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January 30, 2006

The Order of Things

The more complicated the task,
the more important the Order of Things.

Whether it be building a house,
or painting a picture.

Posted by john at 10:49 PM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2006

Thinking and caring

In amongst the pen and ink and coloured crayons.

I'm doing a series of illustrations for an actors' agency newsletter. This sort of work brings up a ubiquitous artistic dilemma:

Think and care too little and the results are flat and crap.
Think and care too much and the results are flat and crap.

You have to find the middle ground of effortless accuracy. You have to achieve a situation similar to this fellow,


though you don’t have to wear the same costume [unless, of course, that’s what does it for you].

The balance required is some sort of relaxed informed casual confidence. Though, watch out, it’s only a gnat's whisker from sloppiness. You relax, you lay back, chill out, make marks then:

“Whooah! Careful”

You’re heading for: don’t-care-can’t-be-arsed. So you pull back and things go okay until:

“Whooah! Careful”

Before you know it you’re all tentative, fearful and rigid.

Time to wander round and hit the drum for a bit before carrying on trying not to care about thinking or think about caring.


Posted by john at 04:46 PM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2006

Painting portraits

I am listed in Yellow Pages under artists as a portrait painter.


Jane Fowler, oil on panel 460mm x 720mm

As a result I get phone calls from people wanting me to paint a picture of some relative from a photograph they took eight years ago while on holiday in Fuerteventura. From time to time the phone will ring…

“John Coombes, hello”
“You paint portraits?”
“Could you do a picture of our mother for her silver wedding?”
“Well, yes, but you have to understand – “
“From their wedding photograph?”
“Er.. no, I paint from life.”
“I paint the person here in my studio or I can come to your home.”
“How long does it take?”
“Usually around four months”
“How much does it cost?”
“Well a painting of a head and shoulders, for instance, will start at about £900.”

This is one reason they hang up:


from a site that offers “portraits” that will take up to eight hours and cost £67 for one person or pet and £92 for two people or pets. Just send them a photograph. They boast that “you cannot see a pencil line.” Heaven forbid.

Now this is all well and good, but they’re not “portraits”, they are copies of photographs. I suspect they enlarge the picture and change it to black and white, then just copy tone for tone. But they miss the point.

What they miss are the essential elements that distinguish us one from another. When I’m painting I can’t just copy what I see, because I’m looking at something in three dimensions, and my eyes cleverly interpret this in a way that doesn’t immediately lend itself to the two dimensions presented by the panel on the easel.

So, as I’ve mentioned before in these virtual pages, I use dastardly tricks to give the impression of form. But it’s knowing what bits of the face, what features, what nanometres of expression, to apply the tricks to. That and working over many sittings and getting to know the sitter in a way you just can’t from a photograph sent through the post.

Posted by john at 09:44 PM | Comments (0)

Swinging Dick, as it were.

In the Eighteenth Century, when they hanged you, you did just that: hang. There was no drop, no gallows trapdoor. You climbed up a ladder, stepped off and hung there until you died of strangulation. If you had friends or family in the crowd they might run up and hang onto your legs to speed things up, it could take up to 45 minutes otherwise.


In York they had the Three-legged Mare, a scaffold from which you were strung up. There is still a pub of the same name near the site of Dick Turpin’s execution.

Posted by john at 07:06 PM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2006


"Well, my Flash Crew, aren’t you Done up in Handsome Stile? All the same, Minkses or Morts, Jacks or Upright Men – as you’ve Blunt enough for Blue Ruin, I will have some Jaw with you. No Gammon and Patter, Time’s too short. They’ll Scrag me in the Morning, and before I dance the Tyburn Frisk I’ve some Words to say, that will prove more Durable than my Corse.


"He’s had a suit of cloaths tailored for tomorrow; it’s hanging over that chair – wide cuffed blue coat, weskit, shirt, cravat, fawn breeches, stockings, buckled pumps with a heel. His wig is a smart one of natural hair, tied with a black riband. Well, the crowd want their show, don’t they? Got to give them their gallant Dick.
The Prince Prigg of Plunderers reposes at his ease in York Castle. At dawn tomorrow the carriage will roll up to take him to Knavesmire to ascend his wooden throne. Crown him with a rough hat. Hang him with chains – no gold and silver, plain irons will be good enough to decorate Dick, king of the common men."

Rebecca Stephens

Posted by john at 08:31 PM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2006

Highway robbery

Highwayman Richard Turpin, Dick to his friends, was hanged in York on Saturday 7th April 1739.


Rebecca Stephens and Paul Buck are writing a book about him, and I’m illustrating it. More on this soon...

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

January 22, 2006

Proof positive

It’s all trickery. It’s obvious if you think about it, when I make something look solid on a flat surface I’m tricking you.


It’s not witchcraft, but it is illusion – optical illusion. And the reason I can make a portrait look like someone is the same reason that this sort of thing works:


The squares A and B are the same shade of grey. If you don’t believe me go here for the proof. Our eyes are more cunning than they let on, which is the reason both artists and magicians make a living.

When you are outside in the bright sun and you go into a building everything looks dark dark dark for a while until your eyes grow accustomed to the change in lighting. When painting a figure, it can be tricky accommodating this ability of the eye to adjust itself according to the light. Study the tones in the shadows of the figure, then look at the lit side of the figure and your eye will tell you the tones are similar, indeed, as above, your eyes will often tell you they are the same.

Don’t underestimate the complexity of the eye. We’re impressed with digital cameras offering images with ten million pixels. Well that’s peanuts to the eye, which has 127 million pixels [or equivalent] – and we’ve got two of them!

It isn’t the eye itself that’s the problem, it’s the brain. The brain receives all this information, all 127 million bits, and ignores most of it. [For those of a technical bent this is the same as converting a .raw file to a .jpg, almost literally.] The brain has enough to do moving us around, picking up eggs, hearing the doorbell, smelling the dog and feeling the edge of the worn bit in the carpet with our bare feet, to be processing all the information it receives. So it makes assumptions, vast assumptions, which is where artists come in.

Posted by john at 06:14 PM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2006

Don't doubt - do

Hanging around,
just hanging around,
banging the drum.
Convincing myself
that it is time well spent,
that it is okay
to do nothing.
Why do I do so much nothing?
Could I do something all the time?
Probably not.


These are the dwelling times,
these are the proving times
the ferment,
the mash.
After this comes the paint
or the pen.
This is starving the lion,
this is waiting time,
waiting for the shame
to overcome the fear.
Waiting for the time
to be right
to be spontaneous.

Posted by john at 04:08 PM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2006

Stoicism v McDonalds

No great thing is created suddenly.

Epictetus, a Stoic, AD 55 - 135.

Posted by john at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2006

The Perspective Shift

When you’re creating a piece of work you are being highly subjective. Everything is flowing from you and your emotions into the work. Or it should be – if not, stay behind after class.

Unfortunately art doesn’t stop there. There is no point in expressing your emotions if no-one understands what the fuck you’re banging on about. So you need to be able to assess the work and see if it says what you want it to say. To do this you have to look at the work from a different perspective, you have to be objective.

It is not easy [some would say impossible] to switch from subjectivity to objectivity in an instant. Whilst creating the work you are too close to it, too involved with it, have too much knowledge of it, to be able to judge whether or not it will make any sense, or stir any emotions in others.

This has been known for a long time. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Horace to his friends, said: “Let your literary compositions be kept from the public eye for nine years at least”. More recently Stephen King said about writing: “after you’ve written your book, lock it in a drawer in the desk for six weeks, then read it”.


It is important to get some distance from your work. So I tend to work on lots of pieces at the same time, and I’m constantly shifting paintings across to the racks in the studio, there to dwell out of sight for a time. When I pull a painting back out of the racks, after several weeks or months, it’s often clear what needs to be done. It’s sometimes clear that nothing needs to be done.

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

January 18, 2006

The effort involved in appearing effortless

Art shouldn’t appear forced or conscious. If you are aware that some aspect of the piece, be it painting, music or poetry, is trying too hard then it isn’t art. One of the many definitions of art is: the excellence of an acquired skill. You haven’t acquired the skill if things look forced and awkward.

This is not to say that the piece can’t be self-referential, that is: reflecting the process by which it was created, which is one of the cracked crucibles I stir about in.


Effortlessness is what you’re after, and it’s not easy to achieve. I can’t say how on some days I can make marks on panels which “work” and on other days everything looks like skid marks on clean sheets.

Maybe it’s an attitude of mind, it’s certainly about how you feel. It’s also about how things sit in time. What appears great today can take on the Mantle of the Mundane tomorrow. That is why time is necessary to create a piece, and why the artist reserves the right to change and move a painting on until it’s taken from him.

And then, after all the hard work, the piece will look unforced, unconscious and effortless.

Posted by john at 10:03 AM | Comments (0)

January 17, 2006

On becoming an artist

“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Kurt Vonnegut in the Guardian

Posted by john at 01:08 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2006

more of the photographs

from the session last week:



Posted by john at 11:45 PM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2006

Getting messy

Getting there, getting messy, getting Unstuck [hurrah!]


I’ve been using Really Runny Paint this week.


Which is good and gets some life into the painting, which is never a bad thing. The only problem was the old FAT over LEAN thing, whereby you shouldn’t put thin paint on top of thick paint if you want to avoid the surface cracking as it dries. So I’ve had to wait until the thick paint dried before splashing the Really Runny Paint about.

I hope it’s dried enough, but whatthehell… I like what’s happening on the panel. More of this I think.

Posted by john at 06:03 PM | Comments (0)

photography again

The stylist styling the model...


a photography session in the studio this week:


I'm still processing the images, I'll post another soon.

Posted by john at 05:33 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2006

To be naked or not that is the question.

What are these two up to?


I started a diary entry but it became unfeasibly large. I've posted the full story here.

Posted by john at 12:45 AM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2006

Shock or not?

Which is the more shocking:

a) that a potter won the Turner Prize
b) that a transvestite won the Turner Prize.

And what does this tell us?

From an interview with Grayson Perry by Lynn Barber in The Observer.

Posted by john at 09:14 AM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2006

What art is


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

When art isn't art

There are endless sites on the internet selling Fine Art, or Fine Art Prints. [I won’t link to them because I want to keep real art alive]

It’s all very well, Pierre, doing this sort of thing:


But it isn’t art, it’s decoration. And there's nothing wrong with decoration if that's what you like.

He may very well be a good painter who makes his money by painting like this, fair play to him. He may be able to paint faces, or, on the other hand, he may not and has made a feature of this inability, and also shed-loads of money perhaps. Again fair play to him, but let's be clear about this: IT ISN’T ART- fine or otherwise.

Posted by john at 02:40 AM | Comments (1)

January 05, 2006

Paradigm shifting

Long periods of flatness and inactivity often, I have found, lead to big shifts in painting methods. Which is a Good Thing – though hard to get through.

Posted by john at 09:34 AM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2006

But then again...

I worry that, not having any situation, story or relationship, my pictures are flat and lacking substance. It is the hardest thing to judge whether your own work has any presence.

It’s no good looking to The History of Art for help, you can find examples of anything you want there, from photorealism:


Chuck Close

to abstract expressionism:


Jackson Pollock

from the blank canvas to the empty gallery. The History of Art is no help, in fact it’s a hindrance when trying to assess the merits of your own work. No-one has ever worked out what the IT is that makes a painting work.

For a buyer it’s simple: if you like it [and can afford it] buy it. But for the painter it’s ultimately frustrating, you will never be satisfied with your work.

Posted by john at 03:20 PM | Comments (1)

Keep looking keep painting

You’ve got to keep going - on and on and on and on.

Well okay, you can stop if you want to, the thing is: I don’t want to stop.

I do stop, eventually – when the men in brown coats and white gloves come from the gallery and wrestle the pictures from my easel and drag them from the studio with me hanging onto the bottom edge, weeping. [Meanwhile, back in reality...]

Depends what you’re after. Picasso stopped early when he painted the Boy and White Horse:


Big dark lines describe the shape, only two basic tones give us a suggestion of form. And that was enough for him, the thing he was painting was the attitude, the situation, the relationship. He didn’t need any more paint to do this, and the painting is huge, life-size. He didn’t bother to paint the reins either – they aren’t necessary.

I start with the basic form blocked out in crude tones, and I keep going because I want to describe the form in more detail.


It’s the form I’m trying to capture, not the situation, not a story, not a relationship; just the amazing physicality of the body, and for that I need all the detail I can muster.


Posted by john at 01:38 AM | Comments (0)

January 01, 2006

Things proper to be done

Get messy more often
Learn more about mixing paint in big quantities
Try some different colours
Research new colour mixes
Spend more time painting
Spend less time pacing up and down tapping things
Stop questioning: why?
Concentrate on: how?
Experiment with different grounds
Don’t drink so much black coffee
Keep on becoming Unstuck
[and keep painting the fruit]

Posted by john at 10:35 PM | Comments (0)