My Painting Life

Art wasn’t a subject taken very seriously at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich when I attended from 1949 to 1958. The focus at that time was all on the sciences and art was only for those not bright enough to take Physics and Chemistry. There was only one art teacher for the whole school teaching everyone from the youngest juniors to the few taking Art at A level.

Our art teacher was a heavy smoker, so much so that her fingers and the front of her white hair were stained yellow, not with paint but with nicotine. Her method of teaching was to set a subject and then disappear into the little storage room off the main art room, leaving the door ajar which allowed tell-tale wisps of smoke to escape. Periodically she would emerge and walk round the class. The only advice I ever remember being given was to draw much larger. Anything was good enough as long as it was large. Occasionally, she would push a child aside, take their seat and proceed to show them how it should be done. I suppose I could have learned something from this, but I was always so incensed at my work being defaced that as soon she moved on to someone else, I would rip it up and get a fresh sheet of paper.

I remember one of the subjects we were set was ‘workers leaving the factory gates’. I suppose she was thinking of Lowery, but few of us would have ever heard of Lowery. Why would we? We were taught nothing of art history. In history lessons we were taught chronologically starting in the stone age, but nothing about stone age art. Then we worked through the Kings and Queens of England, occasionally venturing into the Empire until we reached the modern day when it changed to something called civics with no artistic connection whatsoever. And factories. What was she thinking about? This was a leafy south London suburb and I doubt if any of us had ever seen a factory. Our parents worked in offices, shops and even possibly railway premises, but not in factories.

This teacher eventually retired, not before time, in the year I was to take my ‘0’ levels. Her replacement was very different. For one thing she was young and if my memory is correct very beautiful with smooth dark hair, green eyes and long curly eyelashes. She had an infectious laugh and really stood out in a school where the criteria for teachers seemed to be that they should be beyond a certain age, of unprepossessing appearance and totally lacking a sense of humour. Her teaching methods were very different too and it showed in the quality and variety of work starting to be displayed on the walls of the art room. However, I think she felt it was too late for our class, so with us she was less adventurous concentrating on what was needed to get us through ‘0’ levels.

I left school after ‘0’ Levels to go to secretarial college and didn’t do any artwork for many years, although I was always a compulsive doodler, covering my exercise books and writing pads with strange little creatures and fantastical patterns. I did occasionally get out my old watercolours at home, but was never very happy with the results. It wasn’t until I’d been out at work for a number of years that I joined an evening class at the City Lit in London. I tentatively showed some of my work to the teacher, Michael. ‘’Hmm he said. Well you seem to know how to handle paint, but they’re a bit precious aren’t they?’ Precious! I was devastated. What did he mean? Over the months I attended his class, I discovered, as he encouraged me to be much braver, to treat each painting as an adventure and not have too rigid an idea of the outcome. I painted some very strange pictures during this period.

I stopped attending the City Lit when I moved jobs and stopped travelling into town every day. Besides by then I had a horse, which took up most of my spare time and meant I was travelling out into the country rather than into the centre. It wasn’t until I had a young baby and was at home all day that I joined a local further education class in Sevenoaks, while my in-laws looked after the baby for a couple of hours.

This class was called ‘Look and Paint’ and our instructor, Joy Diebel was an amazing and inspirational teacher who completely changed my approach, understanding and motivation. Her philosophy was that you learn to paint by learning to see and the world never looked quite the same again. She set some challenging subjects. One of the first exercises was to paint a couple of stacked chairs using only the spaces in between the objects. Later we were set a still life where all the objects were white against a white sheet and on another occasion all the objects were shiny, copper, silver and brass. In the holidays, she gave up her own time to take us outside to paint in different locations, sometimes looking into the distance, sometimes close up. My most successful painting was when she made me sit on the edge of a dense wood looking in amongst the trees. What a lot of variations there are to the colour green. The class was made up of regular members who signed up year after year. I would have gone on for ever had we not moved from Kent to Oxfordshire.

I was now completely hooked on painting and looked around for a comparable class. I tried several, but none inspired me and what painting I did was mostly under my own steam. Every year we attend the Art in Action event at Waterperry Gardens and I always came back with new painting materials and driven by an undirected need to be creative. My favourite artist was Christiane Kubrick whose paintings always excited me. When for several consecutive years she wasn’t there, I looked her up on the web and found that she offered weekend painting classes at her home in Childwickbury, Hertfordshire. It was an hour and half’s drive away, but once again I was hooked. I’d almost given up my aspiration to paint, but this was renewed and I went whenever I could to take advantage of the generous encouragement and advice from Christiane and her assistants her daughter, Katherine and her friend, Camilla Clutterbuck.

Over my life three teachers have been my painting inspiration. Michael at the City Lit taught to be brave, Joy showed me how to look and provided useful rules to follow, Christiane taught me that rules are good, but there to be broken.