Sunday, July 31, 2011

Culture with a small letter “c”…

Last week I received a call for papers for the Fourteenth Annual Eastern Caribbean Islands Culture(s) Conference.  Glancing through the abstracts submitted for last year’s conference, I concluded that this was culture with a capital “C” and strictly in the realms of the region’s academia. 

Early yesterday morning, at the Roseau Saturday Market, I found culture alive and kicking with a small letter “c”.   The second-hand bookstall and poetry readings were part of an outreach event for the island’s forth-annual Literary Festival.  You can learn more about the festival at

As luck would have it, our son Tristan found the final volume for his thirteen volume, Series of Unfortunate Events and  I picked up a copy of Noel Coward’s Collected Sketches and Lyrics.  As you can see, the book has weathered many a storm since it was published in 1931, but I’ll cherish it all the more for that.  It will still be on my shelf when your Kindles, Nooks and iPads have given up the ghost.  What’s more, it looks like a book, feels like a book, smells like a book and cost only one dollar EC!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dominica ain’t easy, nuh…

When I quoted the above catch phrase to a Dominican friend today, she added, “Living the Dream”!

To survive my day goes to and fro from one thing to another.  And it’s not just between painting and sculpting.  That would be easy.  It’s the extremes and the bits between that are the challenge. 

Today started with an inspection of the machine presently used for washing tania and dasheen – a machine which from the look of it has been washing the crops for the last fifty years.   It ended with a determined effort to get back to work on my bas-relief.  Between the two I painted a new number plate for our pick-up truck (it’s due for its road test tomorrow), mended the sewing machine, cleared a drain and, in the pouring rain, scrubbed mould off the wooden deck that leads from the studio to the garden (necessary before someone breaks their neck).  Hence my friend’s rejoinder, “Living the Dream”. 

Here, from one extreme to the other, is the machinery and my reclining nude.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Musing on the vicissitudes of life…

A couple of months ago, down by the riverside, I made the palm-thatched shelter that is shown in today’s photograph.  The idea was, that in the halcyon days of a West Indian summer, I could sit and muse on the vicissitudes of life.

Forget about it!  In these days of climate change the West Indian summer, like the English summer “hath all too shorter stay”.  For the last month, we’ve had nothing but one tropical wave after another.  If I do find time stroll down to the river, the palm-thatch is more to keep off the rain, rather than keep off the sun.

But I muse nevertheless.  Forty-five years ago, when I gave up a secure job as a design engineer and set out to earn my living as an artist, my mates in the drawing office asked, but what will you do when you reach sixty-five.  Flippantly I replied, that if push comes to shove, I'll go back to being an engineer.  In the last three years, my God I’ve eaten those words many times over. 

Today for instance, when I should have been working on the clay relief of a reclining nude figure, I was instead trying to figure out how to devise a machine for washing tania and dasheen clean enough for export to the UK and US. 

Note:  In this case, Tania and Dasheen does not refer to my two teenage daughters, one  
named Tania and the other nick-named Dasheen, but to two staple Caribbean root crops.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

I born here…

When a young West Indian gets a bit stroppy and tells me, “I born here”, my rejoinder is, “Yah, but I’ve lived here longer than you”. 

I first sailed to the Caribbean in 1974 and from the moment I set foot on shore, I knew that here was to be my adopted home.  In the warmth of the tropics, I found colour and vibrancy that previously had eluded me.  However, my love for the region and its people goes deeper than that.   Somerset Maugham, in his book The Moon and Sixpence, expressed it as follows: 

Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels he belongs.  Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.

This pencil sketch of English Harbour, Antigua, was made when I sailed the Atlantic for the second time in 1980. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

On Ilkla Moor baht ‘at…*

* Translation:  On Ilkley Moor without a hat.

Sixty-eight years ago today, bombs were falling on Bradford.  Two women in the maternity ward of St. Lukes Hospital were put in an ambulance and evacuated.  After a few miles, the ambulance made a stop was outside Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chip Shop.  It was there that one of the occupants gave birth to a daughter.  Having successfully coped with that little episode the ambulance drove on...until I came into the world on the middle of Ilkley Moor.  

If ever Yorkshire declares independence and becomes a monarchy, I reckon that I (along with the lady who shares my birthday) have the credentials to sit on the royal throne.

The shaping machine shown in today’s picture also comes close to sharing my birthday.  After a couple of years aiding the war effort, it spent a relatively easy life in the testing laboratory of a Sheffield steel works.  When the steel works closed down it was - quite literary - put out to graze.  Ten years ago, I rescued and restored it.  

Along with the lathe, a shaping machine is one of the earliest and most versatile machine tools.  I doubt if many today’s engineers would know a shaping machine if one fell on their head.  My machine has today celebrated its 68th birthday cutting a replacement gear for the paper feed mechanism at one of the island’s printers. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Making a start…

Today’s pictures show the beginning of the bas-relief that I am now working on.  First, a sketch of my subject and then, the sketch enlarged and transferred to a 18" x 30" tablet of clay. 

The sketch turned up during last week’s sort out.  As a painting, in my eyes it failed, but as the subject for my bas-relief it may work well.  The next step is to differentiate the highs from the lows.  At first glance, this appears easy, whereas in fact it can be quite a challenge. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lost, found and sold…

Continuing my lost and found sequence but adding, “sold” to the list. 

The very fact that for forty-five years I’ve earned my living from my work inevitably means that hundreds of paintings and sketches have sold.  Sometimes I manage to photograph a picture before its new owner carries it away, but prints fade and hard discs fail.  More often than not, a sale leaves me with only a memory.  

On the other hand, I have, in the words of Whistler, “…favourite pictures that have successfully resisted the danger of sale on more than one occasion”. 

Today’s poor quality image is all I have to remind me of one of my best paintings from a series I made of Denise during two pregnancies. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Traces of love long ago…

Faded photographs,
Covered now with lines and creases.
Tickets torn in half,
Memories in bits and pieces…

Those classic lyrics by songwriters, Buddy Buie, James Cobb and Emory Gordy, sum up my feelings after a week of delving through stacks of old portfolios, photographs and diaries. 

I found paintings that I’d almost forgotten and one unfinished painting that I’ve no recollection of whatsoever.  This is odd because, while I can easily forget most things, I can usually recall every detail of a painting: the time, the place and all manner of incidentals. 

Here is the unfinished mystery.  I would say that it dates from the 1990’s and it has the feel of Europe rather than the Caribbean.  I did make brief visits to France and Portugal.   However, as I remember, on those visits I worked solely in pen and ink, not watercolour.  It is a pity that I didn’t carry the painting through to completion, as it certainly holds promise.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Breaking the mould…

Today’s picture shows the torso emerging from the waste mould.  The pink plaster is the flick coat.  The colour serves as a warning when chipping through the outer plaster.  When making the mould I add a light wash of clay water between the flick coat and the outer plaster.  This helps the one to separate from the other.  Breaking away the final layer requires a very delicate touch, for otherwise the figure is criss-crossed with chisel marks. 

What a luxury it is to have separate spaces for studio, carpentry, engineering and - with plaster flying in all directions - mould making.  My studio in England had everything, including our living accommodation, under one huge barrel vaulted glass roof.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mozart’s Concerto for Violin in A Major…

If for nothing else, in a hundred years time I don’t mind being remembered for these two sketches. I came across them today as I was sorting through past portfolios.  I made them from the wings of the stage during a concert by the Halifax Symphony Orchestra.  They stopped me in my tracks, and that is just what anything connected with the arts – be it poetry, music or paintings - should do.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bas Relief…

Do no let us forget that routine is the greatest enemy to art.

With those words of master sculptor and teacher Edouard Lanteri in mind, I have decided that my next sculpture will be in relief rather than in the round.  Before leaving England I was commissioned to a make series of reliefs for a group of historical buildings.  To get my hand in so to speak, I first made this relief of a seated nude.

Afterwards I discovered the freedom of expression that Gustav Seitz (1906 – 1969) gave to his reliefs, as in the two figures shown below.  His work has enabled me to see a way of incorporating the linier sketch in sculpture: in effect, drawing on clay.  That is what I am aiming for.

Incidentally, there are three distinct divisions of relief: high relief, half relief and low relief (bas relief).

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Yesterday, when searching through Ralph Mayer’s encyclopaedic Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques  I came across the word “ganosis”.  It means, the toning or dulling of stone sculpture by the application of colours mixed with wax.  It seems that the technique was also used to reduce the shine of marble, especially on naked parts of statue.  (Don’t ask me why specifically the “naked parts”!)

Can this technique be the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that I have been searching for ever since I saw the subtle yellow earth tone colours of some plaster casts in the National Portrait Gallery thirty years ago.  I have tried all ways to achieve the same effect, but to no avail. 
In the meantime, what I have become a dab hand at is giving plaster the appearance of bronze.  Indeed, the man who applies the patina to bronze at the Morris Singer Foundry claims that I can get plaster to look more like bronze than he can!  The first picture shows a seated figure in plaster coloured to resemble bronze, whereas the second picture shows an actual bronze cast. 

I am now tempted to try ganosis on my reclining torso – specifically, the naked parts.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Soft soap and horsehair…

For those interested in technicalities, I will continue the saga of making a cast of the torso.

From the plaster waste mould I can take a plaster cast.  To prevent the two plasters binding together, the mould is coated with soft soap. Dish washing liquid is today's equivalent of the soft soap used for centuries by sculptors and washer women alike.  Likewise, strands of glass fibre can be substituted for Hessian and horsehair.  

Plaster can be mixed thin enough to pour into a mould and then swilled around until it sets.  By this means the thickness of the cast is gradually built up.  However, in my experiments with plaster polymers, I have found that a thicker mix and a slower setting time are desirable.  Hence, I brush the mixture into the mould and after a couple of coats add the fibreglass reinforcing.  (Sorry to say I’m out of the pleasanter Hessian and horsehair.)  This is the stage I was at when I took today’s picture.  Once the brush coats have set, I can trowel up to the final thickness of the cast. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

In the beginning…

This week I am sorting out the studio.  In doing so, I’m finding paintings and sketches that I’d almost forgotten about.  Some go back well over 50 years, to the very beginning of my creative endeavours.   Here, to give hope to those following in my footsteps, is my very first attempt at a watercolour.  

I remember making this pencil sketch of the view over Halifax, Yorkshire, during school holidays.  Incidentally, my brother uses a recent photograph of the same view as the title shot for his enthralling “News From Nowhere” blog. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

You horrible little man…

The critic Jean Lorrain accused Toulouse-Lautrec of taking the cult of ugliness too far.  Cabaret performer Yvette Guilbert’s response to a drawing he had made of her was, “You horrible little man”.

With portraiture, it is difficult to resist flattering the sitter.  However, when the sitter is in an irritable frame of mind the artist can mischievously use it to his advantage.  

Here’s an unsmiling, uncombed Denise on a morning when everything went wrong.  As she huffed out of the studio, I could swear I heard her say, “You horrible little man”.