Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Recycled Wonderland of Blair Somerville

I'm a great fan of automata. And I'm a great fan of art made from found and recycled objects. So what a delight to find someone who does both.

In a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island, tucked away among the last remaining tracts of native forest, lies a little-known place of wonder. It is the life’s work and extraordinary creation of inventor, artist and self-confessed tinkerer, Blair Somerville.
For over ten years Blair has single-handedly owned, operated and ceaselessly expanded the Lost Gypsy Gallery, his wonderland of home-grown wizardry and a playground for kids and adults alike. He even opens it to the public during the Summer months.

Using only recycled materials, Blair takes DIY to artistic extremes. His creations are ingenious, interactive, and often hilariously impractical. They take many shapes and forms and share an uncanny ability to amaze, entertain and inspire.

‘Lost & Found’ invites you to take a peek into Blair's bizarre and beautiful world.

Fun isn't it? He made an organ too ...

Previous blogposts about recycled art can be read here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And there are many more.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Teacher's Pet - Step by Step

Here's how I did the latest painting in my punning British stereotypes series. Having completed Vicar and Tart, Meat and Two Veg and Fisherman's Friends, I needed a new subject. So I asked the great and the good of Twitter and they came through, as always, with some excellent suggestions. The one that immediately suggested a fun painting to me was Teacher's Pet and I'd soon worked up a couple of rough sketches.

What appealed to me was the idea of making the teacher and the dog look like each other. So I did some picture researching and found the perfect dog - the wire haired fox terrier. It looks almost human. Perfect. It was also, coincidentally, the day of my photographer brother Si Colgan's graduation from Falmouth University, having won himself a place on their prestigious BA course in photography (it's considered to be the best in the UK). His gown and those of his tutors were useful reference too. Other inspiration came from childhood memories of old Will Hay films, of Jimmy Edwards in Whacko! (he grew that extraordinary moustache to cover scars he got as a pilot in WW2 you know), and the teacher from The Beano's 'Bash Street Kids'. And, of course, the acid caricatures of the late, great Ronald Searle:


So, having got a basic idea of what I wanted to do, I got my standard 16 x 20ins pre-stretched, pre-primed canvas and pencilled in my teacher and dog. Then I did the underpainting to get an idea of direction of light etc.

From the start I was quite pleased with this one. All I'd need to do was make sure that the characters stayed looking like each other. By the end of Day 1 (and about an hour of painting), I'd 'got rid of the white' - i.e. had most of the large areas blocked out - and had marked in pen where some details would go.

Curiously, when I came to do some work on the painting on Day 2 I almost wished I'd left it purely in sepia tones. I rather liked it. Maybe I'll do a painting in monochrome next? Anyway, on with Day 2 and I added some background and blocked in the main figures. I then started work on the teacher's face; I was quite pleased with the hangdog look I started to get. It reminded me of the late, great Clement Freud MP, co-star - along with Henry the Bloodhound - of those old 'Minced Morsels' TV adverts from the 60s and 70s. That said, my teacher looked a little too angry. I'd need to fix that.

He was also a little lopsided and the nose needed some work too. So, a good Day 2 and I was able to work much later than usual due to a new daylight bulb I've installed in my office/studio. It's a real boon. End of play, it looked like this:

Day 3 began with work on the two main characters. I spent quite a long time trying to get them to have similar expressions - which did mean painting out the teacher's eyebrows and starting over. Much more Clement Freudian. Next, I tried using masking tape to create pinstripes on his waistcoat but it looked all wrong; the lines were just too straight and too thick.

After a bit of faffing about, I decided to lose the waistcoat altogether and put him in a white shirt and tie - the tie would have my old school (Helston School) colours of blue with gold stripes. I figured it might be nice if the dog's collar mirrored this. So, here's the painting at the end of Day 3:

Day 4 began with some tidying up of the dog's moustache and then the teacher's shirt and tie. I then tidied up his gown. But the whole composition still seemed ... unbalanced. There was just too much 'open space' on the bottom right of the painting. So, taking one of those mad, brave steps I so often do, I decided to add a hand and a cane. A rubbish hand. Look how bad it is. LOOK! Sigh.

Yup, I had to do a bit of work on that hand to get it right. I'm rubbish at figure drawing. But, I think my efforts were rewarded because, at the end of Day 4 (and another three hours of painting time), I reckon I was close to calling the picture complete. It certainly looked like a better painting.

Day 5 involved painting in the tie and dog collar, adding a few shadows and liver spots and some detail on the cane. The expanse of white shirt was an issue so I gave him a pale lilac which also helped accentuate the white of his beard. It helped bring the painting together tonally and voila! Teacher's Pet was complete!

So, what have I learned while doing this painting? Well, the background was something new for me. I knew that too much would distract from the foreground figures so I kept it very loose and indistinct. I also learned that white acrylic paint comes in two forms - one for mixing and one for coverage. The mixing form (which I'd bought by accident) is used to lighten other colours but is rubbish for opaque coverage. You need Titanium White for that. I also painted a dog, which was a fun and something new. All I'd ever done before was cartoon dogs.

On the whole, quite pleased :)

Next painting: A Nice Pair of Jugs!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The wonderful watercolours of Jean Haines

I admit that I'm not a huge fan of watercolours. I find it all a bit samey and bland, if I'm honest. That's no disrespect to watercolour artists of course. It's just a personal preference. However, there are some watercolourists whose work I adore. I've mentioned Walter Langley before, most notably here and here. He could make transparent watercolours so deep and rich. Here's an example:

And, in recent years, I've been blown away by the explosive watercolour technique of Jean Haines. She uses colour in the most exuberant way and her brushwork - some of which she learned from traditional Chinese painters when she lived in the Far East - is wonderfully loose and expressive. Just look:

Isn't it fantastic? So vibrant. So colourful. So much energy and movement. I absolutely adore it.

A couple of years ago, she published a book called Atmospheric Watercolours. It's packed with examples of her work, useful tips and step by step guides to technique. If this is a form of art you'd like to try yourself it's worth every penny. Her website is a good visit too; you'll find it here.

I'm not sure I could ever be as loose with a brush as she is but I kind of wish I could be. Here's a short video - an advert for one of her DVDs - that gives you an insight into her work.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Dublin Days 2 and 3 - White Water and a torrent of the Black Stuff

Replete with new facts and having sampled a surfeit of Colgans, I left the Lucan Spa Hotel at lunchtime on Saturday (Day 2) and decided to take a stroll into the village to get some lunch and a taxi into Dublin. I'm glad I did. Lucan is tiny and very pretty with a river meandering through it, beautiful thatched buildings and small public park containing more wasps and jackdaws per square foot than anywhere else on the planet. No, seriously. You couldn't look at any blade of grass without suddenly noticing a wasp. And the local jackdaws, which all have a curious genetic quirk in having grey bodies, black heads and wings, took the role of pigeons, scampering around my feet looking for crumbs as I ate my sandwich.

Lovely isn't it? But lovelier was yet to come. Talking to some locals, I found out that there was a weir just half a mile out of the village that was 'worth visiting'. So I did just that and wasn't disappointed. It was beautiful. And look at that Irish weather! I actually sunburnt my nose a little.

You'll notice a couple of inflatable boats in the bottom picture. As I watched, four of these boats turned up and faced the tallest watery slope on the weir. I assume they were on a team building day or such-like. All I know is that they whooped and hollered with joy and satisfaction as each boat came up to the lip, the people inside threw their weight forward, and they tipped over the edge.

I spent a good couple of hours walking up and down the river, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine and occasionally stopping to sit and doodle and soak up the sights and sounds of the river. I was rewarded with glimpses of herons and the occasional electric blue/green flash of a diving kingfisher. Glorious. But then it was time to head back into Dublin for a bit of shopping, a few more little gallery visits (where, sadly, not much took my fancy) and then some posh nosh at the restaurant of the Schoolhouse Hotel in Swords. It seemed appropriate as Colgan means 'swordsman'.

I'd heard good things about the restaurant and Head Chef Francois Grelet. I wasn't disappointed. What a cracking meal it was and in lovely surroundings too. Beautiful fresh figs, air-cured ham from acorn-fed pigs, very possibly the tastiest bit of rabbit I've ever eaten (and I've eaten a lot) and a crème brulee so smooth and creamy it was like an angel melting on your tongue. A hearty recommendation from me if you're in Dublin. And very reasonably priced. Book early though - it's a small restaurant and it fills up very quickly. And that, barring a few more pints in the town centre, was it for Saturday.

Sunday began with a lazy lie-in, a full Irish breakfast (just like a full English but with Irish sausages and white pudding) and then a visit to the Guinness Storehouse, the public side of the huge brewery in St James's Gate. It's Ireland's Number One tourist attraction - no mean feat for what is, essentially, a brewery - but it is great fun. It's like Willy Wonka's factory, only with stout instead of candy.

It's really well thought-out and the audio visual stuff is first class. From the atrium - fashioned as if you're standing inside the world's largest pint glass (and which, we were told, would hold 14.3 million pints or 11 days' worth of drinking based upon the average number of pints consumed per day in Ireland alone) - you follow the creation of a pint up through seven floors. Starting with the basic ingredients - water, hops, barley etc. - you work your way up to the second floor where you can taste some Guinness in various foodstuffs in the canteen. The cakes and breads were good. The pies might as well have been filled with shoe heel rubber. The meat was appalling. However, I am told that the food in the fifth floor restaurant is much better. I missed that because I skipped straight up to the 7th floor Gravity Bar, a glass-walled circular room with Guinness on tap and a magnificent 360 degree view over the city. Why go straight there? Well, it so happens that Dublin was having a 'Flight Fest' and 30+ aircraft were due to fly up the Liffey. I figured the view from seven floors up would be pretty good.

It wasn't. That Aer Lingus jet is about as close as anything came. But, by then, I didn't really mind. You see, as part of your entrance fee, you get a token for a free pint that you can use anywhere on your tour. Many people, however, either didn't fancy it or don't like stout so, at the end of their tour, found themselves on the 7th floor with an unused token. And meeting a fat, bearded, genial Cornishman who liked a drop or two, they were happy to pass them on. I ended up drinking in there all afternoon without a cent passing over the bar. Sláinte!

I eventually staggered out of the bar and haphazardly did some of the rest of the tour, including attending the 'Guinness Academy' and learning how to pull the perfect pint. Which I did. And drank.

Finally, it was all over and time to sober up a bit and get to the airport for the flight home. I took a cab rather than the more traditional form of transport on offer.

A great weekend away and some new experiences under my belt.

May there be many more.

Dublin Day 1 - Meeting a Feeble, Love Locks and Molly Malone's shiny 'Cockles'

My long weekend in Dublin began on Friday 13th with a morning flight from Heathrow. I don't believe in any superstitious twaddle but even my normally sceptical mind was challenged by the various obstacles put in my way, most notably the appallingly-sequenced traffic lights at the M4 interchange roundabout. I was stuck in a queue for over an hour. Thankfully, I'd had the foresight to book myself in online so when I finally got to the airport, I could do a quick dash - well, as quick as having to pass through security allows - to my gate. A pleasant and uneventful flight time of 50 minutes later (British Airways - I've never had a bad time with them) and I was in Dublin. And, contrary to expectations, the Emerald Isle was enjoying glorious sunshine rather than rain.

I've been to Ireland quite a few times and it's rained every time. I guess, like my native Cornwall, it's because it's the first sizeable lump of land the rain clouds encounter after their trip across the sea from America. It's like being on a long drive when you're desperate for a wee; you take the first opportunity you find to offload. But not today! All was sunny and warm and I booked into my hotel in the Liffey Valley and took a bus ride into Dublin city.

Something that seems to be quite common over there is the tradition of 'love locks'; leaving a padlock with your name and that of a loved one on display. These were all clustered on the footbridge over the M50 motorway that I had to cross to get to the bus stop. There must have been, at a quick estimate, about 200 of them all clipped to the safety mesh. Many had obviously been there for a while as they were very rusty and the names had been weathered away.

Arriving in Dublin, I decided to have a bit of a walkabout - or, at least, as much of a walkabout as I could stand with my still swollen and troublesome foot. I started off, as many do, in the Historic Quarter that takes in the Grafton Street and Stephen Street shopping areas and the more Bohemian Temple Bar area.

There were lots of street performers - live music, magic and living statues particularly - and this group (above) were great fun. The big shopping Centre at Stephens Green had a great art gallery - The Green Gallery - upstairs and I was much taken with the work of Dublin-based Jonathan Knuttel whose cartoony style has some resonance with the sort of work I do. Here are some examples:

He's pretty popular - his larger canvasses, like those above, were on sale for €2,500 and even the smaller pieces were selling at €950. There's a larger one of his works at Dublin airport and he's handled by several galleries. I just loved the humour, the mix of paint textures and colours. You can see the textures more in this blow-up of Sushi by the Sea and one of his cat paintings:

The shopping centre was also hosting a group of artworks by Frank O'Dea for Dublin Fashion Week. I couldn't help noticing that the central figure's hands were on the wrong arms. Bad installation or a prank by locals?


Then it was on into Temple Bar, which has lots of small art galleries, some great pubs and restaurants and plenty of live music. I had a good old wander about and then settled in at the Ha'penny Bridge Inn by the river Liffey for several pints of Smithwick's Pale.

I bumped into New Zealand film director Danny Mulheron in the pub. He directed the 2012 horror comedy Fresh Meat and played the hippopotamus thing in Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles, for which he was nominated for an award for 'best female character'. A really nice guy - we chatted for ages. Bizarrely, his best mate is the actor Mark Mitchinson, brother of my friend and QI colleague John Mitchinson ... who is also co-founder of Unbound, the publishers of my new book, which is all about curious connections. See? Everything really is joined up.

Incidentally, the whole 'love locks' thing I mentioned at the start is an issue in Dublin too as they keep appearing in large numbers on the many bridges over the Liffey; so much so that the council has been cutting them off for reasons of 'aesthetics and structural integrity'. Hmmm. More on the story here.

The day ended with a good meal at the Clarendon Bar and a last leisurely stroll around the city as the light faded. It's then, on the junction of Grafton Street and Suffolk Street, I came upon the statue of one of Dublin's more famous characters, sweet Molly Malone of 'cockles and mussels alive alive-o' fame.

The 'Tart with the Cart' or the 'Dolly with the Trolley', as she's known locally, was sculpted in 1988 by Jeanne Rynhart and is nicely done although Molly's head is way too large for her body. Maybe it was to make her head larger than her breasts which are rather prodigious and fairly spilling out of her bronze blouse. Apparently, the justification for this is that 'women breastfed publicly in Molly's time, breasts were popped out all over the place.' Hmm. All I know is that they are shinier than any other part of the statue so I guess they get 'polished' a lot. Anyway, if you want to know more, you can read about Molly Malone here for starters.

So that was Dublin Day 1. Day 2 (Saturday) and Day 3 consisted of International Colgan Day (see previous post) and visits to Lucan and Dublin, including the Guinness Brewery. More of that next blogpost.

All photos (c) Stevyn Colgan bar Molly Malone statue which is (c) 'Paddy' of  Paddy's Wagon (because my twilight photo was shite).