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May 31, 2005

of colouring in oils

occassional extracts from: Every Young Man's Companion, by W Gordon, Teacher of Mathematics, 1759


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May 29, 2005

third sitting

Die Lorelei


Ich weiŖ nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
DaŖ ich so traurig bin,
Ein Mšrchen aus uralten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kŁhl und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig flieŖt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt,
Im Abendsonnenschein.

Die schŲnste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr gold'nes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kšmmt ihr goldenes Haar,
Sie kšmmt es mit goldenem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewalt'ge Melodei.

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe,
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die HŲh'.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn,
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen,
Die Loreley getan

Heinrich Heine 1823

I cannot determine the meaning
Of sorrow that fills my breast:
A fable of old, through it streaming,
Allows my mind no rest.
The air is cool in the gloaming
And gently flows the Rhine.
The crest of the mountain is gleaming
In fading rays of sunshine.

The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, so wondrously fair;
Her golden jewelry is glist'ning;
She combs her golden hair.
She combs with a gilded comb, preening,
And sings a song, passing time.
It has a most wondrous, appealing
And pow'rful melodic rhyme.

The boatman aboard his small skiff, -
Enraptured with a wild ache,
Has no eye for the jagged cliff, -
His thoughts on the heights fear forsake.
I think that the waves will devour
Both boat and man, by and by,
And that, with her dulcet-voiced power
Was done by the Loreley.

translation: Frank 1998

hear the tune

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May 28, 2005

problems not solutions

"Actually I'm interested in the problem and not in the solution. I paint about the problems of how to make a picture work, the problems of seeing, of making people aware without handing it to them on a silver platter"

Jim Dine 1963

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I get a piece of plywood [good plywood it has to be said, hardwood plywood] and I brace it and I prime it. Then I push a bit of paint around on it.

I change its value. I change it into something else. A picture.

But what value a picture? Vincent got some linen and stretched it over a wooden frame, then pushed a bit of paint around on it. The paint resembles some flowers, some sunflowers. Itís now valued at millions of pounds. It wasnít when he painted it of course. Itís history that has increased its value, that and greed.

So my piece of plywood now has paint on it. The paint resembles the figure of a girl:


thank you Mr Uglow, oil on panel 1800mm x 800mm

I put it away in the racks. Itís stacked alongside other pieces of plywood with paint on. What is its value?

The only value I can assign it at the moment is one of accuracy. And I know that this isnít enough; in fact I know that this holds me back. I find it very hard to assign value to my feelings.

Tricky business Johnny Painting

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May 27, 2005


I paint people who have an energy. An almost palpable energy. I work with people who give out energy. There are people who donít have an energy, I canít paint them.

With a portrait commission it is important to find the energy of the sitter.

There are those who suck energy in rather than give it out, these people are not good for painting.

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in amongst the oil paint


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May 26, 2005

safety note

you should wear steel toe-caps when painting frey the heart

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May 25, 2005

The Palette, the Paint and the Passion

Estate Agents [love Ďem] will tell you itís all about the three Ls, well: ha ha ha.

I can do a neat semantic trick and say painting is about the three Ps. Which considering painting begins with a p isnít such an alliterative feat.

But the paint itself is not enough. There has to be an intent. The picture is not the thing, the picture is the product, [the medium is the message] there has to be a passion. And itís the passion Iím trying to get close to.

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trying to paint

My idea is to express something I feel. To try and get something out, to try and get something down; in tangible form. To exorcise my head maybe. I donít know. It worries me Ė Iíd be a stranger to the truth if I said it didnít worry me.

Why? There is no earthly reason why I should try and get out what seems boiling up inside. And I hate it so often, itís like poking a bruise Ė okay as far as it goes.

But once youíve tasted Ambrosia [thatís the Food of the Gods not the Rice Pudding] itís hard to stick to macaroni cheese.

Conclusion of the foregoing: so long as I am searching for something Iím passionate about, the paintings will look after themselves. [ha ha ha]

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the charcoal thing


about two hours into a four hour session...
bare feet
black coffee
charcoal pencils
BIG piece of paper

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May 24, 2005


or: itís easy to be crazy if youíre famous.

How indulgent we are of people with a talent. How many are the stories of the petulant Hollywood actor, the demanding pop star. We indulge them because of the mystery of their talent and the power of their success. Sometimes they are genuinely crazy, and need our indulgence to flourish. Mostly I suspect this is not the case.

If you are a successful painter itís perfectly acceptable to be a complete bastard, after all Ė just look at the paintingsÖoooohh Ö ahhh, marvellous marvellous.

But if youíre not a success, yet still crazy, itís hard to feel accepted for what you are. The social pressure is such that if you arenít successful you must be normal, and if youíre normal youíve no business being crazy without you see the doctor.

When I work with a model Iíve no business being crazy. I feel a compunction to be as normal as possible. When really I should be totally Verruckt! ďAnd why not?Ē I hear you cry. [Thatíll be cyber-cries, you understand.] Well, itís a fine balance and I have as yet to have a model run screaming from the studio clutching her belongings. Thereís always a first time I guess.

When an unknown Einstein was delivering his first papers people close to him questioned his lack of attention to clothing [old cardigans seemed favourite] and he replied ďWhy should I bother? nobody knows who I amĒ When he was famous he still paid scant attention to his attire, and when questioned on this he replied; ďWhy should I bother? Everybody knows who I am.Ē

[thanks Katrin]

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Extraordinary Bubbles

The painting [the action of applying the paint] is an event. An all moving, all singing, all dancing event [without the singing, mostly]. A shoes off, moving through space, listen to the music, feeling the feelings, performance.

Not a sitdownwithathinpenanddothreepicturesbylunchtime job. Itís an intangible, fleeting, moment of time and feeling being forced into a container thatís too small and almost, but not quite, entirely unsuitable for it.

Itís the forcing thatís the key, I think; that and the container being too small. Trying to fit something into somewhere it doesnít want to go.

Itís not a job partly because thereís no job description; and partly because itís impossible. Impossible to put a three dimensional object into two dimensional space. And impossible to get out what Iím feeling at any given time. When Iím painting I feel extraordinary in an ordinary world.

We all of us, mostly, live in the ordinary world Ė and so we should, eating and drinking and shitting and pissing, sleeping and lying in the bath looking down remembering the appearance of that fist pubic hair that heralded the onset of heartache. In this everyday world itís often hard to get to the painting.

I create a bubble in the ordinary where I can be extraordinary. The bubbles are hard to generate and take some maintaining. Too often the bubble bursts before I can get in and make a difference. I find it a frighteningly fragile thing, the moment the muse settles. Also an arrogant indulgence and waste of time, whydonítyougetyourselfaproperjob?, conceit that I should even consider feeling extraordinary.

So many reasons not to paint.

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A certain distance required

Beware of playing the recorder at your Great Auntís Silver Wedding. Everyone there will tell you how marvellous you are, when in fact [sadly] you arenít.

Oh, donít get me wrong, itís kind to do it, and itís marvellous to see - and your Great Aunt will be made up. But music it ainít.

It could go either way: you continue through life thinking youíre great when you arenít. Or: you feel good having survived your first public performance and determine to work hard and do better next time. One path leads to mediocrity, the other to success.

You must maintain an objective distance from your output; and here lies part of the problem: creating a balance between self-criticism and confidence.

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May 19, 2005

Bravery and success

If I was more successful I could be braver about what I want to paint. But then again if I was braver [about what I want to paint] Iíd probably be more successful.

Catch 22

So itís creep and go - not compromise [for compromise is the devilís own brew] but Iíll try things, and if I feel happy with them Iíll keep going. Iíve found some things Iím very happy with, so I shall keep going.

Keeping going I think is the key, even if youíre going in the wrong direction, going anywhere is better than sitting still. Itís easier to turn when youíre moving than when youíre stationary.

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second sitting

Standing in fact, not sitting.

the continuing story of a paintingÖ


some answers to your questions:

Larger than life-size: standing 1800 metric millimetres high.
I was not wearing shoes, no.
There are only four colours on my palette.
One of them isnít flesh tint.
We were listening to reggae dub c/o the Revolutionaries [Sly, Robbie and Ansell]
Black coffee, no sugar.
A Mahl stick.

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May 17, 2005

no choice

Then there is the almost inescapable, easter eggy, fact that drawing and painting are not a matter of choice for me.

I have always been fascinated by drawing, and envious of painters.

So when the figure is there and the beauty is extant, all thatís needed is my scant abilities with the big brush.


Which is not always forthcoming [scant or otherwise]

So I go again and again and again until I get what I want.

[keep reading these diaries to follow the exciting story of a painting and all its attendant angst]

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May 16, 2005

a choice

Itís a choice.
If you choose to take it, thatís fine; if you donít Ė likewise.

I spend four hours drawing,
Struggling to choose.
With every stroke of the charcoal I have to choose.


I have the choice:

What do I see?
What am I trying to do?
Am I just looking?
Or am I seeing?
Does it matter?
Do I put the charcoal on here?
And take it off here?
And if so: how heavily do I press?

Do I just say:
ďTo hell with it all,Ē
And join a Pirate Ship?

Or do I struggle?
Out here,
On the fucking gang-plank.

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May 10, 2005

altered states

So, just as Robert said [below] Ė make yourself perfect then paint naturally.

Painting is a thing of the moment, dependant on mood. Painting isnít nine-to-five-go-home-and forget-it. Painting is something that gets worked up inside me. Gnawing away. Unsettling, unsatisfied, unfullfillable. It ainít easy.

There are no maps, no routes marked out, to get you to the end of a painting. Oh, okay Ė if Iím doing a portrait weíre looking for a likeness, yes. But there still needs to be that something else. The essence.

Drawingís the same. Making marks on paper. I have to sneak up on drawing. If I think about it itís crap. I have to fuck with my mind to get into a state where something starts working. I donít know what it is. I know when itís happening sometimes. I can see it afterwards if Iíve got there. But setting out, with the blank paper and stick of charcoal is like leaving Spain with most people thinking youíre gonna fall off the edge of the world.

[okay well maybe not quite like that, but you get the ideaÖ]


Some would say itís a case of relaxing, some would say itís letting go. I donít know what it is exactly. Except that it happens sometimes. And not others.

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May 09, 2005

the perfect painting

ďYou want to know how to paint a perfect painting? Itís easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.Ē

Robert M. Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I donít want to paint a perfect picture. I can think of nothing worse. However there is something in what he says. The last bit: ďpaint naturallyĒ is definitely a good thing. Forced unnatural painting is no way to carry on. Picasso spent most of his life trying to paint naturally. He would say he was trying to forget all heíd learnt and paint again like a child.

It is my firm belief that it is the state of mind and the intent that make a good picture interesting. Acquired skills are useful to aid the process of painting, like tools help fix a motorbike, but skill alone is not enough.

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May 06, 2005

honest painting

I want the paint to be paint. I donít want to pretend it isnít. The picture is a trick [a three dimensional object on a two dimensional surface] but I want you to know itís a trick, and see how itís done to a certain extent.

I want the brushstroke to be seen, and seen as a positive gesture. I donít go for blending. I donít want to fade in and out of the form, like the ending of some crap pop record just fades out because they can't think of an ending.

I want the effect of the paint to produce an almost incidental likeness. A chance effect that creates some similarity to the subject. I want the picture to have both the power of the paint and the coincidence of a distinct similarity to life.

So you can see this:


Then look closer and find that itís made up of these:



Which by themselves donít make sense, or at least arenít immediately obvious.

Answers, as to which part of the painting the above details are from, on a postcard please to: john@johncoombes.com

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May 05, 2005

choose life

RENTON (v.o)

Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life.

novel by Irvine Walsh
screenplay by John Hodge
directed by Danny Boyle

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When the roads diverge in a [yellow] wood; do you choose the graded walkway, the gentle path with its easy steps and sifted gravel surface that has passed all health and safety regulations [a hand rail just in case] and is basically sanitised to within an inch of its pathy life?

NO! of course you donít. You hitch up and hike off down the path with no maps, not knowing where youíre going, but feeling the exhilarating breeze blowing from the mysteries of an unseen destination [enough Ė Ed.]

As Robert Frost said: go by the road less travelled by. Pick the brambly path strewn with stones that swerves off dangerously close to the edge.

More on this I feelÖ

and being a blog an'all that "more" occurs above not below...

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May 04, 2005

A life half lived

Donít be scared.
Do what you have to do.
And deal with the consequences.

I tell myself this every day.
[but I donít listen often enough]

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May 02, 2005

Bank Holidays

I like weekends and Bank Holidays. Thatís to say I like working at the weekend and on Bank Holidays. [Like Clement Freud Ė I donít like holidays as such.]

Weekends and Bank Holidays are good not just because the phone doesnít ring with inane pre-recorded voices telling me Iíve won a holiday for two on Mars, or slick salesmen trying to convince me to get the post delivered by the Gas Board.

Weekends and Bank Holidays are good because I feel I am allowed to do what I want, and what I want to do is paint and draw and make marks. During the week, on the workdays of the week, Monday to Friday, I feel pressure to ďworkĒ. To do that thing we were told we should do to earn a living.

Clearly all I have to do is value my mark making activities and re-classify it as ďworkĒ then Iíd be more content, and more able to paint during the week without feeling guilty. But itís not so simple. To value my art as ďworkĒ it needs the accepted rewards that work brings, that is: money. I feel perhaps if I was selling enough pictures to bring home the bacon and generally put shoes on the childrenís feet, then I would be okay about painting on a Tuesday morning.

In the meantime I upset the family by working on a Bank Holiday Ė sometimes you just canít win.

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