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.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Drawing on the iPad

I made a drawing of Tarragon drawing on the iPad. It was done last May, while we were hanging around at Katherine's flat in Islington. The iPad was new at that point; I think this was the drawing he made.

My drawing was made with a brush pen and some red china marker. It took 30-40 minutes.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Inez de Castro sketch

A sketch for a new drawing depicting the legend of Inez de Castro. It's a story replete with murder, revenge, desecration, and over-the-top violence. Which is everything I want from a medieval tale.

In the sketch, the lords of Lisboa pay homage to the dead body of Inez, overlooked by the "king still young there beside her." The words are Ezra Pound's, from his Canto XXX.

The drawing is in pencil, and photographed rather than scanned, so please forgive the image quality.

Hopefully less time will elapse between this sketch and the finished version than between the early version and complete drawing of Eurydice, Eurydice.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Il castello di Frosini

A very small etching that I recently made at the Open Studio in Toronto. It's just over an inch tall.

There's a certain pleasure in miniaturization. I've always wondered if it's the same enjoyment we take in high-density imagery, such as Russian icons or paintings by Gustav Klimt - the sense of too much information crammed into too little space can be very enticing.

In any case, I starting making the tiny landscapes because there's often no time for a larger drawing, especially when you're cycling across Tuscany.

This scene is of the castle and small hamlet of Frosini (population: 45) in the Province of Siena. It rests on the flank of the low mountains dividing two fertile river valleys. The road in the picture has, with various pavements, served as Siena's main link to the sea for over a thousand years. In short, exactly where you would expect to find a castle, and indeed, it first appears in history in an 11th century document.

A century or so later it belonged to the Knights Templar, and then to the city of Siena. These days, it's privately owned. I'd love to see the inside of the castle.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tattoo Design: Nec Spe, Nec Metu

A restrained and deliberately classisizing design for a tattoo, derived from an intarsia panel I once saw in the church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence.

The Latin text, on the other hand, I encountered in a monastery in Parma, where it formed part of the decoration painted by Correggio in the Camera di San Paolo. It was the personal motto of that incredible megabitch of the Italian renaissance, Isabella d'Este.

The lines come from Cicero, who observed that the magistrates of Rome should be overcome neque terror nec vis, nec spes nec metus, nec promissa nec minae, nec tela nec faces, i.e. neither by terror nor violence, neither hope nor fear, nor promises or threats, nor arms or fire.

The phrase has been used ever since to characterize individuals of power and authority. Isabella, herself a ruling duchess, certainly possessed both qualities. Whether she lived up to the motto is another story.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Tree on the Heath

That little tree, lonely as a monk on a beach, reminds us that in life perfection is inversely proportional to its duration. Which is a traditional enough theme in recent landscape art. One might think of Kawase Hasui, or Anselm Kiefer.
The green of the tree may signify a sliver of hope in bleak times, as in Casper David Friedrich's Winter Landscape. But it is equally possible that its denuded branches are telling us that hope is fleeting.

From such equivocations art is made.

And therefore, a poem by Bashō:

    This autumn -
why am I growing old?
    bird disappearing among clouds.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Keyhole Session: Medusa

Why not another picture from this week's Keyhole Session?

It's Medusa, post transformation. Still looking pretty, snakes notwithstanding. But the model did do an excellent job of conveying a suitable degree of creepy fierceness.

In reality, her lipstick was a not-very-vivid bluish black. But had I left it that colour, the octopus (or is it Cthulhu?) tattoo would have been the focus of the composition, and we can't have that. If I'd had time for the other dozen tattoos and scarification things might have been different.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keyhole Session: The Unexpected Present

Earlier this week I dropped in at the monthly Keyhole Session here in Toronto. It had a classical theme, with the models dressed (well, undressed) as Athena, Perseus and Medusa. Good fun all round.

The pose in this drawing was supposed to be Athena transfiguring Medusa into her new hideous form, but it somehow lacked the severity the scene calls for. Nor did she become very hideous.

(Mind you, the repulsiveness of Medusa is a vexed question. The ugly face originally had an apotropaic function, but a host of (male) artists and poets seem to have decided that she remained pretty after Athena's curse, in a snakes-for-hair kind of way. Although not in Clash of the Titans.)

A nice composition, anyway. It was fifteen minutes long, which is never enough for me to finish two figures.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Asleep and dreaming

Sometimes your model falls asleep. In would be a sin not to take advantage of the opportunity.

As you can see, it's an old drawing. Sometimes I wonder whether I've improved at all...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Castel di Poggio

Another castle, this time in the hills overlooking Florence. It's a private residence, and difficult to approach. I was walking up to Fiesole on a drear November day, and took a break to make this sketch.

This one might be another entry in a hypothetical book of boring castles. I'd buy it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Château de Lourmarin

Castles are one of those things that should be interesting. Evocative, mysterious, foreboding. Things like that.

But they speckle the landscape of Europe like ants at a family picnic. Inevitably, some of them are boring.

The Château de Lourmarin is one of the boring ones. Despite its location in one of France's most ostentatiously charming villages, there is really nothing engaging about it. It has a vague association with King Rene of Provence - who was an intriguing man - but he had many castles, most of which are more distinguished than this one.

For those who like medieval things, I should note that it was founded in the 12th century to guard the pass between the greater and smaller Luberon massifs. But the oldest extant fabric dates from 1475, and the renaissance embellishments from the 1520s. There was a further, extensive, restoration in the 1920s, on the part of one Robert Laurent-Vibert, a cosmetics magnate, who perished in an automobile accident before he had time to enjoy his private castle. These days it's a museum. I visited a few years back.

There is another drawing of the castle, with attendant village, here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Keyhole Session: The Sibyl

A Sibyl or some other pagan witch, looming out of the underworld, rests her hand on the shoulder of a nubile shade.

The drawing was done from life at a Keyhole Session in Toronto last June. I made a few interpretive modifications and found I had a chthonic figure from classical antiquity; whether she's a Sibyl or Medea or someone else I leave up to the viewer. Either way, it's suitable for Halloween.

I visited the Cave of the Cumean Sibyl some years ago. Archaeology cannot, of course, uncover the dwelling of a fictional character, but the place is evocative enough without her, and for her.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Another life drawing, this time done with a china marker in ten minutes or so. As so often happens, I decided the carpet was as interesting as the naked body. Or perhaps that the naked body was more interesting with a carpet.