Posted on Leave a comment

Thinking about size

If you go to any gallery show, the chances are you will see some huge paintings. Indeed, some are so big they might equally be described as murals. How much of that comes from the artist wanting more space in which to work, I wonder? It’s a value judgement, of course, but too often with contemporary art it seems to me to be a substitution of size for content.

Of course, simple marks can be transformed by increase in scale. Compare a single brush mark on a post card piece of paper with one drawn with full arm extension on a large canvas. In the first case, that mark is generally seen as a line. It marks off one area of the image from another without much in the way of detail. At the larger scale though, it becomes an element in its own right, it has internal structure and texture. That doesn’t mean that the huge sweeping mark is better than the small line. It’s just different. Increasing scale doesn’t, of itself, add artistic value, but it does open up the possibilities.


I read a quote from Mark Rothko about this. He wanted people viewing his work to enter into them.

The reason for my painting large canvases is that I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.

Mark Rothko

He saw them as objects of contemplation, as an experience in itself rather than a record of an experience. Rothko’s paintings are indeed very large. Sitting close to them, as he wanted, it is easy to lose the world beyond the canvas. It fills your peripheral vision. After a while, the world beyond the picture fades away.

That experience is indeed a function of the scale. I tried making some versions of these works on 10” x 10” canvases. I don’t know how Rothko constructed his pictures. My approach was to build up layer after layer of colour in varying shades, wiping back, adding more colour and so on. What I got seemed to be a reasonable approximation of a Rothko surface. My relationship with it was, however, very different.


This seems to be distinctive to Rothko, for me anyway. I had nothing similar, for example sitting in front of one of Gerhard Richter’s Cage series. To be fair, that was in a crowded show, not in a normal quiet gallery. I think there is just so much going on in the ‘Cage’ paintings that it’s easy to find oneself deconstructing them, working out how the layers lie over one another. This seems to be an analytical rather than a contemplative relationship. One of these days I intend to sit again in front of the ‘Cage’ series and see what happens.

I missed the exhibitions at the RA in London of work by Richard Diebenkorn and of the Abstract Expressionists. It is unlikely I’ll get another opportunity to see their work and make the same comparison. Watching film of Pollock at work, it is however possible to imagine achieving a similar contemplative state. His movements as he paints are like a ritual dance of some sort, with the marks and drips are forming a record of it, like some form of dance notation.


Modern art is not the only place to find the monster canvases, of course. David’s painting of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” is about 2.6 m x 2.2 m. (There are five versions, all slightly different sizes.) Napoleon refused to sit for it, saying that the character that comes through was more important than the likeness. The resultant painting is meant to impress, to dominate the viewer. It is about Bonaparte the Emperor than Bonaparte the man.

So-called ‘History Paintings’ are all large scale. The term typically refers to any picture with a high-minded or heroic narrative, as illustrated by the exemplary deeds of its figures. The message must however be edifying and worthy of depiction.

Although perhaps not strictly speaking ‘history paintings’, the apocalyptic works of the Victorian painter John Martin also come to mind. Similarly, the revelatory, epic landscapes painted in nineteenth-century America. In all these works, the role of the viewer is almost to pay homage.

I’ve identified three distinct modes of relationship between the viewer and the very large painting; contemplative, analytical and deferential. I’m sure there are other ways of thinking about this relationship. In particular, I’m not sure if my ‘analytic’ response is driven by me being an artist myself.

I wonder though. Would a non artist react in the same way as I did to the works by the likes of Richter or would they just lose themselves in the colours and shapes?

What do you think?

Posted on 1 Comment

The chain of creative inspiration

This post looks at how long buried memories can resurface and trigger creative inspiration.

Albert Irvin

Back in December 2018, I went to an outstanding exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, Albert Irvin and Abstract Impressionism.

In 1959, Irvin visited an exhibition called The New American Painting at Tate, curated by MOMA New York and toured to eight European cities. It brought the boldest and best new artistic talent from across the Atlantic to London. The exhibition redefined what was possible for a generation of British artists.

For Irvin, it was an epiphany.

Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism will bring together works by Irvin and the major abstract expressionist artists that inspired him, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Sam Francis and Adolph Gottlieb from UK collections and works by Grace Hartigan and Jack Tworkov on loan from the USA, giving a unique chance to see so many of these important artists’ works in this country.

RWA website

Gateshead and public art

I had come across Irvin before, sometime in the late 1980s. I was still working as a planner then, in Gateshead, with responsibility for the Town Centre. One area I was working on was improvement of the physical environment of the centre. One of the projects I identified was a dismal and uninviting roadway under a railway bridge. This underpass led from a housing estate on the opposite side of the railway line to the town centre.

My idea was to line the underside of the bridge with vitreous enamel panels. Many stations on the recently opened Tyne and Wear Metro system used this system. The photo, of Jesmond Station in Newcastle, shows one example, with artwork by Simon Butler from 1983. Making these involves screen printing the image onto the surface before firing. The panels were robust and resistant to damage. In an unsupervised location like this one, they would have been ideal.

Jesmond Metro Station, Newcastle

This is where Albert Irvin comes in. I had already had contact with the Regional Arts Association, (Northern Arts), through a minor involvement in Gateshead’s Public Art Programme. I approached them again for advice on a suitable artist. The artist they suggested was Irvin. Sadly, I never saw his work in the flesh, only some murky colour transparencies in a hand held viewer. Even more sadly for me, the project never secured funding and soon afterwards I moved to Wiltshire. Looking at Google Maps, it seems that the bridge has now been rebuilt with a rather pedestrian tiled wall. The link shows the view in 2021.

Since then, I’ve only been back to the Town Centre once, when I photographed the soon-to-be demolished multi-storey, ‘Get Carter’ car park. The housing estate had gone, only partly redeveloped, largely with the usual mixture of sheds found anywhere.


I had forgotten much of this until I went to the show. Nothing I saw reminded me of those murky slides, but something triggered the memories, and they came flooding back. The comparison between the superb paintings and the tiny 35 mm slides, though, was dramatic. I was, I must admit, unimpressed by the slides, so the paintings in the show had a huge impact on me. I must have sat in front of Almada, for instance, for a good half an hour, mentally disentangling the layers, trying to work out the way they had been built up.

Another painting, Kestrel, looks much simpler, but that simplicity is deceptive. In this case how it was made is irrelevant, all that really matters are the colours, which simply sing out.

It was via this exhibition that I became aware of Irvin’s screen prints. I was lucky to see them, since they were only displayed up to Christmas. Printmaking seems always to have been an important part of Irvin’s creative practice. For me, they captured just how well he handled colour. It is to them, too, that I return for inspiration, in the form of the catalogue of his prints published in 2010 by Lund Humphries. The way he worked is well described in the book, and also seen in this YouTube video.

Irvin and screen printing

The two prints below are striking examples of his exuberant approach to colour and also capture some of the recurring motifs he uses – starbursts, quatrefoils and mock Chinese characters abound.

I’ll come back to all this in another post, looking at the way I think these and other influences have worked their way into my own work.

Posted on Leave a comment

Getting through a creative block (updated)

Abstract collage with block of red and orange overlain with green strips asymmetrically arranged

As the absence of posts here might indicate, I’ve been going through a period where I can’t seem to make progress, whether writing or printmaking. I’ve been casting around for ways of getting through this creative block. This post is about one of the approaches I’ve tried, inspired by artists on YouTube, Instagram and elsewhere including Jane Davies, Karen Stamper, Albert van der Zwart, and Sally Hirst whose Collage Creations course I’m currently working through. (I wasn’t when I first wrote this.)

From these, and others, I realised that a common factor in being blocked is fear. That may be fear of not getting it ‘right’, fear about wasting materials because of a lack of confidence. That’s nonsense, of course, everything doesn’t have to be brilliant every time, and nothing used with intent is wasted. Still, it’s an easy mind set to fall into, especially when you’ve been working hard. With that in mind, I set out to create quantity, not quality, setting myself some arbitrary rules to stop me overthinking.

Normally, if I get stuck I make some small gel prints, as that is a quick and effective way of getting something to look at. I couldn’t do that this time, because I felt I was in a rut. So, I created an extra disruption by choosing collage, a medium I hadn’t done a lot of work in.

I started with some very small (A6) pieces of mixed media paper and a pile of random shapes cut from prepared papers, old maps etc. I gave no thought to how they might fit together. To make the collage, the rules I set myself were:

  • work fast – no more than a couple of minutes on each. Don’t go on endless searches for the perfect shade or piece.
  • no more than 2 or 3 pieces in any one composition.
  • free form – i.e. not working to a rectangular shape. Let the paper decide

I don’t think the results are in any way finished pieces, although a few are quite pleasing. I don’t even think of them as ‘studies’. A study, to me, implies a degree of planning, of working toward something. These are ideas, no more, and like all ideas some are better than others.

I’ve put the full set so far in the slide show below.

So, what’s next? Again, I’m not entirely sure. I’ll probably make another batch in similar fashion, perhaps a little larger. I don’t want this way of working to be the new normal, so I will need to make sure I keep experimenting. I’ve started making similar pieces in a concertina sketchbook I made by folding and cutting a large A2 sheet. Working that way stops me seeing them as ‘art’, but as trials.

In a variation on this, I dripped and spattered acrylic ink across a similar A2 sheet, then folded and cut it to make another sketchbook. You can see the effect below.

EDIT: Since I first wrote this, I have enrolled on Sally Hirst’s Collage Creations course. Other factors have intervened, so my reading has got far ahead of the making. So far, though, I’m finding it worthwhile. Obviously, some bits I knew already. Sally’s clarity of exposition has, though, has enabled me to use what I knew with deliberate intent, and to build on that. I’m looking forward to working through the rest of it.

Updated and extended 28/08/2023

Posted on Leave a comment

What does it mean – part 3

Fourteen Discs - painting by Patrick Heron

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of the mystery of artistic creation. The meaning which a work of art has for society is not the same meaning that the artist was conscious of putting into it. This is because a work of art is not just a telephone exchange which facilitates straightforward communication. The work of art is in some profound sense an independent, live entity. It has its own life. It draws nourishment from its creator that he was totally unaware of having put into it: and it redistributes nourishment to the spectator (including the artist himself, for he is merely a spectator once the work is completed). What the work itself communicates is a transformation of all that the artist was conscious of investing in it. Its success or failure, as a transmitter of thought or emotion, simply cannot be planned and guaranteed beforehand. This is why I say that to demand a certain result from art in advance is utterly to misconceive the central creative process itself. It is to suppress spontaneity: to batten down on the subconscious.

Patrick Heron, Art is Autonomous
First published in The Twentieth Century, September 1955.
Reprinted in Painter as Critic, Patrick Heron: Selected Writings
Editor: Mel Gooding, Tate Gallery Publishing, 1998
ISBN 1-85437-258-0

More on Patrick Heron:

Posted on Leave a comment

Another admin update

Perelander - digital print

I’ve made a minor change on the Shop page. You can now browse everything in the shop by clicking on either ‘Medium’ or Collection. If you do, you will find several sub-categories. ‘Art under £50’, is self-explanatory. The new link, Current Work, only shows my most recent work, representative of my current practice.

Everything seems to be working correctly, but if you find any problems, please let me know, either in a comment below or by email.

Stay tuned for an announcement soon for special offers, only available to subscribers to my Mailing List.

Posted on Leave a comment

Changes behind the scenes

Electric avenue digital print in simulated frame

I’ve been making some changes to the shop behind the scenes, tidying up the shipping side of things. I’ve extended the range of places I will ship to, and I hope this time set the shipping costs up correctly. With luck, you won’t notice, but if you do find any errors or inconsistencies, please let me know.

Off-line, I’m also building a proper database of completed images and where they are placed. This should help me keep a better eye on things and make sure my prices are consistent. I’ve started by exporting the contents of the shop to LibreOffice. In the process, I have learned a few new tips and tricks with LibreOffice Calc (the Excel equivalent) so that’s an extra…

Posted on Leave a comment

Working with stripes

Abstract collage blue block with red strips

I’ve just made a set of digital images built around stripes. Working digitally is my fallback position when I’m prevented from doing anything else, whether by time, health or anything else. I had no great expectations for these. I picked on stripes for the same reason I first picked on the cross, and recently the fuji-like peak silhouette. They were a recognisable starting point.

When I posted them to my Instagram account, I made reference to Sean Scully and Johnnie Cooper, in particular the latter’s ‘Fractured Light: Johnnie Cooper, Collages 1992–1997‘. There are of course many other artists who use the stripe in their work. See here, from the Tate, for example, or here, from a US site.

I’ve been adding some of my recent digital images to the shop. I’m not sure if these will make it though. The outcome was interesting, although not quite what I’d been expecting. That’s not a problem, of course. I like these on screen, but I think they might need some physical texture to really come alive.

They started life as gel prints, which I cut up to make collage. You can see those here. To make the digital images, I used the scans of the collage made for the shop listings. I brought these back into Paint Shop Pro and then edited and recombined them in various ways.

I’m not sure of the next steps if I don’t offer them digitally. One option is going back to collage. The tissue I use to remove excess paint from the gel plate before printing would work well over solid blocks of colour, whether painted or collaged. It’s certainly a path worth exploring.

It also occurs to me that scans of the tissue could also be used in digital prints, taking the cycle round again.

Posted on Leave a comment

Site changes – update

Collage with simple blocks of coloured paper in green red and yellow-green

The improvements to the shop structure have now been completed. You now have several alternative options for browsing. You can choose between either the art medium used, or the subject. In addition, you can also browse through images priced below £50.

There is still some tidying up to do, but the shop seems to be functioning as it should. In particular, I am still editing, or in some cases writing, the descriptive text for each of the categories, This should also improve my presence in searches. There is some editing of product descriptions also needed, partly for style but also to clean up typos. The price structure for digital products needs reviewing, if only for consistency. Some of the prices may need adjusting to allow for the significant increases in materials costs. Finally, I need to rationalise the options available to get consistency across the board.

In a minor change, featured images in posts will from now on be clickable. Clicking will take you to the relevant product if it is in the shop or to another relevant URL.

I’m also going to be making some changes on my personal blog site, to improve links to the shop.

The next step, here, will be adding more products. I have lots of new work still not even scanned, so keep checking back. You can always sign up to my mailing list to be kept updated.

Posted on Leave a comment

Site changes coming up

Briseis - War Music Series - Digital Print

In January, I hope to begin restructuring the shop. It’s frankly a bit of a mess at the moment and not very logically organised, which I don’t like. I’m physically messy, I know, but mentally I tend the other way, obsessing about clarity of expression and language. That’s what makes me enjoy writing and editing, I suppose.

I have tried to avoid major restructuring up to now, but the site is now configured to automatically set up redirects, where a URL changes. This should prevent any bookmarked links from breaking. I’ll give further warnings before I make the changes.

One big change will be to do away entirely with the printmaking category. I am primarily a printmaker, after all, so finding prints shouldn’t come as a surprise. That means that the categories like Collagraph, Drypoint etc will become the first level when you open the shop.

I would also like to offer a search by image subject, landscape, townscape etc. I’m still thinking about the subjects people might find useful, and also about the changes to structures behind the scenes, that I’ll need to make. More on this later.

Comments on this aspect, or on site navigation in general, would be very welcome.

In order to help spread the word on the site in general and the work n the shop in particular, I’m going to start offering newsletter subscribers a discount voucher each year. I’m still setting that up, but don’t let that stop you signing up below or go here.

MailChimp Subscription Form

Watch this space for more news soon.