Peter Prendergast

I was looking amongst my collection of art books and catalogues the other day and chose to look at an exhibition catalogue of artist Peter Prendergast (1946-2007). The catalogue was from a touring exhibition of his work shown at Agnew’s Gallery in 1993. Reading the interview from the catalogue made me recall my own art history thesis, written in the final year of my degree course. One of the artists I chose to base the dissertation on was the Yorkshire painter Len Tabner (b.1946). It was Len Tabner, a great friend of Peter’s from their MA days at Reading University, who suggested that I should contact Peter Prendergast.

Peter was a lovely man, so generous of his time. He invited me to visit him in Bethesda, North Wales and put me up in his attic studio. He took me down into the village where we enjoyed a few pints. Reading the interview reminded me of many of the things he talked about, such as the importance of drawing as the basis of making sound paintings.  

 ‘Drawing is very important. I, personally, definitely need to draw. I am not the sort of person who can sit in front of a landscape and have the facility to sum it up in seconds. I have always found composition difficult because I don’t do it naturally. Drawing allows me to work quickly, fast, to take risks in sorting out a composition. It enables me to try to understand the nuts and bolts of what makes up a particular landscape, to walk right round and right through it so that when I begin to make a painting I can take liberties and chances.’ #

Absolutely. Having flirted with using photography in my art I have come to realise that such short cuts are not the answer to making good paintings. Even when I put many levels of work between a finished work and a photograph source you are always working from nothing more than a record of a thousandth of a second of light.

Peter Prendergast worked from drawings made in the field and Len Tabner works directly in front of the motif. They felt it crucial to absorb and revel in the landscape they worked from. Strong single minded artists they came from similar backgrounds. Maybe that is why the work has to be won, trusted only via the sincerity of hard work

 #Peter Prendergast interviewed by Robert Amstrong for Peter Prendergast Paintings from Wales

Abstraction and Representation

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) is an artist I greatly admire and have spent a great deal of time studying.

The American painter was a great artist, he worked both as an abstract and figurative painter. His calm, considered and individual vision has vast amounts to teach all those who want and strive to paint pictures with real depth.

Window, 1967 oil on canvas, 233 x 205cm

I have only seen his painting, Window, in illustration but it is high on my list of works I would like to view in exhibition. It was painted towards the end of his figurative period before he embarked on his major series of abstract paintings, Ocean Park.

In 1964 Diebenkorn had seen the great Matisse paintings collected by the Russian collector Shehukin. Then in early 1966 the huge and lasting impression these works had made upon him was strengthened further by an exhibition of Matisse he saw in Los Angeles. Amoung the canvases on exhibition for the first time in the United States was View of Notre Dame. This painting from 1914 is a rare example of Matisse coming close to embracing abstraction.


Henri Matisse  View of Notre Dame 1914

Diebenkorn and his 'representational' period of work was at this time coming to an end, even if the artist was probably not yet aware of it. Window with its strong sense of flattened spaces and strong structural verticals, horizontals and diagonals make more than passing nods to the Matisse painting. It is also the flattening of spaces whilst embracing elements of traditional perspective that make this painting both an end for representational painting and a beginning of the return to abstraction in Diebenkorn's work.

 The front space of green is magnificent, particularly set against that orange wall. At first the green seems to be a simple flat block of colour but when you look closely you see a line separating the floor from the an internal wall and window frame. Evidence of alterations are left showing in subtle traces under the main body of colour which  tantalise and invigorate that foreground space. Diebenkorn is a master of leaving echoes of former efforts, this adds energy and freshness to the finished picture, so that the final conclusion never feel laboured. Considering the months and years of work some of his paintings required it is a masterful achievement to leave the work with strong feelings of spontaneity.

The picture is full of carefully considered balancing acts of colour and shape. Look at the little shape on the right hand side of the orange rectangle that  takes it form from the chair back. That chair with its simple painterly suggestion of reflections on its plastic seat, the strip of orange on the seat back, a colour which is used sparingly again on the left hand side. The more you look the more you see of this deliberate use of shape and colour to give the picture a magnificent harmony. 

There are many other pictures by Richard Diebenkorn I could attempt to write about, but do take the time to look at his work. He is an painter that painters admire and for good reason.


Degas made drawings, paintings, sculpture and prints. He experimented and pushed the boundaries of all these disciplines. He was an innovator who experimented with media and surfaces.  He was a true modernist, but like all truly great artists his practice was based on his supreme talents as a draughtsman. This allowed him to link the tradition of the classical art of the past, and embrace the work of greats such as Manet, whilst becoming a leading light in the Impressionist movement. The first Impressionist Exhibition was in 1874. They subsequently held seven additional shows, the last in 1886. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, and showed his work in all but one of them, this despite his persistent conflicts with others in the group.

He was an impressionist by association, but to me also so much more.

Forget for a while the brilliance of the pastels of ballet dancers and woman bathing and combing their hair. The period of Degas that I most enjoy looking at is from the 1860s.The painting I have chosen to highlight is from that period.  It has an ethereal quality, and such an air of transcendence in its fleeting beauty. In that sense it is impressionism, but it is also rooted in a classical past so that, for me, it is at the same time solid and timeless.

The painting, entitled Emma Dobigny, is from 1869. It is a small oil painting on a panel, just 30.5 x 26.5cm. The real name of the subject was Marie Emma Thuilleux, a model who Degas knew between 1865 and 1869 when she lived in Montmartre. This painting is absolutely exquisite, so simple and delicate. His rendition of soft light falling on the cheek bone of his model is so gentle and subtle, totally bewitching and beguiling. Tonally the difference between the flesh of the girl and the background is almost non-existent, and yet the profile is assured and definite because of the finest trace of a line seen particularly clearly where it defines her nose. One of the great techniques Degas employed was to softly blur edges and contrast this with sharper more focused and defined passages of painting. The girl’s hair and coat are softly defined against the background, along with the chair or sofa back; her profile by contrast is precisely rendered. The flick of white on her collar is balanced by the area of white on the wall behind her head.

Great paintings leave me despairing, not just because of the level of technical skill employed but because they leave you wondering how is it possible for the artist to make paint convey such levels of emotion, and capture both beauty and truth without leaving traces of the struggle or effort involved in their creation. 


Rembrandt's Nose

The screen saver on my computer’s desktop is a detail of a late Rembrandt self–portrait. The painting can be seen at Kenwood House in London. It is one of the finest of the self-portraits that Rembrandt painted towards the end of his life. As a student in London in the early 1980s, I went to the gallery and was emotionally entranced by this painting from 1661. 


We talk a great deal about form in art, a concept that can be difficult to understand and grasp. At its simplest, it is making an illusion of three dimensions appear on a two dimensional surface. Artists use modelling to depict light falling onto objects, direction of line to emphasize weight and the direction of forces acting on that weight, but it is more than that, it is the depiction of how gravity presses everything onto the surface of our planet. The British artist David Bomberg wrote a small thesis on what he termed the ‘spirit in the mass’. For me, and this is my simple understanding of his writings, he states that in finding the mass, the weight, the form of your subject, you should also be finding and imbuing your drawings and paintings with an emotional response to the subject of your work, an emotional response found by working and reworking as you try and find a ‘true’ reality.  Bomberg was an inspirational teacher to a generation of painters, most notably Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. (Auerbach was in turn an inspirational figure to the artist Peter Predergast (see earlier blog)

They took up the challenges of Bomberg’s philosophy and are now some of the greatest of British painters. Frank Auerbach states that Bomberg wanted his students, ‘actually to apprehend the weight, the twist, the stance, of a human being anchored by gravity’ and to attempt to ‘define their experience of matter’. Their working practice involves a process of making and remaking a work many times over. The paintings they made in the 50s seem to take on a physical manifestation of mass in their use of dense paint.

Leon Kossof A Woman Bathing study after Rembrandt   

Leon Kossof A Woman Bathing study after Rembrandt 

It is no accident that Auerbach and Kossoff spent many hours working in the National Gallery in London, and drawing from Rembrandt amongst others. What they found in this homage to the Old Masters was a source rich in the portrayal of human emotions, the ‘spirit’ within the forms, that are classically rendered to produce such strongly resolved paintings of weight, strength and drama.

This is where Rembrandt re-enters the discussion. The late portrait is a solid rendition of a head in space. The structure of the head is defined beautifully by the strong lighting from the left. The painting is full of precise impasto brush stokes working wet paint into wet paint to produce a fluid tactile surface charged with a soft emotional power. The picture is full of masterful strokes; they have a subtle balance of weight and direction. The body and clothes are simplified in broad blocks while the hand holding his brushes and palette is little more than a lightly brushed sketch. This allows all the focus to be on Rembrandt’s head. Here Rembrandt’s genius goes into overdrive.


Look at the curve of the forehead, aided by the fluid rendition of the painter’s cap with its diagrammatic rendition of folds and shadow. Look at the soft jowls around the mouth of the aged painter, the world weary eyes filled with wisdom and a measure of sadness.

Particularly, look at his nose. It is of course an impressive nose, the nose of an aging man. Large and round, it is a prominent feature set in space aided by the masterful rendition of a spot of light on its bulbous tip. This is a warm painting choked with emotion but not at all sentimental.

I spent a couple of hours in the 1980s drawing in a sketch book from this painting. It drew me in and the closer I looked at it, (so close the museum security officer asked me to step back) the less I could pin-point the true essence of its power.

There is a mysterious emotional strength that comes from the late self-portraits of Rembrandt, which partly comes from the fact that no matter how much you analyse such works they will always have an indefinable quality. That is probably the ‘spirit in the mass’.