20 Dec 2014

Still (life) December #stilldecember 2.

Is it really a year since I last did this Twitter theme on still life? My choice of subject here speaks for itself. Merry Christmas.

All text, pros, poetry & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

29 Nov 2014

David Hockney: “Hockney” documentary DVD & Live from LA event. Review.


“What do you think of it?”

The voice came from the woman in the otherwise empty row behind. The one I’d been chatting to in the foyer whist waiting for the Savoy’s Screen 3 projection room to be relieved of its mass of hyperactive children more than a little excited by an afternoon of “Annie”. Mercifully, the cinema’s air con dispelled the subsequent stale odour of pop and popcorn with equal efficiency.

I pondered her question: What did I think of it? Asking me what I thought of Hockney’s remarkable artworks would have been easier to answer. But the Randall Wright documentary, and subsequent Live from LA interview we’d just watched? Not so sure.

“I thought it was okay. I expected a bit more. But I’m not sure of what”. She felt the same, and we both tried to formulate and express our opinions as the sparse audience around us listened in, attempting to do the same. It was a discussion with more space than statements. Later reviews in the press would be similarly challenged in their critiques.

David Hockney was and is something of both icon and idol to former art students of my generation. His media savvy predates and anticipates the later Britart activities of Emin and Hirst. It ensured his work reached the attention of the public eye, and not simply for a fashion sense which rapidly escalated from bowler hat and brolly to blond bespectacled beach boy. With few obvious exceptions, to have art books published about oneself in the early 1970s one usually had to have been dead since the end of the 19th century. So in 1971 Hockney’s own “72 Drawings” found little competition from his contemporaries, and soon found itself onto every self-respecting student’s bookshelf, whilst miniature first editions of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales he illustrated, protruded from Levi pockets as a symbol of cool.

This ready access to his work beyond the gallery walls of London helped establish him as a kind of saviour to those of us who felt the possibilities of a previous generation’s Abstract Expressionism had been exhausted, and the ready-made imagery of Pop Art of limited substance. Hockney’s work was at one and the same time contemporary and traditional. It put observational drawing back on centre stage. It still does. So, sat there looking up at the now blank cinema screen, why my lukewarm response to this documentary? Why my difficulty in answering that woman’s question? What did I think of it?

We live in an age when the works and lives of artists, musicians, writers, can grow in estimation in direct proportion to either the tragedy or excesses of the lives they live. An early death via car or plane crash is seen as a particularly good career move. Failing that, a serious drug habit can prove a marketable alternative. Nothing quite like a cocaine confession to give a teenage pop star a little credibility. Never mind the quality, feel the notoriety.

Paul Simon once said, with a commendable honesty not usually associated with the entertainment industry, that after one achieves a certain level of success it is no longer appropriate or convincing to write angst ridden songs about “sitting in a railway station with a ticket for my destination”. His solution, responsible for the longevity of his success, has been to explore the technical aspects of the medium itself (in his case music) as the motivation. The African rhythms of “Graceland”, not typical of a Jewish rock star from New York, would be one such example.

David Hockney can be said to have pursued a similar course of action. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art, leaving his solitary student tea breaks behind, he has been a hugely successful, famous artist. He’s done this by exploring his chosen medium via a series of technical challenges: Depicting water in the pools and sprinklers of California; the photographic collages and composite Polaroids; stage set designs; and the changing seasons of the Yorkshire landscape depicted across multiple canvases, to name just a few, and not to mention his theories on the use of mirrors and projections in classical art. At the time of writing (and the documentary reviewed herein), his latest fixation is “reverse perspective”. It won’t be his last.

“Hockney” showed the majority of these projects in chronological order, with an impressive digital clarity not experienced on the printed page. Home movies and photographs punctuated the proceedings with appropriate biographical detail. But that’s it. And why should we expect more? Hockney’s life hasn’t involved any greater tragedy or notoriety than most people reading this post. Accordingly, it is simply his passion for and exploration of the painting / printing medium, and the possibilities by which it can depict his mostly contented environment, which fuels his quite remarkable work. The paintings resist any political or social context. There is strong personal style, but not necessarily personal statement.

So that’s what I thought of it: A perfectly fine journey across the surface of an impressive range of beautiful canvases. The hero of the piece is not going to cut off his ear, choke on his own vomit in the back of an ambulance, or shoot himself in a drug fazed game of Russian roulette. In short, Ken Russell would never have made a film about David Hockney. The skilfully applied surface colours and textures are dazzling, but there is no revelation regarding deeper waters, if indeed deeper waters exist. That’s not what "Hockney" does. But what he will do, at age 77, is appear briefly “live” at the end of a documentary about his life, totally (and exclusively) excited about what he’s doing in this moment, (“reverse perspective”), and attempt to convey to us what this latest artistic challenge he’s set himself is all about.

Copyright Ian G Craig. All opinions expressed are the authors own.

16 Oct 2014

Inside and out.

Still on my observational drawing kick, both inside the house and outdoors. Never much cared for charcoal in the past, but these hard grade charcoal pencils are impressive.

All text, pros, poetry & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

30 Sept 2014

sketchbook landscapes.


 All text, pros, photos & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

30 Aug 2014

Drawing August 2.

Twitter's art theme / challenge comes round again. Last year I think I was into coloured pencils. This year I'm into pound shop gel pens. In a big way.

All text, pros, poetry & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

29 Aug 2014

The Selfie. Self portraits.



10th January, 1963. “Love Me Do” moves up to number 17 from last week’s 24. Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” at number two has already made me a music fan. The Beatles ensure it will remain a lifelong passion. My art teacher has set me the only worthwhile homework he manages to dream up in the seven years I will know him. His problem is he doesn’t dream. Maybe two years National Service took that away. I am a grammar school boy, identified as an arty type, but only ever directed to copy from books, add some lettering, and contemplate the painting of roses on tea trays at the nearby Metal Box factory as a better career option than the coal mines. I don’t know why. It pays far less. But for this one Thursday evening at least, studying my face in the mirror, it felt like I was doing Art. Assessment rating: Seven out of ten. Very fair.

So why do artists’ make self-portraits? Certainly not for money. The general public are not keen to purchase the portrait of a complete stranger for their home. One answer to the question can be found in the work of the two greatest masters on the subject. Rembrandt and Van Gogh both used the painted selfie to document their respective journeys through life. Rembrandt ageing with dignity, tinted by sadness; Van Gogh striving against mental instability.

For infinitely lesser mortals like myself the motives are usually much simpler. As long as one has a mirror one has a model; a challenging subject on which to develop the skill of recording from observation. However, no matter how simple the intent, can capturing a likeness ever be the sole outcome of a self-portrait? Or is some other aspect always destined to show through the surface image and disclose more about the person inside? Recently, as I use my own life experiences to inform a book I am working on, I looked back through my sketchbook selfies and was surprised at how much they reveal.

July 1972. I am living below street level in a basement flat. Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral is so close its shadow merges with those of the feet passing by my window. The feet are all I can see and, as I’ve developed the fatal art student practice of “staying at home to do some work”, life is decidedly subterranean. This month nineteen bombs will explode across Belfast in eighty minutes, Garry Glitter will begin his abuse of the pop music charts, and I am on a poorly tutored graphic design course rapidly losing all enthusiasm for art let alone the ability to draw. It was all foretold in Revelations somewhere.

August 1979. The Yorkshire Ripper is afoot. The Trade Unions refuse to listen to their own Labour Party Prime Minister and make the ensuing Thatcher Years inevitable. Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe is cleared in court of allegations of attempted murder, whilst Syd Vicious dies in his prison cell before reaching trial. I am living under a pitched roof high above it all. It is a time of much after hours drinking and introvert music. Ironically I teach myself more about art and its history whilst working as a full time teacher in Nottingham than I ever learned as a student. After a couple of years in the profession I feel confident enough to devote more time to my own painting. To my amazement my first serious artworks gain a one man showcase in Nottingham Castle. I may have peaked too soon.

For obvious and understandable reasons a full time teacher adopts a kind of alter ego, and I see now in retrospect a clear division between self-portrait sketches made during classroom lunch hours and the more expressive, perhaps more personal studies produced at home. This was also the time when rejection slips started coming thick and fast, as the political landscape turned art galleries which once took risks into formulaic commercial craft shops.

1990. Glasgow is awarded Culture Capital of Europe whilst London streets are beset with poll tax riots. I am the son of a carpenter. Our relationship is not close, and I can’t walk on water. But I can modify my approach to self-portraiture. Less raw, hopefully no less expressive, the result is exhibited in the Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham.

January 2006. James Blunt and Coldplay win Brit Awards. Thinking this must surely herald the “end of times” I resign from full time employment and, as a bonus for never buying their records, award myself a five year playtime. There will be no self-portraits. Self-portraits are like diaries; happy times fill the least number of pages.

2013. The ghost of Mrs B returns to tell me playtime was long since over. I must not have heard the bell, having been accepted by ten Open Exhibitions, published twice, and awarded a truck full of sketchbooks which still spill from the loft. She leads the way back to class.


2014. Twitter becomes a good place for feedback and further experimental self-portraits. According to Rembrandt, “Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.” If that’s the case I really should smile more.

 All text, pros, photos & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

16 Jun 2014

Accepted in June.

My "Skeggie Day Trip" painting on show this month in Patchings Gallery. Other creative collaborations with this model can be seen on THIS LINK.

 All text, pros, photos, poetry & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

14 Jun 2014

Pastels in Newstead.

As is apparent from this bog, I haven't wanted to get involved with any serious painting projects for quite a while now. But I do seem to be rather prolific when it comes to observational studies. This month's favoured medium was oil pastels, the location Newstead Abbey.

All text, pros, photos & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

6 Jun 2014

Nottingham Musicians.

 During recent years depicting musicians performing live in various Nottingham venues was a recurring theme in my work. This post is about that artwork, not a critique of their music. Suffice to say I didn’t paint any subject whose performance I didn’t enjoy. However, a few personal opinions about the Nottingham music scene might be of interest.

Spending the early 70’s in Liverpool it was commonplace for me to see rock bands and beat poets sharing the same billing, as the preceding decade’s Mersey Beat morphed into the Liverpool Scene. It was a city where the Arts informed everyone’s way of thinking, assisted in no small measure by its Irish and West Indian links. Simultaneous to this, the steel works of Birmingham were forging sixties beat music into Heavy Metal whilst, before decade’s end, disillusioned youth in London gave vent to Punk.

By stark contrast, whenever I came home to Nottingham during that time frame, one’s social life was very much about Night Clubs. No wonder then that our city’s greatest claim to musical fame became Paper Lace of “Billy, Don’t be a Hero”. Such show bands thrived and made a good living on the chicken-in-a-basket circuit of Tiffany’s and Working Men’s Clubs across the Midlands. Bands like the Rezillos or the Undertones were all happening elsewhere. We got the ones still in flared trousers with feather-cut hair.

Happily, today one can see any number of fine musicians in Nottingham, often in pubs utilizing their (usually unpaid) talents as a prop against the recession’s diminishing customer count. The variety is exemplified by the soulful Natalie Duncan and the “folky” Jake Bugg, both of whom rose from the ranks. And if whilst listening to Nottingham bands today one is more conscious of the content of their individual record collections than any communally shared musical agenda, then that is more a comment on the city than the artist themselves. “Madchester” was never going to happen here.

Johnny Johnston Quartet at the Bell Inn:

I can’t pretend Trad was ever my favourite form of jazz, but the Johnny Johnston Quartet at the Bell Inn were never less than superb entertainment. The first band I ever thought of painting, it established at the outset how I would proceed with future similar subjects. To paint anything one really has to experience it first-hand. Even though sketchbooks in the dark were almost impractical, I could watch closely to memorize typical poses and expressions, and take small cell phone type snapshots, without flash, to cut up, arrange, and work from back in the studio. The background here is an impression of sound rather than an imitation of the interior.

Pictured are Johnny Johnston, sadly now deceased (left), and Brian Bocel. The band were amused and excited to see the final piece, and I enjoyed sharing it with them. The manager of the Bell Inn asked if he might put a copy on display. Fine. But I had not envisaged it would be reduced to sepia tones and pinned next to the gent’s toilet. The painting was more successfully exhibited in the Thoresby Open Exhibition of 2012.

Stuck in 2nd at the Jam Café:

The Jam Café Nottingham, functions as both licenced coffee bar, and live music venue. Pictured here are reggae band Stuck In 2nd. I remember the lighting on that occasion was particularly dark, so more than ever I relied on a liberal use of shadows to disguise my lack of information, and think some of the final painting a little too static. But I was happy with the way I captured the movement of the conga player on the left, his entire body swaying and playing the instrument. If you can play an instrument yourself (I can manage about four chords), it helps when trying to convey rhythm pictorially, or having to make up small details in the final piece.

Will Jeffery at the Malt Cross Inn:

As readers will know from previous posts, the Malt Cross Inn was a music hall in eras gone by, and the small stage is still used today to present live entertainers. What obviously caught my attention in this scene was the very dramatic lighting from the spotlights, making pools of light on the stage and casting large shadows on the wall behind. An opportunity to paint an upright bass in such a setting was not to be missed. Never successfully exhibited publicly, this one remains my personal favourite.

Jonathan Beckett at the Guitar Bar, Hotel Deux:

 When Jonathan Becket performed a retrospective of his songs at the Guitar Bar I was especially taken by one called “The Midlands”, a recurring theme in my own work. Once again I returned to my studio with some very hazy snapshots from which I could produce a “likeness” of the two musicians involved, working from blow ups on the computer screen as if they were seated before me. But this time I created a background based on images associated with the Midlands. One can see references to miners, Sherwood Forest, and factory building skylines. The painting was successfully exhibited in the Patchings Open Exhibition of 2012.

Rosie Abbott, singer songwriter:

 Between 2006 and 2010 I made a series of music promos for Rosie Abbott. This portrait came from an image made during one of those video shoots. Rather than depict a public performance, I wanted to convey more of the creative spirit of the songwriter, especially as I was able to listen to more of her avant-garde works than have been publicly available. The painting was successfully exhibited in the Patchings Open Exhibition of 2011.

Thee Eviltones at The Maze:

 My last musician painting to date. The Maze is an especially dark venue, and certainly one of Nottingham’s most popular. Once again it was a matter of crawling about below audience eye level, not distracting from their entertainment with an intrusive flash, taking small snapshots. Back in the studio I chose and arranged what seemed like a typical “pose” for each band member. I knew I wanted a dynamic setting for such a high energy band. The solution was inspired quite simply by the band’s striped t-shirts. If it was such an important motif to them that they each wore one, then it was important enough to incorporate in the painting.

All text, pros, poetry & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

1 Jun 2014

The Malt Cross Inn, Nottingham.


It was more by chance than design that I started making so many sketches of the Malt Cross Inn, Nottingham. This was where my ever-present sketchbook met with other creative spirits as a good place to meet and chat.

The daylight as it streams through that antique arched glass roof, to then sweep steadily across the room as the hours go by, creates a visual effect akin to being inside a huge sun dial. Or, if you’re on your third pint, maybe a kaleidoscope. The atmosphere is an interesting juxtaposition of contemporary events, against a respectfully tended backdrop of red and green 19th century music hall ironwork. The harmonious result offers sanctuary to those of us not particularly enamoured with the garish multimedia lights and fast fry delights of menus elsewhere in town. If I want to look at a TV screen I’ll stay home.

It’s impossible to do justice to the Malt Cross in a photograph. There’s too much visual information for the lens to digest. One needs to edit. Are my sketches any more successful? A little.

Some of my sketches come from the times I sat here engaged in half sober conversations imagining we were perhaps the Ginsbergs at the San Remo, the Dylans at the Café Wha?, or even the Lennons and the Henris at Ye Cracke. Until we sobered up and had to accept we were not.

 Other sketches were made after a quiet read here, or attempting to compose a few more sentences for my intended novel. All were “worked up” later in my studio. All suggest I should one day get out larger canvases and explore this place further. It has much in common with other favoured subjects in my portfolio: A dramatically lit scene where history still lingers in the shadows.

All text, pros, & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

23 May 2014

Girlfriend or Grapes?

Girlfriends or Grapes?

I awoke in a hospital bed, a young nurse stood on a chair beside my pillow, reaching up to open the curtains which had been shut tight for the previous three days. I have no memory of those three days, and my recovery from meningitis was not anticipated. Still an innocent sixth form grammar school boy, the antibiotics pumped into my system had gathered all the potential pimples from my entire body into one huge pimple at the end of my nose. The nurse took care of it as I blushed with teenage embarrassment.

I am told that at the onset of this illness I had been carried screaming from the house, my language so offensive that an exorcist might have been more appropriate than the ambulance which arrived late. I am also told that, whilst I was in hospital, two school friends of mine arrived carrying grapes. Unable to find me, they apparently sat down on the hospital steps and ate the grapes, before returning to school to tell everyone I had died. This would explain the look of alarm on the headmaster's face some weeks later when I went back to continue my studies.

After my being discharged, a third school friend came to visit me at home. Unlike myself, he had decided against staying on into the sixth form and had started work in the coal mines, an option most grammar school boys in that town took anyway, regardless of the opportunity of further education. We had first met at the back of the maths class. We were both heavily into James Bond novels and secret agents, which explains why, regardless of their being a teacher present, I tried to sneak up behind him and grab him in a headlock. Unfortunately for me, he was already fairly well acquainted with the basics of Kung-Fu, and his defensive karate chop practically took my head off, splitting my lower lip in two. Covered in blood I made a swift exit to the toilets. He followed on behind, worried, but no doubt secretly proud of the blow he'd delivered. The maths teacher simply continued with his lesson as if nothing was happening. From that moment on we were close, hence his visit to see me.

As a young working man, he had now started to earn a wage, and pursue the social life which went with it. In other words, Girls. Therefore his ideas on how to accelerate my full recovery involved something much more potent than grapes. He had fixed me up with a blind date. I should mention here that this would also be my first real date, such being the consequence of attending an all boy's school.

Come the day of the date she and I strolled around the grounds of Newstead Abbey, escorted at a discreet distance by a small entourage of her friends, checking me out as I imagined a Sicilian Family might. Of course, they were not Sicilian, but the mining communities were tight like that.

She was five foot six of a sixteen year old working girl, a striking juxtaposition of jet black hair and bright blue eyes. A factory seamstress by day, a mod by night even as her Midlands working class rocker roots showed through. I was a slight of build sixth former, eager to grow my hair longer than school rules would permit, bored with A-level Chaucer by day, alone at night, sketching, strumming. She was just what the hospital doctor of some weeks previous should have ordered. She jump-started my hitherto dormant teenage years, her nicotine fingers impatient to explore the content of my jeans, taking a firm grip and guiding me through all the gears. I was quite shocked, and I needed to be. She was indeed much better than grapes.

All text, pros, & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.

21 May 2014

Out of the house.

 Out of the house.

I don't really want to go. Cold dark evenings in November are not best suited to trekking up the hill to Nottingham Castle’s art gallery. But what does one do instead on cold dark November evenings? I need to get out of the house more. So I do.

The occasion is the opening night of an exhibition; the gallery a place I myself had shown in a decade ago. But the real attraction for me is that this particular artist's work was some I'd seen in the past, when I was just about to embark on a career in teaching. Back then I was still far too distracted by the superficialities of the night club scene, and not yet painting with any serious regularity or direction. Seeing his work had helped motivate me towards changing all that.

So, I get the bus into town. The market square, decked up for Christmas, is between shifts of daytime skateboarders and night-time revellers. In a pub at the base of the hill I decide on a brandy, its taste somewhat tainted by an extortionate price, and the smell of frying fish permeating the room. But at least I’m out of the house.

Upon reaching the gallery it seems I am one of the first to arrive, then I realise everyone else is in the bar. It gives me a chance to watch the exhibition’s accompanying video without distraction. I like to watch an artist at work. I’m into processes. After the video I decide on a glass of red, compliments of the gallery. Apparently the reason for everyone being in the bar, apart from the obvious, is that they are waiting to hear the speeches before looking at the paintings. The event is very well attended, but I do see an empty table at which one person is sat. I approach.

“Mind if I take a seat?” She doesn't look up. Just raises her book a little more above eye level. I'm not trying to chat her up, although I confess a little female company to share opinions about the paintings with might be nice. Her book becomes a wall. I sip my wine and check out the rest of the room. These are not my people.

The speeches are probably much shorter than they seem, read verbatim from rather dull notes. The artist himself says little. He doesn’t have to. The work on the walls is superb. Just as I remember it. It is almost exclusively “old” work from the late 70's early 80's, depicting a bygone age of a more industrial Midlands. But its merits are undiminished in my eyes.

After it is over I take the opportunity to congratulate him on his paintings. I tell him how I'd admired them years ago in a very small local gallery; of how clearly I remember that night, no doubt on my way to the clubs, snacking for the first time in my life on the gallery's caviar; of how I’d been inspired to pick up a paintbrush once more. The small gallery in question, much like the industrial subject matter of his paintings, is now a thing of the past. But it was nice being able to share that memory with the painter himself. He enjoyed it to.

Text copyright Ian G Craig.

18 Jan 2014

Sketching in January. #sketchjanuary.

January’s Twitter theme for art was #sketchjanuary. My sketches focused on some of my musical heroes.

All text, pros, poetry & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.