Vermeer and me

The biggest exhibition of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings ever opens this week at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Twenty-eight pieces are being brought in from all over the world to present the most complete retrospective of the Dutchman’s work ever.  Like many others, I already have my tickets to visit the Rijksmuseum in early March.

For me though, this is more than just a chance to submerge myself in the quiet, stillness of the artist’s views of seventeenth century domesticity.  It is a chance to revisit the art that I was making when I first moved to the Netherlands.  At the time, Vermeer’s work was hugely important to me, and I was engaged with a visual and conceptual exploration of these icons of art history.

I was exploring the nature of the art object, the painting as it is found in the museum, the role of the reproduction of images in our experience of art and indeed the place that the re-presentation of art has in Vermeer’s work itself.

I made paintings, drawings, collages, constructions and even installation work.  It was, for me, a rich vein of work that seems on reflection a strangely perfectly fitting body of work for my own arrival in the country.

So, in the light of all the fanfare around the Rijksmuseum exhibition, my own modest online Vermeer display.  A small collection here.  A more extensive collection on my other site that can be found here: Vermeer series

Are these the best paintings I’ve ever made?

Yes, I’ve thought that before.  In fact, almost always the most recent work feels like it’s the best.  You are most in tune with the newest creative processes and the ideas attached to them.  But having said all that, these recent pieces to feel like particularly good ones.

I seem to be finding potential of the ideas and approaches that started to take an initial form back in January.  They paintings are slow and labour intensive to make, but the results are good.  Bringing together visually interesting compositions, with landscape, seascape, weather, and the disrupted effect we are having on our environment.

The result……elements of beauty and elements of fragmentation.

Good things come to those who wait….

It has been slow, but finally this relatively small painting is finished. Started earlier in the summer with a month-long trip that involved considerable staring out to the horizon on the north Atlantic seas around Orkney, and finished on our return.

Although the idea for the work was essentially in place before the journey north a number of combinations of ideas and occurrences are playing their part in this painting and the steps on to the subsequent pieces now being developed. The countless watercolours made of the Orcadian landscape and coast, the ever-present geometry of the horizon so present around the sea and a treeless landscape. Then there was the visit to an exhibition of Laura Drever’s work at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. Whilst her work is considerably less geometric than mine, we share landscape interests and a surprisingly similar way of layering imagery up.

For me the work hints and opens the door further on the series of pieces I’ve been developing since the start of the year. More subtle and sensitive that the brasher and brighter paintings from the spring. More to follow……

A proper open day at last

Open days at school have been a bit of disrupted business over the last two years.  A chance for a school to show potentially new pupils what the school is all about, the atmosphere, building, and of course the staff.  For the first time since January 2020, we invited both parents and their primary school aged children into the school yesterday evening.

For the art department it’s a chance to show just what we are about and stage an extensive display of the pupils’ work, from the youngest in the school (aged 12) right through to the oldest (aged 18).  During the five hours of the open day, we welcomed around 300 ten- and eleven-year-olds into the main hall to show them round. 

But an art department wouldn’t be an art department if there wasn’t something to do and participate in.  Not an insignificant challenge when they are coming through in groups of up to twenty-four children every ten minutes or so.  The resulting activity is kind of formulaic, and maybe lacks a bit in the area of creativity, but it certainly had a good groups participation factor and a wow effect at the end!

For step by step instructions on how to carry out a similar large scale, pixelated portrait click on the link below to download the .pdf file.

Its a simple idea…..using photopea.com to look at colour and tone

Getting children to understand a bit about how areas of tone and colour can work to create form is a central task for most of those working in art education. The pupils generally get the idea of how line has a part to play rather quicker than these other two might combine to occupy the areas between the drawn line.

Also increasingly central to activities, at least in my art room, is how digital tools can also have a part to play and can be combined with more traditional approaches.

The following short assignment played very much into these areas, focusing on how form can be created using surfaces of colour, colour mixing and becoming familiar with how a few digitally editing tools can be used.  Those tools can be found in most editing software, and we were using the excellent (and free!) open source software offered on the photopea.com website.

The contextual background for the project that I did with my class of 12-13 year olds was transcriptions in art.  We had looked at a variety of artists’ work, but had paid particular attention to Velazquez Las Meninas and Picasso’s numerous interpretations of it.

Our focus was subsequently on the work of Vermeer for our own remakes.  The working process was reasonably simple and worked as follows:

  • Import the image that you want to remake into Photopea.com
  • Create a new layer above the image
  • Look carefully at the image and try to identify areas of colour that whilst not being identical are at least very similar
  • Use a selection lasso to trace round the area
  • Sample the ‘average’ colour in the selected area and fill the whole area with just that colour
  • Then proceed onto the next area

The pupils find this quite fascinating to do and work in an increasingly focused way, gradually building up their own image.  The result look a little like vector drawings that might have been created using a inbuilt filter, but it is very much a question of look, analyse and then carry out the digital steps.

For a group of 12-13 year olds the results have been excellent and has resulted in a feeling of considerable pride in the group.

The second phase was to use carbon paper to transfer the ‘vector’ drawing structure onto paper and then to paint or colour (using coloured pencils) the resulting simplified linear drawing.  At this point it becomes very much a colour mixing exercise where the subtleties of the digital image are transferred into a handmade version.

This part of the project is still at a relatively early stage, but the signs are good for some well made results.  But of course the real proof of the pudding will be in seeing whether pupils are able to take the lessons learning into future work, but hopefully without the digital step always having to be used.

Below is a link to a short PDF booklet that explains how the part of the project done using photopea.com works. It is written about portraits, but the principle and process is the same.

Good things (I think) come to those who wait

Sometimes things in the studio progress painfully slowly.  Any number of things get in the way and finding the spaces in between all the other stuff just doesn’t happen.  That has been very much the case in the last few weeks.

Over Christmas I made a couple of collages using elements of lino-prints that I had made.  They were good and I could see the potential to take them further into paintings.  A few technical experiments followed (unsuccessfully) before I finally landed on how to approach the idea.

Now, a few weeks later, finally my first successfully completed painting of 2022 is a fact.  It is a good one I think and has good possibilities to be taken further, hopefully quicker this time round. All in all, a nice distraction from other activities, not least the educational one, which is tough at the moment.  But that is another story!

Caroline Walker – Windows – KM21, The Hague

Four years ago I visited an exhibition in London of photographs by Gregory Crewdson.  It was an interesting body of work of often lonely figures, framed by windows, glass and reflections also playing a part.  Before visiting the Caroline Walker exhibition in KM21 I wondered whether I might find some parallels.

Gregory Crewdson at the Photographers’ Gallery, London

Superficially there were some connections the framing devices and a certain voyeuristic peep into the domestic life of others.  There were links too to Edward Hopper.  But the bleak desolation of Crewdson and the melancholic loneliness present in so much of Hopper’s work were significantly absent in my experience of Walkers large and beautifully painted canvases.

Even when the themes of the paintings were the maids and cafe waitresses these images seemed to be presenting and observing simple moments in time.  It doesn’t feel like the artist is passing judgement.  It is more an observation of time and space.  We the viewer are left to contemplate and reflect on the situation.  They are paintings of our time, with the face masks being worn by the ladies in the bread shop.

In some of the compositions there was more than a little Vermeer to be found. Quiet domesticity, but above all-in a carefully constructed composition that had numerous grids, dividing lines and boundaries worked into the structure of the paintings, bringing more abstract qualities to the layout.  Bars of colour along an edge seemed to often provide an illusionistic bridge between the pictorial spaces of William’s interiors and the interiors that we occupy when viewing the work.  At one moment I found myself struck by the connection of the artists mother viewed through the kitchen window and the museum guard standing just a few feet away staring out of the gallery window.

These are paintings with simply a great deal to see and a great deal to enjoy.  I loved the fluency and liquid qualities of the brushwork, but above all I loved the contrast that the careful division and sub-division of the painting into areas and zones.  Windows, doorframes, edges of walls and windowsills are all put to work to bring a geometric order to the domesticity that has been depicted.

Prussian Blue…..it can take over a bit

When I was at art school I made a number of drawings where I masked off with tape a geometric shape on a piece of paper.  I then took pure Prussian Blue pigment and rubbed it into the masked off area.  I pushed the colour in hard and the result was a razor sharp form (once the tape had been removed) with an inner area of the deepest, darkest quality that absorbed light fantastically and had an almost velvety surface.

Every since I have had a bit of a soft spot for Prussian Blue, I’ve used it from time to time, but as a colour it can have a bit of a tendency to take over. It’s intense qualities being on the one hand really attractive to use, but at the same time you find yourself trying to keep it in check.

Today was such an occasion.  When I travel around I often take one of my small drawing books with me.  These are mostly filled with rapidly made watercolour sketches of landscapes I encounter.  These in turn feed into my studio work, recently in an increasingly direct way.

I don’t pretend to be a great watercolour painter. Generally I only use the medium on a very small scale in my notebooks.  Today I found myself on the Dutch north coast on a somber day, with grey clouds racing across a heavy sky.  The paints and notebook came out of my bag.  It set to work on a series of rapid sea horizon sketches. I love making these sorts of images, fluid colours and flows, held in place by the taught horizon line across the double pages of the drawing book. 

Today though was different for one small detail.  Yesterday, my much preferred Ultramarine ran out.  In my small box of paints, just twelve colours, I was forced to dip into the rarely used Prussian Blue.  Cautiously at first I mixed.  The first painting reflected this caution.  In the second the depths of the blue started to become more apparent.  In the third it threatened to get completely out of control and had to be quickly neutralised with some Raw Umber. 

The results are a set of paintings that took perhaps twenty minutes to make, but are surprisingly different to those I have recently made. They are also paintings that I think may well end up being useful once back in the studio.  Today, necessity was the mother of invention and Prussian blue crept back into what I am doing.