Statements

I’ve always drawn since the time I was four and walked out of Jackson Street Co-op with an assistant’s pencil stub in my hand. My route to painting, however, was circuitous, involving several years detour into cartooning for the world of science fiction fanzines (I was Fan Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1979). In 1989 I began seriously to paint in spare time from my Civil Service employment and with help from the Open College of the Arts, was able to progress sufficiently to win prizes and to be given my first solo show at the Northumbria University Gallery in 1995. Taking early retirement from the Civil Service in 1997, I began a BA (Hons) degree course in Fine Art at Newcastle University and graduated in 2001.

Born and brought up in the Bensham area of Gateshead, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the majority of my work should find its source in the urban environment. The play of light on buildings attracts me and I use the effects of light and shadow to make paintings based on strong abstract compositions. However, I’d describe myself and the work I produce as contemporary realist. Travels abroad, where the light is stronger, the colours brighter, have had a profound effect on my sense of colour and in recent years I’ve concentrated on developing that aspect of my work

Although I occasionally draw and paint from the subject, I see that only as a way of maintaining hand to eye co-ordination and securing a continued connection with the world outside the studio. Primarily a studio-based artist, most of my work starts with my own photographs. These are always manipulated to a greater or lesser extent, by methods including cropping, photocopying, collage and computer program. Drawings are often produced as an intermediate stage, so that the final oil painting can be produced from aspects of several processes. Developing a photographic likeness is never my aim.

As I’ve always done, I continue to live in Gateshead.

Harry Bell
21 September 2009

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OLD TOWN HALL
(oil on canvas, 12 x 14 ins)
(Presented to the Mayor of Komatsu, Japan, by the Borough of Gateshead)

On several occasions prior to my painting this picture, I’d noticed the way that, late on a winter’s day, the low sunlight catches the top of the Old Town Hall, bringing out a wonderful orange glow in the stonework. At the same time, it also strikes the top of The Sage and the yellow garage doors in the railway viaduct between.

All of this produces a memorable image, I felt. The Old Town Hall is a fine old Victorian building and this view contrasts it well with one of Gateshead’s new iconic riverside buildings. The garage doors simply lend an interesting compositional device to lead the eye into the picture.

Although I’m used to seeing the Town Hall from the top deck of a bus, it’s actually quite difficult to get a good look at it from ground level, or indeed to take a decent photograph. To get the reference photograph I used, I had to stand on a grass verge at the other side of a motorway and when working on the painting, strip away the confusion of detail in front of the building.

I prefer my paintings to take on a life of their own when I paint, so that I can respond to what is happening. As a result, although I’d begun with a purple-blue sky, I came to the conclusion that there were too many colours fighting one another, so I dispensed with the purple and opted instead for a sky made from ultramarine with a little cadmium orange in it (both colours used in the rest of the painting). This produced a much more dramatic sky of the sort I’ve often seen gathering in the east, but which I’d not anticipated finding in the picture.

But then, that's half the fun of painting: the not knowing. As Richard Diebenkorn, the American painter, said:

"I can never accomplish what I want, only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand."

Harry Bell
May 2008

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ON VENICE TRAVEL

On my second visit to Venice, I was acutely aware of the long history of artists who have painted the city, especially the great Turner, Monet and Sickert. The list of painters is so long that many are of the opinion that any original approach is by now impossible. My view, however, is that whether or not the subject has been painted a thousand times is irrelevant. It has never been painted through my eyes and one of the joys of art is that it enables us to see through another person’s eyes.

So I determined to relinquish any preconceptions and open myself up to the city. I let it present itself to me as I absorbed its atmosphere and waited to see how my own interests might be revealed, rather than those who have painted before me.

My main painting concerns over the years have been to do with the built environment and Venice amply provided subjects of architectural appeal, but what stirred my imagination was first of all the wonderful absence of cars and then the people, especially those travelling on vaporetti, the efficient and reliable water-buses of Venice.

I have previously painted pictures of staff in ticket offices at fun-fairs and there is something about the containment of people in boxes which interests me. It was something of that nature – metal boxes of people - that at first attracted me to the idea of passengers on the vaporetti. But as I examined the possibilities of the subject in my studio, I found a great deal more to explore.

First of all it allowed me to play with some interesting compositions. The picture plane could be flattened out and broken up into a series of horizontal bands of buildings, water, roof, people, boat and more water. I also found it interesting to contrast the organic forms of the passengers with the more rectilinear forms of architecture and engineering. The people themselves began to fascinate me, as they accommodated themselves aboard the water-bus, sitting on rails, holding onto the ceiling to keep from falling over, kissing in the dark. And if it isn’t too fanciful, the way they were spread across the picture brought echoes of Italian frescoes to mind.

Harry Bell
April 2008