28. The Animal Butchers

Animal_Butchers_Web_ReadyOil on panel – 43 x 61 cm

This picture came about after I was asked to make a sign for a public house called ‘The Jolly Butchers’. I made a sketch that was similar to this painting but with a plain background however the publican, lacking imagination, didn’t want to go ahead with the idea. He said, ‘it reminds me of my customers’, and I suppose he had a point seeing as the pub had nicknames such as ‘The Jolly Punchup’ and ‘The Flying Bottle’. So I had to make a more conventional sign. But it seemed to be an idea worth pursuing. So I made this picture with the animal butchers standing at the bar in a pub full of British wildlife. There’s a portrait of the nature god Pan, the friend and helper of all animals hanging above the mantlepiece. This kind of art is called ‘topsy turvey world’ or the ‘world turned upside down’. Many images have been made on this theme going back to Roman times and such pictures usually show situations which feature role reversals such as an audience of animals watching humans perform tricks, animals hunting humans etc.

They did display a print of this picture inside the bar but some customers found it unsettling especially the foreground details.


27. Welcome back to my Blog – Outsider Art

I enjoyed presenting the Alice picture so I’ve decided to start up my blog again and today I’m featuring a painting called ‘Orpheus playing to the Animals’. These days this kind of  painting is called Outsider Art, so I’m going to briefly discuss Outsider Art in this blog, it won’t take long and at the end there’s a sequence of closeups taken from the Orpheus picture.


Oil on panel – 30″ x 40″ – 76 x 100 cm

Orpheus was a poet and musician in Greek Mythology. Apollo gave him a golden lyre and the music he made was so beautiful that the birds and the animals would stop their normal pursuits, such as hunting and gather around him to listen, even the insects were effected. The underlying meaning to this myth is the power of music to soften the animal passions in mankind. In my painting it’s as if the animals have been transported to a magic realm. There are over a hundred different species of bird and beast in this painting and some of these may have gone extinct. My reason for painting this picture was simple, I just wanted the excuse to paint as many animals as possible, if you look closely you will see that some of them are in family groups and there are mothers carrying their young. I wanted to paint something that would appeal to children and I thought that a picture such as this would make a good jigsaw and be educational. I did have a jigsaw puzzle company interested at one time but then the deal fell through, part of the problem might have been to do with size as the complex detail in this picture is best seen life size (AO) and most jigsaw puzzles are not that large. When I made this painting I didn’t realise that I had created a work that is now described as being Outsider Art.

Orpheus detail 1


To quote Wikipedia, I’m sure they won’t mind – ‘Outsider Art is art by self-taught or naive artists. Typically those labelled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions, in many cases their work is only discovered after their deaths. Often Outsider Art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas or elaborate fantasy worlds. The term was first coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for French expression ‘art brut’ or ‘rough art’ a label created by the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet wanted a term to describe art that was created outside the boundaries of official culture, particularly by people that are well away from the established art scene. For examples he looked to the art created by people in psychiatric hospitals and the art produced by children.’ – Since the 70’s our understanding of this term has broadened out. Nowadays notable British artists such as L S Lowry and Richard Dadd are considered to be outsider artists.  In the contemporary world the amazing installations and street art of Banksy is definitely Outsider Art.

As I have grown older I have found myself identifying with outsider artists for the following reasons. Outsider artists often produce very detailed work – I’ve been doing that for years. An outsider artist often develops a particular technique or method of working – I am largely self-taught although my oil painting technique is not dissimilar to ways of painting known for centuries. Outsider artists live outside of the contemporary art scene – I am known to a small circle of collectors and have received little recognition from the art scene as it exists in London today…but who cares. Most of the time I’m painting for myself and that is exactly what outsider artists like to do. Outsider artists are often outsiders living on their own and obsessively creating art and once again that sounds like me. A lot of outsider artists have problems with their mental health, but then who doesn’t and art is the best therapy for some. When I become absorbed in painting I’m able to step outside of my normal reality and time ceases to exist for a while, and when I see the fruits of my labours it lifts my spirits and then maybe, perhaps maybe, a have a point of reference in the search for happiness.

Orpheus detail 5

Orpheus detail 4

Orpheus detail 3

Orpheus detail 2


Orpheus detail 1http://www.colinmurrayart.co.uk

26. Alice in Wonderland – Who are you?

Alice wordpress

Oil on Canvas – 30” x 34” – 76 x 87 cm

I have always admired Lewis Carroll’s marvelous books ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and I’ve often wanted to paint a picture based on an incident in one of these stories. I decided to illustrate the section where Alice meets the caterpillar because as far as I can tell no one has ever made a definitive version of this subject. Asides from Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations I know of two other artists who have made excellent drawings based on the Alice stories, they are Arthur Rackham and Mervyn Peake, however their depictions of the scene with the caterpillar are disappointing. This is partly because Carroll has set up a situation that is almost impossible to illustrate – a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom with folded arms smoking a hookah, but caterpillars don’t sit they crawl, so creating a realistic image is not easy.

Before I get into a discussion on the pictorial development of this picture I’d like to briefly discuss the content of these books. ‘Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865 during the Victorian era. The 19thcentury was an age when notions of childhood began to be developed and many books were written with children in mind. Most of these were of a moralizing nature but not so with ‘Wonderland’. Carroll cleverly sends up this kind of literature, for example he presents us with a hilarious version of Robert Southey’s poem ‘You are old Father William’. Alice in seven years old in the story and this is a time when most children first begin to take notice of the adult world. And what a world, to a child’s mind the activities of the grownups must seem utterly mad. So in ‘Wonderland’ Alice finds herself in a strange mad world, she is constantly being contradicted, told off and ordered about yet she seems unperturbed by the curious goings on. She is polite and well mannered throughout.  So I think that Carroll is trying to help children deal with the world that they are growing up in. In order to achieve this he uses humour, absurdity and fantasy. His writing is very imaginative as Alice finds herself having to negotiate all kinds of bizarre situations and as if this isn’t enough she keeps changing her size. When Alice meets the caterpillar she is only three inches tall and what’s more she can’t even remember her name.

The Alice books are undoubtably surreal and possibly psychedelic, although this is a word that didn’t exist at the time when Carroll was writing. Back in the 1967 Jefferson Airplane recorded a song called ‘White Rabbit’ which is inspired by the Alice books however it is also an anthem in praise of LSD. Some people have speculated as to whether or not the author experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. Carroll may have known about psilocybin mushrooms and he may have experimented with opium but I doubt it, or if he did it was a rare occurrence. He was a meticulous man who led a well organised and disciplined life. He was a mathematician with a love of logic and both of these traits influence the Alice stories, for example the plot in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is based on a chess problem. Carroll loves wordplay and to this day his nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’ has never been surpassed by any poet writing in this genre.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Alice books I would suggest having a browse through ‘The Annotated Alice: Definitive Edition’ by Martin Gardner. In recent times certain writers and filmmakers have sought to sully Carroll’s reputation. I do not wish to enter into any of this controversy but I would recommend listening to the Radio 4 program ‘Great Lives – Lewis Carroll’ with Lynne Truss, it’s available in the radio archive on the BBC i-player.

I hardly ever paint onto a white canvas, I use a ground colour and for this picture I chose a grey tint. Many artists use ground colours and this practice goes back to the birth of oil painting in the 14thcentury, using a ground colour means that white is a heightener from the word go and this can’t happen when painting onto a white canvas. Although I usually have a good idea of what I want the end result to be I compose my pictures on the hoof as it were, I experiment, rubbing out and improving as I go along. This is my way, some artists like to prepare sketches which they may even scale up onto the canvas before beginning the picture, each to their own. I always use reference material, usually photographs and sometimes sketches, although these are only useful at the start. In this picture I had an excellent model, a young girl called Harvest and with the help of her mother, who chose her clothes, she certainly looks the part. Incidentally when Harvest posed for the photographs that I used for this picture she was only seven years old, the same age as Alice Liddell was when Carroll first conceived the idea of writing ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

The following sequence of images shows the early development of the composition. Alice is standing on the very edge of the picture plane so that a part of the mushroom is intruding into the space outside of the painting.  I knew from the start that the caterpillar was going to be difficult to visualize, and my first version was influenced by Rackham’s drawing but soon discarded. Having decided to use a fly agaric mushroom I surrounded it with silver birches which makes sense as fly agaric mushrooms often grow close by. I took some low level photographs of a clump of birch trees growing nearby to help me with these details. I also collected some leaves and brought them into my flat to help me work out the arrangement of leaves around Alice. As you can see when I want to change something I have to go back to the ground colour because it won’t look right if I just paint  over what is already there. So the first caterpillar was painted out using the ground colour and later on the birches to the left because they weren’t steep enough. And then I started to develop my own caterpillar adding some falling leaves that are dropping through the space outside of the picture. However the caterpillar still didn’t look right so I made a model out of plasticine to help me work it out. I’ve attached an image of the model, seeing an object in three dimensions was a big help. The markings and colours are similar to those found on the opium caterpillar and that seemed appropriate.

Alice oil 1

Alice oil 2

Alice oil 5Alice oil 6Alice oil 7Alice oil 10Alice modelAlice wordpresshttp://www.colinmurrayart.co.uk

25. Fantasia on the Theme of Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington

Oil on canvas – 102 x 76 cm

Abney swans lighter 2

A 1

I began this painting immediately after the completion of Rising Mist. I felt like doing another deep toned picture and I wanted to work on a larger scale. This time I decided to use a warm ground. Some of the reference material is the same for both pictures. As usual I began by trying out different positions for the statues. With this picture I had a more definite composition in mind from the word go. Starting with the sleeping lion I soon found places for the statues that I wished to include.A 2

A 3

Now that the statues are well advanced it’s time to work on the background. I made a few visits to Abney Park and photographed various silver birch trees. As with ‘Rising Mist’ I decided to have the foreground flooded and considered adding various birds and animals.A 4

A 6

A 8

With the centre of the composition reworked the painting is now close to being completed. I’m about to take out one of the coots adding a pair of swans, a male and a female, also a nightingale, an owl and a magpie flying into the centre of the picture.A palette

This shot shows my full palette from left to right, viridian and magenta, these two colours are very intense and I don’t often use them, the rest of the tints are my usual colours, two shades of cadmium yellow, two shades of raw sienna, alizarin crimson, titanium white, two shades of cadmium red, burnt sienna, two shades of french ultramarine and two shades of cerulean blue.Abney swans lighter 2

The final effect shows an imaginary place overgrown, claustrophobic and part flooded. It is a place that has been left to grow wild, trees have seeded themselves and the various statues are going green with moss and lichens. It exists in another realm, in the middle distance beyond the woods the sun is setting leaving the viewer in this mystical environment, contemplating the transience of all phenonena and the mystery of life and death.

The painting below was completed several years ago and this picture underpins both ‘Rising Mist’ and ‘Fantasia on the Theme of Abney Park Cemetery’. I have two different photographic versions of this picture.


After the floods lodres-remastered.2 jpghttp://www.colinmurrayart.co.uk

24. Rising Mist

Abney rising mist lighter Rising Mist – oil on canvas – 50 x 60 cm

I live in Hackney in London and the large overgrown Victorian cemetery in Stoke Newington has inspired a number of my pictures. In this blog I’m hoping to show how this picture was developed. It began as a painting of mist rising in the early morning light on the River Lea.

RM 1However I soon decided to do something different so I painted a blue glaze over this sketch to prepare a ground for something different. The use of this blue will have a profound effect on the colour balance of the picture keeping it very cool.

With this new ground in place I began to paint in various statues from Abney Park Cemetery. I’ve always been fascinated by this sort of imagery, it’s very Gothic I suppose but I like this kind of atmosphere. I’ve used my own photographs as references. When composing pictures in this way it’s important to be aware of the eye level and direction of light. These days with computers it’s easy to print the reference material at home, also images can be reversed if necessary. In the past I had to go to chemist and order enlargements and then wait for them to arrive. So modern technology has made it easier to compose pictures of this nature. I sometimes use drawings but that is not possible with this picture for a start many of the statues are on plinths so they are difficult even to photograph at the right eye level. Them next sequence of images shows me playing with the composition. I tend to try out various positions and if I don’t like something then I paint it out using the ground colour. RM 3

RM 4

RM 6

RM 7At this stage I’ve decided to paint in the famous sleeping lion statue. In order to do that I’m painted out some of the statues so that they can be repositioned.

RM 8

RM 10

RM 15

The composition is now falling into place, as you can see I’ve used a pinkish ground to paint out some areas as the blue felt too cool.RM 16

RM 12At this stage the foliage didn’t feel right so I’ve re-grounded most of the background.

RM 13

RM 17

RM 18

RM 19

Perhaps I mess about too much however it’s the only way that I can achieve something that I find meaningful. Abney rising mist lighterhttp://www.colinmurrayart.co.uk

23. The Owl and the Pussycat

Oil on canvas – 43 x 99 cm

Seeing as today is St George’s Day I thought I would present one of my paintings that is quintessentially English. Although my grandparents on my father’s side were Welsh and Irish I have always considered myself to be English however I am wary of nationalism. I consider myself to be first and foremost a citizen of the world and my English identity is secondary to that.

There is something very English about so called nonsense poetry asides from Edward Lear we have Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Kenneth Graham’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ is about as English as you an get and there are many other poets and artists who produced work on these themes, notably Richard Dadd’s marvelous fantasy picture ‘The Faery Feller’s Masterstroke’.

If we look at the influence of psychedelic music in the 60’s we find that the UK interpretation was very different to the American take. The English pop groups were very much influenced by writers such as Lear and Carroll, we can see that especially in the music of Pink Floyd when Syd Barret was the leader of the group. The English psychedelia was inclined towards whimsy and world of the imagination whereas the American music was much more hard edged possibly because the youth of America  had to contend with the Vietnam war.

This is a painting that I was commissioned to do. I have always loved this poem and I like art that humanizes animals, sometimes this is called ‘Topsy Turvy World’ or the ‘World Turned Upside-down’. I wanted to paint a picture that was dreamy and atmospheric. The main problem I had was with the cat and how to make her look really ladylike.

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat



The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea

In a beautiful pea-green boat,

They took some honey, and plenty of money,

Wrapped up in a five-pound note.

The Owl looked up to the stars above,

And sang to a small guitar,

“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,

What a beautiful Pussy you are,

You are,

You are!

What a beautiful Pussy you are!”


Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!

How charmingly sweet you sing!

O let us be married! too long we have tarried:

But what shall we do for a ring?”

They sailed away, for a year and a day,

To the land where the Bong-Tree grows

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood

With a ring at the end of his nose,

His nose,

His nose,

With a ring at the end of his nose.


“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”

So they took it away, and were married next day

By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon,

The moon,

The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.

Source: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (1983)



22. Hope

Oil on canvas – 61 x 61 cm


This picture was begun when I was staying in Fambridge. The young tree in full blossom looked fine from my first floor window however its surroundings were mundane. Looking at the painting back in London I realized that the only bit of it I liked was the blossom so in order to give it some more bite I decided to paint in some moonlit ruins. The picture has a surreal quality which I find soothing.