Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Oil Painting 55 - Camden Town

The end of our canals - Red warning on the Thames
Getting the boat to London was becoming more and more unrealistic this year, and in Oxford we wrote it off completely due to a few factors -
  • underestimating the distances and times on the whole route so far, 
  • getting carried away with unexpectedly good subject matter in places we weren't expecting to stop
  • being delayed working on other jobs that have helped support the year
  • the height and strong current conditions on the Thames (genuinely dangerous for a tall narrowboat)
  • lock maintenance happening on our route home in early November (meaning we have to get a move on)
It is a shame, but we could have not given more to this project, and have no regrets with how it has gone and with what we have seen.

Also it is far from over, we are turning around and heading back up north for the winter but have until March to complete our 'Year of the Boat', we have decided to risk this winter outside of a marina and I am looking forward to getting some winter scenes and more internal boat scenarios into paint.

To make up for the boat not physically going there I shall be visiting a few times independently instead to try and explore visually some of the capital's canals and rivers. 

I have been down already this year producing the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the Thames. Whilst down for that painting I had a walk around the canals around Camden, locating where Banksy had his graffiti war with 'Robbo', you can read more about that here - There was bits that attracted but not so much on the actual canal, more the markets and bits and pieces just off the canal.

I returned again this autumn to visit friends, armed with a blank canvas to Camden Lock and produced Oil Painting 55 - Camden Town.

Camden Town is another world - the throng of weird and wonderful hedonistic people making their way over the canal bridge was an exciting subject to be amongst, I was stood on one side of the canal/road bridge, and there was a supremely talented one woman band on the other side, singing and playing all afternoon, the music easing the atmosphere of the crowd. I was looking down towards the tube station at all the strange fairground-esque sculptures coming off the buildings. Giant tacky shoes, swirls, dragons and monsters taking over the georgian buildings.

The fashion of the general passerby is bizarre, neon hair styles tattoos and piercings, quite an intimidating place to be, and one linked to some of other worldly experiences I had whilst studying in London, intimidating but certainly exciting, an excitement I have tried to translate into the brushwork. I have used the spiral motif in the tree and shop on the left to try and communicate the more hedonistic culture of the place. The strong afternoon sun means this piece has become an unexpected study of sunlight and shade. I might yet return to work into this piece more, although that could mean losing some of the bounce to the brushwork and the drama if the sunlight isn't as strong. It is an unusual painting that challenges me so it is probably best to leave it.

Oil Painting 54 - The Divinity School, The Bodleian Library

I was getting the impression whilst producing the painting of the Radcliffe Camera and the view from the tower that I was still missing an important feature of the Oxford experience. A lot of the fascination of Oxford University is that it seems to be going on behind closed doors that the city just allows you glimpses of from the street. I wanted to get inside some of these majestic buildings I was staring at and the obvious place to start seemed to be the famous Bodleian Library.

After signing wavers stating I would pay for any damages caused (not stupid these Oxford University people) I was granted access to paint in the Divinity School section of the library.

Wikipedia can give you a more reliable account of the buildings historical importance -,_Oxford

Although I do know quite a bit since standing in there for two days and listening to numerous tours. This is a gothic masterpiece, and unusual because the plans were changed dramatically half way through the 15th century build. It was never intended to be a 'school' as such, more a room for examination of a students knowledge through aural debate, with students addressing their professor, fellow students and the general public from pulpits in the room. The subject being 'Divinity' which was the core subject in the 15th century with so much of education being linked to the church. 

So it was really a presentation room, all 'study' was happening in the neighbouring colleges and the university just stood as an examination body in the centre. Wealth came to the colleges from former students but not really to the university itself and so the build of this school was delayed over the course of the century due to lack of funds. The university were presented with a collection of some 245 manuscripts by the Duke Humphrey half way through and this is where the dramatic change to the design arrives. In order to house the manuscripts (extremely rare and valuable, often bejewelled) the university divided this space into two storeys instead of a single tall room. This has pushed an elaborate gothic ceiling down really close to the naked eye and gives the opportunity to really study the remarkable amount of decorative bosses.

It has also survived remarkable well, looking as though the 15th century stone masons could have left yesterday, The Reformation left a serious toll on religious architecture in the country with saint carvings and crucifixes being defaced, but only a handful of such vandalism occurred in this room. Upstairs, the now named Duke Humphrey's Library, suffered a different fate with only 4 of the 245 manuscripts surviving with piles of books being burnt in bonfires outside the library.

The library is still being used today and so is the Divinity School as a graduation ceremony location for Oxford University students along with the neighbouring Sheldonian theatre.

The other key point the tour guides would bring up when they could see heads dipping in the tour groups was ...

Harry Potter was filmed in here! *heads look up*
and in the Duke Humphrey's Library upstairs! I was painting the the actual Hogwarts.

How was it used?
Ron Weasley learned how to Waltz in this room, it was also the Infirmary in one of the first films. I was standing pretty close to Harry's hospital bed

I dont even like Harry Potter. I was more a Lord of the Rings fan, I think that is the Beatles vs The Stones of our generation.

Anyway, hope you like the painting, I am pleased with the injected colour into the naked stone, similar to what happened in Worcester Cathedral although this has a much warmer quality due mainly to two dull days outside that allowed the artificial light inside to light up the fluted stonework like fire. These gothic subjects are really linking well with my work at the moment and I am please with this discovered tangent to year of the boat.

Detail of Oil Painting 44 - Worcester Cathedral

Monday, 29 October 2012

Oil Painting 53 - View from the oldest building in Oxford

I emailed a few different spots on arrival to try and get a vantage point up high so I could really see those dreamy spires of Oxford. St Michael of the Northgate were really friendly and open to the idea from the offset. Their viewing area on the top of the Saxon tower (the oldest building in Oxford) made a perfect studio space, which although open to the public I had largely to myself during the four afternoons it took to complete the piece. There was an initial visit which was a complete failure where after lugging all the gear to the top of the bell tower and getting everything set up the wind caught the painting and somehow the easel collapsed ripping through the canvas. I have never had that before. I thought it might have been Divine Intervention from the big man on home turf stating he wanted a bigger canvas for this glorious view provided.

I felt like Quasimodo with my own space up amongst the pigeons in a bell tower, you walk up and up the tower on stairs that circle the bells. The pigeons rule the roost here though, plenty of artistic expression from them in and around the tower. Put it like this, I wasn't worried about the odd splash of white paint being noticed. 

The strange thing about the painting of this piece was the utterly different weather conditions on each of the 4 visits, I had a dull day, a rainy day, a glorious sunny afternoon and finally a foggy day. The painting is a combination of these different weathers.

The crowd painting returns again in this piece although now we are onlooking from afar. The dark shapes reminding me of LS Lowry and a french national day painting by Claude Monet I have always adored -

Radio Interview on BBC Oxford

Click on the link below to hear an interview with Malcolm Boyden on BBC Radio Oxford about the Year of the Boat project so far...

The interview starts about 1hr and 10 minutes into the show

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Oil Painting 52 - The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

The second painting started in Oxford. Our only experience of Oxford prior to this trip was calling in for a break on the way back from collected a rejected entry to the BP Portrait Prize (they didn't know what they were looking at). We had a brief walk around Christchurch Meadow and the old University quarter and I remember the experience well, of walking narrow streets between golden stone buildings that opened up into this, the magnificent Radcliffe Square. I have attempted a composition that hopefully reflects that experience of looking up at spires from street level and then the vista of the Radcliffe camera inside the square.

The painting also captures the pushbikes, the dominate form of transport in the city, that have also taken over any available inch of railing in the centre. The building on the right is the famous Bodleian Library.

The morning light also became a strong feature in this painting and because of this I would only work on it in morning conditions and work on something else in the afternoons. I am pleased with the diagonal brush strokes on the corner of the Bodleian Library as the sun just caught it before moving round and leaving that wall in shade.

The aerial perspective (reducing contrast and slightly bluing) is working on the dome of the Radcliffe camera, this treatment reminds me of the painting of the Council building inside Victoria Square, Birmingham (Oil Painting 35 - Birmingham Watches the Olympics)

Monday, 22 October 2012

Oil Painting 51 - The Canal in Oxford, Autumn

I was aware that a autumnal image would enhance this project charting a year and was waiting for the leaves to turn and to arrive at the right subject. This happened to be the stretch of canal leading into central Oxford. less than a mile from the centre the canal has been kept pleasant and leafy with enormous town houses backing on to it, each with their own slim mooring. The boat in this painting 'Little Beauty' was about as big a boat as the house owners could get away with without prodding into next doors. The towpath was almost tunnelled in a thin drapery of leaves on their way out, some already in the canal giving flashes of floating colour against the brushwork of the reflecting murky water.

This piece shot together quickly. I have consciously left it very early on, enjoying the abstracted, sometimes harshly angled brushwork and the unusual colour palette. The colour combinations were reminding me of some of Gauguin's work, it's rare and exciting that he has cropped up in my subconscious.

Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Oil Painting 50 - Tooleys' Boatyard, Banbury

The plan was to rush round the canals from Stratford to Oxford but the drizzly weather broke our morale and we ended up in Banbury for a few days. Just long enough to produce this piece. 

I was worried there wouldn't be much to paint apart from the obvious Banbury Cross and especially after missing the Banbury Canal Festival by one day, but then I discovered the strange oasis of boater interest known as 'Tooleys' right in the midst of the generic glitzy soulless shopping centres and car parks that have taken control of Banbury's canals. 

Quite a contrast to have a working boatyard in the heart of a shopping mall. A world away from the nearby overpriced fashion stores, the 'Grease Club' occupants of Tooleys' boatyard did not give my paint smudged clothing a second glance, or have a policies on floor covering when setting up an easel and wanting to paint their workshop. Its been long enough on board this tub to feel like an alien in a shopping centre and feel a physical sense of relief when stepping into a workshop where I can be messy. I have certainly have gained a community with this project, lost sex appeal, but gained a community.

I have wanted to paint a dry dock or workshop for a while, the constant required work on the boats is such a large part of the boat life and I was keen to represent it in some form. What better than the oldest dry dock in the country? The dry dock at Tooleys' has been in continuous use since 1790 when it was built to paint the horse drawn barges. Nowadays the original wood beam skeleton of the covering is encased in a greenhouse style glass shed. Shoppers are encouraged to peer in at the creatures that do not shop.

As soon as I began the obvious dramatic perspective and subject of people at work on large machines in workshops, the work of the famous railway painter Terence Cuneo came to mind. 

Giants Refreshed - Terence Cuneo

Progress - Terence Cuneo

Castles at Tysley - Terence Cuneo

You can see a statue of Cuneo on the main concourse at Waterloo station, London.  

Monday, 15 October 2012

Oil Painting 49 - Evesham sketch

I only had an hour of light to try and capture something at Evesham on the Saturday evening of our weekend rush up the River Avon. We had a glorious Saturday but were aware heavy rain was around the corner and with the country already waterlogged we thought we had better not hang around and get off the river. The Sunday was hard work with torrential rain all day, the river warning system pushed up from green to amber just as we were getting on the Stratford canal. Although the River Avon got noticeably faster towards Stratford, our main danger was the river locks, requiring skilled rope work and constant concentration to avoid having your boat thrown around. But we made it through and know a bit more now.

There was heavy flooding in Worcestershire as a result of this rain so we were glad to be on the Stratford canal, although the constant downpours made the initial climb up out of Stratford difficult and unenjoyable. It felt like we had hit and were clambering over another wall in the project.

Not to dwell on the negative though, the Saturday sunny River Avon trip from Twekesbury to Evesham was spectacular from the word go starting in thick morning mist that made you feel like you were still half asleep, and going on to see my first Black Swan (other than a pub!)

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Update on Oil Painting 10 - Reflection Study at Preston Brook/TEWKESBURY

I revisited the small reflection study I was struggling with from the front of the boat in Preston Brook and added the new scenery of the wider River Avon and the four arched river bridge at Tewkesbury. It is strange to have the same constant in the foreground but completely transformed vista.

The initial study in Preston Brook before it was reworked

Oil Painting 48 - Tewkesbury Reflection

An easy and enjoyable piece to produce on the River Avon at Tewkesbury, just to be immersed in a large study of water reflection from the back of the boat, skitting, flamboyant brush strokes across the surface of the canvas, playing with the gesture, and the meeting of high contrast lights and darks. Very loose piece that just flowed in it's production. The weather darkened slightly with the second visit which was a bit of a shame, but has resulted in some subtle greys.

A more colourful beginning after a sunset on the first session

Friday, 5 October 2012

Oil Painting 47 - Gloucester Docks IN PROGRESS

This is my first of many Gloucester paintings, we will be having a Year of the Boat exhibition in the Waterways Museum in May 2013 and shall be doing more work in Gloucester in the build up to that, but I wanted to get started whilst the boat was in the area.

Oil Painting 46 - Inside the Copper Beech

I think realisation that i had not ticked all boxes with the previous painting of the Copper Beech led me to produce this quick study, literally 10 metres from the previous vantage point, stepping inside the Copper Beech's canopy and painting just the trees' internal area. This subject could have taken an enormous canvas and invited more comparison with the inside of a Cathedral, however, time and available canvases were against, so it remains quite a loose small work of the trunk.

The brushwork and approach seems different from my usual so it intrigues as a piece, although not completely sure why, I think it was enjoying fracturing some of the light into straight angled brush-strokes which is against the initial anticipated dappled treatment but does convey something of the experience of looking through all those branches. Knowing a piece is not going to be something you would ideally like from the offset, and working on it whilst flipping between another painting, does give a lack of expectation to the painting and in turn a feeling of freedom and 'anything goes'.

Oil Painting 45 - The Copper Beech at Tewkesbury Abbey

After our time at Worcester Cathedral we waved it off into the distance as we joined The River Severn and set off down towards Tewkesbury and Gloucester. Suddenly our previously long 60ft vessel didn't seem to be holding it's own, since leaving the canal, alongside the packed yacht clubs and cruisers on this big river. You become aware of a flow and require an anchor, and worry what all these enormous mooring poles are for - surely the river level doesn't change that much? 

The locks have grown in size and our boat now seems vulnerable and a silly shape. The river locks are all about the rope-work apparently which shouldn't be a problem for me having already invented at least 150 different rope knots, whilst being on the boat, just don't ask me to repeat one.

We were soon whizzing downstream (more the rivers doing than impressive navigation skills) and despite an embarrassing incident trying to moor with the flow rather than against it at Upton-on-Severn we survived the Severn and ducked into the smaller more sheltered River Avon at Tewkesbury.

I knew before arrival what I wanted to paint in Tewkesbury after attending my friend's wedding in the Abbey earlier in the year, on the day of the wedding I had spotted the magnificent Copper Beech in the grounds of the Abbey, the biggest Copper Beech I can remember, it has grown unhindered and perfectly balanced for 424 years and its leaves release the most spectacular combination of colours. Apparently it is not as old as its neighbour, a mulberry tree, tiny in comparison, that was planted by Charles I (before losing his head). Nevertheless it is the Copper Beech that is the most visually spectacular competing with the Abbey for the skyline.

In the painting I wanted to communicate the mass of the coloured leaves but also show the external / internal relationship of this tree. The leaves form like a tent skin to the very outer edge but you could glimpse through to the magnificent skeletal internal space the tree has. Almost like a Cathedral or Abbey itself.

Another element I was keen to represent was the dappled light surrounding the base. This interest in the ground around the tree plus wanting the Abbey to be a secondary element in the composition to this tree meant I adopted a slanted composition for Oil Painting 45.

The strong slant is the most striking feature, and something I thought I would embrace, although it perhaps too strong an element and could take away from the subject matter. As I touched upon in the blog entry for Oil Painting 44, I am very aware of the passing general public's reaction and try to quickly get the paintings to a state where the average passer-by can relate to. I have to say, this didnt really happen with this piece, even late on!

'Why is the Abbey on a strange angle and look like it is falling over?' seemed to be a common question.

I could have chose a more orbital perspective and got a result very similar to the previous painting, 'Crowleasow Farm', curving the horizon and keeping all the verticals coming off the horizon at 90 degrees -

However I have experimented with a very photographic distortion on the space, manipulating the Abbey's vertical perspective like a wide angle photograph would.

To help explain I have overlaid one of Karen's wide angle shots over the top of the painting and erased areas so you can see where I was coming from with the angles of the verticals of the Abbey and the windows on the far right.

I was testing my ability to paint this distorted space convincingly, and push my luck further by having so much of the composition dominated by a mass of leaves that do not give much help in describing space unlike for example bricks on a building or obviously vertical pillars. That seems to be a running thread this year, describing space/depth/distance with organic nondescript masses like leaves, a rapeseed field or of course, water.

Probably a failed test though, judging from the amount of explaining I had to do whilst producing and the fact that I feel the need to do a photo mock-up to explain where I am coming from. Still, you have go to try these things!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Private Commission - Crowleasow Farm

Crowleasow Farm is a Jacobean property near to Ludlow, part of the Downton Estate. It is surrounded by magnificent rolling hills and farmland. I spent the first day watercolour sketching the various possibilities of composition trying to marry the commissioner's wish to have the property represented in the vast landscape whilst also getting a sense of a home, being close enough to enjoy the oddities and character of the building but also really enjoy the vast oak that is stood in the garden of the property.
One of four initial watercolour sketches that indicates where some of the trees had to be omitted to get a sense of the landscape surrounding the property

This mighty Oak has become one of the key features to the property, it is mentioned in the Doomsday book and is over 1000 years old. The trunk has a girth of over 11 metres. It is largely hollow but is a real object of gnarled beauty.

The solution to getting this combination of wishes was to move and omit some trees and screens that surround the property in order to unlock the surrounding landscape from this close vantage point. This meant walking the easel round the garden taking extracts from different vistas. I even stood amongst a thorny rose bush to bring in the rose in the foreground, which along with Pearl the dog and the trees dappled shadow helps to break up the dangerously large area of lawn in the composition.

3 days painting the final piece plus one day sketching and preparation.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Oil Painting 44 - Worcester Cathedral Interior

I am especially grateful to the management at Worcester Cathedral for allowing the benefits of my work to overrule the hazards and to grant me access to paint inside the Cathedral.

This interior space is beyond breathtaking, the height, space and unquestionable beauty surround you. Whereas I was struggling to find an angle that satisfied with Oil Painting 43 of the exterior, there was absolutely no problem in locating a vantage point inside the building. This for me, sits alongside some of the best Cathedral Interiors in the North of France. I can now, for the next four days at least, walk to this incredible subject from where I wake, and spend full days responding. The colours change fabulously throughout the day as the sun comes and goes throughout the different stained glass, highlighting the green and golds of the naked cotswold stone. 

I knew instantly this subject would lend itself to my approach and I could produce an individual take with challenging perspectives, gestural brushstrokes whipping the eye around to reflect the enormity and strength of the pillars, and draw out and exaggerate some of the colour subtleties within the stonework in the changing light.

Because there was just so much to go at visually I ended up attempting to contain as much as possible by standing in the central cross of the building in a position where by swinging around I could view down the Nave, both transepts and down towards the Lady Chapel, basically a panorama just short of 360 degrees catching the north, east, south and western stained glass windows in one image. Panning round so far enables you to convincingly wave the horizon and bring in a sense of height. 

This was the main struggle with this painting, wanting to spin right the way round but also knowing the overriding sensation of being in this space, and therefore the main subject, is the gravity defying height. Spinning too much and creating a thin panorama that loses that feeling of looking up would be a failure. The easiest way for me to communicate the height would be flip the panorama on its side, so you simply pan from the floor to the ceiling, which is exactly what I did Oil Painting 42 - Pugin's Gem. This piece is the straight forward symmetrical depiction of the interior of a gothic space and I wasn't surprised to find a photo with nearly the same composition in The Pugin Centre in Cheadle after starting the piece. No, I had got the appeal of the symmetry out of my system with that painting and now wanted to play games with recording right the way around me, looking up and down, even skewing and distorting some aspects to sneak the transept organ in on the right.

It was a compositional struggle that stretched me to the point of not knowing, even after a full days work, if it would read clearly as a representation of space or not. There was a eureka moment when i painted the pattern of the tiles in the central space that helped describe the entire space. All of a sudden the piece then seemed to click with the average viewer, and I gained the approval of the general public which until then had obviously been unsure! This happens a lot with the painting process in public and I often rush to get to the stage where people can read where I am going with the painting, as the activity becomes more enjoyable after that and you do not feel the end to constantly explain yourself. Believe me, a full day of rushed work and doubt, with confused glances from passers by, is a long time!

Gradually though the piece developed and the community of the Cathedral became warmer and warmer to having a painter in with them. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Cathedral, met some wonderful people, and would love the opportunity to spend more time there. A residency either with the Cathedral or the local school would be ideal where I could have more time  to explore spacial representations in this the most breathtaking of interiors. This is something I shall certainly be pursuing once I have finished dragging this 16 tonne tub around the country.