Magazine article The Spectator

You Don't Paint for the Money: The Joy Is in the Doing

Magazine article The Spectator

You Don't Paint for the Money: The Joy Is in the Doing

Article excerpt

Next week my new exhibition of paintings opens. Any readers of this column who have quarrels with my views, or think I'm over the top (or the hill) have a matchless opportunity to buttonhole me, give me a piece of their mind or just tut-tut, by coming along to the Piers Feetham Gallery, 475 Fulham Road, London SW6, any time after 10 a.m. from Friday 5 to Saturday 27 June.

But please don't take it out on the paintings. They are harmless innocents, blameless products of my hand and eye, non-political, non-judgmental, not artless but certainly not artful either, entirely visual comments on landscapes and buildings and places. They grind no axes, roll no logs, plug no causes. They were done from love, for relaxation, to record delight, to remind, to register sensory impressions and insights, to witness. Behind them is no theory, no ideology, no world view. They are not designed to disturb, a word I find peculiarly repellent in an artistic context Indeed, if they do not please they are nothing, fit only for the bonfire.

All my painting life I have been trying simply to set down on a two-dimensional piece of paper or canvas exactly what I see. I have no ambition to change the world through my brush. I simply want to get it right, as it is. And that is mighty difficult. For instance, I am showing a big view of St Peter's, Rome, done from one of the bridges across the Tiber, just before you get to Castel S. Angelo. There was a stormy element in the clouds, which seemed to make the great dome of the basilica embattled. I got that all right, and some pretty impressive reflections in the river. But a hateful yellowish building in the middle simply would not come good, as the Australians say. I painted and repainted it half a dozen times. I prayed to St Luke, the patron saint of artists. I scrubbed it out, and started all over again. Turner said yellow was his favourite colour. But for me it is always trouble. I am still not satisfied with that horrid edifice and, though small, it is the first thing to catch my eye whenever I look at the picture.

Then again, there are so many things I do not know, often elementary things, knowledge of which is essential to paint well. Often I discover these fundamentals only after years or even decades of vain struggling without them. For instance, I have never been able to paint portraits. I have tried hard to do so, from time to time, and then given up in weariness and failure. I had another try a year ago, with disastrous results, simply tiring and disappointing those who were good-natured enough to sit for me. I studied the work of Van Dyck and Rubens, Lawrence, Batoni, Gainsborough, Sargent - all the masters -- until I was glassy-eyed, but to no avail. Some basic secret eluded me. I can do a building or a mountain with almost total accuracy, but a face eluded me altogether. Why?

At last I have discovered the reason. To paint a portrait I have always begun with the outline of the head and face, and then worked inwards. This seems to me, and has always seemed to me, the logical thing to do. But it is wrong -- hopelessly wrong. I should have begun with the eyes, and worked outwards.

Like all great tricks, once learned, it is obvious. It seems inconceivable that you did not spot it before. In fact I discovered it only recently, by reading the letters of Mary Cassatt. She was giving some advice to a child of ten, who wanted to try her hand at portraits, and she wrote, `Don't be afraid - go ahead. …

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