I seem to have got through remarkably few books this year. Ever since I began to keep these lists, about four years ago, I found I usually managed to read around 25-30 books per year. Must try harder in 2012!

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
The Marquise of O- and Other Stories – Heinrich von Kleist
The Fry Chronicles – Stephen Fry
The Loom of Youth – Alec Waugh
Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome – E.M. Berens
A Short History of English Literature – Sir Ifor Evans
Case Histories – Kate Atkinson
Alligators in the Sewer and 222 Other Urban Legends – Thomas J. Craughwell
The Poetic Museum – Julian Spalding
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Junky – William S. Burroughs
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
The Habit of Art – Alan Bennett
Parisians – Graham Robb

Recently, I completed these small pictures as part of my experiments with watercolour. Once again I’ve taken Egypt as my theme, and I feel the medium of watercolour lends itself nicely to the simple forms and bright colours of these Egyptian houses.

Last year, Edinburgh hosted Carry a Poem, an event designed to promote literature in the city. A small, free book was made available as part of the campaign, filled with poems chosen by a variety of people; some familiar, others less so. One poem in the book really hit me hard, Ex Art Student by Roger McGough, and I’ve never forgotten it. It was the first to catch my eye when I opened the book, and the person who chose it described it as a warning.

Neat-haired and
you live without passion

hold down
a dull job
in the world of low fashion

once prickly
is limpid is static

your dreams
lie now in the attic

A warning it is. So many of us ex art students fall into dead-end jobs and forget whatever it was that used to drive us, whether it was a love of painting, making costumes, or illustrating books. I sometimes think of the number of people I graduated with, and how many of us are still doing whatever it was we devoted our time to at college. The sad fact is there isn’t room for everyone who graduated to make a successful career out of the subject they studied, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon it completely. Art is something I can’t leave alone and know will always be part of me; I drew before I could write, and doing it now gives me feelings of satisfaction I get from nothing else.

Jane Alexander, who chose this poem for the book, describes how she felt she had turned into this ex art student, living ‘without passion’ and with dreams ‘portfolioed in the attic’. When I read it, I realised I had turned into the same person, and the very thought of it shook me. After that, like Jane, I hung the poem on my wall; as a warning; as a reminder. My life has moved on since then, and I have discovered new ambitions, but that poem will stay on my wall until I know it’s not true.

Ex Art Student © Roger McGough

Elizabeth Blackadder is undeniably one of Scotland’s most popular living artists. Best known perhaps for her delicate studies of flowers and cats, she is easy to dismiss as a minor painter of pretty pictures.  However, these subjects are probably the least interesting of the works currently on display at the Royal Scottish Academy; the exhibition, mounted in the year of her 80th birthday, takes in her whole career, and there is much to be found here that is engaging and unusual.

The exhibition begins with a selection of drawings, paintings, and prints from the 1950s, created during her early student days and the immediate post-college period. Blackadder was awarded a few travelling scholarships upon leaving college, and she used this money to travel to Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia at the suggestion her university tutor, David Talbot Rice, who had inspired in her a love of Byzantine architecture and art. There are some superb drawings here in pen and ink; I particularly liked Siena (1956) for its boxy construction and the energy of the street that snakes through the town.

Siena, 1956, Ink on paper

The paintings of this era are less successful; if I were being unkind I should say they were dreary. Perhaps a product of the staid post-war Britain they were painted in, the colours are muted, even muddy. Blackadder’s drawings reveal talent but these paintings only expose a poverty of technique.

This changes dramatically in the 1960s when Blackadder seems to discover and embrace colour. There are some excellent still lifes in the largest gallery and they hold this exhibition together. My particular favourite was Chinese Still Life with Arum Lillies (1982); a classic example of her still life work, with a table of distorted perspective hosting a collection of seemingly unrelated objects. They bring to mind Egyptian hieroglyphs, while the green background (such a difficult colour to get right) sings with the shades of red.

Chinese Still Life with Arum Lillies, 1982, Oil on canvas

Among a number of Japanese-inspired works, Self-portrait with Red Lacquer Table (1988) also stood out. The luminous red of the table, almost neon, works wonderfully in the muted setting, though I can’t help feel this would have been a better picture without the self-portrait; figures are not Blackadder’s forte.

Self-portrait with Red Lacquer Table, 1988, Oil on canvas

There are many examples of her flower pictures, which fill a whole gallery and reappear in other rooms. These studies are exquisitely painted but nevertheless are what they are: pretty paintings of flowers, and I find it difficult to be moved by them.

The cats fall into the same category, though their popularity is understandable. Many people like cats; many people have cats, so many people enjoy pictures of cats. On the whole, they are not as saccharine as images of felines often are; Blackadder’s cat drawings are robust and beautifully observed, though the cats that appear in paintings or prints seem somehow more flaccid.

Perhaps the best revelation in this exhibition is the video at the end. Though familiar with Blackadder’s work before, I had no idea what she looked or sounded like, and it was an unexpected surprise to see her working in her studio and briefly talking about her work. In my head I had an idea of an imperious New Town matron, confident in her position as a queen of the Scottish art scene, but instead I saw an adorable old woman, quietly and happily doing what she loves.

Elizabeth Blackadder runs at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh until 2 January 2012.  

All images © National Galleries of Scotland

I have given my painting of the Cairo apartment blocks one final reworking in preparation for submission to another exhibition. After it was rejected by the RGI I decided I needed to do something to improve it. The colours were too flat before. I liked the structure of the image, but there was something about it that still wasn’t right.

I have been experimenting with acrylic washes recently. I love acrylics for the way they can mimic other media; laid thick like oil paint or diluted to create the effect of watercolour. My apartment picture had already been painted with many layers of thick, flat colour, so I decided to let my imagination take over and created a patchwork effect of subtle washes.

I think I am finally satisfied. I seem to have laboured on this relatively simple picture for a long time, but like the charcoal drawing I posted last week, it is a picture that I’ve learned from. I’m submitting it to the Royal Scottish Academy Open Exhibition tomorrow. I hope they take it; I could use the exposure. If not, there’s a empty spot on my bedroom wall that it’ll fit into nicely.

Re-reading my last post reminded me of a famous art world legend I discovered while I was a student. In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg asked his friend Willem de Kooning for one of his drawing so that he could erase it. Rauschenberg talks about why he did this better than I can, so here you go:

Today I found myself going through my most recent working sketchbook – ‘working’ in the sense that I use it purely for drawing practice, often for only ten or fifteen minutes at a time – and rubbing out complete failures in order to give me a few extra pages of drawing space. Perhaps it sounds a little sacrilegious to deliberately destroy drawings like that, but trust me, I removed nothing but dross. It’s economical too; no need to pop to the art shop for yet another sketchbook when I can squeeze a little more mileage out of this one.

It got me thinking about what this added to the newer drawing on top. There’s something quite pleasing about the paper having a history, the ‘ghost’ of another image on the page. When I was about eighteen, fresh out of school, I was on an art foundation course at Telford College. We had many sessions of life drawing on that course, and I remember once labouring over a charcoal drawing. I had begun reasonably well, but somewhere along the way a leg or arm had gone wrong. Nevertheless, after an hour or so of work I had ploughed on with it, hoping it would end up looking half-way decent. Well, I was lucky enough to have an excellent tutor for that class, and when he saw the drawing he insisted I rub out all the rubbish and correct it.

I was inwardly furious but did as he said, and to my great surprise I ended up with a far better drawing; one that had actually taught me something. Drawing is about more than producing one neat, finished work after another. It’s about learning to observe, training the eye, experimenting, and progressing. That drawing helped me move my observation skills up a notch.

Amazingly, I still have an image of that drawing on my computer.

Mary, Charcoal on paper, 2003

It’s certainly not a perfect representation of the model (though she really was this voluptuous) but I hope it gives an idea of how I corrected the image. You can see the previous attempt of the legs below the newer ones, while originally I had made the model’s body too long. The result of the reworking is a more honest observation of what I saw.

So, I don’t feel bad about rubbing out rubbish in my sketchbook if it means I produce something more interesting on top. If I’m to be serious about my art then I have to be honest about when I’m doing well and when I’m not, and I’d rather rub out and start again than retain something mediocre.

I got a letter this morning telling me that my picture hadn’t been accepted by the Glasgow exhibition, so I’ll need to trek through and pick it up in a few weeks’ time. Never mind: an older artist friend of mine once told me that you’re lucky to get a positive response from one in every ten things entered, and considering I only started researching competitions two or three months ago it’s no great disappointment. At least the picture is nicely framed and ready to go on my wall for the time being.

I cheered myself up by looking through some art books for inspiration. I’ve been dipping into a book on John Byrne lent to me by a friend recently. I have to preface this by saying that I am not a fan of his big, flabby figures or endless self-portraits, but some of his drawings are wonderful, and the man himself is undeniably a character.

I found a work of his today that I hadn’t noticed before; quite unlike anything else in the book. It’s a small watercolour study of Los Angeles billboards, reminiscent of California-era Hockney, and I love it.

John Byrne: Corner of Sunset Boulevard/Larabee Street, LA, 1971

I like the intensity of that blue sky. He seems to have captured the scene late in the day; the colours are beautiful but muted. This isn’t LA in all its sunny brightness, but towards dusk. The varied signs are clustered together, competing for our attention and together forming a sort of abstracted poem. I have been interested in the use of text in art since my student days, and I still appreciate it’s visual immediacy; the way it can grab attention or convey a message. To my eye, there is something very beautiful about lettering, and I think this small watercolour is an example of that.

I’ve not worked in watercolour for quite a while, but this has inspired me to get them out again. I will try a few sketches over the next few days and see what happens.

Despite being less than fifty miles away, I rarely venture into Scotland’s other great city; not out of any prejudice or dislike but simply because it rarely occurs to me to visit. A pity, because I like Glasgow. It’s a city buzzing with life; great clubs, a thriving art scene, and the best shopping in the UK outside London.

It has always struck me as city of high contrasts.  In its architecture, grand statements of Victorian confidence stand alongside the worst excesses of the 1960s, while the tightly packed grid of the city centre sometimes feels more like Manhattan than any Scottish city. It’s a place of world-class restaurants and greasy cafés; of great wealth and desperate poverty; high art and sectarian violence. It’s so unlike Edinburgh in many ways, but no worse off for it.

St Vincent Street

I was there last week to drop off my entry to the Royal Glasgow Institute‘s annual exhibition at the Mitchell Library. I must confess at this point that my knowledge of Glasgow’s layout is basic at best, and I completely forgot to take the map I planned my route on. I knew roughly where I had to go – along St Vincent Street, over a bridge, then up North Street towards the library. Unfortunately, I managed to emerge from Queen Street station and take a wrong turn, and ended up heading south east for about half an hour until I reached the Trongate. Thoroughly lost, I asked for directions and eventually found myself on the right path, and was able to drop off my painting without a hitch.

I took a wander around the shops afterwards. Being unemployed at the moment I wasn’t really at liberty to spend any money, but I enjoyed having a look around. What a big hole there is at the top of Buchanan Street though! A quick internet search has revealed that the site is being redeveloped to form new flats and shops. I don’t mind that they’ve demolished a few old buildings – they were of no real architectural merit as far as I could see – but what I do mind is the fact that the new development is yet another bland, pseudo-modernist exercise in glass and blond sandstone, of the sort that seems to be springing up everywhere in Scotland.

I can think of a number of recent examples in Edinburgh: the Missoni Hotel on the Royal Mile, the new office blocks at the West Port, and virtually the whole Springside (urgh) development in Fountainbridge. It seems the (admittedly horrible) St James Centre at the east end of Princes Street is going to be replaced with something similar, too. I can’t be the only one who’s bored with these developments. It’s not that I don’t like contemporary architecture; I love good, innovative design, but we deserve better than this.

In any case, I enjoyed my day. Though I got a bit lost to begin with I at least discovered a side of Glasgow I hadn’t seen; I’ve always thought that the best way to know a city is simply to walk around. I’ll be back sometime this month to either see my work in the exhibition or reclaim it should it be rejected. Fingers crossed for the former!

Finally managed to pick up the picture I put in for framing a while ago. Really happy with how it’s turned out – I went for a whitewashed natural wood so as not to take away from the intense colours of the picture. Just need to pack it up and take it through to Glasgow on Wednesday.

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