Small canvases


170323a Jug (2017) oil on canvas 15.5 x 18.2cm

Finished the last of the small spare canvases. Thought it would be fun to work small but it just felt cramped. Looking forward to having more space again with some bigger paintings.


170323b Bird Rabbit (2017) oil on canvas 21 x 15.5cm


170323c Butt Owl Glassy Eyed Stare (2017) oil on canvas 15.7 x 18.5cm


170323d Big Nose Looking Right (2017) oil on canvas 16.7 x 15.7cm


170323e Smiling Arrow Face (2017) oil on canvas 16 x 16.6cm

Painted this strip with different mixes of impasto, left it to dry, painted on top. Still want to do more with texture.



170323f Texture Test (2017) oil on canvas 55 x 11cm


Composition exercises


170321a (2017) oil on canvas 16 x 12.4cm

Small doodles, thinking about composition, trying to keep the eye moving around in the picture without sliding off one of the edges or getting stuck, but without making it too obvious.


170321b Face Left, Face Right (2017) oil on canvas 18.2 x 15.7cm

Funny how abstract shapes take on a certain sense of direction if they resemble facial features, even very vaguely. To me, the line going around the left side of the painting and the grey square in the top right look a bit like a face turning to the left, and the black line on the right looks like a nose facing right. My eye moves back and forth between the grey rectangle on the left (the “eye”, or maybe the lens of a pair of sunglasses?) and the “nose” on the right. The pulling in both directions balances itself out. I can look around at the other parts of the picture, but always come back to the relationship between those two elements.


170321c Bunch of Flowers (2017) oil on canvas 15.1 x 18.1cm

Often when I’m trying to compose a picture I forget that balance need only be attained when the last element is put in. I put the first thing in, then try to balance it out with the second, then try to add another without unbalancing, etc. and end up sort of packing in every empty space. With this bunch of flowers, I tried to break that habit by loading more and more detail onto the right hand side, thinking that I’d finish the painting by putting one small thing in the empty space on the left to balance it out. When I finished the detail on the right, somehow the composition didn’t seem to need anything else. To my eyes, the empty space balances the detail no problem, although I don’t understand why.

Composition doodling


Studying the books on composition has got me pencil sketching like crazy. Developing my sense of composition feels long overdue, but very exciting. I try to paint every day, so I did a couple of little ones today, but the composition stuff isn’t filtering through to the paintings much yet. I’m confident that’ll happen soon.


170318a Ball Rolling to the Right (2017) oil on canvas 16.7 x 15.7cm


170318b Objects in Circle (2017) oil on canvas 16.7 x 15.7cm

Exhibition review: House Work


Hernan Bas Preferring the Out to the Indoor Night (2010) acrylic, airbrush, household gloss and block print on linen 152.4 x 182.9 x 5.1 cm

House Work at Victoria Miro, a small group exhibition on the theme of “home”, almost all paintings, spanning nearly 100 years from Alice Neel and L.S. Lowry to 2016 work by Grayson Perry and Tal R.

I spent longest with Hernan Bas’s Preferring the Out to the Indoor Night (above), which really popped under the gallery lights, and Jules de Balincourt’s Valley Pool Party (below).

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Jules de Balincourt Valley Pool Party (2016) oil on panel 61 x 50.8 cm

Here’s Johnny!

Thank you Martin for sending me this link to an old clip of Johnny Carson, in which an axe is positioned in almost exactly the same way I pictured it in my recent Pinocchio paintings, and in the Bedroom Door sculpture I made in 2006.

This visual echo is especially interesting because the Bedroom Door sculpture already had a strong connection to another Carson reference – the “Here’s Johnny!” scene in The Shining. Was Jack Nicholson thinking of the same axe-throwing scene when he improvised that line?


Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1981)

Composition books


L-R: Mary Acton Learning to Look at Paintings (1997); Henry Rankin Poore Pictorial Composition (1967); Molly Bang Picture This (1991)

Making a study of composition from these books (with Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception, which I’ve read before). Making hundreds of those little drawings, trying to get a feel for arranging stuff in a picture.


170316a Golden Section (2017) oil on canvas 15 x 19cm

Also, I have a long strip of spare canvas which I’ve cut into small pieces and I’m using them for doodling.


170316b Teapot Cart with Bag of Treasure (2017) oil on canvas 18 x 16cm


170316c Big Hair, Falling Brick (2017) oil on canvas 21 x 15.6cm

Obvious repairs


170314b Repairs (2017) oil on canvas 17 x 33cm

Deliberately rubbed off parts of this painting and then “repaired” it. I like seeing visible repairs in my paintings, although I think this one is too sloppy to begin with so the repairs don’t contrast enough with the “undamaged” areas. I like it anyway.

“Bad” composition


170310 Mock Tudor with Explosion (2017) oil on canvas

Still thinking about what it is that interests me in the idea of “bad” or “failed” or “dysfunctional” composition. Making this painting helped to clarify things that are not, in themselves, “bad” composition:

  • Displaced objects or patterns. eg. the path that does not meet the doorway; the rows of stones that are close to the path on one side but further from the path on the other. The “wrongness” of their positioning is within the picture world, and would appear displaced regardless of the angle of view or composition of the image.
  • Crude rendering, inaccurate mimesis. eg. the wobbly brush work on the house and fence, the cartoonish rendering of the clouds and trees.
  • Deviation from single-point linear perspective and/or aerial perspective. eg. the side of the house is drawn in perspectival lines converging at a vanishing point just above the horizon line within the picture, but the front of the house is rendered using isometric perspective made from parallel lines that don’t appear to converge at all.

Any of these things can and do appear in pictures that are “well” composed, meaning pictures in which the design seems to achieve a desired balance and/or dynamism, guides the eye around the picture and (if it is representational) presents the subject matter in a way that seems intentional.

By comparison, things that I think might be closer to what I’m thinking of as “bad” composition:

  • Coincidental alignment. eg. the cloud aligned with the top of the tree on the right, making it appear that the cloud is sitting on or attached to the tree. This is similar to when a person is photographed directly in front of a distant tall building, and the building appears to be sprouting out of the top of their head.
  • Confusion of obscured form. eg. the tree on the left appears to obscure a sharp dip in the horizon line. It’s perfectly possible that a real location could have such a dip, but by covering the dip and showing only the two disparate levels, the tree seems to be demarcating a rupture in the image itself. This is all something that would be avoided in photography, unless the photographer was seeking a deliberately jarring effect.

On reflection, both of these could be made to work in a composition, if their unusual effect was desired. When I talk about “bad” or “wrongness”, I suppose it must necessarily depend on breaking some kind of conventional “correctness” which the viewer may or may not have in mind. Perhaps the picture could establish a correctness and then partially break it. I might try that next time I’m experimenting with these ideas.



Chronophotograph by Étienne-Jules Marey (ca. 1885)

Thinking about cartoon action lines to depict motion. They seem to have their origins in C19th chronophotography (above) and the work of the Italian Futurists, including Giacommo Balla (below).


Giacommo Balla Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio [Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash] (1912) oil on canvas 95.6 x 115.6cm

There are cartoon action lines in some of my earliest childhood drawings, probably influenced by The Beano comic books. I still enjoy cartoon depictions of action, especially in Viz magazine (below).

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Fat Slags: Thelma’s Affair (detail) Viz magazine (2015)

There are also examples in these paintings by George Condo and Dana Schutz (below).


George Condo Nude Homeless Drinker (1999) oil on canvas 182.9 x 165.1cm

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Dana Schutz Shaking, Cooking, Peeing (2009) oil on canvas 182.9 x 152.4cm

Last year I copied out some of the action illustrations from Theodor Geisel (aka. Dr Seuss)’s The Cat in the Hat (1957) and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958).


160922 Dr Seuss Sketches (2016) pen on paper, each 29.7 x 21cm

My sketches (above) remind me of Mike Kelley’s Garbage Drawings (1988).


Mike Kelley Garbage Drawing no.23 (1988) acrylic on paper 87 x 71cm

Today I tried making a painting thinking about this kind of cartoon action. 170314a Motion Doodles is the result (below). It was interesting to do, but some of it looks to me more like Pop Art than I intended. Like Lichtenstein, the blown up cartoon imagery ceases to evoke the subject, but instead draws attention to itself as a stylised sign. That’s not something I’m aiming for, in itself.


170314a Motion Doodles (2017) oil on canvas 58.3 x 94cm

I’ve often thought about painting on a large canvas as if I’m doodling on a note pad. This is the first time I’ve actually done it. I don’t love the painting, but making it was a free and fast process. It reminded me of this video of George Condo drawing.

New material: Lukas medium 5


This is Lucas medium 5, for impasto painting. It’s a lot thicker than the mediums I’ve used previously, almost the same viscosity as paint out of the tube. I’m experimenting using it to create a textured undercoat.


170313a Grey Scale (2017) oil on canvas 17 x 20.5cm

This (above) is a grey scale test on a piece of canvas that had an impasto coat of Lukas medium 5 the night before. I don’t think it was fully dried, but the texture is most visible on the lower half of this test.


[abandoned painting] (2016) oil on canvas 40.5 x 38cm

This (above) is an abandoned painting from last year. It has a fairly textured impasto surface. I painted over it today with this (below).


170313b Angry Bird Woman (2017) oil on canvas 40.5 x 38cm

In the past, when I photographed paintings, I tried to avoid any kind of reflection or raking shadows that would show the surface texture. It was like I wanted the paint to be only colour, with no texture. It feels better now, to use texture as part of the painting, instead of repressing its role.