Yours, bewildered of Norfolk…

I’ve had a week of it reader. It started, as it often does these days, with Facebook.

A video popped into life onto my device. On it an increasingly outraged American was denouncing modern art by comparing it to the glories of ‘proper art’, by which he meant Rodin, DaVinci, Velasquez et al.

His nationality, age and gender aren’t relevant as his views are pretty universal: Modern art is ‘the emperor’s new clothes’., ‘it’s a con’ , and when for heavens sake will we all wake up and embrace the past?

I’m not unsympathetic , some contemporary art is the stuff of landfill for me (as regular readers of my blog know). However is it reasonable to be damning of anything non representational or traditional?

In the medieval period, scholars certainly felt that mankind was staggering away from classical enlightenment into some kind of new Age of ignorance.

Good question. It bothered me, and has bothered me for years, so (unusually) having time on my hands, I’ve had a bit of an audit; only for my personal satisfaction, you understand. However if you’re interested, here’s my view.

Before we begin I have to declare an interest. I’m an artist, I’m alive (well passably so), and as far as I’m aware it’s 2017. Making me a ‘modern artist’ by default I suppose, but what’s the alternative?

Traditional art – by which critics of modern art generally mean Western European Easel Painting from Giotto (early renaissance)  to Monet (early Impressionism), encompassed and embraced  a set of increasingly complex and constraining visual ‘rules’. These rules are the ‘processes’ of classical painting, and they are largely preserved in today’s Atelier training.

The broad sweep of them was towards creating increasingly realistic depictions of what the artist had in front of him (it was generally a man of course).  So leaving aside the work of naive painters, applied artists, craftsmen and anybody working in Africa, America, Oceana or Asia, benightedly working between 1270 and 1870 or so, what does that mean to his definition of good art?

The Rules 

The linchpin of ‘good art’it seems to me is this: things should look like what they are, now that’s not to say this can’t be done with imagination, flair and all of that, but recognisable is in.


Meditation by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1885. if it looks like what it is, and it’s beautifully painted, it must be good. Right?

With this in mind, here’s how to do that:

Step 1: First of all you need Form. Painterly Form is an illusion created by value changes on a flat plane. So we need to use values to create an illusion of shapes, a linear circle is a flat disk, a gradated one is a sphere.

painted sphere

Painterly form. Look its not flat, hold on it is…A circle painted to appear spherical.

As an artist, if you want to create an illusion of form, then you’re stuck with value management: it’s the physiology of sight, not my opinion, so live with it.

Step 2: If we want those Forms to look more ‘real’ (and real is a charged word is it not for something illusory?) We must nuance those Forms by making them appear to be more realistically dimensional. We can do this with (1) opacity, with (2) temperature and with (3) edge (range) control. Which brings me neatly into perspective.

brunaille van dyck

Van Dyck,now that’s what I call range management. But it’s still a flat surface, pretending not to be….

Step 3: Atmospheric perspective (the illusion of depth in flat paintings) is created by managing range. Range is the difference between passages of paint, close it down and you loose edges, open it up and you find them.

So by methodically decreasing range as we get towards the ‘back’ of our imaginary  dimensional space we create a illusion of depth, but shouldn’t we be arranging all of these things?

Step 4: Composition is simply the trick of putting the right thing in the right place. Most traditional artists opted not to innovate (they had enough to do with values, opacity, temperature, range management and all that), and use a template, and why not?

Divine proportion is another set of rules, which allows us to get it right. Not for you? Then other systems exist, asymmetric Baroque template anyone?


I love an interesting diagonal eye path, don’t you? A flat bit of canvas pretending to be a stag in Scotland, by Landseer

Landmark or Landfill?

Just so we’re clear to create a truly good and realistic piece of painting – and I’m leaving aside optical sequencing, ground management, rheology and the credit of using various media here – we have to:

(1(Use Value to create an illusion of Form, (2) nuance that with opacity, temperature, and saturation to manage the range and (3) obey the rules of illusory atmospheric perspective, and (4-6, I suppose) we should choose to use  one, two or three point linear perspective.

Gosh. That’s a lot of rules before I get to think for myself.

Now, speaking as a painter who can do this, I have to tell you that it’s pretty restrictive. And if we’re doing it right by using sequencing, couching, colour management , value keys and ranges (chiaruscuro anyone?), then there’s not a lot of creative latitude.

Spend a decade or so learning it, and the process will allow you to turn out respectable paintings every time, but here’s the thing; like any process it creates rather processed products.

You can walk through the rooms of any National Gallery you choose to mention and see exactly what I mean: row after row of paintings by unique individuals who have produced works which are essentially, largely, fundamentally similar.


By the numbers, perfect technical painting. Learn how to replicate this, and you’ll be at the top of your game. Well in a technical sense.

Now try that same exercise at a gallery such as the Tate Modern, you might not like what you see, but heavens, it won’t be homogenous.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

A flat painting not wasting time pretending to be real, but focussing on visual communication instead.  Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso. You won’t learn much about technique by copying this, but then that’s the point. We’ve gone beyond the constraints of craft. And I bet most people would know that this is Picasso, but wouldn’t have known the artist of the image above. Original Creative vision or reductive creative homogeneity, you decide what you prefer.

What separates great traditional artists from the ‘also rans’ is either truly breathtaking studio craft, (Ingres, Van Eyck), original vision (El Greco), or both (Turner). It’s the ones who broke the rules that are now the pantheon of great artists, not those who played safely within them.

I don’t see modern art as a break with the past, but a logical refinement of it.

Paris Musee D'Orsay Vincent van Gogh 1889 Self Portrait 2 Close Up

What if feels like to have a chaotic unquiet mind and a moment of crisis. There’s no quietude in Van Gogh or his work.

Emin Unmade Bed

What if feels like to have a chaotic unquiet mind and a moment of crisis. There’s no quietude in Emin’s Unmade Bed. Just as good, for my money as the Van Gogh.

All of the great practitioners from Monet to Doig are standing on the shoulders of giants.  Richer’s works might be contemporary, but Titian would have understood his technique very well

Similarly Rothko is nothing if not, the direct heir to Rembrandt’s innovative use of optical sequencing. To understand late Turner, is to understand Pollock, and so it goes.

No what the problem here I think isn’t a new barbarism amongst artists, but popularist philistinism amongst viewers.

Now before the lynch mob come for me, remember that my central criticism of most contemporary art (see my previous posts),  is that some artists don’t try hard enough to include and engage their general viewers.  Addressing some self proclaimed aesthetic elite isn’t enough; it really won’t do. Artists should reflect on the fact that art is visual communication, not verbal obfuscation, yet the degree to which many try to hide lukewarm ideas and execrable technique belong a veneer of learning is absurd. So absurd in fact you can visit and get started as a contemporary artist; well in words at least.

Satire is just a word for uncomfortable truth, but the joke wears thin when it provides ammunition for those who would damn all contemporary art as pompous, elitist and inexplicable.

Faced with such nonsense, I to become a red faced philistine, ready to dismiss elitist art as nonsense. Nevertheless,we have an obligation to meet artists halfway, if we wish to exert our right to be publicly critical.


Sir Nicholas Serota famously remarked he felt no compulsion to help the common man understand contemporary art, when replying to criticism of his oversight of the Turner Prize. He should have.

Art is supposed to be an alternative, view, it should surprise, it should open our minds, it will by definition be challenging.

But before we pass judgement on any art, let’s consider this; are we praising artistic skill, or creative vision? Is the craft of art itself enough to make a work ‘good’? Is vision without skill valid?

My view? We need both – I want creative visions, executed with technical skill, is it really too much to ask to hope for a middle ground. Is it really Ateliers in the technical corner vs. Art Schools in the conceptual one? I think as art tutors and practitioners we can be better than that, I really do.

Learn the craft of painting, embrace the art of creative self expression, and above all communicate. It’s not a bad rule is it?








Of the dust of the ground

Time moves on.

For me it sometimes races as fast as lightning, them slows soft and redolent, dropping like honey from my day.  Sundays are my slow day and they seem to last longer, and taste better on the tongue than all of the frantic week put together.

All of this is my way off saying that I finally have my new project. I have The Dales.

Simplicity is so simple in retrospect. I now realise that my theme is time.

A landscape in flux

The Dales landscape is a reflection of the passage of time, it erodes, washed away with every storm, runs down every cascading moorland stream, and accretes, silently in the darkness of caves under the hills.  These things I know, and I can see, but cannot truly grasp – geological time is beyond the power of my years to comprehend.

My people

The Dales is a landscape in flux, but to see it’s people, to hear the familiar accent of home, to be amongst their fore square surety, solidity and stolidity. Hard nosed, cold shouldered, rough handed warm and generous. Amongst them time flexes and I am no longer the middle aged man who left the North for the promise of the South and ended up in the East.  No longer lost, I am home, as though I had never left.  Half of my life – and more – blinks out of mind. When I travel north it is back in time.

A Secular cathedral

We preserve the Dales against the march of progress, not as a museum but a sanctuary.

The tourists; they are time travellers too. You see them everywhere looking for the time they have lost to that sensible job, the unpaid overtime, the unfulfilling day which races end over end to two weeks all inclusive in the sun.

The Dales is an antidote to all of that, a door to the Self. a place to Be, precisely because it’s not the place to be.  Apart, alone, aloof it is everything modern life isn’t.  In the Dales we receive time for ourselves.

Charles Saumarez Smith asked if, ‘galleries weren’t providing something the church once did?‘ I now know that the Dales are. To understand our need for space, and time and quietude is to understand that it’s not so much a National Park but a secular cathedral for our Age.

So the strands come together. The landscape. My past. Our present and our future.

Beyond Here then will be a show about these things. A landscape of memory, but also of dreams, of coming home, of belonging.

I’ll not write about this again my words have turned at last to pictures.


© Martin Kinnear 2017. October, the drive to Hawes and back again. Oil and mixed media 92x48

© Martin Kinnear 2017. October, the drive to Hawes and back again. Oil and mixed media 92×48




Reader, I’m in Love.

I fell in love with a dead German this week.  How could I not swoon when I read this?:

 “I’m a painter,” he said, “and I nail my pictures together.”

Kurt Schwitters, of course, who made ‘Merz’ assemblages that are simply painting by other means.


‘I nail my paintings together’, I love that.

I just love that quote, it speaks about the creative process, a personal vision, conviction and giving rather less than a damn about how things should be done.

Breaking the rules, is the only way to make new ones, and while that seems obvious, its amazing how many ‘creative’ artists feel compelled to work within rules. It’s small  minded, it’s self defeating, it’s stupid.

Creativity if it’s to be about anything, has to be – can only ever be – about insight, innovation and change. We don’t suddenly wake up more creative – we choose to be invested in it; it’s a state of mind.

So, on to my habitual bête noire, Received painting styes.

It’s front of mind, because I’m leading the final trimester of my diploma this week on creative development, rather than cranking out paintings in a received style.

Received style?

I mean painting,  in the words of Constable, ‘like other men’. That’s all very well when one’s learning to paint , after all we all learn by imitation. No, I become exercised when imitation becomes the aim of the game.

turner dutch boats in a gale

Turner’s Dutch Boats in A Gale, or is it Van De Velde?


No, this is Van De Velde. Turner ‘received’ his style, it’s not wrong if it’s a direction of travel rather than a destination.

Most art societies, most ateliers, most artists do this to themselves, fitting in is a self inflicted wound.

Here’s a thought. Pick a hundred, or a thousand atelier students , who’ve spent three to five years learning how to draw sight size, model Form classically, and paint with a Zorn style palette of three to five chosen pigments.  At this point they can use paint beautifully draw flawlessly and truly understand painterly Form. But – and this a big reservation – having that same input is going to affect the output.

So, put those 100 works in a room – do we see the hand, the eye, the creative intelligence, the original insight of a hundred living, breathing, feeling individuals? Does the work on show speak of their personal ideas, dreams, goals visions, creativity? Nope….

We’ll see variance of course, brushwork is like handwriting, and the more diligent students might have more accurate drawings, but processes create homogeneity; how could it be otherwise? Process was the name of the game when painting was an industry, a contract entered into, a product made.

But since the Big Bang of Impressionism, process has become the elephant in the room. Too little (‘go on just be creative’), and you’re painting without craft. too much and the craft eclipses the Art.  We need process, but we must learn the mantra ‘its a good servant, but a bad master’.

brunaille van dyck

Van Dyck, flawless technique is all about process but what happens next? You can learn to do this, many do, but first ask yourself why? To what end?  Have a plan that’s bigger than your skills, that’s all I ask.

When you think of it , my above definition of the personal creativity of 100 students,  isn’t a bad summary of why each and every one of those talented individuals got into art in the first place. Replace that passion and potential with process and how many will have the vision and clarity and purpose of Schwitters? It’s tragic, it’s unnecessary and it’s all too common.

The end game of formal training – be it to alter style or more broadly, as in my courses, to teach the craft of Art, has to be borne in mind.

While art must be craft, craft in itself cannot become Art.  To paraphrase Churchill, receiving and understanding formal skills training isn’t the end game or even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.

Buttermere and Crummock Water. Oil 30x40%22 205 by Martin Kinnear

Buttermere: The ‘end of my beginning’, but that’s all it is.

Once you know how paint works, you must turn yourself to deciding how it should be used by you: and that alone is what will make you unique.

I’ve no ‘right’ to say this, I’ve got no degree, I neither hold nor look for approval or accreditation from any art society , and I’ll swim through blood before I let anybody impose their rules on me or mine.


The chaos that’s my studio – but – and here’s a comforting thought, there’s no other studio like it, because it’s my vision, and there’s only one of me…

Rant over, don’t blame me, see Schwitters.



The Sacred and the Profane


It’s a full circle thing for me; thinking that is.

Months ago I attended a talk by Charles Saumarez Smith, who, noting that the rise in gallery attendance was inversely proportional to that of church going, asked whether galleries were not providing ‘something’ that religion once did?

An interesting proposition, one to be filed away.

Fast forward to my current project, The Dales (which being a very much a working title) has now expanded into Beyond Here . I’ve written about this at length, and don’t propose to test your patience, but for me it’s all about connecting threads; themes if you will.

In my mind I weave them, see echoes, causality, opportunities, results; and then the art comes. Over a year in and finally I know what I want to say, and possibly, potentially, how it might be done.

Coincidentally, a call for entries arrived on my desk today for a show I greatly admire, Salthouse- or as it is now known Cley Contemporary, and I thought it would be interesting to share with you how one puts together a proposal for these things.

First, a sense of it. The show is staged across the wild North Norfolk coast, with the romantically half derelict St Margaret’s Church as a hub. Naturally the organisers wish  for entries that are site specific, or at least contextual, and always add a theme; this years’ was The Rings of Saturn by Sebald; a book I know and like.


Cley 2016 annalise horsley pandemonium,

I’ll let my entry, limited to a side of A4 speak for itself.

My name is Martin Kinnear. I was born into the industrial sprawl of a Lancashire Mill town in spring 1969 and died on the floor of a converted Methodist chapel in autumn 2003, my work is about what happened next.

You don’t survive a stroke, let’s be clear about that, and before we gloss over it as a transient brain injury or at worst a swift decorous decline; It’s about lying in your own shit, unable to move, coughing fluid out of your lungs; dignity is the second death which whispers in your ear ‘ now do you want to live on these terms?’

They say we make of ourselves what we will. I am what remains, and I believe I have a story to tell.

It’s not a dystopian story about shit, despair and loss, not because those things didn’t happen, but I could have read, imagined and written about those things, before the man I was became the man I am.

As Sebald shows, it’s easy to imagine yourself to be in a dark place, we have examples enough; but beauty, hope and resilience? Well that’s quite another thing.

I work now with insights I could not have previously had: The impossibility of permanence, the transience of success, and the necessity of living fiercely and fearlessly; these are my themes. The original me, might have died, but I’m more alive now than I ever was.

In 2016 my solo show The Painted Garden:An Autobiography in Paint, documented this, and for 2018 my current body of work Beyond Here will reflect upon the landscapes of memory and experience that make up the stories about who we believe we are, choose to be and imagine where we come from.

My media of choice is memory, I use words to stimulate how people think, and paint when there are no more words. You can view and read examples of this in The Painted Garden catalogue (posted to you) at my website – (referencing my 2016-18 projects, rather than my teaching works), and on my blog


In or out? It doesn’t matter – Beyond Here is in my diary. It’s always good to think and reflect; but to act, that’s the thing: see you at the show.


Back on Solid Ground

It all boils down to reality doesn’t it?

Regular readers of this occasional blog (to whom I extend both my incredulity and gratitude), may recall that I have been grappling with Cezanne, or more specifically his ideas about Art.


Cezanne at his best – well for me at least – a French student of mine who grew up with the view says that it doesn’t look like that. He’d be pleased I suspect

Now I’m not an academic – I have no interest for instance in when he was born, worked, died, whom he married or any of that guff. Like any self respecting artist I simply wish to steal his best ideas.

Picasso would approve.

So what were Cezanne’s ideas?

Where to start… my favourite is the idea of temporality and mutability. So in essence Cezanne postulates that we simply don’t experience things in the way that a traditionally composed painting – or a photograph for that matter – suggests.  A stiff, fixed, perspectival view is all very well; but it’s hardly experiential.

We see and experience things temporally, and more than that we know more about a motif than we see when we look at it (I’m straying a little beyond Cezanne here).  Cezanne was non conventional in his use of perspective, because he knew that the ‘proper’ way of painting it made little sense if the point of painting, was to record how something looked to him.

So in comes a willingness, if not to abstract, then to create visual ambiguity. The aim? To make something look how it felt to see it, not how it was.  I like that, and it’s a keeper.


looking into Gordale, A natural cathedral or citadel of limestone.My attempt in the woods of Bacon – to ‘deepen the mystery’ Work in progress 48×60″

Take this to its logical conclusion – and Braque did – we get multiple simultaneous perspective. Take that on and it’s a short step to Abstraction (with an A, not an a). Cezanne didn’t take these steps because he never lost his wonder at the power of great, significant Art.

So what makes Art significant? My reading is that a work of Art has to have gravitas, visual power and for want of a better word ‘orchestration’.  A Poussin for instance oozes all of that. Cezanne’s works might be unconventional in his use of perspective but they reveal his respect for the Form.

His compositions and colours are  never glib, but sober, dignified, significant. Never stooping – as I have shamefully done – to zombie expressionism , he built his works so that each passage builds with and upon the next to become a greater whole.

It’s hard to grasp, and contradictory to his ideas of non fixed perspective (but then all great artists are contradictory). So by following the principle of orchestration we can reimagine a scene as having Macro and Micro passages;  colours for instance, but this might apply to value, temperature, opacity or any other range parameter we choose.

In simplistic colour terms a simple Cezannian (if I might coin that phrase) landscape might be divided into blue for the sky, and green for the ground – so two Macro areas. Within those we want lots of close interest, a symphony of blue green, blue, blue violet, (in various permutations of value, opacity or saturation), and then the same again for the greens.

Fill the Macro areas with those smaller marks and it becomes more visually interesting. Put the right small marks together in the right order and you have Micro colour planning  and that’s symphonic if you get it right. Cezanne did.

It’s not glibly sloshing paint about, it’s not regurgitating photographic detail, it’s looking at a very ordinary scene and elevating it by being selective, being rigorous and using aesthetic judgments, which when you come to think about it isn’t a bad definition of Art.

Another keeper. I was starting to like Cezanne.

Next a surprise. Cezanne was distinctly sniffy about Impressionism. Not that it wasn’t good or attractive  painting  – it could be both of those  – but for him Art (note the A) couldn’t be about something so ephemeral as a flash of light or a vagary of weather. By its very nature Impressionism was about visual effects not observed truths.


It’s an instance, but not Truth. Or so Cezanne would have me think. The peerless work of Monet.

A tough one for me , wedded as I am, to the ambiguous effects of wax and glaze. Could it be possible for me to view the Dales  as an opportunity for great Art rather than a theatre for transient light effects?

I’m struggling with that one, because I’ve never been stopped dead in my tracks by what Cezanne terms great Art. Poussin? It might be dignified, significant, cadenced and all that give me a ravishing Turner any day.

Now a confession. I stumbled across a show of Cezanne’s greatest works one day in London. I hadn’t expected to see them ( I was there for my hit of Turner and Rembrandt in those days), but I had the good sense to take the opportunity.  Well reader, I was underwhelmed.

To my untrained eye they looked a bit drab, a bit blocky a bit like poor Cubism. I certainly didn’t feel any urge to spend time with them.  I know. But – and this is important – I’ve never forgotten that I didn’t get it.

But, back to reality.  So we’re moving on from fixed perspective, the certainty of observation and all that implies. We’re also thinking about the work in terms of orchestration which demands we never loose sight of aesthetics and visual design.

So, progress, but not victory. I’ll leave you this time with some works in progress.  Here are the Dales, solid, structural, foursquare and honestly painted. It’s not great Art, but then it’s not a pastiche, a painted photo , a bit of zombie expressionism (see my previous blog  post), or another of my long running tributes to Turner. If nothing else my understanding of reality has shifted.

For the time being I offer you a few as yet untitled and unfinished works.


Spare and majestic but divided architecturally by dry stone walls and enclosures. Work in progress 48×60″

It’s been a good week.


New starts and false finishes

IMG_3667 2

My low point. Pen Hill, all technique and no heart. I could do better, and I might well have done (watch this space …)

A series beckons, or rather looms on my work horizon. Twelve months ago it seemed like a good idea; serialise my new project of painting the Yorkshire Dales.

Now, I’m a landscape painter – or at least I was – so the challenge of painting a few hills didn’t seem like a challenge at all, more of a holiday really, with a bit of enjoyable work thrown in. More than that, I come from the bloody place – or the next best thing  – my birthplace in the Pennines would make the dales feel very familiar, surely?

The trouble is , I love the place.

So when I cranked out a few worthy and respectable looking paintings, I knew it wasn’t enough. The  awareness came, as the things do, in an unexpected place at a time of its choosing.

Jane and I were sat in a teashop – the Dales positively swarm with them – and I was idly flicking through an art blog on my i-phone while she placed her order at the counter. It wasn’t a great blog, but one phrase stood out ‘ Zombie Abstraction’ . This – the author assured me –  might be best described as aping a style without understanding it.


I’d applied a style I knew, and I was competent with – on my new subject, without taking the trouble to really get to know the place.  I don’t do zombie abstraction, but I had done zombie expressionism…


Nice sketch, but that’s all it is…

A quick look at Google confirmed my worst fears, Google’ contemporary art Yorkshire dales’, and there they (and potentially we) were, rank upon rank of zombie expressionists. A dash of solvent, a few drips, a hill vaguely marked out, a Turnerseque dash of glowering light.

There comes a time in every painter’s career when this is OK; pressure from the gallery to create pictures ‘like those, only a bit smaller‘ , pressure from the bank to sell a few, and pressure from oneself to feel successful.

But this wasn’t that time, and that couldn’t be me again. I’d worked uncharacteristically  hard to get myself a studio in the Dales, and could I really look myself in the face again if the best I could do with that opportunity is crank out a few commercial turkeys?

So, back to the drawing board.

Having a sincere, personal reaction to one’s subject, might seem to be the obvious first step to any Art project,  but wrapped up in complacency, buoyed by competence and goaded by deadlines; I’d not stopped to think. Or rather I’d not stopped to experience.

They say that creativity is a process, not an event, and so it is.  Now, I’m not here to give the impression that all of the wonderful artists who work in the dales are copyists, or have no artistic merit, just that there style is not – could not be –  a successful outcome for me.

craven herald

‘Modern Artists who step in Turner’s footsteps’ from The Craven Herald & Pioneer newspaper. It’s not bad painting, but it is a well trodden path…


I know what I’m painting now, won’t be widely well received, I know it won’t fit in galleries ( I like BIG), and I know that it won’t be easy viewing for lovers of my earlier works, but it will have the virtue of sincerity.

In the interim , I offer you some zombie expressionism, as evidence if of nothing else of my commitment to the iterative, destructive, creative process that is painting.


Save me from myself – Zombie Expressionism; The Oil painting Dead…


Inspiration not Perspiration

No posts for nearly six months now; regular readers of my blog can be forgiven for thinking I’d given up.

Nothing could be further from the truth, I’ve never worked harder or painted less.

Opportunity knocked when I broke my foot. OK it’s not cancer or anything at all serious, and I neither expect nor deserve a shred of sympathy for such a minor injury, but it did stop me painting. In fact I’ll rephrase that – it stopped me regurgitating the same old paintings, and gave me an opportunity to pause for thought.

Now stopping painting isn’t something I’ve done for nearly two decades, mostly because I teach it, but more importantly because I love out.

I now realise that one can be too much in love. I was in love with the physical act of painting, the pleasure of being competent at at it, and the satisfaction of ‘not having a bad day’. I used to tell my apprentice that amateurs have painters block, professionals paint through it; bad days are for wimps.

I stand before you chastened and corrected. Complacent artists don’t have bad days, because they – like me – are too busy cranking out the (all too competent and lucrative)  turkeys to stop and assess if what they’re doing is actually any good.

Stopping to think what one’s doing is fatal, like stopping on a bike, loose momentum and you crash. And crash I did.

Were my ideas valid? Could my vision be original? Was I painting with vision or from habit? Theses questions are as old as Art, and the answers only apply to the questioner.

Last night I was sitting with an old friend in my local, and by way of conversation, he asked how my new project of painting the Dales was getting on. The answer was, ‘I’ve done it nine times now , you tell me.’

And so I had – nine different ways of getting into the Dales, and this from a painter who made what little reputation he has on painting landscape. They all competent, some of them are commercial and parts of it might even be flirting with originality.

A breakthrough came when I stopped painting, and started to write again. visual inputs are not always or often the best route to visual outputs, so I swapped my sketchbooks for a notebook and journal.

I don’t write to publish or meet grammatical criteria. Impressions in words suit me. Here are my current oils – except they are just words yet; pictures will follow.

Erosion, change. Impermanence, chaos, destruction, a lack of absolutes, a landscape which makes these truths palatable by disguising them under beauty . 

Dark pines, cool and resinous. sudden light on distant grey green hills, sullen trees marching into purple veils of rain up the dale. Yellow white sunlight the wind whickering, never still. 

Cottages and bothies perched on hills or nestled in valleys the road curves and swerves over crest and through scarp to disappear into a tangle of full trees , a spire betrays its passage through to the next sunlit height . 

The smell of swaledale sheep, cowshit and the fat scent of sheds stuffed with ruminants carried-away by fresh breezes. The Unexpected sickly note of agricultural diesel and municipal bus seems incongruous. 

Sunlight raking over fields, old plough lines, the cut of glacial ice, the line of the land and the hand of prehistoric man are revealed. New hands build on it, their fences and gaudy bales wet in the weak sunlight- they will pass into nothing, leaving no trace for the light to find.

Tourists crinkle in cagools and clumsy too new boots. Aluminium walking sticks, bright neckerchief and wrap around sunglasses which serve to keep the truth out . 

Streams bridges, falls and vistas swerve and rise unexpectedly around the bends of never to be found again ways byways and  lanes. Drovers tracks and beguiling rights of way lie nettle strewn in the valleys, promising clean fresh heights. 

Black sheep pubs, trimmed stone and foresquare stand by the roads, over the far dale and down snakelike roads, make do pubs straggle their barns and outbuildings by sunken lanes. Parking is difficult they flash by; better in anticipation . 

Evening falls on the dale casting one side into night, the other under the spotlight of the purest softest light. Fingers of golden light search over the land picking out a window , a stream, the passing of a distant car. The light makes jewels which flash in defiance of the softly stepping  night . Distant coverts and scarps glow roseate, shadows lengthen and then it is gone. The light falls flat, the day has lost its thunder and the long twilight advances. 

Curtains of rain march down the dale chasing the day before them, the earth smells wet and foetid. Ozone and wet traffic dust lie like a blanket over the one road in. 

Spring sunlight bright green and golden like a torch cast into trees looking for signs of regrowth. Cold wind unexpected in the uplifting bright clarity of late winter reminds us this is only a foretaste of spring 

Cloud shadows bisect the land framing a spire here, a vale there, pictures pass before us, nature is never satisfied or still, coyly revealing its potential, keeping the whole truth to itself. 

The dales flow like transfixed water, lapping up to the edges of scarps. Spumelike, woods  flow and eddy in straggling lines against the crooked dry stone breakwaters and groynes , trees like flotsam dissolve and swirl into sunset lit vistas . High barns stand like lighthouses or stately ships out to sea, straining their anchored foundations against the inexorable rise and fall of the land; a record of change.

Name giving, the rivers scratch out their long lost fame down each dale,  broad valley and high walls mute testament to a lost roaring torrents

Long dead trees now sunken into peat, we walk on treetops. The present sinks inexorably into the future.

I look now to turn impressions into visions, but I’m nervous of painting instances when I might find bigger truths beneath them, if I persist. This week I’m teaching a Masterclass on Cezanne, who rejected the colourful vaporous instances of Impressionism to find a more profound, solid truth behind what he saw.

Perhaps Cezanne is the gate and the key? Picasso thought so, I shall see.




‘We can learn nothing from the Old Masters’

Coming to the end of a five day course it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve achieved.

Was it five days well spent helping people to realise their dream to become better painters, or five days I’ll never get back?

Ask the same question in most art tutors and you’ll get a quixotic answer, ‘Art cannot be taught’ . Leaving aside the obvious point that the whole aim of any college is to teach, does that mean I’m wasting my time?


What one can’t impart is that spark of original genius which animated the brushes of painters like Velasquez or the imagination of Picasso, but it’s all to easy to throw one’s hands in the air and say that these things cannot be taught, and therefore the whole thing shouldn’t be taught.


Aesop by Velasquez, technical skill is a solid basis for creative innovation, but there’s precious little of that here; this is bravura technical skill but not, I think, vision.


Watching me watching you. Las Meninas is a work of originality, insight and genius underpinned by years of unglamorous craft.

But where did artists of that calibre start? With the basics of course, for while ephemeral genius might come unbidden, its visualisation and realisation must be built on the  concrete skills of Painting (note the capital P), and it’s precisely these skills which art colleges need to turn their hands and energies to, rather than shooting straight for some kind of conceptual end game.


The style that launched a thousand representational ateliers. Too much craft is a bad thing. because flawless technique isn’t the point of Art if it doesn’t flower into visionary genius. Sorry John.

True, one can hardly expect every competent painter to turn those craft skills into a means of expressing some personal creative genius, but that equation doesn’t reverse. Even geniuses need the craft to express their ideas in a way we can all benefit from.


Creative vision will always trump technical skill, but you’ll always need a sound grasp of the latter. Bacon’s screaming pope might be visionary but its technically competent too.

I wonder  – I really do – if that’s not the central omission in our state Art education.

It’s commonplace to bemoan the fact that Art isn’t being taught because those who teach it were not themselves taught to paint, and certainly the growth of practical teaching studios such as mine do nothing if not bear witness to that sad fact.

Worse still, those who are taught to paint, often lack the plurality to embrace contemporary practice. Ateliers always teach great skills, but I wonder if the world really needs more classically trained painters? It’s not useful to impose a style upon creative minds by insisting this Art is valid and that type as not.

So I’m for a middle ground, although I understand compromise is so very unfashionable these days. Enough craft to enable creativity, but not a diktat on how those skills should be used; that attitude should have ended after 1874 and Impressionism.

How wonderful it would be if we could prepare young – would be – artists with the practical and technical skills they need to express themselves before they took on the very necessary and useful conceptual training on offer at university.

All that’s necessary are the basics:

  • The use and creation of grounds, boles and gesso
  • Ditto that of mediums
  • The central role of Value in creating the illusion of Form
  • The key processes of painting (direct, ebauche, indirect)
  • Understanding how to read and use a triadic colour wheel
  • How to use brushes, rags and knives

Learning the craft of painting so they can become artists. The trick is not to confuse the input with the output. The craft of painting is not an end in itself but an enabler.

Once one has the things inspiration if it comes can be expressed, and it can be done in just a week with a few willing minds. Over five years of high school and two of college it doesn’t seem much to ask, yet every week I work with people whose creative spark has been inhibited by their inability to put thoughts on canvas.

So not a week wasted, but a week seeding the ground in case originality and genius arrives to enable it to root and flower.

‘Nothing To Do with the Genius of Turner’

A slow news day has netted in Mr Gove’s latest contribution to British public life; his confident assertion that the Turner Prize has ‘nothing to do with the genius of Turner.’

Now, I’m no fan of what Mr Gove has previously termed Art which ‘celebrates ugliness, nihilism and narcissism’, but only because it’s easier to knock up a powerful negative image than create a positive uplifting one. As much as I admire the terrible vision Bacon, I infinitely prefer the utopian images which Bonnard conjured up from nostalgia and memory. Suburban, bourgeois, comfortable – but there you are, my taste is as valid as yours.


Hurst’s macabre vision. Not for me, but only because it’s easier to shock than delight. A lesson I learned in my career in advertising, and that personal, subjective judgement has nothing to do with the merit of his work. 

But personal taste is no measure of merit, and it seems nonsensical to me to dismiss an established and respected Art competition with what amounts to a half baked comparison between Marten , Turner, Holman Hunt and – of  all people – Ruskin.

One can’t really compare Picasso with Titian, they both painted wonderfully, innovated and used paint but that’s about it, and in the same vein is it reasonable or desirable to compare Turner prize winners with the great artists of the past?

Interestingly , a friend passed on a catalogue of Turner prize winners to me last week, and just through the lens of a decade of so it’s amazing how quickly what was once avant grade has become  – almost – establishment.  It’s harder now to see Hurst, Doig, Kapor and Offili as the cutting edge, but they were, and as Greyson Perry memorably observed, ‘everything was contemporary once’.


Art moves on, what was once new very quickly becomes routine. How can we spot what will be regarded as great art in 500 years time? I don’t know, but replicating what was new isn’t the answer… 

The difficulty here I suspect for Mr Gove – and most of us – is how to identify what will become the ‘good’ art of the future. One of his heroes Ruskin, famously got it wrong when he railed against the (then revolutionary) works of Whistler.

Now I don’t always get it, and I for the record I can’t love anything quite so devoid as aesthetic beauty as Marten’s assemblages, but I can understand why they are good and compartmentalise my taste from their merit.

The answer of course  is to rely on the judgement of people who have totally immersed themselves in the world of contemporary art to the point where they can make sound, comparative judgements about the merit of various nominees. There must be a word for them , let’s call them for the purposes of this blog ‘experts’.

Hang on , we don’t do experts any more, because the ‘experts’ were THE PROBLEM which we’ve all so democratically and wisely marginalised with our Brexit vote and maybe a hatred of experts telling us what to do and think is Mr Gove’s issue.

‘Who are expert judges to tell us what’s good and what we should like?’, seems to be the strident cry from Mr Gove? If so this reading of the prize is facile, the Turner prize simply informs us which artists – in the opinions of experts – have the most merit; whether we like what they produce on an aesthetic level  or admire their intellectual rigour lies within our remit, as my feelings about the British Art Exhibition bear witness.

It seems to me – as no expert – that great Art is not some simple clever one liner – to paraphrase Will Gompertz, but about universal truths, enduring ideas and us. Marten’s works are thoughtful and full of depth and intellectual rigour, and they might endure if they speak forcefully about human truths half a millennium from now.

Time will tell us if our current art experts were right, but if we position Turner as an ambitious, driven, visionary artist willing to steal ruthlessly from the past to reimagine the future then it seems to me that the Turner Prize and its winners have everything to do with the great man.

sun setting over a lake, Tate

It’s about innovation, not respect for  tradition. What’s not to get Mr Gove? New ideas have to be taken on trust, but their enduring value is a longer game. 



“The ultimate biscuit tin image”

So it’s crunch time for Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, or “the ultimate biscuit tin image” of Scotland: a bulky stag set against the violet hills and watery skies of an isolated wilderness,” according to The Sunday Herald.

I can’t imagine anybody in the contemporary art world shedding a tear for its’ loss after nearly two decades on loan to The National Gallery of Scotland, mind you. Because if any picture ever summed up the cliched irrelevance of Victorian art then surely this is it, and it’s not the one I would rescue from the fire should the building ever take.

But – and this is a big but – did you ever get the feeling you were missing something? Just before we metaphorically chuck it on the bonfire, isn’t it worth reflecting on what it’s worth?

This, after all, might have been the image that sold a million shortbread fingers, but does that alone make it bad Art? And if it does, then why do so many people like – no let’s admit this, love it?

The nub of this it seems to me is that this isn’t so much a painting – as an idea, a concept, a way of life, a vision. It’s the Victorian vision of Romantic Highland Scotland distilled into a striking image.


Imagine painting one image which will encapsulate an idea of the Romantic Highlands, this is heather, weather, whisky, wilderness and wildlife all in one. We might be bored of the image but such economy of means should be admired

Landseer was good at this. He did visual expressions of BIG ideas; as his Lions in Trafalgar square nobly attest to an idea of Empire. It’s just a pity he also stooped to expressing smaller, incidental, almost trivial things; the royal’s favourite hounds and horses for instance, maudlin expressions of grief and cutsie pictures of anthropomorphic pets. Popular taste it seems quickly loses it savour, while big ideas transcend .


Landseer did big ideas and that’s not a common skill, as the efforts on the fourth column in Trafalgar square regularly attest.


He also did popular taste, The Old Shepherds chief Mourner is harder to see today as great Art.

So it might have graced a million biscuit jars, but I’d argue that its’ enduring, inexplicable popularity, far from putting The Monarch Of The Glen beyond the pale with the contemporary artist should make us interested in why it’s so enduringly popular.

Buy ‘us’ I mean visual artists,  and the ‘why’ it seems to me, is easy to explain. Yes, it’s popularist, cliched even, and yes it reflects its’ time, but, and this is important, it’s the distillation and communication of a complex web of ideas into a simple, strong , striking and memorable visual image.

And, when you think about it; how many paintings, works of art even, fit that criteria? The Angel of the North by Gormley, Mother and Child Divided by Hurst – these are of the same quality: simple, strong, striking, memorable, visual images.

Bizarrely, that most brand-aware of branded goods companies, Diageo, feels it no longer needs to own the painting as it has (and I quote) ‘no direct link to (their) business or brands’, but then when did they ever sell stags, or Scotland or the Scottish dream and how did the value of understanding how to create a big visual band cease to be important at Diageo?

We might not mourn its’ passing, but we ought to reflect on the reasons behind the popularity of The Monarch Of the Glen.