Life & Culture

Blobs, dogs, and some seriously good painting

Amateur artists say they take up their brushes for the joy of it, but they are able to produce high-quality work too


Diana Middleweek "blobs" three or four paintings in her two-hour art class. Irene Bard has spent months diligently reproducing a photograph of the Suffolk countryside. The two women are among the country's legion of amateur artists who have discovered fulfilment and pleasure in painting, without any desire for recognition, money, or even a place on the mantelpiece.

Diana, who is 64 and from Hampstead, took up art only recently. She has framed just four of the many abstract paintings she produces every week, but says the process has taught her a great deal about herself.

"I paint blobs. It's a very free thing from my mind that I do. Technically, I'm not good at all. I have to be quick and see results. I let the paint move. I love colour, things always look happy, and that reflects me. Sometimes I look back at things I've done and think: 'Wow, did I really do that? I really like it'."

The London Jewish Cultural Centre, which is running Art House, a showcase aimed at amateur and professional artists (see the panel on this page for details), holds classes for people interested in developing their ability with brush and palette. Teacher Linda Nissen Samuels says amateurs are capable of creating high-quality works.

"Amateur artists often think of it as something they do for their own pleasure, and don't even put the paintings or work on the wall. Most are often very critical of their own work. I've had several people who I've thought are really special talents, but their partners have said: 'Oh don't waste your time'. But if you give them some freedom they come up with the most amazing work."

Seventy-eight-year-old Bernard Barnett, a part-time psychoanalyst from Fortune Green, took up painting around 20 years ago. He was struck by the atmosphere when he began taking a regular art class. "If you go into a good class, the atmosphere is tremendous. The concentration is amazing. There's nothing like it in science or literature, or even music. I enjoy that focused atmosphere."

Irene Bard, who took up painting a couple of years ago, says the method she found herself using to do watercolour landscapes, in rigid detail, has taught her a lot about herself. "I'm quite a serious person and that's what I express. I'm a thinker. I would like to use my art to express my feelings, but I don't feel accomplished or free enough yet. This isn't achievement-orientated. The joy of this is that it doesn't matter how good or fast it is. The process is the pleasure. That's really important for me."

"My mother used to paint," she adds. "I've enjoyed using my hands all my life. But I never thought I would enjoy painting. When my children began getting on with their lives, I realised there were gaps in my life, and one was that I wasn't using my hands."

She had also developed a deep affinity with the Suffolk countryside. "I thought painting would make me really see my environment. I wanted to learn to see."

Different subjects inspired different artists, but Nissen Samuels says that amateur artists often find it easier to paint subjects to which they have an emotional attachment. She says: "One thing people always like to do is paint on holiday, or go with a sketchbooks. People often sketch their parents or grandparents, from life or photographs. Some people have beautiful gardens and will bring flowers in to paint. I encourage abstract work, but it doesn't happen very often. Generally people like figurative work more."

Bernard has produced nearly 30 paintings, mainly of his pets and family members. "My pets are what I paint and I've drawn and painted portraits of my grandchildren. I like to do literary themes; I've got a painting of Huckleberry Finn, sitting on a log. I concentrate on still life, drawing nudes or portraits. I don't think I'd ever try sculpture or ceramics, I'm happy with my brush.

"I've got two cats now and I did have a cat and a dog, I've got loads of paintings of them. Doing fur is very difficult; it's hard to get right. But I prefer painting lively things."

Even for an abstract artist like Diana, surroundings can be inspiring. "I took my little travel art box with me when my husband and I went away for five days to Spain and I had such joy sitting on our balcony, in a different light and looking ahead and interpreting what I saw."

The class at the LJCC has regular exhibitions, but most of the artists prefer the keep their talents hidden, or reserved for family members. Bernard says: "I exhibited in a café in Belsize Park once. But mostly it's for fun. I give them to my family; my son loves the ones of pets."

Irene adds: "I have an extremely harsh critic in my husband - I hugely respect his opinion. The first time I brought something home and he says: 'That can go on the wall' was just the most amazing thrill. I hope the paintings I do say something about me."

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