Why?  Yeah, but why?  Yes. But why??!

Pond at Eastwood Farm, Bristol. For sale


I never wanted to annoy the teachers, but is there a better question?

What do I want to do – to achieve – in my painting?  And why.  This can seem to be a process of elimination, perhaps being more easy to identify what I don’t want it to be.  I notice things when I look at some of the prevalent contemporary watercolour styles of today, made popular by a clutch of influential painters.  
The notion of communicating a lot through concise means.  This seems commonly to be a major basis of intent for so-called ‘impressionistic’ painters.  I think I’m essentially one of these.  But does this aim have intrinsic value?  Simplifying in the interpretation can help lead to ‘capturing the essence’ of something, as it’s often put.  But that depends on many things about the artist, and the viewer.  Simplification can also lead more towards the charicaturing of things.  And this can result in a very  superficial and formulaic way of working, where observation of the subtleties that really evoke truth (and beauty) get forgotten and lost.

My favourite tree; still never done justice to this old character by the river Chew. Will keep trying.

Being a teacher of painting and picture making poses a dilemma, because to do it effectively one does need to employ ‘rules of thumb’ and to present things in brief, memorable snippets of information, which are hoped to be of practical benefit to the student.  It is quite superficial in terms of the ‘artistic’ side, and by necessity does focus on the ‘technique’ side of painting.  I suppose ‘you can teach someone to paint, but you can’t teach someone how to be an artist’.  This is probably true, and I would say definitely true in terms of the usual length of workshops and even the longer courses available.

Probably my last plein air painting of the year. Old house in France, early morning Autumn light.

Students of painting who become very influenced by other artists can fall into the trap of essentially ‘copying their handwriting’, in an attempt to mimic a desired ‘style’.  This leads the student further away from being their own person – an artist.  You can learn very well on a technical level from ‘copying’ the work of other painters, BUT only if you copy with a particular intent.  That is, you have to aim to figure out and understand their process (ideally even their thinking).  For example, what order were the washes laid, and in what timing (and why)?  Too often it is just the surface net result that is copied, without the aim of this understanding, and the student becomes just a mimic, not observing anything carefully for themselves, and not learning much.

As for ‘style’, I can recognise a new student’s work straight away on setting eyes on it for a second time.  It can’t be the work of anyone else, and that is because even from the outset everyone has their own ‘style’, even if being influenced by others.  Forget all about style, anyway, how about substance!?

I don’t want my paintings to be a charicature.  The work of other artists tells me this.  Some with a distinct so called ‘style’ really have a knack of making all locations look the same, from England to the Meditterranean.  Surely the opposite of capturing the intrinsic essence of a unique place.  Cartoons are being churned out.  ‘Simplification’ but without enough sensitivity to what counts.  Though it may be good practise for technique, in terms of a picture it can go too far in just a topographical way.  The artist is communicating a vague snapshot of a scene.  It’s an aesthetic judgement, but there’s a fine line between useful brevity and actually creating a painting lacking interest.  There can be so few marks that there’s little to admire apart from the artist’s brevity.
I worry I’m working towards this myself sometimes.  

The most encouraging comment I’ve ever received is ‘You can see the love of your subject in your work.’  I’m not sure why this feels like a compliment, but it does to me.
Do people really look at the pictures on their walls these days, once they’ve bought and hung them up?  How often do you stop and spend even 5 minutes looking?  Not many of us really buy paintings these days, and I’m not surprised.  I think in times past a picture did a lot more than just fill a gap on a boring wall, but this need has largely disappeared.  (And lots of people seem to like ‘boring walls’ too.)  Painting pictures is probably more for the artist than the viewer now.  Okay, and off the hobby horse.

But I’m constantly thinking about such things, and never more so  as I’m (slowly) working on a book.  Don’t worry, I will be employing the services of an editor!  It can feel self-indulgent at times (though actually it is hard work), but also it seems that thoughts just clogging up the inside of one’s head are not very fruitful, so I might as well try to get them out and order them.  It can, like teaching, be useful, but also a bit cathartic.   I want the book to be different from others on painting I’ve seen, and since it’s a big undertaking I don’t want to compromise.  Hence, if I ever get it finished it’ll probably be self-published.  
I got contacted not long ago by a publisher about making a book on plein air watercolour.  Their timescale required it to be finished too soon though, because they wanted many step-by-steps of new paintings which would need to be done basically over winter.  Not going to happen!  I did explain that many of my paintings end up in the bin too.

My new favourite colour

Black is I suppose a ‘controversial’ colour.  Or non-colour.
I’ve long intended to give it a proper try out, and recently I’ve begun this.  I’m liking it.  Instead of greying down your colours, how about colouring up your greys?  There is a kind of ‘rule’ about black, that it looks dead, and shouldn’t be used.  But no one ever seems to question its use in pen and wash, nor printmaking, etc.  Certainly it seems artists can be a bit afraid of ‘neutrals’, with a quest to see colours in everthing.  Well, ‘neutral’ is a colour in my book!  As anyone who mixes complementaries knows.  If you see grey, paint grey.  Why not?  (Come to that, even if you don’t see it, why not paint it?)

I go through phases of being seriously bored with my art.  Probably most painters do.  For me, at the heart of this is there’s not much reward in the experience of ‘creation’ if you know what’s going to happen before you even start out.

I have a list of multitudes of things I want to experiment with, but sadly many of these never seem to get to the top of the list of priorities.  However one modest thing recently did, and I’m jolly glad.  That is, ink and wash.  I know, simple.
It’s crude but I think the painting below is literally
the first attempt I’ve made at using ink in about 25 years.  Back then I used a pen, and I was drawing cows.  I’ve just been more motivated to learn pure watercolour in recent times.  But I’m glad I did this, and I have a few ideas that may develop the use of Ink for.  We’ll see.  This was done using the ‘matchstick dipped in ink’ approach.  I used a pot of ink that I’ve had for donkey’s years.  It really doesn’t flow well, though I’ve nothing to compare it to.  I’d need to try out different paper too.  Painting birds and other wildlife is another thing that I have meant to tackle properly for about as long as I can remember, but I’ve needed to develop my landscape work to a certain point.  I can see that the ink may be useful here, so we’ll see what time allows.

Saltford church, in ink and wash.

As you may know, Edward Wesson was a big inspiration for me, and I can’t help but see too much similarity to his pen and wash work in this painting, though as ever it was not my intention.  As well as the matchstick approach it’s in the colours, although mine weren’t his regular choice.  Here I’ve used Lamp Black, Raw Umber, Indian Red, and Winsor Blue.  But in being greyed down all colours become more similar.  Speaking of which, galleries have said I’d sell better if I was ‘more colourful’, but unfortunately I’m more inclined to go the other way.  Anyway, I enjoyed this, and I’ll work on it.

Just recently I wasn’t able to paint or type for nearly a fortnight due a case of tendonitis.  This was caused by overdoing some outdoor maintenance, as a result of which I have purchase these new long-handled loppers.  Look, they’re called ‘Green Jem’ (despite being orange).  I actually only got them because they were longer than all the others, so hopefully less over-reaching next time!

Current exhibition at Patchings Art Centre, until 19th November:

I have six framed paintings in this group show of 8 artists, all of whom won The Artist Exhibition prize at last year’s Patchings/The Artist Open competition.
Lovely frames, mind.

Don’t forget to enter my competition to win an original watercolour.  The details are all on my previous blog post, here:
I’ll be showing all entries, and announcing the winner in my next blog post.  I’ve got some very good and varied entries in so far but it’s not too late, please have a go!

Also next time I’ll be announcing my list of all courses and workshops for 2018, though some are already listed on my Welcome/Tuition page.

Comments On This Post

Nick 2 years ago. Reply

I think your ink and wash is splendid! I often resort to ink and wash when my watercolours go pear shaped which happens quite a lot even after watching your dvd. I have every simpathy with your recent ailment,why do hedges have to grow. I have tried all sorts of electrical equipment but that causes my arms to hurt and I can’t paint! There should be a law against it!

    Jem Bowden 2 years ago. Reply

    Thanks Nick. None of it’s easy, is it?
    I had to take down a conifer before it got too large. And trim some ivy.
    We have as much foliage as possible, for the birds, but only have a small ‘yarden’.

georgegordon 2 years ago. Reply

enjoy your honest observations and you work.

    Jem Bowden 2 years ago. Reply

    Thank you George. I do appreciate people letting me know this!

Anne 2 years ago. Reply

You are inspirational, thank you

    Jem Bowden 2 years ago. Reply

    Thank you Anne.

Ashley Raddon 2 years ago. Reply

Very encouraging however I may have fallen into being influenced by my favourite artists, it’s hard not too learning at home. I painted more in the 90s and after a long Fire Service career have picked up my brushes again. That said I have now found time to attend some courses to break free of those shackles and hopefully loosen up, observe and paint ‘my’ paintings. Like music I guess we’re all influenced but always searching for own own styles. Regards. Ashley. Torquay

    Jem Bowden 2 years ago. Reply

    Hi Ashley,
    Thank you for your comment.
    I think just about all of us fall for it to some extent.
    Incidentally I admire you for your previous career.
    I think the thing with receiving tuition is, you need to focus on the principles that teachers introduce, and not their own way of applying them, which is personal. Just think about incorporating the likes of :
    negative painting
    full tonal range
    identification and use of soft edges
    … and so on in your work. For example, get on incidence of each of these into every picture you do, even if initially you need to elbow them in. Though really you shouldn’t.
    i think working from life makes it easier to ‘interpret for yourself’. Or harder not to. Working from photos makes it more likely that we end up interpreting into someone else’s visual language. Then there’s no hurrying it. You have a style already. you may wish it was different, but it is yours. It will become more so only by painting a lot. Paint not only regularly, but often. Paint all day every day!
    For a period of about 20 years I refused to look at the work of other artists, feeling that I’d rather not be influenced at all. I may well have ended up doing what they did, but at least I’d have arrived at it myself. That was the theory. At a time when I was young, and as is so often the case over-valuing the notion of ‘originality’. If that even exists I don’t feel it has any intrinsic value worth striving for now. Just paint and enjoy it. Or don’t paint.

Graham Kemp 2 years ago. Reply

There’s some interesting shift in style with these painting Jem, I would never have guessed the Saltford Church painting was one of yours. Super work.

    Jem Bowden 2 years ago. Reply

    That’s interesting Graham.
    Thanks for your comment. Well, I think we need to keep aiming to evolve somehow. got to live in the moment, and if it feels like Groundhog day, then that makes is seem like we’re not. Or that’s how I feel.

Val Utteridge 2 years ago. Reply

Thank you for writing such an honest piece. Due to various circumstances I usually end up sketching with pencil and paper and try hard, once back at home, to loosen up a bit – which isn’t always easy to do. I attended a demo you did at Chippenham and Districts Artists earlier in the yeat and loved the way you created the paintings you did (and the colours you used as well at that demo). Please continue to be honest – it makes a relative beginner (me) realise that I’m not alone when I get confused, angry and upset when trying to put the images in my head on the flat surface in front of me.

    Jem Bowden 2 years ago. Reply

    Thank you Val.
    There are definite advantages in working from sketches, over photos. As with all things though it’ll depend on approach.
    The amount of information you’ll have may in some ways be more limited – a positive or negative thing I think, depending.
    But you’ll have already begun the process of interpreting the scene for yourself, in what you put in and what you left out; surely a positive, and leading to an authentically ‘you’ piece of work.
    I’m pleased you enjoyed my demo. They’re never easy, probably never should be. It is virtually impossible to produce a really good painting in watercolour in a demo situation, I feel. I’ve never been happy with a single one yet. But hopefully the ‘demo experience’ is useful despite this. That’s my aim anyway. By the way, I’ve been booked to return to Chippenham next year, so hope to meet you then!

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