Saturday, 5 October 2019

Painting Jessye Norman

Painting Jessye Norman

Watercolour 86 x 54 cm 1990, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection

This painting carries emotional memories for me. It was commissioned in mid-December 1990 by Birmingham Symphony Hall, part of the pre-publicity for Jessye Norman's concert on June 5th 1991. If I remember correctly, I was given permission to sit in at rehearsals to make sketches in Rotterdam and in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, where Jessye starred frequently. And of course I listened to every recording I could find during the making of the painting.

My diary looked like a battlefield. My wife was touring Spain with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and I was holding the fort with the kids. I had run out of my favourite Arches' watercolour paper with the SatinĂ© finish that allows the washes to float on the surface with extra brilliance. With Christmas approaching, a new roll had not yet arrived. I had set myself the challenge to create clouds of golden watercolour that would spread in a way that would "breathe" the vocal sound. I had to breathe with Jessye to make the painting sing. There's a compositional diagonal that runs from top left down to Jessye's left hand, forming the corner of a pyramid that peaks at her voice, so that the eye moves forward into that rising cloud. 

I made the deadline, Jessye loved the painting and sat for a hour after her Symphony Hall concert, majestically signing my prints. Queen Elizabeth arrived a week later, to officially open the hall. Jessye was a hard act to follow.

Many have paid tribute to the phenomenal musicianship, supreme voice and unique personality of Jessye Norman, who passed away on September 30th. I share the intense sadness of this loss. Her charm, wit, intelligence and professional perfectionism also left an unforgettable impression on anyone who shared her company. 

One could make a dozen paintings of Jessye, and I wanted to do one more, a head and shoulders portrait. When we met for high tea in her Amsterdam suite the day after a concert in 1992, I was ushered in as Mr. Perryman. Of course I had to say "Just call me Norman". She laughed and told me that when she was a little girl they used to call her Norman. We discussed possible locations for a new painting. Tanglewood, Nice, Chicago, maybe? As we sat together on the settee leafing through my photo books on her lap, I was overwhelmed at the beauty of her African-American complexion and her dramatic expressions of appreciation. What a delightful meeting that was! 

Sadly, the portrait was not to be. Later that year my wife was diagnosed with leukaemia and I had to drop everything. Four years later it was Jessye's moving recording of Beim Schlafengehen (When falling asleep) from Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs that filled the church at Vivian's funeral service.

Here's the link: Four Last Songs

Sunday, 8 September 2019

The thrill of a portrait

Share the thrill of a lively 
watercolour portrait of yourself

Who are you? Who do want to be? I love sharing the thrill and challenges in the search for the personality and inner energy, as I work intuitively to figure out how to bring out the best in everyone who entrusts me with their image. You don't have to sit for long. While I make sketches and do a photo-shoot, we enjoy an relaxing afternoon of enjoyment and discovery. It always turns out to be a creative collaboration. My portraits are more than just a likeness. The moment of unveiling will give you a surprising sense of recognition and can be quite a moving, self-affirming experience.
Here are a few examples of watercolours painted roughly life-size. Standard measurements are approximately 65 x 45cm (26 x 18 inches), without mount or frame. I use Winsor & Newton watercolour on Arches satiné paper, all museum-quality materials, so there is no risk of colour deterioration.


I live and work in Amsterdam and have a life-time's experience of portrait painting. I must have painted well over a hundred. Many people are familiar with my portraits of famous musicians like Luciano Pavarotti and Yehudi Menuhin in action, but I've also painted very many lovely people with no claims to fame. More details and images can be found on my website at 
If you want to discuss a commission, just email me at or phone me: +31.650294233. 
If you can't come to my Amsterdam studio,  I can travel  to anywhere in Europe. 



Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The fulfilment of creative work

The fulfilment of creative work

As a senior citizen of 86, I seem to be bucking the trend. Even people twenty-five years younger are dying to retire, to stop working and receive a pension, as though that is the purpose of life. I know very well that many people have good reasons to "take it easy", those in poor health, or with work-related injuries. More and more are burned out. But the widespread idea that work is by definition a penance, a boring chore and that we shall all be happier if we work less is a sad misconception. 

A recent national Dutch television series on Nieuwsuur featured me briefly in their discussion of the predicaments and risks of those facing the age of retirement, those forced to retire against their wishes and those who have to keep working to make ends meet. For Dutch speakers, here's the link: I appear at 17.00 mins and 29.04 mins.
  Standing in my projected images. Photo: Marijn Duintjer-Tebbens
Typically, artists don't know what "retirement" means. Their creative work springs from a lifelong inner necessity, a spiritual and emotional need. Even though my own so-called "work" is actually quite demanding, it's also my therapy, my inspiration, my passion, my fulfilment. So why should I stop doing what I love? I would miss my studio terribly, full of the vibes of so many projects. Usually inspired by music, the surprising beauty of what comes from my paintbrush delights and nurtures me and when I'm in the state of creative Flow (see the link to this concept ) I lose all sense of time
I hope that in my recent three and a half minutes of screen time I've been able to pass on just a hint of the therapeutic benefits of creative work "flow" to some of the 628.000 viewers and to inspire and convince more pensioners of our need to stay active. It does us all so much good in mind and body.

Having said all that, I must confess that there's another motivation for me to go on producing and hopefully selling my work. It's simply that, with only a modest pension, I still need to earn a living. Then comes the tricky question: "So when you win the lottery, of course you won't need to work any more, will you?" Aaah ...... wait a minute!

                                     An short improvisation for the camera
Admittedly, it would be great to rent a larger studio without worrying about the costs; I could also rent an apartment with a lift, although I would miss the daily climb of sixty-one steps to my fourth floor that keeps me fit; I could travel a little more, not without a sketchbook in hand for creative jottings.

But to answer your question: No, I just can't imagine life without the inner drive to create and to share. For me, work is a basic need.

Projection of a kinetic painting from a performance of Shostakovich' Hamlet Suite

Sunday, 7 July 2019

My old tree as a self-portrait

My old tree as a self-portrait

The Amsterdam house of which I rent the fourth floor apartment (no lift) was built in 1913, exactly twenty years before I was born. Probably the plane trees lining my street were planted about the same time, then cut down during the German occupation (1940-45) and re-planted after the war. So even though the one outside my balcony is a bit younger than me, as I watch him grow older we have become good friends and I like to talk to him. With the colours of the season he marks time for me. He has weathered many storms, not to mention the assaults of radical pruners. It's touching to see how he leans over toward his companions that line the street, almost arm in arm, as they share support for each other. He inspires me too, so before I do my morning exercises I open the so-called "French" windows and chat with him, reaching out over the balcony to admire his stamina and flexibility.
I'm still painting portraits, and it suddenly occurred to me that I should portray my dear friend. But during the making of this watercolour (58 x 41cm) he and I got into quite a discussion. My art teachers used to urge me to "be" the tree, if you want a convincing image of it. I said the same to my own students and now to myself. Working through sketches and studies I realised that it would be pointless just to make an exact likeness. My painting had to somehow take on a life of its own through my signature style. Although I was painting a tree, in my mind it gradually became something of a self-portrait - a symbol of my ageing self, scars and all. He is my example, still finding the energy to reach for the sky, still flexible and communicative, still standing firm and tall, still catching light and providing shade after so many years. So each brushstroke became a gesture of gratitude for a shared life. And we haven't finished painting yet.
My street in the autumn

What music do you hear in this gorgeous cathedral of colour? It'll change with the seasons of course.