Tuesday 9 December 2008


At this time, the mind turns happily to all things festive.
Pity the poor window-painter- not myself this year, but my accomplice, Al. It's one of our busiest times and the red paint's slapped on like nobody's business.
None of our customers wants their shop window decorating too early for Christmas, nor too late, so it's a frenzied period of activity resulting in a sort of madness- a blur of holly, a whirl of snowmen, a sweetness of Nativities, forests of fir trees- and the dreaded favourite, Pere Noel, who, for this stressful period, is often referred to in irreverant and colourful terminology involving size and mother's marital status.
We work from photos and old cards. It's difficult to find a plumptious, white-bearded old fella in a red suit to pose while we paint, and the best-drawn images of Santa are the ones from the old Coca-Cola adverts. The offending bottle in his hand ( no wonder he's fat!) is replaced by a star or a dolly. Or, on last week's pharmacie window, a blood-pressure gauge.
I see that this year, Al's photcopied a picture of Brian Blessed as a possible model.... he'll have to bleach that beard, and add a few extra locks.
Other window painters crawl out of the woodwork around now and we see their handiwork. Some are ok-ish, but bad taste does abound in the city of Rennes. A semi-naked woman dressed as Father Christmas on a bike, smoking a tab somehow lacks the festive ring of Decking the Halls, Awaying in Mangers , and bringing pine logs hither.
And to Slade's perennial questions ' Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer, does he turn up on his sleigh?'- well, 'Yes, if that's what you'd like on your windows, M'sieur, Madame!'

Friday 21 November 2008

Early Learning

It's a Wednesday and high time to have another 'Kidzart'. I've been reading the excellent 'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain' , so instead of doing what are essentially craft-based projects with the young 'uns we decide to give them a workshop that will, hopefully, get the creative half of their grey matter working.
We start off by copying drawings which are upside-down... we chose cats and dogs. The fact that the drawing is reversed abstracts the familiar subject matter into shapes, angles and lines. It also discourages using the usual symbols- by this I mean the tendency to think ' this is what an eye's like- round!' , or 'this is how I draw a tail!' . We're careful, also, not to name any of these bits.
The first drawings go well, but they tire after a while-poor mites! and start reverting to what they think or know is there. Or what they believe should be visibly there, eg a dog has four legs so I give it four even if I can't see them all.
We have a break and then they stand at easels like 'real artists' and do a painting of yours truly lying on a couch. We're amazed at how well they work- for forty minutes- remember these are youngsters aged four to eight only- and produce some great pictures. They all have an instinctive sense of design and even if the figure's badly placed in the beginning it's balanced out afterwards, somehow.
Well done Lawrence, Mathieu, Thibaud and Manon! And thanks to their Mums. And for the cake!

Thursday 30 October 2008


After a pause from this blog I can now reveal to you, dear readers, that for the last few weeks I’ve been working non-stop on a series of paintings of Salford for an interior design company- an excellent commission, and- frighteningly, my first of this magnitude.

They’re to be reproduced , much bigger, for an outlet of (so my pizza-literate friends tell me!) the most up-market of pizza restaurant chains.

And with a short deadline, small wonder that I’ve been akin to a headless chicken!

For starters, photos had to be taken of the area, both of the spanking-new, trendy Salford quays with its bridge and Lowry Museum , and the old Salford… factories, mills, streets of red brick.

Out of hundreds of photos I found the best sixty, eventually whittling it down to a dozen or so, choosing a good variety of subject matter. Colour, too had to be considered – I didn’t want to use the same palette on each.

I worked in a mixture of media which gave me the grand sweeps of colour and the delicate architectural detail I wanted to convey.

I was pleased with the results- I’d have liked a little longer to do the ‘ pizzapics’, but I stuck with what I knew would work well and I feel I’ve captured some of the atmosphere of a city under metamorphosis.

It’s been important to me also that I record the changing scene before the charwoman that is regeneration arrives, takes up her Mr. Muscle, and cleans away the grime- and some of the character- of centuries.

Pictured are small details of the work, more to follow!

Sunday 14 September 2008

Everybody's Mate, Rolf.

Sometime late in 2006...
An Art job comes through from the excellent Axis Art website. It's the BBC who want North West artists to join Rolf Harris in Manchester for the day. I'm over in France and feel I can't be fussed- then I decide it'll be interesting . I email examples of my Manchester paintings and I'm taken on.
Rolfie's doing a programme on L.S. Lowry, culminating in Piccadilly Gardens, with himself and the chosen artists painting the scene that Lowry depicted in 1954.
The Beeb give us details of Lowry's palette of colours in case we choose to use the same. That's Prussian Blue, Vermilion, Yellow Ochre, White and Black.
I've never used this combination before and have avoided the all-pervasive Prussian, but when I try them out on test-pieces I'm pleasantly surprised. I leave out the black-
'not colour but the absence of light'.
The results are instant Lowry! I'll use them on the day if they're suitable.

January 2007
All the artists meet the BBC folk in the cafe on Piccadilly Gardens and we're given some idea of how the day will go. We're to be filmed working in a big marquee in front of the building. As we file out , an affable Rolf , swaddled in ten feet of colourful scarf, holds open the door for us.
Out in the open-sided marquee- after Rolf's foot-stomping rendition of 'Sunarise'- no-one can see as much of the scene as Lowry could. A mushrooming of modern buildings pushes us further into the square, so I decide to paint just the slice I can see without scanning.
We have around three or four hours . The BBC and the artists are jolly and friendly, despite the cold, and Rolf's doggedly working on an intensively coloured panorama from photos taken in dramatic evening light.
The artists are working in various mediums- charcoal, oils, acrylics, and - don't ask me how- mosaic and batik!
I meet some nice students from the Fine Art Courses at Manchester Uni. Although we're cordoned off, the public are close by and I loose count of the number of times I hear "Have you guessed what it is yet?" shouted out. But our Rolf's a patient man and poses for endless photos with complete strangers as the day goes by.
I think it's really naff and embarrassing to have your photo taken with Rolf Harris and I wouldn't ever do that, but later on I think 'well, everyone else is and I might regret it later'- so I do!
All the artists are filmed and interviewed towards the end of the day. It's nerve-wracking and we have to carry on painting as we speak (two different sides of my brain, if you don't mind, Mr. Producer!).
I say my bit, feeling daunted by the previous artist's encyclopedic knowledge of Lowry and I know that my paltry observations won't be chosen.
When the programme goes out in March, they
have picked my bit and tho' I look pinched and my voice is cracked and ancient with the cold, I say what I really wanted to point out. I tell how it's easy to paint a beautiful picture of, say, a vase of flowers, but that Lowry depicted the ugly, the everyday and the overlooked, and he transmitted their strange beauty to the observer.
A word about Rolf..... I know he isn't popular with some... well, he's enthusiastic and approachable, and who said Art should be depicted in a po-faced way, to be enjoyed only by intellectuals?! His is one of the few TV programmes showing the craft and technique behind paintings.
There's nothing wrong with being populist, and as a schoolkid I was greatly encouraged by his Big Brush Paintings.. .encouraged down that chosen path to a life of penury- thanks, Rolf, haha!!

"When I was young I did not see the beauty of the Manchester streets. I used to go out into the country painting landscapes and the like. Then one day I saw it... I saw the beauty of the streets and the crowds" L.S. Lowry 1972.

Pictured: Lowry's Piccadilly Gardens, Rolf at work with myself being filmed, my own Piccadilly Gardens, Rolf and me!

Sunday 31 August 2008

Light In the Darkness of the Post-War Era

A 195os childhood spent in a drab northern town was illuminated by posters for Startrite shoes, by Christmas annuals or the sight of rainbow starlings splashing in a puddle..... and Aunty Dorothy's bright lipstick left on a cup....
Best of all, and before me now even as I write, is 'The Whopper Paint Book'. Inside its cheerful cover is a world of cute puppies, ducklings, kittens, piglets and foals to colour in - some of whom are happily cohabiting with different species!
I wasn't as keen on the racing cars or the planes- even though the Vickers Valiant is one of the most up-to-date of British bombers and the Supermarine Swift was flown by Lieutenant commander Mike Lithgow. Not to mention the Sunbeam Talbot, "one of Britain's leading hopes in competitive motoring"!
In 'the Twins Birthday Party' their aproned and smiling mother cooks and organises games and father puts in a vague, suited appearance at the end.
"All the children are wearing gay clothes at the party " and we should "give the little girls gay dresses", Jumbo is grey and he has on a yellow jumper, Teddy is golden brown, leaves are green, but-look out! One of these Toadstool Houses is quite different from the rest!

Sunday 17 August 2008

To the Chateau Borne, part two.

Down to chateau l’Age Baston once again to replace Mr. Price after his two week’s tutoring drawing on the Painting course.

I have a smaller number of students than usual, for the first week-and this gives me ample opportunity to hone my own skills. Back soon!

Images: gateway to the woods; six cows and a donkey; one red tomato. All Caroline Johnson

Sunday 3 August 2008

Football Magic

Painting a window is hard work both mentally and physically, and is usually done in three to four hours.
In the lead up to football's World Cup, held in France in 1998, we had eight-six window portraits of players to paint, that's an intimidating forty-three each.
Such a huge amount of portrait work was an unique opportunity to hone our craft- and my 'own work' in the studio can only have benefited, despite at times feeling drained and distraught !
I compare this to the Beatle's arduous training in the clubs in Hamburg, although there the resemblance ends- not many 'prellies' available in the average Breton village, to enable the artist to stay awake and continue working!
I would hesitate, to their faces that is, to call the French an over-self-confident race of people... but we portrayed Zidane holding the cup on more than one window,
before the matches began. After they won, we were able to say it was due to our paintings!
I could, in fact, visualise a direct parallel to the sympathetic magic practised in prehistoric cave art and other rituals up to and including the present day!
Mmm...... could be a lucrative service we could offer, perhaps we've been barking up the wrong tree..
'Miraculous Good Luck Paintings- they worked for the French, now let them work for you! Commissions taken in strict discretion.'

Picture:Barthez in goal, window in Plancoet.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Rock On!

Midsummer means Glastonbury Festival. I've only been once, in 1987, but I now follow the event at home on the telly- with my own 'facilities' in my own bathroom, thank you!
This year, I noticed they have an artist in residence- and have had for years, unbeknown to me. He's Kurt Jackson, who auctions the resulting
oeuvres in aid of Oxfam... good on yer, Kurt, I wish there were more like you around.
The World of Rock is familiar territory- my living with a musician, and having to be The Oldest Groupie Ever- gives ample opportunities for sketchbook work.
Drawings of the moving figure can't get too precious and it really sharpens up the eye.
At a concert in Rennes it was too dark to see the page, but the resulting pictures came out lively and amusing.
On a hot summer's evening at St.Malo's La Route Du Rock I struggled among jostling crowd to draw The Spinto Band- a particularly lively group. I was drenched in sweat afterwards- none of it mine, objectionably!
The entertainment business, for that's what it is, is another subject where it's useful and interesting to work from the sometimes-frowned-upon photographic image. And even Degas resorted to this, for his dancers!

We Shall Draw Them On The Beaches..

So hot yesterday that a trip to the beautiful Pen-Guen beach just had to be made.

Simply lying on the warm sand gets boring though, so myself and Mr. Price take up our sketchbooks. He draws me from under an umbrella while I , stupidly, don't notice time passing , out in the sun with my sketchbook. Result, a prettily coloured pen, ink and watercolour of sunbathers and beach paraphenalia .... and an ugly red sunburn on my arms and back.
Sand is a pale yellow-ochre-with-a-touch-of-ultramarine and the shadows are less dilute with more of the blue. That's Breton sand of course!
Pic of myself courtesy of ADP.

Monday 14 July 2008

Autour du Tour

It's the day the Tour de France passes nearby here and a friend's invited us to watch from her doorstep with a jolly crowd of other English folk.
I take along my sketchbook 'in case' and I feel inspired to draw the waiting crowds.
I've depicted the tour before, because for many years now, with my accomplice Al, I've painted the riders on shop windows in towns along the route.
Most of these are 'yer actual' portraits of the cyclists. Al's had the frightening task of 'window painting' the famous French rider of the 1950s, Louison Bobet....knowing that Jean Bobet (his brother) was to pass by later- and that the family don't take kindly to incompetent pictures of Louison, who died in 1983.
We keep for reference a big pile of cycling magazines, and books on the history of the Tour. Hey- none of your fancy nylon outfits for the old guys- I notice that at least one of them is wearing some sort of hand-knitted full-length leggings.. "Merci, Maman!"
Now here's the technical bit, as painting on shop windows has its own set of difficulties:
They're painted on the inside, which means the first layer is the only one seen.
Flesh tones are a particular (here I'm being polite) pain in the neck as colours change from inside/outside and this involves frequent
sorties to check. The paint can't be too transparent and, depending on the manufacturer, blues, greens and browns can be problematic. And as acrylics dry so quickly, speed is essential.
In order to catch the eye, a window painting needs to be as big as possible . This means at least life-size for the Tour de France riders.
Far be it from me to complain... but add to this if you will:
1 A constant stream of well-wishers, each with his own artistic observation to make.
2 Nine times out of ten, no offer of refreshment from the commercant or even innkeeper- this over a period of up to four hours.
3 'Santa's Little Helper' - aka a small spoiled child belonging to the client and who stands too close asking questions in Toddler French and poking about with the paints.
4 'Ice Cold in Alex'-a relentlessly sunny day on the 'wrong side of the street, blinded by sunlight with sweat dripping off the paintbrush.... no offer of refreshment.

5 The client has- lazily- only moved the window display a fraction to allow access for the artist, necessitating contortions at the dexterous level of a Victorian fairground sideshow.
6 Particularly in supermarkets- a relentless medley of appalling French music
on a loop and repeating every twenty minutes. How I love that Claude Francois who, incidentally, died when taking a bath and standing up to fiddle with a faulty light- well, that's French wiring for you..
7 At the end of your four hours work, client says they won't pay you unless you add a picture of his shop in the background... takes another hour... ditto refreshments..
8 Client, eg. butcher, has appalling taste and the artist has to steer him away from- and I kid you not- his bright idea of a leg of lamb,
with its own little arms and legs, riding a bike in the Tour de France... "Desolee, M'sieur, mais c'est du mauvais gout!"
What delights! and what relief, on this particular day, to simply wait for the Tour to arrive, quietly sketching for a half-hour. After which I give up, to act more sociably and join in with the fun.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Small- Yet Rich- Pickings

Imagine my delight when I recently sold four small pictures at the Colin Jellicoe Gallery in the heart of Manchester.
These are meagre crumbs from the huge Art Cake... Monet, were he alive, would have a lion's share, what with the £40 million paid at Christies last month for one of his nympheas. Or probably not, as he'd still be painting and gardening, and worth a lot less.
That said, the currently-still-with-us painter Lucien Freud's 'Benefits Supervisor Sleeping' sold at Christies earlier this year for £17 million ...
However- as I heard on The Wireless -once we have enough to provide a roof over our heads, warmth and nourishment, then our contentment doesn't get proportionately greater with our spending power- holidays, houses, cars, frocks, fripperies- and do I really want the choice of the mint or the blackcurrant and fig washing up liquid?!!
Well, that's what I tell myself, and I'm happy that someone came by a gallery and bought my little 'Nude with the Red Stripe', and then came back for three views of Manchester.
Thank you, Unknown Patron! "May laughter tinkle in your tents and may all your concubines be fruitful"!!
images: Hacienda club, Pevril of the peak, Band on the Wall, nude with red stripe.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

To The Chateau Borne..

I’m to teach at a chateau in Poitou –Charente and we’re off in a car loaded with art materials and posh frocks. A two hour's drive from here to Nantes and we’re over the frightening (to some) suspension bridge over the Loire. The grey rooftops change to red on the other side as if by unwritten agreement and we spin along the Routes Nationales to avoid the tolls.

Mad French drivers, compelled to overtake, pass us on the most dangerous bits and we have to slow down to let the ambulance through to a particularly nasty head on collision near Niort.

We take a break in a small French town… here is a river loud with frogs, fringed by trees where a charming scene unfolds…old men, a game of boules and a deux chevaux parked nearby… photo-opportunity time!

At the chateau, it’s ‘meet and greet’ time, and I can find out what each student’s needs and aspirations might be, and show them what’s on offer.

During the next two weeks I run workshops in the mornings and tutor as needed in the afternoons. The weather’s unsettled and we have some spectacular thunderstorms.

One lunchtime we all run in from the courtyard with our plates- all exciting stuff.

But the weather’s good for our outings to the market – and to do a fair amount of work in the chateau grounds. There’s a bit of drawing done by sheltering in doorways and under arches, and I settle for sketching a few interesting interiors.

The students are hard-working… for many, this is the longest opportunity during their year that they get to work so intensely and without interruption.

My thanks to Barbara, Don, Enid, Lilla, Lin, Mary, Nigel and Sue for all their good work.

And to Alex, John, Julien and Rebecca for looking after us so well.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Laydees who sketch

I'm having a pause from any bigger projects- I've a huge 'back catalogue!' - and I've been working as I please, regardless, footloose and fancy free, which is really what being an artist should be about.
Al's been practising English folk music spiced with a bit of punk- this with Gabrielle down on the Permaculture farm. I go along once a week when the weather's fine.
What delights! Pigs, chickens, sheep, veg plot, garden, meadows, big trees, barns........sitting in the sun sketching while sweet airs from fiddle and guitar float on the breeze.
And a few days ago 'twas our first Sketch Club Outing, a break-away faction of the Art Courses I run in Brittany. It's a way of ensuring we get some drawing and painting done between workshops- it's amazing how difficult it is to self-motivate and I'm hoping this will help us all. It's fun to be with others, too (no men yet!). Once a fortnight should work out well I think.
Many thanks to 'Hil and Phil ' for use of the courtyard... coffee, cake etc..
I'll be quiet for a couple of weeks now, I'm off to teach on a Painting Holiday in a chateau further to the South of France- see former blog for details. Will publish the resulting
oeuvres d'art -soon!