The floor shifting, as if a floorboard were about to give way. The horizon moving up and down, as if bobbing in a small boat at sea or driving along a corrugated dirt road. Migraine-warning visual interference, without the headache. These are memories of sensations on seeing Bridget Riley’s paintings. The huge ones, which fill your field of vision. As I look, suddenly, the lines and colours, which had been static patterns, start to shimmer, to dance. Artistic magic. Trying to read the words of yesterday’s art quote gives a glimmer of the shimmering sensation; to my eyes anyway.
I’ve been away from my studio for a while, attending an artist’s anatomy workshop in Edinburgh over two weekends with a trip down to London in between. Time to learn and see new things, time to recharge my batteries, time to ponder new horizons.
Waiting for a train into central Edinburgh inevitably feels like a lesson in perspective, looking at how the lines converge into a vanishing point in the distance..
You know that lingering doubt when you’re heading to a workshop, entering a strange building with your fingers crossed you are indeed in the right place at the right time? Well, standing on a fifth-floor landing in St Margaret’s House, after deciding I couldn’t face the stairs and would get in the lift with its “no more than four people or you will get stuck” notice, wondering whether to go left or right for the anatomy workshop, there was a skeleton pointing the way to the studio. It’s the second time I’ve done Alan McGowan’s Anatomy for Artists workshop, and I’m pleased to be able to say a lot more of the information has stuck and I found myself seeing/recognizing a lot more. (There are a couple of photos from the first weekend’s anatomy drawing here.)
In London, my first stop was Tate Britain, with its relatively new rehanging “500 Years of British Art”. Four bus loads of school kids were waiting for the 10 o’clock opening too! Some of the gallery is still undergoing rebuilding, but there’s another, new circular staircase leading downstairs. With all the arches it felt like being in an Escher drawing. Nevermind the art, this architecture isn’t to be missed!
Amongst the artworks that captivated me this visit was a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, titled “Corinthos”. The interplay of shapes, light, dark and shadow. What you see through it, depending on where you stand.
Next cultural stop was the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, for the Turner and the Sea exhibition (on in London until 21 April; travelling to Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts from 31 May to 1 September 2014). I particularly enjoyed seeing some of the paintings that inspired Turner. (I’ll be writing an exhibition review with some photos soon.)
I also popped into the National Gallery to say hello to Monet and Van Gogh. Outside, in Trafalgar Square, the latest Fourth Plinth is a giant, blue cockerel. Position yourself right, and Nelson’s column becomes a birdfeeder.
Last culture-vulture stop was the Victoria & Albert Museum (known simply as the V&A). It’s home to a mind-blowing, inspiring collection of cultural artifacts from across the world. I specifically wanted to see Constable’s cloud studies again (up in the Paintings gallery, where few people get to) and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook.
The V&A has five of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, known as the Forster Codices, which you can page through online. The sketches on the page on display are shovels for digging. I find it a powerful connection across history, visualising him holding these sheets of paper, selecting what ideas to write down (and being thankful to live in an era where paper is an affordable item).
“What made Turner’s first seascapes stand out on the [Royal] Academy’s crowded walls? … Rather than competing with the works of other artists for size and eye-catching effects (a tactic for which Turner later became renowned), these temporal coastal scenes demanded a close kind of viewing. With an understated drama and subtle variation in light and colour, they [offered] a respite from the visual cacophony around them…”
— Richard Johns, “Charted Waters” in Turner and the Sea, page 25
This detail from a Turner oil painting of Venice, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1833 over a decade after Turner visited the city, shows Canaletto painting one of his magnificent views of Venice. As the wall label in Tate Britain (where I came across it) pointed out, Canaletto’s canvas on his easel is “already improbably framed”. This tiny detail in the painting, so easily overlooked, makes me smile every time. The rest of the painting doesn’t do much for me; I prefer Turner’s wilder pieces where he paints mostly the atmosphere and weather.
When it’s bluebell season, the colours in woodlands changes yet again. In some places the flowers carpet the woodland floor, influencing the colour of everything you see, almost as if I’m wearing turquoise-tinted glasses. This painting is a compilation of memories of walking and sitting amongst bluebells in different woodlands. The dominant colour used was a phthalo turquoise, a strong, staining colour that easily takes all your mixed colours on your palette if you’re not paying attention. It also teaches you to clean a brush properly because if there’s a little left in a brush, you’ll know about it!
This detail from the painting is about life size. As you get closer and closer to the canvas, the pieces of paint start dissolving into a colourful chaos. It also reveals the different colours in the dark background, created with various glazed layers. The variation in colour showing through is created by working with a big brush and not meticulously covering every millimetre but letting there be ‘missed bits’.