The fashion in pointy shoes for women

 Melania Trump's feet, left. Queen Letizia of Spain's feet, on the right. Both pairs of feet look ugly, over-raised by stiletto heels, and over-pinched by unattractive points. This is a cropped screenshot of a photo by Getty Images.

Melania Trump's feet, left. Queen Letizia of Spain's feet, on the right. Both pairs of feet look ugly, over-raised by stiletto heels, and over-pinched by unattractive points. This is a cropped screenshot of a photo by Getty Images.

I don't like it. When will it end?

 Eucch, I hate these shoes. What is Melania's trying to prove -- that she can almost walk on air? Getty Images, again.

Eucch, I hate these shoes. What is Melania's trying to prove -- that she can almost walk on air? Getty Images, again.

Still life + photo reference

Betsy, from a photo dated 7 April 2018


This is the picture that kicks off my new square mixed-media sketchbook (Bee Paper Company, 6 x 6 inches). The photographic reference is Betsy herself, as a not-quite 3-and-a-half-month old puppy. That photo was taken indoors, in the evening (see below). What I did was 'transfer' her (along with her beanbag) out into the lanai, where my fuschia and Alsobia dianthiflora were hanging, though not in the proximity seen here. The blue swashes between them represent the white voile curtain on the other side of the lanai door. Beyond we glimpse a shaded fence and a vague profusion of foliage -- but I'm not aiming here for precise realism or even particularly convincing perspective. This picture might instead be titled 'A few of my favourite things', to wit: the hanging plants and the puppy. The plants were drawn from life (but see the Alsobia as my camera now shows it, with many flowers). Incidentally, I coloured the Alsobia leaves in an olive way because that's how they appeared to me in the sunlight at the time. The photo shows the plant in a different location, and the leaves look more Castelvetrano unbrined-olive than the anchovy-stuffed ones I drew. But: I was drawing from life!


How to transfer a sketch

Watercolour paper gum-taped to a board (actually a large cork-backed placemat), a blending stump, and high-quality tracing sheets.

I don't like using black-backed 'transfer paper' for replicating sketches: the marks it leaves are too dark and too definite, as they can't be erased. But if you copy a sketch round with graphite on tracing paper, and turn the paper over to rub the graphite onto a new sheet, you've now got a mirror image. Orientation matters because we are used to 'reading' not only words but also images, I would assert, from left to right (even if we do it in an instant). So I might want to grab your eye with a vase of flowers and then quickly lead your eye via the glass bowl with lemons to the apple -- a subtle left-to-right diagonal. Given that I can't use a lightbox even if that would work, since my paper has been wetted and allowed to dry while taped down to a board*, what's the best way to transfer my existing sketch? 

What I do here is the following. Starting with a high-quality thick tracing 'vellum', I make my initial sketch or tracing with a somewhat soft pencil (2B in this case). Then I turn the sheet over and place a second sheet of vellum underneath it, and trace the back of the first tracing, so that the graphite will be transferred to the second sheet (and the image is now drawn on both sides of the first sheet). This gives a crisp third image, without scuffing or marring the initial image. I retain the initial image as a more detailed reference, since not every little mark or notation is transferred. Then I turn the second sheet over onto the paper I'll be painting on. As I don't want to etch the paper I'll be painting on, when it comes time to transfer the third image (on the second tracing sheet), I don't use a hard stylus or pencil but instead rub along the outline with a blending stump. If the graphite on the new picture surface needs lightening in places (as in the picture, where it's often a bit too dark), it's easily lifted by dabbing with a small piece of kneaded eraser. Meanwhile, the second tracing paper remains clean and holds sufficient graphite still to be used again for variant paintings.  

*If I think I might want to use water, even in conjunction with pastels or gouache, I prefer to be on the safe side and get that paper pre-stretched. Then I can add all the water I want, as the picture evolves, without a concern for cockling.

A kind of still life

I was planning to paint, in watercolour, a reduced aspect of this scene, but actually I like the whole thing as a still life from real life -- the fruits that I habitually like to eat, and use in cooking; the flowers my husband brings home because I like cut flowers in a vase; the pencil and sharpener, with that lovely bright redcurrant-jelly red; the deep blue pot by the vase that is growing a cutting of Alsobia dianthiflora (unseen in the photo); the cheap but lovely glass bowl dotted round its rim with glass beads; the pool robot in the water beyond (and the cloth on the table is simply cheesecloth):


Selenography: word of the day

Collins English dictionary defines this as 'the branch of astronomy concerned with the description and of the surface features of the moon'.

I came across it while encountering the stunning pastel works of master pastellist John Russell (1745 - 1806). I love the portrait of the little girl with cherries: it's her hair that says the most about how alive she is: it seems to swing with her head as she holds the cherries out to show you.

Then there is the selenographic portrait of the moon waxing gibbous. Amazing, and amazingly modern as a subject -- but more carefully rendered and studiously observed than most contemporary pictures (Russell was a serious moon-watcher). Both of these works are reproduced in the glorious book, The Art Of The Pastel, which I am making my way through with great savour.

 'The Face Of The Moon' by John Russell. Pastel on paper strained over a wooden stretcher. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

'The Face Of The Moon' by John Russell. Pastel on paper strained over a wooden stretcher. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

The false dichotomy of 'colour' versus 'design'

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April Love

by Arthur Hughes, a Pre-Rapahelite painter, c. 1855-56. The man in the background is weeping, and holds a rose with fallen petals. The mauve of the woman's dress was a new pigment derived from coal tar, and was 'all the rage' for a few years in the mid-century. In sum, the young lady may be disappointed in love, but she is certainly fashionable!

It's a game artists often like to play among themselves -- the game of 'if you had to be in one camp or the other, would it be the colorito camp (traditionally represented by Raphael) or the disegno camp (likewise represented by Leonardo)?'. Of course from a modern perspective Raphael has it all, but other Renaissance masters sometimes were more critical, and the 'pre-Raphaelite' painters of Victorian England wanted, if I don't misunderstand their objectives, a return in painting to 'slice of life' pictures rendered in worldly detail (as opposed to otherworldly detail, in the imaginary realm of gods and goddesses). To put it another way: They wanted their pictures to be more like what we understand as illustrations, each with a story that unfolds as we take in its lifelike, carefully chosen details. The Royal Academy of Art had been holding up Raphael as a model of what painters should aspire to.

But I digress. The 'colour' versus 'design' (or 'drawing' or 'lines') idea is one that survives because it is possible to create art using only one or the other. The American artist Tom Hoffman creates watercolour paintings that mainly consist of swipes by a brush, using colour to represent distance, solidity, and form (both the general shape and any details). Then there are artists that work primarily with graphite or ink and achieve a high degree of realism with it. But in the main, I think that both viewers and artists themselves feel that the pinnacle of satisfaction in art is the meeting of colour and line -- the interplay between them, with line relenting to let colour do its work, and vice versa. In short, not only do I as viewer and artist have one foot in each camp, I really think that the camps are irrelevant to what I enjoy and what I hope to achieve. To be truly delighted with an artwork, I generally require not only the presence of colour but more especially the contribution of colour to the mood and sensual appeal of the work. At the same time, colour that is highly vague, all the same texture, suggestive of nothing but art itself -- that I find to be a dead end rather than an avenue of pursuit. For me, colour really shines and takes on meaning when it has recognizable form -- when it's giving life to a design that has a place in space and time. This is one reason, maybe the main reason, why landscapes have triumphant popularity in our era: we never tire of them because we never tire of seeing arresting colour married to arresting forms. And the fact is, it's silly to think that as artists (or viewers) we have to choose: one wouldn't ask an audience after a Mozart concert whether they most admired the sound of the instruments or the notes they played: we all know that the magic comes when they work together. 

And now a box to put them in...

 This box also has a fitting for a tripod.

This box also has a fitting for a tripod.

This is the Sienna plein air pastel box -- though I don't see any particular requirement for the 'plein air' bit: this would be just as useful indoors if you had no other pastel compartments and no other easel. This will however be super for summer in the mountains, when I have to leave my studio behind. On the back of the lid, unseen, is a tray that latches on to the side edge, as a work area: meanwhile it sits within the lid top and is secured by two little magnets. (See the commercial picture, below.) The provided hook can be used to dangle a cloth, as shown. On the easel for demonstration purposes: a new work in progress. I often note that in any film or book, the artwork shown 'in progress' is actually and obviously a complete and finished work! I don't know why it never occurs to movie directors that they'd be more true to life if they hired an artist not to paint the whole thing but just to paint part way and stop! Or lend, for a fee, an unfinished work. Even art books, unless illustrating step-by-step instructions, share this tendency to show finished works rather than otherwise. So there you go: I am showing the box with its adjustable edge supports, with a great deal less than halfway-through work between them! It's just basic fine-grit black sandpaper that I had on hand in my toolbox!

Oscar, the movie winner's trophy

 Detail from an image in The Spectator, March 2018   

Detail from an image in The Spectator, March 2018


I suppose I could look into the reason why this particular statuette is the trophy for all that are recognized each year -- whether they be directors, actors, writers, technical wizards, or makeup artists -- by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (could they have come up with a more pretentious organization name? -- I think not). But I'm too busy studying the art of the pastel over the centuries, which is far more fascinating. I'll simply observe that Oscar seems neither dramatic nor sensitively stylish, and he's a bit of a head-scratcher aesthetically. I don't think it's going too far to say that style-wise he'd be right at home in Munich circa 1933. Weird.

Test of the Erasers

 My test of six erasers on 117 gsm sketch paper.

My test of six erasers on 117 gsm sketch paper.

Erasers perform slightly differently on different papers, but I wanted to see them perform side by side, just to confirm (or test) my judgements so far.

I made a chart, the image you see. FC means Faber Castell, CC is Cretacolor Caramel, Auto refers to my Helix Auto Eraser, Mars is the Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser; and then we have the Pentel Clic eraser -- a round that you advance somewhat like a mechanical pencil. Last is kneadable eraser, which is a dark grey putty.

So which did I like best? The Mars is a good strong eraser, but creates more debris than Faber Castell, and I don't like that. I prefer the FC, overall. The auto eraser with its fine vibrating sliver is usually effective, especially for tiny bits and precise work -- but you can't use it with any of the darker soft graphites, as it tends to smear the graphite into the paper rather than remove it!  The other erasers worked fine, but I like the kneadable easer best for removing smudges rather than stark marks: being a putty it is not as precise as the others, and it's not as resolute, either. My least favourite is the Cretacolor Caramel, which creates a lot of crumbs and is less good than just about every other eraser. 

Summary: use kneadable eraser when you can: doesn't hurt the paper, doesn't drive colour into the paper, and doesn't create unwanted crumbs. But use Pentel Clic or Faber Castell Dust-Free Eraser for less sensitive jobs, and if you want tiny removal of non-smudging pigment, go for the Helix auto.

True to Life? revisited

 'Spray' by Harold Williamson, part of the exhibition  True To Life: British Realist Painting From The 1920s To The 1930s

'Spray' by Harold Williamson, part of the exhibition True To Life: British Realist Painting From The 1920s To The 1930s

I like this painting: I have it on the small mirror (not even a compact, but it's Britain so you pay more and get less) that is a 'souvenir' of the British realism exhibition currently running in Edinburgh. It's 1939, so the woman is wearing a Lastex two-piece bathing suit (we are told in the catalogue) -- a stretchy fabric made from latex threads with a genuine textile wrapped around them. Beats wool for swimming, anyway, which is what they wore in the previous decade. There is something delightful about the woman's athletic, even muscularly defined, body -- not simply posing for the viewer but just enjoying life, responding to nature, her back turned to us. The problem is that her response doesn't seem justified by her context. The spray, surely, could hardly reach her. Those rocks she's on: they look awfully high. To my eyes, she's on a high cliff, not at the water's edge. Try as I might even to see it as a tidal pool, I just can't. Unless she has the bravery -- or folly -- to dive into the sea from a great height, the whole thing seems odd. She is a bather, but where's the beach? Which goes to show that realists might be convincing but they are not necessarily truthful.

Good lord

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I was looking up the 20th-century British sculptor, Dame (Jocelyn) Barbara Hepworth, when I saw this photo of her in the Daily Mail. It was taken in 1970. She died in a fire in her Cornwall cottage, which was also her studio, reportedly because she had been smoking in bed. (Apparently this was similar to the fate of the American actor, Jack Cassidy -- father of Sean and David.) The fire happened in 1975, when she was 72. That means that in 1970, when the photo was taken, she was 66 or 67 (depending on the month). Which is simply amazing. She doesn't look like someone easily under 70. She looks about 108. Never mind booze: that's what the sun will do to you.

True to life, but not completely

Currently reading the National Galleries of Scotland companion to an exhibit called True To Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s. I'm interested in the period, architecturally, culturally, and politically, not to mention the tiles and domestic decorations of the time, so this book will help to round that out. I'm also someone for whom the farther edges of both realism (e.g. any serious botanical or bird artist) and abstraction (e.g. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock) have little or no appeal. So-called photorealism raises the question of why not just take a photo -- and the answer is that all art as art selects and distorts, in a different way than the camera does. But the visual effect of photorealism, in which the virtuosity of the illusion is the point, impresses up to that point and then rarely goes farther. On the other hand, an artist whose book is devoted to loose gestural painting, speed of rendering, and vivacity failed entirely to convince me: I preferred the 'before' picture where the round floats on the boats he painted were truly round, and solid like cherries, and had a pleasing density both of colour and form. To my eyes, his looser, more washy version (he works in watercolours) had moved in the wrong direction. To me, there is a sweet spot between too tight and too loose, too precise and too vague. It depends what one is trying to achieve, of course. The economical suggestiveness of Marcia Brown's 'Cinderella' illustrations is admirable. There are as many or more ways to find that sweet spot, and to give it new expression, as there are artists.

To return to the True To Life exhibit: the cover of the book features a striking oil portrait, called 'By The Hills', which was painted by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst and is dated 1939. It features the head of a successful model, actress, and minor aristocrat, and, we are told, the arms of the painter's lover-made-second-wife. Apparently he judged the aristo to be too thin, though given the slimness of the existing arms, and the fact that the aristo was a healthy woman -- she lived till 2002 -- this seems rather unlikely. Anyway, the man was an artist: if her arms lacked sufficient fullness or shape, why not just paint them as he wished them? 

Moving on. The face is captivatingly beautiful (even if her eyebrows are too pencil-thin for contemporary taste), but eventually you do look at the head hair rather than just allow it to contribute to the overall impression. And when you do look at the hair, you realize (or I did) that the hair is far less 'realistic' than the face. It looks like a kind of shiny chocolate ganache. In the large and sharp reproduction of the cover photo, the hair looks like something squeezed from an icing bag. 



In the Smokies this summer...

I didn't have all my art supplies with me -- I had to leave much of it at home. So: no pastels, no dry coloured pencils, no artbars, and so on. But I bought a set of art markers and some Prismacolor Verithins, and I made some studies. In particular I studied the nearby trees, taking their 'portrait' more than once, and the stone boy at the water feature (complete with blue cotton sun hat, which someone had placed on his head), and the still life of apple, mineral water bottle, and gin bottle (Tanqueray). What a delightful summer.

 Here I'm experimenting with art markers as a way of painting. It was fun, but I'll definitely stick with pencils for the most part!

Here I'm experimenting with art markers as a way of painting. It was fun, but I'll definitely stick with pencils for the most part!

Here I was paying more attention to the hat.

No. 3 is my favourite of the heads -- it conveys best that this is a stone (or cement) statue.

I love the baby

In the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

'The Glorification of the Virgin' by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (most likely) is an astonishing painting, oil on wood panel, that dates to the late 15th century (my Oxford History of Art book, which has this on the cover, gives the date as c. 1480, but the current estimate seems to be the period 1490-1495). The surface has myriad cracks, which in an odd way add to the picture's charm, and certainly to the sense of its antiquity. But honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a more charming and delightful Mother-and-Child picture, not only because of their context -- luminous celestial rings of angel musicians and symbol-holders, a crescent moon to buoy the Madonna up and a little black devil snipping uselessly at her feet -- but also because the faces of both Mary and Jesus are tender, beautiful, innocent, and unfussy in their rendering.

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Both mother and child have heads shaped like eggs: if you had to make an egg into a human, this is how you would do it. Even Mary's mantle has much the shape of an egg (with a couple of forward folds like supports to keep the egg upright!). Mary has a wonderful crown: a delicate filigree affair in several colours -- the suggestion of gold, pearls, and enamel for the crown itself, though this is a heavenly crown and has a fairytale character: it has twelve stars, per biblical description. The crown sits atop a cushion of roses (we are told). There are five white roses (how can they count them? -- they look like compressed balls of cotton) for each red one. This is supposed to represent the order of prayers -- five Ave Marias (Hail Marys) and then a Paternoster (Our Father) -- but even if the painting makes reference to the rosary, is it not possible that the number five refers as well to Mary's 'five joys', which are described memorably in the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain And The Green Knight? Just a thought. (The poem is about a century earlier than the painting.)

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But in particular, of all the many lovely elements of this picture, what I love best is the baby. He is not the fattest baby Jesus you've ever seen -- one that's already eaten too many pies -- but he's not a stick-figure either. There are photos of me as an infant that look rather similar: a foreshadowing of slimness in maturity. Anyway, the baby squirms and kicks playfully, and reaches out one hand with his 'toy', apparently an open-bottomed bell -- while his other hand holds a second bell out in front of his ear, to be looked at and listened to with interest. This is a baby Jesus not aware so much of his impending doom as of the pleasures of being alive. Even Mary seems to be gazing not just at her son but also at the bell he holds out, as he tinkles along with the music of the heavens (don't forget the angels in the periphery, one of whom rings bells just like the baby's). 

I love my new Faber-Castell watercolour pencils

It used to be that pencils you could blend using water were 'water-soluble'. But people thought of them as watercolours made with pencils, and 'watercolour pencil' now seems to be the preferred term. It's what's on the tin of my new purchase, 120 pencils -- the complete range of colours -- put out by the German manufacturer, Faber-Castell (in business since 1761!). I love them. They look grand when you just lay the colour down dry, and they're great when you blend them with a paper stump (tightly rolled paper stick with pointed ends) -- and they will no doubt be excellent when I get around to using water. The loveliness of these pencils is that they are so versatile: loaded with pigment, they keep a point well without breaking; and they are beautifully rich even without water added. Here is my try-out picture, of an Envy apple (no water added). Can't wait to explore with these pencils further!

What sits in Mrs Andrews' lap?

 Detail of  Mr and Mrs Andrews , c. 1750, oil on canvas -- in The National Gallery, London

Detail of Mr and Mrs Andrews, c. 1750, oil on canvas -- in The National Gallery, London

Why didn't Thomas Gainsborough finish this work in this precise spot -- it seems complete otherwise -- and what was the splodge on Mrs Andrews' lap intended to represent? Some have suggested 'a baby', but presumably as newlyweds or any rate young marrieds, they did not yet have a baby. Perhaps Gainsborough was leeringly suggesting that he knew a baby would soon 'complete the picture'. On the other hand, does the beige splodge really suggest a baby to you? It looks more like a legless dumpling, and the 'arm' is a puzzler, too. One does not hold a baby with arms arranged as they are in the picture. And what is that strange penis-like outline that bisects the blob? It's much more likely to be a dead pheasant -- one just shot by Mister -- and Mrs has got him by the tail while his wings spread from side to side and his beak points downwards. A highly unlikely scenario: 'Here, wife, I've just shot this bloody bird: dangle it over your silk dress, will you?' It's not only bizarrely unlife-like, it's an insult to the decency and refinement of the lady.

Finally, since the Andrewses evidently didn't like Gainsborough's idea (and who would?), why didn't he paint what they wanted? Why did he leave this strange omission in the middle of an otherwise complete painting? Did he despise them that much? Or perhaps they hated him for making their faces seem charmless and calculating, and for featuring how 'bigly' the land was, by putting them at the edge of the scenery instead of in the middle. And perhaps they thought -- look at the unconvincing hair, the lady's odd eyes, her doll-like unwomanly torso -- that Gainsborough was a naff painter. Perhaps they told him: you're fired.

Graceless Graces

 Rubens, 1639. Prado Museum, Madrid. 

Rubens, 1639. Prado Museum, Madrid. 

There are some painterly styles that I have never taken a shine to, and the nudes of Peter Paul Rubens are Exhibit A. I am not terribly fond of Michelangelo's, either, outside of his exquisitely gorgeous sculptures -- and even then, they can be problematic -- 'Night', the female figure in his Julius tomb project, looks like a beautiful male with lumpy breasts clumped on haphazardly over his masculine chest.

But the real effrontery comes not from the lack of a homosexual appreciation of the female form (which, given Michelangelo's staggering mastery of art, is surely the only reasonable explanation for that specific failure), but rather from the work of someone you would expect not only to know better but to sense differently, as well. We are told that Rubens's second wife, a 16-year-old at the time of the wedding, inspired many of his paintings, including The Three Graces, which in his hands is a celebration of cellulite and a study in bodyfat and emergent double chins. The women aren't just fleshy, they're knobbly and bobbly and out of proportion -- his Graces are an abomination of incoherent flab and unintelligible body bulges -- and they have small breasts, so unlikely on fatted-up women! Did the man never lay eyes on a taut smooth-fleshed woman with curves in the right places and feminine muscle? Apparently not. Whatever other attributes this painting has, I can never focus on them because of the repugnance I feel for all the misshapen lard.

 One side... with two like bottoms on the other. Roman copy of a Greek sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One side... with two like bottoms on the other. Roman copy of a Greek sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

That said, the gamine and rather characterless Graces painting that was once owned by Adolf Hitler is a step in the other direction: apart from the difficulty of assessing any art created with Nazi sanction, the women look too much like approved specimens for breeding who are presenting themselves to their masters' gaze. One wonders what would happen should they ever put on a pound or two -- or ever want a livelier, less airless atmosphere.

Fortunately, there is a middle way of perfection between the taut and the dysmorphic, and that can be found in ancient sculptures, but also more recently in the work of 19th-century artists, who knew what a fine figure consists in and could represent them without sinister undertones. Indeed, Antonio Canova gave us Three Graces who are inspirations to each other, and might just as well be unaware of the viewer: it is a sisterhood and mutual admiration society, and we look on without their asking our applause or approval. I think this works as a visually more intricate spectacle, but it also says something about the nature of the graces or goddesses themselves, since their qualities begin from within even though they might also have outward expression. The sculpture gives tangible form to the truth that no single quality is complete in itself, but gains from embracing others as well. Canova gives us girls that are slender without being hard, shapely without being excessively voluptuous, and charmingly charmed by their own charms. And even better, they are all smooth, the convention for refusing to sculpt female pubic (or axillary) hair holding strong. Who cares if the bottoms are ever so slightly droopy?

 Antonio Canova, 1816, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Antonio Canova, 1816, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg