7 January 2013: Dear London, on working in the studio … day 1

This is my first attempt at a Sabbatical letter, written while I try and re-establish some sort of foundation on which to build a worthwhile set of tenets to teach from – it’s my only training as a teacher, having once been an artist – and just possibly to find momentum as a painter, while on a term’s Sabbatical from being Head of Art at The Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

I have been granted this opportunity by Eve, the Principal of CLC  (who has enabled me to have this term off) and another Jonathan, whose studio (and indeed home ) I am inhabiting while he is in the US. Hopefully CLC artists and my adult painters (first plug: visit http://jonathanellisart.com/JONATHAN_ELLIS_ART_COURSES_at_OVERBURY/2013_COURSES.html) will feel the benefit one day.

This blogging business will take some practice, so forgive the necessarily unedited nature of these updates, until I get better at it …

This one is going to be long, to set the scene with unnerving honesty – this approach often worked when I was a working portrait painter. I let people see the early unformed stages and the relief when the painting emerged from often unpromising beginnings was evident (and helpful!).

There will be quotes …. here’s the first one from Vincent, to help me cope with a vast and empty studio:

“That is how I look at it: to continue, to continue, that is what is necessary. But you ask ‘what is your definite aim?’ That aim becomes more definite, will stand out slowly and surely, just as the rough draft becomes a picture, little by little, by working seriously on it, by pondering over the idea, vague at first, over the thought that it was fleeting and passing, until it gets … fixed”

In essence I am going to try to paint in oils, above all, but also to work, like my heroes in the studio, from drawings, research and perhaps accumulated knowledge about thought processes and composition.

Chapter headings:

1. I am hoping to draw wonderful people at St Hlida’s East Community Centre, which serves the community in Tower Hamlets.

2. Research: I have already spent a magical hour in the Department of Prints and Drawings  Study Room in the British Museum, which is full circle for me, to revisit a place I enjoyed when a postgraduate student at Central St Martins. I had private time with ten states of ‘The Three Crosses’ by Rembrandt, a sensational landscape ink drawing by Van Gogh and a remarkable study in oil paint (even though it is a drawing … ) by Degas of two ballerinas in grey on green paper.

3. As an former student at the Royal Academy Schools, I can attend Life Classes there on Monday evenings.

4. London itself: Talks, passing exhibitions (Schwitters) and permanent collections, cafe society and even some access to private collections.

5. This.

This is intended to be a serious endeavour, not time off. Although I am of course looking forward to catching up with so many lovely people, but:

“Making anything  – a book,  a painting, any long project – is a physical and psychological effort. Energy is expended, muscle power used … [An artist’s life’s] rigour, not always apparent to an outside observer, is that an artist has to navigate forward into the unknown, guided only by an internal sense of direction, keep up a set of standards which are imposed entirely from within, meanwhile maintaining faith that the task he or she has set him or herself is worth struggling constantly to achieve. This is all contrary to the notion of bohemian disorder [!]”-  thanks to Martin Gayford for that.

At last, day 1 in the studio:

Working from studies made in the British Museum, from Rembrandt’s velvet triangle, Degas, green goddesses and Van Gogh’s Diebenkorn-esque composition, I have made three studies and three beginnings of paintings. I am trying to remember to be a student (to use Leith School of Art’s great ideas about pictorial music), to persevere (Auerbach) to remember Diebenkorn’s ‘Notes to Myself on beginning a painting’ and to remember Theo Jansen (a genius who I was lucky enough to meet in Den Haag with CLC girls in October) and his advice – don’t try to make beautiful things, but listen to [try to respond to] your materials.

‘Don’t discover a subject, of any kind’ – Diebenkorn

I’ve mixed two colours already, a pure grey and a dark grey.

Today’s new research: Marlene Dumas – Intimate Relations ….

“All I know is I want to make marks” MD

“One’s first duty is to remain sane” her mother, to her

“You haven’t made a painting because you are afraid” Come straight, be as nasty as you really are” advice from a friend of hers

“Don’t let your intuitions get frustrated” MD

“Struggle on” Mr Pinker on painting

“you need stricter discipline”

“A painting needs a wall to object to”

I am not going to show you what I am painting, but just a few photographs ….

I heart NY and this bit of paint to the left of the studio door does invoke Manhattan!

I heart NY and this bit of paint to the left of the studio door does invoke Manhattan!


the studio ...

the studio …

day 1

day 1

a clean palette

a clean palette


One thought on “7 January 2013: Dear London, on working in the studio … day 1

  1. Wow! What a prospect. The studio looks scarily immense.

    How about coming for a domestic contrast? Supper at 14 Aubrey Walk..

    Could do Tuesday or Friday next week (15 or 18)

    Will ring you too in case this does n’t work. New to me too!

    Love Gill

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