Lady by a Wall

I started this picture ages ago but I got frustrated trying to draw her face. So she has been stuck on my iPad for about a year waiting for me to finish. Then, when I came to finally finish her, Art Studio crapped out on me and wouldn’t start. I had to back everything up, delete it and reinstall. After all that, I was just in a hurry to get it done.

I don’t even remember who painted the original. It looks a lot like Lord Leighton or Alma-Tadema, both of whom I adore. It’s almost certainly something that’s in the National Gallery because I have a backlog of sketches from my last trip there two years ago.

I don’t find sketching as relaxing as I used to. I need to find something easy and fun to sketch next to help me recover the passion.

The chances of anything coming from Mars

It has come to my attention that there is a whole continent of people who have never listened to Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds. This is a crime against humanity.

The War of the Worlds is the very pinnacle of that mountain of great concept albums that defined the 70s and it’s the best of the rock operas. The opening chords – Dun dun daaaaa – still give me chills 30 years later and I can’t read a EULA without looking over my shoulder for the Martian in a giant tripod trying to kill me with a death ray.

For those who have not yet had the pleasure, War of the Worlds begins with Richard Burton’s sombre narration, reading the opening lines of HG Wells’s masterpiece.

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century
that human affairs were being watched
from the timeless worlds of space
No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized
as someone with a microscope studies creatures
that swarm and multiply in a drop of water
Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets
and yet across the gulf of space
minds immeasurably superior to ours
regarded this Earth with envious eyes
and slowly and surely
they drew their plans against us.

Then the overture introduces the haunting theme of the album.

When the Martians arrive on Horsell Common, we journey with the narrator as he meets a series of unlikely characters – David Essex’s artilleryman, Phil Lynot’s parson and his wife, played by Julie Covington – and each character tells their story with a song.

My favourite is Spirit of Man, a duet in which the parson’s wife tries to persuade her now-crazed husband that humanity will find some reason to survive.

There must be something worth living for!
There must be something worth trying for!
Even some things worth dying for!
And if one man can stand tall
There must be some hope for us all.
Somewhere, in the spirit of man.

Your music collection is but an empty shell if it doesn’t include this album. Fix that now! (don’t get the abridged version).

Do yourself a favour though. This is not background music. It needs your full attention. You need to sit alone with headphones in the almost dark, peering at the album’s gorgeous artwork, let the story wash over you and imagine those Martians in their fighting machines bringing civilization to an untimely end.

The chances of anything coming from a Mars are a million to one.

But still, they come.

Lonely in the Automat

I’ve always thought of automats as lonely, melancholy places. I entered my first automat when I was 14 and visiting the first of many, many navy bases.

Naval establishments in those days were almost defined by their automats and automats were the place to be for a certain kind of junior rating. There were the living quarters, the dining hall, the bar if you were old enough and the automat if you were not. I was not.

There were two occasions to visit the automat and it presented a quite different aspect for each occasion.

Killing time after lunch, waiting for class to begin, you encountered the brash, flashing automat. At lunch time, the automat was a buzzing hive of sailors drinking crap coffee from the crap coffee machine, playing video games and sitting round crap little tables munching crap snacks from the crap little dispenser things tempting you with their little A-H and 1-9 buttons that made their inner robot spring to life and threaten to dispense the pack of tutti-fruities to keep you awake through the afternoon’s boredom but, ultimately, disappointing you with physics-defying feats of cruelty, snatching your tutti-fruities back into a greedy maw or dangling the little snack mere inches above the dispenser tray with all the other unreachable tokens of misfortune.

It was in such an automat that I first completed Dragon’s Lair to great applause (the fantasy adventure where you become a valiant knight on your quest to rescue the fair princess from the clutches of an eeeevil dragon…. can you tell how many times I played it?) and where I first found all the Easter eggs in Track ‘n’ Field. It was where Alf Menzies and I made it to the end of Super Mario Bros (though I never did defeat the final Bowser or, as we called him, the big green thing) and where we daily emptied the trivia machine, Blockbusters, of all its pound coins. But that was the happy automat. The other automat is the one that looms, forbidding, in my memory.

Melancholy automat was a dark, empty hall of flickering lights; the only place open at 2:30AM when the bus back to base after a weekend in civvy street dispensed its young, tired cargo.

I remember several variations of that journey back from the exciting world of stolen kisses, distant family and fading friends still plodding their way through their school years while I served Queen and country: Portsmouth to Hellensburgh; Bexleyheath to Fareham. The worst of all was the journey from Sidcup to Torpoint and HMS Fisgard.

It started on Platform 2 at Sidcup Station (where the Rolling Stones began) and the 12¾ miles to Charing Cross. Then came the long, rumbling Circle Line trip to Paddington in time for the 4 hour train ride down to Plymouth. At Plymouth Station, it was short cab ride to Devonport and, most romantic in my misty memories, the long chug-a-lug of the Torpoint Ferry as it dragged itself along its heavy chains across the dark, forbidding Hamoaze.

By the time you got to the Cornwall side of the river you were well into the wee hours of the morning and, if you were lucky, could share a cab ride to the base and that was the moment when it hit you that you were in the Navy for real and for the foreseeable future. Then the short walk up the hill and the flash of the ID card to the bloke unlucky enough to be on gate duty at that time of the morning – those were my rituals until, finally, the automat.

The automat was the only place to get food at that hour and it was a place entirely transformed from the bustling, mechanical bazaar of the daytime. At night, there was just you and the whir of the carousel dispensing your stale pastie: desperately needed sustenance after so many hours of travel.

The main lights were always off and you were condemned to peer at your pastie in the ancient microwave oven – the same oven used by Admiral Nelson himself -  lit intermittently by the brazen flashing of the video games. Those sounds are still fresh and familiar – from the ding-a-ling-a-ling! of the fruit machine to the Beep-beep-Boooooop! of Pole Position – until, eventually, the bright Ding! of the microwave would announce that it was time to wolf down my oggie before the sun came up and summoned me to my classes just a few, short hours later.

I didn’t think I’d ever finish this drawing. I thought my muse was gone. It happened before. I have a half-finished charcoal drawing of my wife that I started in 2001. I don’t know how many times I’ve picked up that drawing and stared at it, wondering how I would ever draw anything ever again.

I picked Hopper’s Automat precisely because it looked easy. I expected I’d be able to lose myself in the memories of automats past as my finger rubbed the image of Hopper’s lonely flapper girl onto the screen of my iPad but just the act of opening Art Studio was a challenge. The splash screen to me was Oglaf’s Muse or, more likely, her successor. Under her withering gaze, all confidence faded.

My previous painting had become a slog. My earliest finger-paintings took a mere hour or two each – no wonder The Impressionists were so prolific! – but copying the old masters was hard work and a drain on my enthusiasm. Hopper was easier but each time I fired up Art Studio the memory of Sassoferrato bade me close it down just as quickly. But it’s done now and the long, forgotten memories of automats past can go to back to the dark place where they so lately rested.

 

 

 

Virgin at Prayer

I wonder if people seeing new paintings at the dawn of each new period experienced them the way we experience an exciting new technology?

When the renaissance painters rediscovered perspective did their fans experience it the way we experience 3D movies? Was the incredible depth of emotion in Baroque anything like technicolor was for us? Or THX?

When I ran into Sassoferrato’s Virgin at Prayer at the National Gallery in London it was like running into a time machine and I didn’t know if I was going forward or backwards. I knew immediately that, as soon I got back to my own time period, I would have to finger-paint it on my iPad.

 

It took me a couple of months longer than I expected and I my missed my self-imposed deadline to be done in time to send it as a Christmas gift – but I got there in the end.

Epilogue: I just found this post in my drafts folder. Dunno why I didn’t post it before. I thought I had.

I finished the painting about 3 months ago but, sadly, haven’t painted anything since. I have a half-finished Edward Hopper rip-off in the works but my muse has left me stranded and who knows when she’ll be back. Time for a new hobby?

No Limits?

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing that I couldn’t do if I worked hard enough at it.

Except art and music. All my attempts at drawing ended in tears and my attempts at playing the recorder made people cry. Miss Sindy, my art teacher at Chis and Sid, always seemed to lose my work. I never did figure out why.

As I got older, I discovered that I had plenty of limits and, one by one, I found that most of the things I was good at, I would never be great at.

About 20 years ago, though, I bought an electric piano. I don’t remember why I bought it but I remember that I used to practice and practice for hours on end. I got to the point where I could play, like, 20 pieces all the way through without a mistake. My downfall was Clair de Lune. I had always loved Debussy and that piece in particular and it became a matter of pride that I was going to own it. Sadly, it owned me. I could play it through nicely until those fast arpeggios at the end. I spent months and months trying to get it but eventually gave up.

About 10 years later, I had my piano shipped out to the states. I was never really able to get the hang of it again and it sits in the corner now, daring me to try again. To this day, I hear those first three notes in a movie, or in a store, and I shake my fist and curse Debussy.

I was reluctant to try guitar for the same reason. I hate starting things and giving up but I eventually got a guitar to keep Dylan company when he was having lessons. It quickly became obvious that I was never going to be good at guitar no matter how hard I practiced. But a guitar is pretty forgiving and, unlike a piano, you can get a pretty good tune out of one even if you are not very good. So I keep strumming and having fun without ever really feeling that I am getting any better.

Drawing grabbed me about 10 years ago.

I started with sketching in MS Paint with a mouse. Then decided I needed a better drawing program, then a graphics tablet. I had a lot of fun. Drawing on a computer is forgiving too. If you make a mistake, you just hit undo and try again.

One day, I had a fancy that I might try drawing on paper. I had drawn an eagle that didn’t suck when I was 14. Maybe I could draw another one of those.

I went to Barnes and Noble and came back with armfuls of books: How To Draw What You See, Lifelike Drawing, Drawing a Likeness, Drawing the Female Nude. I read all the books that night. Next day, I went to Aaron Brothers and bought a sketchpad, a box of pencils and an eraser, rushed home and opened the first book and started drawing. The first couple of portraits were crap but by the third or fourth I was thinking – Hey! This isn’t so hard! Let me try a nude!

For about a year, I drew like a maniac and then one day I just stopped.

I was halfway through a portrait of my wife. I had a five year old child and a newborn and I could never seemed to find a couple of hours of quiet to sit down and sketch. All the books went back on the shelf and all the pencils went in the closet and that was the end of my drawing career. I never did finish that picture.

I had put a few of my portraits up on the wall and, every now and again, I’d stop and look at them and wonder who I was when I drew them. It was a different person who no longer existed. I picked up a pencil every couple of years to try again, but I could never make any sense of it. But then I got an iPad.

With my iPad, I was able to recapture that sense of freedom to make mistakes. You make a mistake? Just paint over it!

I even managed to turn my sins into a virtue. If you paint over your mistakes – over and over – you get a nice layered effect. Hey! I had discovered a style!

I’m still enjoying sketching on my iPad – with Art Studio – but I feel like I’ve hit something of a natural limit. I can copy pretty well now – I’ve learned to draw what I see – but I can only draw exactly what I see. As soon as I try to deviate just a little from the script that the subject has written for me, everything goes to crap. I have no control at all. Cliche, but: It’s like my drawing is in control and I’m just a vehicle.

I have a couple of pictures in my head that I’d like to draw but I know that there is no chance that I can attempt them at my current skill level and I’ll need lessons to get past where I am now. Meanwhile, it gives me enormous pleasure that I can paint a beautiful little girl and have the result turn out beautiful too.

Monet’s Field of Poppies

I have a routine now. I google for an image on my iPhone and prop it on my knee while I sketch it on my iPad.

I think that’s enough copying for now though. Time to come up with my own idea. A portrait, maybe.

Funny thing about Monet prints…the images that turn up in the google vary so much in colour and tone that you have to decide up front which version of a Monet painting you are going to paint.

In hindsight, I like the muted one at top-right best but the yellow in the clouds makes me think the bottom-right is closest to the original.

Makes me want to go track down the original to see what colour it is. Anyone seen it?

Same deal with the Sunrise. Check it out.