Painting: What it’s Really Like

There are times when I believe I can paint anything. I’m so full of confidence and bravura that I feel I could paint the most complicated picture and it be good. Only when I get behind the easel and I’m faced with, not only the subject, but my own deficiencies and imperfections as a painter, that I realise that in reality I’m lamentably poor. Others will protest and say ‘No, Geoff, your work is marvellous!’ But what these people are doing is comparing my talent to theirs. Any artist worth his salt must  strive to improve, and that means comparing himself to those he sees as superior. Personally I look to Rembrandt, Durer, Turner, Constable, Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud – they are my thunderbolts. I know I will never be as good as they are, but isn’t it worth trying? If you have no real desire to improve, you won’t. I know painters who don’t have such a hunger; they’re content to settle for the lucre when they sell something and that is their only goal.

A painting done a few years ago in the Dark Peak area of Derbyshire. The sky and far distance work, showing the atmosphere of the day, but the foreground is rather derivative and lacks significance.

I’m very self-critical about my work. Painting has never been an easy thing to me. I have always struggled; it has always been hard work. I recently read a biography of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. He was one of those rare individuals who seem to have been born with talents fully-formed. He died aged twenty-eight, having produced hundreds of drawings and watercolours all showing a mastery of form, line and composition. And he wasn’t alone. One doesn’t have to search far in the annals of art history to find others who were similarly gifted. I’m afraid I don’t have the self-confidence of someone like Schiele. There may be parts of my paintings that I think just about work, and that’s the only reason I keep them. Most of the time I’m dissatisfied with 90% of what I produce, and the canvases that I consider total rubbish are recycled and painted over.

Drawing is really the key skill in art. Drawing is observation. It is of the utmost importance. When I draw or sketch I am looking for things that no one else has seen. Finding something new in a subject is the real aim in my work. Most of the time I don’t find it and my drawings are lacklustre and uninspired. My sketchbooks are really a catalogue of mistakes, which is one of the reasons I don’t like people looking at them! I know artists who never draw, or their ‘sketchbooks’ are little more than cursory representations made outside to take back to the studio to be enlarged or copied with little thought to designing a finished work where composition, form and colour are manipulated towards producing a painting that shows the hunger for improvement I spoke about earlier.

A self-portrait by Egon Schiele, painted in 1910 when he was just twenty years old.

As I said, art is really difficult, well, producing good art is. And unless you’re extremely gifted or a genius, most people, even good artists, will find it so. So, dear reader, if you’re an artist, keep struggling on. And if you’re one of the shallow ones who isn’t bothered about getting better, I hope your sales bring you joy.


The Big Think

Bolton Abbey II. Mixed media on paper.

I haven’t been very active during the last few months, as you can see from the frequency of these blog posts. I’ve found the lockdown period to be very depressing. Long stretches of time with little to do has been very disheartening for me. But, I hear you say, it’s the perfect time to paint; why don’t you get the brushes out and get to work? I’m afraid my modus operandi isn’t quite like that.

The inability to get out and about into the wilder landscape has seriously dampened my creative spark, and only in the last week have I started work on a few paintings from older sketches.

Wooded hillside, Derbyshire. Mixed media on paper.

This would seem to be the perfect time to think about what I want to do artistically when the lockdown is lifted and where I want to go with my painting. My latest work has taken on a more abstract and incisive quality – scored lines with knife and pencil, paint gouged on with brushes, and perhaps I need to follow this through. Perhaps not.


20200623_184956.jpgRecently I’ve been experimenting with caricatures, something I’ve never really gone into. My ability to capture likenesses is pretty poor – I’ve never really been into painting or drawing portraits so that skill remains something of a locked door. During the lockdown I’ve taken up my pens and paper and sketched characters from the TV. My thinking is that if I can capture the main features of a face, it might help me improve if I finally decide to do a few portraits in the future. Maybe not…!!!


Art at Galleries at Home


Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn

It would seem to be the right time for settling down to do some artwork during this time of lockdown. Those who aren’t able to work from home might have quite a bit of time to kill, and all those occasions when we artists have moaned about not having enough time to paint have come back to haunt us! The problem is that now that most of us are stuck indoors and if you’re a landscape painter like me, there’s little chance of going out to roam around in the countryside or on the moors and setting up your easel. Even less chance of sitting out on the street and doing some urban sketching.

If you’ve watched his series on Channel 4, Grayson Perry thinks he’s got it sorted. We just stay indoors and paint portraits, or miniatures or something and that’ll keep us occupied through months of lockdown. The trouble for me is that I’m not that interested in painting portraits, or pictures of the garden, or views through my window. I’ve got plenty of landscape sketches that I’ve accumulated over the years but somehow doing something from these doesn’t seem to be quite as tempting now. The sketches I did on holiday last year, satisfactory as they might be, just don’t seem to be as appealing as going out into the great outdoors right now and drawing something in situ.

So I’ve spent a bit of time looking at inspirational paintings. Not just modern contemporaries but the real ‘biggies’! The real Masters. These are the ones I should be looking at and learning from, like the Rembrandt drawings above. There are many museum and art galleries around the world that show their exhibits online, some have been doing this for a while. So even if you can’t get to Amsterdam, New York or even London, you can browse the collections of some of the world’s most famous galleries. Now, because of the coronavirus lockdowns, it seems to be a great way of spending time and getting a bit of inspiration.

Of course, in every collection there are works that I don’t like, but every so often I come across a real gem. The other day I was looking at the exhibits of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its collection is almost too big to do itself justice, but whilst browsing its works I came across Christ’s Entry into Journalism by Kara Walker. The idea itself is so clever, yet Walker juxtaposes the complex elements of American history in a way that approximates a cartoon strip – on one level humorous and light-hearted, but at the same time serious and meaningful.

Christ's entry into journalism - Kara Walker
Christ’s Entry into Journalism by Kara Walker

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a superb online collection. Obviously it focuses heavily on the Dutch masters but there are some fantastic works here. Also notable is their RijksCreative initiative in which artists create their own versions of Master paintings.

I’ve learnt a lot by looking at the drawings of Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and even August Rodin. As much of my inspiration comes from looking at famous works of art as looking at nature and there are plenty of inspirational collections around the world to draw from. Check out the following galleries and museums:


Why You Should Draw


When was teaching in schools, new classes of students would often groan when I said we were going to do some drawing. ‘I can’t draw, sir,’ they would say, or ‘I’m rubbish at drawing!’ It’s true that in order to be good at drawing you have to practice. It’s rare to find someone who has a real natural ability for drawing and can pick up a pencil and rattle off images that are astoundingly good straight away. Drawing, like learning to play an instrument or learning a language, needs practice. Personally, I don’t think of myself as particularly good at drawing; I’m still learning and will continue to until the day I die.

I would encourage everyone who has an interest in art to keep a sketchbook, even if they don’t think they’re much good. You only have to begin. The fear that someone will denigrate your efforts, or that what you produce doesn’t measure up to the work of Rembrandt is nonsense. I draw for myself. My sketches are for me. No one else sees them unless I choose to show them. All you need to do is pick up a pencil and paper and get drawing.

20200308_130944.jpgThere is a natural tendency to copy objects and views, to reproduce them exactly as you see them; if that’s your intention then perhaps it would be better to take up photography instead. By sketching something you look at the world in your own way, giving it your own slant. In the act of drawing you observe, carefully and intently, soaking up the sounds and smells of the place, its feeling and atmosphere. Try and capture that feeling in your drawing by working quickly. Don’t get bogged down trying to get every detail correct before moving on to the next bit of the drawing. Try setting yourself a time limit for each sketch, say ten minutes, that way you won’t have time to fiddle about drawing every brick or tile in a house, or every leaf on a tree.

20200425_141654.jpgIf you want some advice on the practicalities of sketching, equipment, sketchbooks and so on, there are a few books I would recommend, these are listed at the end of this blog. What I wouldn’t do is get a basic book that teaches you how to draw. Instead, have a look at the work of other artists and illustrators and try and learn from them. Look at how they capture form and movement, shadow and texture, rather than trying to copy someone else’s instructions on how to draw a tree or a person. Remember, no one is going to judge or mark your work unless you want them to (and most people usually aren’t qualified to do so). Never destroy any of your work. Keep drawing and you’ll be able to see your progress. I guarantee that with practice you’ll look back on your work after, say, a couple of months and be surprised at the progress you’ve made. The best thing to do is just to get stuck in and have a go. You’ll only get better!

Some useful books on sketching and drawing:

Gabriel Campanario: The Art of Urban Sketching. Quarry Books

Felix Scheinberger: Dare to Sketch. Watson Guptill.

Simone Ridyard: Archisketcher. Apple Press

James Richards: Freehand Drawing and Discovery. Wiley

David Gentleman: An Artist’s Life in London. Particular Books