What a week it’s been.
A fortnight ago, friend and painter of exceptionally beautiful still lifes and landscapes Julian Merrow-Smith told me I should get my arse into gear and submit something for the Discerning Eye Exhibition. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Blissfully unaware of the chaos and confusion that lay in wait, I decided it was worth a try.
But what to submit?
I had a few chalk drawings to choose from, but I really wanted to enter an oil as well. The final version of the Old Iron painting was only a week or two from finished, but I didn’t have a frame for it and couldn’t have got it framed in time anyway.
The only answer was to do a new painting for the show. I could liberate a frame from another painting that I wasn’t that happy with (the Silver Vase) and had a panel to fit, but I was going to be against the clock. It would have to be finished, dry, varnished and framed in under two weeks.
I’ve had a few things in mind that I’ve been wanting to try lately, so this seemed like a good opportunity to try them out.
I’ve been getting increasingly interested in composition lately, largely because it’s one of my weak points I think. After working so long on the iron under artificial light I really wanted to get back to daylight again, and I had some ideas about paint handling I wanted to try out. The new painting would be a perfect way to try out some stuff and get a much needed break from the intensive observation of the iron.
At least, that was the plan.
The iron being sight size I couldn’t move the set up out of the way, and the studio being small, I had to commandeer the front room as a second studio for a couple of weeks. It turned out to be a good move because the light in there is lovely. But it gets direct sun in the morning, so I just had to hope for some overcast days – which thankfully I got.
This was always going to be a small, simple piece. At the top of my mind was the design. I’ve been looking a lot at Veronese and Leighton lately. Very different stuff from little still life paintings of course, but they both have a superb sense of design I think. For this one, I wanted to create an interesting design from a two dimensional point of view. Something a bit different from just a bowl on a bit of cloth.
The next most important consideration for me was the atmosphere.
The values were going to be central for that of course, but I also wanted to paint this one somewhat looser in the main, with more careful and tighter work on the focal point, the bowl and the yellow flower. I have to say it was wonderful to be working by soft, diffused natural light again.
I can’t put it into words and it’s probably useless to try, but there’s a kind of gentleness to natural light that provokes a reaction in me. I can happily while away time just sitting and looking at how daylight falls on things about the studio room. It’s like a kind of meditation, if that’s not too pretentious. Hard to describe, but tangible nonetheless. This little painting is much more concerned with the soft light and the sense of peace it gives me than it is with the flowers, the bowl or the cloth.
I couldn’t spend too much time sitting around just looking at this set up though, the clock was ticking.
I don’t seem to be able to work quickly like I used to now, so the only way to make progress is by putting in the hours. It gets light now at 6am, and the light starts to fade too much to work by at 6pm, so that set the hours I was able to work.
Despite the need to get cracking, I’ve learned that trying to save time with insufficient preparation has the opposite of the desired effect. The set up took a whole day to get right. Another day was spent on a colour sketch and a careful drawing out of the design and transferring it to the panel. Allowing for drying time, I only really had six days or so to paint the picture.
It wasn’t enough. I’d have loved to spend another week on this, fine tuning and fiddling. Maybe having a deadline was a good thing in some ways though. If it’s true that paintings are never really finished, just abandoned, then this was abandoned sooner than I’d have liked to. But who knows, maybe I’d have screwed it up and lost the freshness if I’d kept working.
With much sweat and cursing, I did manage to get it finished in time. Just about.
The coat of retouch varnish I gave it was still very slightly tacky in places when I handed it for the exhibition in yesterday. I’m just hoping no-one touches it. I don’t remember reading anything in the admission requirements about paintings being completely dry.
Ah yes, the admission requirements. Let me just say now that if you’re ever thinking about entering one of these juried competition/exhibition type things, it pays to read the requirements very carefully. Not just skim them like I did. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to get the painting finished in time. Maybe I’m just a dead loss at organising myself. Either way, I screwed up every detail I possibly could whilst getting my pieces ready for submitting to the show.
As I said, I was putting some drawings in for this show too. First up was the chalk drawing of the iron.
One of the requirements for pieces in the Discerning Eye show is the size limit of 20 inches. I checked the iron drawing and it was 16 inches high. Fine. The two other drawings I decided to enter were a small one I called ‘Shells’ from a few months ago:
And another called ‘Green and Black Olives,’ also from a few months ago and one of my personal favourites:
These three drawings I had to get framed.
I have a very good frame shop and gallery round the corner from me, (the Epsom Framing Co & Gallery Ltd) so off I toddled with my drawings under my arm.
Framing is one of those things you have to get just right I think. We spent a long time trying out different mount colours on each picture, and eventually decided on some that brought them out nicely. The drawings aren’t fixed (fixative changes the values too much for my liking) so they were double mounted, with the inside mount smaller than the outside one, leaving a little trough behind the main mount to catch any chalk dust that might fall from the pictures over time. Nice I like frame shops with real attention to detail like that.
For the frames themselves I went for a nice, slim black metal frame, which Claire at the framing shop tells me is very popular these days for drawings. After all, one of the admission requirements is that the work be for sale, and I’d actually quite like to sell these pieces if I’m lucky enough to get selected for the show. Quite frankly, I need the cash.
There’s that phrase again: Entrance requirements.
Having sorted the framing for the drawings and left them in Claire’s capable hands, I rushed back to work on the painting some more. On the day I was due to pick up the framed drawings I checked over the entrance requirements again.
For the first time, I noticed that non-reflective glass is inadmissible. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what glass I’d had, if I’d gone for the wrong one it would be too late to change them now. Immediately I dashed down to the framers all of a fluster to find out. Much relief, it wasn’t non-reflective glass. All the drawings were done and looked very posh in their new clothes. While I was there we had a quick look over the requirements again since Claire was surprised about the glass requirement. And then I saw it:
No metal frames.
Thankfully, Claire is an absolute star and dropped everything with one day to go to make up some new black wooden frames that looked almost the same. Claire, if you read this, thanks for saving my life. Everyone else, if you live in London or Surrey and are looking for an excellent framers, call Claire on 01372 747669. She’ll sort you out.
Disaster averted, the next day I picked up the new frames on the day before they were due to be handed in. After much slog, the painting was finished and had been given a thin coat of retouch, which should be dry by the next morning. Everything finally in place, I lined up the drawings for a last look. Something struck me about the iron drawing.
I remembered measuring it at 16 inches high, which would leave another four inches for mount and frame to stay inside the required 20 inches. That mount and frame looked like it was more than 2 two inches deep. Heart in mouth, it was out with the tape measure.
So I didn’t get to submit what I think was my best piece, and I could only submit three pieces altogether. I’ve got the iron drawing sitting beside me now, resplendent in its replacement black wooden frame, and the judges are making their decisions today.
Chances are I won’t get selected anyway but one thing’s for sure: Next time I enter one of these shows, I’ll make damn sure I read the entrance requirements very carefully BEFORE I DO ANYTHING ELSE.
Vilhelm Hammershoi at the Royal Academy
After all that rushing about and stress I needed something to remind what painting is for. I got it in the shape of the Hammershoi exhibition at the Royal Academy, which finished today.
I went yesterday after dropping off my work at the Discerning Eye. Before I go any further, let me say that this exhibition was one of the most profoundly moving I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. I’m completely in love with Hammershoi’s work, a painter I knew nothing about until the posters started appearing around London. There was one at the station on a regular train trip I make, and several times I’ve stood transfixed in front of it. I knew I had to see this show if I could.
What interested me most when I saw the poster, (this image to the left was used for it,) and subsequently started researching Hammershoi on the web, was the sense of atmosphere he creates.
To my eyes, the objects he paints, even the figures in his paintings are secondary to this gentle, haunting atmosphere created by a very sensitive rendering of soft, northern, interior light. Hammershoi was a Danish turn of the century painter, and although his work might look traditional to modern eyes, he was largely ignored by the establishment of his day and is in fact a very modern painter in many ways.
Given my comments about light and atmosphere above, in relation to my own clumsy attempt to catch it, it should be obvious why I wanted so much to see this show. He’s got something I want, and I wanted to know how he was doing it.
I think the haunting atmosphere of Hammershoi’s work is created by various elements of his painting working in close harmony. Firstly, his composition is, by and large, made up of quite static horizontal and vertical lines. Some pieces have strong diagonals too, but they never disturb you. He’s very reminiscent of Vermeer in this regard I think, and was apparently much taken with him.
Much is made of Hammershoi’s reserved colour. For anyone familiar with Munsell notation, I would say his paintings are almost entirely below chroma 1. That’s very low, very close to grey.
But within that narrow range, he gets a subtlety that I don’t think I’ve seen matched anywhere. More subtle than Whistler on a good day. Within his greys are tiny shifts in hue, greens, violets, blues and pinks, that bring the surface of the paintings alive with a dancing vibrancy that impressionist painters could only dream of despite their palette.
In most of the paintings, especially in the later work, the patchwork of little dabs he used to build up his surfaces is floated over what looks to be warm umber underpainting. The strongest colours in the paintings come from this warm underpainting showing through, mostly on furniture. In places there are traces of pencil marks showing through, hinting that the compositions were laid out very carefully, often with a ruler.
It’s impossible to get an impression of the subtlety with which he painted without seeing the paintings in the flesh. Many of his later interiors are lit by a shaft of sunlight through a window, falling diagonally across a wall or floor. He seems to have been fascinated with the quiet effects of indoor light, and could replicate them like no one else I’ve seen.
The subtle patchwork of hues moves completely seamlessly from the darker areas into the sunlight, a difficult thing to achieve as perfectly as he does it I think. It demands a lot of control and I can’t help wondering if he laid out his colours in strings to help him do it. I’d have to do that if I was to get anywhere near that level of control. In the brochure that comes with the show, the writer asserts that the paintings are built up in many layers.
Let me tell you, that’s utter none sense. His later work, especially, is painted in one or two layers at the most over the warm underpainting. The impression of depth comes entirely from his careful control of value, chroma and hue. All his paintings are a lesson in subtlety.
The way he uses focus is very idiosyncratic. He does it mostly through values and edges, and his edges are very varied. Generally very soft, but when he makes them sharp, you get the feeling that he’s doing it very deliberately to focus your attention, and it’s rarely where you’d expect it to be. The figures are always soft edged, secondary to the furniture and objects.
Usually, you’d think of using edges to show depth, sharper at the front and softer moving back, but Hammershoi flies in the face of that completely. Often, different points of a painting will be brought out this way that are in a different physical depth in the scene, something in the middle distance will be brought up sharply as well as something in the background in the same painting. He’ll do it to the leg of table, or a door handle. It’s fascinating to try to figure out why he might be wanting to draw your attention so forcefully in this way. I went round the exhibition with a friend, and he reckoned that Hammershoi was doing it to set up visual pathways for the eye to follow round the painting.
One great thing about the paintings for painters is that the construction isn’t hidden, it’s explicit in the technique. With some painters, you need to see a sketch to be sure how they built up their work. With Hammershoi, it’s as plain as you like and you can see right back to the ground in many places.
Like Velazquez and Chardin, close up his pictures become a jigsaw puzzle of paint dabs, and as you stand back the dabs fuse into a visual whole, a completely convincing impression of light. The patchwork of dabs of paint seems to me to be partly responsible for the apparent veil over his pictures, for the simultaneous liveliness and softness.
But no literal description like this, particularly a technically biased one, can come close to communicating the emotional effect of his paintings unfortunately, and neither can jpegs. You really have to seem them to appreciate them.
Very rarely with paintings I have what I refer to as a ‘moment.’ I can’t really describe it. The painting just seems to wash over me and it’s all I can do to keep from crying. Sounds cheesy I know but it’s true.
I’ve had it with Tiepolo once, and with Velazquez and Van Gogh. Now I’ve had it with Hammershoi. It’s a strange kind of a meeting between the painting and the viewer, both supplying elements of the catalyst that makes it happen. I can’t find a picture of the one I had it with this time on the web, but it’s etched intomy memory and probably always will be now. No doubt all the rushing around of the last week, lack of sleep due to a painful foot injury and stressof all my idiotic screw ups left me a bit overwrought. But if that’s what it took for me to have an experience like that in front of a beautiful painting, I’d happily go through it all again.
More than that though, Hammershoi has shown me a way forward.
In the picture I just finished of the little yellow flower in the bowl, I was surprised at how near grey the colours of the bowl were. Surprised because it came out looking green-blue, not grey at all as I would have expected. At one point I was tempted to take the yellow flower out altogether, and the red background and leave the near-greys to make the statement. In the end, I didn’t have the balls to do it. I didn’t think people would appreciate a picture made up entirely of near greys.
When I was reading up about Hammershoi I saw him described once as a cautious painter.
I disagree. I think he was a very brave painter. Apparently he wasn’t much enamoured of theimpressionists, his contemporaries, and resolutely plowed his own furrow.
I hope I can find the courage to do the same. I hope we all can.
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