Thursday, 6 December 2007

Have a dull and dismal Xmas

That seems to be the message we're getting here in Northampton. In their ultimate wisdom, our illustrious Local Authority boffins have really gone to town with the town center Christmas decorations this year .... we've got none!!! Well, that's not quite true. We've got a string of white bulbs round the Market Square and a big tree ... covered in white bulbs. Boy oh boy.

There was a time when our Town Center was a joy to behold. We could go to the shops in the evening, and stroll through the pedestrianised center soaking up the spirit of Christmas. Going back even further, when Abington Street was still open to traffic, we had large illuminated decorations that were worth travelling from afar to see. But year after year, the number of decorations and the standard of them, has progressively reduced. Over recent years, the standard has become so poor that it is hard to imagine how things could get any worse. But hats off to our council ... they managed it. Poor became bad, bad became pathetic, and now pathetic has become embarrassing.

Someone in Sheffield told me this week that they never hear Northampton mentioned on the television news. Hardly surprising, I thought, as we're not exactly 'local' to Sheffield. However, this week Northampton was on the news in Sheffield - as the most UNdecorated town center in the country. How embarrassing is that?

No doubt our local officials are aware of some strategic rationale that justifies such an appalling demonstration of how not to spread good cheer at this festive time, but it defeats me. Cost cutting I can understand, but I understand about false economy also, and that's what this is. If our retailers report below average shoppers, especially from out of town, who will be surprised.

Still, on a positive note, it can't get worse than this, so Christmas 2008 can only be an improvement. Right? Let's hope so.

Merry Christmas from me.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Monthly Painting Project.

This is great fun, but probably the most challenging project that we run in the art forum. One of our members posts a photograph of an object, scene, view and then the rest of us try and paint it. All of the paintings are emailed to me and I display them side-by-side on a web page at the end of the month. We then all get to see how everyone else tackled the subject, appreciating the area's where others did better than us, and where we did better than others.

It's very important to appreciate that I insist on a non-competetive atmosphere in the forum. By this, I don't mean people aren't interested in doing the very best they can, I mean that we don't set out to try and do better than each other. At the end of every month, no one says "Oh, his is the best" or "So-and-so's is worst". It's not about 'competing', it's about self-appraisal. As a result, even the most inexperienced beginner does not feel awkward or inferior if their painting isn't as good as some of the others - they learn from it, and that is the purpose. In addition, even the more experienced painters will find themselves faced with a subject they'd never considered attempting previously. It takes them out of their comfort zone and presents them with a new challenge.

We have held 7 such monthly projects now, and every one has been greeted by a myriad of groans along the lines of "Oh my goodness - we'll never paint that!". At the end of the month there are just as many surprised voices saying "Wow - that was great - I'm really pleased with my effort".

In respect for those members who may appreciate a little bit of anonymity I'm not posting a link here, but anyone who wants to see for themselves what a great project this is, is very welcome to register in the forum.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

More art FUN !!!

Anyone who has read my blog previously will be aware that I run an Art Forum, and that the great bunch of members there love to find new and interesting ways of making their art fun. For quite some time now, we have had a Monthly Painting Project, in which we all paint the same photograph and then display them all together at the end of the month and compare notes.
JWJart Forum - Picture Puzzle Project #3
The most recent project we have tried is one that we have decided to call 'Picture Puzzle'. An existing painting is disected into squares (not literally) and the squares are distributed to the members, each member then painting his or her square. As the squares are painted, so they are added back into a grid, gradually rebuilding the original painting. The first one we did is shown a few posts down. Here is the picture for our second one. Why not come back from time to time and watch it gradually taking shape.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

SKY.COM - Beware!!!

On 5th October 2007 I ordered a See, Speak, Surf package from Sky. What a mistake that was! I promptly paid the appropriate charges (£129) in good faith and on October 9th an engineer arrived on site to install the dish and related equipment. After some considerable time of wandering around outside looking thoughtful, he finally announced that I cannot receive a Sky signal at my home. The explanation, if you can believe it, is that there is a tree in the way. Duh!! Both of my neighbours are in the shadow of the same tree, but they can get Sky alright. It's the 21st century and we carry mobile phones that will do just about everything except brew a cup of tea ... but we can't get a Sky signal through a tree. It beggars belief.

Anyway, this rant isn't about the fact that I can't get a Sky signal. It's about the fact that I can't get my money back. The engineer put in motion the appropriate cancellation procedures telling me that it would take 10/14 days. A call from someone in 'administration' then confirmed that. By October 31st I still hadn't received a refund and so spoke to Sky. They admitted a mistake had been made and assurred me the refund would be dealt with promptly and that I would have my money within 5/7 days. I checked my account regularly but by November 9th decided that I'd been more than patient, so called Sky again. Again, I was told another mistake had been made but the operator on the phone took immediate steps to action my refund as we spoke. I was told it would take 48 hours to hit my account. On November 13th (today) I conclude that I'm being taken for a mug and so phoned Sky yet again. Guess what? They are processing my refund but it will take 14/21 days. DUH? Like, what banking service takes 2/3 WEEKS to move cash?

Furiously I demanded to speak with a Supervisor but he only fobbed me off the same way his underling had done. I did manage to get a postal address I can write to, but they refused point blank to provide me with a telephone number OR to take any action that might speed up my refund. What they did provide me with, after much arguing, was a fax number. I was told it was "Extension 115 and then key 77694". I asked what the full STD number was but was assurred I only needed to key "115 then 77694". I tried to explain that a number like that just won't work in the UK, but was assurred this is the number that is always given out to customers "... and nobody's complained yet".

So, the warning is simple. If you live near a tree don't waste your time ordering Sky. If you DO order Sky and the installation can't be completed for whatever reason, DO NOT believe them when they say the refund will only take 7 days. I can't imagine how much this has cost me in phone calls and hassle. Thankfully, in these days of low interest rates, loss of interest on my savings isn't a major issue .... but there is still the principle to consider. Sky DO NOT take 14/21 days to bank your hard earned cash. They DO take 6 weeks (so far) to return it.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Trying my new camera

I haven't had huge amounts of time for playing with my new camera, but I have managed to try out most of its functions. One of the things I've been looking forward to the most is the ability to take good macro photo's, especially of my Fuchsia collection. This one is Fuchsia 'Margaret'. Most Fuchsia's are looking very poor this time of the year but this one is as hardy as they come, as you can see. I'm really looking forward to next summer when I shall be able to photograph all the different varieties, and am seriously thinking of creating a "Fuchsia Album" on my web site.

Christmas Cactus
Whether it's the mild weather or not I have no idea, but our Christmas Cactus has been in flower for a few weeks already. I couldn't resist the temptation to get in close and personal with my camera. This was indoor, under artificial lighting, and I confess to many attempts before I achieved what I was after.

Crazy friends

It was late evening, two days before my birthday. The sound of the doorbell was unusual at this time of night so it was with some apprehension that I opened the door. To my amazement, standing there with his camera pointed in my face, was a good friend from Australia. Thankfully, his camera was on my side and refused to fire ... phew! That marked the beginning of a fabulous weekend. I steered a canal boat along the Grand Union Canal and had a wonderful birthday in the company of my family and friends. I shouldn't really single out special gifts but there are three I'd like to mention, aside from the day on the canal which was truly magnificent. My wife, daughter and her partner, bought me a Sony DSC-H9 camera (which I've previously mentioned). They also gave me a fantastic Remote Control Helicopter. This is not a toy but a proper model, and I'm having masses of fun trying to learn how to fly it. Eilean Donan Castle in watercolour by Ingrid OrmestadThe third gift I want to mention is a painting. It is of Eilean Donan Castle and was painted just for me by a very special friend. With her permission, it gives me great delight to display it here. This is one of those places I just have to visit for myself one of these days. In the meantime, I can look into my new painting and imagine myself strolling across that ancient bridge or sitting on the bank of the loch. Wonderful.

I finally managed to get rid of my Australian buddy once the weekend was over ... but he came back a week later for a second visit. I couldn't work out if he simply appreciated my company or if the free bed and board had something to do with it. ;)

Monday, 22 October 2007

A private reflection

When viewing a photograph of a statue at the new War Memorial, I felt inspired to pick up my pen and write a few words of private reflection.
The Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum

A price paid
The sky hangs dark and heavy,
black smoke shields the sun,
bodies pushed beyond endurance
ache through lack of rest.
Feet heavy with blood soaked mud,
emotions torn to shreds,
minds numb and scarred for life.

A boy clings to his Mothers skirt,
looking, but not wanting to see
knowing, but not understanding.
Never understanding.
… a moments stillness
… a moments calm
… a moment to tend the wounded.
The body on the stretcher weighs heavy on heart and limb,
… another soldier on his way home
… another comrade fallen
… another husband lost forever
… another father taken away
… another price paid.

And on the wall, his name
and his name is followed by ten more,
and those ten, by a hundred more,
and those hundred, by a thousand more
tens of thousands of names,
… and we promise never to forget them?

And with perfect planning
and perceptive forethought,
blank walls await the names of thousands more,
thousands more ‘prices to be paid’.
…and we pray they wait forever.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Enjoy your art

As I have said many times here, on my web site, and in my forum, I am no expert and can only share my own thoughts as I see them. One of the things that I have come to realise is that many beginners take an untrained stab at doing a quick painting/sketch, don't like the end result and instantly decide they can't do it. Of course, these same people once stepped into a car, turned the key, jerked uncontrollably as the engine fought the gearbox, and then walked away concluding that they couldn't drive. Right?

The issue isn't that a complete beginner either can or can't paint but that they should want to, and want to learn. OK, so the very best of artists have an inbuilt talent that the rest of us can only envy. The sort of talent that cannot be taught. Likewise, most of us are incapable of driving a Formula 1 racing car, but that isn't what we expect of ourselves when we first sit in the driving seat. So why should we expect it of our painting?

We can ALL paint. Understandably, some will be able to paint better than others. Better? What is 'better'? Why does it need to be a competition? The answer is, it doesn't. The only thing that matters is that the novice artist wants to paint and enjoys painting. If the end result is a complete mess, so what? If the artist spent an enjoyable and absorbing few hours sketching it out and adding paint to canvas, then isn't that all that matters? Of course it's an added thrill when the end result is pleasant to look at, but that must be of secondary importance.

I posted some of my earliest 'disasters' on my web site in the hope of showing others that it's ok to make mistakes and there is always something to learn from every painting we do.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Making Art Fun

As I mentioned, I run an Art Forum. My members are all beginners or amateurs and we try to further our art by encouraging and supporting each other. To challenge ourselves and push ourselves outside of our usual comfort zones, we run a couple of projects. The first one, that has been running some time now, is a Monthly Painting Project in which one of our members, who is an excellent photographer and art critic, posts a photograph and we all try to paint it. It forces us to try subjects we would never dream of trying ourselves and everyone is learning a great deal through the process.

Art Forum projectAnother project is currently being done for the first time. We have chosen a famous painting, divided it into squares, and distributed the squares amongst the members. As each member completes their square so it is added to a grid so that the complete painting gradually takes shape. We are also learning a lot about each others styles by trying to guess who painted each square. Maybe it's a bit silly, but it is certainly good fun ... but the best bit of all is that we're practicing and learning as we go along.

The picture shown is linked back to the Art Forum so new squares should appear as and when they are added. Check back from time to time and watch it complete. Which is MY square? I'm not telling just yet ... you'll have to guess.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Pen and Wash

As a beginner I have not yet settled into any style or favoured medium. What I have discovered is that I enjoy drawing more than painting. Perhaps I should say, I always feel happier with what I've drawn than what I've painted. I often feel I have ruined a good drawing by splashing paint all over it. LOL.
A friend in my Art Forum recently posted a wonderful Pen & Wash painting of a farm yard scene and I was instantly struck by the combination of pen and paint. I just had to have-a-go. This effort was fairly quick ... 30-40 minutes tops ... but it was just a trial. I learned a lot from doing it, in particular that I need to use the pen much more. I tended to just draw the outlines relying on the paint for the detail but I think I need to do enough with the pen for the drawing to stand in it's own right, just allowing some washed in paint to provide the colours.
Still, I'm quite happy with the overall effect and shall try something a little more involved first chance I get.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Fuchsia's - the end of the season

I love to grow Fuchsia's and have about 60 different varieties. A drop in the ocean, but with 2 or 3 plants of each variety, as much as I have space and time for. We will soon be getting our first frosts and so it is time to lift them all up, put them into pots, and take them into the comparative safety of my greenhouse.

Watercolour of Fuchsia "Winston Churchill"Regrettably, the process of lifting them will set them back and most of them will lose their flowers and foliage. To avoid large amounts of dead and rotting leaves in the greenhouse it is best to defoliate the plants first, and this is an excellent opportunity to prune them back into a nice shape. It is a hard job taking a plant full of flowers and reducing it to little more than a woody framework but it is essential for its survival.

Because what gets pruned off is going to be thrown away, this also makes it an excellent time to take some cuttings. In my experience cuttings don't take quite so easily this time of year, but since there is no shortage of cuttings material, there is nothing to lose in trying some. For anyone not familiar with how to take Fuchsia cuttings I have some instructions, with photo's, on my web site.

How to take Fuchsia cuttings

Friday, 28 September 2007

Pencil Drawing

Dipping my toe into the world of watercolours caused me to have to sketch out, very lightly, the rough outline of what I was going to paint. Over time I began to wonder how a picture might look if I did it all in pencil. When I finally decided to have-a-go I was extremely surprised and very pleased. In many ways I feel more at home with a pencil than I do a brush, and certainly get more satisfaction from the drawing.

"TESS"Soon after the loss (through old age) of my beloved dog 'Tess' I decided to attempt my first-ever drawing of an animal. Tess's coat was what they call 'Brindle' and I found it very difficult to depict the varying light and dark shades without making her look strippey. Still, I was very pleased with the end result and her picture now hangs proudly in our hall for everyone to see. What was particularly comforting was that the long periods I spent working on her drawing, so soon after her loss, provided a warm and meaningful 'farewell'.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Watercolours for Beginners

LOL ... I had to chuckle to myself when I looked back at my first 3/4 posts. The whole point behind building my website some years ago was to try and encourage people to have a go at watercolours. That is still the major emphasis behind my website, it is the sole reason why I created my Art Forum, and was the main purpose for starting this blog. Yet my first few posts seem to be about anything but watercolours.

I believe that everyone has the ability to draw and paint. What don't have is the knowledge of "How". If a person starts with very simple scenes and grasps a few basics, then progressively more difficult images can be accomplished as experience grows. This is why I make such a big thing on my site about "having-a-go".

Regrettably, many people who do have-a-go, start off with something much too hard, make a hash of it and therefore conclude that they can't paint. This is what I did in my teens and I wrote-off any artistic tendencies I may have as a result. When I tried again, more sensibly, in my fifties, I was absolutely astounded. Oh, don't get me wrong ... my pictures aren't brilliant ... but that's not the point. They are MY pictures and I had great fun making them.

In my Art Forum we run a Monthly Painting Project in which we all, regardless of experience, paint the same subject. We then look at them all together, not to determine which is best and which is worse but to appreciate each others approach, style and accomplishment and learn from what others have done. Interestingly, 'the others' learn from us also. In another post I will show you some of the projects we have undertaken. They may not be 'great art' but we're all proud of them.

So, if you've ever thought you wouldn't mind trying your hand at drawing or painting then visit my website. Better still, join my forum. Guaranteed, the question "I'd like to draw but don't know where to start" will be greeted by warm and friendly help, suggestions and encouragement. Go on ... do it ... "have-a-go".

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Rugby Forecast again

It is not overly difficult to look at rankings, weigh the odds, consider trends and performance, and predict who is most likely to win or lose a game of Rugby. Of course, predicting the actual score is a different matter altogether and is something I have not attempted to do. However, to determine whether or not Bonus points will be obtained it has obviously been necessary to try and determine how closely matched any two teams are. This means attempting to calculate at least the points difference. One of the forecasted results showed such a small points difference that my calculations indicated the most likely explanation to be a DRAW. This was the game between Canada and Japan which finished up at 12 points each .... a draw!!!

If only I'd have had some money on that one. :-)

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Sony DSC-H9 Digital Camera

I have decided to have a new digital camera courtesy of my upcoming birthday. Since a friend showed me the results he had obtained with his Olympus SP550UZ I felt sure that would be the camera I would choose. I had already decided I wanted more than a simple point-and-shoot compact but I didn't want to go to the extreme's of getting a SLR. One of the new breed of 'Bridge' camera's, like the SP550UZ fitted my requirements very nicely.

Another good friend suggested I should consider the Sony DSC-H9. Thanks to his good advice and able assistance I have now trawled through dozens of camera reviews and I have to admit that the Sony comes out on top in most regards. Of course, like all camera's, the reviewers will always find something to complain about, but on balance, for the type of amateur photography I will be doing, the specification seems to be pretty good.

I have to wait another 4 weeks until I can actually get my hands on it but rest assurred I will be very keen to snap some photo's and publish the results here. If you have any comments or advice regarding the H9 then please don't hesitate to drop me a line or add a comment to this post.

Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra

Many years ago, my daughter was set an English project to create a small booklet for a particular target audience. It had to be written in a manner suitable for that target audience. As a keen musician and with half-an-eye on a teaching career, her choice was a book about Orchestra's aimed at 5-8 year olds. She wrote and illustrated the booklet herself and I was so impressed with the result that I decided to create a web site that emulates her creation. Her book, and my web site, are called Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra.
Though the web site is functional from a display point of view, I have always felt it lacks one major ingredient .... sound! I would very much like to add the sounds of the various instruments in an interactive way to help children better appreciate the role each instrument has in an Orchestra. Regrettably, I have not been successful in finding a suitable set of sound files. Either they are not the type of sounds I am looking for or I can't get permission to use them. If anyone reading this can offer a solution to this problem then please let me know by using the contact form on the web site.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Rugby World Cup Forecast

If you're even remotely interested in the world cup then my Rugby World Cup Forecast is a great way of keeping up-to-date with how things are progressing.
I don't claim to know anything about the game, in fact there are very few people who know less than me. My forecast is largely based on world rankings but with some additional parameters to take into account recent trends, current performance and performance during the World Cup itself.
The main purpose of the Forecast is really just an excerise in modelling. It isn't intended as a serious attempt to predict the outcome of the world cup. That said, unexpected results like a poorly rated team beating a highly rated one, will have an effect on the expectations for the latter games. That has already been seen with the shick defeat of France in the opening game. The Forecast was initially showing an 'All Blacks' v. France final, but not after that game.

Holiday in Scotland

I have recently returned from a wonderful week in Scotland. Rather than attempt to do one substantial painting during the week I deliberatly chose to try and do one quick and casual sketch/painting each day. It was an opportunity to try new things and that is just what I did. I had mixed success and consider some things successful and some things not, but I learned a great deal from the experience, and that makes even the failures successful in their own way. All of my Scotland paintings/drawings have been posted in my forum but I hope to post them here and on my web site as soon as I can.

New Chapter

I have built and run my own web site for a few years now, and have often thought about creating a blog. There often seems to be things to say or updates to announce that would benefit from an easier, more independant source. For example, I had no easy way of heralding the opening of my brand new Art Forum in April, nor of promoting my mathematical forecast of the Rugby World Cup. The addition of new art to my web site will be something else I can promote from here, and it will be so much easier to provide a bit of background to each new creation.
LOL ... I'm quite sure this blog isn't going to get a massive following (or even a small one) but if I can get it working sympathetically with what I am also doing on my web site and in my forum, then it will prove to be very useful facillity and one that moves the development of my online presence into a new chapter.