Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

The power of simplicity in this baroque masterpiece

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The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. Source Wikimedia Commons

Look at this painting. What is going on in it? An ageing man is working at a wooden table. He has an ink quill in his hand and a book open before him. His work has been interrupted by a young boy. Their eyes are locked in an intense dialogue. The boy appears to be descending from above.

Look at the boy more closely. Can you quite tell how he hangs there? The way the light falls on his arms and shoulders makes his upper torso easy to see. The rest of his body, as it disappears into those swirling folds of white fabric, is less straight forward to determine. He is part human and part something else. …

A captivating exploration of light by the Dutch master

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Young Woman with a Water Jug (1660–1662) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This painting, made by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer in around 1662, shows a woman stood beside a window. It is most likely morning; her day begins with collecting water in a silver pitcher and basin with which she will wash herself.

Her arm reaches towards the window to open it. From her hand on the window frame there is a continuous line, wave-like, that runs across the image from left to right, through her shoulders to the jug and other objects on the table. The line is completed by the bundle of blue fabric on the right-hand side.

This undulating line is given geometric balance by the three rectangles that enter the image from the sides: the window, the table and the map on the wall. See how these rectangles break through the edges of the painting and create an interesting three-part frame around the figure of the woman. …

The course of Western art at the dawn of the 20th century

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Composition 6 (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg. Image source Wikimedia Commons

When I was a student of art history, I remember our lecturer showing us a slide of a painting by Edgar Degas painted in 1879. The impression it made on me has lasted for several decades, so it seems like a good place to start when telling the story of modern art.

The painting shows a scene from a circus: an acrobat hanging by a rope clenched between her teeth. A number of things struck me about the painting at the time. …

Various ways that artists have represented the passage of time

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How our modern notion of artistic “genius” came into being

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Self-portrait or “Philosophy” (c.1645) by Salvator Rosa. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Image source Wikimedia Commons. The Latin inscription reads, “Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence.”

The word artist has an illustrious ring about it. From Michelangelo to Mozart, we tend to think of artists as individuals in possession of special gifts of creativity. Deeply intertwined is the notion of “genius” — suggestive of some sort of exquisite sensibility integral to artistic creation.

Yet artists weren’t always considered in this way. The journey from artisan to artist began with the medieval guild system in which a “masterpiece” had a very different meaning compared with today.

Artist as craftsman

The old European guild system was an important part of the social fabric in European towns and cities between the 11th and 16th centuries. …

How a female artist broke with convention in this vivid and gruesome painting

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Take some time to look at this painting. It is dramatic and gruesome. It is also complicated.

It was painted by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was she a supremely talented painter, she was also unusual for being a woman in a predominantly male profession. In 17th-century European art, Artemisia was an exception. Her willingness to challenge convention meant she become the first woman to gain membership to the Florence Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1616. …

The birth of an Olympian goddess as an emblem of sacred love

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The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) by Sandro Botticelli. Tempera on canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Alessandro Botticelli’s painting of The Birth of Venus has few rivals in the history of art. It is not only an intricately composed image, but at nearly three metres wide, it achieves a level of spatial grandeur that elevates it to a type of painted theatre.

The scene that unfolds before our eyes is simple to grasp: Venus floats on the sea on a large scallop shell, blown towards the shore by the breath of two wind-gods, whilst a nymph waits on dry land to cover her in a pink cloak.

According to one of the earliest Greek poets, Hesiod, Venus’ birth was a result of the castrated genitals of Uranus being cast out into the sea. Venus floated ashore on the shell and finally landed at Paphos in Cyprus (other traditions say she landed on the island Kythira). Her Greek name, Aphrodite, is probably derived from the Greek word for foam, aphros. …

Step by step watercolor tutorial for painting a tree in its autumnal splendor

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Image by the author.

As summer passes and the shades of nature ebb towards beautiful shades of red, yellow and brown, trees become an irresistible subject for painting. In my local park, the beeches and oaks are all on the turn, but it is the maple trees that express this change of season so magnificently.

I think the key to making a successful painting of one of these trees is to attempt to capture the transition, giving you the chance to use an array of shades — from light green to dark brown — to achieve a finished painting that maintains the fullest expression of the palette. …

A single word: Control

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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The overwhelming reason that independent publishing has captured my imagination is that it offers control over my writing career in a way that a traditional pathway could not.

“Control” can mean different things to different people. For me it means this: control over how I present my writing, control over which marketing methods I use to promote it, control over how often I publish, control over how I blend the different strands of my writing interests, and control over how I define myself as a writer into the future.

Having read and listened to countless other authors give advice about the choices open to hopeful novelists or non-fiction writers, I’ve come to a fairly clear conclusion about the benefits and shortcomings of going it alone. …

A vivid and telling portrait of Parisian bourgeois in the sun

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A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886) by Georges Seurat. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Georges Seurat’s painting of a Sunday afternoon in Paris appears, at first glance, to celebrate the carefree hours of a series of well-to-do families.

The colours are glowing, almost luminous, as if the sun that shines down on this strip of land has somehow woven into the fabric of the canvas and has been captured there, forever shining.

Seurat achieved this effect by making his painting with tiny dots of pure colour. He was a student of colour theory and studied the works of Michel Eugène Chevreul and other colour theorists active at the time. …

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