The smiling assassins …

There is no doubt that cats are at their best asleep … Not that I don’t love them when they’re awake but there is nothing more relaxing and therapeutic than a cat curling up to sleep on your knee. Well, unless you’re me, that is. Oh it’s great for a short time, then the fidgety legs kick in and I cannot stay still and so they de-camp and switch loyalties to enjoy the vast tundra that is Mike’s lap. Not that he is unoccupied for long, as our mob of moggies have all discovered the joy of perfect stillness. Not that Mike is a couch potato, far from it. At every possible moment he is out in the garden or his shed. When he does come in and is relaxed, he can stay still for a long time with anything up to 4 cats on or next to him. It’s a gift.

The one-way cat flapThe other reason I like them best when they’re asleep is that it’s the only time that all the little beasties are safe. I can’t be doing with dead little beasties offered up as tokens of respect and appreciation. Even less do I like LIVE little beasties flapping or scuttling around my house. My daughter maintains that we once moved house because the cat let a mouse go in the house. She ‘s not totally wrong. My motivation to find a new house was certainly revved up by the thought that this mouse could drop into my soup at any moment., although I had already been on the look-out (honestly).

We had been noticing our cat spending a lot if time looking up at a curtain rail. In the end, assuming it was a fly or spider that was mesmerising the cat, I decided to shake the curtain and a mouse bounced off my head, onto the floor. In sheer panic I locked myself into the downstairs loo and shouted My daughter, who was probably only about 6 at the time, to get her boots on and find the mouse!!! You have to understand that she was, even then, a shark loving, dinosaur expert who was not afraid of any living creature (except moths, and if forced to I could deal with those). Unfortunately nothing could be done to find this mouse and even a friend who worked for Rentakil and came armed with all his technical equipment (a shovel and a brush) had no more success.

Well ill we did move house and, to my undying shame and my daughter’s undying contempt, I re homed the cat. I know, I know. Despicable. But she did go to a good home, and I’ve learned my lesson, and all our animals have a good home for the rest of our lives and would be provided for beyond that if necessary. I’ve got no better at dealing with the wee timorous beasties but since Alex left home, Mike has taken over as mouse-tamer and,  if he’s not around,  I have to go out for the day and pretend it was all part of the plan.

We now have a proper cat flap but for a long time we’ve used a customs control sort of system. Show me you’re not “carrying” and I’ll let you in …but there was a cat flap that Mike designed some years ago. A one-way cat flap which it took one of our cats only seconds to work out. She could spring out one claw which would lever the flap up and then she’d put her head under it and climb in. The other slight problem was that the cat flap was cut out of the door itself and hung with it’s slightly uneven edges back in front of the opening with a rusty pair of hinges. More shabby cheek than shabby chic. It had to go and Mike was so fed up with me nagging him about the wind whistling through the gaps that he closed it permanently in the early hours with a six inch nail, but that’s his way, bless him.

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Under the influence ….

not of the drink, I have to add. I like a drink in moderation (mainly because of my age and headaches) but more often than not we have to have the conversation. Are you driving or am I.  But my influence is coming more from other artists, friends and family.

It’s been a relatively busy week with one friend moving into her new home and new life, the end of a photography course for beginners (please don’t ask me what IOS stands for), two days helping out at my friend’s knitting and art shop, several trips to different events or places, a day of babysitting two lovely dogs, one full day’s workshop delivered and an art demo and talk to come tomorrow by an artist in residence who I am thinking of as, not just a fellow artist, but a new friend. Yes, she’ll soon head back to her own life and family with all the influences and memories she’s gathered in a very busy, enjoyable and, I hope, successful residency in Shetland, and we’ll no doubt keep in touch through social media but our lives have collided unexpectedly and delightfully and I’ll always remember her surprise and joy in what we were able to share with her of our much-loved adopted home. She, in turn, has given me ideas for my next steps based on her experiences of co-operating with other artists which I will take to heart and use as best I can.

So we may have had an influence on her time here but she has certainly sharpened our enjoyment of all that is good about Shetland and no doubt her demonstration and talk will slightly deflect my current thinking and practise in painting, as have previous artists-in-residence met through this space in Scalloway that attracts creative people from all over the world. We have met some great characters and lovely artists such as Michael Morgan and Katherine Cooper from Down Under, Karen Willis from Northumberland, Jeff Wilson and the lovely Jan Yates from Canada and Clive Brandon from London.

I still have a child’s appetite for new things when it comes to art, which combined with a (possibly) healthy scepticism for the Emperor’s New Clothes style of ‘let’s see what we can get away with’ means I’m always open to new things and willing to try new media but am usually happy to incorporate what I’ve learned into my own style if it fits. I have tried going all out for a different way of working and the only two things I’ve had to admit complete defeat with were oil pastels and totally abstract work, either or both!  I could not detach myself in order to be able to paint without discovering and developing something recognisable in the marks. I actually got stressed trying to do just that. As for oil pastels, how different could they be from soft pastels, I asked myself. The answer was world’s apart and totally out of my reach.  Is there some connection … maybe abstract artists are really at home with oil pastels? Does oil pastel by nature have to be at least partially abstract? Who knows, not me, that’s for sure.

So what’s new for me just now? Well I did mention that I had bought a stylus that comes with software for creating on the iPad.  Here’s my first iPad sketch – a bit rough and ready and I still don’t quite understand how some colours seem to be transparent and some seem to be opaque as that doesn’t seem to be in the list of options. Still, it was enjoyable to do and it gives me no excuse not to sketch even when I’ve not got my sketch pad and pencil with me, so it could be the start of something big … Maybe not big …. small but interesting?

Synchronicity

This is the coming together of events, conversations, ideas or people, where a recurring theme seems to be pointing you in a certain direction.  For me this has been happening for the  last few weeks with conversations, snatches of thoughts and ideas and finally a sort of casual invitation.  The likelihood of a new co-operation with some other like-minded artists is on the cards.  Something, I’ve thought about in passing for some time.  We all are aware that we’re not the edgy, conceptual or ground-breaking artists that the arts admin folk are really very interested in.  We’re working or hobby artists, producing work that is recognisable and reasonably technically skilled but, and here is the rub, popular.

Personally, in the nearly 20 years I’ve been taking commissions for portraits of people, animals, houses and the occasional boat, I’ve never been without at least one or more commissions in hand at any time.  I think that’s an amazing feat, of which I’m very proud.  OK,in the early days I did work for peanuts and even now, years on, although my prices did go up to a reasonable amount, I did take a step back with prices when I moved to a new place in order to give myself a chance to get my first few local clients and get myself established.  My prices won’t rocket back up, but gradually I hope to get to a point where people will appreciate my work enough to pay that bit more – that’s what comes from getting better at what you do, surely?  However, I’ve never said I could make a living just at doing this.  There have to be other sources of income from sales of prints and cards, from teaching and from, in the future with any luck, some writing about art techniques and tips.

All of this for me is not desperate as I’m now on a pension (yes, I think someone made a mistake on my birth certificate but what can you do?) and with the mortgage paid off and only one very independent and switched-on grown-up daughter, the need for money is not as urgent as it once was.  Of course, living month to month on a pension is not ideal and we’ll never be rich, but we have enough to get by as long as we don’t want expensive foreign holidays, new furniture and designer clothes.  That’s fine.  We don’t, but we would like to occasionally afford a trip to see our daughter in Canada, and to be able to visit my family and our friends in Yorkshire, and to be able to maintain the house and garden and run a small car without getting into trouble. We have modest aims but when you compare our lives with some current lives across the world we are rich beyond the wildest of dreams, and we appreciate that.  We live in a wonderful place, have reasonable health and enjoy a social life with good friends.  So for me the painting is something that fulfills a need so I just can’t stop doing and, when I’m not too pressurised, it’s something I really, really love to do.

We come back to that word “popular”.  It was Jack Vettriano’s stumbling block that has kept him out of the top national galleries he might have wished to be invited into despite being one of the biggest sellers and most recognised of contemporary artists.  The establishment thought him popular and that means “of the people” – low-brow and commonplace.  It is a shame that such snobbery pervades the art world still (and always has I suppose).  My fellow artists and I will enjoy painting together, learning from and inspiring each other.  We’ll be happy to sell our work, teach and inspire others when we can and make affordable art that local people and tourists alike will enjoy.  However we won’t get into the higher end galleries because we are not making unintelligible collections that need a statement to go with them in order to justify their laughably high prices. Some of it may stand the test of time but much of this new art where ideas are more important than skill may turn out to be the Emperor’s New Clothes.  I do remember a favourite story about a group of final year art students who were given a grant and offered complete freedom in how they spent it to put on an end of year show.  All the local dignitaries were invited by the college to come along and give gravitas to the event and when the door of the exhibition hall was flung wide, only a chair stood in the empty room.  On the chair was a note saying – “Thanks for the funding, we’ve gone to the seaside for the weekend”.  I liked that attitude as it’s a kind of double bluff about “what is art”.  They had an idea and that’s what they were asked for.

You might say that this attitude to contemporary practice proves we are not serious about our art, but I would disagree.  We are serious about learning and improving our techniques, communicating something through our art and leaving something as a sort of legacy of who we were and what was important to us. So we could carry on working in a solitary way, but how much more fun is it to enjoy meeting and socialising with people you like and admire, who inspire you to do more and aim higher.  Isn’t that why humans have always formed groups?

The art of relaxation

… Cats have it. Zen comes naturally to them. They literally can sleep on anything and during daytime hours, so can I. If I’m a passenger in the car, we’ve hardly reached the end of the road we live on before my chin is bouncing on my chest. I can catnap and wake up marvellously refreshed but once saw an article or heard a radio programme (can’t remember which) where tests have shown that 20 minutes is the optimum for a catnap. Less is not enough and more makes you feel more tired afterwards and makes it more difficult to “come round”.  I’ve made that mistake before and a short nap has turned into a couple of hours’ deep sleep leaving me feeling lethargic and heavy-limbed for the rest of the day and more restless than usual at night.

i’ve struggled with pillows for as long as I can remember.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an insomniac thank goodness, and I feel for the people who do suffer. For me it’s been a bad habit of working late at night when everything is quiet, and then struggling to get up in the morning. This started with a particularly heavy load of work some years ago, leading to me working on one portrait under a daylight bulb right through the night so I could deliver my last commission in time for Christmas. This was fortunately not a coloured piece of work as these can go badly wrong with the colours having to be re-adjusted the following day in real daylight,  so I tend to organise myself with colour work during the day and pencil work, admin or writing at night. I say organise with an ironic smile as I have very little organisation in my life – by choice – I don’t like routines or being pinned down to anything on a recurring basis, especially since retiring from “work” but I recognise that I could do with more discipline in my approach to my painting and writing. Order and discipline sound like they are the same thing but not in my life. For me, I can’t work in an untidy space, so I tend to have a problem with displacement activities, I think they’re called, ie  cleaning, tidying and reorganising when I should have the self-discipline to just paint.

So here I go rambling on and I have that kind of brain which doesn’t usually stop me from getting to sleep but does cause me to have vivid and sometimes disturbing dreams which I can often recall in great detail. I certainly hope to visit Cadiz one of these days to try and find the beautiful building I dreamt about –  a church or cathedral in light coloured stone standing above dazzling wide white or soft pink steps leading down onto a promenade overlooking the sea, where I was waiting to meet someone special. Just a mosr haunting  dream that makes me feel as if I’ve really been to Cadiz but I have no idea what caused that to pop into my head that night. So sleep itself does come, but rest is more elusive as I have restless legs, and problems with aching shoulders and neck – back to the pillow problem. I’ve tried all the fancy shaped ones, the memory foam ones, etc, but in the end I found my best night’s sleep was in a Premier Inn with their much publicised Hypnos bed and really comfortable pillows which I investigated and found to be just a firm hollow fill type. So I now have a firm pillow which seems to work OK most of the time. Of course at the Premier Inn I was in a super Kingsized bed on my own as opposed to our Kingsize bed shared with a partner with ridiculously long arms and legs and a variety of cats who seem to work on a shift system of their own making. So usually my head hits the pillow very late and I do get to sleep through sheer exhaustion. I have been known to fall asleep at the computer on a night and crawl to bed once I’d fallen off the chair but last week was a first. I was working all hours on a painting trying to get ready for the exhibition that will finally be hung in the morning, I fell asleep with a brush in my hand and found I’d painted a stripe right across the t-shirt of one of the musicians on my canvas. Easily remedied thank goodness, but it was a signal to hit the hay even though I’d been working well up to that point.

It’s quite difficult to leave a painting or drawing when you’re “in the zone” but I find as I get older I don’t have the legs to work right through the night. Actually it’s more accurate to say I don’t have the eyes for it these days. Just when I feel like I’m really starting to learn how to paint … But then I always was a late starter.

Deadlines, dead head!

As per, I’m panicking to meet a deadline. I carry an infallible schedule and list of dates in my head as well as on my Filofax and now in my iPad. When I say infallible, I mean it never fails to trip me up.  The problem is I don’t have a  “sync” button that keeps the information in my head aligned with what’s written down. So I get dates wrong, miss appointments, and end up working frantically to meet a deadline which I’d thought was at least a month away…

Mind you I work best to a tight deadline, usually. This time has been different.  I am throwing away more drawings than I’m keeping. It’s the stress of being away from home, dealing with Mum who is hyper-stressed because of Dad being in a Carehome. This is not what either of them (or the rest of us wanted) but it had to be done and he’s in a lovely home with great staff – clean, modern and well-run. Mum has turned them upside down, nit-picked at every detail, driven the staff mad and overstayed her welcome every day. The staff have been really tolerant and understanding, with the chef even coming to see Mum every day to find out what Dad could manage for his tea. Talk about going the extrile. F Not my doing, just inally Mum seems to be accepting the inevitable but in the meantime has driven my sister and brother-in-law, her usual support team, to unbelievable levels of stress and frustration. This is where I come in – the cavalry arriving at the crucial moment, not because I can do anything different but because I can give them a break and absorb some of their stress for a few weeks.

Only problem is I’d also mistakenly thought my exhibition was going to start in May, only to find it’s going to be up for 2 months, not 1 month, so it’s got to go up in April, hence me drawing and painting at every moment  and for the first time ever (that I can remember), it’s only working about 25% of the time.

Fortunately Mum seems to be coming to a point where she’s more accepting of the status quo and understanding that Dad is in good hands and will be well cared for as his illness inevitably takes it’s sad toll.  Nothing I’ve done, just time and seeing Dad settling into a routine with chirpy, caring staff who try to keep him happy and comfortable. I have overwhelming respect for the good ones, some are a bit more “jobsworth” than others, but the majority are fabulous and somehow manage to deal cheerfully with the most difficult and vulnerable people.

So if my exhibition doesn’t have as many paintings as I’d like, does it really matter.  It’s not life and death, is it, and I’m hoping my new iPad will keep me on track with the reminders I need, so I can plan ahead more effectively in the future (I can hear you all muttering under your breath but it might help …)

What drives your passions?

Just read an interesting response to an artist’s question about what drives a successful artist’s passion? The response was … In a nutshell … goals. Only with my slightly impaired sight I first read it as goats. That set me off on another whole stream of visual ideas … but of course it got my pen moving in my hand. So there was no goal involved there, it was just an innate reaction. I doubt I’ve ever had a goal in my life other than to do what felt right to me at the time.

Maybe that’s my problem. Certainly  have never had a goat, but kind of thought about it as we do have a large piece of – for want of a better word – lawn, that is difficult to mow being very spongy, mossy and unruly and would be ideal for a goat but it would require a lot of extra fencing or it would have to be tethered and I couldn’t bear to restrict the joy of a life in that way. So no goals, no goats, just a natural desire to put my thoughts and feelings down on paper whether it’s with a pen or a brush.

Talking of which, I’ve bought a new “pen” to go with my new iPad mini (get me). It’s a pen that comes with software FiftyThree which means I now have the ability to draw, paint and write straight onto my tablet and it will be a learning curve, fun to try out and could be a great sketching and designing tool, so watch this space …

There’s more than one way to stroke a cat …

Well, being a cat lover, I would change that saying, wouldn’t I.

In fact, this week’s clog, it’s like a blog but I’m quite likely to put my foot in it, is all about the face … drawing and painting it, that is.

I ran my first full day’s workshop for a few years yesterday, and was dreading and looking forward to it in equal measure. The dreading part was to do with the preparation, you can never do enough and never have enough time. If people wonder why they pay so much for a workshop like this it has less to do with what goes on on the actual day, and more to do with the days of preparation and years of accumulated knowledge. I may not have a formal degree in art but I do have the years under my belt of trial and error, going to other artists’ workshops and demos, absorbing from books, DVDs, tv and mostly practice, practice and more practice. There’s no substitute for the latter.

Take my morning’s photography workshop (learning, not teaching on this occasion). We talked ISO, shutter speed and aperture. I thought I understood the message. Then we were invited to try taking photos around the room, using our new found knowledge to get the right setting for the shot by manually choosing our settings. I turned into Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Que?

After some time of blank expressions, a few questions to the tutor and a lot of mindlessly pressing all the buttons on my camera, I actually took a half-decent photo. Half-decent for me that is, not for someone who knows what they’re doing. Of course, I said, I don’t need the best quality pictures as I want them for reference for paintings. However this is not strictly true as there will be more wildlife, pet and bird paintings in the future and for those I do want to learn how to take photos so crisp and clear that the feathers tickle your nose and make you sneeze…

Which brings me back to fur, and my comment of more than one way to stroke a cat … A recent visitor was stroking a friendly semi-feral cat that we have adopted and who lives the “Life of Riley” in our very large garage / shed. He has a heated bed, food delivered twice a day whatever the weather by his very own butler (my other half) and all the company he can stand from our other cats who are fair-weather ferals (and come indoors for most of the time). He was happy to be stroked, explained my beloved to the visitor, apart from there and there …

So, the workshop went extremely well, no glaring omissions in my preparation, all the food went down well at lunch, a relaxed, talkative bunch of people and some really good work produced. This was the part of it I was looking forward to as it’s lovely to see people growing in confidence and enjoying their art. The best part was that two out of the six people could not get to grips with my method of measuring with a pencil to create an accurate drawing. When I say my method, I mean my preferred method amongst several classical ways of accurately transcribing a subject.  you’d think this was a failure. However I had an ace up my sleeve with my second string, go to method for beginners – the upside down way, as prescribed in one of my favourite books, available from Amazon (click on the link below to see the book).

http://astore.amazon.co.uk/wwwwildabouta-21

This is a method to train your artistic side of the brain to override your logical side, ie how to draw what you see and not what you think you can see. Sounds like high-falutin, arty-farty nonsense, but it’s a simple, effective way to learn. It worked spectacularly well for one of the artists at yesterday’s workshop  who had not drawn or painted since her schooldays and we won’t mention how long ago that was.

If you only buy one book in your life about drawing, make it this one.