George Shaw – Payne’s Grey


The Time Machine, 2010, George Shaw

I haven’t seen George Shaw’s works in person but I clearly remember seeing the first online. With a red telephone box, by some railings, in the rain. That this scene was so important he dedicated hours to capturing it shot straight to my heart. When I found out the artist sometimes wears cardigans it was a full-on crush.

I’ve devoured the paintings online. Each one seems to spark recognition, though I grew up far from Tile Hill there are common elements in that 1970s architecture and street furniture. The triangular top to a wooden fence, pale grey paving slabs as pathways, the separate block of garages – an allotment for those who prefer to tinker with grease over fertiliser.

I think they also spark recognition in those that have that melancholic mix of nostalgia, romanticism and regret sloshing around inside them, all to a soundtrack by The Smiths, of course.

There’s a longing in these works to go back to the days when time didn’t pass. When were suspended in endless days. When these scenes were the wallpaper of our small worlds and we saw them day in day out. The bus stop, the wall by the bus stop, the alley short cut, the phone box. A phone box alone can spark the sharpest memories; the stench of piss and smoke, getting out of the rain, heavy books swinging up on hinges, pages torn out, that smooth black warm receiver. Though of course time did pass, just that we were too young to notice, and now all those years are lost and time is playing its cruel joke of running faster as we get older.


Wednesday Week, 2003, George Shaw


I love that Shaw finds a place, a still, a snapshot and in that he sees balance, beauty, interest. If it’s recorded, it’s loved, it becomes beautiful.

I ordered the catalogue to his Payne’s Grey exhibition at the Baltic in 2011 in which he quotes from Richard Ullmann’s biography of James Joyce: “The epiphany (for Joyce) was the sudden ‘revelation of the whatness of a thing,’ the moment in which ‘the soul of the commonest object …seems to us radiant.”

I love the idea that this group of paintings is done in just the one colour – it should be enough – I’m one of those that never tire of telling the kids about black & white TV, and how yes, we did see colour in it.

But some of these work better than others for me. Shaw himself writes that the paintings he is most often drawn to are those that “look as though the weather has just fallen on and stained the paper as it passes through the day…” and some of his Payne’s Grey works capture exactly this. A raindrop has sploshed down with dreadful predictability, bringing with it the dark grey cloud – most especially in the painting of garages (I think it’s just called #1). Those days where cloud meets puddle and the world feels submerged.


From Payne’s Grey 1-14, 2007-2008, George Shaw

He captures sunlight on a cloudy day – from when the sun has victoriously broken through, to when it is so feeble it can barely be bothered and all the way to when it is just plain absent.


From Payne’s Grey 1-14, 2007-2008, George Shaw

There are a couple of works in the catalogue that I can’t help but feel would work better in colour. I long to see the side of a house solidify – it is just too ghostly as it is – or a strip of lush green grass to break the monotony. After all, that is what England is so good at – breaking the monotony with a patch of green. Maybe this is part of the fascination of this series, the black & white TV-ness of it – we layer our own colour where we need it.


From Payne’s Grey 1-14, 2007-2008, George Shaw

I need to mention the trees. I find some of them really unsettling – there is often one spooky tree dominating, with branches like evil tendrils. I don’t have a problem with trees, but there is something about the trees in some of these paintings that are slightly other worldly, and I wonder if it was done deliberately.

As I take first steps to understand watercolour myself these words of Shaw in his catalogue ring oh so true: “Watercolour painting is a thoroughly fascinating activity. It is, like murder, very common but when one tries to do it oneself proves quite difficult and is often best performed in the thought rather than in the practice.”


Alexandra Blum

I’ve really enjoyed looking at the work of Alexandra Blum online, particularly the series Boundaries 2014 and Tower Blocks Have Sunsets Too, 2012. It was hard to choose which to focus on. Would love to see them in person one day.


Dalston Hut, 2012, Alexandra Blum

I love these paintings on so many levels and for so many reasons, many are probably based in pure nostalgia. The view from above – do rooftops ever lose their magic? That whole other world, maybe implanted by early exposure to Mary Poppins and Oliver, and cemented by those first flatshares. Freedom from familial suburbia and the wonder of all that roof-tiled freedom where every windowsill and piece of asphalt that could be reached was a wonder. A place to sit and marvel at the space we could call our own. A place to drink, to smoke, to tan.

Unmistakably London, the finding of space to exist in – by building, by plant, by cat, dog, human.


Tower, 2012, Alexandra Blum

Haunting and intriguing, what is going on with these buildings. Have they been obliterated, are they due for destruction? Has someone in town planning got handy with the Tippex. They remind me of the ghostly blank the  Doctor Who’s tardis leaves behind as he vanishes on another turn around the universe. Have these buildings temporarily disappeared from our view, touring the universe? Are they being heated by an angelic white light from within? How did they come to exist in that space, what would happen if they left.

I enjoyed these paintings together – the way some have large swathes of negative space and others just touches, the odd side of a building, a tree, a window frame. It gives a feeling of moving across the city – the weather changes, the neighbourhood changes, space and how we use it changes.


Continuum, 2014, Alexandra Blum

This picture has so much to love: the access to the rooftop, to that little piece of private space, that contrast of detail in the background but a blank in foreground. The sophisticated drawing of the far building and trees and the naive bricks to the left. Clouds moving at speed, the sense of that light you get just before and just after a thunderstorm. The childlike sun in the corner. Near trees that have become space. That strange slant of nothingness to the far left. I love the closeness and the distant view. The curve of the world that shrinks the city.


Exit, 2014, Alexandra Blum

This has everything of the previous work but a stronger sense of the city shrinking and being part of something greater. The city remains a city but it’s tiny. There’s a bigger world out there, not just geographically but a world where we have been and where we will be – our history, our future. What did these buildings replace, what will replace them. There’s that sense of time passing in the ambiguity of the skies. Planes jetting across the city queuing up to land or shuffling in to position to get out of crowded airspace. One day will those planes be full of people leaving this planet that has no space left?  But it also speaks of past occupation of the skies, of war with its smoke and flashes – that time when to live in a city in Europe was to have the sky hold your life in its hands – when a house that was standing in the morning could be gone by tea-time.


Alberto Giacometti, Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence

I finally got to my local gallery in Aix, where perhaps in compensation for being embarrassingly short of work by Cezanne (the curator of the time famously said he would never accept a painting by Cezanne) there are 19 works by Giacometti including 5 sculptures and 4 sketches.

I did a little bit of research into Giacometti over Christmas (earlier post) and was frustrated at not seeing his work in the flesh, so it was really satisfying getting to see these. Close up it’s possible to see how he erased large swathes of his sketch – fascinating – faint pencil lines are left behind, it has the effect of blinding light playing around the subject. He seems to have used his eraser with the same vigour as his pencil strokes. It was most evident in Branche dans une Vase, Flacons et Pommes, 1960. I can’t find this image on line but I found something similar, though in this he uses a lighter touch with the eraser.


Untitled, 1957 (AGD 2927) Alberto Giacometti


I had a tiny notebook with me and sketched Tête de Diego, 1962 very quickly. It felt surprisingly natural to follow Giacometti’s lines of head, ears, neck and shoulders but took more concentration for facial features. Though he uses paint to create the form of the face, harsh black lines over the top are reminders of his sketches. The eyes are oval and set high – at the top of the ears – the nose is a rectangle, the mouth a triangle. There is a strange marking on the forehead that doesn’t seem to correspond to a recognisable facial feature except maybe frown marks? It’s a cross within an upside down double triangle – quite an aggressive mark. Giacometti’s lines give me the sensation that he is burying his way into the skull, maybe this point on the forehead is where he feels or perhaps simply sees the tension of his sitter.


Notebook sketch of Tête de Diego, 1962, done in Musée Granet, Aix

Infuriatingly I can’t find Tête de Diego online – I will go back and see if I can photograph it. The head and shoulders are small within the enormous  frame of the painting and sunk to the bottom half. The head is painted over and over in thick grey, black and white. A black halo spreads out behind the head. Yet on the body itself, the canvas is visible, the paint is thin, watery, dripping. The marks are less urgent. The head is important to him, it’s his focus. Just as when I first looked at his sketches on line, I get the same sense from seeing the paintings for real – he is trying to feel the form under the skin – feeling with his eyes. I’m not sure if he is trying to find a ‘truth’ about the sitter, his marks seem too violent for that, there is no tenderness here. It’s as if the truth he wants to expose is that we are all bone underneath, just bone.


Portrait d’Annette, 1954, Aberto Giacometti


This is such a strange painting. The relaxed and slumped posture of the sitter is at odds with how she has been portrayed. The overall work is settled and confident, and yet it’s a disturbing painting. The figure is downright creepy. As with Tete de Diego the painted form of the face is there, but harsh black lines carve out the features – oval eyes of a clown, a rectangular nose, two intersecting lines form a triangle of a mouth. A sickly flesh-coloured halo spreads out from behind the head, touches of this colour are at the neck, shoulder and hands. It gives the impression she is blending in with her background, dissolving. It reminds me of teleporting in Star Trek. I asked my youngest what he thought of it, and he just said ‘ghost’.

I’m not sure what Giacometti wants to convey – I wonder if he sees his sitters as empty, or maybe they are breaking down, breaking apart? Mentally or physically?

Though my initial reaction on seeing this is that perhaps it says more about his relationships with others. There is such a lack of tenderness – stranger still as many of his sitters were family and friends. I would love to know how his sitters feel about the results. These beings have no soul. Does he find it impossible to connect with people, to reach inside them, to find out what they are made of, to get hold of them?





Investigating Negative Space

Hannah Maybank

Hannah Maybank’s It Wakes is darkness and light, beauty and decay. Flowers and foliage stir from an inky background, and negative space is given equal billing alongside this this tangle of nature. Flowers, stalks, petals and the space that surround them become interchangeable.

It Wakes, 2013, Hannah Maybank

It Wakes, 2013, Hannah Maybank

This confusion makes it hard to find form in the image. In parts it is flat as wallpaper,  in others bright stems and flowers thrust up and outward.

I find the whole image ambiguous; it’s beautiful but also sinister. Ferns – the classic green shoot of spring regrowth – are uncurling, and yet the whole is inky dark, the colour drained, the mood is of decay.  It is a reflection in muddied water.

We don’t know if this is about light or dark, death or life.  An arrangement of flowers – for someone living or dead? That dreadful hypocrisy of giving flowers that start to die as soon as they are cut.


It Wakes, 2013, Hannah Maybank

It Wakes was the first of Hannah Maybank’s images that caught my attention. From here I followed her trail of trees and flowers, coming to a piece of work commissioned by the Wirksworth Festival: Fontus’s Poesie.

I was fascinated by her approach to the commission – finding the space, reacting to the space – and intrigued by Wirksworth’s Well Dressing tradition (which yes, of course I first read as Well Dressed). Once I had made the connection of Fontus as the God of Wells and Springs my happiness was complete – I am already entranced by the legends and history surrounding our own local source, the Fontaine de Vaucluse, a place imbued with magical powers since Roman times.


In situ at St Mary’s Parish Rooms, Wirksworth

The blog kept by Hannah Maybank to record the work she did for the festival outlines her method and it seems that the reaction of the paints and inks themselves is of huge importance, she talks about the ‘randomness of paint chemistry’ and the ‘idiosyncratic natural of particular pigments’. On negative space she says: “Using the rigidity of pencil outline with the un-reined bursts of coloured stain and watercolour washes, presence and absence are explored as heavily pigmented blooms and wild foliage sit amongst the empty fragility and uncertainty of negative or empty space.”

I think her work is lovely; ghostly and mysterious. It makes me wonder about the spaces that surround us, we are after all just particles bumping up against other particles – space on earth is not actually empty (only my son has just told me that inside an atoms is mostly empty space…). But space is most definitely uncertain and throughout time man has filled it with spirits and magic as a way I suppose of understanding and coming to terms with the cycle of life that we are all part of.

Looking at how artists employ technique in relation to subject matter

David Hockney

Before this search for Hockney’s drawings on the internet I thought of him as the man that painted swimming pools and that couple with the cat. It’s been really interesting looking at all I could find.

In his drawings of people, and I can find no exception to this, there is always space, a blank, something left out. Sometimes there is such economy it is just a line, and because of that economy the line becomes so important.


It’s wonderful to follow, a simple line that captures so much. It makes me wonder how he did it – did he work in pencil in case he made a mistake, did he just repeat until he got it right, or is he such a tremendous draughtsman that he just gets its right. There are no corrections.

These line drawings don’t look flat, however, there is always something in clear perspective to give it dimension: the bed, the armchair, the table.

In some of these line drawings he has added a touch of cross-hatching to depict deep shade, though where he does and doesn’t do this seems arbitrary.

In others he has drawn part of his subject in a more conventional way, with shading, while the rest remains line only. And other times it looks as though he has carved the drawing up and allowed some parts to be filled while others are left blank. It gives the effect of a drawing that has been partly coloured in, then abandoned. And yet it works – perhaps the room is bathed in light, we are partly blinded, or perhaps this is how we look at someone – the periphery is blank.

In some of his portraits the legs will fade to nothingness, or just a dress has colour or print. I’m less keen on these sketches – it looks as is he has used the style of fashion illustration that comes on those flimsy envelopes of dress-making pattens.

When Hockney draws other subjects, however – rooms, countryside – for the most part he fills the entire page with his marks. Maybe because every part of the scene holds the same importance, so he wants everything in focus. When we look at a landscape we scan the whole, whereas when we look at a person we zoom in, we’re not looking at their lower leg, the table behind them.

For these drawings he seems to make his marks in a kind of patchwork, a different set of marks for each piece of the scene.

I prefer his most minimal line drawing. I get a feeling from these that he knows his sitter so well, he has described their essence in that simple line, there is no need to embellish, and if he did it would just detract.

I found a short recording from Front Row in which Richard Cork describes the line as being at the centre of Hockney’s multi-faceted art – his ‘mastery of the line’.

Looking at how artists employ technique in relation to subject matter

Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966)

I’ve spent some time looking at Giacometti’s sketches online, though as ever I would much rather see them in the flesh to see if I get the same information from them.

I get the sense that when he’s sketching he doesn’t lift his pencil from the paper, and more than that I get the sense he doesn’t take his eye of the subject. He is feeling his way with his eye. How he draws is how I felt when I did the exercise of drawing something while not looking at the paper. I get that same sensation.


Some of his sketches – mainly the interiors – are like a web. His lines create a web that stretches out over the room, in some parts denser and more concentrated than in others. The web behaves like a hologram, the denser areas come forward, creating dimension.

With his portraits and figure drawings it seems as if he is building up relief with his lines, he is working them over and over as if he is wants to create physical height and form with the lead itself. His marks are like topography. He isn’t using these marks traditionally to convey tone, to create form or shadow – it’s as if he is trying to bring life to his figures, trying to bring them forward, out of the paper.


I find his sketches of people uncomfortable. I don’t get a sense of empathy with his subject, no tenderness, no understanding, no connection. Instead I just feel his intensity, his furious burrowing beneath the skin, that relentless circling of the eye sockets, temples, skull. When he is sketching heads it’s as if he is trying to read the skull under the skin, however when it comes to the body this intensity wanes – he doesn’t delve under the skin to the same degree.


In a similar way when he draws still life he seems to be searching for something under the surface – looking for the bones, the geometry beneath – and then building up the lines that are important. Again I get the sense that he isn’t looking at his paper, he is absorbed in his search, he is feeling his way.

Part Three: the illusion of form


A favourite memory of my dad is of him teaching me perspective. Put a dot on a horizontal line and draw a railway line to that point – it was like a magic trick, I thought it the cleverest thing.

This first part of this project is to research how artists have used perspective. My first discovery is there is way more than one type of perspective – I had no idea – one-point, two-point, three-point, photo, parallel, reverse, atmospheric, perceptive…

However before artists figured out perspective, they were still able to create a feeling of depth by overlapping objects, using different sizes to show something near and far, or by varying the colour or amount of detail.


Chauvet Cave, France

The horses of the Chauvet Cave have perspective: the near horse is denser in colour, the far one beginning to fade. It’s a little confusing that they get bigger as they get further away, though I also see this as the larger animal leading the group, the smallest and nearest is protected. The overlapping of marks and the varying textures give the feeling not just of a group of animals, but a group in movement. There is a tenderness to how these horses have been drawn, I find it beautiful and moving – never mind that it was drawn by someone who lived 30,000 years ago.


Egyptian art

I don’t know the first thing about Egyptian art, and though I think the size of a figure often relates to social hierarchy,  it also seems that they used size and overlapping to create the illusion of distance.


I couldn’t find the artist for this piece (above) but I do like its total disregard for perspective. It reminds me of school history lessons – what does this picture tell us? It probably depicts a wealthy couple – the table is tipped so we can see exactly what they’re eating, they have servants, a cook. They are framed by their property. Shadows are used on the fabric to give the bodies form, but the flesh is flat and white. There is another story being told here, about the man with the unfortunate legs – the plague perhaps.

Annunciation of Ohrid, 1308, Macedonia

Annunciation of Ohrid, Macedonia

The Annunciation of Ohrid, from the early 14th century, employs what is sometimes called ‘reverse perspective’ – something I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never noticed before. This doesn’t mean it is always strictly ‘reverse’ – it seems as if the artist wanted us to see various sides of objects and used whatever viewpoint best served that purpose. In the above work, we get to see the full surfaces of things that in reality we would only see a sliver of – giving a slightly queasy feeling that objects are tipping up and towards us.


Christ Entering Jerusalem, 1308, Duccio di Buoninsegna

Here the city looms in the distance behind the arched gateway and the receding trees help with the sense of depth. However the people get smaller the closer they get to us and the immediate foreground has shrunk to peculiar proportions – though maybe there is some religious symbolism attached to this which is way over my head?

A century after this attempt at perspective and Filippo Brunelleschi finally cracked it in 1420 with his study of one-point perspective, using the Baptistry of Florence as his subject. His study had a profound effect on artists at the time and the Renaissance artists put it to good use.

The Healing of the Cripple, fresco, Masolino da Panicale

The Healing of the Cripple, fresco, Masolino da Panicale

This fresco shows classic one-point linear perspective. I find this picture a bit dull, and I don’t think this perfect perspective is helping. It feels a bit like an architectural drawing with figures added – a bit like a proposal for a new shopping centre.

The Wedding of Cana, 1562, Paolo Veronese

The Wedding of Cana, 1562, Paolo Veronese

Veronese uses several different points of perspective. I’m sure I wouldn’t have spotted them were they not marked out, though having spent a little time looking there are floor tiles that don’t fit these given points (bottom centre left). In looking for examples of early use of perspective I came across endless Italian squares where the architecture seemed to take centre stage and the figures were add-ons, even where the subject was an important one. They feel a bit like theatre set-designs, it was hard to feel involved.

The above three works are all by Jan van Eyck and he seems to have had fun with perspective – almost showing off. I really love the eccentric and detailed Arnolfini Marriage – and though he hasn’t used perspective as obviously as in the other two pictures the detail in the mirror and the window sliding away add to its sophistication.

The Lamentation of Christ, 1480, Andrea Mantegna

The Lamentation of Christ, 1480, Andrea Mantegna

This is such an unusual (and brave!) angle to use and I find it quite startling. The legs and feet seem way too small for the head and torso, and it gives that slightly giddy feeling of looming over the bed. Maybe it’s done on purpose – when depicted on the cross I feel it’s all about the torso – slim legs fading away. It’s fascinating to look at, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a body painted from this angle – weird and wonderful all at the same time.

Not until Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso did the rules of perspective get questioned, or simply thrown out. These artists were among the first who wanted to find new ways of portraying what they saw.

Meléndez paints the kind of pictures that make me go ‘but how did he DO that?’ It makes me want to reach out and tap that melon in to place to stop it falling off the table. It’s a 3D wonder. By contrast Cezanne’s display is looking pretty tipsy and he clearly isn’t bothered by how things ‘should be’. Meléndez makes me think he has placed his fruit and placed his light, then crouched down low and taken a snapshot (though with a great camera!). Cezanne’s painting sees him  living with these objects, moving around them. Standing up, sitting down, one eye, two eyes. There is a sense that he is feeling these objects with his eyes, and his eyes are moving.

Melendez is calm, ordered, correct. I don’t think it’s sterile, but it’s quite removed from the artist, I don’t really get a sense of how he has experienced these objects. It could be a photograph. Cezanne has shown me how he saw this arrangement. I’m not sure anyone has ever compared art to teeth before, but the difference makes me think of David Bowie’s teeth, before and after.

This research in to perspective has uncovered so much for me. I’ve got to the point where it seems that all discussion on perspective leads to Cezanne = Braque = Picasso = cubism. No doubt this is extreme over-simplification but as a novice I’m happy with it for now.

I’ve never liked cubism and I can’t say that my new found understanding makes me like it any more. Cezanne and even Braque’s works that push towards it I enjoy. They give me a sense of how they experienced this landscape. I’m surrounded by the places they’ve painted (the quarries, l’Estaque, St Victoire). People often think of Provence as soft and gentle and full of lavender bags, but much of it is harsh, savage and over-exposed. There is real beauty; the pines, red earth, mountains but the weather can make it tough going. The earth is always hot and dry. I get this sense from their paintings – that this is a land ruled by sun and wind.

When I first looked at Picasso’s Reservoir (above) I found it too structured, too clinical, a study in geometry. However the more I look at it the more it says to me. It feels a bit like an origami village that’s been crushed, there are no spaces, there is no light getting through. And sometimes that’s what a village is like – so compact that no sunlight can penetrate beyond the rooves. And the light is surprising, I don’t know if he intended it, but to me it’s the light we sometimes get when a thunderstorm is due just as the sun is setting – a crazy mix of ominous grey and deep orange.

I can’t resist adding these two pieces of pavement art – and very happy to have found another life-drawing from feet up!

Two weeks later…

I’ve been thinking more about how Cèzanne and Braque painted this landscape that I pass through. More and more I see their version of perspective as the reality. The way they pile shapes on to each other with rough brushes of colour,  a house by a tree by a mountain. This is how it is. We only ‘see’ the mountain as in the distance because we know it’ll take 40 minutes to drive there.  But in this light it is as intense and present in what we’re looking at as the tree right in front of us. Similarly, the chaotic layout of village rooftops doesn’t follow any rules of perspective.