At the age of 13 in the Scottish educational system, a pupil has to make the choice of what they want to do in life. Obviously a very big decision, quite hard to make at a relatively young age: I don’t know if things are the same now.
The options for me were Languages, Science and Art.
I wasn’t in any doubt what I wanted to do and it was called Art.
But here’s where one of life’s major disappointments reared its head: my father’s response was a flat, “No! You will never make a living at art. Keep it as a hobby and enjoy it.”
This was painted later in life, after I moved to Wellington to work as a lawyer. But it reflects the desolate feelings I had earlier – plus my grief at devastation of nature. Click on image for more details.
Looking back, I can understand his reaction at that time, but it sure was hard on me. What’s more, I was also very good at both languages and science. It wasn’t as if art was my only option. So I didn’t have that leg to stand on.
One doesn’t argue with an RSM, especially my father. With a great deal of sadness, I decided to go for languages.
There was nothing else to do but carry on …
This is another later painting and it’s worth clicking on the image for a fuller explanation of what’s behind it.
My dad’s comment impacted very heavily on my mind for far too long, and I am only just now beginning to shake it off. What’s more, I never until very recently fully forgave him for what he’d said because as I grew older, and especially lately, I became so very aware what a strong influence it had on my thinking and choices since.
Though I sold quite a lot of art all through my legal career, I found I had indeed a very deep belief that I’d never make a living at it. How deep that belief was, I only discovered when I quit my job and moved up north here – about which, more later. It seemed like I would never shake off the stigma (as I saw it) of not having been to Art School.
Parents: Be careful about what you say to your kids – especially about their dreams. Select your words carefully.
It was mainly for movies about Greece and Rome, and I combed the magazine stands for movie magazines with reviews on anything new in the genre.
Today, things haven’t really changed. The Internet is a wonderful medium for making “scrapbooks”, and we create them all the time – be it in blogs or static websites, with photos, artwork or videos. It’s really great to catch up legitimately with an old hobby in a new format – without feeling ‘wussy’ !
The Masters of Greek Vase Painting
The other thing I frequently go back to in wonderment is Greek vase painting. I love the limited palettes, the brilliant composition, the strong but sensitive lines. These artists were indeed masters:
And a little tribute of mine:
But the Greek Vase painters didn’t have it all on their own – more next time!
He was experimenting with molding and casting processes and it wasn’t long before I was learning the techniques of creating low-relief and three-dimensional sculpture in plasticine and making plaster of paris molds to produce master casts – mostly in plaster of paris also.
My dad had his own very strong sculpture style, which he passed on to me. Usually it was full of cutbacks and tricky shapes, so we started off making waste molds of plaster of paris. With free-standing sculptures, these molds had to have more than one part.
I learned how to box in the original and use either shims or gravity to make molds in several pieces, keyed into each other. Then to take the cast, we used vaseline as the parting agent before pouring plaster into plaster. Scary!
The end job of breaking the mold away from the hardened master inside it with a hammer and chisel was always an exciting and tricky business – sometimes fraught with accidents. There was always patching and sanding to do afterwards.
Making molds is a lot easier process today, even though the fundamentals are still the same. True, you could get rubber molding agents then, but they had to be poured hot – an impossibility with a plasticine original – hence the need to create a durable master cast to work from.
I came away from that early period with several pieces of my own and a wealth of experience.
I realize now these early beginnings were a real gift – something else that has never left me.
A few years ago, I took up sculpture again and found the molding and casting fundamentals I’d learned as a youngster were still there. They stood me in good stead working alone, even though the materials have changed (for the better) over the years.
It’s now most common to use cold-pouring, two-pot molding material, of course, and after a day of instruction at a bronze foundry I was able to adapt my techniques to make ‘rubber’ molds within a supporting plaster jacket very successfully. Thank you, Ken.
We were doing embroidery, and creating designs for that. I can clearly remember a tea cosy I made early on with a dragon design on it, that kept our teapot warm for a number of years, until a teapot warmer was no longer needed.
We did some leather work, and I still have the writing compendium I made as one of my projects – There was also a purse for keys, with a big sculpted key on the front of it, made from the same piece of leather. That wore out!
At one point, the class had to create a series of dioramas to illustrate a historical novel we were reading – it was Walter Scott’s “The Fortunes of Nigel“. The group I was in drew the ‘street scene’, and I found myself in charge of proceedings, making a cobbled pavements out of split lentils, 16th Century half-timbered houses out of cardboard and little people out of painted clay. Creativity on a roll.
I think our scene was the best of the 3, but then I would say that… (Please excuse old photos but thought I must show them.)
Here are a couple more of my stamp album and scrapbook illustrations – a Readers Digest train illustration copy on the left, and the herald on the right was inspired by some of Ron Embleton’s great work for Strongbow the Mighty:
Next time – “The Third Dimension”.
I had arrived in Scotland with a perfect BBC accent. Aberdonians are very Scottish, very patriotic, egalitarian and up-front. No place to be talking like a London radio announcer, as I soon found out. That BBC accent disappeared very quickly.
My new school was the High School for Girls in Aberdeen, now Harlaw Academy where pupils gain the advantage of a great Scottish education. I was there for 8 years in total – my longest term at any school by a long shot. In spite of our continual house moving though, my parents had always made sure I got the best possible schooling. This settled period at an excellent school occurred at just the right time in my education.
Outside of school, I started off making scrapbooks of pictures I liked, embellished with painted artwork and lettering, drawing on ideas from magazines and books. My stamp album got the same treatment. And though with some of these ideas I was copying from existing artwork or photos, I’ve come to appreciate that the discipline of doing that started to train my eye really well.
The leaping tiger was an icon used by Esso Petroleum at the time.
Getting close to pipe band competitions on Scottish soil inspired a pencil study of a Highland dancer, drawn from a photo in the local newspaper – I’m glad I have that. Not many people outside of Scotland realize that Highland dancing is actually an excellent fitness training. Traditionally, in Highland Regiments the soldiers did PT and the officers did Highland Dancing, to stay fit. Highland dancing is something I loved at school and would take up again, if there were any close to me – I was always happy when we walked into the gym and saw the pianist sitting at the piano!
The sword and helmet design was also an embellishment in one of my scrapbooks.
There was plenty of Art at school in the early days – I still have one or two of the many things we created in art classes. Of course, we were given the usual array of still life subjects, but it seems at some stage our art teacher got creative and found something especially taxing for us to focus on:
They’re actually quite tricky subjects, and I’m glad to have these two paintings still – mainly because I used the backs of them for designing something else. (It’s called keeping a portfolio -Haha!) They would have been done in my early teens.
As we got to the higher classes, we were encouraged to produce black and white ink illustrations for use in the annual school magazine.
My first was of Alice in Wonderland, drinking from the bottle and holding her hand on the top of her head to see if she was growing any taller. No prizes for guessing where that idea came from, but I remember especially the art teacher’s help and encouragement in creating it. I know it was accepted for the magazine, and so were a couple more in later years.
I wish I still had those magazines…
Parents – keep your kids’ art stuff!
Wow -I fell in love with that, of course. It’s interesting that of all Disney’s works available at the time, “Alice in Wonderland” was richest in landscape, as well as characters. And what a landscape it was! Lush parks, deep forest, the Walrus and the Carpenter’s moonlit beach, the White Rabbit’s house and garden, the Mad Hatter’s tea party garden, the Queen’s maze and croquet lawn – what richness of imagery and color Disney unleashed on the world in that movie!
I know most people prefer “Cinderella”, but for me “Alice in Wonderland” was definitely the tops, and I think that had a lot to do with the landscape settings, especially Tulgey Wood, which somehow totally hooked me in. Even today, pictures of the Tulgey Wood scenes have a powerful appeal and bring back some very strong memories.
Apart from Elleston Trevor’s “Deep Wood” tales which I loved, I didn’t have much experience of forests – none at all of real forests, that is. So there’s no obvious, immediate connection. Perhaps it’s relevant that while the Tulgey Wood settings were based on forest reality, the colors and shapes of the trees had an other-worldliness that generated an enormous fascination. And while they were kind of wild, they were also orderly and groomed. Not full-on wild, like the forests I came to know later in New Zealand.
Tulgey Wood invited further exploration, without being too threatening. You could see pathways and openings that beckoned. This forest has depth. And of course the ‘extras’ – the owl, the frogs, the horn ducks and the momeraths – all of these added enormously to its appeal. And the art was great. The super-realism of this tree trunk setting is something else:
And then – maybe it was the Elleston Trevor books, or even that old “Sherwood Forest” thing in the blood. One of the meanings of the surname Howitt or Hewitt (we have a double dose – both surnames are in the family) is thought to be a topographic derivation from the Olde English ‘Hiewett’ – which translates as ‘a place where trees have been cut down’.
Forest dwellers? Foresters? Who knows? I think we carry more programming from our ancestry than we give credit for. Here’s something that surfaced from my subconscious many years later :
On top of my CD towers sits a little stuffed Disney Cheshire Cat toy that I found lying in the street a few years ago, shortly after our local McDonald’s opened its doors for the first time. They were giving away little toys to kids. Sadly, some child was the poorer for my gain – but I’d like to think he came into my hands because in the long run, he carries a whole lot more meaning for me than he could for any child in today’s world of ever-changing toy fads…
The cartoon movie stills in this post are all Copyright Walt Disney Corporation. Thanks mainly to Lenny at Alice in Wonderland.net .
Apart from the straight Disney content, there was one other cartoon strip in Mickey Mouse Weekly that I came to rate just as highly – a cartoon called Strongbow the Mighty, illustrated by another real master of his trade – the London-born illustrator Ron Embleton. Ron created a huge body of artwork pretty much single-handed, in a really short space of time.
Ron was in a league of his own, and it shocked me since to find out that at the time he was doing Strongbow, he was only in his early twenties, having started illustrating for comics at the age of 17 – amazing. I still have 37 Strongbow comic pages stashed away and kept over the years because I admired his work so much, and once I get my scanner going again, I’ll put them online, because I notice there doesn’t seem to be anything much out there about this particular comic strip.
Meantime, I’ve set up a page at Patricia Howitt.com with one or two Strongbow images, which I’m sure will be relished by those who remember the cartoon – and by anyone with an eye for outstanding graphics. Here are a couple of them:
I loved Strongbow for Ron’s marvellous, crisp black and white images, his detail, his strength of line and composition (again!), the brilliant accuracy of his men and horses, and above all his total mastery when it came to capturing power and movement.
My dad and I used to pore over his pages, marvelling at his rendering of horses and men, often frozen in a split second of violent action, but fluid, powerful and graceful nonetheless. Very, very powerful stuff.
Now I’ve had the chance to see more of Ron’s work, I’ve a sneaking feeling that the Strongbow era might have been one of his favorites, because the images he created for it are so complete and so satisfying. Ron captured the spirit of that period so vividly, that it’s hard for me to realise that he was also engaged with Biggles (another of my favourites), American Wild West, science fiction and Playboy magazine. What an artist!
Strongbow, as far as I remember, was only ever a black and white comic strip. I saw some of Ron Embleton’s color work in comics recently when I searched him on the net, but to be honest, I think black and white conveys his mastery of comic strip work far more effectively. Having said that, he also had brilliant control of tone and color, and produced many individual images that are truly breathtaking. It was a real joy to me recently to find a great body of his illustration work for book publishers that I previously hadn’t known about – see above.
The other thing that appealed about Strongbow was the “Robin Hood.”quality of the story. As I’ve said before, Sherwood Forest has some deep resonances in our family history, that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. That will surface later, though.
The earliest piece I have, done within a couple of years of moving to Scotland, is a half-finished drawing on a sheet of lined paper ripped from a school exercise book of a tiger attacking a buffalo, copied freehand from an illustration in the book “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” by Major Jim Corbett.
It was perhaps the fist edition of this book, and there have been many since. I’m not sure if they all have the original artwork, which I think was by the great wildlife artist, Bob Kuhn. I remember being fascinated by the illustrations in that book – more quality artwork!
And though the book was technically a “hunting” book, it was special. Jim Corbett has an enormous reputation as a humble yet highly skilled and patient hunter, who rid parts of India of some really dangerous wildlife, while at the same time showing humanity and care for wild animals. In later life, he exchanged his rifle for a camera, as many hunters do.
Another very early piece was this Guy Fawkes, developed from a black and white logo in a newspaper advertisement run by a fireworks company. Inside the small circle, probably less than 1″ across, you could just see the face and the tall hat, the armful of fireworks and the side of Guy’s lantern. Tiny as it was, the quality of the design made an arresting image.
My dad suggested I do something with it. The challenge was to expand it out, bring in color, and still retain the play of light and shadow created by the lantern. I was about 10 when I did that.
Learning About Art
Gradually, art awareness began to develop. With help, I was learning to analyze what I saw from a graphics point of view – maybe not with the improved understanding that comes from years of practice, book study and looking, but at least innately. My dad encouraged me to start a “swipe file” of pictures I liked, as a reference tool. Over the years it grew to huge proportions, but it still contains stuff that dates back to that time.
Soon, when looking at books or magazines, I was taking note of the artwork. How was that picture done? What about the composition? What about the colors? What about the angle? At the time I was barely conscious of this, except to know that I enjoyed pictures, but through sharing my dad’s thoughts, the habit grew stronger and never left me. It took me a while to realise that not everyone sees things this way. Quite a shock!
Years later, that old Tiger drawing got reworked it into a fantasy battle between a tiger and a huge snake. Must have been looking at too much of Frank Frazetta’s work, he had a real passion for huge snakes!
Michelangelo didn’t limit himself to drawing from life. In 1492 at 17 years of age he put himself in serious danger by dissecting dead bodies in the mortuary of the Santo Spirito monastery in Florence.
The penalty for interfering with human remains was death. Why would he do that? To understand how the human body is constructed and how it works – and that is what gave such unprecedented life and movement to his paintings and sculptures.
Drawing – Making Line Live
I’ve come to appreciate that though I never went to art school, I did get a pretty rigorous training in drawing and in making what I created truly express the reality. This came from my dad’s critique, which harked back to the good old basics of looking hard at one’s subject-matter, understanding it and capturing it.
If what I drew or painted didn’t look like what it was meant to be, and didn’t have life, I GOT ROASTED. If the technique was weak or fussy, I GOT ROASTED. About that, more later.
So I came to value clarity of line, especially when it expresses 3 dimensional mass and movement economically.
The Second Principle : Strength of Composition – Design
Composition is arguably THE most important element of a painting – sculpture too, though it’s more complex in three dimensions. If there’s one thing that really puts me off, it’s a painting with a number of elements scattered around the space, without real consideration for the overall layout of the composition as a whole. No design! And that happens more often than you might think. And the average person doesn’t see it.
Look at frames from Disney cartoon movies, and see how all-pervading good composition and design was in the huge array of Disney’s animations – masterly! Given the number of artists working for Disney at any one time over the years, maintaining such consistency is a huge achievement in itself.
Taking the subject of composition a little deeper, here’s something most people are totally unaware of. It was clearly explained in a book called ‘The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art’ by Charles Bouleau, which I have among my texts. The book is out of print now, but people on Amazon are crying for a reprint. I really can’t improve on this short excerpt from a review by T Campbell:
“This is the art history text we all should have had and didn’t. It is the only book I have found in several years of looking into what has been printed on composition/design in the 2-D arts that actually shows the manner in which artists in a number of Greco-Roman to western traditions managed their space. It was certainly not the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach that is so common now. The great ones then, and to a certain degree even now, were very well educated in their traditions, which included mathematics, especially geometry, the application of which to image making was connected to their faith, as well as being an expression of their genius.
“Bouleau carries his argument into the 20th century and shows that respect for geometric spatial division to establish harmony is not dead. It still works, even with completely nonrepresentational art.
“This is a stunningly informative look at the visual arts in the European traditions and is the only book I have found that informs me on how the “old masters” and some contemporary masters built their paintings.”
Below are works by 2 relatively modern artists, showing their use of geometric principles in composition. “Miserere” by Georges Roualt and “Composition ll in Red, Yellow and Blue” by Piet Mondrian:
Don’t be misled: this is not a case of art being forced into a geometric matrix to suit some theory. Just as mathematics underlies much of our world (think of music, for a start), it is inescapably true that artworks whose composition or design complies with certain geometric principles, are more powerful and satisfying.
Hence the value of basing your studies as an artist on the very best of traditional and contemporary masters.
We lived first in a semi-detached Army villa in the suburb of Seafield. At the bottom of the street was – is – a small park called Johnstone Gardens built around a rocky landscaped stream, surrounded by paths, shrubberies, flower beds and rock gardens, with tall trees as a backdrop. I was given my first little camera and shot many photos – now lost – in that park.
My mom took me there often : it was a ‘wild’ landscape in miniature.
I’d just got a serial comic – it was Odham’s “Mickey Mouse Weekly”. My folks enjoyed it too, but I’m sure my dad was looking for artistic quality in what he chose, and I’m really grateful. I looked forward to that comic, and devoured its contents. It wasn’t all Disney though – many of the other cartoons and illustrations were of a different quality and appealed less. I found myself gradually getting a preference for the Disney style of artwork.
Two principles stand out in Disney’s works, and I’d like to think they are a good training ground for any artist. Firstly, clarity of line. The Disney line is stylish in its boldness. Eye and hand are coordinated to produce a highly polished, clean result.
The First Principle : Clarity of Line (ie Draftsmanship)
In today’s art world it’s kinda cutesy and clever to leave your viewers guessing. “Is that a fish or a bird?” “Is that a person standing in all that murk or is it an elephant?” Hmmmm. Too many people are getting away with bad draftsmanship because their creations are regarded as “innovative” or “thought-provoking”. We are putting a premium on gimmickry rather than solid grounding. Art is becoming cerebral instead of visceral in its appeal.
Maybe the fact that the Universities have got in on the act of training people to be artists has something to do with it.
I admire Prince Charles for stepping up to the plate and founding The Prince’s Drawing School. It’s time someone stood up for the real fundamental values in Art. There’s nothing ‘old fashioned’ about it – these fundamentals apply to digital art just as they’ve done to traditional art through the centuries. For more information see also Wikipedia on The Prince’s Drawing School.
Photographs are definitely not art
Right now, photography is doing its darndest to take over the Art space. Many would say, “If you can get a good photograph why go for paintings?” And that, of course, provides another excuse for the current trends in Art proper. Well, I’m sorry, photographs (even manipulated, Photoshopped ones) won’t ever compare, and that’s because they lack involvement of the hand, eye, brain and understanding of the artist – the true creative process. And I mean involvement with the subject-matter, not the photographic process.
About which, more next time
Briefly, I was born an Army child in Derby, England, traveled about, and now live in New Zealand. Having trained and worked as a lawyer, I’m at last refocusing my life on what I’ve been secretly doing all along – art.
The journey so far has taken me from England to Scotland, to Africa, and now New Zealand. Through it all, art underpinned and sustained me through a heap of stuff – I’ve been grateful for that.
Now, this exercise of putting down on ‘cyberpaper’ the journey that brought me to where I am as a person and an artist is helping me rediscover myself after ‘losing’ ten years of my life caring for my elderly mom with Alzheimers. I’ve come away with no regrets for giving that time, and at last it is being returned to me. Here, if you care to check out some of the struggles of being a carer, is my account of the process written while in the thick of it – The Alzheimers Carer.
This blog is in a sense its own fulfilment, though like my art it does have a definite message of love and respect for our wonderful planet and the creatures that inhabit it with us – we have severely misused both.
If anyone cares to join me in this journey, I shall be truly honored. For my main Home Page that links and knits together all my websites, click HERE.
For a time warp journey to my last project, visit Taketakerau.com which features the 36 major paintings I created for a recently-published book about the nature and history of New Zealand.
Showcasing the Paintings, Sculpture and Jewelry of a multi-talented New Zealander with a love of nature and a background in – of all things – the law.