Monday, 17 December 2007

Fired up

Online chat forums for artists always seem to have a section on what it is that gets people inspired to make work. Nature is, inevitably, nearly always mentioned, and why not? There’s enough to keep anybody occupied for a lifetime and beyond, and despite, or perhaps because of, the repeating ritual of the seasonal cycle, there is a continual supply of new things to get people going and an almost infinite range of subjects that can be looked at in new ways.

Nature does seem thin on the ground around here though. Our inner city back garden, about 15 feet square, has for a long time been surrounded with a variety of foliage, mostly growing in other people’s gardens, giving us privacy and a therapeutic dose of greenery to temper the brickwork, cement and things manmade. There is bamboo, some white flowering climber related to the potato, a willow tree, clematis, and something similar to the hawthorn that lean over the fence to join the visual splendour of our own potted plants. Sparrows, blue tits, blackbirds, a robin and those ornithological thugs magpies and jays put in occasional appearances in an attempt to make things seem more rural than they really are.

Yesterday, though, the sound of a chain saw from our neighbour’s garden heralded the fact that although we may have been enjoying the foliage, their own space had become engulfed and shrouded by it. Now, suddenly, the robin is hopping around the fence where a dense thicket once was, and we can now get a good look in our next door neighbour’s windows where previously we had been separated by greenery.

A good job then that I don’t depend on “nature” for “inspiration”. London is a green city, but not really from where I’m standing. Forests of road signs, street furniture and architecture feature more in what I do. And these are kind of seasonal too, in their own way. Road signs come and go, street lamps change, buildings break through the soil, blossom and then grown into maturity, or get demolished if they are 1960s social housing. Urban change is more glacial (I heard recently that glaciers can move metres a day), but it changes nonetheless. Bus stops sprout. Olympic villages take shape. Railway stations to international destinations take root.

I draw the city because that is what I see, not necessarily because it is what I am inspired by. It is not inspiration that I depend upon, it is finding the time to draw. When inspiration has deserted you, you have to keep going. Who can afford to wait for inspiration?

Friday, 16 November 2007

Doris Salcedo at Tate Modern

When I was an art student a group of us paid a visit to the painter Patrick Heron’s house on the coast of west Cornwall. During the time he generously spent with us – we had a tour of his house, Eagles Nest, and its gardens, and he was gloriously indiscreet in his anecdotes – he told a story of the time when he was a trustee of the Tate Gallery and was accompanying the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, around the gallery. As they walked through the Duveen Galleries, at what is now Tate Britain, Thatcher took to encouraging them to install larger sculptures in it, gesticulating with her right arm as she marched along. Heron imitated her for us, illustrating how uncannily at home she would have looked if she had been attending the Nuremberg rallies in Nazi Germany.

Heaven knows what she would have made of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (until 6 April 2008), a space that makes the Duveen gallery appear cupboard-like in comparison. Artists commissioned to make work in the hall for the Unilever Series have to take on the fact that it is a huge space, 35,000 square feet, they are dealing with. And it goes up and up.

You have to look down to see her work, though, which is, in a kind of way, something that is not there. It is the space she has created, what she has taken away rather than what she has imported, that has attracted the crowds. The long, wandering crack, more than 500 feet of it, snakes from one end of the hall’s floor to the other. It looks authentic, as if it has been created naturally, large enough in places for fingers and ankles to go into and set the minds of personal injury solicitors racing. Nobody is looking up. Thatcher would probably twist her ankle in it, except it is most likely that she has never set foot in a gallery since that meeting with Heron.

The kids come to see it with us, with some of their cousins. It’s interesting what they like and don’t like, and the Unilever Series has captured their imagination more than once. Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project did it, as did Carsten Holler’s slides. They run along the crack, stick their arms into it, someone falls into it and then a Tate attendant closes in on us. I feel you really haven’t experienced Shibboleth unless you have stepped into it, or at least twisted your ankle. It is the act of consummation that it deserves.

It doesn’t seem as if the Tate Modern building is falling down for the simple reason that the crack is in a gallery, just as I didn’t feel as if I was in a playground when Holler’s slides were installed. And anyway, the slides in Pirate’s Playhouse in Stoke Newington are just as good, there is a shorter queue, and you are surrounded by people who are simply out to have fun rather than read anything more into it.

Whether or not the children are touched by what Salcedo says it is about – colonial exploitation, racism and the uncomfortable truths that we are forced to confront (how Thatcher would have hated it) – they play natural games about boundaries around it. How kids respond to a piece of work is often more enlightening than how the critics do.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Nip and tuck

There is the crackle of money around London this week as the Frieze Art Fair opens its doors - or, more accurately, as it's in a huge marquee in Regent's Park, opened its tent flaps. It's an international event, with the biggest and most influential commercial galleries from around the world selling work, and it's not just the big UK money it attracts.

In fact, it’s hard for a while not to take your eyes off the people around you as they make their way around, or eavesdrop on their conversations. The richest seem to be mostly American, over no doubt, to add to their collections or museums. There is a discussion between four American seventy-somethings in the Lisson Gallery space about the currency of the 400,000 figure they have just been given by an employee for a piece on show. Was it euros, pounds or dollars? They couldn’t help but laugh, and may even have smiled if their nip-and-tuck faces would allow it.

For them, and for many others, Frieze, now in its fifth year, is the newest port-of-call in the art market tour. Minions linger around them, personal assistants and curators I suppose, with clipboards in hand. Alan Yentob from the BBC, the presenter of Imagine, waits dutifully in the queue to speak to one remarkably preserved couple, who are pickled in haute couture, and bedecked with pinnacles in the art of dentistry, ophthalmology and plastic surgery.

Around town, too, everyone waits. Big shows are timed to open this week, while the international art set are in town. The auction houses time sales so that they fit in with Frieze. New magazines launch.

What about the art? There are the eye-catching exhibits that catch the media’s attention: Berlinde de Bruyckere’s dead pony, Rob Pruitt’s flea market (a whole stand given over to what appears to be a jumble sale), the Chapman brothers cheerfully defacing the Queen’s face on twenty-quid notes, and Gianni Motti’s live cross-legged policeman (described as an intervention, presumably because it is beyond the walls of a gallery space).

But there are lovely things tucked away in smaller galleries, though, such as Peter Callesen’s works at the Emily Tsingou Gallery, who works with little more than sheets of A4 paper and a scalpel. With the whiteness of a Reinhardt and the precision of a surgeon, Callesen makes small, witty, understated monuments. In a sea of work that appears to have been assembled quickly to leave a unfinished feel, they sing in their craftsmanship.

They sound as if they could easily be overlooked, but they can’t. There’s a crowd of young people around them, art students perhaps, taking photos of them on their phones. None of them seems to be a collector.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Rush hour

St Mary's, one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall, looking towards the islands of Tresco and Bryher from tea gardens near Porthloo beach. Not too busy, even in peak season.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Back home

London isn't really as far away from Paris as it seems. Cycling it may take three days for the likes of me, but it is sobering to sit on a train and be back at Waterloo station a little more than two hours later. The most we cycled in a day was the 72 miles from Gournay en Bray, Normandy, to the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but it really didn't seem that far, and my muscles didn't really give the impression it was that far, either. A small team welcomed us in the gardens at the tower's base, and the champagne corks popped.
The group has raised more than £54,000 for Marie Curie Cancer Care, a figure that continues to rise. It was fun to do, and no hardship - I'd do it again tomorrow - so thanks again to those of you who have donated.
This is my brother Simon (right) and me at the end. He could have done it in half the time.
I'll stop going on about it now.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

On my bike

I'm about to set off on the much anticipated sponsored cycle from London to Paris - so thanks to those who have generously made donations. The weather is looking good, the wind promises to be at our backs, and I have a healthy supply of cycling shorts packed. (I've decided against the bright idea of using bubble wrap instead.) It is going to take us three days, leaving tomorrow, Friday 7 September, and returning - by train, thankfully - on Monday. But there is still plenty of time to make a donation. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Soft sell

It’s the first such art fair I’ve participated in so I don’t know quite what to expect. With the car stuffed with work, hanging materials, folding table, browser stand for unframed works and directions about where to park I arrive, too early.

It’s a big old building, with two floors. The experienced ones, the ones who return each year, are upstairs, where the ceilings are gilded. Downstairs, through a corridor that takes as long to walk as it does to dawn on you that maybe it’s better to go to the cafe upstairs after all, are the late bookers, the new ones, like me.

We each get a few six-foot-high screens, the number depending on how much we’ve paid. They are covered with a kind of hessian that means smaller works can be attached with Velcro. If God had wanted us to attach paintings to walls with Velcro he would have put strips of the stuff on the back of frames. As if to prove the point, my immediate neighbour, who thought she had stolen a march by hanging her work early, returns to her space to find she has to pick her work from the floor among broken glass.

I have a friend who says that for him the two most demoralising words in the English language, the ones that make his heart sink and give him the urge to run to the hills, are “craft fair”. It’s people selling things that nobody wants, he says, to people who don’t know what to spend their money on. Harsh, perhaps, because they are the people out there doing it while others may only think about it. At the art fair, too, there are exhibitors who it is impossible to imagine going too far, but they are doing it and believing in themselves.

The ones with spaces near mine are an interesting lot, most of them having been to art school at some point or other. Over the days we get to know each other quite well, offering congratulations and commiserations as sales are won and lost, and musing about where all the buyers must be. The opening night flies by, some friends come over, and the space packs out. I get my first catch with interest from an art publishing group that wants to see more work. It’s a long-term prospect, but it immediately vindicates doing such a show. The group’s representative would have been unlikely to have seen my work if I hadn’t been showing.

The fair is only a few days long, and most of us make sales. I try to perfect the art of drawing people in to look at my work by standing at a distance so that people aren’t intimidated by having to speak to someone about the work before they want to, if they ever do. If they are interested in buying, they’ll seek you out anyway. Does the hard sell work with art? Can it be sold as if it was a car? Not by me, certainly.

The excitement of having someone you have never met before look at your work, mull it over, decide they like it, and then get out their wallet is one that established artists with galleries to handle their work must miss out on. It is a genuine thrill to turn bits of paper, and odd marks and strange ideas into something that people want, and then escort those people to the sales desk.

The work comes down, and unsold work is packed away, but it is not the end of the story. Days later, emails continue to come through from people with offers of promising projects and exhibition opportunities. Would I do another art fair? Having done one, I have everything I need to do more. It is less a case of can I afford to do another, as can I afford not to?

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Deemed acceptable

Before I sign the forms for my space at the art fair I find in the small print a line about all works on sale needing to be “original”. As my works are scanned drawings with digital colour printed in editions of 100, they are originals, in the sense that they don’t exist in any other real form than a print, and yet not, because there are (or will be in time, hopefully) 99 others knocking about.

A flurry of emails follows. The organisers don’t want artists showing reproductions of paintings, and are careful about whom they accept. Time is short, and the only spaces they have left are bigger than I really want, but I find I have built up anticipation and enthusiasm to make it work and will be disappointed to not be able to attend.

My work is printed using the giclee process using archival quality papers and inks. The questions to ask myself, another art fair organiser advises me, are:

1 Am I a digital artist?

2 Does the work exist in another form?

3 Are the prints of high enough quality and small edition?

If the answers are yes, no and yes then giclee prints are deemed acceptable.

I can tick and cross the right boxes, and eventually I get the OK, and the rush is on. I mark out a wall at home the same size as my space to get an idea of what I can take. I can hang about eight works at any one time – then it is a matter of working out how many other works I may need to take the place of those I sell, and then get them printed, framed, priced and labelled.

Naomi, in an act of supreme support, makes the frames. Spare moments are spent in framing suppliers, glaziers, and a fantastic local framers, S’graffiti, that mitres the moulding for us. I make more drawings and get them printed.

The joy of a deadline. It’s amazing what you can get done.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Drawing a blank

I’m standing with my sketchbook on College Green opposite the Houses of Parliament, finding out that making Big Ben look believable is every bit as difficult for me as drawing someone’s portrait, when a police officer suddenly bears down on me. He asks, in a rather polite, apologetic way, if he can see what I am doing. Pleased to get any interest in my work, I show him the half finished drawing, and then the rest of the contents of the sketchbook. I don’t care who it is – if they ask, they can see it. He’s rather complimentary. “Ooh,” he says. “Are you professional then?”

What he was worried about, along with the other police behind the concrete barricades around the government buildings, was that I might have been undertaking “hostile surveillance”. I don’t know what such a drawing may look like, but it only took a brief glance for him to be convinced these weren’t hostile. “I don’t want you to think I’m accusing you of being a terrorist,” he says, as he leaves. “I don’t want you to think I am one,” I answer. We both return to our jobs.

With an art fair looming I had to get some new work done, and a spell in Guantanamo Bay was the last thing I needed. I had a bit of time to make some new work, but it wasn’t so straightforward. The things that looked so perfect to draw when I couldn’t — because I had a hungry five-year-old in tow or the car was parked next to an overdue parking meter — had suddenly become impossible to get to grips with. The 30-second drawings I usually manage to do in my small sketchbook seem full of vitality compared with the first few laboured efforts I churn out when I have two whole days before me to make something.

Take my visit to Paddington station earlier that same day. Usually, when passing through it in a rush before or after a train journey, it had always seemed so full of things to interest me: the soaring arches, the rhythmical columns, the energy and noise, the scale of the place. When confronted with the time to get some of this into a drawing, nothing seemed to work. Nothing seemed quite the right view, or the right format, nothing seemed to capture those things I enjoy so much about it. I walked around the concourse for about 20 minutes drawing a blank, watching the day ticking away.

Upstairs, though, there was a cafe with a table that had a view down one of the long arched aisles of the station that looked ideal to draw. By the time I had queued to buy a coffee it had become occupied. In the time it took for them to leave, and for me to take their place, I’d finished a few small drawings of things I wouldn’t have tackled otherwise and the views that had seemed so impossible before had become that much more doable. Cafes really are the great source of inspiration for me. Making a drawing at a table somehow takes the tension out of having to make a good piece of work.

But, ubiquitous as cafes may seem, they aren’t next to everything you may want to draw, and the contrasting demands of capturing the stationary architecture above and the very mobile elements of passengers and trains below took their toll. From near the clock on platform one I had nearly finished one drawing when a train arrived, obstructing half the view I had included. When it left, after its disembarked passengers had been replaced by those heading out of London, it revealed another train on the platform immediately behind it, so the obstructed view remained.

Twenty minutes later, and seeing yet more of the day slipping away, I consulted the timetables of arrivals and departures to find that there was a four-minute slot about half an hour later that would present me with the scene I had started and so nearly finished. The clock ticked around, and with Swiss efficiency the trains departed, like stage curtains, to reveal the view, leaving me to scrabble to finish the drawing. It is only a train arriving at the same platform two minutes early to re-obscure the view that spoiled things. I made up the rest of the drawing. The imagination is a wonderful thing.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Fly on the wall

I bumped into the friend of a friend of a distant relative when I was on the bus recently, and, not knowing them so well wondered what on earth we were going to talk about for the ten minutes until I had to get out at my stop. I needn’t have worried. “I can’t tell you what pleasure we get from your drawing hanging in our dining room,” he said. (It was a drawing of a town in Cornwall.) “It brings back such happy memories of when we were there.” I settled back and was so carried away talking about it with him I nearly missed my stop.

The thing is, I had quite forgotten that he had bought it. I had an exhibition about 10 years ago and invited as many people that I could, and the trickle-down factor – the network of family and friends gossiping away - meant that quite a few people turned out. As I wasn’t present at the exhibition all the time it was on, I didn’t know just how many had turned up. But there were a few sales, mostly to people I didn’t know, and some to those I did.

My record of sales isn’t perhaps as well maintained as it could be, and is a document I should read more often, firstly so that I remind myself I have sold quite a few paintings over the years, which is kind of cheering, and secondly because those buyers are exactly the people I should be keeping up to date with current and future artistic ventures. But thirdly, it is worth remembering that those paintings and drawings, although largely forgotten by me, still mean something to the people who have them.

That our paintings go and have a life of their own when we part company with them was brought home to me even more forcefully just the following day when I had an unexpected phone call. It was from a man in Portugal who was trying, he said, to trace an artist called James Hobbs, as the collection of art in Lisbon he was employed to catalogue held a number of his paintings.

Perhaps I have been watching too much bad TV lately, but my first reaction was to look around to see where the hidden cameras might be. I was standing in an office corridor as I took the call and expected for a moment that I was going to be the subject of one of those fly-on-the-wall programmes. But the paintings sounded from his description to be like mine, and the phone number showing on my mobile phone was an international one. Besides, why shouldn’t my work be bought by someone on the other side of Europe? If someone was playing a trick it wasn’t a very good one, because a private collection is just the kind of place that an artist’s paintings could end up.

I gave him my email address, and later that evening he sent me jpegs of the four paintings. They were mine. He also sent me details of the collection of 4,000 works of art, built by mining millionaire Joe Berardo, which happens to have some of the biggest names from 20th century art among it. “But why have they got yours?” a friend bluntly put it later. My inner voice has also been asking that question and wondering how soon they will sell them, but another voice (perhaps a few too many voices in my head at the moment, but I promise I’m not cracking up), this other voice keeps saying, “You’ve been making work for years, and this is what can happen if you stick at it.”

I sold those paintings more than 15 years ago, and how I wish I could have been a fly on the walls upon which they have been hanging during that time. How the hell did they end up in Lisbon? Who has bought and sold them during that time? Where have others I have sold gone? Where have yours gone?

Philip Thompson 1928-2007

Last week I went to the funeral of Philip Thompson, who created cartoons for the letters and agony pages of Artists & Illustrators magazine throughout my time as editor there from 2001-2004. Cartoons is perhaps not quite the word - they were drawings with an erudite spontaneity that sprang off the page, drawing on his vast experience, knowledge and sense of humour.

After several years, I met Philip with Roger Bates, the writer of the agony page for lunch in a Soho restaurant. (Roger's obituary for Philip was published in the Independent.) They got on well immediately - we all did - and Philip's rich past as an artist, illustrator, designer, lecturer and author was gradually revealed, as was even more of Roger's extraordinary artistic knowledge, wit and insight. Their conversation was an education to me. That they both, they claimed, usually tended to spurn such social occasions made it particularly miraculous they met and were able to develop this friendship.

The highlight each month during my time at Artists & Illustrators was to receive Roger's singular, knowledgeable and hilarious responses to readers' queries and then Philip's cartoon to illustrate them. It was a marvel they would work for us within our meagre budget. They worked together on this page for more than 12 years, until a few months ago when Philip became too ill to work. A relaunch for the magazine, now under new owners, means that Roger's wit and wisdom will now also be lost to its pages.

The two worked on a book of their work together, and despite Philip's distinguished publishing past, they were unable to find someone to take it on. "I've written to scores of publishers but they don't bother to reply," Philip wrote to me. "I spent my early years as a designer in the fifties doing book jackets for every publisher in London but all my contacts are either dead, doing time or in homes for the terminally incontinent. It's like starting all over again with 12-year-old editors and art editors."

I will most remember Philip's quiet voice as he answered the phone each month, the beauty even of the envelopes in which he would send his drawings, the visual splendour of his invoices and the ever-present threat of his Lyme Regis home being covered in a landslide. We left his coffin to the sounds of Miles Davis, retired to a nearby pub, and laughed in his memory.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Fair trade

Things here being the way they are – ie, artistic production still inexplicably outstripping public demand – the house has gradually filled up with works of art. Artist partner, too, has been cranking up creative production since the children are now both at school, so competition for having a work hanging in the sitting room’s much-coveted chimneybreast spot has hotted up. We are reaching the stage when we need to have regular rehangs, similar to those at Tate Modern, so that works don’t have to languish for too long in storage.

A leaflet arrives as an insert to a magazine with details of a way that may help our situation. Ever tried showing at an art fair? You hire wall space at a large venue and sell your work directly to the public. There are a number of advantages of doing this over showing in a gallery. You don’t have to say goodbye to a hefty percentage on each sale, you come face to face with your buyers and other artists, and show what you want to show at the price you choose.

It looks promising. The dates are convenient, and I’m up to a new challenge. A deadline gets my creative energy going. Before anything, though, I get the calculator out. The list of expenses soon mounts up. Hiring of the space, framing, printing, transport, time spent manning the stall, the loss of other paid work… Some services are included in the cost of the space, including publicity, packaging and a credit card payment service for buyers. But how many paintings can I show in the space at one time, how many am I likely to sell, and how many spare ones will I need to take the place of any that sell? How many works, in short, do I need to sell just to break even?

I have a track record of letting my imagination run riot before my work goes on sale; how much will I make if I sell everything I show? How much could I turn this into annually? But selling out has, of course, rarely troubled either me or extended the abilities of my accountants. I usually manage to sell something, and have sometimes surprised myself by selling more than I expected, but usually – and perhaps this is true for the majority of artists – I’m left thinking that things could have been an awful lot worse, as well as bit better.

We can make art for a variety of reasons, not all of them to do with making money, which is why most of us have day jobs. But while I may want to get some paintings off our walls and onto somebody else’s, I’m certainly not prepared to be out of pocket for the privilege. Would it make me feel any less an artist if I handed out my paintings to passers-by in the street who wanted one if it worked out a cheaper way of disposing of them than arranging to attend an art fair?

What an art fair can offer, though, is the opportunity of contact building and finding new, perhaps regular, buyers. Maybe that’s what I’m hoping for most now. I give the organisers a call, and they ask for a selection of jpegs of my work so that they can decide whether it is good enough to include. I may appear to have occasional wobbles about my work, but as I hit the send button I don’t have the slightest doubt that they should agree to include me.

But let us remember that success in such a venture is not just down to the quality of the work, the right frame, the right subject, the right price and unerring self belief. There is one more vital ingredient that defines whether such an event is a success or failure: the right buyer. Without a good supply of potential customers with cash in their pocket our chances of a satisfactory result are low, and how many of these lovely people will turn up we can only wait and see.

Saturday, 31 March 2007

In the galleries

One of the great things about living in London, one of the things that I have never quite become used to since first moving here almost 20 years ago, is the extraordinarily rich and varied selection of exhibitions that are a short distance from home. Feel like finding out what artists were making in Papua New Guinea at the end of the 19th century? Drop in to the British Museum. Wondering about what all the fuss is about with the Turner Prize? Get to Tate Britain. A few old masters? The Wallace Collection. Current state of prawn painting? Go to the National Gallery of Crustaceans. OK, that probably doesn’t exist, but I wouldn’t be so surprised if there was one applying for lottery funding to open right now.

Of course, you don’t need to live in London, or go to London, to delve into this other world – there are plenty of fantastic museums and galleries around the country. But when I am in some London museums, the big national ones especially, it seems that they are mostly being visited by people who have travelled half way across the country, if not all the way around the world, to be there. They are some of the best and most inspiration reasons for coming to London.

I get to galleries quite a lot – it’s part of my job – but perhaps not always the galleries that feed my own practice as an artist particularly well. I was in a library-quiet commercial gallery the other day close to Oxford Street, a contrast of mad bustle on one hand and eery stillness on the other, emphasising the great gulf between the average punter on the street and some contemporary art. But silent galleries let works speak, giving us visitors a chance to get a cosy one-to-one with what’s on display. When did the Mona Lisa last speak? The poor thing is being held under house arrest behind bullet-proof glass by the banks of the Seine and if her muffled cries did manage to escape her sealed world they must surely be saying “get me out of here”.

As it happens, the works I was looking at in the commercial gallery weren’t saying much to me, and what they were saying I wasn’t so keen to hear; at least, I didn’t think they were going to help the art I was going to make when I reached home. The works on show were based on movies, and by the time I left I had my own idea: a video installation made of clips of “The End” appearing at the end of some of the great films in history, perhaps in a loop, so that viewers are caught in continuous track of finality, raising questions of death, reincarnation and immortality, and challenging the viewer to reappraise the place of happy-ever-afterness in their lives.

Oh dear. I needed help. It was at hand. Twenty minutes on the Tube and I was at another exhibition, of contemporary drawings this time. There were a handful of attentive people making their way around it. Some of the drawings were funny and immediate, and made me itch to draw. Then there were some by an artist who sits with a bunch of pencils in each hand mimicking the hand actions of people she selects around her, such as someone cooking in a Hong Kong noodle restaurant, so creating an elaborate abstract trail of marks. Her drawings made me want to experiment more with the ones that I make, to push things further than I do. There were works by other artists that also encouraged me in different ways, to try out new ways, to think about why I do things the way I do.

I find that a good exhibition can be the best boost to my artistic morale, and it is rarely a blockbuster exhibition that is six-deep with visitors. I left with a burning desire to draw. Mind you, I still quite like my “The End” video idea, but I expect a first-year art student somewhere has already done it.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Making a point

Over the years I have collected a wide and rather curious range of artists materials that are stored in an old cupboard in the corner of the studio. Sorting through it recently in the hunt for an A5-sized sketchbook – shades of an alcoholic rifling through the house desperate to find a forgotten and unfinished bottle of scotch – I realise just how much I have restricted myself in the materials I use.

A pile of redundant materials mounts up: aquarelle pencils, rabbit skin glue, hard pastels, soft pastels, oil pastels, oil paints so rich in pigment that a couple of tubes would serve perfectly well as dumbbells, student quality acrylics that look as if they came free with a packet of corn flakes, watercolour masking fluid so old the lid has fused tightly and permanently shut, box upon box of charcoal from, seemingly, every known manufacturer in the western world… And there, lurking at the back, is a blast from the past, a reminder of happy, innocent days from years ago: a bunch of pencils bound together by a now corroded elastic band.

How the memories flood back. There was a time when I hardly went anywhere without a 2B pencil or two in my jacket pocket, along with its inevitable companions, the Swiss army knife and the little black sketchbook. Its place in my pocket has gradually been taken over by the marker pen, which has its advantages, but none of the beauty and naturalness of the pencil. For a start, you cannot look at a marker pen and see how close it is to running out. A one-inch stub of pencil leaves you in no doubt you need to get a new one. And pencils are cheaper, too.

The pencil is still, however, a thing of beauty to me: to bring one to a fine point with a good, sharp knife, to feel that very sharpest point ping and break as it first hits the page, leaving a little splash of graphite dust across the page; to have at one’s fingertips that infinite range of weights of lines and tones that graphic software packages can still only dream of. A pencil is small and light, and available in every high street. It looks and feels organic, the high fibre option. I would even venture to say that, if pushed, a well-sharpened H pencil could be used to perform an emergency tracheotomy. And they work just about anywhere; NASA still uses them on the International Space Station.

In an age obsessed with upgrading and improvement, the pencil is a towering monument to getting something right almost first time. We are now on no more than Pencil 3.0, and considering that it first shipped about 450 years ago that is something to shout about. Of course, there are more recently introduced mechanical pencils and all kinds of coloured and aquarelle pencils that no doubt deserve similar adoration, but the core product, the humble and wonderful graphite pencil, remains gloriously similar to those that appeared in the 16th century. The great lumps of graphite first found on a Cumbrian fell may no longer used in their manufacture (the local shepherds found them useful for marking their sheep), but Nicolas-Jacques Conté’s big innovation in 1795 was to mix graphite powder with clay in varying quantities so that a range of hardness and softness became available. Otherwise, they haven’t changed so much.

There was correspondence in a paper recently about some of the more boring museums that can be found in the UK. The Museum of Lead Mining at Wanlockhead and the British Lawnmower Museum in Sheffield were mentioned. Then someone suggested the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick. Boring? Pencils? I have visited this museum, and suggest you do too. Where else could you find a 26-foot pencil, the world’s longest? It is the pencil lover’s dream.

And so why have I relegated my pencils to the darkened corners of the studio cupboard? It’s a question I am still asking myself. At the moment at least, I am looking for a line that is thicker, blacker, less likely to smudge, and less pencil-like. But they are back in my jacket pocket now, and a relationship has been rekindled.

Friday, 26 January 2007

In the city

I have a day off work and plan to head outdoors with the sketchbook. Inevitably, it rains. Of course, it is the middle of winter and there is no reason to expect that it should do anything else. Who knows what a better climate – induced by global warming or otherwise – might do for our landscape painting tradition?

But having spent too much time in front of a computer – for the day job as well as for scanning in drawings, getting the website set up and applying for things – I’m not going to be put off getting outside to draw. A dose of elemental forces, in the shape of wind and rain, is a relief after too much time spent working in offices.

Discomfort, for me at least, doesn’t preclude creativity. At art school we’d be encouraged to stand up as we worked, which could mean, despite the usual preconceived ideas about art students, that we were on our feet next to an easel for eight hours. Painting can be, should be, a physically draining exercise. Of course, a day spent drawing is a doddle compared with patrolling Basra or being a nurse, and we usually had the strength to stay on our feet by the student union bar in the evenings.

(I still think it makes sense to stay on your feet at an easel if you’re fit and mobile enough: it makes it easy to get in position to make the right marks, especially if you are working large, and it enables you to move away from the work to see how it is going. Sitting down seems to me to be just a little too comfortable.)

King’s Cross in London is hardly the most comfortable place to be drawing either. The area is currently in the grip of developers, as what was once a congested drug-riddled area frequented by kerb-crawlers tries to turn itself into a cosy inner-city neighbourbood where a flat is worth more than the GDP of some African nations. I like its transitional period anyway. The scaffolding is up, cranes abound, and there is an energy about the place that is infectious. The lines of the scaffolding accentuate perspective, shrouding the shape of George Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Midland Grand Hotel.

Drawing somewhere so busy – people are pouring in and out of the railway station, and it is hard to find a place to stand that isn’t in the way – means that one becomes more or less invisible, in a way that is impossible in less populated locations. There is, in my experience, less chance of someone coming up to you in a busy place and asking the dreaded “What are you doing then?” than there is in quieter places.

A few years back I spent six months travelling around England in a camper van loaded with pencils and sketchbooks, drawing every day. I soon became accustomed to people coming over and chatting to me as I worked. At rural Bradford-upon-Avon a man came over to see what I was doing as he waited for his wife and children to finish shopping. As they all left in the car on their way home, his wife wound down the window, and invited me to their home for dinner and to park my van in their drive for the night.

When I turned up at their house on the edge of town that evening, there was roast chicken, home grown vegetables, bottles of beer, and a warmth and generosity that was quite breathtaking. When I left in my van the next morning to head for the next town there was a touching farewell ceremony in the drive, and gifts of home grown tomatoes and apples (that helped keep scurvy at bay). Throwing their doors open to complete strangers isn’t what the English are renowned for. Mind you, if I’d had a similar invitation from someone as I drawn at King’s Cross, I’d have turned it down.