As a child and as a teenager and as an adult I loved the Air Ace Picture Library and the War Picture Library.

One of my favourite covers from the 60s

I delighted in the well drawn comic strips and the magnificent covers of Spitfires and Hurricanes battling Messerschmidts and Focke-Wulfs. I have searched for the names of the artist for years and yesterday I found a lot of them. But to my shock, they all turned out to be Italian!

These artists had such love for aircraft and pilots that they ignored their history and created glorious tales of heroism and sacrifice.

Many artists of my generation found their inspiration in their work and this is my small thank you to them.

To paraphrase Churchill: “Never in the field of human endeavour has so much been owed to so few.” They just happen to be Italian… Not only Italian, but Venetian. And there were many more.

Alberto Breccia
Raffaele Paparella
Enrique Breccia
Angel Ruiz Pardo
Guido Buzzelli
Ivo Pavone
Amador García Cabrera
Vitor Peon
Kurt Caesar
Jordi Penalva
Renzo Calegari
Carlos Pino
Angel Badia Camps
Garcia Pizarro
Antonio Canale
Renato Polese 
Massimo Carnevale
Hugo Pratt


Paris for sale

I am besotted with beauty.

When I was a young man, in 1980, I walked all the way around the beautiful Opera Garnier, named after its creator. I had no interest in going inside, having no desire to see a modernist Chagall over its original roof painting. I hate Modernist crap.

What I was fascinated by, was the ring of lampposts running around the perimeter, what Garnier called his ring of light.

Each lamppost was a bronze sculpture in the Classic Greek style, a young woman holding a lamp above her head.

One of the original lampposts of the Opera in Paris.

I was entranced. The sculptures, 22 of them, were positioned at a variety of angles on the high walls each more sensual and elegant than the next.

This was when I started my career as a fine artist by saving enough to stay in France for one year, and the caryatids of the Opera were a major inspiration.

Today, when I looked for images of the lamps, I was in for a shock.

These masterpieces are being restored, and in the process they are being sold to pretentious sponsors. 900 individuals and companies paid 1.8 million euros for own their individual artwork.  Paris is being sold and the price is an average of 2000 euros. You will be greeted with the names of the sponsors but you will search in vain for the name of the artists who created them.

Degas was the ultimate master.

He used his own original systems of composition, not old sets of rules and strictures. In fact, he appears to delight in breaking the rules, as in having people walk out or the picture. This is because he was the first and maybe the only master to see that the frame is not a panel, but a window, and that the artist’s universe continues beyond the frame, in brushstrokes and painterly textures.

In “Absinthe”, the two characters are placed well back into the picture plane, and trimmed by the right edge of the frame. A series of table tops lead into the pictorial space

Absinthe, by Edgar Degas

Degas. Absinthe. 1876

The table tops are bare and devoid of cutlery. There are no chairs. The tabletops levitate, float in air, with no legs and nor are they are cantilevered from the wall.
This is composition. This is genius.

In “Jockeys”, the viewer is standing in the middle of the restless horses, turning and stomping around us.
This is composition. This is genius.

In “Snowstorm at sea”, Turner paints from the depths of the storm as if he were a seagull, or lightning itself.
This is composition. This is genius.

In “the Maids of Honour”, Velasquez observes the scene from outside his own body, through the eyes of the King of Spain who we see in the mirror on the far wall.
This is composition. This is genius.

These kinds of compositions are not calculations, nor are they accurate observations. These are visions, artistvision.

It is good to remember Mozart’s remark on genius, “Love, love, love alone, is genius.”

As artists, this is our mission. To see with the eyes of God.



Charles Bargue is widely known as the founder of the academic approach to drawing. His approach, as set out in his book, Cours de Dessin, (available here) is used most of the academies in Europe and America. The approach is dry and lifeless, even sterile, but hugely efficient.

Naturally gifted artists should avoid this kind of academic training as it will hamper their natural exuberance but in an environment where so much art is a talentless mess, all serious artists should at the very least pay serious consideration to it.

What came as a surprise to me is that in his painting, Bargue was a master of composition, colour, texture, atmosphere and detail.

Bargue. Flute player

Charles Bargue.
The flute player.

Usually we see atmosphere as the contrary of detail, and it takes a master such as Vermeer, Degas, and yes, Bargue, to bring the two opposites together into perfect harmony.

The study for his Chess Players is as loose as an impressionist painting, and the finished painting a tour de force of observation and technical mastery.

The Flute Player displays unbelievable virtuosity and great self discipline. One button on the musician’s coat is a still life in the small, and the music sheet looks as if it can be played from.

How is this done? I know from his drawings that he did a finished study in outline, but where do the subtleties of colour, value and texture come from? There is only one place, the subconscious.

Great artists can see what is unseen. They can visualise a world of the imagination, and they can live in it. Writers, musicians and artists have this gift of visualisation and if we want to encourage it we have to return to real painting.

When I ask my students who they regard as the world’s leading artist, they often have no idea. And most of them have never heard of Brad Holland.

Rhodesia was under sanctions in 1972, not that it bothered anybody.I first encountered the art of Brad Holland in a Playboy magazine, sold from under his counter by a Greek café owner.

As a young artist fresh from conservative South Africa, no TV, movies like Clockwork Orange and the Last Tango in Paris banned, Playboy was an Alladin’s cave of creativity and kinky fun!

Brad Holland. 3rd eye.

Brad Holland. 3rd eye.

I found an interview with Michael Crichton in which he undertook to kill himself at age 30 “because that is when we lose our creative mojo”, and then I came across a monthly feature called the “Ribald Classic”.

These pieces featured erotic stories and poems from centuries back, but it was the illustration that riveted me. Black ink drawing with what seemed to be a broken pen on bad cardboard, nervous, clumsy lines, and passages of tight pattern, often checkerboard. But the drawing..!

It was like seeing my first Klimt, long erotic contours, faces like a more virile Beardsley, and expressive but anatomically logical figure work. These were not illustrations, these visions spring directly from a tortured, delighted imagination. It was art of the highest level. That was what I thought at 27, and it is what I think now.

The next time I saw Brad Holland’s work was in a collection from the New York Times Op Ed Page. He had reinvented himself. Now he was serious political commentator with a style more reminiscent of Rembrandt’s etchings.

In the movie “Nine and a half weeks”, one sequence featured a slide show of paintings that I was convinced were by Brad Holland, although I had never seen any work by him in oils. Any way, this was, as before when I went scrounging for Playboy Magazines at the Greek in the corner shop, my excuse for seeing the movie about 12 times.

Brad Holland thinks of himself as an illustrator. He is not. All his illustration work was for editorial purposes, independently conceived. And all of it is fine art.

You can read Brad Holland’s blog here:

Vermeer-blogI have long been intrigued by Vermeer’s talent, observation and his secrets.

What is clear to me is that he did not use a camera obscura, first because the camera obscura was in open use at the time, and not a secret; and second because the camera obscura is a toy.

Vermeer’s science is of a different magnitude altogether. It is camera obscura on steroids.. There is a painting by Vermeer in which he shows part of his equipment. In “The Music Lesson” there is a mirror over the virginal, and I have scoured that mirror for evidence. Part of me was hoping to see the artist’s easel and his feet reflected, but part of me expected to find a camera obscura.

This is that mirror, but I am at a loss to identify the reflection.

In the brilliant documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison recreates the setting and the optics required to produce an image such as Vermeer did.

It is illogical to think that the perfect lettering in the lid of the virginal could have been produced in simple eyeballing observation, or even with such a crude instrument as a camera obscura. Even a modern camera could not define such perfect detail. No, the instruments used would have to be better and more accurate than our cameras, and it would have had to allow matching, not of outlines, but of colour.

Tim Jenison, though as series of brilliant insights, recreated such an instrument.

He constructed and then abandoned a camera obscura; he combined the lens of the camera with a convex focusing mirror, and than he used key device: a standard mirror. But how could such a system be developed in the 17th century, when our advanced science has been incapable of it?

Enter the second Dutch genius. Antonie van Leuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope, was Vermeer’s neighbour, friend, and collaborator. The following is an extract from a letter that Van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society in London in 1685:

‘A week later, a needle pricked my finger, and drops of wet blood oozed out. I dabbed the red drops with a cloth, but then placed one droplet before the lens and peered in. Tiny round pomegranate red cells swirled around, their centers concave. I showed Johannes. “God is incredible,” he cried. “Even in the most minute aspects of our lives, there are miracles.” He kept gazing at the blood. “May I move the lens”? He turned and held the tiny glass sphere up to the window, then to the brick buildings on the opposite side of the canal, and then to the canal itself. Off the boats, water dripped. The light vibrated fragily, and cast a tiny spark on the wall behind him.

“I want to buy such a lens, but larger.”


He stared at the reflection on the wall. “I am yet not sure.” I gave him the name of the glass grinder in Leiden.’

Many people think that we are on a pinnacle of civilisation, that our modern age has some genius that other times lacked. I believe the contrary. That our modern value is materialism. That the true genius of all ages belonged to Plato and Pythagoras, and Da Vinci, and Vermeer, and Mozart, and John Ruskin.

It was Mozart who said: ‘Love, love, love alone, is genius.’



Realism is dead.

During the 1950’s and 60s, the CIA, with massive financial input from the super-rich such as Peggy Guggenheim, worked to destroy any vestige of realism in American and European art.

Courbet. The Stone Breakers

Courbet. The stone breakers.

Even today, Saatchi is promoting the grossest excesses of Damian Hirst and others, even opening the biggest gallery in Venice to push their anti realist, anti-worker, anti-beauty agenda. But they no longer have to worry.

Because realism has been killed off by artists. Realism has been destroyed by the new school of American photo-copyists who call themselves ‘realists’.

Their pretty, effete pictures are the enemy of realism, belonging more to the decorative or romantic schools, except for the fact that their work is also devoid of skill and vision, being copied from photographs projected onto their canvases.

Figure painting, still life, landscape and romantic painting are not realist paintings.

Realism is art with a political aspect. The style developed in 19th Century France, founded by artist such as Courbet and Millet and Daumier.

The best known example of realist art is “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo, dealing with the hardships of the poor and working classes in France.

It is exactly this political social aspect of realism that caused the American establishment to fear and to attack it. To achieve their goal they had to persuade the public that art was ‘difficult’, that mere citizens could not make value judgements on art, and that we all had to trust the critics, to shut up and to toe the party line.

As artists our task as simple. We must define our art correctly. Unless we are working for social justice, our work is ‘impressionist’, or ‘figurative’, or ‘naturalistic’, or ‘romantic’. Not realist.