I know that I am experiencing a very privileged lockdown; able to work at home with my family around me. Over the weeks and whilst (virtually) teaching my regular as well as new students, I have wondered over and again about my artistic response to this situation. And while I know this pandemic has been and continues to be a dark experience for many, I've struggled to find an authentic way of expressing my own experience of it. As preparation for some of the online art videos that I have been producing with my artist friend and mentor Aine Divine, I began making drawings 'from room to room' and observing the beautiful sunshine as it breaks into our home. The warmth and often surprising bursts of light appearing across carpets and furniture, glimpsed through half open doors, really moved me and seemed to be a good metaphor for the silver linings of family and home (that at least some of us are experiencing). So here are a few initial sketches and studies combining poses by Ruth with sunlit interiors - visions of hope in challenging times.
The two fundamental challenges to an artist are: to find a way of making an income that still allows you to produce your art work and knowing when a particular piece of work is finished. With a solo exhibition approaching next month I have around 30 pieces that I need to decide whether or not are finished.
Artists have all sorts of strategies for determining whether a painting is finished, for example looking at its reflection in a mirror, turning it upside down, or looking at it through the wrong end of a binoculars so that it appears smaller and much further away (didn't Stanley Spencer famously take a ride on a big wheel just so that he could look down from a sufficient distance through his studio window to be able to assess a particularly large composition that he was trying to finish?). Taking a photograph and looking at the reduced version on the camera screen has a similar effect to the standard imperative to stand well back from your easel.
In an ideal artist's world paintings finish themselves - you come into the studio one morning and something just looks complete, finished. Sometimes other people finish paintings for you - they come into the studio, enthuse about an unfinished work, afford it the status of being finished and you realise it is. For Auden, a poem was never finished, 'only abandoned' and sometimes deadlines mean you have to abandon 'finishing' a troublesome picture. Phantom deadlines can be helpful if they mean you get something almost there, but still have the luxury of a few days to look and possibly make refinements.
So, how do I know if my 30-odd drawings and paintings are finished? First, I move them around my small studio so that I see them in different places and can be surprised by them; I also find putting paintings of different palettes beside each other can help suggest ways of resolving issues with colour. Then I spread them out in the large teaching space outside my studio and pop out to visit them every hour or so, hoping to be surprised by some insight or other. Eventually I start putting them into temporary frames to see if they look like they really deserve to be all-dressed-up-and-ready-to-hang. Finally the deadline arrives and I have to make some snap decisions - yes, you can go to the ball...no, you're staying at home.
Damian Callan's Solo Exhibition 'Moving Pictures' opens at The UNION gallery, Drumsheugh Place, EH3 7PT on 21st March www.uniongallery.co.uk/exhibitions/97-damian-callan-solo-exhibition
It was painting bathers in the wave machine at Leith Waterworld that was the real breakthrough for me in my time at art college. Up until then most of my paintings died the death on the easel as I worked the life out of them...finishing them off as I attempted to finish them. Then, when I began to investigate the moving water and the figures in action I found that a lighter more gestural approach was needed. Since then I have at regular intervals had the opportunity to work with moving figure subjects: dancers, gymnasts, divers and swimmers, highland games competitors and young children. Each time I return to the theme I find something new and useful in attempting to work in an energetic and decisive way to capture the movement of a figure in action. So this year I have planned a whole series of events centred on the moving figure. Entitled 'Moving Images' this project has already included a couple of workshops working with 2 talented dancers, a third workshop to come based around sports poses and a final session with an Indian Dancer using mixed media to explore that exotic theme. I will be working at DanceBase with a class of students and an Italian dancer next month and in the summer I'll be artist in residence at the Lochcarron Highland Games. Later in the year I hope to bring all these moving images together in an exhibition. For more information on the moving figure workshops to come please visit www.damiancallan.com
The best way to start a New Year...in the company of a team of young enthusiastic artists whose mission will be to capture some of the animals at Gorgie City Farm in pastels and inks; and then - when they have thawed out - turn these sketches into lino prints, paintings and sculptures in the studio at WASPS, Dalry. I'm always so impressed with how the children cope with the fact that the animals never stay still. I recommend that they cover a page with lots of versions of the particular creature , different sizes and facing in various directions. Then as time passes they are able to return to these sketches and develop them as the same view appears again or as they recall something they have just seen - effectively drawing from memory. Degas was a great advocate of drawing from memory and described his ideal art school as having new students on the ground floor working from the model and with each successive year, experienced students would have to work on higher and higher floors, further from the model and thus reliant on what they could recall from each trip down to view their subject. So, New Year, new artists, switch off those screen menaces and get them out there looking and remembering real life!
Many artists would agree that there is something of the process of alchemy about making art - turning base materials into precious substance. I have found by that adding children and animals into the mixture as I have been doing this week during the Summer Art School 'Young Zoo Artist's!' an extraordinary magic has been taking place. Today we climbed the hill in the blazing sunshine in search of the zebra enclosure. We got a bit lost and then suddenly over the horizon, through the trees we could see those beautiful, exotic, striped horses grazing in the distance. We climbed onto the viewing platform to get a closer look and the herd evaporated. Quietly the children assembled their art materials; charcoal, chalk, grey sugar paper and the zebras reappeared. Then a silence descended on the place as children and animals concentrated on their respective activities - with an unspoken mutual respect.
Another great day spent in the company of some excellent young artists who have been in pursuit of inspiring cat and dog subjects. We enjoyed the animal displays at the museum and then went in search of depictions of dogs and cats in ancient Celtic carvings and Egyptian tomb artifacts. Yesterday we had a visit in the studio from Gypsy and Stella, two delightful kittens who, having explored their surroundings, settled into a large box to allow the artists to make their portraits. The course finishes tomorrow with some visiting dog models and an afternoon painting - without brushes... Next course will be in July: see Children's Classes.
iI have been fortunate in being able to teach a class at The National Gallery that began with a look at the current exhibition of Joan Eardley's work and then continued with practical sessions inspired by her approach. Eardley divided her short but successful career between Townhead, Glasgow where she depicted the children and the streets of this soon-to-be-demolished community and the seascapes of Catterline on the East Coast. Her work has tremendous appeal partly because, whilst she strove to abstract her subjects, the images always remained accessible and through a process of building colourful layers and fluid lines she conveyed a tremendous passion and love for her subjects. Her work is also an excellent starting point for teaching people how to abstract or simplify - how to see the essential shapes and lines of their subject and how to work with layers in order to convey the depth and complexity of the real world. Having toured the exhibition and discussed Eardley's process of drawing rapidly in pastel and charcoal before building up her oil paintings in lively spontaneous layers, my students were then able to work with a model dressed a little like one of Eardley's Glasgow School of Art peers from the 1950s. Students were guided in tearing paper shapes for collaging a simplified arrangement of the colours and forms in front of them, before drawing into this base with charcoal and pastel in order to refine the image. The results developed spectacularly from something elementary - like 'Primary 1 glueings', as someone said - to images of astounding depth and complexity; a process that surprised the artists as much as those who viewed the work.
So, what is so great about mixed media? Its the process of discovery that it offers - an opportunity to work with instinct and intuition and an approach that encourages us to be creative and inventive with the materials we use.
Inspired by these experiences with Joan Eardley's exhibition and the subsequent practical sessions at the gallery, I am running an intensive one day workshop on Saturday 28th March at WASPS studios, Dalry entitled 'Life Drawing in Mixed Media: Anatomy & Colour'. Visit www.damiancallan.com to book a place.
The way a Giant Drawing evolves and eventually comes to a conclusion is always a bit of a revelation to me. I generally start out with a rough plan of the composition and buy myself a bit of time in the early stages by working on smaller background figures, before gradually introducing medium sized people in the middle ground. When I was asked by Art In Healthcare in 2013 to produce a Giant Drawing for their contribution to The Edinburgh Art Fair I worked directly from the audience visiting the exhibiting galleries and built up a crowd scene of ever-larger figures. I had been conscious of a big gap in the middle of the composition that I resisted filling in until, having done a brief tour of the exhibits, I noticed a beautiful bronze sculpture of a woman combing her hair and thought it would be ideal for that empty central space. But then it felt as though the arrangement was unbalanced and I needed something strong and bold on the right hand side. This seem to come my way in the form of one of the organisers of the event who stood side-on in front of my own wall of framed works and helped to bring the whole drawing together in the last hour or so of the 3 day event. I've been asked to create a new Giant Drawing for this year's Edinburgh Art Fair from 18th - 20th November; this time based in the restaurant and inspired by the diners and visitors to the bar - there will be a rough plan and some use of scale to suggest depth and perspective...but I'm really looking forward to finding out how it turns out!
To see the new charcoal drawings that will be exhibited and for sale at The Edinburgh Art Fair go
to: AVAILABLE WORK
I have to thank the great George Donald for my knowledge of artistic anatomy. He was a rare inspiring tutor at eca who taught by example - demonstrating during classes and always exhibiting his work so that we could relate what he said to what he actually did. George also gave me my first teaching job at the college and this in turn led me to teach classes in anatomy to life drawing students. I remember one summer school when a particular group of American students arrived at the life class sporting baseball caps worn backwards and wielding pieces of string that they pointed in a slightly threatening way at the model in an attempt to gauge scale and proportion...one of them boasted that he read volumes of anatomy textbooks at night and could name every muscle known to medicine. I was terrified that I was out of my depth and unqualified to teach them. Curiously though, they couldn't draw for toffee. They could sketch out diagrammatic and anatomical looking figures, but there was no life to them, no sensitivity. The thing was they hadn't grasped that artistic anatomy is about looking and understanding form, how it changes from pose to pose but how it can be described sensitively and through a personal language of marks. The best book on the subject is by Robert Beverly Hale, formerly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC, where he illustrates anatomical landmarks not with diagrams, but with drawings by the Great Masters from Raphael to Degas, so that the point about rendering form in an individual way is perfectly made. I shall return to the subject of human anatomy in a series of 3 Saturday workshops at WASPS studios in September, October and November - http://www.damiancallan.com/anatomy-workshops.html
'If you don't like the weather', goes the Hebridean saying...'try further up the road'. What really suits the oil painter and pastel artist about the weather in the Western Isles is how quickly and dramatically it changes. With each shift in the climate new possibilities for composition, colour and light are revealed and both these media work wonderfully well as vehicles for suddenly emphasising or intensifying colour or a light effect. I've just spent 3 excellent weeks working and on holiday on Berneray and what weather we had...including the storm that cancelled the ferries. I was lucky to be able to share my time between developing drawings and paintings in the garden studio and, among other activities, swimming in the sea with my family. We also had another couple of sessions stacking our friend's peats to dry in the island breeze. Some of the smaller plein air pastel studies that I produced sitting on the dunes looking across to Harris and Pabbay will be on show together with a range of figure drawings and pastel paintings at The Christian Community, 21 Napier Road, EDINBURGH EH10 5AZ for the month of September. There is a private view on Friday 2nd September, 7 -9pm to which all are welcome. www.damiancallan.com/events
Damian Callan is a practising figurative artist and tutor based in Edinburgh.