Background work

20 December 2016

Most of my still life paintings are set up in my studio with light from a window on my right. Although the subject matter is what inspires me, the backgrounds and shadows are some of the most important parts of the painting as they enhance and compliment the subject matter itself.  On the technical side, I nearly always start with the background and shadows, move on to the subject and then dance between the two, building up their relationship until I think it works and they are ‘speaking to each other’.

Bits - 36 x 96cmBits  36 x 96cm

Shadows reflect their object – that’s obvious – but it’s not just the shape or the type of light that comes into play. They have hints of reflective light and colour in them that speak to the object to each side of them.  Sometimes small bits of light bounce off other things and interfere with the prominent shadow and it’s hard to work out where it’s come from.  Likewise, bits of light often capture the dark side of the object.  If the background is busy, it too becomes something different within the shadows.  The relationship between the lit side of the object and its background also varies.  So there is a lot to think about and get involved with.

So what happens when light goes through the object?  “We’ll see”, as my father used to say when I was asking something he didn’t want to answer!  I recently finished a painting of light bulbs with many shapes, sizes and degrees of opacity and I am now working on a row of ten green bottles – all different thicknesses and shades.  We’ll see…..

Hanging by a thread 30 x 90cmHanging by a thread  30 x 90cm


Ten green bottles – work in progress

Splash! – a unique exhibition…….

The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI) is holding a fundraising exhibition called ‘Splash!’ (8-13 November). This exhibition offers a unique opportunity to buy work by top watercolour painters. Included in the exhibition is a silent auction of 65 small paintings – with a starting bid of £50 it is highly likely some people are going to go home with a little treasure.  Please come along and support this event.  Members of the RI will be there every day to show you around.  Here is a Private View Invitation with all the information.



From ancient to modern

Here are two more paintings from my time at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology – small bowls ranging from 400BC to 3 Millennium BC and a row of nineteenth century trade beads.  They were very different subjects to paint – the pottery vessels felt soft with their muted colours, loose designs and curvaceous shapes.  In comparison the trade beads were like little jewels – hard, intricate and brightly-coloured.


Ancient vessels 26 x 45cm watercolour

Ancient vessels,  watercolour  26 x 45cm

Trade beads 19 x 71cm

Trade beads,  watercolour 19 x 71cm

And here is the result of my time at the Suffolk Constabulary Police Headquarters (please see previous post – Unconventional beauty).  This is another large painting – most of my subjects are painted life size and with this subject matter I felt it was particularly important.  This is the first of a series of work which I am hoping to complete by the end of the year.

Amnesty knives 41 x 96cm

Amnesty knives,  watercolour 41 x 96cm

I hope to be adding a commissions page to my website soon – watch this space.

Unconventional beauty

A row of  Roman bottles - 21 x 50cm

A row of Roman bottles,  watercolour  21 x 50cm

I have recently been working on paintings from my time at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA). ‘A row of Roman bottles’ will be in the RI 2016 exhibition (see invitation below), alongside other new paintings – some mentioned in previous posts.



Over the past few weeks I have visited the Suffolk Constabulary Police Headquarters. They have a diverse collection of knives acquired through their Knife Amnesty and I wanted to do a painting of them. Some look so innocent (everyday kitchen or garden knives), while others definitely aren’t. We will never know who handed them in or why. It’s hard to know why I get these urges to paint certain subjects. Obviously, whether it is rows of Roman bottles, old boots or knives, there is a huge gap in what we know about their history – who owned them, what did they used them for or why did they get rid of them? There is literally more to them than meets the eye and I am trying to point towards it.  For me, these objects have an inherent attraction. It is an unconventional beauty. It is not only the simplicity of the objects themselves that inspires me – what lies behind the surface also adds to their attraction and potency.


The RI 2016 exhibition runs from 6th – 16th April (10am – 5pm) at the Mall Galleries, London SWI   

The Private View is on Tuesday 5 April, 12 noon – 8pm, and you are welcome to come.  

It is being opened at 3pm by

Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.  

Eight pebbles - 18 x 41cm

Eight pebbles,  watercolour 18 x 41cm

As tough as old boots


Old boots 92 x 42cm bOld boots   watercolour 92 x 42cm

Recently we picked up an old boot on a farm walk.  Not knowing where it came from, we felt lucky when we found another one.  Then, over the next few weeks more and more appeared across the field and we discovered that the nearby moat had  been dredged and the earth had been spread across the field. They had found about 40 pairs. So, once upon a time farm workers must have thrown their old boots into the moat.  They are so evocative, taking you back to the time when so many people worked on the fields. But there is something sinister about them now.  They seem to have been dissected – peeled apart over time to reveal their sturdy construction through the disintegrating layers of leather and rows of rusting nails determined to stay put. One has a horseshoe-shaped heel.  I felt like a forensic artist as I painted them back to life. I aim to do another one soon showing the hobnails’ patterns on the soles and heels.

Moving on to the past

Several months ago I visited the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and was fascinated by their ‘visible storage’ area where they had simply laid out the contents of their storage boxes in display cabinets.  It struck me as being an inspired method of displaying things.  It makes these often-hidden objects – from Roman glass to stone age pots – accessible to everyone in a simple, uncontrived way.

Row of Roman bottles - pencil drawing ab
Row of Roman bottles

The rows, unsurprisingly, appealed to me as well as the fact that once upon a time, these were everyday objects but had now become treasured and rare.  I asked if I could visit the museum to draw/paint with the hope of thoroughly getting to know the objects. The museum have kindly let me visit once a week when they are shut and the objects can be taken to a place where I can study them. Drawing is my muse (I don’t know if that’s the right terminology but it feels right).  While I sit, I admire what I see and I think about nothing but what is there.  This absorption, together with colour sketches and notes, will lead on to paintings – at the moment the drawing is taking the lead and hopefully the paintings will follow.

Box of Roman bottles - pencil drawing
Box of Roman bottles
Two stone age pots - pencil drawing
Two stone age pots









Looking back

I have been looking back over my work as I am having an exhibition in July which will include a selection of paintings done over the last 8 years (Edmund gallery, Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk,   11 – 16 July 2015). It is also the 10th anniversary of the completion of the Cathedral’s Millennium Tower and so the exhibition extends into the Cathedral itself with a display of some of the work that I did as project artist.

It is at times like this, when I see a collection of my work together, that I can see the paths that I may have taken and I can mull over the reasons that I may have taken them.

Scaffold beams  53 x 38cm           Tracery sections  45 x 25cm         Scaffold boards  -  54 x 37cm

How did I go from those architectural paintings to the still life paintings that I am doing now?  How did the one inform the other? Surely it must have something to do with scrutinising all those indispensable bits and pieces that came together to make the Tower.  Did this lead me on to scrutinise ordinary things from everyday life – paint brushes, scissors, screws, keys, nails – with their ‘wear and tear’ and multiple variations?  And why do I paint these everyday objects in lines like specimens laid out for inspection? I am sure that it has something to do with the landscape of East Anglia  – flat, open, honest and un-pampered with its rows of regimental trees planted to break the winds and its straight dykes dug to drain the land. I feel as if I have never really stopped painting the landscape (and I haven’t) even when I am painting still life.

Across a field - 28 x 50cm         Brushes on cardboard  28 x 40cm

Local treasures

I have enjoyed getting involved in some exhibitions closer to home recently. It’s a while since I have shown anything nearby and it is good to rediscover the wealth of history around here as well as reacquainting myself with three female artists – one working over 350 years ago, one working over 250 years ago and one working 80 years ago..

The Bury Festival in Bury St Edmunds, includes a new ‘Art Trail’  where contemporary artists’ work is dotted around the town in shop windows (thanks to Cate Hadley for organising all this).  They all look great and seem particularly well matched to their venues. My long painting of scissors seemed quite appropriate for the Lawrence Paul Salon although it was pointed out that it didn’t have any hairdressers’ scissors in it!

IMG_4444   IMG_4445

The ‘Fresh eyes’ exhibition is in both the 12th century Moyse’s Hall Museum and the 21st century, award-winning Apex and shows local artists’ work alongside local museum treasures. I can’t complain about sitting on an easel at Moyse’s Hall next to work by James Tissot (1836 – 1902), Sir Peter Lely (1613-1680)  and Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) – that won’t happen again! Angelica Kauffman was one of only two female artists amongst the founder members of the Royal Academy (RA).

IMG_4552  Left to right on wall –  Kauffman, Tissot and Lely

The Apex is showing work by another, earlier female artist called Mary Beale (1633 – 1699) who was born in Bury st Edmunds and later worked in London. She knew Lely and, amazingly for her time, was a semi-professional portrait painter whose husband became her assistant.  So that’s two female artists – Kauffman and Mary Beale – working over two hundred years ago in a very male-dominated world and still showing their work in the 21st century in Bury st Edmunds, Suffolk.

While I was at Moyse’s Hall I also said hello to one of my favourite paintings by another female artist from Bury st Edmunds called Rose Mead (1867 – 1946).  It’s a painting of Barbara Stone, c1940, and here it is.


Two more long paintings

I have recently finished 2 more long paintings for the RI annual show this year (25 March 2015 to 11 April 2015 at the Mall galleries, London).

Nine scissors  -  39 x 96.5cm

Nine scissors   35 x 96cm

A sharp painting – again the subject determined the background.  I never realised how many scissors were hiding away around my house.  Inherited, acquired, found.  The orange-handled ones had spent about 4 years in my compost heap!  The large wallpaper scissors belonged to my mother-in-law. The elegant ones on the far left belonged to my mother…….. years of use and history in everyday objects.

Bits  -  36 x 96cm

Bits    34 x 96cm

I live next door to a riding stables. I had no idea how many ‘bits’ there were, all with different uses depending on the size and temperament of a horse. Rather like previous paintings involving metal scaffold clips (see Gallery / Cross series) there is something rather sinister about these metal forms and I was captivated by the shadows and sense of movement that they conveyed.