Still life

English Catholic Artist James Gillick Speaking at Thomas More College on January 21st

James Gillick one of the UK's most successful artists, will be speaking at Thomas More College in the library building at the campus in Merrimack, NH this coming Tuesday at 7pm. Jim, who is a good friend of mine and a devout Catholic, paints both mundane and sacred subjects. He is devoted to the re-establishment of a culture of beauty, not only through his own work, but by teaching. He offers up to four working apprenticeships a year. This is an intensive course in which apprentices are expected to work very hard. He teaches not only technique, but also the business skills of being an artist such as marketing and book-keeping. His talk is open to the public and will be of interest to any who are interested in the arts, but will be of particular value to those who really want to make it as and artist. James is not precious about what he does - he has a refreshing, down-to-earth practicality about his work and the way he discusses it. He is based in Lincolnshire in England and sells through the top galleries in London.

He is largely self taught (although he has the advantage of coming from a family of working artists) and his Catholicism informs his work - he consciously paints in the baroque style . I am particularly fond of his still lives.

When we look at any scene, we do not take it all in, in a single glance. Rather the eye, which has an angle of focus of only about 15 degrees roves around the scene, gathering information that is stored in the memory. We tend naturally to spend more time on those aspects of what is in front of us that we are most interested in and so we have most information about those areas.  Those areas that are of less interest we pass over quickly. At any moment, the image on the retina of the eye has a central region that is in sharp focus, and has the greater colour. Peripheral vision is, in contrast, blurred and depleted of colour (the cells in that part of the retina can only transmit tonal information). The reason that we are not conscious of this is that the picture we see in our mind’s eye is supplemented by information given to it by the brain and which is supplied by the memory. If the memory does not have information about this particular scene, then the brain will supplement the picture, so to speak, with what it feels ought to be there based upon what has been seen in elsewhere. This is usually pretty reliable, but not always. (Illusionists manipulate this, for example, by tricking the mind to supply a picture of something that isn’t there.)

The naturalistic painting of the baroque period (the 17th century), developed a balance of focus and colour that mimicked this natural way of looking at things. The assumption behind it was that mankind is hardwired to appreciate the hand of the Creator in his creation and if the artist works in harmony with the way we see, then the well painted artwork will similarly, through its beauty, point us to the ultimate source of inspiration of the artist. Those areas that are of primary interest in the composition are rendered in sharper focus and contain more detailed information. Similarly, most of the painting, which the artist intends for us to see in peripheral vision is depleted of colour and rendered in monochrome (usually sepia). When this is handled skillfully the artist controls the passage of the eye over the canvas using the interplay of sharp contrast in tone and sharp edges, and supplies greatest detail and colour in those areas that are naturally of greatest interest. They are also the areas that contain most colour.

The academic method of drawing and painting, which was the basis of the baroque style, is gaining ground again, but this baroque balance of focus and tone is not always understood, and even more rarely properly applied. (I am likely to be making this point many times in this blog.) However, James Gillick (who interestingly did not learn his craft one of today’s ateliers of Florence or the US) is certainly someone who is pointing the way to something good for the future: his muted palette and sharp contrast of light and dark is sensitive to the methods of the Old Masters. You can see more of his work at .


The Still Lives of Deirdre Riley

Teacher of Thomas More College students I recently featured the work of students from Thomas More College who are in the St Luke Guild and learned the traditional academic method of drawing. Their teacher was Deirdre Riley, who has been studying with Paul Ingbretson for five years. Here are some examples of her still lives. Deidre Riley can be contacted through








Cosmic Onions? What does a Still Life Have to Do with the Liturgy

It is said that all the great art movements begin on the altar. So, for example, the gothic style began as the style for gothic churches and cathedrals in harmony with the liturgy. However, very quickly the architecture of mundane buildings of the period reflected that form too, adapted as appropriate to the purpose of the building (the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge immediately come to mind). Similarly, the baroque style of art and architecture, which began as liturgical forms, became the model for all building and art of the period, with for example, the portraits and landscapes of the 17thcentury reflecting the stylistic forms of the liturgical art of Ribera, Velazquez and Rubens. This is not just an arbitrary extension of style into non religious subjects. It is consistent with the idea that the whole of the cosmos reflects and points to the rhythms and patterns of the heavenly liturgy. So any art form that is in harmony with the liturgy, will also be harmony with the cosmos. The cosmos, in the context of this discussion, is the mundane. I repeat a remark made to me recently (and no doubt will do so in the future, for it says it so well): the Mass is a jewel in its setting, which is the Liturgy of the Hours; and in turn the liturgy as a whole is itself a jewel in its setting, which is the cosmos. When we perceive God's creation as a thing of wonder and beauty, we are recognizing at a deeply intuitive level, the harmonious relationships between all aspects of the cosmos and the heavenly order. The heavens point to Heaven and circle is completed.

The work of man, through God's grace can, simply through its beauty, participate in this cosmic order and therefore direct the souls of mankind to the heavenly order too, believer and non-believer alike. It is through the mundane aspects of Catholic culture that we look to therefore, to lay the groundwork, so to speak, of drawing the non-believers to God, for it will be very likely the first aspect of Catholic culture that they will have contact with. A beautiful landscape or still life can open up the souls so that they might become fertile ground for the later sowing of the seed of the word.

The baroque painting of the 17th century, is a naturalistic form that is every bit as integrated with the Catholic worldview as the iconographic. The baroque portrays our naturalistic world as imperfect, fallen, but nevertheless still good. It's aim is to acknowledge the presence of evil and suffering, while offering hope through Christ that transcends it. Much of the visual vocabulary of the tradition is linked to contrast of despair and the hope that transcends it for example in the symbolism of light contrasted with darkness; of variation of focus in which those areas of primary interest are sharper and crisper than those of secondary interest; and of variation in colour in which those areas of primary interest are rendered in naturalistic colour, while those of secondary interest are rendered tonally in monochrome. In the context of sacred art, I have written about it, for example here.

A simple still life, therefore, can portray the work of God or man (inspired by God) and it does so by employing the same visual tools. Whereas a landscape looks at the broad horizon in wonder, the still life invites contemplation of the small and ordinary aspects of everyday life. through them we can see how even these small otherwise unremarkable details of the day conform to and participate in the same liturgical dynamic as the grand cosmos. The Christian artist can create cosmic vegetables, or cosmic pots and pans that, in the words of the Canticle of Daniel, ‘give praise to Lord’.

The model to look to in this regard is the French 18th century artist, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin. His is the painting shown above. The person who drew my attention to Chardin is Henry Wingate, a Catholic and Virginia-based artist who is a wonderful painter of portraits and still lives. (He is also a gifted teacher who his teaching the naturalistic drawing class at the Thomas More College summer program this year.)

I show below an example of a still life by Wingate which reflects, in my opinion, the baroque vision of the world. I you wish to see more I posted a series of his still lives recently, here; and for those who are interested, I have written about his portraits here.

Above: still life by Henry Wingate; below: Jar of Olives and Silver Cup, by Chardin (1699 - 1779)

The Still Lives of Henry Wingate - teacher at the TMC Summer Program

Henry Wingate is an internationally known artist in the Western naturalistic tradition. Based in Virginia, he excels particularly at portraits (he is has a waiting list of commissions) and still lives. I have written in the past about how his portraits reflect the baroque form. Here are some examples of his still lives. Henry is also a a gifted teacher who will once again direct students in the naturalistic drawing class this summer at the Thomas More College's Way of Beauty Atelier this summer. The two-week drawing course will not only teach the traditional academic method (which has its roots in the methods developed by Leonardo Da Vinci) but will supported by regular talks by myself and Henry about the tradition, which is a form fully integrated with the Catholic worldview as well as traditional compositional design and proportion.