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Thursday, April 15, 2010


"Poppy Fields near Argenteuil"
50 x 65 cms

You are an Impressionist painter working directly from the landscape as Monet and Pissaro did.
Your canvas is 50 cms high by 65 cms long. In order to "capture" the variety of small tonal variations you see in the landscape you have decided to work with a small round brush with a roughly 1 cm brushstroke across the surface of your canvas. For every 2 cm x 2 cm you need about 15 brushstrokes to cover that area. If we propose that from the palette to the canvas takes around 1 second of time every 2 x 2 cm of canvas takes around 15 seconds to fill. The size of the canvas means you have 800 squares to fill, (25 squares high multiplied by 32 squares long). 15 seconds multiplied by 800 gives us 12,000 seconds. If we divide 12,000 by 60 we can reduce it to minutes. This is 200 minutes. If we divide by 60 again we can render this into hours. This works out at approximately 3 and a half hours. These figures are, of course, simplistic. This is not intended as a critique of Monet or Pissaro. It is intended as a critique of the mythology surrounding Impressionist painting.
If you started painting at 8 o'clock in the morning you would be finishing at around 11.30. By this time the sun would have moved to well toward its zenith. Every shadow would have changed in direction shape and colour. Even the colours you viewed would have changed as the quality of light changed. What began as a clear day may have turned cloudy. Sunny to grey.
Is it possible to to produce a painting of this size painting directly from the landscape ?


The clue of Impressionist Skies

Anyone who has watched a cloudy sky for extended periods (and who but visual artists do ?) would know that it is a rare day when the sky has not changed fairly substantially in appearance within 15 minutes. The sun moves and alters the relationship of lights and darks within a cloud, winds high in the atmosphere blow clouds across the sky.Clouds change their shape, evaporate or come into being.

You are an impressionist painter working directly from the landscape as say Pissaro and Monet did. To render in paint a cloudy sky as you actually saw it the moment you first looked at it you have less than 15 minutes before the sky's appearance changes substantially.

Is it possible to paint a cloudy sky directly from Nature ?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

MIchelangelo's David-An Analysis-The Sculpture-The Biblical Narrative

We have considered the problems of visual artists working from a literary narrative. Michelangelo’s “ David” is an interesting example of an artist of one time and culture attempting to make work based on the narrative of another.
One of the underlying tensions in Christianity (never resolved) is its co-opting of Jewish narratives found in the Old Testament. This is particularly apparent in David. Drawn from Old Testament sources Michelangelo’s inspiration for David is nevertheless fundamentally Greek and European. The head is pure Greek, the nudity, youth, male body, the use of contraposto to add liveliness, the uncircumcised penis are all European rather than Semitic in origin.
The portrayed moment of the David/Goliath narrative is not the moment of high drama but before the stone is cast (or after, but most probably before) emphasizing not the drama of the narrative but the body.
Reading the actual narrative from the Old Testament underlines the point. Michelangelo’s Greek youth is nowhere to found in this ferocious story of virtuous bravery against duplicitous kings and powerful enemies. One of the repeated motifs of the biblical narrative is circumcision. The rite that separates the tribes of Israel from other Semitic peoples of the time. Not only are the Philistines characterised as “uncircumcised” but Saul the king promises David his daughter in marriage without the need for a dowry if he will bring him the foreskins of 100 Philistines. David and his men (who appear from nowhere) bring 200 foreskins. ( How many parents would be horrified to find their children playing a video game with content like this ?)
The "David" Michelangelo produced has more in common with Greek and European modes of thinking and feeling and used the biblical narrative as an “excuse” to make a sculpture that perhaps satisfied his own or Renaissance taste for a “hero” but owed very little to the original narrative. Michelangelo's treatment of figures however was modified when he viewed the late classical "Laocoon" sculpture, unearthed in Rome the year before he started work on the Sistine Chapel, The "Laocoon" (see "Laocoon and his Sons-A Further Analysis" this blog) showed Michelangelo how to combine more effectively the use of “Greek” means with biblical narrative. This will be the basis of our analysis of the Sistine Chapel.
A small foretaste of this is apparent in Michelangelo’s second treatment of  " David" in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (see photograph below). A moment of high drama, the implication of extreme violence and clothing all emphasize the import of the original narrative.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wednesday, April 7, 2010



Hello to my descendents.
By the time you read this the dust that was my body will be incorporated back into the universe. If you are reading this you may be curious to know what kind of person I was. That is difficult to describe. I have all the familiar human faults and frailties and no doubt others could describe my character better than I could myself.
However I can tell you some of my personal history. I was part of a family of five children and two parents ( I include two parents because 200 years from now this may not be a given-even now this is changing ). I was the second son of four boys and one girl. We all lived to adulthood and as I grew older I realised that in the lottery of life this in itself is lucky.
My childhood I can now look back on from a distance of 40 years and even though older memories perhaps take on a “golden hue” it was a relatively carefree time. We lived in a small village I wouldn’t describe as in the country but close to the sea and surrounded by nature reserves, golf courses, and to the west, farmland. What seemed at the time vast and empty areas to roam in. Add my parents hands-off parenting style, a group of children of the same or similar age and apart from a child’s normal anxieties you have a childhood more or less made in heaven.
I remember it now mainly in distinctive images and sounds that impressed themselves deeply on my particular sensibility. The honking “V” of geese flying south across a crisp cold sky turning to indigo. Walking through a copse of pine trees, dry brown pine needles crunching underfoot with the distinctive sough of wind in pine tree branches high up. Under a patch of gorse a Stone Chat’s nest, built into a hollow in the ground, with four tiny eggs inside. This was so rare a find that even though we collected birds eggs we left them in the nest.
My father and mother’s parenting style extended to a policy of no pocket money. At the time this seemed unfair and hard. Now I realise it fostered an ingenuity that became part of the warp and weft of childhood. My wife laughs at my memory of 3 or 4 kids swathed in duffle coats, scarves, hats and rubber boots on an icy wind blown winter day pushing an old unused pram along the beach collecting sea coal to sell for pocket money. The beach was known as treacherous and our ages ranged from 10 downwards. I remember this with some fondness. Collecting lost golf balls and selling them, returning drink bottles that then had a small refundable cash payment on them, if we needed money we found a way to get it.
All this may be strangely archaic to you, even the English I write may be like me reading the English of 200 years before my time.
The ancient Greeks visualized an individual’s life as a piece of woven cloth the Fates cut with shears at death. The analogy of warp and weft may hold good for a view larger than any individual life. We only seem able to visualize the more distant future as a golden age with all humanities social, economic and medical problems solved or shivering in a post-apocalyptic winter. Perhaps it may be interesting if I relate some of the strands I see currently developing in this time you may see resolved or still evolving. Currently stem cells are being grown in the hope of replacing diseased human organs. Another strand is the impetus to space travel out into the our Solar System. Another with perhaps unforeseen consequences is the apparent trend toward a rise in global temperature. Yet another the instability generated by underdeveloped nations in Africa and the East. What pressures each will exert on the other as they become part of the fabric of the future is hard for us to see. It also occurs to me that I am writing this for the internet, for us the most modern form of communication. For you perhaps a discarded form. Of interest only to historians, a gigantic frozen archive only accessible with outdated technology...........
To be continued

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Soon; The Problem of David's Penis in the Hands of Michelangelo

What happens when an artist of one culture uses the narrative of another culture as a source for visual work ?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Laocoon and his Sons a further analysis

While we can find the technique admirable perhaps to our eyes in the 21st century the sculpture has a kind of exaggerated emotionalism-the twisting and turning-the nudity-the exaggerated physiques-our inability to recognise the meaning of the drama-the drama contained within a very small tightly controlled area. However all these things are the result of artistic judgement or the limitations of the medium of marble.

One of the weaknesses of art that is based on a literary text is these texts tend to be culture specific. That is-while we might recognise a scene that has been visualized from The Bible say "The Crucifixion" we probably don't recognise a scene taken from ancient Greek mythology, its full meaning is lost to us unless we go to our research tools. An imaginative visualisation from a literary narrative is also quite a different process to the original impetus of the writer. Where details can be a given in a text this is not so for a painting or sculpture. In the Bible for instance there are no physical descriptions of the protagonists and in many renaissance paintings Jesus and his mother Mary look approximately the same age. What did Mary look like ? What did Jesus/Peter/Paul/James etc look like ? Our "picture" of Jesus is a product of the paintings and sculptures that were made from a detail poor biblical narrative. This is also true of how people dressed-the dwellings they inhabited etc.

What can we recognise about it now we have researched the sculpture's origins ? We are looking at the high point of the drama. An artist in theory could make a visual work of any point in the time line of a narrative-the snakes coming out of the sea, the dead bodies of Laocoon and sons, the moment Laocoon sees the snakes etc. It is easily argued though that none of those possibilities has the high drama of the moment of the living victims in the coils of the snakes. Artists must make judgements like these to realise a work of art. The use of nudity rather than clothing the figures dramatises their struggle.

The apparent age of the sons is also I believe a considered element in the drama. Their youth suggests an innocence that increases the cruelty of the punishment inflicted by the god. Here too is a subtle and balanced artistic judgement, their physique suggests an older male while their size suggests a youth, had their physique matched their apparent age the unity of the sculpture would be lost, if their age matched their physique the emotional impact would be lessened. Further-if by reducing the age of the sons the emotional impact is heightened why not represent them as even younger ? I suspect that if the sons had been represented as any younger that aspect of the physique may have become too grotesque-a very young boy with "manly" physique would render the sculpture laughable. While it is easy to dismiss older works as "conventional" and of no real value to us now I think that if we can get past the misgivings we have about such work they are still rich in lessons for any art student willing to look and think about what they are looking at.
The Laocoon sculpture is also significant on another level. It was unearthed in Rome a year or two before Michaelangelo began work on the Sistine Chapel and it is known that he knew the sculpture well. I believe the impact the sculpture had on him was a decisive element in the approach he took to the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Question ; What will "Modernism" be called in 50 years time ?

Hi, any answers to this question would be appreciated

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

The bridge

These are views of the bridge across the river I have been sketching. Changing the local colour of the bridge to see how each works. Both are in oil pastel. the "orange" version is earlier and was done late last year. I added a "detail" of each sketch.

Sometimes a detail can bring out a more interesting aspect of the subect if you are considering developing it further in an oil painting

Sunday, March 14, 2010

From an unfinished novel-The Hoplites Lament


Wrap me in my cloak
Tell my kin
The hot red blood
That kept this pallor
From my skin
Has left my body
And the earth
Has drunk it in

A. H. Sydney 2008

Coming Soon ; A further Analysis of Laocoon And His Sons

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Laocoon and his Sons the narrative

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons is a monumental sculpture in marble now in the Vatican Museums, Rome。
Attributed by the Roman author Pliny the Elder to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoros and Polyclitus. It shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being strangled by sea serpents.
Laocoön was killed after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse by striking it with a spear. The Trojans believed the snakes were sent by Athena orPoseidon and were interpreted by the them as proof that the horse was a sacred object. The most famous account of these events is in Virgil's Aeneid。
Various dates have been suggested for the statue, ranging from about 160 to about 20 BCE. Inscriptions found at Lindos in Rhodes date Agesander and Athenedoros to a period after 42 BC, making the years 42 to 20 the most likely date for the Laocoön statue's creation. It is not known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture.
The statue was probably originally commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman. It was unearthed in 1506 (incidentally 2 years before Michaelangelo started the painting of the Sistine Chapel) near the site of the Domus Aurea of the Emperor Nero, in the vineyard of Felice De Fredis. Informed of the fact, Pope Julius II, an enthusiastic classicist, acquired and placed it in the Belvedere Garden at the Vatican, now part of the Vatican Museums.

what was Dada ?

Remembering Dada

Borrowing the mouths of terrible giants
To bite the sacred objects
These vocal volunteers refused umbrellas
For the violent storms within their bodies
Watched their guiltless silhouettes
Transversely prowl the writing
On the shaven heads of men
Who killed their daughters
Believing signs from others
Would reveal their inward journey

A.H. Sydney 1984

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Presentiment

Fragment of the First Presentiment

...........the scented saints are broken
Red is the colour of their feet
Black is the colour of their eyes
Smashed and left to the memory of frogs

Flowers shall grow through the hearts of men and women
Bringing blood into their mouths
Running toward the sun they will blind themselves deliberately

And fish shall jump from the water
Hiding with their shining bodies
Stones the children try to swallow
to stop themselves shouting in a new language

The flesh of the body will be like a prison
Mice will bring a message
Another rhythm in their curling fingers
Shakes the dice that cast the future.

Sydney 1984 A.H.

In Memory of Joan Miro

Joan Miro-(Monday to Friday)

On halcyon Mondays
Trembling egyptian lepers
Look closely at his trousers

On invidious Tuesdays
Handsome irrational policemen
Prohibit his multi-lingual dreaming

On childless Wednesdays
Shouting marsupial librettists
Practice his outrageous silence

On distasteful Thursdays
Waiting Roman poodles
Become his elegant signature

On liberated Fridays
Writhing organic nails
Fill his Herculean pockets
Sydney 1984 A.H.

In Memory of Giorgio de Chirico

Paradoxically, the misogynist aims his Gattling Gun

At those he does not wish to harm

Perhaps some monstrous or idealistic ship can tomorrow

Sail (with him on board ?)

Swiftly over the horizon.

Premonitions grow wantonly without provocation

Uttering blasphemies as they depart

To colonize or exterminate him

The painting had been a painful experience

Like ventriloqism with no voice-box

Like a hungry prophet his husk shook in the wind

Memories, stripped of daffodils

And pointing out into the sea

The isthmus, and Time is not Charity
Sydney 1984 A.H.

Houses by the river.....

Some more sketches of houses among the trees in oil pastel from my river sketchbook.
I,m aiming for a unity in the shadow areas by using varieties of blue
this means I have to stay in the white/pink/red/red-orange range for the houses to be able to use blue as a shadow there as well

Coming Soon: A Further Analysis of Laocoon and his Sons

Can My Limbic Brain Help Me Analyse Art ?

Can My Limbic Brain Help Me Analyse Laocoon and His Sons If we can resist the urge for a moment to run to our art history book and just look at the sculpture we can make an assessment of the sculpture by just looking and making judgements from our life experience then proceed to what we need to research to round out our analysis. Three figures who look like they spend lots of time at the gym. What the relationship is of the figures to each other we cannot tell. The figures are in the coils of a giant snake. It looks like a painful and life threatening experience Why? We don’t know. All are nude.A major component of the expressiveness of the piece is this straining of muscle against snake coils. If the figures wore clothes much of this would be lost The two boys in comparison to the larger figure we could judge by size to be around 12 years old but their physical development looks slightly exaggerated for such young boys. However if the physique of the larger figure is exaggerated in the interests of expressiveness the sculptor is forced to exaggerate the physique of the younger figures to maintain a unity among the figures. If the physique of the figures were on an ordinary scale the drama of the figures would also lose some of their force. There is also, I think, some exaggerated contrast in the bearded older head and the “beardless” boys and between their more styled hair and his disheveled beard and hair. The head of the man also seems older than his physique suggests. So much for what we can judge by looking

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

More pages from my riverside sketchbook. Currently I'm using blues for all the shadow areas to create a unity in the shadow. This means I stay in the white/pink/red/red-orange range for the houses so I can use the blue for shadow on the houses.

I'ld like to turn some of the better sketches in to more developed paintings. Will probably fill a sketchbook before deciding
which sketches to consider
developing into paintings

Monday, March 8, 2010

Trying to be epigrammatic about art

The painting on the left "Dedham Vale" by John Constable makes the medium conform to the landscape. The painting on the right "The Terrace" by Bonnard makes the landscape conform to the medium

Coming Soon; Can My Limbic Brain Help Me Analyse Art ?

My Limbic Brain Won’t Let Me Enjoy Modern Art

The human brain has been thought of as made up of three layers that have been laid down as the human brain evolved over millions of years.(The triune brain theory of Paul MacLean –perhaps a kind of psycho/physiological variant of Freuds id, ego and super ego). The most recent, the neocortex emerged with primates.The neocortex is responsible for language, abstract thought and imagination with infinite learning capabilities. The second is the limbic that emerged with the early mammals.The limbic is responsible for our emotions and value judgements (based on previous experience) of agreeable and disagreeable experiences. The oldest part of the brain is the reptilian. This is responsible for breathing, heart rate and other basic functions.
I believe that when people first look at a work of visual art it by-passes the most sophisticated part of the brain the neocortex and reaches the limbic and reptilian parts of the brain. This explains its effect on people in its depth and intensity of like/dislike and how for some people the value judgements they make about visual art and how rigid these judgements can be. No amount of “reason” can change some peoples’ mind about “modern art” for example. It also explains why so much of the writing about visual art is unconvincing once it is described in words ,particularly when the words are lists of superlatives, or any real insight is avoided by writing about the artists’ life struggle/biography This is also why labels are needed in art criticism/history, “mannerism”, ”baroque”, “classicism”, “Impressionism” “Hellenism” “ modernism” and the rest. All of these labels are substitutes for any meaningful dialogue about works of visual art. This kind of approach also fosters the disdain of the “modern” for the “conventional past”
For an aspiring visual artist most of the writing on visual art is useless or worse, a kind of red herring. I have read thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of words about visual art and very few have given a useful insight into the problems and processes of visual art. What can be done ? I believe the first thing that readers of writers on visual art must realise is that not many visual art writers have actually produced visual art. They are literary people. Second that visual artists of whatever period are faced with more or less the same problems, the shaping of a medium into a visual experience. Our job as producers of visual art is to LOOK. That is; NOT to ”be moved”, or to “draw on our stock of historical classifications” etc.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

These are some more of the series of oil pastel sketches by the river. Some I worked with a very restricted colour pallette but most are more conventional sketches

Sketching in Oil Pastel

The photographs show the standard box of pastels and this indicates the colour range I'm working with.The sketchpad is a relatively cheap A4 visual diary but with acid free paper.Together they would cost no more than $15

This is another example of a house lower down the ridgeline set amongst the trees. Similar in technique with small strokes defining the tree leaves in pure colour and mixing the colour and using longer marks for deeper shadows and tree trunks,the house walls and roof.

To begin a drawing I make a loose light pencil sketch on the paper to establish the basic proportions and relationships of things within the page.
I try and pick an interesting aspect of angles and vegetation and do the loose drawing in pencil as above.When I'm happy with the general composition of the sketch I begin to render the colour. Generally I begin with the higher key colours, pinks lighter blues and yellows working the colours loosely all over and mixing a little of each colour in each area within the dominant colour of the different areas,(for example some pinks with the green of foliage or green within pink of house wall, blues within greens etc)

Gradually the colour is built up using the darker colours.the darker greens,blues and purples to create the contrasts. Oil pastels being a dense medium can very quickly build up and unless the paper is very "rough" can become slippery. The way to avoid this on a smoother paper is to work very loosely with lots of white paper left between strokes until you are ready to really establish the dominant colour of any particular area.

The pastel is worked more densely increasing the contrast by adding the colours at the lower register of values, deeper purples, blues, working the brighter into darker values and vice versa, this will give the half tones necessary for the sense of transition from darkest to lightest. Finally adding the darkest touches and strengthening the drawing with perhaps touches of browns and on the next post to see more examples........more examples too can be found on the post entitled "More Sketches in Oil Pastel"

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

sketching in oil pastels

I recently started sketching outdoors in oil pastels. I live near a river and became fascinated by the houses amongst the trees and along the ridgeline on the opposite side of the riverbank . The sketches usually take between one and two hours to do, with probably one and a half hours on average. I want to keep the technique simple and direct without labouring over on the next post for a continuation