My on-line diary began in the 1990's from my studio in the North of England. After a lapse of ten years, I resumed posting from my present studio on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

From the far beginning, the intention has been to give an insight into my working methods, and to share the triumphs, trials and tribulations of work-in-progress.

My diary pages are followed by thousands of artists, art students and art lovers in over 50 countries.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A fleeting glance, a scrap of paper and Vincent Van Gogh…

In a fleeting glance, I saw the pose I wanted and picked up the first scrap of paper that came to hand – a white cartridge that is sold in the local supermarket at less than one EC$ for a A1 size sheet.  The six-inch square I used cannot have cost more than five cents.  A sheet of expensive watercolour paper scares me, whereas with this scrap I had nothing to loose.  Ah, you might say, it buckles under a wash and has no texture.  Well, so be it.  I landed my catch!

And if you have difficulty reading between my lines and washes, I side with Van Gogh when he wrote:
“…to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, re-modelings, changes in reality, so that they become, yes, lies if you like – but truer than the literal truth.” 

Let potential artists’ models following my diary be warned: the artist’s vision of beauty is different to that of the glamour photographer, but profound beauty none the less.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Brushes, paints and paper…

In the coming weeks, I will give those taking up watercolour painting for the first time, my recommendations on the basic equipment and materials they will need.  Let’s begin with brushes.

My brushes are the finest quality sable.  Most of them are old friends that have been with me for over forty years.  I can no longer read the size printed on the handle, the lettering wore off years ago.  The four I use the most, from the largest down to the smallest, are No 14, No 12, No 7 and No 4.  My No 12 brush can take all passages in its stride, from the broadest wash to the finest detail.  Very often, I do an entire painting with this one faithfull brush.  

Sable brushes are very expensive, particularly the large sizes.  Nowadays, there are some good synthetic brushes on the market and they work almost as well. 

Sable brushes are susceptible to moths and mildew.   They need to be air dried after use and then stored in a closed container.  My brush case has been with me since my days as an apprentice engineer.  I made it from a tube that originally contained welding rods.

The picture shows my paint pallet and my No 12 and No 7 brushes.  Information on paints and paper will follow soon.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Life class alfresco…

Today’s life-class moved from the confines of the studio to the great outdoors. 

The crystal clear, boulder strewn, waters of the River Antrim border the gardens that surround the studio.  Perched on top of one of the boulders is the model and on the shore a group of students struggle to capture the scene.  The subject is almost too idyllic.  In painting, it is better to make much out of a little, rather than a little out of a lot. 

However, the glitter of romance as seen from afar is often uncomfortable at close quarters.  A stiff wind funnelled down the valley and after fifteen minutes Denise, our brave model, had more goose bumps than there are pebbles on the beach.   

Friday, February 25, 2011

Say not the struggle naught availeth…

Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem, famously quoted by Churchill during the darkest days of World War II, is apt for many of life’s struggles, in particular the verse that reads:

For while the tired waves vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in the main.

My struggle yesterday with the landscape did, I believe, gain a painful inch today.  Rather than driving off in search of a grand subject, I put down my sketching stool outside my own front door. 

Below is my preliminary sketch.  It consists of no more than a few guidelines to point the way. 

Above is my finished painting.  Compare today’s painting with yesterday’s.  I’ll let you be the judge.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I’ve got me left shoe on de right foot…

Here on Dominica we are coming up to Carnival.  At carnival six or seven years ago, one of the calypsos went something like this:

            I’ve got me left shoe on de right foot,
            I’ve got me buttons in de wrong hole,
            And me bucket, it got a hole.
            I’m working hard, both day and night,
            But nothing’s going right.

Those lyrics sum up the way I felt by the end of today. 

For the first time in years, I put painting the figure aside and attempted a landscape.  I packed my sketching bag and drove a mile or so to a hill that overlooks the village of Cochrane.  It is view that I have seen in passing a hundred times.  Cultivated land in the foreground, red roofs of the village in the middle distance and dramatic hills beyond.  

The subject was promising but painting is like playing the piano: to be good you have to practise every day.  After spending years perfecting the work of one composer, it takes time to get the hang of another.  In an instance, I was attempting to switch my pallet from subtle flesh tones to the colours of earth, trees, mountains and sky.  Not only that, my buttons were in the wrong hole.  The pocket of my sketch bag that should have contained tissues was empty and in another, tubes of colour were missing or had dried up.  The shade that I started under shifted, and in moving, I spilt the last of my water.  I was sadly out of tune and off key. 

Here is the unsatisfactory end result.  Yes, there is a hint of life here and there, but otherwise not my best.  To cap it all, my pick-up truck ran out of diesel on the way home!  Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A ballpoint pen and a couple of sheets of photocopy paper…

In terms of drawing materials, anything goes.  Toulouse Lautrec and Auguste Rodin at times resorted to brown wrapping paper.  I made the two sketches below with the only materials at hand: a ballpoint pen and a couple of sheets of photocopy paper.  Indeed, I feel more liberated on sheets of newsprint than I do on the finest all rag watercolour paper.

I sketched Gretel unaware as she was sleeping.  I best remember Gretel, not so much for her modelling, but for her uncanny skill at dominoes.   

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Renaissance Men...

If Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo or scores of other renaissance men were to walk into my studio they would not bat an eyelid.  My working methods as a sculptor have changed little since their time and my day’s work encompasses a number of different skills. 

Like my father and grandfather before me, I originally trained as an engineer.  My machine shop is the best equipped on the island and I am often called upon to make replacement parts.  A couple of days ago it was a crane turntable drive shaft and today it was the main frame for a hundred and fifty year old clock.

My grandfather was a clock maker and I am sure his spirit was looking over my shoulder as I worked.  The tools I used were once his.  He handed them down to my father and in turn, my father handed them down to me.  One day I will hand them down to my son. 

Above is the crane turntable drive shaft being turned in my lathe
and below the 150 year old clock mechanism.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dominoes and disadvantaged youths…

Sixteen years ago, I relocated my studio from the Caribbean to England.  After twenty years of living on a small island, I looked forward to being in the company of scores of creative artists and I naively thought that my studio - a cavernous listed historical building - if not my work, might be eligible for support from The Arts Council.  Dream on!

I found very little in the way of interaction with fellow artists, most seemed to operate as jealously guarded secret societies.  As for The Arts Council, they could only offer support if, through my work, I could rescue disadvantaged youths.  As for my studio, they could help fund the restoration if I shared the space with local Job Centre.   

Back to the Caribbean and I find that little has changed in terms of encouragement in the creative arts.  Education Authorities perceive their role to be that of nurturing potential doctors, lawyers and accountants, not little Vincent Van Goghs.    Art they deem to be a hobby, a bit like stamp collecting and dominoes. 

Why have I started this critical discourse at the end of a tiring day?  What I meant to get around to say, is simply that art survives regardless.  A little bit like making love, it has a way of happening without money or much schooling.  The key ingredient is passion.

The sketch is of Grand Bay, Dominica.  It represents a few cents worth of materials but a great and overwhelming love of my subject.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Freedom of expression vs. photo-realism…

Watercolour is the freest of all painting mediums.  Washes have a mind of their own: the bolder they are applied the more daring they respond.  They beg to be allowed to escape, to run as they may.  A good watercolour painting is a happy accident.

Why then, do so many of today’s watercolorists straightjacket their paintings in the realm of photo-realism? 

Nothing can equal the freshness of a watercolour that has fallen on the page without the guidelines of a preliminary sketch.  To paint directly takes courage, all the more so when the figure is involved.  But the end result is worth the sacrifice of acres of failures en-route.

During yesterdays life-class, in an attempt to encourage my students to loosen up, I quickly threw this painting of the model down on the page.  Maybe it will go down as one of the failures en-route.  A young boy watching me paint once said: my dad can draw better then that! 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Today’s Life Class

We have been on the go since 5.30 this morning: first to market, then preparing for today’s life class.  In addition to baking her state of the art banana upside-down cake for refreshments, Denise is the regular model the class.

The class includes all ages and abilities.  Those who attend deserve credit for there respect, dedication and enthusiasm in attempting the most difficult task of all in art, working from the nude model. 

I begin each session with the words offered to students over a hundred years ago by one of the foremost teachers of life drawing:

“Take the shoes from off thy feet, for the ground you are about to step upon is Holy Ground.”

The session begins with a series of twenty-minute poses and ends with a round of sixty-second sketches.  Denise’s modelling is inspirational and the students are making outstanding progress.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two extremes…

For almost forty-years my subject matter, and hence my pallet, has alternated between two extremes: the sombre tones of my birthplace in the North of England and the vibrant colours of my adopted Caribbean.  I find that one invigorates the other.  When "Naples Yellow" palm fringed beaches begin to pall, I turn to the "Ivory Black" mills and moors of Yorkshire.  And visa versa.  When the cold enters my bones and the mists prevent my watercolour washes from drying, I yearn for the warmth of the tropics.  

Similar extremes spurred me on in the 1980’s when part of my work was designing postage stamps for the Caribbean.  After weeks of labouring on a minuscule scale with a No 1 brush, I took my revenge by painting up a storm with a No 14 brush on the largest watercolour boards available.

Today’s picture of a canal and terrace houses, was painted between rain showers in the very heart of the industrial north. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thank you Miss…

As is the lot of many artists, including Rodin and Leonardo da Vinci, I am dyslexic. 

I know that now but no one knew about dyslexia when I was a child.  I could not talk until I was five (my brother claims that I’ve made up for it since) and, until the next to the last year at secondary school, I was invariably the bottom of the class in all subjects but art.   

Incidentally, had there been a way of testing inventiveness, I would have excelled in that too.  When I was nine, I designed and built a model aircraft.  It had a thirty-inch wingspan and flew the length of a football field.

But back to art and the year 1953.  My primary school teacher asked the class to paint a picture of the coronation.  By the time the bell rang, she had thirty-four paintings of the coronation coach.  The thirty-fifth painting  was of a thousand heads all trying to catch a glimpse of the coach, the portrayal of which was left to the imagination. 

(Incidentally, I had to ask Denise how to spell “fifth”. The spell-check could not recognise the spelling that my dyslexic brain came up with.)

The teacher singled me out and told me that if kept on painting like that, one day I could be an artist.  Thank you Miss Ackroyd, you were the first to encourage me.

Here is Miss Ackroyd with her Class of 1953.  I am on the back row, third from the right, not counting the teacher.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Vital Statistics…

Following on from yesterday’s post, the next step in creating the torso was to take some key measurements from the model.  These vital statistics enable me to set up the armature on my turntable (in this case the armature is simply a polystyrene core) and to make a start on applying the clay.   With the measurements to hand, I can complete this stage without dragging Denise in from her garden.

The picture below shows how I set down the key high and low points on a full-size plan of the torso.  The most reliable measurements are from bone to bone, flesh is never constant.  Hence, the female torso from the front, with arms stretched above the head, does not give me many reference points.  At a pinch, I have the rib cage and hipbones but that’s about it.

The above picture shows the clay as I build it up around the polystyrene core.  When I am within half an inch of my measurements, I insert matchsticks at each reference point.  They indicate the dimensions of the final form.  I do not apply more clay until I have my model at hand.  That is when I have to call Denise to come in from the garden!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Work in Progress

I’m putting the clock back a couple of months so that you can see how my work in progress, a stretched torso, was conceived. 

It came into this world almost of its own accord.  As Denise stretched and arched her back at the end of a modelling session, I saw at a glance the vigorous torso that for years I had visualised at the back of my mind. 

The next step, easier said than done, was to pin that fleeting movement down on paper.  Invariably, a transitory pose is an illusive pose. If the position of the neck, arm or leg changes (albeit minutely) there is a ripple effect that alters everything.  Denise’s technique is to repeat the stretch, time and time again.  Eventually I cry, hold it there! 

The above sketch is both the end result, and the beginning of my work in progress.    

Monday, February 14, 2011

The lunatic, the lover and the poet...

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact…

That’s how Shakespeare bunch the three together.  For poet you can substitute any passionate practitioner in the creative arts. 

John Donne spoke of the same linkage:

I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry… 

It would take too many pages of my diary to list all the artists that have suffered these three afflictions, but for Valentine’s Day let’s stick with the lover.
Here, from both sides of the coin, are pictures of model, muse, builder, gardener, chef, home school tutor, lifter of heavy loads, mother and wife. 

                                  Photo Credit: Sandra Larocque               
Denise will soon be adding her own two-pennyworth to these diary pages by way of updates on her two and a half acres of tropical garden.  She'll also give occassional insights into my paintings and sculptures from the model's perspective.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Contemplating the vicissitudes of life…

Creativity involves breaking new ground; there is no comfortable well-trodden path.  Moreover, the inspiration curve does not always climb steadily upwards.  Frequently it dips and dwells on long level plateaus. 

At the end of a tiring day, I walk down a shaded path to our stretch of the river, not to paint, but to contemplate the vicissitudes of life.  Then, to refresh body and soul I take a dip in a secluded bathing hole that nestles between huge boulders.  The sound of a small waterfall obliterates all else.

Here is my painting of that secret place. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Today’s Portrait Class

A story handed down from my grandparent’s time, is of their family doctor who opened his evening surgeries by announcing to those in his waiting room, “If there’s anybody here with rheumatism, they can go home.  I’ve got it myself and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

I make a similar opening announcement to those that attend my art classes…If there’s anyone here wanting to learn technique, they can go home.  I do not have a magic formula; I paint what I see with a passion.  It’s as simple as that!  All I can do is waft into a flame the latent creative fervour that lies smouldering within you.

My sitter for today’s portrait session was ninety-year-old Clifford Corriette.  His wonderful features gave my students a rare challenge, to which they responded with aplomb.  

Friday, February 11, 2011

Second rate poets and artists...

For a one man show of my work some years ago, I added captions to my paintings.  I wanted the viewer to understand the creative thinking behind the painting – a similar concept to this diary.  More eminent and established artists were critical of my captions and online diary notes.  From their ivory towers, they claimed that a painting should speak for itself.

Well, I am happy to be in the ranks of second-rate artists.  To quote Oscar Wild:

"A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets make a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize."

Here is a painting from that exhibition, with caption. 

“Every painting is a love affair.  As with such traits of the heart, the memory lingers on. 
This painting drips with affection.  I will never forget.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Where do I start, when do I finish...

Where do I start and when do I finish?  These perplexing questions challenge me at the beginning and end of each piece of work, whether it is a watercolour painting or the clay sketch for life-size figure in bronze.

The creative process begins before I put down my first wash or apply my first handful of clay.  I may have a subject in mind, but how do I portray it?   How can I make permanent that first fleeting impression?  It takes a lifetime to know, not so much what to put into a painting, but what to leave out.  The same applies to sculpture, hence the importance of knowing when to finish.

Sometimes my wife Denise knows when to call a halt better than I do.  She has my permission to take away my paint box when she sees that I have said enough.  In that way, she has saved many a painting from ruin.

We are currently struggling where, in terms of anatomy, to finish the torso that I am currently working on.  A torso usually finishes at the neck, but as you can see from today’s picture, we have taking this one to the lips.  Denise is adamant that we should stop there.  I will take her advice.  There is no way I dare risk incurring the wrath of both my wife and model…in any case, she’s right! 

Hence, as you can see in today’s picture, I have suggested the face without showing the face.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pen and Ink

Pen and ink is one of my favourite sketching mediums, especially for book illustrations.  An ink line makes a bold and unalterable statement.  Unlike charcoal or pencil, it can’t be smudged over or rubbed out. 

I’ve spent a lifetime search for the perfect pen and tried everything from goose quills to felt-tips.  Just when I think that I’ve found a pen that suits my needs (the ink has to be permanent, the tip durable and flow abundant) the manufacturer ceases production.

For the drawings in my book “Caribbean Sketches”, I used a pen that had a nylon tip.  Luckily I bought a couple of dozen before I began my journey through the islands, for I’ve never seen the same pen since.

Incidentally, all the sketches for the book were made from life.  What you see on the page, is what I saw and experienced in the brief moments that I made the sketch way back in 1990.   

Today’s picture of Berekua is taken from the chapter on Dominica.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Painting the Portrait

This year I am holding a series painting workshops at my studio. My classes include all ages and abilities: from CXC students to retirees…from beginners to masters.   They are all eager to learn and, just like a good model, they inspire me to give of my best. 

At the last session, I set my students the most difficult task of all: working from the live model. This coming Saturday I will focus on the portrait.
For today’s picture, I have dipped into the archives for a painting that I did almost twenty years ago.  It is of my wife Denise - the same Denise that featured in yesterday’s picture.  There are not many artists’ models that can claim a career spanning twenty years!  

Monday, February 7, 2011


In an effort to capture the figure in all its moods and changes, I have developed a rapid way of working with watercolours.  It enables me to record the elusive pose that I see out of the corner of my eye. 

I begin by asking the model to twist, turn and stretch as she pleases.  In the split second that she moves from one position to the next, I see the pose that has eluded me.  I then cry, go back, turn again and stop when I tell you…now turn your head away, look over your shoulder…now hold it at that…hold, hold, hold…just a few seconds more.  Now you can relax. 

My sketch, alive and dripping, is down on paper!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Where Do I Begin?

For a diary to capture the essence of life, it has to jotted down in the heat of the moment.  By next day, the mood has passed.   Hence, I will not attempt to record in chronological order all that has happened after a lapse of almost ten years.  I will begin with today and fill in the gaps as I go along. 

Suffice to say, that in the intervening years my studio has shifted from the North of England to the warmth of the Caribbean.  Likewise, my work is not the same today as it was yesterday.  Creativity, by its very nature, does not repeat itself.  The differences may be subtle but there are differences none the less. 

My diary is a work in progress.  As the weeks go by, I will add an on-line gallery of my paintings and sculptures and keep you updated on my workshops and life classes.  Occasionally, I will dip into the archives and bring you snippets from my earlier diaries.  Denise will invite you to follow the progress of the two and a half acres of gardens that she has single-handedly created over the last six years and together we will share with you a lifestyle that, like the island of Dominica, defies the everyday.

Recently, in both paintings and sketches, I have focused solely on the figure.  One of my works in progress is a life-size stretched torso with my wife Denise as the model.  Today’s picture was taken just after this morning’s session.  Yes, we work seven days a week! 


There will be more about the torso in the days to come.