dissolution, by the way, is beautifully embodied by a building like the late Crystal Palace, an environment within a bubble of cast iron and glass, it's interior blending with the outside by protective but transparent walls.  Like that building, Turner's paintings might be "open" but still refer to a narration, a representation of something more specific than a mood. He very rarely leaves a painting unpopulated or untitled, no matter how ghostly the figures or how obtuse the title.

Arguably his most forward looking and famous piece "Rain, Steam and Speed, The Great Western Railway"

Turner was a great painter and a pioneer. To insist in his modernity reveals a very linear vision of Western art where all movements feed but "overtake" the previous ones. Besides where technical advances create change, most art movements have a more pendular swing to them.  Like all masters, Turner possesses permanent qualities as valid today as when he painted his last works. Whether this qualities pioneer, foresee or introduce the future, is but a minimal aspect of their appeal in my opinion.

29 November 2014

Notes on Constable

This  entry was prompted by a Rob Adam's  blog entry . His article is of a similar nature.  After visiting the V&A Constable exhibition in London he reevaluates our regard for John Constable. His contention,  if I'm allowed to paraphrase and which he exposes very eloquently, is that Constable was a painter unduly elevated to the level of a, say, J.W.M Turner by critics that go on parroting what other critics have said before them instead of taking a new hard look at the actual art in front of them.

After reading Rob's  blog -and being better acquainted  with Constable's work now that I've seen  the show at the Huntington in San Marino and the V&A in London today- I wanted to clarify my thoughts on this proto-impressionist's standing, oh and gush about his bravura brushstroke and thick handling.

I have to concur that Constable is not at the level of Turner but he is not that far behind despite the fact that both painters ,who were rivals in life, have been made into the poster children  of the Victorian landscape. The exhibition had some pieces by contemporaries of Constable and a few were quite good but in my view Constable is deservedly lifted a bit above. He shares with Turner the romantic handling of the brush, chaotic at times, heavy handed often and almost abstract in the pursuit of movement and light.

My first gut reaction after seeing the show: there is much to love in Constable. The full size massive study for "The leaping horse" was breathtaking. Notice I said the "study". The final painting was quite bland in my opinion. In the study, the cloying impasto lends an enormous energy to the main figure of the rider  that seems to be pulling away from the dark soil. The startled horse is clearly the muscular center.  The sky seems a bit heavy and troweled . How much of my liking this painting  is due to my biased view as a 21st century observer...i can't tell.

Jump to the finished piece and,voila, Constable has placed the willow stump smack in the middle paralyzing everything and quartering the picture. It seems he wants to open the right side to the view but I think it actually just looks oddly static and contrived all of a sudden. The river area is now a band of specks and  rendered details below the bridge, a sort of "a below the ground" cut-out storage. The barge in the final work competes with the horse for attention. The sky is probably the only thing that has improved in the final piece by receding and becoming more airy.

"Leaping Horse", study"
"The Leaping Horse". John Constable.

But but but, as I was saying, there is much to love in Constable. I am talking mostly about his outdoor studies. Constable was a pioneer of the outdoor sketches even though he was not the first one to attempt them. He carefully made notations about clouds and skies, kept pocket books full of drawings and generally devoted himself to capture transient moments. He did many close studies of buildings, plants, animals  and man-made objects. One of my favorite studies had to be this elm trunk. In the exhibition, it was displayed between two very similar studies by Lorain and Lucien Freud.

"Study of foliage"

His studies done in canvas shreds, wood planks and paper are really  good and they show a keen appreciation for nature. However, his subject matter, unlike that of Turner's, is very limited and he is clearly uncomfortable with grander themes.

So what, if anything, would make Constable step down a few notches from the pedestal he has been placed by art historians? Well, I think he is still one of the best landscape painters of his time and I am in no position to un-seat him but he is safely dead and indifferent to my musing so here are some thoughts:

His paintings often lack focus, especially the finished ones. This is a tough one because nobody says a painting has to absolutely have a focus but Constable seemed to have a chronic need to populate every bit of landscape with figures or elements in his finished pieces. Chicken, donkey, boy, dog, chicken, peasant girl, horse, birds....oh, another chicken! nah, water hens.  This creates tiny accents all across that distract and muddle the otherwise perfectly nice landscapes. He also has a strange propensity to highlight every bit which almost feels like the paintings are seen through a snowstorm of specks.

Here is a painting that is just adorable despite, or may be because of  all the bits of business in it.
"Cottage in the cornfields" The photo doesnt do it justice but you still can see the two butterflies, can't you?

Here are two nice paintings . The study for "The cornfields" is lovely. The final piece is not bad either but he has added a flock of sheep, a kid getting a serious case of cholera (ok, I'm extrapolating), a dog and two women. It's starting to feel crowded and the kid seems a bit odd. In the final piece, there is so much going on around the barge  with all the little "nativity figures" that  it seems clear  the artist  is not convinced the beautiful -but somewhat technical- rendition of the boat will be sufficient to deliver the painting.

"Study for the cornfields"

"The cornfields"

"Boat Building Near Flatford Mill"

And then there's this crazy mess...

"Opening of the Waterloo Bridge"

 Clumsy perspective. Constable didn't like perspective, I can tell. But not because he didn't care. His studies and copies of  Paolo Ucello make it perfectly clear he cared. A lot of his church towers seem tilted, his ponds and rivers often "climb" beyond reason  and he favors compositions that act as "open windows" and layered distant vistas over anything too architectural or layered. There are quite a lot of examples of this. He also liked to put things in the middle of his paintings, again, that is not an error per se but it makes things a bit static and just why?.

On a side note ..but somewhat related,,  his tendency to mismatch reflections. I know, I know, it is not essential to be accurate but in almost every Branch Hill pond study and painting the sky light  wasn't symmetrically mirrored. I know people could find physical explanations and the offset is more noticeable in some cases than others  but it drove me bonkers.

"Branch Hill pond" with the sun mirrored slightly off

Tortured compositions. Constable based many oh his compositions on Lorain, Poussin, Ruisdael and other masters he studied through his extensive collection of prints. On his own however, he either flatly reproduced  what was in front of him or didn't seem to know where to place things and ended up scattering elements of equal importance all over, creating tortured compositions or placing things smack in the middle.

I cannot really comment  on his sense of color since  I suspect many  pigments have probably faded or have been altered by time.  

Here is another composition. This is a finished piece probably started in the field with the aid of  a tracing frame. It basically portrays an "accurate view". It is competent, pleasant but a bit blah,  almost just decorative. If it wasn't Constable, would you have stopped to look at it?

"Watermeadows near Salisbury"

Would have been my favorite painting of the show (again, the photo is not nearly as impressive as the real thing) except for that TRIANGLE on the sky. Couldn't he at least have interrupted the straight line by chopping a few branches? The bottom of this painting was out of this world beautiful!
"The Path to Church"

In conclusion, Constable was a great painter that seems to have certainly hit some highs and elicited a great response in the public. All masters make mistakes or produce substandard work from time to time. Should abundance of the substandard work take away from the merits of the highlights or is it the payment in the from of labor that every master must pay?

Study of tree trunks. Sweet... but a bit more love in that figure?

02 November 2014

Notebook #3

"Admiralty Arches" Sunset in Trafalgar Square. 8"x10"

I counted them. I surpassed 100 sketches of London in 3 months.  That is two notebooks full. Plus a dozen oil panels and a few larger watercolors.  Now the question is : Where am I going to put all this? No, the real question is how does the future look, at all?  It really sucks the life out of anything to be in this constant flux, in a shared flat, away from my husband,  yadda yadda,...my usual complaining.
For now, I am cracking open an new notebook and a set of newly purchased waterbrushes.

"Trafalgar" 8"x10" oil

Some new ideas about how to best portray London might materialize soon. Not sure how.   London seems  very much a city enamored with change, migration, construction... everyone seems a bit unhinged and in motion not quite inhabiting but aspiring, maneuvering, rushing, comparing and tightly dressed for battle.  This is capitalism's cradle for a reason. Pragmatic yet beautiful yet frothy and troubled in patches. And  I  don't think I have captured that yet in my paintings but I can see the idea rearing its head.  No promises. May be it is me projecting all this on the mobs that seem to besiege every venue at all times. No wonder exclusivity is big business....

"Carousel at the Natural History Museum" watercolor sketch
 The weather has been unseasonably warm. Not that it matters,  I was gainfully trapped at work. However, I did manage to get what looks like the last sunny afternoon and head to Abbey Road (a friend who will never outgrow the Beatles "requested" I do so) and painted the scene -sans posers-. The extra perk was that Alma-Tadema's house was also in the vicinity.

"Abbey Road" with the crossing made famous by the Beatles. 8"x10" oil
 My circle of artist acquaintances has expanded. The weather has melted the excuses of even the laziest plein air painters and the Brass Monkeys group has been substantially attended. Now I am looking forward to the winter outings. Besides the protean Rob Adams, I've met Dan Wrighston, Pauline Canessa Hazelwood, Terry Preen, Chris Burdett, Julian Lovegrove, Robbie Murdoch, Natalie Stewart Clark and I'm sure I forgot others, plus the people on Facebook I've been corresponding with.

Brass Monkeys gathering in Trafalgar Square.

"Cetaceous wonders" watercolor. Natural History Museum.

It's hard to keep up with all the wonderful exhibitions in London. Hell,  I'm getting a museum membership or I'll go broke, not sure if the Royal Academy (the Moroni show is so juicy), the Tate (The members only room has such nice views) or the National Art Pass. Right this moment there are some choice shows  with "Late Rembrandt" leading the charge at the National Gallery; "Moroni" - a very intriguing and incredible artist- at the Royal Academy , Egon Shiele's "Radical Nudes" at the Courtauld... Since my sweet parents were so incredibly nice to come visit me last weekend, I booked three tickets for viewing "Late Turner" at the Tate with them. Turner's marine and whaling paintings are something else, atmospheric and swirly, romantic. He was a concept artist before we knew what concept artists were, making up landscapes as he went along, taking trips all over Europe in search of the sublime and then leaving everything open, ambiguous and unfinished.

On a side note, "Mr Turner", the movie by Mike Leigh was painful to watch.  The photography and production design were great including the cg "Temeraire' and the recreation of "Varnishing Day" at the Academy.  Those elements make the movie worth seeing. The actors did a great job as well , even all the growling by Spall (Turner) which gets tiresome, we get it, he is  a blue collar bloke. But the whole 'beast /poet' message wore me down and that was clearly the director's doing as well as the "see a train, paint a train" bits. Ruskin as a prancing queen was neither funny nor in tune with the rest. And any  time Turner decides to paint, he  either has a heart attack or  his neglected wife appears or  he offends Constable or he is all spit and scrub.... I guess painting is really not all that cinematic per se.

Ok, that was a long side note. But still on the subject of Turner and his whereabouts dad, mom and I  also visited Richmond which was relatively calm and quite charming. It as also full of surprises like Mick Jagger's house, the remains of Richmond Castle in which grounds we saw the artist studio pictured below and the strange fact that if you see people dressed in riding boots, boiled wool jackets and other accoutrements suitable for what could be considered quintessential landed gentry out of a Woodehouse novel, they are probably moneyed Spaniards -or similar-  trying to fit in (and cluelessly failing).

Sketch of the Thames as it passes by Richmond

This is an artist studio! We saw a woman painting inside. Dream on!

14 October 2014

A London collection.

As October rolls in with a chill  and some rain, my days of leisurely picking a painting spot are over.  More gear and preparation are required in this urban weather. Every weekend I look forward to explore this city and its amazing views as the leaves turns to golden. Oh yes, it remains a pain in the rear to live in a rented room with no access to a work space,  the work schedule at the film studio leaves no time for the most basic chores and then, there's the crowds.... Who needs sleep? I do.

Whitechapel, a street that on Saturdays could very well be somewhere in BanglaDesh or Pakistan.

And despite it all,  I'd say I am gathering a decent collection of plein air sketches. They are all 8"x10" because that's the size of the carrier I built. Two of them are on their way to collectors in the USA. One watercolor found a home here in London  and other people have expressed interest. Not bad for a weekend warrior.

"limehouse basin". I like the direct no fuss approach which not surprisingly, came after seeing a Matisse painting at the Courtauld gallery. I could not get it out of my head.
In London, as long as you remain in the urban sprawl, a trolley might be more useful than a backpack to carry things around as I've discovered. Other improvements I've acquired this October: a jacket. In Los Angeles I painted in short sleeves all the time. Here, that's just silly..

As I mentioned in a previous entry the best subject matter in London as far as I can tell :  a) The sky, b) The river Thames in all its glory c) All the rest. When in doubt, look up or head to the water. The architecture is phenomenal all around even when the colors tend to be muted. Early morning is probably the best time to set out to paint.

"Tower Bridge". I dare say Monet was the reference of choice on this one. 

"Greenwich street" Sun drenched this time. SOLD
The passers-by have been nothing but nice, well, with the usual exceptions of the drunk guy dismissing my lack of realism or the Chinese lady insisting I comprehend what she says..in Chinese.

One funny thing, the Brits seem to have a thing for accuracy, precise drawing and careful technique. Also, watercolor occupies a higher rank here than in the U.S.,   by a long  stretch. Even the casual observers feel the need to point out and search for details I might have missed or miss-observed. One guy asked where did I see pink in the sky (he seemed satisfied with my mumbled answer: something about "vibration of color"). Another was surprised I considered a painting done.  I hadn't added numbers to a clock  in the church tower.  Almost 50% asked me for my card or number. Only one gentleman actually called back but the call ended in a sale.

"Waterloo Place" A watercolor done in haste after a whole lot of rain allowed the sun to come out splendidly.

Sketching also has deep roots here. I've seen others do it. You could look at people all day and never tire of drawing. If nothing else, every artists visiting London should have a sketchbook at all times. Museums allow sketching as well even if it has to be with dry media. The city urban furniture is a bit lacking in benches but there's coffee shops galore.

Vauxhall train station sketched from a Starbucks, a much maligned coffee chain. 

And of course there are the museums which would require a few blog entries each. From the incredible Wallace Collection to the Courtauld Institute, from the Royal Academy to the Soane Museum...it never ends. Most are free but the temporary exhibits will cost you a pretty penny.
Anselm Kiefer, Turner, Constable and Egon Schiele are some of the blockbuster shows on view. 

My sketchbook at the Royal Academy well appointed cafeteria.

Isn't it always fascinating when you go to a place and realize that the native artists of the place were quite exact portraying their environment?  If you've seen early Flemish paintings you've seen the thin poplars, the bug-eyed pale women, the tight lips...and you'd think it's all the product of an artistic "style". Only when you get to Belgium, you notice the artists weren't making it up. Same with Italian, Spanish, French art. So when I painted this little study of the Syon House in Richmond, it struck me because it wouldn't look out of place among those English paintings of country states popularized in the XVIII century. Just add cows. My palette has become a lot cooler as well.

"Syon House from Kew" The Thames is the river in the front.

Mary Le Strand. A church in a traffic island. watercolor

06 September 2014

Some (light) advice to paint in London

I think it would be useful for anyone attempting to paint "en plein air" here in London to read a bit about my experience as someone that has painted elsewhere. I do not mean to cover the subject thoroughly but just share some thoughts on what is different ...if anything. Of course any native will have a lot more to say or will  disagree on the subject but here it is for what it is worth.

What to bring with you: London art supply stores cover most needs as far as oil paints,  brushes and mediums. However you simply won't find any panel carriers, not in the stores, not online, nowhere. So bring yours or use an alternative method of wet canvas transport. I made the mistake of not bringing my carrier so I had to improvise.

To the left, this is how I did it. Bought two cheap wood frames 8"x10" or 5"x7" , hinges and tape at B&Q which is the 'Home Depot of London'.  I hinged the frames. I later bought some velcro straps with loops at John Lewis which is the 'Target" of London (hobbies and crafts section) and tied the frames that way. You will need to always carry two canvases so as not to expose the painting. Obviously the boards have to be the same size as the frames fit. You snap the painting in the frame when you are done and go home.

 Here is the next caveat. 8"x10",5"x7" and 12"x16" board sizes are common both in the US and the UK. But all other standard sizes in the US are hard to find here. So you won't find many 11"x14" but plenty of 10"x14" and measuring canvas in centimeters is as common as doing it in inches. I suspect the rest of Europe bans inches altogether. So bring canvas boards  if you intend to come back with standard sized pieces.

On a side note, I like a store called "Atlantis" which is around Brick Lane. It is very large but it is not always well supplied. There is a lady at the counter which is an artsy type, she wears racoon make up, never smiles and talks in a whisper. In the U.S. she would be promptly sacked but I've come to like how insufferable she is. Oh well, London.  

What you will need: In the UK, it rains. In Los Angeles we don't know what "rain" means  but here it is frequent, random and unpredictable.  Let me say that again: unpredictable. You can blame the weather app that displayed a smiling sun behind an innocent looking cloud  all you want. You can trust your gut till the cows come home when the morning is radiant and not a cloud drifts in the air. You'll get soaked. Just when you though you had it all figured out..you'll find out London is humid so it can feel like Bali in summer,  London is freezing in winter and the rain doesn't stick to a top to bottom pattern. The winds can be insane.... it gets dark very early in winter...you get the picture. It's the weather you have to be ready for.
So, you will need to be ready with an  umbrella, proper shoes or boots, proper attire like a poncho and weather proof hat, a quick escape route and some choice curses. Also bring watering summer days.

The Thamesis. Plenty of subject matter.

London has great painting potential, no doubt. If it is sunny, there's almost nowhere you can't find subject matter.  It's heaven for watercolorists with its mix of greys and browns and lush rain day reflections.  However, London is busy. Sometimes it's "I can't breathe, where did all these Italians come from" busy. The subway at peak hours makes sardines look like they are at a dance hall.  So to put it simply, avoid the underground at those times. Avoid attempting to set up your easel in busy avenues. Predict if possible how and when someone or something will need that "tucked away piece of sidewalk" you found suspiciously empty. Act a bit shy for once. Travel light. Personal space is a luxury. Personal space plus backpack plus easel will get you snarls. Bring patience, it will be tested if you decide to paint the tourist spots.

Bring things that will supplement the lack of urban furniture and facilities. Did you know sketching with pencil is allowed in most museums including the National Gallery?  A folding chair is a good idea.  And you will definitely need to go to the loo before you leave for an extended period! London is not toilet friendly.

You won't need a car for London. You won't want a car.

What to paint: That's up to you but there is a pattern you will notice in everyone from Constable to Turner. It's the sky. There has not been a day since I arrived when the sky wasn't putting on a show.
Pack your emerald greens, your Payne greys and your colder tones as well. It's green here. It's atmospheric here.

There is no area of London devoid of subject matter. May be London is a big bank/shop  at its heart. Development is king and the city under permanent reconstruction has devoured many old buildings encasing them in all sorts of new construction, sometimes with unfortunate results. But there is plenty of charm left and even the new stuff offers interesting subjects like the unreal massive buildings in Canary Wharf or the glass monoliths that dot the skyline. Anywhere around the river is a good spot for starters. Greenwich offers astounding views of the river. The Tower Bridge does not have a bad angle. And on and on. Don't fret, this is a too-much-to-paint kind of place.

Another watercolor by the river.

And  then there's people. If you like people, costumes, faces, crowds...here is the rainbow with every race and creed and age imaginable. Londoners are not -particularly-  friendly and there are plenty of chatty loud drunks that could kill a horse with a sigh  but you will find those who approach you very appreciative of your efforts and very knowledgeable and they might even say what you do is so "clevah" which I love because "clevah" is the last thing I am. And as in America, they all want you "to paint them in" and think you make tons of money and they duck when walking in front of you and they have an aunt that paints. Some things don't change. 

16 August 2014

Leighton House.

Let others visit Sherlock Holmes Museum or do the Jack the Ripper midnight walk (I am booking it the minute someone joins me). I headed straight for Leighton House - the former residence and studio of Sir Frederic Leigton, a very succesful victorian painter that was quite the sensation in his time. The house.

sketch of the exterior which gives little clue of the Orientalist phantasy inside
The house  has been lovingly and painstakingly restored, someone might say re-created. Don't let that deter you. Even if you are not a devotee of Leighton's dismayed classicism, there is much to love in this residence. From the Arab Hall and its incredible decoration with Turkish and Sirian tiles to the enormous and well designed studio. All of which is in sheer contrast with Leighton's own spartan bedroom or the green expanse of the garden.  Plenty or artwork to admire, including Leighton's accomplished "natural" sculptures and a beautiful Millais "Shelling peas", a gift from one master to another. Millais succeeded Leighton as president of the Royal Academy of Art.

Narcissus Hall, inspired by Pompeian ruins.
I stayed virtually all day. Since photography wasn't allowed, I asked if I could sketch. They were not only very happy I wanted to sketch in fact but gave me a foldable chair. "Just not on the mosaic please".
Leighton wasn't necessarily an interesting character. Born into great wealth he was free to pursue his artistic career at ease. He stood out as an outsider because he was well traveled and didn't seem particularly  interested in following Victorian or even British (at the time) conduct standards. He never married which gave rise to speculations -well founded ones I'd say but he was very private and never hinted at any passions or private affairs in all his correspondence- and he was quite generous with artists friends and models.

The golden dome from the exterior.

But Leighton the artist is another matter. He certainly conformed to  classical ideals and his artwork emanates a quietude and elevation that keeps it a bit beyond reach. In that sense, he was an artist of the elite. His technique is exquisite as it is his draftsmanship. But again, he very much remains in an Olympic stupor. Even his studies and smaller pieces stay immutable in their perfection. I found his landcapes from Egypt, Venice and Algiers particularly beautiful and there is quite a collection of them in the house-museum.

Sketch of the Arab Hall.

The artist's studio was spectacular as it befits a celebrity artist of Leighton's stature. Very modern in its concept  and design, it would work perfectly well today. On display were his palette and his pigments, the best money could buy. It's pointless to reflect what would Leighton's career had been if it hadn't been softly cushioned by his upbringing.  One suspects his art would have dwelled much less in the ethereal mythologies he created...may be his considerable talent would have seen him through.  Who knows. I'm projecting again...but my suspicion is that he would have joined the pre-rafaelites. He was acquainted with their deeds and Dante Gabriel Rossetti visited the house on occasion.

Snuck a picture of Narcissus Hall
There is a lot I didn't know about this painter, his neighbors (other succesful artists of the Holland Circle -after the name of the street ) and the house. One can easily spend two hours of inspired learning here. Once the Tate Britain and the National Gallery are out of the way, I'd say this is a good use of an afternoon and 8 quid.
Studio. 1890

15 August 2014


I am in London now. It was actually a bit harder to relocate than I had braced myself for. Nothing is straightforward in a city that just happens to be booming while the rest of the world is still in a slump. I am just one more immigrant (albeit with a job lined up which makes a big difference ). That means I found a skyline dotted with construction cranes, sidewalks lifted and a wall of people everywhere. Every transaction from opening a bank account to  finding a room or adapting to my new whereabouts tested my resolve which was not too iron-clad to start with.

One thing that struck me immediately: There is a LOT to paint in London. And I mean, a LOT. Not only is there  a melange of buildings old and new set against dramatic skies -it's all about the skies in English landscapes- but there is an ocean of people of all colors and creeds and dresses and faces...just heaven for people watching. And the leafy greens, and the grey, and the browns, those dirty muted browns against the summer or the  lurid yellow of construction crews ...and did I mention the skies?

On a separate but essential note: If you plan to come paint plein air in London know this : a) It rains a lot, unpredictably, heavily, and coldly. b)  It'll be windy. c) They do not sell "panel carriers" in UK. People mostly use the "matchstick system, I'm told. d) Standard  board format sizes are both in the  metric system and in inches with 8"x10" a frequent format. Your favorite format from the US might not be available. For some reason they favor square formats.

So I start my blog with some sketches. Done in  a paper not suited for watermedia and hastily but still with the urgency of this new visual buffet.  Just to get acquainted to this new landscape. My palette has steadily but surely started to shift away from warm saturated tones, (reserved now for cloud rims and traffic lights)  and  towards cooler greys (Payne grey has become essential), cooler greens (emerald, I hardly knew yee), and toasty brick  brown.

Shadwell. My chosen neighborhood.

Sketched while taking care of Laundry.

The River Thames

Sketching the hipster crowd in Shoreditch

One of my first stops was to the "Making Colour" exhibit at the National Gallery, a show where you get to explore pigment through the ages. The exhibits include minerals, insects and roots but most importantly, the masterpieces where they ended up. Every room was dedicated to a hue with the notable absence of Black and White but the fascinating incorporation of Gold and Silver instead.

Another stop was the  BP 2014 Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery , an impressive array of wonderful portraits done by a legion of talented artists. Most american artists will recognize awardi David Kassan. Spain was also proudly and magnificently represented.

Leighton's House in Kensington was an obligatory stop. But more about this wonderful place later.