A Casting from Life

This is one of those images I never tire of looking at. For observation, skill, pathos and 19th century sensibility it is a paradigm object. painted by the French painter Edouard Dantan, it is in Gothenburg and I have to admit I’ve never seen the original although I have seen other paintings by him with similar subjects.

The story is of workaday, even lowly matters mixing with and creating lofty ideals and aspirations, or at least those viewed through 19th century eyes. The superb figure of the central nude, contrasted by her ruddy peasant face and the attire and actions of ordinary craftsmen, in turn surrounded by objects at the idealistic core of Western culture all in a context of pots, tools and grimy furniture and walls.

It’s about artifice, a peep behind the beautiful and the unattainable at the grubby and ordinary. It’s not profound or mysterious, and I’m aware of all the arguments about sexual and class implications in such a thing, but I don’t care. There is such a love of painting here, such a relishing of detail and texture and overlaying of one material over another that points to a different kind and definition of beauty.

Much of Dantan’s work available to us is standard Salon fodder, a bit of mythology, a bit of sex, a bit of history, satisfyingly skilled and making all the right references to the masters of the time in style and subject matter. artists like Bouguereau, Alma Tadema, Meissonier, Cot etc 


He was well thought of in critical circles and regularly sold work to the French State and other institutions, won medals and had all the other hallmarks of success. He tried his hand at various manners even flirting with what looks to me like Impressionism.

His grandfather, father and uncle were all well known sculptors, their studios and foundry and casting workshops must have been a second home to him so that when he started to take them as subjects there was a personal element that, while being unremarkable to us, in his time was unusual. The painting “Coin d’Atelier”shows his father working on a relief. He obviously felt the need for a bit more than the situation allowed so he stuck in a nude for good measure to add a bit of narrative depth. I am being ironic.

The idea pursued him, or the other way round, and he produced a number of works with similar themes all having the same eye for detail, texture, arrangement and form.

And detail;

He made another version of the painting I’m talking about but I think it’s a sketch for the main picture, illustrated at the top;

There is one thing about the painting that I find bemusing rather than annoying. The model’s head is set too far to her right on her shoulders and I don’t understand why. Anyway, it doesn’t spoil the painting for me. It’s on my bucket list.



Making an Underpainting

original drawing

This original drawing, made some time ago, I projected onto a Belle Arte extra primed panel which I use lot for sketching and made a base drawing layer using burnt umber, ivory black and titanium white. I’m all in favour of remaining in Europe but I must say the EU regulations against the sale of lead white which I used to use are completely unnecessary. I’ve had to adjust to Titanium and use a combination of Winsor and Newton Alkyd and Artist oil colours. Their flake white hue and mixing white give a good range of transparency when mixed with the full strength whites and of course give greater control over drying times.

incomplete drawing layer

I changed the hairdo to emphasise the head of the cardboard figure and using Old Holland oil painting medium pushed the image around until it all seemed to balance. The brushes used in this layer are mainly old and worn with a couple of newer Rosemary soft synthetics to smooth out once the main values are established.

finished drawing layer

A couple of days to dry thoroughly (one of the reasons for using Burnt Umber is it shortens the drying time dramatically). The paint is now a thin layer with no solid colour and the lighter areas are mostly from the primed base.

start layer

Onto this a series of opaque and transparent colours. Some artists at this point make a grisaille but I prefer to anticipate the end colour with cooler versions of the final hues essential various coloured greys. It helps me judge more clearly how to manipulate the glazes and keeps the underlying white more active. Also if there are areas I am unsure about I can still keep them loose in the drawing colour.

The face here is in the final underpainting stage. Finer detail will of course come later but one of the more important judgements to be made is the level of detail for the atmosphere of the painting. I know about Piero della Francesca’s recipe for detail being established by overall size but I prefer to vary the focus from area to area.

part way through

Part way through. The finished underpainting is at the top. Apart from drawing and other preparation the process so far has taken two full days. Sometimes things never get beyond this stage, or I make changes, but I avoid doing that if I can because it usually means losing the freshness of the brushwork.

Finished underpainting

The finished underpainting will dry for a couple of weeks at least and be ready for glazes to develop colour and space with probably a bit of redrawing.



Serious paintings aren’t supposed to be funny. Sounds pretty obvious but the implication is that funny paintings aren’t supposed to be serious and that paintings involving humour are less worthy, less profound and less descriptive of the human condition than those which deal with the darker emotions. Light hearted is thought of as slight.

The history of painting shows that artists have used humour as an end in itself and as a component in complex emotional circumstances. The funny side is an enriching facet in painting.

We have many words for the things that are important to us, humour being one of them. Wit, funny, jest, comic, sarcasm, irony, ridicule, satire, whim, amusing, farce, joke, pun are just some of these words. Humour can be facetious, waggish, dry, sly, merry, wise, slapstick, scintillating, cruel, droll, sophisticated, vulgar and so on describing the myriad variations we use in our exchanges. We have the same range in paintings.

There are far too many to show the whole range but here are some of my favourites;

The Jester Don John of Austria

In the court of Philip III a number of jesters were employed having various abilities, this chap’s being to look exactly like Don John of Austria, not a well regarded monarch in this court. Other jesters had different physical and mental impairments for the cruel amusement of the royals. Velazquez did a set of portraits of these people investing them with the humanity and dignity absent in their masters.

In a whole series of caprices Goya made a tongue in cheek appraisal of the darker side of Spanish spiritual life, witches and demons still being believed in. Incidentally this was the original inspiration for some of my figures-in-the-sky paintings.

Looking in a mirror is a testing experience for us oldies, aspects of this depicted convincingly by Rembrandt and Bonnard.

Dick Ket Self Portrait

Another kind of self regard painted by the strange and vulnerable Dick Ket.

Portrait of Louis XIV

Unintentionally funny. Today this would be seen as a parody. Hyacinth Rigaud was serious about this portrait of Louis IV. and so, presumably, was Louis.

Portrait of Poet Ivar von Lücken, 1926 by Otto Dix

This charming and moving caricature of the poet Iwar von Lucken by Otto Dix has humour and pathos intertwined.

Love letters Stanley Spencer

A stream of love letters overwhelms this suitor in this by Stanley Spencer.

The Lovers II, 1928 by Rene Magritte

More lovers from Magritte

There are many many more

The deadly requirements that paintings be “Challenging” “Relevant”  “Exploring” in contemporary curatorship seem to devalue the ironical, mischievous, fantastical, ambiguous from being included in the presently fashionable works displayed in our public galleries.

There are exceptions. “Running away with the Hairdresser” By Kevin Sinnott is a delightful evocation of a tale from his native South Wales Valleys culture.




I like sketching. When I use the word I usually mean “oil sketching”, done in oil paint and not intended as a finished painting. Some are done as preparations for paintings, and can evolve over a period of time, with major or minor changes leading towards the basic presentation of an idea, trying out different aspects or forms, without worrying about final appearance.

Some, as here, are drawings done in paint, direct from a model or still life setup. There is no preparation, it’s all invention and excitement. It’s not intended to be exhibited, so one can be as effusive or as plodding as one likes. It can be part of a preparation for a painting or done for practice for it’s own sake. When a model is involved there is also a time limit, in this case three hours.

Starting with fluid paint, the basic divisions of light and shade are made in the main form. the idea will be to keep fluidity and options open for as long as possible.


For the technically minded, on this occasion I’m using Winsor & Newton Titanium white, Ivory Black, Permanent Rose, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Umber. The medium is cold pressed linseed oil and white spirit, kept in separate cups, and the support is Belle Arte canvas panel, painted with a light grey ground.


I mix the two main colour areas of the figure so as to have plenty of both and also lighter and darker versions for highlights and deeper shadows when I need them later. You will need to go further but only in small amounts which can be mixed with the brush from the colours on the palette.

With painting, everything is relative so the sooner you get in the main tonal values the better;


This is best done by areas of thin paint into which more opaque colour is applied. The model gets a rest (or a wake up) every three quarters of an hour or so. This is after just over an hour;


Up to now I’ve been using fairly stiff brushes but now I’m switching to softer so as to get more paint on. . Also I’m mostly using the oil on it’s own as a medium to create a better flow. Carrying on until all the main areas have most of the values in place;

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With less than an hour left it’s time to start on details and the full range of values;


Mostly about smoothing out the background so it recedes and the figure becomes more prominent, putting in darker values and refining the highlights, and finding a rhythm in the drapery. And then the three hours is up;

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The reason it’s a sketch and not a painting (someone is going ask), is that forms, colours and spaces are indicated, not fully realised.













Tracy Emin was on BBC national news recently talking about her new show at White Cube. (whatever happened to the BBC’s ban on advertising?). She talked about the work as though it had profound personal and universal resonance, and she was taken seriously by the presenter. This is astonishing, because by any descriptive or artistic measure that I value her work is immature incompetent rubbish. She is, to cap it all, and by one of the great ironies that soak our culture, Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy. I’m not going to insult great artists by putting her stuff on the same page as them so you can Google her drawings yourself.

Drawing has a number of definitions because it has a number of purposes. What most definitions have in common is observation, exploration, preparation, and visual evocation of the material world. They are judged successful by their qualities (e.g elegance, gravity, wit etc.), their inventiveness, truth, accuracy of depiction and  insight. Also whether they are good preparation for work which is to follow, for example by formulating good compositions or spaces for paintings, or good indication of form for painting or sculpture. All this visually, for in the extent to which you need words to explain a drawing, to that extent it has failed.

We have such a wealth of examples of good drawing that any survey is partial but some favourites of mine are;















The 20th century saw an explosion of values and therefore styles come onto the scene but the core values remained.

Sargent (worth 2)



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Gwen John






Compositional studies by Robert Fawcett


In the present day, we’re not short of good draughtsmen. There are many excellent Americans although for my taste a bit too self consciously academic like Robert Liberace who nevertheless obviously enjoys himself.


Kent Williams’ self consciously artificial images


Over here in the UK, Steve Young’s inventive compositions

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another friend’s drawings, set designer and painter John Macfarlane are fluid, witty and graceful


and me (Top)



Alla Prima



I often sketch in oils, (as above) and always alla prima, since I regard it as a form of drawing. As friends often point out, there is in them a freshness of colour and gesture not present in my finished paintings. I agree, but that is not all there is to painting, and I am not good enough to get all I want in one go.

However, the point nags me, and occasionally I try to make a painting that has no underpainting, hoping to get a finished work with some of the feel of spontaneity I admire in others. here is a record of one such attempt.

From a sketch and a drawing;

AP 2

I mark roughly the image in the canvas, then a sienna wash to warm everything and to give the paint a bit of slick and then paint as directly as I can;


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A closer view;


The rest is working your way through to completion with all the attendant inventions and uncertainties of working like this;

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The end of the first day finished like this;


The next day carried on;

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Ending the process with this;

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But after a couple of weeks it looked thin, so I became a recidivist, went over the whole thing strengthening and altering, and ended up with this, I hope you can see the difference.

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Now, a few weeks later, i’m still not happy with it, and think I may start again, and do it properly.










I paint a lot of paintings. Some get sold. some come back and go on to another exhibition, some come back again and hang about sulking. Lurkers, my wife calls them. this happens to a few of the best but most get acknowledged by me as not up to the mark. This happens because when you’re working to an exhibition it’s not always possible to get a good perspective on all individual works.

What to do? I had a good feeling about the ideas in the first place or I wouldn’t have started them. When they come back some get shamefacedly trashed but some get a new life, either by being whizzed  up a bit or by addition or subtraction of subject matter. Take “Bologna Garden” for example;



The two figures were inspired by a love I have for 1950’s illustration and had been, it now seemed to me, stuck into a site for no good feeling. So, in order to take a new look and preserve what I liked, they had to come out;



I left it a while and let ideas percolate. The classical nature of the sculpture (it’s Hercules, by the way) led to some ideas about a sculpture garden;



which I drew in with Photoshop, and others followed;



But I wanted a human presence, and one which had some connection, however tangential, with the site. As often happens with me, this turned out to be a nude woman. A sketchbook drawing done away from the studio have me a sort of thing that felt right;



So in came the model and in she went;



Not quite finished yet but mostly there. Then we find out if anybody wants it.











I try not to make major changes during the course of a painting. The reason is so as to not compromise the integrity of the paint film and to use the thick and thin, that is opaque and transparent, abilities of oil paint to describe form more effectively. This in turn adds to the credibility of the image and supports, rather than interrupts, the original drawing. I know there is a charm and liveliness in the Romantic idea of a painting being a perceptible struggle but I have more of a classical bent and prefer to get my struggling over before I start. When Rubens said, “Always paint alla prima, there is plenty to do afterwards”, he worked on a very well prepared and resolved underpainting, and “plenty to do afterwards” can mean a lot.

The image above was painted from a model (in burnt umber and lead white) and laid out the design and tonality pretty much according to what I saw and to my intentions for the final appearance.


The next sitting saw flesh colours painted into a thin glaze to build up the form.

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And ended with background and hair in their final tones.

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The last session saw all the forms in, and some tweaks to the earlier areas.

What I should have done is left it there and looked again in a couple of weeks, working up colours and tones with glazes, which I normally do.

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Instead I decided I might prefer a darker background and put it onto the previous colour. When I’d finished the whole area, it didn’t look right, and reduced the options I had for glazing. But the paint had started to set and I didn’t want to have to go over the carefully worked edges of the profile again. It was the end of the day.

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So I took out as much of the background as was safe and left it, leaving me more work to do than If I’d not changed my mind.



In the 1950’s, when I was young and not visually sophisticated, the majority of British art had a very particular, not to say insular, character. I’m referring to artists and illustrators (they were often both) who used a heavily designed style and referred to local and religious history in much of their work. Many had had war experience which had given them a desire to change perceptions but not values by placing old narratives in a new perspective. Don’t forget that the international scene was dominated by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and other foreigners and the last home-grown art movement, Pre-Raphaelism, was derided or ignored, as was most realist figurative painting.

I’m talking of artists such as David Jones;

David Jones


Eric Bawden.

Eric Bawden

Stanley Spencer;


John Minton;


and many others. There were also the “abstracted” artists such as

Graham Sutherland;


and Keith Vaughan;


We, by which I suppose I mean I, had no clear and unequivocal examples of contemporary realist painting to look up to. Which is why American illustration was so attractive, in magazines readily available to us, found, I seem to remember, in any sitting room.

Artists like Robert Fawcett;



Dean Cornwell;

Dean Cornwell 2


and Norman Rockwell;



There was a great deal more going on of course, in Britain than I have mentioned; Ronald Searle, Women’s Own romance illustrations, Ladybird Books, the Summer Show at the Royal Academy always had some old style skilful art. Anyway, it was not to be long before I went to art school and the onset of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art skewed any debate away from the abilities and beauties of figurative painting to it’s place in theory and history. Those of us for whom it is the only form which can carry the complexity of emotion and appearances that makes us humane should be thankful to the Americans and others for keeping alive the skills and spirit of realist figurative painting.

Having said all that, I must say I enjoy now much of that 50’s British art, David Jones in particular; and Stanley Spencer always had a much more mimetic manner for portraits and private work, from which much of subsequent British painting derived.




Model Model


I don’t usually have a psychological plan or reason for a painting, I just come across an image by working through ideas I’ve got from observation, developing themes in past paintings or stealing from another artist. The mood or meaning i.e. sombre, funny, ironic, light-hearted, enigmatic or mystifying is refined through a process of feeling, trial and rejection, not analysis or clear decision. That way I’m not altogether responsible for the results and not necessarily the best judge of their meaning. In fact often it’s not until after finishing that I can come to a view of what the thing could be about. The best images hover between several different interpretations and are decided on by the viewer based on their own experiences and state of mind.

For example, in this painting “Kiss” I removed any contact between the girls other than the touch of the cheek making a coldness at variance with the normal meaning of the act and by emphasising the lips and the ear turned it halfway to a whisper. Using also the compositional device of two opposing curves (necks and ponytails) giving in my mind a sense of conflict.



In still life it’s often easier to play around with the sense of things. The arms and flex in this painting “Lamp” could have given any number of different feelings than the jaunty one I chose.



Sometimes things can turn on a type or character as in this one “Painter”. I went through three or four male models before making up this combination of qualities reminiscent of 60’s illustration types.



With more complex narratives such as “Model” at the top, and “Wait”, below, I get to the point where all I’m concerned to do is remove as many particular interpretations as possible and let the scene play out of it’s own accord.


At least that’s how it feels.