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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dogs, kids and deer…

Animals are not my forte.  Wasn’t it W. C. Fields that said, “Anyone that hates dogs and kids can’t be all bad”? 

Having said that, my first sculpture commission in the UK was to replace a pair of bronze deer that had been nicked from the entrance to a Grade One Listed Building.  That led to another commission from the owner of a deer park.  In turn, that led me to the owner of a deer farm.   Anxious that my sculpture should be anatomically correct, he presenting me with the carcass of a deer.  I drove it home in the back of my Volvo Estate and promptly gave it a decent burial.   

Here are some of the preliminary sketches for that commission. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

This way or that…

I work from life, not from photographs.  However, do sometimes take photographs to remind the model of the exact pose.  A hand held fractionally differently, from one session to the next, creates a ripple effect throughout the whole body.  Sometimes we vary the pose when the work is in progress, usually because the model finds it more comfortable for the head to be turned this way or that.  A chalk outline of the figure is another source of reference. 
Here's the reference photograph that I took of Denise for the reclining torso along with the work in progress.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How nice it must be…

I think it was George Orwell who, in the discussion that followed a talk that he gave to members of the Women’s Institute, was confronted with the pronouncement: “Mr Orwell, how nice it must be to be able to write.”  His response was, “Madam, writing is the worst punishment that I can possibly devise for myself”.

In a similar way, many believe painting to be therapeutic.  It may be for some, but rarely for me.  More often than not, it is the worst punishment that I can possibly devise for myself.  The exception is when I am working from an inspirational model. 

Here, in rare therapeutic mode, is a detail from one of my drawings in the series “A Portrait of Alice”. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My kind of five-star hotel…

Revisiting places from ones past is often a disappointment.  That is why I’ve resisted visiting the small hotel where I used to stay on my visits to Dominica.   I pass by the Cheery Lodge Hotel (Est. 1900) almost every time I go into town.  However, I’ve been unsure if still operated as a hotel.  Most of the frontage at street level is now shops.   

But yesterday, the front door was open and I peeped inside.  The West Indian period-piece dining room was still there, albeit partitioned off to half its original size.  I called out but no answer.  Hesitantly, I climbed the staircase and called again.  This time I was greeted like a long lost son by the very same lady that greeted me over twenty years ago. 

Here’s a sketch that I made of my room when I last stayed there.  Creaking bed, creaking floorboards and a balcony that funnelled in all the sounds from the street.  Pinned to the wall were the following instructions for getting hot water from the shower:

  1. Turn red knob clockwise/counter clockwise – no water will flow.
  2. Turn blue knob on – water will now flow.
  3. To regulate – Too hot, use more cold water or less hot water.

Now that’s my kind of Caribbean five-star hotel!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Body and soul…

In a recent article about working from the live model, I mention how, in the late 1980’s, a series of drawings and sculpture of an unassuming young lady from St Vincent, helped to redefine the concept of beauty for the Afro-Caribbean woman. 

I titled the series, A Portrait of Alice and through my drawing and sculpture I sought go beyond superficial looks in an attempt to reveal both body and soul.  As always, my subjects are not professional models, but real people.  As a girl, Alice carried bananas bare-foot down the steep hillsides of St Vincent.  Her response when I suggested modelling for the series was “Who me, you joking!”  

Here she is, not your stereotype Carnival Queen, but in my eyes, the West Indian equivalent of a Grecian Goddess. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Appeasing the weather gods…

In the Caribbean, we are rapidly approaching the hurricane season.  Having lived through a couple of the worst hurricanes on record, I have learnt that it’s best to put your house – or, in my case, for many years, my boat - in order beforehand.  In doing so, I like to think that I am appeasing the weather gods.   

If, at the moment, my diary is found wanting on painting and sculptural topics, it’s because my days are spent in the woodwork shop repairing doors and shutters.   Today’s picture shows you a corner of that workshop.  Here, in contrast to the scent of oil in my machine shop, the air is filled with the scent of freshly cut timber.  Many of my hand-tools date back to the 1930’s and some of the machines once did service in a piano factory.  There is as much creative work done within the walls of this workshop, and my machine shop, as there is within the walls of my studio. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Who is Sylvia…

Yesterday I waxed lyrical about a song-writing workshop given by Gregory Robess.  What I didn’t tell you, was the trepidation I felt before and during the workshop.  This goes back to my school days.  Whereas that wonderful primary school teacher, Miss Ackroyd gave me the confidence to be an artist (See my diary page dated 17th February) another teacher, whose name I have erased from my memory, destroyed any aspiration I might have had to be a musician.

As a class, we were singing Who Is Sylvia*.  After countless attempts to get it right, the teacher slammed down his ruler cum baton.  Something is wrong:  “Burnett stop singing!”  Now, let’s try again.  Ah, that’s better!

Had the teacher been as perceptive as Miss Ackroyd he might have said, “Burnett, that’s a brilliant improvisation, one day you could be a jazz musician”. 

Luckily for me, yesterday’s workshop overran, and we didn’t get to do the singing bit.  Maybe that was part of the reason that I came away elated.

I dedicate today’s ten-second sketch of the nude to Miss Ackroyd.  Thank you Miss.  How I wish you had also taught me music.

* William Shakespeare, "Two Gentleman of Verona" Act 4 Scene 2 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Exhausted but elated...

This evening, somewhat reluctantly after a hard day’s work, I attended a workshop on song writing.   I remember, many years ago, with similar reluctance, attending a talk on the ballet.  This evening’s workshop was given by Dominica's master musician, composer and songwriter Gregory Robess.  The talk on ballet was given by the Pricipal of the Royal Ballet and Artistic Director of the Northern Ballet, the late Christopher Gable.  (Also famed for his role as “Twiggy” in the film version of The Boy Friend.) 

Both occasions proved to be memorable.  Thank you, Gregory and Christopher, for giving me an inspirational insight into both art forms.  I came away exhausted but elated.

After a few lapsed diary days, here is the final sequence of the waste mould.   The picture shows Denise (this time the worker, not the model) chipping the waste mould away to reveal the plaster bust of Samantha. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mould making…

The seated figure shown in my last entry is part of an ongoing series titled, Daughter of the Caribbean Sun.  The next step towards the bronze cast is to make a plaster “waste mould” from the clay original. 

The first picture shows the brass shims that I have inserted into the clay in order to divide the mould into sections.  It is important to get the divisions correct to enable the mould to be separated.   Over the years, I have spent many sleepless nights trying to work out the best configuration.  

In the second picture, the first coat of plaster has been flicked by hand onto the clay.  The process has not changed since the days of Michael Angelo.  Flicking "down hill" is easy, flicking "up hill" is exremely difficult.  If done correctly the plaster can picked up the detail of a fingerprint.   Successive layers of plaster are then towelled onto the flick coat until the mould has sufficient strength to withstand the strain of separating the sections.  After a full day of flicking plaster onto four life-size figures for Leeds, my right hand swelled to the size of a football. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Working on a smaller scale…

With portraits and the figure, I prefer to work life-size.  By doing so, I can take direct measurements, both visually and by callipers.  I find more difficult and less spontaneous to work smaller or larger than life.  However, working on a smaller scale has the advantage of less labour and hence less hours of modelling. 

Today’s picture is of a half-size figure that I made of Denise when she was taking a full time college course.  We had to squeeze in modelling sessions in the few moments she had spare.  Against all odds, the figure worked well.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The plaster cast…

Although the saying claims that clay is the life, plaster the death, and bronze the resurrection, I have a liking for the plaster cast.  Both as an intermediate stage and as an end in itself the plaster cast has something of the purity of marble.  Now, with the advent of polymers and non-ferrous armatures, plaster can be made to withstand the rigours of the outdoor environment.  A torso that I cast in polymer plaster eight years ago has survived the rain, sleet, snow and frost of England.

Today’s picture shows a detail, at the plaster cast stage, of one my controversial NHS nudes.  The sculpture takes its theme and title from Alan & Marilyn Bergman’s lyric You Must Believe in Spring.  The model is Ganeen, a born artist’s model if ever there was one.  Thank you Ganeen for all the weeks you devoted to modelling and sorry again for not recognising you when one day you stood beside me (fully clothed) in the queue at the post office! 

Friday, May 6, 2011


When I telephone to ask for a government officer, I am often told that, he or she is “out in the field”.   Today I joined their ranks and spent my day, quite literally, out in the field.  I travelled to the far southeastern corner of the island in search of a crop known locally as toloma*.   

Basically toloma, is a Dominican strain of arrowroot.  It has huge potential as a health food for infants and the elderly.  Over the coming months, my task is to devise a more efficient way of processing the crop and marketing the end product.  Without giving too much away at this stage, I believe that with innovative marketing, Dominica is on to a winner. 

Thank you Jacqueline and Mary for giving me a crash course in the current methods of production.  Here’s the crop, first straight from the field and then, finally processed and ready for despatch.

*My Creole dictionary gives the spelling as toloman.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Love made visible…

Kahlil Gibran tells us that work is love made visible.*

…And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.  For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger…

This brings us back to the workbench, functional tradition and the instinctive eye of the artisan.  I defy a true craftsman to make an ugly object.  Within his soul there is an inherent sense of beauty and love for a job well done.  Why else, asks Frank Kendon, (for no purpose but unexpressed affection) would a carpenter after running his plane along the edge of a plank, then run the soft pad of his hand down its length, approving its smooth warmth?

Frank Kendon also acknowledges that carpenters are not the only craftsmen, “It may be true of a motor mechanic that the last wipe down with a greasy rag is a half caress for a job done to an inward satisfaction.”

I have spent today making twelve steel straps to strengthen the studio French Windows.  If it were not for the genes of craftsmanship that I’ve inherited in abundance, I could have left the ends sawn square, as the strip of steel on the right.  However, there was no way that I could let the job rest at that.  I sketched out three alternatives and went for the version on the left.  I have put the extra hours down to a labour of love.

*The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Monday, May 2, 2011

The real thing…

Diaries have always been a part of my life; scribbled pages in W H Smith books that are now falling to pieces.  Never the less, those brittle yellowing pages may have a longer life than anything I commit to goggle.  Here is a page that goes back to 1992 on which I am telling myself:

Must:  paint freer, paint faster, paint more experimentally…must leave out, must see the fundamental mass and no more than suggest detail…

Twenty years down the road and I am still telling myself the same home truths.  To illustrate that page here is a painting of rain over the Yorkshire moors that dates from the same period.  Although I doubt if the painting satisfied me at the time, but looking at it now, I perhaps closer to the real thing than I realised.