Monday 31 August 2020

CBSO celebrates 100 years

CBSO celebrates 100 years!
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

I was born in Longbridge Lane, Birmingham in 1933, in the shadow of the Austin car factory where my father worked. That year Hitler came to power and seven years later he was sending his bombers to hit Birmingham’s industrial centres. Fortunately by then our family had moved to the safety of rural Worcestershire (where the sauce comes from).

After the war, in 1949 I returned to Birmingham at the age of sixteen to study painting at the College of Art and to marvel at the grotesque bombed ruins - fascinating sketchbook subjects. By the fifties, with no money for lunch, I would be popping over to the free lunchtime concerts at the Town Hall by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where the charismatic Viennese Rudolf Schwarz (who had miraculously survived two Nazi concentration camps) was about to become chief conductor. Thanks to this Maestro and the CBSO I got a significant introduction to classical music – a new world of inspiration was opening up to me that would characterise my life’s work. I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t have studied music. But my instrument was already the paintbrush.

Decades later, the old war-scarred industrial city of Birmingham was changing into a dynamic cultural centre, with a splendid new Symphony Hall for the CBSO. My association with some of those changes and the story of my life painting music was recorded (in 1993) in a fifty-minute documentary for BBC Television: Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra. It linked my paintings of great musicians to the sound of the music that inspired them (so that you heard the painting, as it were), then continued with a live performance of my kinetic painting with the CBSO, conducted by Simon Rattle. 

A clip from the 1993 BBC documentary "Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra"
And now, on September 5th 2020, to celebrate the Centennial of this world-famous orchestra, Sir Simon is conducting a concert in, of all places, a warehouse in my birthplace in Longbridge! The concert will be live-streamed for all.

After the 1993 televised highlight twenty-five years went by, before my meeting with the new Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla led to another CBSO collaboration. She agreed with me that The Sea by the legendary Lithuanian artist/composer Čiurlionis (1875-1911) would be the perfect work to combine with my fluid lyrical painting, as a total work of art. After forty-five years of live performances worldwide, this concert on February 16th. 2019, appropriately in Birmingham Symphony Hallwas to be my swan song.

CBSO playing the 2019 UK premier of The Sea by Čiurlionis, with my simultaneous live paintings on screen.

I feel so grateful that I can, with considerable nostalgia, scroll through a lifetime of associations with the CBSO and that I found the opportunities to make portraits of four of their Music Directors in full swing, Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo, Andris Nelsons and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. 

 Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting Mahler 1 with the CBSO in 2017. 
Watercolour 1491 x 1428 cm.
N.B. The CBSO has been nominated for the 
Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award. Vote here for your support before Sept. 7th!

Saturday 22 August 2020

Frans Brüggen


My Frans Brüggen (1934-2014)
 has found a good home

It gives me great pleasure that my watercolour of the legendary virtuoso recorder player Frans Brüggen has found a good home in the hands of an excellent recorder player who was one of his many fans. As a young man, he was the idol of would-be recorder players worldwide, myself included!

Painted in 1983, shortly after Frans co-founded the wonderful Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, of which he became such a dedicated conductor. I seized the opportunity to make sketches during rehearsals when my late wife the cellist Vivian King played briefly in the orchestra. Soon after this Frans gave up the recorder to devote all of his energies to his orchestra.
Frans Brüggen, watercolour  61 x 48 cm, 1983

In those years, I was searching for a free way to go with flow, to suggest the movement in a less is more style. The following year I was in Japan, soaking up the freedom of their brushwork. Here's the Link to my blog on that line of thought around 1984.

Frans Brüggen conducting 62 x 57 cm, chalk, 1983

pencil sketch of Frans conducting, approx. 40 x 30 cm. 
(The drawings are still for sale, by the way).

Sunday 19 July 2020

A deeply emotional encounter

A deeply emotional encounter

I've made many pencil sketches of sleeping babies, but never a painting of such an irresistible personality, only twelve days old. The first time I took her in my arms, I hummed Brahms' Wiegenlied (Lullaby) to her. She became very still and gazed up at me with those alert enquiring eyes. It was love and understanding at first sight. I looked at her very long fingers and thought: Oh yes, she's going to be a cellist, like her late grandmother Vivian, or perhaps an oboist like her grandfather Maarten. I was deeply moved.
                        My watercolour of Liv Vivian Maria Perryman, 21 x 28 cm, July 7th 2020.

In a way, we had met before. When I painted my portrait of her mother Lorena, she was listening, nestled inside. Here's the Link to that event:

Four months later, unexpectedly her mother had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. The Amsterdam stairway was too narrow, so the fire-brigade came to the rescue and Mom was whisked out of the window. Meanwhile Liv was nestling in the safe arms of her father Alex. To sooth our mutual anxiety I dashed off this little card for her, to say that her Opa was also cradling and rocking her gently in the branches of the old tree outside my window. Alex said she couldn't take her eyes off it. My dear granddaughter had become my youngest fan. (Here's the Link to my earlier painting of that tree, as a self-portrait).

Liv Perryman, born June 25th, 2020

Share my tears of joy with that lovely 3-minute Brahms Lullaby

Sunday 7 June 2020

a single black brushstroke

a single black brushstroke

My language is the brushstroke. I load my brush, focus, then breathe out with the stroke, to make a mark full of power, peace and joy, expressing my innermost feelings. But wait...... what has happened here? This simple stroke betrays anger, distress, fragility, shattered emotions. I'm breathless, lost for words. I'm not the only one. 


Saturday 9 May 2020

Self-portrait in a treetop

Self-portrait in a treetop

What on earth can a portrait-painter do in a lock-down crisis? As I looked in the mirror, the answer was staring me in the face. I must paint another self-portrait. It's my way to reflect, to re-assess where I'm at. I know that my face will betray my innermost feelings, so it will demand honest scrutiny and focus. That's why our self-portraits look serious. I'm thinking of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo.

I'm in self-isolation on the fourth floor of my building, virtually in the treetops. The trees are my old friends, still going strong, so we greet each other every morning. As an English boy isolated in the woodlands of Worcestershire during the war, I would climb into a treetop and cradle myself in its branches, gently swaying in the breeze, dreaming about the future, listening to the drone of propeller-driven warplanes, high up on their way to somewhere else. I can still remember that soothing feeling of being cradled. Now, nearly eighty years later, I can almost touch the branches of the plane trees of my Amsterdam street. Lock-down? I'm on top of the world.

Self-portrait in a tree-top, watercolour 42 x 41 cm. 2020.

So who is this man in the treetop? Well, he does have a critical eye, perceptive but not unfriendly. Possibly just on the verge of a smile. A quiet observer, reflecting, enquiring, empathetic, thankful to still be alive in these difficult times.
Here's the Link to an earlier blog and watercolour of my old tree.

Monday 4 May 2020

Ravel's Kaddish with Daniel Hope

Ravel's Kaddish with Daniel Hope

Daniel Hope's series of 30 Hope@Home programmes with other prominent musicians, broadcast live by ARTE Concert from his living-room in Berlin, has provided entertainment, solace, support, joy and inspiration for millions of viewers worldwide in these difficult times, when many are in compulsory lock-down at home. His fascinating programmes of short works included part of Ravel's Kaddish - inspired by a Jewish prayer of praise and mourning. 

I painted kinetic images to this work live with Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer in 2016, as part of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Lübeck, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Yehudi Menuhin, who on April 22nd. this year would have been 104. 

Daniel introduced our performance with a poignant story about his dear friend and mentor. After a performance in Düsseldorf together on March 7th 1999, with Yehudi conducting, he encouraged Daniel to play an encore. Daniel spontaneously chose the Kaddish. Yehudi listened, sitting quietly in the orchestra. It turned out to be their last concert. Five days later Yehudi passed away. 

As I painted this agonisingly beautiful work, I found it difficult not to be overcome with emotion, as my kinetic colours flowed gently away, for ever, with a very slow fade out, to a hall in total silence. We felt that we had created a worthy tribute to our dear friend. Here is the five minute video of my studio-rehearsal, for which I used Daniel's recording with pianist Jacques Ammon. 


In these strange times, we can all find time to pause for five minutes to reflect, to mourn and to praise life. I hope that this slowly changing image will offer you calm and healing or even, when you need, a way to simply let go.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Songs for sax and voices

Songs for sax and voices

Who remembers the 1994 ECM Records album Officium? The legendary producer Manfred Eicher brought jazz and experimental saxophonist Jan Garbarek together with early music vocal group the Hilliard Ensemble: the collaboration became a world hit. 

These sacred 13th -16th century songs float upwards and reverberate in the acoustics of an Austrian monastery, seemingly suspended in space, while Garbarek improvises, meandering around and through these vocals with subtle, brilliant and mysterious colours. The whole takes us out of this world, to some other level. Listening again after twenty-five years, I found myself entranced, inspired to improvise my own clouds of multi-layered watercolour. 
Watercolour 68 x 50 cm. And below a close-up 

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Pool your energy!

Pool your energy!

I first performed with the fabulous Dutch Circle Percussion ensemble in 1978, then regularly for thirty years or so. Here's a demonstration of how paintbrushes and drumsticks can fuse fluid and rhythmic energy. The advantage of analogue overhead projectors is that you can paint kinetic images on their plates in synch with the music, and project the visuals directly onto these great Japanese drums. The movements of the drummers combined with my brushstrokes and the organic spread of my colours are really quite theatrical.

These stills are taken from an 8 min. video that we made nearly ten years ago. We did four takes of Harumi in one day - talk about the need for stamina! But you need to see the real action, so Here's the link. Go to full screen, turn the sound right up, hold on to your seats and feel the vibe! 
At the end of the day

Here's a link to the home page of Circle Percussion 

Thursday 9 April 2020

Why hast thou forsaken me?

"......Why hast thou forsaken me?"

These words are often remembered as one of the seven last sayings of Jesus, as he hung on the Cross. Saturated as he was with the words of the Old Testament, he was intuitively quoting the desperate cries of Psalm 22, written by his ancestor the poet David, in his own darkest times.
watercolour and oil pastels, 35 x 45 cm. 2020

My painting is an expression of deepest sympathy for those thousands worldwide, believers or non-believers now at their wits end, with a terrible sense of solitude, raising their hands with the gesture common to us all. Reaching up from the dark place in which they find themselves, searching for some source of energy, some beam of light and hope. 

But come what may, despite the darkness of my painting, one thing is certain -  it's already history. Day will follow night and the cycle of nature will continue. But that's another painting........

Monday 30 March 2020

A New World?

A New World? 

In 1995 a dear friend commissioned me to paint a large watercolour for his office and we agreed that Antonín Dvořák's final symphony "From the New World", composed in New York in 1893, would make an inspiring subject. The final painting (200 x 100 cm) does not reproduce well page-size, so I would like to share with you the initial study, that already has the same energy, colours and atmosphere. 
Study for the "New World" Symphony. Watercolour. 44 x 91 cm. 1995.

I let this powerful romantic music saturate me for weeks, as it conjured up the industrial pollution of the late nineteenth century, the early sky-scrapers and tangled network of new highways, generating brushstrokes that somehow equated with the rhythms and dynamics of the music.

But other parts of this work suggested wide-open spaces, unspoiled nature. So I imagined the Great Lakes, the prairies, the Rocky Mountains and far away (if you look closely) a few teepees. And with me there's usually an ever-changing horizon.

But what is so moving in this music, especially these days, is a deep longing, perhaps for something seemingly impossible. A longing then (as now) for freedom from injustice, from inequality, from disease. Dvořák's nostalgia for the folk songs of his own European culture became interwoven with the spirit of America's earliest music and its search for a new world. Perhaps music and visuals can move us to create a new world for today, because our world surely has to change. Many of us now in isolation unexpectedly have time. Time to think about how and what things might change.

Take a few moments now to listen to the Largo movement, played by a wonderfully multi-racial New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. Start at 10.49 mins, when the English horn/cor anglais introduces that wistful melody that we all love:


Wednesday 25 March 2020



I must walk, every day. The rhythm of walking is good for mind and body and these days I share a common need for the rhythms of Beethoven's 9th. Symphony, with Schiller's Ode to Joy (Freude). One step at a time, we find resolution, hope, joy and freedom from the Virus. 

The 1989 Berlin performance celebrating the demolition of The Wall, conducted by Leonard Bernstein ten months before he died, is terribly moving. He replaced the word Freude! with Freiheit! (Freedom). To watch that youthful massed choir, with their hope of a different world, singing their hearts out for this manifestly aged Maestro, is both inspirational and nostalgic. Has anything changed much since then? Click on this Link to hear just 1.27 minutes of the finale. Wow, you really can walk to this great music!

As I walk past the Amsterdam Hilton I pause before one of the many huge bronze casts of Rodin's The Thinker. Now perhaps one of his most popular works, in 1880 Rodin intended it to be part of a huge commission: The Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante's Inferno. "Abandon every hope, who enter here". This strong figure has been brooding intently for more than a hundred years, but as I gaze up at him a beam of sunlight strikes his head. I suddenly want to shout: Hey man, what are you thinking about? Wake up! Now it's time to act! I try to get through to him, as the sunlight shifts and he seems to be sliding off a precipice into the depths. Or is it just me? Hmm, much food for thought....

My encounter with The Thinker, bronze, height 186cm., 
1980 -1917. With apologies to the grand master Auguste Rodin for my miserable sketch. His oeuvre really is 

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Painting in self-isolation

Even if tomorrow the world was coming to an end, today I would still paint.... 

(with apologies to Martin Luther: "... today I would still plant an apple tree")

I'm still in good health but as a senior citizen this week I decided to self-isolate. Still, yesterday I couldn't resist cycling through the quiet park to my Amsterdam studio, where the act of painting could sooth my soul in this time of crisis.

I grabbed an old piece of paper and without any pre-conceived notion began to improvise with watercolour and make some free marks with oil-pastels. Then the famous quote from Martin Luther somehow came to mind: "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world was coming to an end, today I would still l plant an apple tree". Well, I would still make a painting. 

Intuitively, I played the beautiful album by violinist Daniel Hope Escape to Paradise, works by European composers who fled the Nazis, to discover the new world of Hollywood and opportunities to compose film music. Music that became known as "the Hollywood Sound", but actually originated in Europe. Here's the Link. That often haunting but lovely music helped me escape the anxiety for whatever consequences the rapidly spreading virus hold for me.
Improvisation, 16th March 2020, 40 x 50 cm.

I don't know exactly what this small improvisation represents, but it came from a gut-level feeling. I leave the rest to your imagination. I'm sure there will be more to come. Visuals and music are wonderfully therapeutic. Just what we need right now.

Monday 17 February 2020

Portrait painting as a quest

Portrait painting as a quest

It was such a pleasure to portray my Mexican/Dutch daughter-in-law in watercolour and in so doing to share the joy of her expected baby. You will surely guess from her beaming expression that she wants us to know that something miraculous is going to happen. This mother-to-be is a warm colourful personality, sitting proud yet relaxing in the reds, gold and greens of her sunny culture. 

I've come to realise that painting a portrait is a timeless reflection on the origins and the prospects of your subject. Every choice of expression or colour, every brushstroke comments on and contributes to their personal history. That's quite a responsibility and a privilege. Each portrait is a quest. Where are you from? Who are you? Who do you want to be? There's no easy method, but somehow you have to zero in to something much deeper than a snapshot, much more than just a superficial "likeness". 

In my old age, I've become proudly aware of the multicultural ancestry of my grandchildren: British, American, Dutch, Mexican and very probably with Celtic origins. I wonder what my portraits will reveal to my great-grandchildren about themselves - and also about me.

As I thought lovingly of this little growing grandchild-to-be I intuitively painted the background freely with a large full brush and watched the puddles of watercolour slowly dry. Then to my amazement they turned into a little smiling face, sleeping happily just above mother's head. It was quite emotional. Thank you, my dear. What a privilege to meet you. 
Here's the link to some of my many Portraits. And the link to my portraits of great musicians in action.  

Thursday 16 January 2020

Twenty twenty calligraphy

Calligraphy as 

An artist's every brushstroke exposes his inner self to all. It's usually an art-historian who will tell the artist what he was trying to say, even though his comments may come too late. So it's refreshing when still alive and well to read an analysis of your imagery by a well-informed observer. The perceptive and esteemed Amsterdam psychologist and coach Dr. Aggie Kemper knows my work well and has been a friend in need over many years. Below are her kind comments on my New Year's card. I had just painted it spontaneously, enjoying the calligraphic opportunity, without any profound intentions (except perhaps to avoid the political bias toward red or blue and to bring them together as purple).

"Your New Year's card is something of a self-portrait, albeit an abstract one. Although it depicts 2020, one can see much than that: joy, energy, movement, all sorts of emotions. The first number two is self-assured and wants to get moving.  The first zero is open - to many possibilities. The second two seems to be taking cover behind the two zeros. Is this really 2020? And the second zero is flamboyant, also open, so as to leave behind it what is no longer relevant. The exclamation mark expresses your life that has left us many beautiful marks". (Freely translated from the Dutch).

On reflection, I notice that even though the word Peace is slightly obscured by a cloud of watercolour, happiness is emerging into the light. Was this lively painting (25 x 19 cm) a direct transposition of my feelings that day? You may not believe this, but to be honest, I was quite depressed about the world of 2019. I had to haul this painting out of some deep inner place.  But once in the swing, I do remember feeling: let's float freely, let's go for it and let's have some fun too!