Studio Shows 2

Episode 2

Working across different disciplines adds an element of confusion to the casual studio visitor, or, in one case it was somebody who wanted to see some work for a local show. Being familiar with the range of my children’s illustrations, the first thing she saw in the studio were several very large non-figurative paintings and lots of smaller ones. Puzzlement and doubt abounded. There was nothing cozy about these things. Had she come to the right place? How to extricate herself?


This was symptomatic of the reaction of many visitors and has led to me providing a brief tutorial in order to clarify this. Let’s start with the ‘abstract’ stuff.

My explanation was, and is, by invitation only otherwise the listeners boredom levels would be severely tested. Their interest was genuine and any hint of a patronising attitude from me would be spotted at once.

The gist of my riveting talk turned on learning the history and the language (or lack of it) of painting. As it is with literacy or numeracy or musical notation or culinary techniques, the study of these things is crucial.
Otherwise, without the background knowledge of ‘reading’ paintings then the the lure of conventional pedestrian ‘proper pictures’ in all their tedium prevails.

Does one tackle this with a barrage of words? Heaven forbid.
Consider this. After having enjoyed a play, or a novel, or a collection of poems, would you like to see a series of pictures to further increase one’s understanding? Or, conversely, does the visual experience have to be translated into mountains of words? Of course not. I once had a show where the only words were ‘fire exit’, and that was because it was compulsory. As somebody said ‘painting is about painting, everything else is about everything else.’ Quite so. Study it, learn about it, look at it, and even try it. Then forget the words.

There is an art to writing about art, some of which can become so wrapped up in itself it becomes incomprehensible. I like to call this ‘Art Bollocks’. For an irreverant post on this subject click here!

As previously mentioned, illustrating childrens books has been quite a successful venture. And along with Ronda’s superior literary skill our Lighthouse Keeper books have kept us both busy for over 40 years. Being published by Scholastic they have been a hit in schools, with hundreds of lighthouses being crafted by kids all over the world!

Some years ago, Ronda and I were doing a school visit in London. For some reason, we worked with the kids in a lecture theatre, at the end of which was a grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was on my own finishing off some session pictures for my young audience. At some point a young man appeared, asked if I minded if he did a rehearsal on the piano. ‘Of course not’, I replied, ‘can I come and see?’ He was doing that wonderful warhorse, the piano part in Beethoven 5, a piece I had known since I was about 4 years old. His concert date was pretty close. He was nervous.
He had umpteen goes at the start of the rondo. I approached the piano. ‘Look at this,’ he said, gesturing to the left hand page. He played a bit. ‘Now look at the right,’ he said.
‘You can see the problem! Bloody difficult, fancy a go?’
Of course, I could not see it at all. All I saw was a series of black marks on a piece of white paper. He looked at these marks and his head filled with music. This language was incomprehensible to me. My head filled with nothing. Not a hope. The music of top class painting is the same. It is wordless and deeply affecting.

From musescore.com

And of course, the dross of the ordinary in this venture is just as evident and as easy to spot. There is acres of it. This can be very confusing. Online websites are full of the stuff, so much of it is of spellbinding mediocrity. More explanation required….

Go back to Episode 1 of Studio Shows

[A coda: Back to the lecture theatre type experience with the children….

Making images for children is wonderfully unequivocal and almost totally wordless. The scene is a draughty assembly hall. 200 kids, years 1 and 2 are settled down and expecting a good show. So, get to work and then grab them and hold them, but be quick about it. Do that and the rapport is a kind of silent and magical electricity. The children almost take all the oxygen out of the air. At the end, nobody wants to leave, including me and the teachers. If you are not up to it, death is not lingering, it is immediate and horribly final . Children don’t mess around with platitudes. This activity is not for the faint-hearted.
In which case, go and do something else…..]

In Vino Veritas

This post contains mature content in the form of life drawing and nudity.

Chapter 5: The Journey to Thinking Big

At the end of secondary school it was time to go back to Melbourne and stay with my Aunt. Why? It meant that I could study art at the grandly named Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This activity was not so much a learning curve, rather more a vertical axis.
The tuition was very good, three years illustration was followed by 2 years painting. I was , and still am, deeply devoted to both. Customer satisfaction. Life drawing, a splendid discipline, was included in all of this.

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This is a shot of my continued life drawing practice, in my studio in Auckland a good few years later. More on that to come. Photograph courtesy of Geoff Studd. Models name Penny.

In my final year I was employed as a lecturer to teach the first years and part-timers this noble art…. a valuable experience. The students did not seem to be troubled by the age of their tutor. His love of the subject seemed to preclude this. I got my diploma and learnt how to do many things.
THEN! Overtaken by events. A major theatre in the city had approached the college to see if they had a student who could paint theatre scenery. I could imagine how the conversation went… ‘We need somebody who can draw and represent the physical world…for God’s sake don’t send us some abstract expressionist or cubist clown or a mystic Meg. We want technical skill. Give him, or her, anything, and they can do it. They will have to work on a huge scale. More than that, they will have to produce results before the pubs open’!

I got the nod. My meeting with the head honcho was salutary. He was short, golden bristled in a Scottish sort of way, and had the eye colouring of a Norwegian fjord.
He gave me a ‘O God, here’s another one’ sort of look and then pronounced in a voice flat with indifference, ‘Look,sunshine, if you can’t do this, I will bloody soon find somebody who can. I can’t frig around, let’s go’. I have heard similar sentiments expressed many times over the years. You either drop your bundle or it puts iron in the soul. As if to under- score this, he produced a cartoon ( in the original sense, a preparatory study). This was about A2 landscape in format and had to be scaled up to a massive 10×5 metre back cloth. Suddenly, a jaw dropping moment.
Our leader folded the cartoon twice, and tore it from top to bottom in order to make 3 identical panels. He took one, his long time assistant another, and he gave the third to me.
‘OK,’ he commanded, gesturing at the prepared canvas, ‘you guys start at either end, I’ll do the middle. Don’t screw it up’
I am as dry as a dead dingo’s….. ‘You have an hour to get the first stage knocked in’.

I looked at the cartoon. It was a kind of Baroque hell. Greek columns, acanthus leaves, Brunelleschian architecture, figures in alcoves, tracery, decorative stone and woodwork, and on and on. It was to accompany a Strauss type Viennese Operetta. I am sure the blue Danube must appear sooner or later. That would be a doddle.
Enter the real world…

Two legacies of all this… 1. Only ever using thin paint as the cloths had to be rolled for transport; and 2. An undying love for working on a very big scale.

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Opus 5 Requiem, dye and acrylic on canvas, 198 x 370cm

 

In Vino Veritas

Chapter 4

Primary school jogged along quite merrily. Caning was commonplace, pastoral care thinnish. But we did learn. The star of the show was the ‘times table’ lessons (up to 12) whereby the head teacher had a primitive but effective closed circuit classroom audio system so that the whole school had tables drill straight after breakfast.
This rote learning, to me at least, has lasted 70 years. Sticking to the brief and general orthodoxy was encouraged. Any deviation (such as when I found copying a prescribed pedestrian rendering of a ship could not compare with my Johnny Depp piratical galleon), was not tolerated.
The correction cane was produced. I saw the error of my ways, and resolved to change the error, not my ways.

Secondary school could have been done locally, but it was commonplace in those days, and probably still is, for country kids to be shunted off to boarding school in the bigger cities. Thus it was. There are some kids , particularly the introspective ones , who should never be made to do this. Communal living was abhorrent, the hand me down English public school hierarchy, complete with prefects and duxes and house masters and matrons, head boys and girls and vast mahogany panels crammed with acres of gilt lettering naming the great and the good, was hugely destabilising. One suddenly realises that there are hoards of people you really don’t want to know about. Ever. How I hated it.

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Love appeared in a strange guise at about this time. Her name was Adelaide, or more precisely, Queen Adelaide claret. She had more tannins than an Indian tea plantation, and feeble fruit, but notwithstanding that, the door she unlocked is still wide open.
The joys of a solitary life were made manifest during the 1956 Olympics. Those parents who could raise the wind sent their little darlings off to Melbourne for a week, slightly lesser mortals had a range of outings offered, and I was the only child left in the whole school for the duration. The school must have loved this, I know I did.
My school report linked ones attainments by a simple graph joining up the ‘score’ dots on one axis against the range of subjects on the other. Result: smart kids got a profile rather like that of the Himalayan peaks. I flat lined down in the foothills, littered with C’s D’s and E’s…. Highly amusing reading for my grandson.
Only one comment was in any way prescient ‘Has a deep interest in art and music’.
At least I persevered in Maths, Physics, Chemistry and something else to get my A levels. Yet, there was one sign of enlightenment. In my final year when I was given the nod to attend evening art classes at the local ‘Tech’. Thank God.
At last another door had opened. Praise be the Lord.

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