Saturday, 22 March 2008

The trouble with portraits

Portraits have been much on my mind of late. That's because I've got one that I've made a start on and I'm not sure how to proceed. It's like getting to a fork in the road and wondering which route to take. The trouble is I've got to the fork in the road almost as soon as I have left the car park and I've been at this point for weeks now, if not a couple of months. I know that I'll eventually solve the problem just by sitting down and getting on with it.

Last weekend we were fortunate to spend the weekend in Paris. Since at least one member of our party had never been to the Louvre we decided to make that our first stop. The Louvre is so enormous you have to decide which galleries you want to visit and stick to it otherwise it's easy to get distracted en route and end up a quivering, exhausted wreck by the time you leave the building.

We decided to aim for the Flemish paintings which I think were somewhere on the second floor. I always like looking at domestic interior scenes from this era. They seem so peaceful and serene and there is never enough time to sit and gaze at them. I could easily live with one in my house. Once our party had gathered together after roaming free around these galleries we decided that if you haven't seen the Mona Lisa once, in the flesh so to speak, then you have to make that your next goal and be prepared to traipse along endless corridors to get there. So this is what we did and eventually we arrived in front of the portrait which is smaller than you expect. It is displayed in the centre of a large gallery and always attracts a lot of attention from crowds of people and the scene is reminiscent of pilgrims worshipping at a holy shrine.

Lunch beckoned and the consumption of food and drink and general conviviality revived sore feet and tired spirits. By this time we had spent about four hours in the museum and were ready to leave the building and get some fresh air. Here our party divided into three smaller parties and set off to do different things. I was in a party of two and we trekked along the Rue de Rivoli on our way to the Picasso Museum. I think that Picasso and Piet Mondrian have been the two 20th century artists who have influenced me the most. Not that I aim to create work like either of them but I find they always have something to teach me when I look at their work in a way that other artists don't.

I hadn't seen any of these Picasso pieces before I'd visited this museum. The work displayed here covers his entire working life, from his teens until close to his death, which is remarkable since he lived until his early 90's. What I was reminded of when I was looking at his work was how prolific he was and his exuberance and confidence is evident everywhere you look. Even though the some of the paint is faded and cracked the work is still full of life and that is the quality I would like to capture in my own work.

The following morning we visited Montmartre for a laugh before heading back home on Eurostar. It is described as Paris' last village and is the highest point in Paris. It is wonderfully tacky and touristy and you can get a fantastic view all over the city as well as a good cup of coffee. Everywhere you go there are artists touting for business for it is here that you can get your portrait done in pastels, or pen and ink, or charcoal in seven minutes flat for the cost of 30 euros. My niece was willing to have her portrait done while we were there and she stood patiently while a pastel portrait was produced in record time. I was impressed with the speed of the operation and the fact that it bore a passing resemblance to the subject, except she did end up looking like a Spanish Senorina, but I was mostly troubled by the absence of any life or energy in the finished product. That has given me something to ponder over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Seven things people don't know about me (until now)

I've been challenged by Jacqui Boyd Allen to write seven things people don't know about me. It's taken me about a week to think of that many. Actually I can only think of six and I hope I'll come up with another one by the end of the post.

1 I've worked in publishing as a designer since 1980. One of my ancestors from way back in the 19th century, Stephen Knight, was a publisher himself. I've no idea what kind of things he published and only the vaguest idea on how to find out. Paying a visit to the Public Records Office in Kew might be a good start.

2 My Dad was keen for me to follow him into teaching which has never appealed to me. But I have followed his interest in typography and calligraphy. When he was about nine years old his teacher taught him calligraphy the way monks use to do it and when he was about 16 years old he became very interested at school in printing and typesetting which has been my interest for the last 30 years.

3 The first thing I can remember designing and making was cardboard flip flops when I was about 10 years old. My friend Susan's Dad use to scoff at this but it amused the two of us during the summer holidays. We use to stand on some cardboard and draw round our feet. Then cut out the shapes and stick straps over the top to keep them on and then decorate them with glitter and stuff. When they fell apart we just made new ones. I remember it being great fun.

4 I enjoy political cartoons because they combine my interest in art and current affairs.

5 I prefer travelling around London by bus rather than tube because I like looking out of the window and watching the world go by. If I'm on the tube I'm more likely to study the people around me.

6 Since 1989 I have been studying meditation, intermittently, with the Arica School.

7 The older I get the more irritating I find music.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Goodbye winter, hello spring

This morning, when I should have been getting ready to go to the dentist, I chose instead to inspect our very small back garden for signs of spring. And signs there were: the mint in its pot is beginning to sprout, the daffodils are growing apace. Our two snowdrops are looking very delicate and pretty and I promise to plant more bulbs in the autumn so they'll have some company next year. And the most exciting thing of all was one tiny purple bloom hiding under a shrub which was later identified as a crocus. This was great because I love to see them blooming in public gardens and churchyards; have always wanted some and now we have one. Since we didn't plant it the most likely way the bulb got into our garden was that it was dropped by a passing bird.

This is a real contrast with two weekends ago when we spent the weekend in Chesunt in Hertfordshire. We stayed in the youth hostel that is a spit and a cough away from the station and itself is right next to the Lea Valley Park. It was cold (for southern England). On the Sunday morning we left the hostel at about 9.30am dressed in all manner of clothing and were greeted with the sight of frost everywhere and the sound of silence. The park has many advertised attractions for walkers, runners, cyclists, anglers and birdwatchers and in good weather it's probably as busy Bluewater shopping centre but for us the attraction was the very lack of activity and the peace and quiet.

During the day we explored all sorts of places with names like Seventy Acres Lake, Fishers Green Lane, Hooks Marsh and Nightingale Wood and often we were entirely on our own. Occasionally we would meet a dog walker or have a chat with an owner of a narrow boat but mostly we spent our time lost in thought or admiring the views. Now and then I would catch the scent of Hawthorn blossom which is intoxicating and surprising because I have just read that it doesn't flower until May. I also spotted some Catkins next to the Hawthorn which was also a delight. But my abiding memory of that day was standing still and watching a duck waddle very carefully across a frozen pond. It wasn't in any hurry and it followed a wobbly course until it reached the bank on the other side and that was a great analogy for our day - we also took our time and followed a wobbly course around the park. This sketch is one I made the day before when we took refuge from the cold and sat in the Bittern Hide and watched the world go by.