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Art Masterclass   

                              March 2007

Each month presents a feature from either The Artist or its sister publication, Leisure Painter.     

Art masterclass  

from The Artist, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;

This month: an  'Artists  of the world' feature from the current edition of The Artist, the magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters.






Past and Present


Diarmuid Kelley reveals how he has been influenced by artists of the past in producing his striking semi-abstract portraits and still lifes in oils




Diarmuid Kelley's appreciation of the cool, north European light and palette is reflected in his sensitively considered and beautifully crafted images, all of which are painted from life and all of which succeed in capturing an intriguing, timeless mood and context.

Diarmuid paints people, these being friends rather than formal, commissioned portraits; and also intimate still lifes and, more recently, a number of diptychs.




Hangover Square, oil on canvas, 28 34in. (71 86cm)



Untitled, 2004, oil on canvas, 16 18in. (40.5 46cm)


In the diptychs he is seeking a fresh, original way to present and view representational work, setting a painted still-life image adjacent to a blank, single-colour canvas. Challenging and experimental, the diptychs are, he says: "A means of absorbing history and the concerns of abstract painting into objective painting."Although the subject matter is important it is, in a sense, secondary to the philosophy and intention behind Diarmuid's paintings.

"When I was at college I really liked religious paintings and works involving very rich chiaroscuro," he explains. "But there didn't seem to be any contemporary means or context appropriate for that kind of look and spiritual quality. Gradually, however, I found a way of introducing such qualities into the neutral territory of what were ostensibly portraits. Here I discovered that I could take something that is quite innocuous and inject it with a certain grandeur, hopefully without seeming too pretentious. It is a very difficult balancing act that relies a great deal on the effect of light and pose.

"In fact, my interests and influences come from many different sources, albeit mainly from artists of the past rather than contemporary painters. I particularly like the work of Harold Gilman and other members of the Camden Town Group, and another inspiration is Caravaggio, from the drama and chiaroscuro in his paintings. I also admire the way that various artists have managed to create an intensity and narrative with simple, everyday objects — Zurbaran, for example, and William Nicholson. In my own work light is always an important feature and I aim to capture a momentary effect of light. But in terms of the image, the nature of the subject, the clothes that someone is wearing and so on, I want those elements to convey a timeless quality."

Natural light

"I paint everything in the studio, where my preference is for working in grey, static natural light. The studio is lit by a big, north-facing skylight and normally I work on one painting at a time, in fact using a light chamber — a device that looks a bit like a Wendy house — in which to place the subject and so create the exact light effect I require. Consequently my work is very dependent on the weather and often I only have a day's advance notice in knowing what I am going to paint or who is sitting for me.

"The light chamber has one window at right-angles to the light source, which is therefore shielded from the light but allows me to view the subject, and one window exposed to the light.





Not for all the Tea in China, oil on canvas, 193?4 153?4in. (50 40cm)











Untitled, oil on canvas, 141?2 11in. (37 28cm)


I can mask this window to whatever extent is necessary to achieve a specific light effect. This device is extremely adaptable: it enables me to contrive a particular mood for the painting, yet means that my canvas is in full daylight so that I can work effectively.

"Whatever the subject matter, I think painting is a very theatrical process. There is always the potential to create an interesting narrative through the way that the subject is lit, together with the particular pose of the model
or arrangement of the still life. In this respect painting becomes a subtle language and you can develop a sense of melancholy or vulnerability where none exists. Using this language, it is virtually impossible not to infer a
narrative or an emotional content.

"Similarly, I think that creating a likeness is inescapable. You cannot successfully paint what is in front of you unless you capture a likeness because, for instance, the proportions will not work and everything will look wrong. However, likeness is not the most important aspect. For me, each painting is primarily a study in light rather than character. And with the still lifes it is always a balance between the visual dynamic — usually something remarkable about the colour — and the relationship between the objects themselves. Before I start painting I spend quite a long time moving things around, until I arrive at a composition that feels right. I like the composition to be fully resolved at the outset.

"However, occasionally, after a certain amount of work on a still-life painting, I realise that in fact the composition is more effective when viewed from a slightly different angle, and in such cases I will probably need to begin again. In any case I often make several paintings from the same group of objects. Obviously the main problem when painting vegetables, fruit or flowers in a still life is that they soon wilt or change form in some way, so you have to paint quickly. Given the right lighting conditions I can paint a still life in a day. A more complex arrangement might take two or three days but not longer; otherwise there is a danger of losing the momentum."

Initial drawing

For the paintings of people Diarmuid starts with some pencil studies to define the pose and provide an additional source of reference. These drawings are useful because the sitter will not be able to maintain the precise pose indefinitely and is unlikely to be available for the full duration of the painting.
He begins on the canvas in the same way, with an accurate pencil drawing "to eliminate the variables".

His palette for painting people includes cerulean blue or manganese blue, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, Winsor red, yellow ochre, sap green and titanium white. For the still lifes the palette varies, to suit the subject matter.
Diarmuid paints on fine linen canvas which he stretches and prepares himself, essentially using an acrylic primer applied in a particular way to establish the right surface quality. Subsequently he adds a coloured ground, mixed from thinned oil paint.


The Best Thing Since Powdered Milk, oil on canvas, 11 28in. (28 71cm)



You're a Pink Toothbrush, I'm a Blue Toothbrush, oil on canvas, 14 171?2in. (35.5 44.5cm)


Millions Like Us, oil on canvas, 20 18in. (51 46cm)


The preparation of the canvas is important because he often incorporates areas of unpainted canvas as a considered part of the composition. Once the drawing is in place Diarmuid concentrates on developing a simplified version of the subject by looking at the main tonal areas and painting these in the appropriate colours. At this stage the painting consists essentially of blocks of colour, without blending: what Diarmuid describes as "an almost pixelated version of the image". Then it is a matter of refining these areas, so that the colour and paint handling express the required effect.

"I aim for a sense of coherence," he says. "Therefore, if I'm working on a face or a hand it will be set up and finished all in one session. If it doesn't go well, I scrape it down or paint over it. I continue in this way, although there is no set procedure. I'm not really aware of exactly what I do: it just sort of happens!

"I'm fascinated by the fact that painting is an old medium and that it carries an aura of the past. No doubt my interest in various aspects of art history — my study of Bellini and other Venetian painters, for example — have encouraged me to infer a degree of intensity and spirituality in my work. I also think that there is a kind of vulnerability in the way that I choose poses and that this in turn creates an intimacy in the painting which is not evident in more formal portraiture.

"In the past I have seldom painted women. One reason for this is that I did not want to risk making paintings that were, in a sense, too pretty. But there are also more complex issues regarding the pose and the general depiction of women, and these are challenges that I should now like to confront. It means building a different kind of language of composition; a different kind of theatre. And this is something I am working on at the moment."





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