Give it to me in Black and White

I’m writing a series for The Artist magazine, but where to begin?

Here’s the trouble with magazines. In a class I have a qualified audience – oil painters or would be oil painters who want to improve their oils, but a magazine, with a readership of thousands,interests ranging from casual sketching to full blown classical oils;  what can you do?

One has to go past mediums and genres to try and find things of utility for readers of all abilities, whatever they choose to work in.

That’s the ideal, and of course as I get into my series I’ll have to get specific about oils, but it’s always nice to start with a BIG IDEA.

Big Idea: 70% of your visual system perceives the world in black and white, and therefore tones – or Values as we painters call them – are the most important part of any painting project.  Or to put it another way , if you get the Values wrong you can only be 30% successful.

Now that’s the kind of concept that can apply to any branch of Art, from simple pencil sketching, to iPad drawing to full blown classical portraiture.

I teach this a lot, and I’m always amazed at both how quickly taking this simple universal concept on improves people’s work, and then, inevitably,  that look on their face – often subsequently vocalised – ‘Why wasn’t I told this at Art School?’

So here are the things I think you must be taught at Art School.

  • The fact that your brain uses Value for it’s first and principal assessment of a visual image
  • That colour is a phenomenon of light, and therefore can be made to appear to glow, be flat etc imply by managing that interaction
  • That Art is seen by the eyes, but processed in the brain- all Art is psychology. The Masters exploited this from the early Renaissance – although they didn’t use the same words as you and I.
  • Visual ambiguity promotes psychological interest
  • The Scientific use of a colour wheel will free you from perception and promote creativity
  • That camera and device lenses do not see things, and certainly can’t record images as we do.
  • That Art is different to craft (applied art, painting, printmaking, filming are crafts).
  • That painting (craft) is a taught skill, not a God given one.
  • That not everything is Art, and by extension of that not all Art is equal.
  • That everything was contemporary once, and by extension of that nothing should be arbitrarily ruled out as ‘invalid’ on chronological grounds

Well, this is beginning to sound like a manifesto for change in Art education…I’ll go for a little lie down before I start to rant about the number of perfectly intelligent, wonderfully able and incredibly enthusiastic Art students who have gone through what passes for Further and Higher Art education in the UK.


Peploe understood the value of Value, a wonderful painter whose popularity with people who ‘know nothing about Art‘ is inexplicably strong. When will we start to appreciate that good use of line colour and value are timelessly relevant to visual arts practitioners?

If you’re under 25 and would like a proper education in Art, you may be interested to learn that I offer what may well be the UK’s only full time Apprenticeship in Painting.  If you’re a big older, then you might find one of my courses more to your taste, either way drop a line to and tell us how you think we can help.

Indirectly we go abroad every day…

Sometimes they come out of the blue – thoughts that clarify things quite other than that they were intended to explain. So it was with this elegant explanation about the importance of our international trade by Sir Rupert Pennant-Rea ‘indirectly all Britons go abroad every day‘.

And so we do, even the most xenophobic UKIP supporter, little Englander and ‘draw up the drawbridge’ Brexiteer is affected like it or not by what we import and on which terms.

As with economics, so with Culture.

Art infuses and informs the everyday, from the way we package our groceries, to the colour of our cars, the design of our homes or the clothes we wear.  We might equally say ‘indirectly all Britons go to the gallery every day.’

In the early 20th century artists became keenly aware that easel painting if not exactly dead, needed to do a bit more to avoid appearing comatose. The answer of course was to stop pretending paintings should look ‘real’ and find a real use for them.


Its a an absolutely accurate drawing of an absolutely accurate sculpture, let’s not pretend it’s anything more than craft. Matisse understood that Art was more than this…


Matisse, Picasso, Vuillard, Monet understood that Art had to be applied not just to canvases but to life. Decorative, beautiful and Applied were in, illusions of depth, clever tricks of reality and impeccable sight size measuring all seemed very 19th century.


Breathtaking technique allied to a breathtaking lack of relevance. Sargent simultaneously at his best and most pointless.

This is the real reason Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla – and all of the ateliers who aped their backward looking illusory style  – were so confidently labelled ‘irrelevant ‘ by new artists and thinkers.  Sargent can impress with his technical virtuosity, be of interest for revealing his time – just as Holbein does – but does his work resonate beyond the studio and lofty world of ebauche painters with a penchant for loose realism? I think not.

The deepest roots and strongest branches of Art are universal. Colour, Value, Design, Aesthetic. Artists teach us not just to look but how to see. They select, they simplify, they elevate and – above all – they democratise.


In 1920, Monet began studies for the decoration of a room on its own in a pavilion that was to be built in the garden of Hôtel Biron, owned by the Duc de Trévise. The planned decoration consisted of friezes with wisteria motifs placed above a panel decoration with the water-lily theme. Painting moved away from the easel back to Applied Art and popular culture – when did we stop getting this?

Build something, design a poster, develop a range of fabric, choose a range of colours for new products and Art creeps in. Monet taught us how to reimagine colour, Matisse that design was Art, Picasso that primitivism and simplicity were direct pathways to understanding.

The true challenge facing today’s artists is to build upon these cultural achievements. The general public know deep in their collective memory that Art was a driving force in how life looked and that contemporary Art has consistently failed to meet this test.

When we like an unlikely combination of colours, the juxtaposition of definite and vague, a bold use of pattern, a neatly asymmetrical design or an inherently pleasing proportion  we ‘indirectly go to the gallery’.

When we feel Art is ‘about nothing’, ‘inexplicable’ ‘baffling’ or ‘pointless’ it’s because it doesn’t meet the high bar set by artists  whose deep cultural significance flows like an underground stream through our everyday life. In the words of a Guardian critic on the recent British Art show , ‘I have seen every British Art Show since its inception in 1979. Except as barometers of the artistic and curatorial weather at the time, most have been forgettable’. 

The trick to not being forgettable, it seems to me, is to evoke and stimulate memory – build on the past, not consign it to history. People know what they like, and while its true that people can only know what’s familiar, Art has proven time and again that popular taste is a good barometer for evolutionary change, and critical taste is conservative and elitist.

Art should challenge, it should inform, but above all it must communicate by adding to what came before in a language we understand and that moves us.


‘I could do that’, ‘ its not Art’, ‘What’s it all about?’ We have to start taking the wisdom of the masses seriously and stop meeting incomprehension with derision and scorn. If our visual communication isn’t communicating, who’s at fault? Whipp wants ex-employees of the Longbridge car plant to restore this so he can drive it to the last BAS8 venue in Southampton – now that’s a test of public engagement .

Call it the wisdom of the masses, call it what you will; the problem is nobody is listening: Down with the revolution.




‘As insane as the people who admire them’

A snippet from a piece on Turner which got me thinking about how one should establish, maintain and develop one’s painting style…

Let’s begin with the testimony of the painter Frith in the celebrated case of Whistler vs. Ruskin

‘He (Frith) was then asked what he thought about Turner, and in particular whether Turner was an idol of Ruskin’s.

‘Yes,’ Frith agreed, ‘and I think he should be an idol of everybody.’

‘Do you know one of Turner’s works at Marlborough House called “the Snowstorm”?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Are you aware that it has been described by a critic as a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’

‘I am not.’

‘Would you call it a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’

‘I think it very likely I should,’ said Frith, causing more laughter.  ‘When I say Turner should be the idol of everybody, I refer to his earlier works, but not to his later ones, which are as insane as the people who admire them.’

And so it goes: invention invites ridicule.


Turner’s Salute: Original vision invites ridicule…

It’s the easiest thing in the world to become an admired painter – just paint in a style which other people approve of. Turner did it and was fêted.

Starting with dark ‘Dutch style’ works Turner quickly moved on to lighter, brighter, Italianate works inspired by Claude. Approbation followed as night follows day, but in his heart of hearts Turner must have known he was re-imagining the works of other men.

For many painters (and almost any gallery) this is enough, to be the next Kurt Jackson, Adrian Ghenie, Jenny Saville, Peter Doig .. just look at a serious Open Art competition near you.


Jenny Saville’s outstanding work; an original vision I think…


Creativity starts with imitation…

But is it enough for you to be a copyist? Be honest now. Picasso was very honest when he reflected on how he – just like Turner – spent his career working towards what was expected by the art critics of his day:

‘I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me.

By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques , I became famous and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches.  And today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich.  But when I am alone with myself I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters: I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere.’

So the question and the lesson is this dear reader: approbation is one thing, satisfaction and creative fulfilment quite another. As I’ve written elsewhere in this Blog, developing one’s style from a great artist is absolutely normal ; just don’t kid yourself it’s anything more than a means to an end.

The wonderful Andrew Salgado (who painted the blue reverse Jenny Saville above) moved on to much greater, things and now is the unhappy object of thousands of Salgado-a -like  painters. Let’s hope they discover their own creative visions.

Back to insanity, and the point of this note:

A process is at work here: start by finding a painter you admire, and get that style under your skin. When the plaudits arrive, don’t swallow your own PR and convince yourself that you are a creative genius; your work is just a mirror to other popular styles.

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

Buttermere by Martin Kinnear – or is it Ruisdael, or Turner? Anyway it sold and I could have painted these until I died in harness and lived very well.

Now do something original in the knowledge they’ll be no shortage of people queuing up to say that ‘you’ve lost the plot’. I know this to be true because my sell out show, The Painted Garden was a radical departure from what I’d been selling to clients through galleries for years. It was a huge creative, not to mention financial risk, but when I considered the alternative, Picasso’s warning rang in my ears.
Version 2

‘What have you done?’ was a memorable comment. About 50 large canvases, and gaining a new creative freedom was the answer.

Here’s to the insane.



The Shock of the Old

I come to this from a very enjoyable chat with a very talented young artist who is trying her level best to make it as a painter. So here’s the thing:

Her post degree work is very much a reflection of Approved Art – and by that I mean Art which deals with the ‘post internet’ age (whenever that happened, I thought we were still in it). It’s about visual media, broadcast, interactivity and all that jazz.

These she was assured, are impossible things to address with such a resolutely analogue process such as painting: It’s a fool’s errand to use paints when a keyboard is to hand , seems to be the doctrine passed down from the Wise Masters of our Art Schools. .


Technology might change the potential means of artistic expression, but the idea that those means should change just because they can, feels like a desperate attempt to substitute works of genuine substance with stuff that is merely NEW.

One of the tests of contemporary Art is (apparently), that ‘it could only have been painted now’. To adhere to this folly is to have the tail of technique wagging the dog of artistic intent.

The result? A succession of students falling over each other to digitally manipulate, to video, to broadcast, to pod cast , to interact and be interacted with. The output it seems is everything, the input sadly can be anything.

The tragedy here is that it’s really not that difficult, to find inputs of substance – in fact you already know and have experienced most of them  – because Art is really just about things we all care about – Global Truths.

Global Truths; we like to meet each other, we generally focus on inconsequential things but try not to think about our mortality, we keep in touch otherwise we become lonely, we are interested in money, other people’s lives and sex. We worry about our health, we tend to be self obsessed  – you get the idea.

In short we’re Human and we’re interested in Human Truths. A list of the world’s favourite websites reveals this to be resolutely true.

And here’s the point, whatever technological means of communication come along in the future, people are fundamentally interested in people.  The job of Art, is to be a mirror to all of this , speak to us directly, honestly and powerfully about where we came from, where we are and where we are going.

This was the case in 1669 when Rembrandt painted his greatest and most touching self portrait of hubris, defeat and regret, and it was certainly true in 1842 when Turner at last began to come to terms with his own mortality in his elegiac picture Peace, Burial At Sea.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Peace – Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Mortality has will always be in fashion, as Mr Hurst will assure you.

Would the ‘post internet age’ make these works substantially different? We still fail, we still regret, we still die, so when did painting suddenly  loose it’s potential to express these things?

I would argue, the very strength of painting is its analogue nature – because we’re not machines, we are imperfect, ambiguous, make – and forgive – mistakes. We’re imaginative, curious  and impulsive. Painting, it seems to me, far from being irrelevant, is the perfect way of capturing us.


The Shock of the Old: failure comes to all of us: Rembrandt’s work is about Human Truths, his media and his subject are imperfection

Machines work against that, they see and record through a high resolution precision lens  not an imperfect eye, they remember and record every detail, not just the bits that stood out, they record time as it happened, not how it seemed to run… I really can’t see the fit.

This is as good a reason as any to get engaged with the paintings of Turner, soon to be revisited at the wonderful Tate Contemporary Margate,  in Turner: Adventures in Colour.  

Turner’s early works were pretty standard for the day, but his later pictures became images not simply  of the Blue Rigi, or Venice or the Temeraire, but meditations on the human condition.  As Bacon observed, the role of the painter is to deepen the mystery, and for the life of me I can’t see when conjuring up images of the mysteries of our existence became all so very 20th century…

sun setting over a lake, Tate

Sun Setting Over A lake. Of a lake but about coming to terms with your mortality. Irrelevant? I think not.

If celebrating imperfection and Human truths is your thing, then you’ll be pleased to hear that my Painted Garden Show went so well it’s being committed to disc, and digital PDF, so you can celebrate the very human vicissitudes of life by seeing it on your computer. Now there’s an irony for you.


Of gardens but about people; how very analogue of me, but don’t worry you can see it all online soon , how very contemporary.




Who’s it for and why should you care?

Painting is Dead. I’ve been hearing this for years.

Actually it might be alive a bit, let’s hold a mirror under its nose.

For a ‘dead Art’ it’s looking pretty rosy, every time I go to a blockbuster exhibition it’s on painting, of paintings, by painters; with ticket holders queuing around the block to get in. Not bad for a corpse.

Lazarus like,  Painting has dragged itself once again from the sepulchre in the form of Turner: Adventures in Colour at the wonderful Tate Contemporary, Margate, from Oct 8 2016.

turner adventures in colour

Wonderful, because it’s in Margate – a town redolent of its glorious and faded past and very relevant to Turner, it’s most famous resident artist. A visit to Margate soon reveals his fascination with the place (beyond the earthy charms of Mrs Booth of course); the light here is breathtaking, almost Venetian, and it’s to Venice where we must go to get under the skin of this show.

By his mid 20’s, Turner was knocking out dark tonal oils for fun. It’s a simple method based on ébauche, and used by all of the greats from Caravaggio to Van De Velde. The thing about ébauche is that it’s a tonal, dark, sturdy, almost protestant way to paint. Great for Dutch Boats in A Gale, Plagues of Egypt and all that, but not any answer to the luminous, ephemeral works of that greatest of Masters, Claude.

Claude did subtle. His pictures are nothing if not confections of colour, light and melting forms. If Turner wanted to be taken seriously he had to get Italianate.

I’ve not seen the show yet (I didn’t see it in France), although I know the work & have written about it for Artists & Illustrators, and I can’t wait to go.

So what do I hope to take from the show? I love Turner’s work and admire the man, but the last thing I want to be is a Turner-a-like, so it is to the ideas behind the work rather than its’ techniques which I’ll turn when the show starts.

For me, Turner’s key idea is ‘orchestration’ that’s to say his pictures are not of discrete things ( a house, a boat, a tree) but continuities joined by light and obfuscated by atmosphere. This, I think, is what he meant when he wrote of ‘Rembrandt’s mystic veil of colour, pierced by form.’

sun setting over a lake, Tate

Cohesion and unity of vision, that’s the key to it

When my painting starts to look disjointed, I recall the unity, the vision, the cohesion of Turner’s work and the clouds of doubt lift.

A Show that needs to explain why it matters.


Great Idea but nobody cared…

I’ve just been to The British Art Show 8 , it’s been peregrinating around the UK for some time and according to the organiser’s blurb, ‘ is a touring exhibition taking place every five years that provides a vital overview of the most significant contemporary art produced in the UK‘, so I was really looking forward to it.

‘Everything,’ as Greyson Perry remarked, ‘was contemporary once’, and it’s in a spirit of optimism and open mindedness that I go along to these things.

Here’s the thing: I absolutely love and embrace Art, in all its forms, it’s my job, my passion, my work, my free time – in short my vocation.

In marketing terms that makes me a dead cert for being interested in, and being prepared to work at a show; imagine my disappointment then when it turned out to be inaccessible.

Let me qualify that; there were great ideas there but nothing that engaged.

For instance one of the artists sandwiches bits of code and numbers in his sculptures which are described as ‘detailed sculptures derived from the complex interior mechanisms of locks. Embedded within their layers of metal, stone and resin are numbers, letters and months that hint at things of emotional importance: ‘birthdays, anniversaries, deadlines, deaths’. Describing each of these sculptures as a ‘metaphor for content just out of reach’, (the artist) intends their encrypted, enigmatic forms as ‘an invitation to unravel’, unpick or decode.’

So what?

The forger Keating once remarked that he liked to imagine what it would be like to take a drink with each of the artists he copied, to get a feel for their personality.

This is interesting insight: as an art enthusiast he felt – as I do – that Art really does capture and convey something of the spirit of its creator.

Now in that spirit, could you imagine being sat next to a person at a dinner party droning on about hiding tangental bits on information which may – or may not – allude to significant dates in their lives – in inert objects?

At what point was this artist encouraged in the idea that the best, the most visually stimulating, most memorable, most compelling way to get the common man to think about ‘content just out of reach’ was to stick a few random numbers in bits of sculpture  made to look like a squashed lock?

I’ve just spotted my schoolboy error; maybe it’s not for the common man, but the art intelligencia?

But hang on, in that case when did it become OK to stretch a pretty thin metaphor (locks = being locked out of something), and then wrap it up in some inherently everyday objects  and remark to oneself ‘my work is done.’

I mean no disrespect, and this artist has done good things, but (and I was there) nobody was interested.

I’m just not convinced that the ‘stretch a metaphor’ school of Art is so  inherently good, that’s it’s absolutely OK not to bother with making it accessible.

I get it that Art has to reflect the Human Condition, and that in this 21st Century should reflect the influence of mass imaging technology in all its forms, but when did we loose sight of the basic need for Art to be also an engaging  and stimulating  visual medium?

I took a great deal of very good things from the British Art Show.

That the internet can be dangerous for innocents (a good film reimagined as a very dark fairy tale): Imagined and imaginary people are interesting subjects for artists (well that’s not really new, how many painters witnessed the Passion of Christ?):  Dialogue from sampled words and phrases can be interesting out of context (exquisite corpse anyone, it’s a great Surrealist technique?).. it’s not at all bad but is it really ‘the most significant contemporary art produced in the UK’?

If the test of Art is that it touches us by revealing aspects of the Human Condition – my condition, your condition, then it was all Art; but it all rather felt as though the idea was an end in itself.

Making that idea, explicable and engaging was evidently all a bit crass. ‘Far better,’ I seemed to hear, ‘to work i in an self consciously aesthetic manner’, which proclaimed THIS IS ART and forget about all the inconvenience of making  it compelling.

The potential was there, so was the talent, but the passion was absent and so, dear reader, were the public.

The linger time (now there’s a phrase to conjure with) in the galleries was inversely proportional to the importance of the work, because most of these artists just couldn’t see the point of making their work accessible and engaging, so the public didn’t bother to really think about the great ideas on offer.

If the British Art show isn’t engaging the British people then on what measure is it ‘the most significant’.

I think we need a bit more, I really do.

Well there goes my Arts Council approval, critical acclaim and funding. I’ll console myself with this note which I received recently from a member of the ‘art interested’ general public, which I’ll quote in full

Hi Jim,

I spoke to you at The Painted Garden Exhibition in early August with my wife & a friend.  We were all greatly impressed.  You were kind enough to show us around & enthuse about Matin’s work.  At the time I had not the words to express myself properly, so I asked for your email address so that I could unburden myself in the written word.

Re: The Painted Garden Exhibition  an autobiography by  Martin Kinnear 

I found the experience profoundly moving and just wanted/needed to say something by way of feedback as a response.  Many others will speak more articulately than me & with greater knowledge, but not with greater feeling, admiration or gratitude.

The impact on entering the gallery is truly stunning.  To me this is the best contemporary art exhibition I have seen & my only yardstick for that definition is that it hits me so eloquently with its depth of beauty & with its exquisite language of colour.

There is a real sense that the Impressionist Masters have been superseded with the accumulation of every one of their lessons into a new exciting vision.

The information / explanation beside each painting adds depth & if placed together with the paintings as pages would make a worthy book.  Each painting too gives power to the whole & though they will soon be physically separated, they will always remain related & so reflect a power from the complete series.

Great to know that they will be reunited at the Sainsbury Centre at the UEA where the exhibition will reach a wider audience & surely bring national recognition to Martin.

All in all it rocks the heart and it moves the spirit to a higher realm of positivity.

If I speak with too much emotion, then I apologise, but that is not my fault but Martin’s & his journey & portrayal of emotional & visual experiences in a walled garden.

Thank you for this opportunity to email you. I have email copied your mother in by way of thanks to her & I hope you might pass on my comments to Martin himself.

I will pay a second visit shortly & may see you then.

All good wishes

Richard Hulett


I haven’t swallowed my own PR or fan mail, nor am I convinced that all Modern Art is bad, nor have I any agenda other than to create Art which informs and moves people.

None of the above makes me a ‘better artist’ than any of those in The British Art Show, but, judging by the public reaction to their ‘significant work’, nothing could induce me to set my mind to whatever set of loftily aesthetic criteria required of those wishing to become ‘significant’. I’ll stick with moving people to tears

I’m afraid that the gallery manager Jim, was a little over zealous in saying my work would be shown in a public gallery; it won’t of course because it engages and moves people, rather than seek to make me appear impossibly, aesthetically remote and well informed.

Rant over.

Should your interest in locks be inexplicably lacking or tangental, you can still visit my show until 4 September, whereupon it will be dispersed to collectors from the UK and beyond who were engaged and moved enough by it to part with their hard earned time and cash. Alternatively visit , fire up your online diary, pour over your bucket list and get with the zeitgeist.



‘it hits me so eloquently with its depth of beauty & with its exquisite language of colour.’ That’s why I get out of bed and create Art, but I’m not holding my breath for critical approval:-)


Energy & Motion Made Visible…



How do you paint that feeling of being imperfect in a world obsessed with perfection? ‘We Have To Dare To Be Ourselves, Oil 96×48″ is about celebrating one’s imperfections and getting on with life

‘What’s the point of Abstract Art?’ , I get asked this all of the time by students. The best answer of course is ‘What do you mean by Abstract Art?’.

The very act of taking the real world and transposing it onto a flat surface with paint is by definition an abstraction of reality – it’s just that we’re so used to seeing ‘real’ things as images that we’ve lost any wonder of the process.

But as this is a personal conversation between you and I, it would be nice to explain myself a little more cogently, just as we might over a coffee in the studio.

I would say that the definition of visual Art is something that makes us aware of our deeper feelings and emotions; illustration might inform or educate, but Art should move us.

Feelings might be jealousy, anger, joy, love, wonder, fear, admiraton or whatever, what they have in common of course is one cannot see them. You can paint a figure, draw a landscape or plot out an architectural sketch with a ruler, but how do you draw happiness?

If Art is about feelings, and feelings are the invisible, charged space between us and our situation, then all Art must be fundamentally Abstract; we can never paint what we feel , only allude to it.

The hope of great painters is to evoke feelings in their viewers, to paint not merely what was there, but how they felt about it, and that dear readers is as good an argument as you will find for the validity of abstraction.

Jackson Pollock described his Art as ‘energy and motion made visible‘ and it is that vein that I created The Painted Garden. Mine are not pictures of flowers, but paintings of Melancholy, Joy, Unexpected Loss, Sudden Fortune and Contentment; none of these things can be seen but they can certainly be felt.


How do you paint the bitter sweet feelings of nostalgia, memory and loss? ‘ Sometimes Our Light Goes Out’ Oil 48×36″

I invite you to view the show before it is dispersed to my collectors, if you can’t make it to Norfolk then drop me a line and I will send you images to meditate over and enjoy.



Time for a New Project?

Bob Atkins-221

Well, that went well… my bewildered ‘after sales’ look 

So my current show The Painted Garden has more or less sold out, and I’m sat on a pile of cash and fairly wallowing on a tide of public approval.


The thing is, and this is a sticky one artist friends and readers ; do I stick to what’s obviously a wining formula and paint ‘Return Of the Painted Garden’ , or chuck the whole thing in and start again?

Of course I simplify to make a point, The Painted Garden has been a big chunk of my creative life for two years and like any project it’s never so much finished, as assimilated, built upon, parked, postponed….but should it become the only thing I do?

This is a perennial problem for painters, and I think, a moment of danger. So many of the artists whose work I admired when I started painting in 2000, are painting more or less the same thing 16 years later.  If being an artist can be reduced to a singularity it might be this: ‘freedom of creative expression’.

I get that freedom of creative expression is a very noble idea until it meets the free market,and next months impending bills, I understand that not everybody feels a need to constantly reinvent themselves, and I accept that it makes sense to build one’s style and reputation in a consistent way.

And yet…

Then I look at artists I once admired – no revered – and feel sad when I see them ‘cranking out the turkeys’, it’s just such a bloody pointless waste of time, potential and talent. At some point they must have been original, must have felt vibrant, must have felt that thrill when somebody looked at their new work for THE FIRST TIME.

I claim no virtue here, as a casual Google search will reveal I’ve been stuck in many a rut, financial and otherwise, until 2016.

I don’t think I’m ready to give up that new buzz I got from presenting a whole new direction for my creative self, so it’s goodbye to gardens and hello to a whole new artistic direction for me as I’ve applied to hire a modest studio in The Dales.


It’s a bit cooler in the Dales  so Jane wore her knitted Burka! 

I haven’t got a clue how to paint them, or indeed what I’ll paint, but I’ll come to it with an open mind and very much look forward to the thrill of bringing some more fresh ideas to the New British Art Gallery in a couple of years, if ill living and overwork don’t carry me off first…

Meanwhile I have a few cracking canvases which never made it to the finished show, so unless and until I get the lease I’m looking for on a my new Dales studio, it’s back to the garden for me.


Opportunities? Don’t make me laugh.

Most days I receive notes from galleries or art competitions, promising to help to boost my art career, so it seemed useful to pass on a few words of advice from an old campaigner as it were.

The imputation behind of all this is that to become successful you have to get your work ‘out there’; but is that really the case?

Let’s start with your definition of successful. Is it enough to be successful to the point where your art pays for itself, or should it cover your mortgage, a second home, employees, that brand new range rover?

Measures of success are personal, but in 16 years of living and working  in the visual arts the most common aspiration I hear is ‘I just want to be in a gallery’.

So when I see e-mails flying into my i each day from galleries offering to do just that I get hacked off

Let’s start with Art Societies, of which I have to declare an interest. Despite making a very successful career as an artist and writing on the subject regularly for magazines I have absolutely no interest in joining one.

The people I know from Art societies are invariably nice, decent and talented people, but as Ken Howard wrote, to be in a society you have to be ‘clubbable’; that is to like the idea of committees, of approved styles, of rules, in short of membership. I’m not that kind of person, and as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog I feel that wanting to get into clubs can do a great deal of damage to the creativity of developing painters.

But leaving that aside, let’s assume that you want to get into an Art competition somewhere prestigious what are your chances, and if you do get in, what happens then?

When I started painting in 2000 getting in was very simple, you bought an entry, pitched up with paintings and (hopefully and in the fullness of time) received the nod. The whole exercise cost a few hundred quid, bearing in mind that it required you to buy into the competition, paint your stuff, frame it well, and then make 2-3 trips up to London (once to deliver, once to collect unselected works, once to collect unsold work). If you can tie this into gallery visits or work it’s not a bad proposition, but for most amateur painters it can really add up.

I’ve been fairly lucky with competitions as I’ve exhibited with the ROI, RBA and (inexplicably, given my entry) The Discerning Eye.

When you think about it, getting into a competition is a pretty big punt. First of all, one has to qualify for entry, be able to get to and from the venue and then produce work of a quality which has a chance of selection.

Once you factor in the size of the venue, appreciate that the amount of work which can be hung is fairly small, then take out the hanging allocation which is guaranteed to the members, and those from persons who are informally ‘ruled in’ (usually relatives, employees, affiliates, potential members etc) then the amount of space truly open for ‘competition’ is a fraction of the hang.

And if , by the way, you think I’m making this up, several of my students on a foundation art course several years ago asked my advice as to which of the pictures they had previously painted they should hang (not send for selection) in a very well known Open competition.  That’s an instance, not evidence of a systemic problem, but it does have a ring of authenticity to it when one looks at the work which is accepted.

These days it’s much easier to enter most things if not to succeed at them – you can, should you wish, enter work to be digitally pre-approved. This means that the competition organisers can make it far easier for more people to enter, but cannot of course physically hang more pictures, and leaves me with an uneasy feeling, which would be utterly assuaged if rejected works were declined with advice on how to improve them to meet the aims of the organisers.

Having exhibited with societies, and received a bit of favourable coverage, I can tell you that once you are accepted the earth doesn’t move, the ‘phone is unlikely to ring, and one is left with a feeling as to whether it was all worth it.

I could be wrong, and I know I should have used the times I was accepted to meet other members, ingratiate myself with the great and the good, and plan a set of pictures for the next show which builds on success; but  I’m just not ‘clubbable’, and don’t want to pay the price to become so.  The trick I think is to see any competition as a means to an end and any success in getting into one as the end of the beginning to paraphrase Churchill.

I don’t think for a second that societies are bad, although I know there not for me, nor do I think it’s all just a money making exercise – although it has the potential to be just that – nor do I deny that good original artists find their way to exposure through these competitions, it’s just that I wonder if there’s not a better way?

Art societies feel like a 20th-century solution to the problem of giving artists a meaningful outlet for their talents, and for the record,I like the digital alternative of online vanity galleries even less.

The solution, if there is one, is for artists to be happier with self-accreditation, or that of their local art clubs, and if that is impossible then the act of painting must become a reward in and of itself.

My advice? Set your own measures of success, the first of which must be ‘does making my work make me happy?’ When you can answer yes to that then the impulse to seek third party approval withers on the vine.

As it stands I’ve decided to do my bit and open The New British Art Gallery, an exhibition space for emerging artists who don’t want to enter a mammoth competition, join a society or dance to anyone else’s tune.

True, the gallery is focussed for most of the year on promoting the work of my diploma students (who as you will see categorically do not paint in a house style, much less mine), but real opportunities exist for talented artists to work with us and become known.


My current show The Painted Garden, wasn’t created as a commercial venture, nor was it painted to satisfy the criteria of a gallery or art society, or to meet the perceived needs of my collectors, it was purely and simply for the sheer joy of surviving a sudden illness and being alive and well enough to do it.

Last word. Don’t enter a competition- change your definition of success.




What Makes A Good Painting?

A couple of years ago one of my collectors came to my studio and offered me a house in exchange for the picture above. The same picture was on two separate  occasions offered for exhibition at the annual ROI competition in London and refused both times. How am I to understand these two very different reactions to the work?

This puzzled me for years, and bears examination for the benefit of all of the young and aspiring artists out there.

I decided to start painting in 2000 after a moderately successful  but unfulfilling career in advertising and marketing. I never reckoned that I was any good at it, nor did I suffer from a need to have my ego massaged by well meaning friends, but I knew what I liked and my work sold.

The above picture – Buttermere and Crummock Water (Oil 40×30″) – was the last , and I think best, of the pictures which I painted for my own selfish pleasure, it depicts how the fells feel rather than just how they look. I was pleased with it in 2005 and it pleases me in a different way today, however I understand and accept that it could never be accepted into a serious art show, because it’s not painted in an ‘approved’ style.

What do I mean by approved style? To paraphrase Betjeman , ‘approval of what is approved of is no approval at all’. Approval is being praised for reaffirming what is currently popular.

In other words art juries like to see other painters affirming how they choose to paint by producing similar works, while ‘ordinary people’ like what they like.

So it’s catch 22 for new artists – work in an popular, accepted and conventional style and become a critical success or do your own thing and take the consequences. One only has to look at the number of young artists scrabbling to be the next Peter Doig or Gerhard Richter with lookalike ‘original work’ to see just how damaging this critical imperative to conform can be.

A note from an occasionally exciting gallery in the SW dropped into my e-mail last week with what looked at a glance to be more of the same from the often brilliant Kurt Jackson. At first I thought he’d dropped his game a bit until I realised that their latest prodigy isn’t Kurt at all but a ‘Kurt-a -like’ parachuted in to meet the expectations (one assumes) of their clients (and creditors) who are used to benefiting from their relationship with Kurt; as on closer inspection I saw that he is no longer on their ‘represented artists’ list.

The new man – I forget his name – isn’t a bad painter at all,  but it’s all so bloody unoriginal and depressing that he feels he has no option but to crank out pastiches of another artist’s work. If a director of this gallery finds themselves on a jury then it’s pretty clear which kind of work they will favour.

Kurt of course wasn’t always the great original artist he is today, and it’s easy to see where he drew his inspiration from, however is it a great idea for aspiring artists to ape his style? I’m not certain it’s in his interests, in those of the gallery, their clients and certainly not their ‘new Kurt’.  Left to run its course, where will this kind of thinking bring us?

The big and cyclic problem for art, is that it is predestined to become self referential and stale, as successful art professionals select and promote the next generation of successful art professionals.

This is such a big deal that we are still dealing with the stylistic fallout of Impressionism; a style which brought down the methods of the French Academy, loosing the direct link they had forged to the masters the late renaissance.

That we can’t decide what good painting is anymore, that traditional ateliers are thriving, that it’s valid to paint anything, that everybody’s style is equally valid ; these are all symptoms of our inability to put visual art in a societal context.  Make it useful then we make it important. Make it important then we make it work for us again; it’s a big angsty chicken with a fairly rotten egg…

My advice? Avoid art societies, they’ll simply turn you into their successors. Avoid galleries unless you need the money and can avoid swallowing the bullshit enough to do your own thing one day. The only safe bet is to paint what you like.

Oh yes – Buttermere? Why didn’t it take off?

Well in fact it did, I ignored the critics, embraced the public and the picture allowed me to start a business which enables me to live and work 5 minutes from a Georgian house on the beautiful north norfolk coast and paint what I like.  You can argue it’s old fashioned, it’s in a received style, it’s  a ‘brown painting’, and all of those things; but I never sold out, I bought in.

I bought in to the ideas and principles that Art should be underpinned by the craft of painting, that Art should be explicable to everybody and that good painters must first steal from great ones before developing their own style, and in this context the worse place to start is by aiming for parity with existing artists and societies.

I never kidded myself that I could be original in the first ten years of my practice, as Mozart said  ‘ It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me…there is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.’

I dare to believe my current show The Painted Garden is original, or as original as any body of visual art can be, but I don’t kid myself that it will ever be critically approved.