These days, in that nebulous time between Christmas and New Year, I like to spend some time reflecting over my year’s artwork and plan the New Year. Before this sounds too introverted, I must confess that this is only since 1998 when we moved from South Africa to the UK and from a Summer Christmas to a Winter Christmas.
Before 1998 it was a continual swimming party, wine on the patio and holiday guests in Cape Town where we lived. In fact, I can remember sneaking off from the guests to my studio in desperation just to make or paint something – constant sunshine partying got too much after a while!
This year, between January and November, I gained an oil painting diploma from Norfolk Painting School under Martin Kinnear and can list:
- 9 long drives to Norfolk and back for 3 days workshops
- 27 days of intensive tuition
- 2 fellow travellers, D&D, my main art companions for 2019 in a shared self-catering house.
- 15 other students in my group
- 29 copies of paintings by me of artist’s work ranging from Turner to Matisse to Schiele and Hopper, mostly painted at size. (The Tom Thomson is 1 meter x 1.2meters)
- 39 of my own original works exploring stylistic characteristics of the masterpieces we copied. The smallest of these are 45cm x 45cm.
2019 has really been too overwhelming to parcel neatly into a few paragraphs and images, and even though this will be a 3-part blog, I’m going to be very picky selecting aspects, with just 10 points.
- I discovered my artistic training genealogy.
- I learnt the discipline of time at the easel.
- I learnt about the properties of oil paints
- I learnt different ways of using my tools
- I plumbed new depths in what I can do.
- My goals changed.
- My taste in art changed.
- My thinking changed.
- I feel as though I am really just at the beginning of this self-discovery.
- I became an artist again.
1. MY ARTISTIC TRAINING GENEALOGY
Perhaps the most important thing that I learnt from Witwatersrand University Fine Arts department, from my 70’s tutors, was how to think visually and how to approach the making of art cognitively.
How come had I never painted or wanted to paint a realistic
landscape in my life until 2014?
My move to the UK?
Why did I deplore working from photographs as source material? A quest for originiality?
Why did / do I revere abstract work above realism? The work I loved then?
Why do I hold the belief that drawing above all else should be mastered? Because it was my strength?
My main tutors were Robert Hodgins and Cecily Sash and I was also very influenced by Judith Mason who taught me briefly.
“During the 1980s he produced a significant body of memorable work containing ironic and hard-hitting but often oblique comment on the politics of apartheid, of which the threatening A Beast Slouches (with a reference to WB Yeats’ The Second coming) in the Wits Art Gallery collection is a prime example”. University of the Witwatersrand Alumini Relations 2019
What I remember about him most clearly was how he could meet every student on their own stylistic ground. In his own work, his love for Bacon shone through. He was enormously articulate intelligent and educated, despite leaving school at 14 in London to become a newspaper delivery boy. He taught me to always look as work freshly and to recognise elements of excitement in what we had produced. If you google ‘Robert Hodgins South African artist / images’ you can get the flavour of his work.
At The time of Cecily Sash’s post as art lecturer at ‘Wits’ she was already an eminent South African artist with work in major collections. She taught design and was a formidable uncompromising teacher who did not suffer layabouts! She left South Africa in the mid-seventies and told the Hereford Times in the UK: “I left SA because I couldn’t stand apartheid anymore. I had the police coming in and taking books, thinking I might have been a communist. The university I taught at was one of the only ones to stand against the government, and people who taught at Wits were always under suspicion.
I met Judith Mason when she taught us drawing for a few months. Her drawing was the most beautiful mark-making I have ever seen and she told me that she disciplined herself to draw every day regardless of how she was feeling. She was absolutely my kind of person – sensitive with an eye for aesthetic beauty without compromising and bowing to sentimentality.
The painting below is one of hers, and again you are aware of the legacy of apartheid as you read about this moving artwork.
Judith Mason: A Blue dress. She made the blue dress from blue plastic bags printing her own poetry on it. It was an installation illustrating a tragic and horrific story about the pain and a victim of apartheid. https://ccac.org.za/works/judith-mason-the-man-who-sang-and-the-woman-who-kept-silent-1998
Excerpt from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “Phila Ndwandwe was shot by the security police after being kept naked for weeks in an attempt to make her inform on her comrades. She preserved her dignity by making panties out of a blue plastic bag. This garment was found wrapped around her pelvis when she was exhumed by the TRC. One of the men involved in her killing said: “she simply would not talk… God she was brave.”
I need to say at this point, that most of us were not very aware of how awful the terrorising and torture was. We all knew of fellow students and lecturers under house arrest; of rumours. Newspapers were gagged, people were gagged and we were segregated on every social, educational and cultural level. I was at a University that upheld equal education, but other universities were government spawns. It was a time of great turmoil with daily protests by students against apartheid and the accompanying risk of being thrown into jail if you protested off campus. My brother was investigated and the secret police travelled 150 miles to our village to warn my father. My father, a Hollander and survivor of a Nazi political prison camp in Frankfurt am Main, told us to stay out of politics.
All the same. with these incredible tutors, I wonder why I never took off and learnt more from these amazing artists. I can see now that I was very young and felt threatened about the ‘obligation’ to produce resistance art which was beyond my ability, thought processes and my desire.
I lacked confidence, especially among fellow students who came from intellectual professional backgrounds. My father was a fitter and turner (intelligent and astute but a wounded bird with PTSD) and my mother a housewife. I was one of six children and my only chance of a university education was to take a teacher’s grant. Intellectually, I was rather immature and much of my time as a student was taken up with my love affair with David Kerr, and then my pregnancy and marriage. Politically things were dark, but it was also the time of Joan Baez, of hippies and flower children. I wafted around with a paintbrush in one hand and an enormous baby bump under a swirling kaftan! I slept through my lectures from Dadaism onwards because I was tired, lacked iron and was pregnant.
Cecily Sash took us on a Jackson Pollock journey and I floundered in Abstract Expressionism. Despite all this, I completed my four-year degree (over five years) eight months pregnant with my second child and somehow I passed respectably with a First in drawing, and did well enough in oils, design and history of art. I went on to train as an art teacher (and had child no.3) through the University of South Africa.
The Ah-ha Experience – my Epiphany:
In January this year I read Martin Gayford: Modernists and Mavericks, Thames and Hudson (2018) and for the first time I recognised where my artistic belief system came from. The book explores the development of art in London from 1945 till the mid-seventies.
Our tutors took their inspiration from what was happening in contemporary art in London.
In the best institutions, like Wits University, when you are culturally isolated in as we were in South Africa, you over-compensate, and instead of harking back to your own training, in desperation, you look at the best contemporary work on offer in the UK, Europe and USA.
So, in reading Modernists and Mavericks, I ‘came home’. I understood for the first time where my tutors were coming from, and I had a leap of insight about the roots of my art attitudes. We ridiculed landscape painting (sadly) as we were proudly part of the postmodern world led by Victor Passmore’s abstract landscapes. You can see his influence in Cecily Sash’s work. We saw exhibitions of contemporary art showing the work of Kitaj, Riley and others who feature in this book, writing reviews on the exhibitions. A few years later of course there were sanctions in South Africa as an apartheid protest and we became more culturally isolated than ever.
But by that time, I was a mother of three, teaching art to children and occasionally at school and making ends meet, and my dreams of being an artist in my own right gave way to practical considerations. I briefly revisited being a serious artist and found that I became so engrossed in art-making that I was in danger of being a neglectful mother and wife and I decided to bide my time.
But still, I could have returned to painting many years ago.
2. TIME AT THE EASEL
Nothing can quite substitute for time at the easel.
A three-day workshop on the diploma course results in at
least 5-6 paintings – copies of masterpieces, with strict time limits, scarcely
time to think and no time to procrastinate. In between are demonstrations by
Martin Kinnear, very intensive lectures and slide shows.
All our materials are supplied and studio assistants help us clean up.
- Trimester One: Studio Craft (i.e. Skills and techniques)
- Trimester Two: Visual Design (i.e. composition and optics)
- Trimester Three: Style development (i.e. working on your own style using studio craft and visual design.
Here is an example of Trimester One: Workshop Three:
Impressionism and Colour
Classwork: (all the pieces below are my own copies)
With the efficiency of The Great British Bake-off, the easel has a gessoed board typically 50cm x 60cm, the palette has oil paints on it and you are given a coloured A4 print of a painting by, say Monet, and a brief of 2 hours to reproduce this. We did Monet and the Cezanne the first day, (I never completed these two, not even at home). The following day we painted Monet’s Houses of Parliament which I almost completed in class and then we had an afternoon of lectures. The next day we did two Keith Vaughan’s as colour theory studies. The second one was from a black and white photo which we had to interpret in the blue/green spectrum. I later added lime green and pattern at home.
After a long car journey home with a boot load of large wet oil paintings, we all inspired one another through the private Diploma 11 Forum’s ‘Show and tell’. We raised the pressure level amongst one another to produce at least another 5 or 6 paintings, of which at least 2-3 had to be copies of Masterpieces (designated artist’s; our own choice of artworks) to reinforce techniques. We went through our notes and also made our own notes on our discoveries.
In Workshop Three, our homework brief was to paint a Monet – I did three panels 60cm x 60cm of his Wisteria and his Bathers at La Grenouillère, 50cm x 60cm; as well as a detail of Cezanne’s Mont St. Victoire, 30cm x 40cm. The Cezanne was an extra, as I have always admired the way he faceted his forms through colour. I did three originals, all 45cm x 45cm – The Black Pine (which I completed from workshop 2), the road scene at night which I later abandoned and one of my favourites, Armadillo Copse.
So, in March, I produced 11 paintings in total counting the
triptych as one painting.
In April I drove back to Norfolk to my housemates, D&D with another boot load of wet and dry paintings produced during the four weeks between workshops. I also had my extensive notes and photos on the techniques I used.
As you can imagine, nothing can substitute for spending time at the easel in a well formulated and considered way. Pressure can be good and there was simply no time to agonise. But having said that, now that I am working on my own and formulating my own projects from scratch, thinking time is extremely important and it is also working time.
Each day, I put on my workclothes and plan the schedule – in winter ensuring that I work while there is good daylight (shopping after 4.00pm when it is too dark for me to paint). In summer, it is too hot in my conservatory studio at midday, so it is early morning till noon, then 3pm to 5 or 6pm.
Yes, Time at the Easel!