Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Books I'm reading # 3

I seem to be reading a lot of dark books recently.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak came highly recommended. My friend Jeanie Thomas (great painter) said it was the only book she'd ever wanted to read twice. I'm not so sure. It is unremittingly bleak and yet quite gripping in parts. The story of an orphan girl in Nazi Germany who steals books, hides a Jew in the basement and whose friends and family are gradually killed off throughout the book - all narrated by the Grim Reaper. The style is a bit trendy for me - interestingly, it won a lot of prizes for children's fiction - and I tend not like to fiction that has a heavy narrative theme. So recognising I'm not someone who would typically like this sort of book - I'd say, good, but not all it was cracked up to be.

In the Green Tree by Alun Lewis is a collection of the letters and short stories of the welsh poet. Lewis died in Burma aged only 28. He was gifted writer, confident of his ability. These are crafted letters, carefully edited and chosen by his family and republished in the Library of Wales series; there is a poignancy in knowing he died only hours after writing the last one. I liked the letters more than the stories which came across as dated, and frankly, not that interesting. George Brinley Evans' stories of Burma (Boys of Gold), don't receive the same acclaim, and yet they are somehow more real and sensitive.

Gray's Anatomy by John Gray. No, not the TV series, the philosopher John Gray. Gray is one of the foremost thinkers alive today - his best known book, Straw Dogs (nothing to do with the film of same name) is a pessimistic account the possibility of human progress. Grays's Anatomy is a collection of his best essays, covering a breathtaking spectrum of subjects and delivered with a force of intellect that takes you back. Very quotable too; here is a line from Straw Dogs:

In the world shown us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable. As a result Darwin's teaching has been stood on its head and Christianity's cardinal error - that humans are different from other animals - has been given a new lease of life.

Gray's analysis is often grim, but it's difficult to find fault, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise. Tough but impressive.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. A biting critique of modern journalism and why we get such absolute rubbish in the media. Shocking too, in its analysis of the media (particularly newspapers) and the misuse of power and influence. At times Davies is a bit self absorbed, over emphasising journalistic issues (I'm not sure that people lament the decline of the Sunday Times Insight Team in quite way Davies does) , but overall this is a powerful and important book.

Cardiff Dead by John Williams. A story of Cardiff low life, set at the turn of the millennium interspersed with flashbacks to the late Seventies, Ska bands, the pubs and clubs of that era. If you knew Cardiff at that time you'll probably like this book; if, like me, you were aged eighteen in 1979, you'd like it even more. Basically, a page turning thriller with some good characters. That said, it's second rate compared to Niall Griffiths - he does real low life.

The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare. I don't generally like Shakespeare; I've only ever read two of his plays and never seen one performed. I hate all that thee and thou and thine, even though I know I should just get over it. But the Sonnets are on my Sony Reader and I've found myself dipping into them recently. What I hadn't realised was how focused they are on death and mortality as well as love. Reluctantly, I'm enjoying these.

The Blue Hour by Lillian Pizzichini is a biography of Jean Rhys (who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea) My friend Sara wrote about this book more eloquently that I ever could - see her blog. It's a bit thin as biographies go, but my interest in Rhys carried me through. At times its a depressing read: if Zusak's, Book Thief is unremittingly bleak, then Rhys's life follows much the same theme. The difference is that much was self inflicted and the result of self pity. I love Jean Rhys's writing and I desperately wanted to like her too - but I found myself losing patience and sympathy, as did most of her friends in life. But they say tragedy brings forth great art, and on that level, Jean Rhys's novels compare with the very best.

That's all for now. On my desk at the moment is Arthur Koestler's Scum of the Earth, Alain De Botton's Architecture of Happiness and Jonathan Little's The Kindly Ones which looks so comprehensively depressing that I'm not certain I can bring myself to read it.

I think I need some light relief.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Of all the places I return to, the cliffs above Porthgain is one of my favourites.

Tonight the sea was calmer than I've seen it in years, the rocks lapped by the occasional soft ripple, boats lilting in the harbour beneath the derelict stone hoppers. At the white tower, where I've painted in gales, there were midges - and a few Painted Ladies flitting between the thrifts, their colours pale though it is only June. I looked for seals but saw none.

Each time I come here I seldom do much. Tonight, I sat by the pier watching my family: Dylan was playing in the lime kilns; Jane was gazing at the sea; Mike was hiding in the rocks and calling for his brother. We walked to the headland and looked towards Strumble - the water dissolving into the sky so that only the land formed a horizon.

Later, we had a drink at the Sloop, but I didn't want to stay. Too many posers I said, though Jane reminded me it was quiet tonight; relax, she suggested, why not have a meal? I said I'd rather we ate at home - which we did. It was enough to have seen what was new; the village shop re-opened - the things that were not; my paintings unsold in the gallery - and to be familiar again.

Back in Wales

I love returning - it is one of my greatest pleasures. Much of my writing has an underlying theme of remembrance and familiarity; not quite nostalgia, but not far off. I think I could happily spend the rest of my life revisiting as few as half a dozen locations. One of them would certainly be here.

I'm back in Wales after a month away, a very long time for me: work has been frantic, commitments elsewhere, too much to do. So arriving yesterday was a joy, and today I want nothing else than to sit in the garden, read some books and catch up on the blog.

Our builder Emyr came round earlier to clear the rubble from the garden. He's pleased with the new roof, I can tell; I caught him gazing at it over his tea. I'm delighted too - funny, how something like a roof can give so much pleasure, at one time I'd have sneered at the very idea. But then I never thought I'd care much for any house, until I became involved with this one.

I bought this cottage nearly fifteen years ago. It wasn't quite derelict, but it had no hot water system, minimal electrics, no damp course, no kitchen, no roof in some parts... let's say it needed a lot of vision. Over the years I've renovated it, doing much of the work myself, but increasingly working with local builders and tradesmen. Gradually it has taken shape; it is far from perfect - never will be - but it feels more like home than where I spend my working week in Wiltshire.

Renovating, I've learned, is very different from simply 'doing up', especially when your cottage is made of rubble and mud and not a lot else. It helps that my next door neighbour is a stone mason at the cathedral - he rebuilt the entire front of the cottage using the stone from our garden. I remember him showing me how the bank was full of dressed stone that had originally been part of the house.

Back in the Sixties, the front face of the cottage was demolished and replaced with breeze blocks and plastic cladding - like I said, you needed vision to buy this place. So thirty years later we found ourselves putting it all back again - a different sense of returning, and one which also gives me pleasure.

I like knowing too that the floor boards and doors were made by Laurie and Nathan who have a small unit a mile from my house - another serendipitous find as I googled for oak doors and their business came out top of the list. Check them out if you need anything in oak; they are brilliant.

There are lots of other local finds: the fireplaces came from a friend's garden where they'd been rusting for years; much of the furniture is sourced from salvage yards; the paintings are by friends and acquaintances. But my favourite is the slate hearth - a colossal slab which we dragged from the sea at Porthgain harbour - we plonked it in front of the chimney breast and it hasn't moved since.

The artist John Knapp Fisher lives in the village next to mine. He is one of the best painters in Wales, famous for his broody landscapes and dark skies. I envy his talent, but I particularly like knowing that much of his work is centred on a five mile radius of his house (half of which is sea). That seems to me to be a wonderful thing - to find endless fascination and creative possibility in so small an area.

So today, that's what I'm doing too. Rambling about my house, enjoying the quiet - I might go for a run later - and feeling more at home than I have for weeks.

The new roof - an unexpected object of desire.
For a very quick slideshow of my house - see my other blog.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The trouble with technology

Most of you will know that a Global Positioning System is device that tracks its position using geo-stationary satellites. For mountaineers, this is particularly useful as it pinpoints your location to within five meters - handy in a white out when a wrong turn can be fatal. The better models also have a particularly neat feature which allows you to navigate over complex terrain by following a direction pointer. Safe as houses - unless the technology decides to have a bad day.

Our trouble started after we'd climbed Red Pike, a 2,600 feet summit south of Buttermere. As we ascended the direction pointer had worked fine - who was I to know that the pre-programmed route had picked up a few stray way-points in Pembrokeshire, inserting them into the High Stile ridge? Every time we ventured from the summit we'd follow the trusty arrow, head in the wrong direction, flail about on the slopes in a thick pea-soup and eventually return somewhere near Red Pike again.

I write about it now with a sense of jest, but although we were never seriously in trouble, it wasn't a pleasant experience to feel quite so lost and exposed. I like technology - I really do - but is there anything, when it fails, that can induce more stress? And stuck up a mountain, in the mist, with a teenage son who's getting cold and fractious, is not the best place to test my patience.

If I'm honest, it distressed me that with so many years of experience I couldn't work out what was going wrong. I felt dependent on this gizmo and it wasn't performing as I expected; it took all my effort to stay calm.

But salvation came in two guises. Firstly a return to old fashioned technology - I got out the map and compass! And secondly a return to traditional values - I asked some walkers we stumbled on for assistance, which of course they gladly gave. Half an hour later we were back on route, I was confident again and the stress was a distant memory.

In a way, this story is particularly apt, as our destination was the remote Black Sail Hut, high in the Ennerdale valley and approachable only by foot or mountain bike. It is about as old fashioned and traditional as it gets - one of the iconic hostels of the YHA and little changed in over sixty years of use. I had long wanted to stay there, booking last January to ensure we could go on midsummer's weekend.

Black Sail was all I had hoped it would be - the simplest of buildings, in a unique location, enjoyed with great company and a sense of adventure. I wasn't just pleased that we'd made it, I was delighted, elated, refreshed by the whole experience - the best night out this year, by far.

And yet as I sat there, enjoying every minute I knew that to others, particularly many of my colleagues at work, it would be something entirely different. To them, Black Sail would be a musty old shepherd's hut to be endured on Outward Bound type weekends. Why is it, I wondered, that I like these places so much? And what is it about them that means I chose to seek them out, often in preference to the best hotels?

There are some obvious answers. I love the landscape; I treasure the time spent with my sons in getting to these places; I thrive on their remoteness and isolation. And I think too, that there is a particular pleasure in sometimes leaving technology behind and returning to simpler ways.

That word 'sometimes' is important here. Because I'm not so 'head in the clouds' as to deny technology's good side. Nor am I so Romantic as to think that Black Sail (or its like) would remain as charming after a few weeks stay. But a short time away from it all helps us appreciate the rest of our busy, stressful, digitally enabled lives. At best, a little time out helps us to sort the crap we need to ditch from the things that really matter.

What did we do at Black Sail that I enjoyed so much? Well, epic over, we met up with Ian and Mike who'd biked in - and who had their own stories to tell. We enjoyed a meal, drank some beer and wine, played monopoly, laughed a lot, chatted to the other walkers and watched the stars flickering over Great Gable.

Simple stuff - old fashioned values - the best of times.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Coming up for air

Two summers ago I went to a talk by welsh writer Niall Griffiths*. I admire his work - skilfully balancing the profane and beautiful - but it wasn't the reading that stuck in my mind, it was comment he made about the practice of writing. He said he needed to write every day, because whenever he failed to do that, he felt like 'a piece of dirt.' Strong stuff from someone who's had reason to feel pretty low - read his books to see what I mean.

My last post on this blog was more than a week ago - hardly something to feel guilty about, and yet I know I've been putting it off. Or rather, I've been faffing, diverting myself to mundane tasks in order to avoid sitting down to write. I recognise when this is happening, it's the same pattern every time: an overload of work, ideas and life. And there's only one cure: I make a list of jobs, start at the top and don't stop until every item is ticked. Only then I can write again.

So you'll be pleased to know (not) that the insurance is renewed, the bank accounts sorted, the final assignment for my writing degree posted, the new apple-mac sussed (and oh, such a delight), my ipod synchronised, the PCs are virus checked, the address book updated, the downstairs doors painted, the building supplies ordered, Daniel's mobile phone unlocked, and I've sent the Sony Reader for repair...

All in all, a productive week.

Or was it? Because none of this was really necessary. Even the assignments could have waited a week or so. In practice, it's meant returning from a punishing day at the office, only to sit in the study and diligently tick my way through a list of dull tasks I feel obliged to complete. It's no coincidence that I've had two rows with Jane, both of them centred on my frustration that people put things off - for 'people' read 'you and the boys', according to Jane. And the end result is that I've fallen out with my family, ticked a list of non-jobs and written next to nothing.

I used to do something similar when I painted more regularly; I'd spend hours putting my studio into military order, only to mess it up within minutes of getting the brushes out. Gradually, I came to realise that this extended preparation was an integral part of the process; a way to clear my thoughts before the mental struggle of painting. If you ever hear anyone say that painting is a nice relaxing hobby - feel free to punch them. Sometimes, I'd get so wrapped up in the preparation that I've have almost no time to paint; but importantly, I was charged with fresh ideas.

Sixty years ago this week George Orwell's Coming Up For Air was published. The central character is George Bowling, a middle-aged salesman, bogged down with a dreary life, who secretly returns to his childhood haunts for a few days escape. What he most desires is to go fishing; all his adult life he's wanted to go fishing. As he searches for the lake he'd known as a child, he reflects on how little time we spend doing the things we most want to do. George's story is tragic; he returns home to a suspicious wife and a life paying off the mortgage for a house he hates; he never got to go fishing. The story has as fresh and contemporary a message as ever.

So if a good life is a one richly lived - a one that maximises the opportunity to practice our virtues, rather than tick lists of dull jobs** - then how can we organise ourselves to achieve something like this? It seems to me that a respect for time is a good place to start.

In the office where I work this attitude is alien: meetings run late, the banter more important than finishing in a reasonable time - it drives me bonkers! At home I compensate to the point that I'm often asked how we manage to fit so much in? The answer is part organisation, part diligence, part a hugely supportive wife and family - and just occasionally, an overwhelming need to clear the decks.

Jane refers to my tendency for manic list ticking as 'Dad's got his job-head on'. I wish I could find another way, or at least in theory I do (if I'm honest, I think it has tremendous merits too - nobody else was rushing to paint the doors). But for now I find the urge irresistible; as if the the only alternative were not to write (or paint or walk or run) at all - ever! That would be the equivalent of George Bowling's fate; of Niall Griffiths' 'piece of dirt'.

I'll stick to my lists, thank you.

* Niall Griffiths is the one of the best contemporary writers in Wales (indeed the UK) - try Stump for a relatively gentle introduction; Kelly and Victor or Sheepshagger if you are not easily shocked.

** See Martin Seligman's books Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism for fuller discussion and excellent approach to leading a full life.

Friday, June 5, 2009

In innocence, in vain.

M Charlton - Porthgain Memories

‘Let’s start with some poetry’, he said.

He stood in the centre of the group, dressed all in black, and read from a battered blue notebook. His voice was louder than I’d expected, a little flat in tone. We listened intently, trying to fathom the meaning of the words.

He, standing hushed, a pace or two apart,
Among the bluebells of the listless plain,
Thinks, and remembers how he cleansed his heart
And washed his hands in innocence in vain.

He snapped the notebook shut.
‘So what’s all that about then?’
There was no reply.
He recited the poem again, this time from memory.
‘The trouble is’, he said, ‘If you think of it as a story it doesn’t quite work. All of the words make sense, yet the meaning isn’t clear in a traditional sense.’
‘It’s beautiful though’, said a girl who, I’d noticed, seemed to hang on his every word.
‘Exactly’, he said. ‘And I think if Housman had spelled out some sort of narrative, it wouldn’t have worked. It was the feeling that mattered; the feeling he wanted to express and the feeling it gives us when we read it now.’
He turned towards me and I noticed he was wearing a hearing aid in each ear.
‘’Now tell me Mark,’ he barked. ‘How can you paint like Housman writes?’
This was my first introduction to John Skinner. I had come to a figure-painting course at his studio, recommended by the teacher of my local art class. I thought there would be a studio with drawings on the walls, some easels, and perhaps a model waiting in a robe. I’d expected everyone to prepare quietly, sorting their pencils and charcoals, sneaking glances at each other’s sketchbooks. And yet here I was discussing poetry with this strangely charismatic man, in a room that was bare, save for a few tables stacked against the walls.
John explained that we wouldn’t have a model that first morning, instead we would paint from our imagination. Later, when the model arrived, she would walk amongst us so we didn’t get stuck on a static image. He made us draw without looking, to paint straight onto canvas – ‘no preparation, no hesitation’ - and on a scale I’d never before considered. He couldn’t care less if I had any skill or not; I should forget all I’d learned about proportions and foreshortening. ‘You’re not here to copy objects,’ he said. ‘You’re here to realise your sensations in paint.’
And there were none of the pleasantries of my weekly art class. The group, all of whom were regulars, were expected to give detailed criticisms of each other’s work. The comments were fiercely to the point. At one stagte, the girl who had looked so doe eyed at John, ripped up her drawings and began to cry. In the breaks the group discussed poetry and contemporary art with the same intensity as blokes arguing over football. There was an evangelical air to their fervour; and they were all, I decided, in awe of John.
I struggled that first weekend and yet I was captivated too, especially by John and the sheer force of his personality. I left with my head spinning and folder full of work.
When I got home, I showed some drawings to my wife, Jane.
‘What are they all about?’ she said.
Over the next eight years John Skinner would transform the way I viewed the world. He would become my friend, my tutor and mentor, a constant source of inspiration and a partner in ideas. He would teach me more about art than I had learned in twenty years of painting. It would never be easy. We would argue as much over trivial meanings as big issues; over his Romanticism and his notions, as I called them; over my rationality and the failure of logic, as he would put it. With John there would always be a sense of combat, it came with the territory, so to speak. But our friendship would take us both to new places and different ways of seeing.
A few days after that first weekend, John phoned me. We had talked in the pub about my job as a strategist and how difficult it was to get people to see creative possibilities. I’d suggested he had something to offer in that field; was he phoning to follow up? He wasn’t much interested in that conversation, he said. He wanted a marketing plan for his studio, and in return he would give me a free tutorial. I had potential, he said with disarming candour, providing I stopped going to evening classes.
We met at his studio-gallery and I began by asking to see his paintings. He was pleased; he’d met dozens of advisors from the Arts Council and the Small Business Service. ‘All of them were crap. None of them looked at the paintings. I am hoping you might be different.’
‘No pressure then’, I said.
‘Of course there’s pressure’, he said. ‘This is the most important thing in my life.’
I soon discovered just how difficult John could be. Almost every suggestion I made he dismissed. He wouldn’t stock pottery or glass – ‘I’m not selling trinkets’. He would never use a London gallery again – ‘bloody sharks’. He wouldn’t discount his paintings, even to regular buyers – ‘they’re a lifetime of ideas and they’re not going cheap’. When I described his racks full of canvases as ‘old stock’, he almost exploded.
He wanted, he said, to make enough money to spend more time painting. He wanted to be less reliant on courses, to spend less time selling his work, to do less, it seemed to me, of anything that might make him some money. The work was all that mattered, he kept saying.
I was fascinated by his attitude. What appeared dogmatic was, I realised, a genuine integrity. Impractical perhaps, but somehow compelling. I envied his determination to stick to what he believed, not to compromise for the sake of money. His approach to life felt like it had been the opposite of mine. When I was eighteen had given up painting to do a ‘proper degree’. Later, as I came to love philosophy, I gave up a post-graduate scholarship to get a ‘proper job’. My work since had been a pragmatic compromise – I was proud of what I had achieved and I fitted in time for my interests as and when I could. Yet as I talked to John, I felt as if I had sold out cheaply. He had that effect on people.
I wrote him a plan the likes of which I’d never written before. It had no structure as such, I simply blurted out dozens of ideas – most of which I knew he wouldn’t accept. And I challenged his obstinacy; he couldn’t expect the world to pay him to paint, just because he wanted to. But there were possibilities, and his personality was a vital ingredient. I told him his ‘groupies’ adored him – he should build on that. Like it or not, the ’Skinner factor’, as I called it, was his best chance of making big money.
He rang me up two days later. ‘Fantastic plan’ he said. ‘You’re the first person to take this seriously.’
‘You like the ideas?’
‘God no, they’re dreadful. But it’s helped me see things differently. I’ve been faffing around; like you with your night classes. Come down again and let’s talk about how we can make big money.’
The next time we met he had a video playing in the studio.
‘Look at this’, he said. It was the band, Portishead, scratching records as the introduction to a song. ‘ When I was a kid we thought scratching a record was bad; the worst thing you could do.’ He fast-forwarded to a clip of Jimmy Hendrix playing the guitar. ‘In those days, musicians hated electronic feedback, and yet Hendrix realised he could use it.’
‘I‘m not sure what you’re getting at’, I said.
‘He saw it differently; he turned what was considered crap into something like gold. It’s the same with scratching records – who first thought of that? It’s like there’s fine line between things being really bad and the opening up of new possibilities. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.’
He skipped ahead to a clip of Eddie Izzard. ‘Fashion goes in cycles,’ said Izzard, drawing an imaginary circle in the air. ‘It starts with dull, then normal, then cool, then hip and groovy’… he paused and held his arm above his head before completing the circle…‘Then looking like a dick head’. The audience laughed. ‘I like to cruise that back edge,’ Izzard joked. ‘It makes me feel good, but sort of sick.’
‘John, you’ve lost me,’ I said.
‘That’s what I want from my paintings,’ he said. ‘I want them to make me feel good, but almost sick.’
‘My painting make me feel sick, they are so bad at the moment.’
‘That’s because they aren’t bad enough. You need to make them really bad – so they suggest a new way forward.‘
‘I can’t do that.’
‘Yes you can. You can do what you like,’ he said. ‘ Your trouble is you won’t take any chances.’
This conversation was typical of John, taking notions and spinning themes and variations, but never quite reaching a coherent outcome; not caring that he didn’t. To me, who’d worked all my adult life in a target driven business, which measured success by visible recognition and gradual improvement, the idea of making something worse to make it better just didn’t add up. Yet I sensed the possibilities. I knew also that he was right about playing safe. I was trading any real success for the safety of mediocrity and a little praise. Deep down I knew my paintings were pretty pale imitations of what I wanted to achieve.
‘I’m not sure people would understand,’ I said.
‘You’ve got to get used to ridicule, or at least risk it. When the work’s good enough, it will stop. And anyway, why do you care? It’s not as if you need to sell your paintings is it?’
He was right again. It cost me more in materials and courses than I made selling the odd picture. It was nice to feel someone wanted to buy them, but surely that wasn’t why I wanted to paint?
‘You need to think what you want from this, Mark. I wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t important.’
‘I thought you wanted to talk about making big money.’
‘ I do’, he said. ‘But I promised you a tutorial. Anyhow, it’s the painting that I care about most.’
As I looked round his studio I could see what he meant. He had a just finished a series of landscapes on the theme of air sea and hills. They were huge semi-abstract paintings on a scale and ambition that, too me, was overpowering. Nothing about these paintings was easy; some I quite liked, most I couldn’t understand. But the aspiration behind them was clear. They were more than just paintings; as he would have put it, they were a way of connecting with something beyond us.
My own attempts at connecting resulted mainly in frustration. I tried painting with more expression, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I tried ‘painting my sensations’, but ended up confused. I tried to use ‘marks as a language’ but found myself lost for words. Over the months that followed, I came slowly to realise that all the skills I had acquired (and I was a good painter in a conventional sense) were not much use for where I wanted to go. He was right about the ridicule though. Jane at least tried to understand; others thought I’d lost it completely.
Painting with John was no longer a pastime; it was an intense experience, a struggle in every sense. And each time I got frustrated, he’d encourage me to do more of the same.
‘Make the paintings even worse,’ he’d say. And I’d go off to try again, never quite making them bad enough.
Part of my problem was the lack of logic behind John’s method; I craved a clear explanation, but with John that was never easy to find. An even bigger problem, through I didn’t realise it at the time, was that I was trying to please him, and still not painting for myself.
It was year before a breakthrough came. As always, with John, it wasn’t straightforward.
‘I’m fed up with this,’ I ranted, during one of our tutorials. By now I’d joined a group of regulars who he considered his more serious students.
Instead of the usual cajoling, he took me to the top of the hill outside his studio. We leant into the wind, the thin line of Chesil Beach down below, waves dumping on the pebbles, fishermen casting lines past the surf. He was shouting.
‘I used to come here and tell myself I could never paint this.’ He gestured to the sea, the horizon curving in a huge arc towards Lyme Bay. ‘It was five years before I even knew where to start.’
‘How did you begin?’
‘Someone came into the studio and started talking about swimming away from the shore. He said he was most afraid the shallows, because there wasn’t enough water to hold him up.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It doesn’t matter; it just made me see it differently. It’s not logical. I realised it was the weight of the sea that I felt -its depth and it’s power - and that’s what I needed to paint.’
‘Maybe, but all this painting your sensations stuff - it’s your way John, not mine. I feel like I want to paint straight lines – stripes even. That’s what I really want to do.’
‘Okay, so paint stripes then.’
‘But I can’t just do that.’
‘Yes you can. You can do whatever you like.’
When we returned to the studio he took a five-foot square canvas from the rack and handed me a brush loaded with paint.
‘Now paint your stripes,’ he said, before leaving me on my own.
As I drove the brush across the canvas I felt a sense of relief, of joy even. More than that: I felt, perhaps for the first time, that I was connecting to something beyond reason. Even now I don’t quite have the words to describe it. It had taken me a year of struggling to reach this point – the result was three vertical stripes, applied in less than thirty seconds. I remember standing back and admiring them, grinning even. It felt like my best ever painting.

A selection of John's paintings can be found at this link

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Collections 4 - Postcards

Breakwater - Fishguard Harbour

This is not your ordinary collection of postcards; it is also a collection that is shrinking, as I'm gradually giving it away.

In the days before digital cameras I used to carry a stock of postcard sized watercolour boards. I kept them in the back of my sketchbook and would try to paint one card a day when we went on holiday or took trips out. Over time I amassed a large collection of pictures.

What I liked about the cards was their 'throwaway' quality. Sure, they were more than a sketch, but if a particular one turned out badly - I'd chuck it in the bin. There was an anti-preciousness about the very idea of a postcard which allowed me to try new ideas - and whilst many hit the bin, others I like more than paintings which have taken months to complete.

In a way, they were an antidote to more serious paintings; driven by my tutor these were often intense affairs - and usually very large. The card's miniature scale made them popular gifts too - friends would often ask if they could take one or two home? Later, I'd see them framed on their walls. Once, a stranger asked me if they could buy one as I was painting it; I gave it to her.

Perhaps I shouldn't have. A few years later a gallery in Fishguard held an exhibition of the remaining cards. One sold for £200 - the one above in fact.  There's an irony in that painting too; the gallery used it to promote the exhibition, printing hundreds of 'real' postcard replicas of the original.  I've got three hundred spares which I use as notelets - if anybody wants one, send me an email.

In most cases, the cards were painted from memory, late in the evening with a glass of wine in one hand and brushes in another - a stick of charcoal behind my ear.  I liked this too - they are memories and ideas, not attempts to copy something.  A few are comical, others serious; some abstract, some traditional. 

The different styles are popular with different groups.  My favourites are the crude, almost childlike, ones.  Jane likes the seascapes and regularly steals one as a thank you for a friend.  The best ones have nearly all gone - but hopefully someone has enjoyed them. 

I was thinking I should do some more. Perhaps if I stopped blogging in the evenings I'd have the time. 

P.S. There are more paintings, including postcards, in this link here and on my other blog - some rediscovered drawings too.