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.
The weather was nice during lockdown, and where I was staying fortunately had a large garden, so I set myself up there to paint what was there to be painted. My efforts were hampered by the willing "help" of my niece, the fact I only had my second best paints and brushes and that my easel was constructed out of a step ladder, a pirece of wood and some wire.
There are at either end of the garden two large old trees. One is an oak and the other (Check with mum).It is the second you can see above. It is very old, parts of it are dead. It is full of empty hollows, twisted branches and pollarded trunks. There is a hive of wild bees living in part of it (they swarmed during lockdown, it was very exciting). I didn't want to paint it in a realistic fashion but slightly more abstracted, and to capture some of the doom laden spirit of this year. I started with a red coloured ground and painted on top of that. The tree itself is just done in various thicknesses of ultramarine.
Above is the other tree, again with a red ground (above left) but painted slightly more realistically to provide another moody piece. Then a bee flew past and suddenly I wanted to do yelow and black, so I painted a yellow ground. Originally I was going to paint on it but then instead I opted for charcoal. The painting is very scratchy (above right) because before I started the drawing my young neice was allowed to attack the canvas with some charcoal. I incorporated her marks into the final work. Gives it a nice energy.
The colour I was enjoying using most was ultramarine. It had a lovely resonent depth to it so I decided to do a painting in mostly blue with a sort of photo negative feel to it with the dark of hedge in white and the light of grass in black (above left). It has a more hopeful feel than the earlier piece and I have to say I enjoyed painting it more.
Having done a painting with charcoal, I wanted to do one with some natural chalk I found in the garden. To that end I put on a black ground and drew on, again using the photo negative idea, to produce another tree picture.
All the paintings were done in situ passing the time in a garden, waiting for world to re-open.
After a while though I ran out of canvas, but I did have cardboard and some white gesso. I treated the cardboard and decided to experiment with an idea I have had for a while, a still life triptych. The cardboard packaging lent itself very well to this having the two wings on each side. I simply higlighted these divides in black and used it to portray again, in close up, two of the objects from the centre. I enjoyed this very much and it worked well. I plan to do it again.
The in-and-out nature of lockdown has, in part, led me to explore a variety of different media. I spent many months conducting a rather maudlin exploration of watercolour and gauche. I then moved onto play with pastels. A few years ago, I was given a large 120-piece set of Sennelier soft pastels by some good friends of mine. I decided to use these and made a considered decision to make a more joyous and hopeful series. I called it the Road Up and posted it almost daily on my instagram feed.
Pastels are joyously messy and very therapeutic to use. There were a number of themes in what I did. One, as can be seen above, is riffing on similar colour ranges, in this case red and yellow, encased in charcoal borders.
The other theme, again featuring charcoal shapes, was the construction of florid designs that I would then infill either with solid colour (like the above right) or with a gradation of colours (like the above left). Often I would not consciously choose what I was going to do when I started, but would be either guided by instinct, the amount of time I had available or a strange desire not to leave out some of the pastels. Looking back on it now, I prefer the results of the above left but gained equal pleasure from producing both.
The next theme was a design based on a field of colour. The field of colour would not be uniform but would again use blended colours from the same range, in this case brown (above left) and blue (above right). On top of these I formed sigils of various designs, the yellow gold pastel being a favourite. I particularly like the effect when you move the pastel in a wave or curve, with its longest edge pressed flat on the paper. You can see this in both of the above.
Two of my favourite artists are Agnes Martin and Sonia Delaunay. They have been influences of mine for a while and both of them can be seen in this series. Never is this more obvious than in the above, where you have Martin's formal geometric shapes combined with Delaunay's bold, even brash colours. The red-themed squares (above left) are, I think, the more effective of the two and I did a number of these. The triangles are more of an experiment and were less successful. Again, they are very tactile and therapeutic to produce.
Sometimes though, you just have to go a bit crazy and let out a burst of energy in high speed mark making on either a blank page (above left) or again on a field of colour. Some of my friends find these the best of these series, saying they have a tremendous sense of energy to them. I find them cathartic to do but to messy to contemplate afterwards. I prefer the above right, probably because it is calmer. Half the fun here though is applying the pastel in different ways and at different angles (and speeds).
Of course, sometimes you have to draw a tiger/chinese dragon.
I have completed some new Still Life Paintings. You can see them and others here.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.