I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC Four last week called ‘The Forger Who Fooled The Nazis’. It told the unbelievable story of a Dutch artist called Han van Meegeren, who managed to fool the artistic establishment into authenticating a series of ‘missing’ Vermeer paintings that he had forged. For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the programme was when they showed his technique. This involved mixing Bakelite with oil paint to replicate the tough veneer of a very old painting, sourcing lapis lazuli and even baking the finished canvas in an oven.
The actual paintings were hideous, with none of the lightness of touch and subtlety of a true Vermeer, but he still managed to fool those in the know. After making millions selling the fakes to institutions and galleries, van Meegeren was eventually unmasked and served just one year in prison. After his death he became a folk hero in the Netherlands, celebrated for his audacious crime.
I’ve been recording my own process recently (no Bakelite involved) using time-lapse videos. Here are a series of images and a video, showing the different stages of one of my paintings. Once I’ve drawn out the image onto the canvas with a soft pencil I put a very thin wash of acrylic paint over the surface to fix the pencil and knock back the white gesso. Next, I block in the underpainting with acrylic paint. Using acrylic for the initial blocking-in means I don’t have to wait for it to dry over days, as I would if I used only oil paint.
And so to the best bit: adding all the details, tweaking the colours and refining the overall composition in oil. It sounds straightforward, and it is, sometimes, but more often than not a missing piece of the puzzle throws the whole process. It could be the composition, the colours, the tones, even my mood. For every painting that goes like clockwork there are three that end up facing the wall!
At least - unlike Van Meegeren - I don’t have the added worry of having to pop my finished canvases into a hot oven before persuading important-looking men with beards that my painting is a missing masterpiece by a 17th century Dutch artist.
Recently I’ve been concentrating on this little 12 x 12” painting of a quirky shop overlooking Mousehole harbour. It is one of twenty paintings that I am going to be working on over the winter for a show next summer. I’ve given myself plenty of time to paint the show and this forward planning its reaping rewards. Unlike some artists I do not do well under pressure, I flourish when I have buckets of time to think and plan and carefully work out each painting. The theme for the exhibition is the coast between Mousehole and Marazion, with the magnificent St Michael's Mount as a constant focal point. I am looking forward to painting the Mount, as I have done many times before. An added bonus of the exhibition is that my oldest friend is also taking part. She and I have never, in all the years we’ve known each other, exhibited together and I’m really looking forward to seeing our work side by side.
I have a cooked lobster in my freezer that I use for reference when I’m doing a painting that has a lobster in it. Over the years he (or she) has starred in quite a few of my works, most recently a rock pool painting where he is intimidating a blenny. I love lobsters, I love eating them but mostly I love drawing them. They are an artist's dream: the claws, the beady eyes, the sweep of the antennae (with which they smell and feel their surroundings). When I’m painting a lobster I relish putting in the spots and spikes that cover the shell. Drawing a lobster is a challenge because of the intricate face (is that the right way to describe a lobster's visage?). There are all sorts of appendages and mouth parts as well as the antennae that force you to really look and study how it all works.
Every now and then, when I am rooting about in my freezer looking for something for supper I’ll come across the lobster, wrapped up tight in cling film, and get him out to draw. Each time he gets more whiffy, but he is holding up well and I’m sure he has a few more paintings in him yet.