I made this drawing for a book project I’ve just completed the illustrations for. In agreement with the author, we’ve removed this from the book, as it didn’t quite fit with the dark and mysterious tone of the work. I hope to give more details about that book soon, so watch this space.
Here’s the latest progress on one of two current paintings I’m working on. Photographed under a vanilla yellow lightbulb, it’s made the colours look slightly odd, but they’re only undercoat and you can easily see where it’s going: grey wolf, red barn, yellow grass. I don’t regret virtually destroying the original painting and starting again, as this is the real painting that was always waiting there to come out.
Ok, it’s time to stop trying to do too much at once. On top of the day job, trying to work on two paintings at the same time is a hiding to nothing. So I’ve parked this one for now, and will crack on this weekend and try to get this one closer to completion. This week I’ve worked on the stones – not that the casual observer would even notice – but I’ve got to finish the bird once and for all. Many years ago I would have just pulled an all nighter and got it done, but I just can’t do that kind of stunt any more. When you’re younger you can still maintain the illusion that it’s all worth the extra effort, but age and experience reinforces the fact that it’s really not. It is only painting, which is ultimately just something made from carefully arranged dirt. And it’s with this kind of polished and sophisticated sales patter you can see why I work in an office and can’t make a living as an artist.
Another mock-up, using an old painting, this time as a cover for a new recording by Toby Hay – ‘The Falconer’s Knot’. Nice stuff. I really like the way this cover came out, and the graphic designer inside me (who really blew his chances in that regard decades ago) is satisfied, for now at least.
I know. I know, I’ve still got this painting to finish, but last weekend I decided to make a start on something long postponed. I had “finished” this painting:
‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ – early in 2018, but I was never really happy with it. It had never lived up to my expectations, and I suspected that one day I would have to do something about it. Last Saturday that day arrived, and I set about erasing the background by applying thin layers of matt emulsion. I’m sure “professionals” use something far more sophisticated, but I go with what I’ve got, and matt emulsion gives good coverage, holds crisp pencil lines and most acrylic sticks to it like shit to a blanket. Below is how it looked with the background removed and pencils for the new content completed. Up above is where I got to as of yesterday evening, with initial black undercoating almost finished.
The wolf itself is finished and requires no more work, so it’s all about rendering the background to the same high standard. I feel much more positive about it now, I’ve got a title in mind, and it’s suggested to me another range of possibilities. Onwards.
It’s been a year this week since my sister Sally died. This drawing I made depicts her at the age she was when I was born. I see a lot of my daughter in her, especially her eyes, which seem to imply a wisdom beyond her years and shadowy presentiments of disappointment that life couldn’t somehow offer more than it does. We had been estranged for many years, but the news of her death still came as a shock, and I suppose the best way to measure its effect is by how little artwork I’ve managed to complete in the 12 months since. When all is well, my burn rate in terms of artistic production is thermonuclear, but throughout 2019 my desire to make anything was a feeble candle flame, fluttering in the dark. The conviction that it’s even worth the bother is a hard one to maintain, especially when the realities of job and family and everything that comes with it, cast your inner Blake into exile. As a way of preserving some sense of purpose, I’ve found myself turning to the words of writers I admire, especially Nick Cave who, in recent years, and after everything he’s been through, has become a wounded but wise magus of the sentence, and in his Red Hand Files has been creating a body of writing that echoes Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet. Example:
Do I believe in signs? Well, I prefer to say that I have made, for reasons of survival, a commitment to the uncertain nature of the world. This is where my heart lies. I suspect it always has. And I am joined in this enterprise by a legion of fellow grievers, many of us deranged by loss, and embarrassed by our sentimental inclinations. We tread gently around each other’s irrationalities because we know they are the fragile foundations of our vacillating sanity. You may hear some people say that feelings are not facts, but this is untrue. Feelings, to some, are facts. Sometimes these intuitions hold more truth than the rational world can ever hope to offer – when we are faced with a world that has long since stopped making sense and, indeed, lost its reason.
I think we disregard our intuitions at our peril. If you are left feeling the world is more mysterious than you perhaps once thought, and this feeling provides you with some sort of comfort, I would move toward the meaning, in whatever form it presents itself, because meaning is the antidote to despair, and, well, sometimes meaning can feel in scant supply and despair seems all around. My advice to the both of you is quietly, covertly, embrace the mystery that presents itself. It is yours alone.
Even though this painting isn’t quite finished yet, I’ve used it as a mock-up for a cover of Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems. My copy runs to over 1300 pages and if I ever dropped it on your foot, I’d be paying a visit to A&E. In recent years ‘Uncle Ted’ has become an important figure to me, as his vision of the world is one I feel more in common with than would have been the case even ten years ago. If I’d discovered his work much earlier in life, how different things might have been? But, as Keith Sager defines it in The Art of Ted Hughes, being raised in West Yorkshire (as both Ted and I were) does give provide a robust foundation of values – “dignity and decency, good neighbourliness, solidarity” – but also points out that “the opposite side of the coin is stifling respectability, a self-righteous and self-denying puritanism, and an aggressive self-congratulatory materialism and philistinism. Against the realities of work and muck and brass, all intellectual or artistic activity is traditionally scorned as effeminate and wasteful.” In such an environment, you quickly learn to suppress your Romantic tendencies, and that did much to distance me from my true artistic leanings for decades. Now older and wiser, with another fellow Yorkshireman as Poet Laureate, I can admit to a liking for poetry without the residual fear of getting beatean up. Perhaps more than most other mediums, it’s allowed a lot of pretentious twats to get more attention than they deserve, but when poetry is done right, it’s more effective than music or fiction to get right down to what’s important. As Ted himself said of his own poetry: “I don’t just jot these things down, you know. If I can’t bring them out of the pit I don’t get them.”