Wednesday 27 September 2017

Venetian Reflections

The thing about being away with a group of artists is that there's all sorts of talk about "making something" out of our sketches.  Let's have an exhibition!  The GOOD thing about this is that it keeps focus and momentum going.  Although I'm writing this now, in September - in the run up to our Viva Venezia exhibition - at the time when we got back from Italy, there was no realistic prospect of an exhibition.

But the talk alone was enough to keep me focused. I knew I had to get on with things as I was moving house in July.  I also wanted to work while images and thoughts were fresh in my mind.

In reviewing my sketches (previous blog) I realised that I had homed in to detail a lot.  The beauty of the buildings, the craft of the metal railings, the plasterwork and brick patterns - these details had attracted my attention.  Also the beauty of the decaying buildings, with stucco giving way to old brick, crumbling steps, rotting wooden doorways, the spread of green mould - I loved these colours.  And the typography of street names and house numbers, repeating motifs in plasterwork and in brickwork - I was fascinated by these.  They are all part of the richness of the Venetian cityscape.  I decided that Venice is a city that has become a landscape.

There are so many artists who have made images of Venice that it's hard not to have these images in your head when you go to paint.  There are very few of us who have not fallen in love with the work of artists of the past like Turner, and contemporary watercolour artists such as Angus McEwan - masters of their craft. So the first hurdle to overcome was to try not to think about these.

And sometimes we think too much.  Best really to get on and put things down on paper.  So this one was a start.  I was striving for the Venetian colour palette - a certain shade of red alongside Canal green.

As was this
And this

I was trying to do 'experiments' to see what would emerge - not trying to complete a painting.  I was also thinking about printmaking and what might make a good image for a photopolymer print.  This next motif had been the subject of one of my first sketches on our first day, so I re-drew it in charcoal and pencil.
Maybe the composition was too busy, so when I redrew it in ink ready to make a plate, I rationalised the composition to focus on the canal and the boats.  Something lost and something gained....
I was trying to get a certain dreaminess into the image - taking that canal wateriness as far as I could - but incorporating a few of the details (doors and windows) I had observed too.
The other print I did was also a bit dreamy, but on reflection, perhaps less obviously Venice.
But then, I was not really aiming to be anything that shouted 'Venice' - I was, I suppose, searching for 'Venice beneath the surface' - the older Venice, the timeless Venice, the real Venice ?

I did a bit of reading around the history of Venice to understand more about its development. I read that in early years it had been a successful city state with a benign form of government that recognised the value of its workers and rewarded them accordingly.  Because of its defensive position in the lagoon, it retained a separateness and independence from the rest of Italy as well as being an important and wealthy trading place.  Later it expanded primarily as a place of entertainment, a playground.  That 'film-set' appearance is part and parcel of the 'real' Venice.  I also read articles in the press about the fragility of Venice, how threatened it is by damage caused by cruise ships and how this could be better managed but only if adjacent municipalities would work together. Also another threat emanating from the popularity of Air BandB which is driving full-time residents out of Venice.

So beauty and fragility continue to be two key aspects of Venice.  I rationalised that the canals are the source of the main threat - not just from cruise ships but also from Climate Change - and the beauty lies in the craftmanship and detailing and the organic nature of the city.

These thoughts led me to focus on doorways and watergates.  Rather a roundabout way to get there, perhaps.  But what followed on from this was a realisation that I couldn't do my usual free and easy acrylics, but that I'd need to take a little care over details such as fanlight and window grills in order to convey that beauty.  Hence I decided to use watercolour and ink.

I wanted to do really small paintings - like this study - smaller than A5.....

...but I needed a bit more room to recreate enough of the important detailing.  My pics have ended up roughly A4 in size.  Here's a composite with a selection. I'm not sure if I've achieved what I set out to do.  I would like to continue to develop this work and perhaps even go back for more sketching...time will tell.

And now for the advert...our exhibition is
Viva Venezia
in the Birch Tree Gallery, 23a Dundas Street, Edinburgh
14th to 29th October 2017.  Here are the details

Hope to see you there.  :-)

Saturday 3 June 2017

Sketching In Venice

Just spent a week in Venice - a week of sketching with pals.  I really enjoyed it!  I was able to concentrate on sketching with no distractions - a real treat. And a completely new environment.

I was so looking forward to it, but once we arrived, I think we were all overwhelmed by the beauty and complexity of Venice; one of the biggest challenges for us was what to focus on in this magical city.  We were a loosely organised group, completely free to go off and do our own thing.

On Day 1 I started by trying to 'sketch myself in'.  I sat down next to a canal near where we were staying (in the Dorsoduro) and made a start.  I caught sight of a view along a small canal with a rather quirky and intriguing building in the distance - a bit of a focal point - with the context of the canal and a bridge in the composition.
As I was sitting there, someone came out of a door and sat down right in front of me and drank his cup of coffee.  I decided I had to put him in the picture.

I found it interesting to be away from the main tourist hot-spots.  It made me think about who lives in Venice and trying to find the 'real' Venice as a sketching subject.  But Venice looks like such a confection, I think this makes it unlike any other city I've been to.  While it's not a film-set, there are very few parts of the city which are not full of amazing beauty and therefore of interest to visitors.  Another thought going through my head was that so many artists have drawn and painted Venetian scenes, it was hard not to think that 'It's all been done before and by much better artists'.  So all these thoughts led to a feeling of uncertainty about what to sketch.

So here I was in a very urban place where I could hardly see a tree or even the sky, and there was not a hill in sight.....what was I to sketch?  There were only buildings....and water. Perhaps a bit of my planning background reasserted itself, a throwback from student days.  I tried a variety of subjects - single doors, like this.....

.... ironwork patterns, groups of windows, buildings.  Patterns like this.

 Initially I stayed away from the beautiful palaces - and not just because I thought they looked too complex to sketch!  Was there any modesty in Venice, some simpler forms?  I found this simple building just outside the convent where we were staying.  Quite cute and worth a sketch. 

I realised when I was drawing this that the steps at the end of the bridge were an important piece of context to be included.  I also realised that I was drawn to the beautiful brickwork and the random patterns made by old brickwork alongside decaying stucco. And the doors that opened directly onto the canals, like this one.

 On our second day we went off to Canareggio, via the station.  My initial impression was that it was a bit dark and oppressive, but I soon found a bit of colour.  Actually, I really loved the Canareggio area, and I can't believe that I forgot to visit Tintoretto's house which is located there.  I think this old rusting watergate was quite close to it.

And later on I stumbled upon some old industrial buildings - more lovely colour and interesting patterns formed by old brickwork revealed by decaying roughcast. 
I was trying different sketching materials - chalk pastels, pencil, oil pastels, conte - trying to get the right look.

On Day 3, we went to the island of Burano.  Suddenly there was a big sky, and trees. The buildings were not so tall and it felt much more open. I did a few sketches there

Burano is famous for its colourful buildings, like these ones....
And the adjacent island of Mazzourbo is a bit wilder and rather lovely.  Found a beautiful greenspace with sculptures and a view of a tower.  I was happy to get a bit of breathing space!

The next day, I thought I must have an attempt at drawing a couple of old palace buildings.  I used ink in order to get the details of the window shapes - so vitally important to the character of the building. I found a quiet viewpoint across the Grand Canal from a rather drab but lovely palace, so I focused on drawing and restrained the amount of colour.
The next day I had another attempt at a palace building, this time using pencil. This sketch took me an hour to finish, but I do quite like the composition, with the poles in the foreground.

I realised by the last day that I didn't have many tourist-style views - where were the gondolas? -  so I had a go at the view from the Sa Toma vaporetta stop. Again I felt a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the view but using charcoal allowed me to simplify the composition.

In the course of the week I also did a few 'tall' sketches in a smaller sketchbook, using a sketching pen.  This forced me to take a bold approach, and concentrate harder.

These are only a few of my sketches - I have lots of material to draw upon. But where to now?  The sketching group is hoping to bring forward a small exhibition and I'd like to have something to contribute.  And I find it important to 'strike while the iron is hot' and take the work forward while the images are still fresh in my mind.

In my next blog I hope to have a few emerging paintings.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Orange Reflections

One of the things I love about Wester Ross is the subtlety of colour in the hills and how the colours of the landscape change so much over the seasons. I particularly love the winter shades – from monochromes to the intensely bright colours when the late low sun picks out the orange hues in the hills. I think the bright orange is from the deer grass and the dying bracken. But whatever the root cause, the shades of orange have lodged into my visual memory. I realised this recently when I painted a series of orange hills, sparked by an evening sketch I did of Ben Luskentyre on Harris in October last year.

Orange Hill I (Ben Luskentyre)

So much for striving for realism. When Van Gogh made the trip from the Netherlands to the south of France, he had to revise his palette to cope with the different colours he saw in the landscape. Here's a lovely quote from him. “Nature in the South cannot be painted with the palette of mauve, for instance, [which] belongs to the North and [which] is and will remain a master of the grey. But at present the palette is distinctly colourful, sky blue, orange, pink, vermilion, bright yellow, bright green, bright wine-red, violet. But by intensifying all the colours one arrives once again at a quietude and harmony. There occurs in nature something similar to what happens in Wagner's music which, though played by a big orchestra, is nonetheless intimate”.

Orange Hill II (Beinn a Chearcaill)

When you think about orange paintings, one of Van Gogh's most popular paintings comes to mind - his 'Sunflowers'. He famously did several versions and revelled in the brightness of the colours: ”I am thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen pictures of 'Sunflowers', a decoration in which the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth on various backgrounds.”

The reference to chrome is worth exploring. With ready-made paint, we usually combine the colours red and yellow to make orange, but if you start with pure pigments, chrome yellow gives a beautiful pure deep orangey-yellow. This pigment is made commercally by adding a soluble lead salt (nitrate or acetate) to a solution of alkali chromate or dichromate. When chrome yellow was first introduced as a pigment in the early part of the nineteenth century, it provided a bright, opaque yellow on the artists’ palette. However, it suffered a flaw in its original form—it darkened upon exposure to light. It was widely used by artists such as Turner, Manet, Cézanne, Monet, and Pissarro. Cézanne, like Pissarro and Monet, used the neutralising effect of combining three primary colours—ultramarine, vermilion and chrome yellow—to make coloured grays. But there were concerns about its light-fastness, and cadmium yellow, a more stable pigment, was introduced by the middle of the century. However, chrome yellow still has advantages as an artist's oil paint because it makes dense, opaque paints that brush out long and flowing, yet the brush marks hold their shape. Here's a little egg tempera painting I did using a gold colour (a 'middle yellow' pigment) - such a vibrant colour!

Cornfield with Red Hills

Feeling Orange
Orange tends to be associated with joy, sunshine, and warmth – a combination of red which is a colour of energy, and yellow which is considered to signify happiness. As an autumnal colour, it signifies the 'mellow fruitfulness', that last flourish of life before the death of winter. Although orange doesn't have quite the same impact as red (which is considered to be a more emotionally intense colour), it is a highly visible colour, good for warning signs. It's also used for children's toys and in promoting food-related products – apparently it's associated with colours of healthy food and stimulates appetite.

The artist Kandinsky thought a lot about colour. He talked about the “purely physicial effect, i.e., the eye itself is charmed by the beauty and other qualities of the colour. The spectator experiences a feeling of satisfaction, of pleasure, like a gourmet who has a tasty morsel in his mouth.” He also described hearing colours and smelling them! He thought that yellows and oranges would be light higher-pitched notes, unlike the deeper bass of the dark madder colours. Looking at the colour orange apparently increases the oxygen supply to the brain, is invigorating and stimulates mental activity.

Of course there is another aspect to colour – cultural considerations. Different societies have different perceptions of colour – e.g. we associate the colour orange with Protestantism. For the Chinese, oranges are like gold – both an aid to digestion and a symbol of money. In India, the Hindus consider orange or rather saffron as the colour of fire, symbolic of the burning away of ignorance by knowledge. Buddhism sees orange as the colour of illumination, the highest state of perfection – hence the saffron robes.

Autumn Day By The Upper Loch
So many dimensions to colour. In May 2017, the Torridon Gallery is holding an exhibition entitled 'Wild for Colour'. I've decided to submit this painting. But there's plenty of scope for artistic interpretation and it will be well worth a look.

The text of this blog will appear in an amended form in An Carrannach in May 2017.