Every picture tells a story…

The Old Skip – oil on panel – 61 x 74 cm

I have always been fascinated by ruins I love the air of abandonment and decay. I love to see the return of nature whether it be to a temple in Cambodia or this once proud stately home in my picture.

I have never seen a skip as dilapidated as this, it looks as if it’s been in the same place for years. Although there is some evidence of human activity as the path on the right isn’t overgrown. But the building itself seems to be derelict Buddleia bushes are growing up the scaffold and grass is sprouting where there was once a roof.

I painted this picture from life a while ago. It was very pleasant to be in such a place listening to the birdsong and dimly aware of the rustlings made by various creatures as they went about there business. When you are painting on the spot especially if you’re sitting you make so little sound that the birds and the animals forget that you are there.

Every picture tells a story but what is the back storey to this picture and where is this place? I’ll give you two clues, it’s less than a mile from one of the largest plague pits in London and it was once the setting for an early Sherlock Holmes story.


Two heads are better than one

Two Self Portraits – oil on canvas – 40 x 51 cm each

It’s a long time since I last painted any self portraits during the course of my life I’ve painted a few. I do it partly because it’s a good way of getting some practice at observational painting. And I can do it in my time so it’s different from working with a model. Having to keep still whilst working adds some tension to these kinds of portraits.

Recently I’ve been painting using much cooler ground colours. When I paint I dilute the oils with a medium which I make myself using liquin, refined linseed oil and genuine turpentine. I have this made up in different ways depending on how translucent I want the glaze to be. With glazes it’s possible to create very subtle effects of shade and colour. I rarely use impasto or try to build up swirls of expressive paint. And I never paint onto white because the ground colour effects the overall tone of a picture it also means that the colours I’m using will always be in a different key. When I paint I mostly use a palette of seven colours plus white. I have two reds, two blues; the same tint of yellow in two shades and two earth colours. This palette is based on the primary colours, the use of a limited palette helps to prevent colour from becoming muddy or turgid. Numerous tints are available but most of them can be mixed from a small palette, the only two that can’t are viridian and magenta, however I rarely need these extreme colours. I mix my own black using ultramarine and burnt sienna and sometimes some red depending on the ground colour. The advantage of mixing black in this way is this, with a tiny bit of white it can be either cool or warm. When I tried using blacks such as ivory black or lamp black I found that they deadened the colour. Having a ground colour means that I use less white, and obviously white can be effective in a way that it never could if you was painting onto a white canvas. If you paint onto a white canvas then a lot of white will have to be added to all of the mixes to make the colours light enough. As white is essentially opaque this will reduce the luminosity of the colour however some people like this effect.

With these two self portraits I can see quite a difference between the warm ground and the blue ground. I think I prefer the warm ground when looking at these two pictures but I will be using blue/grey grounds much more in the future.

The use of ground colours goes back to the 15th century when oil painting was first developed in western art. We know that many artists used grounds because of numerous unfinished works that exist such as ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Leonardo da Vinci. In this picture Leonardo favours a warm brownish colour. Warm browns, tawny hues or grey grounds have been popular with many artists. To give just a few examples Rubens favoured brown or grey, Rembrandt usually brown, most of Goya’s portraits are painted onto orange grounds, Constable favoured a mixture of earth colours and the list goes on. In the 19th century certain Pre Raphaelite and Impressionist artists experimented with brilliant white grounds hoping that this would enable them to get more light into their pictures and in some cases it may have worked. However to my eye green always looks insipid when painted onto white.The Russian painter Shishkin painted onto white and although I admire many of his pictures after awhile the colours begin to look very much the same.


The Eternity of Life

The Eternity of Life – oil on panel – 45 x 60 cm

With spring in the air I thought I would feature this painting because it is full of flowers. At first glance it looks very psychedelic but what does it all mean?

The subject of this painting is the passage in the 12th chapter of the Lotus Sutra that describes how the Dragon King’s daughter was able to gain the fruit of enlightenment or Buddhahood. From the perspective of the written down Buddhist teachings this passage is immensely significant because in all of the earlier sutras women are denied Buddhahood or at any rate they would need to be reborn as a man in order to attain it. The sutras that preceded the Lotus Sutra also deny enlightenment to persons from the worlds of learning and realization and to evil people. However in the Lotus Sutra all of these teachings are overturned and when the dragon girl attains Buddhahood the assembly (that had gathered to hear this teaching) goes wild with joy because this event means that Buddhahood is open to all.

Buddhist teachings can be confusing so I’m not going to go into too much detail here, suffice to say that the Lotus is considered to be Shakymuni’s ultimate teaching. In this sutra the Buddha describes his own enlightenment and that’s why the events narrated in the Lotus Sutra are on a cosmic scale. This is the teaching that elucidates the essentially eternal nature of all phenomena as it passes through the phases of life and death. It tells us how the Buddha-Nature exists in everything (not just in humans) and its emergence is a potential at any moment in time.

In my painting living things considered to be transient, such as the flowers, insects and the songs of birds are seen as being eternal. The diamond in the lower half of the picture is the jewel that the dragon girl offered the Buddha when she attained enlightenment this symbolizes the indestructible nature of Buddhahood. In between the thumb and forefinger of each hand she holds a golden seed, these are the seeds of Buddhahood. The silver and golden apples close by indicate the wisdom needed to comprehend profound teachings. The circles of standing stones show that all teachings are contained within Buddhism and the central position of the hands emerging from the earth is a reference to the role of the ‘Bodhisattvas of the Earth’ in propagating the principles of the Lotus Sutra in the future. This part of the painting is about devotion and as such it corresponds with the character of ‘Nam’ from the mantra nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The portrait of the dragon girl represents the next character ‘Myoho’ which means mystic law or wonderful dharma. Next up we have the lotus flower which is called ‘Renge’. In eastern philosophy the lotus flower is revered because if flowers and seeds simultaneously and this indicates the principle of cause and effect by which karma is created. The next character ‘Kyo’ which means teaching or sutra is illustrated by the key and the crown because the Lotus is the king of sutras and the key to understanding. At the top of the picture the sun, moon and stars show that all the forces of nature follow the principles of the Lotus Sutra. By reciting nam-myoho-renge-kyo one is saying – I devote myself to the mystic law of cause and effect that permeates all phenomena throughout the universe.


The Perfect Pint

The Perfect Pint – oil on panel – 51 x 61 cm

This picture was largely painted from life when I was staying in Kilcommon high up in the Silver Mountains in Co. Tipperary. A local publican called TJ stands behind the bar with his arms folded. On the counter is a fresh pulled pint of Guinness. TJ and I became friendly during my stay and amazingly he agreed to pose for a portrait.

I like this picture especially the painting of TJ’s clothes and the still life details. As far as the actual portrait is concerned I’m not so sure as TJ looks a bit withdrawn and disconsolate and I’m not sure about the likeness. That’s the trouble with portraits I never know quite what the end result will be.

However I had a lovely time in Ireland and I hope to go there again. During my stay I visited all kind of interesting places such as the extensive ruins of Athassel Abbey near to a small town called Golden. I used sketches of the ruins in various paintings when I returned to London especially ‘After the Floods’ which was featured in a recent blog.


Sunset over the River Colne

Sunset over the River Colne – oil on canvas – 50 x 76 cm

This picture was mainly painted in January at the same time as I was working on the two ‘Afterglow’ pictures featured in earlier blogs. These three paintings were intended to be a break from the detailed images I had been working on throughout last year. All three have much looser brushwork and empty foregrounds, also they were all painted onto blue/grey grounds as opposed to warm ground colours such as burnt sienna. The source material for all three paintings came from a walk I took along the towpath when I was last in Wivenhoe visiting my old friend the artist Paul Rumsey.

There’s a lot to be said for keeping something simple and I hope that these pictures invoke a sense of peace.


Two for Joy

Two for Joy – oil on canvas – 51 x 75 cm

This picture was painted in tandem with ‘One for Sorrow’ which was featured in my previous blog. In this painting the old plane tree is the main subject and I decided to paint it as twilight is setting in. It is painted onto a brown ground as opposed to the blue/grey ground used in ‘One for Sorrow’. In both pictures I had wondered whether or this subject was interesting enough to make a picture. However as I wanted to do some observational painting I decided to go ahead. Both pictures use the space outside of the picture plane, in this painting both of the magpies are floating out of the foreground. These birds are quite common where I live and they are more interesting to look at than birds such as pigeons which I had tried to use in earlier versions.

In some cultures magpie’s are birds of ill omen. There is an old nursery rhyme – One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a funeral, and four for birth, five for heaven, six for hell, seven for the devil, his own self.

A more recent version goes – One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a bird, you must not miss.

Detailed paintings such as this picture and its companion piece ‘One for Sorrow’ look good reproduced larger than life. I can’t help thinking that a blown up image of this painting would look good in the offices of Hackney Council.




One for Sorrow

Rathbone Point on Nightingale Estate seen from my flat in Fulke House – oil on canvas – 51 x 80 cm

My idea of painting from life usually involves a very in depth observation of the subject. I like to see how the light changes throughout the day before I decide on what will be the final effect.

I have often considered painting the view from the back windows of my flat. For a long time I thought this view was too mundane to make a picture from asides from that the architectural details are very complicated. Despite these reservations early last year I began work on this picture and another painting called ‘Two for Joy’ which I’ll be discussing in my next blog.

The view consists of a plane tree with some street buildings and the distant tower of Rathbone Point on the Nightingale Estate. The plane tree is quite amazing, it must be at least a hundred years old and it’s gone feral set as it is in an out of the way place its branches have never been trimmed, asides from that it is much taller than the four-storey block of flats where I live. As I worked on the painting I couldn’t help but become aware of the activities of the local wild life. Squirrels run up and down the twisty boughs of the old plane tree and use them as a springboard to gain access to the roof. The occasional cat patrols the wall below and sometimes a fox will be seen slinking towards the rubbish bins. But mostly it’s the birds, there are pigeons, seagulls, magpies, crows, sparrows, blackbirds and yellow tits which are my favourites, last year they had a nest in the branches of a tall tree near my window on the fourth floor.

As this is a looking down painting the eye level is very high and as usual I’ve included more space than I can see without moving my head up and down. This makes for an interesting composition with the trunk of the plane tree outside of the picture and a long drop from the top of the distant tower to the overgrown gardens below. The rather drab buildings are framed by a pattern of branches and shadows that seem to want to burst out of the picture. And just to exaggerate the space further I’ve painted in a magpie hovering just outside the picture plane.

By the way there are four squirrels in this picture can you spot them?