Blue Bus to Keswick

Painting on mirror foil as part of the OCA painting degree course requirements. Based on a lockdown bus ride via webcam from Lancaster to Keswick on damp, dark day. The painting analysis, if you’d like one, is: tiny green/blue strip at the top – roadside trees and foliage; dark strips beneath – the road; wild blue/grey swirls beneath – the leaden sky; and the wide, geological strip at the bottom – the brown and green rolling hills of the countryside.

Blue Bus to Keswick

Blue bus to Keswick; Sodden greens under a biscuit tin sky.

Ambleside is tourist rammed, and Keswick is a black-stoned webcam terminus, dotted with bright visiting anoraks looking for lunch.

The masked passengers stretch their legs and join the rain-bowed pedestrians hopping puddles through the streets, while the driver breaths out a safe arrival and turns the rest of us off.

SCH 2021.

Adur landscape #2

I’ve used the last of the squint-eye sized boards* so now I am onto a slightly more manageable 16 x 9. This is a view slightly to the north of the previous scene.

Again I’ve prepped the surface with acrylic primer (gesso) and used willow charcoal to define the lines and stratified areas in the scene. Then I’ve picked out different areas with dilute washes of green, yellow, and a mix of burnt sienna and Naples yellow. There’s a wash of burnt sienna in the sky area too, along with the river. This will form a contrast layer under the blues, greens, and whites that come later.

The sky is taking shape now with a light wash of blue over the burnt sienna, but the other areas are in a state of re and de-construction to give them the underpinnings for the final shapes and tones. The trees will be the last features to reappear but I can see their shapes under the patches of green.

4th April.

More touches of charcoal to define the lines where they contain bright colours – a bit like stained glass – and some additional layers of colour to the river area at the bottom. The clumps of clay and grass tumbling into the river from the bank are like wedge-shaped pillars with shadows and highlights in odd places. I’m happy with the sky – that wash of burnt sienna has really softened the tendency towards kitsch of the blue/white mix.

And here we are. I’ve found an interesting use for the new collection of fan brushes in fluffing out bright areas and dark areas of grass on the bank and in the foreground. To my eye, there’s a clear ‘best bit’ and that’ from the top edge down to the upper margin of the yellow field. Demands a crop.

Or this?

Crops, or moments as my tutor** describes them (probably to differentiate something passable from the largely unremarkable!) can make good prints and cards and I think I’m getting better at spotting them.

Probably won’t be able to resist a video.


5th April, couldn’t resist a video: Puddles Like Pillows

Things began disappearing round about March. Just little things – a newspaper left on a bench, or a sandwich wrapper – and not blown away or tumbled into a corner, just gone. We shrugged collectively: so rubbish vanished – was that even a problem? Then somebody caught an empty beer can in the act and started squawking about it; how it went, like, straight up in the air, man, he said. Wasted, the rest of us said, because he wore big trainers and a hoodie. But almost overnight, YouTube was stuffed with videos of everything from paper clips to small toys vanishing into the sky. Just the ones left outside, mind; the ones indoors stayed put, same as always.” Art work, short story, narration, and video (c) suzanne conboy-hill

Can’t resist a second video: Spectacular Flights of Whales

“Whether it was the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning, or something else entirely turned out to be immaterial. After a short interlude during which astronomers reported a slight increase in background radiation and sunsets appeared rather more purple than usual, the sky turned green and filled up with fish.” Read the story here.

And here’s the video of the whole painting because why not?

Animated in MotionLeap.


*I just found six more of the little blighters.

**Open College of the Arts, accredited by the University of the Creative Arts.

‘Watch Cat’

When your new soft pastels arrive you have to take them out for a spin. I chose a photo of two of my cats just outside the studio where one was sitting in a box and the other lurking in the foliage further back. I used an A1 sheet of cartridge prepped with white primer for a bit of tooth.

The pastels turned out to be harder and slightly grittier than I’d hoped but nevertheless, do a job. It gave me a good basis for understanding the shapes and colours that make up these cats , but the best bit I think is Cat Two’s eyes because they are absolutely him – a total cartoon of a lad!

I hadn’t quite intended to follow this up but translating from pastel sketch to painting felt like a legitimate challenge. This is acrylics on primed cartridge, first iteration.

The next iteration includes highlights to Cat One and some hints of foliage. A disadvantage of painting at this scale on cartridge pinned in place only by large clips at the corners is that it buckles and becomes impossible to photograph without ripples of reflected light. Bang it under a massive scanner and it would be much improved in that regard but perhaps not so much in the revelation of unhelpful detail!

Best bits? Cat One’s coat and Cat Two’s eyes. Less cartoon now, more realistic glint.

This is the third iteration with the beginnings of defined foliage which could then be knocked back with a dark wash.

This sequence shows the effect of different light levels. Same time of day, changed angles and LED lighting.

Last set of images, this time in daylight and with some too-shiny crops.


So, enough of the buckling paper, this is all about 14″ x 18″ pre-stretched canvas. Base is a layer of transparent primer and a light wash of dilute burnt sienna; and suddenly there’s a kind of Italian feel to it

The drawing is in willow charcoal, the paint acrylics. With the colours blocked in, I outlined the shapes of the ‘blocks’ of cat and the lines of her markings to get an idea of tonal composition.

And this is where that led. The palette is quite limited; Burnt sienna, Payne’s grey, Titanium white, and Naples yellow – all very dilute and soft. At this point I was becoming fond of the background and reluctant to proceed with the whole dark and heavy foliage thing but had no real idea of where else to go.

So I emphasised the cat’s highlights.

Then this happened. The light patches are actual light from the windows falling onto the back of the canvas. A friend suggested quantum cat – neither inside nor outside the windows which were neither there not not there!

Quantum mechanics aside, serendipity is also an artist’s friend and this gave me a new imagined framework – cat looking out of windows, high up somewhere. The lines and shading are made from willow charcoal, coaxed into tight lines with a wet brush but allowed to leak and blend round the edges.

What to do with those windows though. Where are they? What do they look out onto? At the top, I tried blocking in some colour which I spent another half hour trying to reduce. At the bottom, I drew in some loose shapes that could be buildings or trees and then dissolved the charcoal with a wet brush to make the lines less prominent.

This took several deep breaths because I like the dilute wash, but the insides of windows are rarely as bright and light as the windows themselves so that had to be adjusted. Again, very dilute Payne’s grey and now a touch of Hooker’s green which gives that bottom left a bit of a Chinese look I think. At least it bears some similarity to parts of a poster I have which a friend brought back from China in the 1970s.

The windows needed some definition then and, with an eye on keeping the image simple (I could very easily get out a palette knife and start slicing thick goo into it if not restrained), I added another couple of charcoal lines to each and a straight brush stroke of dilute Payne’s grey to make the final image.

So here it is, Watch Cat, keeping watch high up somewhere in a fantasy Sino-Italianate tower and looking out over an indeterminate landscape. Ta da!


Impossible to resist a video, but what’s the story?

Made in Filmora10 by Wondershare.

Original image with filters via Paintshop Pro.

“Art is everything you don’t have to do” – Brian Eno

Brian Eno’s lecture to the AA School of Architecture takes on the problem of how to talk about, to write about, to classify and describe art. Or that was the plan. The lecture starts well with the idea that the arts – all of them – are everything you don’t have to do as illustrated by screwdrivers. The business end is a fixed design, functional and with no room for manoeuvre, but the handle – that can be plain, striped, blue, red, yellow, pink, fat, thin, shaped, pared down. The business end is what you have to do, the handle is what you don’t have to do.

Eno compares the lack of a taxonomy for the arts to the way living things were classified before Darwin. Cynically, but probably not far from the truth, he illustrated this again with recognisable categories – men, white men actually, would be at the top (and there was always a top), with horses next (or maybe he said dogs), and women further down. It was an intellectual top-is-superior triangle with a few specified entities at the top and the masses at the bottom.

And so it is with art.

Darwin’s constructions of the origin of species, however, scrambled this and showed how everything was interrelated, there was no top dog (except with other dogs), and the superiority of humans was questionable when it came to competing with, say, a polar bear on equal terms. Darwin didn’t actually say that of course, I did. He also didn’t follow his own theory by giving women the same intellectual credentials as men*. That took a while longer.

But back to art. Eno’s thesis here is that because there is no classificatory taxonomy whereby appreciation of a piece of work is enhanced by understanding how it got there; the historical context it came from, what it was reacting to, the political and social environment that prompted it; art remains a top-is-superior triangular structure where a few people (men again, generally) decide what’s good and everyone else follows along. He argues that this is problematic for assessing or even agreeing relative value even within a discipline such as painting never mind across the whole spectrum of the arts (those things we don’t have to do but that we somehow can’t help doing). We remember, don’t we, that there used to be Film Snobbery whereby any actor appearing on TV was regarded as lesser than those in top dollar films, despite often being seen by more people. This has almost turned on its head now and with the expansion of the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming, the acting community is looking at TV as having equal status to film. This opens up the need to consider all forms of art using language appropriate to its genre and to abandon the ‘high art’ framework that privileges particular forms above all others – the White Men at the Top of the Triangle.

Unfortunately, rather than developing this theme and leading his audience through questions and arguments towards a conclusion, however incomplete (and why should it be, this is complex stuff?), Eno disappears off down interesting but distracting rabbit holes that add nothing to his thesis, eventually running out of time and finishing so lamely his audience has to be prompted to clap. Were he staff, this would be a 2* performance but, and here’s another issue, he may not be rated on delivery but on the fact that he is Brian Eno and everyone there is feeling privileged to be breathing the same air (pre-COVID, obviously). The Emperor was, on this occasion, and to my mind, stark naked.

And that’s how fame works, and isn’t it a kind of gentle corruption that perverts the course of objective evaluative justice and so influences everything we call culture?

Here’s the video; it has some interesting ideas that have value in their own right but take a look too at his Peel lecture (link further down).

Eno can do so much better; this is his Peel Lecture from 2015, scroll down for the audio: It deals with the same themes, it predates the AA School of Architecture lecture, and it’s excellent. There’s a point at about 40 mins though where he projects a future we were on the verge of losing before it even began.

*In his book, The Descent of Man, [Darwin] say[s] that men attain “a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”

Seas of Mars

In July, NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, left Earth. In February 2021, it is due to land in Jezero crater which was formed billions of years ago and where there is evidence that water once flowed from the hills nearby, dropping mud and sand on its way, forming a delta. It’s a hot spot for the likelihood of finding signs of ancient life.

This painting and video were made using NASA images of the surface of Mars at Jezero crater, and the subtitled commentary of NASA’s video of the landing site.