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November 30, 2005

The life of a pirate artist

Iím an outlaw. Oh, donít get me wrong I pay my taxes, but apart from that I canít fill in many of the boxes beyond my address on the bankís annual review form.

Now pirates were basically filthy brigands who generally dipped their hair in tar and set fire to the ends before jumping onto other peopleís ships and getting up to no good amongst the rigging. But their image, as that of the Highwayman, handed down by Hollywood and literature, is one of the romantic outlaw.


Casting aside the rough stuff, the artist must needs set his hair afire from time to time, and jump onboard your ship with a view to stirring up trouble. There will always be outlaws, there will always be artists, and some people will always consider the prices asked by some of the latter as daylight robbery. Well let me tell you, itís a damn sight better than what the likes of Teach or Turpin would get up to.

Edward Teach aka Blackbeard

I live a different life, it isnít any easier, indeed some would say itís harder to be continually self-motivated, and to struggle with little reward. Others would say itís the height of selfishness and arrogance to imagine that I have something to say. But in my defence I say only itís not always a choice thing.

Posted by john at 09:55 PM | Comments (0)

Warning! This could be shocking.

A sure way to get attention. Why is the queue on the other side of the motorway always as long as the queue behind the accident? We seem to like to be shocked.

Art should push our sensibilities a little further than we would go ourselves. The job of the artist is to go further and present his findings like the explorers of old.

Adding to the vocation argument: perhaps it is that people who are adventurers, sailing on the Sea of Emotion, become artists, and the shocking ones are pirates.

Posted by john at 12:50 PM | Comments (0)

November 29, 2005

Shouting quietly

If walking through the supermarket naked could make you feel uncomfortable, then so too does expressing your emotions. Though there is nothing fundamentally wrong with walking through said retail outlet in the chuff, socially it is wont to be frowned upon. Just as there is nothing wrong with painting pictures of any damn thing you like, there are those whose sensibilities are such that they can be offended.

toast, oil on panel, 1800mm x 1200mm

One of the driving forces of the creative arts is the need on the part of the artist, writer, musician, to communicate their feelings, and in so doing assuage their own frustrations or enlighten those around them.

Expressing emotions is a personal business, and though, as I mentioned in the previous post, it is important to be seen and heard, I feel it is sometimes necessary to shout quietly.

But shouting quietly is getting me nowhere. So I need to make a bit more noise.

Posted by john at 03:43 PM | Comments (0)

Walking naked through a supermarket

Just as the reason why people write a diary is for someone to read it eventually, even though the writer usually maintains itís private, I donít just paint pictures for the good of my health. I paint them to be seen. And not just a casual glance. I want you to look and SEE.

There are many tricks employed by artists to get their pictures seen. Using extremes in composition: Dali, Caravaggio and contrast: Joseph Wright of Derby. For Raphael it was the use of rich vibrant reds redolent of blood, never seen before and when the sunlight came through the window and struck the painting the effect was SHOCKING.

Today artists employ increasingly more shocking tactics to get their work seen. Whether itís Damien Hirst sawing cows in half, or Tracy Emin sewing all the names of everyone sheís fucked onto the insides of a tent. IT GETS THEM NOTICED. Bit like writing in capital letters.

But being noticed is not always comfortable, a bit like walking naked through a supermarket. Iíll come back to this one.

Posted by john at 11:38 AM | Comments (0)

November 27, 2005

Selling the fuckers

And it is while sitting in cafes, pondering the uncertainties of a chaotic universe, that I come up with things like this:

"Selling work isnít just about the money [though that helps obviously], it is about VALUE. That someone wants to listen to me, to look at the personal marks I make, and part with their hard-earned cash for the privilege. It is an honour to sell a piece of work.

I can sell the impersonal marks, the fruit, the dancers, and thatís good, but it doesnít mean as much as selling the personal marks, the big figures.

If I can throw some light into the dark and murky corners of this concatenation of puzzling events. If I can maybe find something that expresses the terrifying feelings of our fleeting, feeble and fragile existence. Something about how it feels to stand alone. If I can show you how I feel and you can see that you feel something similar then we are somehow not quite so fucking lonely."


Posted by john at 09:02 PM | Comments (0)

Black coffee and creative thoughts

Sitting in cafťs is a Good Thing. Well perhaps I should amend that: sitting in good cafťs is a good thing, Iím fussy when it comes to the setting for my musing and coffee consuming.


The creative no-man's-land of a good cafť allows thoughts to flow freely and lets possibilities seep onto the pages of a notebook. The fact that it is impossible to paint in the cafť means the paintings I think of are the best paintings I have ever done. For the matter of that the paintings on an Intercity 125 are pretty good too.

Mind you most of the paintings I think of are pretty good Ė itís just when I come to stick brush in paint and apply same to panel that things get tricky. When I get into the studio the whole terrifying possibility of it all crushes me into a frustrated inertia.

Then itís on the bike and back out to the cafť for more black coffee.

Posted by john at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

The pleasure principle

ďEvery perfect action is accompanied by pleasure. That is how you can tell that it was right for you to do it. The delight one takes in one's work is the sign of its fittingness, and the sincerity of my pleasure is my chief guideĒ

Andrť Gide, 1917

Posted by john at 08:34 PM | Comments (0)

Of steam and cloth finishing

As regular readers will know, my studio is on the first floor of a woollen mill, and if youíve been paying particular attention youíll be aware that the mill, Johnsonís Cloth Finishers, still finishes cloth in the buildings around me, and world leaders in the Cloth Finishing business they are too.

Part of the finishing process requires high pressure steam, and so when the nights draw in and the air gets chilly and the wind begins to bite, they direct this steam into a system of pipes running round the mill buildings, including the one I work in.


The upshot of this is that during the week itís really warm in my studio. It's so warm in fact that no-one has ever bothered draught-proofing the place. The downside of this is that on a weekend it can get a bit nippy, and as a result work slows down somewhat. Donít get me wrong, Iím not complaining, just explaining the lack of paintings, drawings and such in todayís post.

Posted by john at 02:02 AM | Comments (0)

November 25, 2005

The Big Splash in situ

Spent the week in Scotland. The fact that I chose the Coldest Night of the Year to sleep in the back of the van shall be the subject of another post, suffice it to say I had a good time and hung the Big Splash:


Everyone was very pleased with the way it looked and the proportions and the way it brought the room together. So a job well done there.

Posted by john at 09:35 PM | Comments (2)

November 20, 2005

Open Studio Event III

Well, about 130 people came through the studio this weekend, about a hundred of them I didn't know, which is an odd feeling. If holding an exhibition is like hanging your dirty washing out in public, an open studio is like standing in the street with your trousers round your ankles. But, like an exhibition, you get used to it.

The drawing moved on during the day, though there wasn't a lot of time - people were more talkative today for some reason.


Posted by john at 09:16 PM | Comments (0)

November 19, 2005

Open Studio Event II

end of day one

Here's the results of the day's labours:


Marks made in and amongst the fifty odd visitors who came through today.

I have to say, drawing with an audience is a difficult hurdle to get over.
You have to get past that Rolf Harris moment, basically.

Posted by john at 07:31 PM | Comments (0)

Open Studio Event

day one

Last night saw the opening of the Huddersfield Open Studios, which, in my studio, was largely with people I know, and was a busy night with great music from Ninon Foiret.


Today the doors are open at 11:00am and the bus calls round every hour. As an open studio event I believe it should show the working studio, so I shall be working Ė drawing a big drawing. Hereís what I did before everyone arrived last night.


Iíll be drawing from existing drawings, as I canít afford a model for the entire two days. Besides, though that would clearly be a better indication of a working studio, I feel it might draw people for the wrong reasons.

Iím working from a drawing I did of a dancer in 1995.


Posted by john at 10:00 AM | Comments (0)

November 17, 2005

The Future is Fruit

I was lying in bed this morning, contemplating the future, the way you do, and I thought: ďFruit. The way forward is fruit. I shall paint more fruit. I can do it.Ē And I can.


And I will.

Itís hard selling pictures. Itís hard selling pictures that are 1800mm by 1200mm [thatís 6íx4í for those still measuring their lives Imperially]. Itís hard selling pictures that are 1800mm x 1200mm and are of naked figures. Particularly when the big pictures of naked figures are what has been described as confrontational uncompromising compositions.


Fruit on the other hand is much easier. Not that much easier, it has to be said. As Iíve previously mentioned in these diaries, itís not every piece that lends itself to my scrutiny. Mind you the same can be said for figures, I canít just paint anyone.

So I shall paint some more fruit. Though as the day dawns and reality seeps in under the blinds the prospect doesnít seem so attractive. Itís hard to have a decent conversation with a pomegranate.


NOTE 1: I was going to call this: The Future is Orange, but though I would be hooking you in with a neat catchphrase, and my phone is indeed Orange, I donít paint oranges so it wouldn't strictly be true, and anyway I prefer the alliteration, the bizarre nature of the statement [which holds enough associations with said advertising campaign for my liking] and the inherent mystery.

NOTE 2: I never did paint that pear, so I shall have to work from the photograph.

Posted by john at 08:35 AM | Comments (0)

November 16, 2005

Freud again

"The last few years I've been so completely caught up with working - for example, today I noticed that in the big picture I'm doing I was using my brush for absolutely anything. I was amused by it because I was doing something rather delicate and I not only had the big brush but it was all silted with paint. It's like people shouting and using any old word because somehow the way they are shouting will get through. If you know what you want you can use almost anything. An ungrammatical shout is no less clear. It's to do with the urgency."

Lucian Freud

From an article by Sebastian Smee, in the Guardian.

Posted by john at 08:36 AM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2005

Open Studio

There is an Open Studio event in Huddersfield this weekend, whereby various artists and studios fling their doors open for the public to come in and root around amongst the dodgy paintings in the back of the racks. [More fools them I say.]


Not only do you get to see my work - and me working, there are also other invited artists showing work in my studio. So Iíve had a tidy up, and generally painted the walls white and put up some lights.





Well not exactly, the first image is upstairs on the top floor of the mill, the domain of dead pigeons and discarded textile machinery.

The whole weekend should be a blast, with 46 artists exhibiting in eight different venues.

Posted by john at 07:53 PM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2005

Tricky times

There are, of course, the Tricky Times.

Posted by john at 10:24 PM | Comments (0)

First there is the drawing

I know Iím always going on about it, but, hell, without drawing the whole show goes to the dogs. Before I embark on a painting I do loads of drawings. In fact Iíve got drawers full of drawings.




Learn to draw and other things fall into place more easily. But donít get me wrong: I mean drawing as an expression of emotion, not just pushing pencil.


standing angel, charcoal on paper 1530mm x 700mm

Itís a physical thing, itís about being there: the swing of the arm, the contact of the charcoal, describing the form. Itís action, itís getting all the senses in tune especially sight and touch. Itís the introduction, at an uncomfortable party, to a stranger who will become a friend.

There are always more drawings than paintings. The ratio is about six to one. Could be higher, I donít know, Iím an artist not a statistician.

Posted by john at 10:02 AM | Comments (0)

November 11, 2005

Tricky fella, Johnny Foot.

Not to be sniffed at.
The foot.
[unless you like that sort of thing]

In profile itís okay I guess,


coming at you itís not too bad,


but at 45 degrees itís tricky.


But Iím not the only one to struggle. In 1975, as a keen art student, I went to London to see what some of the Old Masters had gotten up to. I was in the inner sanctum of the National Gallery, in sombre subdued orangey sodium light, casting my eye over a cartoon by your man Leonardo. The cartoon of The Virgin and St. Anne on the Rocks if I remember rightly.

It was a huge, browned, faded and tatty-edged piece of paper, or at least so it seemed in said lighting conditions. The lines were there, as drawn by Leonardo da Vinci himself Ė incredible. I could feel him standing there, swinging his arm as the charcoal described his imagination.

But then I saw it. In the bottom left-hand corner. St. Anne's foot. And Leonardo had scrubbed and scribbled and gotten it all wrong so many times that he just roughed out a strange cloven shape:


The end of the story was somewhat awkward. To get a closer look at the Great Manís struggle I stepped over the little rope thingy that separates these pictures from us mere mortals. The whole thing was behind glass, so I thought no harm would come, and I could see more of Leonardoís attempts at the forty five degree foot. But I was wrong. No sooner had my foot landed on the hallowed carpet beyond the rope than all hell broke loose. The alarms went off, lights started flashing, and guards came running.

After a breathless explanation, to some ruddy-faced custodians of the Nations Treasures, I was released. I noticed however that one of their number, having heard my story, had himself stepped over the rope and was studying the foot in question and nodding to himself. He must have been wearing special shoes as the alarms didnít go off.

Posted by john at 06:40 PM | Comments (0)

New drawing

Finally managed to get started on a new drawing:


It was good to be amongst the charcoal, though Iím still just working from photographs*, which is not so good. However I feel the drawing from a photograph is more successful than the painting from a photograph:


The colours and form here are too intense, as if Iím compensating for the absence of model. I shall work at toning everything down a notch or six.

The drawing went okay as I worked down the figure, until I reached the feet. Always tricky doing feet and working from a photograph doesnít make it any easier:


*still not able to afford a model Ö all offers of free modelling considered.

Posted by john at 06:34 PM | Comments (0)

Nothing like a Good Book

Bought an inspirational book this week:


by Banksy

It's important to have an input to maintain an output. You can't run on empty.
I can't work in isolation, I need to look at what others are up to. Not always things I would necessarily do myself, any amount of innovative, creative, work can inspire me to push my own work further.

Graffiti has a bad name, and indeed I donít like the scrawl on the walls created by too much tagging or too little thought. But a lot of graffiti today is excellent.

Banksy says:

ďGraffiti is not the lowest form of art. Despite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum itís actually the most honest artform available.

ďThe people who run our cities donít understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit. But if you just value money then your opinion is worthless.

ďThey say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline in society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people: politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.

ďThe people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but youíre never allowed to answer back. Well, they started this fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.Ē

Posted by john at 12:58 AM | Comments (0)

That time of year again

That time of year when people are wont to send messages of greeting to friends and colleagues, often taking the form of a card. So, being handy with a pen and brush, Iím oft asked to contribute an image to the front of said cards.

People know I donít do festive so here are the first two this year:


Windermere Motor Boat Racing Club, Broad Leys clubhouse


Direct Personal Management, Leeds

All in a day's* work for a jobbing artist

*well five days if the truth be known

Posted by john at 12:18 AM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2005

The art of photography

In an article in the Guardian this weekend, American photographer Katy Grannan talks about her photography, which is essentially portraiture, but portraiture with an edge. The sort of thing I look for in my paintings. The search for the person behind the image.

ďThere's a rich Puritan ethos there [Massachusetts], a paranoia about nudity and pornography. Going into these girls' homes felt so familiar to me, and I understood their reasons for wanting to be photographed. There's that feeling of, 'I've just moved back in with my parents, I feel suffocated, but I'm not ready to be an adult. I want to do something my parents might disapprove of. I want to be paid attention to.' Ē

Even so, Grannan's subjects have to meet her more than half way. She remembers going to photograph a blond girl at her mother's house and not knowing where to start because the girl wanted to take over and already had the shot figured out. "She was a conventionally pretty cheerleader-type, sitting in a pink living room, which happened to be just like my mother's, and I was thinking, what can I do that hasn't already been done? She said she wanted to wear her underwear but 'no genitals' - I friggin' hate that word - and then she was kneeling in her own little world and the string of her tampon fell down. Suddenly the picture became much more complex, through this one little indication of vulnerability.


I think that's why so many portraits work when they're difficult: we believe we're presenting ourselves one way, but the camera always reveals something more vulnerable, despite our best efforts."

Katy Grannan - on photography, by Melissa Denes, in the Guardian.

Certainly sitting for me isnít always easy. I donít just want someone plonked down in front of me like you might get in an art class. I demand a lot more from the model. It isnít something I know about when I start a painting, itís something that becomes more apparent as the painting progresses perhaps. Or rather it is something that becomes apparent as the drawing and studies progress before the painting begins.

Thatís why I work from life, so I can engage with the sitter, talk with them, find the edge.

In fact Iíve been working with photography more and more recently, the results of which will be coming to a website, near you, soon.

Katy Grannanís book: Model Americans

Posted by john at 09:27 PM | Comments (0)

November 04, 2005

On painting on

At first it's good because the difference is huge and a big bold image comes up quickly, albeit not a particularly good likeness.

When I start working into the image it gets harder, but then something starts to happen. The paint begins to work and I realise why I use oils. A richness and depth of colour develops as I work more paint onto the image.

I've a long way to go before I can get the richness and depth of colour that Stanley did in his early portrait. But I'm working on it.


Self-portrait, Sir Stanley Spencer,1914

Never give up...

Katrin Freitag, oil on canvas 460mm x 360mm

Also, you have to bear in mind the colour rendering at this level is not all it could be, if you want the page to open today that is.

Posted by john at 05:34 PM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2005

why Godot?

Originally written in French, by Irish writer Samuel Beckett:


Waiting for Godot is a stunning piece of writing. I first read it when I was about sixteen, it had a profound effect on me then, and it still does today. I've studied it, performed in it, directed it and now I use extracts from the text [the extract in the previous post to be precise] in my paintings:


while sleeping oil on panel 1200mm x 1200mm

That's why.

Posted by john at 09:07 AM | Comments (0)