Friday, 31 December 2010

Pencils: the high-fibre option

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 office/studio. Sorting through it recently in the hunt for an A5-sized sketchbook – shades of an alcoholic ransacking the house desperate to find a forgotten and unfinished bottle of whisky — I realise how much I had restricted myself in the materials I used.

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

There was a time when I went hardly 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 been taken over by the marker pen, which has its advantages, but none of the beauty and naturalness of a pencil. For a start, you can't look at a marker pen and see how close it is to running out. With a pencil, what you see is what you get: a one-inch stub leaves you in no doubt that 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 sharp knife, to feel that sharpest point ping and break as it first hits the page, leaving a little splash of graphite dust across the paper; to have at one's fingertips that infinite range of weights of lines and tones that software packages can 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, 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 appeared about 450 years ago, that is something to boast about.

So why are pencils relegated to the darkened corners of the studio cupboard? It's a question I'm still asking myself. At the moment, at least, I'm looking for a line that is thicker, and blacker, less likely to smudge and less pencil-like. But there's one in my jacket pocket again now, and a precious relationship has been rekindled.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Back from Miami

The week's work in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach coincides neatly with the cold snap in the UK: London is snowless on departure and the thaw is complete by our return. Miami is consistent in the opposite extreme. Cloudless on arrival and departure, and most of the rest of the time as well. There's a chasm in temperature between Florida and the rest of the US - it's obvious why it's a place to flee to in the winter.

Art Basel Miami Beach brings together about 250 top end international galleries with hundreds of top end international collectors, curators, movers and shakers, and then there are another dozen or more satellite shows around the city. My work with The Art Newspaper goes on late into the night, so there's time during the day to explore and draw. Apart from the beach with its meandering palm tree-lined board walk, and the tasty art deco architecture - best in the evening when the neon kicks in - there are plenty of shows about town. Isaac Julien's sumptuous Ten Thousand Waves at the Bass Museum is showing on nine large screens in a dimly lit room that is interspersed, you realise once your eyes become accustomed to the light, with people sitting on the floor with the hush of a religious service.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, are the sculptures of Jonathan Meese and black and white photographs by Bruce Weber of Miami's Haitian community that explore the way refugees from the Caribbean country are handled by the US immigration system. That these photographs come from the lens of the photographer best known for his shots advertising Calvin Klein underwear somehow makes them even more powerful.

But the cafe-less museum is a $35 ride from Miami Beach, and when we ask where we can buy a coffee, and they offer to order us a taxi to take us to a Dunkin' Donuts, you can't help thinking they are missing a trick.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Swiss Schiffstation

We had a family summer holiday this year in a youth hostel on the banks of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. One day we took a ferry to the village of Beckenried on the opposite side, the lights of which we would watch twinkling across the silent evening air each night.

Next to Beckenried's ferry station is, in the great integrated transport system that is Switzerland, a cable car that whooshed us up 1600m to the resort of Klewenalp. We then spent the rest of the day working our way down through clanking cows and staggeringly beautiful scenery.

You rarely get to spend much time between transport connections in Switzerland, so I had to be quick to get this drawing done as we waited for the ferry that took us back to Gersau.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Affordable Art Fair, London, 21-24 October

I am showing at the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park, London, with Skylark Galleries this week, from Thursday 21 to Sunday 24 October. It's the perfect chance to stroll into the sunset with a well-wrapped work of art under your arm like the happy couple in their publicity material.

The Skylark stand number is G4, and I'm going to be attending for much of the time, so chase me up if you can come, or give me a call. I showed at the fair for the first time last year, and it was an excellent way for artists to meet buyers, and buyers to meet artists.

There's a nifty free shuttle bus that goes to the fair from the north-east corner of Sloane Square every 15 mins that I've always found to work well. Find out more details about the fair here.

Friday, 17 September 2010

A bridge too far

"Visit [his blog] to see if James won," suggests the final line in an article in today's Stoke Newington Gazette about the Blackfriars Bridge competition. Well thanks for checking, if you are, and no I didn't, this time. It looks as if it will become an annual competition, or for as many years as it takes to finish building the new station, so it can wait until another day.

But the exhibition continues until Sunday 19 September at the Bankside Gallery — where the shortlisted work (see previous blogs) is for sale. There was a private view earlier this week and I realise now that I've just spent the morning walking around Stoke Newington with a sticky label on my lapel saying: "James Hobbs, exhibiting artist".

Above, St Mary's old church, Stoke Newington

Friday, 3 September 2010

London Lives exhibition opens 9 September

The 100 shortlisted artists for the London Lives competition - including this work by me, on sale in an edition of 30 - goes on display at the Bankside Gallery, London, on Thursday 9 September, and runs until 19 September. The winning work will be enlarged and shown on the hoardings across Blackfriars Bridge while the new station is being built. The station will be the most convenient stop for Tate Modern when it opens in a couple of years.

Meanwhile, the Oxo Gallery show went really well - my thanks to the people who have been in touch with me about it, and to those who bought my work. My work is, of course, still on display as usual in Skylark 2 at Oxo Tower Wharf (there's a link on the right). And I'll be showing again with Skylark at the Affordable Art Fair, Battersea Park, from 21-24 October. More details here soon.

Friday, 6 August 2010

London Lives: the shortlist

Today comes the news that I've been shortlisted (but at 100 names it's still quite a long shortlist - it's a medium list perhaps, or just list), which means that I'll be included in the show at the Bankside Gallery, London, from 9-19 September. More details later.

My work is still on show at oxo@gallery, at the Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, until 15 August. Details here.

Friday, 30 July 2010

London Lives: the longlist

I've just heard that I've been longlisted (and with 200 names it is a long list) for the London Lives competition, in which the winner's work will be reproduced in an outsize form for 12 months on Blackfriars Bridge, which is currently swathed in scaffolding while a new Thames-spanning railway station is built alongside it. The winning work will be seen by millions of people, including me, as I cycle over the bridge on my way to work. I will, therefore, have plenty of opportunity to contemplate and appreciate the winning work, whoever it is by.

More about London Lives here, with some images by other longlisted works.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

In the city

While Urban Sketchers around the globe are packing their bags and preparing to leave for the group's first international symposium, in Portland, Oregon, and the schools empty, there's a sense that we should be somewhere else now, too. In a short while, and after a few deadlines, we will be. But there are advantages to being in the city in the summer. Some streets are quieter, queues shorter, tempers calmer, even in the heat. The pace changes.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Gallery@oxo, South Bank, London, 29 July-15 August 2010

I'm showing in Skylark's summer group show at oxo@gallery on London's South Bank, which runs from Thursday 29 July to Sunday 15 August. The gallery, on the waterside between Blackfriars Bridge and the National Theatre, is open from 11am-6pm, seven days a week.

For more details, see here.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Domestic extremism

I have a quiet hour waiting to pick up daughter 2 from a friend's house, so have time to buy a coffee in a Turkish cafe on the High Street. Because I am here, and it is there, I draw what is across the road, which happens to be Stoke Newington police station. Years ago, when we lived in a tiny, rattling flat over a launderette just up the road, the police had a bad reputation here, and there were no cheerful Turkish cafes with tables on the pavement. Things change.

Picking up the Guardian , I find myself reading about an 85-year-old artist, John Catt, who accompanies his daughter to demonstrations against the arms trade, and who has somehow found himself classified by the police as a "domestic extremist". Their files have recently been released under the Data Protection Act.

"My dad likes to sketch and I will hold a banner and shout a few things," says his daughter. "But I'm careful about what I say."

Thursday, 10 June 2010

British Museum, London

To coincide with World Cup in South Africa, the British Museum has brought plants and trees from the Cape region to the forecourt of the British Museum — but no South African weather to match.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Post-Brown London

My usual ride home from work takes me along the Albert Embankment as far as the London Eye. East of Westminster Bridge, it's London's equivalent of a seafront. The old County Hall has been turned into a theme park, and there are ice creams, doughnuts, swathes of silver-painted street performers pretending to be statues, Michael Jackson look-alikes, Charlie Chaplin impersonators, assorted buskers and meandering international tourists on the walkway towards the Royal Festival Hall.

Except last week it was all happening on the north side of the river. The bagpiper on Westminster Bridge had the place to himself while everyone headed off, like me, to see Gordon Brown move out of Downing Street and David Cameron move in. I joined the crush by the Downing Street gates (left), having missed the Browns and their boys walking out by about ten minutes. Mounted police, chanting troops-out demonstrators, TV camera crews every ten yards, the relentless whirr of a helicopter overhead and an incredible, exciting atmosphere. I'm quite missing it.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Hawker's Hut, Morwenstow

Hawker’s Hut is set into the 400-foot cliffs of remote north Cornwall, originally built out of driftwood by the Victorian priest Rev Robert Stephen Hawker as a place to write poetry, smoke opium and watch for passing ships coming to grief on this notoriously dangerous stretch of Atlantic coast. It is now owned by the National Trust, and at no more than six feet square, its smallest property.

Morwenstow, the closest village across the fields, was where my farming grandparents grew up and retired - I have many dairy-farming relations there even now - and where we would visit regularly as children. It’s remote and wild, and one of my favourite places.

The ashes of my late brother, David, were scattered nearby. He died ten years ago today, at the age of 41.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Planeless skies

Planes on their way to land at Heathrow airport loop high over our house on their way towards west London — well, normally they do. The volcanic ash cloud drifting across Europe from Iceland has now meant that the restrictions on UK airspace will continue for a few days at least. This is bad news for many who are trapped in the UK (being an island has its drawbacks) as well as those trying to return home from Easter holidays.

So the skies are empty, silent and cloudless here today. I'm working with the window open, and you wouldn't believe how wonderfully silent London can be.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Shard, London Bridge

I was near London Bridge this week when I caught sight of a concrete stump emerging from between the railway station and Guy's Hospital, usefully labelled "Shard". Concrete stump it may be now, but when it is completed in 2012 (the year of the London Olympics) it will be the UK's tallest building, and one of the city's most recognisable landmarks. And there won't be any concrete on show when it is finished: its architect Renzo Piano has compared the 310-metre building to a shard of glass. Have a look at this.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Iraq inquiry

I was passing Westminster the day before Tony Blair appeared at the Iraq war inquiry, and instead of crowds of demonstrators, there were just a handful of people putting up gantries for the TV crews on the lawn in front of the convention centre in Westminster where it's all taking place. It's a hideous, modern building, slap next to Westminster Abbey - what was there before to make way for it?

I'm cycling past the centre again on my way home from work the following day. The film crews are lit up ready for the news at six o'clock and there's an end-of-the-day weariness about the place. Discarded "Bliar" placards litter the pavement. I stop and watch for a bit, not that there's much going on, but there is the suggestion that soon there might be. I ask a policeman, who tells me Blair has already left, and he gives the impression everyone else should too. People linger, seemingly reluctant to go home.

It's a few weeks later now, and Blair's appearance was typically assured enough for it to have faded into history, even if the Iraq war hasn't.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

From the window

The view from the window. It's often where it all starts and finishes, especially in a winter like this. It may not be what you'd usually stop and draw but you do, because it's there and because you can stand and stare to your heart's content in a way it's not so easy to if you're just standing on the pavement. Views from our homes and places of work become eroded to our eyes so that after a while it's not so easy to see what's really there. The apparently mundane nature of the scene can take it over that threshold of what makes something worth drawing.

On the road, travelling in foreign countries, everything is fresh and the sketchbook hardly ever goes away. At home, the flats across the road gradually become almost invisible. It has little to do with the quality of the scene. A friend waxed lyrical for hours about the scene from her new rural Devon house after they'd left London a few years ago. The hills, the trees, the sky. I couldn't disagree, but I know, having grown up in lovely, essentially rural, surroundings, that in time that would fade so that she would be no more aware of the view out of her window as I am out of mine. Drawing what's outside the window revives the view, brings it back into focus. These are two drawings made through windows.