I’m very pleased to learn that “Little Toby Dreams of Durer” has been selected for the 2014 UKCPS Open International Exhibition and really happy that it will be getting an outing. I made it with last year’s Derwent Art Prize in mind – but it was not selected for that show! It’s big (for coloured pencil anyway) at 120 cm x 90 cm (4′ x 3′) and is an idea that first formed in my mind while I was demonstrating at the UKCPS Open at Stamford Arts Centre in 2010. It has been getting very good reactions when I show it at Art Society demonstrations and talks – so I’m chuffed that it has been selected for this show (where I know the selection process has been a bit tighter – with far fewer works being picked than last year). If you’d like to know the story – read on to the end of this post!
Stamford was only the second UKCPS exhibition I’d seen and I was struck by the fact that no-one else seemed to be working in the same way as I was – largely the result of experiments at college around 2002/3. There seemed to be a great focus on very tightly rendered small works that showed tremendous technical skill but that sometimes didn’t engage the eye at a regular viewing distance. By contrast, my big works on prepared wooden panels could be clearly seen from across the room(!) but probably didn’t satisfy CP die-hards on closer inspection. I also have no real interest in animal portraits for their own sake – but observed that this genre was extremely popular amongst CP artists.
Being a lover of low viewpoints, the idea of “doing” a tortoise from ground level appealed to me greatly! However, I rather dislike the popular habit of rendering portraits of domestic animals that seem to exist without context or narrative. If I was going to go big and fill the frame with a small animal, I’d need to tell a story or encourage the viewer into some kind of imaginative world. In addition, what would the tortoise be standing on? The Aesop fable of the Hare and the Tortoise came to mind almost immediately. It was also not much of a stretch to think of the tortoise being on grass – with the challenge of random blades and leaves. It was then that I remembered two particularly wonderful pieces by Albrecht Durer, the German artist (1471 – 1528). His drawing of a hare and another of a clod of earth are models for CP artists to this day of brilliant observation and technique. In addition, the fable of the hare and tortoise seemed to be a metaphor for the whole business of working in coloured pencils – and I decided early on to use a coloured pencil as part of the finishing line!! So – as Toby crosses the finishing line, spurred on by thoughts of the Renaissance, he demonstrates the virtue of perseverance! Alternatively, if you’d prefer, it’s just a CP picture of a tortoise and stuff!!
Here’s an undated page (early 2011) from a sketchbook where I was starting to think about the composition. Looking back on it now, although I tried a few variations, I stuck very close to my first idea for the final composition. This is usual for me. I don’t often do extensive sketchbook work before “fixing” my ideas. I nearly always do the work in my head and have a very clear idea of how I want a finished piece of this type to look – before I start to work.
And so to the search for resources. I don’t own a tortoise – but I thought it would be easy to find one! How wrong could I be. As a child, so many friends and neighbours owned a tortoise (often with a hole through the edge of the shell and attached to a piece of string, or with the house number painted on the shell). Not these days! After asking around and searching the Internet, I came across Norfolk Tortoise Rescue and fired off a speculative e-mail to the contact. After a few exchanges during which I had to confirm that I would keep the location secret (these animals are now protected and subject to kidnap), I was given permission to visit and take photos. Several tortoises of varying sizes were brought out of their luxury sheds and “auditioned”. These animals are amazingly fast and I took many dozens of photos of several potential candidates. Mostly they were too quick for the slight delay on my digital camera and a lot of the photos were out of focus! Little Toby, the smallest of the lot at around 8 inches across, showed the greatest character and I took loads of photos of him charging towards me across the grass. He was very sociable!
Key elements of the composition are arranged according to the rule of thirds. Toby himself (and some of the closest foliage) was based on a couple of the photos – but with some details from pictures of a different tortoise altogether. I looked on the Internet and in a couple of nature books at home for a reminder of what made a hare different from a rabbit (!) – but was more concerned to get a sense of rage in its eyes than anything else. To get the pencil/finishing post looking right, I stuck a drawing pin in one that I’d been using and held it up with the light coming from the correct direction and drew what I saw. The sky, horizon, ribbon and much of the foliage is from my imagination. As is my usual practice, I made good use of the electric eraser right at the end when tightening up specific edges and other features. Although twice the size of my other larger CP works, this piece probably didn’t take a lot longer to complete – maybe 60-80 hours. I worked standing at a large studio easel.
Even though this is a pretty big work for CP, it is nevertheless a “pure” coloured pencil painting. I used Derwent Artist and Studio pencils dry on 6mm MDF prepared with several coats of white gesso and sanded to a smooth finish. There is a lot of bracing on the rear of the panel and the surface is protected by a couple of spray coats of matt artists’ varnish.