Aside from my portrait practice, war and conflict has been the subject of much of my recent artwork. The unchecked march of ISIS in the middle east first prompted me to address this subject. The preparation for the coming war against China reinforced my interest. The political climate that was feeding this frenzy was the inspiration behind my painting “Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars”. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine I felt a compulsion to work full time on “Men Wrestling” and “The Disasters of War”. Even though I was neglecting more commercial work, I felt it was important to make a statement with these paintings.
What was the point?
The Israel-Hamas war has left me feeling empty. The brutality of it has shocked me, and I have been appalled by people’s reactions to it. I have no desire to pick up my paintbrushes and say anything about this war. Other than it disgusts me. Man disgusts me. We are no more than beasts. So in this dark mood I heard an interview with legendary war photographer Don McCullin, where he spoke about how depressed he was with the present conflict.
‘I am slightly depressed in a way, because I think everything I’ve done concerning international conflict, everything I have contributed to showing how awful it is, I think has been a waste of time really.’
‘I’ve looked at so many wars, I’ve been in so many wars, and nothing has changed.’
He summed up exactly how I was thinking, and got me wondering if art really can make a difference. Producing my anti-war paintings may be no more than a cathartic experience for me. If that is the case, what really is the point in painting them?
I think I will just concentrate on painting portraits from now on.
Why do I feature nude figures in so many of my paintings, from my Relationships Series to the recent Disasters of War? It would certainly be easier to market my artwork if I just painted landscapes: no more polite rejections from venues; no shadowbans from Instagram. But no subject interests me quite as much as the human figure. I have always been fascinated with depictions of the human form in art. Maybe it started with my early love of comics, and the idealised perfection of superhuman figures cavorting across their pages. It might have been when I first set eyes on Tintoretto’s or Titian’s glorious mythological masterpieces in the National Gallery. It was a fascination cemented by my introduction to life drawing at art school. But the nude is a complicated subject in the 21st Century. It would be naive to suggest we can continue to paint the nude figure as it has always been painted. Many of the naked figures that now adorn the walls of our galleries were originally produced as thinly veiled titillation for their wealthy owners. I have started to question my own motivations for painting certain figures nude. When I work on paintings about the “male gaze” I cannot ignore the fact that I am a man, and I might have the same prejudices that I happily mock in other people.
The Nude in Modern Art
I was taught at art school that Manet’s Olympia (shown above) was one of the first modern nudes in art. With no pretence of being an otherworldly goddess, this was a contemporary naked woman staring right back at the viewer. Manet was probably prepared for the outrage it caused, having provoked a similar scandal with his “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”. I read an interesting article about that painting and the controversy it caused on Artsy.net When looking at the nude throughout the history of western art, you can see how the perception of the naked body in art depends on when and where the viewer was from. The nude becomes more like a dynamic idea, and the forces that alter our perception of the nude are changing all the time. In my short career as an artist I have had to reassess my own approach to the subject a couple of times.
Artists will always push boundaries
Just as Manet created a stir in the Salon, artist Marina Abramović caused some discomfort amongst visitors to her Royal Academy exhibition. by making them squeeze between two nude models to enter it (as in the photo above). It’s an interesting idea – remove the option for the viewer to remain a detached observer; force them to confront the nakedness of the models’ bodies. In news coverage of this long awaited retrospective, this unusual entrance has become the headline: “Visitors invited to squeeze through naked models” In a world awash with pornographic images on the internet, I wonder what boundaries artists have left to push in visual art. Good art should challenge us, and should test our sensibilities. But gratuitous nudity can be tiresome, and it is something I try to be alert to in my own work..
My professional art practice started with my Relationships Series paintings, where I explored the relationship between two figures within a composition in both a spatial and an emotional sense (an example shown above). This series had started as an honest portrayal of my own relationship with my partner, but at some point I began to question my own motivation and objectives.
As the series had developed, and featured different “couples”, I became aware that the interpretation of most viewers was overwhelmingly sexual, which wasn’t really my intention. I am proud of the paintings I produced with this body of work, but decided I needed to take my work in a different direction. You can see paintings from this series here: Relationships Gallery
Objectification and #selflove
Over the years I have received various commissions for nude portraits. The main motivations for women were self-empowerment and body positivity, which I respect and admire. I started a project called “Unnamed Portraits” which I naively thought might facilitate the same outcome for anyone who wanted to pose. With these artworks I would purposely crop the faces from the paintings, focusing instead on the naked body. I had a good response from potential models willing to pose for me . I suspect the readiness to pose stemmed from the same motivations as my nude portrait customers – essentially wanting to feel good about your body.
However. it turned out that my original ideas – which encompassed our sense of identity, sexuality and body positivity, were more expansive than the final paintings turned out. The risk was that instead of enabling female empowerment, they were simply reinforcing male objectification. And I missed painting the model’s face. I have always considered my nude paintings as just an extension of my portrait practice. I paused this project, and am still undecided about it.
#metoo and the male gaze
I have already written at length about my experience painting “Men in Suits”, so won’t repeat myself here (the original post is here: Men in Suits. I mention this painting as it was a defining moment in my artistic development, where I identified the themes that I wanted to explore with my art, which I went on to develop over the next couple of years. This painting took so long to finish that the main motivation behind it – the #metoo movement – had long since disappeared from the headlines.
Misogyny and male menace are pervasive in our patriarchal society. #metoo might not be on the frontpages now, but the underlying causes for the movement are still there. You can see some of my paintings that deal with these issues here: Recent Work
Nakedness and Vulnerability
So why did I include so many naked figures in my latest painting The Disasters of War? The keyword here is naked. These figures are naked, exposed and vulnerable. Their nakedness has been forced on them as an act of humiliation and degradation. But despite this and their terrible situation, they preserve a sense of quiet dignity; there is a beauty about them. The figure on the left is based on Rubens’ Christ Descending from the Cross.
Although the naked figures are in no way sexualised, I wanted there to be an erotic undertone to the masked female figure wielding the knife. This alludes to the base instincts and urges that are feeding this awful war. When I witness the raptures of joy displayed with every killed soldier, I wonder just how close sex and violence are on the spectrum of primal instincts.
The theme that I keep returning to in my recent work is male menace, and male objectification of women. These character traits (or flaws) have always been around. I cringe when I think about what was considered acceptable behaviour when I was young. I shudder to think of all the times when I acted inappropriately, especially when in a group of men. I have featured the likes of Prince Andrew in a number of my paintings, calling out his bad behaviour. But these paintings are really about all men. We are all culpable, including myself. This is why in my painting Men in Suits I included myself in the back, amongst the various sex pests and offenders. I also added a masked figure, who could well represent you, the viewer.
The layout above was my proposal for the Concord Art Prize – a competition for artworks inspired by a piece of music. My proposition was inspired by The Rite of Spring – a composition that has everything. Starting with a joyful innocence it builds up slowly, ending in a dizzying climax – a frantic menacing finale. It was going to be the convergence of a number of themes that run through my work: beauty; sexuality; lechery; male menace. It’s one of my biggest disappointments that this proposal wasn’t accepted. I feel confident that it would have been an interesting project. I wrote more about the painting here: Rite of Spring
I often bore people with long conversations about my use of glazes, without realising they don’t know what I’m talking about. So I thought I’d write a post about this wonderful technique, and how it has transformed my art. It’s not complicated. Glazing is applying transparent layers of paint over another dried layer of opaque paint. One benefit is that highlighted areas retain their saturation and luminosity, and don’t turn chalky, as is the case if you mix colours with white. Shadow areas can achieve a depth of colour you can’t achieve with a simple layer of opaque paint. The disadvantage in using this technique is it relies on some forethought in preparing a suitable underpainting, and that underpainting has to be allowed to dry before applying the glazes. This obviously slows down the painting process.
Note: I use oil paints, and everything I say applies to that medium. You can just as easily use glazes with acrylics, but I’m not qualified to advise on which mediums to use.
Traditionally a “grisaille” underpainting was monochrome, but I tend to add a little colour during this earlier stage. I am careful to keep the tonal value in shadow areas fairly light, as glazes will deepen the final tone. The most difficult thing is anticipating how the glazes will look, especially as I might end up with six or more separate layers of glaze, to achieve the desired effect.
How Glazes Transformed my Art
When I studied at art school, there was no instruction in painting techniques. We were left to experiment and find our own means of expression. I embraced speed of execution and painted in an “alla prima” technique – wet paint onto wet paint. It was fine for landscapes (yes, I used to paint landscapes) but I became frustrated that I could not achieve the effects I wanted when painting portraits and figures. It wasn’t until I resumed painting years later, that I took the time to study traditional painting techniques. It was a revelation. Now I had the tools to create the paintings that I wanted, and it has allowed me to explore portraiture and nudes, which have always been my first love.
Glazing can be spontaneous
Having written about all the methodical preparation required in using this technique, I should add that they can be applied as freely and loosely as you like. The only limitation is the need then to allow each layer to dry. But if use an alkyd medium like liquin, or just add some to a traditional glaze medium, it will speed up drying times considerably. Technically you should only use transparent or semi-transparent paints with glazes (transparency/opacity is marked on every tube of artist oil). You can use the same technique with white or opaque colours, but it will give an entirely different effect. One example would be using a thin glaze with zinc white to paint the bloom on grapes.
If you like the effects achieved with glazes, you will find that all the paintings in my gallery pages have been painted using this technique.
I was very pleased to learn that my painting “Woman on Bed” won the Silver Award at the Cancer Feminine Art Prize 2023. An award is always nice, but the cash prize is also much appreciated 🙂 The competition was organised by Purple Octopus Art, who:
“provide a platform for art and expressive writing that addresses human disease and environmental issues”.
I will update this post with more information when Purple Octopus have updated their gallery with this years competition. In the meantime, you can find their website here: purpleoctopusart.com
Their gallery is now live, with a selection of the artworks. Link below:
I’ve been reluctant to write about this painting, for fear of how it will be viewed by potential portrait customers. I haven’t even offered it to any exhibitions. But as you read this, millions of lives have been ruined or lost by a pointless conflict, so who am I to fret over losing a few commissions. So here we go. After finishing my painting Men Wrestling, I still felt compelled to say something about the barbarity and viscousness of events unfolding in Ukraine. It’s too easy to feel detached from it all, viewing it as a spectacle rather than the existential crisis it is. That was exactly what I wanted to convey with Men Wrestling – world leaders looking on as the two naked wrestlers (representing Russia and Ukraine) are embraced in a fight to the death. For my next painting I wanted to show the cruel horror of it all.
Goya – The Disasters of War
Los desastres de la guerra is a series of 82 prints created between 1810-1820 by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828). These etchings are viewed as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, and the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–1814. They were not published during the artist’s lifetime; they are considered a graphic representation of the atrocities of war. As such, they were the perfect source material and inspiration for the painting I wanted to create.
Composing the painting
Creating a painting like this is a bit like directing a play. You have your story and actors, and much of the time you are arranging them on the stage to describe a particular scene. Below is a video (apologies for the very bad exposure) where I talk about the painting at quite an early stage. I explain how I saw a certain dignity in the brutalised figures Goya had hanging from trees, with similarities to some depictions of Christ descending from the Cross.
Putin and Prigozhin
From the beginning I wanted the main actors occupying centre stage to be Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin. At the time I painted this, Prigozhin was alive and still a trusted ally of the president, with his Wagner group taking the lead in the assault on Bakhmut. That costly assault gave Russia its only gain since the early days of the war. During this battle, Wagner mercenaries were accused of castrating Ukrainian prisoners (read the story here).
This central section also draws some inspiration from The Flaying of Marsyas – a late work by Titian which shows the killing by flaying or skinning alive of Marsyas, a satyr. Marsyas is hung from a tree like a butcher’s carcass, much like the brutalised figures in Goya’s etchings, and also like the captured soldiers in my painting. I wanted to capture something of the inhuman and bestial behaviour of the invading Russian troops; behaviour that most people could not believe would be happening in Europe in the 21st Century.
A picnic at an execution
It took me a while to fill the space in the bottom left. I tried out various figures, but in the end settled for someone having a picnic in front of this awful scene.
I had in mind the wealthy Muscovites dining in their expensive restaurants, thinking themselves isolated from the “special operation” happening in a foreign land; they might see it as their evening entertainment on TV. But they are still tainted by it. As are we all.
I will be exhibiting this painting along with The Gleaners at S. B. Art Gallery in London, from the 27th-29th October