Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pretty Good Year

But now it's over. Sic transit omnia, I suppose.

Here's a picture, done near the beginning of another year. It was painted from life with acrylics on a layer of primed cardboard.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


The Vitaleta chapel gleams like a bevel-cut diamond amidst the greenery of the Val d'Orcia. It is not for nothing that it appears in so many tourist postcards. It is a small object, but so immaculate in its simplicity that to capture it in a drawing feels like an impossible task. I visited a few years back, and made several attempts, two of which you see here:

The mystery of the place is inversely proportional to its size. I gather that it was designed in 1884 by one Giuseppe Partini, who clearly possessed a knowledge of proportion not often displayed in 19th century architecture. Or indeed, anywhere since Leon Battista Alberti or Bramante. The question of where he acquired such knowledge might easily fuel a novel in the style of Umberto Eco.

I cycled by the site a few years ago, en route between Monte Amiata and Chiusi. As I arrived, I encountered a black-haired Italian PhD student who ushered me into the private property surrounding the chapel. She was there to measure precisely its entablature. I like to think she was searching for a code of some sort, concealed in the ratios of the construction. Maybe she was; we didn't talk about that.

Yes, I know I misspelled the name in my sketchbook.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lithuanian Lancer

Stephen Pinker recently argued that wars are obsolete, not least because they consume far more money and resources than they can possibly generate.

In the past, things were different. A good conquest might easily recoup the cost of war. What was more difficult was making good lost manpower. At the battle of Wagram, Napoleon won the War of the Fifth Coalition and made a good profit, but in the two days of combat he lost 34,000 men.

No surprise, then, that for new wars he recruited new armies from his various conquered territories. Many were happy to serve. In Poland, for example, Napoleon could plausibly pose as a liberator from Russian overlordship.

The same was true in Lithuania, which had not been an independent country since it merged with Poland in 1569. But its people, as phlegmatic and mournful as any in Eastern Europe, still had dreams. And so Napoleon had a regiment of Lithuanian Lancers during his famous war against Russia. Their fate is illustrated in this early classic of the visual representation of quantitative data.

Here's a drawing of a Lithuanian Lancer of 1812, in the regulation uniform. My colour notes are attached, but as you can see, it never made it past the pencil stage.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Card

I made this screen-print for the Open Studio's Christmas fundraiser a few years back. It's based on a china-maker drawing of Danielle from the daily sketchbook.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christopher Logue is dead

My favourite of the old grumpy poets of the world died this month; one of my favourite poets altogether, in fact. He was a man of conspicuous faults, but he also wrote War Music. If mad science engineered the love child of Sergei Eisenstein and Ezra Pound, Logue's rendition of the Iliad is what he would shout out (to general ridicule) in your favourite public square.

The obituary in the Guardian tells us a final instalment of War Music was in preparation when he died. I can only hope some venturesome editor at Faber and Faber will be able to assemble whatever fragments exist. Hopefully with a title as pithy as All Day Permanent Red.

The picture is a marker and acrylic painting on an eight by ten inch canvas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

By the light of the Eurostar

Art in the age of mechanical transportation allows for some interesting variations. Tarragon is today in Paris, sipping mulled wine in the Tuileries, so here are some French landscapes he has recently painted, inspired by views glimpsed from the window of the Eurostar.

They are small oil paintings, eight by ten inches, and were recently on display at The Other Art Fair in London, England. Some other paintings by Tarragon from that venue can be seen here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The harbour at dawn

An early 20th century harbour on the Great Lakes - possibly on Lake Huron. Alongside the quay, two schooners. The white hull in front may be a private yacht, while the darker vessel was one of the many trade ships still in operation at the beginning of the century.

It's a tiny acrylic painting - only four by six inches - done on canvas. Private collection.

Friday, December 16, 2011

vicolo di ferro

A view down an alleyway - the vicolo di Ferro - of an old shrine. Or apparently old. In fact, it dates only to the 19th century, which in Florence counts as recent, or even modern.

Vast quantities of fake-medieval adorn the richer parts of western Europe. In some areas, such as London, Paris or Carcassonne, there is more of it than the genuine article.

It's nice enough to look at, but it represents an obvious danger for the conscientious medievalist. After a while, you start to question every crenellation or lancet window.

On the up side, the fun of the detective work is sometimes worth the price of admission.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Some years ago I visited the small, russet-coloured town of Montaubon. My objective there was to visit the Jean-Dominique Ingres museum. It was a disappointment. Its contents - donated by his widow to his hometown - consist of the leavings of his studio and various other bits and pieces he was unable to sell.

None, in short, of the fabulous portrait drawings that make up his most interesting body of work. Nor any of the great paintings either.

But the trip was not a waste. Just a bit north of Toulouse, Montaubon is likewise built entirely from the pinkish-red local brick, and is quite beautiful. My favourite spot was the place de ville, a square courtyard completely enclosed by a double arcade that lent it a homey, almost claustrophobic, appeal.

A good place to hide from the afternoon sun, and one in which people were constantly appearing and disappearing, as if by magic, behind the many columns.

I made this etching of it at the Open Studio in Toronto. It's approximately nine by six inches, and printed on 140lb. Somerset cotton-rag paper, in an edition of forty. My main interest in the composition was in capturing the sharpness of the afternoon sun.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Asleep on the job

Although the job is really just hanging around in the study area, apparently.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The advantages of flexibilty

A quick contortion on a summer's day.

I often find I don't like complicated poses, especially those that involve a lot of stretching. In part it's because drawing is one step removed from reality, and attention can often focus not on the drawing, but on the gap between representation and real life. If we see something wrong in any representation, we are inclined to attribute a problem to the drawing, or painting, etc., instead of accepting our surprise at an outlandish contortion.

Also, our ability to understand representation depends a lot on what we're used to. What one admires as an example of the contortionist's art when seen in real life becomes in a drawing - because it's unfamiliar - simply a confused mess.

All of which sounds a bit defensive. It doesn't need to be. The drawing above is quite simple.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tea is serious business

Two views of the same model, each drawn in two minutes. Some models are particularly talented at striking and holding facial expressions, and Steve is one of them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A view of rain over water

The rain over the Lago di Garda, painted very quickly one day in May.

I always struggle with this sort of thing. My instinct is to give everything hard edges, which is why my favourite pictures tend to be Austrian expressionists or ukiyo-e prints, not Camille Pissarro or Toni Onley. But it's impossible to resist a soft misty morning, or the indeterminate way rain advances. And so I make watercolours like this one, which can't decide whether to respect its outlines, or just splash all over them.

Friday, December 2, 2011

On Via Montalbano

I walked up into the hills east of Florence and found a small castle, now converted into an apartment building. This is the driveway.