Art is Easy, But There Are 3 Things You will Definitely Need …

Life, the world, the universe … What do we know about them? We humans tend to be planners. We look into the future and make decisions, not always based on solid experience but often on hunches, ideas or dreams.  If it works out, we congratulate ourselves for being so smart, if it doesn’t, then we blame ourselves or often others for being so stupid as to ever think that scheme would work in the first place. Luck, attitude and confidence play a large part in our success, but then life comes along and interferes and we are back to square one. Looking back you can see where you went wrong, it’s obvious, isn’t it? So if you happened to own a time machine, would you go back and do it differently? This is what happened to me …

September 1972

Art College was a kind of gap year while I got my band together ready to hit the big time. What could possibly go wrong? OK so the gap year was more like five months but I was in a hurry to head to London where fame and fortune awaited, or so I thought …

February 2015

Leap forward 43 years. Well fame and fortune didn’t meet me in London or if it did, it was so different that I just didn’t recognise it. Life flew by, I got a job, grew up a bit and got older too. That’s when my hands got achy which in turn made guitar playing a bit more awkward. And that’s when I happened on some luck, I noticed 3 easels standing in an old corner of an out building where we live.

Painting begins

March

I produce some oil paintings of my wife Helen, a self-portrait and a couple more.

Helen Reading
Helen Reading

Helen seems genuinely surprised at how good my paintings are so brimming with confidence I pronounce myself a genius and spend any spare moment I have studying the glazing techniques of Vermeer and figuring out what scumbling and glazing are all about. Who needs a guitar when you are master of the paint brush?

April

Painting continues in between bouts of work in the North Sea. However I am not put off. I see this as an opportunity to draw and paint a record of the people and locations I know offshore.

And luck? Well I’m lucky that I didn’t start painting earlier. Paints, brushes and canvas are not cheap and I think I would have soon gone broke. Painting in a bedsit is OK at 21, but would I change it? Yes, I would! Now I’m older I appreciate more space. There are plenty of rooms in our house so obviously I choose the one nearest the kettle which also happens to be right near the kitchen table, perfect!

By the way, have you ever noticed how paint brushes roll around and make splodges when they hit the floor? Has no one invented a square sided paint brush? And another thing, how does paint get on walls, door handles and carpets? Surely this will always remain one of life’s mysteries. But the odd thing is, paint actually appears to be following my progress through the house! A bit weird, don’t you think? Anyway, after an enlightening chat with my wife I move from the kitchen to the Sun Room. That turns out to be a misnomer as it’s freezing so I move to a spare bedroom and set myself up there.

Setback

May

I submit a picture of three North Sea Oil workers to a maritime art exhibition. A nautical theme is requested and my picture is rejected. It might be because I didn’t include a boat, but I’m not sure.

Pete Davies North Sea Oil Portraits
Pete Davies North Sea Oil Portraits.

June

I am asked if I do commissions. I’m flattered but explain that I am working on increasing my portfolio and don’t yet have the time.

July

The pipeline inspection work in the North Sea is complete and I return home to concentrate on painting full time for the whole of August.

Disaster!

September

Helen calls the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen and points them in the direction of my offshore paintings. The Curator rings back and says he would like to put them in an exhibition but it won’t be for a while.

I finish a landscape of the Sussex Downs which I’m very pleased with, I reckon it’s my best so far. It’s a large painting and I decide the best way to photograph it for my website is in daylight, so I take the painting and the easel into the garden.

West Sussex Downs before the accident
West Sussex Downs before the accident

I prop up my painting and stand back. There is a slight flutter as the wind catches the corner. As it lurches forward I dive towards it. Relief! I grab it and hold it firmly in both hands. Nice catch! What I haven’t noticed is that the easel is also hurtling towards me. There is a ripping sound and I look on in disbelief as the easel tears a 2 feet long horizontal gash in the canvas.

But surely I can turn this misfortune round? I decide this is my opportunity to take my painting to a local art gallery on the pretence that I need advice on getting it fixed. I twiddle the picture around in front of the gallery owner in an attempt to dazzle her, but she appears unaffected. I return home and hunt in the kitchen draw for  the scissors.

Good News!

I’m in luck again. A still-life painting of a dining table covered in glasses which I submitted to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters is pre-selected.

My Royal Institute of Oil Painters submission
My Royal Institute of Oil Painters submission

So I go to London. I’m cautious in case it gets damaged so I take it by train and taxi.

National Portrait and National Gallery

I drop my painting off and decide to spend the rest of the day at the National Portrait and National Gallery. I haven’t been for 40 years and it’s a bit of an eye opener. I now have a good idea of Holbein’s technique for painting material. It seems to me that the faint shadows are produced by glazing but the darker ones are added afterwards. I try to find the Vermeer but the gallery is closed due to industrial action. However the Impressionist gallery is open. It’s interesting looking at Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres as I didn’t realise that the whole picture is scumbled from top to bottom. I think I’ll try this myself when I get home.

First Commission!

October

I am offered another commission. I now have 27 paintings completed so after a bit of umming and ahhing and another gentle word from Helen, I decide to do it. The portrait is of Katherine in her wedding dress. The dress is a real challenge, and I paint it one layer at a time. It takes a few weeks to complete and after 6 different layers I am pleased with the results. I decide to advertise for more.

A last minute job puts me back in the North sea with limited internet or phone contact. It’s a bit of a set back but also an opportunity to catch up on my blogging. (To be continued).

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The Inside Secrets of the Great Masters

Stained Glass

From the 7th century onwards coloured glass was produced by firing a mixture of metal oxides and minerals. This was known as pot metal glass. Later in our history one of the most widespread and sophisticated forms of glass production available for all to see was stained glass.

Breakthrough

This all came about during the beginning of the 14th century when it was discovered that if silver stain (a silver compound such as silver nitrate) was applied to the back face of the glass it would produce patches of yellow or orange when fired in a kiln. Not only could the glass colour be changed, white to yellow, blue to green etc, but also with careful manipulation the same piece of  glass could produce different hues.

If a clear piece of glass was coated with red or blue on the front and yellow on the back, a bit like a colourful sandwich, then when the front colour was ground away it would reveal the shining yellow from behind. This was extremely useful as glass with patches of yellow could be used to highlight halos, crowns, sun rays and hair.

The Virgin of the Apocalypse
The Virgin of the Apocalypse

Jan Van Eyck’s Magical Alchemy

Vasari credits Jan Van Eyck with inventing the technique of oil painting in the 15th century,  when in the confines of his ‘alchemist’s lab,’ Van Eyck discovered that oil could be used as a medium to carry pigment.

The Schedula of the 12th century compiler Theophilus Presbyter however shows that this was not the case and that oil as a medium for painting had been looked at a lot earlier. Coincidentally Theophilus Presbyter’s second Schedula happened to deal with stained glass and the painting of stained glass.

Nevertheless history says that on discovering Van Eyck’s magical use of oils, the itinerant Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina rushed off to Italy where this new and sensational idea was readily adopted by not only himself but others, thus opening the floodgates to a painting revolution. So how does this all tie up?

Antonello_da_Messina_-_St_Jerome_in_his_Study_-large
Antonello da Messina – St Jerome in his Study

Van Eyck’s Beautiful Dream

Whether or not Van Eyck invented oil painting is not relevant here, his biggest success was to develop the art of glazing, a sensational technique which would change the way paintings were produced. Looking at Van Eyck’s painting technique now we can see that it appears to be a natural continuation if not an imitation of the stained glass process but this time using oils.

Getting Down in Black and White

After priming the board, Van Eyck would execute his painting in earth tones of browns, blacks or greys with bright, white highlights. Working with immense skill and diligence a complete painting would be built up in stages without colour, similar to a sepia or black and white photograph.

Single or Double Glazing?

We know that when producing medieval stained glass, the dark outline of the figure was the final layer painted on top of the glass. Van Eyck’s innovative glazing process mirrored this stained glass technique but in reverse. With glazing, semi-transparent or transparent colours were painted over the black and white underpainting until a layer of thick, glassy vanish or glaze was produced similar to glass.  Extra glazes would then be added countless times until the desired glossy optical effect and depth was produced. You can see an example of how I have used glazing on the painting on my home page. Look at the turban and the cardigan.

What I’m suggesting is that the roots for glazing in paint lies in an attempt to imitate the richness and depth of colour found in the production of stained glass windows but in oils. Don’t you agree?