Life takes you in strange directions, it has taken me from London and by way of pandemic lockdown to living in Henley. Maybe one day I will tell you why.
I like life drawing. I used to go regularly to Candid Arts in Islington. During the lockdown I did try a zoom life drawing class, but I found it weird and sordid. When the first thing you see when you log on, is a naked women, boobs flapping, adjusting the camera it makes you feel like you are doing something quite different.
So I was very pleased when Henley School of Art recently re-opened its studio to in person classes and I was able to sign up for a 10 weeks course. Two hours every week. Its great. The tutor is the wonderfully gregarious Jo Harris who as well as running the school for art is an accomplished illustrator.
She is engaging and enthusiastic as well as knowledgeable. She had a very interesting approach. To get us out of the zone of trying to produce a good drawing and instead focus on just the act of drawing and trying out the technique, we had to rip up all of our drawings after we had finished them.
This was very interesting. I can really see the psychological benefits of this. It frees you. You can, to a certain extent, let yourself go and try new things if you know it is not going to survive the process.
The end of week one involved covering paper with a layer of charcoal and then using a putty rubber to generate highlights, create a sketch of the model. This was quite a challenge and involved thinking to a similar way of drawing in areas of tone (as taught to me at the Brambles Art Retreat). I was quite pleased with the results (above).
Week two, was pencil week. Using pencils we were encouraged to draw fast loose lines. The idea is that thick lines form too much of an impression on the mind. You don’t want to rub them up. Whereas light lines allow you to see the errors and correct them much more. You draw more and more lines as you correct and correct the shape until it is right. We also tried the classic draw with your non-dominant hand technique. Actually looking, see the shapes and form that were actually there, rather than the ones you think are there.
Week three was learning to embrace chaos. Exercises such as drawing without being able to look at the page, short poses were all designed to breakdown the barrier that is your mind telling you what should be there rather than what is there. My problem it turns out is applying two dark at line at too early a stage. You then become invested in that line and cannot see past it to see that it is wrong. A psychological resistance builds up to changing it. Jo gently persuaded me to get rid of those lines and look again. The mantra as always was paint what you see, not what your brain tells you is there. This is particularly difficult with issues like foreshortening, and odd angles. In the picture from week then I started off with far to tall a torso and had to reduce this but the main issue was the angle and position of the legs, which came towards me and slope away again. So the final drawing in this of those elements is Jo’s.
We have now just finished week four. Eyes, face and facial features were the subject of today. There was no model. We used each other as the model for the first exercise. It is a very intense but oddly emotionally satisfying experience to have someone look at you really intensely and try to draw you. I suppose it is because they are really look at you but with no judgement. I can see why people like being models. After that using mirrors we used ourselves as the model. Started off with eyes. The key is here that eyes are three dimensional, not as big as you think, and also shiny. Capturing all of these elements is quite tricky. A nice tip Jo gave for the eyes, is rather than drawing the Iris, draw the negative shape of the whites of the eye as this will give you a more accurate shape. This really works.
We were also encouraged when drawing the rest of the face, particularly the nose and mouth, not to draw outlines. Instead to use crosshatch shading to suggest the shape. It is more difficult but once you get the hang of it much more convincing and satisfying. We concluded with a full face self portrait. I left the glasses off mine but for 30 minutes its pretty good (you always look grumpy in a self portrait as you are concentrating so hard on the drawing). Having finished week 4 I am very much looking forward to the remaining 6 weeks.
One of the things it has made me think about is making progress in any discipline. You reach a level at which you are quite good. You can produce or perform something in a why in which you are comfortable and to a pleasing standard. But if you want to progress you have to, to a certain extent, abandon what you are used to, are comfortable with and embrace a new technique. This can be difficult because initially, and indeed sometimes for quite a long time, the standard of what you produce can seem to dip. This can be discouraging and for me has been in the past and I have simply retreated to what I am comfortable with. If you did in though and press on you can achieve something more.
Until 24th October the British Museum are hosting an excellent exhibition on Nero. I went along recently. It was very busy, like pre covid busy, which was quite nice to see. Although I must say I had enjoyed and been quite spoiled by the covid exhibition experience, where there almost no one there and you get to look at things, unobscured and unruffled by other people.
So tip for busy exhibitions. Everyone goes in at roughly the same time, what with timed tickets and all and people bunch up in the first few rooms. Skip them. Start room 3 or 4, work your way to the end then go back. By this time everyone will have shuffled on and you can peruse things to your hearts content. This is what I did.
I am interested in history. Very interested in fact but my the main way I related to this exhibition was artistically. And it is the ephemera that I found the most fascinating like this collection of bracelets, earrings and coins (above). It is interesting how similar the designs in the jewellery from the ancient world are to the modern.
There is no photo of it here but the exhibit I found most fascinating where these two large lead ingots. They were like massive metal Toblerone’s, stamped with roman sigils and text. One was mined in Cornwall and one in Wales. Somehow they were fascinating.
When you think ancient Rome, you think coins. And of course you have lots of coins. Nero came to power at the ridiculously young age of 16. He effectively shared power with his mother and she appears on several of the coins with him (like in the above). I found this fascinating and she is virtually the only female to appear on such coinage from the Roman period.
Nero eventually tired of sharing power with his mother and had her killed (as he did to his mentor Seneca)
The main thesis of the exhibition is was Nero as bad as he is popular reputed to be. One of the issues explored is Nero's popular appeal and how there were idols to him around the empire.
Much is made of Nero appearing on stage, his building of a massive personal palace and of course the fire of Rome, which burnt down a large portion of the city. A fine object on display was this twisted and distorted iron grill, buckled by the heat of the fire. The popular myth is that Nero fiddled while Rome burnt but some sources indicate that he arranged efforts to try and put out the fire and housed people in his palaces.
The idea they posit is that Nero was unpopular with the Roman elite and the Senate in particular. Certainly Nero used the Pretorian guard to safe guard his position of power. They do appear surprisingly camp (above).
Nero lost his grip on power and eventually committed suicide, about the age of 30. After a violent interregnum he was eventually replaced by the pugnacious Vespasian. A concerted effort was made to erase the image of Nero and many were repurposed into statues of Vespasian like to the one above, which is also one of my favourite objects from the show. It was an excellent show.
There is a marvellous room at the National Gallery, it is free to go and see and I suggest you do. You can pop in on you way round the various suggested routes the circulate you through the permanent collection. This room houses The Konigstein views, by Bellotto.
They are excellent paintings. There are 5 in total and they have been reunited for the first time, in an while. Konigstein is a massive fortress in Saxony. The paintings were commissioned by the rather fabulously named Augustus the Strong (who was somehow also King of Poland). It still stands and according to one of my fellow visitors you can take a steam paddle boat from Dresden down to the castle, which sounds delightful.
The paintings themselves are large, and depict from various vantages both inside and out the fortress, views of it. In the one above you can see one side, and pleasingly you can just make out that part of it is still being built (or rebuilt).
The paintings are very detailed. The painter is Bellotto, who was nephew and student of Canaletto and you can see the influence in the precise perspective and details of the building. I particularly like the slightly dilapidated nature of the buildings with the faded and peeling paint. The star of this picture (above) for me is the walled garden with the little cupola inside.
I like me a dishevelled building so I really appreciate the water stain on the outside of this imposing looking edifice. The fortress stands atop a rocky outcrop (as you can see from the first and last pictures) and this one gives you quite a good impression of this weird military monastic feeling community in the middle of forbidding Saxon forests.
In this one you can see the blank sheer walls of the fortress almost growing out of the natural rock. It feels fantastical so even more of a thrill to know it actually exists. There are five paintings in all, of which only four are shown here. Maybe they have peaked your interest, in which case shuffle along to see them. Trust me it's worth it.
This weekend just gone was the first weekend of the Henley Arts Trail. I shall be exhibiting at the Eyot Centre on the 17th and 18th so come and say hello. For the first weekend though I went to the really quite beautiful Greys Court (pictured above). The house and grounds are worth seeing in of themselves (particularly the walled garden with its ancient wisteria) but they are until this Sunday hosting the sculptures of the Oxford Sculpture Group. It was for this reason I went along and I have to say I was not disappointed.
The sculptures were artfully laid round in a trail that took you round the grounds and the aforementioned walled garden. This blog is much delayed and I am easing myself back in bloggin after quite a long break, so I think I will just leave you with some lovely photos.
These are made of cutlery.
recently did something I have been meaning to do for a long time. I went on an art retreat. After much research I selected Brambles Art Retreat. I am very glad I did and I thoroughly recommend it. Nestled in the Devon countryside, about 40 minutes’ drive from Exeter it is housed at the beautiful above pictured Brambles Cottage. I went there by train and the proprietors of the retreat (of whom more about later) picked me up from the station.
The retreat is run by a couple who provide the tuition, Pete Davies and Janet Brady. In addition to providing excellent tuition are also very friendly and congenial hosts. Janet is an excellent cook. The cottage is an old farm cottage, walls two meters thick, low ceilings and wooden beams. My room had a very fetching enourmous fire place.
Outside was a lovely large garden, and nestled in one corner of the garden the studio. It is quite large. Including the instructors there were 7 of us and we fitted in comfortably. It is divided into two rooms and one side room with a sink and all the paints.
On the first day, I started with Charcoal, under the tutelage of Pete. He set up a still life of a bottle, a vase and a couple of porcelain ducks. What he taught us to do was to draw, without using line, only gradations of tone to suggest the shapes and the boundary between them. He particularly got us to concentrate on the negative space between the objects as a guide to defining them. I was pretty pleased with the sketch I produced (above left).
In the afternoon Pete took me and one other of the guests out to a local very distinctive clump of trees, and using the techniques we were taught in the morning to sketch the trees. It was nice, standing out there in the sunshine, with a cooling breeze, sketching away. I enjoyed it and was again quite pleased with the result (above right).
The second day, I moved onto acrylic. A still life was set up for us, and again using the techniques from the day before using graditions of tone, but this time with addition of gradations of colour to paint the still life. Again the idea was to avoid the solid lines. One tip Pete gave for painting the coffe pot and the table was to paint in the lines of shadow and then with the addition of very little silver and gery the eye will see it as reflective. It worked very well and it is something I am glad I found out.
The actually tuition lasts from 09:30 to about 16:00, with a break of roughly an hour for lunch. After that your time is your own. One night we went out for a meal in the hotel in the local town, which we very tasty. We also took Jupiter for a walk round the local countryside, along the bank of the babbling river that flows through the valley, a few hundred yards from the cottage.
Day three was a trip to the seaside. A beautiful little bay on the north Cornish coast, just east of Tintagel. It was about 1/2 and hours drive from the cottage. We got there about 10:00 and I could not resist starting the day with a paddle in the water. The tide was out when we arrived, and we set up camp on the cliffs overlooking the bay. Out to sea was this shark finned shaped rock, jutting out of the water all alone. I likes this rock and also the line of the cliff so decided to spend most of the day on a charcoal sketch.
The tide came in quite quickly so I had to make a decision about when I was going to freeze the frame and put the tide line. I marked this in near the start of the sketch and built it up from there. By the time I finished that beach you can see in my sketch was entirely underwater.
In the mid afternoon, I had time to do just a quick acrylic sketch. The idea really was to have some colour notes form which I could work up an oil painting of the scene once I got home. As you can see by this time the tide has come right in. The sketch is a bit basic but I was pleased with the sea colour. I have yet to work it up but I will do at some point.
The plan for day four was to go out and do a painting of Ben Tor. Rain and a mist that completely obscured the view meant that plan had to be abandoned so we adjourned back to the studio and instead worked from a photo of the scene to produce our paintings. Thumbnail sketches, something I don't often do, were a theme of this retreat and actually I found them very useful and will probably do them more. This time Janet, who was teaching me on this one, focused on getting us to see the shapes within the scene, so how the filed just beyond the field is a sort of fish shape, and also again on seeing the differences is tone. One very useful piece of advice is that the colours don't have to match the picture but if you get the same variations in tone, it will look the same (I am of course simplifying).
I paint quickly, so I finished about 15:00 so spent the last hour doing an acrylic sketch of Jupiter the do. I painted deliberately quickly and with lots of energy and tried to capture the look and feel of his fur and his playful personality. It came out quite well. Later the original had snuck into my room and gone to sleep on my bed (above right).
All two quickly we came to the last day. I don't often paint in watercolour. Janet is a watercolour expert so I decided to take this opportunity to learn from her. She talked us through how to paint a vase of flowers. Watercolour you have to think differently and much more tactically than oils or acrylic because you can’t really over paint. Once something is down you are more or less stuck with it. She showed us how to see the tones and chose the right paints. How to pick out the main structures, put them in and build from there. One good tip was how you can use wax to block out an area as white as the paint won't then stick. The white areas in my painting (above, and of which I am absurdly proud) are just the paper, covered in wax. This is certainly a technique I shall be trying to use again.
I am very glad I went to Brambles. I am definitely going to go back. I would highly recommend you go too.
I have done a lot of painting in the various lockdown, partly for something to do, partly to keep the crushing loneliness at bay and partly for solace. This blog details two experimental paintings which are slightly different from what I normally do.
I also separated from my wife in January 2020. The combination of grief and a lockdown is not something I would recommend. I one of my more maudlin moments I started cutting the pages out of my old diaries and sticking them to some boards. I went through two volumes before I passed through this phased and decided not to cut up any more, it suddenly seemed a bit petty and something I would regret.
I left the boards for a long while but eventually decided to paint on them. The diaries were quite small, about half the size of A5 and I had stuck multiple layers onto each board. I now live on in Henley-on-Thames and had been sketching, photographing the area since I moved here in June 2020. You can see some of these paintings here. I had a few images I had yet to turn into painting. It was autumn and the changing colours were very engaging, so I selected one image, two red trees, flanking a small wooden holiday home and painted that (above).
The paint is oil paints (as all the paintings in my gallery page). It behaved very differently. It does not flow as well as across canvas or wooden board so I had to apply the paint thickly. I use thick paint anyway. It also took much longer to dry so no matter how long I left it I was always painting wet on wet. This meant fine detail was much harder so I had to opt for a looser style. The whole painting took me a few weeks but I was quite pleased with the result.
What I particularly like is the way the edges of the diary pages show through. They give the picture a sort of disjointed montage feel which I quite like.
Pleased with the first picture I decided to do another. A friend of mine suggested I try a wintery scene and one cold November morning, I was walking over Henley bridge, the sun was rising over the river, the river was high and flowing fast and a lonely rowing crew was manoeuvring mid stream.
I liked this image and decided to paint it. Familiar with the restrictions now I didn't even try for fine detail but went for a looser more suggestive style which I think suited the subject matter anyway. I was particularly pleased with the graduated sky. Picasso has this trick where he would paint a figure on a piece of paper and stick it on his paintings to see if he wanted to incorporate it or not. It is a useful trick and I used it in reverse here. I painted a blank patch of river and stuck it over the rowers and the buoy to see if I wanted to remove them. I decided in the end to keep them in.
Did I mention they take ages to dry? I finished them both before Christmas but they are still not dry. I think it will be months before they are. I have booked the Old Fire Station Gallery for the 19th to 24th August and intend to have an exhibition then. Hopefully they will be dry by then.
I may do more, but not with diary entries, I might use old receipts or other scrap pieces of paper instead.
I am very pleased that my painting "Objects on a Table" has won the Radcliffe Chambers Prize for The Best Oil/Acrylic at the Law Society's Art Group Annual Exhibition 2021. I am so chuffed.
I am launching a podcast series called The Things That Drive Us. The first episode is a discussion with my sister, Henrietta Mackenzie about her first book The Secret Lives of Two Googly-Eyed Cats which is available here. She also runs a website about sustainable living which you can also find here.
You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the audio link above. I hope you enjoy it.
I had the joyous experience of going to the Tate Britain recently, my first gallery visit since lockdown finished. It was a great visit, to a great show, the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The show is caled Fly in the League with The Night. I enjoyed it very much.
And why? Because it was great. It is not very often you see contemporary figurative portraiture displayed in a major gallery so there is that.
There are other stand out matters in this show. It is very rare to see in art, of any period portraits of black people, at least portraits that do not fetishise them. This show makes a small step to correcting this. This is not the only thing that makes it stand out. It is of extremely high quality.
The paintings are large, gallery large but convey an intimacy in the way the subjects are depicted. The group of dancers above is a good example. The ease of the figures with each other and the the one subject that looks out at you with that piercing gaze. There is a nice looseness about the brush work that I like, and also she is excellent at reflections.
It is slightly here in this painting, but more so in others in that there is, or at least I read, a lot of ambiguity about the sexuality of the subjects.
It is the intimacy in these portraits that I think attracts me the most. My favourite of the paintings in the whole show is the one above. The two squatting figures, stark against the textured white background, staring intently at each other. Their pose is both dynamic and relaxed. Tense and relaxed at the same time. I stared at this painting for a long time.
What I particularly like is the looseness of the paint. There are parts of the painting, the left hand edge of the left figures face for example, where the canvas shows through the paint, making a very effective highlight. This is very difficult to do effectively.
One of things Yiadom-Baokye is good at is contrasting shades. The figure on the left with the different shades of white on the jacket are superb. The folds conveyed in the jacket and shirt are very well rendered, working against the skin of the figure.
She does this again with the figure on the right, but with the added detail of the reflection, all set off by the flash of gold in the chair behind. The flash of gold is something she does in a number of paintings, it works very well.
I could say more, much more, all I will say is that you should go and see it for yourself. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I will leave you with two pictures, ripe with iconicraphy. I particularly like the shades of right in the figure with the christ like pose.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.