Monday, 27 August 2012

Oil Painting 35 - Birmingham watches the Olympics

One of the downsides of trying to live without a television on board a narrowboat is when a once in a lifetime event comes along, like the Olympics in your home country, everyone begins talking about it, and you do not have the means to participate.

Imagine our delight then, when we moored up in central Birmingham to find within strolling distance, an epic television bigger than those in even our richest friend's lounges, seating, and even a ready made atmospheric crowd of spectators. Couple that with relaxed 14 day moorings in a secure marina with good facilities and you have an unforgettable few weeks in Britain's second city.

This painting started out life as a quick watercolour sketch from the other side of the floozy in the gacuzzi.

I quickly realised this square had enormous potential in subject matter - iconically Birmingham, colourful flags, beautiful buildings, sweeping curves of the cascading steps and fountain, crowds that were going to be there day in day out for over a fortnight, a pretty complicated multi-leveled space to depict and a ready made plinth to stand upon and be admired producing a painting.

My 'plinth' was the base to the sphnix statue - the statue is a great compositinal device itself relaxedly watching the BBC Big Screen 

Cue purchasing as big a canvas as I could fit through the hatch of the boat, and spending days watching the London 2012 Olympics unfold, whilst chatting with hundreds of people and building up as fine a painting as I have produced.

I like how the 'Year of the Boat' has stumbled across the Olympics, after the nightmare of getting to the capital to paint the flotilla I had written off the Olympics but was over the moon when this project naturally crossed paths. I was able to relax into the Olympics, watch event after event and still be able to do my work.

What is interesting with these crowd paintings is picking out the colour differences between them, my V Festival paintings have a quite a orangey fake tan feel to them, with lots of legs, hot-pants and pink wellies on show, the Stoke football paintings I have done have the iconic red and white striped shirts and the flotilla had the raincoats, umbrellas and union jacks.

Crowd painting at the flotilla - rain macs, brollies and union jacks

This crowd was different once again and actually changed halfway through; it began with a summery coloured crowd sitting amongst the bright colours of the 2012 Olympic branding but then took on another dimension when the event 'Jamaica in the Square' was set up and took place during the course of me producing the painting.

The star of the painting - this lad takes centre stage looking at us from the bottom of the painting

At its peak, there was the Jamaica flag raised in the square in front of thousands of people dressed in or waving the green yellow and black flags. The event was celebrating the 50 years of Jamaican Independence and was another fascinating experience to add to the trip. You can imagine the crowds reaction when Usain Bolt and Blake thanked Birmingham for being such good hosts to their athletic team after Jamaica blew away any competition in the 200m final! Birmingham was Buzzing. We were really lucky to arrive when we did.

As well as the flashes of green, yellow and black the Jamaican Independence Event also changed the scene in another way- the blue smoke from the food stalls cooking up Jerk Chicken and Curried Goat added real atmosphere and distance to the City Hall building at the back. Aerial perspective I think is the technical term.

Our friend Gemma pointing to her little self watching the Olympics

Oil Painting 34 - Spaghetti Junction

This, if I am honest, was the main reason for leaving the Birmingham Main Line and taking the Tame Valley canal detour into the centre of Birmingham. My interest in representing complex spaces with multiple levels of activity and movement meant that this was a must see.

Motorways, railways and bypasses cross over and over, one on top of the other, sometimes getting to such a height that they take on the appearance of giant roller coasters supported by a forest of enormous concrete cylindrical pillars.

The canal was here first and so drifts through at the very bottom of all these stacks of modes of transport. It is a strange world down here at base level, spending time, largely unseen, underneath what you know to be thousands of people hurtling along at speed. On the boat you slowly and silently glide through this alien cathedral of artificial noise and vibration. The experience is much like being on the sewers of mankind, or in movie terms like being in the lower levels of futuristic cities in science fiction films like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element.

There is a buzz to finding a subject like this and a space like this in which to work. You feel like you are not supposed to stop here. This bizarre experience, for me, on a similar level to the Pontcylytte Aqueduct, is not talked about as a waterways highlight. It is a very intimidating space, the bottom rung, and you feel like you are breaking the rules being here, and you should be scrambling to get out, yet if you allow those feelings to wash over you and you embrace the space, it's fascinating to study the underbelly.

I am not alone in enjoying producing artwork down here, there is a real gallery of graffiti art down here, one wall in particular must have at least 50 large tags in a line. Hours and hours of work have gone into them and I found myself looking and appreciating the work more than I have previously. The abstraction, distortion and embellishment of type takes the medium into its own.

I enjoy any comparison with my 'en plein air' practice and street art. The words 'en plein air' ( in open air) are probably enough to make most street artists throw up, I am not working with type at all, and am observation rather than imagination led although I equally enjoying thrashing out an artwork in public spaces and in doing so trying to claim some kind of ownership over them.

So here is my attempt at ownership of Spaghetti Junction - Oil Painting 34 - enjoy!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Oil Painting 33 - Fisherman on the Tame Valley Canal

We had left the Birmingham Main Line to explore the Tame Valley canal as we had friends in Perry Barr and wanted to experience travelling underneath Spaghetti Junction and travelling over the M5/M6 interchange. Big motorways contrasting with slow canals has a lot of appeal for me, the different heights, speeds and aesthetics, the fact that I only ever see these motorways from a cars view, usually annoyed, means I was keen to experience them from a completely different vantage point, gliding past them like some kind of existential being with a glass of wine.

I am well aware this is not everybody's cup of tea, which is probably why the canal was so empty, except for high numbers of fishermen. I guess less boats means more peace for the fish and the men trying to escape their families. One such bloke got featured in this study on a blazing hot day. I don't know much about him because we only exchanged a sentence in the 2 hours I was staring at him and he was staring at the water.

Again it was the human element that was the appeal, but visually the scene was striking with the blazing sun gleaming off his light clothing and cap spotlighting him against the dark background.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Oil Painting 32 - Captain Karen

Of course this is a joke title and in no means reflects the true captain of our mighty vessel. Karen was privileged enough to be given temporary control whilst on a very straight section of The Birmingham Main Line and later the Tame Valley Canal in order for me to produce this sketch.

I want this project to have a real human element and am aware of how there seems to be plenty of imagery of wide angle scenes taking in the new scenery we find ourselves in although not much of the individual character side of boating. I am sure this next winter, when I shall retreat more indoors will release some enjoyable studies of our wood burning stove in action and still life's and interior boat scenes.

I can already see in my head a piece entitled 'Karen the galley slave' with atmospheric steam rising from the pans on the stove!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Oil Painting 31 - President at the Black Country Museum

The Black Country Museum has good secure moorings and facilities right alongside. I'm sure this means absolutely nothing to the majority of readers but that alone makes it a favoured destination for boaters. You can only gain access to the moorings by foot with use of a magic golden BW key. Every boat owner has one, and it unlocks almost every door, water point, shower room, launderette and elsan on the waterways network. What's an elsan then? Such a graceful name for what is essentially a direct line ... Change of mind, I am going to leave talk of this side of boating on this blog... Google 'elsan' if you feel you have to.

I introduced myself to the staff of the  Black Country 'Living' Museum, asking permission to paint and they showed me around the dry dock and wharf they have contained within the museum grounds. Moored at the wharf is the oldest working steam powered narrow boat called 'President' and it's butty Kildare. President is quite a celebrity (as far as narrow boats go) having his own fan club - The Friends of President.

It turns out I have already seen him once before in 2012, from afar, cruising down the Thames as part of the Queens Diamond Jubilee River Pageant when I was painting Oil Painting. A famous boat, that took part in the flotilla, moored in the marvellous setting of the Black Country Museum, is enough temptation to make me get the paints out and so you get Oil Painting 31. 

It took 3 separate sessions to complete, the last being glorious sunshine changing quite a dull gritty industrial scene into a high contrast sun blasted painting. You come away from the BCLiving Museum smelling of smoke as all the volunteers and costumed staff are stoking up coal fires, even in blazing sunshine to illustrate our dependence on them before electricity.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Oil Painting 30 - Wolverhampton Viaduct

We reached the end of the peaceful Shroppie and began entry in to the great urban unknown of Birmingham, beginning with Wolverhampton, and a day's slog up 21 locks on the Main Line into the city centre. Our joy at reaching the top of this lock flight was short lived when we realised we were moored in a police investigation scene after a tragic incident at a nightclub alongside the canal. This setting highlighted our anxieties about now bringing our boat and home into an urban area, which seem exaggerated anyhow having spent quite some time off the beaten track. It is a noticeable feature of this year how our feelings are effected by having the ability to engage and disengage with mainstream society. You see very little advertising on the canals living without television, in an era when we are bombarded normally, but then reentering a built up area, especially such a warren of disorientating canals as Birmingham, makes you doubly apprehensive about mooring up all our possessions in an unknown area. The constant complicated logistics of this trip we're taking their toll at this point.  A new map book helped in us visualising what we had ahead of us on the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigation) that has more canals than Venice and also the act of getting the paints out to paint this Oil Painting 30 - Wolverhampton Viaduct really helped in taking some form of ownership over the landscape we now find ourselves in.

This is a real positive of the painting process I have not really mentioned before but spending long periods of time observing an area gets rid of all anxieties about that location. Because a painter with an easel is such an unusual sight I talk to a lot of passers by, and low and behold the people of Wolverhampton turn out to be some of the friendliest I have met on the canal network.

I had noticed this scene on the way up the lock flight and was fascinated with the angled spiralled brickwork underneath the railway viaduct as it compensates for the old canal passing through at an angle other than 90 degrees. It reminded me of the spinning ghost train tunnel at Alton Towers and got me thinking about how this angled approach is a much more effective way of representing the planes of a tunnel. I am talking about quite abstract values here so I will try and help illustrate with some doodles -
I do a lot of work with perspective and drawing viewers eyes into a painting by taking them down 'tunnels' of interest towards a vanishing point. I create these tunnels, a lot of the time, by using obvious directional brushstrokes to manipulate the viewers eye. These are not literally tunnels but can be looking through a passage of trees or down a street etc.

To date I have been mainly painting the brush strokes pulling straight towards the vanishing point like an orthogonal on a perspective drawing

or alternatively creating hoops with the brush strokes.

The Breakfast Painting, 2009 -  You can see a lot of 'hoops' in the brushwork in this piece creating a tunnel for the eye

The brickwork in this viaduct, and the thoughts of the ghost ride spinning tunnel got me thinking that I should utilise this method more as it a dynamic combination of the two. So try and emulate this more complex recording of space when next painting a passage of trees or an underground tube station or even put the pattern in the sky with brush strokes above a subject I want viewers to be drawn to.

Have another look at the full painting at the top, I have altered the graffiti that was on the bridge to be my signature for this piece.