Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Art Teacher’s Memento Mori

"An Art Teacher's Memento Mori", February-May 2008.
Oils on canvas, 70 cm x 50 cm.

The original “Memento Mori” paintings were also known as “Vanitas” (from the Biblical quote, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” They were intended to be a reminder that all the glories and riches of this world are transitory, and so you should prepare yourself for death and the after-life to come.

One day I was discussing still-life paintings with a class and made a reference to “Vanitas” paintings. To make it more relevant to them, I made a point that the same idea could be applied to any point of transition, such as from school life, as a pupil, to independent life, as an adult. A still-life life along these lines could comprise items such as school books, uniform, awards for achievement at school, etc. The intention of the painting would be to point out that,eventually, all the things to to with school would be behind them and there is a life as an adult to look forward to.

Having now left my teaching career behind me, I decided to apply the same idea to my own life. This “Memento Mori” is thus about the “death” of my own teaching career and a reminder that the things that I thought of as important then are now behind me and that I should look forward to my new career as an independent artist. It is not all negative though, as it is also a celebration of many things that I achieved as a teacher and of the excellent work produced by many of my pupils.

For a larger view of the painting, click here. For a fuller description, click here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A General Manifesto for Experiential Realism

The Experiential Realist:

  • Uses their skill to recreate the actuality of what the eyes can see.
  • Renders everyday places, characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimilitude, as being of interest and importance.

  • Finds and depicts beauty (and ugliness) through their own experience.
  • Allows their awareness of the situation and circumstances of the subject to influence their perceptions and the way that they express them.

  • Experiential Realism is not a label to be put on just any painting based on observation. Specifically, it is used to declare that the painting is important and relevant as a documentation of a place and situation. It lays claim to a particular form of “truth” as having been recorded and declares it as having value.

Of these, it is the first two that make a direct connection with traditional Realism. However, I think that it is the stress of the next two which marks the difference between Realism and Experiential Realism. In some ways it, nudges Realism (just a little) towards Expressionism.

The earlier forms of Realism, Social Realism, etc, made a form of political (with small “p”) statement. For example, one major point behind the original Realist Art Movement was to say that great art was not necessarily about “major” people or events. It claimed that a great painting did not have to depict a king or noble lord or even people of wealth and influence (for example, Courbet’s, “Burial at Ornans”. In other words, Realism was a reaction against the prevailing art of the time. From this, I reason that, if Experiential Realism is to have any real importance, it must also be seen in the context of being a reaction to the prevailing art of our time.

There is presently a dichotomy in the important means of visual communication. The most pervasive form of visual communication is through photography in all its forms. But, because the images are almost infinitely reproducible (especially now that most photography is digital), whilst the image may be highly esteemed, the means of reproduction has almost none. Films can win Academy Awards and can make the owners of the reproduction rights rich, but the individual video or DVD copy of the film has negligible value. It is only the experience of watching the film that is considered to be important. The DVD or video artefact is merely a convenient form of enabling this experience. On the other side of the split is the fine art object, a painting or sculpture. The experience of viewing the object may be highly valued, but the experience can normally only be gained by visiting the one example of the work and, because of this, the object itself may become worth a great deal of money. Hence a Vincent Van Gogh painting of sunflowers becomes worth millions of pounds in the present day art market.

In 1812 Jacques-Louis David painted the Emperor Napoleon, one of the top celebrities of his day, in his study. If it ever came on the market, the painting would now be worth a great deal of money. Present day celebrities, are recorded in film, usually shown on TV, and in photographs, usually published in magazines. A photograph cut from a magazine is worth very little. If a celebrity hired an artist to paint their portrait, the portrait would be worth rather more but would probably only be seen by a very few people. The fine art object which becomes worth a great deal of money does not normally now rely on portraying a celebrity, rather it relies on providing a unique primary experience which can be gained only by visiting the object (and/or a vicarious second-hand experience which can be got from the popular media, usually discussing how ridiculous it is that the object is valued/cost such a great deal of money, e.g., the crack in the floor of the Tate Modern or Damian Hurst's diamond-coated skull).

I would see Experiential Realism as closing this gap. It does not mean that other forms of art are “wrong” or worthless, but it is art about normal, average places and people. And it is for normal, average people. To appreciate it, a specialized art education is not required, just some visual sensitivity and awareness. It cannot be produced cheaply, because it is time and skill intensive, but neither is it unaffordable. Hopefully, it will also be of such a quality that the viewer will return to it again and again and still discover new aspects of the work – for that is what differentiates it from a mass produced image where only the straight-forward perception of the image is important.

Experiential Realism is also a “Modern” art – and will continue to be so. The Modernism comes from the fact that the artist will always be an artist of their own time, painting the things of their own time. In its own way, each painting is an historical document, because, working within the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, it records the truth of a place and situation.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A bit more towards a General Manifesto of Experiential Realism

Making up a personal Manifesto is dead easy! All you really have to do is list your likes and dislikes! Making up a General Manifesto is much trickier as you really have to think about what the words mean.

Take the word "Realism", for a start. Realism links up with previous Realist art movements. According to Wikipedia, "Realism is a visual art style that depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see. Realists render everyday characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimiltude. They tend to discard theatrical drama, lofty subjects and classical forms in favor of commonplace themes." It also states, "Gustave Courbet is credited with coining the term, which pins "Realism" (capital R) down to the 19th century. However, realism (without the capital) links with "realistic", which now links up with every artist who as ever depicted something which looks like the "real" world! And this is far too broad a definition to be useful.

"Realism is a visual art style that depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see."
This, at least, is of some use. The advantage here is that when the content of the picture depicts - or appears to depict - the real world, the the artist is using a visual language with which most people are familiar. It makes the artwork instantly accessible to the majority of people, not just a few, specialist, "art trained" connoisseurs. I want my work to be accessible to the majority, not just a tiny proportion of the population. So I can use this to make up a clause:

"Experiential Realism depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see."

However, note the use of the word "depicts". An artist uses paint, reality uses real light, real trees, real grass, etc. So an artist has to use his skill and knowledge of his medium to persuade the viewer that what he is painting really exists. I would go slightly further. If an artist paints an apple and the viewer sees a painting of an apple, then the artist has failed. When the viewer looks at the picture and sees an apple, then the artist has succeeded! The medium is not the message, merely the means of transmitting it.

So I think that the clause can become:
"The Experiential Realist artist uses their skill to represent the actuality of what the eyes can see."

The Realist art movement of the 19th century also links up with a number of other "Realisms", which are worth looking at as part of a general search for enlightenment. Note, "Realists render everyday characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimiltude." This is something I have a lot of sympathy with. It also links up with "Social Realism" and "Socialist Realism" (which was more specifically linked to Communism). However, both Social and Socialist Realism were linked to particular political aims and ideals. For my own part, in depicting everday places and events I have no motive other than I think that they are worth celebrating. So if I was to use this part of the definition of Realism as another clause, I think that it must become:

"The Experiential Realist renders everyday places, characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimilitude, as being of interest and importance."

Note that this definition does not exclude the painter of the natural landscape. I enjoy - occasionally - the world of nature. But as a painter, I am more more interested in the way that people interact with their environment! That is just my personal bias, so it has no part in a general definition.

"They (Realists) tend to discard theatrical drama, lofty subjects and classical forms in favor of commonplace themes." Classical Realism is a late 20th century art movement which placed "a high value upon skill and beauty, combining elements of 19th century neoclassicism and realism. My problem with this movement is not that I decry skill, but that the classical style makes you too aware of it. Hence the skill, rather than the subject, becomes the message. It is the same problem as the one that I have with Photorealism. Also the "high value" placed on "beauty" means, to my mind, the acceptance of pre-existing ideals of beauty. I want to challenge the viewer to see beauty where they might not always have previously considered it to exist, frequently in the ordinary and mundane. So it might be fair to add the following:

"The Experiential Realist finds and depicts beauty through their own experience."

Another art movement worth considering is "Magic Realism". In some ways, René Magritte is a good representative of this style. The paintings are incredibly realistic - at least, at first glance - but then involve surrealist/magical/mystical elements. The bit which I find useful is the notion of a mystical or transcendental element. I do not feel any need to introduce incongruous elements into my paintings of the Experiential Realist type. For me, the magic is in my own awareness of the original scene or situation and in my attempt to transmit this to the viewer. But I am not sure that, as yet, I can define a clause to properly express this! However, perhaps it is possible to say that:

"The Experiential Realist allows their awareness of the situation and circumstances of the subject to influence their perceptions and the way that they expresses them."

By this I mean the sort of thing that I wrote about some time ago, in my blog, " Thinking about Painting", the manner in which we "scan" a scene, focusing on different things at different times. Things that we pay particular attention to can appear brighter and sharper, etc.

In all, I appear to have ended up with four clauses for the General Manifesto that I think I can stand by:

The Experiential Realist:
  • Uses their skill to represent the actuality of what the eyes can see.
  • Renders everyday places, characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimilitude, as being of interest and importance.
  • Finds and depicts beauty (and ugliness) through their own experience.
  • Allows their awareness of the situation and circumstances of the subject to influence their perceptions and the way that they expresses them.
Of these, it is the first two that make a direct connection with Realism. However, I think that it is the last two which tend to mark the difference between Experiential Realism and pure Realism.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Towards a General Manifesto of Experiential Realism

I was reasonably happy with what I wrote last week as a Manifesto for Experiential Realism. Later, however, I realised that, although it reflected my own views, it would not do as a General Manifesto - which would include other artists who think the title of “Experiential Realism” sums up something important about the way that they work. This was prompted by my making a search for the term on the Internet. I already knew that the term was being used in philosophy, as that was where I adopted it from as the name, potentially, for an art movement! However, I also discovered that a couple of American artists had spontaneously used the term with reference to their own work. An American artist, Aaron Schuerr, used it as a title for one of his blogs and another American, Dough Rugh, used it as a descriptive term within another blog. I cannot be certain that either would agree with the way I think about it, but it seems to me to be worth considering in greater detail my own understanding of what “Experiential Realism” means.

In order to do this, I am going to start with what I have already written, expand and clarify it, as best I can. It is, perhaps, easiest to start with the negatives. I wrote:

I reject:

  • Art as decoration, as wallpaper.
    I remember watching an interior decoration programme, I think that it was called “60 Minute Makeover”. The team needed something to add a splash of colour to a wall, something which would match the furniture and the rest of the colour scheme. Someone took a blank canvas, splashed some paint on it to form an abstract pattern and, voilà, instant piece of Abstract Expressionism - which matched the wall perfectly! This may be rather an extreme example, but a lot of people do buy art because it will match in with their décor. It may be rather arrogant of me, but I want more for my art than that!

  • The possession of art as a means of establishing intellectual status.
    I am not opposed to the various other movements of modern art, such as Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, Post-Modernism, etc., as such. However, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling (hopefully untrue) that many of the purchasers of such work do so to establish, at least in their own minds, their status as intellectual beings, capable of the superior aesthetic understanding required to appreciate such work. I believe that the only genuine reason for purchasing art should be the depth of the feeling that the piece evokes in the prospective purchaser. Provided that such depth of response is present, the type of the artwork is immaterial.

  • The Media as the Message and The display of skill as the purpose of art.
    In the end, I decided to lump these two together. I suppose that I was very much thinking of the Photo-Realist and Super-Realist art movements. There is a good example by Richard Estes online.
    “Diner”, (1971) Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 50 in. (101.7 x 126.8 cm.) It is of course, beautifully painted! But I find myself asking, what would be the difference between this and a photograph produced to the same scale (if one such a photograph existed)? It does not seem there could not be that much difference, since the apparent object was to paint in a photographic manner. Therefore the value of the painting – as art – had to be in the fact that the medium was changed from photography to painting. In other words, this was the painting skill itself being presented as art. It could also be said that, in this case, the media, paint, was the message. Looking at the painting, I do not find myself interested in the place represented, so much as the means by which it represented! I am distracted by the quality of the painting!

  • The idea as art.
    Essentially, this is Conceptual Art, but also the work of artists like Damien Hirst. I would consider his diamond covered skull, titled “For the Love of God” to be in the same vein as the Dadist Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain”. Duchamp's piece was a ready-made urinal which he elevated to art by signing it “R. Mutt”. Damien Hirst's skull was a ready made skull, which he elevated to art by having it covered in diamonds! Duchamp mocked the establishment by the cheapness, in both price and effort, of his “readymade”, Damien Hirst mocks it by intrinsic value of the diamonds with which he decorates his own “ready made”. Duchamp was outside the Art Establishment looking in, Damien Hirst is inside the Art Establishment looking out. In some ways, complete opposites, but on the same line! However, the most important part of both items is the idea behind them.

  • Other people's conventions of beauty and ugliness.
    I think that a large part of the value of any creative person is their individual viewpoint. So what I mean by this is that every artist has to find out for themselves what they consider to be beautiful or ugly. Truly original work makes new conventions, rather than simply repeats old ones.

I have one major problem with all the points that I have listed above (even though I believe them to be valid) – and that is their very negativity! In the end, I think that it is more important to know what an Art Movement is for, rather than what it is against. So I hope to explore this next week.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

My Art - A Personal Manifesto for Experiential Realism

"Quoile River, near Downpatrick"
December 2007-February 2008.
Oils on canvas, 70 cm x 50 cm.

For some time I have been trying to form my own ideas about the “why” of art, the role of art in today's world. Then I realised that this was far too big a question for me, since art covers such a multitude of activities and fulfils an important role in such varied circumstances. In the end, I decided that the question I needed to answer was, “Why my art?” What is it that I am trying to do, what is it that I think of as being important and what do I reject.

In a previous attempt (18th, February, 2007, to be exact) to understand my own art, I considered the way we look at things. We do not see objects and scenes in the rigid way that a camera records them. We move our heads (and we have two eyes, giving us stereo vision, which means that sometimes one eye can see what the other can not), our eyes can appreciate a much greater range of colours and shades than a camera normally records and we look at different parts at different times, mentally blending our observations into the one perception.

Although not intentionally distorting what I am seeing, when painting I quite automatically incorporate this way of viewing into the result. Perspective - whilst appearing to be essentially correct - will be "adapted" so that vertical lines may no longer be precisely vertical, angles may change to make the view more dramatic or to reveal a greater area (as from a different viewing point). One of the rules of human observation is that one "notices" more that which one is interested in, so colours can appear more vivid and objects larger! Everything one is interested in is in focus because one automatically focuses on the part which is being observed. Based on this, I have named the way I work as “Experiential Realism”, meaning that the realism of the painting is tempered and modified by the way that I experience the scene.

The result of this thinking is:

A Personal Manifesto for Experiential Realism

I reject:
  • Art as decoration, as wallpaper.
  • The possession of art as a means of establishing intellectual status.
  • The media as the message.
  • The display of skill as the purpose of art.
  • The idea as art.
  • Other people's conventions of beauty and ugliness.

I embrace:

  • Art as the conveyor of meaning.
  • Art as a stimulus to feeling and emotion.
  • The use of the illusion of depth in painting.
  • Depth of meaning in art.
  • Art as a teller of stories.
  • The beauty that I perceive and experience, without reference to the strictures of others.
  • I embrace the beauty of the ordinary, the every-day activities of people in their everyday surroundings, the beauty of the ordinary street, the ordinary house, the ordinary shop.
  • I embrace the portrayal of landscape as it is, part natural, part man-made.
  • I embrace the portrayal of the world of today as it is, a mixture of old and new.

Thomas Spencer.

Historical Comment:

In art history, Realism was a late 19th century art movement which was concerned with the accurate and apparently objective description of the ordinary, observable world. The Realists attempted to depict the lives and appearance of ordinary people. Social Realism developed from this, in the early 20th century, as a movement particularly concerned with depiction of the poor and thus it criticised the social environment that caused the poverty and misery. Essentially, whatever their value as works of art, Social Realism was a form of propaganda endeavouring to change social attitudes. The original Realists were also propagating a view, although a rather simpler one, that the lives of ordinary people were just as suitable a subject for major works of art as the lives of the rich and powerful.

Both were reactions to prevailing viewpoints, as is my own. My point is that the realistic depiction of every day life and places is still worthy of depiction in serious works of art. It is not simply the domain of the hobbyist and the part-time painter. And has certainly not been made defunct by the advent of photography! However, I think that such painting has to rise above mere mechanical recording, which is why I prefer the term, "Experiential Realism", as referring to my type of art. My depictions are influenced by my experience of the scene and this is determined by both my physical and mental characteristics.

Nb: This Manifesto should not be taken as meaning that I consider other types of art as necessarily unimportant and unable to fulfil important functions – or even that I cannot appreciate them! Just that they are not important to me, within the context of my own work and intentions.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Downpatrick Exhibition

The exhibition in the Downpatrick Library Gallery opened last Wednesday (6th February) night. It is in support of the Harmony Community Trust, Glebe House, Strangford, and was opened by one of the local politicians, Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP. It went well, but I was a bit disappointed with the attendance, only about thirty or so. However, two of my five paintings are sold, so that is a start. It is a good exhibition space, basically one large, well-lit room, at one side of Downpatrick Library. Hopefully, because of its position next to the library, this will help there to be a reasonable number of further visitors.

Because of the need to get my paintings ready in time, I went for producing five small landscapes. They were quite successful (and I am pleased with them), but the exhibition made me aware of how many others are producing work in a similar format. I think that I need the larger formats in order to stand out. Also, paintings of towns and buildings are relatively rare, so I think that my paintings of town scenes also stand out for that reason.

The more that I see work of local artists, the more convinced I become that the truly memorable work is nothing to do with either skill or technique. It seems to me that most of the work which has reached the history books has done so because it encapsulated something personal about the artist's life and times. Much of the work I see is attractive, some of it is highly skilled, but I am not convinced that it rises above the decorative. It is not that I am knocking decorative work as such, but I feel the need for something more.

For more photos, see ArtMagic; Downpatrick Exhibition.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Just a note!

I don't have much time for a blog this week. Rather annoyingly, I had some problems with the computer. First, my computer couldn't work my DVD drive. It turned out that this was because I had updated my iTunes player, which I had to uninstal. Problem fixed! Next, day, I found that I could not connect to the Internet. Suspecting that this might be connected to the previous problem, I reinstalled my broadband connection. I managed to mess that up a couple of times before all went well. I love computers - but sometimes they can be very annoying!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Two new landscape paintings.

"Corner on the Newcastle to Ballynahinch Road",
December 2007.
Oils on canvas, 25 cm x 30 cm. (11 hours working time)

There is a small, local exhibition coming up and I agreed to submit five paintings. Just got the last two finished, to my relief! There are, I think, quite nice, although not what I would consider major paintings. The weather has been poor recently and does not encourage much work outdoors. I am very much looking forward to warmer weather, when I can start spending much longer outside working on paintings.

I have quite a few paintings I want to get finished. At the beginning of January we had - for us - heavy snow (i.e., about 16 cm, which fell in the one night and lasted about a day). As always, it caught us unprepared. My wife and I were travelling to Ballynahinch and were about 15 miles away from there when it started. So, naturally, when we were just a few miles from Ballynahinch we got stuck (with a lot of others) at the first serious hill. It was only when some of us drivers got together to give cars a push that we were able to get moving again. No chance of help from the police or the road service as they were all snarled up around the town itself, nobody able to move on any of the roads leading in or out of Ballynahinch. The one good thing about being stuck where we were was that when, after several hours, we got moving again, at least the traffic chaos in Ballynahinch itself was beginning to clear and we were able to get to our destination! The other good thing was that the snow was still there in the morning, so I took several canvases up into the town and was able to sketch layouts on to them. I think that I should, potentially, have a couple of good paintings, although they will have to be completed from the photographs that I took at the time.

"Horses in a Field", December 2007.
Oils on canvas, 30 cm x 25 cm. (14.5 hours working time)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Wavy Lines and Op Art

This is an exercise I found useful with first year (secondary school) pupils, both to hammer home lessons about colour mixing and to link it up with a little art history. The exercise starts by drawing a very wavy line down the middle of an A4 sheet of paper.

Further lines are added, trying to keep them evenly spaced from the first one. If a loop is particularly big, a section of the new line will have to be "broken off" and left inside the loop.
This process was continued until this side of the page was completely filled with lines, as evenly spaced as possible. The process was then repeated for the other side!

The next stage was to fill in one of the spaces between the lines down the middle with either a primary or secondary colour. The next space was left blank and the one after that filled in with the next secondary or primary colour in sequence, ie., red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple (and back to red and through the sequence again if necessary). It doesn't matter where the sequence is started or in which direction they are gone through, as long as the colours are kept in sequence.

The process is then repeated to the other side. (Note that, although I have completed the sequence on the left side, it could just have easily have been completed by going through the same colours again in the same order - so instead of purple, I would have filled in orange again, etc.)

The final stage is to fill in the remaining spaces by mixing the two colours on either side of each space.

Some pupils would put in the colours a little differently than others and sometimes interesting results were created when pupils misunderstood the instructions somewhat. If the results were visually interesting, I never told pupils off just because they did not follow my instructions exactly.
The exercise could be done with paints or colouring pencils and I would set a version of this for homework, which could be completed using different shades of lead pencils and no colours at all!
It should be obvious that there are strong connections to Op Art and the work of artists like Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. I encouraged my pupils to investigate this for themselves and to experiment along similar lines. I gave all pupils a small handout on Op Art and encouraged those who could do so to search the Web for more material.
These are some useful links that I have found.
Op Art:
Bridget Riley:
Queensland Art Gallery
Victor Vasarely:
Fondation Vasarely (in French, but excellent pictures)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Thumbnail Sketches

If any one is seriously interested in Art History then, to my mind, a really important skill to master is that of creating "thumbnail" sketches. This doesn't mean that it is not important to get good quality images wherever possible. There are many sources available online. (One excellent one is Olga's Gallery. For a full colour version of William Turner's, "Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway", see However, a thumbnail sketch is not merely a reminder of the painting, it also helps you to analyse it and understand its composition. For it to be successful, you have to think about what you are doing, about what it is really important to show, yet it is also fast to do!

In order to improve your understanding of a piece of art work, it can also be useful to make a large, detailed study of it (as in my study of the horse cave painting). But sometimes this is unnecessary, even a waste of time, when (in some cases) a much simpler thumbnail sketch would give you all the insight you need and would get across whatever point that you wish to make!