Tuesday, 8 December 2009

South Beach, Miami

Snow may be falling in Texas, but Miami still basks in the high 20s celsius. I’m back in the city with The Art Newspaper working on a daily edition at Art Basel Miami Beach, the premier US fair that hosts more than 250 international galleries. The art market lives on, despite everything. The figures, like the temperatures, are high, but not as outlandish as previous years: “five hundred thousand is the new million,” said one gallerist. A Warhol priced at $2.25m sells, but most are relatively cheaper, although outlandish enough.

The beach is one focus of the fair: there are works on the sand, in the sea even. The buying mentality continues at the non-commercial Bass Museum, where a couple viewing a show by Chicago artist Dzine view one large work while broadcasting a conversation about the possibility of commissioning a work by the artist for their “top landing”. The beachside walk weaves its way through palm trees past towering hotels towards Ocean Drive, the strand of art deco hotels and shops, and Gianni Versace’s former residence, the scene of his murder in 1997. The Art Deco District Welcome Center is locked and less than welcoming.

The cafes, of course, spill on to the pavements, making them perfect for people-watching and drawing. The palms are as exotic and alluring to draw as they were for me on my visit last year. There are palms in Torquay, though. There the similarities end.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Piccadilly, south side

A cycle to the Royal Academy, where the sculptor Anish Kapoor is showing pigment works, reflective sculptures and some new works (until 11 December). The galleries are stuffed with visitors, waiting for a cannon to fire great lumps of wax splattering into a corner of one of the galleries every 20 minutes, leaving gobs of coloured gunk on the walls and door posts to leave an effect that is a little reminiscent of the hideous, creative mess of Francis Bacon's studio.

In a series of other connected rooms, a great lump of coloured wax squeezes sluglike and almost inperceptibly slowly through the connecting doorways to leave another cleaning bill for the RA. There's something theatrical about this work, but you spend a lot of time looking and waiting, as if you are watching a glacier. A little more erosion would help, perhaps a wall falling over and collapsed ceilings.

From a cafe across the road, it occurs to me that the sculptor Henry Moore may have enjoyed Kapoor's work. Moore suffered at the hands of the RA in the 1940s when the harrumphing "modern art nonsense" president Sir Alfred Munnings ruled the roost. A cannon firing at the RA's walls would surely have appealed to Moore — Munnings, on the other hand, must be rotating in his grave at Large Hadron Collider speed. Moore's dislike for the Academy, early in his career if not later, was such that if walking along Piccadilly he would cross to its south side outside the window where I sit, to avoid even being on the same side of the road as the RA. I'm sure I've read this somewhere, anyway, even if I can't unearth it now. But it sounds right.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Urban Sketchers

It's happy birthday time for Urban Sketchers, the group blog of 100 invited artists - including me - from more 56 countries who post their sketchbook drawings on the site that lets you "see the world one drawing at a time". During that time its 3,500 posts have, incredibly, attracted more than a million visits. Running alongside the blog is the Urban Sketchers Flickr site, which hosts more than 20,000 drawings by 2,000 artists.

For some it's been a catalyst to draw, for others the chance to get feedback from artists around the world, and feel part of a wider community. I started blogging for Urban Sketchers in January, and what I enjoy most about it, beyond seeing some fantastic drawings by other bloggers, is that my work gets seen by artists in far-flung places whereas most of it would probably have lingered unseen in a sketchbook on a shelf at home. Draw in the morning, get feedback from Bhutan in the afternoon. There's the feeling that the internet is the ideal vehicle for our kind of work.

Its founder, Seattle Times artist Gabi Campanario, already has plans to turn USk into a non-profit organisation to promote drawing and offer grants and fellowships. There are plans for a book and international face-to-face meetings. The statistics for the group grow every day. It's gone a long way already, but its journey may just be beginning.

Guess what? You can find out more on Twitter and Facebook.

Top, Green Lanes, London.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The 10th Affordable Art Fair, London

My work is showing at the 10th Affordable Art Fair with Skylark Galleries (stand G4) from Thursday 22 to Sunday 25 October. The fair, which shows contemporary work by about 120 UK and European galleries, takes place in Battersea Park, London SW11, and focuses on work costing between £50 and £3,000.

Find out more about the fair. I'm there most days — let me know if you're coming and I'll meet you there.


Thursday, 17 September 2009

In this month's Artists & Illustrators

I'm featured in this month's Artists & Illustrators magazine — out now and available from all good newsagents — in an article about drawing in the city.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Mad for Dorset

Bournemouth sits on Dorset’s coast with what seems like an unjustified reputation for being a city only to retire to. By the end of our week’s holiday there we’ve started planning the same – although retirement is still decades away. I can see it now: a flat with a sea view and a balcony close to the seven miles of sandy beach, and a gentle stroll along the promenade each morning past the thousands of beach huts. Too soon! Too soon!
The glimpse of the sea from our hotel room also reveals construction cranes working close to the new artificial surf reef – Europe’s first being built near to Boscombe pier. It’s nearing completion, and has already helped to generate eight-foot waves earlier in the year. There’s no reason why surfing shouldn’t be a retirement pastime, but it will probably have the effect of lowering the average age of Bournemouth’s inhabitants still further.
Along the coast to the west, Brownsea Island sits at the mouth of Poole harbour, the world’s second largest natural harbour after Sydney. It belongs to the National Trust now and is all peacocks and cream teas, as well being undeniably beautiful and relaxing.
The island looks out on to Sandbanks, a sandy spit of some of the country’s most expensive properties that looks sure to disappear one stormy night when rising sea levels have taken grip. John Lennon bought his Aunt Mimi a bungalow here in the 1960s, now demolished and replaced by a glassy residence with a swimming pool on the ground floor. I can’t quite imagine Aunt Mimi going for that. David Beckham, the story goes, sold his house there almost as soon as he’d bought it because photographers took up residence on the public beach at the bottom of his garden. Poor old Dave.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

A global view

I head down to the Globe, the reconstructed Shakespearian theatre on the banks of the Thames next to Tate Modern, to pick up some relatives who have come to stay with us. While the play finishes and the sun sets there's time to stand on the Millennium Bridge and feel the wind in my face to the sound of gulls. It's a dark, warm, rainy evening and as the light fades almost visibly, the lights from the office blocks opposite grow correspondingly stronger. The buildings gradually become almost featureless blocks of concrete, stone and glass.

In preparation for the mass exodus of the audience from the theatre, the doors are opened and a great belch of music, drumming and applause is expelled into the river air, attracting a cluster of tourists with video cameras who film the closing moments of the play through the doors.

Propelled by the tide, party cruisers head downstream to the sounds of more music and laughter.

The Thames is a slice of something really gorgeous running through this city.

Monday, 29 June 2009

From Waterloo Bridge

The South Bank is like the seafront of London, especially around the London Eye, where the air is rich with the sounds of international languages and the smells of fresh doughnuts and burgers. Shut my eyes and I could be back on Hastings pier - until Big Ben chimes.

At a distance, from Waterloo Bridge, the view is more contemplative. The Thames arcs past the Houses of Parliament, a great slice of nature meandering through the stone and concrete, its tides rising and falling sharply over the day. A sliver of sandy beach on the southern side survives from the time of the Festival of Britain in the 1950s. We passed it the other day and there was a full-on beach party going on there. The river is busy, particularly at this time of year, with tourist trips, but barges as well. Nothing like the massive tankers I saw on the Rhine the other week, though, which seemed to stretch from one bridge to the next.

What is striking about the view is just how modern most of the buildings are. The Shell Centre tower, Royal Festival Hall, the Festival Pier, the Golden Jubilee pedestrian bridges, the London Eye, Millbank tower, Portcullis House, next to Big Ben: much of it has arrived within the last 20 years. Most of the parliament building is only 19th-century, so not so old. But it's unmistakably London.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Swiss perspective

Art Basel closed this weekend. It's the largest art fair in the world - nearly 300 galleries, 2,500 artists, 61,000 collectors, dealers, artists, curators and general browsers - and a market where there are still buyers. All the big art world figures are there, fresh from the opening of the Venice Biennale the week before, along with celebrity figures such as Roman Abramovich, Brad Pitt and Naomi Campbell. Sales are surprisingly buoyant, but is it a sign of the end of the recession, or the bounce of a dead cat?

I was staying in the medieval part of town; it's all narrow roads, steep hills, market places and tram lines. As well as working, I had time to visit some of the relatively new museums in the city. The Fondation Beyeler in the north, designed by Renzo Piano, is busy with visitors from the fair, which is a short tram ride away through suburbs and green, cow-filled fields. There's a huge Giacometti show, and an exhibition showing modern works with incredible sculptures from Oceania and Africa, which stole the show for me.

To the south, similarly handy on the tram, is Schaulager, which blew me away as a building, and which is worth a visit in itself, regardless of the great exhibition "Holbein to Tillmans". The building, by Herzog & de Meuron, looks like it shouldn't work at all - it's as if you have to walk through a deserted mud hut to get into the forecourt - but it does. What's the point of a gallery that threatens to overpower the works it is displaying? From inside it seems as if it continues upwards for ever, and the glimpses of the underwhelming industrial zone the building is set in pour in through the windows in a beautiful way. Spaces widen and narrow. Yet it isn't overpowering, and I see works by Holbein, in particular, and David Claerbout's Section of a Happy Moment as if for the first time.

Returning from the Beyeler, the tram passes the German railway station (Germany, France and Switzerland all share boundaries in the city). It was the scene of a moment of family history, where Naomi's paternal grandmother finally managed to escape Nazi Germany in November 1938, being smuggled from the Germany part of the station to the Swiss, to be ultimately reunited with her family exiled in London, where they flourished. Basel is an ideal place to consider the importance of the European Union, the unity of the countries that converge on it, and the outrage of Britain returning two extreme right British National Party members to the European Parliament in the recent elections.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

By the pool

I've never found it so easy to sit by a pool for too long - some of the people staying at the same holiday village as us in northern Cyprus seemed able to nurture their tans from straight after breakfast until dinner, gradually shifting their sun beds over the day so they were in line with the sun, like human sun dials.

If I'm packing for travel, the essentials are a passport, ticket, money, insurance, sketchbook and pens, a novel or two and a penknife. I could manage without a camera now, except it's good to have photographs of everyone having a good time, and being able to record the children growing up. The drawings can never do that. I'd sooner be without a novel than a sketchbook. The clock is ticking every day in terms of drawing. We may be out to relax, but coming home without drawings is too awful to contemplate.

So we sit by the pool for a bit, and the sun's not too hot, and the pool is quite cold, except we all go in, the kids particularly keenly. And then I have to draw, whatever is in front of me. I'm not sure it really matters at all what I do draw. If I had to spend time in solitary confinement I think I'd still manage to keep going. And then I read a bit, until it's time to draw a bit more, with a slightly uneasy feeling that the sun is drying out the pens, even though they are in the shade under the sunbed. But it's best to use them before they do dry out. Pencils are so much better in this respect.

By this time, we're about 90 minutes into the day. The world beyond beckons. How do people keep going by the pool all day? Some are evidently happy to lie low all day, on their own, with a thick novel and time on their hands. Perhaps it is because there is no extradition treaty between northern Cyprus and Britain, and the weeks spread before them. But don't quote me on that.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Slowing down

As part of Slow Down London, a festival that aims to help us all take things more calmly and perhaps appreciate life better for it, the Skylark Galleries on the South Bank are spilling out on to the Thames riverside walk to extol the relaxing benefits of the work of its artists. People will be around from 2-6pm this bank holiday weekend, from Saturday 2 May to Monday 4 May, in the gardens next to the Oxo Tower. See you there.

Friday, 24 April 2009

The tide goes out

Northern Cyprus is fantastically beautiful in many ways. The mountains that run south of Kyrenia, or Girne, are spectacular, with castles and ruined abbeys, olive trees and palms. But a mile or so towards the coast a tide of development has risen, and then fallen dramatically in the past few years. These unfinished buildings, that all show no signs of being currently worked on, are on a 15-mile stretch of one road. There are many more, hundreds more.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Being there

Google’s Street View was launched in the UK last month, with 360 degree views of 25 cities now available as part of its mapping service. This is handy for such things as checking what the hotel you are heading for looks like or whether your mate really lives in the mansion they are boasting about. And because most of the images were taken last summer, they offer a vision of that time before the recession, when we still had Woolworths and MFI on our high streets.

It’s also been handy way, I have found, of reminding myself when I get home of the details and surroundings of some of the places I have drawn. As I draw in ink on site and then work with colour back in the studio this can be a handy way of recalling how buildings look, and how the colours may work. It’s probably better to use images from a digital camera, which will at least be free from companies now collapsed into liquidation, but the online option is a handy alternative.

This system presents problems, of course, for the visual artist. For a start, Street View only offers the view from a road, so you are unlikely to quite get the panorama that may have grabbed you from a park, for instance, or pedestrian routes. It’s a car-centric view that it offers, and bike-centric to an extent, which is only a part of any town or city. I will find it much more useful when Google finally gets around to introducing Cafe View, showing panoramic views from cafe windows around the globe.

The other overriding problem is that there is nothing quite like the experience of being somewhere. Why add information to my drawings that didn’t grab me when I was there? Drawings don’t have to be comprehensive to work — in fact the opposite is true. Patience, energy, threatening rain clouds, the amount of ink a page can take, children who needing picking up from school: all have an effect on when I consider a drawing “finished”. Getting everything in has nothing to do with it.

My point is, Street View may be quite handy sometimes. That’s all.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

James Hobbs: Skylark 2, 3-22 March 2009

I'm the featured artist at Skylark 2 at the Oxo Tower on the South Bank, London, from 3 to 22 March, showing prints and drawings, some of them so new I still haven't finished them. I will be at the gallery on
Thursday 5 March from 6-8pm
Friday 13 March from 11-6pm and
Sunday 22 March from 11-6pm
so drop in and say hello if you're passing by.
The gallery is open daily from 11-6pm, closed Mondays.

Skylark 2 Gallery
1st Floor OXO Tower, Riverside
020 7401 9666
Nearest Tube: Waterloo/Blackfriars
A few minutes from the National Theatre
Entry free

Image: James Hobbs, Paddington Station, £320/£120 framed, £90 unframed.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Building in the City

On the bike, and down to the City. At the Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters, close by Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in Spitalfields, you can sense the squirming inside as they try to justify giving themselves the usual bonuses for – for what exactly? For doing so badly that it is now effectively nationally owned. Its former chiefs, and those of the equally unsuccessful HBOS, have just been quizzed by the Commons Treasury Committee. I don't get the idea they have lost too much sleep about things.

The new buildings still go up, too. The Pinnacle (barely above the ground but promising 63 floors), Heron Tower (36 floors), St Botolph’s (a piddling dozen or so floors)... all add up to more than enough office space for the city. Another site close to Spitalfields (and near the cheerfully named Frying Pan Alley), currently up to 25 floors and rising, is for student accommodation. This is more like it, surely? Who is rushing to get office space in the City at the moment?

Saturday, 7 February 2009


St Pancras railway station, gateway to Europe, and bits of England.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Looking out

It’s cold – it’s really cold, and the idea of standing around outdoors drawing isn’t doing anything for me. So it’s warm in comparison with Alaska, but you get the idea. And daylight is short. Winter can have the same effect on drawings as it does on lawns: it gets so darn cold and dark it’s hard for anything to grow with vigour.

Unlike lawns, I’m able to head indoors. Cafes often have those long, high tables running alongside the windows that are probably designed to squeeze more sitting customers in, but which are, more importantly, ideal to draw from. The seats are usually so hard and uncomfortable it’s impossible to relax too much or doze off, so you have to draw. There’s enough room to spread out with your sketchbook and skinny espresso macchiato fiordilatte on the rocks with a green salad and not feel overlooked.

The choice of what you get to draw is limited by these cafes’ locations, but there are so many of them around London that this isn’t such a major problem. Cafes usually come first: I haven’t seen so many closing in the teeth of the recession. Several years ago the Victoria and Albert Museum marketed itself as “an ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached”. Look at any National Trust property and the cafe is a prerequisite, regardless of the hundreds of years of history, intrigue and turmoil that the building may have been witness to. Cake is king.

Things have been improving with pubs too. The dingy old boozers with frosted glass and bands of drunken, smoking dockers creating enough fug to make even the view across the table difficult to make out have largely given way, at the expense of a lot of character, it must be said, for smoke-free wining and dining opportunities with clear glass to the world outside. The idea being that people, especially women, are more likely to enter a pub if they can see into it before reaching the door. Good news for the artist looking for shelter from the cold, bad news if he/she has any predilection for drink at which point drawing will go out of the window.

At this point it becomes a case of either how fast you work or how well your drawing stands up to high levels of alcohol or overpriced caffeine. Working indoors comes at a price.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

At large

An age ago, when Zimbabwe still had a thriving tourist industry, and food, and a working currency, an economy, hospitals, schools, productive farms, a working population, and much more, we went there on holiday for a few weeks, and mostly did the kinds of things relatively rich western tourists do there: visit Victoria Falls, the Matopos and Hwange National Park. We spent hours out in the bush with a guide watching this parade of incredible wildlife go about its often bloodthirsty business.

Drawing wildlife has never really done it for me. Most of the animals one usually comes across in nature stay far away enough to make them turn into little more than ink blobs on the pages of my sketchbook. But in Zimbabwe we came so close to ridiculously huge animals - elephants, giraffes, buffalo, hippos, rhinos - often moving helpfully slowly, that they could register even on my A5 sketchbook.

I was reminded of this experience recently on a visit to Arundel Wetland Centre. There were no hippos showing their heads above the water, vultures circling over a kill, or giraffes heading down to the watering hole, but there was a great range of wildfowl, including sheldecks, shovelers, siskin, teal and snipe, not that I'd know what they'd look like without the swathes of information on hand in the visitor centre.

These birds couldn't possibly be recognised by the drawings I made of them through the windows of the cafe as we all sheltered from the cold. Most took somewhere between two or perhaps even three seconds to complete. There is a thin slice of time for the dark shape of the wildfowl on the bright, reflecting water to leave some mark on the retina before it is turned into lines on the paper. Look back and it's impossible to find the relevant duck among the throng milling about on the water. Markings, size, colour, bills, plumage and crests, all what differentiates one kind of bird from another, are turned into a few lines in a few seconds.

It's rarely successful, drawing like this. I can't imagine an ornithologist would be able to recognise any of these. Birds are rarely bird shape at first glance, to put it badly: they swim away from you so the shape of the head is lost, or hunt for food under the surface of the water, so that a simple silhouette becomes a kind of visual nonsense. There's time for something essential to be put down, but nothing more, not for me anyway. After making works about the inertia and solidity of architecture, there's something very enjoyable about this.