Doodles in the margin from an artist living and working in the Scottish Borders.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Kid's Stuff

It's a peculiar experience to see an eight year old pondering whether to invest his money in property or buy a Lowry, but I saw it last night on the TV, on C4's documentary about genius children.

Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most likeable, was Keiron Williamson, an eight year old boy with a self-evidently remarkable talent for painting. I mean, look at that - he's eight, and probably seven when he painted it. That's pretty good for a seven year old. No wonder people are calling him a genius.

He is a talented kid, and his parents seemed very sensible, protective and encouraging of his talent. They decided in the end to go to Cornwall (he went for the property, with studio space so he "wouldn't have to clear the table for tea") where there were more galleries and artists. I could only applaud their decision and the way they went about it. I hope he carries on painting, because he seemed to love it.

But oh boy, his public. You couldn't help but think about the sense of the freak show that surrounded the exhibitions - and which his parents kept firmly at arm's length. Collectors came from America to buy the paintings. They ran to buy them when the exhibition opened. Perhaps they'd had a catalogue and made their decisions beforehand, but they didn't seem to be looking at the paintings themselves but what hadn't been sold, what was left that they could get their hands on. The gallery owner, who seemed somewhat dazed by what had landed on his doorstep, said, tellingly, (I'm paraphrasing) "There are only a finite number of paintings he did when he was seven. He's eight now. He won't be seven again." He added, grinning breathlessly, "Kerchinnggg!" All right, no, he didn't, I made that up.

But - is that painting worth ten thousand pounds? If I did that painting, would you pay ten thousand pounds for it? The market (which is, as we know, infallible) says they're worth it because some goon will part with thousands for them. Quite whether they're the "investments" that people think they are obviously remains to be seen. (And on a related note, I'd like to take a moment to hoist a jovial two fingers at anyone who buys art as an "investment." You soulless bastards.)

I suppose you can't (or the market can't) disentangle the painter from the painting. It's 'worth' thousands not because of the painting, which, judged objectively, is reasonable, but because of the artist, who is remarkable.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Simon's Cat

Why have I never seen this before? Two minutes and eighteen seconds of splendour.

(I apologise to Google Ads for putting up an advert which is nearly completely obscured by a cartoon. Try to ignore the cat, obviously.)

Friday, 22 October 2010

Rooney and the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Fear not: there will be presents this Christmas, as a Manchester worker secures his financial future.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Papa's Got a Bag of Swordfishtrombones.

Blimey. Tom Waits covers James Brown. It's like a parlour game come true.

Monday, 18 October 2010


Apples, oil on board, 9.5" x 8".

A new painting to celebrate the re-launch of my web site, all refreshed and smelling of new paint.

Apples. Wallop. Simple as you like. I did this as a distraction from another painting I was getting bogged down in. It made me feel better.

Flash? Ah-aahhhhh! Or: What I Learned Today,

I had the website down over the weekend to tart it up a bit, making sure that all the links went to the right pages, that there was no black text on a black background (there was lots) and revamping the opening page with a Flash slide show rather than the plain, non-moving mosaic. I tried about six or seven freeware Flash creator programmes, and for one reason and another discarded them all and used AnvSoft's software - it's free (huzzah!) and downloadable here.

A lot of the free stuff has unfriendly interfaces and an aesthetic best described as Care Bears Go ClipArt - create a Flash slideshow for your website with a background from the 'Love' Theme, anyone? No, nor me. The AnvSoft Flash software has its fair share of that but it's easy to use, clearly laid out and there's a plain option in there, which worked for me. The results can be contemplated here.

I also learned that not all of the features of the web-building pages on Mr Site are compatible with Chrome - or Firefox for that matter, which would explain why my images kept vanishing whenever I tried to insert a link into them. Blew the dust off Internet Explorer, which worked.

I also opened the door onto the horror that is Twitter. I'm very ambivalent about having to use the internet to drum up business. We both had an appointment with an arts business advisor (shortly before he went out of business) and he recommended the usual - Twitter, Facebook, blah blah blah. I held out against it all - I tend to misanthropically think that two of the most damning indictments of human nature are slavery and the comments section on YouTube.

It's not like I've not waded in before, though. I Was There in the early days of StumbleUpon, lovingly crafting a well-designed html-tweaked page of Gill Sans goodness, until finally getting the inevitable internet ennui, that feeling that my brain is freezing over and that I'm making a splendid meal out of rice crackers and nothing else. Step away from the computer, the voice said, go and look outside. I kept up the resistance until a couple of days ago when I joined Twitter.

I'm sure it will prove to be useful, but bloody hell - it's like opening your front door and finding your house on the edge of a gigantic abyss of celebs, Rooney, Zodiac Facts, sikes! and LOLs, a billion voices all yammering away at once and saying bugger all. It's rather depressing. It seems sometimes that if each computer is a chimney then the internet is smog, and now I'm sending my own personal plume of smoke up there into it.

I have been assured that it needn't be like this ("you have to ignore all the bollocks" my friend Colin advised), that it's a tool and not an end in itself, but even my girlfriend who has patience and mildness of judgement in superhuman abundance was moved to describe it as a "vacuous black hole."

We shall see.

Anyway - if you do stumble into while out walking in the smog, come inside and have a cup of tea.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Deep Elm Blues

I'm fannying around with a nimby-pimby autumnmisty landscape, in which depth of field, scale and colour are apparently beyond me and I'm getting rapidly more teethgrindingly angry with myself but I will persevere even if it ends up an inch thick. Which would be nice, actually.

So in pursuit of a bit of light and dark, a bit of letting go, a bit of bloody passion in the thing, this morning I broke out the charcoal and the A2 paper and drew a lime tree I took a photograph of yesterday when we were out for a dander by the Whiteadder. I'm coming more and more to like the Whiteadder as a river, it's appealingly small scale and full of lots of many lovely aspects. Anyway: it might be a lime, it might be an elm, but either way it's a tree.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Relentless Consumer Follow-Up

Baboonery isn't no fickle mayfly dancing in the fantastical air of the blogosphere, buoyed up only by flatulent gusts of its own opinion. No sir. Baboonery is practical. Empirical results. Look at that - flat as you like:


Friday, 8 October 2010

Stretching Paper: Some Mumbling, Digressional Advice.

Stretching paper can be a bit of a faff and frustrating, but there's nothing quite like using ink and washes on a taut, flat, white piece of good cartridge paper. Quite apart from anything else, if you're going to be doing wet work on anything thinner than a piece of hardboard then it's going to warp (or 'cockle'), and that leads to all sorts of problems, both aesthetic and practical. So, how do you stretch a piece of paper?

Things you will need:

  • Paper (in this case two A4 sheets 220gsm Daler Rowney cartridge paper)
  • Brown gum tape.
  • A clean sponge.
  • A drawing board.

Things you will also need that aren't in the photo but I used anyway:
  • Pair of scissors.
  • A clean towel.

The Yes, Yes, Just Get On With It Version:
  • Cut the gum tape to fit the edges of the paper with about a 1" - 2" overlap at each end.
  • Soak the paper flat in a clean sink.
  • Hold it up by the corner to drain.
  • 'Roll out' onto the drawing board.
  • Damp the gum tape and stick down the edges of the paper.
  • Sponge out excess water and air bubbles.
  • Lay board flat to dry.

Pull up a chair for the longer version:

1. Actually, a word on the drawing board first. Mine is simply MDF, which I got from Homebase in a large sheet and had cut in half. It comfortably takes A3 paper. It's important though that if you're using an MDF board you seal it first. I used satin finish varnish.

2. Cut the gum tape to size.

Do this before you get near the sink! If you've got even faintly damp fingers then the roll will gum itself together and that will give you no end of hassle trying to get clean lengths of tape out when you next come to use it. And don't keep it in the bathroom, either...

3. Place in the water.

3a. The sink. If you're stretching A4 then there's enough room in a standard sink to lay it flat in the water. Flat is important. Equally important is that you wash out the sink first. Traces of any sort of detergent (including soap) can transfer themselves to the paper, spoil the surface, and be intrusively obvious when you come to work as they take the pigment differently. For the same reasons, try not to touch the paper anywhere other than round the edges as fingerprints can have the same effect.

3b. The water itself. You'll find different opinions about the temperature of the water. Hottish water can spoil the surface of the paper, stripping off any sizing. Cold water takes a long time to penetrate the paper. I follow the Derek Smallsian route between the poles of fire and ice, and use lukewarm water.

3c. Time: the time the paper is in the water is crucial. You don't want something with the consistency of a newspaper fished out of a pond, nor do you want just a wet sheet of paper. The internet says:
  • 90lb (163 gsm) for 3 minutes, 140lb (307 gsm) for 8 minutes.
Sounds about right. With the 220gsm I'm stretching I'm immersing it for four to five minutes.

3d. Slide the paper under the water end first. If you lay the paper flat on the water and then try to push it under, you can dent the paper, and the little crease you get then will take in more water and spoil the surface. If you slide it in end-on it protects the surface and wets the paper evenly.

5. While you're waiting for the sheet to soak, dust off your stretching board, making sure there aren't any specks or bits of dirt that will form irritating, sharp little peaks in your pristine flat white paper. You want to do this now, not while you've got a wet sheet of paper in your other hand and nowhere to put it down.

6. When time is up, remove the sheet from the water by holding one corner.

Let it dangle for about a minute, so that the surface water drains off the opposite corner.

7. Lay the paper on the board. Again, start from one end. If you 'roll' it onto the board it should go down evenly and without getting any air bubbles trapped underneath.

8. Taping it.

Gum tape ensures a nice even grip all round the paper as it dries out and stretches. If it doesn't grip, it won't stretch. It's important that the gum tape isn't sopping wet when you apply it. I tend to paddle on a bit of water with my fingers so that it's wet enough to get the gum activated, rather than dunk the tape in the sink. Then apply the tape to the paper. As a rule of thumb, I have about a third of the tape's width over the edge of the paper. This means you get a good grip and don't encroach too much onto the painting space. Once you've taped all four corners, rub the tape with your fingers to ensure it's flat to the board and any excess water is expelled. You can sponge it down at this point, dabbing to remove the water.

If you've got any air bubbles, you can gently ease them towards the edge of the paper with the sponge and squeeze them out under the tape. Most air bubbles will disappear during the drying/stretching process anyway. Don't rub too vigorously here - yet again, you can damage the surface of the paper. Dab as if tending the grazed knee of an infant to whom you are related.

Too much water at this point can start to spread the gum around, getting it onto the painting surface, reducing the tape's effectiveness, and - worst of all - sticking your paper to the board. If you keep the paper taped to the board while you work and don't discover that the paper is glued down until you're finished, then at the very least be prepared for a tense few minutes tentatively sliding a metal edge under your painting to try and prise it gently free. At worst you'll tear and ruin what you've just spent hours working on. This will drive you up the bloody wall.

I tend to use the clean towel at this point, laying it over the board and using the flat of my hand, gently pressing to get any remaining water off the paper. When you finish it should be mildly damp, like a mid-autumn afternoon.

9. Lay it somewhere flat and out of the way to dry.

In a normally heated room it should dry quite quickly - certainly overnight, ready to work on the next day. You can accelerate the process by using a hair dryer, as I remember from last minute student panics, but if it pulls free from the tape and you have to start again don't say you weren't warned.

I've arranged these two sheets in opposite corners so that I can work on one and then turn the board around to work on the other 'upside down', without getting too much elbow and forearm all over the other piece.

There will be other advice for stretching paper. This is just how I do it.

It usually works.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Quietly Pleased, Anyway

Rejoice, oil on board, 18" x 24".

An appropriate sort of title, as I got this accepted yesterday for the Open Exhibition at the Gymnasium gallery in Berwick. It's title of 'Open' is surely intended to be ironic as finding out about how to enter involves dropping hints with people who know people, picking up envelopes on park benches and finally meeting with a shadowy figure in a windy doorway who is initially cagey but eventually slips an email address, typewritten on a sheet of paper, into your hand and when you look up he has vanished.

Anyway, it's another picture of rust, a combination of a couple of boats in Eyemouth harbour. We had a day at Eyemouth a few weeks ago (the seal really is blind, I discovered. I sceptically thought it was just a ruse by the mackerel vendor) and I stocked up on some splendidly weathered letters and numbers. The 'Rejoice' was up on the slipway and I only had the normal lens on so I could only get a very cropped, pixellated image. I went back the next day with the telephoto lens, having decided to paint it, only the buggers had got there before me and it was pristine again:

Monday, 4 October 2010

Twenty Lire and a Salami Sandwich.

Fausto Coppi - oil on board, 16" x 22".

So, new territory. A human being.

Hang on, you're saying: Fausto Coppi, two time Tour De France winner, cycling legend and cause celebre? Il Campionissimo himself? How come you move in such elevated circles, Rich - not to mention that he's been dead since 1960: what gives?


I was doing a lot of reading about the Tour de France and Coppi's story is a very interesting one. He was, above all, a phenomenally good cyclist. One of the giants of the sport, to this day. The interruption of his career by the Second World War (he was a prisoner of war in North Africa*) leaves it open to speculation about how much he might have won, but in the years either side of the war he was the dominant force in cycle racing, his achievements only ever exceeded by Eddie Mercx.

*(British cyclist Len Levesley, stretchered out with polio, awoke to find Fausto Coppi giving him a haircut.)

A certain amount of scandal pursued him - and by 'a certain amount' I mean that when his affair with Giulia Occhini ('the Woman in White') was revealed, Pope Pius XII told him to return to his wife and refused to bless the Giro d'Italia because Coppi was riding in it. Italy in the 1950s was not a place to look tolerantly on adultery, particularly when the Pope doesn't like you, and Coppi was publicly execrated, abused and spat at by spectators. After the scandal broke, his career went into a decline, and in later years he was described as almost literally a shadow of his former self: "a magnificent and grotesque washout of a man, ironical towards himself, nothing but the warmth of simple friendship could penetrate his melancholia."

Another, unignorable, fact about Coppi that would be as familiar today as tabloid headlines of a sportsman caught in adultery was his open admission to using drugs. Famously, when asked if he took "la bomba" (Italian road slang for amphetamines) he replied yes, when it was necessary. And when was it necessary? "Almost all the time."

There don't seem to be any great cyclists about whom you can't have reservations, but despite everything there is the legendary litany of Coppi's victories: five Giro d'Italia, five Tours of Lombardy, two Tours de France (he only ever rode three), Milan - San Remo three times, the horrible Paris-Roubaix, the hour record and the World Championship. He was good.

And he had an interesting face. He had a strange look about him on a bike, almost as if his legs were too long for it, but contemporary accounts all say how fluid, elegant and just damned stylish he was, as well as being tremendously effective, obviously. So, greatness and controversy, with style. That was what I wanted to paint.

The first thing that came to mind, almost before I'd really thought about who it would be, was the posture. I had Titian's Portrait of a Man with a Quilted Sleeve in mind:

because I wanted to allude to that sort of classical Italian greatness. I chose the deep red background for the same reasons, because it was imperial and at the same time suggestive of infamy. Also the sleeve in Titian's portrait says a great deal about the sitter, it sticks his opulence and wealth right there under the viewer's nose - get a load of that. I wanted Coppi's arm, the wiry muscle, the tan and that pallid band of flesh under his sleeve, to be as much of a statement about who and what he was. The goggles too were a symbol of his profession, but mainly I just thought they were pretty cool. I had to look up a lot of photographs to see whether such goggles were an anachronism or not because I was dead keen to put them in. Most of the photographs show Coppi riding in a pair of pretty snazzy sunglasses, but I came across a picture of Jean Robic in the 1947 Tour de France wearing a pair so that was enough for me. (Jean Robic won the 1947 Tour de France, and was five feet one inch tall. But that's another story.)

Rather than just copy (pardon) one photograph, I did some sketches based on a number of photographs, to get familiar with his head as a three-dimensional object of changing expression:

In the absence of a model (Mr Coppi, as mentioned above, being dead for the last fifty years) I wanted some suitably scrawny, pigeon chested individual to step in and pose. Luckily I have one such person close to hand. The final composite image was a horrible mess, badly patched together (with overdubbed arm and goggles) on GIMP, but all roughly in proportion so I could transfer it onto a grid for scaling up:

For the scaling up I used an OHP transparency divided into 5 and 7. I cut the board to the same proportions as a sheet of A4 paper and marked out the grid with thread, also increased by the same proportions. I was able to sketch out the outlines according to what was in each box. It meant I was able to have real colours, shadows, tones and the fall of the fabric to work from.

I won't go through the whole process of painting, but suffice to say I learned a lot. Not least that the tiniest brush strokes can alter entire expressions, and even the degree of resemblance. It's extraordinary. I worked and re-worked the mouth and the end of his splendid nose so many times. I was also haunted by his startling resemblance to Dimitar Berbatov.

I looked up the classic Bianchi shirt (an Italian rider had to be wearing a Bianchi shirt) and if it's not baby blue then I'm sure someone will correct me but frankly it's too bloody late now. Also in real life he's less pink than it looks in the photograph. And yeah, I'm happy with it. There may well be some tinkering yet to do, though...

And if you've read this far I'll reward your perseverance with the Fact that twenty lire and a salami sandwich were a fifteen year old Coppi's prize for winning his first race.


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