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6 MARCH 2021

 The curves of 'the beast' are now more prominent and flowing better across the canvas...Orange to red and a swell on the top-right horizon. 


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BOOK 7: Re-visited, December 2020

Possibly the painting that has changed the most during the recent reflections. I thought the version below was confusing and the language too close to the work of Howard Hodgkin. The painting now better reflects the apocalyptic darkness that permeates the novel.

After toying with 'Retribution', 'Retribution Blues', 'Mood Indigo', we have a new title 'The Beast from the Sea', which works on several levels in the context of the novel.


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Looking, brooding over the weekend...brought in some different blues today, cobalt and cerulean, working mainly around the perimeter with cascading shapes and fast marks creating more movement. There is also a new, subtle but critical reference from the novel which of course I can't talk about until the series is complete! I think we are there...


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Is it what you see or what you want to see? 


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Today I brought in light and specifics from the novel. The blues were intensified with ultramarine glazes. I'm enjoying the relationship between the snaking Prussian Blue line and the delicacy of the geometric red-lines, which in turn reinforce the larger triangular motif off-centre. Now there are questions, ambiguities, complexities: is the blue-line free, gestural or controlled, an 'illusion' of freedom? Are the red-lines behind the blue-line or simply smaller? What am I looking at?

This painting is now on a knife-edge. At the moment, the idea of introducing a submarine to bring it closer to the novel seems ludicrous but not impossible - a question of finding the right language,scale and presence. A few different marks or turning the canvas and it becomes Porthleven - now the boards are up in the harbour (below)

 Or perhaps the painting just 'is' - blue can be water or just 'blue'.  


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 SAT 13 NOV 2020

Two books are favourites to be the next painting on the '20 Books=20 Paintings' series...the series needs a rich-blue painting. Starting with paint, marks, colour; then looking for visual connections in the paint to ideas sourced in the novel, before imposing those ideas and looking again...

It's a process that allows for the unexpected and the joy of painting and the flexibility to ride the paintings and change the ideas...


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How to use the beautiful blue? 

A book springs to mind, different from the one's I started with. It struck me that the letters that spell 'BLUE' appear in the name of one of the main characters. Back to the letters again! - It's meant to be. Where to place that submarine?



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We recently welcomed two groups of artists to our Autumn courses at the spectacular Old Lifeboat House in Porthleven.  As always, with its' changing light and tides Porthleven worked its' magic and the standard of work produced this year for our final-day exhibitions was higher than ever. 


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The 6 day courses began with a visit to galleries in St.Ives followed by a group colour exercise back at the studio. Naturally, the subject for all our paintings was Porthleven, but the sub-theme for the courses was the idea of 'window' and painted frames/borders, something that I'd been exploring in my own work since seeing Bonnard at Tate Modern and the wonderful Bozenna Biskupska exhibition at l'etrangere earlier on this year.


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Day 2 began with a talk followed by a morning drawing session around the harbour. Before leaving the studio, the artists were asked to draw simple frames/borders - all different - on 10 pages of their sketchbooks and then place their drawings outside within those frames. This discipline carried through to all the paintings during the week; a painted frame/border/window to be used, worked with or even discarded, to achieve the aim of a different painting.


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On both courses, there was a fantastic sense of purpose and intensity of working, all the artists seizing the opportunity to make art, talk art, eat and sleep art in a supportive atmosphere in a wonderful location. Being a small group, there was plenty of one-to-one tuition during the week, and also an invaluable group critique. As part of my teaching, on each course I worked on a new Porthleven painting. This year, the studio itself became a popular subject for painting, including both my own pieces. 


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We cleared the studio and hung the exhibition on Wednesday afternoon. Always an exciting time when the paintings are revealed!  A quick scrub up before heading off off to The Square restaurant for our well-deserved celebratory meal.  The Exhibition days on Thursday were a great success, the paintings on display showcasing each artists' talents and individuality in their response to Porthleven and the theme of 'window'.




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'I come away each time more able to think as an artist, gaining a deeper understanding which supports and spurs on my painting practice'. JAN BUNYAN

'Ashley you are a wonderful inspiring teacher. You have such a passion for art, that it really shines through your personality, but equally you are patient and sensitive  in your instruction'  APRIL JONES

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Explorations of an idea I've brooding on for a couple of years...

After a hard day in the studio, sat with Mitzi on our favourite oval table in the Ship Inn, across the harbour I saw the shape between the gable-ends of two buildings as the aerial view of the harbour, the negative space crisscrossed with telegraph-wires.


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Amongst all the loveliness, it is necessary to remind the viewer the painting is sourced in a crime-novel and the word/clue 'Toxic' in the title jolts the viewer back to this reality. 


That's better - the painting has come alive, Pink Floyd's 'Animals' blasting away. Fast brush-marks on the left, colour-incident, elegant line cutting and twisting the space and bringing the 'frame' into the painting. Rhythms of curves- this painting is on the move! Love working edges...


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Working on the colour - there is a specific red-ochre/blue combination that I'm after and I think I've found it in the bottom-right corner. The novel opens with a corpse seen through a window and I've been exploring the idea of the window or painted-frame which creates a tension between inside and outside, with the central 'image' barely contained. Enjoying the relationship between the three spikes. Perhaps the colour combination is too balanced and the left-side too empty?  Is the painting too flat?


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WED 7 AUG 2019

Choices: two books from a favourite involved a storm but I feel I want to move away from darkness.  This painting will be about colour: ochre and turquoise is the palette, which may be significant in the novel...

Choices: which twin-canvas to use? (below). Three very different possibilities, all seem small after 'Out-With' - went for the pink and green...





'20 Books = 20 Paintings' - the series so far...


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Today I was able to look at 'Out-With' as a painting and I did get that charge that comes out of the creative process. I entered the studio with a stack of ideas for change but, sat in front of the painting, rejected them one by one: the painting is a statement. The only refinement was to put a veil of stronger yellow just in from the left-edge. We are done.

John Boyne's novel is about friendship in the worst of places. The story is told through the eyes of nine year old Bruno, who gives the name 'Out-With' to the place the family move to from Berlin when his father takes up a new post - as Commandant of Auschwitz. Echoing Anselm's Keifer's paintings of blond-haired Margarete and black-haired Jewish Shulamite - sourced in 'Death Fugue', Holocaust survivor Paul Celan's poem set in a concentration camp - Bruno's and Schmuel's fates are intertwined. In the horror of the final pages there is the balance of the tenderness of the two boys holding hands.  In this painting, with the twin canvases, the power of colour and the stark imagery, I've tried to capture that balance between the best and the worst of humanity. 

  margarete keifer Copy'Margarete'  1991   Anselm Keifer


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'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'...A difficult subject for a painting, but I hope, like John Boyne's novel, the painting will provoke an emotional response, but also be a reminder of of one of history's darkest episodes. 

To answer my question below 'Why am I doing this?', the main motive has been the artistic challenge. I don't do paintings like this: working with colour, 'The Art of the Senses', sourced in the places and books that I enjoy and in the excitement and uncertainties of the painting process.  But what I have is a different painting, working out of a different set of emotions. 

What is different about this painting is its' visual starkness. The journey across the painting from the yellow of love and warmth and light to the horror in the bottom right corner, reflecting both John Boyne's narrative and the reality of the fates of the millions transported to Auschwitz. The changes I made today makes this journey more graphic and emotional.

On Wednesday, the painting was certainly more 'beautiful' but perhaps an avoidance of the dark context. Today, like Bruno, I entered the camp, the session bringing me closer to the heart of the novel. The painting is powerful but there is guilt enjoying the rhythms of angles and different spaces in the depiction of the long grey buildings. I cannot avoid my role as an artist to create visual interest within the painting.  

On a personal level, this painting experience has been cathartic but I am longing now to mix a beautiful blue and spread it across a fresh canvas, the beginning of a new painting in the '20 Books=20 Paintings' series...





A very difficult session, both technically and emotionally. Why am I doing this?

Bruno's house was introduced and a pattern/repetition of long grey barrack-blocks leading the eye to the black building on the right edge - the only building with a door. I've adapted the blueprint of Auschwitz and changed the orientation of the huts, to continue the key vertical stripe motif. The concrete fence-post now also becomes the the twin rows of electric fence that enclose the camp. It has been a challenge painting the gable ends of the huts without weakening the verticality. The huts towards the right are deliberately less detailed and solid, ending as simple vertical lines. This helps imply the dark grey on the right as a crematorium chimney. The accidental yellow marks on the right could be the two friends. No need to embellish the left-side - it is freedom.


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Think on it: mixing beautiful yellows and greys for a painting about Auschwitz...

I may put hinges between the two sides, referencing both the book form and the horror of the closing door in the novel's finale.  The hinged 'book' could be secured in a frame, an historical reminder or shown partly open...

Progress today: yellow stripes for the left-side, the colour of sunshine. The yellow accentuates the contrast between inside and outside the fence, an idea supported by the simple duality of the central image. The drawing has been refined, the curves creating a movement from left to right, echoing Bruno's journey. There is just enough space at the bottom of the tree/fence-post for a small boy to crawl under...

There are 'adult' complications and complexities I could introduce. An out of scale Bruno's (Commandant's) House at the base of the tree, positioned, as in reality, by the entrance to the camp, 300 metres from the gas-chambers. On the other side of the fence, an aerial view of the camp, with endless rows of huts and a dark indicator of the gas-chamber in the novel's final pages in the bottom right-corner. And/or the small figure of Schmuel, a concentration of tiny stripes amongst strengthened broader stripes. Another option is to hint at the window through which Bruno and his sister see beyond the garden and into the camp.

Or I can accept the simplicity of the central image as capturing the essence of the novel and work on enhancing the the colour and surface. Already I've been refining the greys and redrawing, seeking some kind of elegance, which feels strange considering the subject-matter, but these are the concerns of an artist. The initial greys were deliberately made from black and white but today saw the introduction of new greys around the fence-post made from Paynes Grey and violet, to compliment the yellows. My wife Denise - who is Jewish - commented that she loves it as a painting but her emotional response was that it didn't capture the bleakness and horror of both the novel and the reality of Auschwitz. This is more than a painting: my mind is made up- I think we are heading to that darkness in the bottom right corner...


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A wonderful, moving story about friendship, the innocence of childhood contrasting with 'civilised' adult values of dogma, duty and destruction. This contrast is the key to this painting. Grisly research: shocking concepts and images revisited, that somehow must be referenced in Schmuel's world on the right side of the painting. During the first session,  I came up with the simple, hybrid image of idyllic tree and electrified fence.  

The left-side will be beautiful colour, acknowledging Matisse, the antithesis of darkness. There may be further contrasts: luxury train and cattle-truck (with horizontal stripes), the Commandant's house and fetid barrack-block. Today was about grey, stripes formed by dripped-paint and gravity, with vertical brushstrokes through the liquid paint. 


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I was recently asked to produce a painting, sourced in the novel, for the North Cornwall Book Festival in October. From a list of authors I have chosen John Boyne, and his novel  'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'. This latest project will be an artistic, moral and emotional challenge. 

Having neither read the book or seen the film, after hearing a brief summary of the plot, I immediately formed the idea of two worlds, one of colour, the other of black, white and grey, with the canvas divide representing the fence between them, with its imprisoning curved top cutting into the dark.

Choosing this book will mean revisiting horrors from my childhood, too young to see footage from Belsen on All Our Yesterdays. But I read - I had to find out, to understand but then wished I hadn't. I consciously avoided the episode on the Holocaust in The World at War as a teen and did so again on the re-run as an adult. 

In advance of last years 'Black & White' workshops, I asked the participating artists to think about what black and white meant to them, symbolically, emotionally, formally. I wrote at the time: 'It’s the palette of the death-camps, chilling selections, black ss uniforms and horrors in a frozen white landscape'. My copy of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' has been lying around for a while - I've been avoiding it but now is the time to overcome my fears.